ACADEMIC TRENDS/FASHIONS, INTELLECTUAL OBSOLESCENCE AND AFFECT THEORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JUVENILIA: APPRECIATING THE LITTLE WRITERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MIND THE GAP: IN SEARCH OF TRUE ACADEMIC GLOBALIZATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REMEMBERING DAVID BELASCO: BROADWAY BEFORE MODERN HOLLYWOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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