ACADEMIC TRENDS/FASHIONS, INTELLECTUAL OBSOLESCENCE AND AFFECT THEORY

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

In the last fortnight I have attended two seminars on Affect Theory, one organized by the research group I am a member of, Construyendo Nuevas Masculinidades, and the other presented as a meeting between two research groups, one headed by Helena González of UB (Centre de Dona i Literatura) and the other by Belén Martín of the Universidad de Vigo. I can very well say that the two meetings have ‘affected’ me in deep academic ways of which I’ll try to make sense here.

I first heard about Affect Theory (a noun pronounced with the stress on the ‘a’ unlike the verb, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) possibly a year ago, when I learned from Xavier Aldana (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan) that he was working on a book which considers the effect that ‘body gothic’, focused on the extreme destruction of the human body, has on the somatic reactions of the spectators/readers. The somatic reactions (=how the body responds) is what, if I understand this correctly, interests Affect Theory. This is not focused on individual emotion (conditioned by your own culture) but on the bodily reactions that are seemingly common to all human beings and that pre-condition how we react to, in the case that interests me, certain stories. This makes perfect sense for Gothic. Indeed, reading John Clute’s glossary The Darkening Garden, I found that he refers to ‘affect horror’ (which the translator calls ‘horror de impacto’) as the kind of gross-out Gothic which aims at affecting primarily your guts (a trend started back in the late 1970s by, among others, novelist Peter Straub or film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I assume that Affect Theory must also be very useful to analyze porn…

Like most of my colleagues attending the seminars I am unfamiliar with the key texts in the field of Affect Theory, one of which, psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Imagery Consciousness dates back to 1962. Brian Massumi was constantly mentioned in the seminar that Todd Reese offered to my group, whereas in the case of the other meeting, oriented towards feminism, the two names that most often popped up where Rosie Braidotti and Sarah Ahmed. I’m not sure how to place them. Affect Theory, anyway, which is really, as I notice, a branch of psychology, entered psychoanalysis and from it the Humanities with the work of, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. This sounded promising for Masculinities Studies, as she is famous for her seminal volume, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Yet, to be honest, we had serious difficulties to understand how exactly to apply Affect Theory to Literature and cinema–and the example I saw at the feminist seminar was, actually, quite scary.

The idea, if I understand correctly, is to shift the focus from what the text says to how the text says it, considering how this affects the body. What makes me nervous is that this smacks a little bit too much of traditional formalist criticism of the kind that we, in Cultural Studies, have been disputing since the 1970s. The material conditions of production and consumption, the actual bodies doing the reading and the viewing and, certainly, the content of the stories and who they address matter to me very much. In the presentation I saw on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank the lecturer focused on the aesthetics of an uncomfortable dance sequence, showing the young teenage protagonist trapped by her native housing estate. The idea was to interrogate how the spectator is bodily affected by this joyless sequence. I almost ended up quarrelling with the lecturer when I pointed out that this patronizing film seems designed to depress working-class girls like the protagonist into committing suicide, which is why it is important to know who has watched the film and what for. She called this Cultural Studies approach ‘traditional’ and stressed that there was no point in asking actual members of the audience who they are. I ended up defending Yo soy la Juani as a proper feminist text, so you see how things escalated.

What worries me here is not just my own personal intellectual obsolescence (already?) nor the feeling that I must understand Affect Theory, whether I like it or not, but the political implications of all these academic trends. Perhaps this is because I started my dipping into Affect Theory by reading Ruth Leys’ article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique” (2011); in it she points out that the main theorists suggest that affect is “independent” and “even prior” to ideology, an irrational substratum present also in politics. Yes, well, look at the emotional energies generated in Spain by Podemos and I see what is meant. Yet, I cringe.

In this new paradigm, feeling is personal, emotion social and affect pre-personal, whatever that means. The body speaks a language irrespective of language and culture (an animal language, I wonder?). Leys is particularly critical of the assumed split between mind and body as separate cognitive systems, and I agree with her (we’re fighting this battle too against the transhumanists). Her arguments are too complex to summarise but basically she ends by wondering why the turn towards anti-intentionalism in psychology and the affective neurosciences “exerts such a fascination over the cultural critics and theorists (…)—especially since one price their views exact is to imply such a radical separation between affect and reason as to make disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis.” If debating meaning and ideology is no longer part of cultural analysis, then, what are we supposed to do? Become scientists?

I’m going back to Gothic. I wrote my dissertation on monstrosity so I do know that at a very basic level there is an animal affect called ‘fear’. Those who love horror fiction enjoy the loss of control over their bodies: the adrenaline rush, the ice in the guts, the tingle down the spine, the uncontrollable scream and that bizarre jumping off your seat. Gothic Studies have, of course, used psychology and psychoanalysis abundantly to delve into the writer’s imagination and the spectator’s reactions. Yet, I’ll insist again, as I did in my post here on Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2014) that it is important to specify whose body, as identity is crucial to understand ideology. Women tend to eschew body gothic (and affect gothic more generally) because the bodies too often tortured and destroyed are female bodies. Also, Gothic still is predominantly a narrative mode still mainly produced and enjoyed by white, male, middle-class, privileged persons facing no real situation of danger in their daily lives.

This is the main core of my worry: formalism, post-structuralism and now Affect Theory are telling us that there are universalist principles in the making and the reception of storytelling that can be theorized beyond who is found at each end of the process and how they connect. Understanding how the grim aesthetics of The Walking Dead affect the generic body of the spectator is, I think, a valid academic project. Yet, this project must be complemented by a consideration of how ideology works in this very suspect patriarchal, survivalist text. Why? Because if we reject the unmasking of ideology as a passé academic pursuit, we are falling into the most monstrous ideological trap: the pretence that ideology that does not exist. This, I certainly, don’t want to encourage.

I’ve run out of space to consider the matter of what an academic fashion is and why Affect Theory is now all the rage. I’ll repeat what we determined in the feminist seminar: one thing is embracing a theory out of a profound conviction and following the logic of one’s career and another quite different (this would be the fashion) is jumping onto the band wagon just because, as a participant noted, certain keywords will make your work look cooler than others. I am not, obviously, opposed to importing refreshing, challenging new ideas, for this is what academic debates are about–but I am growing quite suspicious of why particular ideas climb to the top. Also, I long for the day when a local Pérez, García or Martínez will originate an internationally acclaimed academic trend… instead of meekly submitting to someone else’s ideas.

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JUVENILIA: APPRECIATING THE LITTLE WRITERS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I’m borrowing from Merrian-Webster a definition of juvenilia: “compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.” As you can see, problems begin at once, as juvenilia tends to include childhood and our current conception of youth seems to extend to 40. Then, authors who start ‘composing’ as children, may actually do so before they know how to read: pre-literate, precocious R.L. Stevenson dictated his early tales to his mother. For the sake of mutual understanding with my reader, I’ll consider as juvenilia whatever budding authors and artists produce between 5 and 20, which would exclude young prodigies publishing significant work in their twenties–like Leo Tolstoy, who published his autobiography then, starting with Childhood, when he was only 22.

I have learned all this in the course of attending some sessions of the meeting organized by my colleague, David Owen, the Fourth International Conference on Literary Juvenilia (https://barcelonajuveniliaconference2015.wordpress.com/). I tried to submit a presentation, focused on a fantasy or science-fiction writer and I did find a most interesting case–Marion Zimmer Bradley–and a thrilling anthology: First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. I did not find, however, the time to enter a completely new territory, which is even new to specialists if I take into account that my choices were contemporary and within the fantastic.

I asked David, who has edited Jane Austen’s Lady Susan for the Juvenilia Press, why so much work is focused on the past, as the title of Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster’s book The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf (2005) suggests. David answered that interest in juvenilia simply started with canonical authors like Austen but need not be at all confined to them. Christine Alexander, who attended the conference, and gave a wonderful presentation on Stevenson, is General Editor of the Juvenilia Press (https://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia/about/). This is a university press, supported by the University of South Wales in Australia, “originally conceived as a university/classroom project.” Indeed, David, who published Lady Susan with this Australian press, presented the volume on Hannah More’s juvenilia, edited by his three doctoral students: Noelia Sanchez, Alexandra Prunean and Reyhane Vadidar. It was beautiful to see two of these aspiring scholars presenting already very solid scholarly work. Incidentally, checking the website of the Juvenilia Press, I realize that my first impression was, nonetheless, misguided and that the list of 20th century authors whose juvenilia has been published (or is going to be) extends to 16, among them Margaret Atwood and Harold Pinter.

In her delicious presentation on Stevenson, Christine Alexander showed us work autographed by the very young R.L. Stevenson, including a re-telling of Exodus, produced age 7, with the wandering Jews dressed like his contemporary Victorians, tall hats and all. She told us the very cruel story of how Thomas Stevenson paid of his own pocket the publication of his son’s The Pentland Rising only to soon destroy all copies, finding it a fanciful poem rather than the historical study he expected. Stevenson was then 16, and the shock must have been immense, poor thing. This reminded me of the sentence that American novelist Christopher Bram puts in the mouth of his fictional version of British director James Whale in his beautiful novel, Father of Frankenstein. Whale tells a young friend about his working-class family’s unease with their artistic child: “I forgave and forgot my parents long ago. They meant no harm. They thought I was just like them. They were like a family of farmers who’ve been given a giraffe, and don’t know what to do with the creature except harness it to a plow.” (105)

I did not attend, regrettably, all the conference presentations and I cannot say whether the study of juvenilia is leading towards an individual or a collective understanding of how the future writer progresses. My own childhood productions suggest, besides, that not only future poets and storytellers produce juvenilia–I produced essays non-stop, both of the short variety we wrote in class (‘redacciones’) and longer works. I’m sure many other academics (or journalists) must follow the same pattern, funny as this may sound. Precisely, the ‘patterns’ are what concerns me: I don’t know whether the juvenilia specialists consider primarily how in each case the adult author is already visible in the young author, or whether there is a significantly similar pattern linking all their juvenilia. If so, a well-trained specialist should be able to see by glancing at the scribblings of a six-year-old whether there is something worth cultivating in them, or just the kind of effort that most children seem to enjoy producing spontaneously–until a mysterious x-factor makes them lose interest and stop.

As happened to Whale, most working-class families have no idea about how to deal with their ‘giraffes’, except asking a teacher when the giraffe’s eccentricities become a little too much to handle (or even a social impediment–is this where so much talk about exceptionally gifted children comes from?). The ‘problem’ are middle-class families, educated enough to notice the beauty of their giraffe patterns but unable to say whether s/he’ll grow into a graceful artist. You have two syndromes here: the doting parents, who think their child is an absolute prodigy, and the over-cautious parents, who may downplay talents obvious to everyone else. The middle-ground seems most desirable: encourage, teach, help but don’t overdue it. Obviously, Thomas Stevenson is not the example to follow.

Above all, treasure your children’s juvenilia. If you’re an adult connected with a scribbling, daubing child, keep their work–particularly away from their own hands, which are most likely to accomplish the mischief of destroying their own work as they grow older. In this time and age in which we document our children’s lives to exhaustion, I’m sure someone will soon come up with the idea of some social network to share early artistic work, as kids share pics on Instagram… But, above all, keep in a safe place the cardboard folder with their compositions until they’re old enough to overcome their embarrassment and can rationally decide what to do with those. Stevenson’s mother was that kind of committed custodian and we have, apart from exhaustive records on his progress, his actual juvenilia; in contrast, it seems that Dickens burnt all the early texts he could lay his hands on. Horror and consternation!!

