Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Losing Galactica

You know things must be tough for the Republican right when their favourite TV series turns against them. Brad Reed has the goss on the defection of Battlestar Galactica to the forces of evil:

Over the sci-fi show's first two seasons, many conservatives saw it as a pitch-perfect metaphor for the United States’ post-9/11 battle against Osama bin Laden and his Muslamonazi horde. Galactica, which has become something of a surprise hit on the Sci Fi Channel, takes place in a post-apocalyptic universe where humanity has been decimated by a nuclear strike launched by an enemy race of robots known as the Cylons. Most of the action revolves around a noble band of 50,000 survivors who hurtle through space searching for a new home planet. Along the way, they have had to deal with Cylon sleeper agents, suicide bombers, and even a sinister pack of left-wingers who use violence to try to force humanity to make peace with their enemies...

“The whole suicide bombing thing … made comparisons to Iraq incredibly ham-fisted,” wrote a frustrated Jonah Goldberg, who had hoped the struggle against the Cylons would look more like Le Resistance than the Iraqi insurgency. “The French resistance vibe … is part of what makes the Iraq comparison so offensive. It’s a one-step remove from comparing the Iraqi insurgency to the (romanticized) French resistance.”

“Message to BSG fans on the Right,” wrote fellow conservative John Podheretz sternly. “You cannot … come up with some cockamamie explanation whereby it’s not about how we Americans are the Cylons and the humans are the ‘insurgents’ fighting an ‘imperialist’ power...

It’s understandable why Galactica’s new political bent has created such a stir among some conservatives. As President Bush’s approval ratings have steadily slid down since the 2004 elections, and as violence in Iraq has continued to surge, many of the Galacticons have turned to science fiction and fantasy as the basis for their policy ideas. The most recent example comes from soon-to-be-ex-Senator Rick Santorum, who compared the Iraq war to the fight against Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. "As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else,” said Santorum, who went onto explain that the Iraq war had drawn the “eye” of the terrorists away from America. “It’s being drawn to Iraq, and it’s not being drawn to the U.S. And you know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don’t want the Eye to come back here to the United States.”

The use of Lord of the Rings by the defenders of the War of Terror doesn't surprise me - as I've noted in passing here, Rings is a masterpiece of reactionary politics.

One sci fi writer whose political stance has never been in doubt is Ken MacLeod, whose novels mix the minutae of Trotskyist politics and history with shoot 'em up action in a dystopian Britain of the near future. You can check out a new interview with MacLeod here.


Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - I and my son are both enjoying the Lord of the Rings films.

Re reactionary - if we worried what was reactionary or not we wouldn't read anything.

I think the films are great and I started on The Hobbit, the prelude to The Lord of the Rings, which is great stuff.

I haven't read the Ring Trilogy - but I love Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' (which is similar) I suspect that both Tolkien and Wagner were 'revolutionaries' in art - but I cant be sure of that altogether until I have read the Lord of the Rings. There are some obvious parallels but also with various Old Germanic myths and Sagas.

10:03 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Re reactionary - if we worried what was reactionary or not we wouldn't read anything.'

True, but my point was that Tolkien didn't transcend his reactionary worldview, in the way that Eliot and Pound, for examples, did. Quotes from that rant of mine on another blog:

'I mean, words like 'racism' and 'imperialism' describe LOTR quite as well as they describe Bush's politics. As Michael Moorcock's book 'Wizardry and Wild Romance' shows, Tolkien's writing was driven by his obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its awful idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (ie the orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.

The sad thing is that in the space of a few decades the pathetic ramblings of an embittered old Oxford Don - writings which were so bad that they could only be published originally by a crank religious outfit - have become a myth that thousands of people on the other side of the world have assimilated.

I was driving through the Urewera forests with some mates who had been out of the country for a while, and one of them said 'That's what I love about New Zealand bush - looks so much like LOTR'. If that's not cultural imperialism at work then what is? LOTR has affected the way we look at our country, taking us back to the nineteenth century conception of New Zealand as a 'new Britain' and, in all too many cases, expunging the real history of the New Zealand from the minds of Kiwis who had only just been getting used to the facts of that history.

There is certainly a very healthy British tradition of romantic repulsion against industrialism and its effects on humans and the environment, but Tolkien comes at the fag end of this tradition and lacks all of its progressive features.

