A FAST AGEING CULTURE: (NEW) PROBLEMS IN THE STUDY OF POPULAR FICTIONS

This summer I am giving myself a crash course in ballet because I don’t think there is a bigger pleasure than discovering a whole exciting field one knows nothing about. Two posts ago, I already commented on the lack of sufficient introductory texts and the role of men as ‘male ballerinas’ (this is a tag used on the internet). Yesterday, I watched on YouTube the Paris Opera Ballet, dancing Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide (1832), which is the first Romantic ballet (or classic, as we call it today). It is also the ballet that placed the ballerina centre-stage for good, thanks to the marvellous talent of Marie Taglioni, Filippo’s daughter. I was enjoying enormously Aurore Dupont and Mathieu Gaino’s performance and I thought to myself, ‘this is really weird–why has this specific branch of theatrical performance survived for 180 years already?’ And ‘will it survive 180 years more’? What am I doing watching this and not, like everyone else, Game of Thrones? How can contemporary culture accommodate both Sylphide and Daenerys Targaryen?

This is a very clumsy way to reach the issue I want to raise today: the increasing difficulties to understand what truly matters, culturally speaking. If anything matters at all. I’ve been writing yet another text defending the importance of studying popular fictions using the same level of commitment we apply to the artistically ambitious, and I realize that a new problem is emerging.

In a context in which the Humanities are always struggling to survive it seems safer to rely on the classics and on the study of any cultural manifestation that seems most likely to endure the test of time. I realize that those of us in Cultural Studies have complicated matters very much by demanding that the present is studied with the same interest as the past, for I firmly believe that there is no sense in not teaching students and not researching our own living experience. Having said that, and seeing this summer each new chapter of Game of Thrones, season seven, summarised and discussed on the front pages of many international newspapers, I have started wondering what exactly is going on. Mainly in terms of the hunger for texts universally shared, beyond the classics. Also in terms of what we do, both in traditional Literary Studies and in Cultural Studies to help texts survive beyond the time when they were created.

For convenience’s sake, I’ll argue that Cultural Studies started having a considerable impact on how we study contemporary culture, without a capital C, around 1990. I know we can go back earlier, even to 1950s pioneers like Raymond Williams but the point I am making is that for, roughly, the last 25 years Cultural Studies has grown to be a fully established discipline (at least in Anglo-American universities). Let’s suppose that in a perfect world nobody insists any more that studying Virginia Woolf is relevant but studying J.K. Rowling is not (remember, please, that according to Ian McEwan Woolf was a novelty in the 1970s English university context from which he graduated). Now, consider whether academic analysis of a popular text actually contributes to its survival for the subsequent generations. My answer is no: right now, nothing guarantees the survival of any text, whether classical or popular, much less academia. This is because of our extremely short-range cultural memory.

The case study I have in mind is the TV series Buffy, Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). You may not know about this but Joss Whedon’s series is, arguably, the most popular text among academics devoted to the study of popular fictions. There is a thriving field of Buffy Studies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_studies), a label that, while informal, is well-known. The journal Slayage of The Whedon Studies Association was launched in 2001 (http://www.whedonstudies.tv/slayage-the-journal-of-whedon-studies.html) by academics David Lavery and Rhonda V. Wilcox. They were also editors of the first collective volume on Whedon’s series, Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002), though the first academic articles appeared back in 1998. An MLA search throws 301 entries for Buffy, including MA and PhD dissertations, peaking in 2013 with 38 entries (34 for 2004, right after the series finished). A recent book by Patricia Pender is titled I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (2016). It’s final chapter is “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Trajectories in Buffy Studies”.

Whedon, of course, reacted positively to this attention, back in 2003: “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we’re trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160305034153/http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/readersopinions/16WHED.html?ex=1198213200&en=292c3c27d77f61ac&ei=5070). The problem, however, is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is already, excuse me, a fossilized text. By this I mean that it is already a text older than our undergrad students.

