Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities, New Picture Blog: Monstrous Beauties!

New tumblr exclusively for images, come and feast your eyes at Monstrous Beauties. Will be regularly posting curios such as: film stills from silent cinema, experimental cinema, German expressionism, Hammer horror, Czech new wave, Dada, Surrealism, dance, fashion, landscapes of forests, mountains, rivers, snow, ruined Hollywood mansions, castles and asylums. Themes of the grotesque, monstrous, disgusting, anti-aesthetic, ugly, uncanny, sublime, Informe, kitsch and the crass. Victorian photography, the Gothic, costumes, old ladies, femme-fatales, as well as books I like, décor and musical personae that tickle the fancies etc, etc ad nauseum..The Red Deeps will remain a writing blog, but for a cornucopia of visual joys - head over here! 

Friday, 8 March 2013

DEFEND THE RIGHT TO PROTEST press release on the NOT GUILTY verdict in the case against Alfie Meadows and Zak King

Press Release via: Defend the Right to Protest

"The struggle for justice for my son has finally begun" (Susan Matthews, mother of Alfie Meadows). 

Today a jury has delivered a unanimous verdict acquitting Alfie Meadows and Zak King of violent disorder. Alfie and Zak were amongst thousands of students who took to the streets against the tripling of university fees, cuts to higher education and education maintenance allowance on 9 December 2010. 

Zak and Alfie have had to wait more than two years and go through the ordeal of three trials to clear their names. Meanwhile the trial has taken a heavy toll on both Alfie and Zak's families, with Zak having had to watch his younger brother being dragged through the courts on the same false charge.

The trial has also exposed the same pattern of criminalisation and victimisation by the police and CPS, which we also saw played out in the cases of the Hillsborough tragedy and the miners' strike at Orgreave.

Alfie suffered a baton blow to the head at the same protest, which required life-saving brain surgery. While the police have so far escaped any form of accountbility for their actions, Alfie was charged with violent disorder and has had to fight to clear his name before finally beginning the road to justice. 

Of the 15 protesters who pleaded not guilty to charges of violent disorder relating to the 9 December 2010 demo, so far 14 have been found not guilty. In a time of unprecedented cuts to public funding, it is atrocious that the police and the CPS have wasted resources in the pursuit of criminalising protesters.

The trial has allowed us to scrutinise what happened on the day of the protest. The peaceful and kettled protesters were charged at with horses and subjected to indiscriminate baton use. When Alfie's barrister Carol Hawley challenged officer Wood, a senior officer in charge of the ground operation on the day, on whether their batons had been used as a last resort, his reply was that the use of a machine gun against protesters would have been the last resort. It transpired that police also considered the use of rubber bullets against the student protesters. 

The treatment of Alfie and other student protesters stands in stark contrast to the failure to hold any officers to account for violent police tactics or injuries sustained by protesters. In the wake of this verdict we are reminded that we must fight together to defend our right to protest and for justice for all victims of police violence. 

"The struggle for justice for my son has finally begun. The whole family has been through two years of total agony. We have been silenced on what happened to our son. We can now move on to the really important thing, which is to get justice for Alfie" (Susan Matthews, Alfie's mother).

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Pathetic Tragedies of "A Woman About Nothing": Madame Bovary's Disapointments and Disapearence

