This paper was delivered on 11 May 2018 at the Critical Theory and Marxism Symposium at the University of St Andrews. Click here for the PowerPoint presentation.
When Walter Benjamin set out to analyse the mechanical reproduction of works of art in 1936, that mode of reproduction was still in its infancy.
In this paper, I would like to spur a mode for thinking about the idea of mechanically reproduced works of art in the context of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Specifically, I want to draw a focus on the developing roles of both film and television in an age of on-demand streaming and digital distribution. For this purpose, I will be analysing a series that has so far spanned an approximate twenty-five-year period, from its television pilot in 1990, to its revival as an “eighteen-hour film” in 2017.
I’ve been thinking recently about the concept of maturity and why it might be a good thing.
To put it one way, I’ve dated a lot of people I’d consider immature during recent encounters, and it’s been a stressful thing to deal with. It is, of course, difficult to define why this or that person might be “immature”. In some senses, it’s incorporeal. People just rub us the wrong way because they don’t act the way we think people should act. This can make things even more stressful.
But I think immaturity is something a little more defined than that.
Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) provides a rousing starting point for our thinking of the queer experience of discomfort. Writing on her time teaching at a New England college, Anzaldúa tells the story of how “a few lesbians threw the more conservative heterosexual students into a panic”. One of these students, she writes, claimed to have mistook the word “homophobia” for a “fear of going home after a residency”. She reflects on this: “But how apt. We’re afraid of being abandoned by the mother, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged. Most of us unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable aspect of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us”.
This fear of “total rejection” reveals the double irony implicit to familiar scenes of hospitality – that is, of the hostility that always undergirds hospitality as we know it. There is an etymological point to be made here as well: the word “hospitality”, coming from the Indo-European word ghosti, shares its roots with the term “hostile”. Ghosti, if it isn’t already immediately obvious, is also where we derive the word “ghost”. The queer ghost – the one that haunts Anzaldúa’s text – exists always at the juncture of this uncertainty. It might not be rejected, but it isn’t exactly welcome either.
In a recent article on Jezebel, the Eidolon editor Donna Zuckerberg discussed the rise of the notorious hate movement now known as the “alt-right”. On the issue of tackling online abuse, she argued that “[t]he only way to understand the alt-right is to [stop] thinking of it as a single monolithic entity and realize that it is a fragile coalition of hateful ideologies, of deplorable men using the internet to perform white masculinity by playacting as Nazis to feed on our fear”.
The spectre of the alt-right has been the focus of many left-leaning and progressive interventions throughout the past year. It is both everywhere and nowhere at once, permeating all aspects of western culture while also establishing no firm or actual political identity. Zuckerberg writes that one of the problems of the movement is that it can appear formless and “hard to pin down”. At the same time, however, she insists that “its lack of a coherent and stable ideology is also a tremendous weakness, fomenting internal friction within the community, and may lead to it splintering completely”. What does it mean to embody a contradiction of such tremendous scale that it can be both a source of strength as well as the cause of one’s undoing? More importantly, how can we place this paradox in the context of the very real consequences of its normativisation, including racist attacks, policy-making and public discourse?
The French novelist Cyril Collard was well known for his unapologetic depictions of bisexuality in art and literature. One of my favourite examples – and perhaps his most challenging – is his 1989 novel, Les Nuits Fauves.
I will here refer to English translation of the novel – released as “Savage Nights” in the United Kingdom – as a way of addressing the main arcs and characters of the story. If possible, I would recommend picking up the original French version for any closer textual analyses. It should also be noted that Les Nuits Fauves comes in a long line of successful French novels published on the subject of the AIDS crisis throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s (once popularised by efforts to push and publish “marginal” writers in France and then later canonised as novel-writing under the umbrella genre “sida-roman”).
The psychologist Paul Verhaeghe once described the effects of neoliberal capitalism as having fostered a “relentless pressure to achieve”. I think this is a useful way to begin formulating a critique of our attitudes towards work and responsibility, especially given the recent and ongoing attacks poor and vulnerable non-workers in the United Kingdom.
Writing for the Guardian, Verhaeghe commented that the idea of a meritocracy in today’s economy has led many to “believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual”. In this way, he claims, the individual worker becomes a “perfectible individual” – someone’s whose worth can always be improved upon through hard work and self-discipline. Such an attitude means that many now also feel they “fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed” in their everyday working lives.
On August 14th 2014, less than a month after the choking death of Eric Garner in police custody and just a few days following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, there was a National Moment of Silence to commemorate the fatal victims of police shootings and police brutality across the United States.
Among the thousands that took part in the event, an organiser named Chanelle Batiste arranged for a vigil to take place in the majority black city of New Orleans at Lafayette Square, where she projected her voice to a crowd of over one hundred people gathered in memory of local names such as Robert Davis and Henry Glover. As she raised both hands in the air, she asked attendees to take part in performing the “Don’t Shoot” pose – a gesture that had become symbolic of Michael Brown’s plea for mercy just moments before he was fatally shot on suspicion of stealing cigarillos.