Subculture in America pt. 2

When taking the time to consider the film Absolute Beginners and its depiction of the Notting Hill riots as a kind of rock opera compared to the novel’s depiction of a darker, more somber toned version of events, we see the conflict of image vs. word. Consider MacInnes’ descriptions: “Quite decent, respectable people they seemed, too: white-collar workers and their wives, I expect, who’d probably been out to do their shopping. Well, they saw the lads get in the Spades’ car, and drive it against a concrete lamp-standard, and climb back in their handy little delivery vans, and drive away” (246). The crowds of white collar workers, quite civilized, escalating racial violence. “Then came another incident–and soon, as you’ll understand, I began to lose count a little, and, as time went on, lose count a bit of what time was, as well” (247). The narrator’s loss of time seems to be a loss of existential identity in the temporal landscape–but it is not silly. The crowd is searching for violence. For a subject to exact violence upon.

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“Well they weren’t disappointed long. Because out of the Metropolitan Railway station–the dear old London Transport, we all think so safe and reliable–came a bunch of passengers, and among them was a Spade” (247). The subject to be brutalized. “A boy of my own age, I’d say, carrying a holdall and a brown paper parcel–a serious-looking kiddy with a pair of glasses, and one of those rather sad, drab suits that some Spades wear, particularly students, in order to show the English people that we musn’t think they’re savages in grass skirts and bones stuck in their hair” (247). What is to be made of the image of this poor victim, so much in contrast to the vibrant silliness of the film’s West Side Story-ish portrayal of the Notting Hill riots?

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I remember an American movie from 1979–The Warriors–a film based on Sol Yurik’s dark novel about gang warfare. The film became a greatly exaggerated version of the book, a musical or fantasy, if you will, as the director felt no one would allow him to make a direct adapation. Hollywood lore posits violence and rioting broke out in response to the film despite its fantastic tone. Fear of glorifying gang violence on the bigscreen became a talking point in the media even though the Warriors depicted gangs of mimes on roller skates, rednecks in overalls, and a weirdo who wore beer bottles on his fingers. This fantastical version of gang warfare in New York sparked fear and debate about how violence should be depicted on screen.

Whether or not this ultimately affected the 1986 adapation of MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is certainly worth debating, but the spectacle of seeing rioting, the imagery of gang warfare displayed as an actual dance number, allows us to wonder.

America’s subcultures in the late 70s and 80s were marked by fear and violence. Gangs prowling the urban America. To show the reality of this on the bigscreen would be to glorify it–or so people believed.

 

Works Cited

MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. Allison and Busby, 1980.

(Sub)Cultural Appropriation – Naomi

I had a really hard time thinking of something specific to write about for this week’s post, because Subculture: The Meaning of Style is so full of sociological information, my head was spinning. Thankfully, I read Simon’s paper and decided to consider the concept of appropriation of subcultures.

In the book, Hebdige details a variety of subcultures that emerged in England in the 1960-70s. In chapter 6, he discusses the idea of “the commodity form” which is “the conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass-produced objects” (94). This, combined with questions posed by Simon, got me thinking about cultural appropriation as it relates to these subgroups.

For the “punk” kids, style was described as safety pins, blue hair, spikes, etc. There was an “otherness” quality to this that made the members of the group stick out. All of this could have the effect of creating fear in those around; those not belonging to or understanding the subgroup. Enter Hot Topic. Now, every neighborhood kid (or adult) could cruise on down to the mall and buy a $35 ripped t-shirt or faux vintage Ramones hoodie. Are you dying to own a pentagram leg belt? They’ve got you covered! Just stroll past Sears and stop before you reach the Mrs. Fields cookie shop. All major credit cards accepted! No more do these people have to think about what it means to belong to a group or subculture. The appropriation of the style necessarily strips the shock factor, or “otherness” from the group. Because these subcultures emerged due to perceived problems with the capitalist nature of society, I think that the commodification of the signs of the subculture eliminate, or at best water down the message of the group.

And now, this:

Also, a funny comic:

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1979.

Many Levels of Brow – Naomi

There is a very humorous scene in The Third Man, where the protagonist, Rollo Martins, is speaking to a group of book lovers about his writing and his opinion of other authors. What is so funny about this scene is that Martins is speaking about authors and genres that would be considered “lowbrow”. When asked about his favorite author, Martins replies with the author of Westerns and another of the panelists tries to pivot to a more refined poet (92-3). This got me thinking about the literary canon and acceptance of (other than highbrow) literature.

