Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Seeing and Reading Historical Images of Insanity

In early January 2010, writes Simon Cross, I will be attending the annual Media Communication and Cultural Studies (MeCCSA) conference to be held this year at the London School of Economics. The annual get together of our subject association is an important opportunity to introduce new research ideas.

For this reason, I will use the MeCCSA conference to introduce an analytic strategy for reading historical images of madness that enables us to see that while forms and figures of madness change there are threads of continuity. My main argument is that we can only understand continuity in the visual image of madness in relation to change. I want to use this argument to show that how continuities and changes are read into historical images of madness depend on three interconnecting factors. They are: media technologies, cultural forms, and historical consciousness.

In the nineteenth century, these factors interconnected in visually significant ways when the development of photography and a changing pictorial aesthetic of madness fused with new theories of mental disorder. Through close analysis of three exemplary, historical forms of representations of madness, i.e. clinical photographs, lithograph engravings, and portraiture in oils, I want to show how they produce certain constructions of madness, with different truth-claims and forms of visual rhetoric being involved, each with attendant consequences for certain historically-based epistemological positions.

Those of you interested in pursuing these ideas more closely might be interested to read my forthcoming book, Mediating Madness: Mental Distress and Cultural Representation, to be published Palgrave Macmillan on 1 March 2010.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Feeling Backward (why queer theory still matters)

I recently received a reader’s report for a book proposal in which the anonymous reviewer refers to queer theory as being ‘mid 1990s’ and ‘once cutting edge’. I was struck by the notion that queer theory was over, faddish and outdated and my first response to this was that queer theory will be over when homophobia, the closet, and so on is also over. In order to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of queer theory I would like to introduce a few ideas from a recent ‘queer theory’ book that also helped me make sense of pleasures that might be construed as wholly negative. The question then is why is Brokeback Mountain pleasurable when it also makes me feel bad?

In Heather Love's Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press, 2007) she explains why hurtful, melancholic and depressing experiences constitute contemporary queer identity and thus need to be acknowledged, incorporated and negotiated since ‘many of these unlikely feelings are closely tied to the realities of queer experience past and present.’ (147) In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is a text that has a backward logic. It uses the past to speak to the present as it narrates a depressing story of historical injury and bad feeling in order to connect to a contemporary audience who may feel that they are still negotiating or finding it difficult to dispel a shameful and homophobic past – homosexuality is problematic! Love continues:

'Backwardness means many things here; shyness, ambivalence, failure, melancholia, loneliness, regression, victimhood, heartbreak, antimodernism, immaturity, self-hatred, despair, shame. I describe backwardness both as queer historical structure of feeling and as a model for queer historiography.' (146)

Many of the terms in Love’s quote may describe the characters and their narrative situations in Brokeback Mountain, as well as the spectator’s response to the film. It is important that the film does provoke negative and bad feeling. It is not a joyous experience; rather it is a film that leaves one feeling hurt and emotionally devastated in its backward turn. Yet, this is somehow what is rewarding about the film also. Brokeback Mountain’s stress on negative and depressive histories of the homosexual past help to constitute contemporary gay and lesbian identity and subjectivity since ‘the experience of queer historical subjects is not a safe distance from contemporary experience; rather, their social marginality and abjection mirror our own.’ (32)

The backward feeling and the pathos in the film articulate a refusal to see progress in the way it is often imagined by gay pride discourses. Brokeback Mountain demands us to accept that homosexuality is still impossible for many, that it is still permeated by tragedy and melancholia, and that it has a history that is still unresolved and needful of being properly negotiated in the present. Love’s work helps to unlock the process of understanding negative pleasures in political terms especially in relation to films like Brokeback Mountain. The film reminds queers that their modern subjectivity is constituted by a painful, closeted, homophobic history and that feeling backward and feeling bad are also important affective dimensions of queer subjectivity in the present.

(image: screen grab; permissions)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Iron Curtain

Patrick Wright brings us his reflections on the Iron Curtain, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service's The Strand

Did the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago last month, also mark the final disappearance of the Iron Curtain that had divided the world for nearly half a century?  We may like to think that it did.  For the length of the Cold War, after all, the Iron Curtain was closely associated with the militarized frontier dividing the blocs in Europe.  Yet the true history of this powerful metaphor suggests a different conclusion.

