Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Facing the final curtain. Then coming back for Derrida.

Greetings, earthlings.

Hope you didn't miss me too much yesterday. I was at the first funeral of the week, my grandmother's. I won't give you a full review, but there were some lovely bits. Firstly, I liked the fact that even on the coffin plate, her name is given as Nancy rather than the official name she hated. I also liked the 'bless you' tissues my brother handed out, featuring a nun waving hankies. There were nuns present, and they were amused. I stayed away from the nuns. I have done ever since the Sisters of Mercy demonstrated their tender feelings towards me with various bats. But that's another story. I enjoyed hearing my gran's 90+ golf and bridge cronies gossiping behind me. They're all iPad owners and were extolling the joys of Skyping their children and grandchildren over the water ('it's just like being there without actually having to go there). The priest made everyone laugh with genuine, warm anecdotes of my grandmother rather than bland truisms. I enjoyed my mother discovering that my dad's cousins are her cousins too… which explains my extra toes. I enjoyed the tranquillity of the cemetery: lush greenery and a silence broken only by abundant bird-life. There was plenty of misery – how could it be otherwise, with us all assembling again on Thursday to bid farewell to my beloved aunt? – but there were jokes and smiles too. I even found comedy value in carrying her coffin out of the church. As my uncles and cousins are all monstrously overgrown behemoths, the coffin didn't even touch my shoulder: the best I could do was place my hands on the underside to make it look like I was sharing the burden! And despite the deep sadness, it was good to see relatives from several countries gathered to share their memories. 14 grandchildren, 3 great-grandchildren and cousins from all over the place.

And so back to work today: a two hour lecture on poststructuralism, Derrida and deconstruction (starting with the Socratic Dialogues) for the media students, then straight into a lecture and two hour seminar on Ben Masters's Noughties (ambitious, not entirely successful but very interesting campus novel) and its Romantic origins. I am properly exhausted. And not a little depressed that an appreciable number of English literature students aren't even ashamed enough of not reading the book to lie about it. All we ask is that you scrape up the enthusiasm to read literature. Is that too much?

Peter Tatchell was on campus today. Given that this morning's lecture featured me deconstructing the binary oppositions of heterosexuality and homosexuality (to the evident distaste of some conservative/religious students), I'd have quite enjoyed him bursting in to disrupt the proceedings. Instead, I indulged in the rather neatly circular exercise of discussing the manifestation of oppression through discourse then inviting the students to deconstruct my academic discussion of deconstruction. And away we floated on a tide of contradictory abstraction…

Almost forgot. The Hilary Mantel controversy. I subscribe to the London Review of Books and read the essay last week, so I'm more qualified to comment than either David Cameron or Ed Miliband, who are reacting solely to the Daily Mail's distorted trolling, and subscribing entirely to its agenda. I reckon I can also comment because I incorporated the whole affair into this morning's deconstruction lecture, demonstrating the Socratic point that words in print, they're out of the author's control. Mantel appears to be present in the text when in fact she's absent. I knew instantly that it would be picked up in the press and massively distorted. Mantel makes the point that royal princesses etc. instantly become symbolic, and b) instantly become blank slates on which the media inscribe their obsessions (too fat, too thin, too subservient, too pushy, too common, too haughty). Plus, Mantel doesn't seem very inspired by the current one's strength of character, though it's expressed with a considerable degree of sympathy.

This automatically translates as treason, especially when the Mail is on the warpath. Mantel knows this, which is why the lecture/article takes clear aim at the media. What does she have to say about confected media and political commentary?
'a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken'
It's additionally ironic that the newspaper which called Mantel's observation that women joining the royal family are there to breed (how can that not be true?) 'vicious' and 'venomous' is the paper which maintains a Kate 'bump watch'. The Media Blog has taken the time to compare what Mantel said and what the newspapers said she said (unsurprisingly, removing her criticism of their behaviour. 

Mantel's argument is brutally summed up in a South Park episode ('Britney's New Look'), in which Britney Spears is kept alive and working despite blowing most of her head off in a suicide attempt. It's explained to the boys that societies need sacrificial victims to ensure the harvest: the fates of Britney, Diana, Hannah Montana (next in the South Park version) and various other women in the public eye continues a longstanding tradition. Britney has to die. Kate's simply one more in the line. 

Cameron is probably incapable of sustained abstract thought: his intelligence is tactical, that of the magpie. Perhaps he and Miliband have read the original article. Perhaps they understand it. But that's not the point any more. They have to be seen to condemn what the Mail says the article is about. Which is pretty demeaning. I can't imagine Atlee, Douglas-Home or MacMillan condescending to commenting about the Mail's faux-outrage or (as Blair did) issue a statement about Deirdre Barlow's upcoming trial (overseas readers: she's a soap opera character). They had work to do and expected the media to follow the government, not the other way round. I find it distasteful, even cynical, that politicians feel it expedient to spend time following their agenda rather than setting them. It just shows how intellectually limited they are. Perhaps worse: they may be deliberately suppressing their intellects in pursuit of headlines and votes. Nobody ever won an election pointing out complexity…

On the other hand, perhaps we should encourage Mr Cameron to comment on London Review of Books articles more often. Reading them would be good for him, and he'd have less time to spend flogging weapons, cutting disabled children's benefits and generally making this country a worse place for most of us to live in.

One more thing. Why is it always the women who get pilloried for this kind of thing? You won't be surprised to learn that the last time the LRB attracted the tabloids' ire, it was because Mary Beard said that:

"However tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think."

What she means here is that 'this is what some people will think, especially given the way the US has behaved around the world''. But the tabloids magically transformed that into MAD UGLY BRAINIAC CHEERS ISLAMOFASCIST TERRORISM. Sometimes I wonder if the Mail and its friends subscribe to the Johnson line about intellectual women:
A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
And they would rather it were not done at all.