Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Revenge of the Blob

Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (1998) is another title that promises to use popular culture to examine political theory. Entitled The Attack of the Blob, the book aims to analyse Hannah Arendt’s theoretical concepts, invoking monster movie imagery to propel the argument. The author explains:

Arendt’s remarkable way of depicting the social is, of course, the source of my title, The Attack of the Blob. Initially I employed the phrase in my teaching without giving it much thought, to capture the clichéd horror-fantasy quality of Arendt’s images, but the expression in fact derived from one of the rash of kitsch science-fiction films popular in the 1950s, the period in which Arendt wrote The Human Condition (and in which I reached adulthood). The particular film, which, it turns out, was called simply The Blob, concerned a monstrous, jellylike substance from outer space, which has a predilection for coating and then consuming human beings and grows with each meal (Pitkin, 1998: 4).

Pitkin also offers a footnote listing nineteen more 1950s monster movies (nicely alphabetized and offering director, producer, and distributor of each film) and two paragraphs suggesting that some respectable theorists (Susan Sontag, Naomi Goldenberg, and Michael Rogin) managed to pinpoint 1950s sf as “reflecting people’s sense of personal isolation, fragmentation, helplessness, and dehumanization” (p. 5) as well as “a widespread sense of collective life out of control, headed in disastrous directions in the age of Cold War nuclear confrontation.”

The quoted text is remarkable as it largely exhausts the attention Pitkin has to offer to the central metaphor of a 300-page book. It also illustrates the disdain she feels, and clearly expects the readers to share, towards the monster films (“rash of kitsch... films”). She distances herself from any knowledge of the genre: the film The Blob only “turns out” to bear its title.

The Blob itself continues to reappear throughout the book, but only as a derisive name for social theory concepts (mostly Hannah Arendt’s “the social,” but also totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Hegel’s “world spirit” and visions of society employed by both Marx and Tocqueville). It appears in chapter titles (“The Birth of the Blob,” “Excising the Blob,” and “Why the Blob?” and in scathing dismissals of conceptual abstractions which, apparently, presents society “as if these people had been swallowed by some Blob” (p. 252), and as a mass of selfish fools who “let loose the Blob” (p. 190). Not surprisingly, it exhibits very little agency on its own: it is described as “invented,” “conjured up,” “excised,” and “dismissed” by Arendt, always referred to as an object rather than a subject of action.

The question arises, then, of whether such superficial reading of The Blob, particularly in contrast to the thorough analysis of Arendt’s body of work, offers a useful interpretational tool for Pitkin’s examination of “the social.” I would argue that it does not and, indeed, that Pitkin’s unwillingness to explore her main metaphor hurt both the incisiveness and the effectiveness of her argument. The main charge against Arendt’s Blob is that “the social” is an artificial abstraction of actual society, presented as highly threatening and yet left conveniently amorphous and underdescribed. But Pitkin’s decision to describe Arendt’s writing as rooted in political discourse while at the same time separated from popular culture (as represented by the filmic Blob) allows for examination of Arendt’s theses in purely logical, rather than sociological terms.

Pitkin’s book was written in the 1990s, and she draws upon the body of social theory both preceding and following Arendt’s own time. The Blob, however, is left to linger in the 1950s, and neither the film’s 1972 sequel nor 1988 remake receive any attention in Pitkin’s argument. This is not to claim that any of the abovementioned films qualifies as good cinematography: they most certainly do not, but they are of strong interest to a cultural theorist, particularly one willing to devote a whole book to analysing the Blob.

When Pitkin’s describes the (social) Blob’s early history: “by the end of the book Arendt has begun hinting that it may not yet have reached its real or ultimate form” (p. 96), comparisons with shape-shifting alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing, (the 1982 film was ostensibly a remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing from Another World, a film mentioned in Pitkin’s list of Blob-like movies) or the rapidly changing monster from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979, cf. Bukatman, 1999) would seem more appropriate than those with the amorphous Blob. The messiness of Hannah Arendt’s theories, described as “almost enough to make one yearn for a Blob to hide the theoretical chaos” (p. 225), invite comparisons to the dialectics of human/inhuman desire invoked in Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). But Pitkin’s single-minded focus on philosophical (or political studies) underpinnings of Hannah Arendt’s concepts brackets out those references and any insights they might bring into the discussion.

