Saturday, 23 March 2013

You'll Go Blind

I just rewatched a Channel 4 documentary series I originally saw first time round back in 1999.  Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation.  I remembered it as fascinating, and it certainly was... but not for the reasons I remembered.  Watched now, it's fascinating for its intense and suffocating provincialism.  I refer to a provincialism of time and cultural moment.  To be cruder: the series reeks of the stale atmopshere of the 90s.  I don't just mean that it's dated.

After two decent episodes dealing with the Victorian creation of the concept of pornography (i.e. as a closed-off anteroom of culture, only to be studied... and perhaps enjoyed... by responsible, educated males) in the wake of the unearthing of Pompeii, and the revolutionary porn writing of the Enlightenment, the series starts dwelling on 20th century visual forms, from the photograph to the internet.

The last episodes are particularly mired in the stagnant and repellent atmosphere of their era.  All the hallmarks of the late-90s intellectual milieu (during which I endured acres of trendy theory at University) are there.  The social and political cynicism masquerading as consumerist utopianism.  Utopianism itself stripped of all noble and liberationist inflections and fused with a kind of gleeful dystopianism, reflecting the way that the post-Cold War intellectual landscape, with its End of History vibe, saw the future horrors and joys of unfettered capitalism as being equally inevitable... and then celebrated this with a knowingly sick grin of elitest contempt.  The countdown to an apocalypse of banality and boredom that was supposedly hiding just around the millenium.  The dyspeptic, misanthropic celebration of supposedly new and bleeding edge trends that are (perpetually) said to be just about to change/destroy social life irrevocably.  The putative change to a post-industrial economy, the putative unravelling of social life and the rise of the ubiquitous selfish individual (phenomena that, in as much as they were real, were not actually new).

The series is stuffed with comment from entrepreneurs or capitalists (without the word or topic 'capitalism' ever being properly mentioned), or from 'social critics' who generalise about what 'we' are becoming (with 'we' implicitly standing for all humanity while actually referring to a tiny sliver of the urban upper middle classes in the developed West).  It's enormously telling that, in the midst of scads and scads of pontificating about the meaning of things from the P.O.V of the producer or the consumer, there is hardly any attention paid to the P.O.V of the worker, of the... if you'll pardon me... working stiffs getting screwed.  Anyone who has read Eric Schlosser's excellent Reefer Madness will know what this TV series left out.  At one point, a theorist is talking about how internet porn (which is solitary, private and interactive) takes the 'imposition' out of the equation... even as the camera shows a semi-naked woman gyrating around on a bed, being given orders by paying customers who are watching her on their monitors.  Nobody's 'imposing' on her then.  I guess she's economically independent but does that job purely for the lulz.  Who knows?  Admittedly, they interview her later, but she talks about what she does, not why she has to do it.

The oppression of women, the objectification of female bodies, patriarchy, sexism... these do not pop up.  (This is actually a tad surprising... though feminist theory at that time was often comfortable forgetting about such things too.)  Despite a female voiceover, and some interviews with quirky 70s porn actresses, this series is resolutely and unselfconsciously focused on the male experience of enjoying his sexual dominance.  Rape culture is hardly a glint in the script writer's eye.

This kind of comatose, complacent apoliticism is rampant throughout the series.  There is nothing about the inequalities of internet access (or access to media more generally) in any of the discussion of porn consumption, videocameras and cybersex.  In the midst of all the profound thinkerizing about porn's journey into 'the mainstream' there is precious little time left for wondering who sets the agenda of the mainstream.  Media ownership is not a topic, except for the times when a handful of porntrepreneurs (presented as pioneers and farseeing cultural trendsetters) get to gibber their self-seeking spin.

Far from being a 'secret history of civilisation', this is a celebration of an open secret... couched in the fashionable idiocies of vulgarised late-90s po-mo posturing.  It's telling that several of the 'social critics' in the series make predictions about what will have come to pass 10 to 15 years in the future (i.e. now) all of which are resolutely wrong.  Porn isn't as mainstream as microwaves (it is still cordoned off by very, very old power structures), nor is it democratized by public 'gonzo' participation (it's still a massive corporate business, intensely undemocratic and still based on mass exploitation), nor is it the pervasive preserve of an entire planet-ful of lonely, isolated, selfish, hedonistic individuals who live in the ruins of a social polity decimated by new media, finding ultimate nirvana in disconnected masturbation (this is still but a fragment of a truth, restricted to a narrow band of the relatively privileged).  Still, it's not surprising that they guessed wrong, given that their guesses about the future were just extrapolations of what they thought was going on in 1999, most of which was based on the rhetorical exaggeration of half-truths.

This is a rant, not an attempt to provide an alternative analysis... I know for a fact that I'm not needed (or qualified) to provide one of those.  I will just say this: you can't understand the commodification of fetish without understanding the fetishizing of commodities.  Indeed, if there was ever a 'proof' (whatever that might mean in the social sciences) of the theory of commodity fetishism, it's the porn business.  Not that you'd know that from watching Channel 4's best attempts at analysis.

