Three scholars from Leeds Beckett University are inviting chapter submissions for a new edited collection on gender and horror. The call for papers is below.
This edited collection aims to re-examine horror in an era of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. There have been many developments in the horror genre and whilst much of it has been reliant on previous material, there are also many shifts and changes such as:
cross-over of genres (for example, teen romance paired with vampires and werewolves, or horror in space);
new formats such as Netflix, and cinema no longer being the only place we see horror;
a resurgence of stories of hauntings and ghosts;
and the popularity of ‘found footage’.
We wish to focus specifically on horror from 1995 to the present, as after a brief hiatus in the mainstream, the 1990s saw the return of horror to our screens – including our TV screens with, for example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and with horror and its characters more knowing than before.
We are happy for you to compare older material with newer versions, such as the recent Netflix version of The Exorcist (2016) with the original film The Exorcist (1973). The main requirement is that you interrogate whether the portrayal of gender has changed in horror – it may look like something different (more positive?) is happening, but is it?
We hope to encourage diverse perspectives and we welcome early career researchers and new voices to offer a different light on classic material, in sole- or multi-authored chapters.
We’d also like to gently remind potential authors that ‘gender’ doesn’t only apply to women, it applies to men and masculinities, and it encompasses non-binary identities and experiences, as well as issues about ‘race’, ethnicities and class.
The schedule is as follows:
You send your chapter title, 200 word abstract and brief bio by the end of May 2017.
The finalised proposal will be sent to the publisher Emerald in early summer.
Your final first draft chapter (approx 7000 words) should be sent to us by January 31st 2018 (reminder/s will be sent).
We will return any comments/revisions by the end of March 2018, and ask that you send us the final revised chapter by the end of June 2018.
The completed manuscript will be submitted in July 2018 for publication in early 2019.
Please send your chapter titles, 200 word abstracts and a brief bio to the book editors by the end of May.
If you have any queries, or would like to contribute but need to tweak the schedule, please email us.
If you are not familiar with the publisher, Emerald are an independent publisher, established by academics in 1967 and committed to retaining their independence.
And for your future reference: All hardback monograph publishing will be available in paperback after 24 months, and all books are available as ebooks. Emerald commission and cover the cost of indexing if authors don’t want to do it themselves; use professional designers for each individual book jacket; and aim to exceed the royalties of other publishers. They have international offices, but pride themselves on not being a ‘corporate machine’.
While I’m currently an academic by day, by night (and in some of my holidays) I also do translation, editing, and other freelance work. Some of this is for the Adventist church, where my family have been members for several generations. While I’m not the most active member myself, the church and its 19-million-strong membership help out in health, education, and humanitarian aid around the world.
Though organised religion certainly has its drawbacks, I still think it can be a powerful way to mobilise people. This is why I offer my time and skills to the world church organisation, and to several local branches.
At the end of last year I wrote an article that was published in a national church magazine. You can read it here if you speak Dutch. The article gave readers a brief history of feminism. It also addressed an ongoing conflict between current world church leadership and the international communities it is meant to support. A few months after it was published in Dutch, an English version of the article was picked up by Spectrum, an independent Adventist news agency and magazine.
Like Christianity (or even Adventism), feminism is not a static entity, composed of people who think exactly alike and who all move in the same direction. Nor should it be—if it were, it would not be able to do the thing it aims to do: work toward equal rights for all people, regardless of their gender. In fact, the illusion of unity—unity of one group or even of the whole human race—was one of the problems feminism had to overcome along the way. Let me explain what I mean with a short history lesson.
Hillary Rodham Clinton may have been the first woman nominated to a major political party in the U.S., but she is certainly not the first woman to run for the office of president. In 1872, almost fifty years before any woman would be able to legally vote for her, Victoria Woodhull became America’s first female presidential candidate. A campaigner for women’s suffrage, she reasoned: “If Congress refuse to listen and to grant what women ask, there is but one course left to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?” If the government was not going to listen to women, women would just have to join the government. She lost spectacularly to Ulysses S. Grant, but her campaign drew a great deal of media attention, and she continued to campaign for women’s rights until she died at age eighty-eight—seven years after women were finally granted the right to vote.
