Thought Projectors 2
I’m still not intending to make this into a regular feature but my level of engagement grows with the hours of sunlight and so I find myself accumulating and thinking about more things than usual.
The great disappointment of last week was the cancellation of my photography class. I started thinking more seriously about photography last year when I realised that taking photos is actually a pretty good justification for getting out of the house, breaking new ground, exploring new places, and generally looking at the world in new ways. I am yet to acquire the urge to share my photos with the general public and I definitely do not want to get sucked into writing about photography as that would turn my New Thing into yet another facet of my Old Thing. This being said, I have begun to notice the way that my personality intersects with the photos I choose to take: Photos of storm-tossed skies, desolate beaches, and ruined houses are pure love while photos of people on the street or models posing for me in a studio are raw terror. People are far more decorative when they’re specks on the horizon.
Anyway, here are some of the things that have been occupying my mind since the last time I posted one of these things…
Here is a very recent piece by Robbie Collin about the history of Hollywood’s relationship with the Method. I have often lamented the emptiness of my toolbox when it comes to writing about individual performances and so it’s nice to read an accessible piece about the various approaches to film acting.
The piece itself is a little disjointed and first appeared on Twitter purporting to be about Hollywood’s loss of interest in the Method. However, read the article and you will discover that it is actually about how the idea of the Method changed between Marlon Brando making his big entrance in Streetcar Named Desire and Jared Leto sending his fellow cast-members dildos through the post as part of the process of creating his take on the Joker. The reason the piece is a bit disjointed is that Collin struggles to connect Method acting with the kind of post-Method character creation techniques used by many of contemporary Hollywood’s best-loved stars.
Collin understands that the Method arrived in Hollywood at a time when directors were crying out for the kind of performances that the Method was designed to produce: Intense, conflicted images of traumatised masculinity held together by nothing but booze and resentment. However, what he misses is that while the Method was perfectly in synch with how that generation of men (and it’s always men) saw themselves, the same is also true of the techniques deployed by Leto, Depp, and their contemporaries. Today’s man is not so much wounded and intense as narcissistic, insecure, and prone to latching onto whatever piece of consumerist nonsense happens to prop up the public persona he happens to be performing at the moment: Removable tattoos, reverence for 1990s rock stars, edgelord posturing, and hints at a deeper vulnerability? Leto’s Joker is shaping up to be pure fucking Facebook.
Here is quite a recent piece by Ian Penman in which he surveys the career of Patti Smith on his way to reviewing a couple of her recent books. I must admit to adoring the format that Penman uses: An essay-length critical profile that not only considers an artist’s work but also tries to place that work in a context that gives an equal weighting to their successes and failures. This type of writing once provided rock criticism with its intellectual backbone but it has now been replaced with ostensibly sympathetic pieces that take their cues from the prevailing PR winds. When I complain about the way people interview authors, I am usually comparing it to this type of writing.
While the piece is full of savage jewels, the idea that really caught my attention was Smith’s decision to position herself as a cultural outsider. Penman has absolutely zero tolerance for this type of bullshit: He points to Smith’s wealthy friends, her veneration for mainstream performers, and the fact that she appears to have settled down into the career of a well-paid icon whose days of real creativity are long behind her. I must admit, when I went on a bit of a Smith binge a few months ago, I was appalled to find footage of a middle-aged Smith proclaiming herself to be a ‘nigger’ in front of a large and mostly white audience. I have no problem with the privileged identifying with the oppressed, but you’re neither oppressed nor an outsider if hundreds of people are spending £30 to come and watch you perform decades-old material! Penman appears to have been particularly irked by Smith’s decision to adopt Keith Richards as a cultural ancestor but I would argue that it shows considerable self-awareness from an artist relaxing into a lazy iconic status.
The piece made me think about what it actually means to be an outsider. Art critics use terms like ‘art brut’ and ‘outsider art’ to refer to work done outside of any existing artistic tradition. While in reality, this could refer to any truly self-seeded artistic creation, in practice it tends to refer to artworks created by either the mentally ill or the uneducated. Smith took the term ‘outsider’ to be synonymous with ‘non-conformist’ or ‘rebel’ but I think both of those labels imply at least a partial dialogue with the cultural mainstream. An outsider is not someone who reacts to the mainstream but someone who is indifferent to or ignorant of it. For most people, this would mean not only choosing to ignore the stuff around them but also committing themselves to a creative life that is solitary in so far as it is devoid of both dialogue and conversation. In practice, an outsider would be almost incomprehensible to an insider and how many people are willing to live with that?
