With the recent surge of interest in Conrad’s text following the programme airing in July, one needs to question the contribution that BCC’s adaption offers to the oeuvre of Conrad’s criticism. Tony Marchant’s adaption is acutely aware of global ...

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Woman as protagonist in BBC’s re-adaption of Conrad’s The Secret Agent

“This country is absurd in its mania for individual liberty”. This is a sentence of eerily timely resonance. With the onset of Brexit and Vladimir Putin’s claim that it will have “traumatic effect” on Britain, BBC’s recent adaption of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent offers an uncomfortable presentation of politics documented in the murky streets of Victorian Britain.

Published in 1907, and set in 1887, The Secret Agent contextually engages with the Greenwich Bomb Outrage and conveys a story of an anarchist attempting to detonate London in detest of Britain’s overtly politicised liberalism. The uncanny Nostradamus-ism of The Secret Agent has been recognised in the public domain with Peter Lancelot Mallios revealing in his collection Conrad in the 21st Century that following 9/11 attacks, The Secret Agent was “referenced over a hundred times in newspapers, magazine, and online journalistic resources across the world”. With its plot of espionage, global terrorism and suicide bombers, Conrad’s text has become a significant piece in the examination of modernism and terrorism, with critics such as John Gray claiming that Joseph Conrad “can be read as the first great political novelist of the twenty-first century”.

With the recent surge of interest in Conrad’s text following the programme airing in July, one needs to question the contribution that BBC’s adaption offers to the oeuvre of Conrad’s criticism. Tony Marchant’s adaption is acutely aware of global relevance of this text, noting that the “contemporaneity just hit[s]” you “in the face”. Yet, his production precisely fails in this presentation of terrorism. Whereas Conrad’s text is a complex plot of temporality, allusions and non-essentialist ironies, Marchant’s adaption projects Russia as the menacing power and creates a very definite correlation between Europe and non-European terrorism. It is precisely these taxonomies that Conrad stirred away from with the nuances of his writing.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie.

Nevertheless, this adaption offers us something very important to Conradian studies. Vicky McClure’s performance of Winne Verloc, aptly and subtly asserts the female protagonist’s role in Conrad’s narrative. By doing so, this adaption aligns itself with the feminist body of criticism, such as Susan Jones’ Conrad and Women, which challenge the research that claims that Conrad is exclusively a patriarchal writer. In this way, Marchant’s adaption reminds one of Conrad’s purpose for The Secret Agent – to place the female protagonist at the centre of the narrative. In a letter to Ambrose Barker, Conrad wrote that the initial intention of his novel was to write “the history of Winnie Verloc”.  In this respect, Merchant’s re-adaption better presents the nuances of the text and significantly challenges the body of Conradian criticism that reductively attest that Conrad’s female characters are simply stoics with no creative influence in his male-dominated, often seafaring stories.

Keeping in tone with other critics on Conrad, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Conrad’s “quite serious idea of a ‘heroine’” is always someone who “effaces herself completely, who is eager to sacrifice herself in the ecstasy of love for her man”. So how does Winnie Verloc, and Vicky McClure’s portrayal of her character defy this? Winnie, as critics note, is still positioned within the domestic sphere, marries for convenience and believes deeply “life doesn’t stand much looking into”. Yet, Marchant’s adaption gives focus to Winnie’s role and demonstrates how The Secret Agent serves as a re-examination of the female within patriarchal society. Vicky McClure gives credence to Winnie as an active agent within the domestic sphere and poignantly conveys Winnie’s character in a manner that transforms Winnie into a signifier for “everywoman. Significantly, Winnie is the only protagonist in the novel to manipulate institutional structures – cleverly using the institution of marriage to escape an abusive father and marrying Verloc to ensure security for herself and her disabled brother.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie. Whereas the bombing of the Observatory fails in the narrative, the ultimate act of violence and usurpation of authoritative power lie in Winnie. Out of the three deaths described in The Secret Agent, those of espionage Verloc, pseudo suicide bomber Stevie, and Winnie, only one is described explicitly – Winnie’s murder of her husband Verloc. Yet, the emphasis is not on the murder, but it is Winnie’s psychological being that Conrad focuses on – giving Winnie the ultimate voice in the narrative.

