Friday, 28 March 2014

The Perfect Companion

Yes, the female companions of the Moffat era are smart, strong, capable, multi-talented, capable, prone to saving the day, etc.

But this is just the job of the companion.  Even the worst of the classic series companions - Victoria, Dodo, etc - gets to be smart, strong, capable, etc when required.  They don't tend to save the day in the classic series, but they always do what is needed and expected of them.  It's a tautology: the companions do the companion things more or less successfully.  That's not something that's entirely untroubling, but - for good or ill - it's how this works.  In the revived series, a great deal more is expected of the companions.  It's actually worrying just how much is expected of Martha.  But the point is that they all step up because that's what they're in the text to do.  The ones that don't, fail to be companions (i.e. Adam).

You also have to look at what they do and what happens to them on top of their basic role as companion.  Rose rejects the roles of shop worker, daughter, girlfriend, etc. in favour of gradually becoming a committed social actor.  Sadly, she is reabsorbed into such roles by the end (a major disappointment).  Martha throws herself into the role of social actor to a huge extent, ultimately rejecting the Doctor because he cannot satisfy her level of newly self-created level of self-esteem.  Donna escapes her emotionally unsatisfying family life and work life to, once again, become a social actor.  The theft of this from her is horrific, and is clearly meant to be.  It all goes wrong by the end of the RTD era, with them all married off, etc.  But this, however awful (and it is crushingly awful), is still a relatively late development.

The early-to-mid Moffat-era companions, by contrast, are given the arrangement of their domestic lives as their main extra-curricular activity (so to speak) on top of their 'duties' as a companion, right the way through.

Amy's character - i.e. what she does, says and thinks on top of all the fulfilment of 'companion duties' - is focused upon getting married or not getting married, being a mother or not being a mother, having a domestic home life or not having a domestic home life, being a wife, saving her marriage, etc, etc etc.  The Doctor actually intervenes, several times, to ensure that her personal life runs along the proper lines.  Whereas, in the RTD era, the Doctor was a force that (selfishly) drew the women out of the confines of personal and work life and into the wider arena of social action, in the Moffat era the Doctor actively tries to provide Amy with a perfect, middle-class domestic idyll.  House.  Car.  Marriage.  Etc.

River is ostensibly an archaeologist, or sometimes an assassin, but her character arc (if the random string of things she does can be called a character arc) is all about her assimilation into stability via her romance with, and marriage to, the Doctor.  Far from dragging her out of domesticity into social action, the Doctor saves her by dragging her the other way...and she does the same to him.

Clara, it must be admitted, is a little different.  She's got hardly any personal life at all, and has her duties on top of this absence.  They are initially employment duties which seem to meld strangely with her companion duties (i.e. the kids in 'Nightmare in Silver').

She's interesting actually, because she's an inflection of the true neoliberal ideal of the female as both domestic provider and multi-tasking worker.  Her work is domestic.  But she also plays whatever role is required of her by whatever episode she's in.  She is fractured into multiple selves, all of whom perform necessary tasks.  She's even shown to literally moonlight between two jobs in 'The Snowmen'. 

The objection that she doesn't revolve around the Doctor because she chooses to enter his timelines and save him, and that she is therefore her own woman and the solution to her own riddle, flounders on the realisation that she has, essentially, accepted a job or a duty and the fracturing of self that this entails.

Admittedly, Clara is not depicted without a certain occasional ambivalence towards the idea of absorbtion into the workforce as a multi-tasking, multi-skilled drone with multiple jobs.  In her debut proper, 'The Bells of Saint John', she is caught in a vast corporate machinery of soul-sucking employment.  However, ultimately, the inescapability of neoliberalism is arrived at, once again, as she enters a similar kind of self-fracturing machinery of work by her own choice.  The 'good' machinery rather than the bad.  The ultimate irony here may be that the self-fracturing machinery of work in question, the supposedly good machinery, her ultimate destination, turns out to be the Doctor himself.

No, actually, that's not quite an irony...  because this has always been latent in the companions, to a greater or lesser extent, almost since day one.  Remember above, when I said that it wasn't entirely untroubling that companions had to fulfill certain demands and do certain jobs simply in order to remain functional within the texts as companions?  Clara may be the final and open acceptance, on the part of the show, of one version of what the companion is: a precariously employed worker with great and various demands made upon them because of their (usually) voluntary decision to serve the Doctor.  She is the moment when that troubling, duty-laden, ideologically market-based conception, triumphs over the others.

Does this mean, then, that the pre-Clara Moffat companions are actually the most liberated from this syndrome, given the emphasis placed on their private lives aside from their 'duties'?  Well no, I don't think so.  They are still dragged away from the role of social actor - the potential positive flipside of the 'Doctor's happy worker' model - by their entanglement within extremely gendered conceptions of personal/emotional life.  They are dragged away from being either workers or social actors by also being women.

The better course to have taken would have been to trump RTD's failed (self-betrayed) project to fully embrace the companion as transitioning from the truncation of personal life under neoliberalism into independant - sometimes emancipatory - social action.  Instead, one way or another, Moffat does the exact opposite.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Piece of Cake

Someone nice on tumblr just asked me:

Do you think that it's fair to criticize a work of art for the failings of the culture around it? This is a question I've been mulling over the past few days and I'm sure you have an interesting response.

My answer got a bit long, so I decided - opportunistically - to post it here.


I think the terms of the question are worth investigating.

What do we mean by 'failings'?

What do we mean by 'culture around it'?

Failure is, of course, subjectively judged.  Something I think is bad may be seen as good - or neutral, or normal, or inescapable - by others.

It is perfectly possible for something that is a 'failure' with regards to general human wellbeing to be a 'success' for a social system.  (The wellbeing of the working class, in any class society, always being more universal than that of the minority loafing class.)

Indeed, I think that if you look at the vast majority of mainstream media culture as it has existed in modern capitalist society - including and perhaps even especially with reference to narrative culture - then you see that it pretty unambiguously touts and celebrates values and/or activities that are failures when it comes to promoting general human wellbeing but successes when it comes to propping up and reproducing a social order dominated by the class that owns and controls capital.

*phew* long sentence.

This is the 'culture around it'...


I think it's really important to realise that art doesn't just sit there surrounded by culture.  It is culture.

We would expect any product to bear the hallmarks of its production, or the materials from which it was produced.  It's just common sense to expect a cultural product to bear such hallmarks... and that's without looking at any of the elaborate processes by which supply, demand, distribution, advertisement, hegemony, etc winnow cultural products out of circulation, or just prevent their production in the first place.

More deeply, just as the self is not a thing that exists in the world but is rather a dialectical process that we individuate from the wider set of processes that we call the world, so is art not a thing in the world but a chosen locus of relations, inter-relations and inter-reactions.

A cultural product is, from one standpoint, an individuated unit... but that standpoint is actually a form of commodity fetishism.  The cultural product as an entity that lives in the world, that says things and thinks things.  Thinking about cultural products that way is inescapable to a large extent, because it's impossible for us to step outside of culture and look in.

The very fetishising of commodities which leads us create cultural products as things, and treat them like entities, is also what makes them very hard to perceive as anything else.

You could say that the entire project of modern criticism has been concerned with attempts to find ways through this maze.

And yet... the analysis which allows us to see the cultural product as a fetishised commodity, produced by a cultural industry which actively perpetuates and reproduces itself, is also the analysis which can provide a way to see the cultural product relatively clearly... and a big part of the method for doing so is also suggested by the same analysis, at least when properly applied.

There's a vulgar Marxist approach which sees the circumstances of production as deterministic of the 'meaning' of a cultural product.  This, ironically enough, fails because it entails a reiteration of the exact same fetishising of commodities, not to mention a fetishising of production at the expense of other sites on the circuit of capital.

This is not a true Marxist approach because true Marxism sees commodities - indeed, capital in general - as relations rather than things (albeit relations fundamentally grounded in the material, which is to say the social).  This is really what is meant by - or is at least a good demonstration of - dialectical materialism (forget about vulgarised state religions). 

Luckily, this kind of vulgar Marxism is more honoured in the breach than the observance, at least outside of phone box cults or rump Stalinist states (their big cousins).

I'd argue for a dialectical-materialist way of looking at texts.  That's the analysis which remembers that the text is a social relation, produced by social relations, and viewed by social relations.