What those of us in Cultural Studies are discovering is that there is a huge difference between studying a ‘living’ text–being issued/broadcast as we study it or very recently–and a text you need to introduce, whether this is Great Expectations or The X-Files. You may be raising an eyebrow now, as there has been a recent mini-series of The X-Files but I believe this has only proved the inability of Chris Carter’s text to remain ‘alive’. In short, after more than 25 years of Cultural Studies what we are learning is that very often popular texts have a shorter life span than the academic interest they may raise. La Sylphide is alive–and please, remember this was conceived as commercial entertainment–but who knows whether Game of Thrones will be remembered in 2027?

Does this mean that a) Cultural Studies has failed in its mission? and b) that the only way to save its project is by teaching/researching ‘living’ texts? No, this is not part of my argument. Even using the traditional methodology of conservative Literary Studies, which prefers its authors and not only its texts dead (or ‘fossilized’), we face the same problem: twenty years is part of living memory for most academics currently employed all over the world, but it is a whole new generation as regards the students sitting in our classroom. We sound old-fashioned, quaint and uncool whether we teach Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981) or The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003), and whether we use Literary or Cultural Studies. For it is all about fossil texts.

All of us interested in contemporary culture are, like surfers, trying to catch waves to sit “on top of the world” as The Beach Boys used to sing, hoping that the texts we favour have survival value. Often, when I write about a specific topic I wonder whether my choice is already condemning my work to not even make the tiniest splash. This has always been a major critique of Cultural Studies: that we are not academics but a sort of cultural journalist working on ephemeral texts and producing short-lived analysis of the latest hip text. The joke, of course, is that academic work on any canonical author is beset by the same problem: nobody cites work published before 1990, whether this is on George Eliot or on Tarzan of the Apes (if, that is, anyone published on Burroughs before 1990).

So, in the end, the difference between high and popular culture within academia is no longer down to the binary trivial/serious, as we used to be told (or believe), but short-lived/long-lived, and at all levels. The trend is actually being reversed, if you know what I mean: living authors and ‘living’ texts are cooler to write about than dead or ‘fossilized’ ones. I very much wanted to write my doctoral dissertation about J.G. Ballard back in the mid-1990s, when he was a hot academic property still to be explored and very much alive. Would I recommended today a student to choose Ballard, who died in 2009, for his/her PhD? You tell me… Likewise, the monographic course on Harry Potter that I taught three years ago made perfect sense in 2013-14 when the original readers were sitting in my classroom. Now it is beginning to sound stale, which is why I’m already planning an elective on Game of Thrones, if Martin ever finishes his saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.

So, to sum up my argument, the revolution that Cultural Studies started back in 1990 by inviting academics to study living authors and all kinds of texts beyond the strictly artistic, did not take into account ageing. Both the ageing of academics with cultural memories stretching beyond several generations of students, and the ageing of the contemporary texts of any kind, which is much faster than it used to be 100 years ago. This means that all of us working on the contemporary face an impossible situation: we need to keep up with the latest developments in the field that we have chosen to study as the bottom of shared memory drops. Students, besides, have on the whole little interest in texts produced before their year of birth. I can hear the conservative academics who never tried to catch the 1990s ‘new wave’ smugly reply to my post: ‘I told you so, stick to the fossils’. But, then, if Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is now becoming fossilized or already a fossil, just imagine what Walter Scott, who died in 1832, the year The Sylphide was first performed, sounds like.

I’m not watching Game of Thrones because, although interested, I’m not passionate about it. Also, because, after the fiasco of Lost, I’d rather wait for stories to be over before I see or read them. I really would like to teach an elective and I hope that Martin is done soon, but if he finishes, say, in 2025, which might well be, the TV series might be ancient history by then… A strange situation.