If you Google images of ‘child writing’ you’ll see something else which is quite pleasing: whether little boys or, more frequently little girls, all the kids are shown using pen and paper, not a computer. I have edited as computer files my nieces’ own juvenilia to better preserve it (from their little destructive hands…) but there is a singular pleasure in reading from the original handwritten texts that is lost in its electronic version, no matter how prettified. It was the same with Stevenson’s originals: the evolving hand-writing gives a charming impression not only of the little kid behind it but of the brain at work fast overcoming obstacles. I don’t know whether the Juvenilia Press includes facsimile versions in their editions, but it would make sense.

So, yes, pester the kids in your family or friends circle for drawings, poems and stories. Give them crayons and notebooks as presents and encourage them to stay away from computers. Don’t forget to give them as well good books to get their inspiration from, and tell them stories, they love it. Anything they produce, keep it, cherish it, for it is precious. Even if they turn out to be as adults boring accountants rather than accomplished artists. For producing juvenilia, this I my final thought, is, happily, not limited to a small number of artists, but a central part of all children’s lives. Or it should be.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

EXAMINING MIGRATION (IN CATALONIA), PART II: VISITING MHIC, THE MUSEU D’HISTÒRIA DE LA IMMIGRACIÓ

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

As announced in my post of 1 June, I decided to visit the Museu d’Història de la Immigració de Catalunya, MHIC, as part of my research for a paper on how local Barcelona museums portray the Spanish economic migration to Catalonia (1930s-1970s). In this other post, I presented a negative view of the Museu d’Història de Catalunya for devoting so little space to a process which is absolutely crucial to understand 20th century Catalonia. Paradoxically, my impression is that MHIC, although a more specialised museum, also fails to present a thorough portrait of Spanish migration. In a sense, this is an even worse failure than that of MHC, though, as I will try to explain its root is very different. And even justifiable.

MHIC, as I explained, is not even in Barcelona but in the “adjacent town of Sant Adrià del Besòs, which received many thousands of migrants from all over Spain between the 1950s and 1980s.” The L2 metro line takes you quite close to MHIC, yet the territory between the Verneda stop and Can Serra, the building housing the museum, is a rough urban landscape. Balmes Street is a collection of industrial stores and factories, leading to a busy roundabout boasting a huge gas station and a big McDonald’s outlet. No houses, no shops. I wondered what reaching the museum on a rainy winter day was like… Faced from the gas station, the museum looks half covered by a big metallic fence, separating it from the constant traffic of the Ronda, the highway encircling Barcelona. How different from the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, down by the marina, with its classy restaurant and bookshop, and nearby Barceloneta so full of tourists…

I think this has been one of the strangest museum visits in my life. I had not realized that MHIC is basically an open-air museum so what I took for preliminary information (a series of panels skirting the entrance corridor and surrounding the main building) is the real thing. I didn’t know where to get my ticket, so I asked a guy enjoying a cigarette in the garden. He turned out it be in charge of the museum which, by the way, is free, no entrance fee. Throughout my hour-long visit, he kept a discreet watch on me, pointing out what to see as he greeted warmly the people working the substantial urban orchard attached to the garden. I was the only visitor on a sunny summer Friday morning. My ‘guide’ told me the museum does get many visitors but I suspect these are mainly school groups. It takes, as I see it, determination to take the metro or grab a car and go on your own there…

The panel installation offers an overview of the history of migration, presenting migration as a common process in all periods and lands on Earth. The other main exhibits are a glass box which, again, presents a general overview based in this case on showing objects brought my migrants from all over the world, and naming the factors conditioning integration, from education to sports. Next to this, a metallic mesh fence shows the visitor the many obstacles migrants face when attempting to cross borders, with examples from all over the world.

As you can see, the 4 sections I have mentioned so far present migration from a world-wide, not a local, perspective. This is reserved for MHIC’s star attraction: a wagon of the train known as ‘El Sevillano.’ The exhibition on board this wagon focuses on the experience of the long voyage to Barcelona from places distant even more than 1,000 kms but still in Spain: mainly Galicia and Andalucía. The tone of the panels, oral narratives, photos, spaces and video is optimistic, with the hardships–which must have been many in trips lasting over 20 hours with no seats guaranteed and in overcrowded trains–compensated by the excitement of seeing the sea for the first time or reuniting with a husband unseen even for years.

I learned that Franco initially restricted internal migration from the countryside to the cities, as he thought that agriculture should be a key economic sector for his autocratic regime. The Guardia Civil could return you to your village of origin if you failed to produce your Carta de Trabajo, and they did this to thousand of migrants ‘sin papeles.’ When Franco finally saw in the 1950s that migration could not be stopped as peasants would no longer put up with the misery of their extremely poor lives, he decided to exploit the flow for his own ‘desarrollista’ plans. He ordered RENFE to build cheap trains for the migrants… but neglected to build housing for them in their place of destination. Many found themselves leading lives of utter squalor in Barcelona’s many shanty towns. You should see the photos of the beach, from Barceloneta to Sant Adrià, in the 1950s and wonder how people survived in those ramshackle huts. Think Brazilian favelas…

I do not want to be unfair to MHIC as I think this is an institution struggling to merely exist. What I wonder is why. A press note issued by the local town council of Sant Adrià announced in 2011 a project to build a third space, a handsome, modern building designed by Mizien Arquitectura, of 600m2 and a cost of 400.000€ to be funded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture (not the Catalan Generalitat!!). I’m not sure whether the fences surrounding one side of MHIC are hiding the works from view but I suspect they’re not. The official leaflet presents this new building extensively but mentions no opening date.

In an article of 2005 in La Vanguardia, Arcadi Espada complained that the local Catalan Government, then headed by Pasqual Maragall, showed as little interest as that of his predecessor Jordi Pujol in supporting the museum. For Espada, the new, foreign migration made the existence of MHIC even more necessary, particularly for Maragall’s left-wing Government, to consolidate the idea that all kinds of migration deserve attention. 10 years later and under Artur Mas’ right-wing, pro-independence policies MHIC still looks like a very poor relation of the openly nationalist, well-provided Museu d’Història de Catalunya. Perhaps this is in the end the problem: the migrants, old and new, complicate the idealized picture of a homogenously Catalan-speaking nation walking unanimously towards independence. The old Spanish migrants are, in this sense, more of a ‘problem’ since people with strong family ties to other areas of Spain will hardly want to see Catalonia go its separate way. Better, then, not mention them too much. And leave MHIC to survive as well as it can…

I have visited Ellis Island, possibly the museum that has most impressed me, even above El Prado or London’s British Museum. I was deeply moved by the ability of the Ellis Island museum to transmit the personal experience of migration. At a much more modest scale the beautiful Museo de la Emigración of Colombres in Asturias, has the same effect. I just hope MHIC can one day be as moving as these two other museums are.

So much to tell, so few resources. I just hope that neither malice nor indifference but just plain ignorance keeps the voices of the Spanish migrants from finding a better place than the current MHIC. I do look forward to see the new MHIC house one day those voices.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MIND THE GAP: IN SEARCH OF TRUE ACADEMIC GLOBALIZATION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I’m starting here a long overdue reflection on the invisibility of second-language Literature teachers in the academic world where we supposedly belong. I am actually drafting an essay which has been spinning around in my head since I started preparing the science fiction course I am going to teach next Spring (see the syllabus at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/teaching-0). My worries do not concern only SF, as I will show, though SF tends to stress a situation on which, judging from my quick bibliographical search today, nobody has written. (Well, there’s a doctoral dissertation from the Universidad de Sevilla I need to check…).

It’s the typical problem. I teach, as my readers know, ‘Victorian Literature.’ It took me a while to find an introductory volume which second-year, second-language students would find accessible: Maureen Moran’s Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2006). In my time I went through the whole Penguin Guide to English Literature, which accompanied me, one volume at a time, through the years of my ‘Licenciatura.’ Whether I think of this multi-volume text or of Moran’s slim, slick presentation of the Victorians, the problem is the same: they have not been written for us, foreign students of Anglophone culture.

Now, there are two perspectives on this. Either the world-wide academic market treats all persons interested in English Studies as if we were, in practice, honorary Anglophones. Or, as I suspect, they do not acknowledge we exist. You might think that a) a market flooded by titles such as English Literature for Italians or American Culture for the Japanese would make little sense, or b) we, the foreigners, should provide the comparative, culturally adapted materials our students require. Option b) sounds very nice to me but we just don’t write these materials for lack of time (and of academic incentive as they ‘do not count’ for research assessment). We make do with what British and American printing presses produce.

The bibliography I have come across mostly considers the teaching and learning of foreign Literature within the pedagogical practice connected with EFL. Although I know very well that I work in a second-language environment, and I am certainly well aware of the difficulties my students experience in reading, speaking and writing in a foreign language, the funny thing is that at the same time I must pretend to be a fully functional native speaker for the purposes of publication.

I do not mean that I pass myself off as a native Anglophone, though I could–aided by simply suppressing the accent on top of the í in Martín. No, what I mean is that if I try, say, to publish in the Shakespeare Quarterly, I will be competing with the ‘real thing,’ with the native speakers, which means that I will have to sound linguistically and culturally impeccably not me. Actually, I have started adding footnotes commenting on my own origins and position, as I was recently mistaken for an Anglophone by the editor of one of my recent articles–to my chagrin, as the point I was making is that foreign cultures have much to say about Anglophone culture.

Now, take the case of SF, which is now occupying my energies. I have gone through six handbooks, apart from the few introductions I already knew, before selecting for my students The Science Fiction Handbook (Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis, eds., 2006). Again, the criterion I have used is accessibility. And clarity. By this I mean that the other volumes, though very good, included a staggering amount of literary theory which our local students simply cannot grasp, as their energies are not 100% devoted to studying English (a degree about Literature) but English (the language).

I asked one of the authors whose introduction I read, Brian Baker, of Lancaster University, and his view was that local English students are not as sophisticated as I assumed theory-wise. I still fail to understand when they learn all that theory. Baker was very much surprised when I told him that I might be the second person in Spain (after my colleague Pere Gallardo in Tarragona) to teach a BA-level course in SF, at least within English Studies (anyone who knows differently, please let me know). That’s not possible, he told me, college courses in SF have been taught in the USA regularly since 1960s. Oh, well…

So, let me recap: here I am planning a course on SF for my local Catalan/Spanish students and I need help from those who have been teaching the stuff for decades. I read, finally, Teaching Science Fiction edited by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright (2011) and, again, the same problem–their context is not my context, the proposed reading list is impossibly long for my students, the theory much more than I can fit in one semester, there is not any comment on second-language teachers and/or learners.

There is an article by Elizabeth Ginway, which catches my attention: “Teaching Latin American Science Fiction and Fantasy in English: A Case Study.” I email her to ask, please, which degree her students are taking, as she does not say, and why she is using translation. Her reply is “The essay collection is directed towards the English-speaking population of the United States and United Kingdom. I teach SF in both Spanish and Portuguese, but I did not publish on that because it is not much help to those who do not speak those languages.” This, as we say in Catalan, ‘makes my head dance’ (or spin). Later she very kindly emailed me the syllabi for her Spanish and Portuguese-speaking students.

