I realise that things have been quiet around here of late. This is partly a result of my having written quite a lot of stuff for other venues and partly a result of my feeling rather uncertain about where I will be taking my writing in future.
I have committed myself to a major project next year and am in the early stages of planning a major project of my own but I see both of those as acts of community-building rather than works of criticism in their own right. I still very much enjoy the work I do for both Interzone and FilmJuice but I think my approach to writing may be in the process of changing.
The problem is that every time I sit down to write about a film or a book, I am reminded of the fact that the greatest flowering of liberal cultural commentary in human history appears to have coincided with the West’s most substantial lurch to the political right since the 1930s. On dozens of websites and in dozens of books, great minds have spent literally years dissecting and re-dissecting the politics of popular culture and yet none of this ‘woke’ commentary came anywhere close to predicting (let alone preventing) the political upheavals of 2016.
I realise that I am not among the worst offenders here… I know that I haven’t devoted any time to the question of whether or not failing to root for inter-racial couples in superhero TV series makes you morally equivalent to members of the Ku Klux Klan. I know that I haven’t spent the last few years strutting about the place claiming to be doing ‘important work’ but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a lot of what I do is unpicking political subtext and that unpicking political subtext has just been shown to be just as much of a distraction from making the world a better place as the reactionary fantasies that get brought under the critical hammer.
This being said, I still think that there’s value in writing about culture because culture helps to shape our vision of the world and our vision of the world is what determines the worlds we try to create. I still believe that there’s real value in politically-engaged cultural criticism but I am currently struggling to determine what that value might conceivably be.
I don’t normally ‘do’ public expressions of grief but the world of criticism has managed to lose two of its greatest talents in disarmingly quick succession.
The new year began with news of the death of John Berger. No longer as visible as he once was, Berger’s book and TV series Ways of Seeing had a profound effect on how an entire generation approached the visual arts: Before Berger, art criticism was something done in stately homes and behind the locked doors of academia. After Berger, it was suddenly within the grasp of anyone with an interest in how our minds respond to images. Aside from being a critic and broadcaster, Berger was also a celebrated novelist and dramatist, as should be evident from his use of language in this sensational piece from 2011.
All week, my Twitter time-line has been consumed by expressions of admiration and sadness following the untimely death of Mark Fisher. Anyone who has read the criticism I have produced over the last five or so years will have noticed the profound influence that Fisher’s writing has had upon me and the way I see the world. Without Capitalist Realism, there would most certainly never have been a Future Interrupted and my writing would doubtless look very different to the way it does today.Seeing as he made his name at least partly as a blogger, there are literally dozens of pieces by Fisher that I could link to as an homage. This being said, I choose to link to his most controversial piece ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle‘. There’s a lot in Vampire Castle that feels wrong… firstly, I think that his praise for Russell Brand has shown to be premature as Brand got on a political soap box in order to sell a book and secure a US chat show and then shut up about politics completely. Secondly, I think it is always going to look and feel wrong when a well-educated white dude goes in studs up not just upon minorities but upon an ideology that a lot of those historically marginalised people have been using to try to get themselves heard and their complaints recognised. This being said, I think that Vampire Castle is not only right in a lot of what it says about liberal identity-based politics, but that the article laid the foundations for a leftist critique of ‘woke’ liberalism that seems more relevant than ever given the collapse of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Even when he was wrong, Fisher tended to be right and the questions he asked will never cease to be important, thought-provoking and absolutely necessary to any viable form of 21st Century leftism.
They will both be missed.
Atari Teenage Riot‘s excellent video for “Revolution Action”if only because I was recently reminded of a point in the 1990s when every woman I met (and a sizeable chunk of men too) would gladly have severed one of their own limbs for a chance to spend the night with Alec Empire.