Where Blake in poems like 'London' and William Morris in his utopian novels decry the effects of industrialisation on the working class that the industrial revolution created, Tolkien identifies this class completely with all the negative aspects of industrialism. In doing so, he dehumanises them more surely than any mill owner or coal baron.

Where the likes of Morris wanted to get rid of the ugly aspects of industrial society by empowering workers, Tolkien wants, however quixotically, to exterminate them. In common with reactionary contemporaries like Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot, Tolkien retreats from the modern world into a vision of an idealised middle ages society, a society ballasted by a happy peasantry that knows its place.

He is rather like those middle class Western 'primitivists' whose response to the impact of industrialisation on the people of the Third World is to demand that those people leave their dark satanic mills and teeming cities, don grass skirts, pick up spears, and run around in the bush in noble savage mode.

(All the failings described above could be forgiven, of course, if Tolkien were a great writer, like TS Eliot. At least then he would provide us with an unforgettably vivid picture of his own alienation. But reading LOTR is like watching ditchwater percolate...)

books like LOTR, let alone the Narnia series, are as didactic as the worst examples of 'socialist' realism. Most of us got the subtext of the 'Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe' when we were about seven, but you seem still to be reading in blissful ignorance. Perhaps then you shold hold off posing as the ultimate arbiter of literary merit?

As for Peter Jackson, I'm one of many people quietly hoping that his latest ludicrous movie will fall flat on its face, or at least fail to become the runaway success that will be needed to recoup the $294 million wasted on it. As soon as Jackson decamps to Hollywood to make car commercials and the parasites and hangers on he has amassed follow him we can get back to the good old days when the New Zealand film industry was expected to make films which said something about New Zealand. That doesn't have to mean didacticism or staid realism - there is more genuine, visionary fantasy in five minutes of a movie like Vincent Ward's 'The Navigator' than there is in the whole LOTR trilogy.

if a writer has to be a fascist then he should at least compensate by being a genius...

Does the fact that LOTR is an escapist book, and most of the people who like it read it as an escape, mean we can't analyse it in relation to the real world?

As an analogy, consider the tourism industry, which is also largely based on escapism - huge billboards with pictures of sun-drenched tropical islands which you see driving home from work in the mid-winter rain, etc

Can we not conbsider questions like what drives people to consume escapist holidays (read Tolkien), why are some destinations more popular than others (why is LOTR more popular than the Gormenghast triology), why do some ad drives succeed better than others(why was LOTR geek fodder twenty years ago when it is mainstream now), what is the relation between the actual place - Rarotonga, Fiji, wherever -that is consumed as an escapist fantasy and the consumers themselves (how do the Maori who still have land grievances in the Hauraki plains region feel about being assimilated to myths of good-hearted peasants by the occupants of the tour buses heading to the hobbit village there), and so on? If we can ask these sorts of questions about one escapist activity, why not another?

It's notable that the first of the novels in the Gormenghast series was popular almost as soon as it was published, shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Many British critics felt that, with his elaborately and lovingly described fantasy world-in-miniature, Mervyn Peake had catered to the need to escape the austerity of the 1940s, which saw extensive rationing not only of food but of books and of other forms of entertainment. I don't think, then, that we can consign Gormenghast to the ghetto of high art. Peake's trilogy was a genuine popular success...

Ironically, mass tourism was one of the bugbears of reactionary British intellectuals like Tolkien in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Increased spending power and leisure time and cheaper transport meant that large numbers of workers were able to escape on weekends and Bank Holidays: seaside towns like Blakpool and Brighton were especially popular. Many intellectual guardians of the old order were disturbed by this new mobility of the working class, just as they were disturbed by mass literacy and the rise of the paperback...

I don't think there is a fundamental differnce between nineteenth century holidays in Blackpool and Brighton and twenty-first century holidays in Ibiza and Majorca and Fiji. A balance needs to be struck between a recognition of the negative features of mass tourism and an appreciation of its function as an escape from the pressures of ordinary life for large numbers of working class people...

