Categories
Criticism

American Horror Story – Cult: Liberal Nihilism

You’re not a hero. You’re a symbol, one I created! Killing people doesn’t get the men hard and the ladies wet anymore. But Americans lose their ever-loving shit when you destroy their symbols – statues, flags, pledges of allegiance, $20 bills, white Jesus and Merry fucking Christmas! You come for any of that stuff, you’ve got rioting in the streets and domination of the news cycle for weeks.

-Kai Anderson, Cult.

American Horror Story: Cult felt like the lamest of the show’s iterations. I have no problem with media that wishes to tackle contemporary political issues, but Cult was both heavy-handed and inept in its attempt. I quote Ben Gazur writing for the Guardian about the season:

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. This was a problem for the world in general and American Horror Story in particular. Horror and satire died that day. Nothing the writers could imagine comes close to the visceral shock of that moment – but they decided to offer their hot take anyway.

I agree with the sentiment of Gazur’s point here and would expand to say that American Horror Story floundered in addressing contemporary politics precisely because the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right is a quintessential American Horror Story. Perhaps satire died or was wounded, but horror? How could horror still not be used to address the profuse evil and ugliness that was more and more visibly rearing its head? I argue that the ideology of Cult is one of liberal nihilism, it tries to contend that the Democrats and the Republicans are both cults, whilst offering only a vague mutation of both establishment groups as a way forward. There is nothing inherently profound to the idea that politics and political groups are akin to cults, read Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (more technical) or First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (more polemical), and you can understand the basic principles of belief and contradiction that make up ideology. It is not just the overall ideology of liberal nihilism which I have a problem with, but also the absence of the Left proper so to speak. In this show we get liberal small business owners, we get MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters, and we get Alt-right basement-dwelling militias a la Fight Club. Where is the Left, I ask? Apart from a brief couple of minutes of people (readable as antifascists) protesting in the park against cult leader Kai’s speech, there is no real sense of an alternative to him, there is no opposite end of the spectrum in the show. There are only people working within the capitalist-Symbolic order as it were, who are aware there is something wrong with the society and the people around them, but are only able to address it within the very limited confines of Liberalism. I am not suggesting the show should have had Joseph Stalin burst into a scene, rifle in hand, but it could have done more with its subject matter than basic, lame caricatures from a very narrow window of American politics.

            I would say that Cult tries to address two contemporary issues that encapsulate part of America’s political landscape, one is racism and the other is sexism. Racism feels present in the first few episodes, we see Kai antagonising migrants to frame them as being violent, but then race sort of tails off from the season. Sexism is the issue given more attention throughout, and often it feels awkwardly handled. It feels like the presence of feminism within the show is of a liberal, white variety. It does not really have any interest past surface level appearances of injustice. Characters like Winter and Ivy are outraged that Hillary Clinton lost, and the show frequently, whether it agrees with this idea, frames Clinton as being a feminist, or an icon of feminism. If Clinton is viewed as a symbol for feminist change and progress, she is an empty one, she speaks only to the visibility of women within capitalist-patriarchal structures. Her politics and history are anything but feminist and the show glosses over this. In fact, I do not think the show looks at politics in any especially interesting way, no policies are mentioned, no consequences for the victims of these policies are really seen. It is all spectacle, all show – women in positions of power are good, no matter what their politics are.

There is an interesting focus on Valerie Solanas which brings with her the closest thing to a ‘radical’ opposition to sexism. I think the portrayal of Solanas by Lena Dunham is symptomatic of the show’s larger problems. Dunham is at best a problematic feminist figure and at worst an obstructive one, managing to articulate herself poorly on various issues and at times lashing out against black women. Her rejection of Aurora Perrineau’s sexual assault accusation against Murray Miller speaks to a wider problem within white feminism, a tendency to not support and extend their focus beyond the most mainstream issues and therefore leave women of colour out in the cold. The casting of Dunham and the general focus on white women within Cult leaves me disappointed. Generally, I think American Horror Story is pretty good with ethnic minority and queer representation but in the one season where both these categories are perhaps most necessary to be given voices, they occupy a very small portion of the show. Beverly is the only non-white main character whilst Ally and Ivy are at least centre stage lesbians, although sadly the perceived queerness of other characters like Kai and Samuels seems to just link homosexuality with women-hating. I’m not saying these representations alone are the problem so much as it is the fact that it is often poorer queer white and non-whites who are at risk in America be it economic instability or violence carried out by bigots and fascists.  

            Kai refers to numerous famous cult leaders within the show, including Charles Manson. He claims Manson snapped America out of the haze of the hippy movement. In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kathleen Geier mentions that during the hippie movement Clinton spoke vocally in favour of women’s progress within society before then diverting into a more subdued, corporate legal career. Does the increasing deindustrialisation and expansion of capitalism within America spiriting Clinton away from her radical hippiness not mirror Manson’s dismantling of hippie conceptions via his race-war inspired murders? It feels like within Cult we are meant to be aware of the explicit violence within society which causes traumatic change of the political landscape e.g. terrorist attacks, school shootings, without being aware of the wider, more all-consuming powers which truly bring about ideological extremes such as Trump and the Alt-Right. When Manson spoke about his driving motivations, famously sampled by Death Grips, does he not in a sense reflect the wider powers that be?

