Stuporheroes

Avengers Endgame

Superheroes should come with an Age Warning: For 5 to 15 year olds only.

or The Infantilisation of the Adult Cinema-goer

Recently I was sorting through some old comics to sell (part of a protracted campaign against my ‘pile of denial’, which I have been lugging from house to house for years now…) and smiled fondly as I leafed through the fragile, garish titles. It was like looking down a well – one that was forty years deep. Back when I was a child, growing up in the Rad-Lands of the East Midlands, part of the ‘boring dystopia’ (to nick Mark Fisher’s phrase) of Thatcherite Britain, comic books seemed to be the most exciting thing in the world (which tells you how exciting my world was…). I wanted to be a comic artist &/or writer (knowing local hero Alan Moore was an inspiration) and enthusiastically worked my way to art college. Foundation was fab, but Fine Art unfortunately acted as aversion therapy, disillusioning me about the art world (obsessed back then with wankily solipsistic concept art and the cult of the ‘Brit art’ personality). However, it did turn me into a writer (non, je ne regrette rien). Over the last few years I have observed with amused bafflement at the advent of the Superhero Movie (back when I was a feckless youth it was always a hit-and-miss affair – more often than not, a miss, though Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman were thrilling to see the first time around). From being strictly a Geek niche, the Superhero ‘genre’ (if you can dignify it as such) has come to dominant Hollywood. Nobody was expecting the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, aka ‘some films about spandex’) to become the billion dollar juggernaut that it has mutated into – like some oversized green angry infant… As an adolescent I would have been excited to see big screen movie versions of Stan Lee’s (and Jack Kirby’s; and Steve Ditko’s; and the rest) four colour pantheon. But … then I grew up. Got interested in other stuff – novels with decent writing, deep characterisation, complexity of plot; movies that explore the human condition in a nuanced, non-essentialist way – shit like that. I realised the world was infinitely more complex than the Manichean mummery of the comic books. Some of the better, more ambitious ‘graphic novels’ did start to tackle this (Maus; Watchmen; The Dark Knight Returns; Love and Rockets…), and nowadays there is a whole thriving industry in ‘graphic memoir’. Boundary-pushing books like Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland or Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (and many others) show what can be done with the medium. The comic strip is an infinitely adaptable form. It doesn’t have to be dumbed down, obsessed with body types, super-tight outfits, and salacious poses. Yet that ‘Charles Atlas’ aesthetic and ideology of comic book is dominating cinema (when so many other great works of sequential art could be adapted), and along with it the questionable power discourses and politics (it is interesting to note America obsesses about superheroes just at a time when its status as a ‘Superpower’ faces an existential threat: it doesn’t like being the weedy kid getting sand kicked in its face by the musclehead Putins of this world). Superhero Movies often assimilate the cosmetics of rebellion, of celebrating ‘difference’, and the self-determining individual, while actually all they are doing is: selling popcorn and increasing share-holder profit. Like the ‘V for Vendetta’ mask now owned by Warner Brothers, the aesthetics of protest have been co-opted by the multinationals to accumulate wealth. The MCU – now owned by that ultimate iteration of the Neoliberalist ‘Borg’, Disney – is the ‘perfect’ example of that cynical commercial imperative: marketplace dominance through transmedia storytelling. The ‘Avengers’ superhero team merely originated as a way to sell more comics. Some of the individual titles weren’t performing so well, others were – so, team up the respective characters and benefit from respective fan bases buying other connected titles: Excelsior! Earth’s mightiest heroes real ‘origin myth’ was simply arithmetic. And this model has been expanded vastly by the MCU marketing ‘vision’ – with each ‘feeder’ movie adding ‘value’ to the subsequent iterations, like individual franchises within a mall. The Avengers movie series is the artistic equivalent of the ‘Mall of America’ – Late Capitalism’s end-game. It is borne out of the (American) fantasy that ‘bigger is better’ – which in itself is Crispy Creme version of the NeoLiberalist project of infinite progress: the rapacious development that is instrumental in Global Warming and ensuing Climate Crisis.

