Monday, 31 March 2008

Funk-to-Funky

Ashes to Ashes and its equally remarkable sibling Life on Mars are most remarkable for the divergent political readings they provoke. There are two main readings that will be considered here; the media studies reading and the conservative nostalgia reading.
The media studies reading of both series is rather straight forward. Sam Tyler & Alex Drake are the synecdoche of us and of our struggle to overcome the bigotry and discrimination that used to be such a powerful part of our society. Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars share a hopeful (perhaps too hopeful) view on the state of present day Britain and on the direction that British society seems to be taking. The discourse of both shows is that even though the things of the past have some good points today is a better world to be in if you are a member of a non-hegemonic group (not white, not male, not straight etc).
This tension is rather neatly displayed by the appearance of Lord Scarman as a character in the last episode of the first series of Ashes to Ashes. The camaraderie of Gene's team in the face of the 'threat' posed by Lord Scarman is a positive thing but Alex, and we, know that Scarman's way is the only way for British society to take. That the police had to stop being an instrument of racial, homophobic, and state terror in order for British society to function at all. Lord Scarman was charged with the official investigation into the Brixton riots of 1981 (or see here) and many of his conclusions regarding the role of policing in the initiation of those riots were eventually incorporated into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 and into the practices of the Metropolitan Police. Lord Scarman and his report were a good thing and Gene's failure to recognise this is a key part of his backwards facing understanding of the world.
The conservative nostalgia reading of the two series is rather more complicated. It begins with a reading of Gene Hunt as a tonic to the so called political correctness of our age. In this reading Gene is the key figure and not Sam or Alex and his 'unreconstructed' views and behaviours are read as an affirmation of the bigotry and discrimination of the past. As though Gene were the heroic leader of a movement to 'call a spade a spade' and gloss over the ethnic slur this phrase came to contain. In this reading the BBC have either been conned into broadcasting this heroic illiberalism or have finally started to see sense (neither of these seem all that likely to me).
The next phase of this reading is a form of golden-ageism (i.e. looking back to a time that was better than today) because by some quirk both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are set at moments of Conservative Party government in Britain. Life on Mars is set during the fag-end of the Heath government and Ashes to Ashes near the beginning of the Thatcher years. In each case viewers with Conservative political inclinations are provided the opportunity to escape to a time when the horrid Labour lot who currently form the government were safely out of office. 1973 is not as effective a setting as 1981 for this golden-age version of the conservative nostalgia reading because Heath never possessed the same cult of personality or the same degree of fanatical devotion that Thatcher did and because Heath was not involved in the transformation of British society during the 1980s that tends to fly under the eponym of Thatcherism regardless of whether it had anything to do with Thatcher and her government's policies or not.
Both parts of this reading can be seen in Matthew d'Ancona's review of Ashes to Ashes in The Spectator; he is politically Conservative and The Spectator has long played a central role in right wing politics in Britain as the house magazine of the Conservative Party (three of its editors in the 20th century went on to become Conservative cabinet ministers).

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Stop Boris! It almost goes without saying

He can't keep his hair out of his eyes.
He can't keep his foot out of his mouth.
He can't keep his **** out of other women.
Just the person to be left in charge of a city as large, powerful, complicated and problematic as London!

This post might not seem to have much to do with reading the media but then hegemony (see the work of Gramsci and Stuart Hall for instance) would be a useful thing to start thinking about Boris with. As would any feminist perspective you could think of (Judith Butler's perhaps).
The approach that most interests me, however, is to consider Boris' participation in our culture of celebrity and what Baudrillard's theories of simulacra & of hyper-reality might tell us about this participation. For Baudrillard simulation - copying - was the key aspect of modern existence because nothing was real and everything was in fact a copy of that which had once been real. The result of this dominance of simulation was the coming into existence of simulacra; simulations that had utterly replaced their now distant and dim originals. Which in turn left us with no access to 'the real' whatsoever. Rather all we can know is the hyper-real; that mediated world of simulacra we can experience through the ubiquitous communication media of our time.
The explosion of the realm of celebrity in our current socio-media world is the perfect example of this. Once celebrity emerged from something else (beauty, notoriety, ability, luck, fortune, etc) and was a property of people. Now celebrity can be manufactured, allocated, and consumed - it is simulated from past models - and has replaced people possessing a particular property with simulacra infused with the simulation of celebrity during the manufacturing process. Celebrities are of course hyper-real as we only know them as media constructs and because of their ubiquity we really do know them. Consider the simularca called 'Jordan' and its counterpart 'Katie Price' and how hyper-real they both are.
Boris then is a simulacra in that he is a simulation of so many duffers and cads from 1950's British cinema (alchemically combined) and our understanding of him is hyper-real in that we know him through the media and only through the media. It may be time to take the red pill, or any other colour, rather than the blue.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Symbolic violence and Stabile update

