The Oxonian Review http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp Mon, 29 Jun 2015 18:20:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Queer Teeth and Contemporary Film Culture http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/queer-teeth-and-contemporary-film-culture/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/queer-teeth-and-contemporary-film-culture/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 23:45:24 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27030 Benedict Morrison

Jurassic World is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a toweringly bad film. The breadth of the assortment of its deficiencies is not unimpressive, and the seamless synthesis of terrible performance, direction, writing, story, and concept makes for a kind of perfection. It is, nevertheless, a perfection which chills with its unsubtle and cynical meta-cinematic commentary; the head of the so-obviously-going-to-go-wrong-that-it-really-isn’t-very-interesting park remarks that audiences have become bored of wonder and now only desire more teeth. So, sadly, there is no equivalent to the blissfully moving moments from the original Jurassic Park, in which Sam Neill and the gang dance with brontosauruses, moments in which the ground-breaking possibilities of cinema make you want to sing. No time for that here; we are, the film tells us quite unapologetically, bored of wonder. It’s teeth that we want. And when the teeth arrive, they do nothing but eat things messily. With no real suggestion of interesting wider significance, the teeth are just teeth, and are never, more’s the pity, allowed to be anything as interesting as Jaws. This, though, is not a review of Jurassic World, and the extent of the awfulness—for which the unprecedented scale of the boringly predictable Indominus Rex stands as an obvious figure—will have to be taken as read. Rather, this is a—perhaps chaotic—collection of thoughts on a campaign of cultural conservatism, and a moment in Jurassic World, almost masked by the tedium and silliness, serves to demonstrate the point.

The Jurassic films have always taken a highly orthodox attitude towards the rightness and elegance of the procreative family. The crisis, ever since Richard Attenborough got ideas above his station in the original film, is caused not simply by hubris, but by the far greater sin of unnatural procreation. The dinosaurs—the ultimate in test tube babies—are monstrous because they are not made as God intended. In Jurassic World, this blinkered view reaches its apotheosis; Indominus Rex goes on the rampage because, we are told, she doesn’t know what she is, a result of being bred in isolated captivity and having no mummy and daddy. The adolescent reared without such benefits is bound to slip into such an existential crisis, a violent vortex of epistemological and ontological uncertainty. Even the confused gendering of a female Rex marks this agony of compromised identity, marks her out as a monster. To counter these diseased products of improper tinkering, the films throw forth a flurry of children, whose charms initially fail to win the interest or approval of the sadly unpaternal hero. Ultimately, the danger of dismemberment for the children stirs profound—and, it seems, profoundly natural—parental instincts in the hero, and he and his suitably decorative partner exit, set on making their own contribution to the evolution of our species.

And so to the offending moment in Jurassic World. A young British woman has been entrusted with looking after the heroine’s nephews. The kids, being replete with a Scooby Doo-style intrepid energy of youth, quickly (and for no very good reason) give their minder the slip, and go off to frolic with epic lizards instead. Later, the young woman is reunited with her charges, but it is too late to make up for her earlier lack of maternal care. Redemption is not to be hers. She is to be made an example of. And to be made an example of in this Jurassic World involves being tossed between pterodactyls, half drowned, and ultimately—without even the dignity of narrative significance—consumed by a dirty great mosasaur. The dinosaurs may be savage, but they are merely the dumb agents of an even more savage social order which will not abide a woman who does not care about children.

This trivial example marks a wider attack on the queer in contemporary film. In this climate, even “good films” insist on the link between heroism and family. The bizarrely Oscar-winning Argo includes an obligatory coda in which the brilliantly banal Ben Afleck—really, a performance almost overwhelmingly lacking in charisma—returns home to pat his little boy on the head. Now, no one should seek to argue that heroes should neglect their families, or that domestic life is uninteresting dramatically. Rather, it might be argued that it is a weakness that a film which has played with notions of enigma and performed identity ultimately backs away from such subversively queer subjects, and instead reinforces the clear impression that its hero is resolutely heteronormative. The wife and son are not entitled to anything as highfalutin as autonomous characterisation; they are superfluous props in the account of a man’s heroism, a heroism measured not through compassion, derring-do, or resourcefulness, but through fertility. By extension, tragedy and pathos also become functions of family life. In Gravity, the stunning visuals are compromised grotesquely by the interminable backstory of its clichéd characters. When an astronaut is killed, his endearing joie de vivre is not deemed sufficient to arouse our sympathy. Nor is the sight of his shattered helmet and damaged face. Instead, as the magnificently fluid camera hangs momentarily suspended beside his floating body, a photograph—inexplicably attached to his belt strap—bobs into view, depicting the astronaut and his wife and children. How much easier, the films suggest, it is to admire and to mourn a father. Of course, this affirmation of a traditional set of values, pinned firmly to the starched pinafores of family life, comes at the expense of a repressed Other. The queer—that incorrigibly plural and wildly jouissant assault on the assumptions of the orthodox Symbolic Order—is consumed by dinosaurs, is eclipsed by revolution, is lost in space. It leaves behind only a trace, and that trace is dismissed as monstrous.

“But, no!” the cry may go up

There is another kind of film! Jurassic World, thank goodness, is not the extent of cinema. Even the heteronormative narratives of Argo and Gravity are not the extent of it. This is a liberal age of liberal works in which difference is embraced, in which, indeed, otherness is cherished as a criterion of narrative quality. Characters from marginalised groups are commonplace. Gone are the days of invisible homosexuality, of denied transgender. Everything—from Hollywood blockbusters to daily soap operas—has moved with the times. Absolutely anything can be seen on screen now. The queer is everywhere.

So runs the argument.

We are in a golden age. Never have diverse narratives of difference been so plentiful.

So runs the argument.

Well… This is not untrue. Representation is more complete than ever before. Films and series that, only a few years ago would not have dreamed of depicting such controversial minority behaviours as same-sex love now fall over themselves to put them on screen. But with only a very little archaeological scratching, the mechanisms which underlie this liberal veneer are exposed. From Philadelphia to American Beauty to Mean Girls to last year’s Love Is Strange, a cavalcade of stereotypes trip blithely, like some perverse danse macabre, towards total cultural assimilation. Straight (and straightening) is the gate through which they pass, and it neutralises the queer potential which should so necessarily nibble away at the mythic structures that reinforce the assumptions and orthodoxies of our culture. Within this parade, there is little sex—the paying public must be spared so uncomfortable a sight. Instead, we witness a blazon in honour of liberal generosity, a reinforcement of the conviction that “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” So says Justice Anthony Kennedy in the conservative closing paragraphs of his ruling legalising same sex marriage. And so says today’s cinema.

Now, this is not to speak against gay marriage, or against gay representation. It is of inestimable importance to individuals and groups to see themselves reflected on the screen. But the argument that this is queer is fatally flawed, because it confuses diversity with queerness. Even as films and TV shows bombard their audiences with narrativised images of diversity on an unprecedented scale, little by little queerness is eroded. Queerness is not a function of narrative inclusivity, of narrative generosity, but of narrative strangeness. When the film’s prevailing grammars are violated, its syntaxes disintegrated—there is the queer. It shines in The Servant, in Performance, in Peter Greenaway’s baroqueries and Luis Buñuel’s nightmares, in Terence Davies’ uncannies and Jan Švankmajer’s animated oddities. It is the residual and pesky bit beyond, beneath, and behind the ordered structures that seem so familiar, the challenge to every certainty. The conventional narratives and rigorous characters of Hollywood and television’s current “golden age” may pose interesting questions, may challenge some assumptions, but they believe wholeheartedly in the holy trinity of Meaning, Authority, and Understanding. The gays we encounter in their well-tended gardens are sympathetic, yes, but also identifiable, comprehensible. They absorb and make normal once-inadmissible categories. And so it is that the queer—that incorrigibly plural and wildly jouissant assault on the assumptions of the orthodox Symbolic Order—loses its teeth. Jurassic World, for all its detestable wretchedness, is at least honest in its desire to destroy the unnatural figure of a woman who is resolutely outside the heteronormative. The techniques of repression evident in contemporary liberal drama are less explicit and, in consequence, more insidious.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor in Chief of the Oxonian Review.

