Monday, December 31, 2012

Year-End Round-Up

1.

I stopped using Goodreads and stopped counting books. Thus, I haven't got the exact number for books I read in 2012. However, doing some quick arithmetic and searching my memory, we're probably looking at a number somewhere between 105 and 110. Not as good as 2011, but still quite impressive. Since I no longer have an exact list of the books I read, there's probably something I'm missing when I decide which is my favourite book. This means that I'm not going to do a Top Ten or anything like that.

A relatively new trend grew in 2012: I read far more nonfiction than I've ever read in my life. In fact, I probably read ten times more nonfiction this year than in any previous year of my life. I read a history of the Crusades, of the post-9/11 wars, of Britain in the 80s, of the decline of violence, of the birth of the prison, of guns, germs and steel, and some others. I read some philosophy, some cultural criticism, some journalism, some essays, and some others.

Even though I didn't formally review it, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature stands as an extremely important and extremely fascinating document of the decline of violence in civilization. It seemed like every page has a fact or an idea that shifts a paradigm. It's an interdisciplinary methodology that every writer should look to as a superlative example of excellence in research and approach. It's the best book I read all year and I read a lot of good books. I can't really remember every single book, but I know that Pinker's tome was the one I thought about the most and the one I was the most excited during the reading experience.

2.

The best film of 2012 was without a doubt, Tarantino's Django Unchained. Relatively nothing come close. While I loved The Dark Knight Rises, it wasn't quite as good as Tarantino's return to cinemas. Django Unchained is a bloody, emotional, hilarious, tense, and ridiculous love letter to exploitation B-movies, spaghetti westerns, and America itself. I saw more films in 2012 than I did in 2011, but I saw very few prestige films. Just like in previous years, I'm losing interest in film as a medium. Slowly but surely. It's going to take a lot to get me interested in a film nowadays.

3.

However, I did play a lot of video games! More than ever. The winner, after much deliberation and careful thought has to be Batman: Arkham City, even though it came out in 2011. I purchased the Game of the Year edition and played it constantly for about a month. The story was intriguing and had a twist ending I didn't see coming (a rarity in video game narratives) and the gameplay immensely satisfying and enjoyable. Close seconds are Far Cry 3, Dishonored, Saints Row the Third, and the Black Mesa mod. There's something about video games that draws me in better than film can right now.

4.

I'm eschewing top ten lists and whatnot this year. I can't be arsed to list everything I've done, read, and watched this year. It doesn't even matter. Mindlessly accumulating culture as if it were products to be acquired is counterproductive to the project that is self-improvement. Thus, I'm terribly uninterested in mobilizing lists that reduce artifacts to numbers. I'm also irritated by the Internet's amazing unaware tendency to produce year-end lists so early. Top Ten Lists are growing in number and in volume to the point where they're encroaching on other months. Soon, year-end lists will begin in August. It's not surprising, considering culture's near-constant attempt at de-historicizing everything and anything.

5.

In terms of New Year's Resolutions — who gives a fuck. New Years only serves to remind us of the inexorable passing of time, the slow creeping methodical way in which time never stops, never slows down, never relents, and always, we the mortals grow weaker and grow wrinkles.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Plague of "Nice Guys"

0.


One of the most common memes being circulated in the current era is the idea of the friend zone. There's an image macro called "Friend Zone Fiona" that riffs on the idea that women are callously putting nice guys into what's called the friend zone, an area clearly demarcated as non-romantic and non-sexual. The oft-quoted scenario is that the male does nice things for the female romantic target in order to prove worth, to show romantic interest, and most importantly, to convert this behaviour into a romantic relationship. Once the male "bravely" announces his intent, the female's response is inevitably "oh, but I like you as a friend and I don't want to ruin our relationship." This sends the male into a cycle of resentment and blame, focused on the female for rejecting the male's (unwanted) romantic/sexual advances. The male turns to the Internet to vent and finds a large group of men in similar positions to reciprocate the expressions of frustration. The friendzoned nice guys always complain that they're different, they're nice guys, they deserve companionship because they're different, and they consistently observe that girls date asshole, then turn around and complain about those assholes. The self-described "nice guys" are — plain and simple — misogynists and sexists and I hate them.

1.


Nice Guys of OKCupid is the Tumblr I have been waiting for. It's a collection of pictures of men on the dating site who have described themselves as nice guys. Inevitably, the quotes of self-description are paired with quotes that reveal the nice guys to be misogynists or sexist. The picture I've posted above is a perfect example of this. The nice guy admits to rape, although he would never even think to call it rape. There are other examples where gentlemen refer to themselves as feminists, but think that females have an obligation (moral? social?) to shave their legs. In another superlative example, one nice guy admits that female homosexuality is tolerable but male homosexuality is "just wrong."

There is a plague of nice guys out there and it would be my pleasure to either a) find someone to educate them on discourses of gender and sexuality or b) kill them all with fire. These are the type of people that peacefully and without irony consider themselves superior examples of masculinity. They believe they are enlightened. They believe that "assholes" and "douchebags" are "getting" all the girls and leaving none for them. The nice guy phenomenon is both a confirmation of the patriarchy as well as an hysterical reaction by the patriarchy when females appear to have the ability to choose. When females seemingly have the opportunity to select their own mates — thanks to a combination of increased economic power as well as equalizing social mores — they are subsequently threatened because they aren't selecting the mates that men have designed for them.

In other words, females are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If females do not choose the nice guys and reward them for their behaviour, they're bitches who deserve the assholes they choose. If they do choose the nice guys, the females are essentially rewarding nice guys for their misogynistic behaviour, which allows these nice guys to perpetuate the behaviour. The anxiety of choice rears its terrible unavoidable head again.

2.

Increased economic power and the decay of outmoded social mores appear to be a mixed blessing for females. In most cases, it's an infinitely positive thing, allowing for individual humans to be treated like humans. In other cases, women are pretty much blamed for the disintegration of society. Nowadays, the blame for the death of society is dispersed across a wide spectrum, touching feminism, homosexuality, and liberalism. It's disconcerting but not surprisingly that the three elements are fundamentally about equality.

Nice guys subconsciously despise equality. Firstly, equality disrupts their hegemonic status. Nice guys are generally white privileged males (such as myself) but see themselves as normal, above-average intelligence, socially progressive and enlightened to the plight of females. However, in reality, their conception of socially progressive only extends to rights that effect them personally. More often than not, male homosexuality is misunderstood, barely tolerated, or outright feared. They applaud moderate or misidentified feminists but shun and ridicule "extremist" feminists, AKA feminazis who hate fun and hate men.

The equality that social movements are fighting for literally disturb the privilege that these nice guys enjoy. Thus, it's extremely discomforting when that privilege is challenged. Hence, the vociferous outrage and defensive reaction when somebody accuses a nice guy of being a misogynist or racist. "But I have plenty of black/gay/female friends!" goes the oft-heard defense. Of course, this defense is absolutely specious. Having a friend that condones or tolerates intolerance does not exculpate from general intolerant ideologies or behaviour.

The second reason why nice guys subconsciously despise equality is that this much sought-after equality provides females with greater power: the power to choose, the power to self-sustain, the power to act in self-interest. Many of these things mean that — sorry nice guys — females just won't choose them. Perhaps females aren't interested in crypto-misogynistic creeps that see every female as a romantic target, someone to convert polite social behaviour into sexual rewards.

The hysterical reaction to any disruption of the social status quo — ie providing other humans (females) with human rights (right to choose sexual/romantic partner) — is to malign or mistreat that very disruption in an attempt to reassert power within the dynamic. The patriarchy's power is being only slightly challenged so the patriarchy responds disproportionately with an entirely new subset of social protocols that females are unable to navigate with success. The nice guy phenomenon is essentially the Kobayashi Maru of romantic choices.

Of course, as aforementioned, this increased power of choice is good, but not all pervasive. Females are still subject to a loathsome discourse of slut-shaming, casual and institutional misogyny, and a culture that circulates and perpetuates all sorts of unrealistic and unhealthy imagery related to the female body. The most pernicious and disturbing element of human existence is to correlate the female's worth with her body and not her personhood in totality.

3.

I suppose what offends me most about the nice guy plague is that the nice guys are reducing and flattening a complex set of social protocols into a crude economic exchange. It's Bourdieu's social capital but instead of relating to class and economic status, it relates to the ability to capitalize on the economics of the female body.

Essentially, the nice guy logic is as follows: the nice guy's behaviour (which is standard non-zero sum behaviour) accrues interest in the female body until at the point when the nice guy is able to capitalize on the savings and convert them into a romantic or sexual relationship with the female body. The nice guy negotiation is strictly economic in the sense that this behaviour has a convertible liquidity, to be exchanged with sexual favours or romantic interest.

The hysterical reaction by the patriarchy is to again reduce an entire human into a body with holes that can be used by whomever is clever enough to bank responsible behaviour.

When confronted by a nice guy who has performed a series of nice guy tasks for the sake of future conversion, the recipient of said behaviour must ask why should they reward somebody for doing the bare minimum of being a human being. Why the fuck should nice guys feel special for basic human decency?