As for how contemporary culture can also accommodate La Sylphide, perhaps the best I can do is argue that in this ugly 21st century only classical ballet (and perhaps photography) insists on providing some beauty. Enjoy!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

INDOCTRINATING YOUNG MEN: IN SEARCH OF IDEALS

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the terrible Barcelona attack on 17 August, in which 13 persons were killed by a young man driving a van into the crowded Rambles, leaving 180 others injured. The van driver, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, is still at large. Later, in the early hours of 18 August, the Catalan police shot dead a group of five young men who were carrying out yet another terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 90 kms south of Barcelona. There seems to be a connection between these crimes and the blast which destroyed a house in Alcanar, where three men died, apparently members of the same terrorist cell. All reports agree today that the terrorists intended to blow up a lorry loaded with dozens of butane canisters, either in Rambles or near Sagrada Familia, killing hundreds.

The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police) suspect that one of shattered bodies in Alcanar belongs to Abdelkabi Es Satty, the imam of Ripoll’s mosque and allegedly the mastermind behind the attacks. As it has happened in England, France, Belgium, Germany and other countries under attack by radicalized Islamic terrorists born and bred in their midst, everyone is wondering today in Spain how a group of apparently well-integrated, well-behaved young men have been so quickly transformed into inhuman fiends. Es Satty, apparently also connected with the 11 March 2004 bombings in Atocha and other Madrid train stations which left 192 dead, is blamed for the brainwashing of the boys by families desperate to shift their horror of what their children have done onto somebody else’s shoulders. An article by Lluís Urría in La Vanguardia today, titled “One of Us” concludes that, like their peers in other European nations, the Ripoll boys were vulnerable to predators like Es Satty because migrant integration is failing. Whether following the British multicultural approach or the French denial of difference, we don’t know how to make second generation migrants feel integrated. Instead, we place them in ghettos were jihad seems an appealing way out. Into death and destruction.

These seem to be incomplete arguments. To begin with, let’s consider the terrorism that we used to suffer in Spain, caused by the Basque separatist band E.T.A. This was not at all the product of disaffected young men in migrant neighbourhoods of, say, Madrid and Barcelona. It was, rather, the product of nationalist indoctrination of the worst kind, apparently connected at some points with the Catholic church in the Basque Country. Yet, I don’t recall this kind of sociological analysis applied to the case, at least not on the media. The point I am making is that the pattern is much wider than the current case: whether this is the KKK, the IRA, ETA or Daesh, each successive terrorism thrives by offering new members a potent ideal through indoctrination. Much more potent than the ideal taught in schools and families, as the case of the Ripoll terrorist cell shows. If these young men could be brought to the side of horror in just two months, then we need to consider not really the efficiency of their brainwasher but the fragility of the boys’ education and values.

Although there are also young women who have made the decision to join ISIS, like German teen Linda Wenzel who was on the news after her capture about a month ago, patriarchal terrorism finds its breeding ground among young men. Indeed, one of the main, nastiest surprises in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks is that they were caused by very young men, aged 17-24. This is possibly good news, though tragic, as it shows that ISIS needs to appeal to increasingly younger boys, even mere children, to capture adepts. Boys as young as 8 are being recruited in the war zones of Syria and Iraq to be suicide bombers (girls, too, but they are selected to be mainly sex slaves, as corresponds to the patriarchal mindset of Daesh). It is very, very easy to launch here a feminist attack against the readiness of boys and young men to engage in violence–another man in his twenties, a Chechnian migrant in France, was on the news a few days ago for brutally kicking an Italian young man to death in a crowded Lloret disco. This is not my point. My point is, rather, that if young men are so vulnerable to patriarchal brainwashing this is because the alternative is not working. That is to say, they lack an alternative masculinity strong enough to say ‘no’ to patriarchal violence. And to report monsters like Es Satty to the police. In a parallel, ideal world, Abouyaaqoub and his friends would be hailed as heroes today for helping to avoid a catastrophe, not abhorred as brutes for causing one.

There are two strategies before this situation. One is offering texts that represent in all its crudity the horrendous nature of the evil that seems so attractive from the outside. One example of this trend is the mini-series currently being broadcast by Channel 4, The State (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6068620/). Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, the four-part story traces the misadventures of young British Muslims travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The review by Mark Lawson in The Guardian wonders, however, in its very title whether “this show about British jihadis” can “avoid justifying extremism”. The series, released on the Sunday after the Barcelona attacks, “brings an extra shiver”, Lawson writes, as it was shot in Spain. Lawson concludes that watching The State would make it less likely for British teenagers to be recruited, yet he does not mention that teenagers are not today an easy target for TV programmers. Lawson’s review downplays the PR that Daesh is carrying out precisely on the sites which teens do access on the net and that the adults around them mostly ignore. For there are all kinds of manipulative youtubers, all indoctrinating young persons in one way or another.

The other alternative, in which fiction may also participate but which is everybody’s responsibility, consists of building positive, rewarding images for young Muslim men to embrace. I know: a tall order. If you google the word ‘indoctrination’ you will see that most results refer not to Islam but to feminism, as there is widespread fear that men are being moulded in the West through education in the ideology of liberal feminism and thus deprived of their masculinity. I have been explaining for years that to begin with this is not true and, anyway, it is the wrong approach: both men and women should be taught to resist patriarchy and work to reinforce equal-rights citizenship. What strikes me this summer –as I read anti-feminist books written by men, such as the late Horacio Vázquez-Rial’s Hombres solos: Ser varón en el s. XXI (2004), and also anti-patriarchal books like Miguel Llorente’s Los nuevos hombres nuevos: Los miedos de siempre en tiempos de igualdad (2009)– is how badly we need positive role models for men. Rial’s lashing out against radical feminism and Llorente’s disgust at publicly sanctioned sexism (what he calls ‘postmachismo’) reveal a similar inability to tell us what a man should be like in our times. Men are defined by both authors for what they are not: Rial complains that not all men are rapists as Susan Brownmiller and company sentenced; Llorente criticizes men for abusing women and not being good fathers. Yet, neither can truly explain what a man should be like. A good man.

I have been arguing for more than two decades that we need a new code of chivalry, new forms of gentlemanliness and heroism. I’m not naively returning to the 19th century from which horrors like the knights of the KKK emerged but proposing, very seriously, that men codify formally new codes of conduct that can be appealed to. “You’re no gentleman” used to be a very potent insult, but this has been replaced with “You’re a bastard”, which is no use. The insult should hurt the man’s pride, not confirm a deviousness he may have embraced willingly. The same applies to women. I don’t know if telling young wannabe terrorists “you’re not a good Muslim” is any use but as long as Daesh determines who is a good Muslim we are not making headway. Likewise, President Trump missed recently the chance to tell white supremacists “You’re not good Americans” by blaming “all sides” for the hatred unleashed by these racists. Indeed, he is basing his chaotic Presidency on praising the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.

I ramble but in the end the argument is easy to understand: Daesh/ISIS has managed to build an image of what a Muslim man should be like which is spreading like burning oil all over Europe among the young men of immigrant origins because it is finding no positive alternative. So, let’s offer one through education at home and at school, without forgetting mosques if it has to be that way and, above all, the internet. An image and a model that can convince other young men like Younes Abouyaaqoub that the heroic thing to do is to resist all forms of barbaric indoctrination, rather than kill innocents. This must be a joint effort, no doubt, by the Islamic communities in the world but also by anyone who opposes terror.

