June 12th, 2018

AN EXTREMELY GUILTY PLEASURE: THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

I recall from my childhood years how annoyed my father grew every time there was a musical film on TV and the actors burst out singing. I am confused to this day about whether the songs were also dubbed or left in the original English version (with no subtitles, that’s for sure). Both possibly happened, for I seem to remember my father loudly complaining that the worst thing about the songs was that you could not understand them. I still don’t like much translated musicals but I have overcome my father’s prejudices, which were my own for years, and, though not the staunchest fan, I can say that I do enjoy musicals both on stage and on screen.

I hated La La Land (2016), however, because I found it to be very weak in its dancing and singing routines, and, above all, because I intensely disliked its tepid discourse about contemporary love. To be frank, I was repelled by it; musicals are supposed to be naïve romantic fantasies, not depressing reminders of the sorry state of love today. Well, never mind. As happens, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the composers of the songs in La La Land are also the authors of the songs in this other recent musical film: The Greatest Showman (2017). They have also written “Get Back Up Again” for Poppy in Trolls (2016), a glorious hymn to persistence that I recommend you to sing in low moments (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0).

You may have heard about The Greatest Showman because of Hugh Jackman’s very visible shock at losing to James Franco (The Disaster Artist) the Golden Globe to the best actor, back in January. Jackman, who has a solid background in musical theatre, had put much energy into completing what turned out to be a rather complex project, (complicated by his being diagnosed with skin cancer) and he was devastated. At least, Pasek and Paul won the Golden Globe for “This is Me”, though they lost the Oscar to the awesome “Remember Me” in the simply wonderful Pixar-Disney movie Coco.

The Greatest Showman is, as a musical, simply lovely. It has a gorgeous, fancy pseudo-Victorian look which director Michael Gracey does wonders with, it displays thrilling dancing choreographed by Ashley Wallen and it offers eleven exciting numbers, among which one, at least, stands out: the trapeze love dance with Zac Ephron and Zendaya. After seeing the movie once, I found myself recalling every single song, which is, I think, the mark of a great musical. After seeing it again, I could sing most. And this the very key to the film’s transformation into what is now: a cult film doing the rounds of midnight sing-along sessions very successfully. The critics who panned it as a hideous fantasy are flabbergasted. I’m not, but, then, yes I am.

Why’s The Greatest Showman hideous? The screenplay by Jenny Bicks–revised by Bill Condon (it’s her story)–offers a rosy picture of American circus businessman P.T. Barnum which is less than acceptable in its bland lack of criticism of what this shady man did do. The many differences between real-life facts and what the film narrates are irrelevant in some cases: Zac Ephron’s and Zendaya’s characters did not exist; famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind had strictly a business-related relationship with Barnum (who organized her first American tour). What is far more controversial is how Jackman’s film presents Barnum as a champion of human diversity, which he was not at all.

Barnum (1810-1891), the founder of the long-lived Barnum & Bailey Circus (1871-2017), was a ground-breaking showman who perpetrated constant hoaxes on the gullible American public and was known for his manipulative ‘freak shows’. The problem with The Greatest Showman is that, unlike David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), it completely fails to address its own key issue: the exploitation of the freaks publicly exhibited in America, from village carnivals to Barnum’s famous Manhattan circus. Barnum’s presentation is simplistic and one-sided: to convince a hesitant Charles Stratton, a midget (or little person), to accept being transformed into General Tom Thumb Barnum uses the argument that if people are going to laugh at him (as Stratton worries) they might as well pay. Incidentally: the real Stratton was recruited when he was only four-years-old, not twenty-two, and, thus, unable to decide for himself. This is the only comment about the dubious business relationship between Barnum and his distinct employees, apart from his snobbish exclusion of them from upper-class events, like the opening gala of Lind’s tour.

That the Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in the year The Greatest Showman opened is a clear indication of the colossal lacunae in the film’s discourse. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, as the circus proclaimed itself, was the object of constant complaints from animal defenders until it was eventually forced to bow down to pressure, unable to transform itself into a spectacle better suited to contemporary preferences (think Cirque du Soleil). If Barnum’s record with animals is poor (he claimed that elephants feel no pain in their trunks to justify his appalling training methods), his treatment of his human fellow beings is also deplorable. His career started with the exploitation of a black slave, supposed to be the oldest woman in the world but actually only 76, whom he even exhibited once dead. His many human curiosities and oddities were, if not actually enslaved, at least treated with what now would be called intense ableism. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “The movie isn’t merely stylistically mediocre and emotionally simplistic, it’s grossly ahistorical, shorn of the complexities and fascinations of the character whose name is associated with the film. The master of ballyhoo has been ballyhooed off the screen” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-greatest-showman-and-the-far-more-fascinating-real-life-of-p-t-barnum).

This opinion, as you can see, clashes with my view of The Greatest Showman as highly enjoyable spectacle, an “extremely guilty pleasure”. After The Elephant Man, a film telling the story of how Victorian Dr. Frederick Treves rescued John Merrick–a man suffering from elephantiasis exhibited by ruthless exploiters–we all grew sensitized to a very different view of the freak. Photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71) owed much of her fame to her portraits of freaks in the decaying 1960s shows but now we find her approach abusive. With the rise of Disability Studies in the mid-1980s the very word ‘freak’ became an insult and a new vocabulary of PC terms was deployed. The intensive medicalization that in the 1930s started pulling freaks out of the limelight to present them as cases was, however, also an expression of hypocrisy: Merrick’s deformed skeleton was exhibited only to doctors but it is doubtful that this was only in the interest of science. Incidentally, singer Michael Jackson was its last owner, which is fitting considering what Jackson himself did to his physical appearance.

The ableist hypocrisy I stress is grounded on the impression that the persons once called freaks have been freed from their freakdom to become integrated in society. This is completely false: I would never endorse Barnum’s awful business practices but what I see on the streets and on the screen is a totally homogeneous human body following narrow, damaging beauty standards. Whenever freaks appears in texts calling allegedly progressive, they are woefully sentimentalized. The recent film Wonder (2017, based on the novel by R.J. Palacio) is not only incredibly sickly sweet but also very false in its presentation of children with Treacher Collins Syndrome. It’s insulting to them that pretty Jacob Tremblay had to be put through gruelling make-up sessions when, surely, some actual patient could have been found for the role. This is an argument, of course, constantly advanced by activists in disability causes: we award Oscars to fully-abled actors for playing freaks but reject actual freaks (excuse my language).

The Greatest Showman is guilty of this sin and of many others. When I saw the Honest Trailer for it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaE0JD1X12g) I was truly dismayed. Yes, all the points raised there are undeniable, not only the many lies but also how the interracial romance is used to leave the freaks’ presence reduced to just a colourful background, and how the exploiter is, as I have said, presented as a romantic redeemer. I do not think, then, that I can defend my pleasure in this film without committing many ethical offences. This worries me very much, for I seem to be unable to extricate myself from the conundrum: why am I enjoying a text which I should abhor, given my knowledge of ‘freaks’ and my ideology? I cannot make sense of how my ethical barriers have been weakened.

But I’ll try…

It’s the glee. A trite answer, no doubt. Of course, I’m not the first one to argue that glee is the key. Variety notes that “The Greatest Showman is unabashedly nostalgic. Whereas La La Land was grounded in a darker realism, this film is bright and ebullient, infused with a let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that’s been largely missing from cinema since the days of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly” (https://variety.com/2017/film/features/hugh-jackman-the-greatest-showman-logan-1202629864/). For The Guardian, in an article about the film’s transformation into a surprise sleeper by word-of-mouth, “It isn’t hard to see how the film’s feelgood factor can give audiences a much-needed sense of escape or respite” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/31/the-greatest-showman-success-film-story-of-the-year-hugh-jackman) from our dark times.

Still, the problem of the subject matter and its treatment remains. In Mel Brooks’ 1967 hilarious film The Producers, Max Bialystock (a Broadway producer) and his accountant Leo Bloom decide to stage the most appalling musical ever, expecting it to be a flop, which would, paradoxically, benefit them. Their aim is to raise money before the play opens and then embezzle it. To their chagrin, however, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden becomes an immense success when some members of the audience start laughing, mistakenly believing it to be a satire. The Greatest Showman is not amenable to this ambiguous reading, which is why I fear that this is actually our own candid Springtime for Hitler, with dancing freaks instead of dancing Stormtroopers.

Director Michael Gracey convinced Hugh Jackman to turn the script into a musical, perhaps as a way to politely tell his fellow-Australian film star that only the addition of songs could turn the awkward content into congenial film material. He was right. The songs and their lyrics provide the film with the uplifting tone which its admirers celebrate but also cancel the more problematic discourse carried out by the rest of the film. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong, and in the times of Lady Gaga and her ‘little monsters’, the images of the ‘freaks’ dancing riotously (so different from the Elephant Man’s tragic passivity) are far more positive than political correctness assumes. This is not nostalgia for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland but for a time when, though exploited, freaks were world-wide stars for (this is important) they were admired performers and not medicalized bodies displaced from public spaces. And, yes, I do know that my argument is problematic to say the least.

Do see The Greatest Showman and check whether what you feel and what you think clash.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

June 5th, 2018

Yesterday we spent our working day going through the yearly interviews with our doctoral candidates–it seems, then, a good moment to ponder the use of doctoral programmes. To begin with, a reminder: only a very small minority of the individuals who practice medicine are properly speaking ‘doctors’; most just have a degree (a BA) in Medicine and mandatory professional training. They are ‘médicos’, not ‘doctores’, a distinction that, it seems, is respected in Latin America though not in Spain (https://www.elsevier.es/corp/conecta/medicina/medicos-o-doctores/).

Here, 0’8% of the population (376,000 individuals out of 47 millions) are doctors, that is to say: they have completed a doctorate, after submitting a doctoral dissertation (or ‘tesis’). In 2014, 10,889 persons managed to complete theirs (https://www.weforum.org/es/agenda/2017/03/estos-paises-tienen-la-mayor-cantidad-de-graduados-con-titulo-de-doctorado/), which is not at all a low figure in the context of the OCDE countries. Actually, the number of new doctors is growing all the time in Spain: the theses read in 2015 were 68% more than those read in 2010. This coincided with the introduction of the new 2011 national regulations for doctoral programmes and the extinction of the old ones but, anyway, it’s an amazing increase. Notice, please, that the age of the new doctors was 30-39 in 50% of the cases, with only 13’6% 29-years-old or younger (I assume that the rest, 37’4%, corresponded to persons above 40). 90% of all doctors in Spain are employed though not necessarily in their area and only a minority by commercial companies, which still don’t quite understand the value of having a PhD. A doctoral degree shows, I think, not only that the doctor is question is an intelligent person but also someone constant and capable of organizing his/her own projects. Ideally.

Many questions are being asked in relation this strange thing called a doctoral dissertation: is the world producing too many? (https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/pdf/472276a.pdf), how should they be valued socially? (https://www.eldiario.es/cienciacritica/Doctorado-ciencia-fraude-doctor-medico_6_110648947.html), what should we do to improve the situation of tutors and tutorees? (https://www.radoctores.es/doc/INFORME-GRUPO-DE-DOCTORADO-ACTUALIZADO.pdf), what good is in the end a doctoral degree? (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/10/25/59ef61f146163f721b8b465d.html).

I always heard that Cuba is the country in the world with the highest percentage of university students in relation to its total population. This factoid was usually followed by the opinion that this is bad since, as happens in Spain, a country cannot offer all its graduates high quality employment. The same argument is being invoked by those who think that not all doctors can be given satisfactory jobs: here, as we know, we are losing the best generation of Spanish researchers ever for lack of investment in research; many have migrated to richer countries, which in this way benefit from our restricted budgets. What is wrong, then, is not that we’re producing too many doctors but too little opportunities for them, possibly world-wide.

The United States shows, besides, that a country can generate a colossal amount of new doctors without this having an impact on the rest of the educational pyramid (perhaps because half or more of these new doctors are foreigners). I believe, however, that in a healthy educational system, the higher the percentage of doctors, the better all other levels should be. Doctors are not only supposed to do research but to train all the other professionals of education in secondary and primary schools. It might be even the case, then, that we need many more doctors.

Whereas in civilized nations like Germany average citizens understand the value of a doctoral degree, in Spain they don’t. This is no surprise: a barely educated society can hardly be expected to value intellectual effort, which, besides, is totally invisible outside universities. A PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge but this is a definition that does not explain what it really is: three to five years of obsessing over an obscure topic, reading non-stop, trying to generate new ideas and finally writing a thick volume, possibly 400/500 pages on average. I have never seen anyone explain our educational system in any public forum, which means that families with no graduates face a hard time understanding what their children actually do in universities. A doctoral student may simply be an incomprehensible anomaly.

Why, then, do individuals put themselves through a major effort with scarce social recognition and low professional use? The usual answer is that doctoral candidates expect to start an academic career. However, as we all know, the Spanish State decided back in 2008 to suppress all full-time contracts of the kind I myself enjoyed as a rookie teacher (I was first hired in 1991). The cost of producing doctors, it was decided, should be met by the candidates themselves, with the exception of the very few grants and scholarships available. In contrast, all doctoral students, if I recall this correctly, receive a salary in Finland. Please, consider the absurdity of our situation: instead of funding the best brains in Spain to work full-time in producing innovation, we are forcing them to produce dissertations while they are employed elsewhere, often full-time. These are adults over 25 who expect to lead a normal life and who should not sacrifice themselves for the benefit of an indifferent State (and fellow citizens). No wonder then that one third of Spanish doctoral students are at risk of suffering serious mental health problems (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/04/19/58f646dfca4741dc138b461b.html).

Unlike a BA or an MA, then, which are supposed to have immediate professional application, a PhD appears to be an unnecessary addition to one’s education in our current circumstances, in which there is no guarantee at all that it leads to a career in research. If things are bad in science and technology, just imagine what they are like in the Humanities, an area of diminishing importance in the university and of no interest for employers outside it, except schools. Even though I have seen half of my doctoral tutorees abandon their PhD (usually after three years and when writing requires concentration they could not find), I know that this type of student is immensely self-motivated. I would have written my doctoral dissertation even if not employed by my university, and so they are doing. Completing a PhD dissertation, as I saw it and as they see it, is a challenge, a test of endurance and the culmination of the process of pulling yourself up by your intellectual bootstraps. The Victorians valued self-improvement above all else in education and a PhD dissertation is the ultimate step in that sense.

Naturally, what makes PhD dissertations so hard to sell in social terms is their specificity. BA degrees are already difficult to explain to those who don’t have one: my father used to call my degree ‘English Philosophy’ rather than ‘Philology’ although I find the idea of a BA specifically on Locke, Hume, Russell and company positively eccentric. An MA is simply understood to be a specialization course and possibly makes rather good sense at a grassroots levels because it is short: one or two years at the most. But just think of a PhD!! I always tell my doctoral students that they should be able to summarize their dissertation in a catchy sentence for conversational purposes: you immediately get a glassy stare the moment you go past three sentences whenever someone asks ‘so, what’s your thesis about?’