As someone who has taught high school English for over a decade, I have to say that I appreciate the existence of the literary cannon. I think that it is helpful to have a list of works that are deemed valuable to read and be studied. And I think that (for the most part) these are the works that should be taught through high school. When people  have a common background of literature, it helps with allusion and understanding of many other things in society (history, politics, Saturday Night Live, etc). The canon makes modern satire much easier to understand, because a presumably large portion of the population are familiar with what/who is being satirized.

That being said, I don’t think that the canon is an exhaustive list of literature for people to read and I don’t think that all literature needs to be “highbrow”. I’m going to out myself as someone who read the entire Twilight series and liked it. These novels were not well written and lots of literary types like to make fun of Stephenie Meyer because of it. Meyer is probably okay with the criticism knowing that her franchise has sold over $6 billion worldwide. People wanted to read these novels; millions of people wanted to read these novels. It is unlikely that any of the Twilight series will ever be taught in any educational setting, but not all writing needs to be, and I think it’s wonderful that people are reading anything at all.

Getting back to the novel at hand, I enjoyed The Third Man and I appreciated its many levels of discussion and interpretation. I think that our class decided that this book would be “middlebrow” and firmly outside of the canon. All of that can be true, and I think that everyone in class got something out of studying this (somewhat forgotten) novel at the graduate level.

Greene, Graham. The Third Man. 1949. Penguin Books, 1977.

Why Not Vote for Her?

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by Simon Cropp

If I wanted to take a singular positive message from the film Strong Sisters, I could say I should be proud I come from a state that is so supportive of women’s rights, but then, I wonder, how misogynistic principles still guide principles of so many men, and I don’t mean an outright hatred of women, but instead a subconscious belief that women are inferior. I’ve always considered myself to have overcome to this belief of inferiority both consciously and subconsciously, but as I listened to the stories of Colorado’s women fighting to gain respect in the state government, an old fear gnaws at me.

What if those same, oppressive methods of thought still pervade my own subconscious views? I have tried to apply my thought processes to the decision-making processes involved specifically invoked by the film—how I deal with the concept of women in power.

It is certainly arguable if the Presidential seat in the United States is truly the highest level of singular power in our country when considering how capital influences every stage of the political process. So when a person like Bernie Sanders comes along and funds his campaign through grassroots organization and claims to only take donations from people, not groups or institutions, it is easy to get swept up in that momentum. And when Sanders was swept from the table leaving the first female nominee of a major political party ready to take the final steps towards the Presidential Office, it is also easy for me to hedge. Or to say: I don’t want to vote for a person supported by the corporate world. Our democracy is in trouble, and she represents exactly as what I see the problems to be.

Yet, what if I have voted in every election since 2000—every election since I was old enough to vote—when George W. Bush faced off against Al Gore, because those elections, I thought, had drastic implications for America.

I have to ask myself. What has really changed since 2000? Had Bernie Sanders ran his campaign in 2004 and failed to achieve the nomination of the Democratic Party, would I then have not, from the sweltering heat of Guantanamo Bay, cast my vote in that election? Would I have refused to vote during Barak Obama’s historic run?

I believe I would have voted in those elections, just the same, disillusioned or not. So again, I ask myself, what has changed? Hillary Clinton is what changed.

It is easy to sit and express voter apathy when things do not go exactly as I wish in an election. A time existed when I wouldn’t declare myself a Republican or a Democrat, but I do side with Democratic politics now. I have my entire life, to be honest, and I don’t mind sharing this. I don’t have any hatred or loathing for the other side, but I do know where my values are in terms of my political beliefs. And they have always aligned with the Democratic party.

Except this time. Why? Right. Hillary Clinton is what changed my mind.

Perhaps the problem rests with her scandal surrounding the emails. But then, I have to admit, as much as I have tried to parse out that scandal, as much as I have tried to fully understand it, I can’t. I had secret clearance during my time overseas in Guantanamo Bay, so I feel like I have some vague notion of protecting classified documents, but Clinton’s supposed lack of protection for a vast number of documents never made sense to me. Then, after a long FBI investigation, she was cleared of any wrong-doing. I’ve heard this is because she gets privileged treatment, but the more I think about how she is treated, the more I think: this is not how the privileged are treated.

