Sunday, April 29, 2012

No Future

Somebody has been meddling with the Doctor's past and the final clue to follow leads the TARDIS crew to London, 1976, the dawning of the age of punk. But something's not quite right: punk bands are being released on CDs, the Brigadier doesn't recognize his old friend the Doctor, and Ace seems to have gone off the deep end.

This whole Alternate Universe saga comes to a close with Paul Cornell's No Future, a book just absolutely mired in the Englishness of Doctor Who as a concept. There's punk, dub, Margaret Thatcher, polite soldiers that say "you wut mate?" and people are forever drinking tea. But more interesting than this is the book's primary question: what happens when you take away the Seventh Doctor's ability to leave messages from his future self? Really, the Virgin New Adventures have taken off from the First Law of Time and have explored what happens when the Time Lord truly becomes a Lord of Time. The godliness that predates the Tenth Doctor's ascension begins with these novels and Paul Cornell makes the drastic move of taking it away.

Now this theme has been popping up, and I'm not going to say Cornell is the first to do it. The Seventh Doctor has become all powerful and the last like five NAs have featured this line of dialogue: "I swear I don't have a plan! I don't know what happens next!" in an attempt to provide some drama to the narrative. It's exhausting because I know that the Doctor does have a plan. Rule one: the Doctor lies, after all. However, Cornell does provide some wrinkles to the Virgin NA formula, which is somewhat of a relief, but ultimately, No Future is comfortably a Virgin Seventh Doctor adventure in which he stumbles across an evil and plays chess against them. He even says the word "checkmate" to the villain.

Now, since this is the culmination of the arc, there are a couple of things Cornell's novel is required to accomplish: the identity of the villain and his or her motives, resolve the conflict between Ace and the Doctor, and more recently, resolve the conflict between Ace and Benny. For five books, I've been complaining - not quite complaining but kind of fussing - about Ace's behaviour. Many Who fans express disdain at New Ace, what with her battle suit, mirror shades and total change from the wide-eyed youth of the television serials. However, I have no emotional attachment to her, so I am totally willing to believe that she kind of goes crazy after years of manipulation at the hands of the Doctor. New Ace is a logical extension of that overcorrection by Ace. What bothers me though, what makes me fuss, is that she complains so much and expresses so much animosity, that there is no reason why she would travel with the Doctor. The previous novel, Conundrum, attempts to address this, but without any resolution. In No Future, Cornell has Ace play a game with the Doctor in order to teach him a lesson I suppose. After "killing" the Doctor and entombing him in a casket of oxygenated water on the side of a mountain on an ice planet, Ace somehow feels like they're even.

If this last plot bit sounds exciting, don't be mistaken. It only comes at the three quarter mark of the novel, after a long and tedious buildup that crowbars a punk band into the plot. This is the slowest New Adventure I have read, which is saying something considering Time's Crucible was painfully slow. Cornell's No Future puts a bunch of pieces in place for a huge firefight but then has some technical gobbledygook that allows the heroes to win.

Remember when I said this was a novel featuring a punk band? Well, it's also a rather political novel in that Cornell addresses some of the events leading up to the Thatcher era. Hence, the punk band. But if we agree that No Future is a punk novel in ethos (the title is a reference to a Sex Pistols song), then why does the military play such a prominent role? After the punk band is tediously introduced and shoehorned into the plot (Benny joins a band because the Doctor knows it's important but not why), the pragmatics of this element amounts to a tiny scene that doesn't make any difference in the end. UNIT, the Brigadier and authority come to rule three quarters of the novel and are indispensable by the end. It's somewhat irritating. And not just because it doesn't fit in with the punk ethos but because the audience has to be forced to read bits of dialogue between the military and the punks: "You're the authority, you're what's wrong with the world, mate" etc etc etc.

It might sound like I am not a fan of this novel. Well, not really, save for the end. After the long buildup, when the Doctor gains the upperhand, the whole novel is saved by a scene in which he delivers a speech to the villain that surely must have been an influence on the Eleventh Doctor at the Pandorica. It's staggeringly well-written. The climax of the novel, which wisely uses the plot points scattered throughout, is excellent.

It's just a shame we had to read so much crap to get to the good bits. Since this is Cornell, the reader is guaranteed some fanwank elements. I had to consult my Discontinuity Guide (co-written by Cornell) and the TARDIS Wikia a couple times just to make sure that I was in on the joke. This isn't a bad thing for me, it doesn't bother me, but I could totally understand why people would find it irritating.

Regardless, I didn't hate this novel, but I sure didn't love it. It's somewhat of a disappointment considering Cornell's two previous entries and his next novel for Virgin. Oh well. Onwards to another Gareth Roberts novel!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Canaletto's Northumberland House

Canaletto was a 18th century painter famous for his landscape portraits of Venice. He moved to London in the 1740s and there produced this particular painting in 1752 which I am going to look at today. Northumberland House was a real place, obviously, but no longer exists as of 1874 or thereabouts. The style of the house is called Jacobean, which is the second phase of Renaissance architecture (the first being Elizabethan). This gives us a rather interesting parallax of styles: the vedute style recreating an older Jacobean style. Canaletto was well known for the level of detail in his large (almost impressionistic) panoramas. Even though he painted this in a studio, it is noticeable for the exhausting attention to accuracy. Here's a 1870 photograph of the building.

