Yesterday I went to see Ulrich Seidel's "Import/Export" with <lj user="daresbalat"> and it was utterly, utterly depressing. What really stood out for me was the sheer bleakness of the lives that the protagonists lead and their inability to do anything about it.
Olga comes from a nondescript Ukrainian town, is a nurse and lives with her family and her small baby. I had some strange flashbacks to where I come from just because we sometimes had winters like that and the houses just looked eerily familiar, in an soviet satellite town sense. Of course even the really neglected tower blocks where I come from seem luxurious to the way Olga and her family live. She decides to leave the country to go to Austria, like some of her friends have done, presumably with the hope to provide for her family from there. That she does not speak the language seems only indicative of her despair and hopelessness. Now, what she experiences in Austria made my blood boil because it seems so familiar, the obvious, everyday in-your-face racism and sexism that people just seem to get away with. Even I have heard that kind of racism many a time, in my case it was usually directed at the Russians living in my area and man, they had it bad. Watching the film brought back some rather unpleasant memories of incidents in which I didn't say anything but really should have; I know that it's not an excuse but I was very young and ignorant back then. Olga's second, and permanent, job is in a nursing home for the elderly. This bit was incredibly emotionally draining because it was so desolate, for both staff and patients. It reminded me of my very first months of "adulthood:" just after my A-Levels I worked for an organisation that employed care workers in people's homes or in day centres. My job was it to look after a then 91-year old man. (Think about this - he was born in 1911 and thus lived through almost the entire 20th century!) He was very sweet and it was not a hard job because he would sleep a lot and I did not have much tidying to do and so I could read the paper (to him, occasionally) and just generally pass the time. However, there were instances when he would accidentally wet himself and had to tell me because he needed help. This made him feel incredibly uncomfortable, as it would make most people. The nursing home in the film, however, brought home again to me that places like that strip people of their humanity completely and turns them into eating and shitting machines that have to be maintained and, eventually, disposed of. It is utterly horrid, that these places do not respect life and the people in them, but I guess that there are many reasons for why they are the way the are. The other thing was that these people have lived through so much and now they are in a home and no-one cares about them any more. I think I even saw an Auschwitz survivor amongst the protagonists. The combined knowledge and experiences just have me in awe even though the people might have dementia and think that they are 10 years old again. The scary thing is that the number of these places is only likely to increase with people getting ever older in Western societies. Olga is in the middle of this and actually had me in tears when she phoned her small baby and sang him a song down the phone about how great life is. That was truly heartbreaking. At the end, she seems to have settled in with her colleagues and we leave her sitting at a table with them with tears of laughter running from their eyes. (I'd like to think that her plan has worked out in some way and that she will be able to support her family back in Ukraine as well as herself.)
Paul, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish altogether. He seems to not care about anything other except his job as a security guard, which he loses after a gang catches and strips him one night. He does not seem to have any direction in life or anything to say for himself. I found this rather frustrating and was wondering what he was doing there in the first place until we meet his parents - that is his non-committal mother and his bullying step-father. Father and son go on a road trip to Eastern Europe to put up chewing gum machines on housing estates and fruit machines in run-down discos. Their journey takes them to some grim places, all of which seem to be impoverished, dirty and full of (emotionally, physically) malnourished people. And they are people despite what Paul's father says. His obvious and obnoxious sexism and racism really got to me, especially because it was so casual. I think that Paul, for what seems the first time, sees his father for what he is - a pathetic swine - on this trip. What probably drove it home was a terrible scene with a sex worker that had me choking on my anger and has him leave his father behind to stay in the Ukraine and possibly start his life all over.
All things considered, the film is very good, on many levels: it is beautifully shot and the narrative is well paced although sometimes painfully slow (I mean that I just wanted the horrible things to go away, not that it was boring to watch). It reinforced some thoughts that I've had previously about xenophobia and racism and how there is much racism against white people that sometimes goes unacknowledged. It also made me realise, again, the privilege that I have to be able to live my life the way I do and to have been able to have made choices. I think that everybody should be able to make choices --- now I only need to think about what I'll do about that.
It's a very shoddy and un-constructively opinionated article about the decline of empires, with Russia in the focus this time. There are very many things wrong with this article but I just picked one sentence out as an example:
A KGB operative stationed in the West and tasked with upholding the superiority of the Soviet system must have felt like a member of the Flat-Earth Society on a round-the-world cruise.