Oh the irony. Of course, nice guys are accomplishing altruistic deeds because they are hoping each deed accrues interest for future convertibility. This is why they are a plague: because they perceive themselves as enlightened or superior to the basest male due to their incredible ability to not being a huge douchebag 100% of the time.

Pulling out chairs and opening doors does not make nice guys better. In fact, many females express that these actions are not only outmoded but verge on uncomfortable. Opening doors and pulling out chairs confirms that the male is in control of the female body, that the female is powerless to control her own motion through space, that the female body is helpless without the nice guy negotiating the space for her.

4.

At this point, it's a cliché to even write this post. Many people circulate the belief that "nice guys finish last" which in turn feeds the circulation of the nice guy martyrdom which then in turn circulates the backlash against the nice guy plague. The only solution? Kill them all with fire or find somebody with enough knowledge and experience to educate them all on dynamics of gender and sexuality. I still have a lot to learn, so I'm not the appropriate man for the job.

Not only that, but I'm certainly guilty of the casual and institutional misogyny that perpetuates the reduction of female personhood into nothing more than the body. The goal here isn't to feel guilt and shame over decades (hundreds of years) of social and cultural programming but to become aware of it, to acknowledge that females are treated poorly globally, and to help advance any and all forms of equality for the betterment of all people, not just those that would benefit from privilege. Dynamics of power and gender structure our daily life in ways that are often to subtle for the unaware, the uninitiated, ie the nice guy. It's time to take responsibility for our actions and understand that our behaviour vis-à-vis sexual economics is unacceptable. A person is more than simply a repository for banking decent actions for the purpose of capitalizing in the future.

A lot of the times, this acknowledge of privilege means shutting the fuck up. However, there are instances, such as when nice guys spout their misogynistic bullshit, when one has a moral obligation to speak out.

Let your voices ring out loud and clear: misogyny is fucking unacceptable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review Round-Up


Despite the fact that I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, I remember nothing. I was 5 years old after all. However, representations of this momentous occasion in 1989 are minimal compared to countless other 60s examples of a divided Berlin. Earlier this year I read Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton which was a marvelous little thriller and this is an excellent comparison with the much longer and much less effective Brandenburg by Henry Porter.

I suppose that my years of reading higher quality literary fiction (whatever that means) has spoiled me for prose and characterization. Porter's entire cast is egregiously flat. Not a single person stands out — not even the protagonist, a quiet art historian who is being extorted by East Germany's secret service into espionage. He is playing a careful game of double agency with a coalition of various Western secret services including MI6. He goes through the entire novel, motivated by his twin brother's unfair imprisonment, without lifting off the page and into the imagination. This is partly due to Porter's tendency to tell rather than show throughout the text. Porter's flat journalistic prose carries the deft plotting but leaves any dimensionality behind.

It's a shame, of course, because Porter's plotting is quite good, up until the very end. The timeframe of the novel begins weeks before the ninth of November and predictably comes to a climax at the fall of the Wall. Even with this predictable logic, the plot twists and turns until the end, when the reader is swept up in the excitement and power of the massive crowds pushing and pulling for freedom from state oppression.

The denouement of the novel cries out for some editing — a plot twist at the very end should have been excised without a second thought. The forced happy ending is ridiculous and offensively left field, which is all the more disappointing considering the natural happy ending that occurred previously, with the fall of the wall.

Despite these criticisms, I still enjoyed the novel, especially the spycraft and complexity of the plot. I'm not sure if I'll read another Porter novel, but I'm glad I read this one.


The Great War looms heavily in my imagination for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on. One of the factors in my interest is that my great grandfather fought in the war and managed to survive. Although he never once spoke of what he saw and what he did. This is echoed in Faulks's long and emotional text Birdsong.

Stephen Wraysford falls in love with Isabelle, an unhappily married French woman. They run off together, but their happiness falls apart. Then, Stephen enlists to fight in what was assumed to be a quick jaunty war. The novel follows Stephen through a series of monotonously horrible sequences in which Faulks demonstrates his research capabilities. Each scene in the war is visceral, awful, and in many cases, nauseating. The filth, the lice, the sounds, the blood, the arbitrariness of life and death are all detailed in exhaustive detail. The accumulative effect is to show the disillusionment of the men and how they are irrevocably traumatized.

Woven through the narrative is a secondary story that follows Stephen's granddaughter, a middle age professional romantically entangled with a married man, as she investigates her family background. These scenes are inevitably the weakest, as they provide Faulks with the opportunity to moralize on the forgetfulness of the collective consciousness. Elizabeth, the granddaughter, is given no motivation for her interest in the past until close to the end, when she arrives at the "moral" of the story: our lives are meaningless and empty compared with the soulful sacrifice of our enlisted men during the War.

The structure of the novel brings to mind the far superior and more inventive novel The Wars by Timothy Findley. Similarly, a sensitive young man (they all were) loses his humanity during the war, but regains it in a transcendental moment. The structure of the novel has an unknown researcher assembling material on this young man and his actions during the war, reflecting on the current era's meaningfulness in the face of this experience. The great difference between the novels is multiple: The Wars is complex and postmodern, the transcendental moment's logic is based on how we treat animals better than ourselves, and The Wars questions historical objective truth by way of its structure.

As aforementioned, the weakest parts of Birdsong are the scenes set in the 1970s, when Elizabeth tries to make sense of her life through the appropriation of Stephen's experiences. Meanwhile, in the past, Stephen goes through long and torturous ordeals in which his very humanity is slowly scrubbed away. The romantic aspect of the plot figures only slightly, despite how the novel and TV show are advertised.

I can totally understand why Birdsong has the critical reputation it has. It's a forceful, evocative and well researched text. Its characters are extremely well drawn and so disconcertingly human. However, it's a rather old fashioned novel in the sense that the narrator is stupendously omniscient and at no point is there is any depth to the ethics other than "war is bad" and "the brotherhood of man is awesome". This is a novel to teach in first year English, if it weren't so preposterously long. Of course, this doesn't mean that the novel is bad. The emotion palette with which the novel paints is extremely successful, more so than Findley's antiseptic The Wars.

Despite the emotional achievements of Birdsong, I don't think it's all that great, to be honest. I could have happily cut 150 pages from the novel and that doesn't even include the ponderous sections in the 1970s. Without these cuts, Birdsong is good, but not great. I could rightly be accused of being disingenuous about this, considering I read the 500 page novel in less than 48 hours. So there's that to think of.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Invitation to the Waltz


Carly Rae Jepsen’s colossal hit single “Call Me Maybe” has been certified six times platinum by the RIAA. This means the single has sold over 6,000,000 units, making it one of the highest selling singles of the year, if not the highest selling. Part of the song’s success is the infectious nature of the song; the chorus is as efficient an earworm as any other massive hit song. The more interesting element of the song, the other part of its worldwide success and cultural influence, is the song’s lyrics. They seem to articulate something that writer Rohin Guha (of Flavorwire) calls “teenage magic.” Guha writes:
In these tough times, one of the latest incarnations of pop to catch on is the sparkling revival of what we call “teenage magic.” While we experience teenage magic differently, at its heart, the phenomenon is unequivocally premised in the wide-eyed perceptions we have of the world around us. In trying to figure out how things worked as kids, we colored in logical blanks with wild speculation. More than that, at that age, only our points of view — no matter how wrong and misguided — mattered. We were suns in our solar system and everyone else was asteroids; we were brats, man.
The song, and the subsequent video, is rooted in this feathery, light, airy nostalgia for a period of innocence and ignorance, before the taint of forbidden (read: adult) knowledge occurs. “Call Me Maybe” captures, reflects and re-circulates this queasiness of uncontrollable passions and strange new emotions. However, “Call Me Maybe” is not the first, nor the last, work of art to fixate on the newness of infatuation and the introduction of the innocent into the world of maturity.

Also not the first, Invitation to the Waltz, written by Rosamund Lehmann and published in 1932, articulates this “teenage magic” in the form of Olivia and Kate Curtis, two sisters going to a dance. The novel opens with Olivia’s seventeenth birthday: “Oh, but breakfast would be awful, with all the family saying many happy returns; with opening parcels, repeating thank-you with self-conscious strained enthusiasm” (Lehmann 8). Olivia reflects on the awkwardness of the birthday, her seventeenth, and that number’s proximity to marrying age. This leads her to anticipate excitedly the dance to be held at Lord and Lady Spenser’s house in a week. While it is Olivia’s first dance, her older sister Kate has already attended a dance before. The end of the year produces a mixture of variegated moods within Olivia: the excitement of the dance, the tediousness of her provincial family’s birthday celebrations and the eventual departure of Kate to Paris for “finishing school."

The separation of Kate and Olivia is a complex moment that looms over the entirety of the text. It is not just a literal geographic separation, but a figurative distinction between the sisters due to their age. Kate, a couple years older, is preparing to enter a more subtle and adult environment, away from the provincial and tellingly middle class familial home. Mr. Curtis, an asthmatic old man, retired, lavishes attention on the family pet while Mrs. Curtis, strict and religious frets over her daughters’ clothes and makeup. Neither is the youngest child, James, able to give the girls the male attention that they feel they deserve. The house is stilting and not conducive to the necessary emotional maturation that Kate and Olivia need. At this point, the girls awkwardly navigate the boundary between girl and woman.