Notice the lion in both images. The lion represented the House of Percy, a long-standing wealthy family in England going back to the tenth century. This speaks to the level of detail Canaletto employed in his painting. Let's take a look at a couple details. But let's bear in mind that I have absolutely zero formal training in art or art history. This is just what I have learned in my years.

Okay, so again, apologies for defacing a priceless work of art with MS Paint, but I wanted to express a few things. Let's start with the giant green line going from the top to the bottom of the painting. This arrow represents the gradient of colour Canaletto employs in the painting. It's no stretch to say that the top of the painting is lighter than the bottom of the painting. But here's the trick. The arrow goes through the yellowish cloud in the middle of the painting, one of the two focal points (the other being marked 1). As the eye moves down from the yellowish cloud, the colour darkens into the middle yellow of the building to the brown of the bottom of the painting. If you look really closely, you'll notice that the blue sky is already mixed with hints of red and yellow to give it texture and depth. The palette deployed in this painting is vast considering that the superficial glance will see only shades of yellow and blue. Or rather, red, green and blue.

Remember that our typical model for colour expression is the RGB model, in which all colours are essentially a mixture of red, green and blue. If the colours are represented on a numerical scale with each of the three ranging from 0 to 255, then the brown third of the painting could be represented as red 92, green 51 and blue 23, or in a hexadecimal number that looks like this: 5C3317. This colour isn't quite the same as Canaletto's brown, as this is chocolate, but we're close.

Why am I talking about the hexadecimal number version of representing colour? Well, I just want to explore the idea that the palette that the painter used is quite complex. If we represented each third of the painting by a different hex number, we would have 5C3317 for the last third, maybe FFA500 for the middle and ADD8E6 for the top. Now, taking a look at only the top of the painting, you'll remember that "yellow" and "red" have been mixed for texture. So we've got FFA54F, CD6090 (almost magenta) and probably even C71585 (which is a dark violet). That's just in the sky! If I had something other than MS Paint, I could actually list all the colours rather than taking guesses.

Another good question to ask is why I am talking about thirds. Why split a painting into thirds? Most rules of composition suggest that to formulate a representation, the human eye seems to prefer an image that is easily digested in thirds. In my last post, I talked about the flow of the eye, going in a clockwise direction. Here is a golden spiral, otherwise known as a Fibonacci spiral:

I don't have a good photo manipulator program, or else I would lay on image over the other so you could see that Canaletto's Northumberland House fits perfectly with the golden spiral. Point one converges with upper right section and the leftest part of the inner loop points to the third item I've marked. Most of the building itself fits into the loop on the right side of the image.

Notice that each of the three items that I have numbered mark off the thirds of the painting. It isn't by coincidence at all that the perspective of the painting was chosen so carefully. The painting manages to bring in all the elements of the architecture of the painting: the tower at the flank, which is tallest from our perspective, the fountain in the Strand, and then the winding of the street away from the painting.

Let's take a look at the section of the painting that includes the 3rd item:

I have cropped a horizontal third and a vertical third from the painting, but have chosen the farthest left third vertically speaking. Notice that I have split this third into another third. Notice that the colours of the building create this effect already. That is to say that Canaletto's choice of colour and composition have actually delineated the thirds for your eye without the benefit of my garish red lines splitting the image. The darkest part of the building is the bottom, the middle part is a dark orange/brown and the lightest part is the roof/sky. And remember that is only a third of a third!

If the green line running through the vertical represents one gradient, then you'll notice that I could have drawn a green arrow moving left to right to represent another gradient, that is moving from the darkest left third to the lighter right third on the vertical axis.

Do you see how complicated the composition of a painting is? It's not simply a fidelity to reality, or a manipulation of light, it's also about how the image appears to the eye on the canvas. Canaletto is a master of composition!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bellini's St Francis in Ecstasy

Here is Giovanni Bellini's St Francis in Ecstasy from circa 1480. This is a goddamn masterpiece. I'm not going to really "read" this but I am going to point out that the composition of the painting is pretty much perfect. Knowing that readers read from left to right, Bellini arranges the painting to have the reader's eye flow over the information in a fluid manner. Evidence:

So I apologize for defacing a Renaissance masterpiece with MS Paint, but you'll notice that the top half of the painting takes the eye on an arc, culminating in the focal point, which is of the dude's arms open wide, inviting the eye. Notice the open space in front of our ecstatic monk:

Thus moving the eye forward, returning it to the beginning, and providing a closed visual loop. There's a reason why this painting is a masterpiece, and it's not simply its fidelity to reality. Let's take a closer look at St Francis' face, shall we?

Notice that St Francis is framed by the two plants. This doesn't signify anything in particular, but it does provide a nice visual flourish. There are a few interpretations for his particular pose. Either he is expressing the wounds of stigmata, or he is singing a song that he wrote called Canticle of the Sun which is a praise to God for inventing the Sun, I guess.

