Saturday, 27 December 2014

Harry Potter and the Popular Consumption of Hegemonic Bourgeois Moral Ideology

Killing people.  It's a tricky one, isn't it?

We... (and, in this instance, by the word 'we' I mean that rather narrow band of people who produce and consume the artefacts of the Western narrative culture industries) ... we want to tell ourselves - in those bourgeois morality plays we call entertainment - that killing is WRONG.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The killing curse is an 'Unforgiveable Curse'.

"Make the foundation of this society a man who never would".

Luke can't be won to the Dark Side because he won't kill his father.

"Coward.  Every time."

"Stop!  I command it!  There will be no battle here!"

Etc, etc, etc.

But lookity here... our heroes kill people, or they support the necessity of killing people.  Even the 'moral' ones (i.e. the ones who aren't James Bond) do so.  Luke is nobly refusing to kill his father even as Han and Leia and Lando are killing loads of Imperial soldiers in the big battles.  The Doctor refuses to kill the threatened people of Earth even as the survivors of the Gamestation are fighting and trying to kill Daleks, and Rose solves the whole thing by coming back as the Bad Wolf and committing magical genocide.  The Doctor decrees the end of the battle, but relies upon soldiers: the Brigadier, Bambera and Ancelyn... maybe even Ace too... and the Brig saves the world by pumping silver bullets into the Destroyer.

Etc, etc, etc.

Harry Potter never kills anyone.  He barely ever fights anyone.  But he manages this by hiding in a tent when the war comes, while Neville actually fights the Death Eaters in Hogwarts, and his mates form a resistance cell and an underground radio station.  Yet Harry accepts the necessity of killing Voldemort.  He passively accepts (as he pasively accepts everything) that killing Voldemort is his destiny.  Luckily, as in every other instance (something Voldemort rightly points out), something comes between him and the ugly necessity.  Wormtail dies when his own hand strangles him, assorted Death Eaters fall over and accidentally kill themselves and their friends in order to oblige Harry.  In the same way, Voldemort gets shot by a wand, acting of its own volition out of loyalty to Harry.

In the Potter stories, killing is categorically wrong, evil, unforgiveable.  So the goodies fight the magic-Nazis with jinxes that make you fall over.  Luckily, the magic-Nazis also (for some reason) generally refrain from using the killing curse.  Meanwhile, Voldemort clearly and explicitly needs killing... and Harry is Chosen to do it... yet he can't do this without either

a) using the unforgiveable killing curse, or

b) getting very lucky (i.e. Voldemort accidentally trips over the hem of his own robes and falls onto the tines of a passing threshing machine).

Luckily, luck always comes to Potter's rescue (as, once again, Voldemort rightly points out), and - through sheer good fortune - there's some complicated business that means Voldemort gets killed by a sentient wand that, like so many expedient creatures before it, stands in front of Our Hero and does all the difficult, icky stuff for him.

(This is in the books only, by the way.  In the movies, Neville kills Voldemort by killing the snake - the last Horcrux... an act which weakens Voldemort to the point where he just falls to pieces.  Seriously, go and rewatch the last movie.  Neville is totally the real Chosen One in movie canon.)

The Harry Potter stories are among the most successful, profitable, influential, widely-read books and widely-watched films produced by the Western culture industries in recent years.  Like Star Wars and Doctor Who before them, they've had an enormous impact on millions of people - probably even more so than previous franchises.  An entire generation feels that they 'grew up with' Potter his classmates.  When some members of that generation took to the streets of London to protest tuition fees in 2011, some of them carried placards saying 'This Never Happened at Hogwarts', and chanted "Expelliarmus!" at the armed riot cops who were kettling and attacking them. 

(Parenthetically... this sort of thing bears very little relation to any of the actual political valences or imports of the stories themselves, which are soft-liberal at best, and often highly charged with reactionary implications.  There seems very little in any of the stories to suggest that the (unelected) Ministry of Magic's various enforcers might be a threat to democratic protest - at least not until the Ministry gets infected with the foreign virus of Voldemortism.  Indeed, there is no democratic protest in the Wizarding World.  Rowling's own politics notwithstanding.  She seems like a perfectly nice - even, by current standards, conscientious - liberal, outspoken about supporting welfare, the need for rich people to pay their taxes, and the undesirability of persecuting gay people, etc.  I give her no kudos for such bare minimums, but it puts her above many in her class.  However, for instance, her Potter stories feature precisely one non cis-het character... and he's only gay because the author decreed him so outside of the books... and his gayness is signified via one disastrous relationship that sapped him of all common sense and morality, and which he found so destabilising and immiserating that he never had another romantic or sexual relationship of any kind ever again.  Rowling's greedy, big-nosed, "swarthy, clever-faced" goblins are unsettlingly reminiscent of Nazi anti-Semitic ideas, in that they are clearly both evil bankers and also sneaky communists who fail to understand 'human' notions of private property based on trade. The books also feature a race of cutesy, servile elves who love to work and obey, roll their huge bulging eyes, and speak in what is recognisably a kind of parodic pidgin 'black slave dialect', i.e. "I is not doing it Sir!".  An entire species of happy drudges, depicted as pickaninny Uncle Toms.  Absolutely fucking awful.)

I could go on with that kind of stuff (the books give me plenty of scope)... but the point here isn't really to engage in a point-by-point trashing of the politics of the Potter novels.  My point here is that these stories have come to be enormously significant culturally, gaining traction in lots of heads and being co-opted for political rhetoric even in radical or activist situations regardless of their objective content.  

As noted above, the moral philosophy underpinning the books is muddled at best.  Now, that isn't a tremendous problem.  I don't demand that works of fiction rest upon meticulously consistent ethical systems (which, speaking as a reader, is just as well).  But, being children's fiction, the books greatly concern themselves with moral issues.  (As I say, Western narrative culture is much preoccupied with moralising... and this goes double for cultural artefacts produced for children.)  So you'd be forgiven for hoping for a reasonably consistent attitude to the morals being preached, especially since the books are the product of one sole author (to the extent that anything ever can be).  But the Potter books do not have a consistent attitude on this.  No more so than franchises with huge collaborative input from multiple authors.   Actually, that's the important point in all this: Rowling's internal contradictions are not rare but common.  They are, in many ways, par for the course.  Especially in massively successful cultural artefacts.

One reason why certain works of fiction obtain massive amounts of popular success is that they are relentlessly marketed... but marketing (however despicable and loathsome it may usually be) doesn't exist in a vacuum.  People market stuff they think is marketable.  Obviously.  They market stuff they think people will like.  You can't make most people buy a kick in the teeth, even if you spend billions marketing it using the most sophisticated techniques available.  There is, undeniably, a sense in which - and a degree to which - capitalism is absolutely right when it says that markets work, and that it (capitalism) gives people what they want.  (There are all sorts of problems with this - not least the incorrect assumption that there is a 'thing' called 'The Market', and that it is synonymous with, or an invention of, or impossible without, capitalism... but we'll let all that slide or we'll be here all fucking day.)  It's true that the cultural and ideological industries of capitalism - marketing, for instance - can sell people shitty ideas, or get them to acquiesence to shitty things... but that isn't quite the same thing.  And often, the successful selling of shitty ideas is reliant upon disguising them, wrapping them up in more pleasant things, or spinning them so that they appeal to our worst tendencies while also flying under the radar of our better instincts.  In short: it can be done, but it takes some doing.  The telling fact is that capitalism has to devote so much of its time, money and intellectual effort to manufacting such consent and acquiesence.  

But, to veer back in the direction of the point... aside from marketing, another reason why certain works of cultural production become hugely popular is because they reflect - in ways that are gratifying, satisfying, flattering, masochistic, clarifying or whatever - widespread ideas, especially about morality.  Justice and injustice are essential parts of storytelling, I think.  It's in the nature of consuming a story that you think about the moral consequences of what is happening, the justice or injustice of it, the fairness of the distribution of suffering and/or retribution, the possibilities in oneself to act like this or that character, etc.  It's a commonplace observation that stories designed to be as marketable as popular tend to be more morally direct and simplistic, at least on the surface.  They do it because it works.  And it works because we like it.  And we like it because it confirms, illustrates, dramatises and flatteringly reflects ideas and intuitions we already have.  Even as we are shaped by the narrative commodities we consume, we shape them.  They respond to us as we respond to them.  It isn't an equal, equitable relationship with both parties on a level playing field, but it is reciprocal.  Dialectical, even.  The point is that stories concern themselves with justice and injustice - inherently moral ideas - because that's just, kind-of, what they're for (a valid tautology).  We, humans, make stories for this purpose.  And have done for a very long time.  The stories that 'catch on' - the myths that get repeated endlessly, from generation to generation, until they get written down... all the way up to the novels and movies that do billion dollar business - do so partly because they express some widespread moral sense.  (Some might turn their noses up at an analysis which puts the financial success of Hollywood blockbusters down to their ability to express moral sentiments that chime with millions... but I want to be clear that I'm not saying audiences or film-makers are necessarily conscious of this, or that the interest of audiences necessarily equates to sympathy, or that their sympathy - when it happens - is always with what the film-makers expect, or that the role of marketing and ideology is at all insignificant, or that Hollywood films are 'improving', or that stories should be 'improving' in order to be 'good'... or any of the other hundreds of ways you could choose to misinterpret what I'm saying.)