What the hell I wanna go off into — and go to work for?

Work for what, money? I got all the money in the world

I’m the king, man

I run the underworld, guy

I decide whos does what and where they do it at

What am I, gonna run around and act like I’m some teenybopper somewhere, for somebody else’s money?

I make the money, man, I roll the nickels

The game is mine

I deal the cards

Sure, Manson spoke these words, but could we also not attribute them to politicians, to capitalists, to those in hierarchal positions of power, who in their conscious and unconscious machinations engineer the very discontent, anxieties, and hatred which fester and grow into a form which is not controllable, at least not beneath Liberalism?

            The ending of Cult felt somewhat like Liberal fantasy to me – Kai is of course written to be ridiculous and hateful (his last words being ‘make me a sandwich’), but the points he makes about symbolism chime true. I quoted them at the beginning of this essay because I feel the idea of visibility, of symbolism, is the core of Cult’s politics. It doesn’t matter really what someone like Hillary Clinton stands for, she’s a woman! It doesn’t matter what brought about the empowerment of the Alt-Right or Kai, he’s dead! Pay attention to Manson, his violence is easy to consume and understand, do not pay attention to the disarmament and absorption of the hippie movement into capitalist culture. When the show ends on that final sting of Ally in the mirror wearing the cloak of the Solanas-cum-Zodiac cult, what are we meant to make of this? It feels like a continuation of political action within the very space of Liberalism which only further breeds political discontent across all aisles. Ally and the others all miss the point again, Kai understood partly the importance of optics, the others merely operate within its regions.

Further Reading:

False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, by Slavoj Žižek.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek.

‘When good TV goes bad: how American Horror Story got Trumped’, by Ben Gazur. Accessible at:  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/when-good-tv-goes-bad-american-horror-story

‘Zizi Clemmons: ‘It’s Time For Women of Color…to Divest From Lena Dunham’”, by Whitney Kimball. Accessible at: https://jezebel.com/zinzi-clemmons-its-time-for-women-of-color-to-divest-1820587768

Categories
Politics

The Illusion of Trump’s Economy

What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?

-Bertolt Brecht.

I really wish people would shut up about Trump building an amazing economy, when really the economy seems to be performing in line with the recovery manned by Obama after the 2007-2009 recession. I hate even having to talk about this because I am thoroughly an anti-capitalist. I have no respect for a system that causes poverty and hardship whilst effectively bailing out the banks that caused said poverty and hardship. However, the present situation of the world is so skewed that things have to be asserted without a shadow of a doubt. To suggest an elitist, fascist-adjacent figure such as Trump has been exceptionally good at handling the American economy is egregious in its falsehood and dangerous because so many people seem to buy into this idea that he has been a positive figure within politics. For clarity, I don’t think I have respect for any single American president, but we still have to be as truthful as possible.

            I have heard two common arguments from Trump supporters about the president: 1) Trump has created a great, if not, record-breaking amount of job growth and 2) The American stock market, in the context of Covid-19, is doing well. If we look at job growth in America, Trump claimed in his State of the Union address that he had created 7 million new jobs since his election. FactCheck.Org places his job creation at 6.7 million once he had taken office, pointing out that he was in fact taking credit for job growth that occurred whilst Obama was still in office. For further context, Obama entered office under an economic recession which was the largest downturn since the Great Depression and according to the Federal Reserve Board cost every single American approximately $70,000. Trump entered office under a significantly healthier labour market than Obama did, and it is thanks to his predecessor that Trump has relatively stable economic growth. CNN Business tracks job growth and unemployment rates, contextualising that Trump benefited from continually decreasing unemployment numbers under Obama and in fact had less job gains in his first 35 months than Obama had in his last 35 months of presidency.

            We’ve established Trump hasn’t done anything particularly magical with employment, there is no reason to believe that he has personally contributed to growth except from benefitting from the economic recovery undertaken by Obama. If we turn to the stock market, we can acknowledge that after having tanked under the Covid-19 pandemic it has recovered. Is this something that we can: 1) attribute to Trump and 2) does the stock market’s health have the same positive effect as employment? Neil Dutta, writing for Business Insider, argues that various factors contribute to the stock market’s rise even during the ongoing pandemic. The reopening of parts of Europe has led to a potential confidence which benefits the US dollar exchange rate. Dutta notes that businesses like restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres make up less than 5% of private GDP and that the bulk of the stock market is concerned with industrial and technological businesses that might be less restricted than retail. We like to think that the stock market doing well automatically means that we, the average Joe, benefits from it. But…do we?

