Wednesday, 25 March 2015

“We Are The Walking Dead” [1] I

Following a previous post about vampires, I now turn my attention to zombies.

This is the first of two posts.

If vampires tell us something about our relationship with God, then zombies tell us something about our relationship with one another. So,

The question then is why are the zombies our cultural mirror? What do zombies elicit from our current anxieties that other monsters do not?[2]

Since there are different angles on this immigration, distributed networks, contagion, consumerism, etc. [2]one blogger concludes: Zombies, in the end, may be a type of embodied Rorschach test for whatever mass social anxieties and tensions may be present, or operating, at the time. [3]

So allow me to suggest one more angle: zombies enable us to explore what has come to be known as status anxiety. Wilkinson and Pickett provide a sketch of status anxiety in their book The Spirit Level. [4] Essentially, a number of societies (including the US and the UK) are becoming increasingly more unequal. As those at the top consume more and more, those just below the top also consume more in order to keep up.

And as those below them do likewise, everyone is consuming more to keep up with the Joneses. This is because everyone becomes increasingly more anxious about their social standing. So everyone becomes increasingly more concerned about what others think of them. This concern is status anxiety.

Allow me to suggest some reasons why the zombie leitmotif can be read in this way.

First, I am not the first to make the connection between zombies and consumerism here. That connection has been made already.

Second, note the scarcity of resources in the Zombie Apocalypse (both humans for the zombies to feed on, and basic supplies for human survival). This reflects the competition for social standing.

Third, such competition for social standing is driven by envy in the real world, and represented by zombies in the Apocalypse. Zombies represent pathogenic envy, showing us that we are like them. By consuming to increase our social standing, we induce envy in others. And so we perpetuate the pattern. Zombies make zombies.

(It should be clear by now that these different angles on zombies are not mutually exclusive, for example: although immigration is not fuelled by envy so much as need, need is not unconnected to systemic envy, because it fuels need in the first place by making the rich richer and the poor poorer. 

Furthermore, in a distributed network all nodes are equal so none are central. Such a network exhibits the behaviour of a crowd. So insofar as social anxiety is a social – rather than individual – phenomenon, envy is more akin to a distributed network than to any particular point on that network. Again, envy here is systemic. It is a crowd behaviour. And so, insofar as envy spreads it might be considered a contagion, etc.)

In the next post we will consider antidotes to the Apocalypse.

[1] Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn, The Walking Dead #24 (Berkeley: Image Comics, 2005).
[2] Respectively, Jon Stratton, The Trouble with Zombies: Bare Life, Muselmanner, and Displaced Bodies, Somatechnic 1.1 (2011), 188-208; Steven Jankowski, Protocol Z: The Distributed Social Organisation of Zombies’ http://textaural.com/protocol-z/;  Melissa Nasiruddin, Monique Halabi, Alexander Dao, Kyle Chen, and Brandon Brown, ZombiesA Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness, Emerging Infectious Diseases, www.cdc.gov/eid,  Vol. 19, No. 5, May 2013; Stephen Harper, Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romeros Dawn of the Deadin Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2. http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm (Accessed 15 March, 2015) cf. Robin Redmon Wright, Vampires and Zombies as Critical Public Pedagogy: Using Horror for Critical Adult Education and HRD Instruction(unpublished paper).

Friday, 20 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, and Black and White Bigotry IV


This is the fourth of four posts, containing the sixth of six points:
  1. Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written.
  2. It was written as Twilight fan fiction.
  3. Vampire literature helps us to come to terms with evil in all of us.
  4. Perhaps the real weakness of Fifty Shades is its weakness as an adult fairy tale.
  5. The problem with Fifty Shades is not only in how its written but also in how its read.
  6. By failing to read the story as a vampiric fairy tale, the reader might be less likely to read the story as a mirror of themselves, thereby generating moments of irony.
The menace in Fifty Shades is not so much BDSM as the abusive relationship (or arrangement) surrounding it. So as a mirror does it challenge or reinforce such behaviour? And as a mirror does it mirror us or mirror others?

By locating the book within a vampiric literary line, I believe it should at least be read as a mirror of the reader, challenging the readers own behaviour. So picking up from my third point, can we see aspects of this menace in our own lives? Are we co-dependent? What makes such dynamics a temptation?

However, and this is my sixth point, by failing to read the story as a vampiric fairy tale, the reader might be less likely to read the story as a mirror of themselves, thereby generating moments of irony.

(Of course, even without recourse to its vampiric heritage, the story can still be read as a mirror of the reader. But the very fact of that heritage should make this all the more obvious.)

For example, denouncers of Fifty Shadescontent can come across as smug, self-righteous, and holier than thou. (When those denouncers are faith-based, is that really the message Christians want to send?)

Furthermore, these denouncers lapse into irony if they have not read Fifty Shades for themselves. In the same way that Christian Grey exhibits sociopathic tendencies by being unable to read Anastasias need (for hearts and flowers) [72], denouncers of Fifty Shades exhibit similar tendencies by failing to read the book. They fail to care for the book (and its author). And so they can come across as smug, self-righteous, and holier than thou, much like Christian Grey. Isnt it ironic?

Moreover, when those who critique the book from a faith-based patriarchalism, which might itself lead to the diminution of women, is this not ironic too? (Not all faith-based patriarchalism demeans women, but I am sure that some does. And I am equally sure that many who profess some form of patriarchalism are not patriarchal in practice. But there is something ironic here.)

And is it not ironic when some critiques set themselves up as biblicaland the relationship (or arrangement) between Christian and Anastasia as cultural? This is not to say that the relationship (or arrangement) between Christian and Anastasia is itself biblical” — although it might bring to mind texts like Judges 19 and 2 Samuel 13. Rather, it is to say that our own biblicalrelationships are not independent of culture either.*

Fifty Shades of Grey is a challenge for all of us for not only how we respond to the book, but also how we respond to each other, myself included.
Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?
No one, sir,she said.
Then neither do I condemn you,Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin[John 8:6b-11].

* Stephanie Coontz,
Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005).

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, and Black and White Bigotry III


This is the third of four posts, containing the fifth of six points:
  1. Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written.
  2. It was written as Twilight fan fiction.
  3. Vampire literature helps us to come to terms with evil in all of us.
  4. Perhaps the real weakness of Fifty Shades is its weakness as an adult fairy tale.
  5. The problem with Fifty Shades is not only in how its written but also in how its read.
  6. By failing to read the story as a vampiric fairy tale, the reader might be less likely to read the story as a mirror of themselves, thereby generating moments of irony.
Fifth, the problem with Fifty Shades therefore is not only in how its written but also in how its read.

In two impromptu posts, I have noted two different readings of the book. Both agree that the book is a fairy tale that mirrors human behaviour. However, since I read Christian Grey as a wolf, I believe that the mirror challenges dysfunctional behaviour. (More specifically, the book challenges dysfunction in all its readers.)

On the other hand, Roxane Gay reads Christian Grey as a woodcutter (or Prince Charming), and believes that the mirror reinforces dysfunctional behaviour. (More specifically, the book reinforces dysfunction in people other than Gay.)

And so it seems far more constructive to me to begin a conversation about the book by asking whether it challenges or reinforces behaviour (and why), rather than condemning it outright before even reading it. (The problem is not only how Fifty Shades is read, but also that Fifty Shades is not read at all.)

Perhaps Christians can begin with their own book the Bible.

In a previous post I cited Judges 6. But what about texts like Judges 19 and 2 Samuel 13? The former concerns a dismembered female, and the latter rape. The narrative passes no judgement on these acts, and the victims receive no justice. It is left to the reader to respond. So does the text encourage these acts in its failure to condemn them? Or does the text challenge us (the reader) to condemn these acts, thereby challenging us to refrain from them?*

Perhaps if we fail to wrestle with the Bible at these points, we will fail to wrestle with other texts  too. Rather than read well we gloss over difficult texts or write them off entirely (as many have done to Fifty Shades). Surely the onus is on the people of the Book to read our own book well, in order to model good reading of all texts to others.

(Incidentally, isnt it ironic given the assumed historicity of Judges 19 and 2 Samuel 13, and the role of God therein, that they provoke less protest than Jamess work of fiction?)

Nonetheless, modelling good reading of all texts does not mean that all people should read all texts. Some can eat food sacrificed to idols. Others cant [1 Corinthians 8:1-13]. So we should be sensitive to this. Fifty Shades is explicit at points but no more so than some recent US TV and some people should not read it, much like some should abstain from alcohol.

So although we cannot take responsibility for how Fifty Shades is written, we can take responsibility for how it is read. And as people of the Book, surely Christians should be modelling good reading: first, by actually reading Fifty Shades before voicing opinion and, second, by reading Fifty Shades well, even if its writing leaves something to be desired.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Fifty Shades: The Wolf and the Woodcutter II



This is the second of two posts.

