April 6th, 2020

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently teaching an elective third/fourth year course on Cultural Studies, taking as case study the representation of the United States in 21st century documentary films (see one of the volumes that has inspired me, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation, Edinburgh UP (2013), here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/american-documentary-film/AA1BF73143D4FD1F33160FCA0CEDF3C9). I feel, therefore, bound to comment on Netflix’s current world-wide hit, the US documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (released March 2020), though I certainly do not feel bound to recommend it. I saw it on two consecutive evenings and I must say that while the first four episodes (out of seven) were thrilling ad hilarious, the last three were less enticing, mainly because the directors, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, somehow lose sight of the chronology of events in them. Incidentally, this is the first credit as director for Goode, whereas Chaiklin had already directed Last Party 2000 (2001), Lockdown, USA (2006, with Michael Skolnik) and Another World (2014, with Fisher Stevens).

Since the phenomenon around Tiger King is so gigantic right now –no doubt because the covid-19 quarantine has made the lurid series a favourite with audiences desperate for entertainment– it is arguably necessary to watch it and join the conversation. I don’t intend here to comment on the plot in detail but to take the chance to consider a) what makes a good documentary and b) how judgement necessarily varies if passed inside or outside the society portrayed in the film. I have noticed in work written by my students a worrying tendency to assume an insider position, using ‘we’ when in fact they should use ‘Americans’. I would agree that many aspects of American society are now universal, mostly thanks to 1990s globalisation, but this does not mean that US narrative, including documentaries, is not rooted in specific local concerns. ‘We’ are not ‘they’ and anyone who approaches American texts, and for that matter any foreign text, must bear this fact in mind. Of course, human beings have the ability to understand texts across cultural divides bigger than the one separating my students from the American films we’re analysing but I just don’t see US college students writing about a Spanish documentary using ‘we’.

A while ago I started preparing for my students’ benefit a list of criteria about what makes a documentary valuable, collated from several sources. Here it is:

• clear storyline (the documentary film tells a story, and if it tells several, these are presented in ways the audience can follow)
• powerful story/character arc (a good documentary makes us care about its topic, which does not necessarily mean that you empathize with the persons portrayed: it means that you google for more information the moment you’re done watching)
• originality of topic (the topic must be interesting and if it is not at first glance, then it should be made attractive by the film)
• quality of research /depth (audiences can see that an effort has been made to sustain the ‘truth’ presented with adequate fact-finding that can be double-checked)
• clarity of presentation / good narrative flow (or quality direction)
• creativity of presentation (also quality direction, though many documentaries while not necessarily creative narrate relevant stories extremely well)
• strong interviews (or actors’ performances, in case some scenes are staged, or most if the film is a docudrama)
• exclusive access (the filmmakers go where no members of the audience could not go, and have their subjects trust them as no one else did before)
• trustworthiness (the documentary stays as close as possible to the ‘truth’ which the filmmakers endorse, though this might not be the truth for other persons)
• complicity with audiences (the filmmakers assume that their audience is intelligent and do not patronize them)
• quality audio, cinematography, editing and music, with editing possibly as the most salient aspect
• adequate runtime (the film does not overstay its welcome, nor is its narrative too limited)

Just then I came across a similar list by a man who knows a thing or two about documentaries: Michael Moore. Here are his thirteen rules, summarized from IndieWire, 10 September 2014; https://www.indiewire.com/feature/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384/), check the complete article for his comments. Please, note that he is thinking exclusively of the United States and addressing American filmmakers:

1. Don’t make a documentary—make a MOVIE (call yourself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and don’t be ashamed of being entertaining or non-artistically inclined)
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know [taken verbatim] (and focus on the majority of intelligent US audiences)
3. Avoid the college lecture mode of telling a story.
4. Don’t make your documentaries feel like medicine your audience must swallow.
5. Make your left-wing position fun, as it used to be.
6. Name the villains and be serious about the political things currently going on in the United States of America, even if people sue you.
7. Make your films personal, let them show your concern to the audience.
8. Point your cameras at the media cameras and expose the lies and manipulation.
9. Make audiences care for documentary films as much as they care for non-fiction books and TV.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you [taken verbatim]; or, the people you disagree with.
11. Try to imagine what audiences will feel seeing each scene you have filmed, be emotional.
12. Less is more. Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. [also verbatim]
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture for Sound carries the story. It’s true in a fiction film, too. The image may suck, but never the sound.

Now, back to Tiger King. For me, the problem with this documentary is that it uses as bait its main issue –the exploitation of big cats for entertainment in American private zoos– but turns out to be far more interested in the exploiters. Not only the titular Tiger King, the bizarre Joe Exotic, but also other men in his circle (Bhagavan Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari, Tim Stark of Wildlife in Need, crooked businessman Jeff Lowe, and even a mafia boss whose name I cannot find). Whether straight or gay, like our friend Exotic, these men embody a sense of entitlement, over the poor big cats and over the persons they attract as lovers or as audiences with their zoos, that the documentary fails to question. They are all criminals but the only actions that are questioned by Goode and Chaiklin are those of the main female character, Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Willa Paskin complains in a Slate article that Tiger King chose the wrong villain to focus on, not just because Baskin is the only important woman among this circle of misogynistic men (that too), but most importantly because in this “sordid menagerie of human beings” she is the only one who cares for the big cats as a pro-animal activist (https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/tiger-king-netflix-carole-baskin-villain.html).

As I watched the documentary, I missed with growing concern this angle of the story. It is hard to believe in the filmmakers’ trustworthiness given that although their series avowedly intends to show disgust at animal exploitation, the abundant images of cute cubs will most likely result in more Americans visiting one of these awful zoos or trying to buy a big cat as pet. The documentary begins by noting that there are more big cats in captivity in America than in the wild in the rest of the world but, ultimately, only cares for the business and personal imbroglios of the men it portrays and to bash Carole Baskin, throwing as much dirt as possible on her. This is why, if I look at the two sets of rules I have offered above, I cannot say that Tiger King is a good documentary. If you ask me, I believe it is actually a very bad documentary, mere docutainment to fill in five and a half hours of harrowing covid-19 quarantine. There are much better documentary films and series on offer, even on Netflix, but in our times, I guess, audiences crave for this kind of trash.

Now for the insider/outsider view. Writing for The Guardian, American writer Jessa Crispin (editor-in-chief of litblog-webzine Bookslut, and author among others of Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)), discusses Tiger King as “our world back to us –one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs”. ‘Us’, of course, means Americans, and she traces in her article a not-so-obvious comparison between the documentary and the current covid-19 reality, reading the mini-series as “the hidden realities of a society that can’t take care of its sick and poor” (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tiger-king-reflects-our-world-back-to-us-one-run-by-megalomaniacs-and-amateurs). The point she makes is that Joe Exotic and Donald Trump are part of the same American socio-cultural landscape, despite the apparent class and occupation differences, which I grant. “We are the Tiger King. The Tiger King is us”, Crispin acknowledges in dismay, for “This bringing of the wild into our domestic spaces is, after all, what got us sick”. Please, notice that though the origin of covid-19 is not a big cat zoo in America, it turns out that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 originated in a Kansas slaughterhouse. The disease documented in Tiger King, “the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence”, or in short entitlement, is the reason why America “can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering” right now, in the middle of the coronavirus-related horrors.

As an American, Crispin has the right to criticize her own country, but do I? Do my students? One of them asked me how come that most of the documentaries in our list maintain a similarly critical position, and I replied that this is because I have cheated, selecting only those with left-wing credentials. Noticing that quite a few of these documentaries have right-wing counterparts I joked that next time I should teach a course on the Republican documentary –maybe I should, if only for balance. The question is that watching Tiger King as a Catalan/Spaniard/European I feel compelled to say that the United States, as represented in this mini-series, appear to be a very sick society. Whether I should or should not voice that opinion, it is hard to find anything positive in Tiger King, not only in the characters’ actions but in the filmmakers’ intentions. I assume that Goode and Chaikin were not thinking of international audiences, only of shocking US national audiences. Yet, they must have realized that their mini-series confirms a lingering suspicion: that the United States are past their prime as a world-leading society.

Even a far less sensationalist documentary, 2020 Oscar Award winner, American Factory (another Netflix-backed product) gives the same impression, despite dealing with a story of working-class heroic resilience against all odds. Why, in short, I’m wondering, do American texts oscillate between the simplistic patriotism of so many run-of-the-mill action films and the crudity of the true-crime flood coming out of Netflix? Can’t American filmmakers see how deeply eroded the image of the United States already is, nationally and internationally? Arguably, they do, and products like Tiger King should be read as a waking-up call, though the mini-series seems to be just another very American freak show.

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


March 29th, 2020

Second week of confinement, already. The situation as a friend tells me, feels surreal. Here we are working a long day at home as we often do, which feels completely normal. Then we sign off our virtual world and the real world punches us in the face with enormous figures for casualties, reports on overcrowded emergency services in hospitals, elderly people dying in scores in underfunded homes, and an extended quarantine (if this means ‘forty days’, that’s what we should be ready for, if not longer). The novelty in relation to last week is that it seems now unlikely that schools, from kindergarten to universities, will reopen. And for the record, yes, I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the feminist demonstrations of last 8 March, and any other mass event. But, then, the world looked very different. Only the day before, I had lunch with my friends and though I avoided the demonstrations, I spent a cheerful Sunday morning enjoying an exhibition of William Klein’s photography. Those were happy times.

As announced, here is a second list of great documentaries, from 1966 to 1996. Again, most of these films can be found online one way or another. As you may imagine, the difficulty is that documentary films have proliferated in recent decades for the very simple reason that equipment has become cheaper and, thus, more generally available. Anyone can now make a documentary film with a smartphone and basic editing tools, though the real boom started in the 1980s when video was introduced. We tend to forget that in earlier periods image and sound were recorded separately, which required at least two persons carrying rather heavy equipment to shoot film. Of course, modern documentaries can be as sophisticated as the budget allows it (just think of David Attenborough’s astonishing nature series for the BBC, any of them!) but they are always on the whole much cheaper to make than fiction movies. Beyond this, documentary films seem to have taken a major leap in abundance and cinematic prestige in the 1990s, which is why my selection for that decade may seem quite poor. I also grant that international representation is here limited.

1967 Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/ This is the documentary where you see a young Dylan holding a series of cardboard notices which he drops one by one as the lyrics in song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” progress. Pennebaker followed the singer-composer during his first major tour in the UK to offer a candid portrait. If you’re a fan, this will make you happy; if you’re not, you will also feel happy: the film confirms that Dylan was, at least at that point, a pretentious egomaniac.

1967 Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062374/ Wiseman has 47 credits as director to his name and is a major institution in the field of American documentary. Funnily, he has won no Oscars except an honorary award (2017). Titicut Follies, his first film, is quite uncomfortable to watch: it asks you to consider what life is like inside a rather improvable mental health institution. Curiously, Wiseman made next High School (1968) perhaps because he found that institution another type of madhouse.

1969 Salesman, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064921/ The Maysles brothers, kings of the uncomfortable documentary above Wiseman, team up with Zwerin to follow four rather obnoxious luxury Bibles salesmen as they play all their tricks to convince poor Catholic families to buy their products. The filmmakers pass no judgement, but audiences squirm.

1969 Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066904/ French ‘chagrin’ does mean sorrow or grief, but ‘chagrin’ also exists in English as a synonym for ‘mortification’. This is what French audiences were asked to endure for more than four hours, as Ophüls narrates the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the Nazi occupiers in the extermination of the French Jews.

1970 Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/ A three-hour long documentary summarizing the three-day epic concert that defined the hippy era. This is a must-see for anyone interested in both aspects: the music and the youth culture of the time, at its happiest.

1970 Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065780/ The Rolling Stones missed Woodstock and they decided to offer instead a free concert on a California highway. What followed was major chaos, including the murder of a man right before the stage where the Stones were trying to restrain the anarchic crowd. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin were there to document the sorry mess.

1973-74 The World at War (mini-series), Jeremy Isaacs (producer), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071075/ I’m breaking my own rules here by including a series, but the 26 episodes of Isaacs’ production are simply astounding. I did see the whole series as a little girl on Spanish TV’s second channel, then called UHF, which says much for what public television used to be like.

1974 Hearts and Minds, Peter Davies, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/ This American documentaries tries hard to offer a balanced view of the Vietnam conflict, asking all sides for their view. Made in the later stages of the war, the film offers now in hindsight a very complete reflection on the reasons why the United States lost that war. General Westmoreland, head of the US forces, has the gall to say that Vietnamese people do not value life ‘as we do’.

1975 Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/ Talk about discomfort… The Maysles brothers and their co-directors document the life of elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Little Edie in their derelict mansion. Mother and daughter seem a duo out of a Tennessee Williams play but they happened to be Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. It’s hard to say which aspect of this documentary is more exploitative. Perhaps watch instead the perfect parody in the series Documentary Now!, Sandy Passage (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628/ )

1976 Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074605/ American Factory, 2020’s Oscar award winner, is heavily indebted to Kopple’s pro-union activism in this film. She documents the miners’ strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in June 1973, a conflict of remarkable virulence in which the bosses did not hesitate to use hired guns against the workers.

1978 The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/ The Band were a Canadian-American rock ensemble of great fame during their first period (1968-1977), though I confess that I only learned they existed because of Scorsese’s film. He documents, with taste and beautiful unaffectedness, what was supposed to be their last concert. They returned for a second period of lesser fame in 1983.

1982 Sans soleil, Chris Marker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ Marker is known for his avant-garde short film La Jetée (1962), which inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In Sans soleil he follows a woman’s journey beginning in Japan, offering a sort of personal travelogue filmed in Marker’s unique poetical style.

1982 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085809/ Reggio’s film (followed in 1988 by Powaqqatsi) is a plotless documentary that asks the viewer to enjoy a collections of beautifully photographed scenes showing how everything in the world is interrelated. Others have followed a similar path but this was the pioneer. A real beauty.

1984 Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088178/ Demme won an Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs but he appears to have had a far more joyful time filming a concert of The Talking Heads, led by the volatile David Byrne, at a time when the band were at their best. The minimalist style works surprisingly well and it’s just great fun to watch.

1985 Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/ Even though it is nine and a half hours long, Lanzmann’s very personal account of the traces left by the Holocaust in Europe is not a series. It is an indispensable work but at the same time a problematic one. Lanzmann has too much visibility and his confrontational style is at points awkward. Enjoy, if you have the patience.

1988 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Barbet Schroeder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095341/ In contrast to Shoah, the four and a half hours Schroeder takes to tell the story of Nazi executioner Barbie are fully justified. This is a tale of horror that shows not only, as Ophüls denounced, the connivance of the French authorities with the Nazis but also, as Schroeder adds, how easy it was for these criminals to escape the law for decades.

1989 Roger & Me, Michael Moore, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098213/ The Roger of the title is Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors who closed down the plant employing thousands of workers in Flint, Michigan –Moore’s hometown. Throughout the film Moore chases Smith, hoping to understand the massive downsizing but, as you may imagine, the executive does his best to avoid him.

1989 The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096257/ The thin red line were the soldiers that, according to Rudyard Kipling, saved the nation from disaster. Unformed in blue, not red, policemen fail to bring order and safety in Morris’s classic documentary about the miscarriages of justice. The gradual unveiling of the truth has been copied by countless true crime documentaries.

1990 Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/ This film is not at all about the fall of Paris to the Nazi invaders during WWII as one might assume, but about the non-white drag scene in 1980s New York. Livingston films the low-income men doing their best to enjoy themselves in this competitive culture, also closely associated with voguing (which Madonna vampirized for one of her hits).