I have just added some resources on Nick Broomfield's Biggie and Tupac to the stabile of this blog (they can be found under Documentary or just by searching for Biggie and Tupac). The notes deal with a variety of issues but perhaps the most interesting is Bourdieu's concept of symbolic violence.
Symbolic violence is (along with all of the concepts that Bourdieu introduced into sociology; field, habitus, symbolic capital, etc) not the easiest thing to get to grips with; Bourdieu seems to have been rather committed to forcing his readers to think very hard for themselves. One way of thinking about symbolic violence might be to consider it the as the effect of a specific implementation of symbolic power; which Bourdieu defines thus "symbolic power is the power to make things with words" (in his 'Social Space and Symbolic Power', Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Spring, 1989)). This capacity to make things with words is rather more dramatic than this simple statement suggests; social groups and identities are after all made with words. Symbolic power is then the power to define, label, categorise, and thus control. It is the power to determine the way people are thought of and spoken of even by themselves.
Symbolic violence is the application of this symbolic power in a directed fashion against individuals and groups. The way in which Catherine Tate's 'Lauren Cooper' and Little Britain's 'Vicky Pollard' have been used to label, define and categorise poor young females in recent times and the way in which those categorisations are used against individuals and the entire social formation these characters stand for (are the synecdoche of). It is this use that is the symbolic violence in this case.
A useful wider discussion can be found in the chapter on Bourdieu in Angela McRobbie's very useful The
Uses of Cultural Studies
(London: Sage, 2005)
.

Elementary my dear Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni

The BBC/HBO adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was able to let its sumptuous location filming do a great deal of the work establishing the text as realistic that is so important for crime fiction. HBO of course are renowned for their use of location filming - The Sopranos and The Wire both make very effective use of the locals they are set in to establish them as realistic as have many other important HBO products - and the BBC does from time to time make very great use of on location filming when the discourse of realism of the text requires it. However, a well written and well directed 105 minute superior TV movie filmed entirely on location in Botswana must have been budget stretching. This lavish location filming has set the realism bar very high and it will be interesting to see if the 13 part series that is to follow can maintain that standard.
The screen-writing by Richard Curtis and direction by Anthony Minghella gave the text a rather lovely narrative naturalism that suited the piece very well. Minghella was all ways a natural story teller and his background as a writer informed his direction as his work is not very filmic rather it uses naturalistic mise-en-scene to make it seem as though the story tells itself. The highly filmic styles of Scorsese, Tarantino, Spike Lee et al that are based on showing you that you are watching a film - consider the brilliant filmic surface Scorsese constructs as a metaphor for glamour in Goodfellas - do not always lend themselves to easy telling of a tale.
The text also displays an normalising representational strategy in regard of Africa. Gaborone is in this text no more or less exotic than, the similarly populous, Brighton (and indeed far less 'other' than East Grinstead). Indeed the version of Baltimore to be found in The Wire seems more alien and other than Mma Ramotswe's Gaborone. This normalising representation is rather refreshing and the presentation of the characters was as naturalistic as the telling of the story and both were essential to the strong realism of the text.
Mma Ramotswe join a short and honourable list of TV detectives (such as the observational savants Robert Goran, from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Jonathan Creek) whose magical powers of observation have been inherited from Sherlock Holmes himself. This prodigious perceptive power is even more an index of the presence of Holmes than the Pipe & Deer Stalker Hat that Sidney Paget conjured. This power of observation, that was Holmes foremost talent, is most obviously pointed to at the beginning of A Scandal In Bohemia from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes where Holmes gently chides Watson for not having noted that there are seventeen steps up the stairs of 221b to their room. In The No1 Ladies Detective Agency Mma Ramotswe puts the same talent on display during her first meeting with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and at the same time shows us her utter suitability for the task of detection.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Stabile of this mobile

There is now a website counterpart to this blog (for the stabile - mobile terminology read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin or just read it anyway as its one of the greatest anglophone novels of the 20th century and with The Dispossessed forms a compelling argument for Le Guin's inclusion in the short list of greatest novelist ever). The website will be a repository of lengthier pieces more suited to pdf than blog format. I've only had time to put one thing on there so far but more to follow.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