Woah, better dial back then before you think I’m some kind of conspiracy theory nut – not allowed to talk about anything too serious, are we? That’s a breach of etiquette. And that’s part of the problem…

Whatever we think about the hidden discourses and agendas behind such behemoths as the MCU, what does seem evident to me is how the cultural hegemony of the Superhero Movie infantilises us – arresting the development of conscious individuals into ‘Fan-boy adult-lescents’ (and we’ve seen the worse iterations of that horrible entitlement in recent years, e.g. reactions to diversity in Star Wars). It amazes me how many ‘adults’ seem caught up in the whole phenomenon of the MCU franchise – how many spend serious cash on the whole bullshit ‘universe’. Of course, with the collapsing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow in cultural studies, us academics are expected to treat any cultural artefact with the same seriousness – presenting sober-faced conference papers on cynically commercial juvenilia, writing peer-reviewed articles on our anoraks, and Ph.D. theses on our OCDs (or Obsessive Narrative Disorders, in my case…). And thus, with our scholarly attention, we legitimise the Machine which sucks up our dreams and makes us pay-to-view. The ‘academic streams’ take place in smaller meeting rooms while the main venues are taken over by the real business – the buying and selling, glutting upon, and ogling of, the commercialised dream-stuff which serves as a surrogate for the real nutrients of Fantasy that can derived freely from the source: the Imagination. There will always be traders in the temple place until we stop being happy shoppers – so many Pac-men and -women. The first challenge is to wean ourselves off the titmilk. As ‘consumers’ we, are told, have power. Let’s all stop watching infantilised fodder (I know it won’t happen) and maybe they’ll start making movies for adults again. But that won’t wash with the infant tyrant entitled teenagers who now run the show. They will demand a rewrite if they don’t get the ending they can jerk off too.

But we can choose to walk out, or, better still, go and see an original film at an independent cinema. Hell, even read a book.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019

 

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Lines of Desire

Read my article, published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing (Taylor & Francis), on my research into the benefits of long-hand writing.

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Lines of Desire by Kevan Manwaring. Ink & graphite. 2018

Taking a phenomenological approach, this article explores the benefits and challenges of writing long-hand, and how this has significant qualitative impacts upon the early stages of the creative process. I will consider exemplar from famous practitioners; the benefits of archival research; and the implications on my own praxis. I will argue the efficacy of this aspect of practice-based research, one that aligns with Frayling’s research through and into practice. As an experiential and kinaesthetic approach, long-hand writing can act as both a form of critical cultural resistance to the digitisation of daily life and also complementary to other technologies (e.g. ‘smart’ devices with styluses). The pedagogical effectiveness of this approach (e.g. timed writing activities within a workshop; use of notebooks for qualia-capture in the field) is explored and evidenced with particular focus on a series of ‘Wild Writing’ workshops led between 2015 and 2017 in England and North America.

 

