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In any event, there is one conclusive answer to “it’s only a movie.”
That answer is: You’ve already bought a book whose whole purpose is to discuss meaning and consequence in the Star Wars Universe! Everybody who contributed, from accuser to defender, believes there is something worth arguing about. We’ll do it because the topic matters, or because it’s fun to argue, or because we’re being paid to argue. Most likely, all three.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People Vs George Lucas (interview for Filmink magazine here). The film itself is well worth checking out, as it perfectly captures the – to outsiders – seemingly inexplicable fanrage of Star Wars devotees. However, even if the rantings and ravings on camera are not something viewers can relate to, a person would be very hard-pressed to claim they had no idea what Star Wars was, or who George Lucas is, or even – what is the Force? So from that point of view, it is difficult to write off the science fiction franchise as being ‘just for kids’, although on the opposite extreme it is equally hard to insist that it is actually a twentieth century monomyth with a straight face.
Confusingly Lucas himself has made both claims. That is just a hint of how contradictory the man’s relationship with Star Wars is.
Star Wars on Trial amusingly sticks to a court-room cross examination of the franchise itself, its strengths and failings, and the effect it has had upon the various industries swallowed up by Lucas’ empire. David Brin, following on from his evisceration of The Phantom Menace in 1999 for Salon, argues for the prosecution. Matthew Woodring Stover, also a science fiction writer, is our plucky court-appointed defence lawyer.
Perhaps that is where the problem lies with this book. Brin is presenting a critique of a series of films and their subsequent spin-off materials on the understanding that this is an intellectual exercise. Stover appears to think he is in Law and Order. The banter between the two ‘opposing counsels’ starts off being amusing, but as the argument progresses, the Lucas loyalist seems worryingly earnest, becoming insulting even at times. To wit, his attempt to frame Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent piece ‘How the Rebel Princess and the Virgin Queen Became Marginalized and Powerless in George Lucas’s Fairy Tale’, as an appeal for overt onscreen cruelty towards female characters (this is in response to the complaint that the heroine Padmé dying of a broken heart is dubious at best in this technologically sophisticated universe).
The witnesses are themselves writers or cultural theorists, who present their evidence and are then questioned by Brin or Stover. Amusingly a ‘Droid Judge’ presides over these interactions. The topics argued include the political subtext of the series, its status as science fiction – Brin argues that it is fantasy literature in drag, the would-be mythic significance of Lucas’ work, alleged plot-holes, mischaracterisation of women within the franchise and finally its legacy for the film industry.
This book has one undeniable highlight for me, a moment of pure ‘gotcha’ brilliance. For years I have heard that the Force draws upon Buddhism, Taoism, y’know that whole ‘Eastern’ lark, to pad out its pseudo-religious significance. Witness for the prosecution John C. Wright disabuses Stover of that notion quite brilliantly during the cross-examination. Robert A. Metzger mounts an especially, uh, interesting defence, arguing that Lucas has actually created a work of Gnostic significance. I found that quite fun, but hardly convincing.
One point that is made, and relates particularly to Stover who has written novelizations of the films, is that this ‘Lucas empire’ has provided a lot of writers and creators starting out with excellent opportunities. However, the counter-argument is that this in turn has led to a monopolization of both film and publishing, with science fiction itself sandbagged by the imagery and concepts of Star Wars, excluding ideas and concepts too alien for a galaxy far far away.
Overall I found this to be an intriguing and entertaining dialogue on Star Wars, but also an occasionally frustrating one. Thankfully it is more thoughtful and well-reasoned than your average chatroom debate though.
If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.
There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.
Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.
Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.
What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.
Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.
With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.
*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.
Meillassoux lists three positions that fall under the label correlationism: transcendentalism, phenomenology and postmodernism. This implies that most correlationists are ‘continental’ antirealists. These continental antirealist positions tend to emphasize questions of givenness, human access, and transcendental subjectivity. The correlationist claims that when you speak about objects, events, laws or beings you do so in the sense of the correlationist’s commitment: as given.