Well, there is always Whitewater, right? The alleged charges that Clintons used campaign funds inappropriately. But ultimately, no evidence exists that these charges have any validity. And in the United States, the burden of proof is on the accuser, and after my year of working with “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay, who often turned out to be just men picked up and turned over with no evidence, then held against for years of their lives, I came home with a stalwart belief in the burden of proof. So why should that apply to everyone but Clinton?

She does take big donations from the evil Wall Street. Still, though, Wall Street manages the majority of Americans’ retirement plans. I suppose it makes sense to work with the people of Wall Street and not paint them as villains. They hold the collective, financial futures of America in their hands. I have a dark, angry spot in my heart for Wall Street, but I’m not a politician. I don’t need to work with them and protect the futures of my fellow citizens.

So what the hell is it? Her health? She apparently collapsed recently. But hasn’t she been endlessly campaigning? Is she the first potential candidate to have health problems? Andrew Jackson had bleeding lungs (and was a massive racist), FDR was partially paralyzed, Grover Cleveland was the textbook picture of poor health, John F. Kennedy had significant health issues, and Ronald Reagan’s health issues are widely known. So what is it about her health?

The answer has to be clear at this point: my change in political occurred, subconsciously, due to oppressive patterns of thought directed toward women in power. I have voted in every election since I was eighteen years old, and I know where my political values rest. Clinton’s record speaks for itself, and her values largely align with my own. That it took so much for me to see this is difficult for me.

The hillary_clinton_2016reason I didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton can only boil down to one, singular fact: she is a woman. While embarrassed, humiliated (and uncertain if I even want to share this horrible story) by this fact, I am glad I figured it out. I’m glad I’m over that oppressive line of thinking, and I hope this allows me to be more introspective in the future.

Intense Criticism – Naomi

In her essay “Tonal Cues and Uncertain Values: Affect and Ethics in Mrs. Dalloway,” Molly Hite discusses Virginia Woolf’s statement in her diary that she wanted to “give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticize the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense” (qtd. in Hite 263). I think that Woolf accomplished these goals in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, specifically in respect to the titular character Clarissa Dalloway and the suicide of Septimus.

When Septimus is introduced to the reader it is clear that he is suffering from his recent experience on the battle field. Septimus thought of the war as “that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder … In the War itself he had failed” (Woolf 94). His shell shock has reached the point that he and his wife are seeking out the help of Sir William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes. The doctors agree that due to his insanity, it would be in Septimus’s best interest to move into a medical home. The war was able to return Septimus to his wife, but his insanity robbed him of the ability to stay in his home and resume his place in the social system. This becomes even more complicated when the doctors come to fetch him to the medical home and Septimus in his depression and fear frantically searches his surroundings for a tool to end his life, ultimately choosing to leap from the window.

Clarissa Dalloway represents a refined socialite throughout the novel, dutifully buying flowers and preparing for a party in her home. Dalloway is careful to invite all the right guests, including the prime minister. Yet, even as she follows the social system as it is set up for her, she finds herself at first appalled by the discussion of and then fascinated by the suicide of Septimus, a man whom she does not know. Dalloway thinks that she is “somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it … He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back” (Woolf 182). The idea that there could be beauty or fun in the suicide of a shell shocked soldier is certainly and exercise in insanity. And still, Dalloway must return herself to the standard social order and resume her responsibilities as a high class party hostess.

In the character of Septimus, we are able to experience life, death, insanity, and the breakdown of the social system quite intensely, and in Clarissa Dalloway we see the reflection of that system. I found this novel passionate and perplexing, and would like to leave this quote as a final thought: “Attentive readers may never be able to decide once and for all how to take a difficult passage – and perhaps by extension, to take a character or interpret the moral framework of the [Mrs. Dalloway] as a whole” (Hite 266).

Hite, Molly. “Tonal Cues and Uncertain Values: Affect and Ethics in Mrs. Dalloway.” Narrative, vol. 18, no. 3, 2010, pp. 249–275.

Orpen, Sir William. Portrait of Miss Sinclair, oil on canvas, private collection, Taylor Gallery, London.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.

 

A Class Divided

 

Before we completely move on from Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, I wanted to discuss one of the subtle ways that West foreshadowed the issue of class in her novel. Class is seen repeatedly throughout the novel, and it is most explicitly seen when Margret visits Kitty and Jenny to tell them about Chris’ injury. Even before we are introduced to Margaret and the class struggle that existed within the novel, West hinted at the issue, and even possibly about Chris’ feelings towards class.

