Monday, 29 June 2015

Theses on Hannibal

Series 3 of Hannibal is, of course, largely about people who have been horribly wounded.  Cut to pieces.  Shattered.  Reassembled.  Stitched back together in new shapes.  They’ve spent months ‘recovering’, only to discover that the process has fundamentally changed them.  They cannot ‘recover’ their old selves. 

The show itself is taking episodes to ‘recover’ from the trauma of the end of Series 2.  That episode horribly wounded the show itself.  Cut it to pieces.  Shattered it.  Dismembered it.  We are now watching a show, a formula, a set-up, in fragments.  Roughly stitched back together but unable to return to its former shape. 

If Series 1 was a police procedural slowly going mad because of its own affinities, and Series 2 was a police procedural actually being slowly and gradually usurped and warped by those ascendant affinities, Series 3 is a police procedural shattered into fragments and glued back together by a triage doctor in an afterlife casualty ward. 

Because Series 3 shouldn’t exist.  It shouldn’t be on the air.  It is the ghost of a television programme.  It is the reanimated zombie corpse of a television programme.  Series 3 is what television programmes look like after they’ve ended, after they've been cancelled and are no longer being made and only exist in the television afterlife.

Which is bitterly ironic, if you think about it.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Insider Trading

Remember Lance Parkin's Big Finish audio 'Davros'?  It's quite good, isn't it... if far too long.  But he does some interesting stuff with Davros' backstory, subverting your expectations a bit.  (It's got really good music too.)

Interesting stuff in it.  The Doctor is depicted as wanting to stop the fall of the corporations.  And, actually, I can see his point. At the moment, anyway.  And as long as we're talking about a sudden, instant fall.   

Simply remove capitalism at the touch of a button today and human civilisation as it stands would fall, and the human race might die out... for much the same reason that the animals in a battery farm would all die if you murdered all the farm workers and the crime went undiscovered for weeks. As bad as it is, it is currently how things work. The system doesn't function efficiently, or for human benefit, but it does basically function, and it relies upon keeping a sufficient number of people alive, and a sufficient level of social wellbeing going, simply because it lives off its human livestock. So it keeps the livestock alive by propping up the support systems that keep them alive, at least as a mass. 

On the other hand, isn't the continuation of capitalism itself a kind of slow-mo apocalypse?  Is the damage currently being wrought upon the planet's ecosystem not going to add up to the end of the world?  Does not the system as it stands condemn millions to death every year, and billions more to an alienated and impoverished living death?  There's a case for saying that quotidian reality itself is a crisis, that our day-to-day world is not only leading us to armageddon but that, even if we survive it, that would not automatically for the best?  Couldn't we reasonably say that the fall of the system, even in flames and mass-starvation, would not be inherently worse than allowing it to continue?

It's tempting to not only appreciate the aesthetics of apocalypse, but to go beyond such an appreciation as an asesthetic statement and turn it into a political one.  As cold-blooded as this sounds, isn't it possible to see the end of the world - millions of deaths and all - as a price worth paying for the end of capitalism?  The end of the world... I mean the end of the world as it stands economically, politically, culturally, structurally... would at least be general.  As the man said: "the thing about chaos is it's fair".  It could be seen as having greater moral integrity to say 'let it all come down' as opposed to 'prop it up at all costs until we can change it piecemeal and as peacefully as poss'.  Propping it up doesn't have such terrible consequences for me and a lot of other comfortable Western leftists and liberals.  I'm not personally all that harmed by day-to-day capitalism.  I don't like it, but my outrage is mainly on behalf of others, and on behalf of humanity generally.  It's abstract.  Meanwhile, billions of other people (people elsewhere; people usually darker skinned than me, etc) suffer very non-abstract grinding consequences from the limping along of the status quo.  Calling for the total, immediate, unconditional fall of capitalism however, would at least be bound to effect me negatively to some degree.  I'd take some hits from that.  I wouldn't be saying to the shanty-dwellers of the global south "yeah, I know it's bad, and I sympathise... but it could be worse for all of us, so you just stay where you are, and your kids too."  Exactly what have such people got to lose?  For a lot of them the best answer is probably 'only their chains'.  Well, isn't it selfish of me to moralise about the disastrous consequences of a conflagration that would melt those chains along with my laptop?

