Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Signifying nothing

So the Brick Lane protest happens, and there's a bit of shouting and general grumpiness, but it's all a bit pointless really, since the film-makers have pulled out already. Maybe it's because it's the silly season, but some commentators are desperately trying to lump this one together with all that unpleasant Rushdie business back in the olden days; Sikh protests against Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti; Hindu protests over MF Husain's paintings; the highly amusing career death of Mel 'Sugar Tits' Gibson; the 40th anniversary of Lennon vs Banjo-Pluckers, Inc; and, for all I know, my late and dearly beloved grandmother's crestfallen face when I announced that I was a vegetarian, and would no longer be partaking of her delicious chicken soup (with or without matzo kleis).

This one is slightly different however, in that it's not a religious protest. The locals are complaining that Bangladeshis - particularly Sylhetis - are being portrayed as unkempt bumpkins. Leave aside the fact that the most damning remarks are made by a character in the novel, and thus to accuse Monica Ali of propagating such slurs is akin to accusing Shakespeare of supporting rape, mutilation and cannibalism for writing Titus Andronicus. Leave aside the fact that I've had the same stereotype related to me over and over again by South Asian acquaintances of all backgrounds. (It's what the English say about the Irish, the Americans about the Poles, the Japanese about the Koreans and the Bangkok Thais about the Isaan [North-eastern] Thais.) Leave aside even the fuckwitted protestor who lived up to the groundless libel by admitting that he'd read bits and pieces of the book and had other bits "explained" to him; or the fact that only two of the 120 protestors were women. ("This event was organised at short notice and obviously our families have children," said a man protesting at the book's allegations that Bangladeshis have a somewhat restrictive view of gender roles. "So who looks after them?")

No, the core of the problem is the protestors' polite request: "If you're going to write certain things then don't upset people."

Have you ever experienced art or media that has "not upsetting people" as its top priority? Think content-free Vegas pap like Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group. Think Jack bloody Vettriano. Think Coldplay. Look at the censored films and anodyne music available on international airlines. Next time you're in a hotel, check out the news from CNN or BBC World. In the interests of fairness and balance and sensitivity - all good things, don't get me wrong - we're left with bland banalities, polite evasions, and endless repeats of Larry King, the dullest journalist on the planet. Or maybe just get a job on a magazine in Thailand, where direct criticism is taboo. (I once wrote a book review that was not entirely complimentary about some ghastly you-can-be-a-better-salesperson tome. The managing editor couldn't understand why we would want to draw our readers' attention to books that were not good.)

Or, if you care to cast your mind back that far, consider the Millennium Dome. Because they didn't want to "exclude" anyone, however dim and/or thin-skinned, the whole experience was like an infant school open day. Stephen Bayley (whatever happened to him?) was mocked for suggesting the best thing they could do with it would be to leave the structure empty, and let the punters walk around. But effectively, that's what they did. I actually paid real cash money to get in, and half an hour later I couldn't remember a bloody thing about it.

The bizarre thing is, when I first read Brick Lane, I thought it was a similar, empty, pointless experience: Zadie Smith for daytime TV viewers; second-rate Catherine Cookson with a light dusting of stale garam masala. But no, even this dull, vacuous novel is just too edgy for some people. Now, I'm all for restrictions on expression if they'll really prevent hatred and violence and lynchings and gas chambers and genocide. But restrictions on taking the piss? That's just taking the piss.

Of course, this whole quandary came up earlier this year, with the Danish cartoon saga. I thought all the pictures should have been junked because they were exceedingly poor, but that, apparently wasn't the point. Art Spiegelman, one of our greatest living cartoonists, wrote a superb overview of the whole thing in Harper's a couple of months back. Proving himself to be an equal opportunities offender, he included historical cartoons that were pretty vile about Catholics, black people, capitalists, Boss Tweed (who he?), King Louis-Philippe of France and many more. He also analysed all the Danish cartoons, awarding each a numerical score for offensiveness; and reprinted an Iranian cartoon denying the Holocaust, as well as some cartoons entered into an Israeli competition intended to show the Iranians that however anti-Semitic the goyim can get, Shlomo and Saydie can go one better. It was meaty stuff, some of it downright nasty, but Spiegelman was careful to set the whole thing in context. "As a secular Jewish cartoonist living in New York City, I start out with four strikes against me," he wrote, "but I really don't want any irate Muslims declaring holy war on me. Although I'm not at all religious, I am a devout coward."

However, as Spiegelman and Ali discovered, however careful you are, someone's going to get upset. The cartoonist's most famous work is probably the astonishing graphic novel Maus, which retells the story of Hitler's Germany with the Jews recast as rodents. Apparently, moggie-loving zoologist Desmond Morris complained because the Nazis were represented as cats. Still, at least he bothered to read it. Or at least have it explained to him.

21 comments:

Robert A. Swipe said...

Yay! Fisrt to pretend I'm cultured...

Excellent post Timothy - The Spinster has obviously started working for you already...

Wyndham said...

A very nice post indeed. It's satisfying to know that in the future there'll only be a single, homogenised culture - victim culture.

tom l said...

i found this post to be quite interesting and therefore very upsetting indeed, as i had not intended to wake up or think at all today!

Annie said...

