Follow by Email

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

In Defence of Shakespeare

I'm often confronted with students who have absolutely no idea why the collected works of a seventeenth century showman are inflicted upon them with such relentless regularity. The thing is, I generally meet these kids when they're at the point of having suffered through nearly half a decade of this strange phenomenon and, for some reason, nobody has ever satisfactorily answered their very natural question, "Why the hell are we doing this?" This being the case, I intend to attempt to answer that question here.

If we accept that literature and history are intimately intertwined, which I don't think is controversial, then we can put forward the idea that literature can serve the function of being a history of human thought. Not in any thorough or rigorous way, but in a sort of 'highlights reel' sense. The New Testament marks a high point for the Near East in social and religious thought, Beowulf marks the first signs of Dark Age mythos and soul searching, Chaucer shows us the earthy intellectualism of the upper classes in the Mediaeval, and Joyce neatly bookmarks the point when the Modernists actually disappear up their own jacksies. Okay, so I don't like Joyce, but you catch my drift. What Shakespeare roughly marks for us is the appearance of the modern mind.

Considerations of quality and entertainment aside, Shakespeare just happens to be writing on the cusp of a massive change in the way people see the world – the rejection of determinism and fate in exchange for a burgeoning sense of human agency. In this period, for the European world, at least, we can see the last remnants of Mediaeval Christianity loosening their hold on the human mind. No longer is everything pre-determined and attributable to God – there is a growing body of thought around the idea that fate is not fixed, God is not necessarily agent in the anthropomorphic way previously imagined, and therefore human ethical thought, scientific enquiry, and moral responsibility to ourselves and others become increasingly important. This has huge ripple effects, not just in the high altitudes of philosophy, but right down in the dust where people look at themselves and wonder what to do with their lives.

The exciting thing about Shakespeare is that we can see the tension between these two points of view being mapped and explored in his characters. In Macbeth we see a man who is apparently clearly pre-destined by fate (somewhat unoriginally portrayed as three women) to follow a tragic arc of ambition, murder, and madness. But is he? In the very first instance we find that he's not able to make up his mind to murder the king. It's his wife who urges him to act, and if he hadn't told her of the witches' prophecy, could this have actually happened? If he hadn't also decided to murder Banquo, to act generally in a way which made it morally impossible to accept him as the new king, would he have died on that field?

We can see that Shakespeare has grasped the essential dichotomies around fate and free will in the uneasy awareness his protagonists have of both concepts, and their eventual acceptance not just of the things they can't control, but also of their responsibility for that portion which they can. Hamlet's "providence in the fall of a sparrow", Richard's capping of a night of self-doubt with the simple act of putting on armour and heading out into the field, come what may – again and again we see his characters coming to variations on the same conclusion. Fate and God are all very well, but we are possibly more trapped by who we are and what we do, and because it's who we are and what we do, we're also responsible and must accept that. This is a kind of subtlety you simply don't see in earlier Mediaeval authors, and it marks a major shift in human thought. So we study Shakespeare, in part, to get as close as we can to watching that shift play out, live and in colour, in front of us.

Language is another consideration. The official designator is something like 'Early Modern English', and to a lot of students the whole thing just seems like unnecessary gibberish. The thing is, though, that the language of Shakespeare is seminal with regard to the language we speak today. Something like 1000 words and phrases enter standardised modern English through the printed works of Shakespeare, which is a factlet every student eye-rollingly knows. But what they generally don't know is why this is important. Shakespeare's language, apart from just being beautiful, provides us with a kind of 'source code' for understanding why and how we speak and write the way we do today.

I've seen a similar process in marine diesel engineering. The best way to understand modern marine diesels is to take apart an old one. There's no complicated EMS threaded through the whole thing, no assumption that this is a finished product nobody but the manufacturer's certified techs will touch. All the components are simple and raw and, when once the whole assemblage is understood, revealing of the inherent reasoning behind the entire mechanism. Deconstructing Shakespeare's language works a bit like that. We can see from the clunky hand-crafted components, the crazy syntax and rhythms of multiple legacy systems of grammar, just what is possible with language, and understand the path of evolution from multiple distinct dialects of English to the slick, pre-packaged Newspeak of today.

