First Response: ‘Tao Te Ching’

I first became interested in Taoism after reading Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. This book, first published in 1982, brings together A. A Milne’s classic children’s book character Winnie the Pooh with the ancient philosophy of Taoism. It explores the ways in which these texts talk to and illuminate one another despite being produced in different veins, centuries apart. It is an excellent, funny and poignant introduction to Taoism (and Winnie the Pooh for that matter) which I highly recommend. It led me to pick up the original text that informs Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is the world’s second-most widely translated book after the Bible and which accompanied me around New Zealand in April of this year.

The ‘Tao’ is often translated into English as ‘The Way’ and ‘Tao Te Ching’ translates roughly as ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’.[1] The book is a Derridean dream: the combination of contradictions and paradoxes within the text’s ‘teachings’ combined with the aphoristic structure of its 81 chapters points to the instability and consequent inability of language to successfully explain what the Tao is and how it manifests. For example, we are woven into a big knot with aphorisms like number 71:

‘Knowing ignorance is strength,

Ignoring knowledge is sickness

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick

The wise are not sick, because they are sick of sickness

Therefore they are not sick’.[2]

Sick is repeated so many times here that it’s easy to lose track of what we originally interpreted as sickness. Indeed, the aphorism is a befuddlement of sickness that does not present much in the way of resolution: does being sick of sickness refer to another kind of sickness or not? But what does this matter anyway when this state of being (being sick of sickness) results in the wise not being sick. In this vein, we can see that the book is humorous, frustrating and whilst conveying wisdom, knowingly withholds comprehensive understanding all the way throughout, reminding us that ‘the truth often sounds paradoxical’ (aphorism 78). It playfully reminds us of language’s limitation as an arbitrary system of signs that constantly constructs and deconstructs. It also introduces us to the concepts of ‘wu wei’ (‘non action’), ‘pu’ (‘the uncarved block’: a metaphor for the natural spontaneity and state of being), yin and yang, and makes political observations about war, weapons and leadership. I would argue that there is definitely room here to draw in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for comparison, but that might have to be another post for another time.

Some of the concepts raised are initially quite jarring from our Western ideological standpoint, for example ‘non action’. This idea is brought up throughout the text:

‘Open your mouth,

Always be busy,

And life is beyond hope’ (aphorism 55).[3]

 

‘Practice non-action.

Work without doing’ (aphorism 63).[4]

 

‘Those who act defeat their own purpose;

Those who grasp lose.

The wise do not act and so are not defeated.

They do not grasp and therefore do not lose’ (aphorism 64).[5]

In a world where injustice abounds, it is difficult to accept that non-action is the right course of action. Whether it’s those currently suffering at the hands of tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, the election of men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power when they have been widely accused of sexual assault, the massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the world’s poorest losing their homes and farms to rising sea levels when they have contributed the least to levels of carbon in the atmosphere etc. is non-action the best way of protecting and helping those in need? To fight tyranny, care for our environment and spread love and understanding, we must act, we must ‘do’.

The Tao Te Ching, however, deals in paradox and not absolutes. In aphorism 37, we are told:

‘Tao abides in non-action,

Yet nothing is left undone.

If those in power observed this,

The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

If they still desired to act,

They would simply return to the simplicity of formless substance,

Without form there is no desire.

Without desire there is tranquility.

And in this way all things would be at peace’.[6]

Here we can see that non-action does not necessarily equate to a sense of inertia or apathy; rather non-action begets action. The ‘ten thousand things’ refers here to the cosmic power of the Universe, the source from which life on Earth manifests and what we attempt to return to through meditation and inner work beyond the thrashings of ego in life. Non-action, therefore, is so much more than not doing; it is about finding harmony in the bigger, more mysterious picture of the unfolding universe, by which we find a sense of belonging, purpose and direction. As Jacob Needleman observes in the introduction to the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English text, conscious receiving and acceptance of the universe is an opening, rather than a doing.[7] Through non-action, we transcend the moralistic trappings of Earth-bound ego and return to something more powerful, connected and spiritual. More specifically, the idea laid bare in aphorism 37 is that if leaders attempted to cultivate and acceptance of flexibility, changeability and uncertainty, all the things that effectively characterise the Universe, this would permeate all of society and we would live in a more accepting and serene world. Unfortunately, we see too much ‘action’ in the form of exclusionary politics, rampant capitalism, war, environmental destruction; all of which distract us and prohibit us from collectively finding peace and oneness.

The Tao Te Ching is a mind and spirit-expanding text that comes to us in the guise of a short, digestible read. It is a disorientating text that offers with obscurity, humility and wit, a significant challenge to a great many of our Western orthodoxies. I get the impression that the more often this text is read, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from it. For many, spirituality and connection with the universe may seem like something fantastical, cheesy, ‘unscientific’ and something dreamed up by hippies; however, I am coming to believe that with the world in such a shit state as it is, it is perhaps only by understanding ourselves and the deep connection we have to the world and the other people within it that we have a hope in hell of finding peace. We cannot underestimate the impact we have on others in every moment of every day. The Tao Te Ching, as with any other text that deals with a form of mysticism, is effectively a guide, an inscription of ancient wisdom and knowledge. It offers us something more than the cynical two dimensional social structures, hierarchies and politics that we are accustomed to and largely disillusioned with today: a perspective on the perennial questions of who we are, where we are and how we can understand the world around us.

 

[1] As with all works in translation, we have to be careful of the numerous potential discrepancies in the translators’ interpretation of the text and how this may impact our own reading of it. I opted for the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English revised translation (first published in 1972, revised in 2011) because they collaborated to honour the simplicity and clarity of the Classical Chinese whilst making the text accessible for Western readers.

[2]Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu trans. Gia-Fu Fung and Jane English with Toinette Lippe (Vintage Books: New York, 2011), p.74.

[3] Ibid., p.58.

[4] Ibid., p.66.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Ibid., p.xxi.

Leaving Facebook

Facebook has become something of a monolith since its inception in 2004, and stands as one of the biggest hallmarks and influencers of 21st century culture. The sheer volume of people registered to Facebook (2.2 billion in January 2018) has meant that it has demanded cultural and critical attention. For a long time, however, this was quite severely lacking. This is partly because Facebook evolved and grew faster than it took for us to collectively understand what it was doing, but also, perhaps, because it was mythologised in films like The Social Network. This focused our attention on the melodrama of Facebook’s turbulent founding and not how it explicitly came to affect its users’ daily lives.[1]

We are getting a better sense of this now. The list of breaches and indiscretions with which Facebook has been involved is building into an unsavoury rubbish heap: hate speech and uncensored violent content is uploaded and left unchallenged by Facebook’s moderators; democracy has been undermined with the prolific use of ‘fake news’ campaigns being employed on the platform during elections worldwide (including the 2016 EU Referendum and the US Presidential election); personal data was harvested and used by Cambridge Analytica to implement targeted electoral campaigns without user permission; the use of algorithms to ‘personalise’ the experience of using Facebook has created echo chambers that reduce the diversity of content, thus stifling debate and difference[2]; and last year in the UK, Facebook recorded revenues of £842.4m but only paid £5.1m in corporation tax, opting to route revenues through Ireland where the rate of corporation tax is significantly lower.[3]

It is important to recognise that very rarely have Facebook actually broken any laws, bar the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, for which they have been fined £500,000 by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).[4] Many of these indiscretions fall into murky territory that, whilst ethically questionable, do not come against any legal roadblocks. This is because they are largely editorial decisions and actions taken by the senior executives at the company, imparting policies and practices that develop and evolve beyond law-makers’ abilities to interrogate and keep up with them. As a result, some might argue that users should take more responsibility for engaging with Facebook: that they should build a greater understanding and awareness of user algorithms and limit the amount of data they share. I would argue, however, that users are woefully under-informed about the mechanisms behind Facebook. Collectively, we have limited critical capabilities to pin down and analyse something that changes so frequently, bogs its own privacy policy down in heavy, technical jargon and has been actively complicit in giving user’s data away regardless of said ‘privacy’ policy. As Virginia Heffernan writes in Wired: ‘Nothing about Facebook is intrinsically organized or self-regulating. Its terms of service change fitfully, as do its revenue centres and the ratio of machine learning to principled human stewardship in making its wheels turn’.[5] She implies that it is difficult for users to take responsibility for their use of Facebook when the people controlling it place the platform in a permanent state of flux, barely taking responsibility for any of the changes themselves. Facebook’s questionable mechanisms seem to be kept obscure until they become glaringly obvious, by which time users are playing catch up with the various data and privacy difficulties that they find themselves in. Again, Facebook aren’t doing anything illegal with their practices, but the moral implications of how they treat billions of people is becoming increasingly sour. No wonder we’ve seen desperate saccharine Facebook adverts appearing on TVs and billboards in the past couple of months promising to re-build trust with their users, in attempt to recover their damaged reputation.

Things get even murkier when we acknowledge that we are currently witnessing the unfolding of an enormous mental health crisis that is, in many ways, being fuelled by social media platforms like Facebook.[6] Indeed, the head of the NHS in England has stated that ‘there is emerging evidence of a link between semi-addictive and manipulative online activities and mental health pressures on our teenagers and young people’ on social media sites like Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram.[7] He urged social media companies to ‘take responsibility’ for the way in which their platforms cultivate anxiety and depression in the people who use them, in particular young adults. Again, Facebook has not broken any law in developing a user experience that encourages people to compare themselves to others, cultivates FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), establishes unrealistic standards of happiness and perfection, and reinforces compulsive posting with likes and shares. However, when we see mental illness becoming an increasingly dangerous, pervasive and normal condition that 1 in 4 people suffer from at any one time, and we know that social media use contributes enormously to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and isolation, Facebook has to start being accountable for what it gives to the world.[8]

Facebook

In light of all of this, I come to myself. I rarely write blog posts about my personal life; however, seeing as so much of my personal data is in the hands of those who seek to make it public both with and without my permission, it seems fitting that my break-up with Facebook is similarly public. I am aware that none of this is anyone’s business other than my own and that I am most probably indulging my tendency to be over-the-top, but here it is anyway. In writing this, I do not want to self-righteously judge anyone else’s opinions about or use of Facebook. I know that for many people, Facebook isn’t really a big deal and they use it proactively with a good amount of emotional distance, which is more than OK. In the words of my favourite yogi Adriene Mishler, it’s important to ‘find what feels good’ and try to live the kind of life that you want to live: I’m working out how best to do me.

In November 2007, I was 15 years old and fresh from a school Classics trip to Rome and Sorrento. The trip was great because I met lots of really nice people, ruins are cool and we had lots of hilarious adventures. Afterwards, I joined Facebook so that we could all share our photos. In the ten years since then, Facebook joined me during my GCSEs, A-Levels, my undergraduate degree, my Masters and on my first years in the world of full-time work. I still cannot believe that I have spent a whole decade of my life logging onto Facebook. It was the site of an ex-boyfriend asking me out (I know) and then dumping me a year later (I KNOW); used as a rudimentary marketing platform for various plays I performed in, magazines I worked for and blogs I wrote for; a place where my post-adolescent identity crisis played out in the form of taking and sharing every Buzzfeed quiz possible; it helped me to engage with the wave of inspirational intersectional feminism that swept into my life aged 19 and has empowered me ever since; it was where I engaged with the resurgent socialism of British politics in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; and I used it to full effect when I published my first novel, Tender is the Gelignite. I bloody loved Facebook.