Its been said that Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel Madame Bovary is a book "about nothing", in fact what it's about is woman's struggle to be or feel  something "real" in an oppressive society, on middle-class women who were educated, could read about life but not actually live in the world in any active sense. Inevitably these women with ideas above their station stagnated in dreams of elsewhere and Emma Bovary is no exception to the 19th century  literary tradition of tragic, masochistic, doomed heroines, (for more on this see Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic). In her consumption of literature and pursuit of Romance she herself becomes nothing. (Perhaps a cautionary tale in itself). But it is also a book very much about the author, or at least the problematics of authorship, in that by highlighting the struggle Emma faces as woman in attaining integrity as a human being, Flaubert's inevitably draws our attention to the comparisons with his desire for integrity as a writer of a type of anti-romance novel using the very language of Romance. His pursuit for autonomy is intrinsically linked to Emma’s - after all, Flaubert says “Emma Bovary - C’est moi”. But what I'm more interested in is twisting this idea of the book being "about nothing" around and propose that Madame Bovary IS a novel about something, and this something is the nothingness experienced by its protagonist Emma Bovary. Throughout the novel it is Emma’s search for fulfilment, her quest to feel something that the book is concerned. Emma’s nothingness can be seen to stem from feelings of unreality. This is not due to her submersion in her life lived by proxy to an ideal projection of life read in books, but by the lack of other people having any real understanding of her. Her feeling of never being "fully known" leads Emma to inhabit a position of unreality in herself as an autonomous being in the world. Emma’s experience of unreality, of her being nothing is heavily tied to her sex. (see The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination for more on the role of the "dangers" of female imagination)

The relationship between Charles and Emma is plagued from the outset with misunderstanding. Emma’s hopes of achieving the “bliss…passion…ecstasy” that she's read about is her first disappointment. It is not just that Charles was perhaps sexually a flop (although after the wedding night Emma is unmoved, unchanged whereas Charles “seemed a different man”) but that she did not feel the connection that he does, displayed by his new and familiar attentions to her. Charles’ love for Emma puts her on a pedestal; he doesn't get cross with her when she behaves badly or feel disappointed by her when she "lets him down", as we do with real people we love - his unconditional love makes Emma a saint and not a real person. The bonds of marriage and social expectations force Emma to acquiesce into her new life with Charles, “But as their outward familiarity grew, she began to be inwardly detached, to hold herself more aloof from him”. So without attempting to really know his wife, Charles inadvertently disconnects her. Even after Emma is dead and Charles is confronted with the full force of his denial, he is still very much in love with his phantom projection of her, “A strange thing was that Bovary, while continually thinking of Emma, was forgetting her. He grew desperate as he felt this image fading from his memory in spite of all efforts to retain it. Yet every night he dreamt of her; it was always the same dream. He drew near her, but when he was about to clasp her she fell into decay in his arms." After her death Emma is no more real to him, he remains unable grasp her reality. 

When we are not truly seen by people, do we cease to exist to ourselves? Emma’s wish to be admired by men (a limited form of acceptance) is a reflection of her need to be seen as something, and in a sexist patriarchal society, it is men who she looks to for this affirmation of self. There is a long list of men Emma seeks this from, first (we presume) by Charles, then The Viscount followed by Leon then Rodolphe. But to be seen is not to be known, as Zizek states “The gaze of the men in the saloon, capable of discerning the fascinating contours of the object of desire…is literally a gaze capable of seeing nothingness, i.e. of seeing an object “begot of nothing”. The dresses and trinkets Emma bankrupts her family by buying, express her wish to attain a semblance of self-worth that “does nothing but fill out a certain emptiness”. All Emma gets from her doomed love affairs is the status of a commodity object. Emma remains nothing, to herself she is only real when she is granted love, thus it is only when men permit her passion can she achieve any substance. In the same way that Emma is unreal to herself because she is not seen as possessing her own ideas and desires, Andrea Dworkin in classic staunch style, posits that Emma is in fact a virgin in the sense that she has not/ and is not treated as an autonomous sexual being - she has not been made real (not an authentic woman) by experiencing real physical passion. “Preoccupied with fantasy, Emma does not see or experience the world outside of herself except as a deprivation of attention from her inner fog, and so she remains essentially untouched-by the husband who fucks her and by human possibility in the wider world of real events”. What Dworkin is suggesting, then, is that if we do not experience the full range of desires we are somewhat lacking in a real unromanticised sexual life. She expands on this, “virginity is redefined through her, given a modern meaning: a woman untouched is a woman who has not yet felt sexual desire enough to be made sick by it, experience sexual passion enough to crave it, and broken rules in order to be carnal; a woman fucked by her husband but feeling nothing, or not enough, no lust, no romance, no brilliance of sensation, is still a woman untouched”.  It is no wonder then that Emma is desperate to act on her sexual longing, in the hope that by becoming an active participant in pleasure it allows her to truly become a sexual being- so would it therefore make her more real? The idea that we are only made real or authentic by being fucked by others is both depressing and anti-autonomous reinforcing all the sexist attitudes of women's ontological unreality and Lacainan non-existence, like women, Emma Bovary "does not exist".