One of the hardest concepts to get people to come to terms with is the concept of structural violence.  The violence that the social superstructure does to us (to varying degrees according to who we are and where we are) every day.  People occasionally contact me to helpfully inform me that communism killed so many millions of people.  They tend to understand what I'm getting at if I point out the need to historicise such things, and if I point out that not everything that ever called itself 'communism' is neccesarily something I'd support, etc.  They don't agree but they understand what I'm saying.  The issue of the structural violence of capitalism, however, is almost never understood, even as a proposition.  Point out that capitalism as a historical epoch or mode of production has caused the deaths of far more people than all the political movements which called themselves 'communist' put together and you get head scratching, followed by accusations of goalpost-moving.  The idea that a historical mode of production might strucuturally cause genocide upon genocide (through generating war, colonialism, imperialism, poverty, back-breaking labour, stress, depression, racism, misogyny, etc etc etc, over centuries) is an encrypted anathema to most people.  And you can't really blame people.  From day one we are trained to view events like the Nazi holocaust as a random outgrowth of a fanatical ideology, rather than as a result of the imperialism of a capitalist state.  And 'our' own genocides are not even talked about, so we never need to ponder whether the Irish potato famine was an outgrowth of the fanatical ideology of free trade.

I'm working, by the way, on the assumption that we're talking about capitalism as the reigning global economic system rather than as an 'ethos' or a 'method' or anything like that.  (It's by no means clear from 'Davros' that Parkin sees things in this way, but that's by the by.)  I'm talking about, in the Marxist language, capitalism as a mode of production and as a world system.  The idea of capitalism as a historical mode entails a social superstructure built upon the economic base (we won't quibble here about exactly how this works).  The social superstructure includes the state.  Indeed, that's a way of putting it warrantable only as what scientists call a 'model', an explanatory simplification, akin to saying that a bird's wing is 'designed to be aerodynamic'.  The capitalist state isn't a 'thing' that sits somewhere in a framework of other 'things', all of which taken together constitute capitalist 'society'.  The state saturates every aspect of life for people who live in a modern capitalist productive mode.  The state is fundamentally a mode itself, a mode within a mode, rather than a 'bit' of capitalism.

Back on the subject of survival, the capitalist class is more than ready to tolerate and fund a 'strong state' in those areas where the market alone can't do the job of keeping survival going.  Capitalism doesn't always need everyone to survive, and at times it explicitly needs people to die, but it basically depends upon the survival and continuance of humanity and human social reproduction... I mean, it basically is a system of social reproduction, given that (in the Marxist view) the basis of the social is the economic!  By that I just mean that 'economic', in the Marxist sense, refers to the mode whereby societies make the things they need in order to reproduce.  (I'm straying into a forest of tautologies here, but some tautologies do need to be pointed out or people don't notice them.)

Capitalism, via the state or otherwise, is equally capable of managing the production of mass death, when it needs mass death instead.  It is also prepared - as we see with people like Ian Duncan Smith - to use the state for purposes of structural mass homicide within the confines of a domestic state apparatus... when such strategies are a) a side-effect of an austerity project, or b) a salutary warning of the consequences of unwillingness or even inability to conform to ideological discipline.

The state doesn't seem to exist in Parkin's picture of a future effectively run by corporations.  The corporations themselves seem to fill the gap left by the state.  I think this is pretty unlikely, just as I'm sceptical of the kind of rhetoric which sees Late Capitalism as trying to restructure the world along the lines of a kind of neo-feudalism.  But, of course, Parkin isn't involved in futurology or actual prognostication.  He's playing the age-old (and thoroughly venerable) game of commenting on the present by exaggerating characteristics of it in the notional narrative space of 'the future'.  But this leads us to another interesting irony: the story critiques capitalism while the literal meaning of the text is that capitalism will endure well into the future.  

Again, this scenario is hardly an innovation on Parkin's part (I hope I don't sound like I'm snarking at him - that isn't my intention) so he can hardly be held responsible for it, as if it were a brand new technique which he pioneered for some new and unique purpose of his own.  It happens again and again in SF in general, and in Doctor Who in particular.  And why not?  As in 'Davros', it is a technique which can open up possibilities for critique ranging from the mild to the savage to the wistful.  'Davros' is fairly strong in its aesthetic contempt for corporations.  Parkin is especially strong on poking fun at corporate PR doublespeak and management jargon.  There are blissful scenes where Davros gets angry at being regaled with phrases like "blue skies initiative" and asks "Did you resurrect me merely to gibber at me?".  Meanwhile, the Doctor gets offered advice on corporate dress codes from an implant stuck in his ear which bullies him about protocol.  Hilariously, he is told (this is Six we're talking about, remember) that if he wishes to mark himself out as an individual within the office context he can choose from some pre-chosen novelty ties.  