These insights might be crucial for understanding the constitution of Arendt’s “the social,” which lends itself best to examination not on the grand level of political theory, but as an organizational phenomenon. Pitkin recognizes that to some extent, and devotes some attention to forms of institutional and organizational relations: bureaucracy, market, and flock. But, curiously, she does so in isolation to discussing the Blob, while I would see the understanding of organizational ties as crucial for analysing the concept of "the social."

Zygmunt Bauman (1989), absent from Pitkin’s argument, drew heavily upon Arendt in his interpretation of the Holocaust as played out largely on an organizational level: reduced to a managerial problem, with its Final Solution facilitated by rational workplace relations, functional division of labour, and the growing separation between decision making and its human consequences.
This line of argument is, interestingly, paralleled by the 1950s monster films, typically portraying struggle against outer space or radiation-fuelled menaces (i.e. the Blob) against the background of small, suburban communities: threatening middle-class America and W.H. Whyte’s (1959) Organization Man rather than any global socio-political system. Both social and filmic Blobs are constituted at the organizational level, and the failure to recognize that is largely caused by Pitkin’s reduction of the Blob to a caricatured insult.

In the end, it is with obvious relief that Pitkin reasserts, in a phrase repeated twice on the final page of the book that "the social is no Blob" (p. 284). I remain neither reassured nor convinced. But then, I do not believe the Blob to be as straightforward a figure as Pitkin makes it out to be.

Bukatman, Scott (1993) Terminal Identity: The virtual subject in postmodern science fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel (1998) The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s concept of the social. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Whyte, William Hollingsworth (1959) The Organization Man. New York: Doubleday.


Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon.
Alien 3 (1992) Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay by Joss Whedon.
The Blob (1958) Directed by Irvin Yeaworth. Screenplay by Kay Linaker and Theodore Simonson.
The Blob (1988) Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont.
Beware! The Blob (1972) Directed by Larry Hagman. Screenplay by Anthony Harris and Jack Woods.
The Thing (1982) Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster.
The Thing from Another World (1951) Directed by Christian Nyby. Screenplay by Charles Lederer.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Distinguished Crime with a Classical Tint – Reading Ruggiero (2003)

