On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

On the Cutting Room Floor (Part One)

06d2fef7e9046462ca9e7b2cea2fcec1The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part two here

As the name implies, posthumanism is a cultural and political impulse that essentially attempts to imagine forms and identities ‘beyond’ the human. As with many contemporary critical movements, however, there are multiple streams within posthumanist thought, and it is important to define which one we mean when applying the term to neo-historical monster mashups. There are at least three broad definitions of the term ‘posthumanism’, with three very different emphases. The first definition is tied to technology and the internet age.[1] As a discourse that emerged during the late twentieth century, posthumanist culture was sparked by the increasing tendency of the media to liken the human body and brain to a machine.[2] This metaphorical mechanisation of the body was intensified by the explosion of internet usage, networked culture, and the formation of what Marshall McLuhan has termed the ‘global village’.[3] The extent to which these technological developments actually altered the way human bodies and narratives interact is ultimately less relevant than the degree to which posthuman discourses came to dominate the technology discussion, but there is no doubt that both recent technology and our reaction to it have altered the way we perceive ourselves as individuals.

The term posthumanism has also been used in a utopian (or dystopian) sense by the popular media, critical theorists, and transcendentalist movements, and is better referred to here as ‘transhumanism’.[4] Transhumanism represents the theory that, as a result of technology, the human as we know it will someday cease to exist, either because of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), or because humanity will modify itself to such an extent through technological or genetic manipulation that it will no longer be recognisable as human. Because this definition of the posthuman is often apocalyptic, and is also aggressively anthropocentric, critics have struggled to deploy it productively. It suffers from the same paradoxically utopian and nihilistic self-absorption that postmodern theory also falls into from time to time. Focusing on the end and the deconstruction of objects, theories, and metanarratives leads us to overlook the way such an approach often re-creates the problems it highlights,[5] and strengthens the hold these things have on our culture.

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The third use of the term posthumanism, which relies on Enlightenment concepts of humanism, is linked to cultural criticism and the humanities.[6] It is the most recent of the three definitions, and its boundaries and methodologies are still underdeveloped, but it is also the broadest and most flexible (and therefore the most theoretically useful) way of describing posthumanism. Steven Best and David Kellner provide a useful definition of this branch of posthumanist theory in their Postmodern Adventure (2001):

Classical humanism articulates a notion of the self as an ahistorical given, whose timeless essence and nature is that of a rational mind, ontologically distant from its body, in possession of free will and timeless truths. By contrast, posthumanism – in the form of poststructuralism and postmodern theory – immerses itself in history, social relations and institutions, and embodied reality. […] Posthumanism dismantles the dualistic opposition between mind and body and makes the ‘truths’ available to reason partial, limited, and context-bound.[7]

In other words, this third branch of ‘critical posthumanism’,[8] as Stefan Herbrechter terms it, represents the recognition that classical ideas about what it means to be human, many of which are still very much with us, may privilege Western identities and cultures, and may also limit our understanding of ourselves and our cultural products. Critical posthumanism tries to imagine and formulate the human from a perspective outside of this classical, ahistorical approach.

The desire to move ‘beyond’ classical humanism in this way potentially creates the same problems as transhumanist theories. How can we imagine something completely outside the human, when our entire experience is framed in human terms? And how do we safeguard against creating either a dangerously narrow or a uselessly broad definition of the human in our attempts to outline its opposite? Using a past that is technically both unalterable and behind us to move forward is a complicated endeavour, particularly in a time so obsessed with declaring that past dead and buried. As Esther Peeren asks, ‘[w]hat particular move does the beyond indicate in an age so preoccupied with the temporality of the post and the after that every day seems to see the announcement of yet another death?’[9] The danger inherent in working within any of these ‘post’ fields or categories is becoming entrenched in the very things they prefix. In opposing all modernist metanarrative, for example, postmodernism risks becoming its own metanarrative. Likewise, attempts to move beyond colonialism can have a secondary colonising effect on those the postcolonial critic aims to speak for. Absolute rejection of the centre only serves to outline it more sharply.