Now, I have decided to leave Facebook. I am leaving Facebook for a combination of reasons, most of which I discussed at the beginning of this post. I think of myself as someone who tries to the best of their ability to make informed, conscious decisions about how I spend my time, in everything I think and do. I no longer want to support a site that purports to be a platform for sharing and collectivism when it undercuts basic freedoms to democracy and contentment with life. Capitalism, with the way in which it isolates and alienates us from ourselves and each other, leaves a big vacuum for connection. It does not surprise me that billions of people use Facebook in an attempt to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. In many ways, it is the new opiate of the masses: simultaneously a reflection of people’s lives and an illusion by which people live. It is constructed, under the guise of being a communal space, to distract us from taking care of ourselves, which is ultimately the work we need to do if we are to live our content imperfect lives and be of help and support to others.

I am also becoming increasingly aware of the insidious way that social media use can affect the way in which our brains function. This is not only with regards to mental health but with the way in which our neural pathways are affected by Facebook’s carefully constructed mechanics. Very recently, I listened to a podcast from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s series ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ entitled ‘Silicon Valley Serfs: protecting kids from tech overload’. It is an excellent episode, featuring the amazingly eloquent Baroness Beeban Kidron and Dr Richard Graham, which does well to veer away from a frantic reactionary view that all technology is harmful. It does, however, acknowledge the large impact that social media use has on children’s social and neural development. I couldn’t help identifying with many of the things they were discussing, largely because when I first started using Facebook I was still effectively a child. After a solid ten years of use, how much has Facebook potentially affected the way in which I think, perceive and respond to the world around me and the people in it?

In particular, I am concerned with the neural responses and ‘highs’ from having my posts and photos, and by extension myself, being validated with likes. In 2017, Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, discussed the ‘social-validation feedback loop’ that Facebook’s developers helped to create with the ‘like’ button, which acts as a little ‘dopamine hit’.[9] This dopamine hit, a boost in positivity, encourages users to upload more to their wall/timeline, thus stimulating a potentially addictive or compulsive set of behaviours. It is for this reason that users who have taken a break from Facebook have reported symptoms of not only relief from the pressure of uploading, but also of withdrawal.

To be perfectly honest, I like getting ‘likes’. It feels nice. It feels like people care about what I say and what I do. However, it is falsely self-satisfying and damaging. I am sharing certain, predominantly positive things, to present myself in a certain way that isn’t 100% authentic. I have realised that in doing so, I don’t just get validation for whatever is happening in my life, I also get validation for the behaviour of sharing certain things that happen in my life in a certain way. I am someone who suffers from bouts of low self-esteem and it slightly terrifies me how much weight I have both consciously and unconsciously staked on people liking my posts. When I was younger, I definitely deleted posts that didn’t get much attention, I definitely compared the likes I got for photos with other people and I thought the number of ‘friends’ that I had on Facebook had some kind of bearing on how well-liked I was. It is not a healthy way to have lived and conducted myself for ten years and I am concerned about the way it will impact my thinking and self-worth going forward. Whilst I am more conscious of the way in which Facebook works now, and I have definitely distanced myself from the platform in recent years, it is time to take more definitive action.

Up until now, on a practical level, I have only been toying with the idea of leaving Facebook because there are a number of binds that are keeping me stuck. The first is that Facebook is an undoubtedly extremely convenient way to keep in touch with friends. Messenger is a good app and because phone numbers change so frequently, it is a very useful way to always have a means of communicating with people. The second bind is that whilst I know that it is politically problematic and probably damaging to my mental wellbeing, Facebook is a very good tool for sharing and marketing my work.

I have two solutions to this problem. If you want to stay in touch with me and don’t have my number, please message me in the near future and get my number! I also have an email address on my blog that you can use to contact me and I am on Twitter @E_S_Harper. At the moment, I find Twitter to be the least problematic social media platform that I use. I cannot say the same for Instagram, which I feel is just as problematic as Facebook, if not more so. I have been curtailing my use of that and going forward, will only use it in as professional a capacity as possible, to promote my writing, and to talk about other books, music, films and artworks that I like. I also have to admit that I have relied on Facebook to help track and remember special events like birthdays, which is great but also ridiculously lazy. If I’m going to be a responsible adult, I need to start taking this shit more seriously. You are all going in my diary.

Additionally, I have set up an author page called ‘Elizabeth Harper – Harping On’ that I would love people to like and subscribe to. I will be switching the admin rights to another Facebook account which will be virtually blank and with which I can post articles onto the author page. The author page will be my primary form of interaction so please do follow my updates there. I’m still very excited to write and share my work and I believe that this will be a much healthier way of doing so.

[1] I would go as far as to argue that The Social Network, released in 2010 and based on a book called The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich in 2009, was made far too soon after the founding of Facebook. I think it is hard to be comprehensively reflective about a major cultural development only 6 years after it first began, which is perhaps why they both focused heavily on the biographies of the individuals involved and not what Facebook actually did and meant. I look forward to future books, films, podcasts and other forms of media that will deliver a more thorough critique of Facebook and its cultural impact.

[2] ‘Facebook Said Its Algorithms Do Help Form Echo Chambers. And the Tech Press Missed It’, Huffington Post [accessed 14:50, 11th July 2018] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/zeynep-tufekci/facebook-algorithm-echo-chambers_b_7259916.html

[3] Facebook tax bill edges up to £5m in UK, The Financial Times [accessed 15:25, 11th July 2018] https://www.ft.com/content/67f9c34e-a909-11e7-93c5-648314d2c72c

[4] ‘Facebook fined for data breaches in Cambridge Analytica scandal’, The Guardian [accessed 15:21, 11th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/11/facebook-fined-for-data-breaches-in-cambridge-analytica-scandal

[5] ‘Who will take responsibility for Facebook?’, Wired [accessed 11:46, 12th July 2018] https://www.wired.com/story/mark-zuckerberg-who-will-take-responsibility-for-facebook-now/

[6] ‘A systematic review of the mental health outcomes associated with Facebook use’, Frost, R.L. and Rickwood, D.J., 2017, Computers in Human Behavior, 76, pp.576-600. [accessed 11:27, 12th July 2018] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217304685?_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_origin=gateway&_docanchor=&md5=b8429449ccfc9c30159a5f9aeaa92ffb#!

[7] ‘Facebook has young people in an ‘insidious grip’, warns head of NHS England’, The Daily Telegraph [accessed 15:17. 11th July 2018] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/08/facebook-has-young-people-insidious-grip-warns-head-nhs-england/

[8] https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/

[9] ‘Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’’, The Guardian [accessed 13th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/09/facebook-sean-parker-vulnerability-brain-psychology

#HandwrittenShakespeare – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

As a belated birthday present, I was taken to see an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s melodramatic yet fabulous Gothic ancestral pile in north Nottinghamshire. This play is one I am particularly familiar with, having first studied it at age 11, performed in it at 14 (Snout the Tinker for life), studied it again at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at university, and then having given a paper on it at a student conference.[1] An evening spent on a picnic mat with a bottle of plonk, watching the Chapterhouse Theatre Company performing such a lively interpretation of the play was gorgeous.

DSC_3032

Sitting in the audience of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me of a number of things. Primarily, that The Mechanicals pretty much steal the show every single time with their farcical production of ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’, a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written and performed in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[2] The Shakespeare geek in me just loves that these two plays sit alongside one another in the Shakespeare chronology: Romeo and Juliet is so elevated in our culture as the epitome of tragic romantic love, yet the next play that Shakespeare wrote effectively takes the piss out of it. It suggests that the tragic escalation of Romeo and Juliet should not be beyond comedy (there are many moments in the play that nod to the comic tradition of the carnival-esque) and that the meta-theatrical clap back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be underestimated or under-acknowledged.

The performance also reminded me that for all the cultural grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the big names treading the boards in West End productions, some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen have been the rabbly raucous ones; those productions that have been comprised of well-trained but little known actors, who truly capture the playfulness and humour of Shakespeare’s writing. It is often forgotten that Shakespeare plays were the 16th century’s chief forms of ‘low brow’ popular entertainment, and I love productions in the 21st century that are aware of this and attempt in some way to recapture that.[3]

Finally, I was reminded that alongside being funny and magical, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of moments that are steeped in poignancy, taking the play well beyond its cultural box of ‘fairy story cum romantic comedy’. One such moment came in the following lines delivered by Theseus, which I felt inclined to write out in full:

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 1

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 2

It is important to acknowledge first the racism implied in ‘Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’. This line suggests that people who are in love are so frantic in their minds, that they see beauty akin to that of famed, Classical beauteous woman Helen of Sparta/Troy in a face that is not to be thought of as beautiful. In a move that speaks volumes of the 16th century’s perception of non-white non-Europeans, Shakespeare opts to conflate ugliness with the facial characteristics of Egyptians; because as people of African heritage, they were not thought to conform to standards of Western beauty and physical perfection.[4] This is extremely problematic and as a result, and as much as I love Shakespeare and the rest of this quotation, we cannot let him off for explicit racism.

The specific line from Theseus’s little speech here that had me reaching for the Shakespeare Concordance after the play had finished was: ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’. [5] I was interested in the intertextual presentation of these three groups of people. This is because they are described as almost amorphous in Theseus’s discussion of the power of their collective imagination.[6] Imagination, he suggests, throws up images and distorts perceptions of reality with ‘frantic’ visions of ‘devils’, amongst other things. This culminates in the longer description of the poet, whose pen turns ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’. This suggests that what the poet accomplishes is the giving of life to what could have remained intangible and unreal, effectively a nothing. The irony of this is that the poet, like the lunatic and the lover, seemingly has no choice or control over their imagination. It is imagination that ‘bodies’ forth the forms of things unknown, which suggests that whilst thoughts and images are ‘nothings’, they are brought into language and expression through a corporeal being or experience.[7] This suggests that the imagination is something different and, perhaps, more complex and ambiguous than reason and rationality (‘Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’). It has the fluctuating, changeable nature of all bodies but also possesses the physical corporeality that grounds us all in life. As such, it is a powerful almost tangible thing that is fluid, changeable and very difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Shakespeare takes this further by emphasising in the last four lines how this powerful, bodily imagination can bring about both the greatest joy and greatest fear, what Theseus describes as the ‘tricks’ of strong imagination. A modern translation of ‘tricks’ would be that imagination is a manifestation of some kind of cognitive dissonance: it is so powerful that it effectively establishes a disjunction between what it perceives as real and what is actually real. When something joyous happens, imagination establishes something or someone in the mind that brings that unparalleled joy; out of fear, imagination would convince us that a mundane bush is a ferocious bear. As a result, we can see that imagination, in the way that it acts uncontrollably and almost independently of a rational self, can disorient and confuse.

Theseus’s example of the poet, lover and lunatic suggests that these three groups of people, as a collective, demonstrate this intense, two-pronged relationship with imagination. To have such an active imagination requires the mind to be performing at a certain level of creativity, which welcomes those who, inadvertently or otherwise, express themselves with words and love. Furthermore, an intense relationship with imagination might also feasibly be called an intense relationship with anxiety. T.S Eliot famously wrote that ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, and I think this could serve as a reading of Theseus’s speech here. Eliot suggests that creativity is accompanied and perhaps even enabled by the presence of anxiety; that expressions of writing and love walk hand-in-hand with what the 16th century would use rudimentarily describe as ‘lunacy’ or ‘madness’. I would add, in Theseus’s vein, that having an active imagination can be read here to be the greatest blessing when it comprehends and brings forth in a tangible bodily way great joy and positivity. In an equal and opposite way, however, imagination can also be the greatest burden and responsibility, when fear distorts our conception of the world around us and ourselves. It is entirely possible to argue that anxiety is the manifestation of creativity (and active bodily imagination) gone awry.

