Monthly Archives: October 2017
These days, seems like there’s a check-list whenever a new sci-fi flick comes out, a formula for articles, think-pieces, and commentary to be made, ritualistically whipping up the internet into a self-righteous froth. These last few days have been more-or-less the same.
Caught the new Blade Runner earlier this week, at the local Vue. Not our usual cinéma de choix, but they’ve implemented a pretty hefty reduction on Monday ticket prices – perhaps they’re feeling the financial pinch.
I’m not a Dickhead (though I’m certainly guilty of being a dickhead…), so I didn’t go into this overly invested. Well, that’s not precisely true – I was concerned by the cutting of some of the early trailers, which seemed to be action-heavy in a way that didn’t sync with my memories of the original film (it’s been about a decade since I saw it last – couldn’t tell you which version, though I recall overdubs – and I’ve not read any Philip K. of novel length) which seemed a shame. I allayed my fears remembering that it was Villeneuve directing (which was a leap of faith in itself – I’ve not yet seen Arrival) and was reassured that the atmos, at least, would be on point. I wasn’t disappointed.
More on the ritualistic criticisms, though – as per usual, there have been accusations of vacuousness (untrue) misogyny (kinda true) and racial insensitivity (pretty accurate). Maybe it’s because I’m not paying as close attention, but I don’t really get the sense that other genres, outside of the speculative like sci-fi or fantasy, get the same sort of treatment. This is not to say there are no criticisms lobbed at your latest Disney effort, or the most recent Scandi-noir police procedural or what have you – when these films are egregiously out of step they are rightly upbraided – but they don’t seem to have the same rubric of criticism applied. Perhaps it’s because, as speculative fiction, sci fi looks at the possibilities for the future, and a future that leaves out large chunks of the present is both morally and structurally myopic. Perhaps it’s because the audience of this genre overlaps significantly with the Tumblr crowd of rambunctious moral arbiters. Who’s to say?
I, white cis het male that I am, feel that the film for the most part avoids accusations of misogyny. It certainly portrays many of its female characters in an overtly-sexualised manner, but, insofar as I can tell, this does not a misogynistic film make—the portrayal of misogyny is not misogyny tout court. Importantly, and this is where the film stumbles on other criticisms, the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is in keeping with that of the original Blade Runner, insofar as the society’s approach to gender is concerned. The world of the original was a grossly sexist place, and so too is that of the sequel. As much as the Blade Runner-verse happens in a time-line adjacent to our own real-world one, it’s probably a faithful representation of what would happen to our society in a hyper-commercialised future – hell, it’s probably what we’re headed towards at the moment. It’s not as if the multi-story holographic adverts that dance above the street-level replicant manifestations of the product don’t have real-world analogues. This is just a dialled-up version of what we already have, with the pop-princess du jour filling our various media with a commodified sexuality, reinforcing and guiding the trends of society’s actual sex workers, the logics of pornography stamped into us day-in, day-out.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t revel in its portrayal of misogyny. It’s not lurid, it’s not exploitative. It definitely has characters that use women, or woman-analogues, in a less-than-positive light (the protagonist foremost amongst them), and shows a society that, much like our own, is pervaded by the otiose relish of the female form, but to do otherwise would be dishonest to the story it is telling. A protagonist who possesses all the right views on women, whilst also on the arc that the story requires of him, would jar. A society that is as steeped in a runaway capitalism as that of Blade Runner but also respects women is a contradiction in terms – sexism, just as racism, is concomitant with capitalism; they can’t be pulled apart. Hell, this is a society that is literally built on slaves – it’s the whole thrust of the story – why would you expect it to have anything but trash gender politics? But, even in showing all this, the film doesn’t become complicit in it. While it doesn’t go so far as to damn what it shows – it’s more harsh on the hollowness of these relationships than the power imbalance inherent – it doesn’t actively enjoy it, either. It has ample opportunity to: the “love scene” between the protagonist and his “partner” could have been much more sordid, aimed entirely at titillation. Instead, it is used to underline the core concerns of the series, that of the nature of personhood and the ambiguities, the uncanniness, of possible human-adjacent realities.