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Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER3.

In postmodernism’s deconstruction of Western culture, where no one metanarrative can dominate the discourse, non-Western metanarratives are inadvertently negated, transforming postmodernism into a colonial force.[10] In deconstructing the Western subject and arguing that no one person can really embody the human, we (those in positions of power) can likewise indirectly prohibit others (those on the periphery) from contributing to the discussion. In calling for the embrace of all things radical, other, or monstrous, we risk simply re-drawing the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than making those borders permeable.[11] Posthumanism should not become another metanarrative of technological progress, but rather a framework for critiquing our assumptions about who ‘we’ are. The impossibility for humans to ever truly move beyond the human should not stop us from trying.

While popular culture is becoming more posthuman, especially in terms of how it treats its others, so is the academic culture that increasingly seeks to interpret it. This can be seen in the emerging ‘posthumanities’, or, more specifically, posthumanist cultural studies. The cultural studies (or critical and cultural theory) approach, considered by Herbrechter as a catalyst for the increasing interdisciplinarity seen in academia, ‘takes advantage of the newly “discovered” readability of the entire world [invited by postmodernism], which is seen as proof of its “constructedness” and “arbitrariness”. On the other hand the democratization of culture and cultural change became cultural studies’ main objective’.[12] This process of the democratization of culture, reading it from perspectives based on the constructed and arbitrary nature of language, has paradoxically resulted in both an increased division of cultural studies into multiple disciplines, and the establishment of cultural studies as its own detached discipline. It has also initialised a new search for the source of meaning, particularly in the humanities. Often the result of this process is the establishment of a new canon, or of a ‘trendy’ cultural studies that prioritises the latest popular culture. For Herbrechter, the task for a ‘posthumanist’ cultural studies would instead be ‘in coming to terms with the loss of meaning and loss of reference in culture’.[13] It is here, within a posthumanist framework, that the mashup can best serve as a useful cultural object.

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Monsters, which fill the roles of both inhumans and superhumans in human culture, are central figures in posthumanist theory. Contemporary monsters are often interpreted as the breakdown of a natural order, and as such the monster is ‘the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm’.[14] It thus traditionally forms the limit of what is defined as normal or transgressive.[15] Where the nineteenth-century monster often points to a geographical and physical other, the twenty-first-century monster signifies the posthuman breakdown of the unified self, and of the ‘other’ within.[16] For scholars like Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, monsters are the site where the very concept of the human collapses.[17] This collapse is not a binary opposition, delineating where contemporary monster narratives diverge or detract from unifying concepts of the self. Instead, as an examination of neo-historical monster mashups can help demonstrate, the ‘othering’ of identity through fiction and humour in present-day monster texts allows for the creation of an ‘excentric’ space:[18] neither wholly at the centre of power and the normal nor entirely on its margins. Now more than ever, the creators and audiences of these cultural objects (many with degrees in literature and history themselves) are aware of the academic discussion surrounding the figure of the monster. Neo-historical monsters carry the accumulated baggage placed on these nineteenth-century monsters by more than a hundred years of critical examination, but they also create space for a re-interpretation of this baggage.

What does posthumanism and the collapse of binary oppositions mean for the monster? On the surface, it means that the pleasure/horror response that the monster generates in the reader becomes unbalanced. With the advent of the twenty-first century, the horror of the vampire and of Gothic itself have been weakening dramatically, largely because, as Fred Botting puts it, ‘the use of horror relies on an increasingly fragile and insubstantial opposition between human and Gothic monster’. As Herbrechter highlights, this also works towards posthumanism’s goal of deconstructing the human:

The entire ghostly ontology (or hauntology, following Derrida, 1994b) suddenly visualises how ‘teratology’ – the creation of monsters, the representation of monstrosity, inhumanity, animality, objectification, fetishization, but also spiritualization and religion – can be used to inscribe and uphold a system of differences and hierarchies, supported by a mystical notion of human ‘nature’ with its insistence on uniqueness and exceptionalism – a ‘device’ which sanctions and perpetuates processes of inclusion and exclusion.[20]

