This piece originated in a lecture given at the University of Nottingham in October 2013.
We talk about pop culture in a variety of different ways, which often overlap: as fans, as critics, as consumers, as participants. One of my favourite styles is the kind of ideological critique exemplified by sites like Fangs For The Fantasy or Bad Reputation, which involves taking apart a fiction to investigate the vision it presents of the world. What is the song, or TV show, or film saying about reality? What assumptions does it make about the way things are, or should be? What ideas do we all have to implicitly sign up to for this story to make sense? This is a particularly fruitful way to talk about fantasy, science fiction and horror, the speculative genres, since they spend an awful lot of their time presenting us with worlds which look somewhat like our reality, but with some aspects tweaked.
The Hunger Games is a really good example of this, since it starts from what the author obviously sees as damaging tendencies in modern life: the growing inequality of American society, an ideological obsession with the survival of the most violent and ruthless as some sort of Social Darwinist creed, the use of suffering as a form of entertainment, and the manipulation of people’s lives by the mediatised environment of modern culture. She then cranks up the volume, designs a world in which these are the dominant aspects of culture, and drops in adolescent characters. It’s notable that they’re adolescent, as this allows her to focus quite carefully on the formation of character, relationships, ethics, and so on, rather than showing us characters who have already developed them. The novels dramatize humanity or human nature coming into contact with a toxic society, and negotiating with the choices it forces on them.
I’ve been thinking recently about the way in which pop culture – particularly speculative fiction – doesn’t just present an ideological position, but tries to deal with an ideological rift. They worry about at contradictions in the way we live, or respond to social anxieties, or try to solve problems. Star Trek can be approached this way. Many critics have pointed out that this show starts off as “Wagon Train in space”, a transposition of the conventions of the Western into science fiction. Behind this major influence stand a whole line of fictions about journeys which stop off at odd little islands, from The Odyssey to Gulliver’s Travels, and from Utopia to The Tempest, as well as (according to Roddenberry himself) the sea-faring novels of C.S. Forrester. But the basic narrative impulse has been recognisably channelled via a particular genre. If the Western is obsessed with the West territorial boundary, the area which hasn’t yet been colonised, and always moving West out into it, we can see the way Star Trek has simply translated that foundational myth into another sphere.
However, simply saying “Wagon Train in space” may make us overlook the historical specificity of “space”. If we, along with C.S. Lewis, dismiss a lot of sci-fi as simply cops and robbers in space, or Romeo and Juliet on the moon, we miss the fact that “space” isn’t just another narrative arena but a big part of the cultural consciousness of the mid-twentieth century. The arrival of viable space travel and exploration had a dislocating effect on people’s vision of Earth, rather as the European discovery of the New World had five hundred years previously. People had known for ages that they weren’t technically the centre of the universe, but they had kept on thinking and acting like it. Images of the cold expanses of space – not as a boundary to the compact meaningfulness of Earth, but as a realm in which humans could move around – gave a shock which could bring home the reality which we had paid lip-service to for centuries. How should we understand our relationship to this vast new sphere which we designate by the metaphysical category “space”? How could we grasp it with fictions and images long enough to decide how we felt about its terrifying emptiness? (Let alone its potential for colonial or military expansion and conflict…)
This new intrusion into the collective consciousness not only threatened our popular cosmology but also our political discourse. The bi-polar world of the Cold War, with its great powers, allied blocs and zones of influence, depended on a Manichean view of the situation. The US and the USSR claimed to be the only two ultimate determinants of social meaning. Whichever side you were on, the struggle purported to be establishing the future of humanity, which allegedly lay in one side or the other remaking the entire world in its image. As the echoing void of space opened up around the combatants, this closed system was called into question. The claims of these powers to exhaust between them the possibilities of human future was destabilized.
So Star Trek found a myth strong enough to inscribe onto this new situation. Those island voyages through millennia of fiction, tied to the moral, ethical and political scheme of the Western, provided a response to the blend of existential fear which space and the Cold War had cooked up. According to this show, the US already had a story to make sense of space, one which coincidentally involved everyone snapping into line behind an American hero and accepting their role as variations on their leader. The ideology of Star Trek isn’t terribly complex, but I think its relationship to the problems which called it into being is fascinating.
A similar approach can be applied to the other great English-language speculative fiction of the mid century. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has very frequently been read as an account of Europe’s strife in the 1930s and 1940s. Threatened by a mechanised, brutalizing empire (which included a sinister group of dark-clad “knights”) civilization depends upon the bucolic and peaceable inhabitants of somewhere whose name (“The Shire”) just happens to be the suffix to a whole lot of British counties. It’s not the subtlest piece of literary criticism in the world to draw parallels here and suggest that Tolkien is mounting a rousing defence of what he think is worthwhile about human life in the face of a threat. This becomes more complicated when we identify the basis of his fiction: the Scandinavian languages, myths and cultures which he devoted so much of his life to studying. His powerful love for “Northernness” juxtaposes The Lord of the Rings troublingly with the equally strong emphasis in Nazi writing and propaganda on Scandinavia and Germanic culture as authentically “Aryan”. The form which this fiction takes – a heroic tale in the language of Nordic myth – seems to undermine its ideology.