Woodhull, and other women like her, formed what is called the “first wave” of modern feminism. The height of first-wave feminism occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the suffragettes and the women’s rights movement. These feminists were largely focused on the legal aspects of equal rights: the vote, the right to be educated, the right to own property.
The “second wave,” generally marked as taking place from the 1960s through the 1990s, came up against a different set of challenges. Equipped with the legal rights won by first-wave feminists, the second wave set out to negotiate questions of identity and social justice. Women were now legally “equal,” but deep-seated cultural biases still kept them from true equality on most fronts. They had to fight for the right to be women in the workplace, and in this new environment, they were forced to reconsider what it actually meant to be a woman and what it meant for a woman to be equal to a man.
Undaunted by these challenges, second-wave feminists succeeded in reforming higher many elements: education, business, politics, and reproductive rights; set up organizations and legislation for the protection of battered women; raise awareness about the movement at a popular level. Second-wave feminism was loud and proud, and this is the wave we are still most likely to associate with the term “feminism.” These women also changed history in a deeper way. I work at a university, teaching and researching literary and cultural criticism.
Basically, I study how art and literature shape identity. In my field, feminism is hugely important— and not just because the feminist movement ensured my right to work in the first place.
For hundreds of years, people assumed that great art was universal. We believed that it held up a mirror to the world—that it showed us who we were as people. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, we suddenly and shockingly realized that most of the art we had previously considered “great” was actually only reflecting a very small portion of the world, from a very specific point of view. Most of the art was made by men, specifically, well-off white men from the West. We discovered that “we” were not as united as we had thought and that our unity had only been possible because we were excluding everyone with a different perspective than ours—people who were women, who were black, who were poor or uneducated. These people did not matter in our society, and so their art could not possibly matter either. Then a group of feminist critics came along—at this point still mostly women—who, thanks to their nineteenth-century feminist forerunners, were finally allowed to participate in scientific discourse. They pointed out, in a language other scholars could understand, that actually these other perspectives were everywhere and could be very valuable indeed.
The impact this realization had on the arts (and later on the sciences as well) cannot be overstated. There were endless, conflicting worlds and perspectives out there, just waiting to be recognized. The effect was revolutionary.
In case you missed my original post on the subject, I’ve been writing regular recaps of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist, a researcher blog with the British Association for Victorian Studies. After each episode, I talked readers through what we’d seen, reflected on what previous episodes and seasons had brought, and speculated on what was to come – sometimes with the help of various academic theories. This week, the last instalment (covering the two-part season three finale) went online.
Here’s a (largely) spoiler-free excerpt from my final post, to give you a taste of the review series as a whole:
For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.
John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon.
Happy reading – and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!
What can monsters and the monstrous tell us about earlier societies and civilisations? This week’s guest post comes from Tom de Bruin, who researches concepts of evil in early Christian literature, and is New Testament Lecturer at Newbold College of Higher Education. Read more about him and his work over on his blog.
Monsters are hot. It seems that networks are producing more and more monster shows: Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries, just to name a few. Monsters have escaped the fetters of the horror genre and broken free into blockbusters. Even classical works are being rewritten by mixing monsters with century’s old texts, to create new works and their film adaptations: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
In the ancient near east, monsters were everywhere, including ancient religious texts. The beasts of Daniel and Revelation, the giants of Genesis 6, the evil spirits, and people possessed by them are all examples of monsters and the monstrous immediately present in Biblical writings. Moving to extra-canonical works the examples are even more apparent: the tortures and tortured souls in the early Christian apocalypses, Lilith, and primordial beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth. The monstrous nature of some of these is immediately evident in their embodiment (e.g. giants). Others are monstrous in geography or location (e.g. tortured souls) and behaviour (e.g. demon-possessed humans). All are monstrous in the impact they have on the audience, they embody otherness, threaten commonality, yet strangely attract.
What are monsters?
Defining monsters or the monstrous is decidedly difficult. The term “monster” has, in contemporary times, come to mean anything imaginary that is unnatural, frightening or excessively large. In different times monsters assumed different guises. Often, monsters are ill-constructed of mismatching parts, grotesque in their overabundance of certain organs or qualities.