            So far, I’ve addressed employment levels under Trump and the stock market in the context of Covid-19, but I think we need to talk about these topics with further context. Even as unemployment has been steadily declining, real wage growth has been stagnant for about four decades even accounting for inflation. This means that a worker has less purchasing power whilst more money is accrued by the people at the very top. Drew DeSilva, for the Pew Research Center, posits one theory that employers are less inclined to increase wages based on other benefits such as health insurance, although this may not account for the fact that 70% of employee compensation comes in the form of wages. A potential factor I find personally interesting is the decline of labour unions, a form of employee solidarity discouraged widely over the last century. A potentially egregious note, which I’m inclined to make, is that similarly to wage stagnation, the gap between wages and productivity has grown wider. From 1979 onwards productivity rose 108.1% whilst hourly wages only grew 11.6%. Capitalists have grown richer and richer whilst the majority of the workforce have stayed in the same place, having to live in accordance to the health of the economy in general.

            Wage stagnation has an arguable correlation with an inability to invest in stock, meaning most of the workforce has not got much in the way of stock hold. Robin Wigglesworth, quoting Goldman Sachs, states that the richest 1% of Americans account for more than half the value of equities owned by US households. This level of disparity is staggering. When the stock market is performing well, how are we meant to reasonably conclude that it is to the benefit of each and every American? Zack Friedman, writing for Forbes, cites a study that notes that more than half of minimum wage workers have to work more than one job to make ends meet. According to the same study more than 1 in 4 workers do not accrue savings each month and nearly 3 in 4 workers are in some form of debt. It doesn’t seem to stand to reason that the health of the stock market is congruent with the health of the worker or their wealth.

            Finally, some thoughts on the recession which Obama inherited and subsequently dealt with, in the process benefitting Trump with a positive net gain of job growth. The 2008 recession was a result of deregulation which led to banks granting more subprime mortgages to people who truly couldn’t afford them and essentially causing a bubble which then burst when returns weren’t possible. The banks responsible for the crisis were not in any sense reasonably punished nor reprimanded but instead bailed out by the government. Gautam Mukunda, writing for the Harvard Business Review, states that none of the banks’ CEOs were fired nor did the bailouts stop executives from being generously paid. What are we meant to make of this when millions of Americans lost their jobs and had to scrape by whilst the rich were relatively unaffected? Where do we find ourselves now?

            Some of Trump’s success with the economy is attributed to his policies of deregulation. The 2008 recession was brought about by Randian-inspired deregulation, how much faith can we place in Trump’s deregulation of various industries? The decline in regulation of greenhouse gases emissions standards will be detrimental to an environment that has passed the threshold whereby the annual increase in global temperature will continue to the point that the oceans will rise and forest fires will increase and little can be done to reverse these disasters. With banks being deregulated yet again under Trump, should we expect a different if not positive outcome compared to 2008? Not only this, but certain health and safety regulations have been repealed to help speed along the building of the border wall with Mexico so we can only wait and see to how the stripping back of said regulations will benefit the people at the top and the workers. Slavoj Žižek, in the spirit of Marx, says that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. If the 2008 recession was a tragedy, then…well.    

            The economic problems shadowing Trump despite the supposedly positive figures have been there since Obama and have been there for several decades. Ultimately, neither Trump nor Obama has greatly combatted the real causes of wealth disparity or economic hardship in America but have responded as and when is strictly necessary. Deregulation will hurt the working class in the long term and unless solidarity is cultivated amongst the workforce, there is no reason to believe that wages will truly grow any time soon nor will economic disparity narrow. I wish I knew how to end this blog but truthfully, I am the furthest thing from an economist and I just feel depleted whenever somebody says Trump has done incredible things for the economy. Trump is at most working in accordance with the general tracking of Obama’s recession response and is looking to strip away certain liberties and regulations which would potentially affect workers first and foremost. Please, please, please shut up about Trump and the economy.

Further reading:

Courtney Bublé, ‘Watchdogs Criticize Trump Administration’s Deregulation Efforts During Pandemic,’ Government Executive. Available at: https://www.govexec.com/management/2020/05/watchdogs-criticize-trump-administrations-deregulation-during-pandemic/165371/

John Cassidy, ‘As a Businessman, Trump Was the Biggest Loser of All,’ The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/as-a-businessman-trump-was-the-biggest-loser-of-all

Drew DeSilver, ‘For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades,’ Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/

Neil Dutta, ‘There are clear reasons for the stock market’s surge, despite the terrible pandemic news,’ Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/why-stock-market-rising-despite-coronavirus-pandemic-higher-us-cases-2020-7?r=US&IR=T

Economic Policy Institute, ‘The Productivity–Pay Gap,’ Economic Policy Institute. Available at: https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/

Bill Fay, ‘Poverty in the United States,’ Debt.Org. Available at: https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/poverty-united-states/

Zack Friedman, ‘78% Of Workers Live Paycheck To Paycheck,’ Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/01/11/live-paycheck-to-paycheck-government-shutdown/#5f5a5bdc4f10

Chris Isidore, ‘How Trump’s three years of job gains compares to Obama’s,’ CNN Business. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/06/economy/trump-obama-jobs-comparison/index.html

Brooks Jackson, ‘Trump’s Numbers January 2020 Update,’ FactCheck.Org. Available at: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/01/trumps-numbers-january-2020-update/

Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, et. al., ‘FactChecking the State of the Union,’ FactCheck.Org. Available at: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/02/factchecking-the-state-of-the-union-3/

Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, ‘Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power,’ Scribner.

