Star Wars and Political Discourse

7d7This post represents a section of my chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling that was cut for the sake of space. It looks at some of the ways Star Wars has explicitly engaged with political discourse over the years. 

Star Wars has always been a deeply political franchise. Not just in its themes, which include war, totalitarianism, multiculturalism, and civil disobedience, but also through its use in political debates and activism. George Lucas has consistently claimed that the first Star Wars film was an analogy for the Vietnam war, and that the villainous Emperor Palpatine had a specific real-life counterpart: “Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”[1] The franchise is also steeped in historical references which, while not directly political, certainly contribute to its politicisation by various groups. The Stormtroopers and other, visual parallels between the Empire and Nazi Germany are just one example.

© Billy Ludwig
© Billy Ludwig

The franchise has also frequently been read as making a specific political statement, as in Ep III, where Anakin Skywalker tells Obi-Wan “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” This caused many US conservatives to protest that the film caricatured former President George Bush’s post-9/11 assertion that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[2] Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anti-missile defense initiative was dubbed “Star Wars”: a move that irked Reagan, but was shrewdly deemed good publicity by assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, who reasoned: “It’s a good movie. Besides, the good guys won.”[3]

In a 2012 article, Jonathan Gray wrote about how fans used a scene from Ep V, in which a Rebel snowspeeder takes down an Imperial Walker with a grappling hook, as a metaphor to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in 2011. One man played the scene on a loop using his iPad, chanting “The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!”[4] Others carried Star Wars slogans on signs, or dressed up as the vehicles from the films. The Star Wars references served as an important point of “morale and community building” among the protestors.[5] In another article, Andreas Jungherr describes how Darth Vader was used by the SPD (a German political party) to discredit Angela Merkel in the 2009 German federal election.[6]

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Stay tuned for the full article, on Star Wars and popular feminism, later this year!

[1] Christopher Klein, ‘The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”’, History.com, 2015, para. 4 <http://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-that-inspired-star-wars> [accessed 24 February 2017].

[2] Derek R. Sweet, Star Wars in the Public Square: The Clone Wars as Political Dialogue (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), p. 10.

[3] Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[4] Jonathan Gray, ‘Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (2012), para. 1.2.

[5] Gray, para. 3.2.

[6] Andreas Jungherr, ‘The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10.0 (2011), para. 5.6 <http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/310> [accessed 10 February 2017].

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.

Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

687474703a2f2f7777772e7468656e65777374726962756e652e636f6d2f6f70696e696f6e2f7578697734332f7069637475726536323434303239322f414c5445524e415445532f465245455f3634302f7472756d705f746f6f6e[Updated: 23 November 2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

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

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

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

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

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

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

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

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

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

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

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

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

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

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

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

Left-Wing Populism and the Arts

© Ben Stainton
© Ben Stainton

All art is political. As Toni Morrison put it in a 2008 interview with Poets and Writers (issue 36.6):

All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS […] What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.

If this is true (and I believe that it is), what kind of politics does the historical monster mashup represent, and how does this play out in the texts themselves? To help me answer this question, I’ve been reading up on contemporary political theory. Today’s selected readings were on populism – specifically Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008), edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2012), edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. At first glance you might be wondering what the historical monster mashup could possibly have to do with populism or populist art. Surely it’s impossible for the realm of art, as a space of ‘free speech’, to conform to a populist aesthetic.

Populism in Europe and the Americas is specifically interested in whether populism should be seen as a good thing for democracy (and all its associated rights) or bad thing. First, though, it is tasked with actually defining  populism and democracy, which have both been approached from a wide number of directions. The introduction by Mudde and Kaltwasser ultimately concludes that populism can be minimally defined as an ideology

that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) or the people […]. This means that populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure versus corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), sociocultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socio-economic (e.g. class). Moreover, both categories are to a certain extent ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau 1977), as it is the populists who construct the exact meanings of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ [pp. 8-9, emphasis modified]

In other words, depending on the context and culture populism can potentially be found everywhere – among all social classes and backgrounds, and in both left-wing and right-wing politics.

Kolsyrefabriken

Twenty-First-Century Populism likewise opens by pointing out the frequent abuse of the term ‘populism’ in contemporary politics:

Much like Dylan Thomas’ definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you’, the epithet ‘populist’ is often used in public debate to denigrate statements and measures  by parties and politicians which commentators or other politicians oppose. When an adversary promises to crack down on crime or lower taxes and yet increase spending on public services, it is ‘populist’. When one’s own side does so, it is dealing with the country’s problems [p. 2]

Before we can go about deciding what populism means, then, Albertazzi and McDonnell argue that we first need to account for the term’s negative connotations in politics and popular culture.