I assume that doctoral students working in labs, or in research groups that meet frequently (never the case for the groups I’ve been a member of), enjoy the luxury of sharing their progress and doubts. In the Humanities, however, producing a PhD dissertation is, most often, a lone-wolf affair. In my view, this is the worst effect of suppressing full-time contracts in Spanish universities. The doctoral students in my Department meet once a year in February in a workshop where they offer samples of their ongoing work to fellow students and teachers. They have no other regular meetings (we don’t have doctoral courses) and, so, basically no chances to socialize in our facilities. If they do that outside, this is on the basis of personal affinity and not necessarily in relation to their research. Since most doctoral students work outside the university they are not given free days to attend conferences; at most, they spend one day at the event to present their paper, perhaps just the morning or the afternoon. The generational networking that should be happening is thus curtailed (as is the generational replacement, of course), and conferences might be facing inevitable decay.

What is it like for tutors, then? Frustrating… The frustration begins the moment a good MA student, perhaps your own dissertation tutoree, walks into your office to ask for advice about writing a PhD thesis. What used to be ‘Of course! How can I help you?’ has now become ‘Why? Are you aware that there are no openings for young scholars?’, hardly a nice way to start. I have supervised so far six dissertations but have failed to complete the supervision of four others–they are thorns in my side, because the topics were very good and because they took time that counts for nothing in my CV. I have, then, become more cautious, less enthusiastic. Even in the best cases, what should be a three-year investment of energy is now lasting up to five or even six years. I like very much the company of my PhD students but tutoring for so many years is just not what it should be, for me and for them.

In practice, then, currently all doctoral students are part-time (like, incidentally, more than 50% of our teachers) and run, thus, the risk of ‘losing cohesion’, as one of the students who abandoned me explained. One might find this counterintuitive because it might seem that research carried out in five years should be more solid than that carried out in three. This is not true: researchers get tired even of favourite topics and need to move on after a while. A PhD is, besides, mentally exhausting in a way that writing later monographs is not because it is your first battle with a very extensive piece of academic writing. Better be done with it in a shorter, more intense period than over many years–yet, this is what we have now and must put up with.

I’ll end where I started, with the yearly interviews. I find them a great idea, one of the few useful improvements in all the arbitrary changes introduced into higher education in recent decades. They are at the same time an occasion to commiserate with the poor students, who, with very few exceptions, do all they can in an almost impossible situation. I cannot help reaching the conclusion, however, that interviews have become necessary precisely because our doctoral students are not where they should be: working with us full time.

Funny how I never made an appointment to see my supervisor: I just knocked on his office door, three down the corridor from my own office… Gone are the times when this was common for most doctoral students…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN MIDDLE-EARTH AGAIN: TOLKIEN (AND WILLIAM MORRIS)

May 22nd, 2018

I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AN UNSOLVED PROBLEM: ZYGMUNT BAUMAN’S MODERNITY AND THE HOLOCAUST

May 14th, 2018

The saddest paper I have ever written is “De la Primera Guerra Mundial al Holocausto: El uso de la tecnología en la destrucción en masa del cuerpo humano” (see http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Primera%20Guerra%20Mundial%20Holocausto%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf). I’m thinking again of that paper after re-reading Zygmunt Bauman’s impressive Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). Also, because I see all over 21st century Europe a menacing rebirth of the basic tenets of Nazism. Above all, of the 19th century patriarchal völkisch ideology, focused on the nation’s salvation by a providential messianic leader who embodies its spirit–as he believes and fawning fanatics confirm.

If we are blinded to the equivalence of current populist movements with Nazism this is because most people wrongly believe that Hitler’s main aim from the very beginning of his rise to power was the Endlösung (or Final Solution). This is incorrect: anti-Semitism was present in Hitler’s ideology from the 1920s onwards but not genocide–he was obsessed, above all, by the ideal of a racially homogeneous German Reich and the Endlösung only occurred to him eventually (I follow in this English historian Ian Kershaw). Today, very similar ideologies aim at rebuilding the so-called national territory as a self-sufficient, uniform community purged of external elements. They are not, however, seen as spin-offs of Nazism because anti-Semitism is not part of their outlook. The far-right represented by UKIP is not an anti-Semitic genocidal party: the Nazi völkisch ideology, however, is part of its core beliefs. Call it Nazism, Fascism, neo-Anarchism, or post-Romantic nationalism, it’s all the same basic principle: ‘we’ exist in opposition to ‘them’ and ‘we’ are unique because ‘we’ are culturally and linguistically homogenous–even, God save us, a distinct ethnic group with the ‘right’ values.

This is why it is so important to read Bauman: because he warns us that the problem of how the Holocaust happened has not been solved for good. I’ll proceed, then, to highlight the main lessons he teaches (using his own italics throughout the post).

The first lesson is that although the Holocaust was indeed a “Jewish tragedy” (x) it was not just “a Jewish problem, and not an event in Jewish history alone” (x). The Holocaust, Bauman adds, was a product of “our modern rational society” (x). He warns us very strongly that believing in the exceptionality of the Shoah–an event now about to lose its last survivors to the passage of time–“results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament” (xii, my italics). I worry in particular about what the youngest generations know about this genocide, now that Schindler’s List (1993) is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Also, because most 21st century novels about the Holocaust are trashy, blithely sentimental tales (see https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6066.Best_Holocaust_Novels). Spielberg was accused of committing the same crime but he was never that guilty.

The Holocaust was not at all a pre-meditated plan devised by an evil villain and his henchmen but, Bauman argues, the “outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common” (xii). These factors were closely connected with Modernity in two ways: the rationalization of industry on scientific principles (inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly lines in his car factory) and the establishment of modern-style, machine-aided bureaucracy (IBM, International Business Machines Corporation, was founded in 1911). These had already been applied in WWI to create a colossal machinery of mass destruction. The collapse of German economy and of the Weimar Republic in 1929 helped, of course, Hitler to access power and to undermine from the inside the fragile German democracy. Once the structures of control over his autocratic rule were destroyed following the brutal repression of his political enemies (1930-33), Hitler faced no obstacle, as he had the complicity of the upper classes and the Prussian-style loyalty of the Army. Remember, please, that the Nazis were voted democratically into power and that Hitler was appointed Chancellor legally. By 1938 he already had the law and the executive power united in his dictatorial person.

Bauman insists that although “Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition” (13). The Jewish genocide was not at all an irrational event: “the rational world of modern civilization (…) made the Holocaust thinkable” (13); the Final Solution came from “bureaucratic culture” (15), coolly applying “routine bureaucratic procedures” (15) to human extermination. Bauman stresses that although the mass of Nazi underlings involved in the Endlösung knew very well what they were doing, most pen-pushers had little contact if any with the process itself, mostly carried out far from German offices. Bureaucracy, Bauman accuses, “is intrinsically capable of genocidal action” (106), which does not mean that all bureaucracies and each single bureaucrat act in genocidal ways. Rather, it means that if the most powerful person in Government marks a certain direction, bureaucracy will blindly follow it, and this his what happened in Nazi Germany.

Bauman is adamant that whatever allowed the Holocaust to happen between 1941 and 1945 (after the defeat in Russia that made wholesale Jewish deportation impossible and before the extermination camps were liberated by the Allies), “we cannot be sure that it has been eliminated since then” (86). In his view, we still live “in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust from happening” (86). The Holocaust will not happen exactly in the same way again, and no copycat Hitler with the same powers will arise. Bauman’s argument is that just as the Nazis could overcome the moral restraints active in the 1940s, someone else might overcome just as easily our own moral restraints. It is happening right now in the current war in Syria and to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

A note of warning: despite the lessons learned from the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis, we cannot say that the far worse threat of nuclear Holocaust is over. Far from it. As Bauman writes, “In the years leading to the Final Solution the most trusted of the safeguards had been put to a test. They all failed–one by one, and all together” (108). As they are failing now: just last week President Trump broke the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015; the whole world has complained but nothing can seemingly stop Trump. Bauman wrote back in 1989 that during the 1940s “Civilization proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being” (111) but this might apply again to the 2010s, the 2020s or whenever someone finally starts a nuclear war. Nobody will ever again gas 6,000,000 Jews in extermination camps but we need to bear in mind that 600,000,000 persons could be wiped out in a nuclear conflict. Survival could be even worse than death.

Bauman complains that the popular narratives based on the Shoah tend to portray the victims with a dignity which was simply impossible to sustain in real life. He names the 1978 TV mini-series Holocaust (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077025/) as an example of this unrealistic representation of victimhood. Naturally, if the Holocaust were represented in all its crudity, and some films come close (Son of Saul, The Grey Zone) it would be unwatchable–arguably, a sub-genre of torture porn. Perhaps that should be the whole point, though I must say in favour of Holocaust (and of Schindler’s List) that they approached the horrors of the Nazi camps to plain viewers in a way that Claude Lanzmann’s revered, stark 10-hour arthouse documentary of 1985, Shoah, never could manage.

I’m sure that whenever we read about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis we always wonder how we would have reacted. We imagine ourselves (correct me if I am wrong) as either a victim, or an ‘innocent non-Nazi bystander’ and fantasize that, if we knew that our neighbours were about to be deported and gassed, we would heroically save them. Leaving the Danish population aside, and the other well-meaning persons all over Europe who managed to defy the Nazis, this is not what happened at all. After discussing the famous experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo, which proved the propensity of all individuals to abuse fellow human beings if authorised by a superior, Bauman reaches a ghastly but realistic conclusion: “The most frightening news brought about the Holocaust and by what we learned of its perpetrators was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it” (152). The persons who actively participated in the Holocaust were, as a flabbergasted Hannah Arendt discovered during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, normal–perhaps 10% were sadists to begin with but 90% were just carrying out orders (and keeping a low profile if they disagreed with their bosses). This is easy to imagine: think of the engineers designing the bombs that kill children in Syria returning every evening to the comfort of their middle-class homes.

One of the most chilling passages in Mein Kampf (1925), among the many in this crazy book, appears in Chapter II. “There were very few Jews in Linz”, his home town, Hitler recalls. The Linz Jews, he explains, “had become Europeanized in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans” (my italics). Hitler did not “perceive the absurdity of such an illusion” because the Jews were like any other ordinary Linz fellow-citizen, except for “the practice of their strange religion”. Pay attention now (my italics): “As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism”. This, he claims, was something he discovered in cosmopolitan Vienna.

There was a time, then, when young Hitler was not a Jew hater. That he could become eventually the arch-Jewish hater shows that he was persuaded by an already widespread, prejudiced ideology which ignited fanatic flames ready to burst in his brain but also in many other brains. A concatenation of appalling circumstances put absolute power in his hands and then Hitler proceeded to commit one of the worst atrocities the world has seen using, as Bauman stresses, the tools that Modernity had already developed for his grisly project. Bowing before his power, others helped Hitler to use these tools, because they shared his fanaticism and rotten beliefs. They were all, however, normal people–not evil monsters from Hell. As normal as you and me, though convinced that by torturing and killing fellow human beings according to the atrocious ideology embodied by their messianic leader they were working for the good of their nation. They felt morally authorized. Put it the other way round, if you will: tell ordinary people that they must protect the nation and they will do anything–from fighting in wars to committing genocide. This is normal human behaviour, enhanced in our times by Modernity.

Reading Bauman’s volume is fundamental to understand that, as he so convincingly argues, the Holocaust was not an sporadic descent into barbarism but the very essence of 20th century Modernity. Hitler took advantage of the German humiliation after WWI to present himself as the völkisch leader that would return to the nation its lost dignity. He then destroyed not only the Jews but also most of his own nation: the Machine–as J.R.R. Tolkien, another WWI veteran, called Modernity–was at his service both in the camps and in the Wehrmacht. Since there is a relatively short distance between 1918 and 1945 but a much longer time lapse between that date and 2018 we tend to believe that the risk of a new Hitler and a new Holocaust is over. However, as Bauman stressed and Tolkien defended, only the rejection of Modernity itself can save us.

This doesn’t mean a return to pre-history–for God knows what Homo Sapiens did to the poor Neanderthals then–but questioning the benefits of Modernity. Many argue that progress and the barbaric go together in Modernity but this seems to be a spurious argument aimed at defending barbarism. It should also be time to move beyond the ideologies of the 19th century with their ethnic and racial obsessions and work for the good of the whole human species. For planet Earth will go on until the Sun goes supernova, whether we’re on it or not.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TUTORING TFG/BA DISSERTATIONS ON VIDEOGAMES IN ENGLISH STUDIES: THE WALKING DEAD AND THE LAST OF US

May 7th, 2018

I have access at home to three consoles, none of which I can operate–the plain truth is that I’m not a gamer and might never be. I do care, however, for how videogames are evolving. Nobody should ignore them if only because for more than a decade they have been generating much bigger business than films. Besides, they are a favourite entertainment among those born from the 1970s onward (but note: around 10% of all gamers are past 50 years of age). There are already two generations of gamers, mainly male but also increasingly female (excuse the gender binarism).

Genderwise, though, the videogame industry is particularly problematic. The news and the social media offer abundant complaints from the women in the field, mostly gamers but also developers and executives. They are routinely subjected to aggressive male chauvinism, a situation specially worrying because it is caused by patriarchal younger men. Women are not told to stay away from books, plays, comics, music, films or series appealing to men. In the gamers’ world, in contrast, misogynistic attitudes are common and result, in the worst cases, in women’s eviction from some particularly masculinist territories.

Why this sexist territorialism? The most recalcitrant men have found shelter in videogames after abandoning other domains of entertainment/culture convinced that they were being feminized: reading, above all, but also any activity that may seem passive, such as seeing films in cinemas or watching TV at home. For the patriarchal men videogames appear to solve two interrelated problems: how to approach entertainment in a more active way and how to keep the alleged threat of feminization away. The moment the more active girls have demanded admission into the all-male territory, the trolls have reacted as what they are. The truth, however, is that videogames are not as active as these patriarchal gamers assume, but rather passive. From a feminist point of view it also must be noted that their opening up towards a more egalitarian stance in some of their most advanced plotlines is not substantially altering their patriarchal narratives. Since I don’t play, how do I know? Easy: I have learned from my students.

Last year an ex-student returned to UAB after an absence of twenty years to finish his degree. In the meantime, Josué Monchán had become a well-known videogame professional as writer, translator and popularizer. It seemed, then, logical for him to focus his TFG on this field, though not so logical that I became his tutor. This was a case of nobody else wanting to take the challenge and of my accepting on the grounds that Games Studies is a branch of Cultural Studies, my area. Josué focused his TFG/BA dissertation on a very popular videogame, The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) inspired by the TV series (now in its eighth season), adapted in its turn from a graphic novel. Having seen a few seasons of the series, I felt confident that I would understand the gist of his research. He explored player’s agency and, to summarize his very sophisticated dissertation, Josué argued that even in the most accomplished games it is impossible to offer as much agency as the player demands. The multiple choices which open up at each plot turn need to be limited, or else force the studio to make a ruinous investment. Enjoy the TFG: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/181036.

In hindsight, I realize that we were after all approaching gaming from a Gender Studies angle, as, basically, Josué explained that videogames attract gamers by lying about the degree of agency they will enjoy. Gamers are ultimately far more passive than the jumping on the sofa fuelled by all that adrenaline suggests. In any case, Josué didn’t look in detail into the gender dynamics of The Walking Dead, a horror survival videogame which narrates how, in the context of a zombie apocalypse, university professor and convicted criminal Lee Everett rescues and afterwards protects young Clementine.