When I was an undergrad I noticed that in the field of Spanish Literature foreign specialists were as prominent and respected as native Spanish-speaking academics. I failed to notice, though, in my naivety, that the foreign academics I was asked to read were all Anglophone and working in American and British universities. I assumed back in the 1980s that foreign academics working on Anglophone culture would be similarly visible for Anglophone students but this is not at all the case.

Possibly the most spectacular exception within SF is that of Croatian Darko Suvin, one of the biggest names in the field. Suvin, however, did not make his name working from his home-town Zagreb but after becoming Professor at McGill University in Montreal. So, there you are: there is still a long way to go for true academic globalization to happen…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REMEMBERING DAVID BELASCO: BROADWAY BEFORE MODERN HOLLYWOOD

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

One month ago I published a post on Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide (2007). Iglesias devotes a good deal of his volume to Henry Irving (British) and David Belasco (American), both great stage-managers who shaped their local theatrical practice. Irving was, of course, also a star; for Belasco (1853-1931), in contrast, acting was just a minor aspect of his long career. Since Iglesias often refers to Belasco’s memoirs The Theatre through its Stage Door (1919) I eventually read them (see https://archive.org/details/theatrethroughits00bela). What a pleasure!!

Belasco’s engaging text is a snapshot of a transitional time when cinema was still silent and avant-garde theatre was being born. Irving and Belasco embody the kind of well-made, (pseudo-)naturalistic theatre that still pleases crowds but that is now regarded as less than artistic. To understand the limits of the magnetic Belasco’s task in Broadway, consider that he praises Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, as “the most vital and truest picture of human experience”; today this is seen as a mere period piece aimed at philistine bourgeois audiences. Belasco certainly shows himself at a loss about how to deal with the new avant-garde theatre, which prefers a few splotches of colour to generate mood rather than his very elaborate lighting effects. This is why reading his book leaves a bitter aftertaste for it is a chronicle of a lost battle for artistic acknowledgement. Although the plays he describes seem trite and even silly, I can very well imagine the immense aesthetic pleasure his productions must have been. This was, remember, the time before colour movies existed and nothing but Belasco’s productions could equal the pleasure cinema would later provide. The plays, however, are another matter…

I’ll refer here extensively to his fascinating chapter on ‘motion pictures,’ “The Drama’s Flickering Bogy.” Belasco inserts a footnote warning that his arguments are only valid for 1919 cinema: “The growth of the motion picture has been rapid and, consequently, the trend of its future development is difficult to foretell.” Unlike many of his theatrical colleagues, Belasco defends the movies, maintaining that amusement must always be welcome and that, anyway, his stage productions are not in direct competition with the then silent, black-and-white movies. He also praises the ability of the moving image to bring home the landscapes of the world, until then only accessible “on faith” from the printed page. He does realize, however, that unlike former competitors of ‘legitimate’ drama the movies “have undoubtedly come to stay.” Also, that “all inferior forms of theatrical amusement have been hard hit by the motion pictures,” particularly minstrelsy, and the cheap stock companies. Vaudeville, which tried to survive in the company of the new screens “has become their victim.” Belasco, nonetheless, has faith in the future of quality drama (and of spectacular musicals): “I have always found that the public will never ignore a good play.” Belasco highlights the educational and scientific applications of movies but remains quite sceptical about their ability to offer “spirit” rather than “surface.” He finds, above all, the lack of spoken dialogue, the dependence on inter-titles and the clumsy narrative strategies (close-ups, medium shots, sped-up action…) a serious hindrance for the movies ever to be truly artistic. You see in this appreciation the seeds of Belasco’s defeat as eventually the human voice, colour, a fluid grammar of edition, etc. conquered cinema, allowing it to fully express human emotion.

Belasco describes on the basis of first-hand experience how primitive cinema borrowed from the stage its plots, its actors, even the theatre itself to exhibit the new films: “from their very outset,” except for what we call now documentaries, “motion pictures have been a parasite feeding upon the arts of the theatre.” This is why he rightly claims that cinema can only “hope to challenge the regular drama seriously” by developing “some form of art distinctly their own, and educate their performers in an entirely new technique.” He is particularly critical of movie acting, stressing that actors only give their best when facing an audience (something that TV sit-coms still exploit); for him, the most successful movies rely on plot. In cinema “Whatever appeal the performers make to their spectators must depend upon physical attractiveness.” Um, yes, it is hard to think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie triumphing on a stage.

What I had not quite realized is that early cinema undermined its contemporary theatre by sapping it of its best talent–the real competition, Belasco argues, was not for audiences but for actors. Hollywood could afford to pay high rates even for secondary roles, as the huge distribution networks of the movies guaranteed, as they do now, very high returns for a relatively low investment (which theatre producers like Belasco could never meet). Movies stole all kinds of talent from drama, not only, as Belasco shows, that of already famous actors, or stage-managers, but also budding talent still in need of development that chose the more profitable path of a movie career. Popular actors found “that by capitalizing the prestige they have won on the dramatic stage they can earn in the studios, in a few weeks, more money than they could command in the theatre in an entire season.” Less talented actors discovered that the far less demanding cinema allowed them to cut years of stage training. The queues of eager applicants Belasco was used to dwindled dramatically. Likewise, many playwrights were lured by Hollywood to become better paid, though much less respected, screen writers. Belasco grants that some actors are born movie actors: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford (whose career as a child actress he launched), and even vamp Theda Bara. In contrast, he cautions theatre stars not to risk their reputation for money. Belasco never contemplates combining the two media, for “No one who aspires to be an artist can hope to inhabit both.”

There is a peculiar moment when Belasco brings David W. Griffith, the great silent cinema director, into it. As he recalls, he met Griffith, “who has raised the picture spectacle to what I believe to be its highest point of interest,” as a young aspiring actor in the West “when the invention of the camera was practically new.” He applied for a position in Belasco’s company but none was available at the time. Griffith joined then Vitagraph, a movie company, soon becoming a director… Whether by accident or fate, the future of American cinema passed this way through Belasco’s hands. He shows throughout great admiration for Griffith, never regretting that he did not hire him as an actor, though Belasco feels that his movies would gain by being less full of crowds, more intimist. This is the kind of movie Belasco imagines himself directing, though he has “never felt an ambition to direct a motion-picture play.” His dream movie, with “a very human story adjusted to the simplest backgrounds,” and “very few characters” anticipates Ingmar Bergman or, in America, John Cassavettes. Funnily, Belasco thinks that emotion in movies can only work if scenes are shot in chronological order, which shows how impossible it would have been for him to triumph in Hollywood. In any case, the movie traits he wishes to avoid give a very clear impression of the weaknesses of early cinema.

“The theatre in which I live and work can never be endangered from the outside,” Belasco concludes. In the following chapter he shows how the main danger comes from the inside–from the European avant-garde. He is bitter that he himself, who pioneered many avant-garde techniques, such as the suppression of footlights, is not acknowledged as an advanced artist. Writing his memoirs aged 66, after already 50 years in the theatre and facing the last 12 years of his career, Belasco’s voice is already nostalgic–or it seems so to me in hindsight. The photos in the book reveal a mixture of incredibly advanced technology and old-fashioned acting styles which may have pleased Broadway audiences but surely set the teeth of modern 1920s spectators and avant-garde theatre artists on edge. Time, however, puts everyone in their place and Belasco occupies an undeniably important position.

I wonder what he would think of movies today and to what extent they are indebted to his constant search for technological innovation.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE OTHERS AND THE NEW ONES: EXAMINING MIGRATION (IN CATALONIA)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Next October we’ll hold in Santiago de Compostela the twentieth, and possibly final, ‘Culture & Power’ conference. This is a series started in 1995 at my own university, UAB, with the aim of disseminating Cultural Studies in Spain, a much necessary enterprise then as it is still now. This, I know, sounds paradoxical as the series is, as I hint, winding down with two final contradictory messages: Cultural Studies still does not exist in Spain either as a discipline or, much less, a degree, yet at the same time we are strong enough within English Studies in Spain not to need anymore the scaffolding of the ‘Culture & Power’ seminar to hold us together (many of us have moved onto diverse, more specific branches like post-colonialism, popular fictions, media studies, etc.).

This new conference will deal with migration and I have finally decided to write about a long-overdue topic in my academic career… but not as part of it. I am not going to suddenly immerse myself into post-colonial methodologies, nor see how migration fits the many SF novels on colonization. No. I am going to use this excuse for an exploration of my own personal roots as a child of a series of migrant waves to Catalonia. I am using the blog post today, then, to draft the first part of my planned paper, which will deal with the representation of Spanish immigrants in the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Inmigració de Catalunya. This may not be English Studies at all but, then, without what I have learned from migration to an from Anglophone countries I might not be aware at all about my own identity issues (also as an English Studies specialist…).

In the course of the recent electoral campaign to elect town council representatives, Esquerra Republicana’s number two, actor Juanjo Puigcorbé, blundered pathetically when he proposed building a museum devoted to the Spanish migration to Catalonia. The blunder exposed his ignorance of the existence of such museum since 2004… at the same time it is completely understandable since very few people know that MHIC exists. There are, you can check, no comments on MHIC in TripAdvisor. I myself have never been there, daunted by the long metro trip I need to take for, yes, MHIC is not in Barcelona but in the adjacent town of Sant Adrià del Besòs, which received many thousands of migrants from all over Spain between the 1950s and 1980s. I have, then, finally found an excuse to visit MHIC and check what is bothering me: that the official Catalan discourse of immigrant integration is burying the memory of Spanish migration under a triumphal discourse focused on the new (1990s onwards) foreign migration. The ‘new Catalans’ are ousting the ‘other Catalans’ from public view.

The ‘other Catalans’ is an expression famously coined by Paco Candel, the man who explained to ‘proper’ Catalans from the fringes of the city of Barcelona who the migrants from all over Spain were. His book Els altres catalans (1964) was published in the middle of a social phenomenon that peaked, precisely, in the mid-1960s and that brought to Catalan territory more than one million migrants (in 1970 only 62% of the population were Catalan-born…). In 1980 Generalitat’s President Jordi Pujol appropriated Candel’s discourse to proclaim that anyone living and working in Catalonia was a Catalan, a much necessary proclamation to end the insidious discrimination and marginalization I recall from my childhood (I was never called ‘xarnega’ but other kids of recently arrived parents were). The gigantic waves of Spanish migrants stopped in the 1980s and less than one decade later the new foreign wave started… which clearly shows there has been no time for Spanish migration to be fully assimilated, and I don’t mean ‘disappeared into Catalonia,’ I mean ‘understood,’ even by the protagonists themselves. A number of recent books and a documentary have unearthed a little bit of that past, with attention narrowly focused on the shanty towns built all over Barcelona up to the 1980s. But little else…

The Museu d’Història de Catalunya offers, as I feared, no substantial comment on Spanish migration. I know that for some the label is offensive for, if you consider that Spain is a national territory and you identify migration with moving to foreign lands, then there is no reason to speak of migration at all within Spanish borders. The truth is that there is much need as, most importantly, migration to Catalonia meant coming across another language and a local culture very much fixed on it as an identity marker (clearly much more so today than under Franco’s regime, indeed). Well… out of the hundreds of linear metres of exhibits that MHC offers, only 5 are devoted to Spanish migration.