After an extensive definition of democracy (and its different facets and levels), Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude that populism is generally beneficial to a democracy when it opposes it from the outside [p.25], serving to critique the system and keep its power in check. Populism becomes most harmful to democracy when emerges from within the government, subverting the system’s own ‘checks and balances’ [p. 24] in the name of the popular majority to undermine minority rights, or for personal gain.

Neither of these books comments in any depth on the function of art in populist politics (though Twenty-First-Century Populism does contain a chapter by Gianpietro Mazzoleni on the role of the media in promoting and exploiting populist figureheads). Could historical monster mashup be categorised as populist? That will have to be a future blog post, but at the moment I’m just enjoying learning about a subject area I had never really engaged with. This week’s reading should come especially handy in the light of the American presidential elections.

Fantasies of Cardiff Bay Opera House

Culturalfantasies_smallThis week a lot of work has gone into the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium that I’m organising with Tom Harman. The event will take place at Cardiff University on 23 May, and the programme and registration will hopefully go live sometime next week.

Today, the finishing touches have been put to the event poster (pictured left), which features a rather abstract black-and-white image. This image is of an architectural model – more specifically, a model for Cardiff Bay Opera House. It can’t be found on most websites about the Opera House, however. You also won’t find this building anywhere in Cardiff today.

What is the story behind this image, and why have we chosen to use an architectural model on the poster for a fantasy symposium? The obvious answer is that, as both a Welsh monument and a structure that today exists purely in the imagination, the Opera House applies directly to our location and theme. But beyond that there’s a slightly more convoluted story that bears telling.

The Cardiff Bay Opera House than never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.
The Cardiff Bay Opera House that never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.

Back in the early ’90s, as part of the UK’s massive Millennium Commission, it was decided that Cardiff needed a landmark building to put it on the map. An opera house would be built as part of the ongoing renovations to Cardiff Bay, and various architects would compete to design this iconic structure. Alun Michael, a former Cardiff city councillor, even made a link between the ambition of the Cardiff project and the famous Sydney Opera House:

Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people’s minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark.

The project was announced and the proposals rolled in. Our poster image comes from a proposal by Greg Lynn’s architectural firm FORM, which, in the lofty language of this paper in Assemblage (April 1995), highlights ‘biological processes of growth and change to trope traditional architectural design assumptions[, and takes] the computer as a generative instrument for systems of symmetrical and asymmetrical organization using theories of biological variation’. In simpler terms, the Opera House they imagined taps into the popular trend of ‘sustainable architecture’, maximising the building’s integration into its location and minimising environmental impact. It strives to build something as aesthetically close to a living organism as possible.

Image © Greg Lynn FORM
Image © Greg Lynn FORM.

This is not the proposal that ultimately triumphed, however. The project went to Zaha Hadid’s lovely ‘inverted necklace’, planned to at once adorn the crescent of Cardiff Bay and become its crown jewel.

Painting © Zaha Hadid Architechts
Painting © Zaha Hadid Architects.

It was not to be, however, and Hadid’s plans were announced to substantial media controversy. When the funding bid for Cardiff Bay Opera House was officially rejected, three days before Christmas in 1995, Hadid cited prejudice against her gender and race as a primary cause. Author Nicholas Edwards (a.k.a. Nicholas Crickhowell) writes:

If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don’t know … I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line.

Others cited lack of public support for the design, and the push for sports over the arts with the construction of Millennium Stadium. Perhaps the most common word thrown around about the Cardiff Bay Opera House was ‘elitist’, a label that was perhaps understandable given the cultural connotations of opera today, but largely under-informed when applied to this project.

The Times Higher Education has a thorough article that attempts to unpack the various causes. Those interested in reading more about the failed bid can also pick up Nicholas Crickhowell’s Opera House Lottery: Zaha Hadid and the Cardiff Bay Project from Amazon for a mere £10. You can also view many of the original materials relating to the project at the National Library of Wales’ Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust Archive.

Whatever the reason for the project’s failure, it is now (again in the words of Alun Michael) ‘the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.’ Indeed, in 2011 it became the most famous rebuilt building in China, as Zaha Hadid’s rejected design was eventually applied to the Guangzhou Opera House. The Wales Millennium Centre (in Welsh: Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru) now stands where the Cardiff Bay Opera House would have.

Zaha Hadid’s design lives on in the Guangzhou Opera House.