1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper,
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102015/ Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, provided the footage on which Hearts of Darkness is based. The film documents the disastrous shooting of Apocalypse Now! in the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam). Coppola’s film was an uncredited adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hence the documentary’s title.

1993 The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108515/ This documentary connects with Primary (1960) and Street Fight (2005) as great examples of the behind-the-scenes non-fiction film about political campaigns. Here the focus falls on spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, organizers of Clinton’s first Presidential campaign (who is not at all the star here).

1994 Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ American cartoonist Robert Crumb is presented here in all his glory (or lack of it) in the context of his disastrous family life. This the kind of film that justifies why an American male genius can also be an utterly unlikeable personality and that never gets made about a woman (who are not really geniuses, are we?)

1994 Hoop Dreams, Steve James, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/ James follows the lives of African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, while they struggle to transform their passion for basketball into a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos where they live. The film documents with surprising intimacy the lives of the boys and of their families, offering a sad, stirring description of the difficulties they face. James’s portrait of American high school and university basketball as the key to the NBA’s American dream is not overtly critical but any spectator can see that the road ahead for William and Arthur is a very steep climb.

1995 The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/ Based on Vitto Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet proves what you suspected: even under the restrictive Hays Code, Hollywood managed to insert in their film plenty of allusions to male and female homosexuality. These become apparent if you only know where to look, which is what Russo did. Epstein and Friedman added interviews with actors who had played key parts in this hidden history.

1996, When We Were Kings, Leion Gast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/ I don’t enjoy boxing at all but this is an excellent insight into the top level of this so-called sport. Gast’s film narrates ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as the fight between young champion George Foreman and the quite old challenger Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) was known. This took place in 1974, not in the USA but in Zaire, under the auspices of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Enjoy!!! Stay home, keep safe.

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


March 21st, 2020

Colleagues and friends tell me that they have kept themselves extremely busy this first week in quarantine but this is because for most people in my circle working at home is hardly a novelty. I myself have really no spare time to fill in which means that I will most likely miss the exciting online offer that cultural institutions, professional artists and plain citizens are pouring onto their websites and their social networks. For those of you who still have a little corner to fill in, here is the announced list of great documentaries from 1895 to 1995 (first part!)–the, so to speak, canonical list that I have asked my students to learn about, and enjoy. Most of these 50 films can be found online one way or another (but check first their duration on IMDB, there are plenty of mutilated versions…). I’m discovering these days that the situation changes from day to day, and films impossible to find one week suddenly appear the next one, either legally or illegally. Others remain, sadly, in a limbo, which is a shame.

1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières didn’t know they were making a documentary because the word didn’t appear until 1926, when the British father of this film genre, John Grierson, reviewed Robert Flaherty’s Moana calling it a ‘documentary film’. The Lumières were just testing their camera and simply made a record of their workers leaving their premises, lasting under one minute. The film survives in three versions. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers_Leaving_the_Lumière_Factory

1922 Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ . This is, properly speaking, the first documentary film and also a very controversial starting point. In this film and in Moana (set in the Pacific islands, like the 2016 animated Moana here known as Vaiana), Flaherty had the natives whose lives he was documenting perform scenes staging customs and uses long abandoned. Since then, documentary films are plagued by the question of how close they must stay to the truth.

1927 Berlin, Die Simphonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Walter Ruttman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017668/ The idea has been copied countless times: take the camera and see what happens on one day in a big city. Has it ever been done with better insight and taste? I doubt it! The film is also a beautiful homage to Berlin before the rise of the Nazi regime, during the much happier times of the Weimar Republic.

1929 Cheloveks kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019760/ You might think that this is like the Berlin film but set in Moscow. Yes and no. Vertov’s film is a riot of images full of life with shows the Soviet capital as pure humanity, with a sensuality and a freedom that is certainly unexpected, and exhilarating. Don’t miss the birth scene…

1929 Regen / Rain, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020321/ A short documentary based on a very simple concept: recording one rainy day in Amsterdam. The film, as it turns out, took longer to make than that. It has a lovely, strangely melancholy air, very much like the rain… which is the whole point.

1929 Drifters, John Grierson, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019838/ North Sea herring fishing may not sound like a very exciting subject, particularly considering that this is a silent black and white film. Grierson, however, shows here in the only film he directed (he was mainly a producer) how little is needed to make a memorable record of life at sea. And show respect for the fishermen.

1930 À Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021576/ Another silent, black and white film, which offers a slice of life like no other. Vigo and Kaufman show street life in Nice, on the French Cote d’Azur, mocking its richer inhabitants but transmitting the enjoyment of popular celebrations with glee.

1935 Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025913/ Yes: I’m recommending that you watch Riefenstahl portrait of the 1934 massive Nuremberg Nazi rally. This was a winner for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a film that Frank Capra and other American directors studied very closely for its lessons in political propaganda, copied by the Allies during WWII. We must all understand Nazism for it not to reappear.

1936 Night Mail, Herbert Smith, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250616/ This is one of Grierson’s pro-Government, propaganda pieces –but who cares? The film manages to make the subject of how mail is gathered in one end of Britain and moved at night in trains to the other end a moving portrait of British efficiency, public service, and care. Like Drifters, it pays homage to the average working man, not a very common subject in our days.

1937 The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029594/ This is a pro-Republican propaganda film, made in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Ernest Hemingway (reading his own texts and others by John Dos Passos). It’s, I’m sorry to say, a truly misguided portrait of Spain in those times, good only for laughs, though it still enjoys great prestige. I was flabbergasted by hearing Catalan sardanas as the background music for village life in Madrid… But do watch it!

1938 Inside Nazi Germany, Jack Glenn, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131471/ An amazingly brave, bold description of Nazi Germany released twenty months before the beginning of WWII, which shows in all detail and clarity what Hitler and company were doing. Glenn, an American director, did his best but the world was not listening… Or it was, but trying not to have a new world war.

1943 Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035881/ See how firefighters coped with the bombings and the fires in London during the Blitz. Technically this is a docudrama, since most scenes are staged, but the gimmick does not mean it is less valuable for that. An homage indeed to the heroes who endured all kinds of sacrifices for their neighbours.

1943 The Battle of Midway, John Ford, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498/ Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R made this 18 minute colour documentary in the middle of the real Battle of Midway, with great danger to his life. The purpose was showing audiences back home what WWII aerial combat was like. The problem is that having seen re-enactments (like the 1976 Midway film) this looks less exciting –but remember that men are dying on screen for real.

1946 Let there be Light, John Huston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038687/ Huston was commissioned to document the progress of a group of traumatized veterans receiving psychiatric treatment back home once WWII was over but the US military could not stomach this heartfelt portrait of the suffering men. The film, which is a marvel to watch, was suppressed until 1980, when Vietnam had made PTSD a well-known concept. Please, please, please: do see it!

1948 Le Sang des bêtes/ The Blood of Beasts Georges Franju, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041842/ It’s only 22 minutes long but I had to stop watching after just a few minutes –Franju’s camera shows lovely Paris and then what is done to the animals in a local slaughterhouse with no frills. You can call this one the first pro-vegan film.

1955 Nuit et bruillard / Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048434/ This may be hard to believe but few people after WWII wanted to hear what survivors had to say about the Nazi extermination camps. Resnais’s short film, made ten years!! after the end of the war, was the first one to bring to light for the benefit of a general audiences what the Nazis did. It completely changed the way the suffering of the Jews and other victims was (mis)understood.

1959 Moi, un noir/ I, a Negro, Jean Rouch, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051942/ This one requires a very patient viewer, but if you can accept the amateurish footage and the poor sound (badly inserted afterwards), you might enjoy this singular pioneering portrait of a migrant’s life. The young Nigerian who interests Rouch survives as well he can in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, in an interesting case of intra-African migration.

1959 We are the Lambeth Boys, Karel Reisz, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052380/ This is one of the 1950s documentaries recording ordinary British life in the 1950s associated with the Free Cinema movement (Reisz would have a long career as fiction film director). The Lambeth Boys are not a gang, but a youth club –do marvel at how much the young have and have not changed since 1959. And at the local accent!

1960 Primary, Robert Drew, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054205/ Employing a cinéma vérité style Drew films presidential pre-candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during the Democratic Wisconsin primary (1960). The film inaugurates a political sub-genre later imitated by many others, in, for instance, The War Room (about Clinton).

1961 Chronique d’un été / Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054745/. Authentic French cinéma vérité by the director of Moi, un noir (and Morin). They send their female assistants to ask Parisians randomly met on the street whether they are happy. Their replies lead to a reflection on what we mean by happiness in a quite existential vein.

1964- The Up Series, Paul Almond (as Seven Up!) then Michael Apted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series) The Up series is an ITV (later BBC) series, which has been documenting the lives of fourteen British citizens since 1964, when they were aged 7. It has now passed its ninth instalment (in 2019) and will presumably continue.

1964 Point of Order!, Emile de Antonio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058481/ De Antonio does here something marvelously clever: he edits down to 97 thrilling minutes the TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Senator McCarthy was accused of seeking to obtain from the Army special privileges for a Private he was using as a spy). Along the film, which has no voiceover, we see the infamous McCarthy dig his own grave with increasing arrogance and cruelty. No need to add any comment…

1965 The War Game, Peter Watkins, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/ The BBC asked Watkins to make a docudrama showing the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on an average British city (Rochester in Kent). The result was so scary that the film was not shown until 1985 (though it did win an Oscar). Can a low-budget, black and white film be so frightening? I was absolutely terrified –please watch it!

Enough for today… the rest next week! Stay safe, keep well.

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


March 15th, 2020

I found nothing relevant to say last week, overwhelmed as I felt by the realization that all would have to stop in Spain in a few days, as it has happened. I’m home, teaching online, for at least three weeks, which in practice means until after Easter –but that’s possibly your situation too, so nothing new on that front. My impression, hence my title, is that we’re dealing with an alien invasion, even though this comes from inner rather than outer space. I am very much scared, above all because of the general stupidity of many people who are out in the streets, the beaches, the countryside, instead of being home, but that’s (Spanish) Homo Sapiens for you… Perhaps Covid-19 is an envoy from poor planet Earth trying to shake us off, and with all reason.

As happens, I’m teaching our ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (third-fourth year) and my case study is the American documentary, or, to be more specific how the United States are represented in documentary films. I am planning to publish an e-book with my forty-five students, so I have chosen two films for each of them (yes, ninety films!). They need to do a class presentation (now moved online) and write a factsheet for the e-book. So far the presentations have been very good and I hope that we can still manage online, and eventually issue the e-book (see my other e-books with students here http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The whole point of the course is persuading my students not only that documentary films are a type of cultural study but mainly that they are an undervalued but extremely exciting type of film to watch. So far, they have responded very well and what I’m going to do here is to extend these main theses to my (possible) readers. In this post, then, and in others that I will write I intend, therefore, to recommend the films that my students are in charge of, hoping that you also enjoy them. I will not include info on where to see them but most are available either legally on the streaming platforms or illegally on YouTube.

The course and the e-book are organized thematically, though I might eventually alter the order if the e-book requires it. In this first post, I deal with the sections on crime (personal and organized), economics (for capitalism is another form of organized crime), and environmental activism. There are other sections on gender, interesting personalities (what I have called ‘Icons of America’), politics, race, religion, other social issues, space exploration, and sports. I’ll post, then, other recommendations as the semester progresses. Next week I’ll post a list of recommended documentaries from the Lumière brother’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) to Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. The lesson I’m learning is that documentary films have provided audiences with amazing masterpieces in the past, and are providing us now with much better films than standard fiction cinema. They tell far more interesting stories in cinematic styles that are also more creative. Believe me!

These are the documentaries we have so far discussed in class:

Section CRIME. Personal crime

Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore). Oscar-award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310793/. This is the documentary film that changed the way we perceive documentaries for good. Moore had made other indispensable films (such as Roger and Me, 1989) but with this one he proved that documentary films could be huge box-office successes and, above all, impact society in significant ways. In Bowling he very cleverly argues that the frequent school shootings in America are not isolated incidents perpetrated by confused young men but the product of the American love of weapons, at an individual and a national level. The pity is that they still continue for the weapons lobby is stronger than common sense.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342172/. Jarecki was making a documentary on clown Silly Billy, a favourite at children’s parties, when he noticed something was amiss in the Friedman family. Their home movies and an investigation into their lifestyle eventually led to Mr. Friedman’s being unmasked as a child abuser, even though, for odds reasons, evidence was hard to come by. In a move that was certainly controversial and that makes watching the film very difficult today, Jarecki tried to stay neutral. His film, in any case, offers a startling, scary insight into ordinary American life.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152758/. Be ready to cry your heart out… Kurt Kuenne’s childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was cruelly murdered by his possessive, mentally ill Canadian girlfriend Shirley Turner. As it turned out, she was pregnant with their child and Kuenne decided to interview everyone who knew the genial Andy for the benefit of baby Zachary. This story, however, took a sudden, unexpected turn because of the many errors committed by the Canadian prosecutors who should have put Shirley in prison for life. As I say, watch and cry, and sympathize with Zachary’s heroic grandparents.

Tower (2016, Keith Maitland). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5116410. Maitland’s truly amazing documentary connects with Bowling for Columbine as it narrates the first school shooting ever in America. This was perpetrated by a lone gunman (a Marine Sergeant) who on 1 August 1966 opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people. The documentary focuses on the victims and the heroes, making a point of not glamourizing in any way the mass killer. Maitland uses interviews with the survivors, and original film and photography, but also animation using rotoscoping (mainly in the recreated interviews with the young participants in the horrific event).

Section CRIME. Organized crime

Cocaine Cowboys (2006, Billy Corben). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380268 This hyperactive documentary film tells the story of how boring 1970s Miami was transformed by drug trafficking in the 1980s. The Medellín Colombia cartel, aided by the Cuban migrants, turned the city into the main gate through which cocaine flooded the USA. The corrupt authorities looked the other way until ‘Godmother’ Griselda Blanco went too far in her use of violent enforcers to get control of the whole turf. If you enjoyed Miami Vice (1984-1989) you will love seeing the actual traffickers that caused all the trouble the series portrayed. Brilliant, really.

Cartel Land (2015, Matthew Heineman). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4126304 A truly fascinating look at both sides of the border, dealing with the doomed fight against the Mexican cartels. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon militia, and Dr José Mireles, a Michoacán physician who leads the Autodefensas, are mirror images, men who know that there is really nothing to be done against the disinterest of Governments in fighting drug trafficking. As a narco tells Heineman, it’s really up to American consumers to stop taking drugs. Impressive!


American Factory (2019, Steve Bognar, Julia Reichert). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9351980 What happens when a Chinese billionaire, Chairman Cao, buys a closed GM plant to re-open it with a mix of American and imported Chinse workers? Cultural clash, and no wonder. This is a great comparative portrait of the United States and Chine, with an unusual focus on the working classes, and their rights.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, Michael Moore). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232207/. Our second Moore documentary on the list, this time on the impact of corporate greed on ordinary Americans. It is in a way, a descendant of the next one on the list, and both complement each other beautifully.

Corporation, The (2003, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379225 . This is the documentary that explains everything about the USA, and about our current world – perhaps you need to begin with this one. Corporations took the world over the moment USA legislation allowed them to exist as individual entities with rights above people, and develop their truly psychopathic behaviour. Be scared, be aware.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005, Alex Gibney). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016268/ Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2003), Gibney’s film narrates a major business scandal, showing how far corporations can go in their greed and, yes, stupidity.