As it happens, I do think that film-makers know how important moral questions are in their mass-market dramas.  Just look at almost any big budget narrative cultural product.  They are all, almost without exception, morality plays of some kind or another.  That goes for 12 Years a Slave as much as for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  When George Lucas used to talk about Star Wars, he used to explicitly say that he set out to create a synthesis of modern moral notions in movie form (via Campbell, of course). 

So, you probably see where I'm headed with this.  One reason why the Potter franchise has been so hugely successful (remembering that in a bourgeois culture the 'success' of a cultural product is, ultimately, its profitability) is because it has, like Star Wars before it, hooked into some very widespread feelings among people in Western (and Westernised) culture about morality.  If the purpose of profitable art is to hold the mirror up to culture, something as profitable as Potter must have done so quite well.

The point is that Rowling's difficulties and self-contradictions and inconsistencies on this issue of killing people - and, by extension, the self-contradictions and inconsistencies that other writers get themselves into - mirror and express and dramatise the faultlines in bourgeois morality.

For all my blather, it's actually a very simple point that I'm making: our culture kills people, and relies upon killing people, and is built upon mounds of bodies... yet we enjoy telling ourselves that we think it is wrong to kill.  But this impression - that killing people is WRONG in a blanket sense, and that we don't do it - is entirely an impression of the privileged.  It is something that we can get away with believing if we are lucky enough to be far enough removed from the filthy realities of exploitation, oppression and mass murder that underpin Western capitalist culture, and/or from any immediate and pressing personal need to fight it.

Friday, 12 December 2014


Yes, I'm on Pex Lives again.  (I know, it seems like I'm trying to invade the podcast... but you have to remember that, from the point of view of me and Kevin and James, the last one I did was in June.)

This time I'm guesting in a special Christmas bonus episode alongside Gene Mayes, and chatting about the Hammer Frankenstein movies.  Download it here.

This is a good, fun episode... and I think I'm better on this than I was on the last one (more relaxed, as James noticed).

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Now with Sound!

You know the brilliant Pex Lives podcast, right?  Well I was a guest on it back in June, alongside my online buddy, the equally brilliant Josh Marsfelder, writer of Vaka Rangi (amongst other things).

Don't remember that happening?  That's because the podcast got swallowed into the echoing void...

But it's been found!  Or perhaps I should say 'reconstructed'.  Yeah, like 'Power of the Daleks', only better.

Me, Josh, and the aimiable and clever two-headed gestalt entity which runs the podcast, Kevames (or sometimes Jamevin - depends on its mood swings) talked about the TV Movie.  But don't let that put you off.

I'm largely responsible for the podcast being temporarily stranded in conceptual space through my mountainish technical ineptitude.  Mind you, Josh claims the same thing, as does James.  The only person not claiming responsibility for the fiasco is Kevin, which leads me to think he's probably secretly to blame somehow.

However we apportion culpability, the thing has been rescued from oblivion by people other than me working very hard (labour doesn't have any value, does it?) and here it is, or here, ready to download.

Hear my actual voice saying things!  Hear me make half-formed points that I now refuse to stand-by, and interrupt people, and generally witter!

I had a blast.  I hope you like it too.

Monday, 1 December 2014


In his famous essay 'The Dialectic of Fear' (published in New Left Review #136, Nov-Dec 1982) Franco Moretti used Marxist and Psychoanalytic criticism to provide a coruscating account of the twin monsters of bourgeois culture: Dracula and Frankenstein.

The entire essay is well worth reading and is findable online if you hunt about.  Here are some of the best bits about Frankenstein (the book):

Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of 'a Ford worker'). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature, but built. Frankenstein is a productive inventor-scientist...). Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those - the 'poor' - whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death. Only modern science - this metaphor for the 'dark satanic mills' - can offer them a future. It sews them together again, moulds them according to its will and finally gives them life, But at the moment the monster opens its eyes, its creator
draws back in horror: 'by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; . . . How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe . . . ?'

Between Frankenstein and the monster there is an ambivalent, dialectical relationship, the same as that which, according to Marx, connects capital with wage-labour. On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: 'often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion'. On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of it and wants to kill it, because he realizes he has given life to a creature stronger than himself and of which he cannot henceforth be free. ... The fear aroused by the monster, in other words, is the fear of one who is afraid of having 'produced his own gravediggers'.


'Race of devils': this image of the proletariat encapsulates one of the most reactionary elements in Mary Shelley's ideology. The monster is a historical product, an artificial being: but once transformed into a 'race' he re-enters the immutable realm of Nature. He can become the object of an instinctive, elemental hatred; and 'men' need this hatred to counterbalance the force unleashed by the monster. So true is this that racial discrimination is not superimposed on the development of the narrative but springs directly from it: it is not only Mary Shelley who wants to make the monster a creature of another race, but Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein does not in fact want to create a man (as he claims) but a monster, a race. He narrates at length the 'infinite pains and care' with which he had endeavoured to form the creature; he tells us that 'his limbs were in proportion' and that he had 'selected his features as beautiful'. So many lies -- in the same paragraph, three words later, we read: 'His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes. . . . his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.' Even before he begins to live, this new being is already monstrous, already a race apart. He must be so, he is made to be so -- he is created but on these conditions. There is here a clear lament for the feudal sumptuary laws which, by imposing a particular style of dress on each social rank, allowed it to be recognized at a distance and nailed it physically to its social role. Now that clothes have become commodities that anyone can buy, this is no longer possible. Difference in rank must now be inscribed more deeply: in one's skin, one's eyes, one's build. The monster makes us realize how hard it was for the dominant classes to resign themselves to the idea that all human beings are - or ought to be - equal.

I have some issues with Moretti here.  He uses the word 'lies' to describe Victor's supposedly inaccurate descriptions of the monster as beautiful.  But, firstly, we are confusing perception with reality.  Victor perceives his construction as beautiful because he attempts to construct it according to implicitly classical notions of beauty (note the key word "proportion", and remember that original woodcut which depicts the monster as a giganticised and jumbled reiteration of Michaelangelo's newly-created Adam)... but there is no guarantee that things that accord with classical notions of proportion will actually be beautiful.  Rather, beauty is concept we have mapped onto certain stereotypical physicalities which stem from a bastardized and historically re-written version of classicism, recast in terms of 18th and 19th century bourgeois prejudices.  It is profoundly local - historically, geographically, socially and ideologically.  It is implicitly tied in with notions of 'health' which stem from the privileged lives of the rich (smooth skin, for example), and which later get appropriated by reductionist Darwinian ideologies which link beauty with 'fitness'... a set of notions still widely repeated by today's biological determinists.  It would be perfectly possible to construct something according to abstract classical (or pseudo-classical) notions of beauty that turned out hideous and terrifying to the beholder.  Just imagine actually meeting Michaelangelo's David in the street.

But this leads us to another issue.  As stated, we're talking about Victor's perceptions.  What seemed beautiful to him in conception, in theory, during construction, in isolated parts, could well seem ghastly in totality.  Or perhaps the totality of the final creation simply brings home to Victor the ramifications of what he has done.  He has created something which now has seperate existence, seperate power, autonomy and selfhood.  When he looks at it as another person as opposed to a plan or a set of pieces to be assembled, he suddenly finds it frightening.  This actually fits better with Moretti's conception of the monster as a proletariat in singular, as terrifying because the creator perceives it as his potential gravedigger.  Like many creators of actual proletarian populations, Victor the bourgeois looks at what he has created and, in place of the vast reservoir of ready and eager and docile and easily-exploited labour that he planned, he sees something terrifyingly dangerous precisely because of its autonomy.

This in turn leads to another issue.  In the preceding quoted paragraph, Moretti is talking about the bourgeois conception of the lower orders as hideously unequal or inferior.  He implies a relation between this (which found itself expressed in Darwinian reductionist narratives about degraded 'types' or 'natural lower orders') and between the racial narrative of capitalism.  But he seems to be flailing about for a psychological rationale for racism as a response to the horror of the subjected object.  But the process of 'race making', in which the bourgeois social order constructs the ideology of biological race (and thus of biological racism) as a justification for racially-ordered systems of labour exploitation, i.e. slavery and the slave trade, is a fair bit more material than that.  Furthermore, the psychological aspect (which is definitely present) is based not on horror at the subject but on the need to confront a living subject and make it an object that is horrifying, and thus subjectable.  To turn workers who are black into 'negro slaves' for instance, from people who are being exploited into monsters who deserve no better.  Moretti misses the extent to which race is ideologically constructed, and the extent to which it thus filters into perceptions.  He puts it the wrong way round, or seems to.  Having constructed the ideology of racial orders, the system then creates consciousness in people which causes them to perceive racial difference that is not, as we now know, actually existing in nature.  There are no 'races', and we construct them out of ideology which acts upon our perceptions of ethnic variations.  This, it seems to me, is actually directly mirrored in Victor's sudden perception of his new creation as ugly.  He looks at it and called it beautiful, then looks again and perceives it as ugly - which is to say, as Moretti points out, as racially 'other'.  And the only change is a material one.  The creature is now alive.  He made it ugly because it came alive and its disavowal needed an ideological justification.  Victor, in effect, 'makes' a race in two senses.  He runs the risk of creating a 'race of devils' in the sense of creating a new breed among humans.  But this is the diegetic sense that he, the character, perceives and believes.   Beneath that, there is Victor as a textual reification of ideological maneuvres.  In that sense, what he's actually doing is 'race making'.  He is superimposing an ideology of racial difference and hierarchy upon a 'wretch' that he deems inferior because it is both his slave and his potential gravedigger.  Its status as a living thing makes this ideologically necessary.  That other people perceive the monster in essentially the same way only speaks to the universality of the ideology of race once constructed.