Publication Cover

Get Out vs Green Book

Representations of the Black Experience from the Inside-out and the Outside-in

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Two films that, on the surface, may share some ostensible similarities – a bi-racial road-trip to the Deep South leading to encounters with the post-bellum Jim Crow mentality entrenched there (even to this day) – reveal, on deeper analysis, discourses emerging from dialectically-opposed paradigms. Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), is a meat-and-two-veg road movie about an ‘odd couple’ starring a beefed up Viggo Mortensen as Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, and an awards-friendly performance from Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley, a genius pianist of aristocratic bent. Lip, an artless ‘rough diamond’ from the Bronx, is hired to drive the talented, fussy Doc to a series of elite music venues in the Deep South, acting as driver, fixer and bodyguard. On one level it is class comedy, as each scenario offers amusing contrasts between the two very different sensibilities. Yet, the further south they go, the greater the racism (it is undoubtedly there in the north but often depicted, in the film at least, as unconscious bias rather than out-and-out hostility and American Apartheid ). The titular ‘Green Book’ is used to orientate to ‘colored’ accommodation. The contrast with the elegant concert halls is sobering, a shocking demi-monde haunted by the ‘Negro’ underclass, but more so the increasingly antagonistic treatment by the locals. This should all feel awful, but sadly seems wearily predictable – both the racism and the plot. Without risk of ‘spoilers’ you just know that Lip and Shirley will bond in the end and overcome adversity together. So far, so safe. Although ostensibly ‘tackling’ racism, Green Book shows itself repeatedly to be cloth-eared to it. It has the authentic sincerity of an 80s protest song – shallow and virtue-signalling. Farrelly’s film is a feel-good movie for white liberals: white man saves the day and we can all go home feeling we’ve done something worthy. But this movie does not destabilise the status quo but reinforces it. However great the performances of both Mortensen and Ali, this cannot redeem the normalisation of racism that occurs frequently in the first act: we are still expected to identify with Lip even though he wishes to throw away glasses used by black workmen, and shows unapologetic schadenfreude in forcing the elderly Asian butler to pack the suitcases. Worse, Lip is shown ‘educating’ Shirley about ‘black culture’, stereotyped as fried chicken and pop music, claiming outrageously to be ‘more black than he was’.  The lonely, but dignified Doctor is reduced to being ‘grateful’ for the pale saviour: crumbs from the table of white privilege. It is meant to be the emotional pay-off, a schmaltzy ‘heart-warming message’ that misfires in a disturbing way. Green Book offers a smooth ride – the period detail, the depiction of Italian-American life, the impressive musical set-pieces – but ultimately we are taken to a dead-end.

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) we are in a very different universe: here, the full horror of racism is unmasked. It is a movie that is hyper-alert to everyday racism; to unconscious and conscious bias; to the power discourses of white America. It tracks a couple – a black photographer, Chris Washington, played with visceral conviction by British-actor Daniel Kaluuya, and his pretty white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a deceptive performance by Allison Williams) – who return to the Armitage home in the Deep South for the much-dreaded ‘meet the parents’ encounter. This is problematised by the discovery that they do not know their beloved daughter has a black boyfriend. Rose reassures Chris that they are Obama-voting liberals, yet, without giving it away, nothing is what it seems. Things go rapidly ‘south’ in many ways. The use of the Horror genre effectively shocks the audience into the true horror of racism, and its ugly bedfellows – white supremacy and eugenics. It could be a companion piece to Spike Lee’s award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). Both depict the reality of race in America from a black perspective (Peele; Lee) – vastly different in tone to the tone-deaf quality of Green Book. Farrelly’s movie offers a threadbare comfort blanket in a world where the Alt-Right is not only on the rise, but already in government, or hugely influential on those which are.  Whileas, in the deeply unsettling world of Get Out the audience is strapped into the chair and forced to watch the nightmare unfold. Green Book hypnotizes us with its lush visuals and cool soundtrack – and before we know it, where are in the Dismal Sink of acceptance. We become, like Washington’s character, voyeurs in the void, watching the horror of the white world diminish away to a mere rectangle in the dark.

Farrelly’s film attempts to, ludicrously, ‘solve’ racism with a road-trip, whileas Peele’s film instaurates racism’s full horror – a horror we are all complicit in. The ending of both is telling of this diametrically-opposed vision of reality: while the former ends with a friendly cop helping to fix a tyre in the snow, the latter ends with the TSA friend extracting Washington from the blood-bath (a Grand Guignol scene which, if an actual cop had arrived, would have ended very differently). In Green Book, the status quo is restored (the institutional racism of the police force is white-washed out), whileas in Get Out the ‘old/new normal’ is: survival in a hostile world.