Shock Doctrine, The (2009, Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1355640. Author Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, hated the film, based on her own book, which, paradoxically, is a sort of rather accomplished book trailer for her work. The central concept is disaster capitalism, the idea that corporate business thrives on terror, taking advantage of moments of deep public distress, often caused by corporations in cahoots with corrupt governments.

Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645089/ If you still can’t understand how and why the devastating 2008 crisis happened, this will solve all your doubts…

ENVIROMENTAL ACTIVISM: Animal rights, environmental destruction, food consumption
Please, note: The Cove (2009) and Earthlings (2005) are not here because I needed to focus mainly on America, and not on how American criticize the rest of the world…

Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2545118/ Ever been to SeaWorld or watched a dolphin show? See Blackfish and feel guilty… Tilikum, a young male orca, was captured to be a star but you cannot ill-treat an animal and expect him to respect humans, can you? See what happened

Project Nim (2011, James Marsh). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836. Intriguingly, this film mirrors to a great extent a fiction film released the same year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim Chimpsky is stolen from his mother to be raised as a child in a human family, and test whether he can learn the basics of grammar. From this point onward, everything goes downhill for the poor ape.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006, David Guggenheim). Oscar-award winner 2006. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/ Former United States Vice President Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency by the Bush family, and he embarked next on a pioneering career as climate change activist. This is the documentary that started educating audiences about the planetary destruction emergency we now face.

Before the Flood (2016, Fisher Stevens). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5929776/ A sort of follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Stevens’s film follows UN good-will ambassador Leonardo di Caprio as he talks to the activists and authorities that might help to save the world, as he himself struggles to understand his own position as a privileged American consumer.

GasLand (2010, Josh Fox). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1558250/ Fox was offered $100000 by a company interested in exploiting the gas resources in his beautiful home in the woods, and suspecting foul play he started exploring the consequences of fracking. This was the film that first warned the world about the destructiveness of the process.

Trouble the Water (2008, Carl Dea and Tia Lessin). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149405/ The US authorities made no effort to get the poorest, African-American inhabitants of New Orleans out of the city before hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke. Watch first-hand what it was like to survive the flood and the subsequent abandonment of the survivors to their fate.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014 Kip Andersen Keegan Kuhn). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3302820 Andersen tries to understand how he can be a better environmental activist by approaching the organizations supposedly in charge of offering advice. What he finds is silence, rejection, and a few horror stories enough to turn anyone into a vegan.

Food, Inc. (2009, Robert Kenner). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1286537/ Co-produced by Eric Schlosser, the journalist who first described the antics of McDonalds in Fast Food Nation, Kenner’s film examines how corporate farming in the hands of just five companies poisons Americans with unhealthy ultra-processed food, abusing animals and farmers.

Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390521/ Spurlock wanted to know what happens if you only eat McDonald’d foot, as he did during a month in 2003. The results were so awful that it forced the restaurant chain to introduce important changes in the food it offers (but did they, really…?)

More next week! Stay safe, don’t leave home.

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


March 3rd, 2020

I have been delaying this post in the hopes that some of our local Spanish universities would have bought by now the monograph I published back in November 2019, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Masculinity-and-Patriarchal-Villainy-in-the-British-Novel-From-Hitler/Martin/p/book/9780367441463). This has not happened yet, though you can check here where the volume is available near you (https://www.worldcat.org/title/masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-in-the-british-novel-from-hitler-to-voldemort/oclc/1140353245&referer=brief_results). I’m told there the paperback edition will be published next year, when I’ll continue my own personal marketing campaign, of which this is post is, unashamedly, an item.

It is hard to say how long it has taken me to write this book because the idea first occurred to me back in 2008 (I spent a sabbatical then gathering bibliography), but technically the book expands on a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1996). Since 2006-7 I had been teaching the seminar (in Spanish) “Representations of Heroism” within the Cultural Studies module of the MA in Literatura Comparada: Estudios Literarios y Culturales of my university. I taught the last edition in 2016-17, so you can say that the book, which connects with my discourse on villainy for this seminar, was started back in 2006 and has taken thirteen years to be written. That might be the case, though the actual writing, from contract to publication, took about twenty months. If I have managed the feat of producing a monograph this is only because my teaching workload is now lower (thanks to the Government decree of 2012 by Minister Wert which few universities are applying), and because my Department allowed me to organize my teaching so that I could spend a complete year on the book (apart from tutorials for BA, MA, and PhD dissertations). I am already at work on another book, but I’m not sure at all that this window of opportunity will ever present itself again, considering that it has taken more than twenty-five years of my career for the past one to materialize.

Another reason why it has taken me long to write this book is that, once I hit on the idea that my topic should be villainy and not heroism (on which far more has been written), I had basically the whole field to myself. Believe it or not, there is very little direct bibliography on villainy, and what is available deals mainly with specific villains and not with the concept itself. Typically, I started with lists of villainous characters and soon got mired into what promised to be the beginnings of an encyclopedia. That was not, however, the kind of book I wanted to write. Nor a history of fictional villainy, though now that I’m done writing my own book this is a project that I wish someone else would write (not me!). The problem of how to select a corpus and structure a coherent volume plagued me for years –as I kept myself busy doing a thousand other things– until I ask my previous PhD supervisor, Andrew Monnickendam, for help. His advice was very simple but very helpful: narrow down the field to a genre, a period, and a nationality. Since most bibliography on villainy deals with recent American audio-visual products, here was the solution to my needs: I would focus on the British novel since WWII.

Why? Reason number one: the fictional construction of villainy is rooted in British culture, beginning with the Devil and Vice in the morality plays, following with Shakespeare, Milton, the Gothic novel, Dickens… Should I go on? The villain is, most definitely, not a product of American culture. Reason number two: the villain’s audiovisual presence often depends on novels that have been ignored or that, even when they are very popular, are seen as vehicles for the hero. I wanted to put together a variety of cases that would help me stress a crucial point: there is a remarkable coherence in the presentation of villainy across different fiction genres; this has been overlooked simply because no one was paying attention. Third reason: Adolf Hitler had to be in my book as the real-life villain that changed the rules of representing villainy. I knew from the very beginning that my book should be called From Hitler to Voldemort, though Routledge preferred the title to act as subtitle, and have the volume be called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction, which was originally my subtitle.

Here is the table of contents:
Introduction. Defining the Patriarchal Villain
Chapter 1. Adolf Hitler: The Threat of Absolute Villainy
Chapter 2. Big Brother and O’Brien: The Mystique of Power and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity
Chapter 3. Morgoth and Sauron: The Problem of Recurring Villainy
Chapter 4. Steerpike: Gormenghast’s Angry Young Man
Chapter 5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Larger Than Life: The Villain in the James Bond Series
Chapter 6. Richard Onslow Roper and the ‘Labyrinth of Monstrosities’: John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Villains
Chapter 7. Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart Trilogy: Democracy at Risk
Chapter 8. Big Ger Cafferty, Crime Boss: The Constant Struggle to Retain Power
Chapter 9. Voldemort and the Limits of Dark Magic: Self-empowerment as Self-destruction

This is quite similar to the list I started with, although Chapter 4 was originally split between Mervyn Peake, Grahame Green (Brighton Rock), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I soon realized that Peake’s Steerpike demanded more room and I gave it to him. As you can see, some chapters deal with very well-known texts, others not so much (Chapter 7 is the first academic essay on the Urquhart novels by Michael Dobbs). One thing that bothered me is that the list of primary sources for each chapter ran from just one book (Orwell’s 1984 in Chapter 2) to twelve (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Chapter 5) and even more (Ian Rankin’s many novels in Chapter 8). I discovered, though, that the strict word-count which I had to respect (110000 words), helped me to stay focused. Of all the villains here considered, I was most surprised by Tolkien’s Morgoth, a relatively little known character because he appears in the pages of The Silmarillion, not an easy book to read. If you’re wondering who Morgoth is you need to know that he is Sauron’s much admired master.

How did I tackle Hitler’s immense figure, you may be wondering? A turning point in my research was Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1997) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (2000). Kershaw, an English political historian, discusses Hitler’s rise and fall in relation to how the mechanism of power operates and why German society failed to control his crazed tyranny. Kershaw rejects evil and psychopathology as explanations for Hitler’s personality, and that was what I needed. I added to Kershaw’s interest in power my own interest in gender, and I developed thus my main thesis, namely, that villainy is the expression of the patriarchal sense of entitlement to power in its highest degree. For me, Hitler is not exceptional as a man who believes himself entitled to power in the patriarchal context of his own society, but rather a representative of a type of masculinity we now call toxic but should simply be called patriarchal. What was exceptional in his case, as Kershaw explains, is that all the mechanisms to stop Hitler’s excessive entitlement failed. The hero, I argue, personifies those mechanisms but in Hitler’s case there could be no German hero since he had presented himself as such. The Allies had to play that role but they did so among so many tensions that WWII was soon followed by the Cold War.

My theory of power is, unlike Kershaw’s, gendered but despite my focus on the patriarchal masculinity of the villains I have studied, I believe that entitlement is a negative quality present in both men and women with patriarchal inclinations. That is to say, although patriarchy has so far accumulated most power and deployed a series of strategies to keep non-white, non-heterosexual, non-upper-class men and all women subordinated, patriarchy is so attached to notions of power that as those excluded from power rebel (= empower themselves) it may welcome them in its patriarchal hegemonic circles. This is why, as I have written here before, I find the notion of empowerment very suspect. I decided not to deal in my book with female villains because to really understand villainy in women you need to find them in a post-gender context –while I wrote the book, then, I produced a chapter on Alma Coin, the female villain of The Hunger Games, for a book on the Final Girl. Women, my claim is, may feel a strong sense of entitlement to power, too, but so far this has been denied by patriarchy. If, however, patriarchy becomes less gender-obsessed while still retaining its obsession with power, we might see a female Hitler one day.

At this point, though, I have made it my mission to offer an anti-fascist diagnosis of what makes patriarchal men tick, claiming in the process that we urgently need positive representations of men as alternatives to patriarchy (see my previous post). It has been inevitable, logically, to speak of the heroes in connection to the villains but what I have found out is mostly depressing. The heroes offered by the British authors I have selected are mostly weak and disempowered –often crushed by the loss of male honourability– or plain nasty. I was surprised by how deeply Ian Fleming disliked his James Bond and dismayed by how fond Mervyn Peake was of Titus Groan, to me a young man on the verge of either worshipping or becoming someone like Hitler. My authors are all white and male because I wanted to see, precisely, how they deal with the tale of the hero and the villain, which is so central to hegemonic patriarchal culture. The only woman I chose, though, J.K. Rowling, provides, as I have been arguing again and again, the best possible model of anti-patriarchal heroic masculinity (borrowing from Tolkien’s Frodo). Harry Potter, however, seems to be too good for our macho-oriented times.

Throughout the writing of the book and afterwards I have been daily testing my thesis that what we call evil is actually entitlement based on a patriarchal understanding of power. Evil, in my view, is an interested patriarchal construction designed to mystify us about the operations of entitlement. Let me explain myself. Hitler acted as he did because he felt himself entitled to taking other European lands for the expansion of the German people, and to eliminating other European bodies that (for prejudices widespread at the time) he abhorred. He went further than any other villain (except for Joseph Stalin, of course) but you could say that all of human life is organized on the principle of how we express our own sense of entitlement depending on the power we wield and our disregard of punishment. From colonial occupation down to leaving your motorbike parked in the middle of the pavement everything is a matter of entitlement. Our own sense of personal privilege, our belief that we can do as we wish because we can (= we have the power) overcomes all sense of solidarity with the rest of the species. You might think that there is an enormous difference between bothering pedestrians and killing six million Jews (and many other persons) but this is a matter of degree (I’m NOT being flippant). Let your child’s sense of entitlement go uncurbed and you have a potential fascist in your hands. The rest is a matter of opportunities (the many Hitler had), befuddling your enemies (as he did with his impressive PR Nazi apparatus), and acting fast (while the victims considered appeasement policies that would never appease).

So, if the premise of my book works well readers will stop seeing patriarchy as a mechanism for women’s repression (it’s a hierarchical social structure based on power), and will deny the existence of evil (what matters is entitlement). Readers will also see female villainnesses, specially femme fatales, as the pathetic creatures they are, with their ultra-sexualised bodies, and will perceive how the villain’s masculinity is shaped by patriarchal doctrines. The way I see it, the hero has been invented by patriarchy to solve one of its main weaknesses: if you structure society on the basis of power, sooner or later an individual will claim too large a share, and this will endanger the other powerful individuals. The hero acts out, therefore, on behalf of patriarchy, to limit its excesses but not at all to challenge its hierarchy-oriented, pyramidal construction.

I ended the book with a plea that one day we find other stories to tell, in which there are no heroes because the power-hungry patriarchal villains are gone. I have no idea what these stories might be, or whether they will be exciting at all, but we really need to see beyond power, abuse, and suffering and think of new plots – for the sake of our survival as a species.

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


February 25th, 2020

I was waiting to see Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker before writing this post but now that I have seen it, I have very little to express about it –except indifference. And puzzlement that Mr. Cow Saviour (a.k.a. Joaquin Phoenix) has chosen to play a creep rather than a vegan hero, a figure we really need. I also feel nostalgia for the late Heath Ledger and his marvellous ability to lend Joker an air of mystery: we never know who the villain really is nor can we predict any of his reactions. Phillips and Phoenix’s Joker is, in contrast, a victim of mental health issues that have nothing to do with the colossal sense of entitlement behind villainy. To tell the truth, I found movie and characters more pathetic than thrilling in any way. I wasn’t even offended with this umpteenth portrait of the white heterosexual male as victim. I was, in contrast, incensed by a much smaller film, which is the inspiration for today’s ranting.

David Yarovesky’s film Brightburn(2019), written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn is a horror film full of gory violence which uses as its starting point a scene that will immediately sound familiar. Tori and Kyle are a couple of farmers in Kansas unable to have children. One evening, as they get ready to try again, a strange artefact lands on their backyard. Next thing we know, they have an adopted twelve-year-old son, Brandon. As he hits puberty, the boy starts noticing that there is something odd about him, manifested in his uncanny powers to move heavy objects, materialize elsewhere, and so on. Yes, this is Superman’s story but with the darkest possible twist; spiteful, entitled Brandon totally outcreeps Phoenix’s Joker, believe me. I stopped watching the movie after a particularly gruesome murder. I next checked the spoilers on IMDB [skip the lines until the end of the paragraph!!!] and was scandalized to learn that horrid Brandon gets away with his violent rampage against parents, family, and fellow citizens. Just the story we need in our times!

[Spoiler alert over] I’m not fond of superhero comics or cinema but I think that characterising Superman as an evil pre-teen boy is much more than a bad plot decision: it is a sign of the decadence of the United States as a civilization incapable of furnishing its men with adequate role models. I’m sure that the scriptwriters would disagree and defend their work as a dark take on so many absurd superhero movies. Yet, though I would certainly welcome healthy parody, their screenplay is just a very unhealthy revision of the only genuine hero left from the Marvel and DC combined collection. How about Tony Stark, Thor, and all the others? What makes Superman special, you might be asking? Call me naïve but he is the only one without dark corners: meek as a man, humble as a hero, always gallant, helpful, altruistic, devoted to doing good. No wonder he is an alien from outer space! If we lose Superman, then we are all lost.

Brightburn, although just a minor horror film, is a clear symptom of a terminal malady, I insist: the American/Western/world-wide (choose!) inability to imagine positive representations of masculinity as role models for boys. This is a conversation I’m having with my doctoral student Josie Swarbrick and my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Josie is finishing her dissertation on the monstrous images of men in recent science-fiction cinema and, now that we are at the end of the road, we have realized that negative representation is dominant. It seems that as women make progress towards better representation in fiction and the media, and personal advance in real life, men retreat, showing themselves under the worst possible light and behaving in bad ways which show an evident increase in misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. Isabel and I have the project of editing a volume on the good guys that might be an alternative to those nasty boys but we are having serious trouble finding examples. If you know of any, email me.

It is very difficult to say with certainty when the hero –as the highest male role model– started losing his charisma but he is now in the same position as the fairy Tinkerbell in performances of Peter Pan: unless the audience screams for him to reappear, he will vanish for ever. He cannot be the same man he used to be: boys do not need military genocides as role models, or patriarchal abusers of power. Boys need civic heroes: men who work for the good of the community without seeking personal empowerment, and who do so because they think it is their duty. Yes, I’m describing Harry Potter, possibly the last big hero, though if you notice few really admire him except for his ability to do magic. Certainly actor Daniel Radcliffe, who has done the impossible to play really whacky roles in whacky films, is no Potter admirer. Possibly the best boy character of recent years is Miguel, the protagonist of Pixar’s perfect animated film Coco (2017) but I have not read anything in his praise. Just let me say that Miguel and the Brandon of Brightburn are as different as two twelve-year-olds can be, and it’s easy to say who you want your boys to imitate.

Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Girls are increasingly benefitting from the feminist demand of better representation for women. It has been understood that fictional representation is extremely important for little girls to imagine themselves as self-confident persons capable of overcoming patriarchal pressures. There is much to be done along that road because female representation is still very limited in variety but the case is that, whether out of political correctness or sincere feminist belief, the number of positive women characters is growing. The mirror held up to girls is returning a much better image. In contrast, the mirror help up to boys is reflecting a much diminished image of masculinity. Who do boys see on the news or in representation today? Corrupt politicians –beginning with the President of the USA–, rapists (Weinstein and company), mass and serial killers (on Facebook transmitting live or on the many true crime series of the streaming platforms), young men of talent killed by drugs and rampant gang violence (I have lost count of the rap stars killed that way), cheating sportsmen (Lance Armstrong, anyone?)… Where, I wonder, are the charismatic men, the truly good men? Please, don’t name insipid Leo Messi.

If you do a quick Google search, as I have done, the panorama is devastating. Click in “good men” and this leads to the controversial website The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/about/), which went through a serious crisis in 2013 when a female contributor claimed that a ‘nice guy’ who had sexually assaulted a woman should not be really treated as a rapist (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/18/nice-guys-commit-rape-conversation-unhelpful). The Wikipedia entry for the label ‘nice guy’ warns that the term can be used negatively in relation to “a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and, in the context of dating (in which the term is often used), dishonestly uses acts of ostensible friendship and basic social etiquette with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship”. The ‘nice guy’ as major creep is the object of a vicious attack on the website Heartless Bitches International (http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/niceguys/ng.shtml). “All too often”, the contributors write, “we hear self-professed ‘Nice Guys’ complaining about why they can’t get a date, and whining that women just want to date jerks, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is that there are genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there who have NO TROUBLE meeting people, getting dates, and having relationships”. Notice two things: a) the problematic ‘nice guys’ are the ones describing themselves as such (whether you are a nice guy, or a good man, this is judgement other people should pass); b) the “genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there” are like unicorns: often mentioned, much loved, but never seen in the flesh. Show me who they are, please…

One of the creepiest things I found out during this hurried search is that Hasbro had marketed for a few years in the mid to late 1980s Mr. Buddy, a male doll intended to be a pal for little boys (see https://nothingbutnostalgia.com/my-buddy-doll/). Screen writer Don Mancini transformed Mr. Buddy into Chuckie, the Good Guy doll protagonist of the slasher film franchise Child’s Play, started in 1988 and still ongoing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child%27s_Play_(franchise)). This is a doll and I’m reluctant to take 1988 as the departure point for this negative view of men I am describing. I am, though, unable to fix a specific date for the beginning of the current process. When, in short, do men start focusing on nasty male characters as protagonists, pushing the do-gooders to the margins? If you follow my drift, what I mean is that even though there have always been negative representations of masculinity (I have just published a book on patriarchal villainy…), there is a tipping point after which the bad guy takes centre stage. I have the strong suspicion that the trend begins in 1950s USA, with novels such Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (also 1952), and that it might be connected with the extremely traumatic but silenced experience of men in WWII. I cannot tell for sure. Others might argue that the Vietnam War is the trauma that makes it impossible for American men to still believe in positive representation. Rambo replaces John Wayne, whose ridiculous movie The Green Berets, of 1968, is certainly anachronistic. But when exactly the hero begins his downhill journey into decadence remains elusive to me.

I’ll finish by stressing that I’m writing this post for feminist selfish reasons. In recent fiction and even ads (the Audi ad with Romeo and Juliet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yu4hLYEwak&list=PLE48D5CD449F1818D) young women abandon toxic relationships to proclaim their independence, or simply free themselves from burdens they dislike (haven’t you seen Frozen 2 yet?!). Heterosexual relationships, though, are assumed to be short-lived affairs with a long string of men who always turn out to be inadequate. One thing, I must say, is enjoying your sex life as a free woman, tasting as much happy variety as you want, and quite another moving onto the next guy because all of them are below par as companions. Check what women say of their Tinder dates, wonder why so many Satisfyers have been sold, and come to the conclusion I have reached: heterosexual women do not really like heterosexual men. I’ll go further: heterosexual men are beginning not to like themselves because they have no positive role models to measure themselves against. It’s not just a matter of what women want from men but of what men have lost in the process of facing the worst aspects of patriarchy. Very selfishly I’ll claim that positive role models are necessary, particularly for heterosexual men (I think other men are doing much better), because without them I see little personal happiness in heterosexual women’s love lives. Women, of course, could do better if they stopped overvaluing the bad boys and praising the real nice guys as the good men we all need.

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


February 17th, 2020

A malfunction of my website forced to retrieve the folder where I keep the .pdf of the interview with Terry Eagleton which I did for the literary magazine Quimera, back in 2003. To my delight, the whole transcript of the original English version was still there (we published just a selection, in Spanish). After a quick revision, it is now available from my website (in the section http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications). Journalists must be used to keeping full records of their most interesting conversations but I’m just an amateur interviewer, and this is for me the rarest of documents. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed rediscovering how amazingly generous Prof. Eagleton was to me (as I assume he must be to everyone). Incidentally: the interview took place in a hotel in downtown Barcelona because Prof. Eagleton’s talk at my university was cancelled due to one of our many students’ protests. He was delighted that this was the reason for the cancellation!

This post completes, in a sense, an improvised trilogy on the matter of how theory and literary criticism fused around the 1990s. I mention in the interview that the most recent edition at the time of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Leitch et al., eds., 2001) excludes Erich Auerbach, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis or Lionel Trilling, but includes Homi Bhabha, Helène Cixous, Stuart Hall and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and this helps to date with precision when the new model was fully institutionalised. Eagleton comments that “some of those critics who are today fashionably excluded were actually far more radical than some of the fashionably included”. The third edition (2018), though, appears to be far more comprehensive, with 157 authors, 48 of whom contribute texts written in the 21st century (the book is 2848 pages long!). The liberal classics I missed in 2001 are back in and, of course, Eagleton is present. The youngest critic included in this hefty volume is Ian Bogost (b. 1976) with a piece called “The Rhetoric of Videogames”. Please, note that the Norton does not carry the word ‘literary’ in its title.

Terry Eagleton made an extraordinary contribution to the establishment of theory within literary criticism with his handbook Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which has gone to countless editions and has sold close to 750000 copies –not really to common readers but to students in need of a reliable guide. This is just one volume in Eagleton’s astonishing oeuvre, which runs to forty volumes so far (including a novel and memoirs). In the interview he tells me that he finds “writing criticism enormously creative, fulfilling” and that “I’m one of those strange people who are probably for good or bad just called ‘writer’ in the sense that what I write is far less important to me than the fact of writing. I happen to have ended up writing about culture and tragedy, but I might have ended up writing about something else”. This confirms my view that academic writing can indeed be seen as a genre, though Eagleton is privileged in having a voice of his own that expresses itself with complete freedom. He thanks feminism for “showing me a new style of approaching some subjects” but also mentions the Irish working-class background of his family (in England) as a major influence. “Perhaps almost unconsciously”, Eagleton says, “I’ve plugged into that tradition in my own writing” albeit he did so only as a fully established scholar. “[W]hen you’re younger and you are establishing yourself you have to play by the rules of the game and I look back on some of my early radical works and I’m shocked by how conventional they’re in their methods, or their tones, or their styles”.

Eagleton (b. 1943), grew up in Salford, in Greater Manchester. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, but wrote his doctoral dissertation at Jesus College, under Raymond Williams’ supervision. Later, he moved to Oxford, where his career developed for the following three decades (1969-2001) until he accepted the John Edward Taylor chair of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. The label ‘Cultural Theory’ was, he told me, of his own devising. When I met him, Prof. Eagleton was combining his Manchester chair with a position in the other Trinity College, in Dublin. He is now Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, apparently with no thoughts of retiring. Do recall that Eagleton comes from a working-class family. He is a wonderful case of a person pulling themselves up the bootstraps of boots that don’t even exist (at least, he had access to grants which would hardly be the case in other nations).

When he was a student at Cambridge, he reminisces, “everybody around me was an aristocrat. They were all about seven foot tall –I was quite small a student– because they had generations of good food and good breeding. They looked distinctly different from ordinary people, they spoke differently”. Oxbridge students later became “anonymously middle-class” though working-class students are still too few. His own job consisted of creating “a space in which these different people could come together”. In his view, “most conservative institutions create their own internal opposition, and there has to be someone there to organise it and that’s what I really tried to do” in an atmosphere that was in fact “incredible receptive” to new syllabi and topics. “The place I left was very different from the place I joined. But that wasn’t just because of me”, he concludes. Inevitably, Eagleton also absorbed the patrician culture surrounding him and, as you can read in the interview, he writes predominantly about canonical texts. We need not assume, he declares “that if everybody takes to writing their master’s thesis on The Simpsons it’s going to be more revolutionary than writing about Jane Austen”. The revolution that interests him is, rather, the “very subversive effect” that canonical texts may have; this is the method he followed at Oxford.

It’s quite funny for me to see that the questions I asked Prof. Eagleton about close reading, literary criticism, and theory in 2003 are exactly the same questions worrying me seventeen years later. I was then a recently tenured lecturer (2002), with already an experience of teaching for twelve years at UAB and it might seem that since 1991 much should have changed. I see, however, that basically I caught the beginning of an academic wave still swelling and far from breaking point, hence the recurrence of the same worries. I should have disliked Eagleton’s work, as he was one of the main defenders of the introduction of theory in the English classroom but he was also Raymond Williams’ disciple and, as such, he had a very British awareness of the relative values of culture, which is often missing in American criticism. This feels, to my mind, more straitlaced, puritanical, and humourless. I’m comfortable reading Eagleton but uncomfortable reading other theorists and there must be a cultural explanation for that.

What is then the function of theory, according to Prof. Eagleton? For him, the rise of theory between 1965 and the 1980 responds to students’ demands: “They don’t want to be taught the novel by teachers who never even stopped to ask themselves what a novel is (…)”. Theory pushes “questions a stage back: it doesn’t just say ‘is this a good poem?’, it asks ‘what do we mean by a good poem?’; it doesn’t just say ‘is this a moving tragedy?’, it asks ‘what is it to be tragic?’. It’s not replacing criticism, it’s asking questions that go one level deeper”. Close reading without that kind of question is valueless, but “any theory which can’t read the text closely is not for me a very valid theory”, Eagleton points out. He also worries about the commodification of theory, mostly an effect of ultra-competitive US academia, and declares his wariness of post-structuralism, presenting himself insistently as a Marxist. In fact, I called the interview “We Are All Marxist” because for Eagleton “Marxism as a theory is part of the modern mentality as much as Darwin or Freud or Nietzsche” and “we’re all Marxist now in the sense that Marx was the first to say ‘look, there is this object called capitalism, it has its peculiar ways of working; we must look at it as an object of study.’ You don’t simply throw that aside overnight. It’s part of our very deep way of thinking in the West”.

Marx, in short, was among the first cultural theorists and Eagleton approaches theory in the same spirit: as an object of study, not as a preacher, a fanatic or, even worse, an intellectual in love of abstraction. Marxism, Prof. Eagleton clarifies, is not about using Marx for literary criticism but “raising questions about the place of culture, the cultural practices in our kind of society” from a left-wing position, naturally committed to socialism. He praises Marx for using “dialectical thinking” to “embrace the riches of the great liberal, middle-class tradition” in his project to transform them into a culture open to all. For Eagleton “one of the great loses of post-modern theory, if that’s what it is, has been the loss of that dialectical habit of mind” which consists of “seeing a relation between the opposites” and how Modernity is both liberating and enslaving. “One reason I’m a Marxist still is I don’t hear anybody else say these things again”: there is no “third position”, no debate, no dialogue. I couldn’t agree more.

The problem is, I think I need not stress this, that the word Marxist carries many unwanted connotations. It is tainted both by the excesses of the Communist regimes –though I wonder why Vietnam is never discussed in the media; is it because it is a successful Communist nation?– and the excesses of the pro-Communist European intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s, all those upper-middle-class kids playing revolutionary and understanding nothing about working-class life. I don’t know whether Eagleton still identifies as a Marxist but if he does he must be one of the last great intellectuals using that label. Marx is being forgotten partly because the issues I have mentioned and also because the USA’s triumph in the Cold War. Add to this heady mix the rise of Communist China as the next world leader (if the current coronavirus crisis does not devastate its economy), and you can see how odd it is to call yourself a Marxist in the Western world. I know that I am indeed a Marxist, without having ever read Marx in depth, because what Eagleton implies is that if you come from a working-class family your awareness of class issues makes you necessarily a Marxist. You may become eventually right-wing but that is another form of class awareness, if you get my drift. So, yes, in a sense we are all Marxists, as we are the children of Darwin, Freud or Nietzsche –and of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the feminists.

I’ll end by vindicating, as Prof. Eagleton does in the interview, the need for a renewal of dialectal thinking because this must spring from conversation, one of the greatest victims of our current self-absorbed, narcissistic academic system. I thank the stars that allowed me to share conversation with one of the greatest minds of our time one morning in April, back in 2003. Enjoy not only the record of that rich conversation but all the enriching conversations you may have in your life.

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


February 10th, 2020

George Steiner passed away a few days ago and the culture sections in the media have been abuzz with contrary opinions about his immense influence. Together with Harold Bloom (who died last October), Steiner was one of the last voices left from the time when literary criticism was not subservient to literary theory, which often means in practice to other disciplines such as philosophy or sociology. I cannot have much personal sympathy for Steiner as a patrician intellectual who seems to personify the ivory tower protecting privileged white men, but I mourn with his passing the death of a type of intellectuality connected with deep reading that will never return. His was the class of mind I was asked to admire by the scholars who trained me as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, and something of my youthful awe remains, even though his academic style was at odds with my own scholarship.

I did see Steiner in the flesh, though my memories of the event are very poor. This must have been at the Universitat de Barcelona, possibly in 1985, and I recall being in the first row of a very crowded room, amazed at how deftly he moved his withered left arm (a birth defect) with his right hand. I remember being impressed by his lecture, but I don’t recall the topic (the Greek hero Cadmus?). It was clear to me that I was in the presence of one of the Minds in ways that I have hardly ever felt listening to other big names, for he commanded immediate respect. That feeling is now still intact but also, paradoxically, altered because I am much better aware of the academic context than I was then. Today, I would listen to him with more scepticism.

If you read the diverse articles which El País has published these days you get a sort of snapshot of that old-style European intellectualism that Steiner embodied, the kind I was told to bow down to, which exalted reading the classics at the cost of ignoring all of Modernity, and which did not take into account each reader’s background. In his last interview, with Nuccio Ordine, Steiner claims that he regrets not having understood the depths that the best cinema can reach, and not foreseeing the impact that feminism would inevitably have on all fronts of life (at least, he claims to have supported it). How, I wonder, can a person be one of the greatest cultural critics without understanding these two crucial elements of the 20th century and beyond? But, then, it seems to me that the ability to ignore whole areas of cultural experience was also part and parcel of what fine literary criticism used to be. It was a dialogue among the peers of a very exclusive circle, who never really wanted to invite outsiders in but to perpetuate their own conservative view of literature.

While Bloom was at war, precisely, with the American academia emerging in the 1970s after the establishment of identity politics, in Steiner’s case a rather more subtle war against him was waged by the rather provincial British academia (yes, Oxford and Cambridge) that never accepted him and his multilingual, comparative, pan-European approach to literary interpretation. Indeed, his longest-lasting position as a lecturer was at Geneva. His own personal war was fought against American culture from the 1960s onwards, in which he overlapped in many ways with the American Bloom as the last defenders of a world quickly collapsing around their respective pedestals. Both, incidentally, were Jewish though the one to have been most vocal about the importance of understanding the Holocaust was Steiner (and no wonder, since his Austrian parents were exiles from Nazism). By the way, let me recommend the obituary at The Guardian, not so much for the obituary itself but for the readers’ comments; some were Steiner’s much daunted students at Cambridge! (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/05/george-steiner-obituary).

I am much divided in my views of what someone like Steiner meant. On the one hand, I miss the presence of voices like his in defence of reading and of the need to think as deeply as possible as critics. Where are the true intellectuals today, I wonder? I have been complaining loudly about how any chance of using a truly personal voice that resonates with a wide readership has been killed by the cookie-cutter paper and by shallow, hyper-productive scholarship. On the other hand, Steiner (much more so Bloom) did not have a voice I associate with dialogue. Obviously, I don’t know enough about Steiner (or Bloom) to discuss his achievements and opinions but, in essence, his literary criticism consisted of analysing the conversations that literary texts have with each other, according mainly to his own uniquely cultured criteria, ignoring all the rest. Authority can be built on the basis of only listening to one’s fine voice but, as it is happening with F.R. Leavis (or has already happened), this may mean a quick posthumous outmodedness. I have very rarely come across quotations from works by Steiner in thirty years as a literature researcher. Either that is already a sign of his obsolescence, or I am not reading the right bibliography.

Among the comments by Guardian readers that I have mentioned before there was an exchange that caught my attention. “These scholarly, deeply educated people” a reader claimed, “are almost extinct. It is impossible today to achieve the level of deep learning Steiner acquired. The future is very bleak”. Someone else replied “That’s simply untrue; there will always be a genuine old-fashioned elite”. Here is in a nutshell what irks me: the connection between being ‘deeply educated’ and belonging to an ‘old-fashioned elite’. The collective aim of any society should be having as many deeply educated individuals as possible, so that there would be no need for any elites in possession of the one and only true culture. What I imagined as a young girl listening to Steiner, among others, was a future in which erudition of the kind which he possessed would be as coveted as being slim is today –this was not as naïve as it sounds, for you should recall the quite high cultural level then of public television in Spain (at least the second channel) and of the post-Francoist new media. I supposed that the intellectual elites would inspire a constantly rising level of education among all classes as access to education grew but, instead, we have youtubers and influencers who lack any understanding of intellectual training and, possibly because of that, are the opposite of humble. We also have unexpected kinds of narrow erudition, such as the erudition of the football fan or that of the tabloid reader interested in Kardashian-style celebrities Of course I was stupid, I should have known better than suppose that people really want to be educated, for they don’t, and this includes many university students of working-class roots who are not really doing their best. Not that the upper classes are doing much better, I should say, and they have all the opportunities. Where is the Steiner of the ‘genuine old-fashioned elites’ now? Busy with their Instagram accounts most likely.

Having said that, it would be very wrong to assume that the conservative teaching and research model passed on by Bloom, Steiner and company is over, despite the high impact of theory and identity politics on literary studies. It is really hard to say who is in the minority since we tend to gravitate towards those who share our academic viewpoints. When we need to mingle –as happens in Department workshops– it’s easy to see that the divisions run very deep. There is still a prevalent view that texts can be analysed on their own, without context or politics, for we do literary criticism and so what matters is only textuality. This extreme formalism is accompanied by the misguided impression that if you take context into account, then textual analysis is contaminated and, thus, invalidated. I also marvel at how my colleagues (all over the Spanish university I mean) manage to function without paying attention to what articulates current Western and even global culture, whether you like it or not. Can one really claim to be in the world without knowing the basics of Star Wars, I wonder? And I say this despite being guilty of ignoring whole fields of culture that matter today (rap, which I dislike) and also the fields that are specialised interests but part of high culture (opera, out of pure ignorance).

I am beginning to feel stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, between old-school literary criticism and post-theory, post-identity politics scholarship. I do not think we can ever go back to that elite scholarship based on reading the classics, though I’m sure that many scholars are happy with it, because we have known for decades that in this way the experience of most readers alive today is ignored. I don’t see any sense in that and I will certainly dispute the claim that reading Dante is essential for any living person. On the other hand, I very much miss the fine writing of the old school of literary criticism, a feature that explains why the sales figures for the books by Steiner, Bloom and company were so high. Their prose appealed to many outside academia, whereas most of the academic work we write today is full of unintelligible prose, an unforgivable sin when dealing with any type of literature. As a doctoral student I much embarrassed myself when one of our teachers introduced the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (in English translation, I mean) and I asked him why the prose was so ugly. I expected the fine prose I had been reading as an undergrad to be extended to all topics of interest for literary and cultural criticism, not ugly prose to flood all corners of academia but this is what has happened.

I mourn, then, Steiner, as one of the last big figures who saw a direct link between fine reading and fine writing in literary criticism. We are all writers but we seem to have forgotten how to write essays, conforming instead to the rules of a straitlaced rhetoric that feels like a Victorian corset. I grant that few people, if any, still have the capacity for deep reading that comes from a bottomless erudition but ours is a different time which calls for different skills. I don’t see, however, why the skill of producing elegant prose transmitting a personal voice should be neglected, but then of course this would call for a revolution in academia which I don’t see happening right now, or in the near future.

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


February 3rd, 2020

My husband told me recently that he expected my academic life to include plenty of socialising with postgrad students at home, as we see in American films about campus life, and was a bit perplexed about why that is not happening. I was the one perplexed… That was funny! I wonder whether US academics socialize much with students today in view of the minefield that campus intergender relationships have become after #MeToo. In Spain I think that teacher-student socialising was rather more common up to the 1970s. At least, I recall my beloved teacher Guillermina Cenoz reminiscing in the 1980s about the times when she would invite home her whole undergrad class for dinner. That meant just about a dozen persons!!! In my case, I use a variety of cafeterias as my second office because my postgrad students often have working schedules incompatible with my office hours but this is still tutoring, not proper socialising. Now and then, though, I try to get a few PhDs together for lunch, for I know first-hand that being that type of postgrad student is very lonely and that networking is important.

Last Saturday, then, I organized lunch (in a restaurant, not at home…) with quite a varied group of PhD students (and one MA student) and I must say that sharing time with younger persons is a real pleasure. I notice that in our national conference on English Studies people tend to remain within their age group and make no new contacts, unless they are part of a research group, of course. I find myself greeting people I’ve known for ten or twenty years, and feeling quite shy to approach younger researchers. This is why I enjoy better this type of small gathering. I hope it was useful for the students, too.

During lunch, one of my students, Laura Luque, told me she had just read my last post and found the slogan I had chosen for next year’s teaching workshop –‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’– quite appropriate to describe how it feels to write a doctoral dissertation right now. I asked then everybody why they had chosen to put themselves in that quandary and most replied that they want to be academics, like myself. Other students tell me whenever I ask the same impertinent question that they want to prove that they can do it (to themselves I mean, not to anybody else). That was my own case, for I never really believed that I would eventually get the chance to start an academic career (I must thank Guillermina for that). I was happy enough with my project of being a Doctor in English Literature one day.

The pity is that whereas PhD dissertations were supposed to be a sort of culminating point in one’s studies and a rite of passage into a second more mature phase as a scholar, they are now quite devalued. A Doctorate is still the highest degree one can obtain but the new habit of following this by years as a post-doc, with no final degree to mark the end of the process, has diminished the weight of the PhD dissertation in any academic career. A ‘doctor’ is someone certified to become a source of knowledge with no need for further training, but now it seems that doctors are not real researchers until at least three (or even five) years after obtaining their degrees. On the other hand, having a PhD is no longer a guarantee that one will eventually become tenured, as it used to be the case back in the 1980s when the Spanish university grew so massively. We are now interviewing for badly paid part-time positions persons with a doctorate and an extensive list of publications who would have been immediately hired for full time positions a few decades ago.

Now, is a doctoral dissertation supposed to be fun? It didn’t feel like that at all when I wrote my own PhD, plagued as I was by a profound hypochondria that has never really vanished and that resurfaces with the writing of any other important text in my career. Of course, I had a deadline to meet tied with my contract as a junior, full-time teacher and that was a constant source of tension. I suppose that Laura means that, unless you’re enjoying a grant, most doctoral students write now their dissertations while they work outside the university, which means they are not in the same hurry I was. On the other hand, many other doctoral students are working towards their PhD as they combine two or more university positions as part-time lecturers. I don’t know how they manage, really!!! Anyway, I believe that academic work only really becomes fun when one is very senior and can get away with publishing texts that have been a real pleasure to write. I told everyone that I am uncommonly pleased to have just published an article defending Poppy, the hero of animated children’s film Trolls, as a feminist heroine (in Contemporary Fairy-Tale Magic: Subverting Gender and Genre, https://brill.com/view/title/56407). That was great fun to research and write. My recent book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), which is a sort of second doctoral dissertation (see the chapter summaries at https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781003007951) has been fun to write. But not my dissertation, no.

If that was overwhelming for me, a full-time university teacher who enjoyed besides a year-long leave to write it, imagine what it is like for the students I met on Saturday, who work (usually teaching English) between 17 and 36 hours a week. I mean teaching hours, apart from preparation. A dissertation, for those of you who are wondering, is a 300-page long book, about 110,000 words, which is quite substantial –and much more difficult than writing any other kind of book. You might manage to write a novel by writing 300 words every day (as Stephen King claims he does) but, no matter how thoroughly planned a novel is, this is a type of autonomous book that needn’t refer to any other. What is overwhelming about dissertations is that they seem to be bottomless as far as bibliography is concerned. This is pressing enough for each individual article but when you write a dissertation you need between three and five years for research (that is, for reading), during which the academics in your field continue producing tons of new bibliography. My main nightmare, and I know this is a common one, was that someone would produce ahead of me a dissertation on exactly the same topic. The other recurrent nightmare is that by the time you finally submit your PhD the examiners might find it already old-fashioned, or even worse, obsolete. At the pace we’re going, three to five years may mean a complete change of paradigm indeed.

What takes so much time –what overwhelms any PhD student– is the need to read so many secondary sources, of course. In the field of Literary Studies the primary sources are not really the problem, for a good dissertation can be written even about just one book (novel, play, autobiography… you name it!). Even supposing you’re dealing with, say, twenty-five primary sources, they can be read and annotated in one semester. What takes ages is the slow-going, painful gathering of possible quotations. In my case, I ended up with gigantic folders full of passages I scavenged from perhaps two hundred sources, despite knowing that I could by no means use more than 10% of all. By the way, nobody has managed to create a programme or app to manage the quotations which any scholar quickly accumulates. There have been more or less failed attempts at managing bibliographies in more efficient ways but not clever ways of indexing quotations for later use. Or I’m just an ignorant scholar who has no idea that everyone is using a magical app except she herself.

Is there any way, then, of making a PhD more fun and less overwhelming? I’m afraid not –I know as a tutor how I would make my students’ dissertations less time-consuming, supposing they were my own books. But I can offer them no shortcut because PhD students need to become experienced scholars and this is done through a process of trial and error (including wasting time). I think that the best a tutor can do is insist on having a chapter list as soon as possible, and try to stick to it for as long as one can, rather than spend three years reading and only then sit down to think of a structure. That’s a recipe for disaster. It is always much, much better to invest time on writing a solid table of contents than simply amass long lists of bibliography. The lists are also useful, evidently, but they need to be subordinated to a plan, which must be as clear-cut as possible. A PhD student who works many hours a week, or even one on a scholarship, cannot afford investing all their energies in a text that should have very clear boundaries. A novelist can ramble on, change tack mid-writing by introducing new subplots, and end with 600 pages but this is not a luxury which a PhD student can afford today. It’s all about planning, and the sooner the better.

The hardest part of my PhD dissertation was actual writing. I had a very useful chapter list practically from the beginning, time to read primary and secondary sources, time to copy quotations into my computer, and not one but two tutors willing to discuss my progress with me. The difference is that one used bi-weekly tutorial sessions, whereas the other demanded to see written work. The tutorials worked fine and I would return home with a clearer idea of what I was doing, but I always found myself unable to hand in written work of any value. I think that I blocked myself by wrongly believing that I could only start writing at the end of the process of reading. That is a mistake, I see now retrospectively. I never press my students to hand in written work if they prefer conversation in a tutorial setting but I still think that it would be best for PhD students to start a blog and write a weekly post to practice writing and, why not? find kindred souls. If it were up to me, I would have the students I met for lunch run a collective blog, perhaps there are already doctoral programmes doing that. My impression is that talking to other PhD students, sharing some kind of intellectual space, would make the whole process more fun, less overwhelming. Or not, but it would certainly be less lonely.

I realise now that I have not used the main word in my title, resilience. Well, this sums all I’ve been saying here: it takes much resilience to write a doctoral dissertation and only truly resilient people are up to the task. You may be resilient and still feel overwhelmed, but at least you’ll be in a better position to aim also at having fun!

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


January 30th, 2020

This post is inspired by two presentations offered yesterday during the sixth TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture) Department workshop, a series of meetings which I have been organizing since 2014 (see the Sharing Teaching Experiences notebooks at http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688). My colleagues Felicity Hand and Andrew Monnickendam dealt with the issue of how we are supposed to teach contemporary culture and Literature from extremely different but complementary perspectives and here is my chance to comment on both.

Felicity’s presentation was focused on the most recent edition of the third/fourth year elective course ‘Postcolonial Studies’. She shared with us her worry that, to begin with, it is hardly possible to offer undergrad students any meaningful introduction to a completely new field based on a selection of just three or four volumes. Since, however, students do not seem willing to read more, what other methods can we choose to expose them to a much wider-ranging experience of the subject taught? She had opted for class presentations (in groups of two) on any aspect of the postcolonial world but this had led to a bit of chaos since many students had failed to check with her in advance the suitability of their topic (as they were supposed to do) and their understanding of the concept ‘postcolonial’ did not totally overlap with that of their teacher. Besides, although they were supposed to speak about today’s world, some referred to past issues or events.