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An Insubstantial Pageant: A Question of Perspective in The Tempest http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/an-insubstantial-pageant-a-question-of-perspective-in-the-tempest-2/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/an-insubstantial-pageant-a-question-of-perspective-in-the-tempest-2/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 23:44:44 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27004 Marco Alessi


The Tempest
Directed by Derek Jarman
UK
1979
92 minutes

 

The effectiveness of putting Shakespeare on film is a vexed question. There are certainly those who find that all those words hang heavy in such a visual medium as cinema. More plentiful, though, are those who think that adding pictures to the supple and ambiguous wordscapes of the plays is a violent reductiveness. In ‘Shakespeare and Film: A Question of Perspective’, Catherine Belsey argues that film versions of Shakespeare limit meaning in just this way. In fact, she claims that this loss of “interrogative plurality” began long before film, when the plays were first framed by a proscenium and the audience was repositioned in front of an illusionist mise-en-scène, rather than before, behind, above, and below a bare thrust stage. She argues that:

The Elizabethan stage is…the site of conflicting dramatic modes, one emblematic and the other illusionist, one challenging the audience to interpret a pattern of abstract meanings, the other specifying a fixed and ‘obvious’ relationship between the audience and the world simulated on stage. The gap between these contradictory modes decentralises the plays of the period and insists on the specific form of plurality which tends towards the interrogative text.

Film supposedly fails because “the camera shows the ‘truth’” and the emblematic is “inevitably specified on the screen.” Belsey makes one half-exception at the very end of her article. In Derek Jarman’s 1979 film of The Tempest she sees a “fragmentation of meaning which enhances plurality”, distinct however from the “interrogative” type of plurality that Belsey believes is only “produced by a specific moment in the history of the theatre.” However, Belsey’s argument relies upon unsatisfactory generalisations about the nature of film, and her throwaway reference to Jarman’s Tempest lacks engagement with a work that comes close to inspiring the interrogative multiplicity that she feels has been absent in Shakespeare production for some time. In fact, the film preserves much of the nuanced, emblematic plurality championed by Belsey. The historical moment has passed in which the repeat performance of a Shakespeare play was entirely dependent upon how loudly the Epilogue made the audience applaud. The uncountable number of productions and adaptations that are constantly available are a manifestation of precisely the plurality which the plays originally embodied.

When realising The Tempest, one notorious challenge is the portrayal of Caliban. He is both sinister and sympathetic. He unrepentantly “didst seek to violate | The honour” of Miranda, but is also the victimised rightful lord of the island as the son of Sycorax. Is he a monster “got by the devil himself” or a non-white victim of racist Europeans who view him as “a thing most brutish”?

Jack Birkett as Caliban

Although he is not black, the destabilising ambiguity of the text is not lost in the performance of Jack Birkett as Caliban in Jarman’s film. His dishevelled black suit and white shirt lend him the appearance of a shabby servant and, unlike the Received Pronunciation of every other character, he speaks with what Jarman describes as a “North Country brogue”. The race/slavery theme is refigured as an English class/region conflict, and changes the nature of Caliban’s disavowal of his acquired language:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.

These lines are usually taken to criticise the colonial instinct to assimilate native cultures to an essentialist concept of superior Occidentalism. Colonialists saw the introduction of their own language and lifestyle as an improvement rather than an erasure of the native cultural identity. Caliban’s use of the word “learning” rather than “teaching” in the second sentence emphasises this imposition. To contemporary ears, the two words have distinctly different senses. To be taught successfully, a student must decide to reciprocate the action and learn. In a sentence where the active verb is “to teach”, the student is object. When the verb is “to learn”, the student is subject. However, in Shakespeare’s lifetime the two words were synonyms. “Learn” to mean “teach” survives today, as cited in the OED, only as a vulgar form. In this sense, “Learning me your language” maintains Caliban as object and cancels out the turning point when the student becomes subject through willing reciprocity. Birkett’s Caliban draws on this sense of oppression and marginalization due to a relative lack of education and class difference. This is emphasised by the RP mimicked in the quoted lines’ delivery, with a pronounced roll of the ‘r’ on the word “rid” as he angrily spits out the lines. Birkett adds a new dimension to our reading of Caliban, and to the frustration behind his ignored property claim over the island “which thou [Prospero] tak’st from me”. It speaks of the unfair advantage the wealthy have over those on the socio-economic rungs below, all the more poignant to a contemporary viewer in 1979, the first year of Thatcher’s regime.

Claire Davenport as Sycorax with her hookah.

At this point, Belsey might slap her hand on the desk and cry: “Aha! A partial and limiting interpretation!” However, the race issue is not entirely effaced in the film in favour of a purely socio-economic agenda. In Jim Ellis’ reading of the movie he argues, “Geographic origins […] rather than being signalled by skin tone […] are signified by European signs of oriental depravity.” This applies to Sycorax in the brief flashback sequence accompanying Prospero’s threat towards Ariel. Her sexual monstrosity, unconventional make-up palette and, most significantly, the Hookah she smokes might amount to a racist parody of a North African. But rather than racism on Jarman’s part, this calls into question our own assumptions about racial difference, including the tendency to conflate all gradations of racial difference problematically into a single generic identity, and how apparent racial difference needs to be before it is recognized. Instead, as Ellis suggests, we should be made aware of more elaborate racial differentiation and be willing to “consider whether there are other ways of playing Caliban’s Otherness that could unveil in less expected ways the origins and dimensions of British racialist thinking.” By reorganizing the text and placing this moment just before Act V, rather than at the beginning of Act I, Scene 2, we forge an impression of Jack Birkett’s Caliban as uncomplicatedly white before his Algerian heritage is revealed. Although, as Belsey might say, this ostensibly amounts to “specified truth” regarding Caliban’s racial identity, the Jarman destabilises likely racial assumptions. The film actively challenges a problematically generalised notion of race in the original text. Jarman’s unconventional use of a non-black actor highlights a generic assumption latent in viewers who simplistically base racial difference on skin colour. The brilliant twist is that Birkett, who one might think fails to provide a racially complicating quality to the character without the help of signalling props such as his Sycorax’s hookah, is of Romany heritage through his mother. If the name Caliban does derive from caulibon, the Romany word for black or dark things, then this casting is perfect.

 

Caliban gropes his plate.

Miranda sneaking.

Again Belsey would probably bring her hands down on the table and say: “Fine. But how is it interrogative?” Well… By the time Jack Birkett played Caliban for Jarman in 1979 he had been blind for seventeen years. The film almost entirely conceals this fact. We first encounter Caliban through a shot of his hand indecisively groping the contents of a food bowl. His hand hesitates as he picks up an apple, puts it back down and then slides across the surface of the food in search of an egg. Although this action could signify indecision, the way his hand searches feelingly also brings to mind Birkett’s blindness: it is a very subtle clue. At one point during this sequence Miranda (Toyah Wilcox) tries to tiptoe past Caliban in spite of the fact she is directly in his line of sight. She goes unnoticed (or Caliban lets her think she has gone unnoticed) for a few seconds before spitting raw egg at her. A viewer, aware of Birkett’s blindness or not, might briefly believe Caliban is being played blind. Although this is absent from the text, emblematically it resonates with his self-deception with regard to Stephano and Trinculo. But this is not foregrounded by the film. Although, Jack Birkett fakes eye-lines and affects normal vision throughout, the film flirts with our possible awareness of Birkett’s condition and our perspective is inevitably changed. The “The isle is full of noises” speech, delighting in the aural and imaginative wealth of the isle, is doubly powerful when delivered by an actor whose other senses are heightened by the loss of sight. An audience’s perspective, to use Belsey’s term, is “decentralised” by its awareness of the actor. In a similar way, the experience of Miranda is changed because she is played by Toyah Willcox, a countercultural punk rock icon. The film inoffensively inserts details that only become prominent depending on the viewer’s cultural awareness, knowledge, and taste. And so we come close to the perspectival dynamic which Belsey claims has been absent since the Proscenium Arch first reared its ugly head. Ultimately, determining the film’s significance—from a riot of plurality—is entirely in the court of the interrogative interpreter.