Gautam Mukunda, ‘The Social and Political Costs of the Financial Crisis, 10 Years Later,’ Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-social-and-political-costs-of-the-financial-crisis-10-years-later

Mayra Rodriguez Valladares, ‘The Weakening Of Big Bank Regulations Under Trump Is The Seed For The Next Financial Crisis,’ Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/mayrarodriguezvalladares/2019/05/22/the-weakening-of-big-bank-regulations-under-trump-is-the-seed-for-the-next-financial-crisis/#3f93a2474f4c

Robin Wigglesworth, ‘How America’s 1% came to dominate stock ownership,’ Financial Post. Available at: https://financialpost.com/investing/how-americas-1-came-to-dominate-stock-ownership

 Joseph Zeballos-Roig, ‘Trump keeps touting the fact that more Americans are working than ever before. But the boast is almost meaningless for one key reason,’ Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-record-high-employment-jobs-numbers-boast-meaningless-2019-11?r=US&IR=T

Categories
Criticism

Godzilla 1998: Atomic Nothing

Why is…Godzilla? What is…Godzilla? Who is…okay I watched 1998’s American Godzilla on VHS too many times as a kid. There is no accounting for taste. Clearly any chance to watch a giant monster is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I recently re-watched Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla on Netflix because there isn’t a lot else going on at the moment. But seriously. I watched it again after a gap of many years, and of course it is bad. It’s corny as all hell. The acting, the characters, the story, the monster design, it’s all very corny. But there’s something below all that stuff, something ingrained in the thought of the film which is kind of just barren. It feels like Godzilla forgets itself, or at least, in the transition to an American production it loses what 1954’s Godzilla had.

In August of 1945, America in agreement with the United Kingdom, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brutal and unnecessary show of force by America killed between 129,000-226,000 people. The blast of an atomic bomb is such that it vaporises individuals, bleaching the ground and leaving shadows where once humans stood casting them. The original Godzilla is an embodiment of fear of nuclear annihilation and of a planet at odds with its human inhabitants. What is 1998 Godzilla about? Big monster. New York City. Be ruthless, then don’t be. Godzilla in this film is specifically linked to French nuclear testing and the mutation of lizards, it’s keeping with the theme of nuclear weaponry and their consequences but…it kind of feels like the movie is more just blithe spectacle and a Jurassic Park-esque wonder and fear of Godzilla. The consequences of nuclear testing in the film seems of little importance to the overall story beyond acting as an origin for Godzilla. The same goes for the fact that it is the French who are responsible for the testing and therefore Godzilla’s creation, they are sort of a B plot to the film led by Jean Reno. I guess one could argue that the French and Americans working together shows there must be an international effort to combatting disaster and particularly our relationship with nature but…should we talk about the military?

Are they kind of good? Are they bad? Are they competent? Are they inept? I guess in typical disaster fare they struggle for most of the movie with various strategies against the big monster before finally reigning victorious. However, it must mean something that it was written so the military in this film would cause massive amounts of damage to New York City in its fight against the monster. One of the most vivid scenes of the film is of helicopters firing and missing Godzilla and instead blowing up the Chrysler building. The tone of the movie in this regard is so odd; how excusable and almost laughed off disaster brought on by the military can be. It seems like to a degree it’s a product of its time, as Lindsay Ellis outlined in a brilliant video essay, disaster movies after 9/11 kind of took on a much bleaker and sombre tone in many regards than those of the 90s and 80s. Films like Emmerich’s Independence Day and Godzilla have sentiments that seem a bit off. They contrast heavily with 2014’s Godzilla, inarguably a superior product in terms of production, tone, writing, and its ideas.

Whereas in 1998 Godzilla you had a sense of surface level wonder for this monster, in 2014 Godzilla he inspires this sense of almost pure, devastating awe. When Godzilla wades into Hawaii from the ocean, the innocent bystanders watching him do so in silence, even as the flares of the military illuminate and highlight his vastness, the screams only begin when the military start firing at Godzilla over the heads of the bystanders. Films offer introspection at least on some level by their conclusion but what is the introspection of 1998 and 2014’s Godzillas? When Godzilla is defeated at the end of the 1998 film, there is a brief sense of sadness for the death of this creature, but then it kind of quickly moves on. In 2014 Godzilla, after he defeats the two other monsters, Godzilla retreats back into the ocean, whilst humanity tries to make sense of all the destruction, in part hailing Godzilla as an anti-hero.