Moretti goes on to recognise something of the instability of some of those aforementioned bourgeois conceptions of beauty, and to bring in the artificiality of race, in the following passage - which is also a neat demonstration of the Marxist insight that progress and barbarism are forever intertwined, to the extent that they are essentially the same thing:

But the monster also makes us realize that in an unequal society they are not equal. Not because they belong to different 'races' but because inequality really does score itself into one's skin, one's eyes and one's body. And more so, evidently, in the case of the first industrial workers: the monster is disfigured not only because Frankenstein wants him to be like that, but also because this was how things actually were in the first decades of the industrial revolution. In him, the metaphors of the critics of civil society become real.  The monster incarnates the dialectic of estranged labour described by the young Marx: 'the more his product is shaped, the more misshapen the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless the worker; the more intelligent the work, the duller the worker and the more he becomes a slave of nature. . . . It is true that labour produces . . . palaces, but hovels for the worker. . . . It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.'  Frankenstein's invention is thus a pregnant metaphor of the process of capitalist production, which forms by deforming, civilizes by barbarizing, enriches by impoverishing -- a two-sided process in which each affirmation entails a negation. And indeed the monster - the pedestal on which Frankenstein erects his anguished greatness - is always described by negation: man is well proportioned, the monster is not; man is beautiful, the monster ugly; man is good, the monster evil. The monster is man turned upside-down, negated. He has no autonomous existence; he can never be really free or have a future. He lives only as the other side of that coin which is Frankenstein. When the scientist dies, the monster does not know what to do with his own life and commits suicide.

Mary Shelley became something of a reactionary in later life.  Despite being a radical critique of the Enlightenment project and the dawning Industrial Revolution, Frankenstein is a book with more than a seed of the reactionary nestling within it.  Like many from the early years of capitalism who disapproved of the new system in some measure, she is in many respects essentially a conservative.  Shakespeare, writing at the very dawn of the Early Modern Era, at the fulcrum of the transition from fedualism to capitalism, is highly critical of many aspects of the emergent bourgeois culture (along with being irresistibly attracted to them) but his criticism takes the form of an essentially conservative attachment to pre-bourgeois ideas of social obligation.  Capitalism detaches pre-capitalist people from old and established ties of obligation which constitute the social structure of fedualism.  He sympathises with shepherds leading newly precarious lives in the Forest of Arden after the enclosures, but he also worries about the fickleness of the new urban proles (so like the vicious Roman mob!), and so on.  Timon rages at money the universal whore, the utterly faithless golden metaphor which, in the bourgeois system, breaks down all loyalties and moral certainties... and yet Shakespeare's solution is for the classical virtues to be imposed by martial law in the person of Alcibiades.  In the same way, Mary Shelley frets at the emergence of the new bourgeois product - so powerful, so autonomous - and the newly forming proletariat - so powerful, so autonomous - even as she rails at the failure of social justice contained within the new system.  The book is a critique from a radical position but also from a privileged one.  Shelley sees the ruthless failure of tolerance and compassion and social justice which is contained within these new phenomena.  The Enlightenment project will fail if it is not cared for and nurtured, and justice is the most essential pre-requisite... and that justice is being denied.  But, even as she rails at justice denied, she frets at the revenge of history.  This is perfectly in line with the reservations of Mary's father, Godwin, who wants reform through fireside chats with the educated, and her radical boyfriend-later-husband, Percy Shelley, who flip-flops back-and-forth between foaming revolutionism and elitest worrying about the ignorant mob.

But, in some ways, Mary goes further.  Frankenstein is almost a declaration that the entire project - not just reform but capitalism itself - is doomed to failure.  This is not a categorical judgement.  There are countervailing tendencies in this book and others she wrote.  She was always profoundly ambivalent about Romanticism and the Enlightenment - something that makes her such a fascinating liminal figure in her milieu.  But it seems that, for her, the monstrous nature of the products - be they machines or classes - dooms them to forever be denied justice and responsible use.  Without the perspective of class struggle, she doesn't see the possibility that the new class could remake the world.  She does, however, see 'the common ruination of the contending classes'.  But she lived before capitalism had spread across the globe and taken over.  To her, it's not too late for the world to go back to how it was before, once those warring opposites kill each other.  Frankenstein and the monster destroy each other.  They both die without issue.  The 'race of devils' is never spawned.  As Moretti points out, Frankenstein has no way of utilising the creature because capital is erased from the picture.  There are no factories for it and its kin to work in.  It is never cconceived of as productive, or as having utility.  Mary Shelley turns the two men - and Capital and Labour - into a doomed fable.

These days, the end of the world is now proverbially known to be easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.  To Mary Shelley, it was decidedly the other way round.

(Edited and slightly amended, 18/3/15.)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Powerlessness Corrupts

More curated tumblr jottings, which some people seemed to like.  Rewritten and expanded.

There is, in fandom, an impulse to denounce which is very congruent with a similar impulse that exists in some iterations of right-on politics.  It comes from a similar place: helplessness.  We’re always told that power corrupts, and it certainly does.  But powerlessness corrupts too.  People in fandom get accustomed to worshipping that which is handed down to them.  They can then discover the opposite but equal pleasure of execrating that which is handed down to them.  What both have in common is the idea of passively accepting what you’re given.  And yes, hating on something is a form of passivity quite distinct from the activity of criticism.  Passive acceptance of texts is, contrary to myth (a myth largely put around by fans, amazingly enough) far more common within fandom/s than in the general television viewing public. 

Jane Q Citizen puts Doctor Who (or whatever) on her telly, doesn’t like it, and so switches over to hunt for something she does like… or she likes it (having no long-cherished internal needs that she has trained herself to expect to be met by it), so she watches it, and then she forgets about it.  John Z. Fan puts Doctor Who on his telly, doesn’t like it, but cannot switch it off because he is a fan (and yes, this can apply to me too in some ways).  So, passive and powerless to influence the show that he loves but finds disappointing, he rages.  He isn’t writing it or producing it himself, and he doesn’t even have (because he’s chosen to abnegate it) the basic and paltry consumer freedom that capitalism grants us and lauds so much: the freedom to hunt for another product that will satisfy us where one product has failed.

Meanwhile, in many sections of right-on politics, splittery and sectarianism and denunciation rule the day because the right-on either have no real mechanism by which they can actually change any of the stuff they don’t like (clicktivism being such a dead end, and most branches of direct action and protest being dead ends too when taken by themselves) or they despair of the one thing that really can change things - mass, working class action - because we’re in a long-term trench of neoliberal downturn.

The powerlessness corrupts.

Meanwhile (again), there is another strange tessellation.  The gap between fandom and actual critical savvy is uncannily similar to the gap between right-onitude per se and actual critical political education.  The fan mindset can (notice I say can) leave one hungry for the tools of proper critical analysis but does not itself supply them.  Similarly, right-onitude (however well intentioned and sincere) can leave one hungry for the desire to think politically but does not itself supply the actual critical understanding one needs in order to do so sensibly or usefully.

Between the desire and the reality falls the shadow.

(And I’m not being patronising because I have in the past fallen into most of these traps myself, and still occasionally do today.)

Meanwhile (yet again), the fan's attitude to a commodity they don't like, but to which they are attached by fan loyalty (those long-cherished internal needs we were talking about earlier), is eerily like the attitude of passive reformism to politics itself.  'The political' is that which exists within a band as narrow as the identity of a show.  You could even look at 'the News' as the show that is being followed.  As the fan saying goes "if you don't like the show at the moment, wait a bit and it'll change".  At most, the angry fan might engage in 'activism' like starting tumblrs with names like 'pleasefiremoffat' etc.  Because firing the current guy and getting a new guy instead will solve all the problems.  But when it comes to the right-on critique of Moffat (which has some points to make, don't get me wrong) too often what is missed is that Moffat is just a new development in a long-standing systemic issue. 

The fan loyalty, even when it is a twisted and angry loyalty to iterations of a franchise that you don't like, is itself probably a sign of commodity fetishism triumphing over actual critical engagement.  You are religiously following the logo (to paraphrase my friend Josh Marsfelder) because you are treating the commodity like an entity to which you owe allegiance, rather then critically following texts because - for whatever reason - you want to. 

(I like to think that I do it differently, but then I like to think lots of things.) 

Ultimately, of course, discontent with the narrative commodity you enjoy (or to which you have ingrained loyalty, or which you have fetishized) is far less an issue than discontent with society.  You can put up with a show being rubbish or reactionary (as long as you don't fail to speak up when it publically makes a political misstep, with that judgement being based on good faith critical engagement and some knowledge of how texts work).  But we're severely mistaken if we think we can put up with society being so royally fucked up for much longer.  The danger is that otherwise potentially useful right-on people might think that the critique of a particular set of texts (often based on a shoddy and crusading form of particularist politics) is a substitute for the critique of capitalist society as a unified juggernaut of exploitation and oppression - just as some people think that if Moffat would only STFU then modern TV would be pretty much peaches.

The mistake is waiting to be made in the powerless mire that so many people feel - not without some justification - that they are stuck in.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Random Thing #4: Woss Going on 'Ere Then?

I have become convinced that the fundamental appeal of the detective story lies in fantasies of autonomy.