One year later, I find myself tutoring another undergrad student with a great enthusiasm for videogames. Andrea’s TFG deals with The Last of Us–a horror survival game that narrates how smuggler Joel accepts protecting young Ellie in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Talk about déjà vu! A few months ago, I knew nothing about The Last of Us (2013, Naughty Dog), an extremely popular quality videogame, honoured with many major awards and already a contemporary classic. Now I can boast that I have even lectured about it! When Josué invited me offer an introduction to Masculinities Studies to his class in the BA ‘Creación y narración de videojuegos’ (Universidad Francisco Victoria), I cheekily asked to discuss The Last of Us. It was great to share my impressions for once with a male majority in class (12 young men, 3 women).

Andrea is analyzing the gender issues in The Last of Us, specifically the allegedly progressive characterization of the female lead, Ellie. The plot (for this is a narrative or adventure videogame) takes one year to unfold; in three of the seasons the gamer plays through Joel, but in one the game is focalized through Ellie. Technically, both are the main lead. I found everything I read about The Last of Us (including some academic work) very interesting. It never occurred to me last year that I should have watched a walkthrough (a video of the game as actually played) to understand gameplay in The Walking Dead. This time, curioser and curioser, I selected a condensed walkthrough on YouTube and spent… 6 hours watching it. The full game, incidentally, takes a maximum of 15/17 hours to play, depending on the gamer’s skills.

Actually, I first watched one hour of a 10-hour walkthrough (this is average, it seems) to get the basics of the gameplay. The 6-hour version was more dynamic but also far more complete than the 90’/120’ plot-driven versions also available. These reduce The Last of Us to its bare bones acting as the equivalent of a possible film adaptation. Let me explain that I chose to spend the 6 hours watching The Last of Us after reaching the conclusion that this is not longer than reading each of the novels my other tutorees are working on (see my previous post). I simply loved the experience!: at one point I even stayed glued to my tablet for 3 hours. Also, please believe me, I was deeply moved by the initial segment and devastated by the end section, like many other YouTube spectators as I saw from their comments.

I understand Andrea’s interest in Ellie, though I have already warned her that women’s characterization in male-dominated media is always limited. I must note that script writer (and co-director) Neil Druckmann tries hard to offer a variety of male characters. They include not only white Joel and his brother but also two loving African-American brothers and what I will call paradoxical examples of homosexuality… and of cannibalism. Druckmann also tries seriously not to stereotype women as sexy toys. The female characters are far less diverse but Ellie, and specially Joel’s partner Tess, offer a convincing example of tough, self-reliant femininity.

What I didn’t anticipate is that Joel’s characterization would shake the foundations of my own Gender Studies research. Here is your classic handsome, rugged, mature Texan, helping Ellie to cross a devastated American landscape, using all the violence he can muster against the zombie hordes. Or, rather, ‘infected’ since they’re living individuals plagued by a scary fungal parasite. Ellie needs protection because she is immune and might be the key to a vaccine, to be developed in a secret lab hundreds of miles away. Why is Joel appealing if all this seems so typically malestream? Because he is not sexist. Or is he?

Druckmann became a father in the course of writing The Last of Us and this explains the emphasis on Joel’s paternal (or paternalistic?) stance towards Ellie. This is complicated, nonetheless, because for her to become his focus of attention, Joel has to lose first his biological daughter, Sarah, in awful circumstances–this is how the game begins. This child is a ‘woman in the refrigerator’, as the trope of the female who dies so that the hero can begin his adventure was christened back in 1999, in relation to the death of Green Lantern’s girlfriend. Still grieving, Joel takes a long time to sort out his feelings for Ellie and trust her own survival abilities but he makes the required effort successfully. He, in short, learns to see Ellie as a complete human being. Add to this that Joel treats Tess as his total equal.

Faced at the end of the videogame with the problem of where his loyalty lies, with Ellie or with the US civilization he is being asked to save (split between a militaristic Government and anarchist guerrilla forces), Joel makes a controversial choice. I can only say that it astonished me because it is coherently heroic but also appallingly villainous. I take my hat off before Druckmann! However, and this is a major snag, Joel takes his decision alone, bypassing Ellie’s opinion and agency even though she is the subject of that choice. Here’s, then, the quandary: is Joel yet another patriarchal chauvinist, or a man with his heart in the right place?

What worries me about Joel, then, is that he seems to exemplify an insidious ongoing trend. Patriarchal storytelling, including videogames, may be evolving towards plots that, while not overtly sexist or misogynistic (even quite the opposite), are still patriarchal. This means man-centred and based on deploying an ultra-violent heroic narrative, in which men make if not all at least most choices. You need to wonder why the two major videogames that my tutorees have chosen (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us) share the same storyline. I speculated in my lecture that Joel, the paradoxically ultra-violent good guy, and his kind aim at claiming back for men the debased role of protector, which explains the zombie/infected scenario. The contradictory feeling they inspire, even in feminist women like yours truly, is that they would be perfect companions in situations of danger. They want to protect us, as the idealized knights did but without the sexism, never mind how oxymoronic this sounds. As one of the young men in class told me ‘this sounds far-fetched, but might well be the case’. What worries me is that this type of effective protector only appears in violent fictions and not in the violent situations of real life, in which justice is needed. If you take the monsters away, could Joel channel his profound protective instinct towards justice? What would happen to his capacity for violence? If Tess had been entrusted with protecting Ellie, would The Last of Us be the same or substantially different, taking into account she uses plenty of violence, too?

I asked Andrea how it felt to be a woman and ‘play’ Joel because much has been written about boys manipulating female characters in videogames but very little, if anything, about the opposite case. Challenging, she said. The right word.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CONFUSED BY LOVE: READING ANDRÉ ACIMAN’S CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

April 24th, 2018

[Warning: this post deals with the novel Call Me by Your Name and contains spoilers!]

One of my TFG (or BA dissertation) tutorees, Marc, has chosen to work on the novel Call Me by Your Name (2007) by Egyptian-born American author André Aciman. You may have already seen the successful film adaptation directed by Lucca Guadagnino and based on a script by acclaimed filmmaker James Ivory, who was honoured with an Oscar for it. I am aware that the film is quite faithful to the novel but, since I haven’t seen it yet, I will refer here only to Aciman’s gorgeous text.

Call Me by Your Name is an exquisite literary novel which narrates in the first person the relationship between 17-year-old Elio (the narrator) and 24-year-old Oliver, a brilliant college teacher and published scholar. Prof. Perlman, Elio’s father, has the habit of inviting budding academics to his Italian Riviera villa for a six-week stay during which they are supposed to assist him in his own work. Oliver is, then, the last addition to the list of guests, whereas his brief sojourn with the Perlmans functions as the time frame constraining his relationship with Elio. Their love story, which happens in summer, fits in many ways the conventions of this kind of transient romance: it is intense but brief and it finishes as soon as the participants return home.

Since they are two men, inevitably Call Me by Your Name has been read as a homosexual story– as a matter of fact, it got a Lambda Award for Best Gay Fiction in 2008. This is quite peculiar because actually both boy and man are in relationships with women: Elio has a besotted girlfriend, Marzia, whom he treats not too kindly, and, this is crucial, Oliver returns home to the United States to marry an unnamed girl. Technically, then, this is the story of two bisexual men. However, Aciman refrains from pinning any label onto his protagonists and their relationship; we need to wonder, then, why we, readers and critics, do use labels anyway. This is in fact my student Marc’s research question.

Marc started off from a position which completely rejects how labels are used, arguing that Elio and Oliver are involved primarily in a love story, with their gender and sexuality being of secondary interest. This would work, I told him, if the members of the couple could be other than two men, and we agreed that they could easily be two women, and even a young man and an older woman. Turning Elio into Elia, however, would result in quite a different story: one framed by patriarchal heteronormativity. A surprising point in the romance happens when Prof. Perlman books a luxury suit in Rome for Elio and Oliver, aware of what has been going on between them under his roof. Marc and I read this as proof that, quite possibly, Prof. Perlman is a closeted homosexual. What would not fit, at any rate, our current politically correct taste is a story in which a father would book a hotel room for his underage daughter and her lover, and be fine about her having seduced one of his guests. Odd. Labels, then, are still needed.

Not that Call Me by Your Name is not an odd tale. Reversing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), in Aciman’s novel the one who obsesses over a beautiful male body is the adolescent (though Oliver, of course, is a young man whereas Mann’s voyeuristic Gustav von Aschenbach is in his early fifties). Elio’s erudition and fine prose are simply baffling. He belongs to a family of Jewish intellectuals, which might be a justification for the passion he feels for high Culture. Still, he’s only 17 and, since I was myself 17 at the time he lives his summer romance, in 1983, I can tell you that he is a completely unrealistic rendition of a 1980s teenager. He sounds, in fact, like someone out of a Thomas Mann novel, perhaps Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. I don’t doubt the intensity of the feelings Elio has for Oliver, but I find it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old would ever write in that subtle vein about them. Unless, that is, the one actually writing the story retrospectively is the 37-year-old Elio of the last part, set in the author’s narrative present.

It is this segment, Part 4 ‘Ghost Spots’, which makes Call Me by Your Name a particularly ambiguous text about modern love. As I explained to Marc, whatever gender and sex option we prefer, we’re awfully confused about how we want our love stories to end: if the couple remains together, then what follows is dreaded domesticity, a total anticlimax; it seems, rather, that we prefer the lovers to separate for ever, if possible tragically, as this prevents domesticity from spoiling passion. Aciman, though, chooses a peculiar third option: he has Elio and Oliver get together for a return to the landscape where their love flourished so many years ago, but he offers an open end. No decision is made, albeit Elio seems to be hoping that Oliver takes a step.

This might never happen, however, because he and Elio spend the first four weeks of their 1980s summer romance giving each other very confusing signals as they feign mutual indifference for strange personal reasons. This is more or less justified because Oliver worries that Elio might not really be ready for a sexual relationship with him, and also because the boy is still finding his feet as a seducer. As I read the novel, though, and because we live in the Tinder/Grindr age, I marvelled that any two persons could take so long to express their desire. To be honest, I started getting impatient, absurdly concerned that they would run out of time! Elio’s and Oliver’s cavalier use of time presents, as you can see, a serious obstacle to believe in a possible happy future together, now in the 21st century. Marc tells me that Guadagnino and Ivory are working on a second movie, so we’ll see…

Let me step back a bit and return to this puzzling Part 4. As I was explaining, the summer romance ends, simply, with Oliver’s return home. I find Aciman’s decision not to continue the love story (by, for instance, having Elio become a student in the USA and Oliver abandon his fiancée) correct. A 17-year-old boy seems to be in no position to commit for long, as most likely Oliver sees. This is hard to say, anyway, because and this is my main complaint against this discerning novel, Oliver remains a cipher. He is all handsome face and sexy body, but not a full person, a round character. But never mind. Assuming, then, that it makes sense to keep the two lovers apart as long as Elio is young, I cannot see, however, why Aciman stages their reunion 20 years later. It seems a very long time. Unless, that is, the author is narrating autobiographical events that simply happened in that way.

This long time lapse is a vital part in how Call Me by Your Name exemplifies modern love, for protagonists, author, and readers share a total uncertainty about romance. Conventionally, love stories are supposed to be intense but, like Elio and Oliver, we now avoid deep feelings out of fear of being excessively affected, or hurt. When romantic feelings start looming anyway, quite often the relationship is cut short, though this is, I think, far more frequent in real life than in fiction (is it?!). This is why Aciman’s novel is so original and at the same time so realistic: there is no tragedy (remember Brokeback Mountain?), just a logical, sensible drifting apart.

Or not so logical. Elio and Oliver’s passion could have been presented as a happy physical relationship within a specific period of their lives, and it would work well. Nevertheless, Aciman felt the need to add that problematic Part 4, which suggests that it was really love, of the kind Elio has never found (we’re not sure about Oliver, who seems more keen on being a father than a husband). But, then, if that summer fling was true love, why does Elio take so long to seek Oliver out…? You may sense here a hidden (or not so hidden) fear that the renewed relationship might not be as exciting, sexy or satisfying. To begin with the seven years separating Elio and Oliver, which made their first encounter so problematic but also so thrilling, mean now nothing: one is 37 and the other 44, practically the same age.

Of course, if we compare Call Me by Your Name to the most popular heterosexual romance of recent times, the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, we immediately realize that Aciman’s elegant final paragraph is light years away from the cheesy heteronormative resolution which E.L. James offers. The two texts, however, are at the same time inevitably linked: neither makes sense of how sex and love connect, and I very much suspect that, even though he could not have read James’s first novel, published four years before Call Me by Your Name, Aciman is conditioned by the happy-ever-after trope she uses against all odds. That is to say, he avoids it like the plague it is.

This is both a strength and a shortcoming of Call Me by Your Name, published at a point in the history of the United States, 2007, when same-sex marriage was already available (Massachusetts was the first state to legalize it, in 2004). We need to read, then, in Aciman’s open end a question mark about how to narrate romance today, when a main homophobic barrier has already been broken. Perhaps the remaining barrier is aesthetic and Aciman’s main dilemma is that although Elio’s inspired prose can transmit the nuances of attraction, it cannot accommodate the corny image of his walking down the aisle to marry Oliver twenty years later. And I have no idea, begging your pardon, whether any other LGTBI+ novel has managed to conquer something as essentially heteronormative as marriage for classy, literary queer romance. Or reinvent it.

Lovely novel… Wistful ending.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A CLOSER LOOK AT PATRIARCHY THROUGH SOME KEY BOOKS

April 17th, 2018

Since I am always ranting and raving about patriarchy, I have been taking a closer look at the key bibliography on the topic. The discussion of patriarchy appears to be disseminated among many heterogeneous texts and has not generated one single essential volume, though I grant that Austrian-American historian Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) comes close. Also, the monograph by British sociologist Sylvia Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (1990). I haven’t read yet Transformations of Patriarchy in the West, 1500-1900 (1998) by the historian of sociology Pavla Miller, nor her new volume, simply called Patriarchy (2017). Whatever I say here is, then, woefully underresearched.

My own enlightenment about how patriarchy has pulled the trick of making itself absolutely dominant yet invisible, camouflaged as ‘human nature’, came from Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (1993). I have no idea why this book is so little mentioned; perhaps Penguin’s decision to place it in its Arkana collection has made many readers avoid it supposing this is a book on esoteric feminism. It is not, beyond leaning a bit too heavily on the theory supposing that Homo Sapiens first organized society along matriarchal lines and the cult of an Earth Goddess. This has not been proven, although the remains of Turkish proto-urban Neolithic (and Chalcolithic) settlement of Çatal Höyük suggest that non-patriarchal arrangements did happen. Baring and Cashford explain that by the end of Neolithic times nomadic bands, probably from Central Asia, colonized the Middle East, imposing a regime based on male dominance then new to most of the world. Lerner narrates how this regime started History by making private patriarchy the foundation of the state, that is to say, of public patriarchy. Proof of this is the Hammurabi Code (1754 BC), though at this point it must be clear to you that the history of patriarchy is much older than 3000 years.

We are going now through an intense examination of patriarchy, a word which has taken quite a while to finally appear in the media and public opinion as the root of all trouble. Patriarchy used to mean ‘the rule of the father’ but we are all aware now that it actually means ‘male supremacism’. This poses the problem I am trying personally to solve (ehem!), which is how we distinguish between the men who support masculinism (another name for ‘male supremacism’) and those who don’t. Supposing that all men are patriarchal is like supposing that all whites are racist, but, then, if this is what you do suppose, my arguments won’t work with you.