[1] Just in case you’re interested, I used Jean Baudrillard to explore Lysander’s seduction of Hermia through the use of figurative language, brought the concept of Bottom’s ‘translation’ into an ass into discussion with Jacques Derrida’s ‘On ‘Relevant’ translation’ and used my conference paper ‘Wastelands’ to compare Titania’s description of the changed and damaged seasons through her conflict with Oberon with T.S. Eliot’s war torn landscapes in part one of his poem The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

[2] The Beatles seemed to think so too. I love this very grainy footage of them performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg

[3] As well as the Chapterhouse Theatre Company, I refer to Filter’s absolutely hilarious production of Twelfth Night that I saw at HOME in Manchester, where members of the audience were encouraged to sing, clap, dance about and some brought onto the stage to drink tequila and play catch. We were all then jointly chastised by Malvolio for gabbling ‘like tinkers’ and for having ‘no respect of place, persons, nor time’. This line seemed all the more pertinent because the fourth wall separating the actors and the action from the audience had been completely comically demolished.

[4] I would like to show some awareness here that still today, people from non-white BAME backgrounds struggle to have their beauty, alongside their stories, perspectives, talents and intelligence, respected as much as those of white people. Whilst many BAME men and women have blazed trails for black beauty in fashion, music and film, popular culture is still slowly catching onto the fact that beauty encompasses more than skinny able-bodied white men and women.

[5] The Shakespeare Concordance is an excellent reference point for finding recurring words throughout Shakespeare’s plays. I searched for ‘poet’ in the Concordance when trying to find this specific line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/

[6]Before I continue, I think it’s important to say that I haven’t written about Shakespeare in a long time and never, I think, outside of an academic setting. Historically, I have been quite reluctant to talk about Shakespeare beyond an analytical or theoretical perspective, because I am highly sceptical of the value of reader response criticism. I have realised quite recently, however, how much I have missed throwing myself into the poetry, tensions and conversations all taking place within and between Shakespeare’s texts. I am hoping that in this new ‘Handwritten Shakespeare’ series that I want to bring to the ‘Creative’ section of Harping On that I can explore a new casual and therapeutic way of approaching Shakespeare: handwriting a quote I find interesting and then unpacking very briefly what is going on.

[7]  Thus also pointing to the idea that ‘nothing’ is always potentially ‘something’.

New Zealand: podcasts we listened to

I have come to the podcast game very late indeed. Friends have been recommending podcasts for years and years but I just never got involved. Whenever a cultural phenomenon or ‘thing’ has been hyped up and managed to pass you by, which for me also includes watching Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Breaking Bad and listening to any albums by The Arctic Monkeys, it’s hard to motivate yourself to get on the band wagon. Feminist friends and film buffs have linked me all sorts, yet I have remained a stick in the mud and never got round to listening to any of them. Apparently, however, it took the prospect of four 11 hour flights and six weeks of driving around New Zealand in a campervan to get me out of the gate. Armed with my recommendations and CastBox newly downloaded onto my phone, I sunk my teeth into the following shows:

My Dad Wrote a Porno

My Dad Wrote a Porno

I did not know what I was getting myself into with this podcast, except that it had caused the friend who recommended it to keel over with laughter whilst out on a run. It is potentially the weirdest concept ever: Jamie Morton reads out the erotic novel Belinda Blinked, written by his dad under the pseudonym ‘Rocky Flintstone’. Alice Levine and James Cooper critique, comment and cringe along as we are dragged through the absurdly lascivious world of Belinda Blumenthal, the sales director and sexual maven of Steele’s Pots and Pans. Any lingering Freudian weirdness- that of a son reading his dad’s erotic constructions- is soon eclipsed by the novel’s monumental and unintentional hilarity: it is unpredictable, graphic and glorious. Part erotic novel, part business manual, part prolonged plotless and syntactically challenged sexual insanity and part fake news in its explorations of the female anatomy (Peter Rouse did not grab Belinda by the cervix to pleasure her), Belinda Blinked had us hooked from the beginning. Even when vivid images of men in black thongs, breasts hanging like pomegranates and the most perverse tombola ever conceived left us feeling, quite frankly, nauseous, no journey across the South Island of New Zealand felt complete without finding out what madness was going to happen next. Driving, cooking and breathing were all compromised whilst listening to My Dad Wrote A Porno but it is certainly one of the most entertaining, if questionable, cultural productions I have decided to commit to.

Serial logo

Serial

About four episodes into Serial, we made the executive decision to stop listening to it. I have finished the podcast since returning to the UK, so I feel equipped to talk about it, but whilst in New Zealand, it had to be put aside. Listening to Serial was unsettling and jarring. On a surface level, hearing the gruesome details of the murder of Hae Min Lee was practically guaranteed to freak us out when we were camping alone in some secluded woods outside Rotorua. However, what unnerved me about Serial was not just the story that was being offered, but how it was being offered and why it was being offered at all.

Serial has been hailed as a cultural achievement for marrying investigative journalism with podcasting, bringing both to an enraptured mainstream audience. It has also been met with heavy criticism for its ethical ambivalence, using the murder of a young woman as entertainment and instigating listeners to turn into would-be detectives to pick holes in the court case against Adnan Syed. It is worth remembering that Hae Min Lee’s family have been extremely critical of the podcast in this regard, saying that ‘unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials – so many witnesses, so much evidence’, and for whom the whole experience of the case being resurrected through Serial has evidently been traumatising.[1] I think what is important about this quote, in addition to the enormous emotional distress that Lee’s family continues to experience, is the reference to all the witnesses and evidence that the family came into contact with. The problem with Serial is that so much of the information that viewers receive is secondary, so we are relying entirely on the honesty and integrity of Sarah Koenig to tell the story.

This becomes problematic when we know that Serial’s main intention is to entertain, not inform: Ira Glass, one of the producers of the show, described the aim of the podcast as: ‘We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving’.[2] The aim of the show was to create a compulsive listening experience, in the same vein as House of Cards, Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black and any of the other shows that are uploaded to be binged on. This means, therefore, that it has been constructed in a certain way to keep us involved and on edge: important details and evidence can potentially be withheld or strung out to help build tension; Koenig’s own doubts become our doubts because she is leading us through evidence that we have no access to; and with its cliff hangers and teasers, it certainly does leave you perversely wanting more. It was so unnerving to listen to because I didn’t trust the facts because Koenig didn’t trust them, but also because I didn’t trust Koenig. I kept asking myself why she was doing this, what was the whole point? We receive the story as secondary information, yet Koenig acknowledges herself in an episode called ‘Rumors’ that some of the calls she gets from the public after the podcast’s broadcast were secondary information, and so inherently untrustworthy. It begs the question: how much of the entire podcast is actually reliable?

The main argument in favour of Serial would be that it has helped advance Adnan Syed’s journey to overturn his conviction; giving a man who has always professed his innocence impetus and evidence to appeal, thanks to public exposure and interest in the inadequacies of his defence and the case made by the prosecution. The shortcomings of the American legal system are laid out for us and it’s only right that an innocent man shouldn’t be condemned to live his life behind bars. It’s hard to argue with this; however, my problem with Serial is, again, to do with its process. In my opinion, one of the most revealing moments was when right at the end, we learn that Syed writes a letter to Koenig from prison, outlining how the whole experience of talking to her has disrupted the emotional equilibrium he has established living his life in prison. He writes that he has become anxious and afraid of judgment, and he’s looking forward to the whole experience being over. If the argument is made that Serial has helped Syed in any way, close attention has to be paid to this letter. The podcast has been emotionally damaging for Hae Min Lee’s family to live with, but this moment suggests that it has been emotionally damaging for Adnan Syed too.

Serial is an interesting listening experience and I’m glad I returned to it once we were back in the UK. However, I think we have to be very careful with real life stories, in particular those involving murder, that we don’t just consume them for entertainment. In the aforementioned quote, Ira Glass describes the people involved as ‘characters’, even though they are not imaginative abstractions. They are real people who live with the reality of what happened in 1999 and with the reality of wannabe detectives attempting to work out their lives for them on the internet. We might think we know everything about this case as a result of listening to the podcast, but I think it is ultimately untrustworthy, and needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism.

The Guilty Feminist

The Guilty Feminist

There are many aspects of this podcast that I love. Not least, it has introduced me to absolutely hilarious female comics that I had somehow spent my whole life not knowing about, for example Dana Alexander, Bisha K Ali, Desiree Burch and Sindhu Vee. In addition, any show that invites Gemma Arterton as a guest to talk about sexism within the film industry is on the right track: that woman is a much underappreciated theatrical and feminist icon whom I have loved unwaveringly since her seminal performance as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Guilty Feminist is really great at making feminists feel better about our inconsistencies. In particular, the podcast provides a space for women to acknowledge that, against our better judgement, we can and do align ourselves with various sexist and patriarchal standards that we have been conditioned our entire lives to adhere to. In particular, this can revolve around the way we look, our expectations of men and how we perceive and judge other women. It is non-judgemental about this, making a point to laugh and make light of our ridiculous double standards. In doing so, the podcast encourages women to show the same empathy and compassion we hold for other women and their struggles, with our own internal contradictions and patriarchal anxieties. It is fun, funny and I’m not going to stop listening to it any time soon.

Perhaps my only criticism would be that at times, the podcast doesn’t want to be radical enough. I very much enjoy the focus it brings to women’s charities, youth campaigns, the burden of emotional labour etc. However, the outlook isn’t, at times, the transformational approach to feminism that I subscribe to. This manifests at times in the economic discussions that take place, which predominantly revolve around the pay gap. In one episode, entitled ‘It’s a Man’s World’, the argument was made that to help companies understand the value of women, feminists needs to adopt the language of economics to make our case of being ‘economically viable’ more convincing. I take issue with this because the language of economics is ultimately patriarchal. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be in a situation where women are generally paid less, are told that tampons are luxuries or suffer the most at the hands of austerity thanks to cuts to local services, childcare and crisis centres. Furthermore, whilst many women raise awareness of these issues through writing, speaking or on their political platforms, women seem to be consistently absent from the actual conversations and decision-making. If we were to use the language of economics to make ourselves more palatable to men, we would be using the language of patriarchy to get onto a better footing within the patriarchy. If we want to remove patriarchal structures, which extends to racial structures too, we need to change the language that props the entire system up.

Ultimately, however, the podcast is a great comforting and affirming endeavour. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect (and I definitely include myself in that) and this podcast strips these unachievable and unrealistic expectations away. I think both women and men will be all the better for listening and engaging with it.

I would like to thank Char Bender, Mark Beer and Jess Action for their excellent recommendations. I’m finally catching up with you guys.

[1] ‘Serial case: victim’s family offers rare statement before hearing resumes’ [accessed 12:59, 12th June 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/feb/07/serial-case-hae-min-lee-statement-adnan-syed-hearing-baltimore

[2]This American Life channels True Detective in popular new podcast’ [accessed 18:49, 14th June 2018] https://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/09/ira-glass-sarah-koenig-julie-snyder-serial-podcast-this-american-life/

In defence of ‘mother!’

WARNING: contains spoilers

Earlier this year, the infamous Razzie awards- the annual mock awards show that coincides with the Academy Awards- announced nominations for the year’s worst films. As per usual, and quite rightly so, there was space in the nominations for the likes of the Transformers, Fifty Shades and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. This list, however, also saw the questionable inclusion of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’, a film that is a far cry from the vapid, passable films it shares company with. The nominations the film received for Worst Film, Worst Actress, Worst Actor and Worst Director come off the back of a deluge of criticism that the film received upon its release. The Razzies as an awards show aren’t designed to be taken too seriously; but they indicate that an almost general consensus has been reached that this film is a pretentious, soupy shock-fest of little substance and poor performances.[1]  In tabloid magazines, such as Grazia, Jennifer Lawrence has been ordained with a certified career blip because the film did not reach the box office heights she is used to with the likes of The Hunger Games and X-Men. In addition, the relationship between Lawrence and Aronofsky, which developed and then fell apart after filming, also became offal for the entertainment press. [2] In the meantime, ‘mother!’ was downplayed and over looked by critics, awards bodies and guilds, with the challenging issues that the film raises seemingly ignored.