Because this is a religious painting, or at least a painting from Renaissance, everything has signification, such as the donkey (humanity's laziness), the skull (humanity's mortality) and even the darkened shepard gazing at the monk. While I'm not particularly in love with Renaissance painting, one has to admire the sheer technical skill that the painters, especially Bellini employed in their endeavours. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bacon's Study after Velázquez

Here's Francis Bacon's Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1953. Quite a harrowing and powerful piece, isn't it? I have nothing particularly insightful to say about this painting other than I quite like the look of it. I think one of my summer features will be to post more paintings or visual arts and then try and exercise my critical muscles in "reading" visual texts. To start? The difficult painter Francis Bacon. Enjoy this, won't you?

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The Doctor, Ace and Benny arrive in a small English village where people are being murdered, a man claims to be a superhero, a witch is roaming the streets, a group of child adventurers are investigating occult sacrifices, a hard boiled detective is tracking somebody, and everything seems to point to the oddly named Vampire Castle. Immediately, something seems sort of fishy, as if the TARDIS crew were in a mash-up novel of 20th century fiction. But that sounds oddly familiar to the Doctor, though he needs to figure it out before he and the crew end up dead.

It's been almost six months since I have read a Doctor Who novel. The last one I read was Jonathan Morris' Festival of Death, which I reviewed here, but is easily the best novel in the entire DW oeuvre yet, despite its weak prose. The reason for my absence is the same for my absence from anything: I just couldn't do it during school. However, I finished my last real exam today and I also finished a series of five novels by Edward St Aubyn. It was high time to return to one of my greatest loves, Doctor Who. Instead of picking something specific, I decided to dive right into the series, continuing with the Virgin New Adventures.

This particular entry was written by Steve Lyons, who would go on to write a couple other books, mostly distinguishable for their surreal humour and metafiction. I'm not terribly keen on surreal humour and my love of metafiction dwindles with every novel I read featuring it. However, Lyons' prose and complex plot were enough to allow me to read this entire novel in one evening.

It's not terribly complicated, but Lyons has fun with it. The Doctor is meant to win so that when the book is over, he and the crew will be trapped within, and the Master of the Land of Fiction can be released from the task of writing adventures. If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because Grant Morrison plays with this all the time, among other authors. The Doctor plays his giant game across the novel, and even allows for the novel, or at least the story to comment on his playing of games.

What separates this novel from the previous few is that the conflict between Ace and the Doctor is seemingly coming to a head. Hopefully, the Alternate History saga, which ends with the next novel, finally brings a conclusion. But despite the lack of closure or catharsis, there's an emotional maturity beating under the breast of Lyons' Conundrum.

There's a great scene in which Benny and Ace finally open up to each other about the distrust amongst the crew, and it's quite effective, despite being surrounded by the chaos of the surreal humour. Lyons is able to really capture the voice of this new angry Ace, and lets Benny and the reader in on a glimpse of the original Ace beneath the exterior. It's particularly effective because of its anomalous nature sandwiched between superheroes and kid-adventure groups.

The metafiction aspect is less effective however. Which is a shame because the book's main theme is metafiction. While I am sure Steve Lyons has read metafiction before, or as at least heard the term, I'm not sure if he totally understands the point of it. One of the aims of metafiction is to destabilize the primacy of the text and "deconstruct" the authority of a text. Deconstruct in the Derrida sense of the word. Conundrum is baby's first metafiction, unfortunately. Lyons has the Doctor comment on the formulaic aspects of the show ("corridors, monsters and I haven't been arrested yet") but never does anything with this. Ace stumbles in an library and knocks over Love and War and Deceit, which I assume is meant to be a comment on the conflicting continuities of show and book. But again, Lyons never does anything with this. It's merely a nudge in the ribs from an authorial elbow. I'm not convinced that Lyons has said or done anything particularly noteworthy with the metafiction aspect of the novel. There's nothing insightful about pointing out that Doctor Who is a fiction in a land of fictions.

However, there's a small moment near the end where Lyons manages to say something provocative. The villain of the piece, if you'll allow me to spoil a 20 year old novel, is that the Master of the Land of Fictions is actually an angry young man who thinks "maturity" in storytelling is synonymous with exploitative violence. There's no reason not to suspect that Lyons is commenting on the Sturm und Drang of early 90s fiction, when everything became "extreme". This is the moment that really brings Conundrum a step above a Grant Morrison-pastiche.

Despite my writing two paragraphs on the inefficiency of the metafiction elements of the novel, I quite liked this book. It was exciting, the prose was clear and never irritating, the main characters extremely well-drawn and the supporting cast were enough to stand out from each other enough to make sense. The mystery at the heart of the novel is simplistic, but that's really the point isn't it?

Lyons apparently returns to this metafiction with Head Games, but that's the forty-third novel and I just finished the twenty-second. It will be a while before I get there. I'm told that Head Games is a more effective metafiction, but that remains to be seen.

Here's to returning to Doctor Who after a hiatus!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

At Last

In the interest of full disclosure, I've actually read two books since I read Mother's Milk, but I'm not sure how to review them. So, without further ado, here is the last Patrick Melrose novel by Edward St Aubyn, or at least, the last as of 2012.

