The farce of (Social) Class

The other day I was channel surfing to find the latest episode of some television show on my set top television box, and while browsing, I saw one of those inumerable television programmes where a television presenter is assisting a married couple to buy a home somewhere nice and rural.This made me painfully aware of class. Today in Britain we are living in multiple and often separated social-historical narratives. The Olympics have shown that determination can show that anything is possible, but the evening news shows there’s a lack of opportunity. The Paralympics showed that disabled people can demonstrate feats of amazing endurance, mental fotitude and physical ability, but have severely limited job prospects or financial stability to live independently, irrespective of their condition. If we believed in the narratives of the media and other social forces around us: the right qualifications, training and hard work can take you up the ladder; but the audience is always right and people who go ahead are those that ultimately we as a whole pick, like a talent show winner or the one who is most popular.

I see these as crass contradictions tearing apart the consistency of a culture. We are all familiar with some or all of these kinds of narratives, the thing is, we may accept some and not others, or we occupy a space in which some of those don’t apply. Culture is a mass, different worlds occupying different spaces, these spaces are ideas and ideologies. Living in multiple social bubbles suggests a sense of separation from others, which can happen but we also can come across in our workplaces and other social spaces those of difference. This painfully aggrivates that there is a notion of class at play.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which some psychologists and to another extent, some philosophers have pointed out the roles of cognitive bias as a way of affecting our decision making. There has been helpful highlighting of gendered prejudices against women through the research on Implicit bias led by a few philosophers (Saul, Stitch inter alia) which shows how cultural prejudices come into play in our decisions and beliefs. There’s recently a word that has come into awareness of how men in academia behave in a patronising way to women, presuming the former’s correctness, its’ called ‘mansplaining’.

Until maybe about a year ago, the notion of priviledge was something I never considered. There seems to be this discord that I can’t quite put my finger on, about how people these days speak of equality because they fail to accept that in some fundamental sense, it is unthinkable to accept that the reality is a tyranny, a tyranny of politeness and affable discrimination. It’s not the kind that is obvious in everyday face-to-face, but its the kind that is shown by statistics when we look at gender and ethnic representation in senior management. Its the kind we see through bivariate and multivariate analysis of factors like income bracket or what kind of degree a person has. There’s something deeply wrong and uncomfortable about the narratives we play by where people speak of ideals and values but how they act and how social facts do not accord with that reeks.

One of the recent cultural jokes in the country is how the Chancellor of the Exchequer highlighting the importance of changing government spending uttered a phrase  which suggests that class has a real presence in Britain today, and the doublespeak involved with our discourse on aspiration and equality. The phrase uttered was ‘we’re all in this together’, which was interpreted by many as a farcical notion that there is little confidence in the Government because some are better off than others. It was even used as an ironic slogan in a tube advert a few months back.

I’ve presented a meandering of thoughts, a musing, hardly a systematic presentation of thoughts. I normally leave that to Michael and Antisophie to be more organised with writing things. There is something that smells and it lingers in British society. Something that seems deeply inconsistent, highlighting rhetoric against reality. The reality becomes obscured if it is indistinguishable from such rhetoric, and I am beginning to find reality difficult to identify with so many differing constructed social messages. Something seems deeply wrong with the notion of class. I haven’t even touched upon cultural capital. But I’ve pondered enough for now.

Sinistre*

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In Praise of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

For over a year and a half, I had been following an animated series that has excited and provoked me so much as Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’. The series was originally created as a supplement to the Avengers-fever created by the recent Marvel Studio films from around 2008-9 onwards which culminated recently by the ‘Avengers Assemble’ team-up film. In this post I want to address a few issues as to why this series will be sadly missed as it has been cancelled (for another Avengers animated series – go figure). This series was a study on relationships between different hero archetypes.
 
Watching this series reflects the ongoing cultural influence of the Marvel mythology, continuity and comparisons with previous Marvel cartoon ventures. Finally, this series contained a lot of plain old absurdity which reflects how fantastically impossible and bizarre many of the characters and predicaments are in this universe.