Godzilla offers a chance for us to reconsider our relationship with nature. In 1998 Godzilla it feels like the monster is slightly misunderstood but ultimately still a threat to humanity, especially with his ability to produce eggs. When I said just before about the film moving quickly on from the death of Godzilla, it does come back to it, like it ends on a surviving baby Godzilla emerging from its egg. I guess this is a cheap way to end a movie and offers the chance for a sequel (it was part of a planned trilogy) but I think it also inadvertently says something bigger than there is a monster people forgot about, almost like in killing off Godzilla and his babies, humanity hasn’t really dealt with the existential threat at all…because it hasn’t really grappled with the concept of what it means to be vulnerable and smaller to nature as much as sometimes nature is vulnerable to our meddlings.

2014 Godzilla answers this failed reconciliation with a Godzilla who is not bent on destruction but inadvertently causes it when he comes into contact with humanity. Unlike 1998’s Godzilla, ultimately this incarnation is at odds with the other big monsters, the MUTOs, and seems to have little to no interest in humanity…so kind of ends up saving it? In this film it feels more like there is a sense of trying to work alongside nature for something akin to a common goal. With Emmerich’s Godzilla I felt cheated, like there was no real meaning behind the film, or if there was one it was diluted by gratuitous spectacle.

I am not trying to put too much meaning into 2014 Godzilla but it feels like the message behind the monster of Godzilla should be one of reconciling ourselves with our past actions, both towards humanity and nature. We cannot revert the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We cannot wipe the slate clean when it comes to our planet and its wildlife. 2014 Godzilla offers a sense of redemption for humanity, that maybe despite our crimes we are able to find for ourselves a place in this world where we co-exist and live with our consequences.

Further Reading:

Lindsay Ellis, ‘Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KioF1sTQFtE

The Japan Times, ‘Britain backed use of A-bomb against Japan: U.S. documents.’ Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/08/04/national/britain-backed-use-of-a-bomb-against-japan-u-s-documents/#.V0xHPzYrJyp

Edward McDougall, ‘Spirited Away With Heidegger’, iai news. Available at: https://iai.tv/articles/spirited-away-meets-heidegger-we-killed-the-gods-with-technology-but-the-sacredness-of-life-is-continuous-auid-1104

Geoffrey Shepard, ‘It’s clear the US should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/472146/its-clear-the-us-should-not-have-bombed-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/

Bruce Stokes, ‘70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb’, Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/04/70-years-after-hiroshima-opinions-have-shifted-on-use-of-atomic-bomb/

Categories
Criticism

My Immortal: An Alternative to Bigotry

I have mixed feelings about Harry Potter. I read all the books as a kid and the Chamber of Secrets video game was unequivocally one of my favourite games of all time. But this series has problems with it, we see that in its portrayal of ethnic minorities, its queer representation, and ultimately it having been created by an incredible bigot. Sadly, JK Rowling, a woman with an unbelievable amount of power, wealth, and influence, is unapologetically hateful towards trans people. I’m not here to disprove each and every stupid claim she’s made in the last few months because people who are much more eloquent than myself have already done so (I’ll link them below this piece). I think it’s fair to say that Harry Potter feels a bit tainted at the moment and it’s meant to act as an escape from life’s problems, that’s why so many millions of people the world over feel so attached to it. How do we reconcile ourselves with wanting to escape into a fantasy world that has been constructed by somebody who is very openly transphobic? I don’t have concrete answers. Maybe for the time being Hogwarts isn’t something that can be appreciated or lived in in the ways it once was for people.

            Enter My Immortal. This is the greatest piece of fan fiction of all time and is undoubtedly a parody. If you are not aware, My Immortal is a self-insert fan fiction based around the impossibly ‘perfect’ Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, a name so brilliant it has rendered all other fictional characters inferior by comparison. Ebony is hilariously unlikeable and the story is so perfectly riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies and mistakes whilst also offering a chance to escape to Hogwarts. I think this fan fiction balances perfectly the mockery of Harry Potter fan fictions whilst creating an atmosphere that allows you to still be immersed in its world, albeit one where Albus Dumbledore, famously a wizard of quiet dignity and wisdom, screams “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!” at two of his students who he has just caught having sex outside the Forbidden Forest. I shit you not. This whole piece is just an advertisement for this fan fiction, I cannot recommend it enough. It lifts your spirits reading it. You get amazing ‘unintentional’ laughs whilst also getting the fantasy world of Harry Potter that has otherwise been a bit tainted by the original creator. My Immortal is truly art, it is transcendent in its use of Rowling’s intellectual property.