Marco Alessi has graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a B.A. in English language and literature. He will begin an M.Aa in Film Studies at King’s College, London in September.

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The Sound of Poetry: On Verbatim Theatre, London Road, and Future Libretti http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-sound-of-poetry-on-verbatim-theatre-london-road-and-future-libretti/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-sound-of-poetry-on-verbatim-theatre-london-road-and-future-libretti/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 23:43:11 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27047 Leo Mercer


London Road
Directed by Rufus Norris
UK
2015
91 minutes

 

One poetry is written for the eye, another for the ear. If we think of a poem as words on a page (visual) that come to life in the act of reading (sound), eye and ear are oddlily blurred: does a poem begin on the page or in the mouth? But (as I’ve blubbled and blahhed about in my recent OR essays) the way we wordle online opens space for a “page-poetry” that is even more pageful, by incorporating non-alphabetical elements of visual language that make sense to us whilst being difficult to translate into sound.

At the same time, the state of technology is allowing an intensification of poetry considered as pure sound. An audio-file is a piece of audio-paper, inked on by spoken words. At best, these are poems where the poem itself is not the sequence of words on the page but the sequence of sounds on the file. This bypasses the need for a visual notation of what was intended as sound: as transmission of music required notation in pitch and rhythm, transmission of poetry required notation of letters and punctuation marks. Recording can allow transmission of poetry directly as musical language—language made up of pitch, rhythm, sounds as opposed to letters, punctuation marks etc.

Again, the work of Steve Roggenbuck (whose work is at the forefront of internet-infused literature) becomes touchstony: his Youtube videos present poetry without visual text; the recording is the text, and the poetry is sound. The phrase “make something beautiful before you are dead” is transmitted primarily as a spoken phrase, complete with his personal intonation, rhythm and voice. The line cannot be reduced to the words it is written as; it begins as a uniquely spoken line. The video that it comes with, somewhere between a music video and a moving page, does not undercut the sense that the poem is, before anything else, an audio work.

*

The writer is the sequencer of sounds as well as the sequencer of letters. The area where this has been bubbling most is drama, with the rise of verbatim theatre. Scripts using the verbatim technique are not a run of words to be spoken and acted, but a dramatically crafted sequence of audio recordings to be re-enacted and brought to life. Common in verbatim theatre at the moment is for these audio recordings to be taken from people’s natural speech (such as from interviews), which are then imitated absolutely. The script then consists of far more than words: the exact accent, intonation, rhythm and timbre voice is part of the play too.

At the heart of verbatim theatre is an interest in real speech rhythms, as opposed to so-called natural speech rhythms. Words aren’t brought to life in an obvious way, but with all the unexpected particularicity of someone uttering them spontaneously and individually. Much of the emotion of language is at the language-edge, the odd tic that someone brings to it that is far beyond the words themselves. Like free-spelling, which seeks to capture the real energy of textual language, verbatim theatre puts the writer in a position to script a much broader range of spoken language (increasing the writer’s dictatorship over the final product, in one sense, making it seem diametrically opposed to devised methods; but perhaps just opening up other spaces for dramatic freedoms); and, similarly, it becomes clear that the range of material available online in terms of the sound of human speech is hugific, and ripe for dramatic attention.

Ultimately, in pioneering the concept of writer as sound-artist – of the writer writing sounds – verbatim theatre can be seen as opening up a parallel innovation that any medium of writing can follow, wheter poetry, narrative, drama – or, as I’ll muddle about shortly, libretto. Just as internet writing begins as an attempt to imitate internet text, but then becomes its artistic own when it takes a leap beyond it, so too verbatim theatre can begin as a full imitation of real speech, but then moving creatively to somewhere beyond it. Verbatim theatre is a dramatic technique whose significance will be more in it its influence than in the work it itself creates.

*

The most striking development of verbatim theatre so far is the 2012 National Theatre music theatre piece, London Road, recently released as a film. The audio material is collated from a series of interviews conducted by Alecky Blythe—its writer, and a pioneer of verbatim theatre in general—after the murder of five prostitutes in Essex in 2006. Her drama recreates the community’s response to the murders, from their initial nervousness, to their eventual communal tightening. In this regard, it is firmly a verbatim drama, and the structure of the piece flits between documentary style interviews, and overhearing people in conversation.

The imaginative leap is in the songs, which begin with the real speech. First, there is a brilliant post-recitative technique where the same rhythms and pitches are sung instead of spoken, creating something close to speech but heightening the sense of the words themselves. Then there are songs, where the melody of brief phrases become the basis for a larger number. song. From the standpoint I’ve been trying to articulate here, a simple conceptual leap is made: if words are already sounds, then they are already music, and ready to be set as they already are.

Adam Cork, the composer of London Road, has written:

Whenever I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve always spoken the words to myself, and transcribed the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try and arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text.

In contrast to the composer bringing the words to life using a hypothetical naturalness, using speech-samples as libretto allows an actual naturalism to be at the basis of the music. The songs have an authenticity that is shockingly, strikingly powerful—and far from anything simplistic that might be expected from a musical. For example, in “Everyone is Very Very Nervous”, we find ourselves in a Christmas market, in which one man is overheard sing-muttering “Everyone is very very nervous, um, and very unsure of everything”. The crowd-become-chorus repeats this, as they walk their individual ways through the market. This is followed by a passage of speech-singing commentary in the market. Then “Everyone is very very nervous” comes back as a chorus.

The drama feels in many ways like reportage or documentary, but this is intensified by the contrasting theatricality of the music – working especially well in the film because of the Les Mis technique of live singing and close-ups. Finding the market singing a chorus is powerful not merely because of the music itself, but because it goes beyond the otherwise normal reportage of the verbatim. It demonstrates the double-move that new language-arts often take: first, a return to the real vernacular of a community (verbatim theatre), and second, the imaginative leap from it which has an explosively expressive potential (verbatim songwriting). The hyper-naturalism creates a sense of hyper-theatricality, which together create a very original piece of drama.

*

The power of London Road is in the way it tells its story; the significance of London Road is that the techniques it pioneers have the power to become a staple of the future of music theatre, and not just an eccentricity of it. London Road answers a question that most opera-goers feel and most composers and their librettists forget, which goes something like hahaaha like wwhat are they even singin?!g, I cant understand what theyre saying!!! The storys soooo looong/boring/drawnout! Whens it ending?!?

At the heart of people’s intuitions about contemporary culture is the feeling that opera is not being a work of music drama, and become mostly a work of difficult music with all the forces of drama and language alongside it chuggishly. Against the domination of the composer in the form (which parallels the diminished significance of language itself in much contemporary drama and film), London Road explores techniques that can brighten up opera, by returning to a model where the libretto is of greater significance, and the drama within music drama is re-emphasized. The immediacy of the post-recitative technique (amusingly arrived at by other means through youtube auto-tune comedies, such as here offers the prospect of opera where language can move the story on in a sharp, fast-paced way; and trying to build melodies from the melody of our spoken voices can be a source for a re-consideration of melody in contemporary music.

As a musical technique, it can find roots in 20th century attempts to blur the boundary between speech and song, such as Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, but most importantly in Steve Reich’s work. Where Reich’s early experiments breaking music down into individual re-contextualisable sounds can act for thinking about breaking down visual language to individual letters in a similar way, his later experiments into text-setting provide the precedent for thinking about the sound of poetry. In several works beginning with Different Trains, fragments of speech from interviews are transcribed into instrumental works, and incorporated into complex wholes that transcend the original source-melodies. Reich then brings this into an operatic context in The Cave and Three Tales, which are fascinating formal experiments, but don’t have the dramatic cohesion of London Road. Reich’s work is best as music, a sort of turnpoint where the music is the end product and the language secondary; but where the seed was sown for a re-emergence of a sort of opera where drama and language were of equal footing as the music. Because London Road begins as drama and music exacerbates it, it works as a piece of musical drama too. (It is also worth mentioning Reich’s other innovation that operas using this technique will need to welcome, which is the mic-ing up of singers, and not relying on huge ensembles and operatic singing technique which obscures the words excessively for works in which drama, language and music and working at their best together.)

