Thursday, 21 January 2010

One culture? Snow melts away

I withdrew Two Cultures by C. P. Snow (left) from the library the other day. I was curious about a book (originally lecture) I'd heard so much about in my lifetime, especially during 2009 which was the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication. Reading it, though, was a cringe-inducing experience: it's basically a mind-numbingly simple contention, undeveloped and unsupported, voiced in a breezily vapid, implicitly exclusive, we're-all-at-Cambridge tone. His contention is that Britain's world-class scientists don't know much about the arts, and Britain's most sophisticated arts specialists don't know much about science, and this is a bad thing. Why this should be a bad thing, he doesn't say. It doesn't seem to occur to Snow that mastering nuclear physics or the history of the middle ages is such an immense and difficult task that it leaves no time for certain other pursuits. In the late 1950s and 1960s, as Terry Eagleton says, Oxbridge scholars still employed people to enter the room they were sitting in and turn a switch located next to their ankles; had Snow known that a time would soon come when many academics would do their own laundry, he might have despaired. You wonder also what he thought about the state of the average academic's marriage or the quality of his/her child-rearing. Instead, he seems to assume that academics have virtually infinite amounts of time on their hands, and that if they don't bury themselves in intellectual pursuits outside their specialism then this is due only to a silly and, for some reason, harmful prejudice of theirs.

Still, however vacuous and worthless the original piece is (and its fame and success ram home really how bankrupt British post-war intellectual life was), it sparked off thoughts related to digimodernism. Snow divides up the world into factual and fictive domains: the former is epitomized for him by the physical sciences and the latter by literature. He wants chemists to read Dickens and literature dons to know about Boyle's law. It might be argued, from a digimodernist perspective, that this separation, this gulf, has been healed under the auspices of digital technology. You might say that our sense of the actual world beyond us is derived from and generated by blogs and Wikipedia and Facebook and Twitter, while our fiction is dominated by videogames and videogame-derived CGI or post-CGI films like Avatar. Television and radio are reformulated in the direction of Web 2.0; narrative is reshaped according to the modes of the Internet. This unity of fact and fiction under digitization is, from one angle, the whole argument of Digimodernism.

In this case, the intellectual areas regarded by Snow as central would be marginalized in favour of the digital or the digitized. You might expect to see universities closing down their Chemistry or Physics departments from lack of take up, along with their classics or modern languages or classical music or theology departments. Literature would increasingly be studied in the form of film or videogames or television or the Web. The campus would turn away from the physical sciences and the pre-digital humanities, and embrace instead subjects like media studies, IT, Web development...

It's obvious that something of this sort has happened and is happening. It might be premature though to talk of a new unified culture emerging under digitization, not least because its fictions, at least so far, are so comparatively weak. For Snow, fiction means David Copperfield; for digitization, it means Grand Theft Auto. But if the digimodernist hypothesis is correct, this is broadly the path we're heading along.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Capital Flyte

I've been watching the 1981 ITV serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I've never seen it, though I've always loved ITV's Brass which was made in 1983 and is to a certain extent a parody of it (and much more). It's probably just as well I didn't see it when it was first screened as I probably would never have applied to Oxford if I had. In fact, it pulls off the odd trick of giving a pretty good sense of the feel of life as an Oxford undergraduate, while at the same time profoundly misrepresenting what the university is really like. It suggests that Oxford is a beautiful, peaceful place populated by aristocrats with a mental age of five, and this is only about 15% of the truth. The majority of Oxford students are serious, hard-working, hard-drinking, emotionally repressed, distant, very ordinary, and very clever young people almost all situated toward the bottom of the autistic spectrum. Being amongst them is hugely stimulating and enriching, but there's also a constant sense of pressure and intellectual stress. Oxford itself institutionally is just weird, like nowhere else on earth.

It's an apposite time to be watching this adaptation, for two reasons. Trivially, the critics of The Guardian have just named it the greatest British TV drama of all time, and the world's second greatest (after The Sopranos). I think this is insanely overrating it, but that's not my focus here. Politically, it's interesting to watch it as Britain edges ever closer to a government composed almost entirely, like one of Sebastian Flyte's luncheon parties, of Old Etonians. I did my finals in 1988 in the same room as David Cameron, and remember meeting Boris Johnson (or rather hearing his then-stupefying accent) in 1984. A quarter of a century later they stand on the brink of running the country. The oddity is, though, that this serial could not possibly be made by British television today; while politically the Flyte tribe is poised for power, culturally it has never been more marginal.