In theory, in a highly toxic cultural and political landscape where the Far Right regain the prominence and influence of the 1930s, and xenophobic and divisive voices are regularly given platforms in the media, one should applaud any film that tries to send out a message of multi-cultural ‘tolerance’, yet such insipid good intentions pave the way to Nazi Hell. We need the provocative (and successful) films of Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and others, to shock the audience awake.

A footnote to this: Jordan Peele is directing a serialisation of Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, Lovecraft Country’ (2016) for Netflix (with JJ Abrams producing) and in that a road-trip to the Maine Coast associated with Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos is navigated by use of ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, a fictionalised version of the ‘Green Book’. On the surface, a mash-up of the two main films discussed above, but with Peele at the wheel, Lovecraft Country promises to be a very different beast to Farrelly’s glib excursion. Watch this space.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019

The Overstory – a review

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

This ambitious, arborescent novel is a towering achievement – I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time. Powers’ Booker-short-listed magnum opus attempts the maximalist grand narrative of the classic Victorian novel, as the title, The Overstory, suggests. Shattered by Modernism, and scattered by Post-Modernism, perhaps it is time for its rehabilitation and return in an atomised age when people are seeking stories that make sense of the world around us (hence the popularity of high concept books like Sapiens that create a meaningful narrative for humankind in a time of increasing meaninglessness). What is radically refreshing about Powers’ book is that the grand narrative it offers is not an anthropocentric one. It is a sylvan one – for trees are at the heart of this book. The provide a thematic structure (Roots; Trunk; Crown; Seeds), are intrinsic to the novel’s thesis (in a nutshell: trees as a species are far older than us, contribute collaboratively to the ecosystem, and will probably outlast, even as we denude the priceless woods of the world at an unprecedented rate). Powers has a cast of 8 main characters – an outsider artist; a Chinese-American engineer; a property lawyer (and his restless wife); a veteran drifter; a games designer guru; a bioscientist; and back-from-the-dead undergrad who hears voices. Each of these initially disconnected lives are associated with a tree through upbringing, serendipity, or temperament. We watch these fictional birth trees grow, mature, flower, and fall, over several decades. Different paradigms, aptitudes, and agendas all intersect through the growing environmental crisis in some way. As the Earth’s resources are depleted and climates change, some of these characters will become radicalised through the concern for what we are doing to our irreplaceable home: the rapacious devastation of the very biodiversity which may save us; the resources that will sustain us; the species that we share our home with and possible sentience. Thus far, the novel could have still existed within the tradition of mimetic ‘realism’, but Powers boldly imagines a non-anthropocentric perspective, and an even a post-human future – one that destabilises our (imagined) pole position in the ecosystem, the hubristic apex-predator, but does not estrange us from the interlacement of nature. Rather, it restores us to – babes in the wood, still to learn the art of being, of mutuality, and respectful co-existence. As in the Transcendentalist tradition of American nature mystics and thinkers like Whitman, Thoreau and Muir, Powers sees beyond the petty concerns of man, finding renewal of meaning and purpose in nature. Yet the vision it offers it not naïve – the complex problems of the world are ever-present, and no one here gets out alive – but profoundly subtle, sophisticated, and sustaining. The novel looks to the future continually, often sending messages back as it leaps into full omniscience. The Overstory dares to shift emphasis and empathy beyond the brief lives of its protagonists, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. the finite, flawed human world) of the here and now. Temporality and spaciality are recalibrated to a different scale. It is a Promethean project, and perhaps one destined to be consumed by the fire it seeks to seize. Powers acknowledges the challenge:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story for a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is falling precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

And yet Powers achieves just that. The – fully-realised lives of its human protagonists unfold in an engaging way, but just as gripping is the great drama unfolding on a transhuman scale: Nature becoming conscious of itself, or waiting for us to realise it has been so all along. The novel brings that compassionate act of attention to the minutest and vastest miracle of the natural world. To read its 502 pages is akin to the ‘forest-bathing’ popular in Japan, it provides fictional shirin-yoku. The Overstory is of a novel of vaulting ambition – it makes the forests walk (and talk). It manages to achieve what few novels even dare, these days – it makes us look beyond ourselves (increasingly rare in an Age of Selfie and the enforced narcissism of social media). It makes us look up, look down at the earth beneath our feet, breathe, and wonder. The Overstory casts a long shadow, and its story may outlive ‘the novel’ itself (and perhaps even the people who read them).