Chancing upon the title Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction, I expected to find the author undertake sociological analysis of crime fiction. Instead, while still maintaining the title’s implicit promise to unleash social science research apparatus upon literary fiction, Ruggiero chose to look at (more or less major) classics of literature as fodder for his examinations. Interestingly, while the choice of fiction as a valid field of study receives some explanation, the choice of studied works is not commented upon. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting.
The examined authors range from Cervantes to James Baldwin, with a strong overrepresentation of 19th century writers, including Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Manzoni, Melville, Twain, and Zola. No works of living authors appear among the analysed writings. Since there is no accompanying explanation, I remain struggling with possible reasons for choosing material to study—after all, depictions of crime, criminality, and the law process could be found among a variety of genres and forms of literary expression, widely spread across the ages of literacy. The author’s reading preferences are one obvious criterion, but so is the possible interpretive richness of great works of fiction. Or, possibly, the use of established classics sheds some credibility onto the dubious endeavour of sociological analysis of fiction.
Choice criteria are important not just as an exercise of curiosity, or as part of a misguided quest for methodological rigour, but also for discussion of the importance of quality judgement for any interpretive or critical endeavour, as discussed in the preceding post. It must be said, though, that Ruggiero’s book fails to offer any conclusive evidence. There is little in the way of explicit critical evaluation of analysed material’s quality, but numerous offhand remarks attest to a generally appreciative reception: “Melville was... an excellent novelist (p. 154); The Devils is “a literary masterpiece” (p. 19), and Manzoni’s Storia della Colonna Infame is “[A] neglected classic of Italian literature.” Praise is not spread evenly, though, with Baudelaire, London and Zola being treated with uncharacteristic condescension. The former pair is exposed as ignorant—they do not “appear to be aware” (p. 74) of imminent expansion of drug use popularity, and “fail to predict the process ahead” (ibid.). Baudelaire “totally overlooks the economic aspects of drug production, distribution and use” (p. 75) , while London “neglects the outcome of drug use criminalization (ibid.).” There is an obvious quality judgement here, but one focused on the authors’ knowledge rather than any literary merit of their work, consistent with Ruggiero’s avowal that “[i]t is not a book of literary criticism, but a book written by a sociologist who reads classic fiction sociologically” (p. 1).
Yet, when we turn to Zola, the line begins to blur. He is discovered to be “more romantic than he wanted to admit” (p. 84), who “thought he could complete the transition from Stendhal and Balzac... to the new technique of naturalism” (p. 84-85), and apparently failed. Furthermore, “[b]ecause he could not always consistently adhere to his own programme, he is said to have become a great writer” (p. 85, emphasis mine). This critical distance towards Zola lies at the heart of Ruggiero’s interpretation, where exposition of Zola’s dislike of his own heroine implies his misogyny. As a reader, I start doubting whether Ruggiero’s (admittedly, implicit rather than explicit) commitment to cold examination of literary works is not just as flawed as that of Zola.
One more thing jumps out at me when reading the book—the work of Cesare Lombroso, the 19th century father of positivist criminology, reappears numerous times in the text to provide background for analysed fiction. It is used mostly to show the writers’ criminological assumptions as rooted in their specific milieu. In the same process, of course, it shows Lombroso’s work as anchored in the very same context as the fiction of his contemporaries, and leaves me disappointed that Ruggiero refrains from dissecting the criminological classics using the very same methods he applies to fiction. It would have been very interesting to see the results of such an endeavour.
This brings me to my final comment: Ruggiero’s analyses jump from the analysed works’ temporal context (Lombroso on crime, Freud on drugs) to recent criminology with no reasons given for choosing one frame of reference over another. This is exacerbated (or perhaps just exemplified) by providing original publication dates for only some of the cited works: Dostoyevsky ([1872] 1971) coexists with Dostoyevsky (1979) – and it’s not like Crime and Punishment was not published, or translated into English, until the 1990s. A reader could be excused to assume that Richard Wright’s Native Son (referenced as 1981 but published in 1940) was written in response to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (referenced as 1965, written in 1964) when, in fact, the opposite could be said to have been the case. As a result, I miss any consistent temporal grounding of the analysis—does Ruggiero wish to examine works in their context or comment on general (and timeless) issues surrounding criminality? I do not believe the two mix quite as well as the author expects them to.
Ruggiero, Vincenzo (2003) Crime in Literature: Sociology of deviance and fiction. London: Verso.

Monday, 10 November 2008

How Can Social Science Study Fiction? Reading Delany's Early Forays into Criticism