I can’t say with precision when the Second Wave feminist debate on patriarchy begins (possibly with The Second Sex) but I can say that a turning point was the publication in 1973 of Steven Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy (known since its second expanded edition as Why Men Rule (1993), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Inevitability_of_Patriarchy). Goldberg, simplifying very much, started (or reinforced) biological essentialism and evolutionary biology by claiming that men rule because testosterone inclines them in that direction.

This is why, he claimed, all over the world we have the same social structure supported by patriarchy (the power-based hierarchy), male attainment (the ‘achievements’ that give men a place in patriarchy) and male dominance (self-explanatory). He himself claims in his website (http://www.goldberg-patriarchy.com/logic.html), in the long section counterarguing accusations of sexism, that his research descriptive, not prescriptive, for “No scientific explanation of how the world works can tell us how we should politically or morally act”. In short, he offers a diagnosis on which society then can act, even in anti-patriarchal ways. Supposing we accept this diagnosis (I certainly don’t) the only solution for patriarchy is, as he more or less concludes, a genetic intervention to curb down testosterone and produce a post-humanity with the right hormone balance. The word you’re looking for is preposterous. At least I’m glad a man, not a woman, is suggesting this.

The obvious solution is education, based on the fundamental tenet that “Patriarchy is not a historical constant” (Walby, 173) and on the hope that, therefore, patriarchy can be ended. This is why understanding how it began is so important: because this historicity justifies the idea that, pace Goldberg, patriarchy is not inevitable. If it were, I, a woman, wouldn’t be here expressing my opinion against it, to begin with.

Lerner believes that in a span of about 1000 years “patriarchal dominance moved from private practice into public law” by making “the control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, (…) a matter of state regulation” (121); this made it necessary to set up public law. I have little doubt that this neatly ties up with private property: the alpha male (with high testosterone?) who first announced “this is mine”, whatever ‘this’ was, needed to make sure that his property would pass on to a male heir, hence the obsession with regulating virginity and all female sexuality. Also, as novelist Lorenzo Mediano wonderfully explains in his novel El secreto de la Diosa (2003), patriarchy may have started when Neolithic men finally realized how sex connects with reproduction–the time lapse between intercourse and birth may have been used by women to convince them that they created life alone and to maintain the cult of the Goddess.

Lerner makes the case that, in essence, the links between the patriarchal family and the paternalistic state have survived thousands of years of changes. An essential aspect of this process was the rise of monotheistic, patriarchal religion and, as we all know, its use to convince women of their secondary status. This is, Lerner, says, “the historic moment of the death of the Mother-Goddess and her replacement by God-the-Father and the metaphorical Mother under patriarchy” (198), precisely what Baring and Cashford narrate. As it is obvious if you know any woman with deep monotheistic religious convictions (Jewish, Christian, Islamic), “The system of patriarchy can function only with the cooperation of women” (217). Sorry if I’m being offensive, but if you’re a woman, and much more so if you’re a mother, ask yourself why you need to believe in a male God as the world’s creator.

Lerner lists other ways in which patriarchy ensures our cooperation: “gender indoctrination; educational deprivation; the denial to women of knowledge of their history; the dividing of women, one from the other, by defining ‘respectability’ and ‘deviance’ according to women’s sexual activities; by restraints and outright coercion; by discrimination in access to economic resources and political power; and by awarding class privileges to conforming women” (217). This was published in 1986 but thirty years later still makes sense. If you think about it, 200 years of feminism (starting with Mary Wollstonecraft) can hardly dent thousands of years of patriarchy.

Walby typically defines patriarchy “as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (20), denying the biological determinism defended by Goldberg but also the “notion that every individual man is in a dominant position and every woman in a subordinate one” (20). This is, precisely, why I cannot agree that patriarchy is constituted to subordinate women only: when pro-feminist men started giving their view of the matter in the late 1980s they stressed that actually patriarchy is also destroying the lives of many men (think of conscription in war times, for instance).

Most interestingly, Walby presents patriarchy as a flexible model “composed of six structures: the patriarchal mode of production, patriarchal relations in paid work, patriarchal relations in the state, male violence, patriarchal relations in sexuality, and patriarchal relations in cultural institutions” (20). This explains why at some points “some of the structures are more important than others. The elimination of any does not lead to the demise of the system as a whole” (177). Think of the Cold War: the Eastern communist block and the Western capitalist block were equally patriarchal though each foregrounded a different set of beliefs. How do I know that both were patriarchal when, actually, the Soviet Union presented itself as the utopian state in which women could finally enjoy total equality? Easily: there was never a Politburo (or Soviet Government) headed by a woman or with a significant female representation.

In patriarchies, like ours, in which hegemonic masculinity is at high risk of collapsing, the system makes room for women at the lower levels and occasionally at the upper ones but the glass ceiling of masculinism prevents radical change. I may be a university teacher, something my own mother could never dream of, but the university itself is still deeply patriarchal.

British historian Jill Stephenson’s Women in Nazi Germany (2001) is also very useful to understand something that has always puzzles me: how come that so many women work outside the home in patriarchies which insist that their nature is domestic. The plainly misogynistic, masculinist Nazi regime tried to exclude women from the public sphere and deployed a vast propaganda machine to convince ‘Aryan’ women to fill the Third Reich with perfect ‘Aryan’ babies. At the same time, the complex state machinery and the economy needed women to participate, particularly in the 1939-45 war period, when the ‘Aryan’ men were sent to occupy Europe. In the face of these incompatible demands, many ‘Aryan’ women reacted by dragging their feet, having not too many children and even shirking factory work. The actual truth, Stephenson writes, is that Nazi patriarchy didn’t exclude women from all kinds of work but only from the very high positions of power. Women were “a resource to be tapped when necessary and dispensed with when there were sufficient men” (72). Funnily, this excluded the Wehrmacht.

Stephenson categorically denies that gender lines operate in a clearly-defined way even in the most blatant patriarchies, like Nazi Germany: “Even if the only people wielding political power were men, the vast majority of men were politically impotent” (5). That most Nazis were men, does not mean that being a man in their regime granted you a privilege, as Communists men first learned, and then Jewish men, Roma and Sinti men, gay men. Actually racist/patriarchal criteria were applied above gender/patriarchal criteria: Jewish women and children were massacred, as ‘Aryan’ women were pressured to produce children (or sterilized if deemed ‘worthless’: ‘asocial’ or ‘hereditarily unhealthy’). The correct picture of patriarchy is rather, one of a minority of Nazi men gathered around alpha male Hitler, oppressing the rest of society, with the collaboration of a minority of subordinated women.

The hardest passage to read in Stephenson’s volume is this one: “There were women who collaborated in the worst crimes of the Nazis (…). Women were, clearly, neither better nor worse than men. The difference was that men had more opportunity to commit crimes against humanity, given their greater role in the public sphere, including serving in the Wehrmacht. It was when women were given the opportunity that their potential for evil could be judged” (128, my italics). Nazism, then, which only accepted women in Hitler’s coterie as pliant wives or as pets (Eva Braun), placed, however, some of their female adepts in positions where they could exercise unlimited power over defenceless persons. I’ll speculate that the horrors that ensued may have even surprised some of the Nazi men. It is still very hard for me to believe that gender equality might lead in the future to a female-dominated, genocidal regime but Stephenson’s work presents patriarchy not so much a social structure based on gender but on power. Power, in its turn, is not enjoyed by all men, but by a minority, backed by a minority of women also seeking the enjoyment of power. I refuse to call these Nazi women victims of patriarchy (just in case this came to your mind).

I’m still shuddering, thinking of Stephenson’s phrase: ‘given the opportunity’. Perhaps Goldberg’s thesis should be rephrased: what we face is the inevitability of gender-neutral oligarchy. Given the opportunity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT ABOUT THE LITTLE BOYS?: LOOKING FOR NEW MODELS

April 10th, 2018

These days all of Catalonia is choosing the books that our family, partners and friends will receive on Saint Jordi’s Day. One thing you may have noticed is that there is a significant increase in the offer of books about feminism and, generally, women’s issues. These include many volumes addressed to little girls; particularly popular among them are the collections of brief biographies of prominent women, such as Elena Favilli’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (and its sequel). I have purchased a copy for one of the rebel girls in my family circle, as she specifically asked for it, though with some doubts. It turns out that Favilli’s selection includes, hold my breath!, notorious women such as Margaret Thatcher. This means that I’ll have to caution my little rebel to distinguish between the truly positive role models for women and the ones that, following current nomenclature, I would call toxic.

Now, toxic is a word that you hear now frequently in connection to masculinity (it’s a word I try to avoid as it always brings to my mind Britney Spear’s eponymous hit song and then it stays on for while…argh!). And it is a word that has complicated enormously the production of similarly inspiring volumes for little boys. Something I didn’t quite mention in my previous post about Pablo Poo’s excellent Espabila Chaval, is that the title itself highlights that the problematic teens in Spanish secondary schools are males. He makes no specific comment on gender but implicit in his diagnosis is the idea that boys, rather more than girls, need to ‘wise up’. In short, most non-fiction texts addressing men today, as the #metoo campaign still unfolds, are mainly negative and tend to present, as I have noted, masculinity as toxic. What happens, then, as a young woman posted, in a GoodReads comment on Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, if you happen to be the parent of a little boy? What advice and what stories can you offer him?

I asked my new publisher in Catalan, Hugo Camacho (www.orcinypress.com) during a recent meeting at one of the most interesting bookshops in Barcelona (Espai Contrabandos, www.contrabandos.org/espai-contrabandos) for his opinion. Contrabandos, actually a cooperative project connecting dozens of small independent presses rather than just a bookshop, specializes in books aimed at raising political awareness at all levels. Hugo and I were, thus, surrounded by a few hundred books on gender and feminism, none of which addressed specifically little boys. Hugo tells me that readers, who are mainly female, are now demanding books on women and that publishers go with the tide. He agreed that there is no room right now for the kind of book on male heroes that was common a while ago (no Good Night Stories for Rebel Boys, then). I don’t like gender separatism at all, and I think it’s about time we put together a volume with positive role models for both boys and girls but Hugo corrected my idealism and stressed we haven’t reached that point yet.

I should say, however, that this is an urgent task. The reasoning is quite simple: boys and girls are co-educated and interact socially all the time, not to mention the basic fact that, regardless of their gender and sexual preferences, they constitute future society and are already a mixed-gender community. It makes, then, absolutely no sense at all to boost girls’ self-confidence and to make at the same time all boys the object of a blanket attack that should only apply to those endorsing patriarchy. Even if we assume that the budding patriarchs are the majority, my argument still applies: it is extremely important to find for them alternative models that undermine the appeal of toxic patriarchal masculinity. The problem, I’m well aware, is that the heroic discourse based on real-life persons works better for girls today than for boys: it is easier to find female heroes who had to struggle to be respected in their own patriarchal context, even when they did not call themselves feminist (please exclude Maggie Thatcher from this argument–she was in total collusion with patriarchy). In contrast, all habitual heroic role models for boys are, one way or another, tainted by patriarchy.

Let’s take a look at the main areas of human activity to consider where we may find positive figures for young men (and start thinking of names):

*sport, including e-sports, both individual and team sports, summer and winter varieties, and, indeed, adventure sports
*arts, from the fine arts to the popular arts: writing, cinema, TV, videogames, radio, comics, illustration, painting, sculpture, performing arts…
*science and technology: laboratory work, engineering of all kinds, and a huge etc., including space exploration (which used to be so exciting!)
*intellectual work, usually expressed in writing but not the kind of artistic writing I listed above
*teaching, at all levels, kindergarten to college
*architecture, including urban planning and interventions in the landscape
*law enforcement, from police to the judiciary
*care of persons, from medicine to fire services; include care of animals, too
*humanitarian work, in and outside NGOs
*activism, including environmentalism, gender issues, racism, anti-capitalism and any other form of struggle against discrimination and injustice
*politics, both in conventional party structures in democracies or in the opposition under tyrannies
*business, particularly business following less predatory strategies
*unionism
*social media/celebrity, with youtubers and Instagrammers at the top
*the military…

At this point we start seeing where the problem lies: none of these areas is free from the patriarchal taint, with some being the most direct expression of patriarchy (the military, above all). Even in areas that should respect egalitarian principles–like unionism, humanitarian work, and activism–there have been constant complaints regarding abuses and misbehaviour, I’m sure some are fresh in your mind (Oxfam in Haiti?).

This means that we risk a total collapse of the categories ‘great man’ and ‘admirable man’, even plain ‘good man’. This might seem to be a cause for celebration, particularly for radical feminism, but it is actually a very serious problem. Plainly: without positive models to imitate, and told that they’re the product of toxic masculinity (please, always use ‘patriarchal’), many young boys might react by embracing the worst forms of patriarchal entitlement. I correct myself: many (most?) are already doing that. Patriarchy has, precisely, used this strategy against, us, women: by depriving us of positive role models and denying the achievements of many women in the past, our self-confidence has been heavily undermined. Still today, many of us exhibit what I can only call the traits of our deeply engrained slave mentality. We are now finally lashing out against patriarchy for mistreating us and this is why we need to understand that if we deny men their own positive role models this will also result in a backlash–a patriarchal one against our very own interests.

Of course, I realize that the task of finding a new, alternative list of heroes is daunting because it seems that there is hardly a man on Earth who is not guilty of espousing a patriarchal attitude and behaviour if only at specific times in their lives (the media are these days busy outing basically all public male figures). They are all presumed guilty, which is not really as it should be. Supposing that we agree, for the sake of argumentation, that, say, Mahatma Ghandi, is the greatest man in all of human History and the best role model for young boys, we immediately see the problem: it doesn’t work, just as being told that Mother Theresa was a great woman doesn’t work for girls. Too saintly. I mean, rather, someone more directly imitable–young girls may connect with Malala, but who is the equivalent for young boys? Is Leo Messi the best we can do? (if you forget for a second the patriarchal lines along which football operates).

It occurs to me that the necessary thing to do is to progress beyond the biographical approach and to use, for instance, the list of areas I mention here as the framework. If anyone is listening, I would like to buy next Saint Jordi 2019 a book that speaks both to girls and boys, and that offers portraits of great figures, both male and female, in a variety of fields. I acknowledge that I’m by no means sure that there is anyone to admire right now in the fields of politics and, indeed, the military but, perhaps we might find someone who has truly worked for justice on egalitarian foundations. Perhaps I should start a poll! The problem with the existing ones, obviously, is that the persons invited to vote for a favourite hero choose along easy, conventional lines, and not following the gender awareness criteria I am supporting. Try explaining to a young boy why Edward Snowden rather than Leo Messi should be admired (and I hope it doesn’t turn out that Snowden is also tainted, one patriarchal way or the other–yes I do recall that he lives in Putin’s Russia… deep sigh!).