In other words, as the border between human and other becomes ever more blurred, the same monsters that were used to uphold a humanist hierarchy can also be used to rethink such a system. Posthumanism (and contemporary theory) conceives of a new way of looking at the monster that is linked to twenty-first-century conceptions of identity and global culture. If posthumanism ‘emphasizes the complexity and interrelatedness of human and nonhuman forms of agency’, as Adrian Franklin suggests, the imagination of otherness becomes vital. If the nonhuman is central to our understanding of the human, not only as our opposite, but as something that also shapes us in return through various complex processes, we would do well to re-think the place of nonhuman figures (like the monster) in our cultures and our politics.

In exploring how monster mashups create these parallel discourses and contradictory affiliations, I hope to provide one answer for why these monster narratives have become so prevalent in twenty-first-century culture, as well as how they reformulate nineteenth-century humanist ideas to fit present-day posthuman perspectives. For Herbrechter, the ‘entire effort of posthumanist critical and cultural theory […] goes into the construction of a post-realist and post-phenomenological form of hermeneutics and a post-subjective form of agency’.[22] All of these concepts (realism, phenomenology, subjectivity) are centred in classical humanist ideology. By combining texts from the humanist nineteenth century with posthuman figures and forms, the neo-historical monster mashup is able to directly interrogate this ideology. Not all neo-historical monster mashups can strictly be considered posthuman at a narrative level, but posthumanism represents the cultural context in which these texts have gained popularity. As I will demonstrate in part two of this post, the form and distribution of many neo-historical monster mashups further argues for their status as ‘posthuman’ texts. In this way I will be using posthumanism as a lens through which to read monsters.

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Screencap from Cole Drumb’s short film ‘PostHuman’

[1] For an extensive look at this definition of posthumanism, see Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, ‘Introduction: Posthuman Bodies’, in Posthuman Bodies, ed. by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Chris Hables Gray, Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (London: Routledge, 2001); Herbrechter, Posthumanism.

[2] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 18.

[3] Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).

[4] Theorists I would classify as transhumanist (whether in a utopian or dystopian sense) include Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] See the concept of ‘working through’ humanism in Neil Badmington, ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique, 53 (2003), 10–27. Also Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005).

[6] Key twenty-first century texts that contribute to this ‘critical’ and philosophical school of posthumanism include Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (New York: Palgrave, 2000); Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (London: Routledge, 2004); Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Herbrechter, Posthumanism; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[7] Steven Best and David Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 195.

[8] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 3.

[9] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[10] Cf. Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1998).

[11] For a deeper analysis of this phenomenon, see Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within.

[12] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 143.

[13] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 144.

[14] Rosi Braidotti, ‘Mothers, Monsters, and Machines’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 59–79 (p. 62).

[15] See Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

[16] This is not to say that nineteenth-century texts cannot also be read in this way, but in the twenty-first century this is the norm rather than the exception. See Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the 1980s’, in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. by Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 190–233; Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within; Andrew Hock-soon Ng, Dimensions of Monstrosity in Contemporary Narratives: Theory, Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?.

[17] See Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France  1974 1975 (London: Verso, 2003); Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’.

[18] See Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 5.

[19] Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, Twentieth Century Gothic: Our Monsters, Our Pets, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, 2004, p. 4.

[20] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 29.

[21] Adrian Franklin, ‘Posthumanism’, ed. by George Ritzer, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 3548–50 (p. 3548).

[22] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 13.

Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-16-33-39Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue’ colloquium at Oxford’s Wolfson college. The event, expertly organised by Victorianist Sandra Mayer, was supported by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), and explored ‘the intersections of celebrity and life-writing across historical periods, disciplines, and media, highlighting possibilities of theorectical and methodological cross-fertilisation.’

After a few opening comments from Sandra Mayer, the day kicked off with a panel on celebrity, biblio-biography, and obituaries, chaired by Celebrity Research Network founder Ruth Scobie and featuring papers by Oxford scholars Emma Smith and Tobias Heinrich. Smith spoke about ‘Shakespeare, Biblio-Biography, and the Life of the Celebrity Book’, tracing the Victorian history of Shakespeare’s First Folio as a celebrity book. Taking about the example of Angela Burdett-Coutts, who kept her copy of the First Folio locked away in a casket, Smith questioned the extent to which objects can be celebrities in their own right, apart from the people they are associated with.

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Casket, carved in an Elizabethan style (1866). Image via the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Heinrich’s paper focused on ‘Celebrity, Biography, and the Enlightenment: Friedrich Schlichtegroll’s Nekrolog’. Unlike most biographies of the time, Schlichtegroll’s work involved crowdsourced contributions, and featured typically marginalised subjects like women and the working class—some so provincial they were only given a job title, rather than a surname.

Next came a panel on cultural icons in (bio)fiction and film, chaired by Hannah Yelin and featuring Julia Lajta-Novak and Ginette Vincendeau as speakers. Lajta-Novak explored the trajectory of King Charles II’s Protestant mistress in ‘From Celebrity “Whore” to Romantic Heroine: Images of Nell Gwyn in Restoration Satire and Contemporary Biofiction’. In her own time, Gwyn was depicted in a mostly negative light by the many examples of verse satire that featured her. In contemporary biofiction, however, she has been transformed into a wily and witty feminine ideal. Transitioning to another example of the sexualised feminine ideal, Vincendeau presented on ‘Brigitte Bardot and the French New Wave: Life-writing On and Off Screen’. She showed contrasting constructions of Bardot’s celebrity across a number of texts, including works of popular cinema, French independent cinema, and Bardot’s own 1996 autobiography.

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Brigitte Bardot, French actress and sex symbol.

Following lunch, the colloquium resumed with roundtable discussion on ‘Celebrity and Life-Writing: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives’. The panel was chaired by Mayer, and featured celebrity biographer and Wolfson College President Hermione Lee, Tchaikovsky biographer and scholar Philip Bullock, Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero. Discussion topics ranged from ethical concerns, to sources used in reconstructing a biography, to methods for drawing essential ‘truths’ about a person’s character from parallel stories and experiences. It also included a number of anecdotes from biography research and writing that kept the audiences in stitches, but which I can’t do proper justice to in prose. Fortunately, this roundtable will be soon available as an audio file: keep an eye on the the OCLW podcast page.

Finally, in the closing panel, we were treated to a premiere of the documentary biopic Being Bowie (edited by Rebecca Bryant), which documents Will Brooker‘s unusual approach to his latest academic book Forever Stardust. Brooker spent a year dressing, eating, and and absorbing the same sights and sounds as David Bowie, and his research attracted international media attention. [EDIT: You can now find the full documentary / audiovisual essay at this link. Dir. Rebecca Hughes. Runtime 61 mins.] The premiere the documentary was followed by a Q&A with Brooker, conducted by writer, broadcaster, and popular music scholar Marcus O’Dair. Brooke fielded questions from O’Dair and from the audience on the impossibility (and futility) of trying to get at the ‘real’ Bowie, on his response to Bowie’s unexpected death halfway through the project in January 2016, and on the politics of privilege behind his ability to conduct such a creative approach to the study in the first place. You can read my live tweets of the event at this link.

Will Brooker as David Bowie
Will Brooker as David Bowie

As a relative newcomer to studies of both celebrity and life writing, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet scholars in the field, and even discovered a few familiar faces amongst its ranks. Wolfson College was lovely, and despite a few typically Oxford faux pas (including some dubious comments about the nature and class of people who buy lottery tickets), the atmosphere was warm. A good variety of academic backgrounds were represented at the event, and I was able to compare notes with people in literature, celebrity studies, film, popular music, and the public sector. I will certainly be following future OCLW research with interest – and who knows, I may even make it to a few more of their upcoming events.