Patrick's mother has finally died. Instead of being a sad occasion for Patrick, Eleanor's death is a relief, a reprieve from the inexorable march of dementia paralyzing her both mentally and physically. The house at Saint-Nazaire has been sold and in the hands of Seamus, the charlatan, and Patrick has left Mary and the boys for a stay in a psychiatric ward to help with depression and booze. On the day of Eleanor's funeral, Patrick struggles with his feelings regarding the final death of his childhood.

With a final novel, a reviewer is tempted to summarize them into one pithy aphorism, reducing the entirety of the pentalogy to something easily digestible. If I were tempted to commit such a crime, I might refer to the sins of the father. Certainly, the final page of At Last turns this around, providing us with a last glimpse of Patrick in a positive light, yearning for his children in a beautiful and loving manner. He has spent four books and nine tenths of one being alone, sometimes aggressively so, and sometimes not of his own accord. Yet, at the end of At Last, when he has finally been unmoored from his turbulent childhood, he grasps for the warmth and security of his own family, the one he created, not the one he came to be part of by accident.

Unlike the anomalous Mother's Milk, At Last focuses on one day with laser-like focus. However, there are copious amounts of flashback, but frustratingly enough, not of scenes that explain how and why Patrick is in his current situation. I found myself anxious to read the flashback of the disintegration of Mary and Patrick's marriage, but it never really came. Instead, there is enough detail provided to piece together that Patrick's mental instability and infidelity led them to separate for the good of the boys. There's an engaging and addictive scene in which Mary reminisces on her brief meander outside the holy bonds of marriage with a philosopher named, amusingly, Erasmus. It's fantastic to get a glimpse of Mary as a woman rather than as a mother, something we were denied in Mother's Milk.

While St Aubyn holds back certain details, he lets loose with the theological and psychological implications of Patrick's unmooring from the past. Sometimes, it's quite exhausting when St Aubyn absolutely dissects the philosophy of mourning in such microcosmic detail. Fully one third of the novel is Patrick musing on the epistemology of mourning. While this isn't tonally unique in the pentalogy, it is somewhat boring when there is so much to accomplish in a final novel. Of course, the final episode in any series is always going to frustrate; there are so many questions to answer, but never enough time. The better authors of finales tend to focus on the emotional arc of the character rather than the pragmatic aspects. For example, if you'll allow a tangent, the finale of Lost answered so few questions but provided much emotional release. Jack Shepard fulfills his destiny and dies on the island he was meant to protect. He dies with a look of satisfaction while the plane flies away. That was enough for me, to be honest. I knew from previous experiences that Lost could never hope to answer everything, so I was content with emotional closure.

At Last is completely interested in closure. There are smaller moments of closure woven into the text, as when Patrick realizes that Eleanor meant different things to different people, and not all of those things are negative. He comes to understand that Eleanor was a victim as well, and that she was a good person, or at least a person who tried to be good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, as one character quotes Star Trek. There is another scene in which Patrick, in the deepest pit of depression, feels different. He finds closure at the fact that there is nothing different. He just isn't depressed anymore. His father is long gone and his mother's grasp on her son is tenuous at best.

These moments and a couple other feed into the final page, in which Patrick yearns for his children after expressing a desire for solitude. He's no longer an island, to use a hoary canard.

At Last is a pretty good novel, but it does not stand on its own. Its emotional effectiveness comes from experiencing the trauma and the self-injury Patrick goes through. Despite this, I thought the novel to be quite good. Sure, it didn't answer every question I had, but I received emotional closure, just like the protagonist did.

Overall, I felt the Patrick Melrose novels to be excellent. I'm not quite sure what to make of the entire thing, so maybe I will leave that for another post. Instead of writing that right now, I will provide a picture of where I was when I finished the novel, at Moxie's at the MTS Centre, enjoying a post-exam lunch and pint:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mother's Milk

'What else is there to do but read too much into things? What a poor, thin, dull world we'd live in we didn't. Besides, is it possible? There's always more meaning than we can lay our hands on,' says Patrick Melrose at the end of Mother's Milk, the fourth novel in the series by Edward St Aubyn. This is a particularly revealing quote from Patrick, who has spent the entire novel doing the same overly cruel self-analysis that marked the emergence of a more mature Patrick in the previous novel. In Mother's Milk, Patrick is married and has two children, both of whom he loves but mostly in the sense that he doesn't want to repeat the cycle of his upbringing.

The series of novels is often called a cycle in that each novel seems to wrap around similar themes while still dragging Patrick and his supporting cast through the inexorable march of time. However, the cycle can also be attributed to the generational divide among the cast. While every character has that same exceedingly witty voice, there exists a tension between each generation: a fear of repeating past mistakes, but inevitably making new ones. Eleanor, Patrick's mother, bristles at her posh upbringing and devotes her life to charity, but with mixed results and ultimately, failure at the hands of a New Age charlatan. Patrick bristles at the backlash to the posh upbringing by lavishly becoming a heroin addict and a drunk, wasting piles of money ruthlessly. His son, Robert, is an introvert, inheriting his father's gift for observation, but without the inhumanity that characterizes Patrick. Each member of the supporting cast seems uncomfortable in their social class, with the extreme rich engaging in an exaggerated performance, a hyper-rich pursuance.