Excuse me?! As a member of a former "Flat-Earth Society" I find this very offensive and completely inappropriate. Here is this white, middle class WESTERNER telling me what my society was like? And how enlightened and perfect the West is? I think not. I haven't encountered this sort of arrogance in a long time and find it quite disconcerting that this is probably a prevailing view that is just not voiced any more because people know that they'll be told off for being politically incorrect. I mean, yes, no system is perfect, really, but the point is that it's definitely not his call to judge. And not in this way, anyway. He is just being an arrogant westerner taking the moral high-ground as if that was his natural position when there are so many things wrong with the West that I can't even begin to think about them. Argh!
Back to Wuthering Heights, though, I thought I'd read the Introduction, by David Daiches. My copy is from 1993, which reprinted an 1985 edition and still kept the 1965 Introduction. That's almost 30 years of printing a text unchanged that is certainly typical for its time. I'm confused as to why it was never changed as Literature Studies has certainly evolved tremendously from 1965 to the mid-1990s and beyond. From where I'm standing, Modernism didn't enter the 1965 equation, which may not be surprising, considering the conservatism of the Academy of the time.
But let me go into some details that make me glad that we've kinda moved on (I hope!) and make me cautiously optimistic that you wouldn't find this in a more recent edition of the same novel. Quotes in Italics.
[...] The originality and intensity of her imagination, which led her to produce a novel unique in English literature, provide a fascinating subject for critical inquiry and psychological speculation. [...]
It again strikes me that it is necessary to have psychological speculation about an author, I guess that this is because the author happened to be female.
[...] The most impressive and passionate of Emily's poems and Gondal poems [poems that she wrote while creating an imaginary world with her brother and sisters], and even though they obviously reflect her deepest emotional needs they are on the surface dramatic utterances by invented characters. [...]
Argh! So the poems *obviously* reflect deep emotional needs then? Obvious to whom? And since when do characters in fictional works (not) express the thoughts of the author in some way? And has Mr Daiches ever heard of the differentiation between the narrator (or lyrical I) and the author? And it's getting worse...
Though the foppish and idle curiosity of Lockwood and the practical common sense of Nelly Dean (the principal narrator) do provide a means of setting the passionate extravagance of the action against the normal expectations of more conventional people, there is nevertheless a lack of surprise at her own story in Emily Bronte's manner, a sense of habituation, as though the manic emotions of Heathcliff and the elder Catherine were part of the world she took quietly for granted.
Now there's a thought. Fiction is real, authors are just faithful chroniclers of real goings-on and the Bronte household was indeed a bit odd. I mean, how could *normal, conventional people* come up with such a narrative and not find them strange? Again I am struck with Mr Daiches' lack of understanding of the difference between an author and the narrator despite the fact that he points to Nelly Dean as the principal narrator. I also can't help thinking about other gothic texts written by men which would not get this sort of reaction. I somehow doubt that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Dracula would have received the same response. But let me finish with the one quote that nearly had me throw the book out of the window.
The fact that such differences between interpretation are possible is of course a tribute to the novel's richness and fascination, and also to the fact that there must have been powerful forces working in Emily Bronte while she was writing it of which of which she herself cannot have been fully conscious. We might profitably begin, however, with the evidence of careful conscious design.
Mr Daiches does not elaborate on what these powerful forces might have been and how they might have guided unsuspecting Emily's pen to write such a powerful novel, a thing that no woman can be capable of doing consciously, surely. I don't even have the will to take this seriously, although I really wanted to when starting to write this post. Suffice to say that Shakespeare did not know about Freud either and that no-one claims intervention of higher forces for the bard and his work because you can read it in Freudian ways.
Enough already. Let's just hope that times have changed and that people who write Introductions these days are less sexist and more professionally critical.
