Sunday, 18 July 2010

Discourse vs rhetoric

Over the past few months, I've attended a small handful of academic events at the University of Warwick: a workshop on gender, social reproduction and depletion; a graduate Security Studies conference; and the third annual Film-Philosophy conference. And now that FPIII, which I helped to organise, has been and gone, I have a little more time to write about some thoughts that these events have provoked. It was the Security Studies conference that got me thinking about the topic that gives this blog its title, but that topic is an important one for academia (particularly, I think, the humanities and social sciences) in general. It is also a topic that overlaps with the cover feature of this week's THE: 'scholarly writing'.

In 2008, there occurred in UK higher education the Research Assessment Exercise, in which academic departments of UK universities and their research 'outputs' were evaluated, with the results influencing the distribution of funding. The RAE has been replaced by the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The new UK government has postponed the REF until some kind of agreement can be reached about a controversial element which, it is proposed, ought to influence how departments are evaluated - and, therefore, funded. That element is 'impact': the reach of university research beyond the academy.

I have written about this in passing on this blog before, and linked to Stefan Collini's excellent article on the subject. For the purposes of this particular entry, the initial point that this prologue leads me to is that consideration of, and worries about, the extent to which what academics write is or should be accessible to non-specialists is nothing new.

When non-specialists are confronted with the technical language of an academic discipline, it is often dismissed as jargon. As Terry Eagleton has noted, the use of such language is often felt to be particularly scandalous when the object of study is something that it is assumed can be understood without the need for study: films, novels, music, newspapers. (As a Film Studies person, I was interested to stumble across this piece recently.)

I think any academic discipline, whatever its object of study, is entitled to and probably requires its own specialist language. However, I do think distinctions can be made concerning the ways in which such language is used.

The danger of a specialist vocabulary is that it can become a substitute for thought. It can become, as David Bordwell has put it, the one hammer that makes every problem look like a nail. The speaker/writer's language becomes a reified, dead 'thing'.

In the 1988 introduction to Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Robin Wood writes of returning to academic Film Studies in the UK after a few years away to find a significantly changed intellectual landscape, in which a supposedly scientific language had displaced and discredited, and left no room for, the individual critical voice:
If criticism is scientific, then it has fixed rules, which anyone with a sufficient IQ (something very different from Leavis' 'intelligence') can master; having mastered them, you can write criticism. The notion of an individual voice becomes not only irrelevant, it becomes anathema. [...] Unlike Leavis, semiologists are not elitist. If there is the small problem that only a tiny group of intitiates can understand them, that is because everyone else is too lazy to learn the rules (or master the jargon). If we bothered to write the rules we could all write like that, indistinguishably. So democratic.
Wood identifies Stephen Heath as a person with the methodological commitments of the group he is critiquing, but whom Wood nevertheless admires, because Heath distinguishes himself through his personal style and intelligence, which demonstrate commitment and understanding.

In my terms, Wood is praising writers who employ rhetoric rather than simply using an available discourse. For such writers, writing is an act of discovery and communication - and, we should add, joy and love. It is not a more elaborate form of painting by numbers.

At the Film-Philosophy conference, I had several conversations with people at various career stages about where we find ourselves now. A discussion with an older academic about how things were when his career started (I asked whether there was the same imperative for him to slog across the conference circuit, presenting 20 minute papers on small topics to small audiences; the answer was no) reminded me of something Charles Barr said in his Guardian obituary for Robin Wood:
While film studies, the discipline he had helped to establish, inexorably followed a familiar academic trajectory, becoming staidly respectable, a field for careers based on narrow specialisms, he remained the best kind of generalist, continuing, as he had from the start, to engage equally with classical and contemporary cinema, and with films from many countries, and to place them in a wider cultural context, informed by his expertise in literature and music.
For those of us who want a career and an intellectual life similar to our old Film Studies idols, the big names who established the discipline, it is sad to ponder that the nature of academic Film Studies today makes such a thing much more difficult.

And 'specialist language' might appear to be the natural companion of 'narrow specialisms', but I would still want to insist that any piece of academic writing, however 'large' or 'small' its topic, need not dispense with such language, but must simply not use it mechanically, or unthinkingly. To repeat, language should communicate and clarify thought, not substitute for it.