The reviews of Tony Marchant’s broadcast have largely focused on the shortcomings of the adaption to convey the subtle allusion and ironies of Conrad’s plot of terrorism. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the recent BBC airing offers an important examination of the position of the Victorian woman and the manners in which she can negotiate agency within the androcentric structures of Victorian politics. Marchant’s production achieves the fundamental aim of Conrad’s narrative – to convey the domesticity and passivity of the Victorian woman, and to hold up that stereotyping for critique.

Featured image credit: Joseph Conrad. CC0 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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From Harlem to Wakanda: On Luke Cage and Black Panther

While watching the first episode of Luke Cage, I noticed something of a minor miracle. Starting from the amazing opening credits sequence, you could actually count the minutes before a single non-black face graced the screen. Every character of consequence, heroic or villainous, was black. Not only that, they were characters well-versed in blackness, however stereotypical. Fittingly, one of the first real set-pieces is a barbershop. And not just any barbershop, but a barbershop in Harlem with the obligatory chess game, populated with older, venerable black men who dole out wisdom and refuse to swear in the presence of young men getting their shape-ups and who have no time for the old guys’ back-in-the-day talk. It was all there, along with Easter eggs peppered throughout a later discussion of crime literature. When the characters name-dropped Walter Mosley, Donald Goines, and Chester Himes, it felt as though the show’s creators had taken a long look at my own bookshelf.

I witnessed something similar early on in the Ta-Nehisi Coates run of the comic book Black Panther. In issue #1, a renegade member of the Dora Milaje, the royal guard of the fictional Wakanda, says of T’Challa, the country’s king, “No one man should have all that power.” I imagine that when those readers who had fallen in love with Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” read that line, their hearts burst with recognition.

Both stories offered a new wave of referents for an audience that had formerly thought themselves invisible.

In Black Panther, as in Luke Cage, the cause for celebration lay in watching characters of color battle and love each other, shaping their own destinies. This much is obvious. However, we’ve ultimately only received half of the bounty.

 If this effort to bring these characters of color into the mainstream ends with isolated titles segregated from the rest of the Marvel Universe, then the promise remains unfulfilled.

If this effort to bring these characters of color into the mainstream ends with isolated titles segregated from the rest of the Marvel Universe, then the promise remains unfulfilled. Luke Cage’s Harlem is a separate world from the Hell’s Kitchen where Daredevil and Jessica Jones roam. And as long as Harlem never sees or interacts with or is forced to deal with Hell’s Kitchen, then the allegory is merely potential unfulfilled. The true might of representative storytelling lies in recognizing the world’s heterogeneity, in forcing characters to contend with the world around them. As powerful as the image of a bulletproof black man is in 2016, how much more powerful might that image have been had it gained for a chief antagonist a Wilson Fisk bent on gentrification, on remaking New York City in his own image? Whether the bullets that ruin Cage’s bottomless supply of hoodies come from Cottonmouth’s henchmen or the cops on Wilson Fisk’s payroll makes a world of difference. And yet to remove Cottonmouth from Luke Cage would be to deprive the series of its most complex and charming totem of blackness.

Similarly, the latest run of Black Panther, headlined by Coates, holds immense promise and has already delivered fascinating characters and a propulsive story of immense depth. World of Wakanda, the spin-off series to Black Panther written by celebrated novelist and essayist Roxane Gay, promises to deepen this project by putting women at the forefront. That a comic will be front-lined by two queer black women is a wonder in and of itself. That Black Panther and World of Wakanda are helmed by two writers of color who have extensively interrogated notions of blackness and society augments the miracle tenfold. Superheroes are metaphor made flesh. The X-Men, for instance, are hated and feared for something many of them cannot change, any more than one can alter one’s skin color. In writing these comics, Coates and Gay will be simultaneously the flesh and the creators of the metaphor. They have skin in the game, so to speak. Diversity isn’t just what’s on the page. It’s also about who puts it there.

It is this reader’s sincere hope that Marvel will not confine the work of Coates and Gay to Wakanda’s borders. It is this reader’s sincere hope that Marvel will understand that true representation does not end with individual titles focused on marginalized groups, that it entails the work of braiding those stories, our stories, into the rest of its fabric.

Featured Image Credit: DSC_2181 by Fett. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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The nothingness of hyper-normalisation

In recent years my academic work has revolved around the analysis of two main concepts: ‘hyper-democracy and ‘normality.’ The former in relation to the outburst of forms and tools of democratic engagement in a historical period defined by anti-political sentiment; the latter relating to the common cry of those disaffected democrats – ‘why can’t politicians just be normal?’ Not only are these topics rarely discussed in the same breadth, they are also hardly likely to form key elements of any primetime broadcasting schedule. But miracles do happen, and the highlight of past month was the broadcast of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary on the topic of ‘Hyper-Normalisation.’ But just like democratic politics, hope and excitement were quickly followed by dejection and despair.

Over the past decade thousands of University of Sheffield undergraduates have been intellectually nourished by the work of Adam Curtis, as his documentaries provide a wonderful way of grounding and understanding a range of historical themes and intellectual positions. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007) is a fiercely acute and direct analysis of modern social development. It is not a comedy and the production style is raw and direct. The style is journalism as provocation as documentary. As AA Gill wrote in a recent review of Hyper-Normalisation ‘Curtis is a singular social montagist: no one else does his thing.’

But what exactly is ‘his thing’ and why does it matter?

To capture ‘his thing’ is to identify both an art form and an argument. The documentary art form is itself constantly evolving, with films embracing archive clips, interviews, aerial shots, advertisements embedded in a narrative that uses powerful sound effects to capture the raw emotion of the visual images. The viewer is almost ground down through a relentless over-stimulation of the senses in an attempt to make one simple argument: political elites will always try to impose a controlling ideology in their time, and the consequences of this has reached tragi-comic proportions. The existence of a dominant political ideology that controls and shapes the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of the masses lies at the root of Curtis’s art. He is a docu-revolutionary who holds firm to the belief that the world is shaped by big ideas, many of which need to be exorcised for the good of society. Curtis, as the exorcist, and with his films are the tool he uses to expose the existence of ideological forces that benefit the few and certainly not the many.

TV by Sven Scheuermeier. Public domain via Unsplash.
TV by Sven Scheuermeier. Public domain via Unsplash.

In a world plagued by increasing forms of social, economic, cultural – even intellectual – homogeneity there must always be a place for those creative rebels like Curtis who possess a rare capacity for mapping out a broad historical and global terrain. His work is mischievous, deconstructive and endlessly creative, in many ways public service broadcasting at its most sublime and valuable. For a man that got his first job in television finding singing dogs for Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life in the 1980s, his professional journey is as remarkable as his films.

But I cannot help but wonder whether Adam Curtis may have fallen into a trap of his own making. Or, put slightly differently, if the style of the art is now limiting the substance in at least two ways. Hyper-Normalisation is an epic endeavor consisting of ten chapters spread over nearly three-hours of content. It covers forty years of nearly everything, everywhere. From artificial intelligence to suicide bombing, and from cyberspace to the LSD counterculture of the 1960s, everything is, for Curtis, part of a universe built upon trickery and plot. The problem is that the connections between the themes and events (the chapters) becomes ever more opaque and tenuous, the viewer understands that an argument is being made but the contours remain fuzzy and the detail unspecified. If topographically translated, then Hyper-Normalisation would be a map that outlined the highest mountains and the deepest seas, but little in between.

Whether the medium is blocking the message is one issue. A second is the normative content of the message. It is undeniably negative, almost nihilistic. It grinds and grates by offering a familiar tale of ideological control and hegemony, but little in terms of any understanding of how change may occur. The nothingness of hyper-normalisation is recounted but not challenged: ‘nothing to learn, nothing to make, no hope of change’ as AA Gill put it. Curtis may well retort that to expose is by definition to challenge and to some extent I would agree but the risk with a ‘Curtisian’ analysis as currently and consistently circulated is that it provides nothing in terms of charting a way out of the trap that it so insightfully exposes.

Featured image credit: camera by Steve Doyle. Public domain via Unsplash.

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Why we love horror (and Halloween)

It’s dark and warm and chaotic. The people in my group are screaming and scrambling to get away from the maniac who’s lumbering toward us with a roaring, smoke-belching chainsaw. I’ve been expecting him, but still, my heart skips a few beats when he emerges in a cloud of smoke and deafening noise. The science journalist next to me looks like he wants to run off and to hell with his assignment. We’re in Dystopia Haunted House, a commercial horror venue open to the horror-hungry public. I’m scientific advisor to the haunt, and the journalist is doing a feature on the psychology of horror. We’re accompanied by regular guests who, incredibly, are paying good money to be terrified by chainsaw-wielding Mr. Piggy and his fellow scare actors. Why do they do it? How does it work, and what’s the appeal of horror?

The horror genre is a paradoxical one. Horror entertainment aims to evoke fear, anxiety, disgust, and dread in its audience. Those emotions don’t feel good, yet horror is extremely popular. And now that Halloween—the festival of horror—is rolling around again, people seek out horror films, dress up in spooky costumes, decorate their yards with the paraphernalia of dread and death, get together to do the zombie dance, and flock to the hair-raising haunts that have proliferated across the United States over the last several decades. The appetite for horror springs from human nature, and our desire to stare into the abyss finds satisfaction in pretty much all cultural domains—from religion over literature, films, and video games to the visual arts, art photography, and heavy metal music.

Photo of Mr. Piggy, a character in Dystopia Haunted House, by Andrés Baldursson/Baldursson Photography. Used with permission.

Horror is crucially dependent on our biological constitution. We evolved to be fearful, to be keenly attuned to—and curious about—dangers around us. Like any other species on the planet, ours evolved in an adaptive relationship with its environments. For most of human evolutionary history, those environments teemed with danger. Our ancestors faced the perils of predators, the danger of infectious germs and bugs, the hazards of weather and landscape, the threat of attack from hostile members of their own species. In such a dangerous world, the fearsome were better equipped to survive and reproduce than those who were born fearless. Eventually, fearfulness became a universal trait. All normally-developing humans are born with a fear system that, like a smoke detector, is designed to be hypersensitive. We jump at shadows and presume the scratching of a branch on the bedroom window to be a blood-thirsty predator clawing for a way in. We’re very easy to spook, and horror exploits that fact of human psychology.

Horror works by showing us characters responding to nasty things, such as restless and decomposing corpses aching for human flesh, say, or giant predatory spiders. Those nasty things tend to reflect ancestral dangers. People easily acquire phobia of spiders because spiders over evolutionary time posed a very real danger to our ancestors, leaving an eight-legged imprint on our nervous system. We evolved to find rotting flesh disgusting—even more so when that rotten flesh moves around and wants to eat you. In interactive media, such as horror video games, we become protagonists in a fictional world that teems with danger. In haunted attractions, likewise, we’re in the middle of horror stories that unfold around us in real-time. Horror uses stimuli—often exaggerated for effect—that reliably target our evolved fear system, and we love it.

Zombies from George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead (Image Ten/Laurel Group). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Horror entertainment serves important psychological and social functions. It allows us to get risk-free and low-cost experience with threat scenarios. When we visit a haunted house and come face-to-face with chainsaw-wielding maniacs and decomposing zombies, we’re expanding our experiential horizon to encompass genuine negative emotion. We learn what it feels like to be really, truly afraid. We fine-tune coping mechanisms that help us get through the horrors thrown up by the real world. When we watch a horror film with friends, we demonstrate our mastery to ourselves and our buddies, perhaps strengthening our bonds as we brave the horrifying experience together. When we play hide-and-seek with our children—essentially enacting an ancient pattern of predator-prey interaction—we’re letting them play with fear and anxiety, helping them to handle those emotions in the process.

Sometimes, of course, horror becomes too much. Upwards of 5% of visitors to Dystopia Haunted House are overwhelmed by the horrors and abort the tour voluntarily. Media psychologists have demonstrated traumatic effects of exposure to horror. In the right dosage, though, horror is an important means by which we become equipped to handle a world that is sometimes dangerous and often unpredictable. That’s all the more reason to embrace the fun of fear this Halloween.

Featured image: Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill (1959). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Why is the Bible so much like a horror movie?