You can find a copy of the programme here, and a full list of the abstracts and biographical notes here.

Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

687474703a2f2f7777772e7468656e65777374726962756e652e636f6d2f6f70696e696f6e2f7578697734332f7069637475726536323434303239322f414c5445524e415445532f465245455f3634302f7472756d705f746f6f6e[Updated: 23 November 2016]

I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting topic for my 100th post on this blog (hi, guys) for days, but I find that one thing overshadows all the others in my mind: the US presidential elections.

In the wake of 8 November, many educators have been re-evaluating the content of their teaching, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Some people have despaired about the value of teaching at all in this climate. MacSweeney’s posted a grading rubric that reflects the logic of the presidential debates. Many of my fellow PhD students and academics have voiced their sense of helplessness, while also sharing the unpleasant realisation that their research—on monsters, on neoliberalism, on class, race, and gender—is now even more relevant and urgent. And indeed, the appeal to popular culture metaphors in the wake of the election has been overwhelming. References to Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesThe Walking Dead or The Purge, are seemingly everywhere.

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While this is potentially a good sign for humanities teachers, it has its dangers and drawbacks as well. In particular, we must be careful that this turn to popular culture does not placate us into a false sense of familiarity, and stop us from taking action against the very real threat to the safety of the very real people around us. The rhetoric behind this election was monstrous, Trumpism is monstrous, and we must take great care not to normalise this monstrosity by comparing it too closely to the fantastical monsters running rampant on our screens.

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As Jacob Silverman pointedly wrote earlier this week, in an article you should really read in its entirety:

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.

Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?

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A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.

I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.

Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:

The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

Film and television scholar Dan Hassler-Forest has put together a five-part viewing list that ‘might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying’. This one is heavy on popular culture. Part one focuses on ‘Populism and Politics’, part two on ‘Commercializing Media’, part three on ‘Popular Fascism’, part four on ‘Racism’, and part five on ‘(Un)civil Society’. Spoiler Alert: The LEGO™ Movie makes an appearance in part two:

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.

[EDIT: #TeachingTheDisaster has since been updated with even more resources, including syllabi on the Welfare Reform movement, Standing Rock, and a number of other conflicts.

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:

This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

This philosophy-oriented discussion group on DailyNous.com has been taking curriculum subject by subject, allowing members to share and suggest resources for that particular approach. The first session focused on epistemology, but threads on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, critical reasoning / informal logic, and language have since been launched.

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:

The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.

The Zinn Education Project’s ‘Teaching After the Election of Trump’

This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:

Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.

Is Star Wars a Boys’ Club?

© Andrew Burton/Getty
© Andrew Burton/Getty

I have a special request for all my fellow Star Wars fans – but especially the ones who remember when it all started.

I’ve got a couple of questions about the fandom and marketing that, as much as I already know, I’m just not up to speed on. It’s partly for a work project (more info below), but also just out of interest.

  1. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club – or, on the flip side, recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing?
  2. If you’re a female fan, what first drew you to Star Wars?
  3. What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of men/boys or women/girls in mind?
  4. What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which Star Wars has tried to appeal to women/girls?
  5. What kinds of things have been perceived as gender-pandering, by fans or by the media?

yteorhfI’m especially interested in concrete examples from before the prequels, but would welcome anything you can send my way. Films, toys, EU, Happy Meal tie-ins. The more specific, the better.

I’m too young (1987) and too foreign (grew up on US military bases) to remember examples from 1977-1990, and I’ve probably missed out on some recent ones as well. The information available online about Star Wars marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can afford all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would ideally like for this project.