Before it was even built – or to put it in the terms of our symposium, while it was still a fantasy – the Cardiff Bay Opera House brought a whole slew of the social and political issues in Wales to light. For us, then, this image serves as a striking visual reminder of the way even our unrealised ideas have power, and remain with us. For whom do we build culture, and what impact can seemingly innocuous and apolitical projects have on our society?

The problems and discussions surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House are echoed in various ways through much of contemporary fantasy. What kinds of fantasies are currently at play in our culture? Join us on 23 May at Cardiff University and find out!

The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: 'In these stones / horizons / sing', © Gwyneth Lewis.The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: ‘In these stones / horizons / sing’. © Gwyneth Lewis.

Poster image © Greg Lynn FORM, in Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Nanako Umemoto, ‘Computer Animisms (Two Designs for the Cardiff Bay Opera House)’, Assemblage, 26 (1995), 8–37 (p. 12).

Review: Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016)

11452529_oriNOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.

Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).

Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.

94274The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.

Queue the obligatory 'suiting up' scenes.
Cue the obligatory ‘suiting up’ scenes.

Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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A shot from of the eerily out-of-place horror scenes in the film.

This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.

I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.
I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.

Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.

Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Zombies-teaser
The film ultimately had far too few of these moments.

The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).

George Wickham, hero of the people.
George Wickham, hero of the people.

A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.

Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture (CFP)

In addition to all the wonderful conferences I’m hoping to attend in 2016, I happen to be co-organising a symposium of my own, on the role fantasies play in the construction of contemporary reality. Whatever your background, discipline, or career phase, we want your abstracts (and we just want to meet you). Have a look at the call for papers below, and see if it sparks your fancy:

Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.
Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture

Cardiff University, 23 May 2016
Call for Papers

Keynote speakers:
Dr. Mark Bould (UWE Bristol)
Dr. Catherine Butler (Cardiff University)

From the record-breaking sales of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, both in print and on film, to the phenomenal success of various forms of hyperreal ‘reality television’, contemporary Western culture seems singularly obsessed by the spectacular and the fantastic. This desire to experience other(ed) realities is also evidenced by the continued popularity of neo-historical literature and period drama, the domination of Hollywood cinema by superhero movies, and by the apocalyptic and dystopian imagery that abounds across genres and target audiences. With a long critical and cultural history, conceptualised by scholars as diverse as Tzvetan Todorov, Farah Mendlesohn, John Clute, Brian Attebery, Fredric Jameson, Lucie Armitt, and Darko Suvin, fantasy has arguably become the dominant mode of popular storytelling, supplanting the narrative realism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Rather than attempting to define fantasy, horror, weird, or science fiction as distinct genres, we wish to take up Katheryn Hume’s expansive definition of fantasy as anti-mimetic, or as ‘any departure from consensus reality’ (Fantasy and Mimesis, 1984, p. 21), in order to engage with the broader artistic motivation to question the limits of the real. This symposium, then, will explore the political and cultural functions of such fantasies. To what extent does the impulse to create fantasy art comment back upon this ‘consensus reality’, and to what extent does it represent a separate reality? How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life, and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?

Roger Schlobin claims that the ‘key to the fantastic is how its universes work, which is sometimes where they are, but is always why and how they are’ (‘Rituals’ Footprints Ankle-Deep in Stone’, 2000, p. 161). With this claim in mind, we invite submissions from any discipline that address the relationship between current cultural, social and political dialogues and fantasy texts – specifically ones that interrogate dominant structures of power, normativity and ideology. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to, the relationship between fantasy texts and contemporary culture through the lens of:

  • Theories of fantasy
  • Ideology and world building
  • Ecological fantasies
  • Escapism
  • Cognitive mapping
  • Utopian/dystopian vision
  • Categories of monstrosity and perfection
  • The humanities (fantasies, futures)
  • Capitalist critique
  • Genre studies/border crossings
  • Age studies (childhood fantasy versus adult fantasy)
  • Gender studies
  • Alternate histories and retrofuturism
  • Postcolonial fantasy (incl. Welsh)
  • Nationalism and politics
  • Inequality and race relations

We welcome paper and panel proposals from postgraduate students, independent researchers, affiliated scholars, writers, and artists from any background or career phase. Paper proposals must be between 200-300 words; panel proposals should be between 400-500 words. Please send abstracts, including your name and e-mail, institutional affiliation (if any), and a short biography (100 words maximum), to Dr Tom Harman (HarmanTL@cardiff.ac.uk) and Megen de Bruin-Molé (DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk), using the subject line ‘CFP Fantasies of Contemporary Cultures’. The deadline for abstracts is 21 March, 2016.