What does the Hebrew Bible have in common with horror movies? This question is not as strange as it might seem. It only takes a few minutes with the biblical texts to begin to realize that the Bible is filled with all kinds of horror. There are strange figures dripping blood (Isa. 63) and mysterious objects that kill upon touch (2 Sam. 6:7). Women are threatened, pursued, and even dismembered (Judges 19). The “scream queens” of horror are well matched by the screaming women of the Bible, especially in the prophetic literature, where women weep, cry, and howl in pain. (Even when it is men who are crying, their sound is compared to the sound of screaming women, as in Isa. 26:17-18). Even the repetitions of horror—the endless sequels, the killers returned from the (near) grave to haunt another day, the perky college students who just can’t stop going into the basement to find out what’s making that noise—have their parallels in the repetitions of the Hebrew Bible—the people who can’t stop sinning, the God who can’t stop finding new and appalling ways to punish them (in the book of Numbers: miserable food, disease, poisonous snakes, and strange fire, to name but a few). A better question might be not ‘What does the Bible have in common with horror movies?’ but ‘Why is the Bible so much like a horror movie?’.

I first became interested in reading the Bible in dialogue with horror because I was frustrated with the ways biblical scholarship repeated the same explanations about the prophetic literature, often without exploring how else we might understand the texts in all their bloody intensity. Intentionally framing the Bible as a work of horror destabilizes our sense of the familiar, while also opening new possibilities for reading—many of them inspired by new readings of horror films by critics, feminist and otherwise.

Scary image by Simon Wijers. CC0 1.0 via Unsplash.

What does approaching the Bible like a horror film do for us as readers?

Classifying the Bible as horror lets us identify and address the parts of the text that are truly horrible, without trying to make excuses or sweep them under the interpretive rug. Instead, this approach shows that we might find continuity with other texts and scenes of horror. Isa. 63, the passage I have alluded to above, describes God’s appearance on the horizon, dripping with the blood of those he has trampled. This immediately brings to mind iconic scenes from The Shining and Carrie. In Hosea 2, God, terrorizing Israel (here represented as a woman), threatens to “hedge her up with thorns” and torture her, an image I have long associated with the barbed-wire death scene in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Horror also makes us think about gender, and what it means to have a female body. While both male and female bodies are subjected to outrageous violence and sadism, these bodies are not treated equally. In the Hebrew Bible, and in the prophets in particular, female bodies are disproportionately subjected to violence; rarely do they appear without being threatened. A common trope in horror films is that women who have sex are punished with violence, pain, or death; this is the case in Ezekiel 16 and 23 as well. On the other hand, death isn’t always a consequence of sex; God kills Ezekiel’s wife for no reason a few chapters later, in Ezek. 24:15-25. Lowbrow horror films, especially slasher films, are often criticized for their undermotivated violence; characters die “for no good reason.” The same is true, of course, of the Bible as well.

All this leads to another question, one often asked of horror films: What sort of person would want to watch that?—or, in the case of the Bible, What sort of person would read—or believe—that? If the Bible is truly as gruesome as a horror film, wouldn’t it be better simply to reject it? As a Bible scholar and (easily frightened) horror fan, I suggest the answer is no. The pleasure we take in watching Psycho or The Babadook—or I Know What You Did Last Summer or Child’s Play—is not simply sadism or misogyny. Instead, horror lets us complicate our experiences and play with categories. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, in which the bones are brought back to life, takes on new (and more ominous) implications in light of zombie fictions as well as older films like Re-Animator. Horror also lets us play with gender. Here, one famous example in horror film is the “Final Girl,” the feisty, androgynous, female character who is the slasher film’s sole survivor (the term was coined by Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws). The Final Girl helps us to understand a figure like Jael, the Kenite woman in Judges 4 and 5 who stabs the Canaanite general Sisera to death and lives to tell the tale. Like the Final Girls of horror films, Jael is self-directed, independent, vaguely masculinized – Sisera addresses her with a masculine grammatical form – and more than willing to stab a killer to death using a phallic weapon (in her case, a tent peg). Reading Judges 4 and 5 while watching Halloween or Scream draws out unexpected connections of all sorts.

As every horror fan knows, the call is coming from inside the house. So too: The call is coming from inside the Bible. The only question is whether to answer.

Headline image credit: Image by tertia van renseberg. CC0 1.0 via Unsplash.

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