The more accurate complaint revolves around non-white people in the film, or, rather, the lack-thereof. The setting of Blade Runner 2049, much like its predecessor, is Los Angeles and its environs. Picking up on some of the now-standard cyberpunk tropes, this Los Angeles is doused in Asian culture, from signage to the sartorial to gustatory. However, there are few, if any, actual Asian people in evidence. I’ve seen some clever epicycles deployed to explain this, the best yet being a comparison with the diffusion of American culture in our own world. In many countries around the world, so the argument goes, be they European, Asian, or, increasingly, African, you will find American businesses and products, replete with English signage, despite the absence of Americans, on the ground, perpetuating and guiding the effort. This is a product of the success of American cultural imperialism, the victory of American propaganda world-wide, as it portrays itself as something desirable, as synonymous with “success.” It was just this that led to the cyberpunk trope in the first place – during the Eighties, when so much of this stuff was codified, Japan was economically bullish, and the future, so it seemed, belonged to them. Thus, anything set in the near future looked like a fusion of Anglo and Japanese culture, with the hegemony of Japan redesigning the way American streets looked, the language that was spoken there, the food that was consumed.
All good, but the original Blade Runner, unlike its sequel, had plenty of Asian people on the streets themselves, as well as the signage and culture and what all. Where have they gone in the intervening 30 years? There’s been speculation that the Asian countries could have “gotten their shit together” and gone off-world – the existence of the extra-terrestrial colonies is a feature that looms large over both the original and the present Blade Runner – but this can’t account for every individual, and certainly doesn’t make sense of the real-world demographics of LA. The original film had a key character in Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos, who drew from his own mixed background to try and give a poly-racial feel to the film. Gaff is relegated to a few lines in a single scene in 2049, and I can’t recall any other Hispanic character – with dialogue or without – throughout the film. Evidently, much of the shooting was done in Hungary, so I can understand the logistical difficulties in importing the right mix of extras simply for atmosphere. Even so, the absence of nearly any brown or black faces in such a melting pot as Los Angeles is a bit stark.
All in all, I think Blade Runner 2049 comes through bruised but whole. Not a perfect film, but this isn’t a Bergman we’re talking about. The cinematography is beautiful, with very tasteful CGI. The pacing is, contrary to my original concerns, true to the original, and this, coupled with the seemingly-trademark Villeneuve soundscape, allows for a sustained meditation on what it means to be human. Performances were neither stilted nor overdrawn to camp. Could the story have been more nuanced? Were all angles satisfactorily explored? No. Does the plethora of criticism find purchase? Yes. As ever with these things, your best bet is to take a look yourself, and make your own opinions. Especially if you can grab some steeply-discounted Monday night tix.
Jung and the Shadows of Essentialism
Following the statement I made previously – that of working through concerns I’d been chewing on a while – I am reminded of something that struck me when I was reading a primer on Jung and his psychoanalytic program (Jung: A Very Short Introduction, by Anthony Stevens). This will, I suspect, sync up with larger issues I’d been intending to articulate for a while – perhaps to be covered in a subsequent post.
It was, true to its name, just a short work, and what with the limitations on depth I wouldn’t take it to speak accurately for Jung or his positions in a nuanced manner. So, this isn’t so much an issue with him or his stance, but rather that of the author’s interpretation (unless of course it is an accurate portrayal, which would be…unfortunate). I’d be happy to learn that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick on this one, and for this to become a springboard for further dialogue. I don’t have the book itself in front of me, so I’m afraid I’m working off notes I took at the time of reading and my memory – hopefully this doesn’t result in too uncharitable a presentation of the position.
So, your man Anthony there has spent a good portion of the work, up to this point, hedging his bets on Jung’s more radical propositions, arguing the weaker case for the archetype thesis (that which states that there is a collective unconscious in all of us, which is populated by figures of distinct characteristics. The way that we come to terms with these figures, the way that they express themselves through us, so the argument goes, bears heavily on our own psychological health and well-being throughout life) saying that this proposition is best understood not in the fully fleshed–out sense of actual, volitional individuals acting under their power in a mystical space beyond that of the physical (how would we gain access to this? Where is the proof of it? Is there any way to verify it as one thing and not another? …No?) but rather as something similar to the concept of ethology found in biology.