Post-teenage audience

Avengers’: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (EMH) was a series that had an appeal to a wide audience: people new to Marvel and completely unfamiliar with the comic universe; people who have come to know the characters through films such as Iron Man or Thor; casual nerd types like me who have followed and enjoyed the series of yesteryear like Spiderman: The Animated Series in the mid 1990s, X-Men Evolution in the early 2000s; and finally the big comic book nerd types who enjoy details like obscure references to characters and Marvel Comic storylines.

One thing I must admit is that Marvel series have so many different continuities that I don’t even try to understand it. There are so many current series of X-Men, so many Spiderman titles and I don’t know how they have explained how continued characters like Iron Man’s Tony Stark or Captain America (Steve Rogers) are still saving the world in 2012 even though they’ve been at it for over 30 years (even with Captain America’s cryogenic freezing, Rogers will have to be physically over 50 yet retains a perfectly young appearance). I think that’s left to what people may call a suspension of judgment.

EMH represented an animated series that a certain audience had been waiting a long time for: a mature and engaging superhero narrative that didn’t patronise or appear overly child-like. Many people in their 20-30s (or older) who grew up with the strong series of X-Men in the 1990s or Spiderman TAS have not been met with particularly good efforts by Marvel in terms of animated series or plotlines. While this is a show definitely marketed to children, one may find, as this is the case for a lot of children’s programming these days: something that adults can appreciate.

Character development

Perhaps the one true strength of this series is the depth of characters. It’s fair to say that this series (and Marvel Comics in general) doesn’t always get it right in terms of ethnic and gender diversity, I suspect that its better than most. There is a distinct homoerotic/bromance feel to many of the partnerships made between characters, this makes the characters relatable even when they possess obscenely inhuman abilities.

There has been an interesting discussion in recent weeks on the Bloggosphere critiquing exactly how positive ‘strong female characters’ are. For instance, are female characters over-the-top with their abilities to the extent of not being realistic (more super than hero) to the effect of being unrelatable. Likewise, there was the recent piece by Laurie Penny about the unhelpful role of sexual assault as an aspect of character development. There were very few female characters in the EMH Avengers roster.

I am curious if the dialogue between women passed the Bechdel test. I must say that Carol Danvers’ ‘Marvel Girl’ was a particularly good female character. Danvers, like Steve Rogers/Captain America, was a career soldier before she became a superhero, there is even a joke that her rank (Major) is higher than Rogers. Except for her relationship with Mar-Vell, there is hardly any suggestion about her romantic life nor was it considered appropriate to comment on it. Contrast this to the sleazy character of The Flash in the 2000s Justice League series who always hit on his female colleagues and we can see a little bit of a sea change with contemporary superheroes

Characters that I think showed real depth include Hawkeye, who as one of the only heroes with no powers at all, holds his own against freakishly strong supersoldiers. Clint Barton’s one big virtue was his heroic attitude and determination against the odds. Characters such as Thor and Iron Man exhibit flaws and opportunities for change and growth, Thor’s second season encounter with Beta Ray Bill, a lone alien against an impossible foe, taught the God humility. Perhaps the most interesting character of all is Steve Rogers, whose reputation is destroyed after an impostor abused the reputation of Captain America. Captain America represents an old style hero who embodies nobility and a commitment to the moral good, however this version of Captain America is slightly different. The disputes between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Rogers in the comics are legendary, and this is mildly reflected in a clash of big egos. Rogers also exhibits self doubt, living in a decade far different to his original timeline and exhibits a sense of pathos by surviving long after his comrades had died. Of course with so many characters introduced in a series such as EMH, its no surprise that not every character is given as much attention.

Plotlines

One engaging point of the series would be the immersive and continuing plotlines. While some episodes are open and shut vignettes, they often have currents and reverberations in later episodes, such as the episode with “Prison 42”, an extradimensional prison holding foes of the Avengers, which later was used as a containment device for defeating Galactus. There are hints and allusions to recent Marvel storylines, such as the Civil War and Secret Invasion. This serves as a form of fan service to the adult audience, as well as of course offering engaging interpretations of Marvel stories, without appealing to the same tired old stories (c.f. Spiderman’s origin story).

Previous Marvel series

When it comes to Marvel series, cancellations have been controversial in recent years. EMH replaced an already running series, Spectacular Spiderman, which at the time was well recieved. Another Spiderman series is now running, which is, with some conviction I deem terrible. This recent history of cancelled ventures with Marvel is met with unpopularity with fans, especially due to the appeal of EMH. This series revives a certain nostalgia of the team-ups depicted in Spiderman TAS, as well as the engaging plotlines of X-Men. In my view this series also enters dark psychological territory which makes these most superhuman of people, human.