It was Climate Camp week/weekend again this week and protesters assembled in Kent to demonstrate against Government plans to build a new power plant there which, they claim, will have six more in its wake, thus making it impossible for Britain to reduce its carbon footprint. A few people managed to get into the plant, only to be arrested almost immediately. Police matched the protesters almost one-to-one. Most of the people there, however, were having an enjoyable time, with a carnival-like procession to the plant and back. Only a minority tried to disrupt the plants workings. The Observer quoted a protester called Madeleine claiming that "it was a total success. We stopped any coal getting to the station and disrupted its operation. If the government gives the go-ahead for a new plant, we will be back to stop it. This is not a symbolic protest." Another protester said that "This protest is about raising awareness. Hopefully it will put pressure on the government not to approve new coal plants." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2
Now there is a thought! So about one million (!) people could not influence the government enough to not invade Iraq but about 100 people can make it reconsider its position on its energy policy. Wow, I'm certainly impressed. No other activist camp seems so arrogant about the right-ness and *obviousness* of their action as the green activists. Every time I've seen an environmentally themed protest I have been at a loss as to what it was all about and had to be enlightened by some bystanders or some people who were involved. The fact that the organisers seemed completely oblivious to the fact that maybe they needed to make their points clearer did not endear them to me at all. (I hasten to add that, yes, sometimes I can be a bit thick but usually I'm quite good at figuring out why there are fifty people marching down the street - if they have banners and flyers that explain what they're all about.)
The other things that never fail to get my back up are the almost complete lack of self-reflexivity in the movement as well as the its exclusiveness. Some may claim that environmental activism is diverse but I'm not convinced. Most people I know are in it because they don't have anything else to worry about, i.e. racism, sexism, classism or phobias of dissent sexual/gender identities. That is not to say that people from these minorities do not participate, but the vast majority that I have encountered is from white, middle-class backgrounds who are usually university educated and probably feel guilty about their privilege in society. So, rather than turning their attention to smaller, achievable goals, they want to change the world, entirely, not just the attitudes in their family and friend circles, their neighbourhoods and communities or their country.
Even if that is not the case, I'm still baffled by the single-issue mentality that seems to pervade in environmentalist activism. Yes, climate change is bad and now almost completely inevitable. So why don't we try to come to terms with that and try to find solutions rather than trying to prevent the almost burnt ship from sinking by putting a small fire out? And why not start small? The government is not inclined to listen to anyone anyway, so why not start with local communities and raise awareness there? I'm sure that if you make climate change less abstract and link it with the daily lives of people, the results would be better than rallying the government in a heavily policed demo. And also (this is closest to my heart) link climate change with other things! It's not just coal plants that pollute the environment. What about all those meat, dairy and egg producing farms that expell tons of greenhouse gasses and contribute to the changing climate indirectly - the rain forest is being cut down so that more soya can be planted which is then fed to farm animals under horrific conditions. I'd like to see the protest outside Whitehall that makes that link explicit and demands an end to factory farming because of climate change (rather than the traditional animal rights).
What reading the paper today also brought home to me is that we as people are almost completely unable to change or even influence the bigger picture of the changing of the global climate. Two articles to support this:
So unless big global economies make an effort to slow global warming, we are basically screwed and, according to another commentator in the same paper, out children will hate us for it. For me, that puts the righteousness of environmental activism into another light - they don't seem to have done their homework. There are about 1,000 demonstrations in China a day against China's environmental policy and the government there isn't listening. So why not get a ticket and hop on a plane, so that you can teach them how to do "total[ly] success[ful]" demonstrations that make governments change their minds? Oh, planes are bad, I forgot. What a shame.
On another, less whiny, note I have recently been thinking about those strange signs that people put in their cars: "Child on Board" or "Baby on Board." What exactly do those motorists want us to do and think about that? Drive extra-carefully because a baby/child is more important than an adult or teenager in the car? How does that work? Does life lose value the more it progresses? I find that idea really disturbing because all life should be valued in the same way. The other thing that I've noticed in my neighbourhood is that these kinds of signs have been high-jacked by "lifestylers" who put all sorts of things in their window. My favourite so far are "Stud on Board" and "Tart on Board." It's as hilarious as unnecessary and completely irrelevant to the context it's displayed in. So those people may well identify as stud or tart but in a traffic situation that's as completely irrelevant as the fluffy dice hanging from the rear mirror. Why do people do it? And why do they choose these particular words/identities? I guess that they're re-claiming in an ironic and probably completely unintentional sense in much the same way that I want to reclaim some homophobic abuse as a positive term. However, I wouldn't do that on the sign of my car (if I had one) but in a more relevant context. But, because I'm a trends-whore, I'll go make my own sign now - to go on my bike and display "Cyclist on Board."