I teach contemporary fiction and film, and share with Felicity the preoccupation with how to select any relevant texts in the midst of so much abundance. When I teach Victorian fiction, I do not feel the same anxiety because there is a far more limited list of works which students are supposed to know about (and can read with their still limited command of English). But when dealing with living authors it is truly hard to decide who to include, much more so when the choice is limited to a maximum of five and can be down to three at most. An obvious solution is abandoning classroom close reading for traditional lecturing, and taking it for granted that students will read independently the set books. That’s how I was taught Spanish 18th and 19th century Literature over a year in which our lecturer never addressed any of us by name in class. She just droned on, though her droning, I must say, was quite interesting. The other solution I have used, and will continue using, is similar to Felicity’s –using class presentations by students– but on the basis of a closed list. I’m about to start a course on the American documentary (under our ‘Cultural Studies’ label) and this is how it’ll work. We have no set texts; instead, all of my 45 students will present each two documentaries in class. They’ll write next a factsheet, with a short essay considering how the USA is represented in the films, and we’ll produce a joint e-book. Presumably, they will read each other and will feel interested in seeing at least half a dozen documentary films.

I grant that in this way the students will not get deep insights into any of the films they will hear about but at least they’ll hear about 90 films. I also grant that listening to your classmates can be boring, but a) I have the experience of having taught an MA course in this way and it was fun indeed!, b) students are anyway bored in class, and much more so if they just listen to the same person for 90 minutes. If (or when) I teach the electives I’ve been thinking about for a while (one on non-fiction, another on autobiography) I will use the same approach. And if (or when) I teach the new compulsory fourth year course Contemporary English Fiction, I will also rely on this method but in this case, since students are already used to reading novels, I’ll train them to write reviews –a critical practice much necessary but that we never include in our teaching. Working on a closed list, incidentally, is still hard when dealing with the contemporary for not even 20, 30, 40 or 50 titles can be enough. If we assume, for the sake of my argumentation, that the contemporary is the 21st century that’s already 20 years of writing –now try to choose just one volume per year and you will see how difficult that is.

Andrew’s presentation was, as he called it, ‘abstract’. He took as his departure point Lionel Trilling’s classic essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961) to consider how we understand Modernity today, also to reflect on whether the problems Trilling pointed out have changed. I have not been able to read this short essay because it is not available online, legally or illegally, always a sign that it is at risk of disappearing from view (yes, there are copies in my library…). There are many online pieces on it, from academic analyses to blog posts, in any case. Trilling, Andrew explained, was very much reluctant to teach Modern Literature, as his institution, Columbia University, finally asked him to do after much dithering. This reluctance sprang from his impression that students feel too much at home in the present world and would, somehow, produce smug, self-congratulating, vapid work on the contemporary which would, besides, belittle the importance of History. Hence, he devised for them a gruelling reading programme which comprised the intellectual foundations of Modernity: they had to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Freud, Nietzsche, etc in the first semester before addressing any Literature at all.

Andrew didn’t not describe the students’ reactions but raised the issue of what is meant by Modernity, and whether, as Trilling suggested, teaching it leads to falling into a dangerous ahistoricism. He unfairly blamed, I think, the rise of identity politics after 1990 for that. In my view, it’s the other way around: identity politics destroyed a view of History in which minorities had been absent because hegemonic patriarchal circles had decided that the Culture produced by them was universal. In fact, the teaching of Modernity started by Trilling and company is what set the ball rolling. Students used to be monolithically male, white, and middle-class but when students started being more varied and we were taught about Modernity, which we were living through in person, then the question arose of why our identities were missing in the teaching of the present, call it Post-Modernity or whatever. Then, the slow process of bringing back from oblivion all the authors that were not male, white, and middle-class started. Methinks that Trilling and company were not interested in that still ongoing rescue.

Anyway, if, as Andrew argued, the keyword to understand our own Modernity (post-post Modernity?) is cruelty, and perhaps anxiety, can we teach the texts that express this irrationality from a rational post-Enlightenment point of view? Can our academic pedagogy in the classroom and our academic rhetoric in our writing truly make sense and illuminate our own Modernity? I wonder about that. My new doctoral tutorees of this year have chosen topics that perhaps demand that we break down standard rhetoric: one wants to write about humans as animal prey in fiction, the other about climate-related anxiety (yes!) also in fiction as a sign of our times. I think that this will require, funnily, a return to the academic essay in the personal way that Trilling and company practised it, and not a continuation of the rigid scholastic methods introduced with theory in the 1990s (see my previous post). I’m also thinking that perhaps my inclination to expose students to as many titles as possible is a way of approaching our own Modernity by acknowledging its formidable noise and granting that it cannot be reduced to a single sound. Welcome to fuzzy academia!

In the question time following Andrew’s intervention, our colleague Carme Font raised a very interesting issue: we should teach each historical period, she said, not as what has survived from the past but as its own Modernity. In this way, she suggested, we would stop worrying about our own Modernity, which would simply be placed along a continuum which our students could more easily recognize and learn about. This makes perfect sense to me, at least I do try to present the British Victorian Age as the product of cutting-edge technology and a rabid sense of Modernity, and not at all as a quaint time of impossible crinolines and dishevelled Dickensian urchins. Still, I worry very much about the smugness which the “attitudinizing present”, using Trilling’s words, has brought to our classrooms. The students’ presentism is harder and harder to fight because it is fuelled by the social media, which reject all authority and thrive on a cacophony of voices. By authority I mean here the person who can offer a wider-ranging vision of the times, not someone who imposes their opinions. I find it particularly difficult to teach students where they belong in History and that their generation is not the centre of the universe, but just a tiny notch (like mine) in the few millions of years Homo Sapiens is spending on Earth. Modernity, I would insist, is not a confirmation of presentism but the opposite: an awareness that the generation that represents it now will be superseded soon by other ways of understanding Modernity. This will happen increasingly faster: reading this week about Billie Eilish (aged 17) I have come to realize how old one can be at 30 (Taylor Swift’s age) and how forgettable at 60 (Madonna). That’s Modernity for you: a sense of the quick passage of time and of how History’s present peak time is always rushing forward.

By the way, TELLC 7, which will hopefully be held next January 2021, already has a title borrowed from a student’s comment on one of our courses: ‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’. This is a feeling I share at all levels about what we read, teach, and think about in our cruel, anxious Modernity.

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


January 20th, 2020

My latest misadventure in peer reviewing has possibly marked a turning point in my career. I had written with much effort and in all loving detail and care an analysis of robot Daneel Olivaw’s masculinity in four novels by Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1982) and Robots and Empire (1985). I am aware that the novels are well known in SF circles but I wanted to examine a series of points that would highlight Asimov’s clever handling of gender issues. I also wanted, indeed, to show where he had lost control of these issues though in ways that, paradoxically, turn out to be productive. For that I found it necessary to make comments on plot turns that connect the four novels and which, I argued, had been missed by previous scholarship.

To my complete mortification my article was rejected outright, with no chance of peer reviewing, by a journal editor who had published my work before, on the grounds that it had too much plot summary. My defence, arguing that this was close reading and not mere plot summary, was dismissed and I was (very kindly) told that perhaps my article should be placed elsewhere. It is not the first time I am accused of the same heinous crime, and of others even worse, though usually by the peer reviewers and not by an editor. Needless to say, I spent a couple of days smarting under the effect of the rejection (much more so because it came from someone I deeply respect and admire), but after 25 years in the publishing circuit my skin is thick enough. Or just thickish, otherwise I would not be writing this post. I have found another home for the article and have proceeded to write something quite different for the same journal, with less plot summary and more theory. But even so…

This was a few months ago. A little bit later, I was asked to peer-review an article on a science-fiction novel in Spanish, which I will not name to protect my secret identity as academic informer. Very cloak-and-dagger, like my last post. My co-reviewers and I agreed that the article was well written and well researched but needed serious revision. Why? Because the novel analysed was buried under a mass of theorisation which, besides, was only tangentially related to it. If, suppose, you come across an article on Hamlet, you have more room for theory since you can safely assume that all readers know the text as a matter of general culture. If, however, you read an article on a relatively unknown text –old, new, minor, foreign– then I should say that an introduction to the author and their work is mandatory. At least, I teach my tutorees that their dissertations should include that type of material. I must add that the comments on the novel analysed in the peer-reviewed article were so oblique that I had to check a few reviews to understand what was going on. I was amazed to discover that this is a technically dashing novel, of a post-post-modern kind, an aspect on which the article author did not comment at all!

Pure close reading with no use of a theoretical framework is no use, for it assumes a total consensus on the nature and values of the text analysed which can only lead to a rather bland reading. On the other hand, excessive theorisation suggests that the author is actually uncomfortable with literary criticism and would like to be writing something else. The author I peer-reviewed was very clearly far more interested in climate change than in the novel they was analysing but, for some strange reason, had decided to publish their work in a journal about Literature and not about, say, Environmental Sciences. As a peer reviewer, then, I had to highlight this discrepancy between interest and aim, hence the request for revisions. When I told a colleague about this, he told me that it was about time we returned to a more traditional style of doing literary criticism but I’m not sure that I am defending any traditionalism. I believe that I am asking for a new balance.

When my article on Asimov was rejected, I was told that I should consider rewriting it from a perspective that emphasized the main cultural issue raised in it (sex between humans and robots, or robosexuality). I had tons of bibliography dealing with robosexuality but all this refers to events that have been happening after Asimov’s death in 1992 and that he could not have been aware of. I could have written an article about how these recent developments colour our reading of Asimov today but I very much wanted to deal with how he built his four novels, and why he had to stop between 1957 and 1982 (the time was not ripe until the 1980s for a story about a woman who falls in love with a humanoid male robot). I wanted, in short, to explain to my potential readers how Asimov had worked as a writer, not as a cultural prophet, for (believe me!) nobody has used that angle before in relation to his novels. I honestly believed that any SF reader would enjoy the exposure of the electric homoerotic current accumulating around Daneel Olivaw’s beautiful non-human male body but this was not wanted. Too old-fashioned, perhaps, too fannish, maybe. I don’t know. I can only say that as a literary critic I care very much for how authors put stories together, although as a cultural critic I also enjoy writing about the context from which they spring–as I build my own theorization.

When the discussion about how much theorisation literary criticism should absorb started, some time in the mid-1980s I think, most sided with theory but also with a style of writing I have never been comfortable with. Just then I was being trained as a second-language undergraduate student in the techniques of close reading, which were necessary for a person learning at the same time a non-native language and the texts written in it. As an undergrad I was woefully lacking a training in theory, which I only got, in fits and starts, as a doctoral student and, later, through my own reading. I have never, however, got rid of the instinct to dissect and explain the text, which I need, anyway for my teaching. I can hardly teach my own second-language students any Literature if I don’t teach them how to read first. This entails plenty of close reading and, yes, even plot summary.

Anyway, whenever I allow myself to go into the texts I am analysing in depth, as I like doing, my academic work is rejected –usually by Anglo-American native speakers who were trained in a completely different tradition and circumstances, which allowed for theory to have a much bigger impact and presence in their academic work. I have never heard anyone voice the same concern I am expressing here but I frequently hear among my Spanish peers the same complaint: ‘I don’t get it, I’m offering theorisation built on my own close reading but I’m told that this is not theoretical enough and has too much plot summary’. Beyond my own faulty scholarship, could it be that there is some kind of cultural clash at work that remains unexamined?

Just consider this anecdote. Since I am a serial committer of the same crime, I had been already told about one of my articles that it had too much plot summary. In that case, my focus was Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, which I ‘retold’ following the thesis that it is actually articulated by the love story between Arthur Huntingdon and his mistress Anabella, and not just by his marriage to Helen. For that retelling to be convincing, I had to provide a detailed alternative reading of the novel, which my American peer reviewers rejected as unnecessary. So, I uploaded the rejected article onto my university’s repository and just the following day I got an e-mail message from a Spanish academic congratulating me on it. I have now submitted the article to a new (Spanish) editor, who has welcome it. Is this beginning to look like a pattern?

Let me insist on plot summary from another angle. When my PhD supervisor asked me to include in my dissertation an appendix with brief summaries of the 75 novels and the 125 films it covered he did so on two grounds: a) my examiners would need a quick guide for reference, b) summarising each text would help me to focus on what I wanted to say about them. He was 100% right. I later used the same technique for the 200 episodes of The X-Files which I explored in my book Expediente X: En honor a la verdad: I first wrote the summaries, then I wrote the book (still out there, see https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437).

Re-reading these days Brian Attebery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, I came across yet another argument in defence of plot summary (he alludes here to “Rapaccini’s Daughter”): “Having now summarized the same story four times, with four radically different results, I can conclude that there is no such thing as a simple plot summary. The very thing literature teachers tell students to avoid, as distraction from real critical work and a waste of the reader’s time, may actually be at the heart of critical interpretation” (2002: 26, my italics). The question is that I have never heard any teachers in all my years as a student or an academic in Spain to dismiss plot summary–look at what my (English) supervisor taught me! That Attebery felt the need to defend the link between plot summary and literary criticism in the early 21st century is an indication that something precious was lost in the 1990s.

Actually, I’ll stake the claim that two things were lost at the same time: not just the ability to produce and enjoy engaging close reading, but also the ability to generate new theorisation. The sequence ‘close reading of beloved literary text > critical insight > new theorisation’ was replaced by the sequence ‘choice of theory by big name > application to random text which is not really appreciated as writing > production of by-the-numbers paper with no new critical insights’. This is a model that, if you ask me, seems designed to do two things: 1. curb down any spark of critical originality, 2. offer the mass production academic model required by the hyper-productive but empty Humanities of the 21st century. I’ll add something else: when I started working on popular fiction in 1994 one of the arguments I insisted on is that plenty of Gothic, fantasy and science fiction is presented in very solid prose, and in elaborately complex narrative structures. What I meant is that the writing in those genres deserves the same attention to detail as the writing in literary fiction –I never meant that they could only be studied from a Cultural Studies perspective because they lacked literary quality. It seems to me, though, that many of my colleagues show a certain failure of nerve in their defence while, simultaneously, shying away from making negative judgements whenever they are required. Hence, the overwhelming use of theory.

I’ll stop my ranting here, or I will end up hurting myself…

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


January 13th, 2020

This post is going to sound a bit cloak-and-dagger since I have decided not to name the author whose opinions I’ll discuss here, in order to respect ‘their’ privacy. The art of sending emails to persons one has not met is a delicate one and in this case it has failed me totally, for which I’m very sorry indeed. I read during the Christmas break a most beautiful volume on creative writing aimed at budding authors interested in fantasy, science fiction, and gothic. By beautiful I mean that the volume has an amazing design, with plenty of illustrations, but also that the content is a gem, for it has contributions by an exciting list of authors and insights by the volume coordinator into the practice of writing fiction which must be eye-openers for all of us, teachers of Literature.

For a long time now, I have been taking any chances that come my way to ask writers about the technical aspects of their craft which, I think, we are overlooking in our obsession with identity matters and, generally speaking, content rather than writing in narrative. Author Richard K. Morgan posted in his website my interview with him about his novel Black Man and someone sent in a positive comment calling it a ‘making of’ style document. From that I got the idea of actually using this concept and I asked my good friend Carme Torras to let me interview her on her novel Enxarxats. She was extremely patient and gracious with my many questions. The resulting interview has been made available this week as a bonus feature of the e-book edition of her novel. Of course, a ‘making of interview’ needs to be read after the novel it explores has been read, since it is full of spoilers. I think of it as the kind of information that many readers are curious about just as spectators are curious about how movies are made. The idea is going beyond ‘where did you get your inspiration for the novel from?’ that journalists ask in promotional interviews and into much deeper waters.

