The Political Landscape

'Matalas Mountain' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Matalas Mountain’ by Jacob Pierneef

Could there be art less political than a landscape?

Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Toni Morrison that ‘All good art is political! There is none that isn’t’, on first viewing of Jacob Pierneef’s paintings at the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ exhibition I would never have guessed that they were used in the defence of apartheid.

One online biography describes Pierneef’s influences as follows:

His early works reflect the fashions of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly pointillism and the landscapes of the Dutch masters that he was exposed to when his parents moved to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. But the most patent and lasting influence on his work was his architectural studies at Hilversum. Still, he was not European, he was African-born, and was drawn to the palette of Bushmen rock painters and the pastel shades of his beloved Highveld surrounds.

So far, so neutral, right?

'Composition in Blue' by Jacobus Pierneef
‘Composition in Blue’ by Jacobus Pierneef

Even if you don’t pick up on Pierneef’s Dutch influences, you do immediately get a sense of how quiet and empty his paintings are. This is no accident—the absence of people in Pierneef’s landscapes is a central part of his nationalist message. As Jennifer Beningfield writes in The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century:

A member of the Broerderbond from 1919, Pierneef increasingly embraced the agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalists, referring to himself as a ‘Voortrekker’ for the arts during the 1930s and 1940s. It has been argued by the art historian N.J. Coetzee that Pierneef’s landscapes are inseparable from the contemporary political agenda n which they were produced. Coetzee maintains that Pierneef’s work offers a visual means through which the veld, and in particular the landscape of the Transvaal province, could be imagined as the fatherland of the Afrikaner.

[…]

Pierneef’s success in developing a distinctive style of landscape painting which resonated with the contemporary Afrikaner cultural and political concerns meant that his paintings were collected as status symbols by those who considered themselves to be ‘true Afrikaners’ The majority of Pierneef’s wealthy patrons lived an urban existence and the paintings became almost displaced fragments of the land itself; magical totems invoking the land in its purity and stillness. Not only were the landscapes representations of remote ‘natural’ places, desired from within the confines of the city, but also they became integrated into the narration of the past, the political ambition for the future and the construction of Afrikaner identity.

In other words, Pierneef ‘didn’t celebrate South Africa’s people, he celebrated the land itself’—land that, in his view, belonged to the white Afrikaners and not to its black, native populations. As John Peffer wrote in 2003:

In Pierneef’s painting the South African landscape is cast as God’s land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 1883. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule. Pierneef’s landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. […] For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity.

Pierneef’s art will be joining my repertoire of teaching texts that, while seemingly neutral, can pack an intense ideological punch.

'Thorn Tree at Dusk' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Thorn Tree at Dusk’ by Jacob Pierneef

If you’re in the London area, I highly recommend ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’. It runs until 26 February 2017, and features a wide selection of South African art, from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds.

Women of Star Wars

Image © Jeremy Selwyn
Image © Jeremy Selwyn

I’ve been writing a lot about Star Wars lately, and I’m afraid there will be a few more posts on the subject in the weeks to come. What can I say. When you’re working on something—especially something that was once a childhood obsession—it can hard to tear yourself away. This week I’m taking a little break from exhibitions and feminist analyses, though, to reflect on something small and unexpected and great that I discovered while doing research for my article.

There are a lot of interesting women behind Star Wars.

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I don’t just mean the characters on screen or page, though you can take your pick of those as well. Behind the scenes, women have also been a direct and important part of the Star Wars story, whether they worked on the crew of one of the films, for one of Lucasfilm’s many divisions, or in a managerial capacity. Though I already knew how important some of these women were to the universe I know and love, I’ve learnt a lot more about them over the past few months, and have discovered a few more in unexpected places. It’s been fascinating, and I would love to take the research further at some point.

Below are five ‘women of Star Wars’ you might find interesting too, whether you already know of them, or have never heard of them before. Each has impacted the franchise in her own important way, but it’s an eclectic collection. Let me know if there’s someone you think I should have included!

marcia2_thumbMarcia Lucas

While you’ll probably recognise the surname, you may not know just how much of an impact George Lucas’ ex-wife had on the first three Star Wars films. Besides editing them (she won an Oscar in 1978 for her work on A New Hope), she influenced their narratives on other levels as well. Michael Kaminski, the author of The Secret History of Star Wars (2008), wrote an extensive and illuminating article about her life and work. You can read the entire thing online, but here’s an excerpt:

Mark Hamill […] notes in 2005 how her sensibilities influenced the content and structure of [George Lucas’] films:

“You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little ‘kiss for luck’ before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: ‘Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,’ and she said, ‘George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected’– and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it.”

photoLucy Wilson

Wilson has held many roles at Lucasfilm. She started out as George Lucas’ assistant, and is said to have typed up the the script for Star Wars. She also worked as finance director in Lucasfilm’s licensing department, as head of publishing, and finally as head of the nonfiction George Lucas Books. In 2010 she retired, though if her Twitter account is any indication it looks as though she’s still keeping very busy.