This is not the first time that a dark, challenging female-centric film has failed to be acknowledged by the cultural establishment, for example Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton, or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac led by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. Some might argue that we don’t need to worry about this, because the likes of the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes aren’t necessarily worth respecting as they are so ‘weirdly subjective’ anyway, in the words of Cate Blanchett. These awards bodies only acknowledge films released at a specific time of the year, and only seem to celebrate films that reaffirm the Hollywood, film-making dream, rather than challenge it: see the recent successes of Argo, The Artist, La La Land, Birdman etc. Yet, when complex films about women are in such short supply, it is frustrating that brutal, stonking, belters of films are pushed to the fringes of small arthouse cinemas. Where are the column inches for Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey or Sean Baker’s The Florida Project? I am not arguing that ‘mother!’ needs to be universally liked. The fact that it has managed to both enthral and revile audiences is, in my opinion, much to its credit; any film that rattles people to a state of unrest on either end of the enjoyment spectrum suggests that it is worth paying attention to. However, I would like to make the case that far from being the shambles that many critics and commentators would have us think, ‘mother!’ was one of the best films last year, shockingly timely and, in the opinion of Mark Kermode, a film that will ‘impress’ the further away you get from the initial ‘oppressive’ experience of viewing it.[3]

mother!’ offers so many different readings, but I think the most significant is the film’s critique of the concept of the female muse. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, ‘Mother’, is constantly referred to as the ‘inspiration’ for ‘Him’, Javier Bardem’s egocentric writer. This is because her time is consumed with nurturing their house and home. She is referred to as ‘inspiration’ again by ‘Him’s’ publicist, the ‘Herald’ played brilliantly by Kristen Wiig, and then by the multitude of people who come into their house before all hell breaks loose. I argue that it’s the treatment of ‘Mother’ as this symbolic, abstract figure that enables the violence brought upon her by everyone in the house. The arguably mild micro-aggression displayed by ‘Him’ at the beginning of the film, such as his constantly inviting all and sundry into their home, not listening to ‘Mother’ and making a mess and expecting ‘Mother’ to clean it all up, paves the way for others to do so, and worse. This manifests when ‘Him’ and his ‘guests’ ignore her, in particular when two slam themselves repeatedly on the sink and rip it off the wall and when strangers begin to paint her walls a different colour; when a male stranger propositions ‘Mother’, he refuses to take no for an answer then calls her a ‘cunt’(a scene practically lifted from the Everyday Sexism blog or the Bye Felipe Instagram account); and when the braying crowd, who have killed her baby, start to violently beat her up and only stop when ‘Him’ tells them to. The idea of a woman serving passively as ‘inspiration’, as a beautiful muse, feeds the idea that women, particularly when confined to a domestic space, do not have subjectivity. Instead, they are vessels and symbols for men to fetishize in the name of creativity. It is the denial of a whole, complex personhood that results in a woman becoming a patriarchal doormat. Not being listened to may seem like a simple annoyance, but the more people ignore her, the more danger ‘Mother’ is in. She is drowned out by the throngs of people who invade the home, before being owned, used and abused by them all. The ringleader appears in the form of ‘Him’.

Nowhere is this seen better than when ‘Mother’ is breastfeeding her newborn son in a boarded up room that keeps the intruding guests out. In a film of claustrophobic close-ups, the shots of ‘Mother’ and her suckling baby feel softer, calmer and intimate whilst the bond between mother and child begins to strengthen. All the while, however, ‘Him’ looms in the background, watching them unblinking, unflinching, determined to show the child off to a hallway teeming with his ‘guests’. He does not care that ‘Mother’ has only just given birth, he does not care that she wants to keep the child safe and out of sight, he does not care that she wants to nourish and sustain him; he only wants to feed his own ego and vanity. In the end, he waits and watches with frightening menace, taking his opportunity to take the child from her when she inadvertently falls asleep. His entitlement can only come from viewing his wife as unequal to him: she is at times revered as a vague yet divine source of inspiration, but this also makes her vulnerable to whatever violent and aggressive whims and desires he is able to act upon her and her body.

mother-2017-005-jennifer-lawrence-hands-wall

As a result, ‘mother! is an explicit warning of the danger posed to women who are reduced to an abstract, symbolic concept instead of respected as multi-faceted, interior beings with their own thoughts, ideas and desires. The ‘muse’ figure is essentially a dehumanised figure and the consequences for the woman, as shown in this film, are nightmarish. The final twist of the knife comes at the end of the film, where the narrative circles back to its opening scene. Instead, however, of Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Mother’, calling ‘Baby?’ to ‘Him’, it’s a new incarnation of a different woman in the exact same position. It suggests that this whole torturous experience is undeniably about to happen all over again. It would appear that men like ‘Him’ always have a second chance, they are redeemable. Women, on the other hand, do not have this privilege, but are merely inspirational fodder to be exploited again and again, one after the other from the patriarchal conveyer belt. Of all the characters in the film, the one who seems to understand this the most is the scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson’s ‘Oldest Son’. In a frantic scene, ‘Oldest Son’ kills his younger brother in a fit of rage because he doesn’t believe that anyone in his family genuinely loves or values him, asking ‘Mother’ if she understands.  Later on, he returns to ‘Mother’ alone in the house and tells her, ‘You do understand. Good luck’.[4] This tense, quiet scene foreshadows all of the horror to come and the ‘luck’ ‘Mother’ will need to navigate through it. Additionally, it is immediately of no comfort that ‘Him’ appears to enfold ‘Mother’ in his arms; she is undoubtedly within the belly of the beast, deep in the clutches of her abuser.

domhnall gleeson

Whilst the film’s violence has been condemned by many, it is the rejection of a woman as a dispensable image to inspire men that feels so timely. Within Western art, women have all too often played the role of a figurative muse for men, with horrible consequences for their emotional wellbeing. You just have to look to the experiences of Elizabeth Siddal, Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Amelie Gautreau and Uma Thurman, who all suffered from the acute power imbalance at play with the men who ‘revered’ them and for whom they provided some sort of ‘inspiration’. Importantly, this film marginally pre-dates the allegations reported against Harvey Weinstein, and the increased, renewed scrutiny of men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, Louis CK and many others who work in the creative industries and have allegedly abused women. With the subsequent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that have flourished in the wake of these allegations, the production of art will undeniably have to change. Women can no longer be used as mere muses and inspirations for writers and directors. What is ironic, however, is that such a reading of progressiveness can be taken from ‘mother!’ when Darren Aronofsky has come under criticism for his allegedly manipulative and ‘abusive’ practices: his direction triggered a well-documented panic attack from Lawrence during the process of filming, he banned bottled water from the set of Noah (2014)which led to Emma Watson falling ill, something he recommended she should ‘use for the scene’, and allegedly separated Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to play them off one another during the filming of Black Swan (2010).[5] It is wildly frustrating that a film that critiques the patriarchal disposal of women in the name of creativity, is allegedly practised by the film’s very director.

It is also as a result of this that we have to be careful about completely embracing the film’s apparent environmental agenda. Aronofsky said himself ‘I want to make a film about Mother Nature. I wanted to make a film from her perspective’, and it is an interpretation that has been picked up by Mark Kermode and Naomi Klein. [6] Aronofsky believes he has made a film that presents ‘Mother Nature’, through allegory, suffering the horrors that human beings reap on the natural world, i.e. her. Whilst I am in favour of more texts that critique environmental destruction, climate change and take aim at the over consumption of selfish, ignorant human beings, using the figure of ‘Mother Nature’ to do this is unhelpful and dangerous. ‘Mother Nature’ is perhaps the most mythologised, idealised version of femininity ever thought up. She is a ‘mother’, she ‘brings life’ and she is ‘cruel’, all stereotypes constructed about/for women that are projected onto the natural world. ‘Mother Nature’ is, ultimately, a vacant, arbitrary symbol, representing bags of patriarchal dogma and we need to be critical of that. What is frustrating is that reading the Earth as a woman feeds into the problematic negation of subjectivity that the film does so well to portray. Indeed, focusing on a figurative ‘Mother Nature’ undercuts all the work ‘mother!’ does to critique the presentation of women as abstraction. It is so ironic yet, perhaps, unsurprising that Aronofsky, given his dodgy history of abusive practice towards his actresses and partners, encourages us to think of Earth embodied as a woman. This should serve as an enormous reminder to us that we must not limit our interpretations of texts to whatever the writer/director may or may not have intended.

In its presentation of the danger posed to female muses, ‘mother!’ is radical and unflinching. Art, in all its forms, is barbaric if it is leeched from or comes at the expense of the subjectivity and personhood of those close to the artist. Importantly, Aronofsky is not exempt from this and we must approach his diagnosis of his film as about ‘Mother Nature’ with a large, healthy amount of critical scepticism and a copy of Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’. Nevertheless, ‘mother!’ is an important film because it does so much to highlight that this construct of the ‘female muse’ is a dehumanising, unsustainable abuse of power. It is a performative, disorientating film that bombards the senses with unrelenting noise and visual horror, but that does not mean that it is a mess that lacks any political awareness. I would encourage as many people as possible to steel up some nerves, get a bottle of gin ready for the credits and watch this film. It deserves to be given some critical attention because its presentation of gendered power imbalance in art is so unfettered, so immersive and so appropriate in this era of #TimesUp. It reminds us that film should not just be reassuring, escapism; we need films that challenge us, hold up a mirror to the dynamics at play in the world around us and to give us the impetus to ask one of the most important questions of all: ‘what are we going to do about it?’.

[1] ‘Film Review: mother! is a pretentious mess’ http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170914-film-review-mother-is-a-pretentious-mess

[2] ‘Jennifer Lawrence set to end things with Darren Aronofsky?’, Grazia, https://graziadaily.co.uk/celebrity/news/jennifer-lawrence-set-end-things-darren-aronofsky/

[3] Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio Five Live http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05g6x9d

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vhra0KrIfs [accessed 28th May 2018].

[5] ‘Why Do We Let “Genius” Directors Get Away With Abusive Behavior?’, https://www.buzzfeed.com/imransiddiquee/hollywood-abusive-auteur-problem?utm_term=.bj3Gjm8QO#.hjrxNYnr3,  Imran Siddiquee, Buzzfeed [Posted on 25th October 2017, at 11:55 pm]; ‘Emma Watson fell ill on Noah set after Darren Aronofsky banned bottled water’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/17/emma-watson-noah-darren-aronofsky-banned-bottle-water, Ben Child, The Guardian, [Posted on 17 February 2014, at 12.48 GMT]; ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know About Natalie Portman’, https://www.vogue.com/article/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-natalie-portman, Maria Ward, Vogue [Posted on 20th August 2016 at 11:00].

[6] Naomi Klein contacted Aronofsky to note how ironic it was that the film was released whilst Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean and on the mainland USA. Also note later on Jennifer Lawrence’s description of her breakdown due to her immersion in the scene being ‘too much’, compared to Aronofsky’s satisfaction with the events that occurred during filming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyZVUC5jeVw&t=162s [1:13, accessed 8th March 2018].

New Zealand: music we listened to

Spending six weeks driving around New Zealand with my partner opened up a lot of time to listen to music new and old. We got round to the albums that we really should have heard by now and wallowed in songs that have been ringing around our heads for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few here. Out of all the albums we downloaded (thanks Spotify), two really stood out the most, demonstrating some of the very best song writing around at the moment.