Tourist destinations can be seen as temporary utopias, which allow the acting out of fantasies and identities which are repressed in 'real' life. In a sense, then, they are no different from William Morris's equally evanescent visions of an alternative, utopian society. I think that we should reform escapism rather than condemn it outright. The trouble with LOTR is not so much Tolkien's escapism, as the type of society he wants us to escape to!'

geez, I can go on can't I?

11:14 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - I will comment on this at length later but I at least need to read some of the LOTRs! - I think you are getting carried away -that said - I know what your are saying - I was dubius of the LOTRs but as my son loves it (I mean the movies) I have now seen it nearly twice -all three movies and I think they are great movies - but this is just my reaction. I haven't read anything by Mervyn Peake. I'm not really worried if Tolkien is a great writer or not or if he is a reactionary - people read for all kinds of reasons.

I am not necessarily a great (or eve a good) judge of literature - I think I know what is good.

Parts of the Hobbit - I know it was written for children - are excellent. Some beautiful writing.

The books were published by Allen & Unwin who are major publishers.

To be fair to the tourists and Jackson I dont think he did the films so the "reality" of NZ could be expunged (he made it for various reasons but for ONE great reason - to make a lot of money - I wish I had some of his $s - but that is enterprise - good on him) - as I see it these kinds of books have the value of fantasy that people need (as children need fairy tales - you wont budge me from that) - as I say my son loves all three films - no philosophy or politics would make him not love them. (And he hates Bush etc as I do).

As to Jackson I have only liked his other film "Heavenly Creatures" which I thought was one of the best movies I have seen - I didn't like his other movies - I found them very disturbing. Iam notoverawedbymovie people or actors etc - a lot of them are wankers.

Sure there are perhaps "greater" projects and I agree that (I think despite of Jackson) the image of NZ is distorted but movies do that.

Tolkien is surely just another conservative writer - he was catholic also (are they more or less conservative than other religious people?). But I dont think he was outstandingly right wing -he was non-political - if that state can be attained.

But I dont think he was embittered - but I have only read a short bio of him.

My guess is that the appeal of LOTRs etc is that these fantasy books provide something magical and elemental we have and all still do deeply need - soemthing that is in poetry - it is not political - it is beyond politics.*

But I have only read part of the Hobbit and seen the movies - sure there are 'greater' movies - or are there - how does one define "greater"?

Obviously I cant read the whole trilogy (to comment on Tolkien's ability) but I will have a look at the LOTR book and have think about the literary style etc.

It could be argued that industrialisation and "progress" is really leading us to our doom - of this I am not sure - I think that global warming is a myth (just as WOMD in Iraq were) but things elsewise in the world are not looking too hot so I can sympathise with Tolkien's views about England. My parents are from England and I also dream of a previously better England. And I am dubius that there has been any net "progress" incurred by Colonialism reaching various primivite peoples. (Indeed it is debatable if "progress" per se has happened anywhere over the entire history of evolution (which includes the blink of human history) and indeed we may only be able to say that things _change_ - they don't "develop" - such developmental conceptions derive from German Idealists such as Hegel). It didn't help the aboriginees of Australia who were almost exterminated and the Pacific region soon became contaminated - many Islands are now used as military bases or for testing nuclear bombs (or they have been - and Banaba (where my - English - grandfather worked up to 1939) etc were/was destroyed by the British/Australian/NZ Superphosphate companies and so on...

NZ's forests bird life and the way of et Maori etc were subjected to a barbaric process of destruction - this may be irreversible. I see many Maori (and many other New Zealnders) as being perhaps too corrupted - traumatised. But this may be a subjective view. I live in working class area where I see the results such degeneration. I dont share your enthusiasm for the working class.

*I realise that in a wider sense it could be argued that everything is 'political' - but I am not sure of that.

11:08 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps -but I realise that lot of what we are both saying is open to debate -it's pity more people werent on here wading in...

I havent lost faith in "revolution" completly - I am somewhat arguing as devil's advocate - I do that all the time.

Some of the arguments I put up I have shot holes in myself when others have expresed them - although they are partly true! - and I see that in fact you are acknowledging grey areas in all this as your comment progreses.

BTW escapist tourism bores me. If some one offered an all expenses paid trip to an "Island Paradise" I wouldn't go - I would rather use the money to study, be able to read more, or travel to a chess tournament.

I will copy your comment and read it in hard copy then reply later.

11:19 pm  

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