The first iron curtains had nothing at all to do with geopolitics or international relations.  Instead, they were anti-fire barriers installed in late eighteenth century theatres. Suspended between the stage and auditorium, these novel contrivances were proudly displayed to reassure audiences for whom theatre fires were an all too common horror. 

The early versions were little more than props.  By the late nineteenth century, however, these largely symbolic devices had been re-engineered.    Hydraulically powered in many cases and made of asbestos as well as iron, the new versions actually worked. So much so, that actors and other who worked backstage began to worry that, while the audience might indeed now be saved in the event of a fire, they themselves risked being trapped behind the lowered curtain and burned alive.

How, then, did the iron curtain get converted into a geopolitical metaphor?  Throughout the Cold War, it would be widely believed that the man responsible was Winston Churchill, who famously spoke of the descent of an iron curtain dividing Europe in the famous speech he delivered in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946.

In fact, the originator was not Churchill at all, but a Liberal and cosmopolitan British born woman named Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name of Vernon Lee.   Five or so months into the First World War, i.e. in the last days of 1914, she applied the phrase to the war between Britain and Germany – deploring how the conflict had cut off all communication between the opposed peoples, and surrendered them to the propaganda of their belligerent states.  For Vernon Lee the iron curtain had little to do with any frontier or wall.  It was instead a ‘psychological deadlock’ with which the warring states on both sides coerced their citizens into patriotic loyalty.

By 1920, Vernon Lee’s iron curtain, had been picked up by a number of her friends and associates – progressive, socialist, anti-war types - who removed it from its German location and applied it to the Allied blockade of Russia, where the Bolsheviks were still consolidating their seizure of power.  It continued to be used to describe the western attempt to isolate Soviet Russia through the 1920s.

Why might it be useful to bear this prehistory in mind as we watch the endlessly replayed tumbling of the Berlin Wall?  The iron curtain, in this earlier period, was never just another name for a frontier.  It involved economic blockade and trade embargo.  It entailed censorship and a state-driven use of propaganda to simplify the world into hostile camps – one of which, your own, was conceived as uniformly good while the other was imagined as wholly evil.  The iron curtain also retained much of its theatrical origin, not least in the methods of scene-rigging and stage management that were found necessary to the maintenance of loyalty on both sides.  

Did the iron curtain finally vanish with the Berlin Wall in November 1989?   I fear not.  Look at the false information and manipulated imagery with which George Bush and Tony Blair justified their invasion of Iraq.  Look at the way their most aggressive policy advisors applied the same polarized way of seeing to the Muslim world, whether in the name of the supposed ‘Clash of Civilisations’ or of the ‘War on Terror’.  Except for a few yards preserved in various museums around the world, the Berlin Wall may be well and truly gone. But, as we look at the recent interaction between the western powers and Iraq and nowadays perhaps also Iran, we may surely recognise that many of the capabilities and habits of thought that came with the iron curtain survive to tempt the world’s leaders still.

Patrick Wright's Iron Curtain: from Stage to Cold War, published in paperback by Oxford University Press, on  29 October 2009.

Photo credit: Mike McHolm. Permissions)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What is so strange, lonely and troubling about Stephen Gately's death ?

The recent death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately inspired a number of generous obituaries and one shockingly vicious piece from Jan Moir in the Daily Mail (16th October 2009). The effect of this piece of writing was so painfully felt that it elicited a record number of 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission from Gately's fans, acutely tuned in to the nuances of homophobic discourse. Moir, of course, in a retraction a week later, denied that her intent was homophobic, but many of the readership, and 'overhearers' who were moved to read the original piece online, disagree. What, then, constitutes homophobic discourse?

There is little point in searching for obviously homophobic lexical items, but instead we must look at the discursive effect of texts. Leap's (2010 forthcoming) notion of a homophobic formation allows us to argue that although there are no recurrent formal properties which identify a homophobic text, there are several key characteristics which they share. Leap remarks that homophobic messages emerge from texts, rather than being contained within them. He is referring to the way in which language users may express homophobia indirectly or obliquely, through lexical items, idioms, metaphors, presuppositions, judgment markers and inference structures which reference homophobia. The homophobic formation appears not solely through explicitly homophobic language, but via a complex set of linguistic and social processes which work through context to deliver their message. I comment below on some examples of these in Moir's article.