*

I feel excitissimo even just thinking about London Road, and I don’t think I’m alonesome in that: watching it for the first time feels like participating in a landmark moment, whether or not it turns out to be. The immediate comparables would be two landmark pieces of music drama (in musicals and opera respectively) in the early-mid 20th century: Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat ( 1927) and Britten’s Peter Grimes ( 1945). On one level, their significance was in subject matter. Forms that were treated for lighter purposes were given stories with unexpected emotional depth: Show Boat deals with questions of real people’s lives and race, based on Edna Ferber’s material gathered from investigating the showboats of the 1920s. Peter Grimes creates an incredibly complex portrait of a figure whose problematic actions place him in troubled relations with his community. London Road, too, tackles a story that would normally be seen as beyond the range of musical drama but, partly through the shift in technique, comes to fit the form perfectly. Like Show Boat, it is based on real reportage and dealing with live social issues. Like Peter Grimes, it is about the community’s response to the individual – though here is a humanization of the community, where Grimes is an exploration and humanization of the community (how do they feel about the murderer? how do they feel about the prostitute?).

Their second innovation is in their exploring distinct sets of techniques in order to create the drama and language of the play. Show Boat is a play with music: the songs were incorporated into the play, marking the origins of the book musical:

Here we come to a completely new genre—the musical play distinguished from musical comedy. Now… the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now… came complete integration of song, humor and production into a single and inextricable artistic entity.

Meanwhile, in Peter Grimes, Britten was determined to find a way of setting language in opera that would truly capture the words, naturally at times and poetically at others. He speaks about his rejection of “the Wagnerian theory of ‘permanent melody’ for the classical practice of separate numbers that crystallize and hold the emotion of a dramatic situation at chosen moments” and that:

Good recitative should transform the natural intonations and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylized music, the composer should not deliberately avoid unnatural stresses if the prosody of the poem and the emotional situation demand them…

These, in its own way, are precisely Adam Cork’s achievement in composing London Road, finding a new way of integrating speech with song, and setting the music in a way which serves the text and audience-understanding. It opens the prospect for future libretti which increase the significance of language and drama in music theatre, which bridge the gap between musicals and opera, and which are capable of being more enjoyable, whilst also having artistic integritude.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.

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The kind of films I want to make http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-kind-of-films-i-want-to-make/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-kind-of-films-i-want-to-make/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 23:42:15 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27037 Alex Darby

Alex Darby, one of Oxford’s most accomplished student filmmakers, was asked to discuss what inspires him to make films.

I think that a good film—like any effective piece of art—exploits its own medium. A good film can capitalise on both the form’s means (the way films are made, cinematic style) and ends (the impact films have). As a hopeful future filmmaker, I am particularly interested in three qualities which are central to the cinema.

I. THE MANIPULATION OF REALITY

Film looks, sounds, and feels more like the real world than any other artificial experience you can have. The impression of captured reality is far greater than with photography, because film gives the impression of movement. It is this authenticity which had audiences careering out of the salon in terror during the 1895 screening of the famous Lumière brothers film of a train. If that reaction seems outdated, think of the flurries of excitement we all experience witnessing the latest innovations in CGI and 3D. For the filmmaker, giving this impression of spontaneous reality is one of the most exciting challenges, because he or she is aware of how artificial film is. The amount of bric-a-brac on set is colossal, the intensity of the machine grunt required to process digital footage is ever increasing (Gone Girl, for instance, shot in 6K), and the number of people who receive visual effects credits these days would be enough to form a small hipster army in Soho. The films I like exploit the way the camera effortlessly turns a real place into a story and imbues it with artistic meaning. This transformative quality of filmmaking, in which the real world is both itself and made strange, has characterised great films since the medium began. André Bazin referred to it as the redemption of reality, the revelation of the world as it has never been seen before, the truth eclipsed by our everyday eyes. Antonioni’s The Red Desert is about the struggle for warm, human contact in a machine age, and the atmosphere of the industrial locations where Antonioni shot the film is tangibly dank, noxious, and insipidly materialistic. Good film, for me, is reality shot through a lens which effaces habitual familiarity to expose a plangent world underneath.

II. THE SENSE OF ANOTHER LIFE

I think that a person processes more data per unit of time when experiencing a film than he or she would when experiencing any other art form, since cinema is such a mongrel medium. Sound, music, performance, photography, text, and what I’m obnoxiously going to call the temporal flow of the moving image all coalesce in narrative film. Narrative film, then, is the fusion of a number of elements, each of which could stand as an art form in its own right. This makes film a powerfully immersive aesthetic experience. A good sequence, like the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan, bombards your senses so completely that you can’t help but give up your disbelief. When films like Spielberg’s unify all the constituent ingredients that make cinema, for me, the greatest art form, the aesthetic experience so utterly engulfs you that you have a sense of having lived another life, of having lived the life of the sprinting soldier on the freezing beach.

III. POACHING TIME

Andrei Tarkovsky, who pioneered a truly cinematic language in his filmmaking, talked about the director as someone who acquires lumps of time during a shoot before sculpting them into a statue in the cutting room. Tarkovsky thought, and I do too, that this corresponds to why we go the cinema. A good film, by revealing these sculpted units of time, enriches the viewer by broadening his or her lifespan in a way unlike any other art. In a way, seeing the months of wartime portrayed in Saving Private Ryan extends our life experiences by a few months. In terms of the film’s impact on its audience, I think that this propensity for dosing the audience with condensed concentrations of time determines what makes a good film more than anything else. Cinema, I believe, is a medium better suited to sweeping stories like the life of Lawrence of Arabia than the dour though painstakingly observed characters in Mike Leigh’s very theatrical films, which give no sense of saturated time. I think Steve McQueen is unique among contemporary British filmmakers in this regard: each of his films is a step into a new world that the audience is morbidly curious about, and the aesthetic result is life-expanding. Identifying with the main character in a good film should be like falling down the rabbit hole into their head and their world, and that is true for every visceral, astonishing film that McQueen has made.

Cinema’s way of acquiring and preserving time opens stylistic possibilities that are often ignored. A filmmaker can create what Tarkovsky thought of as temporal rhythms in his shots, which he used most wonderfully of all in Stalker. As I see it, the idea is to use cinema’s seemingly hyperreal way of capturing time to create an artificial, and artistic temporal flow. Tarkovsky often uses long takes where, say, half an hour’s time can pass in a few seconds. The rhythm of the shot is determined by changes within the frame: changes in lighting, blocking, sound. If you think of the whole shot as a semibreve, then one of its sections might be equivalent to a semi-quaver, the next to a minim, the next to a crotchet. In brief: even without a change in shot, some kind of rhythm is born. Hardly any filmmakers have tapped into this way of thinking about film, but I think it is magnificent when it works. The famous and agonizing shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging on a tree in Twelve Years a Slave derives its emotional power from this rhythmical basis. McQueen makes the sight of the character swaying on a tree for hours and hours unbearable to watch because it is intermittently punctuated by snippets of people passing him by. The sequence is like a minor scale building up to its last note with horrendous precision.

There are so many aspects of the medium which explain film’s particular effects. These three, though, are the ones that really inspire me. Now that I have finally finished at Oxford, this summer I will edit a documentary on an Oxford philosophy professor as well as making two short films–For A Rose, and Custom Built—in which I will try to embody some of these ideas. Hopefully they might jumpstart me into the National Film and Television School; if they don’t, I may direct a documentary about a Namibian artist and write a feature film about a dementia patient’s fragmented colonial reminiscences of the colour of poppies, a magnificent local soldier, and the weakness of the patient’s own ideals.

In all, I would ideally like to make films that place these formal ideas at the centre of the British cultural sphere. It has always seemed a shame to me that some of the most formally unique British films—like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Unrelated, or Ratcatcher—often slip to the periphery of our culture, in a way that perhaps isn’t true of such films in other countries. Why are there so few British films which manage to pick up vital and topical issue and present them in a fascinating and original way while remaining popular, as Apocalypse Now, for example, does so extraordinarily? Formal originality, in my opinion, intensifies the specific emotional possibility that the cinematic medium has to offer, and so allows films to transmit insights, ideas, and feelings with a rare richness, a richness that I wish could be discovered more often in British film.

Alex Darby recently graduated in Philosophy and Russian from New College, Oxford. He was President of the Oxford Broadcasting Association. He is a director, and several of his short films have been featured in film festivals including Short of the Month, the Best Shorts and Accolade competitions; he won the main prize at the Portobello Film Festival.

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Moving Pictures Around: Paintings and Their Contexts http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/moving-pictures-around-paintings-and-their-contexts/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/moving-pictures-around-paintings-and-their-contexts/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 23:41:24 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=27016 Dan Sperrin

A century after it was painted, Da Vinci’s Last Supper (c. late 15th Century) was cut to pieces to form an archway. It was bricked over in 1652, flaked away by the humidity, and then scratched by iconoclastic French revolutionaries in 1789, who angrily erased all the eyes. In 1821, a man called Stefano Barezzi was called in to move it: the rescue attempt failed when it fell to pieces, and left Barezzi gluing it back together. The poor thing has suffered, but it’s an informative scenario: when pictures are moved around, they often suffer worse fates than when they rest. When pictures are lifted and hauled away, they sometimes crumble or disintegrate. Time to explore.

A similar thing characterises Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-2). It shows Claudius the one-eyed Batavian carrying out a strange oath with swords and bowled offerings. The subject—a figure and narrative from the Roman historian Tacitus—was considered top flight in 17th Century Amsterdam: history, serious and romanticised, was at the apex of cultural self-consciousness, beyond portraiture, landscape, or even architectural realism. However, when it came to selling the painting, and moving it off to the new owner, Rembrandt had to cut it down. (He was desperate to sell it: it is thought that he sold his wife’s grave for money, at this time.) It was left about a quarter of the original size. Kenneth Clarke talks about a “quasi-mythical” element to the painting, a “Shakespearean” complexity and hint of the absurd, but this was amputated in favour of something that could be moved. Rembrandt continued to alter it, adding in a new figure to fill the darkness framing the scene, and tried to de-sensitise the cutting-down by naturalising the corners. It did not work: the final piece looks bereft of some wider tension that once lurked in the (necessary) wings. After Rembrandt’s death, it ended up in Sweden (bought in 1734), such was its new capacity to be transported around. This all speaks of an odd tension in the world of the painted image: that the static integrity of a fixed frame has a value insofar as it remains static. When things are moved around, re-ordered and cut-down, they lose some essential truth, their effects are diminished or their meaning is observed in a malnourished state. Simon Schama, Rembrandt biographer and critic, would have loved those dark brooding spaces of mythic proportion in the original; but this new, movable version is somehow lighter, less “Rembrandt”, though we’ll never see the first version.

This is gloomy. But, if the meaning of a painting were determined by its ability to stay still, the whole idea of the “exhibition” would be humiliating. The Royal Academy of Arts (first established in 1761) lost hundreds and hundreds of pounds due to bad funding and its failures to reach out publically, but stayed true to the idea that it could stand for the “honour and advancement of the arts”. If you move paintings around, put them in different contexts and give them new life in a new space, they are “advanced”: or so the Royal Academy thought. It is a strange theoretical counterpoint to those outraged by Rembrandt’s travel-able Conspiracy: what if the dimensions of meaning offered by a painting could be altered or expanded by moving it into new spaces, for new people? Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a case in point. The year after it was constructed it went on tour from Oslo, to Copenhagen, to Stockholm, to Götenborg. It then went to London, to Leeds, to Manchester, and then to France, and eventually to the United States. It travelled the world, spreading the tortured, semi-mythic imagery of Picasso’s war, and with every change of scene gathering a kind of long-winded, incremental horror. However, despite a deepening shelf of political commentary and universality of resonance, it was deteriorating. The painting was physically breaking down under the strain of constant movement. The Americans, then, kept it in a room (with some other Picasso sketches) as a little museum. With an odd irony, it was defaced by Tony Shafrazi (an art collector) in 1974 to protest the My Lai massacre. The gesture chimed eerily with Picasso’s own answer to the Nazi question, “did you paint this?” Brilliantly, the artist’s response was, “no, you did”. When this painting stood still, its power as a politicised critique of universal barbarism became too potent: it was treated like a shrine, it was curtailed by a political context narrower than the one it sprung from. The Guernica was a truer, better functioning work when it was treated like a hot potato, and thrown around from place to place: that element, common to all myth, that speaks to a collective in time-worn narrative patterns, was defaced by pinning it down to a single town, a single issue. This was helpfully (but dreadfully) literalised by the red paint sprayed on it: “KILL LIES ALL.”

What to say, then, about a medium that is both empowered by movement and suffers so greatly from it? Da Vincis crumble, brilliant Picassos deteriorate, but Rembrandts show that we sometimes deface art to get it moving in the first place. This is paradoxical. Perhaps, thinking about the way paintings have been moved around in history, we should come to an odd conclusion: namely, that the amplitude of a painting is as fluid—in the end—as the stuff it is made of, and that shape-shifting, loss, and gain are natural to its theoretical status as much as its physical substance. That constant (and grand) strain, between the contextual and the unending, has bothered art’s practitioners and critics since the ages of the cave-painting: images, reflections, looks in the collective mirror are as liable to fracture as the people who make them, but maybe it is a duty of the artist to test the boundaries of that movability and show whether the ideas it holds are responsive to new climates. The way a painting reacts to its new contexts tells you more about its deepest truths than much else: the Guernica is surely embellished by its history of political provocation around the world; but to the contrary, surely Rembrandt’s Conspiracy is better off stuck in the Amsterdam of 1662, where its formal, allusive powers remain intact for a people who understand them more immediately. The crux is that moving paintings around can be enlivening or murderous, but we only understand them fully if we try to pick them up and hang them somewhere else.

Dan Sperrin has graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a B.A. in English language and literature. He will begin an M.St. in English at University College, Oxford in September.

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Poem http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/poem/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/poem/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 11:47:45 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26949 Hugh Foley

We have come to accept that this is
Less sophisticated than it is a vessel for
Submissive conversations about interest rates.
By which statement I undertake
To do more

Than describe the falling star
With a detachment that remains
Somehow plangent.
It is early evening and everything is ending,
Gently, and with surprising grace.

The metal grates bounce softly
Off the floor as shops shut,
The flow of traffic isn’t stop start
But suggestively fast.
No one could step into it twice.

~

Hugh Foley  is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.

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Dig Tree http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/dig-tree/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/dig-tree/#comments Thu, 11 Jun 2015 17:49:37 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26973 Christopher Oakey

 
The last day, sand-light coming in from the east,
they ate from the Thiaminase tree by the dried up river.

Crows came down from the sky and hopped
between them, from trees like skeletons

of salt. They had hands of white crystal, and the bunya for a tombstone.
They had their revolvers and so they shot a crow

to drink the blood, but the bird burst in their fingers.
They wept, and reached out

each to the other
for comfort,

begging him,
each to the other,

to bury him back in Melbourne
once they were rescued.

And the river mouth
glimpsed from afar
was ablaze with light.

They hesitated
to speak, instead

listened to hooves over stone.
Gentlemen streamed from the bank

and in the river the catamarans played
all across the evening.

The bed where they lie was black with stones
but the wattle has sprinkled on its yellow dust;

and the small filaments of the banksia, and the eucalyptus
has laid down its rattling bells.

They lie
on dried-out sheets of silt

to await the black bang of the pistol,
the inland sea, which will unfurl

which will launch them, poor children of the heavens,
and draw them down.

Salt-bush sprinkles the plains, grasses cure
on the hills.

From here to the coast the land is salt
sprinkled with dew.

The stale air

the grass

and the crows,
eat the uneatable seeds, laugh

at the undrinkable sea,
and play all through the evening.

There is a sea within the bunya, and
beyond the dust of the banksia.

And only here
the Thiaminase tree,

to build a boat inside
where the gut runs.

It is this we carried boats for, this
sea of white

that comes unwanted, as the crows come,
the inland sea burning within.

And the stars burn in long cold arcs,
the white band of the universe turning away
and turning away, a ribbon of cold fire
to light up the darkness, to set your compass to,
to stare at and to sail.

Even if here, even if only here
to make a mast and to set your sails,
neither north nor west nor homeward,
but up into a sea of unending fire,
where god is,
and all is forgiven, financed, and forgotten.

This was early on when the desert
swam with fish.

They watched them throwing boomerangs
and the children playing in the creek

all through the evening.

When they move on they curl
in hollows around campfire ashes;

The river gurgles in its bed, the camels groan
by the red tree, the eucalypt rings its bells.

Oh black asphodel, red
Mars, forgive us our
distances.

They are ablaze with light.

Gentlemen from the bank
in black jackets, the cloth

flapping and twisting in the wind
against crystal fingers.

They blaze, the sea
burns across the sky;

stars wheel endless
and inside

where the water lies exploding
are angels. They let down

their rattling bones.
The sun is

black above the sand, the sky is
scoured clean with salt.

All is forgiven, and the river
plays, all through

the evening.

~

Christopher Oakey is a poet and postgraduate researcher working in Sydney Australia. His poetry has been published in multiple venues, including Cordite Poetry Review, Contrapasso Magazine, and Southerly. His research involves philosophical influences on late modernist poetics.

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In that place the bulls run with streamers in their hair http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-that-place-the-bulls-run-with-streamers-in-their-hair/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-that-place-the-bulls-run-with-streamers-in-their-hair/#comments Tue, 09 Jun 2015 13:33:53 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26942 Christopher Oakey

 

We come over the edge of language into this

new city, where—

in the season of war we fall predictably

into nonsense—

 

the nuts of the harvest.

 

Perfection

like love,

and the memory of love.

 

After years in the hills he walked down

into the city, amazed at his own silence.

 

(How things had changed since the war began.

Where were the flowers that they had planted

on La Rue des Rêves?

 

Where is the body that he desired with?

And where is she, her identity not yet fixed?)

 

He stood in awe of a momentary collision,

unable to comprehend its muteness, or the child

rolling toys in the gutter, saying ‘the car that is red

collided

with the car that is blue, and the ghosts lope

deathwards in the shape of caterpillars’.

 

How much can we

expect him (a thinker of non-thoughts)

to have understood?

 

He left his angels

in the old regime.

 

He climbed the

long and fragile slope

sitting,

 

night turning into further night,

gazing at a lost and cherished horizon.

 

In that place the bulls run with streamers in their hair.

 

(To love them properly

they have to die

and you have to kill them.

 

And love

runs

in the gutters, drips

 

from the new city,

and (in)to the sea.

~

Christopher Oakey is a poet and postgraduate researcher working in Sydney Australia. His poetry has been published in multiple venues, including Cordite Poetry Review, Contrapasso Magazine, and Southerly. His research involves philosophical influences on late modernist poetics.

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Love Unimpeded: The Dialectic of Sex Revisited http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/love-unimpeded-the-dialectic-of-sex-revisited/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/love-unimpeded-the-dialectic-of-sex-revisited/#comments Sun, 07 Jun 2015 23:57:27 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26864 Kristin Grogan


The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution
Shulamith Firestone
Verso
2015
£9.99
240 pages
ISBN: 9781784780524

 

As the 1960s drew to a close, a new group of radical feminists burst onto the New York political scene. Calling themselves the Redstockings and infusing the intellectual traditions of their forebears—the eighteenth-century Blue Stocking Society—with revolutionary energy, the group set out to shake up the public conversation around women’s rights. Aiming to develop female class consciousness and to overturn the status of women as an oppressed class, the Redstockings disrupted abortion hearings, hosted their own speak-outs, and protested against the Miss America Pageant. One of the group’s founding members was Shulamith Firestone, whose blazing case for feminist revolution, The Dialectic of Sex, would be released in 1970. Firestone was twenty-five.

The 1970s kicked into gear and radical feminists led the charge. Like Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, also published in 1970, The Dialectic of Sex became a bestseller (it could be found on the shelves of drugstores and supermarkets in the early years of that decade). But its release was met with a degree of ire that its cohort never quite attracted. In the forty-five years since she penned her manifesto, Firestone has remained a largely marginalised figure. Republished by Verso last month, The Dialectic of Sex is still infrequently taught and little studied. Part of this is due to Firestone’s disappearance from public intellectual life—she lived with schizophrenia until her death in 2012, and her only other publication was a book of short stories, Airless Spaces. But this neglect is also, I suspect, due to the extraordinarily incendiary nature of Firestone’s ideas. She had no interest in integrating women into the system that has subjugated them. Only the complete annihilation of that system would be enough, and in its place something wholly new and immeasurably better could emerge.

The Dialectic of Sex is a call to arms. Women, Firestone declares, are an oppressed sex class. They have been constantly and systematically exploited to the benefit of the male ruling class. Biology is the root of women’s oppression: nature “produced the fundamental inequality” by imposing the full responsibility of reproduction on only half the population. This originary biological inequality was then consolidated and institutionalized in the interests of men.

Such a state of oppression requires radical change. Where the elimination of economic classes would involve the proletariat seizing control of the means of production, in a feminist revolution, the female underclass must seize control of the means of reproduction in order to escape biological oppression and to eliminate sexual classes. The goal is “not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility.” In the new society that would emerge, artificial reproduction would be so advanced that children could be born to both sexes equally (or independent from either sex); the biological family and the dependence of children on the mother would give way to a communal style of cohabitation and childrearing; and cybernetics would eliminate the division of labour—or indeed, would dissolve the necessity of labour altogether. This combination of economic, political, and biological freedom was what Firestone called “cybernetic communism.”

Throughout the two hundred pages of The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone articulates a sweeping vision of cybernetic communism. Firestone’s is a formidable intelligence and a blistering, eclectic method; she is at once a radical feminist, a socialist theorist, a cultural critic, a champion of children’s rights, and an ecologist. Her style is excoriating and ambitious; her tone flits between witty and wrathful. She has the enviable ability to strip a theory or phenomenon of all authority with a casual remark: Marx and Engels, from whom she borrows her analytic method, “knew next to nothing” about women’s experiences; pregnancy is “barbaric”; romantic love is a “holocaust”; chivalry, she explains in an offhand footnote, serves mainly “to keep women from awareness of their lower-class condition.” Firestone’s “dream action” for the Women’s Liberation Movement is “a smile boycott, at which declaration women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.”

The Dialectic of Sex leaves few issues in political and cultural history untouched. Each chapter deals with a vast problem—psychoanalysis, childhood, race, love, culture, technology—all culminating in a design for an entirely new society based on polymorphic sexuality. It is the book’s final section, on reproduction and workplace technology, that is best remembered. Firestone envisages a society in which technology would free women from “the tyranny of reproduction,” and childrearing would be diffused throughout a community. Cybernation—by which Firestone means “the full takeover of machines of increasingly complex functions”—would radically restructure the economy and make alienated wage labour redundant. Firestone’s “technofeminism” channels a sort of medievalism—she idealises a pre-capitalist mode of production based on apprenticeship as a way of restoring pleasure to labour and creating work that is pursued mainly for personal enjoyment. Like so many revolutionaries before her, Firestone looks to the past in order to reimagine the future.

The Dialectic of Sex is often lauded for its uncanny prescience. Firestone foresees the Internet in the form of large “computer banks” of knowledge (“why store facts in one’s head when computer banks could supply comprehensive information instantaneously?”) But elsewhere her technological revolution has failed to come to fruition. Nina Power points out that instead of the collectivization of contraception that Firestone envisaged, contraceptive choices today are decided by the individual woman, and not by women as a sex class. The collectivity that Firestone imagined has given its seat to intense individualization.

Today women have a heavy price to pay to manage their bodies. In the United Kingdom, tampons are taxed more than jaffa cakes. Meanwhile Kimberley Clark—a corporation that produces sanitary items—boasted sales of $4.7 billion and an operating profit of $748 million in the first quarter of 2015 alone. The same corporation has come under fire in the past for their poor environmental record and exorbitant executive salaries. The responsibility for contraception is still placed largely on women rather than men, and it is frequently economically burdensome. A copper IUD costs roughly forty US cents to manufacture, but in the United States they can fetch up to $1000. And then there is the Republican backlash against abortion rights in the United States, or the case of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 after being refused an abortion in Galway. If you need further convincing that women today are socially, politically, and economically exploited on the basis of their biology, I suggest you read this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.