Whatever the monster might be, it was a culture that designed it that way.1 So-called Monster Studies examines the roles that monsters and the monstrous play in culture: it is ‘a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.’2
Liminality and the Other
Culturally, monsters play an important role. They look different, they think differently, they act differently. As such they define the limits of “normal.” Wholly marginalised, they stand on the abyss of what is culturally acceptable and what is not. Beyond generally excepted ethics and aesthetics, they police ‘the boundaries of culture, usually in the service of some notion of group “purity”.’3
This delimiting role of the monstrous does not solely account for its permanent presence in cultural texts: monsters are found in texts from all ages and cultures. The monster is horrifically attractive. 4 Texts focussing on the monstrous often contain a tripartite structure in which first the monster is admitted. Then the monster is entertained and is entertaining. Finally, the monster is expelled. Entertaining the monstrous in texts is a safe manner to both describe and discourage socially unacceptable behaviour. Behaviour, that is, which remains unconsciously attractive.5 The entertaining nature of the monstrous shows that the monster is both distrusted and desired, both loathed and envied.
Temporality is key to monsters. The monster is given a temporary existence in a clearly defined space. Carnival and Halloween are contemporary cultural instances in which monstrosity is given a defined temporal existence. The monstrous exists in the text, but only during the act of reading is the monster given life. Once the predetermined time has passed, the monster disappears. Order is restored, good is distinguished from evil and the self from the other. For this is the fundament of the monster. As the monster is principally defined as being different to oneself, the monstrous becomes a symbol for everything that is wholly different from how one wishes the self were. The dichotomy between representing otherness and representing desire shows an important characteristic of the monster. it reflects ‘back parts of ourselves that are repressed’.6 The monster, entertaining as it is, grows to show us that we too are monstrous. The monster is most deeply disturbing as it is neither ‘wholly self nor wholly other’.7 As the monster portrays unacceptable behaviour, it models our – often, by necessity, deeply hidden – unacceptable thoughts and actions.
Do Monsters Exist?
Finally, in its refusal to be categorised it is moot to attempt to put monsters in fully detailed categories. Questions such as ‘Are these monsters imaginary or physical?’, ‘Are they allegorical?’, ‘Are monsters nothing more than our subconscious emotions, fears, or prejudices?’ are not useful. The value of monsters is shown in Cohen’s answer to the question ‘Do monsters really exist?’: ‘Surely they must, for if they do not, how could we?’8 Monsters, real or not, allegorical or not, manifestations of our subconscious or not, are cultural productions. As such, through an analysis of the monsters and monstrous present in a text, we can learn about the culture in which this text was produced and transmitted. As such the text becomes a witness to a social milieu, which is in part defined by the monsters it fears.
A Case Study in Monsters
Somewhere in the second century of the Common Era, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs reached their final form. A Christian author/editor created a book consisting of twelve farewell speeches, partly based on earlier texts and traditions. Each of the sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of the twelve Jewish tribes, was given a speech where he looked back on his life, prophesied about the future, and give his children advice for their lives. The advice revolves around the Christian double commandment: Love God and love your neighbour. These Testaments are full of monsters. Not physical monsters, spiritual ones. The invisible forces of darkness, often called evil spirits, are depicted having a very direct and powerful influence on the life of each person. They can influence the most important part of a human: the mind. The Testaments focus on the mind is some detail: each person consists of a human spirit that is constantly influenced by both good and evil spirits. Each person has to make sure that her mind does not become influenced by the evil spirits so that she can keep living a righteous life.
The Testaments describe the bodily nature of humans in the Testament of Ruben, the first testament. At creation, God gave mankind eight spirits that make up human nature: life, sight, hearing, smell, speech, taste, procreation and intercourse, and sleep. Soon after that Satan, God’s opponent, mixed his spirit with these and eight evil spirits were brought into being: fornication, greed, battle, flattery and trickery, arrogance, lying, unrighteousness, and sleep.9 These evil spirits are associated with various part of the body. Fornication comes from the reproduction organs, greed from the stomach, battle from the liver and gall bladder, etc. Thus certain parts of a person’s body can be associated with the forces of evil. In this way the spirit and the body are interconnected.