The first metre-long exhibit is occupied by panel 31.j ‘La Inmigració’ which explains that the first migrants arrived from País Valencià and Aragón to make up for the rural population deficit–it doesn’t say when. The 1920s public works, I’ll add ‘for the 1929 Universal Exhibition,’ increased the arrival of migrants, mainly from Murcia and Eastern Andalucía, each contributing about 80,000 souls (it seems they colonized l’Hospitalet de Llobregat). The next panel, 39, ‘L’onada inmigratòria’ is a bit longer at two metres but very confusing as it refers to 1936-1980 without examining what happened to the first wave, nor in which ways they settled down. A funny thing I noticed is that even though visitors are told that life was not easy for the newly arrived there is no comment on the fact that Catalan businessmen were responsible for their exploitation. Very cheerfully, the panel concludes that low salaries and poor housing were soon overcome by “economic expansion and an open social structure which allowed to prosper. The migrant wave was replaced by a baby-boom.” Deep sigh… now, I wonder how many of these baby-boomers and their descendants are bearing the brunt of the current crisis… still stuck in their neighbourhoods… The MHC also claims that Catalan society welcomed all the migrants, despite its own difficulties to express its own identity and that “Soon the ‘other Catalans’ identified themselves with the country and contributed to the construction of a ‘common future’.” Not what I have seen.

The final segment in the museum, ‘Catalunya.cat: Un retrat de la Catalunya contemporània 1980-2007’ exhibits a collection of photos showing nicely dressed, smiling people intended to represent current multicultural Catalonia. The places and dates of birth are supposed to show that the 7 millions living here do so in total harmony and content. I will not argue that the tensions are grave, for this is not at all the case–everything considered, Catalonia works well. But what I do not accept is the plainly false statement that according to recent statistics “the ‘new Catalans’ have progressively integrated Catalan as their own language at home and the numbers considering it their own language is growing.” Well, I might accept the second part but by no means the first one –do you really think that migrants from Ecuador (the third biggest community) are switching to Catalan?? Come on… The complicated linguistic practices in my own family would occupy several research papers…

Precisely, I started thinking of these matters when an Ecuadorian friend of mine told me we in Spain are totally homogeneous (I think he meant in comparison to the mixed ethnicity of his homeland, of which he is–handsome–living proof). Not at all!! I exclaimed. Look at my family: I have counted at least 4 migratory waves, my paternal great-great-grandmother in the 1900s, my paternal great-grandmother in the 1910s, my paternal grand-mother in the 1930s, my paternal uncle in the 1970s… and all my mother’s parents in the 1940s, with her, born outside Catalonia, in tow. What I have seen in my family, besides, is a series of conflicts based on, shall we say?, migrant seniority and the matter of how Catalan you are if your mom or dad is from elsewhere. This is the story I am trying to reconstruct now and, believe me, it is not easy.

Particularly because it is nowhere to be seen, or heard. Not at MHC. I’ll see what MHIC shows me…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

FAILING TO EXIST: THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE AND THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Just one year ago I wrote a post about Conchita Wurst’s unexpected triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest. This year’s edition was broadcast last Saturday from Austria, her homeland. The winner was the handsome Måns Zelmerlöw, representing Sweden, in tight competition with the pretty Polina Gagarina, representing Russia. I know that my remark is far from original, but their singing in English highlights the main reason why the United States of Europe are failing to materialize: we are too reluctant to accepting our diverse cultural and linguistic identities.

If I recall this correctly, the singers using their national language were representing Italy (third in the grand final), Montenegro (thirteenth), Romania (fifteenth), Spain (twenty-first) and France (twenty-fifth). The rest of the twenty-seven sang in English, or, rather, the bad English full of clichés that surfaces when you translate from your own language lyrics already quite cheesy. Of course, singing in English guarantees no good results: look at the United Kingdom’s position–twenty four out of twenty-seven… (Australia, the guest country, did much better, making it to a fifth position which should have been a second). And, as usual, the Spanish media and social networks have deplored that Edurne only got 15 points… because she sang in Spanish–well, send a Basque singer, or Catalan, or Galician, and see if that improves matters. And once again, our local jury delegate, Lara Ciscar, spoke only mediocre English, saving us at least from the embarrassment of last year’s ‘oit points.’ Just barely.

My personal favourite was Latvian Aminata’s “Love Injected”, which was also accompanied, in my view, by the best, most elegant, atmospheric mise-en-scène. Aminata, the festival’s commentators explained, is the daughter of a Russian mother and a Burkina-Fasso father, but regards herself as profoundly Latvian… whatever that means, for I simply don’t know. She sang in English which, I guess, must be for Latvians as shocking as it would be for me to hear Manel (local most popular Catalan band) sing in Shakespeare’s language. So, on surface, beautiful black Aminata does represent Europe’s plurality, as did the winner of 2012, the Swede Loreen (born Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui in Stockholm to Moroccan Amazigh parents). Yet, this is only on surface for as long as the ruling language is English the plurality remains unseen (and, above all, unheard).

Knez, the gentleman from Montenegro who offered us the beautiful ‘Adio’, sang, I assume (excuse my stupidity) in Serbian. Nobody bothered to explain which of the four languages spoken in his country he sang in. Anyway, the Eurovision Song Contest website does offer translations of the lyrics into English (…and French, since Francophone speakers seemingly still believe that theirs is a pan-European language…) This translation, then, could have been easily used in subtitles, helping us viewers understand what Knez sang about (not that this was strictly necessary as the title ‘Adio’ helped very much). In Spain’s case it would certainly have helped as it was hard to guess why Edurne was crying very pretty tears as she danced with a great-looking male dancer (mourning a dead lover, it transpires). The Rumanians, offering a moving song on the sorrows of abandoning your children to migrate elsewhere–now that’s a European subject–opted to self-translate, offering a bilingual song.

The contest is always criticised for being a shabby, old-fashioned spectacle for which nobody in their rights mind should care. To begin with, it’s not that shabby anymore and, as TV shows go, it is quite good. If, excuse me, this is an event supported mainly by gay people, then let’s give gay people the run of all European TV, it would be much more fun, believe me… I watched the contest, semi-finals and all included, because for a few evenings I got unusual variety on TV, and I heard about countries supposedly also in Europe, which never appear on my local media (or only for tragic, war-related reasons). Four years ago Azerbaijan’s Ell & Nikki won with “Running Scared” and I can still sing the chorus; I wouldn’t know, however, to place their country on a map. This does not mean that a handful of songs, more or less silly, should or can conceal tensions in European politics–everyone hoped this year Russia would NOT win with ‘A Million Voices’… a pacifist song, for God’s sake! Sorry, Polina Gagarina, I know you meant well.

Love it or hate it, the Eurovision Song Contest is the only yearly event that makes this strange idea we call Europe visible–it’s Brigadoon, remember?, that little Scottish village which in the famous Broadway musical reappears only once very hundred years. Luckily, we don’t have to wait that much, yet it is to be wondered why Europe is managing so poorly to exist. Many years ago, Robert Maxwell, the Czechoslovakian-born British media mogul, founded the only newspaper with a truly pan-European vocation, simply called The European. Its short life (May 1990 to December 1998) and reduced market (a weekly circulation of just 180,000 against the planed 225,000) is, to me, a sign of Europe’s inability to believe in itself as a political, social and cultural entity. In this context, the festival (now reaching its 60th anniversary) is simultaneously a freak event in European life and a much necessary, basic link among the disparate nations of Europe.

How is, then, the problem of this unmanageable diversity solved? We cannot all abandon our local languages for English, which is why it is a very bad sign that so many Eurovision’s singers are doing this. If this trivial event manages to highlight so clearly what our main problems are, imagine what things must be like at Strasbourg’s Parliament… I would prefer everyone to sing in their own language, using, as I suggested English subtitles for translation; in the Parliament, likewise, they use translators even though everyone speaks English (well, I assume …). What simple kills me is how European television is not happening at all beyond that evening every May. I have noticed that the Germans have managed to sell us lots and lots of second-rate TV movies but, beyond this, how come we have never heard of Måns Zelmerlöw, Polina Gagarina, Aminata or Knez if they are so famous in their own countries? Just to mention a few names… And will it matter for Latvia (or Estonia) that so many millions outside their country voted for their song and its multicultural lady singer?

Um, one last barb for Catalan nationalism: all those who complain that we waste plenty of money by sending Spanish singers to the contest, as they never win–wouldn’t you be pleased if Manel won singing in Catalan? Um, what a chance to explain Catalan independence to this Europe who cares nothing for it…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

‘VAMOS A LA PLAYA, OH, OH, OH…’: ACADEMIC LIFE (IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, ON A TRULY GLORIOUS DAY)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It’s an absolutely glorious day outside, with temperatures around an ideal 25º, not a cloud in sight. The beach is 5 kms. away, reachable in under 40 minutes by metro and here I am, hearing in my head the chorus of that catchy 1983 summer hit by Italo-disco Righeira, singing in Spanish: ‘Vamos a la playa, oh, oh, oh…’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsVJ1PsnMs). Never mind that the song deals actually with the risks of going back to the beach after a nuclear explosion… (http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=1490365). And that I hate going to the beach because I’m pale and I sunburn in five minutes, not to mention how the gritty sand finds a way all over your body… Ugh. It’s just this strange feeling that nothing and nobody prevents me from walking away, yet I’m staying on, tied to my desk and my computer. How much easier it is to do this with grey northern skies outside the window.

I do not intend to draw a sharp line between productive northern academics and unproductive southern academics justifying the division on the grounds of how distracting the weather is. Surely, one can always find other distractions. When I was on La Caixa’s scholarship, I recall one of my peers asking genuinely surprised how come nobody was going to check on our performance as scholars, considering we would be abroad, we were young and, well, you know?, fill in the rest. The person in charge of us replied, very politely, ‘we trust you; you know how hard it’s been to get here and you won’t start misbehaving now.’ ‘My!,’ I thought, ‘aren’t we strange people?’ Twenty years later, I have the same feeling: we, academics, are very strange. Here I am, tied to my desk, writing this post as I hope for the energy to continue the complicated article I’m working on to descend on me… instead of picking up my bag and heading to the sea… beaconing out there… It seems I’m still to be trusted.

The problem is that as I age I find my trustworthiness increasingly stupid (of me). Less vocational colleagues are surely if not down on the actual beach, possibly taking it easy in ways that my vocation spoiled for me from day one. Meanwhile, here I am, all stressed out because time runs fast and I won’t be able to do, in this strange semester with no teaching, all the writing I vowed I would do. Why all that stress, I wonder? As I brace myself to reach the ripe age of fifty next year, I am starting to wonder whether it is worth it, the whole thing of trying to accomplish something–and this nagging doubt returns with the intensity of a punch to the face on every sunny day.

I think of a colleague, truly upset that she had not passed her accreditation as full professor, telling me ‘if it’s going to be ‘no’, then at least they could let us go to the beach and relax.’ She, nonetheless, did not relax and got her accreditation at the second try–she’s still waiting for her merits to be acknowledged with real tenure not just a certificate but I’m 100% sure she’s not sunbathing. Good for her? I wonder… I’m thinking also of this other colleague who worked wonderfully hard to get the same accreditation, but then lost tenure to someone else in her own Department. Already past sixty, this admired colleague decided to retire–telling none of us, her colleagues for decades in Cultural Studies. I do wonder what went through her head and whether she finally decided that the beach made more sense. I hope she is happy now.