And, please men, give us positive images for the new times, we need them. And so do you.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

KINGS OF DANCE, MEN IN BALLET: FROM LOUIS XIV TO SERGEI POLUNIN

Many complain that the most neglected area in our cultural education is music. I disagree: I believe it is dance, and ballet in particular. The current syllabus for secondary education in Catalonia includes a course called ‘History of music and dance’ (see http://xtec.gencat.cat/web/.content/alfresco/d/d/workspace/SpacesStore/0084/cc151bd5-caee-4c3d-8e35-a7053619c91e/historia_musica_dansa.pdf), which seems an improvement in relation to the total absence of these two arts from the secondary school curriculum back in the 1980s. Of course, one may learn about any field of interest outside formal school education: after all, cinema does not even have its own BA degree in Film Studies in Spain but this has been no obstacle for many Spaniards to become committed, self-taught cinephiles.

With dance, however, matters are far more difficult as, apart from the general public indifference to this art, there is actually very little accessible introductory material, both print and audio-visual. This surprises me very much in view of the proliferation of ballet schools for middle-class children. At any rate, I have been unable to find a good audio-visual introduction on YouTube, a basic history of ballet, beyond brief amateur presentations or boring professional TED lecturing. Likewise, there seem to be very few books addressed to beginners in the field, beyond Susan Au’s Ballet and Modern Dance, as ballet books are primarily about the practice, and not the history of dancing. Actually, most children introduced to this art (and their parents) have no idea about who the current main stars are–much less about why they must practice particular dance steps, or that truly strange staple of ballet, pointe work.

The volume I am currently reading, the Cambridge Companion to Ballet, demands a certain stamina from readers and, like any other book on this topic, it is limited by the lack of moving images, without which ballet terminology may be quite daunting. Searching, then, for an illustration of the issues covered in the first part of the Companion, specially baroque dance, I came across the BBC documentary The King Who Invented Ballet: Louis XIV and the Noble Art of Dance (2015). This turned out to be a beautiful film presented by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director David Bentley, with a wonderful surprise: whereas the first hour is devoted to exploring what ballet meant for the Sun King, the last 35 minutes offer Bentley’s own ballet The King Dances. Without forgetting that English culture has also produced rowdy Magaluf tourists, I marvel at its public television. I just don’t see Spanish or Catalan TV walking down the ballet road and, thus, remain wonderfully ignorant of the local situation.

Let me pass on what I have been learning these days. Ballet is a ritualized dance form originating in 15th century Italian courts which reached France thanks to Catherine de’ Medici. All European courtiers were expected to master ballet as a social skill applied to controlling body language but also to offering spectacular displays of power. Louis XIV, a keen dancer since childhood, made the best of this aspect of ballet, as the BBC documentary explains, to solve a major political crisis which threatened to dethrone him when he was still a teen king under the regency of his mother and of Cardinal Mazzarino (or Mazarin). The twelve-hour Le Ballet de la Nuit in which young Louis dazzled his subjects by playing the dancing Sun King, gave the monarch not only a lasting nickname but also the authority he craved for. Hard as it is to imagine any contemporary crowned individual dancing in public–beyond perhaps waltzing in gala dinners–the fact is that Louis did so for decades, and to great acclaim. He eventually founded the first ballet academy in the world in 1661, the Académie Royale de Danse.

Formally a celebration of Louis XIV’s major contribution to ballet, the BBC documentary–or, rather, choreographer David Bentley–also has a gendered agenda: vindicating the role of men in ballet. My own interest in this field is being fuelled by the paradoxical position as public women of 19th century ballerinas, owners of the only female bodies on display which deserved artistic respect and even stardom (hence, power). All scholars agree that ballet has been dominated by women since the Romantic period but Bentley’s approach is part of a currently ongoing reflection on the role that male dancers may play in art form today much conditioned by rampant homophobia.

You may see the problem summarized in the 35 minutes of The King Dances: although he had devised the piece for an all-male cast, Bentley reluctantly decided to cast a ballerina as the ethereal Moon spirit; her appearance on stage reduces the principal male dancer playing the King to becoming a supporting prop, what men mostly are in classical ballet. This is frustrating, as throughout the rest of the piece he interacts wonderfully with the rest of the male cast in original, creative dance moves. The controversial suggestion then is that, if male dancers could free themselves from the burden of the ballerina (a figure unknown in Louis XIV’s reign) then they could take centre stage again. And dance as men–as the Sun King did.