It is, unsurprisingly, about queer stuff and queer-related issues, in this case about the recent BBC programme "The Making of Me - John Barrowman" which was aired in the UK last Thursday and which can be found here:
Let me first say that I am definitely in favour of programmes like this because it gets the message out that gay and lesbian people are not evil, bad or deviant, that is to say that they are human beings that deserve as much respect as everybody else. However, there were some issues with this particular programme that had me shout at the telly several times. John Barrowman may be waving the "Gay Flag" where ever possible but what he doesn't seem to realise is that he has got a big following in queer circles as well because he plays Captain Jack Harkness, the omnisexual immortal in Doctor Who and Tochwood. So it is only fair to throw some queer things in there and have a little rant, methinks.
Right then, the basic premise of "The Making of Me" is to find out whether or not people are born gay. This makes sense in a very particular context and it's definitely not that which I have a problem with. If you grew up in an environment that constantly claimed that homosexuality is "wrong" and "evil" then (scientifically) proving that you were born this way and cannot help it is a very powerful argument that even the Bible Bashers will have to accept. Now that's OK.
However, what I find problematic is the essentialist idea that people are either born gay or born straight. In my experience that's hardly ever the case. Most people are more or less bisexual and while they may have a sexual preference for one sex/gender or the other, the desire is still there. There are very few people like John Barrowman who do not show any arousal responses to one or the other sex/gender. For me that was one of the main issues of the programme, the complete invisibility and denial of bisexuality and/or any sort of queerness (more on that later). For most people it's just not that simple and much as programmes like this help the social acceptability of gayness (I'm still very sceptical as to whether lesbianism is socially accepted in the same way) they do not help other sexual and gender minorities, like bisexuals, trans people, genderqueers or queers. They actually hinder progress in the same way that mainstream media usually hinders the progress of accepting a less rigid notion of sexuality and gender expression by perpetuating essentialist and rigid notions of sexuality.
The other thing that had me almost turn the TV off was when John went to see the developmental psychologist who showed him videos of gender-non-normative children who later turned out to be sexual deviants (i.e. gay or lesbian) as well. Now that is so problematic, I don't even know where to begin. Gender has nothing to do with sexual preference, dammit! Most of my friends were gender non-normative children and they are straight! And my best friend was a very "normal" boy and he is gay!
The idea that "boys play like boys and girls play like girls from a very early age" is incredibly short-sighted and does not take into consideration what the environment deems to be acceptable behaviour for boys and girls. (When John later visits the twins and the mother says that she had nothing to do with the fact that one of her boys plays with boys' toys and one plays with girls' toys she is right because the son who plays with the dolls is convinced that he is a girl and it is therefore only right and proper that he play with dolls.) A child is very good at picking up what it is supposed to do and how it is supposed to behave and I highly doubt that there is a "natural" way for female and male children to behave. The main issue I have though, is that when they look at children's behaviour on the video they base their "scientific" analysis on stereotypes not only of gender performance but on how that gender performance *obviously* links in with sexual orientation. The adult woman who took part in the study was deemed "lesbian" on the grounds that she displayed a masculine gender performance and no further questions asked.
What about feminine women who are lesbians? What about masculine men who are gay but don't sing or dance? This does not seem to enter the equation and bisexuals seem to be deemed not even worth mentioning, let alone studied. What about those drag performers who play with gender but do not have a preference for their own sex? And what about transgendered people? More often than not a medicalised discourse like this one would do more harm than good to those who do not want to be medicalised/pathologised in this way. The fact that gender is, yes, linked to our bodies in some ways, but is a performance complicates this kind of medical discourse and makes life very complicated for those that do not conform to the stereotypes and/or refuse to fit in.
Another thing that I found highly frustration was the assumption that women generally and normally are attracted to men and that gay men, therefore must be a little bit like women because they also go for men. Now, heterosexuality is as socially constructed as homosexuality (and bisexuality for that matter) and there is nothing "natural" about it. Unfortunately it doesn't get studied in the same way as homosexuality because it is the default but it would be interesting to see if scientists could find a "straight gene" as well as a "gay gene."
Anyway, I think I've ranted enough now and that this is quite long for a first post. Comments are love and I'll see you soon!