Another pop song derived from “teenage magic” but unfortunately not even close in quality, is Britney Spears’ 2002 song “I’m not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” In the song, Spears warbles, “I'm not a girl (I'm not a girl don't tell me what to believe) / Not yet a woman (I'm just trying to find the woman in me, yeah)” which speaks to the journey of self-discovery in the Bildungsroman as well as this unknown, culturally awkward territory of post-adolescence. It’s a ballad that hopes to reconcile the complex emotions within the teenage girl. Unfortunately for Spears, the public eye was the arena in which she went through this particular journey of self-discovery.

For Olivia, the arena of hopeful maturity is the dance at Lord and Lady Spenser’s house, which only comes at the halfway point of the novel. Until then, the text follows Olivia through scenes of domesticity, meant to showcase her resistance to the provinciality of her small town. Some of the scenes feature older men and their relation to Olivia, such as Major Skinner, a very unaware type of man, always asking the younger girl for tea or offering to teach her golf. Lehmann writes,
Suddenly Olivia felt inclined to smile warmly, lingeringly at Major Skinner. She did so. She didn’t care. He was a dear. She was attracted by his human, his male quality — simple, sensual, kindly, pathetic. She was sorry for him, because all his offering was nothing but asking — tentative, shamefaced, pretty sure it was no go, but never altogether daunted. (73)
Major Skinner stirs the faintest feelings of adulthood within Olivia, an awareness of the intimacy and physicality of the male body, but repelled by the clumsiness of that very same body. The text’s focus on the physical details of the village, the men, the clothes, the weather all impart some knowledge of Olivia’s relationship to physicality, but her social situation resists any direct engagement. That is, of course, until the party.

The second half of the novel begins with the utter definition of “teenage magic”: “That morning Mrs. Curtis said: ‘Nannie, you’ll help the girls to dress, won’t you?’ And they felt the first thrill of preparation. It sounded so important and correct, as if they were authentic debutantes with a maid… to lay out, to fold up after them” (117). The two girls go through an elaborate toilet, giggling and making jokes about the unfortunate young man their mother cajoled into accompanying them to the dance. Reggie is a serious man, totally divorced from the reality of these two beautiful girls, unable to make even eye contact with them through his thick unattractive glasses. The girls sigh and hope Reggie’s woeful presence doesn’t predict the rest of the evening’s atmosphere. Kate harbours a desire for Tony, one of the village’s most attractive sons to be there, to notice her, to dance with her. Inwardly, Olivia frets endlessly about her dress that doesn’t quite fit and how she’s not quite as pretty as Kate. She hopes that her dance card will be even slightly filled.

Invitation to the Waltz picks up energy when the girls finally arrive at the dance. It is here where the quaintness of unfashionable tradition serves the narrative. The sisters are propelled through a group of village inhabitants known to them, and strangers from other parts of the country, brought in for the purpose of social connections. It’s not terribly out of order to claim that these dances are meant solely for the establishment of social connections. It is here where Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social capital gets some of its force. The girls’ family name and reputation allows them entrance into the dance; there, they fill their dance cards with eligible men for the purpose of future attachment. Olivia and Kate are exchanging their social capital for more social capital, hoping to mobilize their background for the purpose of marrying a suitable man with a similar if not better background. Luckily for all involved, the sisters, but more so Kate, are born with the proper habitus to negotiate this type of social interaction.

The text does not shy away from the sexual politics of this marketplace, nor of the lasciviousness of the predatory older men. Instead, the girls see the dance as an opportunity to have fun and meet someone to marry. Olivia does not see why these two things should be mutually exclusive. It is her emotional fecundity and sensitivity that allows her to navigate this dance — not altogether successfully, as she is still drawn across the border of adolescence and adulthood.

The majority of the action in the second half of the novel concerns the separation of the sisters as Kate ends up dancing all night with Tony and Olivia goes through awkward, heartbreaking encounters with various unsuitable men — perfectly highlighting the increased distance between the two sisters. Olivia has her first ever dance with Reggie: “[she] was rather red in the face, with a sort of congested look, as if she might be struggling with feelings. Was it unhappiness, or the effort to make Reggie keep time? He held her by a loose handful of dress in the small of the back. The stuff would be damp and crumpled when he let her go” (166). This, of course, perfectly captures the tenderness with which the text treats Olivia. Her intentions are good, and she’s determined the make the best of anything, but she’s constantly put up against a bunch of infantilized young men or prematurely aged older men.

One of the more uncomfortable scenes involves a young, possibly Communist, poet named Peter, who is a classic case of social awkwardness. He barely bothers to learn Olivia’s name and proceeds to rail against the whole institution of the dance, the ponderous, presentation of capital through Lord and Lady Spenser’s ostentatious house. Even though Olivia expresses a fondness for dances, Peter goes on, unaware of his new acquaintance’s disquiet: “‘The unreality of it!’ He gave an unexpected shrill cackle. ‘My God, though, it has its humorous side. What’s-her-name now — that bosomy tin-plated dowager, yearning over us with her bowels of condescension… All these well-diluted debs — guaranteed wholesome and sedative. They’re enough to make a cat laugh’” (197). Of course, this unfriendly young man does not dance and proclaims so, somewhat to Olivia’s disappointment. When Peter ditches Olivia, he later catches up with her to accuse her of ditching him. In the end, Peter gets drunk and begins openly sobbing about how everybody hates him, including the waiting staff. It’s implied that Peter comes from money much to his own chagrin.

Olivia must also dance with the loathsome George, who is willing to make all sorts of insinuations about “English virgins” and their inability to have a good time, but getting irritated with Olivia when she is brave enough to give as good as she’s got. Every encounter with George heightens Olivia’s bad luck at finding a suitable dance partner. As well as her lack of proper judgment.

In an echo of the previous, more domestic half of the novel, Olivia finds herself drawn to an older, married (and thus ineligible) man, a veteran of the Great War and victim of a gas attack. Timmy Douglas has been blind since 1918, and during their dance, Olivia loses herself in a teenage fantasy of romanticism. She imagines how Timmy would have lost his sight, the pain, how he manages now, and she fantasizes about taking care of him, sacrificing herself for his benefit. Olivia is drawn to his worldliness without knowing it. She’s drawn to his interesting, formerly urban life. She dances with him, and it brings the reality of the war rushing to her awareness:
She was silent. War, a cloud on early adolescence, weighing not too darkly, long lifted…. A cousin in the flying corps killed, the cook’s nephew gone down at Jutland, rumour of the death of neighbours’ son — and among the village faces, about half a dozen familiar ones that had disappeared and never come back… and butter and sugar rations; and the lawn dug up for potatoes (the crop had failed); and knitting scratchy mittens and mufflers; and Dad being a special constable and getting bronchitis from it: that was about all that war had meant. (255)
Olivia sees Timmy as something from another world due to his experience, his subsequent acceptance of his fate, and his domestic life, quiet and happy in marriage. Olivia, while resistant to the provinciality of her own village, seems to yearn for this happiness, even if it comes without urbanity. For selfish reasons, she dances with him a second time, if only to make himself feel good and thus to feel satisfied.

Meanwhile, Kate is experiencing the same emotional queasiness as Carly Rae Jepsen does in her aforementioned monster pop hit. Kate and Tony are hitting it off, and his stories of hunting, riding, working in London, having holidays in the country are enthralling Kate. She is attracted to his physicality, his confident smile, his inquisitive attentive eyes, and mostly by his maturity and urbanity.
‘Couldn’t you come at Easter? I shan’t be home till the summer.’
He said quietly, in a tone of suppressed excitement: ‘Right. I will. If you’re sure you’d like me to.’
She answered, almost under her breath: ‘Yes, I would.’
They were silent, seeing themselves walking together beneath a blue and white Easter sky, down strange exciting sunny streets and under budding trees.
Olivia’s difficulty with various men, even the possibly appropriate suitors, is perfectly contrasted with the ease with which Kate and Tony seem to fall in love — with all of the pleasurable nausea that accompanies “teenage magic.” This contrast, this distancing, represents the true conflict at the heart of Invitation to the Waltz.

After the dance, around four in the morning, the girls return home. Olivia is possibly drunk, but more likely exhausted while Kate feels the inexorable gulf that has appeared between them. She cannot imagine telling Olivia about everything that happened and thus sets in motion her plan to join Tony and his family for a holiday. The subterfuge involves Etty, a cousin, inviting Kate in order to avoid Mrs. Curtis’s reaction to a boy inviting Kate. However, when this is revealed in the morning, Olivia is taken aback: “Oh Kate! She’s not going to tell me. Everything’s changing, everything’s different… I’m left behind, but I don’t care. I've got plenty to think about too. Everything crowded in her head at once… words, looks, movements — simply extraordinary. Life — she felt choked” (301). Of course, the important word being deployed is “extraordinary” but not in the usual banal sense of the word: (an exclaim). Rather, Olivia has entered, albeit delayed compared to her sister, the world of adulthood, men, and mature emotions. However, as with all journeys of development, the cost to be paid is the separation between sisters.