A BIG Story

The news that Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G). is to be the subject of a musical biopic - a genre in vogue with Hollywood;with recent films about Bob Dylan, Ian Curtis, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles and films about Jeff Buckley and Marvin Gaye are seemingly 'in development' - is not really surprising. A multi-million dollar earning recording artist who was murdered in the murkiest of circumstances and whose case is still a source of controversy is an obvious one for the Hollywood treatment.
What is surprising is that the New York Times can write an article on the forthcoming movie without mentioning Nick Broomfield's Biggie & Tupac; the documentary that did so much to force open the investigation into Biggie and Tupac's deaths. Broomfield's documentary is a remarkable exercise in the representation of reality and as with all of Broomfield's work extremely engaging (Reviews - BBC, Channel 4, Sight & Sound, New York Times).
The opportunity to contrast Broomfield's documentary treatment with the Hollywood version is going to allow for some interesting comment on genres of truth telling.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Newspapers & Social Theory

One of the key problems with journalists is that they are all far too generalist (due to the combination of time pressures, space limitations and journalistic culture). Typically this whinge falls from the mouths of scientist and medical practitioners (The Guardian's ever readable Bad Science column is one effort to add some scientific rigour to the field of journalism) but it also ought to fall from the mouths of sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and every other academic specialism dealing with human group life.
Clear evidence of this bad sociology can be found in Nick Cohen's latest column for the Obs. Cohen was once the reason to read the Observer and it has been painful to watch the decline that has come over his writing in recent years and this comment piece only continues the trend. Watching Cohen grapple with the hegemonic nature of representation in a fashion proper to an E grade A-level media studies student is just painful. The idea that the projected self-image of the dominant group in society has transmuted to include the non-white, non-male, non-straight members of the elite without effecting any actual social change is not a new or complex one. Hegemony is a representational strategy of social power that mobilises representations of different social groups as illegitimate holders of power (because incapable, irrational, or just evil) so as to legitimise the on going dominance of the current elite and the current system of resource distribution. It is after all the point of the elite to deny access to resources to the majority population (we know them as the poor - i.e. any one earning less than median average wages) by any means necessary and representing the poor as chav-scum-benefit-cheats is a mode for manufacturing consent to the continued rule of the elite.
The key point, and the one that Cohen is trying to get to grips with, is that control over resources has always been the requirement of entry into the elite and that the seeming criteria set forth by the elites projected self-image has got nothing to do with it. That image is just a tool for manufacturing consent, it is the image of the social group that ought legitimately to rule not the boundary marker of that group. It is for this reason that all the Pankhursts (bar Sylvia) went onto be such ferocious rightists and sexual hypocrisy is so potentially damaging for members of the elite. It has always been the case that male homosexual sexual hypocrisy has been a problem for the elite because until very recently in our society such actions penetrated the screen of this projected self-image and showed it to be image and only image.
Cohen would be best suited by going back and reading the works of Gramsci before writing any more columns but on the current evidence hoping he watches The Wizard of Oz and pays attention as Dorothy and her companions disobey the orders of the great and powerful Oz to look at that little man behind the curtain is all we can expect.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Tzvetan Todorov - The Fantastic

Todorov is mainly known in media studies for his contributions to narrative theory - his structuralist theory of 'Equilibrium' especially. However, his book on the genre of the fantastic provides us with such a clear and conscious method for studying the concept of genre that it deserves more attention. Todorov divides genre into two; historical genres that result from the observation of texts and theoretical genres that result from analysis. It is the later type that is of interest to Todorov in his study of the fantastic.
Todorov positions the genre he calls 'the fantastic' between the closely related genres of 'the marvellous' (the supernaturally inexplicable) and 'the uncanny' (the rationally explicable) suggesting that 'the fantastic' always resolves into one or the other and that the 'hesitant' delay in this act of resolving into one of these related genres is the defining aspect of 'the fantastic' as a genre.
This genre of 'the fantastic' has much to recommend it to students of the media as it allows us to comparatively consider seemingly very disparate texts. Todorov utilises 'the fantastic' to analyse Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poe's The Black Cat, Kafka's The Castle, Balzac's The Magic Skin, and several short stories by Guy de Maupassant.
As a theoretical genre 'the fantastic' is also very useful to film & media studies as it provides us with means of thinking comparatively about a range of texts that would be traditionally allocated to other genres. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's The Watchmen (soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture-event!) falls into this marvellous-fantastic-uncanny spectrum. As does Neil Burger's The Illusionist, Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (because of course The Turn of the Screw would be a key fantastic text), and
Stanisław Lem's work - especially Solaris (although Lem himself was not keen on Todorov's concept).
More parochially the BBC's sibling shows Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes would also fall into Todorov's genre of 'the fantastic'. The intrusion of the 'Test-Card-Girl' into Sam Tyler's 1973 life and of Pierrot, George & Zippy and DI Drake's daughter in Alex Drake's 1981 are clear indicators of the presence of 'the fantastic'.
Considering the range of different types of texts we can use 'the fantastic' to study it is worth us considering what other theoretical genres we can construct and use to analyse the media.

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