The association of evil actions with specific parts of the body, is a theme that is maintained throughout the Testaments. When Simeon plans to kill his brother Joseph, his hand withers for five days. The part of the body that is associated with the sin outwardly manifests itself as monstrous. The envisioned deed of the part of the body is horrible, but not only that, even the appearance of the part of the body is terrible.
Gad explains in his testament how we should understand this: ‘for by the very same things by which a man transgresses, by them is he punished’ (Testament of Gad 5.10). This seems to imply that God seeks a fitting and somewhat ironic punishment, but the Testaments require more nuance to this. If Gad’s hatred for Joseph arises in his liver, that is if the evil spirit manifests in that specific organ, it stands to reason that this organ will be influenced by that spirit. Therefore, any consequences of anger will focus on that specific organ.
The forces of evil can influence more than just parts of the body. Staying with Simeon, we read how jealous he was of Joseph. The spirit of jealousy tortured him. His body, mind, and soul were agitated. Jealousy deluded and devoured him. He would awaken to confusion. He could not think clearly, his mind was paralysed. Eventually, he concludes:
And even in sleep desire for evil appears and devours him. It confuses his soul with evil spirits, startles the body, and wakes up the mind in confusion. Thus, he appears to others as if possessed by an evil and poisonous spirit.
(Testament of Simeon 4.9)
The last sentence is key. He appears to others as someone possessed by an evil spirit. A person under the influence of the forces of darkness, that is a person whose mind has been taken over by the monstrous, such a person will appear to others as being monstrous.
Through these two examples, we can see the power of monsters in the Testaments. The Testaments are, as we discussed earlier, predominantly interested in each person’s mind. The mind has to keep making good decisions. The monsters are not physically present and can have no physical influence on the world. But, mankind can function as a means through which the invisible monstrous manifests itself in the visible world. The great danger that the Testaments wishes to warn their audience about is the other. Monsters are the other made flesh, but each person could also become the other. A person can cross the border towards the monstrous, becoming a monster herself; with monstrous limbs and a monstrous appearance. In the Testaments the other is not a group of people marginalised, but an aspect of human nature, and thus a part of each person. As a person slowly becomes the other, she no longer is herself or even that which defines her. As one lets oneself go over to the dark side, one slowly becomes the other, losing all hope of remaining oneself. In this way she becomes everything she hates.
The basis of the Testaments ethics is closely related to this. It is mankind that makes the opponent visible in the world. The ethereal monster becomes incarnate in the deeds, attitudes and even bodies of people led astray. This struggle of not only doing the opponents will, but becoming a champion of the monstrous itself is the basis of the ethical exhortation in the Testaments. The motivation for the ethics is the call to the audience not to become exactly that, which they do not want to be. The monster must stay out of the community and, preferably, out of the world too.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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’.
As you may already have heard, the internet was livid with rage on Monday, after Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones accused Terry Pratchett of being a mediocre writer who pens ‘ordinary potboilers’. Perhaps the most prominently featured response came from Sam Jordison. Crucially, Jones casually admits that he has never read Pratchett himself, and Jordison chides Jones for this admission, arguing that ‘[t]he moral weight that Jonathan Jones says is missing from the Discworld novels is very much there – but to know this, you do actually have to read them’.
The Literature Problem
Much ink has already been spilt by others in response to Jones’s article, but I’m interested in the discussion for what might be a different reason than most. For me, the debate over whether or not Terry Pratchett is guilty of literature is moot. The answer will invariably be either yes or no, depending on the individual reader’s perspective. This is fine. I personally adore the Discworld series, and think it has merit on many levels, but I’m not really bothered about whether it’s literature or not. What interests me is how we (both the highly educated and the popular readers) can still talk about what makes ‘literature’ and not first answer one immediately important question: when we say that a work is moving, or artful, or can ‘enrich the very fabric of reality’, who is it effecting in this way? With which group of people does a text need to be popular in order to be considered ‘literature’, and where does this group exist in relation to other groups in the cultural spectrum? There are literatures and there are literatures, and, as a Facebook friend of mine aptly put it:
Resolving the conundrum by implying that you somehow just “know” which works are classics – let’s get real, let’s not fool ourselves – takes us back to New Criticism’s obsession with discovering the intrinsic value of works.