SZA – Ctrl

SZA-CTRL-album-cover

The first time I came across SZA was when she featured on ‘Consideration’, the opening song of Rihanna’s 2016 album Anti. Her voice has the gravelly soul of the great Lauryn Hill, coupled with a gorgeous raspy softness, and I was definitely interested to listen to this 2017 solo effort. The opening track, ‘Supermodel’, is breath taking, and I’m finding it hard to think of another first song that is as arresting, intertwining musical simplicity with lyrics that epically twist and turn with the complexity of the person singing. Beginning with the unflinching bravado of ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’, SZA swings between a gutsy, devil-may-care façade and a piercingly sensitive portrait of an insecure young woman newly and unwillingly single. Here’s an extract just to taste:

‘Ooh just get a load of them

They got chemistry

All they could say

We like brother and sister

Look so good together

Bet they fuckin’ for real

 

And they was right

That’s why I stayed with ya

The—the dick was too good

It made me feel good

For temporary love

You was a temporary lover

 

Leave me lonely for prettier women

You know I need too much attention

For shit like that

You know you wrong

For shit like that

 

I could be your supermodel

If you believe

If you see it in me

See it in me

See it in me

 

I don’t see myself

Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?

Wish I was comfortable just with myself

But I need you

I need you

I need you’ – ‘Supermodel’, Ctrl

Vulnerability palpitates here: she clings to the glorious image of her and her ex, looking at their relationship through the eyes of others and consolidating how well matched they were. What is so subtle but revealing in the next verse is the caesura of ‘That’s why I stayed with ya / The – the dick was too good’. Even when SZA’s words are telling one story or conveying one apparent response, the caesura indicates that there is something more powerful underneath, disrupting the lyrics and their delivery. The break between ‘the’ and ‘the’ comes across as a stumble or a stutter, as though she catches herself before she lets her emotions flow through again, shifting awkwardly back into the almost traditionally masculine bravado of physicality. It’s not convincing at all that she just stayed with her boyfriend for sex; the hesitating break suggests that by referring to his dick she is attempting, perhaps unconsciously, to obscure her emotional distress over the break up, or distract from the pain of it. In her attempt to show a lack of care, she demonstrates that she cares very, very much and herein lies the song’s heart-wrenching vulnerability.

This becomes even clearer because her bravado does not last long: the caesura is followed by the chorus, which comes with a series of repetitions, for example ‘see it in me’ and ‘I need you’, and a question, ‘Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?’ She is aware that she has a desire to be secure within herself, a desire to not feel lonely even if she finds herself alone, but she is nowhere near there with her self-esteem or her emotional independence. She implores with her ex that she could be his ‘supermodel’, perhaps suggesting that physical beauty is an important thing to him, something he values in a relationship. It also, however, suggests that this is something that she values too, because she wants him to see outstanding physical beauty in her. She is hurt by the fact that he has left her for ‘prettier women’, suggesting that there is something lacking in her beauty that meant she couldn’t make him stay. It is incredibly moving listening to a woman grappling with why her boyfriend doesn’t want to be with her. At times, she tries to be the archetypal strong, independent woman who needs a dick and not a man; but at the same time she is crippled by self-criticism and constantly looks beyond herself for happiness and acceptance in superficiality.

And so the album begins. It is truly an outstanding way to set the scene for the rest to follow, with my particular favourites coming in the form of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the trippy ‘Doves in the Wind’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, which reminded me of Lamar’s ‘YAH’ from his Pulitzer-prize winning album DAMN. It has something of the Frank Oceanic about it too. The most famous song from the album, perhaps, is ‘Weekend’ which was given a Majestic Casual-esque makeover (sic ‘Funk Wav Remix’) by Calvin Harris. Whilst I am here for as much soul and funk as possible, the remix does lose some of the carefully crafted vulnerability of the original; the delicate mingling of devil-may-care and crippling self-doubt, where a young woman tries to embrace the freedom of temporary, flexible romance but definitely wants more.  Overall, SZA is one of the artists I am most excited about at the moment. I am rarely convinced by portrayals or depictions of love and relationships in pop culture, but SZA’s raw songs are fresh and original in their sensitivity.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

masseduction_st vincent

This was the album we listened to by far the most on our trip. I had been aware of St Vincent for a long time: the first song I can remember of Annie Clark’s was a collaboration with Grizzly Bear called ‘Slow Life’ from the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says, the Twilight films were shite but the soundtracks most certainly were not. The soundtrack from this film, in particular, introduced me to Bon Iver, Band of Skulls and Thom Yorke); however, I had never taken the time to actually listen to any more of her music.

Initially, I got the wrong end of the stick with the title, reading ‘mass education’ and not ‘mass seduction’. This made the eponymous song, with its list of fetishes that get St Vincent hot under the collar, mildly confusing when I’d been expecting a manifesto on the importance of accessible, state-funded schooling. When I learned to read again (how ironic) it quickly became clear that this album is as passionate in its engagement with our hyperactive, hyper-sexualised pill-popping culture as I thought it would be about teaching. The tongue-in-cheek characterisation of sex, vanity and indulgence in songs like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Sugarboy’ and ‘Savior’ are met with Jack Anatoff’s signature pulse-racing, electro-heavy production, creating a wacky Willy Wonka ride through the obsessions and repressions of modern romance.

These, however, are immediately offset and intermingled with songs that convey a real sense of desperation, the comedown after all the hype. Where individual grappling with anxiety, loneliness and regret, explored in songs like ‘Hang On Me’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Young Lover’ and ‘Slow Disco’, is projected onto a collective future that is severely bleak. In ‘Fear the Future’, St Vincent demands an anonymous ‘Sir’ to confront the seemingly inevitable prospects of war and swelling oceans which, I think, is a blatant address to President Trump.[1] The awareness of personal and political turmoil rubbing together and creating intense heat is centre stage on this album. They fuel one another and create a fast-paced, energetic trip that makes contemplation and reflection both necessary and unavoidable.

MASSEDUCTION excels because whilst heavy with complex synths, dark discussions of mental health and demonstrating palm-sweating horror at the damage we do to ourselves and others, it is never far from a wry wink or a cheeky elbow in the ribs. Much like the pills St Vincent describes raining down on us and propping up our lives, I listened to this album compulsively.

Other albums we listened to:

father john mistyIsolationKendrickBLL

‘Pure Comedy’, Father John Misty – emotional encyclopaedia that is also warmly scathing in its criticism of humanity’s current condition: Trump, misogyny, religion, social media, cultural revolutions all take beatings.

‘Isolation’, Kali Uchis – the love child of Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. The happiest sounding sad songs I’ve come across in a while.

‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar – I miss the challenging, experimental narratives of ‘Good Kid, M. A. A. D City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but Lamar’s lyrics have never been so performative nor complex than with this punchy, powerful album.

‘Melodrama’, Lorde – we couldn’t not listen to Lorde whilst in New Zealand (she’s from Devonport, Auckland). This album has become a certified modern classic and I would have loved for it to have been around when I was 20 and a mess. The sound engineering is great (see Jack Anatoff again) but the lyrics are gratingly immature at times; she’s perpetually self-deprecating but everything is always someone else’s fault too.

‘Konnichiwa’, Skepta – ‘Your ex plays in the Prem but you never see him taking a pen / ‘Cause if you can’t hit the G-spot when it comes to the spot kicks / Manna gotta wait on the bench’ is one of my favourite lyrics ever. More rappers need to pay attention to female sexual pleasure, please.

‘Ultraviolence’, Lana Del Rey – my go-to, come rain, shine, hell or high water. Del Rey and Dan Auerbach magic from beginning to end.

‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack – we listened to this so many times. A comprehensive textbook of blues and dream pop, featuring Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis Presley, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Agnes Obel, Alabama Shakes etc.

Personal playlists: featuring the likes of Tom Misch, Barney the Artist, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Jamie Woon, Sade, The Beatles, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Enya (yes, really), Ann Peebles, Eminem, Whitney Houston etc.

[1] Released in 2017, MASSEDUCTION is one of a string of releases by American artists in that year who are seething and incredulous at the political fallout of the 2016 presidential election (see also Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey).

First response: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and religion

I read The Brothers Karamzov over a seven month period, from November 2016 to June 2017. Sigmund Freud described the novel as ‘the most magnificent novel ever written’, which is hardly an overstatement.  Unfortunately, it also renders it extremely difficult to condense into such a small space what makes this novel so brilliant. I am not going to attempt to give a full academic reading of it or compose a coherent overarching argument here; even in the months that have passed since finishing it, I am still overwhelmed and disorientated by the scope and volume of potentially interesting areas to pin down and explore: from the characters and their psychological shifts and traumas; the various plots; and its tragicomic abyssal relationship with time as the novel sceptically celebrates old Russia whilst also sceptically acknowledging its own inherent and deeply restless modernity. Mikhail Bakhtin referenced Dostoevsky as the writer of the ‘polyphonic novel’; whilst I have not yet read all of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, this is the noisiest book I have ever read and I am still piecing together the various fragments that stood out to me during this reading.

I want to share some thoughts about moments in The Brothers Karamazov that were particularly arresting and interesting. I will begin with some thoughts on religion in the novel, and in particular the movement downwards that I observed in the Elder Zosima and subsequently Alyosha. John Donne also made his way into this piece for comparative purposes after an insightful conversation with my wonderful friend and early modernist, Annie Dickinson. Whilst the speaker of Donne’s Sonnet 14 from the Divine Meditations does not throw himself physically downwards, there is a metaphysical topographical movement downwards as he calls for the disintegration of his multiple and fragmented self. In both texts, this passionate movement downwards, whilst motivated in part by religion, is an act that I argue can provide inspiration and insight beyond religion’s dogmatic trappings.

One of the most important spaces in The Brothers Karamazov is the monastery where Alyosha lives and works as a novice before being sent off into the world by the Elder Zosima. It is one of the first settings the novel introduces us to as Alyosha sits with his father Fyodor, his brother Ivan, the Elder Zosima and a collection of other monks and family acquaintances who want to observe the settlement of the inheritance dispute between Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, who is running late. Over the course of the novel’s earliest stages, Alyosha spends a lot of time running backwards and forwards around the town, which in part constructs the unsettling restlessness of the novel, but always returns to the monastery; it is like a fixed point of safety for him from the sensual, emotionally hyperactive and jealous aggression that consumes the Karamazov family.

Whilst the Russian Orthodox Church is discussed and played with at length at various points throughout the novel (Fyodor Karamazov mocking the monks in the monastery;  the  soap operas of various pilgrims who believe in and visit Elders; Ivan Karamazov mocking Alyosha by telling him to eat fish soup; the Elder Zosima’s corpse beginning to rot thereby inciting denouncement from the fickle mystical monks at the monastery etc.), the moment that chimed most powerfully with me throughout all of these episodes was during the digression into the Elder Zosima’s history and personal doctrine. The novel’s third person speaker warns us that the homilies are jotted down by Alyosha during Zosima’s final hours and so are full of potentially unreliable information; indeed Alyosha is said to have expanded upon and added his own memories and philosophies to the homilies. In spite of this, however, what is described is an incredibly moving section that uses the doctrine of Russian Orthodox Christianity as its bedrock, but is a call for affiliation that goes beyond the confines of religion alone. This means that even for someone who is not a strict religious, God-believing Christian, Zosima’s language and ideas can bring connection and revelation.