Second, Gay and I also agree that Fifty Shades is a fairy tale. So we agree that it is both a mirror and a fairy tale.

But whereas she likens Christian Grey to Prince Charming, Im not so sure. By noting the vampiric heritage of Fifty Shades (in my first and second posts), things are not so straightforward. Yes, the vampire has become Prince Charming, but Prince Charming remains a vampire more wolf than woodcutter to reference Red Riding Hood.

And it is precisely because the embodiment of evil (the vampire) has become a romantic hero that the book allows for multiple readings. The vampire challenges our behaviour. The romantic hero enforces it. But for Gay, Christian Grey the romantic hero is merelydysfunctional, thereby muting his vampiric origins.

(This also gives rise to another question, “is Christian Grey ‘merely’ dysfunctional, or is he a sociopath? Is he wolf or woodcutter?”)

It is worth noting that the film version of Fifty Shades differs subtly from the book. The Christian Grey of the film is warmer than the Christian Grey of the book. There, sociopath becomes merely dysfunctional too. On the one hand, this heightens the romance. On the other hand, it jars.

The final scene involves Anastasia asking Christian to give her all hes got. She wants to know how bad it can be. And it is bad. In the book, this is the inevitable denouement of a sociopath. In the film, it grates because he has just a little too much heart. This extra charm also pulls the novel closer to Gays reading than to mine.

(By doing this, does not the film encourage multiple readings of the book?)

Again, for Gay, Fifty Shades is more Prince Charming: for me, more Phantom of the Opera. By placing the book in these respective contexts Gay gives the mirror a stronger reinforcing function, whereas I give it a more challenging one. And again, the book will do both. It poses the question does this book enforce or challenge our behaviour?

Perhaps the problem is that some people dont want to ask the second part of the question. The answer to them is clearly no. Fifty Shades does not challenge us, so why bother asking? Well, I think the book allows plenty of room for a noanswer, as it does for a yesanswer. (Its just a shame that many of the no-answerpeople have no room for the book.)

By allowing this room, the book helps us to think through why this is so in a way that a bigoted because the Bible says sodoes not. Christians are in danger of excluding themselves from a conversation that they might actually want to have.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Fifty Shades: The Wolf and the Woodcutter I



This is the first of two posts.

Commenting on my second Fifty Shades post, Kim Fabricius wondered what I made of Roxane Gays essay The Trouble with Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us. It made sense to engage with this first before completing my series on Fifty Shades

Gay notes that a relationship with Prince Charming often comes with a sacrifice that a maiden must make. Such sacrifices (like Anas to partake in BDSM) not only mean that the relationship is abusive, but also reinforce notions that such a relationship is desirable.

She makes two assumptions.

First, Gay describes the book as a primerfor this kind of relationship [201]. It only holds up a mirror to the reader insofar as it reinforces existing stereotypes.

So although we agree that the book mirrors human behaviour, we differ as to how the mirror should function. In what sense is the narrative normative? Does it reinforce or challenge?

In Judges 6 Gideon puts out a fleece. Should this challenge or reinforce our behaviour? Should we too put out our fleeces? Or does the text aim to challenge this behaviour in its observation that Gideon was worried about angering God [6:39]? (Perhaps Gideon knew that he should trust God without asking for signs.) Or does the text enforce this behaviour by accommodating to it, as Jesus does to doubtingThomas [John 20:24-29]?

Perhaps Fifty Shades also allows for multiple readings. Gay is not wrong. The book will reinforce dysfunction for some. (More specifically, the book reinforces dysfunction in people other than Gay.) I am not wrong. The book will also challenge dysfunction for some. (More specifically, the book challenges dysfunction in all its readers.) These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

It also gives rise to this question, read as a mirror, does Fifty Shades enforce or challenge our behaviour?(Perhaps if we first learnt to ask that of the biblical narrative, asking it to those on both sides of the faith community with regards to Fifty Shades would come more naturally.)