Let's remind ourselves of the established facts of Gately's death. He had returned to his apartment after a night out, and was accompanied by his civil partner and a friend. Gately apparently went to sleep on the couch, and was later found dead by his partner.

The title of Moir's article, then, stands in contrast to this reality: “A strange, lonely and troubling death”. Troubling, yes, but why strange and lonely? These terms function here (using Martin and White's 2007 Appraisal framework) as linguistic markers of judgment, referencing some unstated, but assumed heterosexual norm. These reveal the point of view of the homophobe who judges gay men as essentially lonely, and strange. What troubles her, evidently, is her assumption that Gately's partner and their friend might have been having sex. To the homophobe, any gay male sex is distasteful, and the notion that a man may have sex outside a relationship disturbs the heteronormative ideal. These tropes of 1950s gay male sexual offenses are reinforced by the following characterisations, “shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice. …..secret and not-so-secret troubles, or damaging habits”. Vice ? Damaging habits? These again imply negative judgment, and are modified by adjectives expressing negative reaction (Martin and White, 2007:56). It is unclear what she is alluding to – the nature of (unspecified but assumed) gay male sexual practice, or perhaps more scandalously and libellously, drug use. This becomes more evident when, without access to any evidence, and only her own prejudice to draw on, she writes of, “ the official reports point to a natural death, with no suspicious circumstances”. The emphasis on 'official' implies there are other unofficial reports which she has access to, but are concealed from us; 'point to' implies doubt and that the official reports are in fact inconclusive and tentative.

The reports, according to Moir's reading, serve only to obscure the self-evident and inevitable truth lying behind a gay man's early death, “The sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again”. Sadly, this occurrence is far from unknown, but this doesn't prevent Moir asserting her ignorance with a modality choice of certainty, indicated by a universalising use of the verb 'do' governing the following infinitive clauses. Such is her certainty that no gay man could meet a natural death in these circumstances that Moir feels justified in contradicting the considered verdict of the coroner, and the verified cause of death of pulmonary oedema. The death, according to her “is not, by any yardstick, a natural one”. Gay men, in the world of the homophobe are strange, troubled and unnatural. And for confirmation that all gay men die early deaths, she mentions the former partner of Matt Lucas. This sad death was no more related to Gately's than the Queen Mother's was to Jade Goody's. The only common factor was that they are gay and dead, but the one condition leads inexorably to the other, is the inference.

Of course another characteristic of the gay 'lifestyle' is the use of drugs. Disregarding the evidence of toxicology reports, Moir concludes that “Gately's family have always maintained that drugs were not involved in the singer's death, but it has just been revealed that he at least smoked cannabis on the night he died”... “Nevertheless, his mother is still insisting that her son died from a previously undetected heart condition that has plagued the family”. The contrastive adverb 'nevertheless' suggests a deluded mother maintaining her son's innocence in the face of obvious corruption. The function of the adverbial 'at least' is to deliver the presupposition that it was probably more than just cannabis. This impression is further reinforced in the next paragraph where we find that the men are judged by Moir to be sleazy. What seems to have led her to that determination is that Gately's partner and their friend went into the bedroom together, leaving Gately in the lounge. Whatever they did or did not do is irrelevant to the circumstances of death. None of this was criminal, unusual or even sleazy behaviour. Two men wanted sex, perhaps. In the words of the Stonewall t-shirt – get over it. This, for Moir, though, invalidates the possibility that 'gay marriage' can be as happy or as valid as heterosexual ones. This is effectively a 'straw man' argument - the spurious contestation of a civil rights issue in order to impugn the whole category of 'gay'.

Of course, Moir's 'retraction' a week after publication of the original piece denied any homophobic intent, stating; “Absolutely none of this had anything to do with his sexuality. If he had been a heterosexual member of a boy band, I would have written exactly the same article”. But as Leap (2010) points out, homophobic messages may be inferred by some speaker/hearers, whilst others will perceive them as unproblematic. I view Moir's apology as insincere. It takes a close critical discourse analysis to trace the emergence of a homophobic formation from her original piece. None of the linguistic choices made in this text are exclusive to the repertoire of the homophobe, however, what reveals a homophobic formation is its defamatory, shaming intent, and its reception by the audience/ readership. I think Moir's purpose is transparent in this piece, and she has been justly vilified for it.
(Photo credit: MangakaMaiden. Permissions)