Ethology, a relatively new sub-discipline, examines the behaviour traits of animals in their natural environment, trying to gain insight into what motivates certain actions on a repetitive level. Some of these things can be explained by knowledge passed down by parents, or the result of external stimulus from the environment around them, but there are other behaviours that seem to be innate, which we do see quite a bit of. Where do they come from? The answer, seemingly, is in the composition of the animal – its genetics, its evolved nature fitting into the environment. Our author argues that archetypes, and the collective unconscious, should be understood along the same lines. That the archetypes themselves are nudges towards certain traits, that the collective unconscious is best understood as the architecture of our minds as they have been built up over evolutionary time. It’s not a terrible way of rendering an abstract description of a psychology in material terms, harmonising the theory with what we are beginning to learn about the biology, while cutting out a lot of the woo. So far so good.
But then, we come to a brief comment on sexuality:
“The specious idea that gender differences are due entirely to culture, and have nothing to do with biological or archetypal predispositions, still enjoys wide currency in our society, yet it rests on the discredited tabula rasa theory of human development and is at variance with the overwhelming mass of anthropological and scientific evidence.”
You what, mate?
I’m no big fan of orthodoxies, be they academic or otherwise, but this is just such nonsense.
The hand wave of ‘mass of anthropological and scientific evidence,’ without actually mentioning where one might look for any of this, is risible. Especially since said “mass” points in entirely the other direction! What ought we to make, then, of the two spirit descriptor amongst North American Natives, or the Hijra of India and Southeast Asia? What do we make of the wealth of anthropological and sociological evidence demonstrating the link between patriarchal societies and the conception of a binary gender? Not only is gender a social construct, but even biological sex is being shown to be much more fuzzy than a simple male/female divide with the occasional, quickly surgically-reassigned hermaphrodite thrown in for jollies. Also, in what way does any of this require “a tabula rasa theory of human development”? Who even does that? If this is being invoked in the Lockean sense, this is a gross misapplication – that was only ever meant as an explanation of epistemic acquisition, not personality or identity, and even then it was defined by pre-existing, innate rules. Phah!
I can appreciate the desire for a definitive, bold stance, one that carves out a position in a radical way and acts to draw attention (infamy?) to the subject, but this seems like such a weird hill to choose to die on. More strange is the about face, initially arguing for a rapprochement between theory and evidence, pruning away the eccentricities, gently, gently, and then to cite said theory in such a bold, declarative manner – for such a completely specious position. It struck me as deleterious to the initial effort, and, with the suddenness of its appearance, rather out of sync with the general tenor of the work itself. I can see that this move might be necessary to support some of the later arguments regarding the duality of the human self, but pinning them on outmoded conceptions of gender, and doing so in such an impudent manner, only serves to expose the poverty of the theory itself.
I’ll not give up on Jung as yet – I’ve a copy of the Red Book sitting on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to get through – but this did set off some alarms for me. With any luck, this is merely the prejudice of Stevens showing through, and not something inherent in Jung’s architectonic.
It’s been a good long while since I’ve written anything (that I’ve posted here, at any rate).
I’d been meaning to get back to posting regularly, in various forms, for a while now. Chances are the next few pieces, of whatever type, will feature stuff I’ve been chewing on these last few months.
This one, however, might as well cover some ground since last I posted.
Without further ado – Trump
I freely admit, I misjudged the situation in America in the run-up to the election. I was caught flat-footed on this as much as I was by Brexit. As evidenced in some of my previous posts, I was hardly rooting for a Clinton victory, but it was what I expected and what I was preparing for.
It might sound rather precious for me, a Canadian living in Britain, to say I was ‘preparing’ for anything to do with an American election, or even to believe that I’m warranted an opinion. On the other hand, though the States might not be my country, it is still the major imperial power of the day and that causes me concern enough to write this.
It’s no secret that Trump has been Bad News for Americans, and Mexicans, and Canadians, and the World, in very tangible ways. The emboldening of toxic, right-wing elements within the electorate has lead directly to the deaths of many. The policy positions, those few he has been successful in enacting, have posed even greater threats. I’m still not convinced the man himself is an out-and-out fascist. A bigot, a misogynist, a criminal, certainly. But, with the sloughing off of the most extreme elements of his coterie (Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, etc.) it seems clear that we are dealing with a more standard Right-winger we are lead to believe – which is, I should say, certainly bad enough.
