Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Hip is a romantic idea, not a catalogue of facts."

From John Leland's Hip: The History:
 ...hip tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers and alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back-and-forth. This line of mutual influence, which we seldom talk about, is not a decorative fillip on the national identity but one of the central, life-giving arteries. Though the line often disappears in daily life -- through segregation, job discrimination and the racial split in any school cafeteria -- it surfaces in popular culture, where Americans collect their fantasies of what they might be. The center of American culture runs through Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong, and it is imposible to imagine either's work without both African and European roots. Born in radically different circumstances and separated by history, they have as much in common with each other as with their peers from what either might call the ancestral homeland. Both are classicists and bluesmen, masters of language, breakers of the rules that would hold them apart. What they have in common is hip.
For better and worse, hip represents a dream of America. At its best it imagines the racial fluidity of pop culture as the real America, the one we are yearning to become. As William Burroughs said, revolution in American begins in books and music, and then waits for political operatives to "implement change after the fact". At its worst, hip glosses over real division and inequity, pretending that the right argot and record collection outweigh the burden of racial history. White hipsters often use their interest in black culture to claim moral high ground, while giving nothing back...Really that high ground lies elsewhere. Hip can be a self-serving release from white liberal guilt, offering cultural reparations in place of the more substantive kind. This is white supremacy posing as appreciation. Neither of these verdicts on hip is strong enough to cancel the other out. Hip serves both functions: it is an ennobling force that covers for ignominy. Steeped in this paradox, it tells a story of synthesis in the context of separation. Its metier is ambiguity and contradiction. Its bad is often good.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quick Hits: I have no internet edition

    What about the people or organizations who have trouble with this concept—such as what happened with Warner Brothers when it started sending cease-and-desist letters to kids who posted Harry Potter fan fiction online? "For entertainment corporations, the lesson should be obvious: don’t threaten a bunch of Web-savvy teens who’ve done nothing wrong. The bigger lesson is, don’t attack the audience for trying to connect with a story you hold the rights to."
  • N+1, fast becoming one of my favourite reviews, has a piece on the devaluing of the humanities in the American university's push toward a neoliberal model of higher education. I'm a fan of Nussbaum and Menand's writing (although not always their conclusions), and this article makes me want to pick up all three books it reviews:
    The budding graduate student has no Paper Chase, no ER, no thrilling fantasy of the intellectual rigors and erotic enticements of professional initiation that would mitigate the shame involved in gaining entry (or re-entry) to middle-classness. Even the few official bureaucratic hoops of a doctoral student — the oral exams, the reading lists — are anticlimactic, presented with a dully comforting reassurance that they’re not really all that frightening. And of course the stories of unpaid rent, half-employment, and the neo-Victorian social struggles of men and women past their first youth have no glamour about them. What is left is a culture of defensive shame: shame about so many things, but mostly about the tremendous gap between exalted goals and humble everyday routines.
I've been in transit the last week or so -- moving into a new apartment -- and have been without internet. This has left me with lots of time to blog and no medium to blog with. Lengthier updates returning soon!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The politics and aesthetics of steampunk

In a recent fit of rampant websurfing -- signing up for Twitter has made me infinitely more aware of just how much there is to read out there -- I came across James Bridle's fabulous blog. As a recent owner of a Kindle (but an eternal lover of the printed page) I've been looking for some interesting thinking about the changing nature of information and materiality. But while there will be more on that subject in future posts, it was a series of posts by Bridle about 'bookfuturism' on HiLobrow that initially caught my eye.

In the second post, Bridle discusses the politics (or lack thereof) in steampunk. Having spent much of March following the conflict that ensued after steampunk magazine Gatehouse Gazette published its "Victorientalism" issue -- and yes, that is exactly as bad as it sounds -- the relationship between the the aesthetics of nostalgia and the politics of social history has been on my mind. From N. Ottens' "In Defense of Victorientalism":

[Issue #11 of the Gatehouse Gazette was written] to redeem, if only for a moment, if only in the space between our computer screens and our imagination, the inaccurate, the imperfect and the improper but the oh so romantic and beguiling fantasy that was Asia before we actually knew it. 
Is this disdainful and snobbish and patronizing? Perhaps. But then, isn’t all of steampunk? We blissfully reminiscence about imperial grandeur, shuffling aside the slavery, the segregation, the tyranny and the bloodshed there were also part of it. We are only too willing to recreate, in our writings and in our costuming, the tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian upper class, ignoring, very often, the misery of the poor and the desolation of the oppressed. Is it obnoxious? Probably. Is it offensive? No. Because steampunk is fiction, not research. 
As much as the average steampunk enthusiast doesn’t pretend to fully nor faithfully reconstruct the past, Victorientalism makes no claim at objective study of Asian cultures. Ay-leen believes that there would be no problem, “if the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone,” but should we feel embarrassed for telling certain stories and enjoying a distorted nostalgia because there are still plenty of xenophobic imbeciles out there who might think we’re serious? Surely not!
This argument -- that reveling in the aesthetics of an era does not mean embracing the unsavory politics of that very same -- doesn't hold water. The forcible severing of politics and aesthetics in the essay leaves much to be desired; we know from Said's Orientalism (at the very least) that this particular Gordian knot is not an easy one to cut. The enjoyment of this 'distorted nostalgia' for a vision of the world that did not only appear in books and stories, but was also actively used to marginalized and oppress should be something that gives us pause.

On the other side of the discussion, is sci-fi author Charles Stross' objection to the recent influx of steampunk into the SFF sections of bookstores nationwide. His essay, 'The Hard Edge of Empire' starts out with the somewhat off-putting claim that there's too much steampunk these days, but quickly abandons that tack for the more compelling argument that the aesthetics of early industrial modernity in fiction often overlook their genesis in an era that was not particularly pleasant for the majority of its inhabitants. After spending the weekend reading George Orwell's harrowing The Road to Wigan Pier and Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills, I'm inclined to agree. From Stross' essay:
You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like? 
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage... It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. 
The question here is not whether or not we should be writing science fiction that has steam-powered computers in a Dickensian other-London, but whether or not our fiction should have to deal with the socio-economic ramifications of the industrialism from whence the draws its taste for clockwork and brass. The best steampunk stories at least tangentially touch on the question of where the resources that produce the steam come from.

This valorization and aestheticization of nostalgia doesn't exist solely in the realm of genre fiction. Television, film, fashion, and music have all gone gaga for times past in recent years. But genre fiction, which so often holds up a mirror to contemporary society and demands that we take a good hard look at the way things are, has an unique opportunity in steampunk. Situated within a literary tradition where world-building is often (almost) as important as character development and plot, steampunk writers -- and the retrofuturists who poach from them -- have the chance to perform an autopsy on the socio-political birth of technological modernity. Moreover, they have the opportunity to re-envision industrialism in such a way as to make evident the ways in which the 'oh so romantic and beguiling' fantasies of Victorian imperialism, class hierarchy, and colonialism are deeply and directly implicated in our contemporary moral and social imaginations. To engage uncritically with the legacy of this era, and instead reduce it to an apolitical aesthetic to be spray-painted on science fiction at will is not only missing an opportunity to use science fiction to its full critical potential -- it also continues a narrative in which the erasure of the labouring bodies behind technological advancements is par for the course, both in genre fiction and outside of it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Grain & Gram

Check out these beautiful photographs from Grain & Gram's interview with specialty denim maker Roy Slaper:

Grain & Gram, 'the new gentleman's journal', chronicles the handiwork of craftsmen who work in the arts and crafts tradition of yesteryear -- making beautiful things out of wood, fabric, metal, and other materials. The images and interviews evoke another time, focusing on material creativity and the manipulation of tangible object by skilled and self-taught hands. It's a vision of masculinity that playfully combines historically-specific ideas about men who 'work with their hands' with a nostalgic aesthetic that yearns for a pre-digital era. Definitely worth a glance or two on a Sunday evening.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quick Hits: Getting back in the blogging game edition

  • A great video from the Guttmacher Institute on the facts about abortion in the United States. That abortion is primary health care for women should be uncontested -- that it remains contested is often the result of the spread of misinformation over facts, which is why interventions like this are so valuable:

  • A great little piece in the New York Times about the history of book branding. I'm a geek for little facts about things I love -- hearing that Walt Whitman wrote his own glowing, anonymous reviews warms the cockles of my bibliophile heart.
  • Michael Chabon is writing the introduction to Knopf's 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth. When I was a kid, my dad used to read out loud to me and my brother in the evenings; Norton Juster's whip-smart children's classic was one of our all time favourites. Chabon's introduction is excerpted in the New York Review of Books, and well worth the read.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates has become a mainstay of my RSS feed (if the NYT is looking for someone to replace Bob Herbert, I think he'd be an excellent choice. Here he argues that the American Civil War wasn't tragic -- at least, not in the way it is often portrayed.
  • Margaret Atwood on tweeting: "So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signaling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do". Speaking of which, Textual Relations is now on Twitter! I don't think I've quite got the hang of this tweeting thing yet, but practice makes perfect, right?
  • I'm not usually one for network analysis, but Kieran Healy, writing for Crooked Timber, points out an article in the New Left Review that uses network methods to look at classic literature. That's something I can definitely get behind.
  • Critical interventions in Ursula K. LeGuin, including a great short essay by LeGuin herself on American SF and the Other: "I think it's time SF writers—and their readers!—stopped daydreaming about a return to the Age of Queen Victoria, and started thinking about the future. I would like to see the Baboon Ideal replaced by a little human idealism, and some serious consideration of such deeply radical, futuristic concepts as Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And remember that about 53% of the Brotherhood of Man is the Sisterhood of Woman."

In the past two weeks I've: finished my grading, submitted my grades, finished a paper, said goodbye to my lovely American friends, and moved to Halifax for the summer. In light of all of that, my blogging brain needs to be rekindled a little. So I'm taking suggestions -- what would you like to see me blog about?