When I saw that the author of this book was based in Dublin I got onto the philosophy student grapevine (translation – I sent a text) and within minutes had the full skinny on Paul J. Ennis. Ireland is a very small place. The social scene of former philosophy students is even smaller.
Ennis is here critiquing the theories of Quentin Meillassoux and the Continental Realist school he has come to represent. Nothing less than a challenge to the dominant theories of Immanuel Kant, whose ‘Copernican Revolution’ has infused academic philosophy ever since, this is a fascinating discussion. Focusing on Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’ initially, Ennis then expands his book to include a study of the aforementioned Kant, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Markus Gabriel, before becoming beached on the lonely shore of Heidegger. There is nothing less at stake here than the relevance of philosophical discourse itself, Ennis providing a candid examination of the opposing sides in this refreshingly modern philosophical debate.
What Meillassoux terms the ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘The Ancestral Realm’, forms the basis of his attack on post-Kantian correlationism – the notion that we can only know the world as it is perceived. As scientific discovery and technological advancement have increased, divisions between mind and body, phenomenological bracketing and noumena have become the stuff of tired academic lessons. Philosophy has become the dogmatic study of ‘ephemeralities’ ghost of thoughts propounded by dead men. The Anglo-American, or Analytical school of philosophy has exhausted the limits of Wittgenstein, who in turn reduced Kant’s legacy to a discussion of statements. The study of thinking, metaphysics, ethics, all become boiled down to a series of logical relations, dependent on science for its existence, which it gave birth to as ‘natural philosophy’ (brilliantly described by Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle).
Continental Philosophy dredged literature and art for its material, following Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. Meillassoux abandons this retreat, instead insisting on the existence of ‘ancestral time’, a knowable state of the world absent of human life. Ennis summarises one argument as follow, that if “anything in our world can be depended on it is that the sun will rise: that it is necessary for the sun to rise. Meillassoux retorts that the necessitarian inference is a piece of mathematical probabilistic reasoning.“
Should the world suddenly end, the human world, our part in this universe would be over. Meillassoux embraces the scientific perspective of the observer-less model of existence. In effect this change in European thought represents a rejection of post-modernism, an assertion of mathematical absolutes. Philosophy has traded in a sort of backdoor theism for too long, as well as a sycophantic devotion to science (all in aid of preserving its territory over academic discourse) – Meillassoux rejects both in favour of a philosophical model that can accomodate hard science.
This is an excellent introduction to a fascinating new development in philosophical thinking.
With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.
‘Wait, I thought the guest blogs were over?’ I hear you exclaim. Well, yes but I received this today from my former editor (as well as mentor, friend and all round stand-up gent) Ciaran Pringle and decided to throw it up here. After all, it was during my time of working with Ciaran that I first travelled out to Australia and met Stephanie. So I have very fond memories of that period.
Also there is some big news coming shortly. Very excited. Cheers folks – Emmet.
Every now and then, I decide to live dangerously and judge a book by its cover. The odds are stacked against me, but that’s what makes the rare discovery of a gem so exciting. A couple of weeks back I was moseying through my favourite bookshop here in Dublin when I saw what looked like a block of wood on one of the display tables. It was, of course, a book with a wood-effect cover. Curious, I picked it up and read the title: The Case for Working with your Hands – or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good. A shiver ran down my spine. Here was a book about a subject that has occupied my thoughts on and off for almost thirty years – the entire duration of my seemingly endless career as a civil servant. Before running to the till, however, I scanned a couple of pages from the introduction to check for signs of pop psychology. You know the sort of thing I mean – chapter headings based on Arcade Fire song titles or repeated references to ‘self-actualisation’. Mercifully, it was free of all flummery. I bought it on the spot.
The American author, Matthew Crawford, is a philosopher (a real one) by training and a motorbike mechanic by inclination. As a teenager, he picked up extra pocket money helping in a local garage. From there, he graduated to a specialist motorbike repair shop, where he earned enough to put himself through the University of Chicago. After several years following the expected academic path, lecturing, working in a ‘think tank’, it became increasingly apparent that for him, fixing bikes was more satisfying, more – here’s the ‘eureka’ bit – intellectually challenging, than researching and writing papers on social policy. The really interesting thing about Crawford is that he took the next step – he chucked in the job at the think tank and opened his own bike repair shop, where he works to this day. The college grad became a tradesman.
