Friday, 28 February 2014

The Adventure of the Irritated Narrator

It was in the spring of 18-- when I returned to Baker Street after a lengthy sojurn in the wilds of Dorsetshire.  It had been some months since I had last called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes and so I found myself quite anxious to renew that acquaintance which had, over the years, led to my involvement in various grotesque and singular events, many of which I have subsequently recounted for the interest of readers. 

I was let in by Mrs Hudson and climbed the 19 steps up to the rooms which I had once shared with Holmes before my marriage, the old wound from the jezail bullet troubling me but a little. 

I found Holmes slumped in an armchair, smoking a long clay pipe and seemingly locked in a brown study.  He barely responded to my halloas, giving only the faintest twitch of one of his eyebrows to acknowledge my arrival.

Well used to my strange friend's extremes of mood and temper, and the sullenness which was wont to affect him during fallow periods when he happened to have no case to stimulate his restless desire for intellectual work, I did not take offence.  Instead I sat myself down opposite him before the fireside and regarded Holmes with a watchfulness which I found it hard to disguise.

How well I recalled the years when I, a bachelor in those days, had shared these rooms, these chairs, this fireside with the most brilliant consulting detective in the world. 

It seemed an age before Holmes took full notice of my presence.

"Watson," he said through the gritted teeth clamped around the stem of the pipe, "you have been in Dorsetshire, I see.  How was the 12.22?  I usually find it rather inclined to be tardy.  I observe that you stopped by at Romano's on the way here.  Did you enjoy your kippers?"

"Oh fuck off Holmes," I said.  And walked out.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Glug Glug Glug

Read this.  Please.

Want a taster?  Here are some sentences from the article:

Almost as soon as it took office, this government appointed a task force to investigate farming rules. Its chairman was the former director general of the National Farmers' Union.

Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water – instead of percolating into the ground – is now pouring off the fields.

The crop which causes most floods and does most damage to soils is the only one which is completely unregulated.

We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.

I propose a new fly-on-the-wall docudrama: 'Benefit Farm', detailing how the feckless, greedy, welfare-guzzling farmers are to blame for "Sunken Britain".

Monday, 17 February 2014

Catching Them at Their Best

The Pex Lives boys have done a supplemental podcast about the Star Trek movies.  Got me thinking about why I like Star Trek IV so much.  I decided to try writing something about it, since anything that even vaguely twitches my interest is worth grabbing hold of at the moment, what with my blogging mojo being critically ill and lying, sobbing and wailing, in a deep dark pit.

I don't like the movie because it's 'tongue-in-cheek' or because I have any sort of ideological attachment to the idea that SF in general (or Trek in particular) should be 'self-aware' or anything like that.  I like it because it is, essentially, a movie about a bunch of old relics from the 60s wandering around Regan's America and disapproving of it heartily.

This is not a deep movie.  It isn't hard to parse.  No great leaps of interpretation are needed.  Just look at what happens.

In order to survive in 80s San Franciso, Kirk must sell his beloved spectacles, a gift from Bones.  He, a man who - as we learn from this film - comes from a culture without money, must commodify something precious to him.

In order to achieve their aims, Bones and Scotty must - essentially - bribe a sexist business manager with promises of the untold wealth which will come from a new commodity.  Commodification again.

In the course of acquiring some radiation (or something) Chekhov gets arrested by the US Navy, gets interrogated, called a "retard" and a "Russkie" by paranoid officers, and is chased to the point where he sustains a life-threatening injury.

In the course of rescuing him, Bones encounters an elderly woman, in need of dialysis, waiting unattended and forgotten on a gurney in a hospital corridor.

Kirk and Spock encounter a representative of a moribund counter-culture where the best the 'rebellious youth' can offer is loud anti-social music which screeches that "we're all bloody worthless".  (This is, admittedly, rather unfair on Punk.  The depiction is, at best, a clueless and curmudgeonly parody... but then, by this point in the 80s, the real remnants of Punk were, at best, commercialised and decontextualised parodies of the Punk movement.)

Kirk and Spock must team up with a right-on scientist who seems to be the only person who gives a shit about the whales.  Just as the animals are likely to be slaughtered for commercial reasons once they are sent back into the wild, so the reasons for their being so sent are implicitly commercial: they're not enough of a draw to make them economically viable for the cash-strapped institute.

As if all this weren't enough, how does Kirk justify Spock's eccentric behaviour?  He places him in the context of the 60s.

Diegetically, Kirk et al are from 'the future'... but, in this film, the future = America's past.  Specifically, the crew are played as displaced representatives of the culture from which they extra-diegetically come: the 60s.  They are remnants of utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism.  Now, however much wrong there may have been with utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism (and there was a fuck-ton wrong with it), it was mostly preferable to Reaganism, and - more importantly - certainly entailed popular ideas that were far in advance not only of Reaganism but also of its own actual practice.  Similarly, however much old Trek may have frequently failed to live up to the best principles and promises of utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism (Josh Marsfelder is especially good on this), it also entailed popular ideas far in advance of its own actual practice.  One way or another, the widespread popular idea of Trek that emerges from the mixed-truth of its original 60s run is a progressive and idealistic one.

So these ageing progressives from another time come to Reagan's America.  They encounter resuscitated Cold War paranoia, decaying hospitals, underfunded science, omnipresent commodification, etc.