Mother's Milk eschews the microscopic scale of the previous novels for a grander structure, in which St Aubyn picks up with the Melrose family every August for four years. In this way, St Aubyn accomplishes the entirety of the previous trilogy but in one novel. In an interview with the Guardian, St Aubyn remarks that this novel stands alone, apart from the trilogy. Not only does this show in the structure, but in the family. Mary, Robert and youngest son Thomas are introduced and sketched out over the course of the novel, but with mixed results. Mary is woefully under-defined, as her only characteristic seems to be a forced return to virginity after the birth of Thomas. She replaces her husband with her newest child, and does not have the skill to articulate exactly why. Thomas is only three at the end of the novel, and in typically St Aubyn fashion, is overly articulate and verbose for a three year old. He isn't really a character but a device for Patrick to resent and love. Robert fares the most out of the non-Patrick characters; he is insular and exceedingly observant about the world, but he matches this with a sense of humour and a sense of humanity. Not only is he able to pick up on social situations, but he is also perceptive of emotions, something his father lacks.

With each August, the situation between Eleanor and her son deteriorates. She bequeaths the familial vacation home in France to the New Age charlatan, and employs Patrick as a barrister to perform the legal requirements. Thus, one of the themes of the novels, Patrick becomes the instrument of his own disinheriting. As above, Patrick struggles against his new middle class position, and the French vacation home represents one of the last vestiges of the Melrose's opulent history, as well as one of Patrick few remaining happy memories of his childhood.

Mother's Milk is not a very good title euphonically speaking, but it does perfectly suit the themes of the novel: that which the mother sacrifices for her child, or lack there of. St Aubyn's maturity as a novelist is apparent in the expansion of scale and scope and the success therein. While the third novel in the trilogy capitalized on the emotional buildup from two other novels, Mother's Milk creates and sustains its own conflict and catharsis. It's devastating when Patrick lies awake frightened that he will fail his sons by dying early, and it's devastating when Robert mentally calculates the amount consumed from a bourbon bottle held by his father. The novel is quite an experience.

Unfortunately, all is not perfect. The opening sequences, which is almost exclusively through the point of view of Robert, is an attempt to portray the development of a baby's mind but with the same verbosity of St Aubyn's other focalized characters. It's somewhat off-putting and without any energy or forward momentum. The novel doesn't become interesting until the next section in which St Aubyn wisely expands his scope to include the rest of the cast.

However, despite this, St Aubyn's prose remains stellar and perceptive. His characters match the same astuteness that his prose has. It's gratifying to read characters who are not completely oblivious to the irony of their own situations. They operate as real people do, ones who can see the unfairness of life but laugh at the futility of observing that unfairness. Characters in a lot of other novels could never be so self-aware without touching on the border of metafiction as in St Aubyn's Mother's Milk. They read into everything because that's what people do.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Classic IGN nonsense

You may have to click on the picture to read the highlighted text. Suffice it to say that IGN has some of the worst online journalism I have ever read. It's so bad that it wraps around the quality spectrum to good because it's so terrible. Reviews for A list stuff is always glowing because IGN needs the advertising dollars and bad reviews turn off publishers and developers.

IGN is not a journalism site. IGN is an advertising machine drumming up interest for "geek" and "nerd" properties and doing "reviews" of things like American Pie's newest sequel, American Reunion.

IGN is part of the rapaciousness of the late capitalist system, I suppose is one way of putting it. IGN needs advertisers to continue - the advertisers are the ones selling the products that IGN reports on - IGN provides "good" publicity in return for advertisers' money. The dependence of the ads shifts from the advertisers needing to advertise their products to IGN who needs them. The industry as a whole has dominance over sites such as IGN. If you think it's bad for IGN, imagine what it's like being an indie developer or indie site, where reviewers must buy their own copies to review.

Each review that IGN posts is the same. They never engage with any text beyond superficial elements such as "interesting story" or "intuitive controls". Their writers have average quality prose and never convey any emotion beyond "I like video games". I absolutely love reading reviews of things that are objectively bad, like the second Transformers movie; IGN consistently rates things at 7 or better for A list material. Why would they want to alienate their chief source of revenue?

A bigger more scary version of this power dynamic was seen in Paul Abbott's State of Play, in which the newspaper's owners the editors to suppress a unflattering story about the government in order to avoid disrupting a large deal between the owners and the government. Absolutely scary and absolutely true.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kingdom Come

Richard Pearson is a fortyish advertisement man who has lost his job, and then lost his father to a seemingly random shooting in a mall. A gunman opened fire indiscriminately within the great Metro-Centre, a cyclopean dome looming over the suburb of Brooklands. Pearson travels there to sort out his fathers' affairs when he comes into contact with a suburb boiling over with racial tension, institutions of law and order without affect or energy, and an almost eerie worship of a shopping mall. Pearson becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that doesn't have a message other than the constant enjoinder of enjoy yourself.

This is my third Ballard novel and I'm not quite sure why I decided to read this particular one. I think it was due to the shopping mall angle of the piece, which interests me right now due to Fredric Jameson and a host of other Marxists I've been reading. I knew what I was getting into reading Ballard: the gorgeous but stilted prose, the haunting imagery, the blank-slate characters who are nothing but mouthpieces, and the cruelty. Before he died, I wonder if Ballard ever achieved a sense of self-satisfaction in the face of being right all the time.