Kevan Manwaring 2019-01-10

Pen Mine

FRONT COVER NEW 3 DEC 18

In the long hot summer of 2018 I decided to walk along the Pennine Way, a 253 mile (or more depending on optional routes and distances to and from accommodation) national trail that follows the spine of England from its Black Country sacrum and coccyx in the Derbyshire Peak District to the axis and atlas of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. It had become a custom of mine to undertake a long walk at the end of the academic year as a way to unwind. This year it was needed more than ever after a particular intensive trimester involving the completion and submission of my PhD thesis. I also wished to undergo a kind of cultural ‘detox’ – from social media, from the news, from mad dog presidents, the World Cup, and the omnishambles of Brexit. The world was too noisy. I wanted to turn down the volume.  Walking for days on end, mainly solo (albeit for a couple of pleasant days when a dear friend joined me), I find de-stressing and immensely rewarding. After a few days I can hear myself think again. Ideas start to bubble up, unbidden. Although I did not set off (this time) hoping for inspiration, inspiration came nevertheless. Days of profound silence (or at least peacefulness) allows one to hear the quieter voices that are often drowned out by the white noise of modern existence.

It was while hiking from Haworth to Ickornshaw on the fifth day of my holiday that such an idea came to me: ‘to write [initially] 9 pieces exploring my core beliefs, using the visceral experience of walking the spine of England to tap into the bedrock of my belief’, as I put it in my little notebook. These ‘pieces’ were to be ‘…philosophical enquiries, each framed by my day’s walk’, but critically, ‘drawing upon my own ideas, not the digested opinions of other authors, other books’. I did so much of that, I opined, in my academic life (the almost neurotic referencing and justifying, the pedantic splitting of hairs and compulsive couching of terms – dutifully citing everyone else’s opinion except your own) it would be liberating to tune into what I think, what I believe.

 I am a great fan of the literary essay and deeply admire the mastery of Montaigne, Sebald and Solnit (to name three favourites), but I did not want this to be a performance of erudition, a showcase of my reading, of my learning to date (however useful such a process can be). I wanted to adopt a more embodied, intuitive approach, drawing upon what insights I could glean during my day’s hike, from what I felt as much as what I thought. The nearest practice that I have personal knowledge of is that of the ‘Earth Walk’, when one asks a question, then meditates upon that while walking in silence, senses open, hyper-alert to what answers nature may provide.  My approach would be simply to hold the chosen theme of the day lightly in my head and heart as I wandered along, while not allowing it to block out anything else. It would be a porous field of awareness, allowing the texture of the day to flow through it – and ‘snagging’ anything that seemed relevant, that could add to my deeper understanding of the chosen theme. It is so easy to drop down into an almost animal state when walking – it is trance-inducing, and one becomes hypnotized by the movement, by making progress, by achieving the next goal. One’s level of awareness narrows to the quotidian and visceral:  immediate dis/comfort; heat or cold; wet or dryness; hunger and thirst; fatigue and rest; motion and stillness. I wanted, in this practice, to focalise my experience – not let the days slip by, trudging along like some mindless walking machine. And so, excited by the idea, I quickly thought of nine potential themes, which I added to when I let go of my desire to punish the toponym (‘pen … nine’) so literally. I wrote up my insights at the end of the day, and I have tried to resist anything but essential editing, transcribing them here from my notebook. They capture the way the thoughts tumbled out on the day, ‘line-fresh’. They became my daily haul and however modest they may be – some may feel my micro-essais merely state the obvious; others may find them niggling or even intensely disagreeable – they nonetheless represent a fair cross-section of my core values as felt and believed in that summer of burning moors and blue skies – a vertebrae of beliefs upon which I fall or stand, an itinerant soul making his way across this wild, roaming, irreplaceable Earth.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

