Friday, May 27, 2011

All Watched Over By Machines - Adam Curtiz, BBC2 documentary

The televisual essayist and social documentarian and Adam Curtis has just slipped out another fascinating series on BBC2. If the first episode 'Love and Power' is anything to go by, it's going to be a great ride. Curtis has a knack of weaving together the big picture of history with the personal struggles of those who made it. To aid him he also infuses some subtle popular music cues, such as Kraftwerk, on the soundtrack.

In this episode Curtis explores Ayn Rand's role as the seismic catalyst to a wave of thinking that propelled the Republican notions of a society made up of independent "free" individuals. Inspired by Rand, Silicone Valley entrepreneurs led to a rush to promote new businesses on the back of a utopian vision of computer-based free market abundance. Yet their social dreams ignored the economic realities of unsound growth and over-reaching national debt. More personally, Curtiz contrasts Rand's unforgiving, Darwinian view of love with her own moribund love life and failed affair with the psychologist Nathaniel Branden. After he finished with her, apparently Rand angrily accused Branden of betrayal. At the end of her life, to her TV interviewer the supposedly loveless free marketeer repeated the cold, steely words of a ferociously self-willed Greek philosopher: "I will not die - it's the world that will end."

One of the most interesting points in the whole episode (7:30 in on the clip) is when we hear the disillusioned words of 1990s online poster Carmen Hermosillo. Her claims are even more prescient to the age of web 2.0 social media as they belie liberal notions of the active audience. We work for capital now, as Hermosillo made clear over a decade ago, even when we don't realize it:

It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge their individuality. This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online, and I did so my self until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product that has a money value. In the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories by workers, who were mostly exploited, but I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board that I was posting to, like Compuserve or AOL. That commodity was then sold on to other consumer entities as entertainment.

Cyberspace is a black hole. It absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as an emotional spectacle. It is done by businesses that commodify human interaction and emotion, and we are getting lost in the spectacle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I Have Admired You for Many Years": Fandom and the Performance of Identity

Why fans of different celebrities behave in such similar ways? The 1999 documentary feature film A Conversation with Gregory Peck contained footage of the classic screen icon’s retirement tour of America. For much of the film, Peck recounts tales from his working life as an actor to live audiences of his now-middle aged fans. One woman that came all the way from England finally manages to meet her Hollywood icon backstage. The result is a loving exchange that can be found at about 7:13 within the above Youtube clip...
  • Gregory Peck: Hello there. You came all the way from London for this evening, did you now?
  • Peck fan: Absolutely. I’m speechless – I don’t know quite what to say.
  • Gregory Peck: So tell me about yourself?
  • Peck fan: Well, I’ve admired you for many years. I wanted to see for myself whether you really are what you appear to be on screen.
  • Peck: Umm.
  • Peck fan: Tonight has proved to me that you are what you appear to be.
  • Gregory Peck (chuckling): Well I hope so. I hope it isn’t a put on for all these years.
  • Peck fan: No. That’s what I wanted to find out for myself. I thought, “The hell with it: I’m going to blow all my savings and I’m going to going to come here and see for myself what you are like.” And I’m so glad I did; it’s been the experience of a lifetime.
  • Gregory Peck (shaking hands): God bless you. Thank you for coming.
... What is evident from the conversation is how the power relation between star and fan eclipses to the fan’s other senses of personal and social identity for the specific purpose of the forwarding her role in the exchange.

While their encounter was obviously selected by the camera crew and chosen by the editor for inclusion, it is evidently more than the sort of shallow critique of fandom that might have been concocted by some media hack. The female fan is not young, crazy, screaming or hysterical. Uncharitable commentators might lament her "dumb enthusiasm" as evidence of a lack in her life, psychology or worldview. However, to approach this star-fan exchange like that is both disrespectful, reductionist and myopic. Nevertheless, Peck's British admirer is not quite the kind of "active audience" rescued by the last two decades of cultural study, at least from what we can see here. Although she may well pursue the various strategies, tactics and practices outline by Henry Jenkins et al, rather than "textual poaching" Gregory Peck's fan here is placing herself as a fan - colluding with her aging idol to get the most she can out of the encounter. She does not want to treat Peck on equal terms. She does not want to discuss the details of her life with him. Instead she wants to represent herself as a fan, to perform her identity in such a way that Peck acknowledges her fandom itself as form of dedication and commitment. In this sense Peck and his fan are colluding; sharing different sides of a unequal but consented social relationship to unlock its potential power.