And finally, there's the counter-intuitive fact that Shakespeare's plays are trash. What I mean by this is that they are very certainly not the gold standard of highbrow discernment we see them as today. In his time, he was a popular entertainer. And what's both interesting and important about that is that he's in just the right sweet spot to simultaneously be a participant in and inventor of a totally new way of amusing the masses. What this means for us is that he's a seminal story teller. When we look at The Tempest, we see a plot to marry some people for underhanded purposes, which people inconveniently fall in love for real, thus derailing the original plan and cue hugging and learning. This is exactly how a good proportion of romantic comedies work today. Broken down into their component parts, we can actually see the roots of almost every story and myth we make in films and on television now and ever since. And whether or not Shakespeare invented any of this stuff is completely beside the point – the point is that he's arguably the best and completest example.

So why do we study Shakespeare? For the same reason we study anything from the past: to better understand the present. And with the Immortal Bard, there's also the added advantage of jump scares, rivers of blood, and endless cock jokes.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Black Panther And Insidious Colonialism

At the end of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Allan Quatermain, who has died a heroic great white hunter death, is interred in the good soil of Africa while a voiceover assures us that should Africa ever need him again he will, like some kind of colonialist King Arthur, rise from his grave and save all the black people. Or something along those lines. It would seem that Black Panther has proven this prophecy to be correct. 

That last statement probably requires some explanation, so let me begin by telling you a story. 

There was once a magical land, hidden in a mountain fastness in Africa, to which it was death for any outsider to go. The kings of this land were wise and powerful, and took steps to protect their kingdom from being known to outsiders, for they knew that the treasure which they held would lay them open to the rapine of the white colonisers. There was, however, warfare within this kingdom, and one king raised his hand against his brother, killing him, leaving his brother's son alone and unprotected in the outside world. This is the story of that brother's return to reclaim his rightful place on the throne. This is the story of King Solomon's Mines – the very imagined world from which Allan Quatermain comes. 

Sound familiar? If you've seen Black Panther, it certainly should. 

I went into this film having heard and read quite a lot of discussion about its racial politics, its symbolic loading and meaning, analysis of its major themes, and so on, and my first inclination was to dismiss most of this as both giving Marvel far too much credit while simultaneously placing unreasonably heavy burdens on what was bound to be a childishly simplistic framework. In short, while the opening credits were rolling, I resolved to ignore the deep language of symbols and take Black Panther at face value. This, however, proved impossible, as the film insisted from the very start on speaking to its audience primarily in a language of symbols and tropes and, rather unfortunately, turning this language to a discussion of much weightier matters than it had the capacity to parse. 

But over and above its infantile clumsiness when dealing with the politics and philosophy of race, is the insidious, endemic conceptual whitewashing inherent in so much of US cinema, and of which Disney is especially guilty. Mulan somehow becomes a story about western individualism and girl power, 47 Ronin a masturbatorial European fantasy of Shogunate Japan, and Black Panther, apparently, a resurrection of the tired, parochial tropes of mysterious, magical, dark, 'mumbo jumbo' Africa. Any culture that isn't western must be viewed and ultimately distorted through a western lens such that any core ideas and values inherent within it are modified to suit pre-conceived parochial notions of 'the other'. Rather like the first dinosaur exhibits, where spines were broken and bones left out in order to make them lie flat, as their discoverers had expected them to. And what's probably most disturbing about this is that it's happened in a film predominantly made by black people. 

From interviews with the cast and crew it's obvious that they sincerely believe they've created a shining example of representation and the promotion of African culture and general African-ness. But it surely must take either an entirely colonised, or at the very least somnolent mind to so happily and eagerly do so within a framework of tropes I honestly thought we'd left behind in disgust at the turn of the twentieth century. To be sure, at the heart of this film it's much more about being African American than being African, and it was therefore to be expected that we'd be dealing with a more or less imagined version of Africa, but why this one? And why in a form that seems to be almost deliberately parodying itself?