The novel ends with Olivia running into the sunlight that touches everything, hopeful and heartbroken at the same time, perfectly capturing the biliousness of “teenage magic,” the kind of superlative expression of emotion that vacillates between romantic depression, exultant anguish and unflinching optimism. The invitation of the title is actually the initiation, the introduction of Olivia into adulthood, but unlike Kate, she is not ready to embark on the final stages. Rather, Olivia must be content to stay within the territory mapped out by Carly Jae Jepsen, Britney Spears and a whole host of other teenage magic pop stars.

Works Cited

Lehmann, Rosamund. Invitation to the Waltz. 1932. London: Virago Press, 1996. Print.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blow Your House Down


The project of Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down seems fairly clear. It appears to be an attempt to humanize the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper who famously murdered a large amount of prostitutes. The police response has been continuously and consistently criticized for their lack of cooperation among jurisdictions as well as their seemingly disregard for the victims, mostly working class prostitutes from Yorkshire. The media was also unhelpful in their minimizing of the victims’ life and humanity. It appeared that no one seemed to care about the young women being brutally murdered and left to stiffen in the cold unblinking English rain.

Thus, Blow Your House Down is a fictional portrait of a small group of prostitutes in a Northern England working class village who are being victimized by a killer similar to Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. The novel starts with Brenda, a mother of three and wife to an absent husband, who in flashbacks, reveals that she worked at the chicken factory, while the person minding her children abused them. After being sacked from the only available job, Brenda turned to prostitution. The novel’s middle section focuses on Jean, an older more experienced prostitute with a distinctive neck scar from a particularly violent experience with a john. Her character appears to be the mobilization of a refutation of the prostitute stereotype that had previously plagued the discourse. Jean does not sell her body out of desperation but rather because she feels she is suited to the job. She reflects,
I like this life. I’m not in it because I’m a poor, deprived, inadequate, half-witted woman, whatever some people might like to think, I’m in it because it suits me, I like the company, I like the excitement. I like the feeling of stepping out onto the street, not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet. I like the freedom. I like being able to decide when I’m going to work. I like being able to take the day off without being answerable to anybody. (Barker 80)
She is not the common prostitute story, despite what the other women in the village think. The novel concludes with the account of one of the working women from the chicken factory. Maggie is a survivor, knocked down in the street by somebody the police suspect to be the killer — however it is left ambiguous in the text if it is truly him. She suffers a horrible head wound and a very visual scar on her head. Once returned to the family home, where her husband and sister diligently help with the convalescence, she becomes embarrassed about the attack. She tells her friends that she slipped and fell, as if she should be ashamed of the attack, as if she deserved it.

Blow Your House Down does a lot in a small amount of space. Despite not hitting two hundred pages, Barker manages to write something incredibly affective as well as technically impressive. The chicken factory and subsequent physical details looms over the village. Feathers, blood, guts, offal, and smell permeate the women’s lives, whether they are prostitutes or not. The chickens, mutilated without a thought by an economic system that requires it, are meant to be a symbol for the chewed up lives of the working class women — after all, chicken is “the English slang for prostitute” (Ardis 44). One of the jobs at the factory involves shoving the legs of the chicken into its own arse. This is uncomfortably mirrored in the scene in which the killer murders Kath, an older alcoholic prostitute, and shoves white feathers into her bloody vagina until she has a bunch sticking out. It’s clear that the text is comparing the fate of the working class with the product of their labour.

The Marxist angle of this novel is extremely tantalizing for me. Of all the motives given by the characters for their profession, the most convincing and widespread is pure economics. It’s the hardships of the post-mining boom in Northern England, a traditionally industrial economy that has caused the most amount of damage to this village. However, this leads me down the path of conflating prostitution with victimhood, something that the text appears to actively resist, especially with Jean and some other characters. The prostitute is a confusing subject for the heteronormative mainstream discourse. While at one end of the subject, there is empowerment and individuality, exceptional entrepreneurship, on the other end, there’s the monetizing of the sexual act. The prostitute is not a traditional labourer, but Blow Your House Down implicitly equates the job with working at a pub or working in the factory. The commodification of the body, while normally accepted within society, is reviled when this commodification happens outside the traditional economy, when the commodity is circulated in a subsidiary and illegal market. Again, we can see that this text’s project is to normalize prostitution — not rationalize, excuse or apologize for, but simply to naturalize.

The text does this through the Marxist throughline of economic disparity and class struggle, but also through careful and deliberate characterization. I would be cautious at using the word “sisterhood” to describe the loose group of prostitutes that hang around in pubs, work in informal pairs, and pal around, but the system of comfort and support that the women have built seems to be integral to the sustainment of their individual sanity. Their comradery is the scaffolding to their persistence in the game. In addition, the women are portrayed first as women, then prostitute secondly. Their labour is not their identity, but rather a job. Instead, the women are women, with feelings, wants, desires, dislikes, and sisters and mothers and wives and subjects.

In “Woman on the Market,” Luce Irigaray writes that “wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men” (172). Blow Your House Down simultaneously resists and confirms this. The few male characters in the novel that are named are mostly husbands and boyfriends who inevitably disappoint the women — or inadvertently frighten Maggie by virtue of being male. Other than these men, there are the countless, nameless customers that seek only sexual satisfaction, and in many cases, some emotional support. The men extract value from the women in the novel. However, they are only able to extract this value due to the fact that the women are not simply commodities being exchanged in a market. It is their very dimensionality that allows for greater use value. In this way, the text resists Irigaray’s axiom.

In an intriguing flashback scene, a pre-prostitution Brenda is visited by social workers in order to determine if she is able to benefit from state financial support. The visit is striking for Brenda, as it appears to her that the social workers think that if she became pregnant from a man, it should be the man that pays (Barker 38). They implicitly sustain and perpetuate a heteronormative system in which subjects conform to class distinctions. Brenda resists this. She chooses to become a prostitute, not because of lofty ideals of independence or class mobility, but because of necessity to her family. Out of this motive derives the dimensionality that results in the exchange value.

This is what cautions me against the conclusion that prostitution is a form of victimhood or oppression. Blow Your House Down wants to naturalize a working class act of economic necessity and contextualize it, effectively humanizing the victims of a misogynistic killer. The Yorkshire Killer murdered prostitutes for arcane and unimportant reasons. Rather than apologizing for a murderer, Barker’s novel seeks to flesh out the victims, who in the eyes of the public, were empty flesh that got what coming to them.

Irigaray writes that women are only the mother, who is all use value; the virgin, who is all exchange value; and finally the prostitute, who is both use and exchange value” (Irigaray 187). By collapsing these categories into a three dimensional character, Barker destabilizes the reader’s constructions of the women (Ardis 49). It is insane that critics including myself would praise Barker for this when it should be the absolute standard protocol for the development of a character. The very fact that we congratulate Barker for her ability to write fully fleshed out character says something about the excess of flat female characters that populate fiction.

Blow Your House Down is an immensely dense novel despite its short length, but it is entirely successful in its project. The women are complex, fully developed people that do not easily exist in the peripherals of society, where the patriarchy would have them. They produce children, contribute to the economy, and support each other. They do not hide in the figurative shadows, despite a man preying on their bodies. They are fully aware of the ideological dissonance in their independence and dimensionality while being subjects of an economic transaction that flattens them.

There's one other thing that I wanted to discuss in relation to this novel. I have no idea why I decided to torture myself by looking at the book's page on Goodreads. I suppose I knew what I was going to find and I derived some pleasure from the confirmation that yes, the users of Goodreads are for the most part, the worst readers in the world. Here is one example of what I'm talking about:


Click it to increase the legibility. This review is just another superlative example of poor reading. This reader didn't like the characters and thus didn't like the book. She misses the point of the novel by referring to the women's profession as "unseemly nocturnal activities". The very fact that she encodes prostitution in this way speaks to the uncomfortable relationship that the middle and upper class has with prostitution. Blow Your House Down is about naturalizing the profession and humanizing it, not entertaining the reader with "warm" characters. Ugh.

Works Cited

Ardis, Ann. “Political Attentiveness vs. Political Correctness: Teaching Pat Barker's Blow Your House Down.” College Literature 18.3 (1991): 44-54. Print.

Barker, Pat. Blow Your House Down. London: Virago Press, 1984. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

666


Jay Anson died in 1980, just before publication of his second (or first) novel, 666. It was published in 1981, right at the end of Jimmy Carter's term and during a long period of social and economic upheaval within the United States. 666 is about a haunted house that creates (or exacerbates) conflict between three people, a married couple and their male friend. I want to put to you in this post that this novel is reflecting and circulating multiple elements of anxiety within American society during the 1970s. It's a common and obvious observation to note that horror fiction tends to be a manifestation of conscious or unconscious fears. The more financially successful and popular the text, the more universal or generalized the fears with which it is dealing. Jay Anson's 666 isn't simply a haunted house novel, but rather an expression of anxieties related to the recession, inflation, gender employment disparity, female empowerment, marriage, divorce, and the housing situation within the United States.