Order a print copy from Lulu for only £5 today:

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A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair

Spellbound: Magic, Witchcraft & Ritual exhibition – a review

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This promising looking exhibition at the ever-delightful Ashmolean in Oxford sought to explore the history of witchcraft over eight centuries through material culture, and examine how magical thinking still permeates life in the twenty first. Certainly it had on display some very impressive artefacts, including Dr Dee’s famous black scrying mirror (and swish purple crystal pendant), a 16th Century ceremonial sword with a protective crystal pommel, a 19th Century ‘witches ladder’ from Somerset made of feathers and twine, a 12/13th Century human heart encased in lead and silver, an early 20th Century poppet impaled by a stiletto, a treatise by the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, a hoard of magical rings, and more.  I found the early manuscripts particularly fascinating, and it was a shame there was not more on the magical use of language. Apart from a thrilling invocation to Astaroth, the exhibition did not delve enough into notions of gramarye for my liking, which considering its textual title, was disappointing. Clearly, physical artefacts have more ‘affect’, but (recording of the Astaroth spell, and the Music of the Spheres apart) more could have been done with sound, e.g. audio interviews of modern witches or field recordings of rituals, banishings, and so forth. There was the inevitable account of a witchcraft trail and confession, and these at least were dramatised. And yet most exhibits focused on negative portrayals of witchcraft through the centuries – classic engravings of hags (sorry, ‘post-menopausal women’) riding goats backwards to sabbats, conjuring up foul potions, stealing babies, and other misogynistic stereotypes. These are all extant of course, and are an important part of the socio-historical record, but it would have balanced things redemptively to have had modern witches discuss their beliefs and practices, as a counter-spell to the centuries of fear and loathing. Witchcraft is, after all, a living tradition, with thousands, if not millions, of practitioners around the world, whether Wiccan, traditional, hedgewitch, or otherwise. There was no parsing of magic into ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘green’ and so on. Accounts of how it was used in the Second World War for instance, or in more recent ecological protests, would have been resonant. The exhibition seemed determined to keep witchcraft in the past, as a historical phenomenon to be scrutinised academically. The introduction announced it to be all ‘imaginative fantasy’ even before visitors had a chance to make up their own mind. The efforts to explore magical thinking felt half-hearted – a fascinating aspect reduced to walking under a ladder. The commissioned artistic responses were interesting, and added a frisson of the contemporary, but it seemed all too cursory. What would have situated it more firmly in topical discourse would have been a section of representations of witchcraft in popular culture (TV, film, novels, music, computer games, cosplay, online memes, and so forth). There is no shortage of examples after all (Circe to Harry Potter; Morgana to Sabrina: the teenage witch, et al). This was done in the 2015-16 ‘Celts: art and identity’ exhibition at the British Museum and managed to avoid a sense of populist ‘dumbing down’. Space for such a display could have been made by removing the redundant spiritualist exhibit (which has nothing really to do with witchcraft, and seems to have been placed at the end of the exhibit merely as a form of dispelling or discrediting all domestic ‘sorcery’ – as reified by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951; that may have repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1735, but it did not extirpate magical thinking from modern life: indeed, it made the public practise of witchcraft possible, if not socially acceptable). Ultimately, the curators had to make decisions based upon space, availability, and relevance, and it is far easier to pick holes in something once it has been manifest. The Ashmolean should be applauded for such bold programming. As a spring board for discussion, ‘Spellbound’ offers a stimulating introduction into cultures of enchantment.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

Spellbound finishes 6 January 2019. Booking recommended: https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound