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.