In Julia Kristeva’s analysis of Helen, a woman who has removed herself from a society which isolates her by not sharing her ideas nor allowing her opinions, the notion is reinforced that a state of dysphoric unreality can be created in one by not being understood by others. Kristeva writes “a total paralysis of psyche and body, an irremediable dissociation between herself and everything else, and also what should have been “she”. I find “what should have been “she” particularly interesting here as it shows how our ideas of self-hood are shaped by others’ treatment of us. Also, is this not an apt description too of how Emma’s melancholia is experienced physically for much of the book; “An attack of dizziness came on; and this evening her illness began again, though this time it was of a more uncertain nature, with more complex symptoms. Sometimes she had pains in her heart, sometimes in her chest, then in the head or limbs. She started vomiting”. The vomiting here follows Kristeva’s theories of abjection, a reading along which lines might state that Emma’s vomiting is her body reacting under great stress- against her loss of control, of slipping into unreality, after she discovers Rodolphe is leaving her. The vomiting is an expulsion of the abject, which is reassuring in the sense that it displays the boundaries between inside and outside, therefore an understanding of self is ascertained through its purification from the other of waste.

After Rodolphe abandons Emma she becomes nothing. In (the wonderful) Intercourse Dworkin discuses Emma’s state after being rejected; “she becomes sick, retreats again into a world of fantasy, wants to die, to go to heaven, to be a saint, until Leon returns to Rouen and they have an affair”. Although Emma does recover somewhat before she meets Leon again, essentially she is not really living in the real sense, she just exists until she is made real again by the passions of being desired by a man. Charles is the only man who does not treat her harshly nor discard her, but as I have previously stated, his love damages her, she can only fail at every turn to live up to his erroneous projected idea of her. She is not once treated as a person in entirety. To Rodolphe she is a challenge to master, to make subservient. Although he sees her as different from his usual mistresses as her passions are expressed to such an extreme pitch, she is still "just another mistress" to him, using the same "romantic language" as all the women he’d had before. To Rodolphe she is a half thing, a lover not a loved one, “it was not an attachment but a continual enticement”. To feel alive she willingly becomes an object, her desire to "feel" leads her down the path of masochistic desire, better to feel pain than nothing at all is the rationale of the tragic heroine. Dwokin expresses my salient point here when she writes “inevitable and terrifyingly, the men become cruel in their indifference; and to have them she still submits. Having them means the sensation will prevail over her own blank empty life. Her self-destruction, including her death, is the final reckoning for what she has become: not because she is an adulteress but because she has no integrity. She is nothing”