(I apologise if this entry has not gone very far. It is not quite the entry I thought it would be when I set about composing it an hour or so ago, but it has gotten across some of what I have been thinking about whilst engaged in the events mentioned above, and on the eve of the publication of a newly relaunched journal in which some of my writing appears - a journal which has always valued the individual critical voice, and exhibited a healthy suspicion of, to use the terms of the above, mere discourse.)

Friday, 9 July 2010

Crisps on amazon: end times?

My wife just mentioned Fearne Cotton, and I always get her mixed up with Fern Britton. Anyway, this led to a brief conversation about This Morning, during which I learned it is now presented by Peter Andre and Holly Willoughby. For some reason, this reminded me of a couple of Tweets that I saw a few days ago about the fact that one can now buy crisps and other snacks on, whose authors suggested that this portended apocalypse.

I was having lunch the other day with a newly appointed (lucky fellow) lecturer in International Political Economy whose research specialism is the political economy of food, and we got talking about supermarkets (principally Tesco) and their economic vacuum effect, as outlined in the excellent book Tescopoly: the way they suck money out of a local community rather than allowing it to circulate within that economy, and at the same time de-skill the labour force, narrowing and reducing the quality of the types of job available. Someone else chipped in to talk about a man who used to go door to door offering video rental! - sadly too a thing of the past.

Amazon extending their repertoire is clearly more economic consolidation and vacuuming, but there's also something peculiar about using an interface geared towards selling music, DVDs, books and consumer electronics to buy Snaps Spicy Tomato (21g). There are only 3 left in stock - amazon urges me to order soon! These particular crisps aren't available from sellers other than amazon, but I believe others are - though not second hand, I would hope ('used, like new?'). I can read some product details to do with the crisps: how big the box they come in is, how quickly I should eat them. I can write a review to say how much I like or dislike the crisps, and give them a star rating. Not only can I buy them, I can add them to my 'wish list' - make them something I aspire to one day own. (Going back to the apocalypse theme: this kind of reminded me of the quiz show sketch on Mitchell and Webb which takes place after what is always only referred to as 'the event' and which repeatedly and to great comic effect exhorts its audience to 'please, remain indoors', where a pile of fuel is a similarly coveted item:

Scrolling down, I am disappointed to report that this is actually, apparently, not a new thing at all: Snaps Spicy Tomato were first available on amazon in December 2007. Or perhaps, 1984-style, amazon are re-writing their history. I sense I am probably now going too far...

Friday, 2 July 2010

Shrek Forever After

This blog contains spoilers.

When I got back from a nowadays all-too-rare trip to the cinema and its wonderful absorption last night, I had a telephone conversation with my good friend James MacDowell about the movie I had just been to see, Shrek Forever After. Unsurprisingly, given James's abiding concern with the topic, happy endings were one thing we discussed (a topic I shall return to below). He also mentioned that he had seen advertising for the movie around London featuring Shrek in an England strip, accompanied by the punning caption 'They think it's all Ogre. It is now!'

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable 'turn' early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek 'do the roar'. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And 'do the roar', a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, 'become a thing'. When I google 'shrek do the roar' this is what I get: There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This', to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: 'Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says "Do the Roar!" Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!"'. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: 'Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek, ...' And those are just the first three hits!

A recurrent line of argument in film studies is that the contemporary commercial and media environment in which popular cinema exists mean that movies must appear across several different platforms, and that the pressure of such a commercial imperative causes their narratives to become incoherent. (A related line of argument is that the era of the blockbuster shepherded in the 'movie as rollercoaster', a thrill-ride of sensations, a mechanical series of ups and downs, rather than a carefully worked out story. 3D aesthetics, and the resurgence of 3D, invite us to revisit this analogy, and we will touch upon 3D aesthetics below.) Such arguments are not entirely negligible. In the Matrix Trilogy - the cinematic component of the Matrix franchise (and the dominant part of that supertext, to which all other parts ought to be subordinate??) - to take a good example, it is true, I would say, that the power station sequence in Reloaded seems at least a little thin and undermotivated - and when one learns that the Matrix videogame involves a much more elaborate treatment of the same location, things start to make more sense. It is true that the thinness of the power station sequence in Reloaded or what one might tentatively call the 'excess' of the sequence with the young boy in the latest Shrek do pull us out of the narrative flow somewhat, and make the moviegoing experience less smooth, but then, i) it is not only intertextuality that does this; ii) complete 'smoothness' is neither a desirable nor even a possible state for narrative fiction, predicated as it is on development and conflict; iii) neither moment radically endangers the narrative coherence of the movie (or supertext) of which it is part.