Think about it.  What does every detective story have in common?  The hero or heroine who can move as freely as they choose from place to place, doing what they wish according to their own judgements as they make those judgements, managing their own time, roving from person to person conducting interviews, or from scene to scene gathering evidence or perceptions, entirely under their own steam.

Sherlock Holmes hangs around in his rooms until he decides to take a case, whereupon he follows the scent wherever it leads.  He makes money from his cases and doesn't do any other kind of work.  Poirot similarly - when he isn't on holiday, that is.  Like Miss Marple, Poirot is retired and financially self-sufficient.  Other classic detectives combine one or more of these traits.  Spade and Marlowe run their own detective agencies.  Some detectives are aristocratic and wealthy, some live off their earnings, but they are all, essentially, either unemployed or self-employed.  Even the police detective characters - Morse, for instance - manages his own time.  He leaves his batchelor home and goes to work, but once on the job he and Lewis perambulate around Oxford as they please, stopping off in pub after pub, etc etc etc.  Most detectives, like Morse, are single.  Some are apparently asexual, some widowed, some divorced, some eternal bachelors, whatever.  But they tend to live alone or with a same-sex buddy like Watson.  The queer dynamic is often there, but usually non-diegetic.  There are detectives with families or busy personal lives - Wexford, Bergerac, etc - but even they leave their domestic or romantic entanglements behind while on a case, and rove around freely instead.  Often, in these days when cop shows have to include loads of dour and gritty stuff about how being a police officer harrows your soul and consumes your relationships, the detectives with family lives are resolutely miserable, those family lives being a catastrophic mess of some kind.  They then leave the mess behind when they zoom off to investigate.  In this case the pleasure of ditching the domestic may be furtive and guilt ridden (the trope of the cop's wife glowering when he gets a phone call that will take him away from her) but it's still there.  Called back to work, he doesn't have to go and sit in an office.  Whatever the fictional copper's notional complaints about paper work, the body of the story will see him or her cruising from suspect to suspect in a car.  The appeal is of not being tied in some way in which most of us are tied.

The original fictional detectives were a focus of anxiety about transgression of privacy boundaries.  They tended to be eccentric masters of disguise, or common-as-muck policemen who broke into the middle class home to snoop (like Mr Whicher).  The detective story settled into such a popular staple of modern fiction when the detective was transformed from a figure of disconcerting and nosy instinct (i.e. Dickens' Inspector Bucket or Collins' Sergeant Cuff) into the bourgois man of leisure (Holmes).  He stops being an uneasy mixture of proletarian and spy, and becomes instead a middle-class investigator-as-hobbyist-or-small-businessman.

Here's the secret fantasy.  It works in a way reminiscent of the American fantasy about solving guilt-problems held over from conquest which lies at the heart of the American ghost story.  American ghost stories are all, fundamentally, about disputed real estate.  British ghost stories are, of course, far more about the haunting of the modern by the feudal.  Both are about capitalism vs some flavour of pre-capitalism.  The detective story is, transatlantically, about some fantasy of freedom from the capitalist organisation of time or, relatedly, from the schedules imposed by the bourgeois family.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Reverse Racism ('Into the Dalek' 2)

The Doctor learns that he is bigoted because he refused to accept the idea that a Dalek could be good.  Indeed, he hates Daleks so much that the one time he is prepared to even countenance the idea of a good Dalek is when he meets a Dalek which says all Daleks are evil and should die.  So he hates genocidal racists so much that the only member of that race he can think of as good is the one who says that it would be a good idea to exterminate an entire race.  But, of course, that isn't good.  That's bad.  That makes you as bad as a Dalek.  Indeed, that's Dalek-thinking.

Ironic, fairly interesting, and doubtless intentional.

But there's another interesting irony here, which probably wasn't intended.

As has been frequently pointed out, SF often falls into the trap of a race essentialism.  Alien races in SF all have the same characteristics.  The same sort of thing is true in Fantasy, and in other forms of storytelling featuring sapient non-humans.  All Vulcans are logical, all Sontarans are militaristic, all House Elves are servile, all Orc are psychopaths, etc.  The problems with this are obvious.  It rests upon a reductionist view of race, society and sentience... not to mention a set of assumptions directly related to biological racism.  But that's all obvious, and well covered elsewhere.

Back to the unintended little irony in 'Into the Dalek'... which, to be fair, is more an irony about the Daleks themselves.  No, not the irony of creatures which metaphorically express the evil of racism themselves being based on race essentialism.  I'm not really talking about race here.  I'm talking about politics.

Because, as is also well understood, the Daleks are metaphors for the Nazis.  Actually they hardly even bother being metaphors.

So we wind up in a peculiar situation politcally when we question the idea that there is something wrong with assuming that all Daleks are evil (an assumption that 'Into the Dalek' more or less explicitly questions).  We wind up essentialy questioning the idea that all Nazis, all fascists, are bad.  But you see... they are.  By definition.  The DWM review of Timewyrm: Exodus said that Hermann Goering was the closest thing to a nice Nazi (a pretty startling remark if you know anything about the man).  But you can't have nice Nazis.  You can't even approach that.  It's like talking about dry water - if it's dry, it ain't water.

We have bumped up against a standard misunderstanding about discrimination.  It isn't something that can happen to anyone or everyone.  There's no such thing as 'reverse racism', or 'misandry' (at least as the term is meant by the crybabies who object to feminism on the basis of their bruised manfeels).  There certainly isn't any such thing as unfair discrimination against fascists.   That's why they shouldn't be allowed on Question Time, no matter how many people vote for them.  You can't have democratic fascists.  Obviously, therefore, you can't extend them the boons of democracy.  I'm not in favour of banning fascist parties or imprisoning fascists - because it would be counter-productive - but it isn't an unreasonable idea in itself.

(Similarly, I don't think its an unreasonable idea in itself for capitalist democracy to lock me away too, since I've repeatedly voiced my desire to see it destroyed... though it makes considerably less sense than locking fascists away, since my dissatisfaction with capitalist democracy is based on a rejection of its own rhetoric about democracy, and a demand for more democracy, whereas the fascist objection to capitalist democracy is based on a desire for less democracy.)

My saying that it is right to discriminate against fascists certainly doesn't make me as bad as a fascist.  That's wishy-washy, purblind piffle.  That idea rests on a false equivalency, like many liberal cul-de-sacs.  The eternal phantasm of the level playing field, the balanced middle-ground; the idea of the centre as the rational point between irrational extremes, and fairness as the equidistant zone between claims.  All that childish, politcally-illiterate shit.

You don't become a fascist when you discriminate against fascists; you become an anti-fascist... just as you don't become a sexist when you challenge patriarchy, or a reverse racist when you challenge white privilege.

Of course, it might be objected that you can label everyone who ascribes to a political philosophy 'bad' without accepting that it would be a good thing if they were all killed... and you'd have a point.  But it's still interesting that, even today, we are more comfortable playing around (albeit questioningly) with the reading of the Daleks which is based on race essentialism than on the reading which is based on political philosophy... even when they openly represent a political philosophy that 'we' supposedly all despise.

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Wilderness of Tigers

The opposition between town and country is a perennial obsession of modern Western narrative art.  The idea of the division becoming diffuse and permeable, of the one bleeding through into the other, appears to be deeply threatening.  For Titus Andronicus, in a play in which precisely this bleeding effect occurs, Rome's degradation leads it to become a "wilderness of tigers".

This obsession is one that began at around the same time as modern map making.  

What people don't realise is that maps lie to us.  They present a geographical landscape which is profoundly at odds with human psychic landscapes.

We think of the town having borders, beyond which there lies the country.  No matter how we nuance this, it is untrue.  We think of the country as a great field of emptiness between cities and towns.  No matter how we nuance this, it is untrue.

What actually happens is that the further you venture into the country, the more country you find.  The country isn't a two-dimensional field, it is a three-dimension well which stretches ever downwards into more of itself.  Like the fractals generated by the Mandelbrot Set, the further you go into the country, the more it expands out ahead of you.  The more you sink down into it.  The towns get smaller, the desolation gets more and more desolate, the isolation gets more and more isolated.  The sinister vibe gets more and more sinister. 

The city, meanwhile, has no borders.  It is carried across all borders inside the mind of the city-dweller.  And all cities are connected.  If you walk far enough into London you will eventually find yourself in Paris or New York or Rome.  The more you walk into any city, the more you walk into its history, and the history of every city is the history of its relationship with other cities.  Walk far enough into modern London and you eventually find yourself in ancient Rome.

The Abandoned Line

All disused London Underground stations are connected via ghost trains that traverse conceptual topography. It's called the Abandoned Line.

London’s Abandoned Line is in a state of perpetual Cold War with Metro 2, the secret parallel underground system in Moscow which was used to transport Party officials around the place. One of the many ideological differences between Metro 2 and the Abandoned Line is the very question of Metro 2’s existence. The Abandoned Line insists that Metro 2 exists. Metro 2 itself stubbornly denies this.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Build High

Some tumblr jottings, curated with pictures.

Modernism.  The International Style.  Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, etc. 

A clean, white world of clean white buildings and glass boxes.  Machines for living in.  Born of the utopian hopes of early Modernism.  Destined to become the opulent apartment blocks and corporate skyscrapers of Chicago capitalism. 