In the worst of these cases, women’s lives are put at risk—or cast-off altogether—in the interests of maintaining control over their bodies. In the best, women are required to pay in order to be functional human beings and productive workers for roughly one week in every month. Far from being overcome, biological oppression has become a money-spinner on an enormous scale: women continue to struggle, and someone continues to profit. But I am not convinced that this disjunction between Firestone’s vision and our lived reality should move us to bemoan her inaccuracy or discount her call to arms. If anything, we should become very, very angry, and we should channel that wrath into action—for the persecution of women today makes Firestone’s demand for radical change all the more essential.

While Firestone is best remembered as a prophet of technological insurgency, I find myself most compelled by her ideas about human love, her careful working through of its present inadequacy and her vision for its future transmutation. Love has never been understood, she asserts, despite the fact that it is “the pivot of women’s oppression.” Love distinguishes sex subjugation from other forms of oppression—for women in heterosexual relationships have an intense and intimate connection to their male oppressors. Love itself is not at fault. For Firestone, the unequal balance of power between the sex classes has corrupted, complicated, and hindered love. It is women’s love for men that distracts and limits them, and allows men to be the parasitical architects of world culture, sustained by the emotional strength of women. And love means fundamentally different things to the sexes: for men, intimate relationships involve idealising a member of the subordinate sex class in order to nullify her class inferiority and to stomach being associated with her. For women, love amounts to little more than patronage, and they are consumed by a need for male approval in order to raise them from their class subordination. This corrupted, distorted love is the destructive union of two deficient egos belonging to members of unequal classes.

In a fragment written at the end of the eighteenth century, Hegel articulated a vision of a truly equal love:

True union, or love proper, exists only between living beings who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for the other […] Love neither restricts nor is restricted; it is not finite at all […] love is a sensing of something living.

Hegel figures equality as an encounter with life itself: only the equal status of two united individuals permits them to see one another as fully alive. Firestone’s vision of a love that unites two equivalent people reminds me of Hegel’s words. For Firestone, the initial basis of love is “curious admiration,” and a desire for “the self-possession, the integrated unity, of the other and a wish to become part of this Self.” Love weds admiration with desire, and a wish to incorporate fully another’s particularities:

Love is the final opening up to […] the other. […] Love is the height of selfishness: the self attempts to enrich itself through the absorption of another being. Love is being psychically wide-open to another. It is a situation of total emotional vulnerability. Therefore it must be not only the incorporation of the other, but an exchange of selves. […] Love between two equals would be an enrichment, each enlarging himself through the other: instead of being one, locked in the cell of himself with only his own experience and view, he could participate in the existence of another – an extra window on the world.

This is love not altruistic and blind, but selfish and clear-sighted. Only the destruction of the economic, political, and social inequalities that divide the sexes will produce individuals of such equal standing that this form of love can sprout. For this meeting of minds is important as a means towards collectivity; it remains essential as an antidote to solipsistic isolation. “Lovers,” Firestone concludes, “are temporarily freed from the burden of isolation that every individual bears.”

Equally significant—and perhaps even more so—is Firestone’s vision of a reordering of love and sexuality. Her designs for the destruction of the patriarchal nuclear family would create a situation in which “all relationships would be based on love alone, uncorrupted by dependencies and resulting class inequalities. Enduring relationships between people of widely divergent ages would become common.” Love, she recognizes, takes many different forms. So too does desire. “Why,” she asks, “has all joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience, and all the rest laid to waste?” Why is sexual affection privileged above the many other ways of loving? And why have all our erotic needs been channelled into just one form of physical contact? While our sexual desires are curtailed and the twin cults of eroticism and romanticism feed us a steady diet of dross—dead-eyed models who set the standard for attractiveness, increasingly trite romantic comedies, dissatisfying and desensitizing porn—it is still the case that erotic energy is essential, enriching, and intensely human. Its tight control leaves us physically and emotionally alienated, places a lid on our desires, and cripples our capacity to meet one another as equals.

There is much to object to in Firestone’s manifesto. I cannot quite get on board, for example, with her campaign for the total elimination of childhood—perhaps my allergy to that suggestion is a nostalgic or sentimental flaw on my own part—nor with her argument that the variety of bonds, relations, and connections that will arise in a communal society will somehow be “naturally” better than the connection between a mother and her child, and I cannot help but remain suspicious of arguments that brush aside the ways that technology can become the handmaiden of capitalist coercion. These solutions feel inadequate to me; I am not convinced that Firestone’s blanket erasure of our reproductive functions really comes to terms with the things that make women so dangerous and so feared. Still, the book’s dialectic of rage and love is insistent and indispensable. Firestone’s answer to women’s intolerable oppression is to redistribute love—“there’s plenty go around,” she reminds us, “it increases with use”—and to nurture it until it touches and electrifies every aspect of human life. Such a proposition is revolutionary indeed.

Kristin Grogan is is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation is on the relationship of labour and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics. She is ORbits Editor at the Oxonian Review.

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Why Do We Hate the Poor? http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/why-do-we-hate-the-poor/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/why-do-we-hate-the-poor/#comments Sun, 07 Jun 2015 23:57:03 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=26843 Will Harris


Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London
Matthew Beaumont
Verso
2015
£20.00
496 pages
ISBN: 9781781687956

 

By the end of the 16th century, England was scarcely recognisable: the countryside was being divvied up by private landowners and the customary rights of those who had farmed there for centuries abolished. Real wages dropped while food prices and rent soared. Those who could, fled to the city to find work but London—a maze of cramped medieval streets—was hardly fit to accommodate them. In fifty years, its plague-ravaged population had doubled to 140,000. Unscrupulous property developers, seeing an opportunity, partitioned old houses and quickly constructed new ones. Many, though, were forced on to the streets and became nightwalkers, homeless and destitute, the victims of a new kind of poverty and a new attitude to the poor.

In 1572, the Punishment of Vagabonds Act made “vagrants” the responsibility of local authorities or “bridewells”—so named after London’s notorious Bridewell prison. These were “houses of correction” that, as Matthew Beaumont puts it, treated the poor as criminals “to be punished, reformed through labour, and even transported.” But who were the poor? George Rudé, in his book on Hanoverian London, gives a swift, depressing rundown of “the unemployed and unemployable, the indigent, the aged, the poorest of the immigrant Irish and Jews” who were together classed as vagabonds—or worse—and chucked aside.

Such disdain for the poor was frowned upon, if not condemned, in early medieval England, where poverty was still regarded as a “holy state” and charity seen as essential to the attainment of salvation; then, churches not “bridewells” cared for the poor. In the late medieval period, says Christopher Hill, this state of affairs was reversed: idleness became next to sinfulness and poverty “presumptive evidence of wickedness.” From the 16th century, then, a new lexicon of moral approbation and mistrust arose: the poor were palliards, rascals, courtesy-men, clewners, eavesdroppers, dummerers, clapperdudgeons. A number of these abusive terms refer to beggars pretending to a worse condition than they were in: palliards carried self-inflicted injuries, dummerers acted at being dumb, and courtesy-men took on the role of ex-soldiers. As now, the idea that the poor were just pretending—conniving at people’s sympathy—made their suffering easier to dismiss.

Beaumont, in his new book on the history of the London night—which is more about the people who have taken refuge there—does not exactly have to overreach himself to bring out the contemporary resonances. He links the Vagabonds Act and nightwalker statutes—which gave watchmen “warrantless arrest authority”—to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (known as the “Sus” law) that allowed police to stop, search and arrest anyone they suspected of criminal intent. During Margaret Thatcher’s first term, the indiscriminate use of this law—though highly discriminate in other respects—caused an outbreak of anti-police rioting across the country. It was repealed in 1981, though David Cameron and Teresa May have since been pushing to have it reinstated.