In order to demonstrate this, I need to do a bit of historical contextualizing. Jimmy Carter's presidency can be distilled into a matter of economics. During his presidency, the US economy went through a severe recession from 1973 to 1975 as well as a later period of extremely high interest rates and double-digit inflation. Before the advent of neoliberalism (monetarist economics, AKA Chicago school), most government's responses to inflation was to spend money and to increase interest rates in order to promote lending (Keynesian economics). More lending in this case can be taken to mean more mortgages. Thankfully, this was mostly successful as by 1979 (before the oil crisis), the US economy had grown by 5%, unemployment decreased significantly, the median household income improved by 5% as well. Thus, more people were employed and owning homes. However, all was not good. Inflation was still high, so Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve in order to alleviate the problem. He raised interest rates — by 1981, some were as high as 20% — which contributed to a sharp recession at the end of the decade.

The 1979 energy crisis, caused by a multitude of complex geopolitical and economic factors, helped end any period of growth after the 1976 increase in the economy. Consumer confidence decreased significantly to the point where Jean-François Lyotard diagnosed a mass incredulity to metanarratives, calling this the postmodern condition. I would contend that this mass incredulity represents the greatest contributor to the horror boom of the 1980s, through the logic of horror's reflection of societal anxieties.

One metanarrative being continuously questioned after the 1970s is the "American Dream," whereby the exceptional individual has a right to a home, a job, a family, and the ability to juggle labour and leisure to a self-satisfying degree. The American Dream suffered a crushing blow thanks to a long decade of high interest, high inflation, and many people owing more on their mortgage than their home was worth (negative equity).

Using statistics from the US government, we can see that in 1970, 62.9% Americans owned homes. A decade later, this number has jumped by 2.38% — this increase is double from the previous decade's increase. With more people owning their own homes, but paying a significant amount on them, we can see why the haunted house narrative — already popular in the American conscious — comes to rise in the 1970s. The mortgage, the debt that weighs on you like a burden, comes to literally haunt you in the form of ghosts or malicious presence. A common aspect of haunted house narratives is the unbelievably low price at which the unsuspecting family acquires the home. Thus, the cheaper home, while economically attractive, is ultimately dangerous and ends in heartbreak for all involved.

The plot of the novel details the mysterious appearance of a home across the property line from the main characters' house. The suspicious and odd looking Victorian manse was apparently moved in its entirety across the nation after a man murdered two people in the house. It's set up as a rental property, and the protagonist and his wife become obsessed with the house.

In Jay Anson's 666, there is a constant concern and attention being paid to the physicality of the homes themselves, due to the career of Keith, the married protagonist. He owns his own carpentry business (American entrepreneurship fantasy) and has married Jennifer, an already divorced interior decorator. Despite the greater economic hardships of 1979, the year the novel is set, Keith is making enough money that Jennifer is able to give up her career and be a housewife. Although, there doesn't appear to be a lot for Jennifer to do other than make Keith his meals. There is a significant absence of feminine household maintenance in this novel — something I'll return to in a bit.

Keith's career enables the author to focalize on carpentry-specific details of the various homes featured in the novel. There's a preponderance of architectural jargon, including long passages detailing the renovations that Keith performs on the haunted house in the middle of the novel. Not only is the haunted house detailed (incredulously numbered six hundred and sixty six in both its previous address and its current!) but also Keith's home and even the couple's friend's apartment what with its antique expensive furniture.

David, the single handsome man that comes between husband and wife, is a successful antiques dealer that is everything Keith is not: cultured, sophisticated, charming, exceedingly good looking and in incredible shape, despite just playing racket ball every week. He is friends with Jennifer, meeting in professional circumstances but evolving into close friends, and this makes Keith, a former college football player, quite jealous.

What's interesting about this dynamic is the same thing that The Exorcist plays upon: divorce within American society. In order to demonstrate that I think 666 is manifesting a deep anxiety about divorce, I'll need to do some more contextualizing.

At some point in the past thirty years, it became fashionable to remark that 50% of American marriages end in divorce. The very fact that this "statistic" is circulated so easily and for so long suggests that there might be a grain of truth to it. In fact, the divorce rate in the US has increased significantly from the 1960s to the 1970s. Two academics write, quite succinctly that
The steady rise in the United States (U.S.) divorce rate from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s has been a topic of much debate among demographers and economists (Friedberg 1998; Goldstein 1999; Michael 1978, 1988; Oppenheimer 1997; Preston 1997; Ruggles 1997; Wolfers 2006). Researchers have focused much of their attention on explaining the rise in the divorce rate by examining changes in divorce laws during the early-1970s (Friedberg 1998; Wolfers 2006) and the economic empowerment of women (Bremmer and Kesselring 2004; Nunley 2010; Ruggles 1997). The consensus from the literature on divorce laws suggests that the reforms led to a small, transitory rise in the divorce rate.
Just because it's a small increase does not mean that it's a culturally significant issue. For comparison's sake, in the UK there were 300 deaths due to complications resulting from AIDS whereas 30,000 people a year died from lung cancer. Despite this disparity, there exists no cultural lung cancer panic near the same level as the AIDS panic of the 1980s.

In The Exorcist, a young girl, daughter to a divorced and economically independent woman, becomes possessed and only a father figure in the form of a Jesuit priest, Father Damian Karras, is able to save this girl. The novel and subsequent blockbuster film (which is indisputably a masterpiece) deal with cultural anxieties about the secularization of society and the dissolution of the family unit, often seen, in the American cultural consciousness, to be the strongest possible force against subversive or dangerous societal elements.

I would contend that with the incremental but significant increase in divorce rates, certain texts of horror looked at the dissolution of marriages rather than of the familial unit. Women's greater economic empowerment and other huge societal shifts contributed positively to the success and visibility of second-wave feminism (from the 1960s to the 1990s). As feminism is (still to this day) seen as a subversive element that seeks to disrupt the comfort and stability of the traditional American family unit, we can see then that 666 is expressing a complex but risible attitude to females and their ability to divorce.

Jennifer, as aforementioned, has already been divorced by the time that Keith marries her. Only a paragraph is given over to detailing the failed marriage, but its existence looms heavily in Keith's mind. The narrator relates Keith's jealousy, his resentment that he's had to share his wife with another man, which of course, speaks to the proprietary relation visualized between the American male and his wife. Keith’s jealousy vis-à-vis David is an expression of the anxiety that if Jennifer could divorce one man, then there is little stopping her from divorcing another.

This, I would contend, gets to the heart of the matter regarding this novel. It is a hysterical expression of fear in regards to female agency thanks to a society that is seeing more and more women becoming economically independent due to deregulation, the meteoric rise of inflation and the subsequent need for double incomes to sustain an accustomed and expected lifestyle. The divorce anxiety — “likely due to the fact that women began participating in the labor market and in higher education at increasing rates long before the sharp rise in the divorce rate starting in the mid-1960s” (here) — is encapsulated in the text’s subsequent limitation in Jennifer’s agency throughout the novel.

Once David has inevitably moved into the luxurious but haunted house, the home exerts an influence upon him, exacerbating behaviour that had hitherto been latent. He sustains frequent and seemingly innocent physical contact with Jennifer and expresses a desire for her to decorate the interior of the house. It’s far too easy of a target to denounce this novel for the only time Jennifer has agency it’s when she’s engaging in traditionally feminine exercises such as interior decorating. Other than this moment, she’s a listless empty character that cries when Keith is cold and distant and doesn’t appreciate the prosciutto sandwich she made. When she reflects on David’s charm and attractiveness, she thinks "it would be so easy to drift into an affair with him; to simply relax and allow it to happen" (Anson 234). This quotation perfectly encapsulates the lack of agency Jennifer displays — despite a constant mentioning by the narrator of Jennifer’s previous marriage and the ease of divorce.

In a spectacularly telling scene near the beginning of the novel, David is over at Keith and Jennifer’s house having dinner. During a lull in the conversation that was previously excluding Keith, he asks what of another couple they all knew. David reports that the wife asked for a divorce; it seems she has fallen in love with another man. Keith retorts, “‘And he’s going along with that? I’ll tell you, if that happened to me, I wouldn’t take it lying down! Why didn’t Jerry go over and shoot the man or something?’” (Anson 33). In his reply, David doesn’t respond to the violent threat implicit in the observation. Not just Keith’s threat to David, but even more implicit, Jennifer’s ability to divorce Keith.

Jennifer’s power over Keith is destabilized by Keith in a couple different ways. Firstly, he holds considerable sway within the relationship in terms of economic power. Jennifer is a housewife, but is becoming bored with this. She misses Manhattan and all the glitz and glamour that comes with it. In order to stave off this malaise, Keith pushes her into re-establishing her interior decorating business (again, the American entrepreneurship fantasy). He’s effectively maneuvering her into being productive to ward off the introspection that comes from boredom. In order words, he wants her to be busy enough not to realize how much power she actually has. This is why there is a distinct lack of actual household maintenance from the housewife in this novel. The text wants to suggest to Jennifer that she has power, while at the same time, her personality doesn’t allow for such self-awareness.

The other way Keith destabilizes Jennifer’s ability to grasp power (but never does) is through his physicality. This is manifested in myriad ways. Firstly, the house they live in is maintained and repaired by Keith. His is the body that works on the home, not hers. In a novel concerned with the corporeal details of home, this is a significant factor. Secondly, his dominates her sexually. Every time the couple has sex, it’s described in the same way: Keith makes love to her, not the other way around. He takes her to the bedroom and then makes love to her. It’s the same pattern repeated. He is in control of sex within this marriage, not her.