Of course, I’m way too young for that kind of decision. Still, just as forty certainly is a time of personal crisis, fifty seems to be the natural time for an academic crisis (in the Humanities, I’m aware that scientific research is quite different, bringing in earlier crises). Fifty is when you start measuring your colleagues in terms of how many books they’ve written and when you start thinking that the time to write your own is fast shrinking. Mind you, I am not depressed, feeling that I cannot do anything worthwhile yet. What I am considering here is that, unlike most workers whose daily schedule is marked by someone else, I determine my own and there are days when it feels like a strange masochistic exercise–why try so hard to produce something that, as a younger colleague noted with a smile, nobody will want to read, anyway? Why not relax and go to the beach instead? Is it a sense of duty? Is it pure ego?

I keep on telling myself that as long as football players and top models matter, academic work matters–but, who am I kidding? All the articles and books published this year by Spanish scholars matter far, far less than Leo Messi’s goal yesterday, the one that won Barça the League’s championship. Nobody goes on the streets to cheer for intellectual achievement, whereas thousands flooded La Rambla yesterday to celebrate Barça’s triumph. Thousands more had cheered Barça’s star player Gerard Piqué in the morning for publishing a cute photo showing his usually well-coiffured blond head all tousled. In this trivial world of ours, this matters. (Is it envy? Is it sour grapes?)

I could end up by claiming that I’m not picking up my bathing suit and towel this Monday morning out of respect for those workers who do not have the option to do so, even for the unemployed who sadly have all the time in the world to enjoy sunshine but little reason to enjoy themselves. But no, this is hypocrisy–it’s pure ego, the hope that this is finally the article that makes my reputation (if ever an article written by a Southern European academic can achieve that). The hope that next comes a book, and another, and another. It is also, a little bit or all of it, cultural clash between the northern Puritan work ethos born of melancholy grey skies and the southern temptation to take life as it comes born of cheerful blue skies.

The weather forecast for tomorrow announces rain…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

STAGE TO SCREEN: A POORLY UNDERSTOOD TRANSITION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I will not refer in this post to the film adaptation of stage plays, though if you’re curious, you may start by checking the IMDB list I opened last February with my students in the MA ‘Theatre Studies’ (UAB). Here it is: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls076798996/. I mean, rather, the poorly understood transition from the 19th century technologies of spectacle to the beginnings of cinema, both in France and in the United States. This is a story I learned years ago in the course of studying for a tenured position I failed to secure. I ended up transforming the report I wrote then into an online document, Teatro y Teatro Inglés: Una Breve Introducción (2000), https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122989, if you care to take a look.

I had always distrusted the many introductions to English Literature which claim that there is nothing of interest in Romantic and Victorian theatre, except for the plays of Oscar Wilde. And I was right to do so, for there may have been few 19th century plays worth printing for posterity, but the history of theatre in those years is a very exciting tale about how the many technological advances and the new urban mass audiences, both created by the Industrial Revolution in England, resulted in an relentless, thrilling stage revolution.

I had told no students the complete story because, although I teach Victorian Literature, this is focused on the novel (yes, we used to teach Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest but it felt odd, out of place). This is why I was very happy to finally get a chance within my seminar on ‘Shakespeare and the Cinema’ for the MA subject ‘Stage Arts and Other Arts’ (the MA itself is called ‘Theatre Arts’, http://masters.filescat.uab.cat/muet/). Using Shakespeare as my excuse, I tried to make sense for the benefit of my students of how cinema was born as a parasitical theatrical art to become eventually a separate, fully autonomous art. Just recall that in the USA cinemas are still called ‘theatres’. At the time of preparing my seminar I did not know about the existence of Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide: Trasvases discursivos del teatro al cine primitivo y al cine clásico de Hollywood (2007, Fundamentos), based on his doctoral dissertation, a book that I have read with great enjoyment. It is an excellent account of this little known but crucial process.

I’ll begin here by recycling my own PowerPoint presentation to mention a number of facts that may be surprising for the Shakespeare aficionado:

*Up to the 1720s, there was no serious attempt to preserve Shakespeare’s ‘original’ plays (‘original’ because he never bothered to edit them and what has survived is by no means reliable)

*David Garrick, who wanted to turned his Drury Lane theatre into the literary competitor of the spectacle-oriented Covent Garden, organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee (1769). Despite this, he himself used Restoration re-writings of Shakespeare by John Dryden and Colley Cibber, as was then the common practice.

*Throughout the 19th century Shakespeare became the object of increasingly spectacular productions aimed at a general audience.

*At the beginning of the 20th century William Poel changed this trend by foregrounding the text and using a simple pseudo-Elizabethan production design (by Edward Gordon Craig, son of stage star Ellen Terry). This was the beginning of the end for the view of Shakespeare as a popular author.

*Today, yes, Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen (cinema or TV) more than 1,000 times (see his IMDB entry http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/), yet although he is fundamental to understand how stage and scene connect, the real roots of this connection are to be found in 19th century popular theatre.

Now for theatre itself:
* From the early 19th century onwards Drury Lane (remember Garrick?) and Covent Garden, the only two ‘legitimate’ theatres licensed by the authorities, started competing with each other, enlarging their buildings and offering increasingly more expensive productions that required bigger audiences (even above 3,000…). These were secured by turning melodrama, imported from France in 1802 with Thomas Holcroft’s version of a play by the originator Guilbert de Pixérécourt, into the main attraction.

*As the actors’ star system grows (there no director really until the early 20th century…), the upper and middle-classes abandon the theatre for the novel (excepting opera and ballet).

*This lasted until mid-century when the Haymarket Theatre, re-decorated as an exclusive middle-class playhouse, starts offering text-based plays in a naturalist style avoiding the excesses of melodrama but still derived from it (these are the plays which Wilde later parodies and that Ibsen crumbles down).

*Melodrama thrives for as long as gaslight dominates (1803-1881), yet stage illusion and special effects need to be reconsidered with the advent of the much harsher electric light: London’s Savoy Theatre is the first in the world to be illuminated by electricity in 1881 (Boston’s Bijou follows in 1882). By 1890s most theatres have abandoned gaslight (Savoy recently pioneered the introduction of integral LED lighting).

*Cinema, which appears in the 1890s, soon starts borrowing plots and actors from melodrama, also from vaudeville (and/or music hall). Most importantly, early cinema tries to reproduce the experience of being in a theatre, using the spectator’s point of view, showing actors in their natural size and using static filming.
*Mèlies in France and Edison in the USA, however, soon see that this is not the way to go, and they start generating new film effects in the first cinema studios in the world, Montreuil (1896) and Black Maria (1896), respectively.

*Cinema’s real independence from theatre comes with the work of David Griffith, who invents what we know today as edition, wisely mixing with the series of diverse shots he and others developed (famously the close-up).

I think that what best explains the transition from spectacular stage melodrama to the cinema of spectacle is Ben-Hur. This was originally a novel by General Lew Wallace (1880), very successfully adapted for the stage in 1899. This adaptation inspired in its turn the short film Ben-Hur (1907, black and white), the long feature film Ben-Hur (1925, black and white, the third highest-grossing silent film), and finally the Technicolor blockbuster we all know, Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. My students would not believe me when I explained that the stage adaptation included the famous chariot race, until I showed them the original poster.

To sum up, then, Victorian theatre on both sides of the Atlantic ended up offering amazing pre-electricity spectacle of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Cinema appeared precisely when electricity started complicating the continuity of the old gaslight-style of stage spectacle; initially borrowing basic techniques from theatre, cinema ended up eventually developing its own spectacular technology. Sadly, we tend to believe that this is exclusive to cinema because our current theatre (with the exception of musicals) tends to be visually quite limited. David Griffith already foretold it would be so.

About vaudeville… I was immensely pleased when I found a photo of the very popular vaudeville stars The Gumm Sisters in their first film (the short The Big Review, 1929). The youngest, Judy Garland…, was just 7. Early cinema certainly knew where to find big talent…

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TRAVELLERS AND PLANNERS: TWO STYLES IN FABULATION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I am going to sound sillier than usual in this post but I keep wondering these days why there is no research on how writers fabulate. Yes, I am aware that I am most likely misusing the word. See below.

I’m working on Black Man, an SF novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan and wondering why this thriller is so long (630 pages) and why the action is so often interrupted with long (juicy) conversations, I emailed the author. I have never ever bothered an author, except to request a formal interview in a couple of cases, as my PhD supervisor used to tell me that authors lie all the time… Well, to my surprise and delight Morgan generously answered this and many other questions (I’ll soon publish the improvised interview online at my university’s repository). One thing he clarified is that unlike what I supposed, that thrillers are written ‘backwards’ after careful planning, he had started the journey of writing the book with a clear ending in mind but with only a vague idea of the actual path he would take. Paraphrasing his words, writing Black Man was like travelling towards a hilltop glimpsed at the end of a thick jungle with little idea of how to cross it. Since, he says, he is not good at planning, he will never make the airport best-selling lists. I answered back telling him about my surprise that he is a ‘traveller’ and not a ‘planner’.

These two labels, ‘traveller’ and ‘planner’, are my own private way to distinguish between types of authors but I have never used them formally in any academic writing. There was a time, years ago, when I attended many of the presentations offered by British novelists at the British Council’s building in Barcelona (no longer offered, sadly). From their talks, I deduced that fiction writers are very keen on discussing technical matters but that nobody really asks them the right questions. The ones that do get asked refer to the habitual matters: ‘where did you get your inspiration for this or that?’, ‘were you influenced by this or that?’ Naturally. We, common readers, are always making connections and expressing curiosity about how exactly fiction is written. Yet we don’t write novels.

The problem is that, academically speaking, this curiosity is complicated to manage. I did ask Morgan whether he got the inspiration for his main character (Carl Marsalis) from an actor (Idris Elba) who seemed to connect very well with his novel; he confirmed that I had got this right and his confirmation will help me with the article I am writing, as I will be able to claim that audiovisual products do have a very direct impact on fiction writing, particularly as regards the possibility that white writers deal with black characters. Yet, this connection still explains very little about the process of what I call ‘fabulation’: what happens when, as Martin Amis recalled in a British Council presentation, the writer sits down to think about a story, spending hours looking at the computer screen and outside the window, being bored, picking his nose now and then…

Back to my topic: the many writers I heard discuss their trade alluded, mysteriously to me, to either a long process of pre-planning or to taking a journey, a favourite metaphor it seems. Michael Crichton, the best-selling author who penned Jurassic Park among many other very popular novels, used to explain that he would do research for six months, plan his forthcoming book down to the last comma and then sit down to write it. A ‘planner’, then. Stephen King is, in contrast, a ‘traveller’ of the thick-jungle-crossing kind, which also explains why all his books are overlong. My dear Charles Dickens seems to be a hybrid ‘journey planner’: I once wrote a paper on his longest novel, Bleak House, and was completely overwhelmed by the enormous effort at planning the book he had made; yet, he was at the same time quite capable of improvising new plot lines to increase the sales of his serialised works. And, as I keep on explaining, what put me off watching TV series is the fact that the writers in charge of Lost claimed to be the best of planners when they were actually travellers, and very poor ones to boot, with no real hilltop in view.