Beaumont makes clear the extent to which capitalism, agrarian or otherwise, has always relied on “accumulation by dispossession” and the criminalization of the dispossessed. As E.P. Thompson remarks, “The greatest offence against property was to have none.” So property-less migrants, along with the poor, elderly and infirm, became offensive to public decency to the state, their social vilification going hand in hand with their official criminalization. Beaumont cites as evidence the 49,000 offences that were tried at the Old Bailey in the 18th century, 95% of which were property-related. This was a “war against the poor”, he says, and the respectable classes were not just complicit but willing combatants. John Gore, foaming at the mouth, called the poor “the very Sodomites of the land, children of Belial,” while Samuel Johnson—himself an occasional houseless nightwalker—defined the proletarian as “men; wretched, vile, vulgar.”

In the 1770s, though some way from the dream of 24/7 capitalism, London began a series of more radical transformations: morphed by “processes of capital accumulation,” old slums were demolished and shopping districts built in their place. A leaden curtain fell between the lamp-lit West End and the dank, unlit East End, where gangs of proto-Bullingdon boys ventured out after dark to terrorise the proletariat or get dosed up in Covent Garden’s red light district. The poor were ghettoised, made to feel ashamed, alone and, as John Clare said of himself, “homeless at home.”

It was this psychological and social stigmatization—expertly realised—that paved the way for the working class’s later assimilation into the 19th century “industrial army”. Beaumont borrows this phrase from Marx, who used it to describe the new world of commodified labour where workers were “organized like soldiers.” But these soldiers were lucky, in a sense. They were shadowed by the still more desperate ranks of the “industrial reserve army,” made up of those same floating workers displaced at the end of the 16th century. In the late-18th and 19th centuries, the interplay of these active and reserve armies performed a decisive role in the industrial-capitalist system: the reserve force competed with the active one for jobs during stagnant periods, quelled dissent in booms and, ultimately, came to justify the immiserations of both. Even now, despite the advances of the labour movement, a similar illogic justifies the West’s continued reliance on structural unemployment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid labour, concerns about which are brushed aside because, at root, the unemployed are seen as lazy scroungers until otherwise proven.

It is in the Victorian period—with capital in full ascendance—that Beaumont’s book draws to a close. The final image is of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”, a composite of the nightwalker’s various guises—“petty criminal, detective, bohemian outcast, stalker, homeless vagrant and, finally, Satan himself.” He observes passers-by, restless and flushed, talking and gesticulating to themselves, “feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.” Alone among others, turned out onto the streets and driven further into the dark, Poe’s narrator becomes—even at the centre of a booming megalopolis—“terminally marginal.”

~

Beaumont is a protégée of Terry Eagleton—who returns the favour by dubbing Beaumont “one of the most brilliant of the younger generation of English critics”—and both balance a reverence for the canon of English literature alongside a deep engagement in Marxist theory. Nightwalking could have easily taken shape as a non-partisan study of the London night and the literature surrounding it, but, attentive as it is to both base and superstructure, it achieves something more timely and, in a sense, timeless.

It is not, though, as Will Self calls it, “a grand narrative of the counter-Enlightenment.” Nor is it, as its more modest subtitle suggests, just “A Nocturnal History of London.” The first is too “grand”, while the second sounds more like a coffee table book. Beaumont, influenced by Louis Althusser’s “pluralist” approach, sets out a range of multiple, often conflicting histories, which are reflected in the book’s layout: it divides into four parts of fourteen chapters, each splitting into further sub-sections (titles include “Witty Extravagants”, “Knight Errant of Hell”, “Paddington Frisk”) of varying length and tone. The past is unpicked, entangled, made into a series of conjunctures—points of crisis and conflict—so as to be woven together again to form what Eagleton calls a “tradition of the dispossessed.” The result is not so much “grand narrative” or capital h “History” as a more readable, pleasurable mix of Althusser and Foucault, with added close reading and humanism thrown in.

The Enlightenment, in Beaumont’s eyes, brought about less illumination than it did benightment. Keats was keenly aware that, underlying the surface improvements made to the commercial centre of London and the new valorisation of scientific progress, was a deeper, encroaching sense of moral darkness. To talk about Keats’s “dreamy, sensuous” prosopopoeia (as Beaumont does) without looking at the underlying shift in the mode and relations of production (as Beaumont also does) would be to limit the work, to shorten its aesthetic stakes. This, perhaps, could define twee: the love of a past without context. “The goblin is driven from the heath,” said Keats, “and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!” This lament, if not seen in the context of the countryside’s rapid despoliation and disenchantment, is all twee.

Most of the poets Beaumont discusses—like Richard Savage, Oliver Goldsmith and Keats—channel a form of dispossessed, dissident poetics, but it is William Blake who occupies the pivotal role. Early on, Blake saw the darkness at the heart of the Enlightenment project and pitted himself against its “instrumental logic”—one that sought to justify, in rational terms, colonial exploitation abroad and violent repression at home. One image remains a constant, haunting presence in his work, though it disappeared behind the walls of Newgate Prison in his early-twenties: the gallows at Tyburn. For him, as Beaumont suggests, it was “an unescapable [sic] symbol of the oppressiveness of Britain’s ruling elite.” William Ryland, an artist to whom Blake was almost apprenticed aged 14, was hanged there along with at least 1,200 other Londoners over the course of the 18th century. Most of the executed were poor men and women—“apprentices, ill-paid servants, unemployed labourers and vagrants”—whose crimes were ones of desperation.

By the turn of the 19th century the Bishop of London, whose land it was, had begun building an expensive new development—with the gruesome name of Tyburnia—over the former execution site. In a song dedicated “To the Jews” from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake asks:

What are those golden Builders doing
Near mournful ever-weeping Paddington
Standing above that mighty Ruin
Where Satan the first victory won.

Those poor “Builders” (mainly migrant Irish labourers), forced to squat in huts, living off potatoes tilled nearby, were trying to redeem the land, to purge it of its evil spirit. This, says Beaumont, is why they are “golden”. But, in return, Charles Knight and others derided them as “squatters of the lowest community.” They were given a hateful task and hated for it. Their plight draws out a paradox: capitalism is fuelled by the twin-desire to erase all trace of origin while ingraining the myth of constant progress (Pascal said “The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable”).

Capitalism’s “ideal state,” in Eagleton’s words, is a state of “eternal motion without source or telos.” The sinister result is dirt-poor labourers building over the bones of the executed poor; “elegant remains… sunk in earth enriched by the remains of brutalized bodies.” Civilisation and barbarism go side by side as the “mournful ever-weeping” cycle of crime and punishment rolls on.

There are numerous ways to approach Nightwalking, but running beneath them all is an account of how London’s urban elite turned against the poor. The writers Beaumont focuses on—themselves often on the dark fringes of society—give a depressing portrait of the city, but it is one whose very bleakness suggests a utopian lining. In a real dystopia, after all, injustice would pass without comment, everything being taken at its dark face-value.

But Blake sees through it, his prophetic outrage animated by the kind of radical Christianity preached at the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus’s argument hinges on the impossibility of anyone serving two masters, God and mammon, “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) Cyril Connolly updates this maxim for a secular age: “you cannot serve both beauty and power.” Holding to a love of power will lead to despising beauty; holding to a love of beauty will lead to despising power. Against all better reason, faced with the civilised barbarity of the Hanoverian state, Blake would have us put our faith in beauty.

Just one of these options poses an existential threat to state power, though, so it is no wonder that, right now, the Conservative government is looking to make further cuts to arts funding (Culture Minister Ed Vaizey says we need to find “new and imaginative ways of supporting the arts”) at the same time as it seeks more “imaginative ways” to slash benefits—again—and essential services for the poor, disabled and elderly; its rhetoric on economic migrants has, unsurprisingly, grown ever more hostile. Without a politicised, active arts sector that might act as a counterweight—and offer a range of utopian possibilities—this course has been made to feel inevitable, the past re-aligned to block out all glimmer of hope.

Beaumont’s book stops short of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for a reason. Why go any further? Here is what he might have said: nightwalkers and nightsleepers still rove the backstreets of London; a new generation of nightworkers—drawn from the old “reserve army”—service the craven needs of 24/7 capital; property speculators continue to build empty offices and luxury apartments; the poor, meanwhile, are as despised and immiserated as ever; mammon is unchallenged and beauty has been priced out of the market.

Will Harris is co-editor of 13 Pages and one of the organisers of The Poetry Inquisition, a monthly night of poetry held to account.

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