Here’s a list of some topics I’m already looking at [updated 13 November 2016]:

  • Princess Leia action figures (OT era)
  • Covergirl’s TFA make-up line
  • Responses to the casting of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in TPM
  • OT early screening invitees
  • Female employees at Lucasfilm and LucasArts
  • Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars
  • Dathomir and the Nightsisters (in The Courtship of Princess Leia and The Clone Wars)
  • The ‘Tales from’ EU anthologies (Jabba’s Palace, Mos Eisley Cantina, etc)
  • R2-KT
  • Marcia Lucas
  • Leigh Brackett
  • Kathleen Kennedy
  • Comparisons between Leia and Padmé
  • Characters explicitly used as young adult role models (Ahsoka Tano, Sabeen Wren, Tenel Ka, Jaina Solo, etc.)
  • The #WheresRey campaign
  • Discussions about BB-8’s gender
  • HerUniverse.com

I would hugely, hugely appreciate any info you can give me. Tips for where to look or who else to ask are also very welcome.

You can get in touch with questions or suggestions on Twitter (@MegenJM), via e-mail (DeBruinMJ@cf.ac.uk), or just by commenting on this post.

May the Force be with you!

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A little background info / disclaimer

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 1994, and have been hanging around TFN since 2001. I even penned and beta-read some fanfic on the TFN forums, though I can’t for the life of me remember my original login password. Now I’m a teacher and academic researching popular culture (more here: www.angelsandapes.com). Although my fandom is a huge part of who I am, and why I ended up doing this kind of work in the first place, I haven’t had the chance to write about or research Star Wars – until now. 

I’ve just been chosen to write a chapter for the upcoming book Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling. It’s scheduled for publication in 2017, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ANH. The point of this book is to argue that Star Wars ‘laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today […] spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible’.

My chapter will argue that even though the news media tends to pitch Star Wars as a boys’ club, it actually did a remarkable job of inspiring female fans from the very beginning. Rey has gotten a lot of attention lately, but she’s only the latest in a long list of reasons a woman might want to watch Star Wars. Even aside from Princess Leia, there have been lots of ways the franchise has gone out of its way to try and appeal to women, and even though some of its early attempts fell flat or flew under the radar, it helped to pioneer a lot of the storytelling and marketing strategies that have taken over twenty-first-century culture.

I will obviously ask for your permission before I even think of using anything you say in the book, so feel free to speak your mind. I’m mainly interested in whether other people’s experiences overlap with mine.

If you’re looking for more of a technical explanation of what the chapter is about, you can check out my other blog post on it: http://angelsandapes.com/feminist-politics-star-wars/.

‘I’m just a guy on the internet’: An Interview with Kevin J. Weir

'Princess Juliana' © Kevin J, Weir
‘Princess Juliana’ © Kevin J. Weir

On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.

Weir works full-time in advertising, but is perhaps best known for his Tumblr account The Flux Machine. For this project, which started out as a way to practice his Photoshop skills, he takes images from the Library of Congress’s online archive and turns them into ghoulish gifs.

Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.

'Peekskill' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Peekskill’ © Kevin J. Weir

What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.

Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.

'Decoy Howitzer' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Decoy Howitzer’ © Kevin J. Weir

I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:

Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?

Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.

Have you ever sold prints of your work?

I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.

Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?

Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.

'Doberitz' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Doberitz’ © Kevin J. Weir

Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?

Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkein, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.

Would you call your work nostalgic?

I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.

'Krupp Von Bohlen' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Krupp Von Bohlen’ © Kevin J. Weir

You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?

These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.

Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?

I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?

Penny Dreadful Reads The Picture of Dorian Gray

dorian-gray-penny-dreadful-36904602-2400-3263This post contains minor plot details from seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.