The Democrats and their cheer-leaders have been offensively unapologetic regarding the -abject- failure of the Clinton campaign. HRC is now, of course, setting out on a book tour denying any fault at all of her own in the rise of Trump, doubling down on the hubris that played a large role in how deeply unpopular her candidacy was. There is no doubting that there is a gross tendency of misogyny in America, perhaps the worst example of it in the West, but this doesn’t, as many claim, explain in full the results of last November. The belated and poorly executed Democrat resistance to Trump, only now really getting up to speed, is just so pathetic, and is indicative of these deeper issues. I mean, I could go for nuance here, or link to detailed commentary on the Dem’s conduct over the last year, but this comic from the Nib more than gets the point across:
I don’t know that many, if any, Democratic officials have said it on record themselves, but the amount of rhetoric from the luvvies in Hollywood, talking heads of the liberal/centrist media, the hoi poloi of Facebook/Twitter, all declaiming Trump as a fascist and what all else is nigh on rendering the concept meaningless. Trump isn’t effective enough to be a fascist. If he were, he’d be a great deal more organised, a great deal more thorough in subverting the fabric of American democracy (such as it is) and a great deal more direct in his methods. Trump is a shambolic megalomaniac, who has ridden to power on the seething hatred and cynicism of various parts of the American electorate, and that is enough.
I’ve actually sat on this piece a half a month now, and the unfolding of this most spectacular of presidencies has forced me to change up my tack. Back then, I had just read a puff piece on Martin Amis which actually prompted me to write this – he’s recently released a collection of essays – and in the article Amis mentions his relationship with Christopher Hitchens. In particular, he talks about Hitchens’ propping up of American Imperialism in his last years, and this jogged the memory of those times. I was struck by the similarities in the run-up to the Iraq war, the lies that were told, the grandstanding, the lot of it, to our own times. I was, if only for a day or so, possessed of a belief that the world might actually be headed towards WWIII.
However, the news cycle has moved on – Trump has shown yet again how much of a travesty he is for his own people, using his trip to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico to actively insult the residents of that colony; Trump has decided he’s tired of a far-East nuclear stand-off, and is trying to shred what seemed like a done deal with Iran – why one front when you can fight two? There was coverage of various angles following Trump’s diatribe at the UN, and one in particular struck me – Trump’s rhetoric is bred out of the one thing he half-way understands, that of machismo business conduct. Most of what he says about NK is likely, in fact, aimed at China. Setting the initial point far higher than what he wants at the end of the day, Trump is seeking to bring China to the bargaining table. We might yet bumble into war in Southeast Asia, but I no longer think that that is the direct intent of Trump and his administration. Most tellingly, the American military has made no obvious preparations for a large-scale adventure, and they’re the ones who’ll have to do all the heavy lifting.
I had, before I believed as I now do, intended to close this piece by coming round, half-way, to an endorsement of the liberal tactics mentioned above – this effort to paint Trump as, somehow, even worse than he is. He isn’t a Nazi, but, if making him out to be is effective in removing him from power more quickly than is telling the truth, perhaps it’s an acceptable fudge. Truth and the blind pursuit of it, especially after the training in Philosophy, has been something of a hang-up for me. However, more and more, this academically-manufactured foible is giving way to recognition that the truth is instrumental, and, more-often-than-not, completely side-lined in ‘civil’ discourse. The zeitgeist is laser-focused on ‘fake news’ at the moment, but this has always been the case – human beings are limitedly rational, and the heuristics we’ve developed to get on in an informationally-incomplete life sideline considerations of 100% accuracy. The unswerving pursuance thereof is a fetish for the secure and self-satisfied.
But, as I said, that was before. I’m still loosening up my miserly, pedant’s grip on the Truth, one finger at a time, but this doesn’t strike me as one of those moments to let slip the knowing lie. The truth has great power – it is in large part why Corbyn has found such success – and the abuse of it will inevitably result in trouble down the line (the current, recognised hollowness of the Dems is a case in point). Obviously, if we’re staring down nuclear war, onus should be put on current concerns, possible futures be damned. But, this isn’t the current project. If we right-thinking people do want to be rid of Trump, we need to root out his cause, for he is, ultimately, just a symptom. We will not do this by lying about the thing. As much as Cheeto Benito is an hilarious moniker.
There. Done. Back. Apologies for the meandering nature of the above. Next will be more succinct.