There are a number of moments that I would like to draw on in particular. Primarily, the act Zosima talks about and performs a number of times:

                ‘Love to throw yourself down on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably, love all men, love all things, seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears’.[1]

  The first observation I made with this is Zosima’s insistence on moving down towards the Earth and kissing it. It is an action that appears at other times in the novel; notably when Zosima bows down to supplicate his servant Afansy whom he wronged when he was young (p.298) and when Alyosha, in Zosima’s stead, beholds the Milky Way and bows down to kiss the Earth in his rapture (p.362). Whilst institutional Christianity has always favoured an upward motion, with arches, high ceilings and spires all dominating Christian architecture, it may seem odd that Zosima chooses to move in the opposite direction. The movement downwards is perhaps a nod to Russian folk culture, which privileges a relationship to the Earth and, in so doing, the communal relationship that exists between human beings. This is something discussed by Russian critic Bakhtin with regard to carnival-esque folk life in Rabelais and His World:

                ‘To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into a void of non-existence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and womb. It is always conceiving’.[2]

Bakhtin argues that a movement downwards metaphysically privileges the areas of the body that are considered ‘grotesque’ compared to the superior, divine rational capabilities of the thinking head. Yet, he argues, these lowly, oftentimes bawdy organs, depicted as engorged in carnival-esque texts, for example in Gargantua and Pantagruel  and The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Bruegel  the Elder, or emphasised in the squatting choreography of traditional Slavic folk dances, are the most important part of the body’s sexual, reproductive capability. This is because a movement downwards, a movement towards the Earth, also indicates a movement towards rejuvenation and the bringing forth of all life.

Zosima’s aforementioned feverish appeal to his followers appears similarly engaged in this joyful embracing of all of Earth’s grotesquely born life. ‘Love’, ‘all’ and ‘kiss’ are repeated, followed by a quick succession of adverbs, verbs and adjectives that are familiarly sibilant, like ‘tirelessly’, ‘insatiably’, ‘seek’ and ‘ecstasy’. The overall effect is a panted, sexual, frantic and joyful admonition for human beings to take care of one another and revel in the wonder of life. As Bakhtin refers to ‘the fruitful earth and warm’, Zosima encourages his followers to ‘water the earth’, so as to bring forth the fruit. It is a collective, positive, hopeful vision for human beings that brims with excitement. Zosima encourages followers like Alyosha to show selflessness in their love for one another and the Earth, making use of the body’s movement downwards and the emission of emotional bodily fluids in their worship and in the display of that love. The traditional Biblical command to ‘love thy neighbour’ seems so stale and uninspiring in comparison.

This passage reminded me of some of the religious poetry of John Donne that, whilst entreating unambiguously to a Christian God, conveys an energy and passion that is intriguing whether we believe in the God being addressed or not. More specifically, I would like to draw comparison with Sonnet 14 from Donne’s Divine Meditations, originally published in 1633. Donne wrote these devotional sonnets a couple of hundred years before Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamzov; however, there are similarities that can be observed in the almost pulsating sexual energy of the language used. The same frantic pace is present in Donne’s poem through the fast staccato rhythm that bursts forth from the very beginning:

                ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

                As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

                That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

                Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new’.[3]

 The use of commas here to break up the quick successive actions of knocking, breathing, shining, rising, overthrowing, bending, breaking, blowing and burning, work in a similar way to the ones in Zosima’s passage; the commas create a quick rhythm that sounds equally panted and rapturous. Whilst Zosima uses sibilance to convey the sexual watering of the Earth with tears and love, the speaker in Donne builds the ideas to a noisy almost violent climax; a heavy ‘b’ opens the poem, paving the way for a crescendo  of ‘b’ sounds at the end of the fourth line to describe personal annihilation at the hands of God. The sound reflects the power and force behind this destruction, but also the speaker’s yearning and desirous anticipation of them. This employment of commas throughout all of the lines continues throughout the rest of the sonnet and culminates in the following lines:

                ‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I

                Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

                Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me’.[4]

A quick succession of ideas, separated by commas, brings the poem to an end, with the speaker’s desire to be ‘ravished’ by God. ‘Ravish’ has a twofold meaning here: it suggests an almost violent sexual experience: ‘ravished’ in the Oxford English Dictionary reads both, ‘to drag off or carry away (a woman) by force or with violence (occasionally also implying subsequent rape)’, and, ‘to transport (a person, the mind, etc.) with the strength of some emotion; to fill with ecstasy, intense delight, or sensuous pleasure; to entrance, captivate, or enrapture’.[5] The speaker is in a traditionally feminised position, to be sexually overwhelmed and overpowered here; the significant difference being that he consents and desires force to be exerted on him. Additionally, the adjectives used to describe ‘ravished’ in the OED could all be employed to describe the emotional outpouring of Donne’s speaker, whose fast-paced, broken language echoes the rapture and sexual ecstasy at the prospect of being overcome by God.  The emotion of the speaker rises to an almost fury through the pace and final idea of ravishment. It suggests that engaging with God and the Christian faith on such an intimate and personal level can be euphoric and exciting.

Furthermore, what is significant in both Zosima’s speech and in Donne’s Sonnet 14 is that the rapturous construction of the language points more specifically to each speakers’ desire to have their subjectivity removed or disintegrated. It is, in effect, a movement downwards. Whilst Zosima physically throws himself to the ground in his selfless love and devotion to the world and the people in it, and entreats others to do the same, Donne’s speaker wants to be broken down, reduced and disintegrated by God’s influence. This is because he recognises that without God’s divine influence, his constructed sense of self is impossibly fractured. This is evident in the aforementioned quotation when he declares ‘for I except you enthral me’. There is a separation between the speaker’s ‘I’ and ‘me’ and he suggests that although God enthrals and empowers him, he is also enthralled and empowered by himself. This is not something he wants to continue, instead he wants his split self to broken down into one God-ful singularity. This is hinted at earlier on in the poem:

                ‘I, like an usurped town, to another due,

                Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy within me, me should defend,

                But is captive, and prove weak and untrue’[6]

Here, again, we see that the speaker sees his self as split and confused; the comparison made is with a town being overtaken and supplanted by those who are external or rivals in some capacity. In a similar vein, Donne’s speaker sees his subjecthood as split and confused, which makes it difficult for him to fully admit God into his life.

Additionally, Donne’s speaker feels that his ability to reason and be reasonable is something given to him by God; however, he suggests that he is not currently governed by reason. There are two potential arguments for why this is the case, and both potential readings hinge on the ambiguous statement ‘me, me should defend’. Here, Donne creates a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘me’ through the comma that physically and rhythmically breaks them apart. He suggests both that God-given reason should defend ‘me’ from ‘me’, but also that ‘me’ should defend God-given reason from ‘me’. As a result, the line ‘but is captive, and prove weak and untrue’, refers to both reason and the speaker himself. This is because the tugging between the contrasting ‘me’ and ‘me’ leaves the speaker impotent and lacking reason, but also that reason within him is dimmed and unfulfilled. This seems to contrast with the way in which the speaker describes God as ‘three-personed’, perhaps giving reference to the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I, however, would argue that the speaker acknowledges that although God is split into three separate but entwined entities, this is impossible for himself. Multiplicity within his own self cannot be successful because the constant tugging between ‘me’, ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘reason’ prevents him from living up to the standards that he believes God requires. For the speaker, I argue, the only way forward for his fractured self is to be broken down, disintegrated and then melded together in a singular new whole, something he anticipates with a sexual fervour.

The physical and metaphysical movement downwards discussed by Zosima and Donne’s speaker can be read as a supplicatory act, bowing down to the limitless power of a Christian God. I, however, would argue that moving downwards in this way is a passionate act of self-disintegration. They are not simply humbled by God: they are invigorated by their love for others and with their hope for self-improvement.  Whilst God has, inevitably, inspired these responses in Zosima and Donne’s speaker, the presentation of these emotional, excitable characters is such that the texts are not bogged down and laden heavy with Christian dogma. The sexual, desirous reverie conveyed in the brisk, energetic language suggests a bacchanal devotion to the idea of helping people, loving all and freely and looking beyond the trappings of ourselves to be of service to a greater idea or project. I think this extends beyond religion: there are many moments in The Brothers Karamazov where Zosima appears to subscribe to a form of both socialism and vegetarianism, which I want to discuss at length in future with the help of Gerard Manley Hopkins (another poet whose work provides inspiration and joy beyond the potentially  arbitrary boundaries of religion).  Because Dostoevsky and Donne present characters that are loud, emotional and conflicted that conceive beyond themselves, as opposed to characters that are strict, composed and self-righteous, they have written about religion in a way that does away with religious dogma, with heavy, performative language that reveals their ‘modern’ potential. These characters are enabled by their passion and their love, joyful in their disintegration and rich in the goodness of throwing themselves to the ground, whether physically or metaphysically. It is in this presentation of religion that I think both Dostoevsky and Donne can inspire those for whom Christianity may have no relevance.

 

[1] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 322.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World trans. Helene Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 21.

[3] ‘Sonnet 14’ lines 12-14, John Donne: The Complete English Poems ed. A. J. Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1996) p.314.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary

[6] Ibid lines 7-8.

‘It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off’: thoughts on the 2015 General Election result

This essay was originally published on a blog called Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks on 8th May 2015, the day after the Conservatives won an outright majority in the General Election. Re-reading it a couple of days ago, I felt that it warranted re-publishing on Harping On. In spite of some of my more youthful writing, it’s shocking how pertinent it still reads, in particular with the idea that we need to use creativity and public space to combat inaction and apathy. As the world has been on a slippery political slope of increased austerity and hate ever since 2015, it is even more urgent that we are engaged and active now.

The 2015 General Election result undoubtedly set a precedent for everything that has followed since: most obviously with Brexit, but also for the much needed rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a regenerated socialist discourse. I know I did not do nearly enough during the EU Referendum campaign to get the result that I wanted and that didn’t come to pass. I hope, however, that in the publication of my novel ‘Tender is the Gelignite’, past me will be satisfied with my attempt at using creativity politically; the mad beastie of a book I have produced that explicitly critiques, mocks and performs the chaos that the 2015 election result laid the foundations for.  

When the broadcasting Exit Poll was published last night showing a Conservative outright majority, for a lot of people alarm bells started ringing. So many, myself included, were convinced that a hung parliament was on the cards only to see a seemingly endless sea of sickly, putrid blue envelope the country. For anyone who regards this country more as a society and a community than an economy perpetuated by self-interest and individualism, the result has been disastrous.

We all know what’s coming: the sinisterly named welfare ‘reforms’, a word that suggests progression and change but now signifies cuts and rolling back; tax cuts to the wealthiest and most affluent proportions of society; the NHS being carved up and sold off on the sly; security and protection services cut and contracts given to private companies; more people using food banks; cuts to sexual and mental health services; cuts to domestic violence services; council houses not being built, and those that are built being sold off; large corporations benefitting from state funding and not paying their taxes; banks still not paying back the £1 trillion that public money paid to save them because of reckless lending; and schools following an increasingly archaic and redundant curriculum. Just the tip of the iceberg for a party that had almost half of its members vote against gay marriage, who have ballsed up various inquiries into the sexual abuse of children because they have too many links to the perpetrating Establishment, and who want to abolish the European Human Rights Act. With David Cameron declaring in an uncanny and not at all un-ironic way that he wants to lead a ‘one-nation’ government, harking back to Benjamin Disraeli’s paternalistic One Nation Toryism, it looks like we’re set to be dragged back, even further than we already have been, into the recesses of the 19th century.