Where the film is solid is when it explores the anger of African American marginalisation, even if it does use unbelievably stilted didactism in order to do so. Michael B Jordan's abrasive appeal more than anything helped to beam this through the clunky script, posing questions you'd ordinarily expect to hear in the mouths of nine year olds with a sort of intense and furious sincerity. The feeling of the urban reality of Oakland left an enduring sense of truth in my mind. But the African sections, which comprise the bulk of the film, are a crazy and senseless jumble of colonial visions. From the sound stage environments which seem to have been deliberately modelled on the flimsily disguised analogue for Africa made by the appallingly racist Burroughs (read: John Carter), to the insane, mutually incompatible grab bag of cultural elements thrown willy nilly into a poorly meshed reversal of the noble savage trope, the entire mental landscape of the film looked and felt like the patronising products of the white west from which it draws so heavily, and so inexplicably.

A prominent example of what I'm talking about is the much lauded use of 'Amazon' bodyguards for the king. Where historical awareness of this practice originates is primarily from western contact with one King Dahomey, and the wave of feverish Victorian soft porn this generated. Dahomey was really famous for two things, one being his all female elite bodyguard, and the other for being the most prolific seller of African slaves to the English and Portugese on the entire continent. Even making all possible allowances for the general historic amnesia and mindlessness of the Marvel ouevre, is the resurrection of this trope really being presented as an actual advance in representation? And what am I supposed to make of it as a symbol? This representational choice is either deliberately offensive, or just downright silly. 

Equally irritating is the mad insistence on magic, ancestor worship, and ritual. Intentionally or no, what this reinforces – relentlessly hammers home, in fact – is the idea of 'mysterious Africa', a continent apparently exclusively inhabited by witch doctors, shaman, painted warriors, and other variations of 'noble savage'. Can the film makers and, even more surprisingly, the audience, really be unaware of this glaring subtext? That's difficult for me to understand, as it's right on the edge of being so blatant it no longer qualifies as one. Is it really possible that nobody has parsed the underlying Eurocentrism of this imagining? Or that they have, and don't care, because here's a movie full of black people and we'll take it on any terms we can get? Is that really the level to which the discourse has sunk?

And then there's the central thesis of the film, insofar as it has one, that all of the African diaspora can and should be united by a kind of imagined ideal of Africa, and that this can also be extended to all people. The 'all people' bit feels a bit tacked on, but I'm totally at peace with that. What I'm not at peace with is where this imagined Africa originates. Basically, in the fevered, racist imaginations of non-Africans. Marvel, being myth-makers, have obvious limits on how progressive any story they tell can be, myth being by its very nature parochial and conservative. But in the case of Black Panther, I feel this parochialism to be toxic. 

I left the cinema with the nagging sense that the makers had somehow been tricked into conniving at their own stereotyping and marginalisation, and, along with much of the audience, conned into celebrating the act of so doing. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

A Defence Of Intellectual Elitism

I often wonder if calibrating the world for the use of the stupid has been the biggest mistake of the modern era. The democratisation of discourse and political participation is usually accepted as being the shining apogee of what has otherwise been a very dark and bloody few centuries, but it strikes me that rather than being the redeeming feature of an epoch of violence and hatred, it might actually be a contributing factor. Basically, I wonder if our strange compulsion to dumb everything down to concussed jellyfish level is the root, rather than the result, of all our more recent struggles.

How would it have been possible for the Nazis, for example, to garble Indo-European theory into the hateful master race doctrine if all materials on the subject were written in language they would have had no hope of either understanding or taking an interest in? Or for later racists to use Darwin and 'common sense thinking' to argue for black segregation if no-one had had the bright idea to summarise his theories in words of one syllable? Or for evangelicals and Puritans to so hideously twist and misinterpret The Bible if nobody had ever translated it into English?

If complex concepts were only really accessible to people with complex understandings, I strongly suspect the world might be a much better, or at least quieter, place. Of course I'm not advocating for some totalitarian Gattacca-like state where people have to pass an IQ test to be given access to information. My thinking would be decidedly more 'free market' than that. I'd just suggest that we stop talking down to idiots who don't even really care what we're saying anyway, and then see how that goes. In fact, I'm not even talking about intelligence, but rather about effort. How would it be if we lived in a world where people, in order to participate in complicated debates about high concepts and the fates of nations, actually had to learn how to talk and think first as a sort of earnest of their status as stakeholders?