Flaubert’s lengthy treatment of Emma’s suicide, described in long drawn out detail, does nothing to give her death dignity. In death she losses any semblance she may have previously had of an intellectual, emotional and physical humanity. (see Bram Dijkstra's excellent Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture for the ways women have been dehumanised by erotisation of the wasting bodies of the consumptive) Instead, Emma’s death bed becomes the site of pure abjection, turning Emma into a horrific and monstrous figure. An almost religious scene of agonised “writhing limbs” “sweat” “vomit” and “blood”. (This is represented to a manic fetishistic pitch in Claude Chabrol film adaptation that sadistically lingers on Emma's death scene). It is as if Flaubert has her punished, making her more unreal to those around her (and the reader) by making her a monster. Does the act of suicide give a sense of escape, if so where is the place of escape other than escape from the body as object. Kristeva’s Helen plays dead to escape, “playing dead seemed for Helen, when she could talk about it, therefore after the event, like a “poetics” of survival, an inverted life, coiled around a imaginary and real disintegrates to the extent of embodying death as if it were real. In the world-view swallowing a vial of barbiturates is not a choice but a gesture that imperative on the basis of an elsewhere”. Rather than Emma feeling unauthentic, made of nothing, perhaps it is the world that is nothing/unreal to her - unreal unless it is making her ache, desire, revel in the "exquisite pain" of love and loss, making a tragic martyred heroine out of her. She has reached her limit of endurance when she is finally abandoned by her lovers (excluding Charles) - she no longer exists to them, as they have turned their backs on her. Kristeva’s Helen has another insight for us; “I am not killing my frustrators or my tyrants, I am killing their baby, which they have dropped”. If Emma is nothing but a vessel that can only be filled by others, when her lovers deny her substance and leave her empty, they make her disappear. She therefore destroys herself - “their baby” - as an act of completion on the job started when she became a disposable object in love. To quote Dworkin: “Romance was her suicidal substitute for action; fantasy her suicidal substitute for a real world, a wide world. And intercourse was her substitute for freedom”. For Emma, love and romance are just other forms of nihilism. 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Learning to Write the "Standard": Class & Language Wars in the Descriptivists vs Prescriptivists Debate

Following on from my last post on class, in particular on working-class experiences of higher education, I wanted to write in more depth about the ways in which language itself has to be relearned for many  students when starting higher education. In order to do well, it is insisted that students become fluent in the right way of writing which is SWE (Standard written  English). I'm interested in what makes the standard the "standard" and for whom? And more generally; what do standards assume, whom do they privilege and what happens when students fall outside of them.

Standard Written English is the language we must master in order to write “correctly”. It is a written language that is not spoken by all its writers. It is the standard that must be adhered to, but for whom is it a standard, and who dictates it? To deviate from a supposed standard means to become Other: for example, British southern speakers consider themselves “without accent”, assuming that their way of speaking is the neutral norm and others “with accents” have deviated from the standard way of speaking. This also has a relationship to class: if one does not speak in southern accented English, one is breaking with the standards of the white southern middle-classes.

This has to do with who exercises power and dominance.  Another instance in which power and dominance dictate the standard is in sex. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the work of Jacques Lacan and countless other prominent male thinkers of the twentieth century, a woman’s ontological being is that of lack: a woman’s anatomical structure deviates from that of man, because she lacks a penis. The male is the standard and the woman is the incorrect substandard being. My point in giving these two examples is to highlight that we live in a patriarchal, imperialist society. Rules and standards are set by those in power: they are not neutral forms of being, writing and speaking, but the hegemonic regulations of those with power and status: predominately, white, middle and upper-class men.

As students, we have to confront the forged constructions of linguistic standards. We must learn the rules of the game of the education system, in order to "win" and be rewarded with high marks and a good degree. We are taught to learn mimicry, to repress our own dialects and to appropriate the language of people to whose discourse community we do not belong. Therefore for those who are not white and/or middle class, who do not speak or write in this supposed neutral standard English, it is a case of “if you can't beat them, join them”. We students then must learn a new language in order to pass ourselves off as white and/or middle-class, capable of using the good SWE that is held as the ideal and marked accordingly.

What then to make of the varying arguments of the prescriptivist and the descriptivist camps? I'm interested in interrogating the ways each work and the possible problems of each position from my own personal point of view of a working class student. The issue in the dispute between descriptivists and prescriptivists is not which side cares more about language, but what is given the highest value: the content or the format of the writing. As Brian Garner states: “The prescriptive camp explicitly values linguistic decisions and informed standards of correctness”.The two sides of this debate are perhaps not even arguing the same point. The descriptive camp are more interested in a sociological study of how language, that is the parole (speech) used by a society, has been constructed and subject to ever-changing structures and permutations. The describers are more concerned with the practice of speech, the shifting semiotic meanings and the utterances unique to a given discourse community. They are not dictating how we are to use language in an academic setting. As Garner points out: “Describers themselves write exclusively in Standard English”. The salient feature in their research is how entwined language and identity are. Despite our ability to vary registers, to function in differing discourse communities using different dialects, most people have a core parole that expresses what has formed their individual make up.