            There is an amazing adaptation of My Immortal on Mediajunkie Studios’ Youtube channel which takes the source material and goes even further with it, adding more character drama and more emotion! If you’ve arrived at the web series adaptation you are now two spaces removed from JK Rowling, an ideal place to be! This adaptation even has good minority representation both with race and sexuality, something the original Harry Potter failed to do very well. Rather than alluding to characters’ sexualities after the fact, My Immortal has blatant representations of queer love, it builds drama around these love triangles and creates decent tension. What My Immortal the web series achieves is a place for people of all backgrounds and experiences to exist within the world of Harry Potter, something JK Rowling might have vaguely once spoken to but failed to make good on.  

            I like the world of Harry Potter, even though it does have deficiencies and the writer is a bigot. Right now, I’m in no rush to re-read those books or watch the movies, but it’s not like there isn’t more on offer out there. My Immortal is so fun and deserves all the recognition it gets. It is possible to find ways to appreciate Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter without it being Rowling’s world. The Author is dead, so to speak. Re-appropriate and parody the work, make it something bigger than just what one person envisioned it as being. Hogwarts is our oyster.

Trans rights are human rights.

Trans men are men.

Trans women are women.

Non-binary people are non-binary.

A Bibliography of Debunking Rowling’s claims:

Jammidodger’s ‘Responding to JK Rowlings Essay | Is It Anti-Trans?’:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Avcp-e4bOs&t=1131s

Anna Medaris Miller and Canela López’s ‘J.K. Rowling said there’s been an ‘explosion’ of young women transitioning and de-transitioning. There’s no evidence that’s true.’ https://www.insider.com/jk-rowling-says-explosion-of-young-women-have-transitioned-detransitioned-2020-6

Katy Montgomerie’s ‘Addressing The Claims In JK Rowling’s Justification For Transphobia’ https://medium.com/@KatyMontgomerie/addressing-the-claims-in-jk-rowlings-justification-for-transphobia-7b6f761e8f8f

Sources for My Immortal:

The story: https://www.wattpad.com/story/40796325-my-immortal

The web series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zpx_Cf0KCrM&list=PLjRR1J3NOisDqBG6Pn-nqn51Cw96VPfTu

Categories
Culture

Choices: The Death of Video Rental

As a kid my weekends were best defined by Choices. It’s very weird to me that I am possibly part of the last generation to benefit from DVD rental stores, like these days it’s a total thing of the past…everything is online. You don’t go into a store anymore and browse films or video games, you hear about them online, you watch trailers or game footage on Youtube, you stream stuff on Netflix or download games on Steam or pre-order them on Amazon. I don’t think I can argue we can go back to this old model; we’re maybe too far gone from that period where we needed physical stores manned by people in their late twenties. For half of my life span at this moment of writing, Choices has been absent from my life, and I want to talk about that.

            I used to go in with my mum and my brother on a Friday after school and we’d pick out video games to rent for the weekend. The few that stick out in my memory include The Simpsons Skateboarding, The Simpsons Wrestling, and Scooby Doo! Night of 100 Frights. The last one particularly has meant a lot to me, but we’ll get to that. It felt nice that for a small fee we had something to pass the weekend with and that there was a certain responsibility (at least for our parents) to return the game by Monday.

            There was also a flipside to the more fun, cartoony options at Choices, namely horror and pornography, categories I would not properly be acquainted with for some time. I remember there being displays of films like Saw and The Nightmare Before Christmas, two films that in my mind at the time were equally disconcerting. I never really knew, or at least I don’t remember there being porn at Choices, but my brother affirms that in their dying days they shifted their business model a tad. This clearly didn’t save them in the end, but I have got to hand it to them for trying. In any case, walking around a store with as diverse options as gory horror movies and random Simpsons sporting games felt wondrous to me, it was a place that at once balanced familiarity and safety with concepts that teased at stuff beyond me, that I would only appreciate in the future. Of course…the future came.

            I think it’s fair to say as a kid you don’t really appreciate all the weird, complex factors that make up the economy or what that means for you or your life or anyone else’s. Suffice to say, the internet threatened physical rental stores like Choices and soon it went into administration, with what assets it had being sold off to Blockbuster. Choices didn’t adapt in the same way Blockbuster had tried to with online streaming and unfortunately it paid the price. If memory serves me correctly, Choices in my town closed in 2007, and the stout, redbrick building it once occupied remained a husk for some time. I grew up. A bit. I would walk by after secondary school sometimes as a teenager and see an empty store and feel sad. Eventually my school had secured space in the empty store to display students’ art which was at least a nice use of the defunct store. Then it got divided, with one small portion of the building being converted into a Chinese takeaway, and the surplus space eventually becoming a charity shop. I think I have stepped into the charity shop only once so far since it opened. It’s strange, the building I am so familiar with in my memories being so alien now in the present. Perhaps that’s okay, things change, and the economic factors which fuel competition and innovation which put video rental stores out of business are far out of my control. The internet offers a level of productivity and stream-lined supply which meets the demands of the 21st century in a way that video stores just can’t anymore.