Well, I sent the author I will not name an email praising the volume I had just read to high heavens. I described my ‘making of’ approach, and expressed my frustration that there are no volumes from writers exploring in more depth where the capacity to fantasise comes from, and why authors are divided into realists and fantasists. I do not mean following Freudian or neurobiological methodologies but as a matter of sitting down and considering the sources of the strange daydreaming which is the foundation of their work. I must say that the author in question does offer a notable amount of reflection on how the technical problems attached to writing specific scenes are handled but not about why fantastic storytelling is a skill that only a minority of human beings possess. In short, there is in the volume plenty of great advice once you know what kind of fantastic story you want to tell but no interest in examining why and how the authors of fantastic fiction come up with their singular plots. As a reader I would like to know, for it seems to me that departing from the mundane to risk narrating the imaginary takes a lot of courage. Coming up with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is far easier than making Victor Frankenstein and his creature plausible, if you get my drift.

Alas!, my email message did not go down well. I was told by the author that if the imagination is dissected (original wording) it might resist being summoned up. My mission, this person told me, cannot help anyone to produce better writing because authors should never compromise the organic construction that novels are and readers should be satisfied with the immersive experience of reading. What needs to be discussed, I was lectured on, is not the imagination but the technique and the conscious impulses it transforms into good narrative. I replied that I totally disagreed, and thanked this person for the time used in replying to my email. I come to the conclusion that I have ruffled feathers already ruffled most likely by a pro-Freudian academic, hence the emphasis on the conscious impulses.

What I would have explained if the chance had arisen is that that is precisely what I am interested in: how authors go from ‘I have this crazy idea, who knows where it comes from?’ to ‘now, this is the structure I need to tell the story’. I very much respect the mystery of the imagination, hence my interest in it, but if you think about it I am simply following what William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge did in the famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, or Mary Shelley in the preface to the second edition of Frankenstein. I firmly think that many authors and many readers would welcome the chance to have ‘making of interviews’ accessible, and many academics would be keen to produce them. The imagination cannot be such a frail flower that its bloom is lost at the merest touch, excuse the corny metaphor.

So, now that I have let steam off, let me tell you about a few constants in fantastic authors’ declarations about their craft that scholarly work is not addressing at all, either from a formalist or a political perspective:

1. (my favourite): the best writing feels as if you’re a medium channelling a story that tells itself (a constant from Tolkien to Gaiman, etc). This is often followed by a disquieting ‘as if’: as if the stories come from a parallel universe authors tap into. You may invoke Jung at this point but that still would not explain why only some persons are gifted with that ability to connect with this suspected multiverse.

2. the authors of the fantastic (fantasy, sf, gothic) tend to be far more prolific than realist authors. This has nothing to do with lower quality standards but with the potency of their imaginations. Many speak of being happiest if left alone with their fantasy world and of writing every single day of the year, as if (another ‘as if’) losing touch with their inner storytelling sources would cause withdrawal syndrome.

3. most authors in this genre are ‘travellers’ rather than ‘planners’: they usually start their journey when a scene or a character command it, and sometimes work without knowing how the novel will end though they prefer knowing in advance. Authors who have it all planned down to the last comma and just fill in the dots are frowned upon. Writing is understood as a process of self-discovery: ‘Fancy what my mind has come up with!’ would approximate the feeling I am trying to describe, which is (I think) the root of the pleasure in (fantastic) writing.

4. this does not mean that the writing is not subjected to plenty of revision, including the throwing away of whole intermediate versions; I will name again the matter of plausibility: if making characters and situations convincing in realist fiction is hard enough, try to imagine what it is to give credibility to what simply does not exist in real life. Many authors note that a major frustration is how the final result, no matter how good, can never approach the mental impression produced by the original daydreaming.

5. characters are, obviously, the key to this process. Two ‘mysteries’ about characters (in all kinds of fiction): what do authors mean when they say that characters make autonomous decisions? And, this is a caveat: in order to be a storyteller you really must be interested in people, for without a set of solid characters you cannot engage your reader’s interest. In fact, a constant complaint against contemporary fiction of any kind is that characterization is weak, or that protagonists are not likeable people –at worst, both. I would add the matter of description. In the novel which I have just read (Colson Whitehead’s zombie tale Zone One) we learn that the male protagonist is black only in the last 35 pages. We never know his name and he goes by the nickname Mark Spitz (a white American star swimmer of the 1970s). This has wreaked havoc with my visualization of the story for I could see in all detail the zombies chomping on their poor victims but not the person I was supposed to sympathise with. On the other hand, I was much surprised by author David Weber’s declaration that he didn’t choose a woman as the protagonist of his Honorverse, the space opera series about Honor Harrington: “I didn’t set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself” (http://www.wildviolet.net/live_steel/david_weber.html). Fair enough, and I’m sure Weber does not want to know where Honor comes from but, still, he can be asked about specific aspects of her characterization as a military hero with no risk to his imagination.

6. dramatized scenes are the backbone of novels – this is obvious, isn’t it?, but do we really see novels in this way? In essence, then, a novelist is that little kid with a figurine in each hand voicing each invented character in turn against the background of a plot that grows as their interaction expands. Narrative is a lot like puppetry, then. I find, however, that while the narrator’s voice interests many scholars, the construction of scenes and dialogue is not a major source of interest. This may get worse because conversation is dying out, pushed to the sides by the constant use of social media. In science fiction novels set in the future people still communicate face to face, which suggests that authors do not think that social media will gobble up dialogue – but maybe that’s the wrong representation of the future…

In the volume I so much admire but will not mention there is a strange moment. An author reports a conversation with a friend who is a neurologist and who claims she has no imagination whatsoever and could never tell a story. The author cannot understand this deficiency and somehow thinks that the friend is wrong about her own lack of storytelling abilities. Some teachers of Literature are also narrators but most of us lack the ability to tell a story, which is why we are in awe of those who can perform the feat (well, of the best ones whose work we love). What the email I got reveals, though, is that not at all authors enjoy our interest in their craft and even see us as a danger because of our insistence on offering ‘clinical’ analysis. This makes me feel quite nervous, to be honest, concerning what we are doing in our research. I thought I was working to send the message that the fantastic is one of the best creations of the human mind but perhaps I am the middle-person writers and readers can do without, thank you very much. I hope not…

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


December 16th, 2019

Last week I skipped my weekly appointment because I was extremely busy finishing the edition of my latest e-book project with students. Here it is, finally!: Frankenstein’s Film Legacy (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/215815). Since 2013-14, when I taught a monographic course on Harry Potter, I have been developing a series of projects with undergrad and postgrad students, consisting of publishing e-books based on their course work. The new e-book is my seventh project (you can see the complete list at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books) and I’m already at work on the eighth, which will be an e-book about how the United States are represented in 21st century American documentary. In fact, I have started to think of my elective courses as a space for new teaching projects. Thus, I’m already thinking of next year’s MA course on Gender Studies as a chance to explore gender issues in recent fantasy films, after producing already an e-book on science fiction (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282). By the way, I was immensely pleased to present this e-book both at Llibreria Gigamesh (in June) and in our recent national conference of English Studies AEDEAN at Alicante (in November).

Frankenstein’s Film Legacy is exceptional in my collaboration with students because it has been based on work by second-year students. So far, I had only worked on the e-books in third/fourth year BA electives and in MA electives. A little bit too rashly, I decided to include an e-book in our exercises for the BA course on ‘English Romantic Literature’, in which we read the ‘six males’ (as a co-teacher calls them), that is, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the ‘two females’ as I should call them –Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. The reason why I used many entries in this blog last semester to discuss these authors, and the reason why I thought of the e-book is that I assumed mine would be a temporary incursion into Romanticism and I would soon return to teaching Victorian Literature. The e-book was meant to mark, then, a singularity in my teaching.

In fact, this is not what has happened and I’m teaching Romanticism again next Spring, but with no plans for a new e-book. The reason is that, although the students have followed quite well my guidelines (I wrote a model fact sheet /essay they were supposed to imitate), my intervention in their writing has been more intensive than usual. The main reason is that their essays were too focused on comparing specific aspects of each of the films with Mary Shelley’s novel (as I had asked them to do, indeed) and in this way, the larger picture was missing. In some cases, simply because they are young and little used to watching films released before 1999, when they were born. In other cases because only I had the complete picture of the e-book and could connect the dots (yes, The Island and Never Let Me Go share exactly the same Frankensteinian topic). The good news is that most of these students will be soon participating in the e-book about the US documentary, and now have a basic training to do so. Incidentally, if you’re thinking that I have used too much time for this project, the answer is ‘not really’: the time I did not use to prepare lectures (thirty students did class presentations based on the films), is the time I have used for the e-book. My own writing and my constant other deadlines have just delayed publication (though obviously the course marks were awarded punctually in June).

So, what’s this e-book about? I selected 75 films, beginning with Metropolis (1926) and ending with Mary Shelley (2017), which dealt with the topic of artificial life and connected, indirectly or directly, with Frankenstein. The final list is down to 57 because I got work from fewer students than I expected, and also because I finally discarded a few fact sheets that were incomplete. Here are the films, in the same order in which they appear in the e-book:

• 1920s to 1970s: Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Godzilla/Gojira (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
• 1980s: Blade Runner (1982), WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Bride (1985), Weird Science (1985), The Fly (1986), Robocop (1987), Akira (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987)
• 1990s: Bicentennial Man (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mary Reilly (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Gattaca (1997), Gods and Monsters (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Matrix (1999)
• 2000s: Hollow Man (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), S1mOne (2002), Hulk (2003), Van Helsing (2004), I, Robot (2004), The Island (2005), WALL·E (2008), Splice (2009), Moon (2009)
• 2010s: Never Let Me Go (2010), EVA (2011), La Piel que Habito (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Frankenweenie (2012), Robot and Frank (2013), Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Lucy (2014), Victor Frankenstein (2015), Chappie (2015), Morgan (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Logan (2017), Mary Shelley (2017) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

A mixed bag, yes, undeniably. By the way: the e-book ends now with Alita because a student suggested that we include this title. At first, I believed that it would diminish the coherence of the e-book, which I intended to finish with Mary Shelley’s biopic. But, then, I finally saw that Alita works as a sort of ‘to be continued…’. My aim, as I hope you can see, was to teach my students that the influence of Frankenstein is indeed colossal, even though in many cases the films depended on an intermediate source or made no direct allusion to Shelley. The moment, however, you see these 57 films from a perspective that takes Frankenstein into account, interesting things happen. Pedro Almodóvar can now be said to be a science-fiction film director. Both A.I. and the live action version of Pinocchio force us to consider what Mary Shelley’s novel would have been like had Victor made a young boy rather than an adult male. The presence of women, or females, in films such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Ex Machina (2014) also raises the question of how Mary’s dark tale would have differed had Victor made a woman originally, or finished making the female mate for his monster.

There are many films I like very much in the list and I think it is necessary to highlight once more the turning point marked by Blade Runner (1982), the first film to hint, albeit quite confusedly, that our future replacement at the top of the animal hierarchy might be flesh-and-blood artificial humans rather than mechanical constructions. I’ll clarify once again that the Nexus-6 replicants whom Detective Deckard must ‘retire’ are not robots but adult individuals made like Victor’s monster out of separate organs. The difference is that Victor scavenges the organs for his Adam from dead people (and animals) and the replicants are assembled using living organs tailor-made for them, using genetic engineering. This is the same method used to make the ‘robots’ of Karel Čapek Shelleyan play R.U.R. (1920). In its original Czech ‘robot’ means ‘slave worker’ and this is what caused the confusion. November 2019, when Blade Runner is set, has come and go and we are not closer to seeing replicants in our streets. Yet, what is already being discussed is whether the humanoids soon to be our companions will be fully mechanical or fully organic. In just two hundred years, then, since Mary Shelley published her Gothic novel, what was pure fantasy is now almost reality.

The films examined in the e-book tell the same story which Mary Shelley told but with variations on the main roles (the creator, the creature) and the background. What is frustrating is that none of the direct adaptations of Frankenstein is minimally good as a film. James Whale’s 1931 version is iconic because it did literally provide popular culture with a major icon in Boris Karloff’s performance and looks, but it cannot be said to be a great film. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not what its title promises, though it comes a bit closer. There are more embarrassing attempts at transferring the tale onto the screen: Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a mess, full stop. My first intention, in fact, was to focus the e-book exclusively on direct adaptations of Mary’s novel but I did not see what the students would learn by seeing tons of bad movies. This is why I opted for the indirect adaptation, the Frankenstein-themed film if you wish.

The other major disappointment is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent biopic, Mary Shelley (2017). I had included Ken Russell’s eccentric Gothic (1986) in the list for the e-book but this is one of the movies that was finally not covered. I thought, anyway, that Al-Mansour’s feminist credentials (she’s the first Saudi Arabian female film director ever) made her a very good choice to lead the team behind the film. Then I saw her biopic in the middle of teaching Frankenstein and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Trying to compress the eight years (1814-1822) of Mary and Percy’s romance in just two hours did not work well at all. Biopics, as a matter of fact, work best when they focus on a single central episode for there is no good way you can summarize real life. I come to the conclusion that a documentary would have served the same purpose but much better; yet, the fictional representation of reality still dominates over the non-fictional.

I don’t know if I am here projecting my own fatigue but after seeing Alita, yet another disappointing film, I have the impression that the topic of artificial life needs an urgent renewal. To begin with, this is a strange case of knowing, yet not knowing Mary Shelley, which possibly explains the failure of Al-Mansour’s biopic (and Jeannette Winterson’s inclusion in Frankissstein of yet another retelling of Mary’s creation of her monster). The treatment of Mary’s person is too superficial for fans to be content and for non-fans to be recruited to the cause of vindicating her genius. Next, her novel still lacks a good audio-visual version, whether this is for cinema or for TV. I don’t mean by this one that is faithful down to the last detail but a version that gives a better impression of that peculiar thing called the ‘spirit’ of a novel. In the third place, the new tales need to get closer to actual science or to actual scientific speculation (in the vein of the first Jurassic Park) and not just be vehicles for shallow plots with skinny girls beating the hell out of bulky male villains. Or with artificial women playing femme fatale or unexpectedly having babies (doesn’t anyone know what a tubal ligation is?). The plotline “scientist makes creature that goes berserk” is, let’s recall it, two hundred years old already. We need to start thinking of a new angle –but just don’t mention the word ‘reboot’… Except for Planet of the Apes!

Enjoy, in any case, the collective effort that my students and I have made to show you the way into Frankenstein’s immense film legacy. And celebrate Mary’s powers of creation, always vastly superior to Victor’s.

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


December 3rd, 2019

In my previous post I argued that the solution to the widespread problem of misogynistic patriarchal violence is working to increase the empathy for women by seeking allies among the good men and by re-educating the less recalcitrant segment of the perpetrators. The case that occupies me today, climate change denial, is far harder to solve even though it is also due to patriarchy’s lack of empathy. I wrote that it is very difficult to understand a species in which a remarkable percentage of the male half hates the whole female half. Yet, this might be a minor problem in comparison to how that hate-filled male minority is about to destroy the planet and all its species following their deeply rooted sense of entitlement and the wish to protect their privileged position. The current Madrid UN Climate Summit (2-13 December) has highlighted who the ‘fanatics’ (as President Pedro Sánchez has called them) are: there is a complete overlapping between the worst patriarchal men in power and the major absences from the conference. You know the names.