In this context, they stick out like sore thumbs.  And, as mentioned, Kirk passes off the noticeably hippyish behaviour of Spock (he wears robes and swims with whales) as echoes of his past in the 60s counter-culture.  He speaks of the "free speech movement" on US campuses, associating them with the Civil Rights movement - implying that he sees the entire rebellion as all of a piece and part of a struggle for democracy.  Even the druggie counter-culture is referenced as being bound up with this "free speech movement".

The 60s meets 'Save the Whales' and builds a bridge between the past and the future (the film archly reverses them and pretends that the past is actually the future).

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not about to plonk down my DVD copy of this and call it my manifesto.  There are lots of problems with it... not least the grumpy emphasis on anti-social people in the streets, and the pessimism that means that Dr Gillian Taylor (the right-on cetacean biologist) has to escape back into the past/future because there's nothing left for her in the 80s.  But it's a thing of melancholy beauty nonetheless.

Another repudiation of popular 80s ideology there.
(Image stolen from )

"You're not exactly catching us at our best," says Kirk.

I beg to differ.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The aliens... They're just so... alien

J.K. Rowling recently reignited the Potterite shipping-wars by saying that she should never have coupled Ron with Hermione.

Among the things she apparently doesn't regret putting into the world's most widely-read/seen Fantasy franchise of recent decades are the following:

  • Gold-obsessed Goblin bankers with big noses and a nigh-communistic inability to comprehend or respect 'human' notions of private property.
  • A race of willing slaves with brown skin, huge rolling eyes and 'pickaninny' speech patterns.
  • Giants who are born savage and thick, and who live in 'primitive' tribes.

Lest it be thought that I'm singling Rowling out for special snark, let me broaden this out immediately.  The SF/Fantasy genre, as a whole, contains a discourse of race that represents a peculiarly insidious reflection of racial ideology.  Race pervades these genres as a category.  Tolkien's Middle Earth is full of different 'races'.  The world of Star Trek is full of different 'races'.  The world of Doctor Who is full of different 'races'.  Just think how often we are assailed with 'races' in Fantasy that can be told apart by both physical characteristics (the blonde hair of the Thals, the crinkly noses of the Bajorans, etc.) and apparently inborn social characteristics.  The Doctor pronounces the Jaggaroth "a vicious, callous, warlike race" (my emphasis).  A social trait (the tendency to make war) is thus ascribed a racial origin.  And the ones I've mentioned are just some of the best known and most mainstream. 

Let's look at another extreme example, which shows a particular kind of Fantasy worry about race:

There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today—I don’t know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst—fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ’em—they used to have lots of horse trouble before autos came in.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth, written in 1931.

This is particularly interesting because the story is about 'race-mixing', expressing Lovecraft's bigoted horror of 'miscegenation'.  But he wasn't writing in a vacuum.  He was a product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries...  and, indeed, being a man stolidly stuck to the past, he was also a distillation of much of the American 19th century.

The American 19th century was a period of intense construction of race and 'races' as a social category (which is what 'race' is with reference to human ethnicity; as a biological idea it's essentially meaningless).  To quote Richard Seymour:

Historically, the act of oppression that produced the category of race preceded the systematic pseudo-scientific classification of human variation along racial lines. This was true, according to Theodore Allen, in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy, and it was true in colonial America. What happened first was that a group would be singled out on the basis of some characteristic or other, and excluded from the normal citizenship rights enjoyed by the rest of society no matter how poor. Then, that group would be racialised – a process known as ‘race-making’. As David Roediger points out, this was a very efficient way of stratifying labour markets – colour-coding them, dividing them, making them politically more manageable, and increasing the rate at which it is possible to exploit them. In the history of US industrial relations, ‘race management’ is thus a prominent strategy.

And once this process begins, it doesn’t simply stop and ossify. It transforms in response to new political developments. So, new immigrant groups to America such as European Jews, Italians, the Irish, Poles, Hungarians, etc., would always be initially racialised. But as they consolidated their position in civil society, improved their bargaining power as labourers, and achieved political representation, they became ‘white’.

Look at this positively Lovecraftian bit of racial pseudo-science:

The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.

U.S. Army Surgeon Robert Bartholow, 1858.  

Could almost be a quote from Innsmouth.  But Bartholow was talking about the Mormons.  The idea that the Mormons represented, or were giving rise to, a 'new race' arose from the social practice of 'race-making' and was justified with reference to the ostensibly degenerate breeding practices involved with polygamy.  Note how Mormons are no longer considered a racial category.  Instead of remaining isolationist, the Mormon Church integrated itself into American capitalism.

This is how such acceptance tends to be achieved in SF/Fantasy too.  The Doctor accepts the Thals as people because they prove to share 'our' moral concerns.  The return of the king entails the alliance, by marriage, of humans and elves... though, of course, such inherently evil races as the goblins and orcs remain outside this integration.  In Rowling's last Potter novel, her lumpen Potterdammerung, the house elves are integrated into the fight against Voldemort, with Kreacher becoming acceptable when he leads the other house elves against Voldemort, crying loyalty to his former master.

Notice, also, that Rowling links race-mixing to social integration.  On the surface, this is the exact reverse of any fear about 'mixed blood'.  Hagrid is the product of a union between human and giant that would've horrified Lovecraft (and probably have given Martin Freeman an excuse to make another rape joke).  On the other hand, Hagrid's acceptance as a 'human' (despite his 'mixed-ancestry') is both nowhere near as important within the novels as the acceptance of muggleborns or half-blood humans, and is also linked to his utter passivity and subservience... his integration into the social order.