Bentley’s film connects with another excellent documentary which I have mentioned just in passing here: Steve Cantor’s Dancer (2016). The film focuses on Sergei Polunin, a young, brilliant ballet dancer whom you may have seen in a viral YouTube video, directed by David LaChapelle. There, Polunin offers an amazing display of formidable dancing accompanied by Hozier’s catchy song “Take me to Church” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-tW0CkvdDI). As it turns out, Polunin intended this video to be his goodbye to ballet but, paradoxically, its success made him reconsider his decision. This is what Cantor’s film documents: the cost of being a ballet star in a world in which ballet’s demands may no longer make sense, much less to a young man.

As dancing male bodies on display, Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin occupy diametrically opposed positions: one is the King of the most powerful nation of his time using ballet to flaunt his political power; the other is a poor boy from Ukraine whose working-class family collapses under the burden of lifting him onto stardom. And here lies the problem in Polunin’s case: for Louis XIV, ballet is an extension of his absolutism, inherited by divine right; for Polunin, ballet is not a personal choice, but a road onto which he is placed by teachers and family because of his body’s uncanny capacities and abilities. In my Marxist reading, Louis XIV puts the foundations of an elite taste for ballet which allows Polunin to leave poverty behind in 21st century post-Communist Ukraine at a very high personal cost. This includes his radical de-classing, his permanent exile from his home town, the divorce of his parents and even his own estrangement from the whole family. Polunin wonders, as the film does, whether the sacrifice is worth it. The dancer’s many tattoos and his athletic style (see the video) also hint what he later vocalizes: ballet is a world in need of updating, particularly for male dancers. Bentley’s own message…

And, then, there’s homophobia. In an encounter with the audience at the Toronto Film Festival, after a screening of Dancer, a shy man asks Polunin (himself quite shy despite his undeserved ‘bad boy’ reputation) how homophobia can be combated and, thus, more young boys introduced to ballet. In Polunin’s Ukraine boys were given, as he was, a choice between gymnastics and ballet and perhaps because of this he seems puzzled, also a bit uncomfortable. “I do a man’s job”, he quips and this is it. Both Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin, beginning and present, embody what ballet is at risk of losing: heterosexual masculinity. It seemed that after the phenomenally successful Billy Elliot (2000), the problem would have been solved. Yet, it has not. This does not mean that gay male dancers are acknowledged and respected, either. The Bolshoi’s recent decision (June 2017) to cancel the world premiere of a ballet based on top Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) has dismayed many. Although the Bolshoi authorities have invoked technical problems to justify their decision, Russian legislation against promoting homosexuality in any way is most likely their main consideration. For, of course, Nureyev was gay and died of AIDS-related complications.

Ironically, then, although ballet was formally codified to display men’s power it eventually became an art focused on the iconic femininity of the ballerina. I don’t intend to discuss here this femininity, nor how it fits the current cult of the unnaturally thin woman. What anyone knows is that ballet schools are full of girls because most parents believe that ballet gives even the less gifted girl tools to carry her body gracefully, still, believe it or not, a much appreciated social skill. But what about little boys? Whenever I attend a ballet school’s performance, as I do yearly, and see just one or two boys surrounded by twenty or more girls, I wonder who they are, what is motivating them and what obstacles they’re facing, whether they’re gay or straight. Louis XIV would not understand this situation at all.

By the way, Polunin was discovered thanks to the Ukrainian public school system, of which ballet was part. This is hard to imagine in my local context. I’ll leave for some other day why the supposedly cultured, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona offers so little ballet and at such prohibitive prizes. This, I believe, King Louis XIV would understand.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/