But the point I was making was that the postulation of corporate capitalism as a triumphant and enduring system centuries hence, surviving to the point where corporations dominate human civilisation across a multi-planet galactic empire, actually bolsters capitalism more than it attacks it.  It buys into the lie of capitalism as a kind of transcendent and ahistorical plane of eternity.  It buys into the lie that the system, with all its iniquities, is so well adapted to 'human nature' that it will carry on as long as we remain fallen, selfish things.  It buys into the lie that capitalism can rid itself of crisis and reach eternal equilibrium.  Even the economic collapse that is threatened within the story comes from outside the system, from the extraordinary and malicious intervention of an ancient alien.  (He's also a fascist... remember what we were saying earlier about the systemic evils of capitalism being reframed as aberrant horrors caused by ideological fanatics?)  This isn't to say that simply depicting the survival of capitalism is a lie because it ignores crisis.  For all its inbuilt and inescapable systemic predisposition to crises, capitalism has survived.  Indeed, the crises are part of how it survives.  The expansions and contractions are like respiration.  It's quite true, I suspect, that capitalism (periodic crises and all) would probably be capable of maintaining itself as a system across different planetary societies.  It would be foolish indeed to set any kind of plausibility threshold on the capabilities of capitalism.  The system is incredibly hardy and dynamic, and is probably limited only by pre-existing material constraints.  Remove such constraints by opening up a new natural biosphere and I imagine capitalism would have a bloody good try at spreading into it.  However, it should now be clear to any thinking person that capitalism has set a very near date for its own fall simply because it is in the process of destroying the viability of what is currently its sole natural biosphere.  We're not anywhere near escaping this planet any time soon.  Meanwhile, the destruction wrought upon the natural environment by capitalist industry is inducing a terrifyingly near extinction event scenario.  I was saying earlier that capitalism basically keeps most of us alive because it needs us.  That's only a short term thing.  Capitalism (being an aggregation of competing capitals rather than a sentient group mind) is very bad at long terms.  It will exploit a buck today and fuck tomorrow.  Which is essentially what it has done to the entire planet and its ability to sustain human life.  Put plainly: we won't have time to colonize other worlds; we'll all die on this one first.

Sorry to bum you out, it's just that we do need, as a species, to get the grips with this truth.  And writing SF which satirises capitalism by setting stories about capitalism in the future really doesn't help.  It actually helps to push the idea that we'll survive our current environmental crisis and go out into the universe.  These stories help lull us into a false sense of security.  They're just one note in a symphony of false reassurance, but still.  There's a very real sense in which stories like 'Davros' (and 'The End of the World' and 'The Sun Makers', etc) contribute towards the likely destruction of all life on Earth.  Again I ask... is the instant and catastrophic fall really all that terrible a concept?

Also interesting to me is the way the audio play in question apparently believes - or at least portrays all its characters (including the Doctor) as believing - that the fluctuations of the market could (at least theoretically) be predicted with absolute precision with a sufficiently powerful bit of maths. This is not only reductionism and determinism of an extremely crude kind (a similar kind of crude reductionism and determinism to that which Davros is shown to indulge in when it comes to social Darwinism, etc) but also a form of commodity fetishism.  It imagines a social and man-made phenomenon like the market as working like natural, physical process such as fluid dynamics. Of course, it's by no means certain that this idea isn't just a chimera of Davros's diseased and reactionary brain, which the other characters credit because of his avowed intellectual power, or their own positionality within a corporate system.

Working on the assumption that the equation could successfully predict the stock market, it would presumably only give you a picture of what the stock market would do as long as you chose not to act on your foreknowledge.  I mean, that's kind of the inherent nature of all predictive calculations: to provide an ostensible snapshot of the future, based on the extrapolation of the present and past, with predictable interventions taken into account and sans any other unpredictable intervention which (by definition) can't be included as a variable.  If the prediction concerns a human organised system open to human intervention, the moment you act on your supposed foreknowledge you alter the state of the reality that has been predicted.  This would probably be more of a problem the more powerful the predictive modelling was.  The more exact its predictions, the more delicately balanced they are.  Of course, if only one person has possession of the equation, and this person alone intervenes, the model might well work for them.  They would be coming to the party late, so to speak.  Their interest in a certain sector of the market would effectively post-date the interest of other investors, even if the equation-user actually invested before the others.  There is a strange way in which the predictive equation (assuming it worked as well as Davros says it would) would actually warp the temporal sequence.  As perfect foreknowledge, it would be a little like time travel.  What this suggests to me is the irony of the Doctor's foreknowledge.  The Doctor has never, as far as we know, used his access to time travel to ascertain in advance the winning lottery numbers, or the winner of the Grand National, or the state of tommorrow's Dow Jones.  More the Monk's style, that one.  But he could do it, if he wanted to.  Effectively, the Doctor is already in possession of the power that Davros claims to wield in the form of his equation.  He could generalise future stock market knowledge obtained from voyages to the future, just as easily as Davros could generalise the equation.  According to this story, the Doctor has, and has always had, the power to bring down capitalism.

