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In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Jack Halberstam points out the revolutionary and queer properties of contemporary animated films from the Pixar and Aardman studios. This means unearthing Marxist/feminist utopian ideals in 2000’s Chicken Run (in which a mostly female coop working together to escape its exploitive farmers), and non-traditional ideas of family in Finding Nemo (2003, wherein a single father must navigate an ocean’s worth of colourful, non-romantic social interactions and connections in order to find his son). While the majority of popular films and TV shows can be seen to lionize the nuclear family and the romantic, heterosexual relationships at its head, these animations showcase the community as the primary locus for growth and socialisation.
When it comes to child-rearing, this method is either cutting-edge or as old as time, depending on your perspective. To a middle-class white experience like my own, alternative family structures are a pre-Industrial artefact, a cultural memory so distant that it is radical anew; outside of this bubble, of course, an enormous variety of larger, not necessarily familial, kinship networks have been operating all along.
In Time interview ‘The Pain of Being Black’ in 1989, Toni Morrison responded to the single-parent household ‘crisis’ with characteristic common sense (emphasis mine):
I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the most money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman – and I have raised two children, alone – is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units – people need a larger unit.
The quotation above sees Morrison referring not only to children but to ‘people’. Halberstam also acknowledges the ‘adult’ import of children’s films like Over The Hedge and Toy Story by noting the political relevance of a group of oddballs of myriad species (/genders) banding together to fight a shared oppressor. So the benefits of greater communal integration clearly go beyond child rearing, continuing into our adult lives. Dave Eggers, in his first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, wrote about both these forms of communal support: about his alternative experience of child-rearing when, after his parents’ death, he, his siblings and his friends assumed collective responsibility for his younger brother Toph; and about his support network as an adult, which he referred to as ‘the lattice’.
The lattice is everyone else, the lattice is my people, collective youth, people like me, hearts ripe, brains aglow. … I see us as one, as a vast matrix, an army, a whole, each one of us responsible to one another, because no one else is … people who have everything in common no matter where they’re from, all these people know all the same things and truly hope for the same things, it’s undeniable that they do … Like a snowshoe. You wear snowshoes when the snow is deep and porous. The latticework within the snowshoe’s oval distributes the wearer’s weight over a wider area, in order to keep him or her from falling through the snow. So people, the connections between people, the people you know, become a sort of lattice, and the more people, good people, they must be good people, who know that they are here to help, the more of these people you know, and that know you, and know your situation and your story and your troubles or whatnot, the wider and stronger the lattice, the less likely you are to–
Fall through the snow.
Heartbreaking Work was noted, and often reviled, for its child-like qualities: the way Eggers raced off into tangents, run-on sentences and epic, vivid fibs. There was a sense that some critics wished he would grow up and stop feeling sorry for himself. And it strikes me that a worrying amount of expression and modes of being seem to be repressed in the ‘grown-up’ world, and particularly in its films and TV.
TV shows and movies ostensibly for children, like those mentioned by Halberstam, teach the importance of friendship, tolerance and sharing. But as the viewer lurches towards adulthood, their entertainment becomes less didactic and more (allegedly) realistic – and ‘reality’, whether in the form of gritty drama or lighthearted comedy, is mainly portrayed as a staunchly individualistic, don’t-trust-anybody environment. Admittedly, ‘reality’ sometimes mean betrayal, being lied to by your work peers, or an altercation with gang rivals. But even light romantic comedies seem unfairly pessimistic, with their tiny, homogenised friendship groups that shriek and fuck each other over until they actually fuck and divide into heterosexual pairs. (See Friends and How I Met Your Mother.) Onscreen adulthood is about killing off all fantasies other than the romantic/sexual, and drinking coffee or beer with the same lousy, hateful group of people for the rest of your life.
It would be obtuse to ask that all TV shows and films portray an idealised, Care-Bear world in which everyone is friends and can trust one another. But viewers do deserve some variation in the kind of relationships they see onscreen. Thankfully, the last few years have seen several TV shows reintroduce wide kinship networks into mainstream imagination, and it is no coincidence that many of these shows have distinctly ‘child-like’ elements.
(Above: the cast of Adventure Time by Andy Ristaino, via frederator)
For example, one can no longer set foot in the Internet without seeing how the children’s franchise My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has touched and inspired the lives of teens and adults. Comparable is Adventure Time, a Cartoon Network show about a boy and a talking dog who fight monsters and hang out in the world of Ooo. The protagonists of these cartoons exist in largely motherless spaces, where they must rely on their wiles, strengths and strong platonic bonds in order to solve (often world-threatening!) problems. As in Halberstam’s ‘Pixarvolt’ movies, the cast of ‘friends’ available to Finn and Jake, or Twilight Sparkle, are of myriad colours, shapes, sizes and backgrounds, with their own distinct personalities. Though highly stylised in their portrayals of character traits such as shyness (Fluttershy, MLP:FIM) or a proneness to gossip (Lumpy Space Princess, AT), the idea that everyone has unique abilities and vulnerabilities is a valuable one for us humans, child and adult alike. While advertisements and magazines insist we be beautiful, fit, smart and strong all at once, these 2D characters show how true well-roundedness derives from being able to combine our individual assets as part of a team. The first two episodes of MLP:FIM see six ponies save Equestria from eternal night using the so-called Elements of Friendship – Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty and Magic – first on a problem-by-problem basis, and finally all together.
The pilot of Adventure Time sees Finn (then named Pen) and Jake save Princess Bubblegum from the Ice King – so far, so generic. But what sets this apart from a simple damsel-in-distress story are three firm rebuttals:
Ice King: Stop meddling, boy! You and your magical dog can’t harm me.
Finn/Pen: He’s not my dog – he’s my FRIEND!
F/P: Why are you always stealing ladies?
IK: I’m going to make one marry me!
F/P: That’s… stupid!
IK: Your hat is stupid!
F/P: My hat… is AWESOME!
Princess Bubblegum: Thank you brave knight.
F/P: Oh, I’m not a knight. I’m a boy.
PB: Well then… thank you, brave boy.
The first excerpt asserts that AT does not conform to a typical hierarchy in which humans own animals. Indeed, Finn is thus far in the series the only definitely human character in the world of Ooo; his white male humanity is stripped of privilege here. He was taken in by Jake’s parents (also dogs), but at twelve has already been living in a treehouse with Jake and their computer BMO for quite a while. This is a queered notion of the household if there ever was one.
In the second excerpt, Finn calls the practice of imprisoning ladies, in popular narrative and reality, what it is: stupid. But this is also open to interpretation towards all marriage being ‘stupid’ – because while romance certainly happens in this series, it is not exactly common in any sense of the word. Interspecies love is the norm: between a dog and a Rainicorn (who speaks Korean), a pig and an elephant, or the unrequited longing of a human boy for a Bubblegum Princess several years his elder. The third excerpt alludes to that disparity between the expected and the actual, gentry and common folk – and emphasises, too, that a person’s heroism has nothing to do with their social standing.
Too deep for Adventure Time? Maybe. And maybe it is a mistake to analyse the fabulous worlds of Ooo or Equestria by Earth standards, since a large part of these shows’ appeal is their escapism.
As mentioned, ‘reality’ is largely seen as the lot of the adult, and escapism thereby becomes another feature of ‘child-like’ TV and film. In pop-psychology ‘escapism’ is seen as an immature coping mechanism, a form of delusion; in pop-sociology, it is just another opiate. But theorists such as Ernst Bloch argue that Utopian narratives hold promises both false and real; that, ‘even if in the building of mere castles in the air the total expenditure one way or the other scarcely matters, from which misdirected and ultimately fraudulently used wishful dreams then result, hope with plan and with connection to the due Possible is still the most powerful and best thing there is’ (The Principle of Hope, 1986). J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is an exhilarating read on this topic, a iron-clad defence of fairy-tales, fantasy and escapism as necessary tools for human beings of all ages and realities. Literary criticism, Tolkien argues, makes the mistake of conflating ‘the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter’ – and I would posit that over seventy years later scorn for escapism still operates on similar principles. When we berate people for watching cartoons about magic, glad orphans and prancing ponies, we accuse them of living in a dream world, as though a multiplicity of worlds cannot be held the mind. If anything, I think the need for a secondary world like Ooo or Equestria demonstrates a pretty sound comprehension of ‘reality’. To slightly adjust the aphorism: if you don’t ever fantasise about living in a different world, you’re not paying attention. It’s pretty bleak out there.
No coping mechanism is necessarily harmful if used with awareness and moderation. Yes, even food. Even alcohol. Even escapism.
This brings me, in closing, to two live action shows that present strong, non-familial kinship networks and escapist elements. Both are on NBC, and both have just been handed their bitersweet ‘final season’ notice, with some possibility of renegotiation. Those shows are Parks and Recreation and Community, and both deserve to be in the public consciousness for at least a few more years, for the following reasons.
(Above: Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones and Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, via avclub)
P&R takes place in the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. It stars the high-wattage Amy Poehler as Lesley Knope, who has spent the most recent season campaigning for city councillor. Lesley is like no other creature on television: a self-identified feminist who is never made to look ridiculous for her views; an outspoken blonde who is optimistic but not naïve; a woman whose male friends are not all ex- or future- sexual conquests, and whose female friends are not sexual rivals. The employees of Pawnee Parks & Rec genuinely like each other, warts and all, and help each other out, whether it’s to promote Tom’s latest business venture (e.g. Snake Juice) or drum up support for Lesley’s campaign. Where many modern sitcoms lay traps to humiliate or thwart their own characters, P&R is overwhelmingly kind to Lesley and co., either rewarding strong efforts or finding a third, redemptive path between success and failure. And this is a kindness to its viewers, too – not fan-service so much as fan-respect.
Community is arguably the lesser show of the two, still wrestling with its own strange impulses towards lampshading racist and sexist stereotypes. But when the writing bothers to be clever, it’s very very clever – quick, witty and electric. Set around a study group at a small community college, much of the show’s appeal is in its ability to parody everything from Law & Order to zombie horror to Glee without dropping the personalities and motivations of its characters in so doing.
(Above: Danni Pudi as Abed in Community, from here)
But most incredible to me, and what prompted me to start writing this piece in the first place, is what the show has done with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi). From a cringey, slightly mocking caricature of Asperger’s, Abed has grown into something warmer and more believable. There is still a sort of exoticism going on here, with Abed as wise man, robot or shaman when the plot calls for it – but there’s also evidence of the writers beginning to realise neurotypical norms and ways of thinking are not necessarily the ‘right’ ones. Consider this gem from S03E12 ‘Contemporary Impressionists’, in which Abed’s best friend Troy defends him to the rest of the group:
Annie: We could actually hurt Abed if every time he faces reality we dress up and play make-believe to bail him out.
Troy: Shame on you people. It’s not our job to help Abed ‘grow up’ – Abed doesn’t need reality. Abed is a magical elf-like man who makes us all more magical by being near us. […] All we had was dumb reality before we met that man. And he’s made all of our lives better than reality. Now it becomes a little inconvenient and it’s time to get real?
Again, though this erroneously implies Abed can’t have an adult handle on ‘reality’ because of his imaginative nature, it also emphasises the importance and validity of the imaginary. This could even be read to break down the imaginary/real binary by calling their current (real) lives ‘better than reality’.
Community followed up on this promises of this speech with a nugget of excellent television in S03E16, ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’. In this episode, Annie spends some time with Abed in the Dreamatorium – a holodeck-like room in their apartment where Abed and Troy’s imaginations run riot. (NB that Troy is not portrayed as having Asperger’s, but regardless takes part in and enjoys many of the same immersive activities as Abed.) Through a series of simulations (with Abed transforming into several other characters in sequence) Abed demonstrates his near-scientific knowledge of how the others will react in any given situation. In indignation Annie breaks into the Dreamatorium’s engine (represented by cardboard tubes) and replaces the ‘Abed’s Thoughts’ component with the ‘Other People’ component, thus throwing Abed’s world into chaos.
While the idea that Abed can be ‘taught’ empathy may be a misstep, the teaching in this episode is collaborative. Annie tries to teach Abed her perspective, but can only do so through Abed’s methods – imagination, simulation, metaphor. She discovers her capability to act far more coldly and unfeelingly in the name of empathy than Abed ever could. Most importantly, the characters self-actualise only through embodying a different self in the realm of the non-actual.
Obviously the premise of a mixed bag of characters coming together under wacky circumstances is as old as the sitcom itself, but take that as the primordial soup out of which something new is finally crawling. With Parks and Recreation and Community, and maybe surprisingly so with Adventure Time and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, adults are relearning ‘child-like’ notions of friendship and co-operation. We are digging up our imaginations from where we left them, somewhere before puberty, buried under zit cream and textbooks and get-laid imperatives. We are – I am – wondering why we were constantly told to get real, to make a ten year plan, to choose a career at thirteen, to stop watching cartoons, to stop dreaming, to stop doodling, to remember our limited fertility, to remember all our limitations, all the time, lest we overreach and make fools of ourselves.
We’re discovering now that time will make a fool out of us anyway. Almost no plans work out as expected: when you try to control ‘reality’, it invariably disappoints.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. And why on earth did I do that?
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Here’s a thing I wrote for the wonderful New Left Project on a band that has influenced my politics:
When I first began my exploration of the thrilling world of post-punk, I became convinced that I was spending my teenage years in entirely the wrong decade. Post-punk confronted my impressionable sixteen-year-old ears with a vitality which I found to be abysmally lacking in contemporary music (despite the vogue of the mid-‘00s which appropriated of this exact sound). I hunted down recordings of the myriad post-punk bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, many of which had modest back-catalogues, having only existed for a few years each. One particular band which pervaded in my listening habits was the Au Pairs. Two men and two women, driven by the vocals of frontwoman Lesley Woods, the band’s interrogation of sexual politics feels devastatingly relevant to this day.
Formed in Birmingham in the mid-‘70s, the Au Pairs released their debut LP Playing with a Different Sex in 1981. The album spans ten tracks, broaching issues of gender and sex politics, with reference to British intervention in Northern Ireland and dystopian visions of supreme state control thrown in for good measure (‘Armagh’ and ‘Headache for Michelle’ respectively). Contrary to my teenage perception of protest music, this was neither a folksy, acoustic ode to mediocrity, nor exactly a brash and shouty explosion of hardcore punk. Much like their contemporaries Gang of Four, The Slits, etc, the Au Pairs buttressed their angry, radical politics with a style of punk driven by danceable bass lines and catchy riffs. While punk had been operating within fairly strict ideological parameters, post-punk was ready to fight the cause of any marginalised group and successfully translate political indignation into indie dance floor hits.
The album’s second track, ‘Love Song’, confronts power structures with an exploration of staid romantic conventions and the language of commerce (‘take out the ring/two fates sealed/negotiated a business deal’) that they entail. With echoes of Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’, it’s a sardonic interpretation of relationships and monogamy, made particularly interesting by the interplay between Woods’s vocals and the occasional distant yelps of ‘I love you’ and suchlike from guitarist Paul Foad.
This vocal collision occurs throughout the album and, on tracks such as ‘It’s Obvious’, its simultaneously melodic and combative form seems an apt reflection of the complexities of gender relations. The premise of universal freedom from the constraints of gender and sexual identity means that the discourse cannot simply operate in terms of a male and female gender binary. The need to reconcile this binary, so that both men and women are liberated from gender expectations, is especially pertinent as gender remains elemental in political strife. Ongoing government cuts are regularly likened to the Thatcherite era (the political climate which provided the backdrop for this album). Moreover, news that cuts are affecting women disproportionately more than men reflects poorly upon the level of gender equality that we profess to having achieved thus far.