Crawford uses his unlikely career path to explore the world of work and in particular to debunk the deeply entrenched notion that working with your hands is inherently inferior to working with your head. As this beautifully written book amply demonstrates, restoring a thirty year old Honda to its original state, or rewiring a house, or making a fitted wardrobe, requires as much if not more brain power than many desk-bound, white collar jobs – and is a hell of a lot more rewarding on many levels, though not necessarily at wallet level.
The introduction of mass-production processes into manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century is when the rot really set in. When Henry Ford started building ‘automobiles’, employees could expect to be involved in the construction and assembly of an entire car. This, Henry realised, was not an efficient way of churning out Model Ts for an insatiable market. Much better to have an assembly line, with each employee doing a specific task over and over again. It worked. But what made Henry as rich as Croesus turned his employees into automatons. Their jobs had been reduced to actions. Crawford rightly recognises this as a pivotal moment, when thinking was separated from doing.
Soon, the ‘time and motion’ men were applying the logic of the assembly line to every job, from processing insurance claims to making pencils. Complicated tasks were broken down into their component parts and these parts were distributed to employees who, in many cases, had no idea what the end product of their effort was. They were cogs in a machine, paid to do modular bits of activity divorced from any tangible end result. Job satisfaction went out the window and wages became compensation for drudgery. An inevitable consequence of this atomisation of work was that manual competence became devalued. Trades were for those who couldn’t make it into the professions, or even into an office job.
Fast-forward to today, and manual competence is almost frowned upon, and certainly not encouraged by the stuff we surround ourselves with. Crawford is excellent on our disengaged relationship with physical objects, how we automatically replace old things rather than fix them, a reflex relentlessly encouraged by the advertising industry. And even if we do decide to have a go at fixing something, our efforts are likely to be stymied by needless complexity or inaccessible innards. I laughed out loud at his description of the way basic motorbike engines have become obscured by layers of ‘electronic bullshit’.
When I was a kid, whenever something around the house broke, my dad could fix it with little more than a pliers and a screwdriver. Nowadays, such self-sufficiency is all but impossible. Try fixing a stalled DVD player or even a wonky washing machine – that is if you can open the damn thing in the first place. Our stuff is complex and cryptic and not for the technically fainthearted. And anyway, the market is skewed to such an extent that it’s often cheaper to buy a new gadget than replace a part in an old one.
On the work front, the ‘knowledge economy’ is now touted as the only game in town. Get a degree, get a Ph.D., get a job on the information superhighway, churning data in a virtual world where nothing has a concrete existence and where manual competence has no relevance. This should sound familiar – it’s what a lot of us do every working day of our lives.
When I left college in 1983 with a degree in biochemistry in my back pocket, Ireland was in the grip of a full-scale depression (what’s new!) and jobs in biochemistry, or any other branch of science, were non-existent. I managed to secure an administrative post in the Civil Service, which I took on the basis that it would tide me over for six months or a year – until I got a real job in a real laboratory. A year passed, then two, then ten. By the time the economy picked up and science jobs began to appear in the ‘Appointments’ pages, my knowledge of biochemistry had become rusty and a new generation of young, up to date grads were trampling all over my C.V. So here I am, twenty-eight years later, a middle-aged, middle-manager doing a job that still feels kind of temporary to me.
This is a wonderful book. It’s thoughtful, quirky and analytical – and if you’ve ever looked out of your office window at the guy from ‘Shrubs in Tubs’ across the street planting flowers in a hanging basket and wished you were him, this book is for you. It spoke directly to me, a square peg in a round hole – and there are millions of other square pegs out there bashing themselves into round holes too.
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.
ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.
Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.
The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.
The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.
This particular passage struck me as interesting:
But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.
Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,
But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the
mist searching for its own awakening.
Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.
What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.
I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.
Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.
If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.
Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!
Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.
As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.
Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?
It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.
Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.
Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.
The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.
This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.
With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.