I’m not proposing a deconstructive reading of The Lord of the Rings, in which the text collapses into silence once we recognise the contradictions which it embodies. Rather, that ideological tension may point us towards the larger project of the book by identifying the problem which compelled its creation and ensured its massive popularity. About ten years ago I was browsing through a library, looking for inspiration for my Beowulf essay, when I came across an extraordinary volume. It was thin, bound in black, and had a small gold swastika embossed on the spine. After the initial shock at finding this symbol in the English Literature section of the library, I reminded myself that the swastika had a long and complicated history, and was borrowed from the Hindu tradition by at least one English novelist, being used to mean good fortune. The title, however, confirmed my initial reaction: Nazi Perspectives on English Literature.
Appalled at the presence of the book, I opened it and found that it was a treatise from the 1930s about the co-opting of early Scandinavian myths and poetry in the service of Nazi ideology. The author went to great lengths to make clear that the Nazis were wrong about these works, which were in fact the roots of English literature and needed to be claimed back from the contemporary German use. (Claimed by British scholars, incidentally.) This volume provides a striking analogue to The Lord of the Rings, explicitly carrying out the cultural work which the novel does on an implicit level. They both seek to critique Nazism’s claims by demonstrating that the poetry and culture which they depend upon actually support another interpretation and have been misused by German propaganda. Of course, they don’t just seek to open up speculation as to the possible meanings of those stories and who has a right to them as cultural heritage. They try to install them as the basis for a vision of British culture which stretches back through Anglo-Saxon literature into the Norse sagas. It is the British, not the Nazi, Empire which has a right to this heritage, according to The Lord of the Rings. I think the ideological problem which the book reacts to is the similarity between the foundational myths of British and Nazi culture. Which might make us think about the ways it has been received and reproduced in the subsequent years, in which the 1940s have only loomed larger and larger in English-speaking countries.
Finally, a contemporary fiction whose ideology seems to be massively contradictory but which I don’t have an answer for. The enigma of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling has been outspoken in her criticism of the current government’s values, and in her espousal of a more Social Democratic ideal. She has refused to go into tax exile in order to keep more of her vast royalties, and has explicitly linked this to a desire to pay taxes which can support those in more need. She has blamed the Conservative leadership for peddling narrow-minded dogma instead of helping people, and for dismantling the welfare state which so many British people are proud of. Her novels, however, tell the story of a group of young people who discover that they have been born more special than other children. At the age when they are preparing to attend secondary school, they receive a special letter which send them off to a combination of boarding school and Oxbridge college, where they wear robes, learn Latinate words and discover the secret ways to manipulate reality. They are forbidden from openly avowing that they have this knowledge in front of ordinary people, who are deemed too stupid to be able to even be told that there is a hidden network of brilliant and powerful people controlling and protecting their world. The friendships they form in this school, with other young people as special as them, will last a lifetime and help them in their task of managing the world.
This is surely a map of the British establishment, indeed of the neoliberal elite as a whole. It’s a story of born privilege which nonetheless turns out to reflect natural gifts and talents which should be trained in historic academies. One shouldn’t be nasty about “Muggles”, but neither can one imagine living in their humdrum world, or being without the secret knowledge and power they can never access. Giving them access to a school like Hogwarts would be worse than useless: since are literally incapable of being educated to the level of a first-year student. It is a fictional universe which administers an 11-plus of the soul. So how did it come to be written by a writer with the convictions Rowling has so publically expressed? What caused the ideological fissure which these texts so dramatically display?
We can speculate, of course. Maybe they’re a demonstration of the gap between the popular cultural narrative of Britain (enshrined in Kipling and Conan Doyle) and the principles it claims to hold (enshrined in the NHS and Social Security.) Maybe they reflect an anxiety that a truly fair world would involve repudiating the narrative traditions of adventure tales and school stories from which the novels are built, and which they deploy so effectively. Maybe they’re an attempt to grapple with the ironies of an education system which tells everyone that learning is their way to a better life, then strands them along the way because they can’t afford to take an unpaid internship or they weren’t taught Latin at school. Maybe they’re a way of reimagining the value of knowledge and scholarship in a world where it is only used for good. I genuinely don’t know which ideological problem the Harry Potter books have been spurred into existence by. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the topic.