This may just be a restatement of something we pretty much knew anyway, but it does rather bring it into focus.  The Doctor is manifestly one of those comfortable people saying "sit tight and wait" to the people who have nothing to lose but their chains.  To his credit, however, and unlike many such people, he does actually get out there and help them make reforms and even revolutions from time to time.  There's also a case for saying that he, the eternal outsider, doesn't have the right to foist his solution upon us.  We should get to choose for ourselves if we want to cling to quotidian oppression in the hope of improvement, or to embrace the beautiful, beautiful, blood-splattered apocalyptic reset button.

Of course, in order to see the Doctor this way, you do have to buy into Davros' assertion that generalising the equation would bring down capitalism.  Firstly, as noted, this involves accepting his rampant reductionism and determinism.  Secondly, a stock market in which everybody has the ability to always predict what the stock market is going to do is very different from the kind of stock market the equation was designed to predict.  The equation's own effect, if generalised sufficiently widely, would cancel out its own power as a predictive tool.  The equation cannot possibly have the effect it supposedly threatens to have, even if - for the sake of argument - perfect mathematical predictions of random and socially contingent outcomes were even possible (which they aren't).  It simply must be an insane delusion on Davros' part, which everyone else is silly enough to believe because they're not economists. Or, more likely, because they are economists.  Mainstream neoclassical economics is about as intellectually and empirically secure as Creationism... and criticising Creationism is, as we know, like shooting fish in a barrel.  (Or rather, shooting fish that've grown legs and climbed out of a barrel.)

Now, this actually works! Corporate drones, CEOs, academics, liberal activists... none of them could be trusted not to credit the market with the ability to do, or be, the impossible.  But it's a little upsetting to see the Doctor going in for this kind of fetishizing of the market.  Especially when, by the logic of this same story, he manifestly has the power to destroy it.  The Doctor is caught in a paradox here.  If he fetishizes the market then he also has the power to destroy it.  If he refuses to fetishize the market, there's nothing he can do about it.  This is just the kind of paradox that capitalism generates and traps all of us in all the time.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Ark in Space Commentary, etc

Phil and myself are back with more episode commentaries, for 'The Ark in Space' this time.

Oh your lucky, lucky ears.

Download a zip containing all four episodes here.


In other audio news, Holly B of Comfortable Bohemian Elegance has begun a new podcasting project, City of the Dead, which will cover all the Amicus films.  She's accompanied by James Murphy of Pex LivesHere's episode one, covering the movie City of the Dead (AKA Horror Hotel) which features the late Christopher Lee.  It's a funny and thoughtful first episode, and the series looks well worth following.

It's really nice to see tabs like 'City of the Dead' and 'Eruditorum' and (of course) 'Shabcasts' appearing down the side of the Pex Lives Libsyn pageKevin and James really are generous and encouraging coves who are coaxing great content out of great people... and even some passable content out of me!  Long may they continue.

Oh Fuck Off

Oh, True DetectiveTrue Detective, True Detective, True Detective.  What are we going to do with you?


Season One’s undoubted quality was marred by the stock and shallow nature of the woman characters, by the show’s unrelenting focus on manfeels and manpain and the tortured, disoriented experience of masculinity in a world where the traditional masculine virtues are no longer zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

And you actually seem to have taken note of the criticism.  So for Season Two you’ve given us a woman character as co-lead.  She’s one of the three cops whose paths converge at the end of the first episode, and will presumably end up investigating this season’s plot alongside (in some sense) the highway patrolman one who can’t get his willy to go hard (at least in non-abusive situations) and the hard-drinking, miserable, semi-criminal Colin Farrell one.