In “About 5,750 Words,” Delany argues that the common content/form distinction is, particularly when examining science fiction, both nonsensical and harmful. Any content, he claims, is inextricably bound up in its form and, in fact, it is the very specifics of form (words and their structuring) that give rise to what is commonly referred to as s-f content. It’s an issue which seems particularly interesting for studies not concerned with literary criticism, but looking at (for example, organizational) themes raised by a given piece of work.
For the most part, such studies are clearly framed in terms of content, disregarding the question of form altogether. Books such as Good Novels, Better Management (Czarniawska-Joerges and Guillet de Monthoux, 1994) and Lost in Space (Kitchin and Kneale, 2002) devote very little attention to literary aspects of studied works, and yet it is obvious they constitute important contributions to their field of study. It seems, thus, that there is at least some demonstrable merit to separating literary work content from its form of expression.
At the same time, there might be some enticing reasons for paying greater attention to the interdependence of language and expression when examining the latter. Ideas are expressed and thought through language, and any form of representation (including interpretation) is cognate with translation. And, of course vice versa (Steiner, 1975/92). Well presented ideas are, of course, more persuasive, where “well presented” involves embedding in the context familiar to the reader—a concern of a fiction as well as academic writer.
And, of course, the ideas we end up discussing are the ones we find persuasive (or particularly appalling). Which brings up another of Delany’s points about literary criticism—passing judgement is a necessary part of any critical process, and intellectual honesty requires the critic to reveal his or her judgement. Does this commandment extend to the organization theorist examining works of fiction? More importantly, should it?
This, finally, rouses the beast of representation and reflexivity, much like the core questions underlying much of contemporary anthropology and ethnography (Geertz, 1973; Van Maanen, 1988; Behar, 1993). What is the role of the examined/presented text in the context of organizational reflection? How much of the reading process does the researcher need to reveal to the reader? Where does this revelation of the interpretative process turn into self-obsession?
Predictably, I am left with little in the way of answers, except for a resolve to keep asking myself whether examining the language of the works I interpret can bring any new insights into my analyses. I can only hope to come to more definite (or, at least, binding) answers on a case by case basis when interpreting particular (rather than abstractly posited) works, looking for insights on particular issues.

Behar, Ruth (1993) Translated Woman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara and Pierre Guillet de Monthoux (eds, 1994) Good Novels, Better Management: Reading organizational realities, Chur: Harwood.
Delany, Samuel R. (1968/77) “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” in: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. New York: Berkeley Publishing.
Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale (eds, 2002) Lost in Space: Geographies of science fiction. London: Continuum
Steiner, George (1975/92) After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Maanen, John (1988) Tales of the Field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Panopticon in the Global Village - Reading Zygmunt Bauman's "Community"

To be frank, I have only just started, but the thrust of the book is clear: confrontation of the impossible dream of Community (particularly understood as Gemeinschaft of Ferdinand Tönnies) with the loose social coupling and insecurities of the contemporary, liquid modern (Bauman's term--one might just be tempted to say postmodern if not for the stigma the word currently carries) world. I was particularly intrigued to see Bauman's exploration of the issue of complete mutual understanding, one of the bedrock features of Community (capitalization is my idea, so as to differentiate the perfect dream--Platonic form, one is tempted to say--from any real-world, stunted examples of communities). I am reading the book in Polish, so I will not provide direct quotations (you do not want to read my attempts at retranslation into English), but Bauman (p. 17) describes this mutual understanding as the joy of never having to ask (anxiously, he makes sure to add) "what do you mean?" In other words, it is the dream of the perfect language all over again, the pursuit of which Umberto Eco (1995) so engagingly chronicled: the attempt to find the language of angels (or of creation), the perfect signification capable of chronicling truth and only truth (compare and contrast with George Orwell's Newspeak). Incidentally, it is the very dream that awoke with the new information technologies, where Marie-Laure Ryan (2001, as well as hundreds of other enthusiasts) could again boast of the possibility of nonsymbolic communication awaiting just beyond the corner.
Even more interestingly, the dream of Community might be the very impulse behind the creation of the millions of blogs (including this one, of course) where authors bare all to anyone and everyone who just might listen. Of youtube swarming with personal and intimate content and of widely publicized "secret" sex tapes of celebrities and would-be celebrities. Of the loss (shedding, perhaps, would be a better-fitting word) of privacy, not to a clandestine government (or corporate) operation, but to the world at large, in the last desperate attempt to create a community that would understand us all just as we are.