Based on a dream of optimised people in an optimised world.  You had to be perfect to live in a glass box.  And the glass boxes were going to make people better, cleaner, fitter, healthier, more productive, and now this sentence is (tellingly) becoming the lyrics from that Radiohead song.  Because that’s where that kind of top-down utopianism ended up; the dream of Modernism became the malaise of late-C20th/C21st modernity. 

Prora, the elephantine Strength Through Joy holiday camp.  Nazi Butlins.

Whatever the admirable radicalism - and there is much admirable radicalism in Modernism - it culminated in a convergence with the Nazi fantasies of order and hygiene (even as the Modernists were hated and driven out by the Nazis) and, in the end, with the corporate capitalist fantasies of perfect and rational utility.  The skyscraper as a machine for doing business in.

In both iterations of the same anti-human and elitist reactionary fantasy, the individual becomes a cog, to be permitted as long as they play their role within the machine, as long as they do not disgrace the gleaming interior of the glass box.

It found its way into another iteration: C20th century elitist reformism, the provision of rational living units for the drones, the erection of housing estates and tower blocks.  Look at those 60s constructions - built along the same elitist/top-down/utopian lines as all Modernist architecture - and today they seem like ugly sinkholes (the vile word used to describe them), but at the time they were supposed to be clean, ordered, rational, humane and utopian.

So, in 'Paradise Towers', the tower block becomes the once-hopeful/now-decaying symbol of entropic utopianism.  Social democracy, with its aesthetic roots in Modernism, falling apart in the neglect and ruin of the dawning neoliberal age.  Inside, of course, are trapped the archetypes (in parodic form) of Thatcher’s Britain.  Feral kids, Daily Mail readers, the Police.

And the roving, murdering cleaners are clearing up the “human garbage” to make way for the return of Kroagnon’s anti-human and authoritarian vision of cleanliness and order.  The dark side of the Modernist dream returns from the gothic basement of repression to take revenge on the last remnants of Modernism’s own light side.  The authoritarian variant tries to reconquer the self-defeated social-democratic variant.
And Kroagnon’s shocktroops the cleaners are clean, white constructions in straight lines.  They are miniature, mobile buildings in the International Style of high, early Modernism. 

They are like Corbusier houses crossbred with Mies skyscrapers, come alive and on the attack. 

Corbusier was friendly with a fascist sympathiser, Pierre Winter.  They both joined the right-wing Faisceau Party.

Fascism lurks within the utopianism of Modernism, which lurks within the utopianism of social democracy.  As Benjamin might say, fascism lurks within the entire C20th.

Also, 'Paradise Towers' - written, like so many of the stories of this era, according to a folk memory of the show from the 70s - sees the echo of the semiotic connection which developed in the show during the 70s between capitalism and tentacles.  'Paradise Towers' is recognisably a capitalist world in decline.  Thatcher’s Britain.  Post-industrial (a myth but a powerful one).  Social-democratic capitalism falling to wrack and ruin.  Rusting machines that still vend fizzy pop.  And there are the faintest echoes of tentacles.  Octopus creatures are mentioned at the start.  The original idea was apparently to have a tentacled monster in the basement which could extend its tentacles anywhere in the building via ducts and vents and (of course) waste disposal shutes.  The cleaners grab you by the neck and pull you along… obviously something originally envisaged as death by grasping tentacle.  Phil Sandifer reminded me about the conversation Andrew Cartmel recounts: "we went to see John and said, 'What about tentacles? They could come out through the ventilation grilles'. And he said 'Tentacles are difficult', spoken with the knowing manner of a man who's tried tentacles before."  (Which has to be, as Phil says, one of the great quotes of all time.)

In 'Paradise Towers', as in the 80s DWM comic strip ‘Profits of Doom’, the old capitalism/tentacles connection still lurks, largely abandoned and almost forgotten.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Once More With Feeling?

It is incredibly depressing to realise that I have been asking the rulers of the state I live in to refrain from bombing Iraq for my entire fucking life.

There's an extent to which the 'it won't work' critique is entirely valid as an objection to waging yet more war upon the Middle East.  Because the surface aim of the politicians is almost certainly to impose 'stability' on 'the region'.  They like stability.  No threats to embarass them, no revolts to topple their friendly dictators, no threat to Israel, no danger to neoliberal exploitation of local resources and markets, etc.  And, as has been shown, it doesn't work.  They try and try to bomb the Middle East into passive compliance, and all they succeed in doing is generating more troubles for their empire.

This is, of course, what empires have always done.  Create the problems of tomorrow by viciously conquering the problems of today.

But there's another sense in which the 'it won't work' argument is fatally flawed, because there's a sense in which it does work.  It may never achieve 'stability' but it does keep the machinery of empire chugging, and the fuel of empire flowing.  Because the fuel of empire is as much war itself as the resources extracted via war.  The neverending war keeps the military-industrial complex in work, the contracts coming, the factories producing, etc.  It keeps the corporate media busy and happy, reporting yet more incomprehensible strife from 'over there' and 'our' attempts to make things better.  It keeps the endless circular debate about intervention circling (the system can tolerate a tortuous and muddled debate, what it doesn't want is clarity).  It keeps the public money flowing into the vast state run apparatus of military spending, and into all the R&D that is done under the aegis of this and then handed over (free) to private enterprise.  It keeps the empire's power and prestige in the ascendant, with the machinery of death inspiring the fear - and projecting the apparent invincibility - that every empire needs.

No, the war never 'works' in the sense of achieving a stable imperium, but it does 'work' - at least in the short term - in achieving a powerful empire.  One of the paradoxes of empire is that its power relies upon it never being stable.  So even when the bombing doesn't work, it actually does.

Meanwhile, of course, people die.  And die and die and die.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


Reimagined Moments #3

Onboard the Silver Carrier, the Doctor and Jamie are eating square blocks of food from a dispenser.

"Doctor, what do you think Victoria's doing now?"

"Now?  Well, she's dead Jamie."


"Yes, of course.  We left her in the late-twentieth century.  Looking at this technology, we must be at least a couple of hundred years on from then.  So unless she somehow managed to live to be more than 200 years old, she'll have aged and died a long time ago.  Right now she's probably just a brittle skeleton lying in a coffin, the flesh long since having bloated and peeled away and rotted and been consumed by bacteria and maggots and weavils and worms and stuff.  Unless they burned her up in a big fire.  In which case she's probably scattered around somewhere in tiny fragments or sitting in a vase."

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Things That Worry Me #1

You know the pre-titles sequence in For Your Eyes Only, in which Blofeld tricks Bond onto a remote-controlled helicopter?

Why does the vicar make the sign of the cross as Bond departs in the chopper?

If he knows something deadly is afoot, he must be in league with Blofeld, so either...

a) he's not really a vicar but actually one of Blofeld's men disguised as a vicar, or

b) he is an actual vicar who's been paid by Blofeld to be part of his assassination conspiracy.

If a), why?  And why doesn't Bond ask about this new guy at the Church where Tracey is buried?

If b), why?  What would induce a presumably average, ordinary, law-abiding vicar to team up with Blofeld?  And also, why doesn't he just shoot Bond in the graveyard?

And what does Blofeld need him for?  Okay, he delivers the fake message about Bond being needed at HQ.  But this is seemingly the only thing he does in the conspiracy (if he is indeed part of the conspiracy, as opposed to an innocent vicar who unwittingly relays a fake message) but the message could have been far more easily faked, given the apparent laxity of Bond's precautions (he just accepts the message at face value without checking it in any way).

And I repeat: if he's not a real vicar, why the religious sentiment with the sign of the cross?

And even if he is a real vicar, but an evil one who conspires to murder people with international gangsters, why is he still worried about giving Bond the last rites? 

He's either a genuine vicar with terrorist-connections and a deeply ambivalent and wildly fluctuating attitude to his faith, or a hood with a very dark sense of humour... and possibly a sardonic vein of anti-clericalism in his character.

Or... another possibility entirely... he's a genuine vicar with the gift of second sight and a fatalistic attitude to the future.

Or he's a genuine (if morally weak) vicar with the gift of second sight, and he hates James Bond for some reason... so much so that he opportunistically chooses to let Bond go to his death.

Or possibly he hates the helicopter pilot for some reason and opportunistically chooses to let him die.

That actually makes a lot more sense because, if he can see the future, that must mean that he knows that Bond will escape the trap and only the pilot and Blofeld will die.  (It can't be that he hates Blofeld because Blofeld isn't there when he - the vicar - makes the sign of the cross, so there'd be no point.)

The only problem here is the implausibility of a specific guy who that particular vicar hates just happening to turn up at the vicar's church in a helicopter on the day when he's about to be murdered by Blofeld as part of an assassination conspiracy... but coincidences do happen.

As far as I can tell, this is by far the best explanation.

My god, Roald Dahl was a great writer, wasn't he?

I wonder why the fatalistic, cynical, vindictive, morally-ambivalent psychic vicar/seer hated the helicopter pilot so much.

This guy may be the most complicated and fascinating character ever to appear in a Bond movie.

(UPDATE:  Yes, I know Roald Dahl didn't write this one.  It was a joke.)

Monday, 8 September 2014

No Name


Apparently, they've found out who Jack the Ripper was.  Maybe.  At least, so says the Daily Mail, and a bloke who's written a book about the case, and who owns a business selling 'Ripper' tours.  So, reliable and unbiased sources.

Turns out, Jack the Ripper was... some guy.

Who'd have thunk it?

So, will this put a stop to the lucrative Ripper industry?  The books, movies, walks, etc?

No, of course not.  Like all previous unmaskings, it'll just fuel the fire, even if this unmasking turns out to rest on marginally better evidence that some hack's ability to create anagrams, or an evidently untrue story told by a publicity hound, or the baseless hunch of a crime writer, or an obviously forged diary, or the manufactured bad reputation of a dead one-time heir to the throne.

Because, contrary to what everyone ever has always said about Jack the Ripper, interest in the case doesn't stem from the fact that the murderer was never caught.  It stems from the appeal of the degradation, humiliation, punishment and silencing of women... and from the way revelling in this (with whatever spurious self justification) can distract us from other stuff about the lives those women led, and the world they lived in.

Our misogynistic culture is obsessed with the murder of women.  It is possibly the main subject of the present-day Western narrative culture industry, aside from the sexual/romantic conquest of women.

It could be objected that there are so many stories about the murder of women because so many women are murdered... but that doesn't explain, say, the lack of a similar number of stories about the rape of women (as Alan Moore pointed out), or about the political and social subjugation of women, or about any number of other things that are more common.

The prevalence of the actual murder of women is intimately connected with the prevalence of depictions of the murder of women, but in ways that are far more complex than the merely causal (whichever way you want to imagine the causation runs).  It's all part and parcel of a cultural misogyny which stems from sexism and patriarchy, generated by class society all the way back to what Engels called "the world historic defeat of the female sex" with the start of social hierarchy.  (None of which is to excuse our present cultural practice by appeal to the influence of older structures.)

The women murdered (as is supposed) by the man dubbed Jack the Ripper are objects of morbid fascination because they shared a fate which made them only slightly unusual for women of their class and time.  Lots of these women were raped, abused, beaten and/or murdered (by men - let's not efface that vital part of the story).  It just so happens that some of these women were murdered in particularly vicious and gruesome ways, with their bodies mutilated and insultingly displayed afterwards.  (It's by no means clear how many women were the victim of the one escalating killer who ended up reaching a crescendo of perverse cruelty in the killing of Mary Kelley and then vanished, but it does seem likely that at least four were part of his distinct sequence.)

There is a degree of pity attached to the fascination.  Certainly, at the time, many common people in similar walks of life were motivated by fury at the fate of people who they knew, or might have known.  But also at the time, part of the fascination was to do with a kind of furtively aroused moralism about 'unfortunates' (as women who were driven to prostitute themselves by poverty were daintily called).  Such patronising and contemptuous pity is a mixture of fear and loathing of the poor, and of women.  And it puts the focus on sex, safely away from other scarier stuff.

But the fascination with the women is marginal to the wider cultural obsession with Jack the Ripper.  The women are props in his story, used as background detail and as titilation (particularly since the women involved worked as prostitutes, with all the sordid arousal this brings to some).

Generally, the obsession is with the man.  The killer has been fetishized, celebrated, glamourised and bigged up beyond belief.  He has been transformed from a skulking trick into a top-hatted, cloaked, evening-dress-wearing toff with a sinister gladstone bag, riding around in a coach with a royal crest on the side.  Gentleman Jack, the genteel and aristocratic killer.  There's no doubt that part of this - alongside the various attempts to make him a royal, a freemason or a posh establishment figure covering up for Queen, Country and Lodge - is the submerged horror of a system in which the poor, especially poor women, were the playthings of the rich, material to be used when needed and then allowed to sink back into the slum.  But the effect is to transform the killer himself, and his vacuously misogynistic crimes, into a meaningful figure, a powerful figure, a figure of purpose and steely determination, or of glamourous and tortured Jekyll-and-Hydean complexity, an artisan with a philosophy and a moral agenda of his own (however twisted), etc.  In this, the Ripper is the prototypical serial killer of the present-day culture industries, of Seven, Messiah, The Tunnel, etc.  The killer as intellectual, as the isolated thinker with lessons to teach us in blood, as the sinister harbinger of well-thought out rebukes (which shows simultaneously how much 'we' supposedly all need rebuke for 'our' sins, and how evil the opinionated outcasts bringing the rebukes usually are).

(I used to quite like the Gull/Masons theory... but it's only a story, and only a good one when told by Alan Moore.)

The bullshit and the obsession started at the time, with most of the mythmaking about the case being spun by the contemporary newspapers, eager to mop up the profits along with the blood.  The case could be moralised about from every angle except actual, practical sympathy with oppressed women (after all, the only place to go with that was to stop blaming the women and start saying they should be allowed to be safe... which was self-evidently unpublishable radical lunacy).  The case was a litmus test on the moral state of society (the killer brings the rebuke that 'we' all need, in his mad way).  The case was about swarthy Jews and their sacrificial religion, or about all the foreigners (no wonder the Mail loves this latest story - the guy supposedly identified as the killer was a Polish immigrant).  The case was about the degradation of the criminal classes (Punch Magazine, as usual, took the opportunity at the time to define satire as consisting of kicking downwards).  The case was a big joke, jolly London lore.  Hence the newspapers' invention of the name 'Jack the Ripper' when they hit upon the lucrative idea of sending themselves letters written in red ink, purporting to be from the murderer, invoking 'Springheel Jack' in their fabricated signatures, and sniggering about the whole thing in words that were painstakingly badly spelled (because, of course, 'Jack' couldn't be an educated man).

By the way - notice the contempt for the women integral to the name.  He's not murdering people, he's ripping things.  In the name, the women become nothing more than sacks or sheets or dresses.  Remember, when 'Jack' drones on in his letters about how he hates 'whores', he's actually a journalist speaking with the contempt of the respectable for the 'unfortunate'.

All this is a massive distraction.  Was then, is now.  Talk about anything, but don't admit that most serial killers - 'Jack' included - are just squalid, pathetic, inadequate little men who hate women because they take the furious feelings of thwarted entitlement inculcated in so many men by patriarchy, and actually act on them.  We don't want to have that conversation, or miss out on the latest thriller.

And don't admit that hugely more women died in the East End as a result of preventable disease, despair, drink, hunger, domestic violence... in a word: poverty... than died because of 'Jack'.

And don't admit that, as now, the London of 1888, the hub of an empire, harboured bigger mass murderers in the corridors of power than on the streets where the poor lived, worked their lives away, drank, hit each other, stabbed each other, laughed, joked, prayed, fucked for farthings and huddled together for warmth.  And those mass murderers in the corridors of power didn't need to sneak out at night to commit their murders.  They oversaw a system of murder every day, from within those very corridors, from behind their eminent Victorian respectability.  And they still do.

And don't damage the Ripper industry by admitting that there was never any such person as Jack the Ripper.  There was a pathetic and revolting misogynist who probably killed four or five women with escalating hatred and contempt.  And then there was a marketing opportunity.  And - in a society that still runs on drastic inequality, and on the disciplining, punishing and controlling women and their bodies - the market is still there.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Good Soldiers (Into the Dalek)

'Into the Dalek' is about good soldiers vs bad soldiers.

The pain of being a good soldier, the pain of the memories which a good soldier has, vs the anaesthetised mind of the bad soldier.

But, of course, what do we mean by terms like 'good' and 'bad'?

For the army, a 'good' soldier is a soldier who obeys orders without question, kills without hesitation, and doesn't let themselves be haunted.

A 'bad' soldier is a soldier who thinks about, and makes decisions based upon, things other than the orders of a superior... perhaps leading to their inability, or refusal, to kill on command.

In a soldier, morality is a malfunction.  A good soldier is a 'bad' soldier.  Because good people can't do a soldier's job, which is to fight and kill.

At least, that might be how the Doctor would put it, in his simplistic way.  The Doctor doesn't like soldiers.  As in 'The Sontaran Stratagem' he is rude and patronising to the soldiers he meets as a matter of course.  He refuses to take Journey Blue with him because she's a soldier.

But the soldiers on the Aristotle are rebels.  They are specifically described as rebels.  Rebels against the Daleks.  The Daleks, who are, for whatever reason, inherently evil.  This is fuzzy (it still may be because of technological control of the brain) but, at the end of the day, Rusty reverts to type.  He realises that life is beautiful and unstoppable, that the Daleks are the enemies of life, and his response is to decide that all Daleks must die.  Because he's a Dalek, and that's how Daleks think.  So, contrary to the Doctor's hopes, there's no saving the Daleks... which makes Rusty pretty much right: they're beyond saving, so they must be fought.  Which is what the rebels are doing.  So Rusty kills all the Daleks... which is a BAD THING judging by the Doctor's defeated frown (though quite how any of them would have survived if that hadn't happened escapes me).

So, once again, as in 'A Good Man Goes to War', we have an episode which says one thing about warriors while showing us another.  Soldiers are scary and irredeemable... umm, even the ones who rightly rebel against unappeasable and unsalvageable aggressors.

See, I have no problem with the soldiers on the Aristotle.  They're rebelling against the imperialists of the universe.  I'm supposed to think they're wrong or suspect for shooting to kill?  When you're in an army fighting aggressive imperialists or fascists, you'd better obey orders and shoot to kill.  That's what the soldiers of the International Brigades did.  That's what the Red Army did when they drove back the proto-fascistic West-sponsored Whites.  If the Whites, or Franco's troops, or the Nazis, are advancing on you, you want an army that's 'good' at what it does to come and fight them.

Of course, Danny is a former soldier... and Clara doesn't reject him the way the Doctor rejects Journey.  She, despite her copy of the Guardian, rises above the kind of knee-jerk, right-on disdain for soldiers that (supposedly) so many people have, like the Doctor.

