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.)