This would involve such basics as:

i) always remembering that they are social products, produced for material reasons,

ii) always remembering that, in a system of generalised commodity production, such cultural products are going to be overwhelmingly produced as commodities, or subject to commodification, etc.

iii) always remembering that, "in any epoch, the dominant ideas will be the ideas of the ruling class" [approximate quote from Marx, from memory]


iv) always remembering that we cannot step outside the current social relations, ideological relations or dominant hierarchies in order to, as it were, see the text and its culture from the outside, from a disengaged and impartial standpoint,

v) that we must, therefore, take sides.  We must take a side simply in order to see the text anything like 'square on'.  Not from an impartial standpoint, but from a standpoint which recognises that no such asocial view is even possible.

Before we can even start judging the cultural product itself, we need to accept that it exists in and as part of a matrix of social relations which are hierarchical, self-perpetuating, fetishised, but also inescapably social.  We need to have a standpoint from which to judge what constitutes a 'failure'. 

This, I think, is an especially pronounced need when we're talking about anything with a story.  Because stories are almost always, on some fundamental level, implicitly posing issues of justice and injustice.  Even if only by negation.  That may not be trans-historically true, but it's at least largely true in the bourgeois West in the modern era (which is understandable when you consider the cultural revolution brought about by the bourgeois revolutions and the subsequent rise of 'morality' as an ideological prop of bourgeois culture - which is always double-edged because of its partly revolutionary and emancipatory origins).

I think the idea of judging a work of art aside from the values of the culture around it is just impossible in real terms.  It's like trying to judge a slice of cake aside from the taste of the rest of the cake.  The slice is something you make, by violence, not a property of the cake itself.  The work of art is like this.  We make it a slice by viewing it out of context.  But we can't then judge it alone.  To taste it and evaluate its flavour is to evaluate the flavour of the entire cake.  Try and do otherwise and you'll fail.  Having said that, rummaging around in the rest of the cake is vital.  The slice you tasted may happen to be the bit with no arsenic in it.  That doesn't put you in a very good position to judge the whole cake.  On the other hand, the slice you cut may happen to have failed to intersect with the file hidden inside the cake... the file which might just contribute (as something that was originally an innocuous commodity, but which your friend on the outside has socially repurposed) to your escape.

Remember, to you, the file is a success.  To the Warden, the file is a failure.

To say that art - or texts, or cultural products, or whatever - are an integral part of bourgeois culture is not necessarily to say that they are useless.  They may have emancipatory promise, much as Duchamp's readymades had promises beyond their origins as commodities, once he assisted them into new contexts.

They may be relations rather than things, but then so are we.

See.  Piece of cake.


1.  I don't use Marx's term 'fetishism' with reference to commodification without an awareness that the whole concept of fetishism is Eurocentric and racist.  Marx, I'd argue, utilised the concept and turned it against bourgeois culture, thus making it fight against such Eurocentrism and racism.   See David McNally for a nice little parenthetical discussion of this.

2.  Nothing above is particularly original.  I just can't be bothered to go looking for sources and quotes.  Read the usual suspects.

3.  This post shows me up, because I very often fail to bother with anything like this level of theoretical thinking when I actually tap something about some TV show/film/book I've just consumed into Facebook/twitter/tumblr/Shabgraff.

4.  I'd agree with China Mieville that sometimes there just isn't anything very much to say about a particular cultural product, precisely because its a commodity.  We get over invested in our commodities (this blog is evidence of that) and forget that they sometimes lack even a semblance of semiotic density.  Even when a text can be interpreted against the dominant culture, subjected to detournement, or mined for abuse of bourgeois values, that doesn't always make it significant enough to be worth picking on.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Policy Announcement

I hate having to delete comments.  You can leave a comment saying I'm wrong, disagreeing with me violently, that's all fine.  But I won't publish comments that contain ableist slurs.  I don't refuse to publish comments lightly, but that'll do it.

This is something the vast majority of my lovely comment-leavers would never do, of course.

Friday, 21 March 2014



News from Elsewhere II: This Time It's Polemical

I've done another guest post for Phil Sandifer's site, here.  He wanted someone to put a case against the Moffat era before he proceeded to post his own thoughts about it.  He asked me to provide and, despite the obvious dangers, I bravely agreed... to attack someone who can't answer back without looking like a massive prick.  Still, I've done it before.  Just never on a site with an actual readership.  The scarier thing is how Phil's own subsequent posts will stamp all over me. 

I've steered well clear of having a go at the man personally, which means I've not engaged with any of his troubling public statements.  I've tried to argue from the texts.