If I consider what Morgan suggests, that planners make the best-selling lists better than travellers (um, I don’t know, look at King), then this means that there is a so far little explored tension between the needs of the writer to fabulate and the needs of the text to be constrained by feasible limits. My guess is that the masterpiece is the work in which those contrary needs are best balanced. Now, for the word ‘fabulate’…

I use ‘fabulate’ in the basic sense of ‘telling invented stories’ but within Theory of Literature, or literary criticism, the word has a more specific meaning. Robert Scholes is responsible for first using ‘fabulation’ to describe the plotting of liminal novels, placed somewhere between realism and fantasy, though not quite 100% the same as magical realism (perhaps because they were Anglophone?). He did so in The Fabulators (1967), although this particular meaning of ‘fabulation’ was spread among literary scholars thanks to Fabulation and Metafiction (1979). It seems that writers were labelled ‘fabulist’ until the word ‘post-modernist’ put Scholes’ term out of fashion in the 1980s. Or not quite. Within SF, ‘fabulation’ is associated with the work of American scholar Marleen Barr, who with her volume Feminist Fabulation: Space/postmodern Fiction (1992) urged critics to correct the exclusion of women fantasists from the post-modern canon. I do not use ‘fabulate’ in this way.

I mean, rather, the psychological process which is the foundation of storytelling. For all I know, someone in Cognitive Science may be literally picking the brains of novelists to see what happens when they sit down to stare at the blank page or screen and daydream about their stories. Think of J.K. Rowling’s famous claim that Harry Potter materialized in her head during a train journey and consider the impressive effort at planning his confrontation with Voldemort into 3,500 exciting pages. A detailed reading of Rowling’s series shows, as we all know, errors and gaps, and, certainly, improvised authorial decisions but, on the whole, she knew where she was going and had a pretty good idea of the jungle paths. What she did do as she walked them down, however, is just a matter for speculation and for, mainly, fan interviews, for it seems as if we have developed in academia a manifest distrust of writers. Remember my PhD supervisor?

I was thinking, excuse my silliness, that it would be nice to have ‘making of’ documentaries about novels. We have them for movies and they offer wonderful insights into filmmaking. I have no idea whether novelists keep writing journals where they jot down observations about how, returning to Black Man, Idris Elba shaped the physical appearance of Carl Marsalis, or showing their surprise that, say, Professor Dumbledore turned out to be gay. It would be nice to read something like ‘and then I realized that Heathcliff would never get Cathy’, in the same way we get sentences like ‘and when I saw Vivien Leigh, I knew we had our Scarlett O’Hara’. Supposing the journals existed, they would only scratch the surface, of course. Yet, it would be nice to have them.

What I am discussing here also affects, naturally, other kinds of writing, including academic writing. As a teacher, I insist to my students that they MUST plan their essays in advance, yet I know from my own practice that the greatest pleasures in writing come from surprising yourself: ‘Now, where did that come from?’ Now, imagine a silly academic asking you that all the time…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CERCAS, HERNÁNDEZ DE MIGUEL AND MAUTHAUSEN: THE LIMITED USE OF THE NOVEL (FICTION OR NON-FICTION…)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Knowing about my recurrent interest in the Holocaust, my family gave me as Sant Jordi presents two closely related books: Javier Cercas’ non-fiction novel El impostor (2014) and Carlos Hernández de Miguel non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen (2015). I have read them back-to-back, half by chance and half on purpose and the result is that I have serious doubts right now about the function of the novel in contemporary culture.

Cercas became an instant celebrity back in 2001 with the publication of Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and remains today one of the few Spanish novelists with a truly high literary reputation. I enjoyed his Soldados though still today I find it an over-hyped novel, a phenomenon rather than a literary masterpiece capable of withstanding the test of time. The subject of El impostor, however, intrigued me, which is why I was glad to receive the book. In case you have not heard about it, Cercas deals with the extraordinary case of Enric Marco Batlle, a compulsive liar who ended up presiding the association ‘Amical Mauthausen’ falsely claiming he was one of the 9,000 Spanish Republican prisoners locked up in a Nazi concentration camp (in Flössenburg). This affable, talkative man became the main spokesperson for the Spanish victims of the Nazis and when historian Benito Bermejo exposed him, in 2005, public opinion was sharply divided between the urge to shame him and the impulse to defend him as one of the main Spanish disseminators of knowledge about the Holocaust, quite unknown in Spain (until Schindler’s List…).

Cercas seems fascinated by Truman Capote’s dubious position when writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood (1966), the book which the American writer devoted to the two murderers of a family of farmers in Kansas. This is the volume that originated the genre we know today as ‘non-fiction’, which uses a mixture of techniques borrowed from the journalistic report and from the novel, with the difference that, unlike the latter, non-fiction is supposed to narrate the ‘truth’ (or something that approximates it).

Cercas, very cleverly, calls El impostor a ‘non-fiction novel’ so that his reader never knows whether there is any truth in it or, the opposite, whether this is fiction disguised as something else. I was first taken over by Cercas’ post-postmodern approach to his elusive subject, his constant hesitation about whether Marco’s life had any truth in it, and his insightful suggestion that Marco’s pathological lying responds to a deeper pathology in the Spanish psyche, as so many Spaniards chose to re-invent themselves as victims after the Transition. My initial admiration, though, started paling when I realised that as the volume progressed the repetitions increased without Cercas’ scratching more than Enric Marco’s surface. Above all, I was quite annoyed by the constant authorial presence in the text, that of his friends, family and even his student son, whose banal problems seemed to worry Cercas on their trip to Flössenburg more than the truths (and lies) of History. In the end, Cercas delivers a trite message about the novel as a genre: just like Marco, novelists are unreliable manipulators who will do anything it takes to pass themselves off in public for what they are not… in Cercas’ world, real writers.

Next I read Carlos Hernández de Miguel’s non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, a thick book which presents itself as a work of clear didactic intent, aimed at teaching common readers the truth about the sad fate of the Spanish Republicans after 1939, when 500,000 Spaniards faced exile in France little imagining the horrors awaiting them. Hernández de Miguel, who started his own trip into Nazism chasing leads that would explain his own uncle’s experience, chose to let the few Spanish survivors speak. He disappears from the text, fusing in his portrait of these men and women his own interviews with them, testimonials kept by their families and frequent quotations from other sources, whether these are military and Government documents or well-known volumes like, for instance, Montserrat Roig’s Els catalans als camps nazis (1977). The result is extremely vivid, compelling and at the same time absolutely devastating. I have read quite a few volumes about the camps and knew about many of the atrocities I would find in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen. Even so the immediacy of the Spanish voices–and Hernández de Miguel’s adamant denunciation of the complicity among Franco, Hitler, Pétain and even the allies to let the Republican exiles die–made reading this volume a very intense experience. A true History lesson.

As I read Los últimos españoles… I could not stop thinking, logically, of Cercas’ novel, for what Hernández de Miguel’s narrates is the truth that Enric Marco usurped for his own false biography. Being familiar with Marco’s very public downfall through the media before reading El impostor, I already knew that his lie was grotesque. Yet, when reading the disheartening memories of the real survivors, and understanding the depth of their still unacknowledged grief ad suffering, Marco’s lie appears to be hideous and unpardonable. I am now convinced that Cercas made a very serious mistake in choosing for his novel this monster and not one of the 9,000 lives that passed through Mauthausen and similar places.

Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen produces the same intense disgust with the human species that many other books on Nazism produce, for the facts narrated touch the very marrow of evil. No wonder many survivors decided to keep silent, seeing that family and friends would not believe them. If you are familiar with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947), a volume absolutely fundamental to understand Nazism and the Holocaust, but also human nature, you’ll find that Hernández de Miguel’s survivors tread the same dark territory.

Cercas, who has quite a cavalier attitude towards the recent process in favour of recovering historical memory in Spain, may be regarded as a good literary writer but I find in the end his work quite trivial in comparison to what Hernández de Miguel provides the reader with in his volume. At one point in El impostor, Cercas (I’m not sure whether the man himself or a meta-fictional version) claims that Marco could fabricate his ersatz victim personality because of the rampant historical kitsch. He doesn’t explain himself clearly but he seems to mean that kind of superficial, sentimental (or morbid) fashion for Holocaust stories that has led to perversions such as best-selling novel The Book Thief. I hope he’s not thinking of Schindler’s List for we owe Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg much more than they’re credited for. I have no idea what Cercas thinks of Hernández de Miguel’s book but what worries me is that is can be mistaken for historical kitsch. It is not.

I express in my title doubts about the function of the novel today and perhaps I mean the novelist. Hernández de Miguel takes a back seat but even so he makes his indignation palpable all through his book. In contrast, Cercas’ literary vanity is all he thinks about. Novelists used to be good at writing well and spreading indignation (Charles Dickens…) but it seems that now these two aims are incompatible. If you ask me, in the end I even find much better Literature in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen than in El impostor, in the essay than in the novel, non-fiction both. I have no doubt whatsoever about which is the truly good book.

Now, visit www.deportados.es and let’s continue thinking–for here’s the irony: as I read Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, I wished Hernández de Miguel had made a documentary mini-series which millions would watch instead of a book which only a few thousand will read. So much for the power of the written word…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MAKING SENSE OF CATALAN MASCULINITY: A CHALLENGE…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Last Friday 24 I taught a group of visiting American undergrads a seminar which I called ‘Making Sense of Catalan Masculinity.’ I published a post on 12 April regarding my worries about how to organize the contents; here I offer a summary. I must say that the students were great, I enjoyed very much the ensuing debate and their intelligent questions. As it often happens, when I asked the 3 young men (and 15 young women) about their view of masculinity, they were a bit taken aback. One young man told me very candidly he had not really thought about the matter. The girls had… And, yes, they agreed that Hollywood movies reflect well American men’s fears about appearing to be ‘losers,’ ‘homos’ and ‘sissies.’ Quite different here, I think.

It seems that Catalan men have not given much thought to Catalan masculinity so far. If you Google “homes catalans” and similar variations, you’ll see that nothing comes up. I did come across a list of the 50 most influential Catalan women, and the 50 most influential Catalan media personalities, but nothing specific about Catalan men or masculinities. Well, I did learn from a Canary Islands female journalist that our men are complete morons since they have more sex on the days when local football team Barça wins matches… My academic search did not go much further, either. The two main volumes published in Barcelona and in Catalan are: Calçasses, gallines i maricons: Homes contra la masculinitat hegemònica, edited by Josep-Anton Fernàndez (Angle, 2003) and Masculinitats per al segle XXI: Contribucions als congressos de masculinitat a Barcelona, 2003-2007 edited by Josep Maria Armengol (Centre d’Estudis dels Drets Individuals i Col•lectius, 2007). In Armengol’s volume there is no specific essay on Catalan masculinity; I still need to read the other book…

Catalan men… I spoke to colleagues, friends and family and, of course, I was told that it is impossible to generalize and that once I start categorizing a particular local masculinity then I should need to map them all. This is funny, as the day before the seminar I had an interesting conversation about Basque matriarchy, whether it does exist or it is a myth (and in which way, here is the paradox, it is patriarchal). Anyway, I made a gigantic list of Catalan male icons and decided finally to choose a few, or collapse under the weight of so many popular names.