            My last vivid memory of the store was late night shopping, the annual Christmas consumer spectacle for our small town. I used to love it as a kid. The music in the square was always blaring, you had live bands on sometimes, and a firework display, though sometimes we were the wrong end of town to properly see it. What could be more fun than staying out late? Eating bad food like cotton candy and chips and walking around shops late at night…who decided shopping late at night was somehow culturally alluring? Even as an adult I don’t understand it, but I concede there is something attractive about the notion, it makes even the most innocent purchase of something like a tub of ice cream seem seedy. I digress, my family went into Choices during late night shopping and it couldn’t have been long before they closed. It might have been their last Christmas.

            My happiest memory of the store was the day I bought Scooby Doo! Night of 100 Frights from Choices. I still have the copy. Choices the store might be gone and for all intents and purposes fading from both public and consumer memory, but their blue £9.99 sticker still occupies the upper right corner of my copy of Scooby Doo! Night of 100 Frights. I am fond of Choices for its part in my childhood and I am neither naïve nor cynical in my fondness. I have a complex relationship with the capitalist culture that bred video rentals and subsequently buried them. Here I put forward a dialectics of naivety and cynicism, a sense of sincerity, where the building that still stands in my town square has some profound place in my heart but the very material and spiritual circumstances that once joined us has become wholly disparate.

Categories
Criticism

Kafka’s The Trial: Vulgarity and The Law

In Kafka’s The Trial, there is a sense of vulgarity that exists beneath the sublime surface of the legal proceedings that take place throughout the novel. A preliminary glimpse of this vulgarity, of the ‘Real’ that exists beneath the Symbolic, is the assault of the woman who runs the apartment that doubles as the courtroom. The assault happens during Josef K’s first hearing, displaying an immediate sense of something lecherous and pornographic beneath the austere nature of the court. This foreshadows in some ways the dissolving of the court’s literature as having been a Sublime Object, K. takes these texts to be of great import and highly relevant to not only his case but the Law in general. However, when he returns to the apartment, he discovers in what he presumes to be a law book an ‘indecent picture.’  Hence, an object revered here upon closer inspection has been found to be nothing but explicitly vulgar, “It’s by people like this I’m supposed to be judged.”  The assumption K. qua Subject makes of the Big Other is that his desires are prohibited in so much as they are out of reach in the Symbolic realm. The Big Other whilst obscuring its desire (what is K. charged with?) does reveal its own mirroring nature, at times displaying through acts (like the assault of the washerwoman) K.’s own desires. Does the assault of the washerwoman by a law student not reflect K.’s own assault upon Fräulein Bürstner in the first chapter?  It is K.’s attempts to obey the Big Other which display its constructed nature, which in a sense displays its inexistence. The Big Other exists in so far as the Subject requires it for themselves to exist as Subjects, hence why K.’s expectations of the Law fall short but the Law comes to reflect him in a way he is unable to perceive in himself e.g. the libidinal, the vulgar. 

            When K. meets with Titorelli the courtroom painter, the Law as a Symbolic structure is more evident here than anywhere else in the novel. One of the portraits Titorelli is commissioned to paint works as a useful analogy of the Law and the Big Other. K. is hesitant to identify the portrait as that of a judge: “That’s a judge of course,’ K. had almost blurted out, but he restrained himself for a moment and went up to the picture as if he wanted to study the details.’  This restraint is the Subject struggling to identify the Big Other when personified. Although we already know that K.’s expectations of the Law have been mismatched since the first hearing and the uncovering of the pornography, here there is still a dissonance in what constitutes ‘justice.’ K. notes that the figure of Justice in the portrait should not be running, for “the scales will waver and there’s no possibility of a correct judgement.”  It is as if when faced with the very nature of the Law, which the Subject presumes to speak and desire for him, K. is unable to recognise its radical alterity to himself, in spite of the fact that he feels the need to comply to this Big Other. The construction of the Big Other is drawn out again when K. assumes Titorelli has met the subject of the portrait, only to be corrected: “I’ve seen neither the figure nor the chair, all that’s invention, I was simply told what I had to paint.”  “All that’s invention” works as an excellent symptom on the painter’s behalf, giving one the chance to glimpse at the truth of the Law, that its authority is constructed by the Subject’s presumptions of the Big Other and by its own inaccessibility: “You see, the lowest judges […] have no authority to pronounce final acquittal; this authority is vested only in the highest court, which is inaccessible to you, to me, and to everybody.”  I argue the cementing of the relation between the Subject and the Big Other in The Trial is best represented in Titorelli’s afterthought: “How things look up there we don’t know and, I should add, we don’t want to know.”

