Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.

 

Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.

‘All Sad People Like Poetry’: Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein, and the Romantics

The_CreatureThis post contains spoilers for the series finale of Penny Dreadful (2014-2016).

This week, on re-watching several episodes of Penny Dreadful for research, I noticed something I had missed completely on my first, chronological viewing. Both the third episode of season one (‘Resurrection’) and the show’s final episode in season three (‘The Blessed Dark’) quote from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The poem (which covers ten more stanzas in Wordsworth’s published version) is a meditation on faith and mortality, and ponders the possibility of re-capturing a child’s wonder towards life, God, and nature.

Penny Dreadful is no stranger to poetry—especially the Romantic variety. Other Romantic recitations in the series have included John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (S01S05), William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (S02E02), and Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (S03E01). John Clare, the working class poet whose name Frankenstein’s creature adopts in the second season, also makes several appearances (see ‘I Am!’ and ‘An Invite, to Eternity’).

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What interested me so much about this particular poem, though, is the dramatic difference between the two contexts in which it appears, and the relationship between two of the main characters it represents. The first time we hear it, the poem is narrated by a young Victor Frankenstein, as he walks through a field of daffodils (another poetic reference to Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’). This scene takes place just before Victor finds the maggot-infested corpse of his childhood dog, which itself is a foreshadowing of his mother’s death and the disastrous reappearance of his creation, Caliban, later in the episode.

Victor, scarred by the image of his dead dog, contrasts this picture of death with the one painted by Wordsworth and the other Romantics: ‘When the poets write of death,’ he concludes, ‘it’s invariably serene. I wonder if that’s what it is really. This death, this ending of things.’

‘Is it an ending though, Victor,’ his mother asks, ‘or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else?’

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Caliban’s appearance brings back these memories, and also their poetic references. Like the asylum attendant of his past life (see ‘A Blade of Grass’, S03E04), Caliban seems to have no use for poetry. Especially not the kind of poetry his creator reads:

From your penciled notations I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old Romantics. No wonder you fled from me. I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age. Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? (‘Resurrection’, S01E03)

Caliban’s attitude towards these poets makes it all the more striking that the second time Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’ appears in Penny Dreadful, it is recited by Caliban himself, as he kneels at the grave of the series protagonist, Vanessa Ives. This time, the following excerpt is also part of the recitation:

But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

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Of course, though Caliban initially rejects the Romantics as his spiritual leaders, he is repeatedly shown to be a devoted poetry reader throughout the series, and eventually even takes the name John Clare. He explains the rationale behind this decision to Vanessa in a moving scene partway through season two, which includes a shared recitation of ‘I Am!’ (see ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, S02E05):

‘I’ve always been moved by John Clare’s story,’ Caliban says. ‘By all accounts, he was only 5 feet tall, so considered freakish. Perhaps due to this, he felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things.’ Through John Clare’s unusual perspective on Romantic themes and ideals, Caliban is able to grapple with them as well—though we are never given an indication that Caliban’s opinions about Romantic naivety and metaphysical yearning have changed.

Does Caliban change his mind about the Romantics in the final episode? Whatever the reason for Caliban’s re-appropriation of Romantic poetry in ‘The Blessed Dark’, it adds a new layer of meaning to the conversation Victor and his mother have in ‘Resurrection’. In the season finale, kneeling by Vanessa’s grave after burying his own son, Caliban seems to be asking precisely the same questions as Victor: is death an ending, or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else? As his own existence demonstrates, the answer is hardly straightforward.

Clare’s poem ‘I Am’, from ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, ends as follows:

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

‘I wonder if he ever found it, his silent place with God’, Vanessa wonders. ‘The poem tells me that he did’, replies Caliban, ‘as you will one day’. The troubling epilogue to that statement, of course, is that Vanessa only finds her peace in the grave (as the poem itself implies). John Clare himself spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum. One can only hope that Caliban found a less tragic and more immediate solace.

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Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask at the Copenhagen Contemporary

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen, where I visited the recently-opened Copenhagen Contemporary art museum. Before I stepped into the exhibition space to the left of the ticket desk, I was directed to a dark hall at the back of the museum, where Pierre Huyghe’s 20-minute film Untitled (Human Mask) was playing on a loop. The museum’s website introduces the film as follows:

A monkey wearing a mask of a young woman, trained as a servant, unconscious enactor of a human labour; and a drone, an unmanned camera, programmed to perform tasks, inhabit the same landscape of Fukushima, just after the natural and technological disaster.

Huyghe was partly inspired by a YouTube clip, ‘Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!’, in which a trained monkey in a doll-like mask, wig, and server’s uniform waits tables in a restaurant. You can watch the video below:

Human Mask is dramatically different in tone and style, but features the same monkey in the same restaurant, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In this post-apocalyptic environment, Huyghe deployed a drone camera crew, capturing the monkey’s fitful movements through the space and creating the impression of an interior and distinctly human life. The resulting film is both supremely uncanny and surprisingly moving.

No words are spoken in Human Mask, aside from several instances of a muffled, automated voice speaking Japanese in the distance, issuing what sounds like a public service announcement. The monkey, too, is silent save for the amplified sound of its breathing behind the mask. Nevertheless, sound has a real, physical presence in the film, especially when rain begins to pound on the tin roof towards the end.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Frieze.com‘s Jennifer Higgie has written a brilliant review of the film, from when it was first exhibited in London back in 2014. She concludes:

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Click here to read the rest of Higgie’s article, and here to learn more about the exhibition, which runs until 21 May 2017.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

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© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

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© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

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© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

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© AARON
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© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

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.

post-human-deception

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.

matthew-barney-the-cremaster-cycle-865x577
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.

‘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, Tolkien, 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.

l-r_-jarrod-slade-_iain-glen__-koen-west-_hunter-page-lochard_-and-waruu-west-_rob-collins_-photo-lisa-tomasetti

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: