Sunday, 31 January 2021

I FEEL IT COMING TOGETHER [280]



The situation doesn’t normally arise when you feel like alluding to Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” in an article about an online comic created by your sister, but sometimes you would rather talk about how good something is, rather than dissect it until you know how good something was before you killed it. Sontag’s essay ends, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” and my intention here is only to tell you why you should read Layla Spence’s “Ill Fame” [https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/ill-fame/list?title_no=382596&page=1].

Set in and around an island, “Ill Fame” centres on Frankie and Rhys, who have found a life together, but only in their human forms – Frankie is a seal, and daughter of King Augustus, while Rhys is a crow, and the King’s messenger. When Thomas Reid, an envoy for the Land King, comes with Caritas, a snake that can see the future, with an offer of help, lives will be changed.

I initially attributed the title “Ill Fame” to Frankie’s father holding her in low esteem for her relationship with a crow through their ability to change forms – the ability to communicate as seal and crow is rendered crucial for them to survive as a couple against the threat of royal protocol and destiny. However, the “ill fame” also belongs to the kingdom itself, neglected by the Sea King, and given the opportunity to fall in with the Land King.


I have never really been a fan of fantasy as a genre – I do remember we once had a copy of the film “Krull” recorded from TV, and I had a copy of the Terry Jones novel “The Saga of Erik the Viking,” illustrated by Michael Foreman – but the world of “Ill Fame” is, for me, entirely of itself, not harking back to particular stories I might have seen elsewhere, or overtly trying to use its genre as an allegory for our present, unless that has happened and I have not realised yet. The state of both the sea kingdom, and of Frankie and Rhys’s relationship, remains precarious at the time of writing, and I am interested to see where this goes.


Of course, the art pulls you into the story. Presented in the online comic format of a downward scroll, each part is defined by bold black lines, spare in detail, with extremely expressive character work. The use of the sea as a setting complements the scrolling nature of the comic, allowing for a more play in how scenes unfold, and the grading of the colour through each scene, usually restricted to three or four colours to set mood, is particularly impressive – it makes the way printed comics are presented feel particularly choppy as a result, as the speed of the story is determined only by the reader.


Art demands to be considered on its own terms, any words I have are written in the hope that I can push you in the direction of “Ill Fame,” and I hope I can add to the people already following the story. Moreover, because I know how much Layla puts into her art anyway, I want more people to see it out of a sense of solidarity and pride, so make sure you follow her Instagram account for updates too [link].


Sunday, 24 January 2021

ALL ABOUT THE LOVE AGAIN [279]

A Donald Trump cake delivered to Trump Tower, New York,
ahead of 2016 election festivities.

When Joe Biden finally took over as the 46th President of the United States, it was at 5pm GMT, meaning I listened to his speech on the way home from work. That evening, and through the following day, I felt very distracted, almost like I felt anxious about having much less to feel anxious about.

Hearing a politician sincerely recognise the problems besetting the nation they must now guide, promise to address them, and pledge to lead on behalf of all their people, and not just those that voted for them, reminds you these actions are meant to be fundamental to being a leader - it is just nice hearing from someone that actually wants to do the job.

I can now understand what Barack Obama meant about the “audacity of hope”: democracy standing defiant, and in splendid progress, despite the events of two weeks before, and of the previous four years.

The attempted coup on the US Capitol building was the Kmart Blue Light Special of insurrections. (For UK audiences, read as the Debenhams Blue Cross Sale – two dead department store chains for the price of one.) It was like there was a cheap 4K television in every room. People were so excited to be there, they made sure others knew they were, helping the CIA and FBI most efficiently. Most shocking was the level of entitlement, both to storm their own seat of government, and to base their indignation out of something conducted from nothing but unsupported prejudice.

I didn’t think Donald Trump had it in him to incite sedition and insurrection, but when his businesses have declared bankruptcy as often as they have - six, between 1991 and 2009 - perhaps it was worth a go. I sincerely thought that the election of Joe Biden, a man now declared President more often than Franklin D Roosevelt, would be the end of the matter, and Trump would slowly realise his game was lost, and he would allow us all to get on with our lives. But too many people were wreaking havoc in his name for his ego to back down. If a second impeachment trial in the US Senate doesn’t convict him, something else will – there must be a lesson for him to learn.

Often repeated are the lessons taught to Trump by his lawyer and mentor Roy Cohn, formerly chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy, of the witch trials, and defender of mob bosses: “Dominate in every interaction, never admit wrongdoing or defeat, never pay your bills, and sue anyone who objects to your behaviour into financial submission.” Cohn, who denied he had AIDS up to when he died of it – he said it was liver cancer – was given a square on the AIDS Memorial Quilt: “Bully. Coward. Victim.” 

Trump achieved all three before being exiled, a pariah from American life. Trump bullied so much on Twitter that it had to be taken away from him, the benefits for American democracy and discourse in the short-term everyone outweighing the later questions over free speech and the nature of social media – that Trump effectively disappeared until the end of his Presidential term confirms how much he relied on it. Meanwhile, the domestic terrorists now arrested for storming the Capitol wonder why their leader has deserted them, leaving other extremist politicians in the Republican party to continue a pyrrhic crusade against the truth, at the expense of their party’s unity. For anyone still interested in ever thinking of Trump as a “victim,” his niece Mary L Trump, the best-placed psychologist in history released, in May 2020, the timeliest book with the clearest title: “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man.”

With “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” having begun during the 2016 US Presidential race, Donald Trump became the de facto “Gatekeepers” bogeyman: a man whose choppy utterances and half-formed, half-stolen slogans enraptured millions, and radicalised thousands more. Words were often beyond him, left to those in his administration to make sound reasonable, but the longer the noise, the threats against the media, and the pronouncements on Twitter went on, the more it became the stifling daily rhythm to everyday life.

Fewer articles will be written, and fewer minutes on television will be aired, about Joe Biden’s presidency because it will simply be less eventful, and conducted more conventionally, than Trump’s presidency, which is entirely to be expected. Good – the time freed up to all of us, as consumers of media, can be put to greater use. Therefore, outside of any impending arrest, conviction and imprisonment, this will be the last time I feel the need to write about Donald John Trump. He really was the worst of us.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

NO MORE FREE STEPS TO HEAVEN [278]


From the notes I made in 2002, I can see that the first place I came across postmodernism that delineated its concepts most easily for me to dive into them was a book by Tim Woods, “Beginning Postmodernism,” published by Manchester University Press, a second edition of which has been published since I first read it. As dry as most academic books can be, for such a book to write about its subject in a way that makes you feel excited about it is extremely valuable. It was certainly enough for me two write ten A4 pages of notes from it, since rendered moot by my actually buying a copy of the book – I can only assume the original library copy was once I was able to take home
.

The notes I made start by explaining that postmodernism is:

“a knowing modernism, a self-reflexive modernism, a knowing modernism that doesn’t agonise about itself. Postmodernism does what modernism does, only in a celebratory way, rather than repentant way. Thus, instead of lamenting the loss of the past, the fragmentation of existence and the collapse of selfhood, postmodernism embraces these characteristics as a new form of social existence and behaviour. The difference between modernism and postmodernism is therefore best seen as a difference in mood or attitude, rather than a chronological difference, or a different set of aesthetic practices.”

That is the kind of introduction you want. Modernism was never replaced by postmodernism, and the impulses to find new ways of explaining how we see the world, and creating new forms in art and society, is true of both movements. Even a modernist group that Dada, that you would think would match postmodernism on mood and attitude, is actually separated from it by its earnestness to abandon the modes of thinking that led society to world war, instead of playing about with them.

My notes contain lots of lists, with Woods creating many summaries of the key characteristic in postmodern forms of thought, economics, architecture, visual design, music, television and film. For example, the list for film talks about pastiche of other genres and styles, alluding to particular scenes and cinematic styles from other films; a flattening of history, presenting the past in the present; self-reflexivity of technique; and celebrating the collapse of distinction between high and low cultural styles, with “Pulp Fiction,” a major Hollywood film aiming to evoke pulpy crime novels, being used as the example. It helped that, during my film degree, we were shown a Jean-Luc Godard film from 1967, “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” that often abandons its narrative to talk about consumerism, and has characters addressing themselves directly to the camera. I enjoyed it a lot.

A thought my mind always replays is how I am glad I discovered postmodernism when I did, because it has helped explain how the world, and particularly politics, has developed in the years since. The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the source of the predominant postmodernist stance of an incredulity towards metanarratives, has his own list made by Woods – in particular, Woods says that postmodernism, according to Lyotard, “does not seek to give reality, but to invent allusions to the inconceivable which cannot be presented. In this respect, there is something theological in his concept of representational art.”

I can see I also made this note from Joseph Natoli’s book “A Primer to Postmodernity”:

“We are responding to a world that is in the process of breaking out of our certitude of knowing, out of the reality box that we have built for ourselves and called it Reality. A lot of formerly closeted people are now out of the closet; or you can say that the camouflage screen, the barrier curtain is down. We’ve got a hunger now to hear everyone’s story at the same time that we paradoxically want to put a gag on everyone but our own buddies. We’re split between two vastly different ways of dealing with the world. But in actions, in how we go about constructing our realities, we are less and less attached to the ‘old order’ of knowing, feeling, perceiving, and more and more attached to exploring as many other realities as we can bring into being.”

“A Primer to Postmodernity” was published in 1997. I also now have a copy of this book, and I can see the above passage was preceded by the author hearing from people that want things to be like the “good old days,” and wanting what we know to be grounded, when it cannot be. After the passage, Natoli then says that his book can only be a “primer” for people to do their part on the ongoing creation of culture. Later, he explains that one viewpoint held by postmodernists is that a gap exists between the world and how we understand it, even if there is not one between ourselves and the world: multiple realities can exist, and while they do not battle for supremacy, they can fade in and out of significance. A later chapter is titled “Moving Across the Profound Surface of a Postmodern Life.”

I don’t treat postmodernism as a religion, but I can see why it may look like that. When coming across something new influences your view of the world, it is great when it is a view that does not insist on someone being wrong as a result, but if you know you are right, you will be able to prove that most easily. What it has never meant is that you can say what you like – if something is not valid, it will go away.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

DON’T FORGET YOUR BOOKS [277]


Childhood is meant to the happiest time of your life. I believe mine should always be ahead of me, but the time I spent working for my degree in film studies, from 2001 to 2004, is definitely up there. I was more aware of the world than in childhood, but still without the responsibility – everywhere was open, especially my mind. The person I am today was formed then – curious, sceptic, and voracious for knowledge. I just need to feel like I need to know more about, well, anything and everything - I may have the degree, but the research never stopped.

I had never before properly examined why I became interested in postmodernism and postmodernity during this febrile time but, fortunately, my degree notes and other things from the time have all been splendidly preserved. I have four lever-arch folders for my degree notes, and another one for all the other subjects I picked up along the way, along with a further wire-bound notebook. I did not realise I essentially had two projects on the go at the same time.

The earliest notes I have on postmodernism date from May 2002, and at that time, with the World Wide Web still relatively empty in comparison to today, libraries were still the place to find your primary and secondary resources – it took until my third and final year of my degree before I wrote an essay that used a website as a reference. The sections for both film and postmodernism were on the same floor, but the photocopiers were on a different floor – I only remember this because a number of books I used at the time, but have bought second-hand cheaply since, were not to be removed from the premises, so there was a lot of note-taking and photocopying to be done.

The books on postmodernism were on the same floor in the library, but their setting was a little more dramatic – they were in a separate room, accessed through a set of double doors, with a couple of steps down to the floor – it felt a bit like a mismatched extension to the existing building. Among the sections in this room were the books on “Philosophical Systems,” which is category 140 in the Dewey Decimal System for filing library books. I was looking into Buddhism a bit at the time, not that I have kept up with it much – Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that, unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t promise anything, but at least it keeps that promise.

Further on through the shelves, you get to category 149.9, “Other Philosophic Systems,” where Postmodernism is placed. It looks like I started with Buddhism, and carried on down the line, because I apparently have notes on cultural identity in cyberspace, and on “post-humanity” – somehow, I hadn’t watched “Blade Runner” yet. From there, I made a huge number of notes, copying whole passages out of books, and doing a largely good job of citing my sources to myself, which made finding the books themselves years later very easily.

So, I put myself in the right place to come across the right books, but at the same time, I have to consider that I was there primarily to look at the modernist art form of film, requiring me to learn how reality is constructed by art, and how art constructs reality. This focus is then turbocharged by postmodernist thought that exists to play about with what I am learning in those film classes. I gave myself an awful lot of homework, which I will look at next time.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

AND YOU MAY ASK YOURSELF [276]

Memphis “Big Sur” sofa by Peter Shire

Judging from what I have read, we already appear to know how the year 2021 will unfold. A new normal is coming, and when it is unlocked, we must be ready to make up for lost time, and to take up new opportunities. As we breathe out, politics and economics can settle, as the United States gains a president that wants to do the job, and the United Kingdom trades from outside the European single market for the first time since 1973. With these long-standing conundrums solved for now, and with shops back open, the indignant heat of social media may simmer down. Why make your own New Year’s resolutions when the whole world is changing?

This year could be the latest chapter of renaissance and progress. Especially after a year blighted by disease, it is natural to embrace this hope - it is the grand narrative we all share. But for someone that has written as much as I have about postmodernism – the broad artistic social and philosophical movement that, among a large number of things, is meant to be distrustful of grand narratives – why am I thinking about the coming year in this way?

Nothing says that someone who deals in scepticism and irony can’t also be an optimist. It pays to have all your discursive tools to hand, and have a full understanding of them, but giving yourself time off from work is also nice. You can try to live your life via philosophical concepts of criticism made to use in cultural and textual analysis – Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” concept is not intended to help you read a book written by someone whose views you don’t like, unless you plan to judge only the text, and nothing else.

However, I plan to spend some time looking further into the concepts of postmodernism, in something I will be calling “Postmodernism 2021.” I have been looking into this rabbit hole for close to twenty years, with time for breaks. There is something attractive to deconstructing ideas to find new connections, or to play with different ideas and smash them together, whether that is by looking at a skyscraper that was built to resemble a grandfather clock, new music that evokes nostalgia for the 1980s, or blending genres together in a science fiction novel.

As I understand it, we are largely supposed to have moved on from postmodernity into a sort of modernity powered by the internet. But when you have people like Jordan Peterson, talking about “postmodern neo-Marxists,” and the UK Government’s Minister of Equalities, Liz Truss, blaming postmodernist thought for dominating debates on equality, in a speech made in December 2020, it is clear that postmodernism, or at least the concepts that exist at one end of a movement that has influenced art, is still very vital.

The most egregious part of Truss’s speech, later removed from the Government’s online record of it, having been placed under the title “The Failed Ideas of the Left,” read: “These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy — pioneered by [Michel] Foucault — that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view — truth and morality are all relative.” Foucault’s 1966 book “The Order to Things” looked at how truth is constructed, and how this has differed through history, but that does not mean the same as “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

With May 2021 marking five years of Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers, I will use the time until then to take stock of what postmodernism means to me, what it means to how I see the world, and how a movement most relevant in the 1980s and 90s continues to be so today.

As I work out where to start, I shall provide links to when I first talked about postmodernism and postmodernity back in January 2017 [link], my first touch upon its being used to blame for “alternative facts” [link], a look at the key concept of nostalgia [link], the fact that poststructuralism means you can’t say what you like [link], my trying to explain the concept of hauntology [link], and my walk around Manchester’s Trafford Centre, a shopping mall engaged entirely in postmodern architecture [link].