So there's some nuance, right?  Taken with the fact that the Doctor's prejudiced hatred of Daleks is what turns Rusty into a Dalek-killer, and Rusty's remark that the Doctor is a good Dalek (however we want to take that), a considerable amount of ambiguity has been created, yes?

And anyway, the Doctor has a bloody cheek being so arsey with soldiers, considering that he ended the Time War by... oh no, hang on, that got fixed last year didn't it.

It really isn't possible to just talk about 'soldiers' as if all soldiers are the same, as if all armies and their objectives are morally equal.  This is obvious.  It's a commonplace of our cultural discourse actually... trouble is, it sits alongside the assumption that 'we' are always the ones with the moral superiority, which is sadly rarely true.  But it could be true, theoretically.  It isn't logically impossible to have soldiers who are both 'good' and good.  It's just that, by a morally and politically realistic evaluation of the world, that doesn't apply to 'our' soldiers.  Our rulers pretend it does.  'Our' media pretends it does.  But it doesn't. 

Presumably, Danny was fighting for the British Army in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Which makes him a soldier in the army of a technologically-superior imperialist aggressor.

He's a good soldier because he cries when he thinks of the people he killed.  Maybe he's even good because he stopped being 'good', i.e. he became 'bad' at his job because he found a moral objection to it (I guess we'll see) but he isn't anything like the soldiers on the Aristotle, the ones I had no problem with.  He wasn't a rebel.  He wasn't in the Iraqi resistance.  He wasn't someone exercising their moral right to use violence against the people attacking them and occupying their country.  He was, presumably, in the occupying force.  He claims that there is a "moral dimension" to soldiering as he practiced it.  In other words, there is a moral dimension to being an aggressor, invader and occupier on the orders of an imperialist hegemon.

So, as always, 'we' are the good guys, by definition.  The ambiguous investigation of the ethics of warfare collapses back into bog-standard liberal hand-wringing over the niceties of what we do in the course of being the goodies.  How terrible it is the bad things happen when we try to help. 

The truth is, we in the aggressive neoliberal imperialist countries... we are the Daleks.

And we're not good.  Though we are 'good'.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Essential Problems and Dialectical Solutions ('Deep Breath' 5)

Many people have already commented on the expansion of Clara's character in 'Deep Breath'.  I think there's something to this... in that Clara now appears to have a character, now that she's been freed from her tedious and contentless mystery-arc.  Those impatient with the right-on critique of Moffat will respond with all sorts of examples of brave, complex things she did in Series 7, and some of those examples will be right, but still... she really did look like a characterless blur across the screen, a sort of jumble of traits, a Rubik's Cube with a face drawn on it.  There's no denying, she looked better in 'Deep Breath'.  It's possible that, as with so much else that seems better about 'Deep Breath', I may just be perceiving an improvement because the episode is largely free from the dominating and infuriating presence of a certain actor who will not be missed at all by me.  But then, such things do make a difference.  One performance in an 'actually existing' production of a written text can change the meaning.

Clara's monologue rebuke to Vastra is part of her apparent improvement... though I have to say (in my complainey way) that the monologue contains yet another example of Moffat fetishizing the powerful, with Clara saying that Marcus Aurelius was her only pin-up.  Of all the philosophers she could have idolised, Moffat chooses the one who was also a Roman Emperor!  I also noticed an implied contempt towards teenage girls who like boy bands, as if that makes them inherently trivial people.  Clara gets to angrily reject the notion that she is unwilling to accept an older man, but the idea is expressed in terms that imply contempt for young women who who don't reject young hot guys for old, establishment figures.  To be painstakingly fair, I'm sure this is not what was intended.  It's one of those examples of a writer being unable to fully win no matter what he does.  Which happens.  Sometimes writers can't win.  Sometimes they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.  It's not about their flaws so much as the social context in which they write.  That's not an excuse, but it is a thing.  The solution to this, as I've said before, is not to find better writers, or better ways of writing which square such circles away nicely and neatly so we can all watch in perfect comfort, but rather to change society so that massive imbalances of power don't keep setting off these little textual mines.  Sounds like I'm demanding a lot, doesn't it?  Well, I am.  Deal with it.  That's just how I roll.  Etcetera.

At first, the whole business with Clara's difficulty accepting the new Doctor reminded of the nasty reaction towards 'fangirls' that was unleashed by the news of Capaldi's casting, with all those memes about the shallow, hormonal girlies, supposedly devastated by the news that the new Doctor was someone old and wrinkly.  Just another manifestation of the 'fake geekgirl', a chimeric invention of a closed shop full of males objecting to the scary presence of women in 'their' fandom.  At one point it looks as though Clara is being likened to those allegedly inconsolable fangirls.  After all, Moffat makes Clara - the girl who, according to him, saw and knew every single one of the Doctor's incarnations - struggle with the concept of a new Doctor.  The episode is erasing a huge chunk of her experience, a huge chunk of all the stuff she did last year (stuff that is, by the way, also proffered as evidence of what a nuanced character she always was). Though, as I say, the jettisoning of all that baggage from Series 7 may not be a bad thing, given that it was a way for Moffat to insert his character (in both senses) into every previous bit of Doctor Who ever and rewrite it in the image of his own laughing face.

Clara herself rejects the idea that she resembles the sexist stereotype of the fake fangirl who only likes Who for the hottie menz (though why it should be so terrible for girls to watch the show to leer at Matt Smith escapes me, given the volume of comment from male fans about how much they fancy Jenna-Louise Coleman).  Moffat actually goes to some lengths to raise this accusation against Clara so it can be knocked down... which is why a simple reading of the episode which sees Moffat as endorsing this view of Clara is not really adequate.  The Doctor even implies that the fault was the other way, with him mistaking Clara for a girlfriend.  (And, it's true: the 11th Doctor spent far too much time treating Clara like his property girlfriend.)  Pushing aside the self-pity of the older man looking at the young girl he can't have, the "I never said it was my mistake" bit is actually rather a good moment.  The Doctor accepts that Clara wasn't the one who was actually confused about what was what and what wasn't.

But... and I'm sure you all knew there was a but coming... there are still problems here.  For a start, the Doctor is once again the pole around which the women revolve.  He is fetishised, once again, in Vastra's speech about how old and powerful he is.  And he takes on the contours of the complex and tormented man whose complexity and pain are something for the women to work through.  I've complained in the past about Moffat's female companions being puzzle boxes for the Doctor to figure out.  In 'Deep Breath', in some ways, the Doctor becomes the puzzle for the ladies to figure out.  It doesn't help matters much.  (I know, I know - I'm never happy.)  If you insist upon writing friendships as battles of wits, you're going to end up with implied winners and losers.  Though, once again, it doesn't really get us anywhere to do what I've done in the past, and just talk about these issues as though Moffat is alone in falling foul of them.  The battle of wits between the sexes is embedded in our narrative culture, and is a cultural expression of sexism in the form of gender essentialism.

Moffat is rather big on gender essentialism. This is partly to do with the genre he seems most happy writing in, the style of which he retains and adapts to other projects: sitcom.  Even the dinosaur in 'Deep Breath' is as much from Red Dwarf VIII as it is from 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' (though, as I say, I rather like the melancholy way he ends up using the dinosaur).  Sitcoms are steeped in gender essentialism.  Sticking with Red Dwarf as an example, just look at the jaw-breakingly tedious stretches of Red Dwarf VII which concern themselves with 'jokes' about Kochanski being clean and tidy and liking salad and ballet, as opposed to the scuzzy boys.

Sitcom gender-essentialism revolves upon the ostensible 'war of the sexes'.  The boys behave badly, the women complain about the toilet seat being left up.  The boys make offensive remarks about periods when the girls are not happy about something.  And so on.  (To be clear, I'm not putting this forward as a description of Moffat's work but as a generalisation.)  Very often, in this sort of thing, the silly old men come off worst, as do the comedy hapless pratt Dads in assorted adverts... you know, the ones that privileged manchildren put forward as evidence of 'misandry' (a functionally meaningless word).  In this version of the relationship between the sexes, the men are overgrown little boys, helplessly entranced by breasts and bottles.  The women are long-suffering witnesses to the long childhood of these slow developers.  Basically, as someone once said, the women are better and the men belong in the fields.  Ho ho ho.

But pedestals are a way of controlling somebody, if you make them high enough.

The basic claims of gender essentialism are determinist, which is why it so often gets reiterated by various forms of reductionist science like evolutionary psychology, and why it has a conservative social effect.  It runs thus: men and women are fundamentally different at some irreducible level (i.e. brain chemistry, genes, whatever) and thus will always retain certain essential traits, some of which entail imbalances in attitude and capability.  We've all seen the titles infesting the bookshelves.  Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (and books like this are from Uranus).   Why Men Can't Talk and Women Can't Read Maps.  Why Men Don't Like Quiche and No Woman Has Ever Learned the Bagpipes.  Etc etc et-fucking-c.  The gender essentialism industry is massive, hyper-profitable, retrograde and deeply reactionary.

No matter what its smiley, jokey surface message may be, this kind of pop-gender-wars stuff always peddles the idea that equality is impossible... or, at least, that further equalisation is impossible and we've already reached the functional optimum.  It peddles the idea that we already live in as equal a society as we can, and all we need to do is understand each other better.  Basically, it peddles the idea that our prejudices about gender are well-founded.  Even if you take the ostensibly pro-woman version of this that gets repeated in all those sitcoms about the ladies vs the manchildren, the message is still conservative and reactionary, a message of permanent and chronic and unimproveable imbalance.