You may recall that I spent the first part of the year reviewing the last season of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist blog. In my final post, I talked a bit about the show’s intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). ‘Perpetual Night’ (episode 8) wraps up Victor Frankenstein’s story, and ‘The Blessed Dark’ (episode 9) presents the final showdown with Dracula, the season’s main antagonist. This week I discovered that Benjamin Poore – author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and the recent article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ – has cited my reviews in his own blog post with the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Referencing my reading of the show’s ending through Frankenstein and Dracula, Poore adds his own analysis of Penny Dreadful and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)Like Wilde’s novel, and like Dorian Gray himself, Penny Dreadful is destined to be forever trapped in fin de siècle London:

The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_307_0478
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Poore also draws on Frank Kermode’s theories about the function of endings in narrative, highlighting the infinite possibilities Penny Dreadful creates for the exploration and expansion of this eternal London. Dorian serves as a powerful metaphor here as well:

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.

You can read the full post at the link.

Now all that remains is an analysis of Penny Dreadful against Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The addition of Dr. Jekyll in season three, and his relationship with Victor Frankenstein, felt exciting but unfinished. Perhaps we will see the good doctor in his own spinoff series – or perhaps we should leave that to the many other television adaptations of Stevenson’s novel in recent years. Poore also has a fascinating post on Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV, for those interested in reading more about the novel’s contemporary reincarnations.

Cleverman

p12810389_b_v8_aa‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue)

Before I embark on this review, I should point out that I am neither Australian nor Aboriginal. I don’t research either of these cultures either, so there will be gaps in the areas of the series that I can actually address. You should definitely seek out reviews and opinions from people with more authority on these topics. Like this one, this one, or this one.

I first heard about the five-episode television series Cleverman (airing on ABC in Australia and SundanceTV in the US) on the website The Conversation, which described it as the story of ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’. The original article used this statement with the best of intentions, to distinguish the story from the typically American superhero narratives that tend to dominate the contemporary media landscape. To say this, though, is to miss the point of Cleverman, and when I finally watched the show this past week, I was surprised to find something quite different.

Cleverman is set in a near-future version of Australia, where a race of beings called Hairypeople (‘Hairies’ for short) have recently stepped out of the shadows and into the eye of the media. Before that, they had been living with us on Earth for over 60,000 years, in secret. Hairies live longer than an average human, are stronger and faster, and are covered in a Neanderthal-like coat of hair. Because this is Australia, the Hairies are immediately classed as subhuman, and stern measures are taken to protect a frightened public from the dangers they think the Hairies pose. Some Haries are taken to prisons and camps. Some end up in The Zone, an area that has been ‘gifted’ back to the Aboriginal peoples living in the region by the Australian government.

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The show is based on elements of Aboriginal mythology, and features a diverse and complex cast of main characters – men and women, Hairies and humans, European and Aboriginal Australian. As the Hairypeople crisis unfolds, we are introduced to the story of the Cleverman, a figure from Aboriginal tradition who presides over a mythological realm known as the Dreaming. He is responsible for the people’s spiritual well-being, and can commune with the ancestors and the spirits who populate the Dreaming.

Jimmy, The Zone’s resident Cleverman, must pass on the title to a successor. He is given the choice between two half-brothers: the calculating Waruu, who acts as The Zone’s political leader, and the impulsive Koen, who has essentially abandoned The Zone and now runs several shady operations with his friends. In the end it is Koen – who is half White, and resentful of his Aboriginal heritage – who assumes the mantle of the Cleverman. Koen explores his powers (which include classics like quick healing and telekinesis) with enthusiasm at first, only to discover that they come with a great price. Over the course of the season, Koen slowly comes to accept his new title, and the heritage that comes with it.

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So far so good – this sounds a lot like the recipe for your average superhero story.  Cleverman distinguishes itself from this genre in a number of ways, however.