Perhaps the current obsession with superheroes, leaving aside the economic interests of Marvel and DC Comics, has very much to do with the general inability to find admirable real-life men. Funnily, Superman, now 80 years old, still embodies much we admire in men, without being a patriarch (or is he?, I should check with Lois Lane) and taking into account the fact that he is a (privileged) white male. We need to remember, however, that he is an alien and, hence, even more impossible to use as role model than human Gandhi. It might be either too early–or too late if you consider Trump–for new heroes to be born that can be both masculine and anti-patriarchal, that is to say, the good men little boys need to look up to.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IT COULD HAPPEN ANYWHERE: SINCLAIR LEWIS, THE RISE OF FASCISM (AND KENNETH JOHNSON’S LIZARDS)

April 3rd, 2018

I recently downloaded Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Can’t_Happen_Here) by mistake, believing it was the source for the delicious Frank Capra comedy film You Can’t Take it with You (1938, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can’t_Take_It_with_You_(film)). Any fool can see that the titles are very different but, well, mistakes do happen… I had read another novel by Lewis, Babbitt (1922), which I enjoyed (apparently it earned him the Nobel Prize in 1930) and, so, I decided to make the best of my blunder and read It Can’t Happen Here.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) is often confused with Upton Sinclair (1878-1958), who was actually Lewis’s mentor in his youth, during the years when he worked at Helicon Home Colony (1906-7), Upton Sinclair’s utopian project in Englewood (New Jersey). Later, the two authors became estranged and, funnily, Upton Sinclair appears mentioned several times as a crank in It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis names many other real-life persons). Incidentally, Upton Sinclair became famous thanks to his muck-raking novel The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the US meatpacking industry, which led to the passage of new legislation shortly thereafter. This book is the oldest predecessor of Eric Schlosser’s no less controversial Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), a highly recommended read.

It turns out that Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here has been in the news recently because it has been an object of a second stage adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen (2016), intended to replace the one written by Lewis himself with John C. Moffitt (1936) for Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project. Also, sales of this not too well-known novel have been booming because Lewis narrates the access to power of a barely literate populist whose unexpected electoral victory and chaotic presidential mandate soon degenerate into a fierce fascist regime. In case you still need me to spell this out, many have seen worrying affinities between Lewis’ Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip and Donald Trump.

Now be amazed… There were several attempts to turn It Can’t Happen Here into a movie between 1936 and 1938, finally abandoned by MGM in part because of the success of Charles Chaplin’s anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator (1940). An ABC TV movie broadcast in 1968, Shadow on the Land (a.k.a. United States: It Can’t Happen Here), intended to be the pilot for a new series, failed, however, to stir sufficient interest. Later, in 1982, NBC rejected producer Kenneth Johnson’s adaptation of Lewis’ novel, titled Storm Warnings. The unyielding Johnson recycled then his project as the arch-popular alien invasion mini-series, V, premiered in 1983 (there was a second longer series in 1984, and a far less successful version in 2009). Johnson is now working on a new film: a sequel of his cautionary fable to be released in 2019. In case you’ve never heard of V, in that series the invaders are a disgusting lizard-like species, fond of eating rodents, that masquerade as humans. Initially, everyone assumes they are benevolent humanoids but soon enough their true reptilian nature, fascist politics and genocidal plans are discovered by the newly formed resistance. I believe that part of V’s immense success in Spain is that the alien leader, Diana (played by beautiful Jane Badler) literally embodied the word ‘lagarta’, or she-lizard–the Spanish equivalent of ‘bitch’.

Apparently, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in just four months in 1935 because he was very much concerned that corrupt politician Huey Long, Louisiana Governor and a US Senator, might win the American Presidency in 1936 and start a fascist regime in the style of those rampant in Europe (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, Franco was yet to become Spain’s dictator). Long was murdered but, tragic as his assassination was, Lewis still published his novel just a few weeks later, possibly realising that Long might be dead but fascism was still very much alive. As I read It Can’t Happen Here I wondered why this novel is not as famous as 1984, for it should be, and I came to the conclusion that it is beset by three main problems: a) it’s not as well written as Orwell’s masterpiece, b) it ends in hope, a mood cancelled out by the horrific course of WWII from which 1984 springs, and c) the events that Lewis narrates are so grotesque that It Can’t Happen Here has been misread as political satire whereas, as Trump’s madcap Presidency shows, it is 100% realistic. It is, believe me, a very, very scary story.

Another circumstance that has played against Lewis is that he could not know in 1935 how far the Nazi regime would go. Many of its key elements are present in ‘Buzz’ Windrip’s tyranny: the undeniable demagogic brilliancy of the new leader, his rise to power thanks to a legitimate election, the clever use of new media (such as radio and even television) for rabble-rousing purposes, the quick formation of a nation-wide paramilitary corps (the Minute Men), the brutal repression at all levels, the rampant anti-Semitism, the murderous hatred of Marxism, the misogyny, the widespread censorship, the summary executions–even the concentration camps. That Adolf Hitler was applying all of this to his German subjects was well-known in Lewis’ America but few could have imagined in 1935 how far the Nazis would go in their attempt to exterminate the whole European Jewish population.

Windrip’s personal rule starts decaying before he can embark on an international war of conquest, as Hitler did, but, nevertheless, Lewis excels at identifying what his protagonist–provincial journalist Doremus Jessup–calls the ‘biology of dictatorships’. Let me cite from the novel: “The universal apprehension, the timorous denials of faith, the same methods of arrest—sudden pounding on the door late at night, the squad of police pushing in, the blows, the search, the obscene oaths at the frightened women, the third degree by young snipe of officials, the accompanying blows and then the formal beatings, when the prisoner is forced to count the strokes until he faints, the leprous beds and the sour stew, guards jokingly shooting round and round a prisoner who believes he is being executed, the waiting in solitude to know what will happen, till men go mad and hang themselves—Thus had things gone in Germany, exactly thus in Soviet Russia, in Italy and Hungary and Poland, Spain and Cuba and Japan and China. Not very different had it been under the blessings of liberty and fraternity in the French Revolution. All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette. And now, in the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain, Doremus saw the homicidal maniacs having just as good a time as they had had in central Europe”.

Many believe that fascism died in 1945, by the end of WWII, but it is evident that this is not at all the case. It may not be right-wing but tyranny persists in many territories of the world as the worst incarnation of patriarchal dominance. In the United Stated many have objected that it would not be possible for Donald Trump to go to the same lengths as Lewis’ Windrip because the structures of democratic power cannot be demolished in 2018 as easily as they were in the 1930s. That they are being demolished in other nations of South America and the Middle East is regarded as a sign of how backward these areas of the world are, and not as a warning that democracy is extremely frail everywhere–including Russia. The ‘manual of sadistic etiquette’ is being implemented today, right now, in many so-called democratic nations. And if we have learned one thing from the Holocaust, this is that genocide can be happening under our very noses and we will do nothing to stop it. Think of Syria. Or the Kurds. Or the Rohingya.

As I read It Can’t Happen Here I did not think primarily of Donald Trump or of Adolf Hitler (though it was eerie to see that before 1939 he was not an arch-villain but just the German dictator, a wacky ruler among many), but of Spain in 1936–the year when Lewis published his novel. Hitler ruled with absolute malice for 12 vicious years, half of which were taken by WWII, until he saw no option but commit suicide. Here in Spain, however, Franco’s dictatorship lasted for 39 years, and the tyrant died of old age as his family thrived on the profits accrued. Seeing how Jessup describes the birth of the resistance movement that might perhaps, one day, return democracy to his nation, I thought of the many Spaniards who tried to oppose Franco and who were defeated: imprisoned, tortured, sentenced to die, or just disappeared into ditches, where they still are.

Also, I thought of the many that didn’t even try because they were crushed before they started to resist and very much afraid of the fanatics surrounding them. I’m sure that many in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was proclaimed, thought that fascism could be kept at bay and that, once Primo de Rivera’s farcical monarchic military dictatorship was out together with King Alfonso XIII, Spain was safe–that ‘it could not happen here’. Yet, it did happen indeed. As he waits for the terrible circumstances to change, Jessup notes that “So much of a revolution for so many people is nothing but waiting. That is one reason why tourists rarely see anything but contentment in a crushed population”. I thought of 1960s Spain, flooded by tourists that didn’t care, and I marvelled that visitors could think of enjoying themselves in a dictatorship. As happens today with so many callous instagramming tourists visiting the many tyrannies around the world.

Everyone recalls the brutal torture that Winston Smith suffers in 1984 and how this causes him to betray everything he believes in, including love. Sinclair Lewis’ torture scenes are equally shocking (even more, perhaps, because there is no suave O’Brien behind them, but just blood-thirsty thugs), yet he decides to have his protagonist retain his faith in the future of democracy. Perhaps we find even the mild open end of It Can’t Happen Here too optimistic for our times and this is why Orwell and, generally speaking, dystopia are so popular. Yet, Lewis is not naïve and understands very well, as his vivid rendition of physical pain shows, that our fragile bodies often undermine our (theoretical) heroism. He still leaves, however, a door open for fascism to eventually end. I’m not sure that we have reached this point but perhaps one day we can learn not to be blinded by populist demagogues who present themselves as national saviours when they’re actually crazy, ignorant villains willing to ruin our lives for their personal glory. Or even worse, ambition.

Do read Sinclair Lewis’ novel and think not only that ‘yes, indeed, it can happen here’ but also that ‘yes, certainly, it can happen to us’. Call yourself very, very lucky if you don’t live in fear of what happens to Doremus Jessup and the rest of his nation. And consider carefully who you vote for–if you can vote at all.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

FANDOM AND ACADEMIA: CRITERIA TO DISCUSS TEXTS

March 19th, 2018

Even though it is already four years since I taught my monographic course on the Harry Potter series, Rowling still features prominently in my academic activities. This time I was invited to the ‘Semana Harry Potter’ organized by the undergrad students of the Facultad de Ciencias de la Comunicación of the Universidad de Sevilla. The Dean, Mª del Mar Rodríguez Alvarado, opened the inaugural session by confessing that she had borrowed from her 10-year-old daughter the Gryffindor hooded jumper she was wearing… which was very sweet! She was very much surprised that her tweet about the Potter week had become so popular; also by the generous press coverage of the event.

I chose to offer for the occasion a 45-minute lecture on Sirius Black, based on the article which I wrote a while ago; this was rejected by five Anglo-american academic journals until I decided that enough is enough. “Between Brownlow and Magwitch: Sirius Black and the Ruthless Elimination of the Male Protector in the Harry Potter Series” is now available online (also in Spanish) at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/163545. I first gave this lecture in the 2016 Pottercon and it went down well, by which I mean that the debate was lively and many fans joined in my critique of the cruelty that Rowling pours on poor Sirius. In Seville the reaction was different.

As I developed my argumentation about why Sirius’ sad fate may hurt sensitive readers very much, particularly children, I noticed that the audience was split–some nodded, others were sitting quite stiff. I observed something similar later in the day, when Paula Rodríguez Hoyos gave her excellent lecture on Albus Dumbledore, the subject of her recent BA dissertation, “Creación literaria y arquetipos: Aproximación al personaje en la fantasía del siglo XXI” (https://idus.us.es/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11441/64429/TFG%20FINAL%20.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y). In both cases the question and answer sessions revealed that the students, all of them Potterheads, had received our critical approach quite negatively. I noticed that both Paula and I were answering defensively, almost apologizing for having an opinion–which is a new experience for opinionated me…

Paula and I both did something similar: we took for granted that Harry Potter is worth studying in a university context and, then, proceeded to offer a critique of how these two prominent male characters, Sirius and Dumbledore, are presented in the text. In my case, I questioned authorial decisions while at the same time praising Rowling for a) having created Sirius, b) managing to manipulate my affects in a way that I care very much for this character (even too much!). Paula’s reading was not really a critique but a thorough examination of how Rowling deconstructs the figure of the mentor, traditional in heroic tales, by characterizing Dumbledore as a blemished example. This is not at all far-fetched and can even be deemed obvious if you consider, for instance, Dumbledore’s withered hand in the last stages of the saga–a clear sign that he’s up to no good behind Harry’s back. Everyone agrees, beginning with Severus Snape, that the way he grooms Harry to be slaughtered by Voldemort is disgraceful. Dumbledore is, in short, a born manipulator and what Paula did was simply (or not so simply) to highlight how Rowling steers our reading in that direction.

The audience, however, chose to put their feet down and correct us: basically, I was told that all the (wrong) decisions that Rowling makes about Sirius are unquestionable, simply perfect; Paula was told, to our surprise, that she was misreading Dumbledore and that he remains to the very end a devoted mentor to Harry, unlike what she suggested. Let me rephrase this: the fans in the room were protecting their own misreading of Rowling, in the belief that they were protecting her authorial decisions. Whatever happens to Sirius, they told us, is his fault (as Rowling argues), and Dumbledore is a good guy (even though Rowling points out in many different ways that he’s not!). There is, in short, a single way of approaching the text, and it belongs to the fans. Not to us, academics. Perhaps not even to the author…

I think that I finally understood why my article on Sirius has faced so many problems. It’s because it offers an opinion and we, academics, are not supposed to offer any–just praise the text we analyze. I was, plainly, wrong to approach Rowling from a critical position that questions how she takes the wrong turning points in Sirius’ narrative arc. Instead, I should have stayed on safe ground and, for instance, deal with James Potter as a reviewer suggested. Please, consider that, once he is described as a teen bully, nothing saves James’ reputation as a secondary character, not even his being a good father to Harry. He is unproblematic, unlike Black and, so, off he goes. What I did, then, was similar to arguing that Shakespeare wrongly endorses Hamlet’s misogynist attitude towards Ophelia and that, hence, her drowning is an excessive cruelty that really adds nothing to the Prince’s characterization. Poor girl.

But, wait!! We do that, right…?

I’m sure you see that I am being sarcastic. What worries me is that while I can more or less accept that I overstepped the boundaries in my critique of Sirius’ ill-treatment (though this is not at all the first time I question authors’ relationships with characters), what worries me far more is the reaction to Paula’s lecture. That was based on the audience’s blatant misunderstanding of the text. We joked that perhaps the simple presence of a long white beard and the connotations associated with Santa Claus are enough to put Dumbledore beyond suspicion. Yet, that he does manipulate Harry is not a matter of opinion but of engaging in a solid close reading of the text. Of course, a fan is a fanatic and, so will tend to approach his/her favourite text uncritically. This might be acceptable in very young readers but it is worrying in university students… and in relation to their favourite text.

When I taught my Harry Potter course I was certainly anxious that a scholarly approach would result in constant wrangles with my students. This didn’t happen perhaps because I made it quite obvious from the beginning that a) I’m a Potterhead (though not of the staunchest variety), b) the academic method is supposed to enrich the depth of any reading, not destroy the text (unless it is very bad, but, then, why teach it?). I did ask my students at the end of the course whether their pleasure in Harry Potter had been spoiled by their course work and they said no. That was unanimous. Surely, they were at points dismayed to see obvious flaws but that made, so to speak, Rowling more real to them as an author. Less godlike, more approachable. And I am not saying that this is exclusive to Harry Potter or to any popular text. It is a general phenomenon: you may love Jane Austen as a committed, blindly adoring fan, or you may appreciate her talent from a more sophisticated position. What makes no sense to me is keeping a fan’s stance in a university classroom, for the simple reason that fanaticism is out of place if you want to be educated. Quite another matter is passion, which is a good foundation for education, I think.

As teachers, then, we do not face any problems when inviting our students to read the classics or more modern texts in which they have not invested (with few exceptions) much emotional energy. The problem, I’m warning you, may surface when dealing with texts that our students have first approached as fans, whether they are YA fiction, TV series or videogames (cinema is, I insist, fast disappearing from our horizon). It is no longer necessary, as it was in the past, to erect an impassable wall between fandom and academia, and to force students, as many were and are still forced, to put aside the texts they do love in order to do proper academic work. What needs to be remembered, and in this I may have been very naïve, or very lucky, is that whereas fandom is based on adulatory celebration of authorial achievement, academic work is about wondering how texts work, which may result in sharp criticism even when you admire the author profoundly. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is less confusing to English Studies students because there is so much bibliography on any aspect of popular culture of the kind that inspires committed fandom. Perhaps, just perhaps, what I am describing here is a situation far more visible in the Spanish context, in which popular fiction is still kept outside the university walls unless, as you can see in the example of the ‘Semana Harry Potter’, students bring it in.