But her bits of the episode are the weakest by far.  By far.  Noticeably weak, melodramatic, straightforward and rubbish compared to the less-scrutable strands concerning the other two.  So jarringly crap that they almost seem to belong to a different, inferior show.  One of the bits of the Law & Order franchise, for example.

She’s got an unsatisfactory relationship with her needy boyfriend, towards whom she is perfunctory and cold, apparently just using him (not very effectively) for sex.  Aww, poor him.  His girlfriend must have ISSUES of some kind if her primary focus in life isn't servicing his emotional and penile needs.  (We meet the highway patrolman's girlfriend later.  Her primary focus in life seems to be servicing his emotional and penile needs.  Funnily enough, there's no indication at all that she has ISSUES of any kind... aside from pouty jealousy when he leaves her for even 8 seconds.)

Cop woman’s got a schizophrenic younger sister (we know she’s schizophrenic via the highly original and unclunky line “have you gone off your meds again?”) who is hostile towards her.  Cop woman had to look out for when their mother died which led to said younger sister being rebellious towards her and going off the rails, ending up on drugs and petty crime and porn (because, of course, no woman is a sex worker unless she has ISSUES).  Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that on TV before.

The woman cop finds out that her rebellious younger sister is doing porn by happening to raid the place where she happens to be doing porn.  So that’s not contrived at all.

We later learn of the underlying problem with Cop Woman's life, and guess what... it all traces back to a man!  Guess which man.  Go on, guess.  Yep, you guessed it: Daddy.  She’s got Daddy issues!  Colour me fucking astonished.

You know how we find out about said daddy issues?  She goes to see her partly-estranged father during the episode as a result of picking up a missing person case directly linked to his hippy self-help commune.  So she goes to investigate (’cos, on TV, detectives are always allowed to investigate cases involving their own families) and ends up having a fraught chat with Daddy... during which we learn, in dialogue so leaden and expository that it belongs in the early scenes of an 80s Bond film, that she holds him responsible for her mother’s suicide (what a fucking surprise) and that she joined the police as an act of rebellion against his hippy lifestyle (again, unprecedented in TV drama).

It might be argued that this is his analysis of her, and that the episode itself doesn’t necessarily back him... but it totally fucking does.  I admit, at first I thought he was meant to be a generic and unsympathetic hippy asshole (because everyone with a non-conventional and/or spiritual and/or anti-authority attitude in this kind of Dick Wolf shite is always some combination of narcissist, bullshit-artist, demagogue and cynical, self-serving fanatic) but the episode swings with him.  It tells us it’s doing so by allowing him the last word.  He gets to lecture his cop daughter about her daddy issues, and then, when she says “help your daughter” (referring to the sister) and storms off, he gets to say a wise and sad “I just did”.

Oh puh-fucking-leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaze.

Not that the rest of the episode is all that great.  But the bits which (like the entirety of Season One) involve the sympathetic and in-depth exploration of manpain and manfeels and and the tortured, disoriented experience of masculinity in a world where the traditional masculine virtues are no longer zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz are at least competently executed, and don’t look like the first draft of someone’s first attempt at a script at film school.  The woman cop gets generic, cliched, recycled, melodramatic huffiness and prudishness and sister-problems and daddy issues.  The male cops get edgy, dark torment and poetic forays into melancholy disillusion.  It's almost like somebody gave a shit about the manfeels material but not about the girly bits.  Huh.

Mind you, the Colin Farrell one got at least one line that actually made me groan.

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid,” he growls into a taped message for his son, “but astronauts don’t even go the moon anymore.”

Oh fuck off.  Seriously, fuck off.  Fuck off and come back so you can fuck off again.  And keep fucking off until you’ve reached the outermost coastline of Fuckoffland and then keep fucking off so you fall off the white cliffs of Fuckoffland into the Fuckoffic Ocean.

Can we please stop getting drama about how hard it is to be a white dude in a post-myth, post-heroic world where white dudes are no longer allowed any dreams?  About how unfair it is that the bitch ex-wife who blames you for shit that wasn't your fault meanspiritedly insists upon marrying a new guy who isn't a total wanker... and sadistically insists you pay alimony... and satanically tries to restrict your ability to bully and harangue your son?

I don’t care, okay?

I do not.  Fucking.  Care.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Even Furiosa

Further to some objections I've had to my description of Mad Max: Fury Road as having reasonably good gender politics.  Trigger and Spoilers, obviously.