Indeed, Shrek Forever After possesses a very carefully worked out plot, one which, as we shall see, owes certain debts to 'classical' movies and genres of the Hollywood cinema, and some of its most interesting elements of 'un-smoothness', tension and excess have nothing to do with the fact that the studio that made it also wants to sell toys and the people who see it want to make YouTube videos or set up Facebook groups. Rather, they emerge, in a much more old-fashioned way, from aspects of narrative, character and genre (all of which, of course, rely upon intertextuality, albeit of a different form).

We can see Shrek Forever After partly as a form of what Kristine Brunovska Karnick calls 'reaffirmation comedy' and what Stanley Cavell calls the 'comedy of remarriage', where 'the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again' (Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness). The reader who has seen Shrek Forever After will know that I am cheating here slightly, because, oweing to its alternate-world narrative, only Shrek knows that he and Fiona are already married, and Fiona is a completely different person who does not know Shrek at all. But I'll get to that.

The moment that made me think most strongly of the comedy of remarriage was a sequence where Shrek and Fiona have been chained by the villainous Rumplestiltskin in such a fashion that when one moves towards the other, it causes the other to be pulled away. There soon follows an action sequence where 'the camera' swoops around through the space, joining Shrek and Fiona in a dance of movement as they work together and use their chains to turn the tables on their antagonists. As Dr Martin Pumphrey, a truly superb teacher at the University of Warwick, taught me in a final year undergraduate module on film comedy, the heyday of the reaffirmation comedy/comedy of remarriage/screwball comedy cycle occurred at roughly the same time as the rise of censorship, and we can see both the sparky dialogue and the pratfalls and physical comedy of the central duo in those movies as a sublimation of sexual impulses and desires. To see a plot work itself out bodily is one of the great pleasures of comedy, along with other even more disreputable genres.

And during this sequence, I felt that the movie's 3D presentation added something to its achievement and its expressivity. I am generally skeptical of 3D, mainly because movies are not computer games, and are the better for it, and as such the worlds of the movie and the audience should remain separate, and will remain separate even if something jumps out at us to give us a scare. We are not in a straightforward sense participants in movie narratives: we do not affect their outcomes. (We are, however, 'participant observers', to borrow a term used by V F Perkins in relation to film, and movies rely upon our consent and our mental acitivity for their fictions and stories to work). But perhaps this is an argument against the misguided rhetoric of those selling 3D rather than 3D itself, promising to put us 'right there in the picture'. And this is not exclusive to 3D: the same empty promise accompanies every new technological innovation. As a compositional tool or mode, 3D can definitely enhance the eloquence of certain framings, and the effectiveness of the physical and bodily working out of narrative, and as such is not 'mere spectacle'. To evoke V F Perkins (again), so long as 3D creates possibilities rather than imposing spurious demands, then it is to be welcomed.

The main reference point for me as I watched Shrek Forever After though, perhaps predictably, given that it is one of my absolute favourites, was It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek, like George Bailey, ruins a gathering for a special occasion by venting his suppressed rage at a life of domesticity and self-abnegation. And also like George Bailey, Shrek, via a bit of magic (although Shrek's magician is malevolent, and decidely not an angel like Clarence), gets to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.