The themes of Kingdom Come are of consumerism, violence and where the two meet. Here's a bit that I've underlined in my library copy so that future generations can read it and be like, "Holy shit, this guy was right":

This novel is fairly prescient and intuitive in its exploration of consumerism and violence. Both are concluded to be instinctual and purely emotional. Pearson, the narrator, positions a local tv star into the leviathan or fuhrer of a new resistance, a resistance to the middle classes, to the governments, to the everybody and anybody that stands between them and their products to buy. The TV star is coached by Pearson to cajole, energize and punish the crowd seemingly at random. People want to be punished, Pearson continually tells the star.

Late capitalism as formulated in this novel breeds fascism. There is too much choice, Ballard argues, and politics has become less about ideology and more about protean figures to vote for. It's less about the ideas and more about the people who are essentially products. With no ideology in the discourse, fascism enters the vacuum and asserts control. Fascism inevitably leads to violence.

The cabal of professionals in Brooklands who seek to undermine the forces of fascism attempt to displace the Metro-Centre as the altar of worship. Without the authority of the mall, consumerism doesn't define the lives of the people. Without consumerism, there is hope that people will awaken and realize the limits placed on them by the government and other discursive institutions.

All very interesting ideas, but of course, Ballard throws them together in the driest possible way. The main character in typical Ballard fashion is completely without affect, a symptom of the postmodern condition as formulated by Fredric Jameson. While it was interesting to read something so obviously influenced by my favourite thinker du jour, it's not the world's most entertaining read.

I suppose people read Ballard for the thrill of somebody finally saying something they had been thinking all along. Every single person in the Western world looks to the mall and sees something vaguely disconcerting, a new temple that sucks all of their money and replaces it with objects we immediately regret. Ballard is one of few who explicitly points to it and says that's it's not the world's greatest idea because it's a lack of ideas. Consumerism is displacing our own sense of individual identity. We are being further atomized by the discursive institutions that rapaciously colonize every market.

There are many brilliant moments in Kingdom Come that show why Ballard was one of the world's best writers in the 21st century but it comes at a price. There's no emotional engagement, and while that might be part of the plan, it provides a somewhat stunted response from this reader.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Summer reading

Here's a bizarre collection of books that signals the start of my summer reading. Pretty indicative of the breadth of my interests. Also, I'm on Instagram now, so expect this blog to have a lot more posts, but with less substance! Just like Tumblr and Pinterest and the rest of the world (Guy Debord would love this)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Batman and Capitalism

Here's a paper I wrote for a critical theory class that takes Fredric Jameson and smashes it against The Dark Knight. Yes, I had an academigasm when I wrote this. I know it's been awhile since I've posted anything of substance, so hopefully this paper will help.

“Some men just want to watch the world earn”
Batman and the cultural logic of late capitalism

In Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, the Joker as played by Heath Ledger, tells another character that he is not a planner or a schemer. He simply does things. He says, “I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are”. The bulk of the film's narrative conveys the dichotomy between the Joker's ideology of pure chaos and Batman's adherence to an ideology of justice. Subsequently, one of the main themes of The Dark Knight is the comparison between the Joker's chaotic movements and Batman's specifically ordered and controlled movements. Both the Joker and Batman represent formulations of the postmodern condition as outlined by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in that Batman represents the fantasy of navigating the era of late capitalism while the Joker represents the fantasy of escaping the logic of postmodernism.

The narrative of hero versus villain in comic books have traditionally picked up on anxieties and tensions within society. During the Bronze Age of comics (approximately 1970 to 1985), the anxieties of political radicalism, racial tensions, the Cold War, and the rise of social activism were integrated into the superhero genre, with mixed results. Famously, Green Arrow and Green Lantern asked themselves why they protect the alien species of their galaxy, the purple-skinned, but are unable to protect the black-skinned living on their home planet. Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick, was also famously revealed to be a heroin addict. As with most media, the tensions of the culture are played out in fiction in an attempt to both introduce the topic to those unaware and introduce a possible solution to those who are already aware.