Despite these hysterical attempts at controlling Jennifer, he is unable to maintain discipline. In an obvious turn of events, she contemplates giving in to David, as aforementioned, and during the climactic confrontation, she decides to tell him “no” once and for all. However, when she arrives in the haunted house to make her declaration, she’s pretty much hypnotized by David’s corporeality. It is doubtful she would have abstained if Keith hadn’t burst in for the showdown between rivals that is inevitable in the logic of such narratives.

Instead of complex relational issues that create divorce, 666 submits that the Devil or Satan is ultimately responsible for the dissolution of the married couple. The variegated factors that lead to the demise of marriage are transubstantiated into an effective horror trope: the haunted house. Thus, we have a multifaceted portrait of American society at the end of the 1970s — a portrait that conveys anxieties about negative equity (due to high interest rates after a short intense spurt of mortgage acquisition) and the increasing prevalence of divorce.

Female economic and societal empowerment are dangerous elements, the horror texts would have us believe. They lead to more secularization (allowing for satanic cults and demons to exert more influence) and more divorce, allowing for the erosion of society itself. If horror texts are fundamentally expressions of cultural anxiety, then we have here a superlative example of this. By contextualizing 666 to show that divorce and home ownership were on the minds of the collective, we can see that this axiom holds true.

The best horror is the scariest horror. The scariest horror is the horror that comes from within. Thus, I would put to you that 666 is scary not because it’s about a haunted house but rather it’s about a decaying society, a dissolving marriage, and a country with a stagnate economy. It’s an expression of the incredulity to metanarratives such as home ownership and marriage and this incredulity always leads to the hysterical attempt at recuperating the very metanarrative being challenged — hence, Jennifer’s complex lack of agency within the text and yet, her strange power over the whole novel. Her insignificance is intrinsically significant. 666 is a novel about circulating and reflecting fears within American society, and it’s rather successful, I should think.

Also, I'm pretty sure that 666 is the 100th book I've read in 2012. Give or take one or two. And I read it in one evening. Not to boast or anything.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hipsters as economic class

The pressure to categorize yourself has become obsessive. No sooner have you decided whether you are a Mayfair Mercenary or a Sloane Ranger than you have to check your NAFF or WALLY tendencies and consider whether you have what it takes to be a YUPPIE, a Yap, or a Young Fogey. If you want a grand theory for this phenomenon, you could, I suppose, suggest that it is linked to a firm belief that our present status is unlikely to change in these difficult economic times and that, therefore, we should hang on tightly to what we have got.
Sociologist Laurie Taylor, in The Times, 3 June 1985.

The terms quoted above seem somewhat foreign (what the hell is a Yap?) but you could easily substitute the terms with ones such as "hipster" or "tween". These are not simply social signifiers, but rather, economic demographics. They are markets.

I've noticed that many cultural critics are bemoaning the state of culture in the 2000s and on. After the mid 90s, nothing seems to have changed other than rampant 9/11 imagery in every movie. Music has stayed the same, fashion has mostly settled down, and film seems to regurgitate the same thing every year. Yet the only subculture that seems particularly attractive to cultural critics as a subject is the hipster.

The hipster hasn't changed since the early 2000s when the New York Times ran a feature on Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In summary, the hipster is a conscious rebellion against the primary modes of capitalism and consumption. Rather than conspicuously accumulate name brand fashions, hipsters reach into the vast store of the past in order to cultivate an image of anti-consumerism. They ride fixed gear bicycles (surely an inefficient mode of transportation in large urban areas due to the fixed gear) and drink terrible cheap beer.

The lifestyle is a manifestation of the difficult economic times of the generation. Rather than be embarrassed about their distressed bank accounts and inability to climb the economic ladder as their parents did, hipsters proudly project their fixed economic position.

However, as hipsterdom evolves, the subculture becomes disproportionately complicated. The subjective signifiers of authenticity and inauthenticity are made volatile due to the co-optation by the free market and the re-deployment through corporate fashion avenues.

Thus, the hipster, already concerned with authenticity, becomes a fractured subject. The co-optation of the past's subculture combined with the rapacity of late capitalism creates a subject concerned primarily with irony and pastiche; the hipster is the ultimate Jamesonion subject.

At this point, even the discussion of the hipster within the mainstream cultural discourse is exhausting and exhaustive. Every journalist and every magazine has attempted to understand, define, and categorize what is a hipster. I'm not helping by writing even this small of a piece.

I would contend that the desire to categorize the hipster into a cultural/social signifier is related to the inflexibility of the social classes. As the middle classes realize that their parents' dream of children doing better will not and cannot come true, the economic ladder only allows for downwards mobility. What better way to accept this awful reality by ironically embracing the economic fall?

The advent of neoliberalism and the subsequent deregulation of markets allowed for the rich to get richer and the middle classes to get poorer. Thus, the less economically advantaged classes have physically marked themselves, allowing for the visual identification of the middle class by dint of hipsterdom. Class stratification deepens due to the categorization and easy identification of the lower classes.

In this way, the process of self-cultivation as a hipster is an atomizing process, re-producing the anxiety of authenticity in order to maintain the discipline of hipsterdom. It's simply a way for larger market forces that benefit the rich to reinforce class stratification.

Aestheticism and authenticity are merely tools of the market at this point. This is why I find any discussion of subcultures and authenticity to be so asinine in our entirely globalized and deregulated world. Social categories are simply demographics from which to extract profit. Gone are the days of counterculture movements! They've been replaced with overlapping markets!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Collaborating for Capital



During the charity single "True Colors," there comes a moment when somebody raps a verse. The rap is not part of the original Cyndi Lauper version. Despite this, its appearance on the single is so utterly predictable that this must say something about the state of pop music in the twenty first century. The seemingly random, but carefully placed hip hop verse in pop songs has a history in music to the point where the verse is almost expected. Its inclusion in a pop song is indicative of wider trends in pop music. In this paper, I will argue that the hip hop verse is a coldly business transaction, a process by which both the pop artist and the rapper gain capital by collaboration. In order to do so, I will be drawing upon Theodor Adorno's theory of culture industry, Pierre Bourdieu's theory of social capital and a statistical methodology to examine select superlative examples.

The guest verse is currently a dominant trend within pop music. On the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, one out of three songs has a "featuring..." descriptor. The Billboard charts are not the ultimate measure of success for any performer or artist, but for the purposes of this argument, it is worth noting that "rank creates a status symbol for and of the performer" (Hakanen 104). The tool of the chart "easily define the art today as quantifiable, common, accessible, technological, digital, etc, rather than as quality, unique, obscure, artistry, analogy—a process of graphic simplicity" (108–09). For this argument, the reliance on the Billboard charts is to deploy the song as quantifiable commodity, which feeds into the logic of the song as actualization of social capital.

The verse has a long and storied history, and is culturally prevalent enough that the website TVTropes (meant to exhaustively catalog every possible cultural permutation) has an article on the guest verse called, "A Wild Rapper Appears" — the title of which refers to the seemingly random inclusion. However, this randomness is illusory. The inclusion of the guest verse is pointedly strategic, an effort to reach all possible consumers within a highly fractured but overlapping collection of markets. The various Billboard charts always share songs. Rarely does one song only rise up one particular discrete chart. This would, of course, speak to the globalization of pop and the culture industry.

According to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the culture industry is separate from mass culture in that in the logic of late capitalism, the profit motive is transferred to cultural forms so that artistic products are being turned into commodities, marketable and interchangeable like industrial products. There are various branches of the culture industry, and "the individual branches are similar in structure or at least fit into each other, ordering themselves into a system almost without a gap" (Adorno 12). In this framework, hip-hop and pop music can be understood as individual branches of the music industry — without a gap between them in order to facilitate greater amounts of profit.

Even before the guest verse, the crossover hit existed as a way to reach the maximum possibility of market penetration. For example, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine were already popular in Latin music markets when they switched to English language songs with 1985's Primitive Love. "Conga", a Latin-infused breathlessly paced march of a song, charted within the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and within the top twenty on the Club Music chart in 1985. The artist's conscious decision to record in English allowed for a greater, wider market penetration and thus, the profit motive was written "naked onto [the] cultural form" (Adorno 13). Now, the culture industry, as exemplified by the crossover hit, "is the direct and undisguised primacy of a precisely and thoroughly calculated efficacy" (13). The pop song's interest in the expression of feelings is no longer the first concern, but merely a secondary or even tertiary goal. Rather, the pop song is a commodity meant to accumulate capital through the circulation in multiple markets. Rather than an entire song being a crossover, the guest verse atomizes the crossover element and allows for increased marketability and, thus, profitability. Instead of alienating one audience, such as Gloria Estefan's Spanish-speaking audience, the guest verse allows for all audiences to participate in the consumption of the pop song.