The question is about the relationship between political factors and cultural production. How do films, TV programmes, books etc. reflect the political context of their time? When it was first screened, Brideshead Revisited was held, with Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and The Jewel in the Crown, to exemplify a nostalgic-repressive Thatcherite-Conservative agenda to roll Britain back to pre-war days, to undo the Attlee government's revolutions and re-establish the imperialistic, class-ridden and individualist values and politics of the 1920s and 30s. The serial gladly embraces a superannuated poshness: cut-glass accents, campy speech patterns, mincing gait and precious poses, in-references to a tiny and exclusive milieu, and an assumption of immense and unearned privilege. It was easy to see this in 1981 - especially since the source novel is bathed in nostalgia for a lost golden age - as the television embodiment of a Tory desire to return to the days when Britain was "great", whether Victorian or pre-Welfare state.

However, the serial could only have been made the way it was in a television landscape that Thatcher hated and set out, ultimately successfully, to dismantle. It's Reithian: it makes the good popular; it educates and entertains at the same time. Its financing relies on the monopoly position of the BBC and ITV: untold sums of money were thrown at it, enabling it to become, at 11 hours or two minutes per page, proportionately the longest TV adaptation ever made, and saturating every shot with props from Sothebys and famous and expensive actors (Gielgud and Olivier in cameos!). Various stately homes and Oxford colleges, Venice, Gozo and life aboard the QE2 are all lavishly and lovingly recorded. Nowadays there would not be ten per cent of the funding for such an adaptation, which would be one third of its length, mostly studio-shot, and cast TV actors unknown outside Britain.

Thatcher herself, it turned out, hated the Flyte set as much as any member of the Attlee government had. She turned the Conservative party inside out, marginalizing the aristocrats and the public schoolboys and promoting men, as Martin Amis said, with names like Keith and Norman - she was very keen on Jews, unlike Waugh's creations. The one character in Brideshead Revisited who would have thrived in Thatcher's Conservative Party and indeed her Britain is Rex Mottram, the Canadian whom Waugh treats as a sort of half-human joke. She had no time at all for the Anthony Blanches of her party, and spent her first few years as Prime Minister sacking them.

Thirty years on, Britain is turning back to the Etonians and landed gentry who ran and owned the country in the 1930s, and whom Thatcher ruthlessly sidelined. Since Thatcher broke the monopoly of the BBC and ITV and opened the TV landscape to market forces and infinite numbers of channels, it no longer has a TV industry financially capable of producing something so opulent and sumptuous as the 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited. But culturally too tastes have shifted. The habits and destinies of the upper-middle-class and aristocracy are no longer assumed to be interesting and valuable in themselves; solemn and tireless fidelity to a source novel (even one that is very good, and great in parts) and to a vanished historical era is no longer considered by adaptors as a worthwhile goal. A couple of years ago Waugh's novel was adapted for the cinema by people who elected to show Charles and Sebastian as an explicitly gay couple.

This is a complex pattern of associations. I am now, like Cameron and Johnson, of the age of Charles Ryder at the start of his reminiscences, and also inclined to look back at my time at Oxford, a time which was equally that of the filming of Brideshead Revisited. As a TV production fetishizing the aristocracy, a literary novel, and cultural production untouched by the market, the serial reflects the values of the interwar years actually overthrown by the dominant politics of its own time. And while the social descendants of the serial wait in the wings to take political control once again of a country they have never ceased to own, so they have been driven off the cultural radar except in their historical guise. British TV today is cash-oriented and middle-class or below if contemporary; aesthetes and those from higher social positions appear in the distant past, and then with little concern for accuracy. This all suggests that cultural production reflects political contexts ambiguously and in more complicated ways than we sometimes like to imagine. There is a lesson there for any historical attempt to understand culture.

Friday, 8 January 2010


There's yet another take on the world after postmodernity/the culture after postmodernism. After digimodernism, performatism, complexism, hypermodernity and the altermodern comes... automodernity. Robert Samuels has just published New Media, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory after Postmodernism: Automodernity from Zizek to Laclau . Obviously I haven't read it yet; Amazon has this to say about it:

This book argues that we have moved into a new cultural period, automodernity, which represents a social, psychological, and technological reaction to postmodernity. In fact, by showing how individual autonomy is now being generated through technological and cultural automation, Samuels posits that we must rethink modernity and postmodernity. Part of this rethinking entails stressing how the progressive political aspects of postmodernism need to be separated from the aesthetic consumption of differences in automoderntiy. Choosing culturally relevant studies of The Matrix, Grand Theft Auto, Eminem and Jurassic Park, he interprets these medias through the lens of eminent theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Frederic Jameson, and Henry Jenkins. Ultimately, he argues that what defines postmodernity is the stress on social construction, secular humanism, and progressive social movements that challenge the universality and neutrality of modern reason.