Firstly, unlike most superhero narratives, it has no clear hero. By this I don’t just mean that Koen is an anti-hero – the story may literally not be about him at all. This stops the narrative from espousing the kind of conservative utopianism found in many superhero comics: hero against the world, protecting it even though he is rejected from it. In ‘The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference’, Matthew Wolf-Meyer explores why comic book utopias are narratively impossible. He explains his theory as follows:

I find that the majority of comic book readers are limited to a specific reading of any given superhero – there is very little room for interpretation given to them by the authors of the text. Rather, to participate in the discourse of superhero comic books is to eschew one’s ability to interpret in favor of a conservative reading ideology, in much the same way that a religious text forces its readers to interpret its message; a comic book reader cannot read Superman as a supervillain any more than the Christian can read Christ as adversary. […] Because superhero comics are predicated on preserving the status quo, they expect of their readership a conservative reading strategy that translates into desire for conservative narratives – utopia achieved would be a radical narrative, whereas utopia attempted and failed retains the conservative status quo while appeasing the proposed conservative ideology of readers.

Superheroes, in other words, hold a necessarily privileged position in the superhero narrative. This story is about them. They are its heroes, whether or not they exhibit heroic behaviour. In a utopia the superhero would become obsolete and insignificant.

In Cleverman, which plays out as a series of vignettes that never really materialise into a single narrative, Koen’s story is just one among many. With a few exceptions, the show only gives us the bits that fit around the traditional, Western superhero narrative. We can choose to imagine a superhero structure inside it if we so desire, but this is left entirely up to the viewer. If anything, Cleverman is the story of how one people with a long history of oppression struggle to spare another people from this fate. Where can you rely on in such a situation? Your own people, who are finally beginning to recover from their oppression? The oppressed themselves? The government that first oppressed you?

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There are no easy answers, and that’s the second thing that disqualifies Cleverman from being a superhero narrative: there’s no clear supervillain. Each character has their strengths, flaws, and agendas, and while the Australian government is the main antagonist, there is no clear way to solve the problems the people in The Zone face. By the end of the first season, in fact, conflict has only escalated. The only real catharsis comes in Koen’s defeat of the Namorrodor – a monster from the Dreaming that has been committing murders the local authorities blamed on the Hairypeople.

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Finally, as creator Ryan Griffen points out, this is an Aboriginal story. It draws some inspiration from contemporary comic book narratives, but while the Cleverman may be ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’ it is then also one of the first superhero stories, period. To appropriate it so readily into Western superhero culture is to overlook its hybrid origins. Griffen writes:

I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that [my son] could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.

[…]

We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking.

To return to Wolf-Meyer’s analysis of the superhero narrative, Western superheroes are often too busy considering their own big picture to actually change the life of a regular person for the better:

As agents of the law, the vast majority of superheroes are intent on retaining the status quo, subservient to the popular politics and will of the people they endeavor to protect. These heroes fail to uphold the philosophical responsibility that Friedrich Nietzsche thought so vital to the position of the übermensch, whose purpose was to ‘‘go under,’’ to bring to humanity the lessons learned, metaphysical or otherwise, as post-humans, in an attempt to affect utopia.

The Cleverman, a post-human in the supernatural sense, but also in the role of an oppressed other, teaches us that utopia is hard, and perhaps even impossible. The first season concludes at the start of a battle that seems destined to be lost. But rather than declaring utopia wholly defeated (‘until the next issue!’), Cleverman seems to suggest that we should continue to fight. Because it draws its myth from the ancient past rather than the future or an alternate present, it is able to remind us that humans continually find new ways to hurt each other, while also assuring us that someone is still looking out for us – not on a utopian scale, but on a smaller, personal one.

Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC
Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC

Cleverman was recently renewed for a second season, so this won’t be the last we see of this story. With any luck, it will stay true to its Aboriginal origins, and will continue to resist the mould of the superhero narrative just as its characters rally against the many and varied stereotypes that seek to limit them.

You can watch the trailer for the first season here:

 

The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.

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The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

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R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. The information available online about Star Wars‘ marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.

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So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?

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I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.

The Paper Time Machine

grid-cell-27443-1475225552-7In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:

Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:

Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.

You can judge for yourself whether they’ve achieved this goal – both the crowdfunding page and this recent BuzzFeed article let you view a selection of the images side-by side.

In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:

The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.

Check out The Paper Time Machine (and score yourself a crowdfunding copy) over at the project page.