What is pertinent about this finding is that is draws attention to a process of erasure within academia: we exchange our individual parole for the langue of institutional authority and power. Terrance Hawkes explicitly links our construction of  language with our construction of selfhood, "since this self-regarding self-regulating, form constitutes our characteristic means of encountering and of coping with the world beyond ourselves, then perhaps we can say that it constitutes the characteristic human structure. From there, it is only a small step to the argument that perhaps it also constitutes the characteristic structure of human reality". If we take the stance that language and identity are closely bonded, then acceptance of the discriminatory idea that language usage that does not adhere to SWE is incorrect, can lead to a shattering of one's sense of identity. The linguist James Milroy comments that “in an age when discrimination in terms of race, colour, religion, or gender is not publicly acceptable, the last bastion of overt social discrimination will continue to be a person's language”. Although I do believe a person's language can be an essential aspect of how they view themselves, and factors in how they interrogate the world, I do not believe my language is my reality. However, it is true to say that human beings' experience of reality is subjective, and if you feel your language (i.e. your self) is under threat, then you may also feel your reality or validity is being questioned.

Like Garner, David Foster Wallace describes himself as a "descriptivist prescriber". He states the prescriptivist case in a gentler way. By using the self-deprecating term "snoot" he attempts to endear himself to the reader, deliberately using informal language and a conversational tone to show that he is "just like us after all". Wallace of course knows what register is appropriate in the context of academic publications, but chooses to disregard his own rules in a rather disingenuous tactic intended to 'level with' the reader. This acts as "the spoon full of sugar", so that when at the end of his essay he tells a student (and us the reader) 'This is just How It Is" - that we must us SWE or fail - the harsh truth is supposedly easier to swallow. Wallace expresses in this passage of dialogue with a student his awareness that SWE is the language of the powerful, and that this could be seen as "racist and unfair", yet by using the example of successful and powerful black people he reinforces the conservative view that conformity breeds success, that success is gauged financially and education enables class climbing and access to power. The usefulness of Wallace's instruction "you're going to use it, too, because I am going to make you" is a prescriptivist lesson of the uses of conformity. 

To elevate the status and authority of his argument, Garner often cites which university his chosen prescribers come from: "the Oxford professor Jean Aitchison", "Richard Bailey of Michigan" and "F.W, Bateson of Oxford" etc. Yet when commenting on the possible future degeneration of language, his regard for the authority of institutions of education  disappears. Perhaps this can be explained as an example of educational elitism. In a university-damning passage he suggests: “The spirit of the day demands that you not think critically – or at least not think ill – of anyone else’s use of language...And there is a large, powerful contingent in higher education today...trying to eradicate any thoughts about good and bad grammar, correct and incorrect word choices, effective and ineffective style”. In my experiences of being a student I find this statement totally unfounded. During my BA, the marking schemes for essay submission clearly state that students "must show correct grammar and lexical choices" etc, as well as "clarity and flair". During the first half of my degree, before I knew better - and to my personal displeasure - the quality (or lack) of correct SWE was often treated as of greater importance than other things my written work had been praised for, such as being "original", "interesting" and possessing  "sophistication and independence of thought" etc. At that point, not being able to master SWE put me at a disadvantage  Garner's hyperbolic comment is comparable to that of a white racist from a predominantly white area who believes that "the blacks are taking all the jobs" - his scaremongering comes from the same position of  fear and ignorance: fear for the loss of a standard he highly regards, and ignorance in that he is not writing from the position of a student currently in higher education.