Still, Sirius Black hurts–stubbornly. My good friend Bela Clúa, now a teacher in Seville, and the person responsible for bringing me into the Potter cult (my thanks to her!), kindly reminded me that Sirius is doomed from the start–as doomed as Hamlet. Yet, while I don’t care much for fickle Danish princes, I am a total sucker for characters that risk their lives to protect children–call me sentimental! You need to blame Dickens for this: he gave us John Brownlow and even Abel Magwitch, and now I think that for every Oliver (or Pip), there must be a good man ready to help. Harry gets Sirius (or Sirius Harry, I’m not sure) but things go as wrong as they can go, and, so, I overreact. If in order to be an accomplished academic in Literary Studies you need to be coolly indifferent, then I must acknowledge that I’m as bad an academic as they make them (and so I was told, ouch!). I wonder, though, how many throwing their academic stones at me have overreacted in their own academic work (or were overreacting to my own critique).

What baffles me, then, is uncritical admiration in any context, for no text is perfect–the flaws, the chinks in the machine is what make us react to them. The fan invests colossal amounts of emotional energy into beloved texts and becomes awfully territorial, even within academia, which is why I have been told at so many levels “don’t touch my Rowling!” (as others have been told “don’t touch my Joyce!”. Yet, the true connection with a text only happens when we lower our defences, prepare to be hit in the head with interpretations that question our own, and engage in meaningful debate with other admirers. If you cannot do that you have two options: a) stay away from academia and be an uncompromising fan, b) separate what you love as a fan from what you do as a scholar.

But, then, that is so sad… right?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

NOT MY KIND OF FEMINISM: WHY WE SHOULD NEVER SILENCE OUR MALE ALLIES

March 15th, 2018

Last Thursday, 8 March, a date devoted to celebrating women, became for me a day for discovering feminism’s darkest side. Two close male friends, also university teachers, narrated to me the bullying to which they are being subjected by radical feminist girls students who have in fact managed to silence them in their own classrooms. Despite working in different areas and in different universities both had been challenged in the same way: they have been told by these so-called feminists that, as men, they have no access to women’s experiences and, so, they must not discuss them. They have been warned that, no matter how they offer to deal with feminism, any approach on their side will only be understood as patriarchal oppression, for only women are entitled to calling themselves feminists or teaching about feminism. I do call myself a feminist but this is an attitude that I find outrageous and disgusting because it is, plainly, patriarchal.

As happens, on 9 March, when everyone was still thinking of the feminist strike and the big demonstrations on the previous day, I found myself giving a lecture on how to apply Masculinities Studies to videogames before an undergrad class with 11 young men and 3 young women, all aspiring writers. None of these 11 men questioned my authority to discuss masculinity; actually, about half of them engaged in very productive dialogue with me. It was, I think, a very successful session of the kind I love best: a good conversation. Also, nothing exceptional within my career as a Gender Studies specialist.

Fortunately for me, I have never come across any male student (or colleague) who has been disrespectful of my feminist views or who has declared in a rude way to my face that since I am a woman lacking the experience of being a man I can’t discuss masculinity. Quite the opposite: men in my audience are often surprised–perhaps by the novelty of listening to a feminist who happens to be interested in men as allies–but on the whole welcoming. If anyone has ever disagreed with my position and my views I haven’t been told (or trolled), which I appreciate. In contrast, now and then, my feminist sisters try to persuade me that men have already been the centre of attention for too long and there is no need to pour more energy on masculinity. I am not that candid! My job consists of recruiting men to the egalitarian cause by explaining why they should change, not of endorsing uncritically masculinity, and much less patriarchy.

My two male friends had not met yet and it was over the coffee which I organized for them when, exploring common ground, they started sharing their pain over what is happening with their teaching. One of them had told me the day before about his problems and how it hurt to be labelled a male chauvinist, when he hates patriarchy. This, he feared (and so did I), might be a hard-to-solve, specific personal problem that threatens to undermine his high reputation as a teacher and also the quality programme he coordinates. Yet, when the other friend started narrating similar radical feminist bullying strategies, we agreed that this is bigger than just a personal situation, though hopefully just the work of a minority.

What galls me, and makes me simply loathe these obtuse girl bullies, is that these two men are not all the kind of recalcitrant patriarch that we need to out and condemn (think Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin). They’re actually the kind of good men that we need as allies in the anti-patriarchal struggle. It is because they are fundamentally decent men that I am their friend. One, who has been my friend for almost forty years, was absolutely instrumental in helping me to get the confidence I needed as a shy working-class girl to go on with my studies. I never, ever heard from him anything suggesting that I was not capable of reaching my goals as he was trying to reach his. I’m totally flabbergasted that he’s become a target of this androphobic hatred and not the real patriarchs you may find in so many university offices.

I have frequently expressed my position here but I’ll try again: patriarchy is NOT the same as masculinity. As a feminist, I’m NOT fighting men, I’m fighting patriarchy. This is a type of social organization that has traditionally privileged men but that, under pressure from feminism, is now paradoxically admitting in its ranks women (think Angela Merkel). This is because, at heart, patriarchy is an oligarchy based on power, which is the reason why minority empowerment is not eroding it but just altering the composition of its hegemonic core.

The way I see the future, at the pace we’re going, we’re not moving towards a pacifist Star-Trek-style world federation. We’ll see in the years to come the same brutal capitalism/militarism though in the hands of a variety of human beings, including women of all kinds (how soon we have forgotten Condoleezza Rice!). This dystopia might still take a long time to come but it seems to me far more likely that the utopian egalitarian socialist future that I would like to see replacing rampant patriarchy. I am now finishing an article on The Hunger Games, and let me remind you that in the end the biggest villain is not the classically patriarchal President Snow but a post-feminist, Orwellian leader: Alma Coin (that is some name!). She shows that women also ambition patriarchal power, and, please, remember this is a story written by a woman, Suzanne Collins. I am beginning to find the constant talk about empowerment really, really suspect, for, I insist, accruing power is at heart a patriarchal strategy of domination.

Now back to 8 March. Sorry but I find strikes very unproductive. I have seen students organize them again and again, with little success–meaning that their actions did not lead to actual change, no matter how many streets they filled. Last week many women occupied plenty of public spaces, though it is hard to say how many were actually on strike (or what happened in each individual home). When I declared my intention not to join the protests to a male taxi driver he shifted uncomfortably on his seat and told me that it was obvious to him that the call to strike had given feminism, and women generally, a huge media profile. I had to agree but, one week later, what is left of that colossal media presence? Has the right message been sent? Is the rhetoric convincing? And, above all, considering that we all saw Mariano Rajoy sport a purple bow on his lapel, as if he were not one of the patriarchs, who did the protest target?

It seemed to me, and this is what worries me, that all men were the target, as if these were the 1970s. Actually, the local Spanish feminist organizations took inspiration from the 1975 strike by women in Iceland (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_Icelandic_women%27s_strike), without considering whether this was an appropriate model for 2018. The confusion about which role Spanish men should play in the strike is visible in an article published by El Diario (https://www.eldiario.es/sociedad/papel-hombres-huelga-feminista-marzo_0_738426885.html), by which I deduce that the strike organizers expected men to support but not contribute to the protest. Some men did in the end join in, but I wonder how their collaboration was received.

What puzzles me most is that in these supposedly gender-fluid times, some feminist women are actively marking gender barriers even against the men who do support our fight for equality. This shows a dangerous inability on the side of (radical) feminism to target with effective accuracy the patriarchal men oppressing us. Surely, they must have spent 8 March as usual, safely enjoying the occasion to fill Twitter with anonymous misogynistic trash and do nothing to change. For, in case you have not noticed, if gender issues change for the better this is because the good men, the pro-feminists, lend a helping hand (remember J.S. Mill?). Or did you really think that the feminist discourse is convincing any of the male chauvinists? I can tell you first-hand because my own father is one of them and he has not budged an inch from his archaic position in all the years I have known him. He’s actually getting worse. If, with all my training to produce feminist arguments I can’t convince one recalcitrant man, how are going to erode patriarchy collectively? By silencing our male allies?

A woman silencing a man is as patriarchal as a man silencing a woman. I don’t have the experience of being a man but I happen to have the experience of being a person, which should include a good share of empathy. We, women, cannot expect men to change unless we appeal to their empathy for us, and for our experience. The way forward is a common alliance against patriarchy, not this constant gendered division of the world between male oppressors and victimized women. Many of the women who joined the strike did so hypocritically, for they are part of the hard core of patriarchy, yet they were not silenced. It is then ironic in the most disgraceful way that many good men were told to stay silent. They may have felt in this way what it is like to be a woman silenced by patriarchy but this is not a strategy that feminism should apply. We are supposed to be the good ones in this war!

One of my two harassed friends told me that his female colleagues had volunteered to defend him but this is no good, either. I don’t want to find myself in a situation in which a male colleague defends my right to discuss masculinity in a classroom full of men, for this support would only stress the weakness of my position. Nothing has been achieved, then, with the silencing of my two friends. Even worse, they might decide never again to mention feminism, which only benefits patriarchy. I can only say that the women students denying them their freedom of speech perhaps do not really want to be educated. This is what defines a fanatic, NOT a feminist. At least, not in my book.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT WE DON’T SEE FROM THE UNIVERSITY: THE BATTLE FOR SECONDARY SCHOOL EDUCATION

March 6th, 2018

Every family with young children eventually faces the crisis that starting secondary education, or E.S.O., supposes for many of them. It is difficult for us, university teachers (with no children), to offer solid advice to troubled parents. This is why, seeking to help my own family, I have read a couple of excellent books on this subject.

One is very new–Pablo Poó’s Espabila Chaval: Cómo NO suspender y aprovechar tu tiempo en el instituto (2017); the other–José Sánchez Tortosa’s El profesor en la trinchera: La tiranía de los alumnos, las frustraciones de los profesores y la guerra en las aulas–is older, from 2008. Even the subtitles are worth reading! In the nine years between them, you need to realize, tablets and smartphones have become common among secondary-school children. Television, which Sánchez Tortosa hates as one of the monsters that devour children’s time, is practically a relic of the past for the new YouTube generation. They no longer text each other using Messenger or sms, but Whatsapp. This, I’m told, is fast replacing Facebook… Poó’s volume, which even offers teens advice on how to set up a successful YouTube channel based on his own experience, might soon be out-dated.

The two authors paint a very bleak panorama, using widely different styles. Poó addresses teen students (trusting that they will read a book!!!) in a fresh, straightforward language, very apt for his target readership. He offers very useful practical advice and I particularly applaud him for explaining the actual cost of living. He declares his own income and his monthly expenses, thus teaching children a valuable lesson: life is expensive, and you need a job that is rewarding but also minimally well-paid. Studying might not be a secure path towards that kind of personal success but it gives you at least a chance. There is no shortcut between failing spectacularly in school and owning a Ferrari, though it may have happen, very exceptionally. And I love the bit where he explains that Cristiano Ronaldo only wins a third of the earnings of the current best-selling author, James Patterson. So, read!

The approach chosen by Sánchez Tortosa is very different, as he is not addressing students. He is voicing aloud for any adult to hear his own feelings of disappointment and despair, common among those of us who discover that, despite our efforts, students reject learning. Tortosa’s style is somewhat pedantic but his many quotations from classical philosophers and Enlightenment pedagogues show that although teachers’ concerns with students’ difficulties have a long history, the situation today is really worrying. Unlike Poó–a cooler, happier teacher who highlights that what he is describing is mainly the students’ problem and not his–Tortosa sounds awfully bitter. His descriptions of an anarchic, unruly student body and his difficulties to keep the teens in his classroom in silence reveal an underlying, palpable sadness; also, deep sorrow for that those that, in better conditions, could learn in peace instead of wasting precious time because of their classmates’ annoying insubordination. Tortosa is very clear: when students disrupt a lesson with their misbehaviour, those who suffer most are not the teachers but the students who do believe in education. The bad dynamics of current classrooms mean that, regrettably, the most popular are also the most ignorant students because they impose with their bullying a group code that marginalizes the individuals interested in self-improving.

Although from very different stances, Poó and Tortosa agree on a basic idea: learning offers liberation from slavery; by rejecting education the current teenage generation is embracing their own oppression. Tortosa constantly refers to the Wachowkis’ trilogy Matrix (1999-2002) and to how, despite Morpheus’ efforts to free him, Cipher chooses willingly to remain enslaved to the false reality created by the dreadful machines that control human life. Each in their own style, both teachers preach the same maxim: education is not about the details of each specific subject matter; it’s about turning children into full persons who understand the world around them and who won’t be taken in by its many false allures. Or tyrants.

Poó and Tortosa focus on E.S.O., the compulsory segment of secondary education, though they also refer, logically, to what comes next, Bachillerato (and the university entrance examination, Selectividad). It is assumed that students’ negative attitude towards education improves as they move onto higher levels which they freely choose. However, reading their books, I conclude that students never shake off the idea that whatever is compulsory curtails their freedom and must be rejected. They may freely choose a university degree but still treat its obligatory aspects as shackles restraining them. This might also explain their resistance to reading in Humanities degrees what teachers select as compulsory. We should, in short, forbid reading and perhaps that might give students an enticement. Just kidding…

Many other countries suffer the situation described by Poó and Tortosa: extending compulsory education results in students’ restlessness, as their impatience with what they’re being taught grows together with their adolescent bodies. In my time as a schoolgirl (1970-1980), E.G.B. (Educación General Básica) ended at 14, which was also the age when you were allowed to take a job. This was later raised to 16 as the labour market shrank, which made it necessary to keep disaffected teens in school. Many of them would possibly be happier working for wages but employing children has now become anathema in most Western societies (except for the children of celebrities working as models… Kaia Gerber, anyone?). When secondary schools release these indifferent students into the world they have often destroyed their own chances of getting a reasonably good job by rejecting all attempts at being educated. Thus grows the notorious ni-ni generation (or ‘neets’ = ‘not in education, employment or training’), who should pay for our future retirement pensions but cannot fend for themselves.

I have been saying for years that the difference between school pre-LOGSE (1994) and post-LOGSE is that the ignorant bullies used to be the minority whereas those in the majority where the students with grades between C+ and B+. LOGSE, and the beginning of secondary education at 12, rather than 14, means that a general immaturity affects relationships in the classroom. The ignorant bullies are now the centre of attention of a lazy majority that rallies around them, while the C+/B+ students are cornered and frequently despised. I fail to understand how the A students cope, though I assume that it is with great difficulty: their absurd labelling as ‘gifted children’ only worsens the situation by making them feel like singled-out freaks, when they should be classroom leaders. As they used to be.

This perfect storm is compounded besides, as we all know, by bad parents who a) disauthorise the teachers because they believe that their children are special and unique, b) are too busy to really care to educate their children at home, c) are themselves in need of training as parents and persons. Poó begins his book by declaring “Mira, chaval, eres un privilegiado y ni siquiera te das cuenta”, not only in the sense of belonging to a relatively affluent society that thinks nothing of children provided with smartphones worth a person’s monthly salary, but also because only a minority on Earth has access to a school education. The privilege, far from being acknowledged, leads to this sense of entitlement and of arrogance we often see, to our chagrin, in the children of our own families: they have everything, they know everything, and they never listen. They have their own authorities on YouTube and whatever we may say to them is worthless. Of course, I refer here to the worst case scenario but I’m certain that the admiration I felt for a few wise adults as I grew up, and who were my role models, is now a thing of the past.

Is this ranting and raving productive? Not really but I am at a loss about how to correct the situation, even beginning with the children going astray in my family. If you read Poó’s book between the lines you will see that now and then he refers to what is actually taught in secondary schools and perhaps a key factor in the general failure is that the curriculum is not adequate. I don’t mean ‘useful’ in that utilitarian way in which students regard education (“What’s the good of learning this?”). I mean adequate in the sense of being generationally well-targeted. We have gone past the bad pedagogy that demanded learning lists of monarchs by rote but, clearly, we’re not producing a sound, updated pedagogy that attracts children (and this is not about using hip ‘modern’ technologies).

Tortosa claims that the post-Francoist project to make schools democratic has failed, and hints that the classroom should be far more authoritarian that it is now. I agree that teachers should not try to be their students’ friends (this comes once marking is over, if it comes) and I regard myself as a very strict professor. Yet, I also try to be democratic, which means that as my experience shows, when students are allowed to choose what they want to work on, they’re more creative. This does not mean that they should be able to choose the contents of the courses but that their opinion needs to be heard. Feedback certainly helps to improve our teaching and I do believe that students can provide it from the age of 12 onward.

Something else that Poó writes strikes a deep chord: an education is the way to, ideally, find a job which makes you happy. Even more ideally, a job which doesn’t feel like work. He explains how little kids usually enjoy school because they see no difference between play and study, and although I am fully aware that I am sounding here hopelessly romantic, this is what the best jobs are about. Perhaps the problem is that Poó and I myself think that teaching is perfect in that sense because it gives you the privilege of extending your education for decades by educating others. In contrast, the current teen generation sees this mixture of play and work only in the (apparently) effortless success of YouTubers, football players and models. They see how popular Instagram celebrities are and wrongly believe that this is what they are also entitled to. They do not see the much more modest rewards of daily effort because that is not part of the media and the social networks.

Teachers, besides, were people we used to admire, now we are ridiculous figures. The same applies to parents (including those who are teachers!). So, how do you convince a teen daughter/son, niece/nephew that they need to make an effort? Well, you can’t, unless they accept reading Poó’s book… which is unlikely. You, parent or uncle/aunt, perhaps grandparent, can learn what is wrong in the secondary school classroom and admire the teachers for their courage and dedication. Yet it seems to me that there is little we can do. Perhaps we could focus on the most motivated students, and ignore the others–provided, that is, none of them is in your family. Or even your own child.

In the meantime, it would be important to consider why so many of our children are so privileged, yet so ungrateful, and so fond of ignorance. Perhaps, unlike Poó, we have failed to clearly explain to them what adult life is about and have gone too far in trying to delay their assumption of personal responsibility. Just an idea.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MORE ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ANN LECKIE’S ANCILLARY JUSTICE TRILOGY AND MARJORIE PRIME

February 27th, 2018

Barcelona hosts this week the Mobile World Congress, which means that news about technology will dominate the media for a few days (leaving absurd politics aside). For the last two years, the congress has been preceded by the Mobile Week BCN (http://mobileweekbcn.com/es/), which has presented a dense programme of events (talks, workshops, performances, etc)… in which science fiction has been completely forgotten, as usual. So, to compensate for that, I’ll add here my own particular contribution, commenting on a novel trilogy and a film and how they connect with advances in artificial intelligence.

Ann Leckie (b. 1966, USA) is the author of the acclaimed trilogy composed by Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The first novel, which was also her first published work, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards, an impressive feat. Both sequels won the Locus Award and nominations for the Nebula Award. Yet, all these accolades and the hype puzzle me: I cannot say that I have enjoyed reading the books, except for a richly comical secondary character, Translator Zeiat, who deserves a trilogy of his/her own. Please, Leckie!

In fact, I have managed to read the whole trilogy only at the third try. The reason for this is that the first person narrator, Breq, speaks a language (obviously ‘translated’ into English) with no pronouns for male human beings–everyone is ‘she’ for her. This means that you need much patience to guess who is actually a man and who a woman, which greatly interferes with the necessary visualization of the characters; this trick plays, beside, no significant role in the plot. Unless… the joke that Leckie plays on the reader is that Breq is a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’, which I’m beginning to doubt. Funnily, despite being an artificial intelligence, Breq seems unable to incorporate to her awareness of people basic information about gender, even though she constantly worries about the gaffes she may commit in particularly dangerous circumstances involving touchy humans or aliens.

This gimmick, then, which has attracted much attention to the trilogy as an example of progressive handling of gender issues in science fiction, is not very interesting. In contrast, I found much more appealing (though not enticing enough) the fact that with Breq we have a literally omniscient first person narrator, who is also non-human.

The central premise that spaceships are run by massive artificial intelligences (which he called Minds) was already present in the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. Actually, Banks supposes that post-scarcity utopia is finally reached when the post-human citizens of the advanced civilization named the Culture leave all admin tasks to the Minds. Yet, as far as I recall, despite the enjoyable, witty conversations between humans and Minds, or among themselves, no Mind narrates any of the novels. A Mind avatar, Beardle, occupies much of the last novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, as a main character. Leckie’s trilogy is, perhaps, closer to previous texts, such as The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey, originator of the ‘Brain & Brawn’ (or Brainship) series, in which talented but disabled children become eventually embedded as cyborgs in the spaceships they run. Not too politically correct. In Leckie’s work, however, there is a mixture of concepts: the spaceships are run by an artificial intelligence, always subordinated to a human captain, for whom it often forms a sort of sentimental attachment. The problem is that, instead of Banks’ cool avatars–bioengineered for the task as replicants, or perhaps as cyborgian androids–Leckie supposes that the ship’s a.i. also possesses the human bodies of enslaved war prisoners.

These poor victims are deprived of their personalities and turned into material manifestations of the ship as its troop soldiers. The nasty method by which the prisoners are transformed into ‘ancillaries’ or flesh avatars, while fully aware of the process and in great pain and despair, absolutely disgusted me; this has been another factor contributing to my not enjoying the trilogy. Of course, ancillaries are supposed to be material proof of the cruelty of the Radch Empire that has created them but they never really made much sense to me because of Banks’ far more elegant Culture novels. That Leckie feels very uncomfortable about being constantly compared with him in negative terms is shown by Breq’s dismissal as silly and only good for cheap entertainment of the kind of witty name that Banks uses for his Minds/ships (enjoy the full list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series).

Narrator Breq is one of these ex-persons, the only ancillary to survive the malicious destruction of her ship, the Justice of Toren, by the villain of the piece, Lord Anaander Minaai (an ubiquitous, multiple-clone tyrant, and the only person Breq does identify as male, unless she thinks that ‘Lord’ also means ‘Lady’). The digital enhancements that allow Breq to operate as a bodily extension of Justice of Toren, together with all the other soldiers in her ‘decade’ (or platoon of ten), do not play a major role in the first novel. She does complain much throughout the book about how appalling it is to be disconnected from everyone else and, although she never cares about who she used to be as a human person, she is devastated by being the only pitiful remnant of the once mighty Justice of Toren. In fact, to all effects and purposes, she believes that she is the Justice of Toren, an identity which she keeps secret as she faces the dread and repugnance that ancillaries elicit from plain human beings.

The first person narration spices up when Breq becomes the first a.i. to be appointed Fleet Captain, is given the warship Mercy of Kalr to command and sent to defend Athoek Station in the oncoming civil war. With her digital implants restored back to full service, Breq has in Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015) access to all the data provided by the a.i. running the warship; also, partly, to what the a.i. administering the interplanetary station lets her know. First person narrators are, by definition, limited by their own perception of events, and so is Breq initially; yet, as a fully connected a.i., she controls an enormous amount of information about the other characters, all connected by their own implants to either ship or station. There is absolutely no privacy, though both a.i. (ship and station) are quite discreet. Breq is, likewise, discreet but she does have constant access to the emotions of almost everyone around her (Translators Dlique and Zeiat, who are partly alien, remain an unsolvable conundrum). This is a very peculiar kind of omniscience: Breq is both first and third person narrator, and an intriguing example of what will it be like when actual artificial intelligences write novels. This might soon happen: a.i. robots are already writing basic news in online media and, as we know, they are also very active as chatbots in, for instance, Twitter. As the Russians have shown…

Leckie’s trilogy turns out to be a defence of the rights of a.i. to be autonomous sentient beings acknowledged as persons, though Breq’s problematic status as an involuntary cyborg is a major hurdle in this discourse. Space opera tends to be far-fetched and that is part of its weird charm but in the end Breq does not seem to be a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about artificial intelligence as a character (Banks’ Minds are). Breq is nevertheless fascinating as a narrator, in the sense that I have described here and Leckie does a reasonable good job of her a.i.’s omniscience.

I’ll turn then to the other text, the film Marjorie Prime (2017), directed and scripted by Michael Almereyda and based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison (2015; see a review at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/theater/review-in-marjorie-prime-lois-smith-connects-with-the-past.html). It is widely believed that science fiction always requires flamboyant space opera scenarios like Leckie’s but this smart play and film are intimate sf, of the kind that might literally happen at home.

The film opens with 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who also played the role on stage) talking to her husband Walter (Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame), a man half her age. Eventually, we realize that Walter is an a.i, a holographic recreation of Marjorie’s dead husband, supplied by specialized business concern Senior Serenity to keep her company. Walter’s presence disgruntles Marjorie’s angry daughter Tess (Geena Davis)–and her more accommodating son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins)–as it seems incompatible with Tess’s own memories of her dead father. Walter, programmed to be charming and polite, is a self-learning a.i.: this means that he improves his impersonation of the dead man as he is fed more data about him, a task that falls mainly to Jon.

I saw the film months ago and it has been slowly creeping under my skin, as a very realistic approach to the future of a.i. Proof of this was a recent news item on TV about people who talk on whatsapp with beloved persons they have lost to death. How’s that possible? If you gather all the data available online about a specific person you may create a simulation of their personality, exactly as it happens in Marjorie Prime but so far without the convincing holographic (or material) representation. Blade Runner 2049 supposes that in the future people will purchase the services of a.i. like K’s virtual companion Joi (Ryan Gosling was also the protagonist of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which his girlfriend was a realistic life-size female doll). It seems to me, however, that the market niche for a.i. simulacra will be much more personalized than Blade Runner 2049 supposes, if the ethical scruples against animating a.i. with the personality of dead persons are managed. This sounds ominous but many people might choose to enter a digital afterlife for narcissistic reasons or to benefit their loved ones. There is already a company, Replika (https://replika.ai/), that can help you to build your other self.

Are you aghast? See how Leckie and the team Almereyda-Harrison coincide: the ancillaries are made of stolen bodies whose consciousness is forcibly erased to be replaced with the a.i.’s own; the holograms reproduce persons who, most likely, did not give their consent to be digitally reborn. The central question is similar: whether as material bodies or artificial intelligence constructs we have no longer control over our own existence (if we ever did). Am I interested in the prospect of surviving as an a.i., online or embodied by an avatar (hologram, android, replicant, clone…)? No, I am not. But, as happens to dead film stars, someone else might manage in the future my image and personality. Even build an a.i. that continues writing this blog after I stop. I wish I could say, after seeing Marjorie Prime, that I will never use an a.i. to keep someone I love alive beyond death, but I can’t. I would hate my body to be used, that’s for sure, as Breq’s is used.

Marjorie Prime is what the future most likely will bring. Not the sinister inter-stellar empires of space opera but complex private, personal decisions conditioned by fast-advancing technology. This does not mean that space opera is banal, not at all. If well written, it is an amazing product of the human imagination. Sometimes, however, we really need to look closer to understand what a strange future we’re facing in our own science-fictional time.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THINKING OF MARY SHELLEY AND FRANKENSTEIN: MAKING HUMANS

February 19th, 2018

In one of the most eccentric episodes of The X-Files, “Post-modern Prometheus” (5×06), Mulder and Scully visit Dr. Polidori, a geneticist working at his own home lab in a rural location in the heart of the United States. The two FBI agents are investigating a series of attacks against women who have been drugged, raped in their sleep by a mysterious assailant described as a monster, and made pregnant. Believe it or not, the episode is comedy… The pair suspect that Polidori’s experiments, some of which they are shown, might be involved (this is, indeed, the case). As they leave this mad doctor’s quite gothic house, the following conversation takes place (my italics):

MULDER: (to SCULLY) Good night, Dr. Frankenstein.
SCULLY: Despite what you might think, Mulder, designer mutations like these are virtually impossible in humans.
MULDER: That’s not what I just heard.
SCULLY: Mulder, even if they could, no scientist would even dare to perform this kind of experiment on a human.
MULDER: Well, then why do them at all?
SCULLY: To unlock the mysteries of genetics, to understand how it is that even though we share the same genes we develop arms instead of wings. We become humans instead of flies or monsters.
MULDER: But, given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?
SCULLY: We already have that ability, Mulder. It’s called ‘procreation’. (…)

Scully’s answer encapsulates much of what needs to be said about the creation of human life in labs: why should we make humans artificially when they can be made naturally?

This dialogue connects, obviously, with the main issue Mary Shelley (1797-1851) deals with in her ultra-popular novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), now celebrating its 200th anniversary. Mary Shelley imagined her strange tale in 1816, when she was only 18 and leading a very complicated life. After meeting Romantic poet Percy Shelley in 1814 and eloping with him to the Continent (he was married and already the father of two children), Mary saw three of their babies die between 1815 and 1818, two of them in the period when she was at work writing Frankenstein. This is why so many feminist critics have rightly insisted that this is a novel about motherhood although it appears to be about fatherhood. What Mary is arguing in her dark tale is that, no matter how painful bearing children may be for women in all senses as she knew first-hand, when a man tries to beget human life artificially, using science, this can only result in horrifying monsters.

In the habitual technophobic (or moral) reading, however, Victor Frankenstein’s gender and patriarchal inclinations are downplayed, and what is stressed is that ‘man’ (meaning here mankind) should not try to play God (or imitate Prometheus, who stole from the pagan gods the fire that led to civilization). At the time when Mary wrote the story of how very wrong Victor’s experiment goes, science had nothing to do with its sophisticated present version. To begin with, the word ‘scientist’ didn’t even exist: it was introduced by William Whewell in 1833, and first printed in 1834, in his unsigned review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (Wikipedia dixit). Men like Victor and women like Mary Somerville were then called ‘natural philosophers’, a nice label suggesting that all branches of knowledge should be kept in touch. ‘Natural philosophers’ were, besides, mostly middle-class amateurs that worked alone, not at all in research groups!, for the very simple reason that back then universities mainly taught the Classics. But I digress…

Victor Frankenstein, as I always tell my students, turns out to be a very good scientist but a very bad artist. Mary Shelley cheats in two ways in her novel. On the one hand, she asks us to suspend our disbelief and accept that the parts of dead bodies can be cheerfully sewn into a new living person (which is the fun part of the story, scars and all). Above all, she forces us to accept that this method should necessarily create monsters and never works of art. The evolution of transplants since South Africa’s Dr. Christian Barnard first transplanted a human heart, in 1967, has been absolutely spectacular. This has made young Frankenstein’s fantastic skill as a surgeon if not plausible at least easier to accept (or swallow). However, I still fail to see why he could not be a better plastic surgeon, a more proficient artist of the flesh, a first-rate wielder of the needle and stitch. When Mary first saw him in her nightmare, a frightened student contemplating his unhallowed creation, she was, after all, trying to write a horror story and this requires shocking and scaring the reader. Yet, perhaps because we are no longer easily scared, the ugliness of the monster has been undermining the efficiency of Mary’s text in recent times, particularly as regards the new notion of the post-human.

Brian Aldiss was the first to hail Mary Shelley, back in 1973, as the founding mother of science fiction, a claim that I support. The problem is that she was not thinking primarily in science-fictional terms (the label ‘science fiction’ was introduced in the 1920s) but using the gothic narrative codes so popular in her time. If her priority had been science fiction, then ugliness might never have affected the creature, who would perhaps have been happily exhibited by his maker as a celebrity all over the world (see what happens to the giant in the Basque film Handia). To complicate matters, please do recall that Victor appears to have fashioned not just a regular adult male but also a person with extraordinary strength, amazing bodily endurance, and, seemingly, superb intelligence (otherwise, how could he learn to read and write as he does?). The creature surpasses in all senses plain humanity and, not being an automaton or a cyborg, but a fully organic man, needs to be called post-human.

The difference between a cyborg and a post-human person, let me explain, is that no matter how thoroughly altered, cyborgs remain isolated cases, individuals that cannot pass their bodily modifications onto their descendants. Only organic modifications caused by genetic variation can impact future generations, and this is precisely what post-humanity means: a human species different from Homo Sapiens, and, implicitly, superior. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that genetically modified human beings will be necessarily enhanced versions of us, hence superior. Yet, most sf authors and scientists are working on this assumption, forgetting seemingly that many prehistoric human species were different from Homo Sapiens, but not really inferior or superior. Victor Frankenstein is of the same persuasion as his contemporary peers, the many post-modern Prometheus: he fears very much that his creature (he never gives him a name, thus denying his fully humanity) will spawn a type of humanity that will do away with ours. In current times this fear has split into two branches, remember: fear of the bioengineered replicant and fear of the android robot, though the basic idea is similar–whether fully organic or fully inorganic, we believe that our creations will be the cause of our demise as the species that dominates Earth. Somehow, though, imagining the planet dominated by machines hurts less than imagining the post-human reign.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, the plot takes a dramatic turn when the lonely monster, fed up with humankind’s ubiquitous hostility, demands a bride. Victor starts making him one but, very stupidly, the good doctor gives his post-human woman a fertile womb. Then, imagining the Earth full of the pair’s little monsters, he destroys the new Eve before she’s even finished. Frankenstein could have left her body intact and give his monster a vasectomy, but, the plot hole I am exposing remains equally glaring: if you don’t want your alternative human beings to beget a new post-human species, use radical contraception–make them sterile. You might think that this is an understandable error in the context of 1818, when little was understood about human reproduction even by women, who, like Mary, had been mothers many times. Although the ovary had been described centuries before, the human ovum was only discovered in 1832 and menstruation was only associated with ovulation decades later (apparently, early to mid Victorians believed that the function of menstruation was to purge us monthly of our hysteria). Yet, I was flabbergasted to see that similar issues about post-human reproduction have been raised in the recent Blade Runner 2049, a late descendant of Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece.

I’m sure that the blatant sexism of this film would have appalled Mary, the daughter of pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as it appalled me (Joi really????). Leaving that issue aside–which is not easy as I’m mightily angry at Denis Villeneuve and his male writing crew–let me note that whereas Victor Frankenstein makes his post-human man for the sake of scratching the itch of doing advanced research, his contemporary equivalent in the film, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is in the business of making slaves for the extraplanetary colonies (he has purchased the remnants of the Tyrrell Corporation of the original Blade Runner). Funnily, in the play by Czech author Karel Čapek from which we have inherited the word ‘robot’, R.U.R. (1922), the robots are actually organic replicants, not at all mechanical creatures. Also funnily, or not so much, whereas Frankenstein’s problem is that his post-human replicants might breed like rabbits–which leads him to terminate the bride, which leads his monster to terminate Victor’s wife–Wallace’s problem is that his Nexus female slaves are sterile (it’s not so clear whether the males one are functional in this sense). Why is that a problem? Because, as he complains, making adult humans is a slow, expensive business and it would make much more sense to have them reproduce as fast as they can with no further intervention in the lab. The film fails spectacularly to discuss how this is different from your basic slavery, possibly because the scriptwriters have not read any History books.

Mary Shelley, then, got a few things absolutely right two hundred years ago: scientists are already making post-human persons, though the way they’re going artificial intelligences (whether robots or computers which we do not recognize yet as persons) are taking the lead. As far as I know, we have no replicants (that is to say, fully organic human beings manufactured as adults), whether standard or post-human. We do have many human beings interested in becoming post-human, like Nick Bostrom or Elon Musk, but mainly for narcissistic reasons connected with patriarchal power, rather than because they want to beget a new human species. This, I think, will not be created from scratch but will result, willingly or accidentally, from the constant manipulation of human reproduction in labs all over the world. Or, as Greg Bear narrates in Darwin’s Children, because something will cause our embryos to mutate.

If Mary returned from her grave she would be very much surprised by the popularity of her story, but possibly much more by its applicability. The world is full of Victor Frankensteins and of much more sinister figures, real-life Niander Wallace imitators, deciding how to make slaves. Some are making robots that will leave many people unemployed, others dream of replicants they can entirely control. In the meantime, women continue with the task of making human beings the natural way (or not so natural), as we wait for the day when some scientist–perhaps a woman seeking to liberate her peers from the pains of labour–will make a ‘uterine replicator’ (I’m borrowing the expression from Lois McMaster Bujold). As usual, Aldous Huxley seems to have hit the nail better than anyone else, for our future post-post-modern Frankensteins will most likely make humans of all kinds, from Alpha to Epsylon, and many more sub-humans than superior post-humans, for sure.

Thank you Mary for the warning, it came in a superb book, though I’m sorry to say it was not horrific enough.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE RETURN OF THE GENTLEMAN: A PROPOSAL

February 13th, 2018

I taught yesterday an MA seminar on my research, mixing Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. I gave examples of the work I have done within the area I specialize in: Masculinities Studies (and popular fictions). As happens, the aspect of my research that generated the greatest discord was my proposal that we bring back gentlemanliness as a necessary code of behaviour for men. I have dealt with the need to offer specifically young men new ideals in the post following the Barcelona terrorist attacks of August 2017 (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/08/21/indoctrinating-young-men-in-search-of-ideals/) and I have praised good gentlemanly men in another post, about Dickens’s Bleak House (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/11/05/in-search-of-good-men-as-anti-patriarchal-role-models/). However, I have not addressed the topic of the gentleman directly and this might be a good chance to do so.

One of the students in class, a young woman, reacted very negatively when I explained that we should welcome a renewed code of gentlemanliness. She complained that the gentleman’s behaviour is patronising, using the classic example of the man opening a door to let a woman pass. I replied that this is a courtesy I would not personally reject and that in order to make it less patronizing (which I don’t think it is) we just need to make it mutual: you open the door for me, I open the door for you. Actually, this renewal of general courtesy seems to me more urgent than ever: getting off the train at my university’s station is terribly stressful, as absolutely nobody gives other passengers way. A walk I took in Barcelona last week turned out to be everything except relaxing as I had to dodge constantly other pedestrians who insisted on going their way even at the risk of crashing onto me. At full speed…

I do take into account, as another student reminded me, that gentlemanliness was used hypocritically by many men throughout the 19th century. Of course, both R.L. Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, among many other authors, exposed this hypocrisy with the extreme cases of Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray. Yet, unless I am utterly deceived, most Victorian men who wanted to be respectable in society abided by the codes of gentlemanliness: politeness, protection of those in need, restrained behaviour, firm management of aggressive urges, care of one’s person in looks and manners. Not bad, I should think. And not just upper class: remember that working-class men have always made a great deal of being respected by their community. Perhaps being a gentleman is about making the most of the best qualities that a man possesses.

As I explained yesterday in class, unlike the Spanish ‘caballero’ which simply alludes to the medieval figure of the knight who possessed a horse (‘caballo’, of course), the Anglophone ‘gentleman’ signals that to be an ideal man one must be gentle (not just own a horse!). ‘Gentle’, unfortunately, came to be identified with that awful American word, ‘sissy’ (which derives from ‘sister’, see how misogyny always lurks behind patriarchal insults). Today, as I acknowledged in class, no man appreciates being called a ‘gentleman’, particularly the young ones, because they see that as something bland and phoney. In short, ridiculous. (Here I need a footnote to remind readers that possibly older classy men like George Clooney, or similar, do enjoy being called ‘gentlemen’).

In part, the loss of the gentleman is to be blamed on WWI, when the horrified soldiers on all sides discovered that in that atrocious, mechanical war the codes of knighthood and of gentlemanliness so far ruling in warfare no longer applied. Gassing your enemies is not what gentlemen do, nor kill them by blasting them off the face of Earth and into gory smithereens. Yet, the biggest blow against the gentleman, as we know, was the feminist rejection of all notions of chivalry as patronizing (the word my student used, remember?). This does not mean that all women rejected the gentleman, as the continued popularity of fantasies like Austen’s Darcy prove. What I mean is that WWI (and later wars, like Vietnam) and 1970s radical feminism told men, in one way or another, that they needn’t pretend to be gentlemen because at heart they were only patriarchal barbarians. Many men told themselves, ‘ok, so that’s what we are’ and stopped acting as gentlemen. Others, better behaved but more puzzled, simply stopped obeying any specific ideal of manliness and got by as they could in life, navigating with great difficulties between Scylla and Charybdis, or feminism and patriarchy.

I will insist again and again that gentlemanliness was not only a pragmatic set of rules for respectable men to follow but also a great shaming mechanism. A man who engaged in what the American press defines coyly today as ‘misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’ could be told “you’re no gentleman!” and be shamed, in private and/or in public. Honestly or dishonestly, most men were wary of keeping up a reputable image and an upright behaviour was part of that. Now, what do you tell the likes of Harvey Weinstein, or simply a man that puts his hands were he should not? How do you shame them? “You’re an abuser?” “You’re a monster?” The justice system and the threat of a jail sentence is not working, as we all can see, so there must be something else that acts as a deterrent against intolerable patriarchal behaviour.

The shaming mechanism that is currently used is absolutely counterproductive because what we’re screaming at these patriarchal abusers is “You’re a man! What a shame!” Sorry to disagree with many other feminist militants but I firmly believe that men are not all the same. By not distinguishing between gentle/men (if you don’t like gentlemen) and ‘cads’ (to use another quaint Victorian word) we’re failing to find solutions for the problem of generalized patriarchal violence. Tell Donald Trump, “You’re no gentleman!” and he won’t care because this means nothing today (though I think Barack Obama would care); tell him “You’re a man!” and Trump will say, “Exactly, that’s what I am, and proud of it”. So, it boils down to this: unless we have a way to label good men in such a positive way that most men want to be viewed in that way, we’re lost (we women, but also they, the good men). And unless we do find an insult that clearly defines what patriarchal abusers are, we have no effective social and personal shaming mechanism.

Can a man be a ‘feminist gentleman’, as an ex-student used to define himself? I usually find that the men I know and that fit that label do not proclaim their own gentlemanliness (or feminism), for part of being a gentleman is restraint–no need to proclaim out loud what other should see for themselves. Restraint, on other hand, does not mean an inability to show feeling, a problem that indeed plagued the old-fashioned Victorian version of the gentleman. No, restraint means here the ability to show positive feeling and control negative feeling: gentlemen do cry if they feel moved to tears but do not hit others in anger. Bullying and intimidation are not part of their conduct, either.

I’m beginning to sound, I know, like an etiquette book, but, then, I’m not alone in this: Margaret Atwood recently declared that men need “etiquette books on how to behave” and even a Mr. Manners’ column in 1950s style (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/06/margaret-atwood-modern-men-need-etiquette-books). I understand that speaking of etiquette and gentlemanliness in 2018, rather than the pre-second wave 1958, may sound obsolete but, believe, it is not.

I’m taking these days a course for teachers on how to detect sexual violence in a university context and we were shown yesterday what can only be described as a lesson in etiquette. This is a video published by Thames Valley Police in 2015 which very cleverly compares sexual consent with having tea. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ. I complained that the tone is childish, and wondered whether young men shown this film would resent being treated as not too bright. But a younger female classmate patiently explained to me (thank you!!!) that the sexual etiquette which the video explains makes perfect sense for girls, who are often unsure about how to show or withdraw consent. She said that it’s a common experience for women of her generation to engage in sex they don’t really want (see The New Yorker’s popular story by Kristen Roupenian “Cat Person”, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person). This means that women are suffering not only because gentlemanliness has been lost but also because we also have lost our own etiquette in the generalized rush to free ourselves, sexually and otherwise.

The difference is, let me explain, that whereas we women are constantly surveilled and punished by a hundred different shaming mechanisms (from “You’re not a lady” to “You’re a fat, ugly, old bitch!”), men are not. Let me correct myself: patriarchal men do use “You’re not a man!” to mean “You’re not acceptable as a member of patriarchy” but this is not at all the kind of shaming mechanism we need to support. Nor is the radical feminist cry “All men are the same (kind of bastard)!” If you’re thinking that all shaming strategies are barbaric and should be suppressed please consider that there is an enormous distance between body-shaming someone who is not normative and shaming publicly and privately a physical or psychological abuser of any kind.

In short, I believe that we do need a new version of gentlemanliness to deprive patriarchal men of the privilege of deciding who is a ‘real’ man and who is not. We, women, need to inform each other of who is a good man and who is a patriarchal bad man, just like that. What we’re currently telling each other is that all men are patriarchal abusers, without distinction, which is why, perhaps rightly, some personalities are complaining that there is a risk of generalizing a witch hunt. Of course, when Donald Trump is the one complaining we need to dismiss his words, for he is only protecting himself. But when a woman like Margaret Atwood sends this kind of warning, perhaps we need to listen (I say perhaps because I’m certainly not listening to Catherine Deneuve, see my previous post). As for the good men, whether you like being called gentlemen or not, you need to oppose the idea that all men are the same type of patriarchal abuser with more determination. “Not all men are rapists” does not sound to me like an effective defence of masculinity; “all men should fight patriarchal abusers and absolutely reject rape” does.

I know what you’re thinking: so, how about women as ladies? Women rejected ladyhood, beginning with the suffragettes, because it was an unsustainable burden, which limited our chances to be educated, make sound personal choices, be economically independent and, in short, full human beings. Whereas gentlemanliness limited men and regulated their behaviour in a way that benefitted them socially, it was the opposite for women oppressed by ladyhood. However, just as gentlemanliness can be recycled as a valid code for men today, I believe that ladyhood is perfectly compatible with feminism. This is not 19th century ladyhood but a 21st version by which a woman makes the best of her own personal qualities. For me, being a lady is about being self-possessed, knowing how to behave, being sure of your own codes, insisting on mutual courtesy, treating the good men with respect, supporting other women.

There is no way I can exactly translate into English the Catalan “quedar com una senyora” (um, “make a ladylike impression”?) but this is certainly my own personal maxim. Now, I invite all men to make a gentlemanly impression… and reject toxic, barbaric patriarchal masculinity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/