What Mad Max: Fury Road does - with its depiction of Furiosa - is to refuse to make violence the exclusive province of men, or to make men the only ones who are any good at it.  (Not unprecedented - but quite good.)  Furiosa gets to do all the trad-masculine things that Max does.  She's just as good at them as him.  This, apparently, is a big problem for those kinds of insecure, reactionary misogynitwits who drivel on about how women are weaker than men.  According to such douchenozzles, this is just a scientific fact, and it's not a man's fault if he just repeats the incontrovertible findings of Science.  In actuality, of course, what such bigoted ninnies are actually doing is regurgitating some half-digested sociobiologistic bullshit.  They then accuse feminists (who control Hollywood in their ideologically distorted, bass-ackwards bizzaro world) of playing a dirty, emasculating trick and oppressing men by spreading the vicious civilisation-eroding lie that not all women need a man to open jars for them.

The thing is, there is a rational kernal to some of these complaints (wait).  The complaint comes as a response to a genuine threat (I said wait).  The genuine threat which is correctly perceived by the bawling manbabies is a threat to their privilege.  You see, when Furiosa beats up some man just as well as Max can (including Max himself), or shoots a gun just as well as Max can, or drives a car just as well as Max can, what is being done is that these traditionally masculine behaviours are being completely detached from masculinity.  And what is being detached from masculinity is violence.  So the threat to male privilege is about as primal as you can get: male privilege is threatened with losing its monopoly on violence.  Given that violence, in one form or another, is at the root of how all systems of oppression function, this could hardly be more threatening (at least within the confines of a mainstream popular movie).

This isn't some submerged theme in the film that you have to hunt about for.  It's front and centre.  The violence Furiosa excels at it specifically and explicitly a violent response to a patriarchy which itself openly functions through violence.  Most obviously, there is the implied violence of rape (and kudos to the film for not directly and unnecessarily showing sexual violence).  But there is also the structural violence.  The system is literally patriarchal, in that Imortan Joe's fertility seems to be inextricably linked to his rulership - either materially or ideologically, or perhaps both.  He rules partly through his family.  It is stated that several members of his ruling elite - and his Imperators (bosses-cum-generals) - are members of his family.  Brothers, etc.  Several are sons.  They all seem 'disabled' in some way.  One seems unable to breathe without a mask and oxygen tanks.  Another is played by Quentin Kenihan who has the bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta.  Joe's quest for a 'healthy' or 'normal' son is a big deal, ideologically.  It would appear that the majority of the surviving population are either old and decaying remnants of the old world, or 'disabled' children of the new world.  (To be clear, I'm not praising or denigrating the film for this... I'm ambivalent about the film's treatment of ability issues.)  Joe seems to harvest the healthiest boys from his subjects and turns them into his War Boys... yet even these young men seem mutated and medically entropic; anaemic to the point where they need to ingest the blood of victims in order to survive.  Joe may even suffer from a similar condition himself, given his pallor.  Just as Joe harvests the 'healthiest' boys to be warriors, he harvests the 'healthiest', 'prettiest' girls to become his sex-slaves-cum-breeders.  He is desperate to recapture all his 'Brides', but especially Angharad (played by supermodel and Matt Smith-lookalike Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), not just because she's "his favourite" but also because she's pregnant.  When she's injured and her dead baby is posthumously delivered, Joe and his sons make a big deal of publically announcing that it was a healthy boy.  This is patriarchy turned up to eleven.  It's almost a caricature.  A male-dominated hierarchical system that works through a warrior-ethic and a patrilineal transmission of power and property.  Joe decorates himself in medals, as men often do in George Miller's dystopias.  As in all Mad Max movies, the masculinity is so aggressively hyperactive that it becomes camp, and also deeply freighted with anxiety, ambivalence, and repulsion.  (Partly, of course, this is because the films co-opt an exaggerated version of the performative manners and motifs of biker culture, but I'm not going there because it's outside my wheelhouse and I don't want to be writing this essay forever.)