Alas, it is perhaps easy to downplay the progress made in the thirty years since this record was released. The band’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Repetition’ (the story of a man’s abuse towards his wife) is a depressing reminder of the restricted position that married women still inhabited at the time, despite the gains of second-wave feminism in the seventies. Factors such as the abolition of the marital rape exemption (alarmingly only instated by the House of Lords, in England and Wales, in 1991) certainly indicate that there has been a trend towards positive change. However, considering that on average two women are killed by a partner each week, and the appallingly low 6% conviction rate for rape, it is clear that there is a maze of injustice which we have yet to navigate. Rather than succumbing to the overwhelming gloom of these issues, however, there is a righteous anger pervading the Au Pairs’ songs, which enables the listener to reflect upon it without feeling patronised by dogmatism.
Since the eighties, female musicians have often shunned the tag of ‘feminist’, and understandably so. The term has been slyly rendered hostile and alienating by those who perpetuate the myth of bra-burning misandrists. In the period of ‘80s Capitalist glut, stale notions of femininity, masquerading as a kind of hyper-sexualised female empowerment (see the rise, and rise of Madonna for evidence), distorted the axis of gender relations in popular culture and also exploited the plight of women of colour and gay men etc. Seminal modern musicians such as PJ Harvey, who sings frequently about gender and the struggles of male and female relations, do not identify as feminists. And who can blame them, when the term has become marred by such restrictive connotations?
For me, feminism isn’t merely a political issue: it’s a human rights issue. It operates on a fundamental praxis of respect and equality between sexes, and this is the ideology espoused in Playing with a Different Sex. The album cover, featuring an Eve Arnold photograph of female combat soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army, captures an excitement about radical activism that this album incites in me. Although the Au Pairs weren’t together for long (they disbanded in 1983, a year after releasing their second album), their incendiary and progressive exploration of gender remains entirely relevant today. They were exploring the constraints faced by women, while understanding that men also require liberation from societal gender norms for an equilibrated state of existence to occur. The band’s call for redefinition of power structures can quite easily translate to the plight of any marginalised group, whilst remaining centred within an indictment of the political climate of the time. Alongside all this, the band managed to create some incredibly infectious songs. I see the Au Pairs as an ideal demonstration of indignation being transformed into something that is both productive and, dare I say it, fun. With such bleak political horizons ahead of us, this combination is entirely necessary.
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(image reads “The Internet: where awful people meet”. A T-shirt design by John Campbell of Pictures for Sad Children)
(Trigger warning for cissexist, racist and homophobic slurs and described violence in links)
Hey, long time no see. I want to debunk the concepts of politeness and insults in online discussion. It’s a longish ride. (If you believe reverse racism or reverse sexism are a thing, you might want to get off now.)
I’ve been watching, from a distance, the current shitstorm on Tumblr between self-proclaimed radical feminists and a variety of trans* bloggers and allies. I know people make fun of Tumblr for its infights and language policing, as if these exchanges weren’t between real people, experiencing real repercussions. Sure, everyone goes in circles and gets exhausted – but that doesn’t mean these arguments are a waste of time. Tiny incremental acts of activism are still activism, just like incremental acts of oppression are still oppression.
The shitstorm in question is multifaceted, but is mainly concerned with radical feminists not only denying feminism’s history of cissexism but furthering it by refusing to accept trans* women as “real” women. This belongs to the first (very rough) category of insult I’m going to look at:
Shit That Is Never Okay
My co-author Rupinder, in her previous post on the (still thriving!) twitter account TheFunnyRacist, is way more even-handed than I could ever be on the subject of hate speech and she deserves all the dubloons. And while I agree that there’s a delicate balance between upholding users’ freedom of speech and upholding a non-asinine abuse policy, I also think that there are instances of abuse for which that balance really isn’t an issue, TheFunnyRacist being one of them.
But right now I want to talk about self-censorship. Let’s talk about the life cycle of a slur. Come on, it’ll be fun! Kind of like a hideous Choose Your Own Adventure book.
In a public situation such as a blog post, when a cis woman uses a slur towards a trans* woman, or a white person towards a person of colour, or a person without disabilities to a person with, etc., the slur’s influence does not travel along a single trajectory. It goes forwards, up, down, and sideways. These kind of slurs are unfortunately not that rare or frowned-upon, and every casual usage reinforces their power, normalises them. So all Person A’s readers feel a little more vindicated in their usage of it.
Person B – whom academic texts call the oppressed/victim/subaltern, but who is most importantly a human who likely deals with this crap on the daily – may add this to their little bank of self-loathing. At best, it serves as a reminder of how much their existence is worth to people like person A (the majority) – nothing.
Person B might politely point out to Person A why the slur is problematic.
Person A will then usually become incredibly indignant – “how dare you call me a racist/cissexist/ableist! My best friend is blah blah BLAH!” – and then they REALLY show their teeth ‘n’ tears. Person A makes it all about them and acts as the act of complaining about a slur is worse and more hurtful than the slur itself. Person A’s apologists, of which there are many, weep and harrumph along, and weave bizarre tales of reverse discrimination and so on. They call Person B oversensitive, or humorless, or stupid. They convince themselves that the victims of the slur deserved it because they really are all like that.
After this goes on for a day or five, Person B might get kinda angry, and lash out, with an epic, layered, vile, crushingly mean comment which I would file under:
Shit That Is Sometimes Okay
In this case, some trans* bloggers used the slogan “die cis scum”, while others gave graphic descriptions of the tortures and deaths the offending radfems deserved. (These comments were markedly not polite.) The radfems freaked out, and told their detractors how unproductive and hypocritical they were being.
You know… I imagine it’s hard to sound polite, productive, and nonthreatening when you have been forced to defend your identity and existence pretty much every day of your life. When you could be shot and killed on your way back from buying Skittles. When you could be brutally beaten by other women in the bathroom of a McDonalds.
Person A doesn’t think about this context of extreme, near-constant emotional stress, because she doesn’t believe in it. She is “colourblind” or “doesn’t see gender” or whatever, and therefore assumes these prejudices don’t continue to be life-threatening just outside her field of vision.
Nor can she see that the object of derision here is nearly always bigger than her. It includes her – because she’s cis, and because she’s acting like scum! – but it addresses mainly her choice to be scum, and the culture of “cisness” that lets her be so.
But she doesn’t see the forest for the trees. She can’t comprehend the bigness of anything beyond her own hurt feelings. And she is vindicated by an insular society that regards accusations of prejudice as more offensive than prejudice itself.
What the Hell Am I Trying to Say Here
These goddamn “radical” feminists.
Don’t they realise that asking someone to calm down and speak politely is a derailing tactic from the oldest school of patriarchal wank? “Politeness” is the ideal picnic spot for the privilege family reunion! Let’s see: you’d better speak perfect English to avoid confusion. You’ll need the upbringing, education and neurological type that lend themselves to an intuitive understanding of our sociocultural norms and faux pas. Preferably, you’ll use the academic terminology you picked up during your college education. You’ll have the mental energy to be calm and rational while we berate you. And please don’t swear… it’s so ghetto.
The real kicker is that, conversely, these rules of “politeness” are used to add great gravitas and validity to the most disgusting sentiments. Rick Santorum’s recent half-slur (in which he appeared to almost call Obama the n-word) was only the most outrageous of a string of offensive pronouncements – which somehow weren’t quite politically incorrect enough to go viral to the same extent. It’s the same covert, ambiguously-worded prejudice that enables cis feminists to get away with murder.