The result, in Shrek Forever After, is that the kingdom of Far Far Away is ruled by Rumplestiltskin. Like the Pottersville of the alternate world of It's a Wonderful Life, it is a fallen world of unproductive labour, cruelty and vice, and in both worlds this is fundamentally because the person in control of the circulation of money is not a benevolent figure. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life is an acquisitive capitalist. 'Rumple' in Shrek Forever After is more like an absolute dictator. As well as living in an opulent palace surrounded by his witches while the rest of the kingdom falls into ruin, he has control of the airwaves, issuing edicts via his magic mirror, and a pied piper whom he pays to make his subjects dance like automatons to his tune. Another of his strategies to keep his subjects supine and divided is to dangle in front of them the promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams - the equivalent of a lottery win - if they will buy into his system and do his bidding.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George's wife Mary is in the nightmare world of Pottersville a spinster-librarian, and clearly the worse for having missed out on marriage and motherhood. In Shrek Forever After, by contrast, Fiona is the potent leader of an underground resistance movement of trained warrior ogres committing to overthrowing Rumplestiltskin - that is, to enacting a revolution. She was not rescued from the tower by Shrek: she rescued herself.

Andrew Britton has written that 'A peculiar interest accrues to works which have radically contradictory invitations - works which, in seeking to accommodate ideological disturbances, are compelled to allow them a space in which they become available to readers for purposes which the work as a whole cannot endorse.' In the case of Shrek Forever After, the movie makes the alternative Fiona such a compelling and positive figure that we might well prefer to see her remain a radical, living as part of an alternative community and seeking to overthrow the unjust status quo, rather than revert to being Shrek's wife and the mother of his children.

We must be careful not to exaggerate. The movie does represent the alternative Fiona as unfulfilled, and still yearning for true love and its kiss which, like all fairytale princesses, she has been taught to wait for in order to give completeness and meaning to her life. And eventually, Shrek, by being able to point out Fiona's personal and intimate idiosyncracies (unchanged across worlds) such as the way she doesn't like her feet to be constricted by bedsheets, is able to lay claim to what is often taken to be the truest and deepest knowledge one person can have about another, even though we might question why details such as this might define a person more than their public life does. The process is completed when, just before he expires (for the magic contract means he is living on borrowed time - the movie's narrative deadline and part of its ideological 'emergency exit'), Shrek opens his hand to reveal the squeaky toy of the ogre baby (like It's a Wonderful Life, Shrek makes good use of objects and other motifs). There are tears and a true love kiss, and Shrek's quest is complete. He gets his old life back (but gains a renewed appreciation for it).

But whilst we can take great pleasure in seeing Rumplestiltskin's empire crumble before his eyes (another boon for animation and 3D), and can feel the rightness of the way the plot has worked itself out, I suggest that we feel an unresolved and uncompensated-for sense of loss in seeing this alternative set of possibilities for Fiona evaporate, and being left with the original Fiona, who remains none the wiser. The movie's narrative logic and emotional dynamics reaffirm marriage, motherhood and domesticity, but they are unable to completely eliminate the contradictory invitation to acknowledge and experience the fact that there is fulfilment and value to be found in roles for women other than - or at the very least, in addition to (we must be on our guard against 'either/or' thinking!) - marriage or motherhood.


Another 'excessive' turn in Shrek Forever After is Rumplestiltskin's sidekick, a giant goose, who only honks throughout the movie, but had me in stitches with his blank malevolence. I was even going to break my 'no-images' policy and grace my blog with an image of this creature, but amazingly, I was unable to find one. During my search, however, I did find this page. Someone has ventured that the goose might 'represent somethign deeper , like perhaps the global economy meltdown in 2008, with Rumple being all administrations, until finaly the goose destructs after becoming grossly inflated.' As you might imagine, I got a big kick out of this, as well as the admirably balanced first response:
Claiming that the demented goose is nothing more than a funny side character is a little dissatisfying, though I do think it's a bit of a stretch to claim that it represents an inflated economy. Your guess is as good as mine, though. I'm a big proponent of reading into movies when you find something interesting or provocative (even when it's an animated kid's movie). When I first saw the creature, it did bring to mind a demented Mother Goose figure. That reading makes sense--the film is so entertaining because it puts a comical spin on all kinds of familiar fairy tales. It is a little disturbing to portray Mother Goose in that way,'s a very grotesque-looking goose with its pointy fangs and beady eyes. Very funny, though. I laughed every time it honked.
So did I, Answerer 1, so did I.