At this point, it is worth introducing the idea that rap and hip hop culture were originally underground movements. Hip hop is predominantly a subculture developed from African American communities, traditionally not the wealthy white hegemony. Hip hop culture includes the method of vocal delivery called rapping, but hip hop songs do not necessarily need to include raps. Rather, hip hop culture refers to an entire set of practices, from DJing to rapping to dancing and to graffiti art. The 1980s are considered the golden age of hip hop due to the wide geographic and aesthetic expansion of the genre. Emblematic of this expansion is Public Enemy and their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Joshua Clover points to their song "Don't Believe the Hype" as an example of the widening of the genre. He writes, "communication must cross lines of class, race, and geography to exceed subcultural status" (Clover 32). For Public Enemy, the crossing of charts sustains the political aim of the song, which is fundamentally didactic. While "Don't Believe the Hype" and other songs charted well — not only in the hip hop chart but as well in the Club and Dance charts, this particular track did not enjoy the commercial success of Run–D.M.C.'s collaboration with Aerosmith called "Walk This Way".



"Walk This Way," a song from Aerosmith's 1975 album Toys in the Attic was remade by Run–D.M.C. with production from Rick Rubin. Run–D.M.C.'s version was released in 1986 and gained access to the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is a fortuitous collaboration in that both artists benefited from the song's success. "Walk This Way" was Run–D.M.C.'s first single to chart on the Hot 100 and opened the door for other singles to chart. For Aerosmith's appearance on the track, which charted on the Hip Hop Chart as well, they were rewarded with a string of successful albums and singles, starting with 1987's Permanent Vacation. Aerosmith's collaboration with Run–D.M.C. allowed for their introduction to a whole new market. While they never charted on the Hip Hop chart ever again, Aerosmith's second comeback (after their unsuccessful first comeback album in 1985) speaks to their accumulation of social capital from proximity to Run–D.M.C.

According to Pierre Bourdieu, capital is accumulated labor which, when appropriated by an agent, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of living labor. That is to say that, through labor, capital exchanged for other forms of capital. This process of transubstantiation allows for the noneconomic immaterial form of social or cultural connections to be actualized. Bourdieu's third form of capital, social capitral, is defined as a network of institutionalized relationships which provides each member with the backing of the collectively owned capital. For Run–D.M.C. and Aerosmith, each brings to the table their individually owned capital. Aerosmith brings the pedigree of a successful rock group, and thus, chart success, while Run–D.M.C. brings the relatively underground social status of hip hop to Aerosmith. The actualization of the social capital comes not from the individual artists on the track, but rather, the power comes from the exchange. The volume of social capital possessed by the individual is correlated with the amount of social connections the individual can utilize. Of those social connections, the more they have, the greater the social capital being utilized by the individual. Thus, according to Bourdieu's theory, Run–D.M.C. is benefiting from the exchange embodied in the pop/hip hop crossover song "Walk This Way".

While not the first example of hip hop collaboration, "Walk This Way" opened the door to other collaborations until the culture industry unconsciously realized the potential of such social capital. The deregulation of markets in the 1980s allowed for record companies to consume, subsume and obliterate any and all competition in the free market (Harvey 7). Thus, the advent of neoliberalism had a distinct effect on the culture industry. In the late 1990s, the merger of most record labels into four major labels has created a homogeneity across the charts, which can be seen in the constant overlapping of charts. The prevalence of one hit wonders continues to decrease, as traditionally, these songs come from smaller record labels. One effect of the corporate mergers is the increased prevalence of the hip hop collaboration. Thus, "homogenization of music and corporate ownership and influence helped to cross hip-hop music over into the mainstream" (Myer 145). This vertical integration of corporate agents serves to control, from top to bottom, the production of the pop song, fitting neatly into Adorno's concept of the culture industry. Previously, when hip hop was underground, there was "a disincentive to the free collaboration among popular artists. A rapper does not want to help the record sales of his or her rival" (Smith 9) but with this trend of merging, this is no longer the case.



Even if the two artists come from different record labels, the exchange of social capital is beneficial to the discrete record labels. For example, Katy Perry's 2011 single, "E.T." comes from her album Teenage Dream on the Capitol label. The album version of the song was released as a single, and later, a remix featuring Kanye West, from the Def Jam label, on a guest verse was released and subsequently charted. The solo version of "E.T." charted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 42. Later, when the song was remixed to include Kanye West, the song topped the chart. "E.T." also charted on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop songs chart, coming in at number 83. For Katy Perry, the inclusion of Kanye West introduces her single into a chart she has yet to dominate as she has the other charts. Katy Perry's first single from the Teenage Dream album "California Gurls" features a guest verse from hip hop legend Snoop Dogg. Despite this, "California Gurls" did not chart on the hip hop chart. While it was successful on other charts, this particular actualization of collaborating with a rapper proved unsuccessful. This is due to the relative social capital of the two rappers in question. Kanye West is currently one of the highest selling artists, consistently charting high in the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand, Snoop Dogg's success in the same time period is not quite as high. His only number one single on the Hot 100 was "Drop It Like It's Hot" whereas West has six singles in the top five. Thus, West has accumulated more social capital for Katy Perry to utilize. This would help explain "California Gurls" absence from the R&B/Hip hop chart.

This relationship between the three artists can be helpfully quantified. As Bourdieu notes, the point to social capital is the ability to exchange social connections for economic capital (Bourdieu 47). The whole purpose is the ability to convert Kanye's and Snoop's crossover appeal into dollars. Thus, "California Gurls" was certified a four times platinum record and "E.T." was certified five times platinum, putting them both in the higher echelons of record/digital sales for 2011. As predicted by the chart positions due to Kanye's superior social capital, "E.T." outsold "California Gurls". On Youtube, "California Gurls" has 59,432,746 views but "E.T." has 207,042,591 views. While Katy Perry seems to benefit the most from these sales, ultimately it is the Capitol Records label that actualizes the most profit.

While both songs are different tonally and sonically, their structure betrays their homogeneity. As with the "True Colors" charity single, along with a host of other pop songs, the guest verse uniformly appears at the same moment: after the second verse and the second chorus, and before the bridge of the song and the key change, segueing into the final refrain of the chorus. Only "E.T." has the rapper at the beginning — and at the predicted spot.



In other songs, including covers and remakes of rock songs, the guest verse is imminently predictable in its place within the song. In Alyssa Reid's song "Alone Again" reworks the first verse and chorus of Heart's "Alone". However, Reid's version deploys a hip hop verse at the predictable juncture from rapper P Reign. Not only does Reid benefit from the urban recognition in the form of P Reign's participation, but P Reign, an almost entirely unknown artist outside of Canadian hip hop (obviously not the dominant), benefits from the increased exposure. It is entirely irrelevant that the song is brutally bland and P Reign's verse is childlike in its rhymes. What matters is that the song charts higher because of P Reign's guest verse. "Alone Again" hit spot number 11 on the Canadian Hot 100 whereas her follow up single, "The Game" only managed to hit the 35th spot. If Alyssa Reid, or rather her record label, had mobilized another guest verse, no doubt the single would have fared much better.

In conclusion, the hip hop verse on the pop song works by increasing the economic capital of both parties by relying on each other's social capital. The pop song is fundamentally a commodity produced by the culture industry that wants to capitalize on the reputations and different market attraction of the individuals participating. While it seems obvious that the guest verse is designed to attract listeners previously unfamiliar with the artist, it is worth examining within the context of Adorno's culture industry and Bourdieu's social capital. After hearing pop song after pop song, and guest verse after guest verse, the songs are predictable in their structure and form. This is why the guest verse in "True Colors" is so utterly bland and exhausting.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Culture Industry Reconsidered." New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "Social Capital." Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. J. F. Richardson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986. 241-58. Print.

Clover, Joshua. 1989. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.

Hakanen, Ernest A. "Counting Down to Number One: The Evolution of the Meeting of Popular Music Charts." Popular Music 17.1 (1998): 95–111.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Myer, Letrez & Kleck Christine. "From Independent to Corporate: A Political Economic Analysis of Rap Billboard Toppers." Popular Music and Society 30.2: 137-148. Print.

Smith, Reginald D. "The network of collaboration among rappers and its community structure." Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment P02006 (2006) n. pag. Web. December 3, 2012.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

2006 and 2007 films

In this post, I am going to argue that for me, 2006 and 2007 were the best years for films in my entire life. In order to do so, I must fully admit that this list is particularly subjective and that there exists objectively better years for films (eg 1982). 2006 and 2007 were the years many of my favourite films were released, and I saw a ridiculous amount of them in the theatre — unlike 2010-2012, where my theatre attendance dropped dramatically. Thus, here is a select list of films (chronologically) from those years with sparse commentary. Ultimately, I hope to choose one of the two years by the end of this post. We shall see.

March 10: The Hills Have Eyes
Alexandre Aja had previously blown me away with Haute Tension, so I was very excited to see this film. After exiting the theatre, I remember reflecting that this was one of the few horror movies where I was elated by a happy ending. Traditionally, I'm a fan of nihilistic misanthropic horror, but here was a film where the filmmakers had convinced me to care for the cast.