Look, I’m heavily privileged myself. Pretty much the only privileges I don’t have are that I am heavy, and that I’m a woman. Being fat and running a body-positive blog taught me a lot about what it is to be marginalised: that you can be the oppressed and the oppressor at once.
I remember, very occasionally, saying something I didn’t know was out of line, and being overwhelmed by the rudeness and rage of the people who called me out on it. I thought to myself, “how do they expect to get anywhere with that sort of attitude?” or “don’t they see how this hurts me? Don’t they see how hard I’m trying?”
(You may pause the tape here to allow for a full-body shudder.)
I’m appalled that I wasn’t able to see how boring and white imperialist these thoughts were. (“How do they expect us to give them human rights when they don’t even speak our language?”) And I’ll probably be appalled again in a few years time at the mistakes I’m making now. I’ve always strived to be nice to people. It used to be a vanity/self-protection thing. That failed horribly. I want to convert that intention to something less selfish, to aim for something like “basic human decency”.
Politeness does not reflect human decency.
And much as it pains me to admit it, feminism does not reflect human decency.
But maybe it’s a good place to start? I’d be tragically optimistic to hope that the internet (or the world) will ever be a kind, safe, decent environment. Is it less far-fetched to hope that these feminists could become a little less polite, a little more decent? Like, could we acknowledge that there is no combating sexism without acknowledging the ugly fractals of racism, ableism and cissexism within it?
Could we do this without asking for a “please”, “sorry” or “thank you” where none is deserved?
Could we stop patronising other people, even other feminists, by telling them to “read a book” before they criticise the movement, as if any aging tract could cancel out the heinous acts we are committing in feminism’s name right now, as I type, as you read?
Let’s be decent to each other, you fucking fucks.
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The age of digital media regularly evokes an inner conflict between my moral repugnance at jokes made at the expense of a particular minority group, and my belief in freedom of expression. Article 19 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes […] to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I expect that this can be interpreted to mean that the Twittersphere is game for spreading ignorance. At the same time, I hope that I don’t need to quote the clauses of any declaration for it to be understood that no person should have to endure the ridicule of entirely serious things, such as their sex, race, disability and sexual orientation. I try to adhere to a fairly simple mantra: if people have been attacked throughout history for possessing this trait, it’s probably not going to be funny if you attempt to mock it.
I have not been reading “TheFunnyRacist” Twitter account since its conception, so for all I know the initial tweet may have been a disclaimer explaining that all the “jokes” that follow are entirely ironic; a harsh satire of any fools who manage to drag their sweaty, Neanderthal hands up from the ground long enough to be able to retweet these in earnest agreement. I very much doubt that this was the case (that statement may have been too longwinded to fit in the 140-character limit, lolz?) – and even if I did manage to wade through the 3000+ tweets to find this disclaimer, it’s irrelevant.
What perpetuates such a welcoming response to this breed of humour is that the original context is often shrouded in a wilful sense of irony, which itself relies upon the premise of a climate of post-racism (or post-whatever, really) to function. The problem is that our society has not evolved adequately beyond bigotry for this to come to fruition. Things like “ironic blackface” (see here for an acquaintance attempting to explain why blackface may still be kinda offensive, if you need an explanation) can never really be reclaimed in a positive way, particularly not by anyone whose heritage is not marred by it and whose own position of privilege affords them the luxury of never having dealt with genuine discrimination in their lives. The co-author of this blog Meryl weighs in as follows: “people with privilege will always find a platform for their bile, so I refuse to feel sorry for anyone who gets banned from Twitter (or anywhere else) for being a massive bigot.”
I have similar beef with offensive humour in the vein of Frankie Boyle and his ilk. I mean, good comedy is meant to pierce through the complacency of the spectator. Boyle et al are out for the uncomfortable lolz, so that the cruelty of the spectator becomes the crux of the joke. I am aware of this. I just don’t believe we need many more appropriations of characters such as Al Murray’s (initially) ironic pub landlord to understand that loads of people are entirely blind to irony, and the perpetuation of this ignorance is dangerous for societal attitudes. As Stewart Lee so brilliantly puts it: “I wouldn’t want racists laughing at my jokes because that’s Al Murray’s audience. Missing the point and laughing through bared teeth like the dogs they are.”
So back to TheFunnyRacist. It’s just a twitter account replete with racist jokes about various (non-white) races. There’s not much to deconstruct there; it’s just not funny.
One of the tweets reads “#FF ME! You racist pricks!” So are we to assume that the author is actually repulsed by the earnest retweets/favourites and the casual manner in which Twitter members can register their bigotry with a simple click? Is the person just being contrary when they’re actually pleased that the account has proven to be so popular? Naturally, an inability to discern the true intention is usually the point of this sort of humour.
As you may have realised, it’s not this ambiguity and the crass jokes that I find most offensive, it’s that these tweets have been retweeted or favourited by thousands of people who are not authoring parody accounts. These are real people who either genuinely think that they are approaching this from a viewpoint that is beyond irony, or are just nasty little racists. These people are going to exist even if this account is deleted. I just can’t decide if it’s better to have proof of their beliefs under this Twitter umbrella, or to ignore this (which is easier to implement if you’re not able to access the account which unites them all).
This is where the complexities of freedom of expression arise. The eternal problem with the sentiment, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is that a distinction needs to be made between expressing yourself and inciting hatred against others. Whilst a Twitter account about racist jokes may not have been created with the intention of inciting casual racism, the fact that it will is elemental to explaining why it is objectionable. Tweets which advocate violence are taking this potentially ironic racism to an even more uncomfortable realm: “A Mexican walks into a baseball bat… Repeatedly… I swear thats (sic) how it happened…” and “I don’t know why everyone is so hard on black people. They do shoot a lot of black people!”
If it really is a social experiment into the disgustingly mob-like manner in which people will lap up something they know to be wrong then I suppose a point has been proven. If it just continues without any sort of contextual grounding, it seems kind of pointless. With something like race, my personal experience is that the proponents of this method of exposing prejudice are often operating from a position of privilege (i.e. they’re often white and male). This matters because, for a rational person in a position of privilege, exposing the extent of others’ prejudice is, maybe, kind of funny. For those who become the victims of this prejudice, it’s just a depressing reminder that people who have never met you probably hate you for something which you have no control over. If you have no experience of this feeling, then please allow me to assure you that it’s really fucking horrible.
I have also considered if the people authoring this account would be more relevant if they are not actually white. However, the same point still remains; if there’s no attempt at consistent contextualisation, this information will continue to be reclaimed by people who are laughing at racist jokes.
Anyway, all of that has been based on the potentially naive assumption that this Twitter account is all just an ironic hoax. If this account has been created solely to share racist jokes in an entirely un-ironic manner, I’ll just have to judge whether I’m capable of despairing at humanity any more than I already do.
Let’s discuss what you can do if the account has offended you. Here I am, the average Twitter user. This account has offended me. Man, I’m feeling pretty mad right now. Wish I’d just carried on working at my desk job and not started procrastinating; I probably wouldn’t even have come across this page! Anyway, I want to report it to somebody. Okay, there is a “report” button, but that’s just for spam. This account isn’t spamming me, it’s tweeting racist jokes. What then? Tweet at Twitter support? Okay, I’ll do that. But they haven’t responded. So here I am, feeling incredibly angry and receiving no response from the powers that could have stopped this, leaving me bereft in my sad corner of cyberspace.
Of course, expecting instant action as soon as you, a single person, report an offending Tweeter can lead to a dangerous path. If Twitter did respond to such things by removing users, imagine the extensive censorship that would envelop the site (also consider a similar dilemma playing out on Facebook).