The Modern Age of comic books started in 1985 with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, both of which are claimed to deconstruct the sign of the superhero by portraying them as ideologically confused and politically motivated. Gone were the days of the Silver Age in which the villains were clearly delineated by their simplistic motives of greed or power. The villains and heroes were often portrayed as fighting the same war but on different levels. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, visually speaking an influence on Nolan's The Dark Knight, depicts a future dystopian Gotham City in which the Cold War continues and superheroes have all been forced to retire due to the public's distrust of the ideology of superheroism. Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement in order to wage a war on gangs that have reasserted their power in the absence of Batman. After Batman publicly beats the leader of the main gang into submission, many members form “Sons of the Batman” a gang designed to purge Gotham City of its criminal element. Responding to increasing pressure from the media, the government sends Superman to stop Batman who has become an ambiguous form of vigilante. His methods are extreme and he trains and commands an army of lower class criminals in order to achieve his goals. The superficial meaning of The Dark Knight Returns is clear: superheroics have become an arms race with each side increasing in violence until mutual destruction is inevitable. However, The Dark Knight Returns is indicative of the graying of moral boundaries between the hero and the villains in which they are all ultimately using the same methods to justify their similar ideologies of control in an increasingly complicated era of late capitalism. In Miller's conception of Batman, Bruce Wayne is justified in working against the United States government because he believes it is working against the people's best interests. Miller depicts the tension between vigilante justice and established authority but ultimately concludes on the side of Batman because in the future, the government cannot be trusted.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is clearly influenced by Miller's crypto-libertarian politics by portraying a Gotham City in which no cop cannot be bought and no politician cannot be influenced by the criminal syndicate. However, The Dark Knight was produced in a post 9/11 world in which the distrust of governments and heroes is no longer as simple, or to put it another way, there is mass incredulity to the metanarrative of the government's ability to protect its own subjects, “primary of these post-9/11 fears and tensions is the anxiety of accountability in a world where fear of breeches in safety and national borders by amorphous and virtually anonymous small groups is created, carried, and extended” (Kolenic 1031). In this calibration of superheroes and villains, The Joker is a terrorist, the single individual that the nebulous government is unable to control due to the absolutely oppositional ideology and the fact that it is one individual in a global world. The Joker represents the loss of control by the collective institutions that both provide real and unreal subjectivity to the individual as formulated by Michel Foucault. The consequence of this incredulity to metanarratives as symbolized by The Joker is the dogmatic adherence to the opposite, as symbolized by Harvey Dent, the figurative white knight of Gotham and Batman, the dark knight of Gotham.

In terms of Fredric Jameson's formulation of the postmodern, the Joker represents a example of the breakdown of the signifying chain. In The Dark Knight, the Joker has no clear origin, no real name is revealed, and his appearance in Gotham City is without any context. When referring to his distinct facial scars, the Joker provides two different possibilities: one is that his father cut his face and the other is that they are self-inflicted. At the end of both versions of the story, he repeats the film's tagline, “Why so serious?” The Joker's motives for providing an origin for himself is presumably in order to create fear in his enemies or to further the chaos that he so fully believes in. The Joker's inability to provide a clear narrative for both the characters and the audience of the film is representative of the breakdown of the signifying chain. The Joker is introduced in the film without his famous clown makeup, his garish outfits of purple or green, nor his trademark Conrad Veidt smile. Instead, the audience is denied the traditional signifiers of the Joker and then subsequently is denied the narrative of the Joker's origin in order to contextualize the villain. Previous incarnation of the Joker in comics or film provide a narrative in which the crook Joe Chill or the low level villain the Red Hood go through a transformation in which the Joker is “baptized into chaos” (Kolenic 1027) which provides the audience with a linear explanation for the Joker's insanity. Without any narrative or origin, the Joker is unmoored from the signifying chain, becoming an unstable figure with shifting allegiances and shifting motives. The Joker himself even describes a world in which any narrative is justified or sanctioned if it is presented by the institution of the government in the form of a narrative (1034). After the Joker has received his half of all of the mob's money, he proceeds to burn it, echoing Alfred's words that “some men just want to watch the world burn”. The immolation of the money is a political act, signifying that the Joker is not motivated by greed but by a pursuit of pure chaos. This is totally opposite to the constant enjoinder of “make money, spend money” that the cultural logic of postmodernism is forcing upon the world. He simply does things, like a “dog chasing after cars” and adheres to an ideology of no ideology, in which he “aligns chaos with a brand of fairness, altruism, and purity as an alternative to this institutionality” of postmodernism (Kolenic 1031). The refusal to be motivated by money and the ability to operate complex schemes without money represents a fantasy of escape from the cultural logic of the postmodern just as Batman represents a particular fantasy of mastering the postmodern, similar to James Bond or Jason Bourne.

Many scenes in The Dark Knight provide the audience with the fantasy of being Batman: scenes of Batman fighting with nameless goons, driving the Tumbler (the film's version of the Batmobile), or intimidating people. However, the film challenges the fantasy of being Batman in his very first scene. During a meeting between the Scarecrow and the mob, a man wearing a homemade batsuit interferes, forcing the real Batman to intervene. The fake Batman asks, “what gives you the right? What's the difference between you and me?” and Batman growls, “I'm not wearing hockey pads”. Since Batman has no superhuman abilities, his only “superpower” is the ability to afford complex cutting edge technology that enables him to operate beside the institution of the government, but never under the government. The fantasy is clear: Batman represents the third fundamental moment of capitalism, “the multinational capital” (Jameson 78). His company, Wayne Enterprises, is a huge multinational corporation that does business in the international market as well as provides research and development for the United States military. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, travel to Shanghai for two purposes: ending the merger between LSI Holdings and Wayne Enterprises as well as kidnapping the CEO, Lau, to bring him back to Gotham for prosecution. In this case, the fantasy to twofold: Batman and Bruce Wayne both operate beyond borders and beyond jurisdiction. Gotham is unable to retrieve Lau due to the complicated international law and China's refusal to extradite, but Batman does not operate within the law. Batman's manipulation of technology in the Shanghai scene is a representation of “the whole word system of present-day multinational capitalism” and it is “mesmerizing and fascinating” because it offers a “privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control” (Jameson 79-80). Batman is able to maintain in his head the complex totality of the world system, with its multinational corporations and convoluted legal problems and technological innovations while still exhibiting a mastery of space.