Plain old absurdity

Perhaps the most amusing part of this series is the comedy, and the situations depicted. Certain Marvel characters make cameos such as War Machine, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. These characters bring a sense of difference in their attitude and outlook, often pointing out how ridiculous the Avengers on occasion are: having their headquarters in public, or the identity of Iron Man the worst kept secret. I suspect that the writers saw the success of the 1960s spiderman meme as an inspiration for the bizarre situations in this series.

Summary

It is with sadness that this series had been cancelled at a second season when so many televisual series last for so long these days. I appreciate that the series cancellation ended on a high note, and while not all plotlines were resolved, the series ended at a zenith, this cannot be said for many other series that go on for so long, animated or otherwise. Even though I watch this series as a post-teenager, I will remember it with the same fondness as I did as any cartoon from the 1990s. As this series passes the torch to something else, it consolidated all of the elements of success about the past two decades of Marvel Cartoons, while also making its own stamp. It also got me back into comics!

Sinistre*

A week in news

This week, people in Britain were concerned about the European Football Tournament; the economic instabilities and associated political instabilities in Greece but also elsewhere such as Egypt; the ‘Tax’ scandal of Comedian Jimmy Carr and to a lesser extent, the G20 summit addressing the environmental future of the world. The current political zeitgeist always will seem more important than the long term view, such is the nature of elected governments who seek a next term. There was an interesting set of revelations about Members of Parliament who were addressing their own mental health experiences, which brought a public discussion of the subject.

It is often said that human beings are not very good rational animals due to their disporportionate attention to the status quo over their continuation and long term circumstances. I find it disturbing. The international issues concerning the G20 are perhaps not as easily made relevant to the public because of how abstract the climate issues would seem to be. That said, Britain is continually experiencing unprecedented rainfall which has associated issues of flooding.I really wish I could say that the G20 summit in Rio took my attention and that I’d have something profound to say about it, but my lack of knowledge about it and the lack of exposure of news that I’ve had says enough. Instead, I’ll take this post to address the issue of taxation.

When it was announced that various famous people were involved in a scheme where their income was invested into a fund (which apparently supported emerging musical artists) to the effect of alleviating their tax obligations, it brought a media furore towards mainly one person: the comedian Jimmy Carr. While 3/4 of Take That were involved with the same scheme, there was no sense of hypocrisy or anger towards them, the notable thing about Carr is that much of his humour reflected an authentic disdain for the Con-Dem coalition. Carr’s humour in the ’10 O’Clock Live’ show had an appeal to a disenchanted young adult audience. Many people are part of the economic situation, where upward social mobility is a quaint myth and aspiration has a horrible taste to utter. Being the vocal piece for an audience is a very special thing. Carr’s jokes often involve hinting at, or explicitly addressing very horrible things, but often in a self-conscious way knowing that a mature audience will be disgusted by this, and in this way establishes a collusion with an audience that creates a comic moment (it’s funnier hearing it than describing it). The essence of the criticism lies on the fact that ‘banker bonuses’ and ‘tax havens’ were the subject of his jokes, and being part of a tax reducing scheme (although legal) shows a level of hypocrisy that not only undermines his reputation, but also the jokes originally said.

I’m a fan of Jimmy Carr’s bitter acerbic humour, not least because I’m a bitter acerbic person. It’s one thing to kick a public figure when they are down, or even when they are up, like ridiculing Footballer Rooney’s victory goal by pointing out that he has had hair surgery; but its another thing to kill a joke that once had potency. It is often complained about that there is a certain tired cynicism about a lack of sincerity about public figures and politics, things like this are the essence of such a worry. I cannot help but become cynical when a comedian points out a great unfairness while participating in similar. Carr has apologised and seems sincere about it, his reputation will probably recover, but the great jokes on tax havens and the priviledged rich are the greater victim. The comedic power of criticism is undermined.

Sinistre*

The ‘fabulous’ James Randi

James Randi has come out as a gay man. Coming out as a homosexual in this contemporary social context is always an issue and while sexuality preconceptions have changed there are is still a battle in the social and legal domain for gay rights.