Phil has called my post 'A Case for the Prosecution'.  I'm glad he put "A" rather than "The", because - inevitably - my attempt will disappoint some of the many people who care about this issue, not least because I didn't have time to do much more than cobble together a (relatively) brief overview. 

To me, this bit of writing will always be called the 'Anti-Moffat'.  Not that I compare myself to Engels.  In his Anti-Dühring, Engels not only wrote a blistering polemic, he also did the one thing that genuinely makes polemic valuable: he explained his own, alternative view.  It became one of the most brilliant and inspiring elaborations of Marxism ever written.  I, by contrast, have failed to even come away with something positive to say about what my favourite TV show should be like.  I also failed - apart from the odd hint - to find space to put the Moffat era in its historical and political context, as the Who of late neoliberalism, ongoing crisis, backlash and austerity.  (Maybe I'll put all that in the book.)

So, basically, it's just a whinge.  But an entertaining one, I hope.

Engels.  Some people say Marxism wasn't as good after he took over.

ADDITIONAL, 23/03/14:  Richard Cooper, over at his blog 'Finger-Steepling and Sharks', also has an excellent essay about the issue of Moffat and sexism, here, which pre-dates mine.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Resist in Peace Tony Benn

Paul Foot on Tony Benn in the LRB:

For nearly a century, Labour MPs have been going to Parliament to change the world, but have ended up changing only themselves. Tony Benn is unique. He went to Parliament to change himself, but has ended up determined only to change the world. This extraordinary conversion has taken place not on the backbenches, where a young socialist’s revolutionary determination is often toughened by being passed over for high office, but in high office itself. Indeed, the higher the office Tony Benn occupied, the more his eyes were opened to the horror of capitalist society, and to the impotence of socialists in high office to change it.

And in his book, The Vote:

Any workers fighting redundancy, any school standing up for the comprehensive system, any persecuted foreigner seeking asylum could rely on his active support.  Again and again, he deliberately abandoned his base in Parliament and worked among those who, he hoped and believed, would one day trigger a new Chartist agitation, and a revolution from below.

In 1999, after two years of the Blair Government, he made a historic announcement: he would not be standing for Parliament in the 2001 general election.  He would be leaving Parliament 'in order to devote more time to politics'.  His own enormous experience in the highest places in the land drove him to the conclusion that the place to fight was in the lowest: that any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in Parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.


Despite his age and the cruel death from cancer of his wife, he continued resolutely down the path he had set himself: to argue and agitate for change from below.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Toy Stories

From the reminiscences of Eleanor Marx:

To my sisters — I was then too small — he told tales as they went for walks, and these tales were measured by miles not chapters. “Tell us another mile,” was the cry of the two girls. For my own part, of the many wonderful tales Mohr [Marx] told me, the most wonderful, the most delightful one, was “Hans Röckle.” It went on for months and months; it was a whole series of stories. The pity no one was there to write down these tales so full of poetry, of wit, of humour! Hans Röckle himself was a Hoffmann-like magician, who kept a toyshop, and who was always “hard up.” His shop was full of the most wonderful things — of wooden men and women, giants and dwarfs, kings and queens, workmen and masters, animals and birds as numerous as Noah got into the Arc, tables and chairs, carriages, boxes of all sorts and sizes. And though he was a magician, Hans could never meet his obligations either to the devil or the butcher, and was therefore — much against the grain — constantly obliged to sell his toys to the devil. These then went through wonderful adventures — always ending in a return to Hans Röckle’s shop. Some of these adventures were as grim, as terrible, as any of Hoffmann’s; some were comic; all were told with inexhaustible verve, wit and humour.

And Mohr would also read to his children. Thus to me, as to my sisters before me, he read the whole of Homer, the whole Nibelungen Lied, Gudrun, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights, etc. As to Shakespeare he was the Bible of our house, seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart.

On my sixth birthday Mohr presented me with my first novel — the immortal Peter Simple [adventure novel by the English writer Frederick Marryat]. This was followed by a whole course of Marryat and Cooper. And my father actually read every one of the tales as I read them, and gravely discussed them with his little girl. And when that little girl, fired by Marryat’s tales of the sea, declared she would become a “Post-Captain” (whatever that may be) and consulted her father as to whether it would not be possible for her “to dress up as a boy” and “run away to join a man-of-war,” he assured her he thought it might very well be done, only they must say nothing about it to anyone until all plans were well matured.