Bauman Zygmunt (2001/8) Wspólnota (Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World). Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Eco, Umberto (1993/5) The Search for the Perfect Language : The Making of Europe (La Ricerca della Lingua Perfetta Nella Cultura Europea. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (2001) Narrative as Virtual Reality. Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Economic Media. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reading William Gibson's Spook Country: The Long and glorious death of cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk, of course grew out of William Gibson's early writings (early short stories, particularly "Burning Chrome" and "New Rose Hotel", and the Sprawl Trilogy starting with "Neuromancer") and Bruce Sterling's manifesto-like proclamations Indeed, one can maintain that this is what real cyberpunk consists of, though less jaded view would be to include at least the fiction of Sterling himself, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, and the like (and especially "Mirrorshades"--an anthology edited by Sterling in 1986), movies from Blade Runner to Repo Man to Hardware (which, via a circuitous route, brings 2000AD comics onboard) to Johnny Mnemonic (based on the infinitely superior Gibson's story of the same name). Regardless, it isn't much of a stretch to claim that the genre has been rather sterile, if not dying off, after the creative explosion of the first few years. Successful (at least in their general reception--I can't say I have been particularly impressed) attempts at reusing cyberpunk themes--Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and the Matrix movies rework them in a strongly ironic fashion so that one gets the impression that nobody could take cyberpunk ideas seriously at face value nowadays.
I find this particularly puzzling, as it seems that Neuromancer is just as topical now as it ever was--global corporations continue to grow in power and influence, as do global income disparities, high technology winds its way into the strangest nooks and crannies of the stratified world, information technologies pervade our lives more strongly than ever before. Anarchic resistance movements which can be tagged as alterglobalism are also strongly in evidence. Sure, there are some obvious differences from the 1984 vision of Neuromancer: Internet is not cyberspace, mobile phones burst onto the stage in the way nobody expected them to, and the current popular image of Japan is not the one of the 1980s. But none of these niggles formed the core of cyberpunk writing as I see it, and could be easily discarded without any radical reimagining of the genre. So what happened?
It might also be worthwhile to note that the critical reception of cyberpunk has been excessively warm, both among the more literary crowd and among social scientists. Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity, various contributions by Frederic Jameson, Larry McCaffery's fiction/criticism collection Storming the Reality Studio are just three random examples. I have also spliced in various positive references to cyberpunk in my own writings, in something like a continued vain expectation to find the genre has been hibernating, rather than dying, since mid-1980s. So, again, what happened?
My current tentative answer grows from the look at the trajectory of William Gibson's post-Sprawl writing. With the exception of The Difference Engine (co-written with Bruce Sterling)--a novel reimagining Victorian past and infusing it with modern sensibilities (and vastly more powerful, if retro-looking, information technologies courtesy of a much more superheroic Charles Babbage of the novel), and giving birth to the label "steampunk," Gibson's work has been moving closer and closer to the present tense. His second trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties) had a much more current feel than Neuromancer ever did, and the last two novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country (which I am still reading), are basically contemporary thrillers. At the same time, I would be hard-pressed to claim that Gibson's preoccupations have changed in any significant way--he is still obsessed with shady borders of the corporate world, with dark networks of global power, and with reality defined by brands, but nowadays he finds it easier to locate them in the present than in the gloomy future of cyberpunk. And perhaps for good reasons. It is so much easier to create a brand-saturated, icon-filled literary world if those brands provide immediate experiential feedback to the readers just as they do to characters. We all know what an iPod is, we might recognize at least components of Gibson's description of a Brabus Maybach, whereas when he wanted us to know something about OnoSendai, he needed to write it all up.
This is also perhaps the most retro touch of watching Blade Runner today: the movie is filled with (then) contemporary brands that have since gone out of business: Cuisinart, PanAm, and Bell System are images of the nostalgic past, not of the dark future, working now against the movie's narrative and visual structure. Marketing works best in the perpetual presence, supported by the constantly changing, contemporary web of references and cultural connections that keep unraveling.
Thus, the near-future of cyberpunk is either difficult to describe or constantly going obsolete (which, I suppose, is something of a poetic justice even if it helps to kill one of my favourite genres)
That said, the curious resurrection of the Atari brand (the logo of which also featured in Blade Runner) which definitely deserves its own blogpost, speaks of some brand persistence that might stretch well beyond the life of its original corporate owner.