As we all know, history didn't end in the 90s.  Despite the lingering 'mainstream' idea (who sets these agendas? nice to know, wouldn't it?) that There Is No Alternative, capitalism triumphant was nevertheless undermined by its own blowback (9/11, the environment, the crash, etc).  It's telling that, though wrong, Fukuyama looks insightful compared to the throngs who followed in what they took to be a cultural variant of the same 'sense of an ending'.  The idea that history, culture, society etc were all grinding to a halting death/mutation in the chilly-yet-glorious dawn of 'postmodern' hyper-techno-consumerism was the bugbear/fantasy of a layer of intellectuals who read too much Baudrillard and were given too many opportunities to pontificate on TV.

Is it any better now?  Well, I've not been around academia for a good long while now (I do not miss it) but I'm guessing that much of the same balls is still being talked, albeit in a less confidently millenarian manner.  But that's got to be some improvement, hasn't it?

I liked being 23.  Otherwise, I really don't miss 1999. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

RIP Hugo Chávez

Chávez is dead.

 La lucha continua Compañero.


Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb, here and here.

Greg Grandin in The Nation.

Derrick O'Feefe at

Media Lens on Chavez as seen by British and American journalism.

Owen Jones in the Independent.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - documentary about the 2002 US-backed coup.


Tariq Ali in The Guardian.

FAIR on the US media's demonization project.

Roobin at Through the Scary Door - a critical assessment.


Media Lens on The Death of a Bogeyman 

MORE, 14/3/13:

Hugo Chavez and the Great Global Poverty Conspiracy, Greg Palast.  (Don't let the word 'conspiracy' put you off.)

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Skulltopus 13: Return to Fang Rock

My monomaniacal focus on the quasi-Weird(ish/esque) in Doctor Who resumes (after a bit of a hiatus... during which I just couldn't be arsed) and reaches the Graham Williams years, the heyday of the tentacular in the Baker era.  See here for links to all previous Skulltopus posts and here for the last one (which includes a summary of the whole thing so far).

I started the whole Skulltopus thing with 'Horror of Fang Rock', but that was ages ago (and before I really knew where I was going with this topic) so I feel the need to go back to it, if comparatively briefly.

Okay, so 'Fang Rock'.  Hmm.  Well, it's a Terrance Dicks script, isn't it?  Uncle Tel is, as we all know, well dodgy on politics.  He writes about how the working classes are happy being poor, and aristocrats are dandy, and the empire was kind of okay.  His baseline assumption is one of contented 'capitalist realism', of unquestioning acceptance of the status quo.  Plus he's rubbish on the question of women and sexism.  He's so bad on issues of sexual exploitation that he actually seems to be rather too keen on bringing up the subject of rape.


Weeeeell... however true the above charges may or may not be with regard to his spin-off novels, the funny thing is that, in practice, his actual TV scripts don't show much evidence of these traits.  For instance, 'Fang Rock' is obsessed with class, hierarchy, status, property and money... and not in an obviously reactionary, or smugly-liberal way.  In fact, it's kind of edgy (as these things go).  It's one of those relatively few Who stories outside the early Pertwee years which portrays people performing waged labour, let alone showing the working people of twentieth century Britain.  And, generally speaking, the story is greatly and openly more sympathetic to the working stiffs, and what they have to put up with, than it is to the gentry.  The world the Rutan comes to and fits into is a world of deep economic and social divisions between classes based on work, finance, empire and gender.  The workers have to work for a living, and do.  They are explicitly below the gentlefolk in a very visible social hierarchy that is painted in unmistakably negative terms, to the point where their lives are shown to be implicitly considered of less value.  The business of who does and who doesn't get a lifeboat when Palmerdale's yacht goes down foreshadows the sinking of the Titanic, probably the most famous example of 'gilded age' social injustice in popular consciousness.  We are evidently invited and expected to be angry about this, to side with Harker.  Indeed, in his rush to indicate his line on this, Dicks makes Lord Palmerdale just a tad too obviously despicable.  Palmerdale's wealth is evidently based on financial speculation.  Skinsale's position comes from his status as an M.P., as an old imperial soldier and (presumably) his respectable birth (i.e. he's a son of an old propertied family).  Adelaide is subordinate to these two because of her position as an employee and a woman (she entirely accepts her lower status and behaves according to cultural norms associated with her gender, presumably having been brought up a 'lady') but she's still above Vince, Reuben and Harker.  Vince is evidently taken with her but, to her, he's an instrumentum vocale (a tool that talks), not a young man.  Meanwhile, it's heavily hinted that she's also Palmerdale's mistress, which seems almost like one of her tasks as his secretary!  Thus sex is hinted to have been commodified, with the woman as commodity... something which is picked up on by various little details in the story, i.e. the commercially printed porn the Doctor finds under Reuben's bed. 