This Reddit AMA with the author Steph Swainston is really something else. Swainston is an author whose work I’ve never really gotten on with despite repeated attempts to read her work. This being said, I have enormous respect for her both as a thinker and as someone who is willing to publicly call people in genre publishing on their bullshit. This is all relevant to my history of the New Weird obviously but the AMA contains a genuinely extraordinary anecdote about the behaviour of China Mieville around the time when his first book was being released.
Mieville may be the author most closely associated with the term ‘New Weird’ but if you look back through the original TTA Press discussions you’ll find that he actually had very little to say that was coherent and/or useful. Conversely, Swainston articulated an approach to genre fiction that not only came to be viewed as ‘the New Weird’ but also rapidly became the new normal in terms of SFF attitudes to genre boundaries.
Despite being an unapologetic and entirely unironic fan of Babymetal’s first album, I think that for every £ they make, at least 25p should go to Dazzle Vision. This is “The Second” from their sixth album Shocking Loud Voice.
This recent piece about 4Chan, Pepe the Frog, and chaos magic is a thing of absolute beauty. Good criticism relates to reviews in much the same way as conspiracy theories relate to history… What I mean by this is that while reviews are about accurate description and honest evaluation, criticism is a more creative undertaking in which elements of particular cultural artefacts are combined with subjective reactions to other cultural artefacts to produce cultural artefacts with their own unique artistic identities. Only an idiot would confuse this piece by Paul Schrader about the films of Yasujiro Ozu with an evaluative description of their content… why would you want to go and do something stupid like confuse an epic Alex Jones rant with political analysis or Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods with archaeology?
One of the most interesting aspects of hip hop is its willing to engage directly with sexuality. For example, while the Guns, Bitches, and Bling aesthetic of late-90s and 00s rap may invite us to view the culture as full of sexually-stunted men who want nothing more from life than to date a porn star, tunes like Big Brovas’ “Favourite Things” presented women not so much as sexual objects but as unattainable, quasi-motivational figures. Conversely, when the scene did acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, it was in the form of a terrifying Other that took the form of a tight-trousered and mirrorshaded LAPD who were constantly outwitted by the thrustic heterosexual masculinity of the protagonists.
However, (hip) hop over to the other side of the world and you’ll find that Pinoy rap has a very different set of ideas. Much like Big Brovas, Pinoy rappers often present women as unattainable creatures that force the protagonist into self-improvement. However, unlike American rappers who dream and work, Pinoy rappers have triangulated from their vision of women and concluded that they should date ladyboys instead. Cue the emergence of a sub-genre of Pinoy rap songs about straight guys having relationships with what we in the West would consider transwomen including “Gayuma” by Abra (which has over 41 Million views).
This recent piece by Mazin Saleem about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is precisely the kind of discursive and open-ended writing about science fiction that I really enjoy reading.However, as much as I love Mazin’s piece (and his occasionally-SFnal podcast) , I really struggled with the film itself…
While he may be about to be sucked into the gears of geek culture, Villeneuve is perhaps best known for his 20120 Oscar-nominated melodrama Incendies. Incendies is a proper melodrama in so far as it is built around a series of big emotional set-pieces. Like all melodramas, the film begins by introducing you to the characters and their worlds before taking you on a journey that serves no purpose other than to make you weep like an infected stab wound. If you want to know how melodramas work then take another look at Michel Gondry’s video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off‘ and note that Gondry’s camera moves from one fixed viewpoint to another.
There are critics who argue that all genre cinema functions in this way and that the only real difference between genres is the emotional affect they deliver in their set-pieces. For example, while melodramas make you sad, horror makes you jump, porn makes you horny, and science fiction fills you with awe. Under this view, genre-blending is really only a question of shifting between emotional payloads meaning that a horror comedy moves you from big jokes to big scares while romantic science-fiction moves you from sensawunda to romantic dizziness and back again.