Here is a piece by Joe Brewer about the psychological process involved in internalising a Marxist critique of late-stage capitalism. While this piece contains little that is genuinely ground-breaking, I was impressed by the focus on psychological praxis as I think one of the problems facing the Left is the abstract and inaccessible nature of its critical toolbox. I suspect that anti-capitalist critiques tend to get less airplay than anti-sexist, anti-racist, or anti-colonial critiques because not mistreating people because of their gender, sexuality, race, or nationality is a lot closer to what our culture presents as ‘common sense’ than critiques focusing on abstract concepts like class and capital. Dive into the literature and you’ll discover that concepts like race, gender, and sexuality are just as unreal and abstract as those of traditional leftism but our society trains us to pay more attention to race and gender than it does to the movement of capital.
Brewer attempts to forge a link between the abstract concepts of traditional leftism and the psychological language we use to describe our thoughts and feeling. His critique of society may be grounded in concepts like class and capital but he stresses the reality of how capitalism makes us feel and how it distorts both the way we live our lives and the way we relate to other people. We are sad, angry, isolated, and frustrated because we are living under a set of rules that simply do not work. Capitalism is in crisis because capitalism no longer works and the reality of capitalism not working is that our society now struggles to make us happy.
Brewer also links to a further article in which he touches on a number of ideas that our culture encourages us to embrace despite the fact that they can only result in our making ourselves more miserable. This piece really hit home at a time when people have been talking about the closure of several very visible genre blogs and the possibility that genre culture might no longer be able to support a functioning blogosphere. Some people have framed this problem in terms that Brewer goes out of his way to confront. For example, if blogs are closing because bloggers allowed their hobby to become a form of unpaid internship, why do we assume that the solution to this problem is finding a way to get these people paid? When asking why blogs are being shut down we should be thinking about why people set up those blogs in the first place and what might have since have changed either in them or the culture surrounding them.
Here is a relatively recent piece by Sarah Jaffe about the rise of what she calls ‘marketplace feminism’. Inspired by an Andi Zeisler book entitled We Were Feminists Once, the article’s main argument recalls the analysis of Starbucks coffee developed by Slavoj Žižek. According to Žižek, Starbucks provide two services for the (inflated) price of one: When you buy their coffee, you’re not just satisfying the culturally-determined urge to consume, you’re also alleviating the culturally-determined desire to atone for this act of consumerism because a contribution to the welfare of Guatemalan hill-farmers is included in the price of the coffee.
Jaffe argues that while feminist engagement with popular culture may use the language of political activism, it actually has very little to do with the tradition of political activism that created this language in the first place. Aside from the general point that writing a blog post about popular culture’s relationship with the real world will never do as much to raise awareness as a post about real world and the fact that marketplace feminism seems more interested in getting more women into positions of power than undermining the kinds of patriarchal structures that needlessly place one human over another, the piece also points to bell hooks’ argument that feminism should be about inspiring action rather than forging identities.
The link between these two paragraphs is my growing frustration with people using the language of social justice as an excuse to write about nothing but reactionary corporate-owned media. If the principles of social justice are that important to you, then why not seek out media that embodies those principles rather than writing about how Game of Thrones or Agents of SHIELD transgress them? If you care about the plight of women then why not seek out the work of feminist filmmakers rather than complaining about the lack of a Black Widow film? If you care about cultural diversity then why not seek out work from other cultures rather than using your expensive education to engage with stuff that speaks only to the white, the straight, and the American? The answer to these questions is that people are producing feminist critiques of popular culture as a means of atoning for the fact that they spend vast amounts of time consuming media whose reactionary ideological content serves only to perpetuate the problematic ideologies they claim to reject.
Capitalism does not so much distort as poison the creative process: When we aren’t treating our blogs like horrible unpaid jobs, we’re using them as a means of justifying our consumerist binges. Why are we here? What are we doing? What culture are we looking to create? All of these are relevant questions when considering the future of a creative endeavour.
Here is a somewhat older piece by Nina Allan about the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The piece covers a lot of ground but its structure encourages us to pay particular attention to the questions that Allan asks of the Clarke Award, the British Science Fiction Association, and their role in helping to guide the evolution of British genre culture. Martin Petto has taken the bait and begun a series of posts looking at the structure of the Clarke Award, the short-lists it produces, and its usefulness as a barometer charting the health of British genre publishing. While I am looking forward to the rest of Martin’s series and am glad to see people discussing his proposals in the comments, I think focussing on such minutiae as the exact format of the Clarke Award and the dates on which it makes its short-lists public only serves to distract from the real substance of Allan’s article.