In 2010, writer Grant Morrison created a new series for DC called Batman Inc. in which Bruce Wayne has returned from being lost in time to a Gotham protected by his sidekick Dick Grayson in Batman costume. Rather than take back the cowl, Wayne establishes a multinational version of Batman. He corporatizes the brand of Batman and hires vigilantes from around the world in order to expand his ideology to a global level. Batman Inc. represents a total engagement with the globalization of the world's economy. Batman establishes franchises around the world to colonize the developing vigilantism in various countries without the benefit of Batman's vast corporate assets. If the multinational capital era is expressed in the representation of the machines of reproduction, then Batman becomes a machine of reproduction with Batman Inc becoming a representation of that machine of reproduction just as Jameson pointed to “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction” (Jameson 79). In creating the series, Morrison said that he was inspired by the marketing tools of the Batman films themselves, and how filmmakers use the Batsymbol as a “merchandizing tool”. In Batman Inc. the fantasy of Batman is not just the ability to operate beyond borders, but to operate on a global level, a complete mastery of the ability to move on the global level, just as in the Shanghai scene in The Dark Knight.

The other half of the fantasy of the Shanghai scene is Batman's mastery of space; his escape from the skyscraper is due to advanced military technology called “skyhooking”. In Batman's aforementioned introductory scene, he demonstrates a clear awareness of the public space when he jumps from one level of the parking garage to the ground floor without any injury from the fall. The mutation of built space that Jameson points to in Postmodernism is represented in Gotham City through numerous establishing shots of Chicago, the city used to double for Gotham. Chicago being home of the Chicago School of architecture and the Second Chicago School which emerges from the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the charismatic Master of modernism. However, Chicago also features many buildings of art-deco, Neo-classical, and postmodern. The skyline of downtown Chicago is a mixture of styles, “a kind of aesthetic populism” (Jameson 54). For Jameson, “the natural landscapes, village settings, organic communities, city grids, and colonial outposts of earlier times give way to unrepresentable, bewildering spaces that render experience and the life world unmappable” (Leitch 1). Unlike the real Batman, the Batman in hockey pads is unable to successfully navigate the postmodern hyperspace which is one reason why he ultimately loses his life. The space of Gotham succeeds in “transcending the capacities of the individual body to locate itself” (Jameson 83) as even the police are unable to control the mass of human bodies during the scenes in which the people storm the hospitals on the Joker's urging.

Batman is able to manipulate the mutated space thanks to his multinational corporatized brand. He owns a military-grade vehicle called a Tumbler which is able to catch up to the police convoy transporting Harvey Dent, despite the police closing down the streets. The Tumbler is even able to transform itself in adaptation to the conditions set by the chaos represented by the Joker. As well as vehicles, Batman is able to navigate the urban spaces thanks to technology derived from his corporation, specifically the Bat sonar that relies on the complex network of cellphones. During this sequence, Batman has created a panopticon but without the subjects' knowledge. Every single cellphone transmits data to the bank of computer monitors within Wayne Enterprises giving Batman a total awareness of the urban spaces and the bodies being moved within. The sonar scene is a representation of the opposite of the conspiracy theory narrative as Jameson formulates. Instead of “labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies” there exists only Batman. Instead of a protagonist glimpsing the impossible totality of the contemporary world system, there is one man commanding that very totality of technology and complexity. The distinction between Batman and other people can be seen in Lucius Fox's introduction to the bank of monitors that provide the visual information. Fox immediately experiences the terrifying sublime when confronted with the totality of the system. The spectacle of the sheer scope of the project and infiltration of technology into the everyday causes Fox to experience an ethical dilemma, but this concept of ethics does not apply to Batman as he is the fantasy of dominating postmodernism.

In conclusion, The Dark Knight uses symbols and representations of heroes and villains in order to tell a political story entrenched in the discourse of life after 9/11, in which escalation is the main theme. However, the narrative is also firmly couched in the cultural logic of late capitalism as outlined by Fredric Jameson. Instead of codifying the logic, The Dark Knight provides two different fantasies for the audience. One is the fantasy of escaping the logic of late capitalism as represented by the chaotic urban terrorist called the Joker, and the other is the fantasy of controlling the postmodern as symbolized by Batman. Both are mediated by the trauma that has occurred in their past, but with only with Batman being able to narrativize the trauma into successful navigation and with the Joker simply removing narrative from his very subjectivity. Both are fantasies for the audience but both are impossible to achieve as they are both symbols that are manipulated, as seen in the final scene, in which Batman becomes the villain that Gotham needs as opposed to the hero Gotham deserves.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Kolenic, Anthony. "Madness in the Making: Creating and Denying Narratives from Virginia Tech to Gotham City." Journal of Popular Culture. 42.6 (1023): 1039. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. "Postmodern Culture: The Ambivalence Of Fredric Jameson." College Literature 19.2 (1992): 111. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.

Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Writ. Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Film.