The programme will include coffee/tea breaks, lunch and a wine reception. This will be covered in the registration fee (£10 for students and part-time staff, £20 for salaried staff). For additional information and updates, please consult this website, or follow us on Twitter at @cultfantasies.

Apocalypses and Other Great Disappointments

photoGiles – ‘It’s the end of the world.’
Buffy, Willow and Xander – ‘Again?’

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Doomed’ (Season 4, Episode 11)

 

Trigger warning: this post is going to be about religion (sort of). The fine details will be about history, politics, and popular culture, but I’ve been asked to reflect back on something I experienced in July of this year, and that’s what I’m going to do. If you want to save yourselves and click on by, I won’t blame you.

Those allergic to metaphor and academic mumbo-jumbo may also want to brace themselves. Here we go.

This week marks a few milestones. Today is the date that Marty McFly arrives in 2015 to hoverboards, endless sequels, and people wearing sports clothes out in public in the 1989 film Back to the Future II. An event that will obviously receive much less publicity is the 171st anniversary of the Great Disappointment, an apocalyptic prediction by a Christian man named William Miller, who claimed that the world would end on 22 October, 1844.

Needless to say, it did not.

William Miller (1782 - 1849). He had trustworthy sideburns.
William Miller (1782 – 1849). He had trustworthy sideburns.

In the aftermath of this failed apocalypse, however, came a very real disaster: in addition to having their hopes shattered, many nineteenth-century Millerites had given away all their possessions in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus (a shared belief in Christianity), and while the apocalypse may not literally have come for them on 22 October, it certainly must have seemed like the world had ended. Some were understandably angry, even violent. Some searched for possible explanations for the miscalculation, and some left their faith behind altogether.

Fast-forward 171 years, and the Millerites have not only survived, they have grown in number. Of the various Protestant, Adventist denominations to come out of the Great Disappointment, the largest by far is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At over 18 million members, and with adherents in more than 200 countries, it is (according to Wikipedia) the twelfth-largest religious body in the world, and the sixth-largest highly international religious body. In a way that eerily mirrors trends across the globe, the Adventist church is overwhelmingly multicultural, and increasingly fundamentalist.

So. Now you have some context.

Back in July, delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted not to allow each of its 13 world divisions to make provisions for women to be ordained — 1,381 delegates against, 977 for. Practically speaking, this meant that nothing changed. The Adventist church is governed by a bottom-up system, meaning that if local unions and churches wish to ordain women, policy allows them to do so. There are already many female pastors working in the Adventist church — in China, in fact, the majority of Adventist pastors are female.

The hashtag (and image) that trended on Twitter following the GC vote.
The hashtag (and image) that trended on Twitter following the GC vote.

The tone behind this decision, however, and behind many other decisions at the 2015 General Conference of Adventists in San Antonio, has created a rift in the Adventist church. Some (mostly from the North American division) are calling it the new Great Disappointment. I was in the conference hall when the moment(s) of disappointment happened, and I can definitely confirm that the atmosphere was brutal. Some (again, mostly from the North American division) have rather melodramatically declared that the General Conference is dead to them, and that we should mourn it. In a more nuanced move, this second collective, known as RIP GC, has called for a reflection on the themes of disappointment, faith, and moral authority. This syncroblog event coincides with the week of the Great Disappointment 171 years ago, and for those involved it represents a similar struggle to move forward. They are trying to deal with a belief system (and an organisation) that is fundamental to their identities and very dear to their hearts, but from which they feel increasingly alienated.

I have a complicated relationship with this particular religious organisation. On the one hand, I recognise and respect the need for organised religion. Western society is increasingly post-Christian, but religion is very much alive and well in the world, and I firmly reject the notion that religion is something developed societies ‘grow out of’. Things are more complicated than that. On the other hand, I find the increasingly fundamentalist nature of many religions, Adventism in particular, to be extremely off-putting. I was raised by two Adventists who were both children of missionaries, and I can navigate the ins and outs of Adventist culture like a pro. Like many academics, however, I find religion difficult to reconcile with my worldview. I certainly wouldn’t want to exclude it from my collection of paradigms, but accessing it is as much an intellectual and imaginative exercise as it is an emotional or spiritual one.

Adventism, the religion that gave the world the haystack. You're welcome. (Image via barelyadventist.com)
Adventism, the religion that gave the world the haystack. You’re welcome. (Image via barelyadventist.com)

So the ‘Great Disappointment’ of 2015 affected me a bit differently than it has others. My understanding of my relationship with religion is already very separate from my identity as a member (baptised at 13) of an 18-million-strong world church. I have also lived (and churched) in six different countries and three different continents — many more if you count single visits. I know that, while Adventist may be uniform in many ways, it is incredibly diverse in others. When confronted with the divisive spirit at the 2015 GC, I honestly wasn’t very surprised, and therefore not very disappointed.