I know there are many valid points to be made here about time, money, and basic human rights, but I'm not talking about restricting intellectual discourse to an idle moneyed class a la the mediaeval period. It's not the mediaeval period, and access to education is currently quite broad, and should certainly be broader. What I'm more talking about is a world where an article entitled, "Political and Racial Ontologies of Gender Constructivism" isn't automatically and inevitably paired with one called, "What It's Really Like to be a Black Transexual". Because the thing about the second one is that it's useless. First and foremost, it is not going to be able to tell me what the title claims it will – nothing can. And secondly, there are ideas so complex that simplifying them doesn't so much clarify them as it utterly warps them. If we're really going to get into it, converting big complex ideas into the currency of "tradeable facts", as I like to call them, negates the possibility of actually knowing or understanding them at all. 

I'm also not saying that education/intelligence and evil are mutually exclusive. But I am saying that having every discussion dominated by clueless, mindless reactionaries is not just unhelpful, but positively harmful. And it's not as if most people are invested in these big issues anyway. I don't think your average householder would give a toss about racial or gender politics if they weren't living in a world so weirldy insistent on their participation in debates they don't understand, and the outcomes of which don't actually affect them. Kate McCulloch is a prime example. It's abundantly clear that her position on Islam and immigration is largely derived from a complete ignorance of what the words 'Islam' and 'immigration' actually mean, combined with a social epistemological framework which more or less demands that she have an opinion on these things she knows nothing about and has no actual practical stake in.

The result of this nonsense in Kate's case is typical of the general political and social malaise we currently live with. Complex ideas and issues are dumbed down so that unwilling members of the public are required to process them, almost always incorrectly, and then white out the channel of discourse with their dim-witted, uncomprehending rambles and rants. Why don't we stop trying to explain this stuff to these idiots? Why not just let people who aren't either interested in or equipped for these discussions just opt out, as I suspect they'd rather do anyway? Just leave complex ideas in precise and complex language, so those who wouldn't otherwise be bothered with them have the perfect excuse not to. Then perhaps the intellectuals of the human race, freed from the onerous and time consuming necessity of braking for morons, might finally be able to think and talk productively for long enough to break the cycle of reaction and actually figure some stuff out.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Orwell And Irony

It is a persistent source of amusement for me that so many of the people, left and right, who revere Orwell today have not only never really read him, but are also the kind of people he held in utter contempt.

Understanding Orwell is not a simple matter of reading 1984 and Animal Farm. This is really only a way of accessing his literary persona. Orwell was a highly intelligent, emotionally conflicted, and politically and philosophically very complex individual. Unlike so many commentators of his and our time, he sought first hand and active experience of the things in which he took an interest. As a journalist he spent months living with tramps and the Parisian demi-monde, as an activist he literally put skin in the game in the trenches of the Aragon Front, and as a political philosopher and commentator he attracted controversy, hatred, and even government oppression by the simple means of deciding to tell, unflinchingly and completely, the truth as he saw and felt it.

This is revealed more in his essays than anywhere else, and it's typical of the way he was treated in life that his final wish that they be burnt was not honoured. Orwell first and foremost believed in The Revolution. He was intelligent enough to understand that this could come in many forms, but one of the many parts of the great man's memory we gloss over today is the fact that he was cheerfully resigned to the possibility that change might in fact involve the murder of the bourgeoisie and blood in the streets of London. His attitudes to homosexuality (possibly formed during a childhood at Eton, where he was miserable), women, the free market, and race would horrify the intelligentsia and insipid latte socialists of our times. And his bitter hatred for the compound word 'onto' would be simply confusing. But what I really want to zero in on is his attitude to Stalin and Soviet communism in general.

It's hard for us to imagine nowadays, but Joseph Stalin was quite a popular figure in the years just after WWII. Hollywood has re-written history in the popular mind to cast the USA as Europe's white knight, but before this process was complete, it was Stalin's Russia who wore that laurel. Popularly referred to as 'Uncle Joe' (Big Brother, anyone?), Stalin was the darling of a surprisingly broad range of British social classes and affiliations. The 'Soviet Miracle' was often gushed over in leftist circles, and what can only be understood as a deliberate blind eye was turned to the rumours and hints of horrific atrocities that were leaking out of the Eastern Bloc in those early days.

Orwell, being a revolutionary socialist, was surrounded by people eagerly participating in the lionisation of one of history's most appalling mass murderers. As a journalist and veteran of Spain, he knew at first hand what the Soviet regime was actually like, and he frankly and fearlessly spoke out against it. Animal Farm and 1984 were his literary reaction, but it's in his essays and journalism where we see the most direct and unflinching attacks on the Russian state. Of course, the result of this was to alienate him from his natural leftist allies, even while his undiminished enthusiasm for social revolution kept him firmly in the sights of the establishment and the right. One critic describes him as "a permanent political misfit", and this is very apt. But if we think about why that is, I think we get to the core of why Orwell should be the example every one of us tries to follow.

Orwell never made the mistake of conflating political right and left with moral right and wrong. He never once made the mistake of conflating that which was popular with that which was good. Not once in his life did he confuse taking a political position with joining a political tribe. He was guided solely by his conscience, his beliefs, and the gnawing sense that any slavish adherence to any pre-fabricated ideology was simply a louder and more annoying way to reinforce the existing hierarchy - to slot oneself neatly into current power structures and connive at maintaining all their present injustices, immorality, and inequalities. This, more than anything, is what separates him from the obtuse and mindless evils of both his times and ours.

Monday, 5 February 2018

For Absent Friends

I'm writing this for those of our friends who could not attend Kyung's service.

The Macquarie Park Cemetery Complex is large. There's sections for all faiths – a niche wall for Jews, the curious obelisks and broken pillars favoured by Protestants, angels and crosses for the Catholics, and even stelae and burrows for Daoists, Buddhists, and so on. The grounds slope gently down to the discreet main gate, and all around the parklands are dotted with pavilions, fountains, and stately mature gum trees, a ring of which also cuts off the whole complex from the noise and ugliness of the industrial parks and main road. Apart from the formal monuments, there are little personal acts of devotion everywhere. In random trees, on the footings of graves, there are small, handmade tributes – a paticular bouquet, obviously renewed daily, a carved bird, a hand crocheted heart with the single letter 'M'. It is a nice place to sleep for a while.

Kyung was farewelled in the Magnolia Chapel. I'd been there before. It's a nice enough space, with a curtained area at its head for the catafalque, screens all around, and those curiously uncomfortable seats peculiar to funeral homes. When the service started I immediately learned two important things. One was that I have never over the course of our decades of friendship pronounced Kyung's name correctly. And the other was that Kyung's family had no idea just how many friends, or just how well loved by so many, their only son was. I like to imagine Kyung laughing mischievously about both those things.

The service was pretty well entirely in Korean. It was clear that the family really only expected it to be themselves. It was also deeply Christian. All the while when the pastor was asking Jesus to take Kyung into his arms, I thought about how my militantly atheist friend would have reacted to that. Part of me thinks he would have hated it. But then, he loved his father, and I think he would have wanted them to do the thing which gave them most comfort. Either way, I think that once he'd thought it through he would have found it hugely funny – I never met another man capable of enjoying irony quite so much as Kyung was.

The service was open casket, which meant that we were all able to say our last farewells face to face. When the family invited us to do so, it was with real satisfaction that I noted that the queue went down the aisle and practically out the door. A mourning band fitted in size in some small measure to the size of his soul. I think his family were pleased too. I hope they were. They'd laid Kyung out in his finest. They didn't shave him, but just trimmed the Fu Man Chu he loved to sport. I liked that very much – Kyung will go to his long home fitted out as he always wanted to present himself to the world.

I ran into Jezza in the queue afterwards, when a long long stream of people lined up to pay respects to his dad. Jezza talked about Kyung's presence of mind, and his consideration for others. "Only K-Dog," he said, "would have had the kind of presence of mind to pull safely off the road." He was right.

When all was done, we all went our separate ways into that bright Australian sun. Some went to The Ranch, to pour a libation and remember. I suspect many, though, were like me – forced to re-enter the living stream of the day and work. But either way, you all should know that Kyung was sent off in real style, by dozens of people who loved him. I think he would have wanted all his friends to have the satisfaction of knowing that.