I think I am on safe ground if I claim that Barça’s football team is essential to understand Catalan men, and not only in the sense highlighted by the Canary Islands journalist. Since star Leo Messi is an Argentinean (and Neymar from Brazil), I focused, rather, on Xavi Fernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Gerard Piqué, who seem to be the most obvious poster boys–and, of course, Pep Guardiola, now coaching Bayern at Munich. This is the man who, together with Jorge Valdano in Real Madrid, taught men that football is not incompatible with personal elegance and with an education. The other Catalan male icons I showed the visitors are: Ramon Pellicer and Josep Cuní (media), Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras (politics), Joel Joan and Andrés Velencoso (acting and fashion), Albert Rivera and Jordi Évole (Catalan men with a Spanish projection). The students deduced that Catalan men are not much concerned as regards physical attractiveness, but they saw in the photos an inclination towards idealized middle-class professionalism. Um, yes, I think so. Or was it my choice of names and photos?

In the course of preparing the seminar I came across a hilarious piece on a website, “10 Tipus d’Homes Catalans” (http://benegre.cat/2014/12/03/10-tipus-dhomes-catalans/ ). This is not intended to offer an exhaustive catalogue of all men you can find in the streets of Catalonia but it is true that you recognize the types, to which I have added two. Here they are, with my approximate translation: 1. el perroflauta (the recycled hippie, with his local okupa undertones), 2. el fucker (the sexy but tasteless guy), 3. el runner (more obsessed by sports equipment than by sports), 4. el modernillu (the hipster), 5. el cholo català (the son of Latino migrants), 6. l’extraradi (the son of Spanish migrants), 7. el pijet (the brand-obsessed son of the 1980s ‘pijo’ or trendy guy), 8. El pijipi (the posh hippie, yes…), 9. El marca blanca (the non-descript guy), 10. l’emprenedor (money matters rule…). I added l’indepe (for Independence!) and the pagesot (the country boy). I had great fun choosing the illustrations for the PowerPoint… I used Manel, everyone’s favourite Catalan pop band, to explain the ‘non-descript’, possibly the most common type right now…

Here are the main traits I came up with, in my pseudo-sociological approach:

*Catalan men are not blatantly patriarchal. My personal impression is that sexism is moderate in Catalonia but, as a friend reminded me, perhaps the truth is that patriarchy is less vocal while still keeping a firm, covert hold.

*Catalan men, I believe, are family-oriented but strictly as regards their own nuclear family, and not a more extended kind of family. I put as an example of the local fusion of patriarchy and matriarchy the Pujols: the many corruption scandals they have been involved in recently do stress that Jordi Pujol, the President of the Catalan Government for more than 20 years, is actually a tool in the hands of his power-hungry wife, Marta Ferrusola.

*Catalan masculinity is defined by a contradictory discourse which mixes professional success and political victimization. This a nation of small businessmen, perhaps still best represented by shop-owners, both the classic ‘botiguer’ and the more modern versions. Yet, this commercial success clashes with the idea that national leadership is limited because of the enmity of the Spanish Government. Catalan men appeal to this supposed victimization indeed too often, failing in the process to make more effective civil and civic contributions.

*Catalan men are not particularly emotional in social and personal contact. The whole culture tends towards limited displays of positive and negative emotion (perhaps with the exception of Barça… and the demonstrations for independence) both in public and private.

A few years ago I started a paper on Joel Joan’s TV series Porca Misèria (2004-7) as I thought that his own character, Pere Brunet, and that of his brother and antagonist, Roger Brunet (played by Roger Coma), are interesting representations of Catalan masculinity. I abandoned the paper half-way through as I am, after all, a specialist in Anglophone culture and I decided that working on Catalan texts was becoming a distraction. I feel now that, after so many years studying Anglophone masculinities, it might be time to have a good look at our local guys. Perhaps I should study the current TV3 soap La Riera, or Joel Joan’s recent El crac, or the political humour of Polònia but then I think that all this is for my Catalan Studies peers to research. The additional problem is that local Catalan Cultural Studies hardly exist as such, and sociology can provide us only with limited cultural insight.

I’ll be happy, and I really mean it, to receive proof of the opposite, so if you happen to know about any study of Catalan masculinity (or masculinities), I would very much like to read it. For next year’s seminar.

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AFTER SANT JORDI: ROSES OUTNUMBER BOOKS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

For those reading me outside Catalonia, I need to explain that 23rd April, Saint Jordi’s festivity, is a gigantic civic holiday all over the nation. According to the segment devoted to this celebration on the website of Barcelona’s Town Council, Saint Jordi fuses together the old legend of the dragon-slaying hero (possibly descended from Perseus and his sea monster) and the martyrdom of a knight (doubtful…) under Emperor Diocletian (284 to 305 AD). Both legend and saint are commemorated around the time when roses bloom, and it seems that already in the 15th century Barcelona boasted of a rose fair celebrated at the Catalan Government’s palace. It seems that the tradition by which men (must) give their sweethearts a rose dates back from that time…

The idea of celebrating books on the same date is much more recent. In 1927 Valencian writer Vicent Clavel i Andrés, also a publisher, proposed to the ‘Cambra Oficial del Llibre’ of Barcelona and to the ‘Gremi d’Editors i Llibreters’ that a holiday was established for the promotion of books in Catalonia. The original date chosen, 29 October, was changed in 1929, when the booksellers mounted the first street book market on 23rd April. This also happens to be the date when both Cervantes and Shakespeare died, in 1616, which came in handy for UNESCO to declare in 1995 23rd April ‘World Book Day’. Not that you hear much about this internationally.

This year’s Saint Jordi has been hailed as one of the most successful ones in recent memory, meaning during the current economic crisis. At least 250 writers (possibly 50 more) signed books; major figures like Ken Follett kept fans queuing for more than 2 hours, many of them failing even so to get his autograph… La Rambla was so packed, that Major Trias suggested moving the main bookstall area, once and for all, elsewhere for fear of accidents… The best-selling writers were María Dueñas (in Spanish) and Xavier Bosch (in Catalan). A group of medicine students and a group of Roma street sellers almost came to blows towards the end of the day when the students’ decision to lower the prices of the roses they were selling to make some extra money threatened to destroy business…

Now, of all the hullaballoo what caught my attention this time is that 7,000,000 roses were sold (yes, that’s right, as many as Catalonia’s inhabitants) but only 1,500,000 books. Roses, (over-)priced 2 to 7 euros, are obviously cheaper than books, 15-20 euros on average (minus the customary 5% discount). Also, they’re bought on Saint Jordi’s day itself, which is not the case with books (I, for instance, purchased the 6 books I gave as presents 2 weeks before, which means that the total number of books sold around Saint Jordi must be bigger, as not everyone loves the massive street crowds of the holiday). Even so, the picture that emerges is that although Catalan men are romantic enough, Catalans altogether are not that keen on reading… Let’s say that only around 20% got books.

The main local newspaper, La Vanguardia, published on Saint Jordi’s a summary of the general survey by CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas), published in December 2014. CIS data refer to all Spaniards, but this will do for my purposes. 35% of Spanish people never read: 37,9% of all men, 32,1% of all women. They just don’t like reading (42%), lack time (23%) or prefer other type of entertainment (15%). As I always say, if you like something, you always find time… I prefer the two other, far more honest answers. Among those who do read, 65% of the Spanish population then, many claim to read every day (men 24’40%; women 34’90%), which I very much doubt. If seems Spaniards do not only lie about how often we practice sex… It seems more realistic to claim, as around 16% do, that they read twice a weak (does this also apply to sex??). By the way, the average books-per-year figure for Spanish readers is 8’69… less than one a month… They must be very slow readers…

A common complaint on Saint Jordi’s day is that books may be celebrated but not really culture as many best-selling authors on that day are media celebrities or, at best, middle-brow authors. You can check for yourself at http://www.lavanguardia.com/libros/sant-jordi/20150422/54430780161/firmas-autores-sant-jordi-2015.html. Mariló Montero was there, but also Carme Riera… Anyway, back to CIS: which genres do Spaniards enjoy reading? I’m not sure whether it is surprising that they prefer historical fiction (23’6%), followed by general fiction (17,9%), adventure (7’6%), detective fiction (7’4%). There is a joke somewhere in the fact that 6’1% read romance fiction and 4’4% science fiction, as both figures are very low (3’7% fantasy??? Who did CIS ask, I wonder…). Below 4% you find other genres like biography, essays, short fiction, self-help, poetry, cooking books, travel, drama, comics. I find it very, very hard to believe, all the same, that self-help (1,9%) and poetry (1,7%) have a very similar share of the market… or that only 0’6% read comics and graphic novels. Really, CIS? Have you ever visited FNAC? I got curiouser and curiouser and checked CIS’s website to find out that Spaniards read mainly for entertainment (61’6%) and not really to improve our culture (10’4%) or be better informed (12’8%). We choose books by subject matter or genre (64’5%), and not by author (16’6%)–poor things! Blurbs matter more than covers, by the way.

The other matter that got me curious is what Spaniards do instead of reading. CIS asked how much free time they have on a working day and the answer baffles me, for only 5’8% claim to have no time at all… whereas 44’1% grant they have between 2 to 4 hours of leisure every day. 27’7% of all Spaniards say they have from 8 to 5 spare hours a day. I don’t get it… This, however, makes sense if we consider that daily viewing time of TV in Spain (for 2014) amounts to 238 minutes per person, that is, 4 hours. The historical record was 246 minutes, reached in 2012. Figures are possibly much higher for Spaniards aged 65-75 who do not use the internet (25% claim they do) than for young people aged 16-24 who do surf the net (98,4%). These claim that they have mainly quit watching TV (62%) rather than reading books (27%).Yet, as everyone knows, internet consumption among the young is closely tied to watching TV series online or using downloads. I won’t say a word about the 25% of unemployed general population in Spain or the 50% of unemployed young people under 25. Well, just one question: how do they fill in the hours spent in despair, hoping a job finally materializes?

Five roses for every book sold, this is who we are, the lucky ones with money to spare and limited time in our hands.

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RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

My colleague David Owen has circulated among us, Literature teachers, a juicy article by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder, “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). This is a very bitter indictment of the intrusion of what they call ‘management’ and I call ‘bureaucracy’ into the university, clearly far more advanced in the Netherlands as regards the occupation of our professional world by private corporate interests than in Spain. They call for the counter-occupation of the university and its transformation into a real ‘public university,’ by which they don’t simply mean ‘state-sponsored’ but working to benefit the citizens. I’ll refer here extensively, then, to the article and try to answer back in some way, from a different yet similar (Spanish) university context.

Halffman and Radder offer a very through dissection of the negative effects that the “regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation” has forced into what should be an institution geared at the production and dissemination of knowledge for the common good. The saddest part of this catastrophe is that, as they show, we all contributed to letting the Wolf in about 25 years ago when the younger generation decided to do away with the sluggish ivory-tower university and show to society what we are capable of. Since, basically, society still thinks we live in that old-fashioned ivory-tower, we have allowed their delegates, the bureaucrats (who hate us for the supposed ‘privileged’ nature of our jobs) to control our production and, frankly, to limit our capacity for thinking. How? Well, by turning us, as Halffman and Radder explain, into sheep who meekly obey all the absurd regulations imposed on us for the sake of hanging by the skin of our teeth onto the possibility, more and more remote, of producing knowledge, as it is our vocation.