The next post suggests that these different readings arise from different appropriations of Christian Grey.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, and Black and White Bigotry II


This is the second of four posts, containing the third and fourth points of six:
  1. Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written.
  2. It was written as Twilight fan fiction.
  3. Vampire literature helps us to come to terms with evil in all of us.
  4. Perhaps the real weakness of Fifty Shades is its weakness as an adult fairy tale.
  5. The problem with Fifty Shades is not only in how its written but also in how its read.
  6. By failing to read the story as a vampiric fairy tale, the reader might be less likely to read the story as a mirror of themselves, thereby generating moments of irony.
So far, I have suggested that Fifty Shades is badly written, and that it concludes a long line of vampire literature. The vampire has finally become human.

Third, vampire literature helps us to come to terms with evil in all of us. (I have posted on this elsewhere.) It functions as a mirror on the soul.

As such, readings of Fifty Shades that reduce it to a model relationship (or arrangement, since Grey doesnt do girlfriends) are simply wrong. The book also describes us.

We all have shortcomings in empathy. So where is the Christian Grey in us? Do we actually enjoy these shortcomings (perhaps because they give us a sense of power)? Is it easier to be the sociopath than to be pained by the way in which we hurt others?

(Flannery OConnor tackles this issue brilliantly in A Good Man is Hard to Find. We are all more serial killerthan we think.)*

In my final post I will consider concrete cases of irony, where the reader fails to see the mirror. They fail to see themselves amongst the fifty shades of grey. (Or perhaps subconsciously they do see themselves, and so lapse into denial.) Either way, this failure can lead to the black and white bigotry of my series titlecritics can manifest the very qualities that they despise in Christian Grey.

(This is not to say that Fifty Shades can only be read as a mirror of the reader, only that it should at least be read as such.)

Fourth, perhaps the real weakness of Fifty Shades, then, is its weakness as an adult fairy tale. (Incidentally, I found it helpful to read Fifty Shades as a variation on Phantom of the Opera. In both, monster manipulates maiden.) Notice how the previously virginal Anastasia muses:

Im in a fantasy apartment, having fantasy sex with my fantasy boyfriend, when the grim reality is that he wants a special [BDSM] arrangement[368].

Fairy tales almost always contain some mythical menace such as a talking wolf. In this sense Christian Grey (and his grim reality) might not be mythical enough, thereby narrowing the gap between imagination and reality.

Has the vampire has become too human? Put another way, if Christian Grey were undead were he either a vampire or the phantom of the opera, say then would it be easier to read the book as a mirror of ourselves?

But despite kinks (!) in its writing, surely there is an onus – perhaps more of an onus – on the reader to read it well.

We shall explore this further in the next post.


Friday, 6 March 2015

Grieving What Never Was

This past Thursday was a sad, sad day.

Kathy and I retraced some of the steps we had taken with Daniel. Those steps took us into Bath & Body Works. The last time we were here I hoisted Daniel onto my shoulders so he could reach towards the lights.

This time we were greeted by an over-enthusiastic sales assistant. We tried to avert our gaze. But this caused her to talk more. We tried politely moving away. But she followed us, babbling about this offer and that product. She didn’t get the hint.

So I interrupted firmly but gently, “I’m so sorry. The last time we were here we had our son with us. He’s since died so we just came to remember him.” (That’s a lot to drop on a sales assistant. Poor girl.) She replied with a big beaming smile, “OK!”

But worse was to come.

Next door is Barnes and Noble. I love bookshops. I always have. We brought Daniel here before. It was a happy end to a happy day. He played with the Duplo. We bought him some balls. And we bought him a child-proof case for my iPad, so he could play with that too.

I love bookshops. I always have.

But Thursday was overwhelmingly sad. We saw toys that we would have bought him, if he was with us now. A child’s karaoke microphone caught my eye. I had to leave the children’s section. Dazed, I wondered around the store fighting back tears.

Grief connects us to our loss. It is bitter-sweet. Sometimes it engulfs us so much that I wonder whether such intense grief might actually bring back the dead, conjuring them up by magic. Thursday was one of those days.

The problem with Barnes and Noble was that everything reminded me of Daniel, if not of the past, or the present, then certainly of a future we will never enjoy.

Would we have bought him Minecraft or Lego? Science sets or craft books?

Now I think I hate bookshops.

But there is healing there. This is because Kathy and I have now resolved to visit a toy department, maybe twice a year, to window shop for Daniel. How old would he be? What would he be into?

In addition, I bought my brother-in-law some soccer stickers. And I bought my friends’ son some Lego. So I can still share these experiences, even if not with Daniel. I can still indulge to some degree.

So although no amount of tears will bring him back, we can still take the edge off what never was.