Categories
Criticism

The Ethics of Annotation

To highlight is to transgress, to indelibly change the text’s material being as well as its textual being. It is to give precedence to some aspect of the book, to suggest an idea requires further thought or exploration. Many studies show we prefer a physical, hard copy of a book compared to its e-book counterpart. We delight in buying new books from places like Amazon and Waterstones. The books we purchase are perfect and presented as intended by their publishers, in some circumstances if a book is damaged you can get a discount for it. I have an anthology of Latin literature I bought reduced from Waterstones because the back cover and subsequent pages were torn in one corner. I got a discount on a biography of A. E. Housman from a local independent bookstore because the cover had a strange indentation not dissimilar to the outline of a staple. Like these physical damages, once you highlight in a book you reduce its monetary value, it is no longer possible to be said that this book is unread or that it was not used in some way, it has lost its newness, confined at best to the category of ‘good’ if not ‘well-read’. Our own conception of the marked value of the words within books is at odds with their value in the market. This is all fairly obvious, you drop a book in the bath, or write in it, or do anything to it that alters the condition it arrived to you in and it cannot retain the original value it had. My point here is that the experience of buying a new book creates a hesitation in the reader from highlighting in it. We like shiny new things, or in this case, clean white pages. I have resisted for the longest time annotating my books.          

I tried to read Judith Butler’s notoriously dense Gender Trouble three times before I could get past the first thirty pages or so. In my final attempt I kept a highlighter on hand and made my way through the book. I finished Gender Trouble and I think I owed it almost entirely to my ability to highlight most of the text as I went. As I highlighted the book, I took in more of its ideas, essentially imprinting in my brain the words from the text. By highlighting the book, the book highlighted within me as well, ridiculous a notion as it may seem.

When we read from school copies of books for English class, often passages are underlined in pencil, and occasionally there are small remarks or observations made in the margins. Sometimes the observations e.g. red dress = desire, blue curtains = depression, are of use to us, we either agree with them and retain them or we discard them. I think the pencilled-in remarks of previous pupils is important for us to see for ourselves, to understand when we study a text we are a part of a chain of people, in a microcosmic sense, a part of the ongoing practice of cultural study that came before us and that will precede after us.

Sometimes owners of books go further than direct annotation of the text and write their own names on the inside cover of the books or write inscriptions to friends and loved ones. I own a second-hand copy of Jacques Lacan’s Écrits with the inscription: ‘To Chloe Merry Christmas 2009! Love Ed xxx.’ Perhaps it was Chloe who beat me to the chase and had already helpfully highlighted certain passages I would have desired to bring attention to further. At times my highlighter (green being the colour of choice on this occasion) and her pencil negotiated the page. Sometimes my highlighter went over a phrase or even an individual word already highlighted, the wiggly pencil work still visible beneath the neon green. I am by no means an expert in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but whatever knowledge I possess of it I cannot owe purely to the text produced by Jacques Lacan and provided by Routledge. We are all capable of being rational, critical individuals, and the ‘we’ here is the point, there are many of us, in fact the totality of human existence so to speak, that is in the act of thought and interpretation, annotating what we consider vital. I think part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize lecture compliments this point:

‘There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’

Whilst Ishiguro is discussing fiction and the act of reading, doesn’t highlighting provide a similar role when seen by another? Could we not say that when we highlight, we potentially desire and hope for confirmation or recognition by those after us?

            Ideas don’t belong to any one specific person, or if they do, they are not entombed with that individual. Marx is not some crank with ideas long forgotten and unspoken, Freud is not the beginning and end of psychology, ideas are fluid things. They don’t stay on the page, they enter our brains, they leave our mouths. We dilute them and concentrate them, chop certain details out or switch things around, add other details we deem pertinent. The first English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex condensed much of Beauvoir’s long tracts of thought and sanitised much of the text of its original existentialist philosophy. The text is fluid, for better or worse, its translation changed the flow of ideas and its very content. With the updated translation, the translators reinstated the existentialist strains which coursed through the book and restored Beauvoir’s longer paragraphs, allowing an English audience to read the work as it was intended to be across cultures. Ideas and their presentation can be trial and error. If earlier ideas and forms of existence had in any sense been perfect, there would be no further use for thought and interpretation, yet here we are.

            Looping back around, annotation and highlighting books should be heartily encouraged. We owe our intellectual and cultural circumstances to those who came before us, whether their words are the ones printed in ink or the ones pencilled in the margins next to the former. We don’t have to agree with the ideas prior to ourselves, but I try to appreciate every trace of another human I find in a book. I will go on highlighting and annotating for my own benefit, it is for those after me to decide if any of them are of significance beyond personal appreciation. Perhaps all my books will become pulp, or the ink might fade from the pages, or I might in an act of near-death mania resign to be buried with them all. I hope that before any of these outcomes someone else may read them, make use of them somehow. It is hope I subsist on as I think we are all known to do. I hope despite the amateur philosophising in this writing that I may press upon you the point that ideas are vital, that our individuality is important, but so is the wealth of individuals and ideas outside of ourselves. To end on borrowed words, can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?