From their comments, I understand that the Dutch university is far more privatised than the Spanish university, as we still run, basically, ourselves our own institutions, despite the growing control by external forces, like the ‘Social Councils’ (not to mention the companies funding research). Anyway, here are six “excesses” they identify, quite familiar too (mostly) here in Spain, followed by my comments paraphrasing their words:

1. “Measurability for accountability”: we need to produce, produce, produce to keep up with changing indicators that only result in an “illusion of excellence”; so much over-production leaves with no time to actually read and think.
2. “Permanent competition (for ‘quality’)”: this is a mechanism devised to keep everyone on their toes, for it is easy to see that knowledge is generated by collaboration and networking.
3. “The promise of greater ‘efficiency’”: Competition increases (rather than decrease) the cost of running the universities as we waste time and resources vying with each other for students and funding.
4. “The adoration of excellence: Everybody at the top!”: rather than help many to do research, top researchers get more and more resources, leaving nothing for the rest (nor for discredited, cheaply-funded science)
5. “Contentless process management”: the bureaucratization of the university means much more work for teachers/researchers, who become admin servants
6. “The promise of economic salvation”: the universities lose their autonomy in research by following the orders of the private companies that fund projects; non-profit-oriented fields, from philosophy to mathematics, are dismissed as a financial burden.

We, Halffman and Radder write, have internalised the Wolf and feed it by, I’ll add, living to fill in our C.V.s rather than to transmit knowledge. Yet, since we lost long ago the support of society, to a great extent because of the many indolent ivory tower inhabitants, there’s very little we can do to explain our plea and gain sympathy. Nobody cares. How, then, do we change matters? The authors of the “Academic Manifesto” suggest up to 20 measures, actually 21 as they also support Pels’ (2003) call to replace “the publication rat-race with more meaningful, slower-paced and more considerate research.” Publish, in short, only when you have something to say and after carefully thought out research. Anyway, the 20 measures are (quotation marks for verbatim citation, otherwise my paraphrasis):

1. An administration style open to academic staff, students and supporting staff (we do have that at UAB, yet the impression is that most decisions are made by higher instances…)
2. The administration supports the staff, and not the other way round (we justify the work done by the bureaucrats); also, point 9. the university administration must be accountable to the academic community and not vice versa
3. “Limiting wasteful control systems” (self-explanatory–consider all the resources wasted on checking what we do, and how they punish those who work harder)
4. “A ban on mergers”: currently happening in Spain at Department and ‘Facultat’ levels, though not yet at a university level; we have the opposite problem–too many universities.
5. A less intensive focus on our own institution, a more open vision encompassing all local universities; this is complemented with 6. “No wasteful competition between universities”
7. “A ban on university marketing” to attract students, followed by 8. using the university media to transfer knowledge to society, not for our own marketing
10. “No real estate speculation”, think of the universities in Barcelona occupying areas in central locations and gentrifying them…
11. No top researchers allowed not to teach (fine by me, but also limit teaching so that whoever wants to do research can do it); accompanied by 15. Rejecting ‘productivity’ as the main “research assessment criterion” and, this is a good one, 16. “Introducing the Sabbatical Year” so that once every 7 years we can stop, read and think.
12. “Free education” but also 13. a limitation of student population so as not strain public resources and 14. promoting “vocational training” as a professionally attractive alternative to the university.
17. Freeing research from its bondage to content-oriented interests, both in production and assessment (18), which also translates as giving researchers time to follow long-term lines and not only projects with immediately applicable results.
19. Make society both a partner and the target of our activities, by 20. establishing an open access system to distribute knowledge.

Now, here’s the problem–what do you do if the managers/bureaucrats and society do not care for any of the above? Halffman and Radder call for “resistance” and “shaking off our fear”, yet what they offer sounds often like desperate measures: 1. leaving the university, 2. legal action, 3. “Muddling through” and even “work-to-rule,” 4. sabotage, 5. collective refusal, 6. trade unions, 7. mass demonstration, 8. establish contra-indictors as counter-measures (and disseminate knowledge about our real working conditions), 9. striking, 10. occupying the university, 11. parliamentary and political action. Working, as I do, in a ‘Facultat’ (or school) were 9 and 10 are recurrent but totally useless events, I can only proclaim my scepticism. Also, in view of the fact that more than 50% of our staff are temporary workers and those of us who are tenured are gripped by our… throats by a system that has frozen our salaries and only offers tiny inducements by passing assessment exercises (or the very unlikely chance of promotion to full professor). Actually, it occurs to me that the full professors, the ‘catedráticos’, are the only ones in a position to lead the resistance that the “Academic Manifesto” calls for. So, if any of them is reading me…

In the meantime, here’s reality: one of my most brilliant students announced to me today his intention of moving to Denmark, where the Government funds post-grad students, including the foreign ones with a nice student’s record. When I showed my sadness that his leaving would only contribute to enhancing the current Spanish brain drain, he could only answer to me that he sees no future in Spain. So–why don’t we ask the Danes?

Resistance may not be totally futile but when have the sheep ever banded to eat the Wolf? I think of Naomi Wolf’s (oops!) description of the ‘shock and awe’ doctrine to keep whole populations subjected to the current appalling political and economic regime, and I think this is it–we’re too shocked by and in awe of the Wolf.

Anyway, thanks Willem Halffman and Hans Radder for the effort and, above all, the call to amass and use courage.

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A PECULIAR CHALLENGE: MAKING SENSE OF LOCAL MASCULINITY…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I was approached a while ago by a Danish colleague who explained to me that she would bring to Barcelona a group of undergrad American students, as part of their Study Abroad programme. She asked me for help regarding gender issues in Spain, as her students will be dealing with these during their stay in Barcelona (she contacted me as a member of the research group in Masculinities Studies I belong to).

To my horror and consternation, though, the Danish website describing my city and the tour intended for these students was full of appalling clichés, running from Hemingway (in Barcelona??) to bull fighting (forbidden by Catalan law…), the whole stereotypical rigmarole. Quite indignant, I volunteered to lecture the students on condition that the offensive text be replaced. I’m meeting them next week–and I’m using the post today to start drafting my presentation… (the clichés are still online… I wonder whether their rephrasing depends on what I’ll say).

I need to teach these young American students in which precise way Spanish masculinity differs from old-style ‘machismo,’ whether Catalan masculinity is different in any way from that of other areas of Spain, the role that men play in current debates on gender equality all over Spain and, finally, whether our reputation for being a women-friendly state (remember Zapatero’s Government?) is still extant. A tall order indeed… It is very difficult, believe me, to know where to begin. I have asked the American students to come to my lecture having previously made a list of features defining American masculinity. A challenge, I know!, for both of us.

I’ll start with possibly the easiest part: clearly, Zapatero’s Government was more favourable to women than the current Rajoy Government. It’s not just a matter of how many women Ministers Zapatero appointed (50%, which prompted male chauvinist Berlusconi to joke this was a ‘pink’ Government), but of a general attitude towards women’s rights. Just this week, several prominent members of Partido Popular, some in the Government, including the current Health Minister, have insisted that abortion is not a right and have announced that they intend to remove any references to that word in the new legislation on this issue, so crucial to women.

Soraya Sáez de Santamaría and María Teresa Fernández de la Vega may have both occupied the position of Vice-Prime Minister, but I cannot imagine two more different women. This does not mean that we need to get suddenly nostalgic of Zapatero’s Government as not that much was done for women, and much more could have been done for gender equality in general. Some of the steps taken, for instance the legislation to diminish the burden of caring for dependants in the home by women, were not solid enough and have been swept under the carpet with the excuse of the 2008 crisis. We all certainly have much to do in that sense.

I do not know how to translate Miguel Lorente’s wonderful slogan to encourage men to fight patriarchal violence: “No basta con arrimar el hombro, hay que arrimar a los hombres.” Lorente, a forensics specialist familiar with the bodily harm endured by women in the hands of patriarchal abusers, is the author of Mi marido me pega lo normal (2001). He has also been the Government’s Delegate (2008-11) in charge of running the anti-violence programmes devised by the Socialist Ministry for Equality. The title of his volume defines, I believe, the enormous change in the matter of couple-related violence seen in recent decades in Spain. This kind of violence, as the shocking title expresses, was assumed to be a normal part of marriage, both by men and women. The fact that it is no longer so is what, paradoxically, gives us the impression that there is more violence, when, actually, this is decreasing. Its relatively new visibility is, I believe, a sign of the diminishing tolerance. Again, this does not mean that all men are doing their bit explicitly against anti-patriarchal violence. And, yes, yes, we need to deal with the matter of men’s victimization by their female and male partners, even if this is only 10% of the total couple-related abuse.

I think that in order to understand how deeply Spanish masculinity has changed one only needs to see the grandfathers pushing baby prams in the parks or picking up young children from school (they’re not as many as the grandmothers, I know, but they are many, nonetheless). My own father, who is not quite that kind of grandfather, tried to justify men’s avoidance of children both in private and public when he was himself a young father (mid-1960s to late 1970s) on the grounds that “we were not allowed” to behave as fathers do today. I was puzzled by how his words suggest the existence of a repressive external authority, when actually it was, rather, a matter of personal choice (he could have for instance picked up my younger brother, born in the mid-1970s, from school without facing patronising looks but he chose never to bother). Spanish men, who took a gigantic step towards their own patriarchal liberation when they fought together to end compulsory military service (1996), have often discovered in their personal lives that it is in their own hands to change things. For their own benefit but also for women’s.

I am thinking of accompanying my talk with iconic Spanish male figures, both in fiction and the media, yet it is complicated who to choose. Is there a man who represents Spanish masculinity best today? What does Pablo Iglesias’ famous ponytail say about men in Spain today? Is our most successful actor, Antonio Banderas, the ideal Spanish man? I wonder… As for Catalunya, I need to explain that the process for independence is now stalled by the squabbling for prominence between alpha males Oriol Junqueras (a man who does not care what he looks like) and Artur Mas (a man of carefully styled looks). Their confrontation says much about our local masculinity, torn between the need to play victim of the patriarchal Spanish other and, thus, unable to build a serious Catalan leadership. In Polònia, the political satirical show that always gets it right, Catalan men are represented by a new hero, Super Seny (Super Sensible), characterized by his inability to make any decision as he is always torn between the possible consequences… And I keep thinking of Joel Joan, who in his delicious TV series El crac (2015) chose to poke fun at his own iconic value as the poster boy for Catalan independentism by presenting the character also named ‘Joel Joan’ as the worst bundle of lies and cowardice you can imagine… I think the word I am looking for is self-deprecating.

Of course, if I tell my American visitors and Danish colleague that, as a recent survey suggests, bull-fighter Francisco Rivera is the most desired man in Spain (it’s hard to imagine a similar category in Catalonia right now), then I’m lost… as this will only reinforce the clichés I’m trying to fight. Happy were the 1980s when Miguel Bosé, then young and handsome, was the most desired man in Spain–and because of his ambiguity and not despite it. The fact that his own coming out of the closet and his, relatively recent, paternity of four children have not diminished his acceptance as an artist is perhaps a clear sign of how far Spain has progressed. I wonder, though, on what common grounds a man like him and, say, former President José María Aznar, could meet… and what this says about men in Spain today.

I’ll keep on thinking…

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