There are problems with the gender politics in the movie.  You could argue that most of the women in the film have a great deal less agency than Furiosa.  But I think the Many Mothers acquit themselves very well.  And I think the Brides have a ton of agency.  (Actually, I'm going to stop calling them 'the Brides'... I'm going to call them 'the Runaways', since that better describes them and pays them more respect.)  It's just a different kind of agency to the ass-kickers in the film.  It's the agency of brave endurance... fundamentally the agency Cinderella displays.  Cinderella is something I'd have unthinkingly dismissed as a misogynistic, patriarchal fantasy until relatively recently when I spotted a tumblr post (I regret to say I can't find it now so can't give the proper attribution) in which someone explained that the Cinderella story has huge significance for them as it is, essentially, the story of someone who survives abuse through endurance.  In many ways, the agency of the Runaways is fairytale agency, but sans the fairytale idea that brave endurance and patience are 'enough'.  The Runaways are the ones who choose to run away.  They're the ones who ask Furiosa to launch the whole adventure in the first place.  It all happens because they demand their freedom and her help getting it (in so doing they are, it is implied, appealing for help on the basis of sorority from a woman who has, up until then, been living as a comprador with their oppressor - which is not a timid or unrisky thing to do).  The set-up (i.e. Furiosa helps the Runaways at their request) is an acknowledgement that you shouldn't have to be a kick-ass hero to escape oppression, that ordinary bravery and endurance makes people survivors, but also that asses need to be kicked ultimately if you decide that you shouldn't have to endure any more mistreatment from a violent system.  Furiosa is a bad-ass, but the very fact that she is being bad-ass on behalf of people who are not natural fighters vitiates any fetishization of the notion of the bad-ass.  In this set-up, the bad-ass woman is at the service of the non-bad-ass women who nevertheless deserve to be free.  Indeed, her submission to the project of their freedom is her road to redemption; redemption she needs because, as is implied, she has previously been a ferocious champion of the very system that has enslaved them.  

It's been pointed out that the Runaways are presented as supermodels in skimpy clothing.  Now there is doubtless a degree of servicing the male gaze here, and yeah, sure, the script could've found a way of getting the Runaways some more clothes at some point.  However, you never forget that these women are in the position they're in because they've been selected - obviously against their will, or at least after intense structural coercion - as the inmates of Imortan Joe's vault, of his harem of sex slaves.  He's picked the ones that most closely conform to patriarchally-dictated standards of 'beauty'.  He's clothed them according to his fantasy.  If you look and leer, you're implicated in Joe's behaviour.  And it's not like the film allows you to forget the looming presence of Joe, or the situation of the Runaways as a direct result of his treatment of them.  Now, on the one hand I have issues with this (as I have with all such inherently hypocritical attempts at doing themes about 'complicity') but, on the other hand, it's hard to see how else they could make the point.  It's not unlike what Ridley Scott does with Ripley in the last bit of Alien. Yes, she is stripped to her underwear for the delectation of the implicitly male audience member; then we see her diegetic audience... and it's a profane abomination, panting and touching itself languidly like a wanking Peeping Tom, drooling cum/slaver from its lolling jaws.

The sexualised display of the Runaways in their first appearance - scantily clad and washing each other - is also a direct subversion of patriarchal myth and fantasy tropes about the man who finds beautiful women bathing in private and watches them.  The water they wash with is another connection between precious bodily fluids, life-giving water, and the commodification to which they themselves are subject.  They are presented in a sexualised way... but it's an entirely self-involved, inter-woman scene upon which a threatening male presence intrudes.  You then see the complications.  The barbaric, bolted chastity belts and the pregnant belly.  It's like what Zack Snyder was obviously trying to do in Sucker Punch.

Implicit in the film is a recognition that social hierarchy depends upon control of surplus. Stephen Maher in his Jacobin essay is right to point out that the film doesn't portray and decry capitalism.  There's no exploitation of surplus value from productive industrial workers or anything like that.  But there is a depiction of social hierarchy being based on the sequestration of surplus resources from the mass of the people.  This only works in the broadest terms, but it's still there.  The priestly and warrior and political castes rise up the hierarchy based on their roles in controlling, tracking, protecting, acquiring and organising the distribution of surplus.  If it's like anything, Immortan Joe's oligarchy is like an early form of class society from after the Urban Revolution, or like Neil Faulkner's blunt description of pre-capitalist forms of class society (most especially the Roman Empire) as based on 'robbery with violence' to reinforce systems that stagnate from within because they do not develop the forces of production.  The warring brigandage of Joe and his competing 'nations' of scavengers in the wilderness is a post-apocalyptic, salvagepunk-inflected version of the warlordism that evolved in human society as soon as there were pools of urban surplus that could be raided.  Joe is actually the ruler of one of those pools of urban surplus, though his surplus appears to be a harnessed natural resources rather than a self-reproducing social system based on agriculture... even if agriculture is part of his system. Furiosa's relatively high position in the hierarchy at the start of the movie is obviously based on her skill as a raider and brigand for Joe.  The film doesn't give her much explicit backstory, but it wouldn't be crazy to assume that she herself was used as a sex-slave and breeder for Joe until such time as she proved to be incapable of producing 'healthy' children, whereupon she somehow migrates to a much higher position based on her ability as a warrior.