Recent news about Twitter’s censorship of posts in certain countries has outraged many people, and understandably so. The common argument put forward is that the recent uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Libya could not have occurred to the same extent if social networking sites had been censored by the respective governments of these countries.
There are also fair arguments to support this action: Twitter is a business that could quite easily be banned entirely from these countries. If they enable governments to censor certain tweets (which would still be viewable to people in other countries), the site is still available as a means of communication in these places.
The problem here is perhaps a contemporary perception of social media being a revolutionary force. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter work so hard to reassure us, the average consumer, that they are on our side and they’re just helping us to forge meaningful connections with other people, and we seem to have become caught up in this narrative at some point. Social media doesn’t really owe us anything. It exists to serve us to an extent; it also exists to make money off us. These supposedly meaningful bonds we are creating with others are being created within a cynical prism of profit generation.
So why would Twitter delete that lol-inducing funny racist account, with its 140,000+ followers just because a few hundred people have complained about it? I imagine you would need thousands of people complaining about the site (which would likely have to be done by reporting it as spam, as there’s no report button for offensive content) and then maybe Twitter would get the message. From my experience, this has been the case over on Facebook, which is littered with racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist groups. Of course, to generate such colossal support, you would probably have to tweet about it and then maybe kill yourself whilst marvelling at the irony of it all.
So, I don’t really know what the solution to this is. I was hoping that working through this would help me to resolve this inherent paradox of two principles which I inherently believe in, but I don’t know if I have. Yes, examples of bigotry on social media sites are not good. However, perhaps the fact that they seem to exist so brazenly is a good thing. The culprits may make it easy to find them and subsequently punish them, depending on the severity of their behaviour. However, if such bigotry is somehow caught up in some sort of vortex of irony, are we just being horribly reactionary in attempting to shut this expression down? Should social media sites be more responsive to their users reporting offensive content, or would this just lead a dangerous course of censorship? I don’t really think I’ll ever be able to decide.
PS: I highly recommend that, if you use Twitter, you visit the “@TheFunnyRacist” page just for the few seconds it takes to click “Report As Spam”, or DM the “@support” account expressing your concern – whether it’s about this specifically, or about Twitter’s lamentable “just ignore it” approach to hate speech. We’re not sure how else to get Twitter’s attention on this one, but there’s always strength in numbers. Thanks. - Meryl
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I have never read a Nicholas Sparks novel; I have seen the film The Notebook, but any opinion I had on this is rendered void by Gosling Bias (pp. 236-240, Hague, Earl – He So Dreamy: Walarrhahlhlrrggll, 2010). For these reasons, I don’t have a great feel for the overarching themes and concerns of Sparks’s body of work – though I did pick up some great tips on romance writing.
So, anyway, what an ignoramus I felt yesterday, on staring at a selection of Sparks’s novels in Akademibokhandeln and realising what you all probably knew –
Wait! Of course! Nicholas Sparks isn’t just churning out cosy, ready-to-film love stories about white heterosexual couples with fully-removable heads!
(Step 1: Grasp and tilt back cranial attachment. Step 2: Receive Pez.)
No, it goes far deeper than that. For when I peered into those mesmerising pastel shades, I began to notice a motif. On further research I found that this motif turns up in at least 80% of all Sparks’s book covers that have ever been printed.
Cyrus and Gere and their respective partners are both standing on beaches. This is no one-off coincidence or Hollywood cliché; the designers of the non-film editions clearly agreed that the beach was the most relevant and compelling symbol in both novels:
In fact, in these covers, the theme of the sea – vast, relentless, unending – is emphasised even over the characters themselves. Note the marks in the sand in the former example, which trail off like an arrow towards the ocean. What could this mean? I began to expect a more sinister explanation entirely.
It just gets more ominous from there:
A dog hurtles towards the oncoming waves, pulling its owner helplessly into the infinite horizon – and the darkness that swallows even the sun. Could it be death?
A couple stands by the lighthouse, hoping desperately it will bring their loved ones home. But they are dwarfed to insignificance by its size, and it is dwarfed to insignificance by the water. They are powerless. There is no light bright enough to reclaim lost souls.
As he stood at the end of the pier he closed his eyes and remembered their last days together. Nestling in to one another’s necks, breathing, sleeping like babies before the water came. She was sleeping now, he knew. But not breathing.
“Look out there, honey. Can you see that little branch, sticking out of the water? That was the old oak tree outside my house, before the polar ice caps melted and everyone we knew died. Let us kiss and frolic in the fetid marshland that remains, before the water claims us too.”
Can you ever escape your past? she thought, as she felt the blood seep away into the water. Can the horrors of what has been ever slip your mind, like so much forgotten homework, like so many forgotten birthdays, back when birthdays still mattered? No, she decided, as with her last remaining strength she held the lighter to the petrol-soaked wood. No, you cannot escape your past.
“He used to wear this sombrero-style beach hat every summer. Then he was Taken and it’s all I have left of him. It still smells like marijuana.”
Only the hired waterfowl remained, floating tens of feet above the submerged chapel and its captive wedding party. They thrived and bred for generations there, and to this day when I see a swan I mistake it for the luminous ghost of a bride.
We were young, love-drunk, ignorant. When it rained, we only kissed with greater frenzy. We could not have known what the rains foretold.
It seems bizarre that not a single biography of Nicholas Sparks mentions that each of his novels is part of a devastating, epic series leading up to the events of the 1995 film Waterworld. Sparks deals with the watery apocalypse with excruciating slowness and precision, detailing not only the tragedy but each individual tragedy within it: lover after lover taken by the undertow. To have these stories unfold in a kind of “real-time”, concurrent with our own, is to live in constant knowledge of our doom – and yet, entranced by the beauty of his words, we go on. Stepping further and further from Dryland.
Yep. That’s almost definitely what’s going on with these shitty book covers.
(THE MESSAGE COMES ON THE WAVES. WILL YOU HEED ITS WARNING?)
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Douglas Coupland: Player One (2010)
This book posits, on the one hand, that all attempts at sequencing chaos are futile. (Or are they?) On the other, it concedes, chaos itself is just the result of infinite sequences interacting with each other. (Or is it?) At least, I think that’s one of the messages Coupland’s trying to get across. When the blurb claims that Player One “asks as many question as it answers”, it means that quite literally.
Anyway: I’m having a hard time not calling out PATTERN! on Coupland’s bibliography. I’m having a hard time ignoring the beginnings of a bell curve on the axes of time x quality, peaking around 2003’s Hey Nostradamus and sloping towards mediocrity as it approaches2009’s Generation A. (This is all very subjective ergo unscientific but bear with me on this one.) It feels like a dissolution of sorts. Coupland’s trademarks – the frenetic stabs at the zeitgeist, the unrealistically witty characters, the intense fear of apocalypse, the endless solipsism – at least used to adhere to each other. It was always stylised – photorealist scraps in a Cubist collage – but it was satisfying to the soul in a deep, bready way. Now all these elements seem to be disconnecting, free-floating in angst. There are five POVs here but they all read as one: each section may as well be headed Douglas, Douglas, Douglas for the repetitious, pensive tone that continues throughout.
The similarities between Karen, Rick, Luke and Rachel – four strangers trapped in an airport cocktail lounge during the very Couplandian “Peak Oil Apocalypse” – are arguably the point of the whole charade. Sure. Disparate characters forced together find out they have more in common than they ever imagined and no, hold on, that’s The Breakfast Club. Really, Doug? The Breakfast Club, w/ added dystopia? No disrespect to that movie (WE ARE NOT ALONE!) but I’ve come to expect more from DC’s canon than clapping two fistfuls of Play-Doh together and squishing them underfoot.