When Jenny is describing Chris to the reader at the beginning of the novel she mentioned, “I noticed once again how his hair was of two colors, brown and gold,” (West 50). Looking back at the novel I think that this small detail plays a much larger part as a reference to the duality that Chris experienced in the novel. This could be taken as a foreshadow of the trauma and split personality that Chris experiences later. His two tones of hair color could represent the break in his personality; the person he was leaving for war and the “damaged” person who returns. While I do think that this is a plausible reading of this line, I think the foreshadowing technique also runs much deeper in this instance. I think that West used Chris’ hair to foreshadow the distinct divide between classes, and possibly that Chris was also split between classes. The women, Kitty and Jenny, in Chris’ life expect him to be a man of the upper class, same as he was when he left them for war. In coming back, though, they realized that he also had empathy and love for things that were beneath him, like Margret. I think that this could, in turn, signify that class separation was not as an important of a matter for Chris as it seemed to be for Kitty and Jenny. Reading Chris as a person who was not “damaged,” but instead split between two different lives raises questions for me about whether it was ethical or not to treat Chris. It also makes me wonder if his illness was more about repressed feeling than it was about memory loss.

Chris was torn between his duty not only as a man, but an upper-class man providing for two women, and his heart that belonged to the lower class. West showed this relationship explicitly in many different ways in the novel, but it was not until I was rereading that I began catching more of her subtle hints, especially regarding the divide between classes.

 

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. Broadview Editions, 2010.

In Defense of Kitty

Over the course of the novel, it seems as though Jenny presents a very negative view of Kitty and of Kitty and Chris’s marriage. Kitty is presented as caring only of her appearance, looking down on Margaret when she calls, and practically vapid. Jenny criticizes Kitty’s time spent in the empty nursery and towards the end of the novel adopts the opinion that Kitty and Chris’s marriage is loveless.

At first, I was on board with this vilification. Kitty appeared as though she were a self-centered, high class woman who was only concerned with her image and personal desires. She has Jenny brush her hair for her and has rearranged and redecorated the entire Baldry estate. I practically cheered as Chris ran to the arms of an earlier love. But as I thought more about the historical time and the feelings that Kitty might have had, my opinion changed.

By all accounts, Kitty is a woman of some social substance prior to marrying into the Baldry family. As such, she would have been trained to be the lady of a household and to outwardly portray all that society demanded of her. Even while receiving guests at the start of the novel, she says, “I’m seeing [Margaret] because she may need something, and I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away” (52). She is dutifully fulfilling the role that her station in life has thrust upon her. Kitty does all of this while pining for her husband who has gone off to a known bloody war. Additionally, she ensures that the house is running in proper order and that when Chris returns a meal is waiting for him.

When Chris does return, Kitty is faced with the fact that he has forgotten their entire marriage and is in love with a prior fiancé, whom she had no knowledge existed. This is further complicated by the telegram she reads which states that Chris said, “I don’t like little women and I hate everybody, male or female, who sings” (62). Not only has her husband forgotten her completely, but now she questions whether he ever really loved her or was lying about his fondness for her singing.

The final point that moved me to immense sympathy for Kitty is the death of Oliver and her inability to conceive further children. She clearly has trouble accepting the loss of her son as she sits in a furnished nursery that is complete save the child it housed. This grief is exacerbated by the knowledge that no other child will ever take up residence in that room.

At the end of the novel, Kitty is joyous at the “return” of her husband because it means some semblance of balance is returning to what truly appears to be an unhappy life.

–Naomi Johnson

 

Meninsky, Bernard. Study of a mother and a baby. 1918, gouache on card, private collection.

Some Big Picture Queries

  1. What is Britishness and how does it change or amalgamate over time? How do notions of Nation, Nationalism, and duty inform our comprehension of Britishness?
  2. What impact does Empire and Imperialism still have on our readings of British Literature? What implicit ideologies must we make ourselves aware?
  3. How do attitudes about and constructions of femininity and masculinity feature in the works we read? How do they change or stay the same across the decades?
  4. How does literary style change and what informs those changes?
  5. What themes/political issues/social concerns persist across the literature we read this semester? What becomes less important, de-emphasized? What becomes more vital?
  6. What needs to happen within the critical conversations (scholarly debates) to widen our understanding and interpretations of these works, especially those for which there is little critical attention?

Feel free to use these questions as starting points for your thinking about the content. You may use these questions to springboard your posts, response papers, and projects. You may also add to this list by contributing more questions and comments to this post, and I hope you will.