Most importantly (to me, anyway), she seems to have been largely responsible for the launch and success of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, which had a long and profitable run. In a post on the Barnes and Noble blog, Andrew Liptak explains how it all went down:

“I was trying to bring quality literature to a licensed fictional universe,” Wilson recalled. She also wanted to do something different from the typical tie-in novel. With the Star Trek novels as their main competition, Wilson knew she needed to differentiate her books. “[Star Trek was] constantly rebooting their program with new storylines. I didn’t want our plan to be like theirs, and one big difference was to make ours have one over-arching internal consistency.” Additional stipulations were that the stories had to take place after Return of the Jedi, none of the characters who were featured in the films could be killed off, and characters already dead could not be resurrected.

ken09-15_aKathleen Kennedy

If you haven’t heard of Kathleen Kennedy yet, it’s certainly only a matter of time. The heir to the Lucas empire following its sale to Disney, Kennedy has worked in Hollywood nearly her entire life, with some of its biggest names. Her production company, Kennedy/Marshall, is second only to Stephen Spielburg in terms of domestic box office receipts.

Since she took over from Lucas there have been a number of in-depth news reports on her career and her plans for the future. And though she hasn’t yet nominated a female director to helm a Star Wars movie, she has pulled together a diverse executive team.

IGN wrote:

Lucas stepped down, Kathy was named President, and now has full control over the future of the lucrative franchise. Considering their close working relationship, one can only assume that Kennedy and Lucas began discussions well before work on Lincoln began, and indeed, that the Disney deal was always a part of these discussions. The Disney/Lucas revelation rollout is still ongoing. But one thing is for certain: George Lucas has complete faith in Kathleen Kennedy.

“I don’t have to give advice to Kathy,” he said, during the most recent of his chat series with the producer. “She knows what to do. I mean, she knows better than I do.

“She has all the qualities to run a company like this. To make it great.”

We’re likely to be hearing a lot about Kennedy in the future.

kiri_hart-bab4846cc9d8Kiri Hart

Hart has been working at Lucasfilm for over 20 years in various roles, but in 2012 she became the Development lead for the company’s new Story Group. Basically, this group keeps track of the existing Star Wars continuity, and makes executive decisions about what kinds of stories will be told in the future. The Daily Dot explains it like this:

From a fandom perspective, the Story Group put itself on the map by torpedoing the Expanded Universe (EU), a vast network of tie-in materials that populated the Star Wars franchise for decades. Along with stories filling in the time between and after the movies, it introduced beloved characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade Skywalker. Then in April 2014, Lucasfilm decided it was too unwieldy to link with the upcoming slate of movies. The EU was declared uncanonical, making way for a new universe encompassing episodes I-VI, the two animated series, and everything that came after April 2014. Now, everything goes through the Story Group, which provides background material and steers writers away from topics that will be covered in other corners of the franchise.

[…] The Story Group’s influence is everywhere, from the design of star maps in spinoff books to the diverse casting of the new movies—almost certainly stemming from the input of Kathleen Kennedy and Kiri Hart. The question now is how long this ecosystem can thrive. Other studios have hit serious problems trying to balance innovative creators with big-budget franchise properties. On the other hand, no other company has the same level of control as the Lucasfilm Story Group, which benefits from having an executive team full of lifelong Star Wars fans.

 

screen_shot_2015-11-23_at_15-10-28Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir

This video game developer and Senior Producer with EA DICE was responsible for 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. Ingvarsdottir doesn’t work for Lucasfilm directly, then, but with one of their many licenses. She’s also a self-labelled Star Wars fan. While the game received mixed reviews for its price-to-content ratio, it still shipped over 13 million copies.

When Fortune magazine asked her how other people can get into the business of video games, she replied:

“I encourage people to spend time playing, to spend time prototyping and making games using all of the free engines and software available out there,” she says. “Most people have some understanding that to make games you need to be a programmer or a designer. But there are so many fields today. You can be a lawyer and work in games. You can be an economist and work in games. There are so many roles and so many ways you can be a part of making games.”

Do you know of more interesting ‘women of Star Wars’? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

Rogue One Was the Movie I Needed This Year…But It Wasn’t the One We Deserved

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.

The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.

Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) Photo by Jonathan Olley, © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.

So, here it goes.

Concept art for Rogue One
Concept art for Rogue One.

To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.

2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)

TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.

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A boardroom scene in Rogue One.

From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.

This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.

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The central cast of Rogue One.

So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.

Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.

The women of Lucasfilm's executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.
The women of Lucasfilm’s executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.

As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.

I also can’t forget Carrie Fisher’s open letter to Princess Leia upon hearing that she would be appearing in new Star Wars films. She wrote:

[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.

Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.

A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.
A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.

What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.

In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.

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Leia takes out Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.

Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.

As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.

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General Leia knows what I’m talking about.

Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.

So let’s get to it.

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Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!

 

Female Gothic Histories

Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, Artist Unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen's Novels
Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.

Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:

If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.

As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.

Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.
Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Professor Wallace’s lecture delved deep into Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783-85), Vernon Lee’s Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), multiple rewritings of Jane Eyre, Victoria Holt’s pulp novels (including Mistress of Mellyn, pub. 1960) and the modern Gothic, before finally coming to settle on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. In this survey, Victorian fictions were intentionally sidelined, specifically because they already loom so large in discussions of women writers, the Gothic, and historical fiction.

For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.

Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé
Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.

Wallace closed, fittingly, with one quotation from Luce Irigaray’s monograph Thinking the Difference, and another from Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey:

If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)

[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)

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.

Brigitte Bardot
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

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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/.