Garner falls into a perfomative contradiction when he says that "without some stability, the English language wouldn't be much as a lingua franca".  The use of this Latin phrase, rather than an SWE version, reveals a privileged education in which a familiarity with Latin is expected and is in common use. (Perhaps showing my own ignorance - but I didn't know what this phrase meant until after completing my degree!). Still, I feel the usage of Latin here speaks of the old boys club influencing English language – what percentage of the population finds this phrase in common use? Why not use the vernacular ''bridge language", to follow the prescriptivist insistence on correct English usage that is clear and understood by all its users? Surely this is an example of elitism within language use on the side of the prescriptivist. Should students today, despite not having had access to that type of education, be learning Latin phrases in order to join a prescribed discourse community? Or is it the case that, as Colin MacCabe argues, “the eighteenth-century grammars, and more importantly the views of language and class which underpinned them, continue to terrorize English speech.”. 

Language can be used as a weapon: those who have access to decent, thorough education can wield their words in a manner that dominates and oppresses those who do not possess that capability. When one party uses Latin it is a blatant display of knowledge that carries with it an easy confidence that stems from privilege. This is not about intelligence or clarity, but about education: who has it and who doesn't. If you are going to enter into the debate you must acquire this learning for yourself, not to conform to the standard set but to have the same mastery of language.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Identifying with Rita, "Passing/Out: Thoughts on Split Class Subjectivity"

Since starting higher education, my class has been on my mind: does it show? In what ways do I pass? What am I assumed to be? How to present myself and my roots without being obnoxiously bolshy, etc? In one of my first A-level Art History lessons, the lecturer in her 60's, who ordinarily was lovely (resembling Marianne Faithful, with grey mullet and cough mixture addiction anecdotes), was trying to help the class imagine the traditions of the put-on poverty of many middle-class artists, who after leaving home and rejecting financial assistance live in poor areas and experience life (or the earthiness of poverty or whatever it is they are looking for) away from their bourgeois family nests. Anyway, my lecturer asked us to imagine that we all left home and "moved to Saint Mary's, or Northam Estate say", and the second of these "poor rough" areas was where I was living at that time. Looking back, I regret that I did not point this out to the lecturer, who teaching an Art History A-level class standardly (and wrongly) assumed us all be middle-class; but at the time I was embarrassed by this slight, and perhaps even ashamed. Embarrassed of being poor and not even in a glamorous-struggling-artist kind of way.
Awkward scenes such as this have been a recurring presence from that point onwards, and I believe the more you progress within the education system the stronger the assumption becomes - to the extent that your progression is taken as proof you have assimilated and that their assumptions are finally correct: you are middle-class now! More recently, starting my MPhil, thoughts around class and education, about passing or being assumed to be middle class have returned. How to mix identifying myself as working-class while doing a PhD - yet I have no income/salary nor enjoy any of the connections, safety nets, security, or status of the middle-classes? I have no reason to rethink the kosherness of that identification, simply because I have ideas above my station. Part of the first chapter of my PhD will be dealing with class and the body, and I've been looking at the work of Jo Spence. I found a wonderful piece of writing by Spence in her book Cultural Sniping - it is helpful in making sense of the experience of being a working-class student or academic, the feeling that you do not fit neatly in either class and are somehow an intruder in both.

Jo Spence writing in 1991:
"Going into higher education was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me, but it was also one of the most painful because it couldn't deal with the conflict that I wanted to theorise, which was class. It gave me some amazing tools, though, which I'll always have, but I felt very much like the woman in the film Educating Rita who says she feels like an intellectual 'half caste'. I've had neither a good education nor a thorough education, nor have I had no education. I have crossed boundaries and I am in limbo land. I'm sorry to talk in parables but I think the story of the ugly duckling is very important because it ties up the story of Cinderella. If I was going to do the Cinderella work again I would concentrate on the ugly sisters. The point about the ugly duckling story is that you have to know who you can relate to, who are your group. In class terms, crossing social barriers, my greatest pleasure in life would be to understand what group I belong to. But at least now I understand that I never assimilated, I only masqueraded".