While I love melodrama as a genre, there is something rather peculiar about the idea of a cultural artefact that exists solely in order to make you cry. Indeed, Incendies is a technically brilliant melodrama but its power lies solely in its ability to make you cry as it tells you absolutely nothing about either the world or the humans that contain it. Like the sound stage filled with dancing mechanical legs and recreated tube carriages for the purposes of shooting the video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off’ it is an imaginative space that contains no truth or substance beyond its ability to hit the mark and deliver the pay-off.
Arrival is very similar to Incendies in so far as you can feel the director inserting stuff into the film’s conceptual space purely in order to set up a later pay-off. For example, we get the kid dying from cancer because we need that pathos for the ending. However, outside of its ability to deliver pathos, the child’s death has no significance except to raise unwelcome and unanswerable questions about the protagonist’s relationship with her spouse.
My problem with Arrival is that while it all fits together very well, none of it means anything: The characters are empty shells, the politics are stereotypical nonsense, and the science is complete and utter guff. Technically-proficient storytelling is one thing but at what point does a story need to connect to the world? At what point does culture cease to press our buttons and start to encourage thought?
I have, for the last year or so, been taking photographs. First to actually learn how to work my camera properly, then to develop a sound technical understanding of how to produce good photos, and — more recently — in an effort to find an aesthetic I like.
Given that much of what I do is very top-down and cerebral, I decided to approach photography from the opposite direction and so ignore all of the theoretical and critical writings about photography. However, I have also been trying to engage with more photography if only to get an idea of what’s out there and so I have been thinking about the Tate’s display of Elton John’s massive collection of modernist photographs. Here’s a video in which he discusses his love of the form:
The problem with what the world of art criticism refers to as ‘modernist photography’ is that it seems to capture an almost completely different aesthetic to that captured by modernism in other art forms. In literary terms, modernist photography seems to span everything from Victorian realism all the way to surrealism as modernist photographs are just as likely to involve surrealist imagery as they do images of real-life cityscapes.
Confused, I had a look at this video and was left just as perplexed:
According this video, modernism is about form being determined (at least in part) by function, which means almost precisely nothing as all forms are determined by function as style is inevitably a reflection of the ideas and ideological assumptions that informed the creation of a particular piece. This lead me to another video:
This gets closer to answering my questions. The video argues that modernism is about accepting the changes brought about by modernity and exploring what they mean. Thus, the black and white photos of the great depression are about capturing the economic consequences of unfettered capitalism while the more surreal compositions are about capturing — in more abstract terms — the impact of the world on the self, society, and our experiences of both.
This recent article by Ilana Gershon has a number of really interesting things to say not only about the workplace but also about how we conceive of ourselves under neoliberalism. However, while the article is full of lovely insights on a paragraph by paragraph basis, I felt that Gershon failed to connect the two strands of her attack on the neoliberal self and the increasing tendency for people to turn themselves into brands.
The first strand of her argument is that turning yourself into a brand does absolutely nothing for your employment prospects as employers tend to look for skills and flexibility rather than people who happen to have welded their identities to particular professional roles.
The second strand of her argument is that the move to turn people into brands appears to be spearheaded by an entire class of business gurus and employment consultants with books to sell and workshops to fill. Her treatment of this stuff is particularly brilliant.
Having read the article a couple of times, I’m frustrated by the fact that Gershon struggles to bring together the two strands of her argument despite the fact that the two strands unite at exactly the point she wants to make, namely that the neoliberal vision of self is shot through with logical inconsistencies and psychological impossibilities that make it both unsustainable and profoundly unhealthy.
For example, if employers don’t want to employ brands then surely the neoliberal self industry is nothing but snake oil and if that entire sector of the culture is snake oil then it is crying out to be analysed in terms of its own hypocrisy and artificiality. Do modern-day employees adopt the trappings of the neoliberal self for the same reason that medieval peasants performed ceremonies to cast out malevolent spirits? Is it superstition? Is it magical thinking? Clearly, Gershon has stumbled into an important area of social critique.