As mentioned, the other women are associated with images of fertility all the way through the movie, from the water in which they bathe to the collection of seeds in the bag.  The milk of lactating women is harvested by Immortan Joe's patriarchy for drinking (presumably all drinkable fluids are precious in this poisoned desert).  If this were just to emphasize - for emphasis' sake - the fact that women can get pregnant and have babies, this would be flabby symbolism and nothing more.  If it were to suggest that the fertility of women is the key to the renewal of the human race, it would amount to a kind of sexist fetishizing of the whole idea of the female, as well as suggesting that female fertility is just a resource to be used.  The film escapes these traps (largely) but embracing both of them and then holding them up as exactly what they are: traps.  Traps, moreover, conceived and laid by Joe's patriarchy.  The continuance of Joe's power relies upon female fertilty because his familial oligarchy needs to be reproduced.  He presents this as the renewal of the human race when he claims to be the saviour of the starving, but what he's actually doing is harnessing the fertile female body (there is, of course, no suggestion that his society has any idea that there might be people identifiable as, or self-identifying as, female who are not physiologically capable of pregnancy) to reproducing an oligarchy.  His conception of women thus entails the idea of them as resources to be used.  This is what the movie does when it associates the women characters with such things as milk, water, seeds, etc.  It identifies them with the resources when make the reproduction of human life possible, and which are therefore 'owned' and controlled by Joe in Joe's oligarchy.  It presents women as resources among other resources in order to make a point that the women have been turned into resources by their society.  "We are not things" is written on the walls of their prison by the departing Runaways for Joe to find.  It is the essential nature of the rebellion that they reject Joe's conception of them as resources.  Later, they encounter the Many Mothers and their bag of seeds.  These are resources too, but resources harnessed by those who have rejected oligarchy and patriarchy.  The seeds represent an acknowledgement that Joe is right to harness nature, fertility, vegetation, etc as resources for the production and reproduction of society... but that such resources should be controlled from below.  What better way to put across this idea than to put these resources into the hands of people who would themselves be treated as resources by the ruling class?  The concept of fertility is not shied away from.  The seeds end up being cared for by one of the Runaways who is herself pregnant.  This is an acknowledgement that human reproduction is the basis of social reproduction.  If the film seems to accept that women are, in some sense, 'resources', it also presents this as being an impoverished conception when constructed by an oligarchical patriarchy, and argues... to be crude about this... that the resources themselves should stick together and expropriate themselves from hierarchical control.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Christopher Lee Podcast

Here's an emergency psuedo-Pex Lives podcast, organised at short notice by James Murphy, and featuring James himself, Holly Boson, and me, chatting about the passing of the legendary Christopher Lee.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Shabcast 6

Shabcast 6 is now available to download or listen to here...


This Shabcast is an accompaniment to this month's edition of Pex Lives (download or listen here), which features the long-awaited encounter between Phil Sandifer (from off of TARDIS Eruditorum) and 'Vox Day' (from off of fascism and fucking up the Hugo Awards).

Kevin and James have kindly turned the June installment of Pex Lives over to the Sandifer/Vox Day interview, in which Phil quizzes Vox about his attitudes towards two texts, One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright (which Vox loves and Phil hates) and Iain M. Banks' The Wasp Factory (which Vox hates and Phil loves).

One Bright Star... slid into the Hugo noms on Vox Day's Rabid Puppies slate, by the way.  Hmm.

Shabcast 6 is something in the way of an 'afterparty' for Phil, in which Phil chats with myself, Kevin and James about the Vox Day interview.  Very much necessary listening.  And lots of fun.  After the serious business of the interview itself, the four of us kick back and have a chat which veers from the serious to the plain giggly.

This Shabcast also features frequent and vehement contributions by my elderly, crotchety and extremely loud-voiced bengal cat Quiz.  You won't be able to understand her, but I can... and she's telling me to kill.

You'll need to listen to both podcasts so, once again, here are the links:

Pex Lives/Eruditorum Press - the Sandifer/Day Interview

Shabcast 6 - The Sandifer/Day Interview Afterparty

(Also, here's a link to Shabcast 3 in which myself, Phil and Andrew Hickey chatted about the Hugo Awards fascist fuck-up fiasco not long after it hit.)