Randi is a tireless promoter of reason and secular values, and his sexuality has little to impact upon those values that he promotes. In a sense I can anticipate the opponents of the enlightenment liberal agenda to capitalise on such homosexuality as an appeal to backward preconceptions. I think that for a person in their early 80s living as a homosexual over the previous and less tolerant decades is a brave feat.

I must admit that it does come as a surprise, but that’s mainly from older homosexuals not being as represented in the public and media perception.

Good on you, JR
Sinistre*

“Reality killed the Video Star”

I take it as a personal principle not to comment on current news affairs if a mature response is too premature. I shall leave that to good journalism. In this case I find a certain kind of irony that is fitting to mark the end of the decade and where we are in it.

At the end of last week, in the UK’s charts. Robbie Williams, of Take That and solo artist fame; had been beaten off the number one place in the album chart desite media attention towards him in the week. Wililams had been beaten off by what seems essentially a younger version of what Take That used to be; a manufactured boy band. I find this particularly a bittersweet phenomenon for the following reasons:

1. Take That and Robbie had entered the ‘old guard’ of popular music

In recent times, the former members of the boy band have gotten a fair bit older and have gained a more mature status. It is almost as if they are seen as rock stars as opposed to pop stars. What is the difference? Well, the superficial difference is that rock normally involves a lot more guitar, and rock music is symbolised by the guitar: the idealised virtues of bravura, masculinity, creativity and perhaps being edgy. Their maturity and hallowed place in the biographies of many of their fans have given them a special place in their memories, ask people questions like: did you go to the big Robbie concert at Knebworth in 03? or where were you when they broke up?; and we may find part of our own biographies within theirs.

It is this kind of hallowed status, being famous for being remembered, or already established, that gives a false sense of authenticity that we may forget their more plastic of origins. In a real sense, however, did Robbie establish his own reputation and worked to earn an independent career. This didn’t seem enough to make the barbarian hordes buy his album.

2. The album title of Robbie’s latest album

The title of Williams’ latest album is ‘Reality killed the Video Star’. This seems to be an obvious nod to the single by The  Buggles called ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Probably a testament to wanting recognition for making a clever statement by means of a derivative assertion, perhaps Robbie unwittingly foresaw his own downfall. Let’s go back to 1981 for this discussion.

When MTV was first broadcasting in the early 80s, there was a cultural shift in the consumption and creation of music. Now, music had a different character in embracing television and cable/satellite subscription networks. It is well established that technological innovations can change our consumption and appropriation of music. Radio introduced masses to Elvis, Rock ‘N’ Roll and crooning. The introduction of music videos and the emergence of major television networks had shifted music yet again. A new generation had emerged, and the conditions of possibility for other musical and cultural innovation obtained.

I’m not quite sure what the phrase of Williams’ album could mean; insofar as whether Reality refers to some wider apprehension of social affairs insofar as popular music creates its own ‘bubble’ of a world, or is a simple reference to reality television. Probably both. I shall address the latter. The notion of reality television which emerged in the twilight of the 1990s, seems to have dominated the popular consciousness of this decade. I have been hoping for a long time to just ignore it and hope it will die a death, whether quick or elongated. I’ve lately developed a new policy of trying not to pay attention to that which is utterly beneath derision such that even mentioning it would raise the profile of the offending object.

The generation created by MTV and CD sales indeed did change the status of radio. I thought about this as nowadays the main way that I engage with the world is through listening to podcasts, most of which come from public radio stations (particularly the BBC). While I was born and grew up in the generation of music videos. I really quite prefer podcasting. These new technologies have crystallised in such a way that now civility can be maintained. The ‘new’ does not need to be grasped only by the barbarian horde, but the likes of twitter stars like Charlie Brooker or Stephen Fry (whether this is a new philistinism remains an open question).

Where will the next decade take us? Will ‘reality’ television coem to an end? Will competing cliques occupy non-overt but influential positions among the youth through the web? Will there come something even new and more hateful to supercede reality television that will make the latter seem like a moral and cultural vanguard?

Time will tell, but, you can also decide how it will turn out. There are many great podcasts available these days. I should recommend a few.

Sinistre* (based on conversations with Michael)