One extension of this idea of built-in characteristics is the idea that, for instance, girls will naturally want to play with dolls and like the colour pink even if subjected to no social conditioning.  Indeed, one of the most pernicious aspects of gender essentialism is the way it peddles the idea that it's even possible to raise kids without socialising them into gender roles.  By over-emphasizing innate gender differences it obscures the forces of social conditioning.  One side-effect is that well-meaning, right-on parents make efforts to keep gender roles out of their kids' life, only to find their kids drifting into toys guns or Disney princess outfits, and then rather than think 'maybe I have unconscious assumptions which also influence my kids... and maybe my kids are also raised by a society which teaches and reinforces gender roles from day one', the parents instead take their failure to mean that it's all the the genes after all.  They then shake their heads at their own foolish idealism, and start being 'hard-headed' and 'realistic' instead, accepting consciously the very assumptions about innate gender differences which were trained into them in their own childhood, and which they have unconsciously been acting on all along.

(On this subject and other related ones, I implore everyone to read the superb Delusions of Gender by the amazingly brilliantly fantastically excellent Cordelia Fine, who is very good indeed.  And great.)

Gender essentialism doesn't challenge male privilege.  It shores it up.  It obscures systemic sexism, taking imbalances out of the realm of the social and into the realm of the universally biological - like all forms of sociobiology.  It acts as an excuse and an alibi for men, and for the system they dominate and which privileges them.  It relieves them of responsibility.  If they can't help staring at boobs that walk by, or leave the toilet seat up, and all those other things that all men supposedly do, that's just because they're blokes and blokes are like that.  Nothing to be done about it.  Some gender essentialist observations may take the form of criticism, but it is criticism which instantly supplies a get-out clause.

The "I never said it was your mistake" scene is a good scene.  A great moment.  But the episode as a whole sends mixed signals, just like the Doctor does.  That scene coexists with scenes in which Clara is described as a control freak and a narcissist and needy gameplayer, and all as part of the sitcom 'war of the sexes' sniping that constitutes Moffat's default mode of writing male/female interaction.  "5'1 and crying - you never had a chance!" thus tends to undercut the brilliance of the scene where Clara, looking truly human (both terrified and heroic simultaneously, with the two being inextricable) faces down the droid.  Yes, we are supposed to frown at this kind of gender-essentialist stuff coming from the Doctor… we’re supposed to think he’s being a prick… yet we’re also clearly supposed to find it funny.  As so often with Moffat, we're told to think one thing while being tacitly invited to enjoy something contrary in the text.

I wrote about 'A Good Man Goes to War' with reference to this.  The whole idea that there is any critique of the Doctor in that episode relies upon us taking River's rebuke seriously, which itself depends upon us taking seriously the notion that there is something shameful in being a warrior... and yet the entire episode is about noble, heroic warriors fighting and dying for a wonderful, moral cause... and about how exciting the Doctor and Rory are when they go all badass (i.e. genocidal) on Cybermen.  (It's only fair to point out that RTD was guilty of just this sort of inconsistency too, perhaps most evidently in 'The Stolen Earth' / 'Whatever the Other Episode Was Called' in which the Doctor is critiqued by Davros while viewing an internal clipshow which proves him innocent.)

We’re also clearly supposed to find the Doctor funny when he displays all the characteristics he charges against Clara and which she charges against him (he said, she said - har de har).  It doesn’t really matter if the writer has strong women declaring “men are monkeys” if the text ultimately and implicitly invites us to find the monkeyish behaviour vastly charming.

We're meant to like it when men behave badly, you see.  And then we like it when the woman puts him in his place.  And then we like it again when he does it again.

And so on and so on and so on forever.

I don't want to imply that any of the problems I raise in this post are unique to Moffat.  On the contrary, they're widespread... and often such problems are unavoidable when anyone writes about things like, say, gender in the context of a society that is deeply sexist.

Remember, the solution to the problem of such textual timebombs is a dialectical one.  So, basically, all we need for Doctor Who to be perfect is a full scale socialist-feminist revolution.

Now, tell me... is that really too much to ask?

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Bits and Bobs ('Deep Breath' 4)

It ends with another mysterious woman, another predatory dominatrix older female.  She represents another story arc which we, the viewers, have no possibility of guessing or understanding until the inevitable 'twist' becomes self-evident just before being served up to you on a plate several episodes later than it could've been.

She speaks as if she is one of the audience and saw what we saw.  Like us, she couldn't see if the Doctor persuaded Half-Face to commit suicide or if he pushed him to his death.  Again, a metatextual trick is used as a signifier of the enemy.

Another physical endurance test or test of skill becomes part of the nature of the monster-of-the-week.  The Weeping Angels were based on how long you could go without blinking.  The Sredni Vashtar (or whatever they were called) were based on how long you could go without touching a shadow with your own shadow.  The droids in 'Deep Breath' were based on how long you can hold your breath (a slightly dodgy thing to encourage in the playground possibly).

How much you like all this probably depends on how much you like repetition.

I said:  how much you like all this probably depends on how much you like repetition.

(To be fair, RTD was hardly unrepetitious - how many eleventh episodes ended with robotic things swarming in the sky and swooping down to shoot milling people?  Quite a few, as I recall.)

The business with the droids stealing bodies hooks into the corpse economy of Victorian London, but strips it of class significance.  Rich and poor alike get predated upon.  It's not like in 'Bad Wolf' in which the Daleks harvest the tramps and the sick and the outcasts... and then start feeding on the TV audience which tunes in to watch bodies punished.

The episode has lots to say about faces, and how we acquire them.  The Doctor chooses (unconsciously, presumably) his new face as a way of being honest with Clara and trusting her.  He initially finds it hard to recognise as himself.  Vastra's face is also the key to understanding and accepting her.  You perceive a veil if you are unprepared to see and accept who she is.  The droid has half a face (why couldn't he have become a Springheel Jack-style urban legend called Jack Half-a-Face? - that would've been awesome) because he unconsciously recognises that it is not his own.  He is contrasted with the Doctor and Vastra in that his face is a lie that he essentially rejects despite his attempts to accept it, whereas they performatively reject their own faces as a way of making others accept their honesty.

Vastra's larder mirrors the larder of the droids, their store cupboard of human bits and bobs.  It also mirrors the remark the Doctor makes to Clara about all restaurants being slaughterhouses, and his not remembering her becoming a vegetarian.  (As a longstanding veggie myself, I liked that bit - though his attitude was condescending... but then, let's face it, the Doctor is often morally condescending, and so are vegetarians.)  Vastra's larder is full of human bits and bobs too (its implied) and may even double as her slaughterhouse for killing murderers and harvesting their haunches and sirloin, so to speak.  In this she is quite well assimilated into Victorian society, which totally recognised the supposed propriety of slaughtering those found guilty of crimes and then re-using their bodies.

All this business of dismembered bodies, harvesting, cannibalism, absorbtion and the salvaging of human detritus yet again raises the issue of the rendering of humans as mere meat - a perenniel obsession of Doctor Who.  And also, the intrusion of the machine into the human body, of the product into the producer, of the fetishized commodity back into the human food chain as both child and dominator.

People really don't understand this show at all.  It's like when Shakespeare gets called a 'national poet' or 'sweet swan of Avon' of 'honey-tongued Shakespeare' etc.  He's supposedy a poet of love, romance, patriotism, etc... if you read him, he's actually a poet obsessed with hate, cruelty, evil, cynicism, hypocrisy, bombast, bullshit, selfishness, malignant narcissism, internalised self-loathing and failure.  Doctor Who is supposed by some to be the 'triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism'.  Wrong.  Firstly, much of Doctor Who doesn't even recognise a contradiction between romance and intellect on the one hand, and brute force and cynicism on the other.  Secondly, the show is absolutely obsessed with entropy, commodification, fetishism, cannibalism, humans as meat, etc... and that's without getting into even more overt obsessions like class, sadism and tyranny.

The droids in 'Deep Breath' are reverse Cybermen.  They are robots harvesting human meat to make themselves human rather than humans creating bionic bits to make themselves robots.  This suggests a echoing universal lack of any Aristotelian perfect mean, a correct middle ground.  There are only equally horrific extremes which converge from opposite directions... at least when you factor in the conflict between the meat that produces (humans) and the metal they produce.  Also implied is a sort of universally unsatisfiable yearning for transfiguration and transcendence.  Everyone everywhere wants to be something else, something better.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  This is standard liberal hand-wringing, especially when you factor in the soft-Dawkinsian stuff about there being no promised land.  This is partly a new-Atheist-style rejection of religion (with Missy the evil woman claiming to represent paradise) but also a regulation liberal rejection of the utopian as a form of dangerous extremism.  Of course, the utopianism of Jack Half-a-Face is situated within the semiotic scheme of Victoriana and doggerel-Steampunk, so it could be seen as a rejection of the Victorian high-industrial dream of a perfect society acheieved through industry, empire and officially-overseen progress, with morality instilled in thrifty workers and natives via the go-getting top hat brigade.

But he gets impaled on Big Ben... hoist with his own petard?  Confronted by his own values?  Or skewered by the triumphant expression of human (i.e. British and imperial) superiority?