As a fan, Peck's admirer's quest began in seeing something in his screen image (creativity, a fragment of an ideal identity, something that was innately for her) and has then gone on a mission to verify its reality. Of course her version of his screen image may be a unique personal construction. We do not know how differently or similar it is from that of other fans, or how her perspective on Peck's image compares to the ideas of Peck might hold about himself on screen. Indeed, while themes, perceptions and interpretations might be shared, Peck's image - like any other star image - is inherently unstable as shared social phenonemon.

Fan studies needs to start asking how we can theorize fandom as a set of power relations while recognizing the agency and humanity of all participants. While active audience theory has represented an advance in that area, there is still an undiscovered continent here, a territory marked out by the role-based collaborations between stars and their followers - collaborations that circulate the power of the stardom even as they reinforce its premise.

In the Shadow of Your Rattan Cane - On Modern Times (1936)

Here is your pop quiz challenge for the day... What have the following people got in common: Nat King Cole, his daughter Natalie, Rod Stewart, Barbara Streisand, Petula Clark, the late great Michael Jackson and cast of Glee? They all recorded a song that had its melody written as film sound track material by Charlie Chaplin. The heart-rendingly mawkish, bitter sweet 'Smile' gradually became an American songbook classic after Nat King Cole added his vocal to its 1954. Chaplin's feature film Modern Times had first appeared nearly two decades earlier, but it was not until the fifties that John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added their lyrics.

Modern Times itself is a classic of the modern era that found Chaplin in an ebullient mood, reprizing his role as the tragi-comic tramp for one last time and suffering at the hands of production line industry in the Great Depression. In some ways the film is a lacerating critique of modernity, with its breakneck pace, urban stress, poor working conditions and potential for accident and mental illness. Modernity, in Chaplin's day, evidently treated humanity with inhuman disrespect. The tramp waltzes through an industrial landscape and continually rejects its demands for responsibility and caution, only to fall victim to its soul-destroying consequences.

With his great and graceful slapstick art honed to its peak, Chaplin could remain in character as a mischievous child, a figure of anarchy in the midst of absurd automation (exemplified by the time-saving machine that finally goes beserk trying to feed him) and extreme poverty (the collapsing shack where he dines with his equally insane street urchin sweetheart). The couple are even punished for their dreams of conspicuous consumption. It's here that we can see the connection to Michael Jackson's image as a Peter Pan character whose tender heart highlights the injustices of modern, adult society.

In satirizing the worst of modern industrial capitalism from within, it is hardly surprizing that Chaplin was also a contested figure, a pop culture icon dismissed by the likes of Thedor Adorno for exemplifying how the culture industry had perverted the possibility of social critique. When Chaplin came to Paris in 1952 to promote his film Limelight, an angry Lettrist International leaflet announced:

"Because you’ve identified yourself with the weak... and the oppressed, to attack you has been to attack the weak and the oppressed - but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could already see the nightstick of a cop... but for us, the young and beautiful, the only answer to suffering is revolution... Go to sleep, you fascist insect... Go home Mister Chaplin."

Of course Chaplin's emotive spectacle did not start any mass revolution any more than the Lettrist's fulminating leaflet. Each form of critique was at the mercy of wider social currents that decided the fate of history. From a perspective that puts both in the past, I love the Lettrist's belligerent rhetoric almost as much as the tramp's graceful on-screen performance... I'm looking hard to see a night stick that history has slipped back behind the shadow of his rattan cane.

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