Why should a governing body be fair or representative? In what world or environment is that the case, inside or outside of churches? We live in the age of broken systems: capitalism, democracy, police systems and school systems. Is this outlook cynical? Probably. But it points to an interesting problem.

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For me the Great Disappointment is representative of a bigger issue, not just with Adventism, but with religion, politics, ideology, and life in general. I find the idea that we only have two options in a situation of great disappointment and disillusionment to be supremely frustrating. Most responses suggest that we must either cut our losses and run, or solider on and suffer. For most of us, though, neither option is really viable. OK, in theory certain privileged individuals may be able to cut all ties to civilisation, move to the middle of nowhere, and become entirely self-sufficient, but for most of us there is no way to escape the system. We are stuck here.

new_york_apocalypse_ruins_building_25376_1080x1920In a very real sense, then, we live in a post-apocalyptic world. Not in the sense that the world has literally ended but, as James Berger puts it in After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, modernity is ‘preoccupied by a sense of crisis, viewing as imminent, perhaps even longing for, some conclusive catastrophy’ (Berger, 1999, xiii). Only now, after two world wars and the seemingly continual collapse of our social and economic systems, that longing for apocalypse is accompanied by the very real sense that the catastrophe has already happened. While we stand around anticipating an ultimate end, we are in fact standing amidst the ruins of a thousand tiny apocalypses.

We now recognise that apocalypses happen to everyone, and to every organised system, at some point. The problem is not with specific religions or governing bodies, per se. The problem is that all governing bodies, all ideologies, and all systems (especially idealistic or utopian ones) contain the seeds of their own destruction. Does this mean we should give up on them altogether? I’m in favour of looking at the question from another perspective.

In an academic article on the Occupy movement, Steven D. Brown summarises a 1980 book called The Parasite, by French philosopher Michel Serres. Brown, paraphrasing Serres, explores the idea that systems need these tiny apocalypses, these moments of disruption, in order to go on existing (and trust me, the double summary is necessary here):

A closed system at equilibrium knows no time, or rather it knows only the endless, ceaseless time of the return to steady state. Living systems, by contrast, operate quite far from equilibrium states, oscillating between numerous existing and emergent norms. What we call history begins with differentiation, divergence. (Brown, 91)

 

In other words, all systems change, one way or another, and there is no way around it. As impersonal as it sounds, one way or another someone is going to be disappointed, and divergent viewpoints will clash. As counterintuitive as it may feel, for Serres (who is concerned with systems of power and inequality) the solution to this problem is not ultimately in toppling the dominant power structures. Revolution will not save us, just as apocalypse cannot: both have happened before, and will happen again. Applying his analysis of Serres to the example of the Occupy movement, Brown concludes with the following:

 

The Occupy movement are deemed as ‘hypocrites’ because they refuse to offer a single political position on economy and society. Yet they are wise to do so. Stations and positions are not sources of power, they are what are parasitized to produce power. She or he who makes a blank space, an enclosure, is simply issuing an invitation to the parasite. Change and transformation comes from disequilibrium, redirecting flows, not stopping and defending them. (Brown, 97)

 

Basically, what Brown is saying here it that fighting stations and positions is counterproductive. The best-case scenario in this situation is that new stations and positions are created, which in turn will need to be fought against. The only thing that can’t be fought is the disruptive force of parasites: those who won’t play along with the system, but who also won’t leave the system.

A mouse stealing cheese is just one of the metaphors Serres uses to illustrate what he means with parisitism.
A mouse stealing cheese is just one of the metaphors Serres uses to illustrate what he means with parisitism.

Where I am I going with this rather abstract digression, and how does it relate to the Great Disappointment? Don’t worry, I’m getting there, slowly but surely. The way I see it, we shouldn’t have to make a decision about whether to abandon the Adventist church or to remain. That’s not the kind of decision that we, living in the twenty-first century, can even make any more. We’re in it, for better or for worse.

Maybe it’s time to stop living in anticipation of the apocalypse, and start living after the apocalypse. Maybe it’s time to take apocalypse in stride — popular culture certainly has. For many of us, apocalypse (and other disappointment) has become rather passé. Maybe instead of trying to avert the next disaster, we need to scavenge what we can from the ruins and use it, not to take down the system, but to camp out in the middle of it and wait. We need to eke out a blank space, not to argue or to offer solutions, but to say ‘We have survived the old world, we are still here, and we are waiting — just waiting together — for the new one to arrive’.

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