The heart-to-heart sessions that come with this formula are so forced and inorganic it’s painful to read. Rachel, the ambiguously non-neurotypical bombshell, facilitates conversation with prompts she learned in normalcy training – featuring such startlingly convenient lead-ins as “Can you tell us anything you’ve learned about people from your job as a small-town pastor?” Handy. I’m almost offended on Rachel’s behalf; for a character trying desperately not to be seen as a robot, Coupland sure uses the crap out of her as a clunky narrative device. Rachel’s rusty mechanics beget more rusty mechanics as the book goes on, arbitrarily pairing the men with the women, picking an arbitrary villain, an arbitrary tragedy. Karen et al. fret throughout about their “denarration”, the storyless quality of their lives, little knowing how intensely, groaningly, book-chuckingly trite their stories will turn out to be.
Trust me, I’m clawing my own heart out writing this about an author I admire so much. But the fact remains: this book is ill-written in every aspect. The real robot here is the author. Player One runs like a computer simulation of a Coupland novel, by a program packed with terabytes of input data and not the foggiest notion of how good literature is actually put together. “Rick ran to Rachel and wrapped his arms around her,” Dougbot rattles out, sounding like a particularly crap tongue twister from a child’s English textbook. “Suddenly incapable of processing any more of what was happening to her at the present time, Karen let her mind drift back to that morning, a morning that had begun so full of hope,” Dougbot bleeps and putters, accidentally accessing the Stephenie Meyer file directory. “What if my life is a badly-told story?” Luke wonders, with enough inadvertent irony to make MS Word’s Clippy suffer a small heart attack and go into retirement as an ordinary, sexually unintimidating office paperclip.
And what hurts the worst, Doug, is that all the anxieties and revelations that these characters have are human, and touching, and significant. You watch us flailing around in the digital age and diagnose our malaises faster than any medical journal can cover them. You’re the benevolent god of contemporary literature and this book even contains your rewritten (and brilliant) commandments… If only you could have felt free to impart these wisdoms directly, not wrapped in parable.
Doug, you freed the deus from Rachel’s stilted machina. You can free your truths from the confines of fiction for a while. (And maybe spring for Dougbot v. 2.0? – this version’s kinda buggy.)
P.S. Yeah, but it’s not like you could do any better, you say? You’re exactly right. That’s why I’m writing this on Tumblr, not in The Guardian or something. Geez, someone’s tetchy today.
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The one where I talk about albums from 2011 that I’ve liked, after all the 2011 retrospective hype has already died down.
So Meryl and I were discussing writing some things about music that we had enjoyed in 2011 and it led to me complaining about the culture of lists which has blighted contemporary music critique. So I obviously deemed it appropriate to remedy this by making a list of my own. Whoops. Also, most of the ‘new’ music that I discover tends to be from previous years and decades, so I know that there is so much that I haven’t heard, but would potentially love. Perhaps if discussing this nonsense was my full-time vocation, I’d have my finger more readily on the pulse.
I created a Spotify playlist of some songs that I have enjoyed this year and used that as the basis for then discussing my thoughts on these songs and albums.
Here is the Spotify playlist: 2011 is over
And here are some thoughts on the music that I picked:
Das Racist - Relax (album: Relax)
Since the eponymous track from Das Racist’s Relax album works so well as an opening track, I thought it’d be best to put it first on this playlist. Plus it gives me an opportunity to get my DR fawning out of the way early on. Following their two free mixtapes, Relax is Das Racist’s first proper album. I was unsure of it at first; there is a certain emptiness that a ‘cleaner’ production process will inevitably create. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile myself with tracks like ‘Girl’ and ‘Celebration’, but there’s plenty more on this album which does hit the mark.
This opening track is excellent, it’s fiery and the Bollywood sample is adequately diluted so as to not render it a novelty. I also have to register props for opening the album with the line ‘white devils like it’. Heems’ rapping on the second verse of this track is stonking; it sets the tone for a more aggressive flow than he was putting forth on the mixtapes and it works well. You could note how he and Victor are now more palpably polarised through Heems’ aggressive east coast flow and Victor’s more laidback west coast flow, but I don’t know if I want to be the person to do that. There are also the multiple Guru Dutt references which I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing. If you don’t know who Guru Dutt is then you should probably research him immediately.
Tune-Yards - Gangsta (Whokill)
I hope no one was expecting me to insert the adequate upper-case letters.
Katy B - Why You Always Here (Katy on a Mission)
GOLDSMITHS ALUMNI WHUT UP. I loved Katy B back when she was lending vocals to funky/dubstep songs under her former moniker of Baby Katy (DJ NG’s Tell Me owned my iPod back in ’08). Some of the tracks on her debut do seem driven by quite dated dubstep and funky sounds, but Katy’s vocals certainly do work excellently over it. It’s really promising to see that such a talented female urban musician is doing so well as an antidote to the likes of Jessie J and her odious ilk.
Elzhi - Halftime (Elmatic)
Hi ex-boyfriend, you can take the credit for getting me into this. It’s a nice little album.
James Pants - Incantation (James Pants)
When I read the Last.fm page on James Pants a few months ago, there were people arguing about whether they did or didn’t get into him after Tyler the Creator apparently mentioned being a fan. Don’t let the association put you off though, this album is really, really excellent.
Veronica Falls - All Eyes on You (Veronica Falls)
I have previously said that Veronica Falls rip off a load of bands that I love, but they really do do it so well. There is infinite scope for jangly twee to sound tired and samey, but Veronica Falls manage to pull it off in a catchy and refreshing manner. The extra disc of covers that they released with this album is also worth a listen.
Boris - See You Next Week (Attention Please)
This is a really beautiful track from a good album.
John Maus - Cop Killer (We Must Become the Pitless Censors of Ourselves)
I thought that everyone who had heard John Maus instantly loved him, until a Twitter exchanged between Maus and some music journos ruined this illusion. Apparently, he’s pretentious but I can’t say that I care because this album is ridiculously catchy.
Bok Bok - Hyperpass (Southside EP)
At this point, I looked over the list and decided that it’s pretty darn bassy.
Shabazz Palaces - Cuch (Of Light)
WARNING: this is not Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 album Black Up, it’s actually Of Light, from 2009. Unfortunately, Spotify doesn’t have this album listed. You should absolutely listen to it, though. It combines commanding lyricism with experimental, yet engrossing beats. Recollections of the Wraith is a personal favourite from the album (here’s a Youtube link).
Gang Gang Dance - MindKilla (Eye Contact)
The poppy synth work on this album is certainly a lot more accessible than some of Gang Gang’s previous efforts and this appears to have been reflected in their increased popularity. Of all the albums on this list that I’ve heard performed live, this is certainly the one that sounds infinitely better than on record. That’s not to say that it sounds bad on record, the depth of sound is just reflected much better in live performance!
New Look - Everything (New Look)
This married duo released this album of dancey R&B beats back in the autumn and it’s pretty fun. Bizarrely, I picked the least dancey and fun song on the album for this playlist. I was drawn to the vocals on this track, particularly in contrast to the pared down bass track.
PJ Harvey - In the Dark Places (Let England Shake)
Well it’s only the album which has been at the top (or close enough) of almost every music list for the year. Personally, despite liking the album and being utterly enthralled by PJ Harvey since forever, I think I do generally prefer Polly Jean’s scuzzy albums from the mid-nineties. It’s probably because I’m a simpleton who doesn’t understand the complexities of beautifully crafted protest music, or something.
Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX - The Crutch (We’re New Here)
Jamie XX has had a bloody great year. I was really impressed at the way in which he managed to remix Gil Scott-Heron’s album.