It'd be easy to mistake the portrayal of Adelaide (who is annoyingly snooty and then annoyingly wimpy) as misogynistic... but for the fact that Dicks writes Leela brilliantly, giving her guts, brains, determination, initiative and plenty of her own ideas about things.  When Adelaide gets hysterical and 'needs' a slap, Dicks gives the job to Leela.  The strong woman (Leela is a genuinely strong woman here - compare and contrast with Moffat's ersatz models) is impatient with the woman who has allowed herself to be infantilised by male rule.  (The slap is still an uncomfortable moment... it's like Leela has internalised male attitudes to 'the weaker sex' and has become an 'honorary man'.  Ewww.)

The story also strongly hints at an awareness of imperialist competition as a major force in the Europe of the new 20th century, linking this to the rise of new technologies.  The Rutan is an imperialist, speaks in a tone of snobbish and racist and militarist arrogance, has a peculiarly technological interior nature (it speaks of its shape-shifting as a "new technique"), has an affinity with electricity, adapts the electrical generator and leaves communications tech around the place.   Reuben's grumblings about the newfangled meshes with his anxieties about foreign spies.  He even names various competing imperialist nations who will be involved in the forthcoming 'Great War'.  Meanwhile, Palmerdale (the arriviste "money grubber") and Skinsale (the politician and old imperialist) are squabbling over financial dealings and clashing conceptions of social priorities (profit versus 'honour')... and their conflict comes to pivot on control of a wireless telegraph.

Class, snobbery, militarism, imperialism, new technology, new communications.  The Rutan is like the twentieth century itself, crashing in upon the stranded Edwardians like a lethal, inundating, incomprehensible "cold wave".  So recently they were Victorians, Britannia ruled the waves unrivalled, the balance of power in Europe (between "the French, the Russkies," etc.) was relatively stable and everyone (workers and women, for instance) knew their place, etc.  But here comes trouble.  The Rutan embodies this trouble, and the repressed fears of the Edwardian characters about this trouble.  We, the audience, relate to this via a sort of thematic dramatic irony.  We know what the Edwardian characters don't.  We know what awaits them just round the corner of history.

'Fang Rock' even gets closer than most stories to noticing that inequality, xenophobic nationalism, imperialism and modern war are things generated by capitalism.  The lighthouse is a workplace, staffed by people who've been "fisherfolk for generations" but who are now evidently proletarians.  The toffs embody empire, parliament, wealth, finance, speculation, sexual oppression and blatant disregard for even the lives of the workers.  The lighthouse showcases the twentieth century arriving, in the form of electricity, modern communication and the suspicious guarding of European coastlines... and because the setting is, above all else, a modern workplace, the story gets so close to noticing capitalism as a connective skein.  There have, of course, been lighthouses since ancient times... but the modern lighthouse - a technological workplace staffed by waged labourers - is explicitly counterposed with the ancient lighthouse powered by slaves.

Dicks was, of course, the script editor during much of the Pertwee era, when the evasive semiotic link within Doctor Who between capitalism and the tentacular was first developed.  He seems to carry the connection with him into the Williams years.  And so the monster - the locus where all this might have gelled (sorry) into coherent critique - becomes something gelatinous, protean and unpindownable, both in its physical form and in its metaphorical valences.  Part of the strategy whereby this is achieved is the utilisation of the Weird maritime, the tentacular. The radical incoherence of the tentacular is again resorted to as an escape route, as in 'Spearhead' and 'Claws of Axos'.  Once again the tentacles are linked to a fudging, an obscuring, a clouding at the central point at the story where these modern nightmares meet, where they threaten to join up.  The crux of the story, of its meaning - namely, the Rutan - becomes irresolveably fuzzy.  I'm not sure if the tentacular nature of the Rutan is what achieves this fudging, or whether the fudging leads to the choice of the tentacular form.  (Being a Marxist, I can simply wheel out my big cheat button and call it 'dialectical'.)  Either way, while we can still discern the contours of some kind of critique of imperialism in the Rutan, we cannot make a coherent and convincing case for it as representing either a critique of British imperialism generated by a system of class exploitation (which the rest of the story generally leans towards) or a defence of British inter-class national unity against foreign imperialist threats.  (I've gone into all this in greater detail here.)  And, of course, while the Rutan suggests many things - snobbery, militarism, new technology, modern communications - it pointedly fails/refuses to suggest capitalism in any way.  It's uninterested in commodities or profit.  Skinsale gets himself killed ducking back for Palmerdale's diamonds; the Rutan shows no interest in them at all.  At the place where the diagnosis might have been, we find instead an amorphous mass of phenomena.  This is the early-Pertweean mode of the tentacular repeating itself in the join between Hinchcliffe and Williams, thanks to Dicks (that relic of Pertwee, returning for the first time since 'The Brain of Morbius' got savagely rewritten).

Maybe Dicks' reinsertion of the old Pertwee-era tentacular mode is what sets the scene for the frequent recurrence of tentacles (and other Weirdish/esque things) throughout the next few years.

Next... 'Image of the Fendahl'.  That's a BIG one.