Again, we have seen that this country is held to ransom by Rupert Murdoch. It was easy to start believing that the power of social media could become a meaty force to be reckoned with, what with #milifandom, the fuelling of the #greensurge on Facebook and Twitter and the ease with which we can now engage with other people and with politicians themselves. It seems, however, that the old-school newspapers and tabloids, those slabs of tangible news (sic. bollocks) have seeped into public consciousness more successfully. Facebook has been recently heavily criticised for an algorithm that essentially filters what we see and read depending on our clicks and likes, thus ensuring that our newsfeeds become clogged up with articles and posts that we want to see: it is the blatant construction of false hope. Nothing I or anyone else of a left persuasion could have posted would ever have been able to compare with the reams of nasty vitriol spewing forth daily from the front pages of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times in supermarkets, on buses and everywhere in between. Once again, as with the case of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the Murdoch-run rags have undoubtedly helped their Tory pals to seal the defeat of the opposition. It proves that once again, he should never be underestimated; the media is society’s main ideological machine, the conveyor of hegemony, and boy did Murdoch’s cronies take themselves to a whole new level of spiteful this election with the industrial smearing of Ed Miliband. They even managed to track down @twcuddleston, the girl who founded #milifandom, turning up on her doorstep having mysteriously found her unpublished address.

After the initial shock and panic of the election results, everything has become very clear. We need to shout louder, make our points clearer and harness this anger and sadness that so many of us are feeling right now and do something to counter the predominant narrative. I would argue that people have voted Conservative because of the endless diatribe of fear and austerity that we have been pummelled with. In these times of crisis, it looks like many people have decided to vote in a way that they will think will better them and their families specifically, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it facilitates a climate whereby people don’t vote for the sort of society they want to see as a whole, but for what will benefit them and their own for the longest time possible. This is an idea that has appealed to people of all social circumstances and is, perhaps, one of Thatcher’s most lasting legacies. It is time for hope: an end to the fear of difference in any of its racial, sexual or gendered forms and a return to the compassion and empathy that years of crisis in the early twentieth century created within the people of this country.

One of the books Michael Gove famously removed from the GCSE syllabus was To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is full of important questions regarding race, gender and the interpretation of the law; but perhaps the most prominent ideological feature that can be read within the language and plot is the idea of trying to relate to another person’s ideas or actions, with Atticus most famously telling Scout, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’. It’s such a simple concept, walking around as though you are another person, seeing with their eyes, feeling their emotions, but it can be, understandably, incredibly difficult and disconcerting. But that doesn’t make it any less important or worthwhile to do. We need to stop being so self-involved and think about a society that is fair and kind, not run on a heady quest to make ever more profit for oneself, no matter the cost to human lives and human experience.

In his book on the Establishment, Owen Jones talks about the need for grassroots political activism, think tanks and assemblies, and I completely agree. I seriously recommend the aforementioned book (the chapter on corporations scrounging off the largesse of the state in particular makes for simultaneously fascinating and sobering reading), but I think this is also the time for arts and creativity to, once again, to walk hand-in-hand with the political ideas. We need to produce more literature, more music, more film, more comedy that challenges the ideas that the Tories stand for. Whether we lean with Labour, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, TUSC or that empty shell of a party the Liberal Democrats, we need to be united and organised in our challenge to Tory and neo-liberal dogma. Undoubtedly, the SNP are going to give the Westminster cartel a complete headache with their grit, determination and passion, and we can do the same. The writers, the musicians, the film-makers, the academics, the twenty-somethings lost in the 21st century maelstrom of debt, unaffordable housing and a struggling NHS that we have inherited, need to use our creativity to reverse the consensus. Political activists need to join forces with bands, artists need to represent the struggle of unions and workers, we need to use our talents to hammer home that even though the Tories have this majority, they are not good enough for us. The pages of magazines and newspapers should be full of hope, images of like-minded people from different races, cultures, genders and sexual orientations in solidarity with one another.

Director extraordinaire Michel Gondry once said that ‘Every great idea is on the verge of being stupid’, which is both comforting and empowering. Here’s a potential one that could work: I always used to think that university elections were one and lost in toilets: stalls used to be plastered with mass produced stickers and flyers, and what better time to get to know someone’s policy than when you have a bit of time to kill in the loo? Similarly, in light of Protein World’s Beach Body advert, billboards were defaced and edited in small acts of powerful protestation. Maybe if we start reclaiming public spaces like loos or even better advertising boards (that invade almost every inch of our lives to make us aspire and feel insecure) on a big scale, on an un-ignorable scale, maybe we can start helping people to see beyond their front gardens, encouraging critical thinking, undercutting the power of the media and thereby the ideological dogma of our new government. This is the time for ideas and creativity as well as activism, and hopefully in 5 years time, we can shake of this exhausting, dead Tory weight that’s been holding us down for years.

Thanks again to the monument that is Florence Welch for the lyrics that inspired and serve as title to this essay.

Lana Del Rey: music, fans and commercial mayhem

Anyone who knows me knows that Lana Del Rey is one of my all-time favourite women. Her music found its way into my life in 2012 at a very interesting time and over the years, I have enjoyed her intricate and very moving play with enigma and persona, and her excellent storytelling. Her second LP Ultraviolence has particular significance for me: her collaboration with Dan Auerbach, of one of my favourite bands of all time The Black Keys, was what my dark, gritty dreams were made off. Moody and intertextual, casually referencing A Clockwork Orange, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, The Crystals, Virginia Woolf, Nina Simone and Lou Reed, the album, for all that it was pared back compared to its Lolita-infused predecessor Born to Die, was still sumptuous and cinematic. It told the post-Lolita story, revealing the stony and unsettling aftermath of a narrative that was previously fizzing and overflowing with youth, hubris, desire and mournful chaos. Ultraviolence shows us that Born to Die as a concept was only ever going to be fleeting, that it’s flipside was dark, serious and dangerous. It was initially jarring for many fans and critics, with the Guardian famously indirectly berating her during the initial promotion for her extra-marital involvements and for dwelling on death.[1]

I felt, however, that Ultraviolence was the perfect continuation, the only continuation of the story; and she famously culminated the whole trilogy with Honeymoon, a similarly intertextual record that oozed with malaise, deliberation and a bittersweet sense of an ending. Indeed, in the videos for Freak and Music To Watch Boys To, Del Rey was flocked by a gaggle of young Born To Die-esque beauties and there was an uncanny sense that whilst Del Rey sipped her Kool-Aid, she was passing the waifish, young, naughty, nymphet baton to the next generation. This trilogy of Born to Die (including its Paradise EP), Ultraviolence and Honeymoon are modern classics and we have been so lucky to have a woman tell such a captivating story of self-awareness, femininity, sexuality, danger and maturity so publically and with so much success. She is a master storyteller and her mountains of lyrics and intricately produced tracks are a testament to this.

On Ultraviolence, Del Rey wrote a satirical song called ‘Money Power Glory’ that documented a young down-and-out, bitter about being poor and yearning for dope, diamonds and an affluent, aspirational land far away. The song works well as a critique of the neoliberal culture we live in that revolves around these three eponymous entities, yet sardonically laughs at the fact that in spite of knowing that these things don’t make us happy, we still ardently and avidly crave them.  Over the past few days, however, Del Rey threw her fans into a capitalist chaos that I don’t think reflects the satire of her previous viewpoint and that has slightly jolted the way we should approach her new era.

On Wednesday 18th June, posts went up on Del Rey’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts announcing that she was doing a surprise show at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton for the following Monday 24th July. Considering Del Rey has only performed once in the UK in the past 4 years, at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull in May 2017, there was a huge appetite for this gig and it immediately attracted a lot of attention. I was unable to go because I am out of the country next week, but wanted to help my younger sister, an equally avid Lana Del Rey fan but at the time delayed at an airport in France, to get to Brixton. In the end, it proved impossible for me to buy her tickets for her because O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. As I would be out of the country, neither of us could go. I must admit I was temporarily embittered but, you know, I’m going to Greece next week. It’s cool. I was still, however, witness to everything that unfolded and it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fans who wanted access to the pre-sale had until 5 o’clock on Wednesday 18th July to register. This involved pre-ordering a copy of the new album Lust for Life, due for release on Friday 21st June, for around £9.99 in exchange for a pre-sale code.  At 9:00 the next morning, Wednesday 19th July, pre-sale tickets went live and sold out in a matter of seconds. General sale tickets went live at 12:00 and, again, sold out in a matter of seconds. Social media was completely abuzz with hundreds of fans disappointed and frustrated that within moments of the clock hitting 12:00, ticket vendors were refreshing and declaring that there were no tickets left. Barely minutes afterwards, tickets were appearing on Viagogo selling for £600 a go. This puts fans in another bind because, as previously mentioned, O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. Touts are, inevitably, selling on tickets at extraordinary prices to fans who won’t be able to enter the building with them anyway. This is something that Ed Sheeran has actively addressed in relation to his up-coming string of gigs by cancelling around 10,000 tickets.[2] It has not been announced whether Del Rey and her management are addressing this.

From the beginning, Del Rey and her management were capitalising, literally, on the enthusiasm of fans desperate to see such a rare show. By asking people, mostly young and whom she appeals to with a clear direct ‘you’ in new songs like ‘Love’, to put up money at little notice in exchange for privileged access to tickets seems mean and underhand.[3] These are people who have spent and probably will continue to spend money on Lana Del Rey and her merchandise in the future and it wasn’t exactly a generous gesture. It became increasingly unfair as the number of people registering for pre-sale swelled massively making it increasingly unlikely that many of these fans were even going to get tickets. After pre-sale and general sale, it appeared on social media that fans were being charged £52 a ticket which, again, on 24 hour notice for a gig next week in one of the most expensive cities in the world, seems ridiculously unfair. It suggests that the fans who could pay the most, by pre-ordering Lust for Life and then stumping up £52 for a ticket, were the ones who got to attend. This is isn’t exactly au fait with the pseudo-hippie aesthetic of freedom, love and lusty carefree youth that Del Rey’s new era is embracing. Instead, she created a virtual stampede, reminiscent of the kind of materialistic commercial madness seen on Black Friday, that was desperate and undignified for those involved.

I understand that many people frequently feel disappointed about missing out on gig tickets and that Twitter will fill up with moaning, weeping and various other melodramatic emotional responses as a result. But when young fans are played with and cast aside for commercial gain, where the artist and management are profiting so heavily from (a) creating multiple financial barriers to gigs and (b) subsequently pitting fans against one another, I find it hard to completely justify and get on board with it, no matter how much I admire the artist. It’s not the sort of marketing tactic I would expect from someone who claims so often that she deeply cares about her fans. Sure, this is all part of Del Rey’s mysterious and unpredictable persona that I’ve so enjoyed up until now, and I’m sure the online furore that has been triggered is happily feeding the myth, but it ultimately shows disdain and an emerging disrespect for fans. Del Rey knows she will be flocked wherever she goes, and her management have taken decisions to rinse as much money out of fans as possible using the mystique and desirability of the artist as fuel. If they were really serious about making as much money as possible, as shown in the strategy to release tickets, then Del Rey should just do a pre-planned tour, giving more people the opportunity to see Del Rey and with ample notice to get tickets. Instead, fans were served with a last minute rare appearance, charged over the odds and ultimately leaving many completely in the cold.