EMA - Marked (Past Life Martyred Saints)
Sbtrkt - Right Thing to Do feat. Jessie Ware (SBTRKT)
Dubstep stopped being relevant at some point in 2008. What happened after this occurred at the two paths of what I will Christen the ‘crossroads of dubstep’. Along one of these paths, producers such as Magnetic Man became very popular by stagnating sounds that had sounded innovative two years previously, with slivers of sounds that are new and exciting peeking through at infrequent moments. I personally blame this on the popularity of the likes of Caspa and Rusko, whom I believe were perpetuating their own brand of ‘brostep’ far before Skrillex fed his poison to the youth of America. For want of a better term, I suppose that the likes of Magnetic Man ‘sold out’. Don’t get me wrong, my music snobbery does not extend to resenting musicians for tweaking their sound so that it becomes mainstream and, consequently, popular. For instance, anyone who has discussed grime with me will understand my love/hate relationship with Wiley; he’s sold out and I do think it’s tragic because he is mind-blowingly talented. Rather than blame him, I blame all other consumers of music who have forced him into this position. Godammit guys, I can’t believe you don’t all just share my taste in music.
Pardon this digression, what I really want to discuss is the second fork, which is that of ‘post-dubstep’; an abhorrent term for a lot of excellent music. My own understanding of it is generally the point at which IDM (I hate these genre classifications, but they do make writing about this much simpler) meets dubstep and other London-centric bass music. Sbtrkt enforces his presence somewhere along this spectrum and his eponymous debut is most definitely one of my favourite albums of this year. It’s a fairly simple premise; bassy dance music with some gorgeous R&B vocals from the likes of Sampha and Jessie Ware, but it’s executed so perfectly. The album basically soundtracked my summer and I haven’t managed to tire of it yet. It may simply be the nostalgia of the manner in which this album has managed to advance the sounds of dubstep and garage into something entirely contemporary which makes this album so appealing to me. Either way, the bass-driven Right Thing to Do is beautifully offset by Ware’s vocals.
Hype Williams - Untitled (One Nation)
The elusive identity that Hype Williams have cultivated is an excellent backdrop for their music; I’m sure they already knew this, though. They’re feted as a cross between an art project and the musical explorations of its two members, Igna Copeland and Dean Blunt.
The album seems more substantial in its progression than their 2010 album Find Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, And Start Gettin Reel. Firstly, it doesn’t begin with the creepy autotune crying baby, which I still find unnerving. The initial Untitled track on the album (they love their ‘Untitled’ track names) is a sublime monologue about life and death, set to an appropriately spaced-out musical track. I had actually saved this track for the mixtapes that I am making for several friends, and almost considered not putting it on this list and subsequently acclimatising them to it. But, alas, it won in the end.
For something which should probably be utterly alienating, there is a recurrent humour and playfulness which makes this exploration of bass thoroughly engaging. How can it not be with tracks like Your Girl Smells Chung When She Wears Dior (named after a Wiley lyric, of course)? If you haven’t listened to this album then you absolutely must. It is so excellent. It’s dirty, beautiful, bassy and should probably be sold with a huge sticker entitled “the fucking 2011 zeitgeist, what else?” over it.
Rustie - Globes (Glass Swords)
I don’t really get the hype for this album. When it’s good, it’s excellent. There’s this expansive warmth of sound which is often difficult for dance music to achieve. But then parts of it just sound like grime samples from 2005. Globes sounds like the first part of that description. In fact, it’s amazing that the song is only two minutes and forty seven seconds long; it seems to cover so much in such a short period of time.
Danny Brown - Greatest Rapper Alive (The Hybrid)
Yet another instance of Spotify letting me down, I actually wanted to list a song from Danny Brown’s XXX mixtape. You can download it for free on the internet, so I’ll forgive Spotify for this one. There was a fair bit of really excellent rap coming out of the US, this year, but no one is really operating on the same level as Brown. I read something where he’s described as being the US’s answer to grime and I really like this as a judgement. That’s kind of what it is; his flow is constantly changing tempo and lends to a frantic quality which works excellently over the equally unpredictable beats.
King Midas Sound - Spin Me Around (Cooly G Revoice) (Without You)
This list is really pretty darn bassy.
Prurient - Palm Tree Corpse (Bermuda Drain)
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I spent New Year’s Eve Eve with my good friend Arabella watching the 2009 film Moon – previously known to me as The One Wot’s Music Was Meant to Be Good and later The One Wot’s Music Is In The Iron Lady Advert. As a simple, predictable primate, I adored this lonely little film with its monochromatic, lachrymose moonscape and off-white heap of kindly AI in the supporting role. This film is such a breeze to watch and love that I don’t want to spend the second day of 2012 intellectualising it into a dreary pulp… but I wanted to briefly record these important points three.
(Yes, Virginia, there are spoilers in this post.)
1. To get the BIG DUH out of the way: it’s beyond neato how Duncan Jones (AKA Zowie Bowie) seems to take his father’s ‘Space Oddity’ and unfold it into a sprawling 97 minutes; to illuminate the dizzying emotional topography of the thing. The tragedy, and the human connections unbroken by space, time and logic. I’ve loved and I’ve needed love scrawled out over the nothing-countries of the moon in serif capitals.
2. Like Primer, this is a low-budget sci-fi that questions what we are capable of not only as a species but also as individuals as our circumstances change. It leaves us with leaden questions inside us: is it a breach of human rights to force a person to live a lie, if they can live and die happily without ever discovering that lie? (Probably, but how to articulate the reasoning?) To what extent is a clone a separate entity to its “original”? Does the main character remind me of Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap purely because his name is Sam? But I digress. What intrigued me the most was,
3. The interaction between the two Sam Bells and what it reveals about the nature of our relationships with ourselves. Here is a human being, mitosed into two selves – a premise which throws the usual self-perception dynamic into confusion.
Instinctively I know that I cannot treat a physically separate person the way I treat myself – neither as intimately nor as cruelly. The two Sams regard each other carefully at first, awkwardly, like college roommates, but quickly discover those things in each other that they hate. It discomfits younger Sam to see his older self half-wacky on imposed isolation (as, it is revealed, happens to all of them in time, is inevitable); the older Sam is appalled at his younger self’s cockiness and volatile temper. But these are just two of the myriad alternate endings written into Sam’s DNA. And having these possibilities play out through clones enables the metaphorical conflict to spill over into tangible fisticuffs and it is all very satisfying, ra-ra.
But then look. Look what happens. As older Sam’s health declines we see younger Sam grow anxious, concerned, and even nurturing. He draws the bedclothes over the older clone to warm him, he beseeches him to get some rest. They begin to joke with each other and appreciate each other’s personalities. They find what they have in goddamn common with themselves.
It’s a very hackneyed scrap of fortune-cookie psychology that asks, “Would you ever treat another human being as badly as you treat yourself?” Most seasoned self-loathers can handle this one with the usual torrent of no human being could be as low and as worthless as I and a series of phlegmy snorts and sobs – but the logic persists. Would you really slit another person’s wrists for being unemployed? Would you scream abuse into their ears for being obese? (If yes, proceed to Q3: Are you Rush Limbaugh?) Or would you be charmed by their wit or their hidden talents, maybe even love them?
I’m probably not meant to think all this when I see one Sam gently fold the other into an escape pod headed for Earth, wanting only his happiness. I should probably be receiving the more pessimistic message – that when our world inevitably perfects cloning, we will be all too happy to use them for slavery and wars and sex and all manner of evidence that humanity is basically terrible. But instead I see in it an advertisement for self-care when the world abuses us. In Moon, and in reality, it helps achieve great things.
Take care of yourselves, eh?
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‘He merely slipped his ready fingers into History’s waiting glove’
At some point this year, I took it upon myself to catch up with some of the vast quantity of modern (modern= post-partition) Indian literature that I probably should have already been familiar with; Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was foremost on this list. I was slightly daunted by the prospect of writing about this; it has widely become canonical since it was published in the late nineties. I’m fairly sure that I have nothing new to offer in terms of analysis, but even if the only thing I achieve is to make a bunch of people mad at my ignorance then I suppose something constructive could arise out of it?
Having already been familiar with Roy’s activism and generally excellent insight, I’d place her very high on my hypothetical list of people whose achievements make me feel entirely inadequate as a human. In light of this, I’m not really sure why I hadn’t gotten round to reading this book sooner. The God of Small Things is set in Kerala, in South India, with most of the story occurring in the village of Ayemnem. This is one of several autobiographical elements of the novel, as Roy grew up in the same village. The depth of Roy’s description of the landscape is colossal; I was engrossed in imagining a landscape with which I have no experience (the Indian terrain that I have traversed is predominantly in north/central India. So that anyone who isn’t familiar with the country knows, the landscape across the two poles of this country varies drastically). I must stress that my literary imagination is a stubborn, lazy creature and it only succumbs to the will of a writer if it is thoroughly compelled to do so, but Roy’s technique managed to thoroughly engross my visual capacity.
The force of this technique also serves to amplify the grotesque scenes in the narrative: the description of Estha’s encounter with the ‘lemondrink man’ left me with a feeling of such forceful repugnance that it eviscerated any enjoyment of the Twix bar I had been eating whilst I read it (I will leave you to deduce how the bar’s physical form didn’t help matters). I found Roy’s descriptive technique flawless, in this respect.
In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: 1947- 1997, Rushdie refers to Roy’s ‘highly wrought and personal style’ of writing. Her vision of the experience of childhood is beautifully accurate; the sense of infantile vulnerability feels so familiar. I found myself recollecting experiences from my own childhood, when reading how Rahel attempts a naïve process of bargaining punishments for herself in order to make up for upsetting her mother. I found this method akin to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; there is universality in the experience that transcends geographic setting. The fairly simple truth of a child’s life revolving around its parents is explored through the way in which the loss of this axis manifests in Rahel and Estha. The vacancy in Rahel and Estha’s adult lives surely arises out of the premature loss of their mother, along with the historical narrative which renders their personal character development futile.
A common thread in post-partition Indian literature is obviously that of identity. Naturally, a country which has been torn into various constituent parts is going to suffer from a crisis in identity. As with the likes of Rushdie, Roy’s novel presents history as a force which is stronger than any of the muli-generational characters who are enacting it. There is an excellent passage in which Rahel’s American husband’s inability to understand his wife is exposed as a cultural chasm:
He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. The Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cosy, contained, private and limited) came aware cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much… Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.
The sense of the infinite, incomprehensible nature of India’s difficulties is something which Rushdie was able to reflect upon so excellently in Midnight’s Children. Roy’s novel seems to suggest that this very notion is a means by which future generations are able to define themselves. Another of Rushdie’s motifs which Roy expands upon is the act of pickling. In Rushdie’s novel, pickling becomes an effective motif for the encapsulation of emotions. The pickle factory which features in Roy’s novel represents the preservation of history. The plan that Estha hatches, whilst stirring a vat of pickles in his grandmother’s factory, is one that begins a chain of events which become integral to the history of his family and the local village. The factory becoming defunct soon after the tragic events that befall the Ipe family perfectly reflects how the family drowns in the unsympathetic waves of history.
Plus, what’s more engrained in day-to-day Indian life than pickle? My own mother claims that she endlessly craved it when she was pregnant with me; this could go some way to explain why I salivate as soon as I pick up a jar of the stuff. For me, it’s a reminder of delicious family meals in the past and delving into a jar incites my anticipation for the meal that I’m about to eat (I usually go for the limes, I like the combination of its tanginess with the sweetness of the pickling oil). It can stain your fingers and can sometimes leave an unwanted smell, but I certainly think it’s worth the hassle for something that I love. There’s something ritualistic and familiar about pickle which renders it the perfect metaphor for the endless machine of Indian history, alongside its quality for preserving things.
The novel being written in the language of the “coloniser” perfectly inhabits the tension between separate cultural identities that is being alluded to, in the aforementioned excerpt about Rahel. Being brought up as a product of conflicting south Asian and western ideologies, I always find it amusing how the west views south Asia as a vanguard of spirituality (the likes of ‘Eat Pray Love’ demonstrate this smug appropriation of spirituality as something that you can inhabit as soon as you step foot on Indian soil and change into a kurta), when the reality is that a western capitalist notion of profitability is what modern Indian culture is largely concerned with. One discussion with my parents about the redundancy of my arts degree will confirm this for you. Apparently, even second generation immigrants place value upon the same vocations as their counterparts still residing in India (I suppose it demonstrates a strong sense of identity, but it’s really annoying when no one understands why you’d want to study anything other than medicine).
At the same time, the spiritualism of age-old stories, such as those enacted by Kathakali dancers in the novel, is engrained in cultural life. The coexistence of spirituality and pragmatism is something which is overlooked; it is not about a personal sense of spirituality, but rather a unified experience. This notion can clash with the insistent egotism of those attempting to appropriate this experience.
The use of English in many modern Indian novels is not at all unusual; it is a universal language in a country with such a diverse range of dialects. Despite its universality in this modern age, it is still used to represent status. Being well-spoken in English signifies a good education and a good education is a prerequisite for good jobs and success, of course. Language is used in the battle for status, in the novel. Roy is quick to note how ‘Comrade Pillai’, who thinks of to Chacko’s use of English phrases as a means of belittling him, is playful about his wife’s bigotry against members of the ‘untouchable’ cast. Even when India is able to rid itself of the imperialist oppressors, its own people readily reject one another in the name of caste.
In this way, it is entirely fitting for Ammu and Velutha to unite; brought together by the degradation of their respective positions as a woman and an untouchable man. Both are presented as characters who could have fared much better if they had access to better education, which would have led to better opportunities. There is a cruel irony in the choice that is available to Ammu, who leaves her children without surnames as she chooses between the names of her estranged husband and her father. The frank disdain Ammu has for her experience as ‘a foolish jewelled bride’ and how she was ‘so painstakingly decorated before being led to the gallows’ is explained. The futility of such an act is likened to ‘polishing firewood’.
It is both shocking and entirely refreshing to read the words of an Indian woman being so derisive of a tradition which is hardly questioned, even when so many other patriarchal symbols have been fought against. Even in modern ceremonies, the ritual of the woman effectively being handed over to her husband is the focal point of Indian weddings. Following her separation from her husband, Ammu’s life is considered to be over. By transgressing this constrictive judgement of her situation through her intimate relationship with Velutha, Ammu transgresses the rules of her society and is duly punished.
The implications of this lead me to consider the overwhelming impression that I had upon completing this book. If everyone transgressing ‘the Love Laws [of] who should be loved. And how. And how much’ is punished, then what hope is there? The tide of tradition is conveyed as being so unrelenting that it destroys anyone who defies it. Yet the novel ends with the gorgeous lovemaking scene between Velutha and Ammu, whose relationship ends in tragedy. There is something that I couldn’t quite align myself with.
Perhaps the point is that if history and events are larger than their agents, we should just do the things that we love and understand that it may not end well? As daunting as that is, I quite like it as an idea. I think it is excellent in conveyed how one’s own agency is sometimes futile in the face of larger events. Rushdie’s protagonist confronts a similar idea, as he begins to physically crumble under the weight of history. I believe that it will be a long time before the force of this country’s history will make way for the importance of the individual. For a country which has a long way to go in addressing its own prejudices and inequality, I think that this lack of attention to the individual may still serve it well. The sense of a unified experience may still enable it to overcome the social problems that Roy’s text alludes to, whilst retaining a heritage which is still embedded in the daily life of its citizens.
Having the freedom to love who you want to love is something which I can absolutely get behind. The poignancy of the loss of childhood and its innocence is something which I don’t imagine I can ever fully reconcile with, but Roy’s novel has reminded me that I’m far from alone in this.
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