Another one for the reading pile, I think.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Digimodernism and the E-Economy

I haven't updated my blog for a while as the end of term and the pressing urgency of Christmas distracted me; also, I've been drafting and thinking through a new article on post-war culture and postmodernism, so my thoughts have turned away from the paradigmatic present to the equally paradigmatic recent past (if you get me). However, the present always catches up with us, one way and another.

So some of the planning for this article required me to look again at Fredric Jameson's (above right) now-canonical piece, "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism". It's hard to even start thinking beyond postmodernism without referring back to this (along with certain texts by Lyotard and Baudrillard). The title of Raoul Eshelman's 2008 book about culture after postmodernism even models itself structurally on Jameson's (Performatism, or, The End of Postmodernism). The question for people like Eshelman and me provoked by Jameson's text is this: if postmodernism is/was the cultural expression of late capitalism, and postmodernism is over, then is late capitalism also finished? And if the answer to the latter is "no", doesn't that suggest that postmodernism is actually still alive? Eshelman, it seems to me, avoids this question, and it's true that the apparent superannuation of the Marxist theory on which Jameson relies in the twenty or so years since he was writing makes it of less than critical importance. But it's interesting, even so.

To a degree, and tentatively, I think you could say that digimodernism is the cultural equivalent of the e-economy. This parallel is not an invalid one, though it has to be handled with extreme care. I'm not convinced by the notion of "late capitalism" anyway, and am certainly not a Marxist (the category isn't an option these days; however, the recent global economic implosion and the massive shift of funds from the poor to the super-rich which is capitalism's way of rectifying it have grimly vindicated him) so I don't think that a cultural shift necessarily requires a simultaneous economic restructuring. On the other hand, one of the differences between a cultural dominant and a new artistic style is that the latter has socio-economic ramifications; what Eshelman pinpoints is then, in my view, historically rather shallow. Another problem with equating digimodernism and the e-economy is that aspects of the latter form part of the former (Amazon, etc.). Despite all this, the wrenching vastness of the economic changes caused by digitization indicate the immensity of the cultural restructuring also underway.

An example of that economic turmoil is the closure just before Christmas of Borders. It's easy to see the bankruptcy of a store selling books, CDs and DVDs as, in digimodernist terms, part of the death of the finite and commodified cultural text. When I was first buying 20-year-old classic albums I would get them for about £4-5 each; a quarter of a century later, they are still about that price. The DVDs I bought for my son for Christmas cost what their equivalents would have ten years ago, but by Boxing Day they were half that price. A slackening in demand is partly to blame, but the driving down of prices is mainly the result of the limited overheads and consequent super-competitiveness of the digital economy.

When the e-economy was first envisaged a decade or more back, it was thought to mean the death of the shop. In future, we would no longer go out to physical places to find items on sale, scrutinize them and purchase them; we would sit at our computers ordering stuff from warehouses which would be delivered to our door by lorries. To a large extent this has indeed happened, but while the phraseology of "the death of X" makes a compelling headline, the e-economy hasn't wiped every store from the face of the post-industrial world. There's an app now available which enables shoppers to go through stores pointing their mobiles at items and getting them to search the Internet for the seller offering it at the lowest price. So you can go to Gap, see a pair of trousers you like, point your mobile at it, read off the name of the Internet seller who's offering it most cheaply (doubtless not Gap, given the difference in overheads), go home and buy it from them instead. The journalist who brought this to my attention thought it meant, again, the "death of the shop".

The physical seller who materially shows wares to a potential customer is about as old as human society itself, so announcing its demise is a risky business. Like religion and farming, it is much more likely just to reinvent itself. In the centre of Oxford where I live, the number of shops hasn't gone down in the past decade, from what I can tell, but their nature has changed dramatically. Almost every outlet now seems to sell either clothes, or food and drink for immediate consumption. The two are symbiotically linked: you come into town to browse the former and fortify yourself on this mission with the latter (or a latte). Shopping is indestructible as a human activity, for some at least; clothes shopping is, of course, above all a female pursuit; the journalist who thought his app heralded the end of the store was, also of course, a bloke, and one, it would seem, for whom price is the only thing. Such changes make the high street an ever more feminized world, and in that it reflects the 21st-century work place which is its economic twin. In short, physical shopping will probably survive as an open-ended activity, rather than as a goals-oriented task.

I don't know if this tells us anything about the failure of Borders. Their Oxford store was always a bit of an unpleasant place to go to: chaotic, grubby, undermanaged. There are many reasons why a company can go broke. Still, perhaps if they had stocked more copies of Digimodernism it might have helped them stay alive. Now there's a thought...