This comes within a week that a song called ‘Groupie Love’ has been released, focusing on the obsessive nature of music fans who see themselves as special and at one with their icon but are just part of a crowd of other likeminded groupies. Del Rey presents herself as being a groupie in the song but after the closure of her Born To Die, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon trilogy, this seems outdated. She has claimed that Lust for Life is for and about her fans: she has previously hinted that she’s ‘cooking something up for the kids’ and in an interview with Billboard said, ‘I felt like it was more wanting to, like, talk to the younger side of the audience I have’.[4] We can, therefore, argue that ‘Groupie Love’ is a nod to and an acknowledgment of the behaviours and naiveté of her fans which she can happily temporarily adopt and play along with. It seems slightly cynical, however, that one moment Del Rey is lauding and romanticising her fans for their groupie mentality but then plays on that very love and obsessiveness to ramp up pre-order sales and to sow financial divisions amongst them. I was then also reminded of an Instagram video Del Rey uploaded on the 22nd September 2016 where one bearded friend jokes that ‘Lolita14 is following [me]’ and another bearded friend  claims, ‘I need one of those’, before joking that he should ask fans who direct message him asking to meet Del Rey to send nudes as payment. In the video, Del Rey laughingly calls them ‘gross’. I think talking about fans in this way is distasteful verging on predatory, but also flippant and exploitative of a fan base who have been whipped into obsessiveness generated by the Lana Del Rey myth-machine in the first place; the level of attention she gets shouldn’t be surprising and something to scoff at. Del Rey has said that she no longer sings the lyrics ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’, because she no longer sees it as appropriate or acceptable, but then will happily upload a video encouraging fans to send nudes, even if only in jest.[5] It is undeniably hypocritical.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that some of Del Rey’s fans can be bratty nightmares. By saying this, I refer to the leaking of songs and material that have continuously plagued her career, including the leak of Lust for Life just two days before its official release. Del Rey famously called the fans sharing the link ‘U little fuckers’ and it is understandable that she was angry at such a violation of her privacy and of her agency to share her art when and where she wanted to. I can appreciate that when fans border on the obsessive to such an extent, it must be infuriating. Ironically, however, it served as the perfect counter-balance to the commercial, money-driven hysteria of the O2 gig tickets sales simultaneously unfolding, and many fans took the opportunity to download the album from a spectral link on Twitter. It is important to say that many also did not, choosing to respect the release date and openly condemning the leak out of loyalty to Del Rey.

I am so excited to listen to Lust for Life on its release today and I want to see where the story is going next. I embrace Del Rey’s collaboration with uber cool cats A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, and currently love her meditative outputs ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ and ‘Summer Bummer’. But there is something that isn’t sitting quite right with the way the campaign for Lust For Life has been run. There has been an arrogance to the treatment of fans that has focused on profit and controversy instead of kindness, understanding and respect. It’s creating a toxic relationship whereby fans are whipped up into a frenzy by last minute rare appearances, clambering over one another figuratively and financially to get tickets; whilst at the same time, Del Rey’s music is leaked without her permission and much to her visible indignation. I’m not getting off the Lana Del Rey train just yet and I don’t suppose I ever will. But for an artist who quotes and reveres Nina Simone’s mantra of reflecting the times, I hope that Del Rey forsakes the capitalistic, commercial trappings of the pop industry and instead, holds a mirror to these very things. She can continue to be elusive and enigmatic whilst still being generous to the people who keep her in the position she is in.

[1] ‘I wish I was dead already’, Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 12th June 2014 [accessed 07:02, 20th July 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-album

[2] ‘Ed Sheeran cancels 10, 000 tour tickets being sold on re-sale sites’, Huffington Post, 17th July 2017 [accessed 21:16, 19th July 2017] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ed-sheeran-tour-tickets-touts-resale-sites_uk_596ca344e4b03389bb18b6b9

[3] ‘Look you kids with your vintage music […] Look you kids, you know you’re the coolest […] it don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love’, ‘Love’, Lana De Rey 2017.

[4] ‘Everything we know about Lust For Life (so far)’, Billboard, 29th March 2017 [accessed 22:40, 19th July 2017) http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7743538/lana-del-rey-lust-for-life-album-everything-we-know

[5] ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: a conversation with Lana Del Rey’, Pitchfork, 20th July 2017 [accessed 07:10, 21st July 2017] http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness-a-conversation-with-lana-del-rey/

Open Letter to Nancy Rothwell

Dear Nancy Rothwell,

As an alumnus of the University of Manchester, I would like to congratulate you on the appointment of George Gideon Osborne as the new Honorary Professor of Economics at the university. I did my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in English Literature at the university and have many friends currently undertaking doctoral research and teaching in a variety of subjects and fields there. I believe this is a watershed moment for many of your students, both past and present, because what we have seen develop over the past 7 years has finally become general public knowledge: this university cares more about private interests, profit and image than it does about students and an excellent standard of academia.

A university that once boasted some of the most brilliant minds amongst its staff, that was a world-leading centre for ground breaking research, sharp critical thinking and progressive, socially responsible teaching has opted for a shallow neoliberal poster boy for austerity as an educator, with a poor economic record in government and generally despised by those who have suffered and borne witness to the suffering that his policies have brought about in this city and beyond. That is before we even mention the fact that this man is responsible for the rise in tuition fees that have made higher education a luxury both in Manchester and around the country, instead of a public right and service. Whilst many other decisions made by you and your management regarding the funding and structure of the university have been crassly cynical, including the many cost-cutting mergers of schools and faculties across campus, this is the most overtly cynical and offensive yet. Finally, the University of Manchester is showing its true colours and its true contempt for so many of the people currently working and studying there. You and your management care only for the superficial. This mockery of the university is completely unacceptable but it is finally coming to national attention.

The first and most obvious issue to be taken with this appointment is the terrible correlation of the hiring of our new Honorary Professor and the proposed cutting of 171 academic jobs within the university, leaving up to a 1000 members of staff uncertain of their future.[1] These cuts are supposedly being implemented to benefit early years’ academics, giving them sought-for opportunities and teaching experience; yet, the actuality is that this is an overt cost-cutting exercise whereby young academics will be systematically ripped off and overworked with unfair contracts.

This is already an on-going battle at the university, where, for example, many Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures, have had to fight hard for their right to be paid not only for the contact teaching they do, but also for the hours of preparation and assessing they do for their students. Unfair temporary contracts for young academics provide no stability and security, bogging them down with arbitrary administration. This prevents many from having the valuable time to research and publish the work required to secure a fixed-term position. It is shocking that within this context of unfair contracts and low pay, which has already been simmering under the surface at the university for a long time and which is going to have a catastrophic effect on the university soon when the job losses and inevitable staff shortages come into force, that George Osborne is being offered an Honorary Professorship. This man has overseen the greatest attack on public services in modern times, and his outdated, ineffectual but utterly devastating economic ideology is something progressive institutions should be resisting, not applauding. By offering him an ‘Honorary’ position, the university is condoning his government’s and party’s express desire to privatise and profit from public institutions, bringing services to their knees through a constant undermining of staff, their pay and their working conditions. The University of Manchester is condoning, adopting and perpetuating this very ideology with its own staff and it is outrageous. Ultimately, the unjustified cutting of jobs at the university will see satisfaction deteriorate whilst the quality and the quantity of world-leading research that is produced by those left behind will be seriously impacted.

Across the country, the arts and humanities have been suffering for a very long time in higher education, thanks in part to the cuts inflicted upon universities by our Honorary Professor’s government. The University of Manchester is no stranger to this: the Archaeology department is fighting for its very existence; I easily recall students competing for tiny amounts of money within the School of Arts Languages and Cultures to attend conferences; and Visual Anthropology students were struggling to showcase their final projects due to the lack of a couple of hundred pounds to do so. This is whilst our science, business and engineering peers were showered with seemingly endless funding and equipment, travelling as far away as Hawaii for all expenses paid conferences and receiving free iPads and e-readers along the way. Indeed, science and engineering are the main beneficiaries of the new so-called ‘Campus Masterplan’, with ‘iconic’ new buildings creating a ‘Northern engineering powerhouse’, a direct reference to the lacklustre and patronising pet project of our new Honorary Professor whilst he was still in government. The Arts buildings, on the other hand, have settled for some re-arranging and re-modelling. The arts and humanities are not taken as seriously at this university as the allegedly ‘useful’ scientific disciplines because they are not guaranteed money-makers propped up by industry. I think this is hardly surprising: in the humanities, we are taught to identify, critique and analyse social systems, structures and ideologies, challenging the powerful and rigorously giving attention to the disenfranchised. It’s little wonder that funding is stripped from these areas of research, so uncomfortable for those in power, when they are so very threatening to the hegemonic orthodoxies perpetuated by those like the university management and our new Honorary Professor of Economics.

Having spent time with doctoral students within the schools of Chemistry and Biology, I have found that there too the treatment of students is as disturbing as the institutional negligence of the arts and humanities. Whilst I am still angry that science students are given preferential treatment over those studying the arts and humanities, I find the interference of industry and private business in the funding of science research and equipment sinister and, ultimately, a threat to the integrity of the research conducted and produced by the university. This is seen explicitly in one of the areas of science that you and George are so proud of: your beloved National Graphene Institute. Whilst it features in all the press releases and marketing information about the university, the National Graphene Institute remains an enigma to many students. There are few opportunities for students to work in and use the facilities that the National Graphene Institute houses because it is so heavily funded and owned by private companies and industry. Whilst students from the School of Chemistry, for example, can easily collaborate and make use of the facilities owned by the School of Biological Sciences, to use the National Graphene Institute requires patronage from industry, successive meetings with supervisors and limited accessibility. Companies like Dyson, Seimens, Samsung, Rolls Royce and Tetrapak are gearing research towards their own profitable ends and, in the process, are alienating doctoral students and academics who should have access to the facilities available. It is not a collegial or collaborative enterprise except for the private businesses who are hoping to make money from graphene, and it is not fair for all the money being spent on graphene to not be seen or used by the vast majority of students.

This brings me back to the inherent artifice and superficiality that the University of Manchester is constantly constructing for itself. On the outside, graphene has been a big financial success story for the university yet students are not seeing the benefits of this investment and instead watch their lecturers and teachers become at risk of losing their jobs. Similarly, the university has invested in a new 326 room hotel on campus in conjunction with the Alliance Business School.[2] It seems that the university management has forgotten that the university is a place of public learning and progressive research, not a leisure park for Honorary Professors and business people in suits to jet in for a masterclass or two. I do not see how a hotel and a shiny graphene institute, bankrolled and annexed by private businesses, are supposed to contribute to the vacuous ‘student experience’ that the university is so keen to market. George Osborne’s appointment as Honorary Professor of Economics is part of this same desperate grab for superficial international attention from a university that privileges profit over the people working and studying there: it has overseen a huge rise in tuition fees for home and international students; senior management have received significant pay rises whilst blue collar workers have been shafted on zero hours contracts; and it continues to slap Alan Turing’s name and face all over campus as a marketing ploy when it remained silent  in the 1950s when he was forced to chemically castrate himself for being gay.

The University of Manchester is not a corporate business, and yet it is being run in such a manner. Flashy appointments and flashy new hotels and research centres on campus make a stark contrast to cuts to staff and an authoritarian contempt for students. The appointment of George Osborne has brought this fact into daylight. His position on campus will, I hope, be met with resistance from students and alumni alike for the length of its duration. I am sure you are both currently basking in the attention that this announcement has received but I believe it is ill-advised, tone deaf and damages the brilliant reputation that the University of Manchester once had, ‘furthering the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching, but also contributing to the well-being of its region and society more widely’.[3]  In its quest to hungrily make money and to become arbitrarily aspirational, for example ranking as a ‘world-leading university’ by 2020, the University of Manchester is diving into the depths of ideological infamy and history will not look kindly on this new frontier. [4]

[1] ‘Over 900 jobs at risk at University of Manchester as university announces major cuts’, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8775/Over-900-jobs-at-risk-at-University-of-Manchester-as-university-announces-major-cuts

[2] ‘University strikes hotel deal as part of £1 billion campus master plan’, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=12495.

[3] University of Manchester: Vision https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/vision/.

[4] ‘KPI 1: To be recognised as one of the 25 leading universities in the world, with 20% of subject areas in the top 20, as measured by our position in international league tables’, http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=25548.