I’ll have my criticism 21st century, thank you very much.
This is where Jones goes most wrong, though to be fair his 500-word article is more clickbait than criticism. Provoked by the public response to Pratchett’s recent death, Jones argues that ‘middlebrow’ writers like Pratchett are drawing the attention from where it belongs – with ‘real literature’:
Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.
Like many champions of the traditional Western canon, Jones buys into the concept of creative genius. He also invests literature with that special je ne sais quoi that is paradoxically both transcendent and timeless, and down-to-earth, or quintessentially human. Even more problematically, Jones equates literature with a particular kind of pleasure, where only a particular kind of intellectual investment can offer real rewards:
Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.
As Damien Walter (who also happens to be a Guardian columnist) points out, even if the ‘difference between serious and light reading’ isn’t entirely arbitrary, shifting from decade to decade, the real issue lies with the fact that the power to decide what belongs in each category rests in the hands of an unjust and undeserving elite:
Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan [sic] Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.
When we discuss ‘literature’ as a category or as an institution, we need to be wary of the very terms of the conversation. If we’re honest, the indefensible values Jones defends still dominate Western culture as a whole. Literature in particular is still built on the repression and exploitation of poor, female, and minority voices. Who do the texts Jones champions empower, and who is empowered by Pratchett’s work? At the end of the day, that is the most important question, although the answer is rarely so straightforward.
The ongoing debate about ‘literature’ and literariness actually reminds me of a Terry Pratchett novel. Like Walter, one of my favourite Discworld instalments is Small Gods (1992). It tells the story of Brutha, eighth prophet of a once-great god named Om. Most of Om’s followers don’t really believe in him anymore, but they keep his institutions around because they represent a useful way to hang on to their power. Brutha is quite possibly Om’s last believer. Though Om is fading away, and only has enough strength to manifest himself as a turtle, Brutha persists in believing that his god’s actions are driven by careful consideration and divine knowledge rather than necessity. You can find a nice analysis of the plot here.
In addition to being incredibly funny, the novel is at once a wry satire of organised religion, and an honest exploration of belief. I could draw quotes from any number of Discworld novels to defend Terry Pratchett’s ‘literariness’ (in whatever sense), but if Small Gods weren’t overtly addressing religion, it could easily be read as a metaphor for the literary establishment rather than a religious one. Likewise, you can interpret this metaphor as coming down either for or against Jones’s defence of ‘real literature’.
Like Om, Pratchett may not always be driven by divine forces, or by the particular brand of aesthetics to which Jones subscribes, but this clearly does not diminish the impact he has had on a vast group of people. They continue to believe in power of Pratchett’s work, and for me, this makes all the difference. As poet and critic Ian Darda points out in an excellent article on contemporary conceptual writing (which exists at another focal point in the ‘literature’ debate), power over a text’s meaning has always resided with context, not with the author, the reader, or even the text itself.
I won’t spoil Small Gods for you – provided you promise to go (re-)read it! – but it feels appropriate to let Pratchett’s work and parables speak for themselves. So without further ado, in the light of this discussion here are some of my favourite Small Gods quotes:
“There’s no point in believing in things that exist.”
(Terry Pratchett. Small Gods. London: Corgi, 2013, p.287)
Their listening was like a huge pit waiting for his words to fill it. The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.
“Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place.”
“Life in this world,” he said, “is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, ‘Go on, do Deformed Rabbit…it’s my favorite.”
And we’re back! After a long and much-needed holiday in the USA, I’m in Cardiff and working on my thesis again.