I attended last Friday a workshop organized by my good philosopher friend Marta Tafalla on climate change and, to begin with, allow me to tell you that things are much worse than what the media is saying. A scientist in the room declared that he has no courage to tell his three young children what is coming soon, most likely in the next 10 to 15 years. I have a certain sense of déjà vu remembering the many warnings against the use of nuclear weapons back in the 1980s but also a certain hope that if WWIII was then avoided perhaps we can avoid environmental apocalypse. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 might have soon an equivalent toppling down of the current patriarchal-liberal regime if the younger generation, now led by Greta Thunberg, manages to find the weak spots. The problem, in any case, with the scientists’ dire warnings is that they do not know with certainty how civilization will collapse, and thus suffer collectively from Cassandra’s curse. Recall how Apollo gave this Trojan princess the power to issue exact prophecy but sentenced her to never being believed (she had rejected his sexual advances).

One of the talks that interested me most was given by Núria Almirón, from the Department of Communication of Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She heads a research project that studies denialism and advocacy communication by looking into the texts issued by the main European think tanks sponsored by right-wing individuals and organizations (see https://www.upf.edu/web/thinkclima). Prof. Almirón demonstrated that there is a clear overlapping of economic liberalism and right-wing policies in those think tanks and showed a very complete map of the international alliances operating below the radar of the media. Typically, she mentioned the gender factor as a prominent feature, meaning that all these thinks tanks are headed by patriarchal men, but quickly put it aside, stressing instead the question of privilege. I will insist again that patriarchal power also appeals to women but that right now all our serious problems are caused by power-hungry men and, so, gender is indeed a factor in the trouble they cause. Anyway, Almirón explained that there is no conspiracy linking the European think tanks with each other and with their counterparts elsewhere but an enormous synergy which makes their efforts collectively even more dangerous than if each acted alone.

According to Almirón, climate change deniers take their inspiration from the policies of the tobacco industry. Tobacco manufacturers had known for decades that their product is potentially lethal but that didn’t stop them from denying scientific evidence and glamourizing the ugly habit of smoking. Cynically, they put the survival of the tobacco corporations before the survival of their clients, sowing the seeds of doubt and even convincing smokers that they had a right to invoke free choice to defend themselves from negative pressure to stop smoking. The question is that, despite the devastating impact that smoking has on the human population, its damage is limited. Homo Sapiens is not at risk of being wiped out by tobacco, animal and vegetal species are not significantly damaged by smoking, and the planet can survive the hurt inflicted on its addicted human inhabitants. Claiming, in contrast, that pollution is not causing temperatures to rise is a totally different kettle of fish for, as the slogan goes, ‘there is no planet B’. This is the reason why the mentality behind the patriarchal denial of climate change baffles me. One thing is putting profit before the lives of a few million people (excuse me) and quite another putting profit before the whole planet. This is like nuclear war: it cannot be won because even if you win, most of life will be gone forever. How will you claim victory?

I asked Almirón about this strange state of affairs: do climate change deniers, either individuals or organizations, truly mean what they say? Don’t they know that an altered Earth will be home to no one? She replied that it might well be the case that most individuals in those circles truly believe that their privileged position will protect them from general disaster (remember the billionaires buying properties in New Zealand for safety against apocalypse?). Others, she added, possibly know the truth but must obey higher interests and few, she mused, perhaps already feel remorse. I heard in another talk that one of the most important ideas that needs to be abandoned is the expectation of constant economic growth. That might explain the resistance of patriarchal capitalism to accept the evidence gathered by the scientists: if it is just the Earth doing its natural thing, then there is no reason to stop economic growth, they argue. At this point nobody can deny that something is going on and so deniers stress that the changes we’re witnessing are not human-made. However, even this position is hard to maintain: can they be possibly defending the right to pollute the planet before we are anyway killed by its atmosphere? Does this make any sense?

I confused Prof. Almirón very much over lunch following her talk when I told her that there is another strand of denialism at work: the refusal to see that Homo Sapiens is not worth saving. She and many others, including myself, are asking for an ethical approach to this pressing problem which places the needs of the species above individual needs. There is much trust that, with the right tools of persuasion –with the right rhetoric– the majority will be convinced of the urgent need to abandon many comforts of our privileged life and welcome a necessary rationalization of consumption. There is, then, a fundamentally optimistic belief that people in general can be persuaded to do their best for communal survival which is totally at odds with our polluting habits so far.

Take as an example the campaign Stay Grounded, which was also presented in the workshop, and that calls for a gradual elimination of short-distance flights and a progressive elimination of long-distance unnecessary travel by air. I told the speaker a bit peevishly that she should eliminate Instagram to begin with and convince the low-cost generation that taking holidays locally as their grandparents did is cool. In fact, it’s quite funny, because I interpreted the label ‘stay grounded’ as ‘stay punished’ instead of ‘stay rooted to the ground and try to be a sensible person’. I hate flying and have no problem with taking local holidays but I’m part of a tiny minority, currently not that popular. Tell frequent fliers that they need to stop for the sake of the planet and see how they react. Is let Homo Sapiens rot, then, my solution to climate change? To be honest, it is, except that there are younger generations to think of and they deserve a chance to survive. I just don’t think that we’re fair-minded enough to think of the children first. When have we, as a species?

I started by claiming that empathy is the main tool to end misogynistic violence and I’ll claim now that empathy is also instrumental to end the violence done to the planet. The cause of all trouble, I stress, is the worship of power, which leads to the defense of privilege based on a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. The threat of total wipe-out after a nuclear war already showed between the 1950s and 1980s how far patriarchy was willing to go in the pissing contest between the capitalist and the communist blocs. Now the blocs at war are different: we have shameless patriarchy on one side, ready to destroy the planet with an impressive array of polluting weapons, and the rest of us, trying to defend it with blades of grass. This is not even a civil war but a most uncivil onslaught by the privileged few against the rest of Earth. I have no idea how one convinces the elite destroying the planet that they should stop, if only for the sake of their children but it seems to me that there must be some empathy at work there which can become a bigger flame. Or I’m ranting and we are all doomed.

I saw yesterday The War Game, a documentary film commissioned by the BBC to show the British public the effects of nuclear war. Peter Watkins, the director, made such a good job of it that his extremely scary film was never shown (funnily, it won an Oscar after a few clandestine screenings). Take a look, it’s only 50’ long: https://archive.org/details/TheWarGame_201405. As I watched, terrified, it occurred to me that this is what we need to shake us out of our complacency. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2004) is crystal-clear but too elegant and no cli-fi (whether novel or film) has offered a convincing picture of what the future might be like. This is a job for someone like Quentin Tarantino, and I am by no means trying to be flippant (maybe I am). I would call the movie Before it Gets Worse though, at the pace we’re going, it will probably be called The Unavoidable End.

Sorry, bad black humour might be the last thing we need but I fail to find a more positive note to end.

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


November 25th, 2019

In my previous post I argued that as feminism progresses the women already interested in power will claim it for (patriarchal) domination, and not at all to help other women. I also spoke about the women who are complicit with patriarchy from subordinate positions because they seek male approval, on which they are dependent. Today, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it’s the turn of the women victimized by the patriarchal abusers. I aim to explain here how patriarchal masculinity, power, and entitlement work in order to try to raise empathy among the good men (and the complicit women), which is the best tool in preventing misogynistic violence.

Like many people today, I’m thinking of Diana Quer, who had the terrible misfortune of attracting the attention of a sexual predator when she was walking back home alone on a summer night, a few years ago, in a small town of Galicia. Her patriarchal abuser is being tried these days, and faces a life sentence. Yet, he is still lying about how he kidnapped, raped and killed Diana, and about how he later dumped her abused body inside the well of an abandoned factory. He kept silent about his appalling crime for 500 days, leading a normal life with his family, and was only caught after trying to kidnap another girl. During this self-confessed murderer’s declaration a few days ago, Diana’s father was expelled from the courtroom for telling him (not yelling, not screaming) “It could have been your daughter”. He has been himself accused of being an abuser by his ex-wife, a matter I will not consider if you allow me. I want to focus on the words he used to have his daughter’s brutal killer see what he did. As it turns out, this awful individual had re-tweeted an image of a t-shirt with the message (in Spanish) “Warning! Regardless of age, place, or job my daughter will always be my little angel. If you hurt her, I will take your life”. He has a young daughter aged 11. Diana was 18.

Men find themselves very often on opposite sides of the patriarchal divide, as perpetrators of violence and as secondary victims of the damage done to the women they love. The cry ‘It could have been your daughter’ can be certainly read from a patriarchal perspective, coming from one man telling his Other ‘come, we’re both men! How come you did this to me?” Bertrand Russell reminds us in Power (1938) that most so-called civilizations have treated women as property so that if a man’s wife, daughter, sister, or mother was killed by another man he could demand that the corresponding female relative be killed in revenge. This monstrosity is no longer endorsed by extant legislation, though, of course, it is still practised in obeisance to codes of honour routinely applied by recalcitrant patriarchs. Yet, going back to Diana’s father, I want to read his cry as a desperate attempt to appeal to the only feeling that his daughter’s killer might have: the capacity for empathy for any young girl, based on imagining another man harming his daughter in the same way he hurt Diana. This is not patriarchal, and the cry can be rephrased as ‘if you love your daughter, how can you hurt any woman?’ This is about feeling empathy.

I can hear some radical feminists raising sharpening their tongues against my argument and claiming that all men are patriarchal and none is capable of full empathy for women. If that is the case, then we women are doomed and campaigns like the one being run today all over the world are useless. Women alone cannot rescue women from patriarchal violence without increasing men’s empathy for our plight, there is no other way. Repressive legislation does not work, preventive education is not producing the expected results, and it’s now men’s turn to develop a mechanism to shame the patriarchal abusers. Telling the perpetrators of violence that they are abject monsters is not solving the problem, for many are proud of their patriarchal monstrosity. Sentencing them to prison is useless: placing them among men for long years can hardly teach them to value women. And that is the whole point: patriarchal abusers commit violence against those they despise, who are also those they consider weaker and inferior–mainly women and children, but also, of course, other men.

Patriarchal violence is, then, the expression of a feeling of superiority which emanates from a sense of entitlement to the power promised to all men by patriarchy. Many men reject that promise and never use violence, often suffering it themselves from the patriarchal men. Other men have so much actual power that they need not use violence directly, though they might exert colossal violence through the institutions of power, which include war. We tend, however, not to think of this kind of patriarchal man when speaking about the violence against women but of the men in the circles of family and friends surrounding the victims of patriarchal violence. Or the strangers who, like Diana’s abuser, strike at random, though they are rarer than the news and the abundant fiction about serial killers might make you believe.

Misogynistic violence stands out because it is, no doubt, gendered, regardless of what the deniers claim: women are killed by patriarchal men because they hate women, particularly those whom they see as a reminder of their inability to control their life. Why are so many of the victims women going through a process of separation? Because the patriarchal perpetrator hates them for making a decision affecting their lives, over which they have no longer control. Why do other strike at random? Because that is their chance to show who is master and act out their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and lives. The patriarchal man is always afraid of being exposed as a powerless non-entity with no control over his life and so he uses violence to impress himself with his mastery over others, to the point of depriving them of their life. It has nothing to do with evil (which is anyway a patriarchal construction sustained by religion), uncontrollable urges conditioned by testosterone (please…), evolutionary hang-ups, psychopathologies, human nature and so on. It’s the patriarchal obsession with power.

Those who maintain that women are also capable of great violence against their partners and who complain that this is made invisible because a) men do not report their abuse, b) the feminazi media overreport violence against women, have a tiny point in their favour: violence is caused by an imbalance in power, with the victim being powerless and the victimizer feeling powerful. The question is that currently 95% of the victims are powerless women and 95% of the victimizers are men trying to feel powerful (mostly, these are men with no actual power in patriarchy). There is couple-related violence in lesbian couples, indeed, which proves my point: this is a question of power. Yet, as long as the figures are what they are we need (we MUST) speak of misogynistic violence. Just try to imagine a woman perpetrating the kind of crime Diana was a victim of but with a young man in her place and you will see immediately that patriarchal violence is gendered on both sides: the perpetrators are (mostly) male, the victims (mostly) female.

Empathy for women will grow only if women stop being presented and represented as objects. The perpetrator of patriarchal violence always dehumanizes his victims, so that he can feel no remorse: the Nazis believed all Jews were sub-human, which enabled them to carry out the Holocaust. It is far harder to kill human beings that you respect as such, though it is always possible. In any case, the rapist, the abuser, the killer already sees women as sub-human objects and it takes just one more step for him to see women as mere objects to be used and discarded. This is where entitlement comes into play: I don’t believe for a second that patriarchal abusers ever consider matters of right and wrong, personal freedom, etc. Most likely, they only think of their own sense of entitlement: Hitler thought the German nation was entitled to conquer most of Europe and eliminate the Jews, and he acted accordingly; all other patriarchal abusers act within their own sphere following a similar sense of entitlement. Whether they know the women they attack or not is immaterial: the main point is that the victims are seen as objects to which the attacker thinks he is entitled. To abuse, use, even kill, regardless of the possible personal cost in years of imprisonment. That’s how strong the pull of patriarchy is.

The men who reject patriarchy are usually capable of a high degree of empathy, which makes them see that women are human beings like them. Yes, I know: it’s really sad that half of mankind does not automatically feel that the other half belongs to the same species, and has the same rights. But please bear with me. Suppose for the sake of my argumentation that one third of all men feel genuine empathy for women, another feels less empathy but is little inclined to using any kind of violence, and the rest are the patriarchal abusers. Can these men with no capacity whatsoever for empathy be re-educated? And who should re-educate them? I really think that the hypothetical third who are empathetic and at heart anti-patriarchal should bear the main burden of re-educating the others by developing mechanisms based on persuasion, which also include shaming. I know that I am terribly old-fashioned but we need a new vocabulary that shows patriarchal perpetrators that they are not acceptable as men and as human beings. Monster, psychopath, madman and so on are not useful.

In the middle of his duel with Voldemort, Harry Potter tells this patriarchal villain ‘Be a man… Try for some remorse’ and these words, Rowling writes, make the Dark Lord angrier than ever. Remorse can only be felt out of empathy for the victims and is the foundation of repentance, which is a step necessary for re-education. Obviously, Voldemort cannot be re-educated and, so, Rowling plays a nice trick by which the villain technically eliminates himself, not understanding how he has been disempowered by Harry. Please, notice that since Harry cannot appeal to Voldemort’s better nature, for he has no good left in his split soul, he appeals to their shared masculinity. ‘Be a man’ does not mean here ‘be a patriarch’ but ‘be a human being capable of empathy and with no interest in power’ as Harry himself is. I do not care if I sound naïve but this is what we urgently need: more good guys willing to challenge the patriarchal abusers to be ‘men’ in the sense Rowling uses the word. Unfortunately, all too often ‘be a man’ means be brutal, callous, violent, homophobic, racist, misogynistic… patriarchal in one word.

Empathy, to sum up, is our most precious value: if you put yourself in the other’s shoes, if you shift perspective, then you can see the other as a full human being. The women trapped in violent situations are in no position to teach empathy to their victimizers but the rest of us, both women and men, need to work in that direction. Punishment is necessary and so are the measures for immediate protection, but education in basic humane values is far more important in the long range (not too long!). Today’s campaign seems a step forward but I hope that we soon see it abolished, in a very near future with no misogynistic violence thanks to much increased empathy.

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