Allan’s piece questions the behaviour of British genre institutions on the assumption that these institutions should be in the business of helping to create a culture where people feel able to discuss their feelings about books with complete honesty and without fear of retribution. The real problem here is not that the Clarke Award has failed to incorporate Eastercon into their annual timetable or that the BSFA neglected an online discussion hub that took years to build up, it’s that British genre institutions are not interested in helping to foster the kind of “critical hinterland” that both I and Allan would like to see. Read this piece about the future of the Clarke Award written by the award administrator and you’ll find that while the management are happy to run conferences and engage in market-research, they have zero interest in helping to establish any kind of literary culture. If you want to know the future of the Clarke Award look no further than the Kitschies as they seem to provide publishing professionals with everything they could possibly want from an award: Winners announced two weeks after the publication of the shortlists in order to maximise free PR and a drinks party serving the second or third least expensive wine on the list. Tentacle headgear is optional, no riffraff.
British genre institutions could not give a single solitary shit about our lack of critical hinterland and I suspect that most fans share in their complete indifference. The publishing industry has changed and genre culture has changed with it: Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.
While many of these skirmishes have lead to bullying, denunciation, and shunning, most people daring to air their opinions in public are met only with a deafening silence. With fandom atomised and people retreating onto Facebook and other places allowing tighter control over the sharing of information, I suspect genre culture has lost the capacity as well as the desire to bring critical pieces to a wider audience. The fear of public evisceration remains but the real danger to critical discourse is the now-daily assertion that it neither exists nor matters. This attitude has been put on display in a series of podcasts featuring the reviews editor of Locus and his pet professor. What began as an amusingly bare-knuckle dismissal of the professor’s (admittedly rather chaotic-sounding) curation of a line of critical monographs about the history of science fiction soon broadened into repeated assertions that critical writing about science fiction has no audience and does not matter. You might very well ask why a man who sees no point in genre criticism continues to serve as reviews editor for Locus magazine and you might also ask why a professional critic specialising in science fiction should prove so utterly inept at offering a defence of his vocation but the absurdity of the situation resolves itself out quite neatly when both men agree that it might be interesting to turn a line of critical monographs into a series of books in which popular genre authors discuss the writers who inspired them.
Clearly, the people who might comprise Allan’s critical hinterland do not exist. If they did exist, they would not matter. If they did matter, they would need to make room for the professionals.
Looking back over the history of genre criticism, it occurs to me that genre culture has never been entirely comfortable with the idea of non-professionals expressing themselves in genre circles. British genre culture has perhaps proved more welcoming to non-professional critics than American fandom but the idea that people who weren’t either professional authors or academics might be able to make a lasting contribution to genre discourse has always had more to do with the countercultural values of Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds than the actions of genre institutions on either side of the Atlantic.
It’s not just that New Worlds encouraged its critics to express themselves in a manner that was as honest as it was stylish; it was that New Worlds introduced the field to the idea of the non-professional critic in the form of John Clute. Even if you didn’t agree with John Clute or write anything like him, his mere existence stood as proof that genre culture welcomed critics. However, as the collapse of critical discourse surrounding genre awards and the field’s willingness to silence critical voices suggest, the Clute Window has now been nailed well and truly shut.
When we talk about letting in critics and fostering critical hinterlands, we are not actually talking about the mere production of critical reviews as robust criticism is still happening in dozens of places across the internet. What has been lost is the idea that these critical pieces might be allowed to drive the conversation or allow critics to become respected figures in their own right. These days, you can be as brutally honest as you want as long as you do so quietly and in complete obscurity.
Could a restructured Clarke Award or a relaunched Torque Control change all of this? To be honest, I don’t think so. Tom Hunter’s piece for the Guardian assumes that genre culture will continue to evolve in accordance with a set of principles but the principles he sees guiding genre culture and driving fannish engagement are those of geek culture and not the avant-garde literary culture that people have tried to construct around venues like New Worlds and Interzone. Geek culture does not want people rocking the boat and asking awkward questions, it wants people who can help you to atone for your consumerist impulses and validate purchasing decisions that have already been made. Look at venues like Tor.com and io9 and you will encounter the assumption that fans are nothing more than an exploitable resource, content to buy what they are told to buy and think what they are told to think. I cannot imagine a culture less likely to nurture genuine critical discourse.