My post this week is going to be a long one, and it’s going to contain a strange mix of topics (religion, politics, and popular culture), so consider yourself forewarned. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or know me in real life) may have been wondering what on earth was going on at the beginning of July. You probably saw a lot of posts like this one, relating to points of order:
Point of Order: There is a provision in p. 10 for GC rules of order to be suspended in special circumstances. #GCSA15
From 1-12 July I was in San Antonio, at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and on days when everyone was in the Alamodome venue, things got pretty impressive:
Every five years members and official delegates from the Adventist church all over the world get together to discuss and vote on necessary, if often very boring, topics. This year, those topics ranged from minor changes to policy documents all the way up to whether divisions (large, and largely administrative leadership bodies within the church) had the right to independently decide whether to recognise its female pastors as being ‘ordained’. This last topic was arguably the most controversial of the entire GC, and the final vote was split almost evenly between Africa and South America (who represented most of the 59% against), and North America, Europe, and Asia (who represented most of the 41% for).
For most of you reading this post, the whole idea of a church policy conference probably sounds crazy, and a million miles distant from your own day-to-day life. I’m with you there. Working in academia — or just in Northern Europe, where we’re all embedded in our own little social bubbles — it’s easy to forget that other people have fundamentally different ways of looking at things. Not just in the realm of structuralism versus post-structuralism, or ‘pro-Marmite’ versus ‘anti-Marmite’, but right down to the way they essentially define things like equal representation, civil rights, and freedom of speech.
Not only is it difficult to make decisions together on an abstract level with so many cultures and ways of reading, but you first have to worry about how you’re going to make those decisions on a practical level. During the GC session, for example, one division fundamentally objected to an anonymous vote, arguing that it leads to manipulation and double-dealing, while another refused to vote unless they could do so anonymously, for the exact same reason. Things got tricky very quickly. How can you begin to work together (or even alongside each other) under such circumstances? When you disagree on such basic things, can you ever hope to agree on civil rights issues? And can you achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue that still remains respectful? I certainly don’t think we were successful at either of those things in San Antonio.
Despite having grown up all over the world, I found it a difficult atmosphere to adjust to. The collision of religion and multicultural politics made my head spin — so what on earth was I doing there? Although for most of my life I’ve happily worked and studied in environments that are decidedly post-Christian, I was raised in the Adventist church. Like many people my age I’m not very active in a specific church any more — primarily for reasons of introversion, but also for its general lack of a focus on civil rights. I still identify with the culture, though, and I feel that church can fulfill an important role in society, and in people’s lives.
There are more than 18 million Adventists worldwide, and while some of them are definitely a little crazier than others, ultimately that craziness is what endears me. I like being around slightly crazy things and people; generally I feel it makes my life more interesting, and more enjoyable. So when the Dutch church asked me (a Dutch/American) to represent them at the GC my interest was piqued, and I eventually accepted. I came prepared, attended every single business session, and did my best to help balance the severe under-representation of women and young people among the delegates.
In the end it was a losing battle, and I came away from the GC feeling exhausted and alienated, with a lot of frustrations. Despite failing to personally identify with a large portion of what went on in San Antonio, however, I did meet many lovely (and keenly intelligent) people from all over the world. Through social media, I was also able to connect with others in a way I had never quite experienced before. As we all tried to cope together, and to reconcile other peoples’ images of Adventism with our own, something happened: where religion couldn’t unite us, popular culture did. We found each other slowly on Twitter, through the official hashtag #GCSA15, the millennial rallying cry #MyChurchToo, and the tongue-in-cheek self identification as a #badventist:
What started as simple conversations about #AdventistGaming and what video games we were playing (or just an excited ‘You like comics too?!’) quickly became something more than that. Popular culture became a way to engage with the dis-empowering and overwhelming metanarrative that dominated the San Antonio GC, underwriting it with reminders that there were other, equally big stories out there that we could relate to, and that we could apply to the situation. At the start of one day we knew was going to be a particularly emotional one, we turned to Star Wars:
It just goes to show you (or at least, it showed me), that for something like a religion to really work, you need to connect with other people on more than just one level. For us that was popular culture – for others it may be something completely different. I’m still picking through the many things we referenced during those two long weeks, but I’ll always remember how it felt to find meaning and a voice through that common ground. The hashtag #GCSA15 may be retired now, but we won’t forget about the experiences it enabled in a hurry (and neither will our fingers):