March 24: Inside Man
The only Spike Lee film I've ever seen in a theatre, and easily my favourite film by him. Hands down, one of the most stylish and visually engaging heist films ever put to screen

May 5: Mission Impossible III
Until 2011's Ghost Protocol, this one had been my favourite: a spy film that makes relative sense, had realistic physics and a villain that was utterly hypnotic, thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

July 7: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Not only my favourite Pirates film, but one of my most cherished films of all time. It's a combination of many factors: the ridiculous scale of it all, the inclusion of the Kraken, Bill Nighy's performance as Davy Jones, the labyrinthine plot, the humour, everything. I had such an adoration for the second and third Pirates film that I barely watch the first one. It's not nearly as ridiculous.

July 28: Miami Vice
This is one of the rare instances where the theatrical version of the film is vastly superior to the so-called Director's Cut. Ever since loving the film during the theatre experience, I've struggled to re-watch Michael Mann's stylish naturalistic crime drama due to the unavailability of the theatrical cut.

August 4: The Descent
Neil Marshall's claustrophobic, taut stylish horror film is an anomalous example of the genre in that the first two thirds of the film are far more effective and memorable than the blood-soaked finale. Despite this, I remain a fan of the film to the point where I'm willing to give any of his other films a chance, despite being burned a couple times.

August 25: Beerfest
Many people prefer Super Troopers; I prefer Beerfest. It's a bit more focused in terms of plot, and the production quality appears significantly higher. Add to this a remarkable supporting cast and you've got my favourite Broken Lizard film.

September 1: Idiocracy
One of the meanest films I've ever seen. This is exactly how my sense of humour works.

September 8: Tom-Yum-Goong
This was released as The Protector in North America. The film is pretty spectacular, but the most memorable part of the film is the one-take ascent up the spiral staircase. The steadicam operator follows Tony Jaa as he breaks, beats and obliterates a whole host of stunt men. It's an exhilarating moment in film.

October 6: The Departed
Where to start with this film? Suffice it to say that one of the films that I use as a barometer of someone's taste is this movie. If I ask somebody what they thought and they say they hated it, I'm fully prepared to never speak to them again. Almost a perfect film (save for the heavy handed symbolism at the very end).

October 20: The Prestige
While The Dark Knight remains my favourite Christopher Nolan film, this magic stage show starring Batman and Wolverine is particularly highly regarded by yours truly. It's a combination of mystery and stage magic that brings me back time and again. Plus, a bizarre performance from the Thin White Duke as Tesla doesn't hurt.

November 3: Borat
I refuse to copy and paste the full title. This movie had such a huge impact in my social circle. This was akin to The Hangover's impact years later. Borat's quotes and movements seeped so deeply in our consciousness, it was hard to escape the film. However, it's still a fearless and hilarious piece of comedy.

November 17: Casino Royale
The best Bond film ever made. Indisputably.

November 22: The Fountain
Despite being cut to shit by the studio, Darren Aronofsky's masterpiece is such a transcendent film experience. I haven't watched it in years, so I'm due for another go-around in the bizarre fractured timeline, but I remember quite clearly being blown away by the imagery and the emotion.

December 25: Children of Men
To me, there's nothing more attractive in a film than a confident director willing to shoot something in an interesting and daring way. This movie features some of the ballsiest one-take shots in the history of film. And the plot is good, too!

Unspecified date: Ne le dis à personne
Guillaume Canet directed this incredibly tense thriller about a man searching for his missing wife. I hardly remember the plot, but I remember the experience, the tautness, the breathless pace, the suspense. One of the most exciting films of the decade. Hopefully it's not neutered into an American remake.

January 12: Alpha Dog
A remarkable surprise. I had no idea that this little crime flick would boast such an incredible cast and a dark philosophy. Based on a true story and utterly hypnotic.

January 26: Smokin' Aces
A great many people seem to dislike this movie. I had a great time watching it and it's a film that you can always watch when you can't think of anything else to do.

February 16: Breach
It's a tragedy that Billy Ray hasn't directed another film. Breach is the exact type of spy film that I'd like to make: complex (ethically and narrative), engaging, emotional, and to top it all off, based on a true story. A commanding performance from Chris Cooper, to boot.

March 2: Zodiac
Hands down my favourite Fincher film. An exacting and mesmerizing portrait of obsession and even a challenge about narrative conventions and audience expectations.

April 20: Hot Fuzz
Commanding parody and loving tribute to American cop films. It's the revelation of the council's motives that propels this film into classic status.

May 25: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
While it's not the same level of insanity as the previous installment, I quite like the 3 hour finale to the trilogy. It's got the requisite amount of emotion and humour, and the plot is nigh on incomprehensible. A fantastic end to the series.

June 8: Ocean's Thirteen
For some reason, I prefer the third one. Maybe it's because there's no Julia Roberts or romance. It's just plot and jokes. And Al Pacino.

June 27: Live Free or Die Hard
I'm pretty embarrassed about liking this movie. It's so stupid that it's entertaining.

July 20: Hairspray
I'm a sucker for musicals, and I'm a sucker for black humour. I've never seen the original, which certainly makes me a poor film fan, but there you have it. I love the songs and I still sing them. Plus, the movie is consistently funny and engaging.

August 3: The Bourne Ultimatum
The only film series in the history of film where each subsequent installment improves on the previous — that is, until they ruined the streak with the fourth one. Up to that point, this film is the pinnacle of American action film: politically complex, visually stimulating, and emotional resonant. I hold this movie in very high regard.

October 5: Michael Clayton
I really liked this movie, even though I've only seen it the one time. I need to re-watch this.

October 19: Gone, Baby, Gone
If you had said to me that Ben Affleck would go on to direct two masterpieces back to back, I would have scoffed. Just the year before, I had voraciously read all of Lehane's novels, so I was already familiar with the plot of this film — which normally detracts from the experience, but in this case, I was simply sucked in. This was an incredibly confident and successful movie — and a debut!

November 2: American Gangster
At this time in my life, I thought Ridley Scott was pretty much perfect. To me, this was his last good film: an exploration of the differing meanings of the American dream as well as an interrogation of the African American experience throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Plus, it has some gripping performances.

November 9: No Country for Old Men
Another instance of already read the book, but it didn't detract from the film's impact. In fact, I was glad that I had read the book, so I could let the Coens' vision wash over me. Just an amazing film.

November 21: The Mist
I saw this film in a special screening and during the introduction, the media personality said that the ending was something unlike any other. I didn't know what to expect going into the film, but I remember after the ending — and this was the only time this ever happened to me — the lights went on and nobody moved for a few minutes. We all just sat in silence and contemplated what we had seen. Even if this movie had ended differently, less nihilistic maybe, I would have still been a huge fan. It's pulpy, it's scary, it's funny, and it's just plain mean.

December 7: Atonement
A tragedy that this didn't win any major awards. Joe Wright's visual eye is unparalleled. He's an utter genius.

Conclusion

Certainly, I saw more films than this in 2006-2007. I haven't listed a bunch of films that were good, but not great. Many films didn't quite manage to be spectacular (The Simpsons Movie, Transformers, Spider-Man 3, etc) but were still a good time at the theatre. But this is a list for those that mean a lot to me.

Despite cataloging the two years, I'm struggling to select one of the two years as definitive. I think 2006 had more films I liked, but 2007 had fewer, but better films. It's a tough call. I can't think of any other year that can even come close to this. Scanning the list, a pattern seems to emerge. It appears that the blockbuster seems to have come of age and settled into a paradigm that hasn't quite been broken yet. In years previous, blockbusters were awkward affairs, filled to the brim with uneven CGI and ghastly writing. Not that the writing has improved, but the efficiency of the sheer spectacle has to the point where I'm willing to forgive a lot of problems.

2006 and 2007 seem to be the end of the mid budget film, something many film critics are bemoaning in 2011-2012. Films like The Descent, Atonement, Alpha Dog, Smokin' Aces, and others appear to have gone the way of the dinosaur. I would be willing to argue that my attendance in the theatre is proportional to the prevalence of this mid-budget film. The less there are, the less I'm in the seats.

I've been nostalgic for these two years for the past little bit. I think it's because there have been sequels and remakes and reboots of these films and they're just not the same. The Bourne Legacy was atrocious, the fourth Pirates film lost sight of what made the previous ones so good, the new Spider-Man film was turgid and forgettable, etc etc etc.

Part of making this list is to investigate why I've stopped caring about movies so much in the past six years. I used to go to the theatre almost every week; in 2012, I went to the theatre less than ten times (two showings of The Dark Knight Rises). Is it because I've lost patience for Hollywood films? Is it because the films have decreased in quality? Have my tastes changed? Is it that the film market in Winnipeg isn't conducive to the types of films I'd like to see? I think it's a combination of all these things.

After assembling this list, I'm struck by how many were wide-release mainstream films. I've never been a film connoisseur; foreign films, if available, will be watched, but not with the enthusiasm of the Pirates films. Rather, I'm typically middle-brow in my tastes. I can enjoy the middle quite happily, as long as they have some skill and some intelligence.

I'm hoping that 2013 and 2014 will trump these two years, but I don't have a lot of confidence. If I had been 8 years old, 2012 would have been perfect: Batman, Avengers, James Bond, etc, but you can see that these are simply corporate symbols, products of a system so frightened by inventiveness and daring. 2006 and 2007 are already symptomatic of such a petty system. It stands to reason that we'll never see another 1982 ever again.

Until we do, I'll have 2006 and 2007.