Mmmm, chicken soup...

Lord, Brick Lane was boring, especially given that it's such an interesting place. You know what's really got up their noses though - nothing to do with stereotyping the local community blah blah blah - it's the fact that the protagonist is a Sylheti woman who has an affair.

Billy said...

Got to love stoopid protestors... brilliant!

I've been meaning to read Brick Lane for ages but have never got round to it, so I'm pleased the opinions seems to be that I shouldn't bother.

Maybe I should just go there instead.

Spinsterella said...

Um, sorry to spoil your illusions Bob, but I'm going to Las Vegas in a couple of months for Flatmate's 40th. We're going to see Cirque de Soleil. Sorry.

And I hated the last line of Brick Lane. Not as disappointing overall as White Teeth, though...

Pisces Iscariot said...

If you keep upsetting me with comments about Mel the Messiah I'm not going to read your posts anymore! ...snigger

patroclus said...

Marvellous post Tim. I tried to read White Teeth, but it was too heavy. And yes, proper culture is supposed to shock us into rebelling against our miserable existences as passive cogs in the capitalist-industrialist machine, or so our friend T. W. Adorno would have us believe. Of course then everyone went about saying that Adorno was a terrible élitist and that if people like going to see Blue Man Group and looking at Jack Vettriano paintings then they should be allowed to do so without some bourgeois German academic telling them it's no good for them. Then some of us got around the whole thing by consuming Coldplay et al 'ironically'. I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make.

Helga von porno said...

Wagner, Elitism, nudism, a pragmatic contempt for the weak, pils, cleanliness, orderliness and a respect for authority. These are elements of German culture and if anyone takes the piss out of them or criticizes them I will burn their books and claim war on them. World War three here we come!

Tim Footman said...

Crikey, that got a few chins stroked.

Bob: yeah, she wrote it. I had to trnslt it out of txt, tho.

Wyndham: well, if everyone's a victim, there'll be no-one around to help.

Tom L: good night.

Annie: well, exactly. They don't want their womenfolk to get funny ideas. Is the Touching Cloth shop still there?

Billy: Go, it's fab. And, as the article says, it smells great too.

Spin: Now I rather liked White Teeth, although I did kind of agree with the person who described it as "Salman Rushdie for Johnny Vaughan fans".

Pisces: I heard the news story that he'd actually been charged with DD this morning - but I was washing up and misheard it as "Dale Winton". It sounded peculiar but, really, "sugar tits" is so Dale, don't you think?

Patroclus: People should be allowed to go and see Blue Man, but they should also be made aware by cranky Marxists and others that it's not good for them, and that there are alternatives. Otherwise the Frankfurt School and the fuckwits in Brick Lane are in the same gang (and, if you are one of those who traces political correctness back to Marcuse, etc, that may not be so crazy). But I find it impossible to like that sort of content-free, decontextualised blah, even ironically, because there's nothing in there to subvert (which is its attraction to cultural conservatives, presumably). The whole point of Vegas is that it's ludicrous. Gimme Siegfried and Roy any day. As Arnold Bennett (sorry, the English novelist Arnold Bennett) said, "Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste." Christ, P, why do you make me babble? And bon voyage an' t'ing, hope it's all bearable.

Helga: Well exactly. I find Big Brother and Big Macs offensive, but I don't ask for them to be banned. And at least I've watched BB and eaten a BM (once each, I think) so I speak from more of a vantage point than the Brick Lane gang.

Molly Bloom said...

I was just having a similar conversation about this kind of thing the other day. Sorry if I offend anyone here....but I can't bear Monica or Zadie. However, I do think that it is interesting the way that people pounce on anything that can be viewed as being 'upsetting' to people. And yes, what you say is totally right about the cartoons. I think that censorship is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But...these things are so very dull in every way.

I think it's interesting (sorry if I offend anyone here) that people don't want to read 'hard' texts anymore. We're all for dumbing down our culture. It's like we celebrate having nothing to say. Whenever I've mentioned 'Ulysses' people have made a joke about it. It is strange. Perhaps it scares people...I don't know.

Anyway...I think Maus is excellent. Superb book.

I also think that people should enjoy their own tastes...but like you, I don't like softrocklife. I just want danger and anarchy. Give me in your face, give me violence, give me boundary breaking. Give me something challenging.

Molly Bloom said...

Roooooar!

Tim Footman said...

Re: the 'hard' texts/dumbing down, etc, etc, this is one of the most depressing things I've read in a while.

First Nations said...

excellent post. absolutely excellent.

Molly Bloom said...

God, yes..I read that article this morning and nearly cried. We have to be 'successful' - it's all about success. The sweet smell of success. I think that is a load of...I don't think that the people in the role of educators think that students are clever in the first place actually. (Not all, of course.) I always get into trouble for teaching kids difficult texts. 'Oooh, they won't manage that' or 'You can't possibly do that!' But, I've had really difficult kids reading 'Ulysses', 'The Wasteland', 'Metamorphosis', Ezra Pound and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. They love it. It's only because we predict that they can't achieve that they don't achieve. It's all about what Vygotsky said was the 'zone of proximal development' - we should pitch above, not below. The best, ever lessons that I've taught have been with some kids doing stream of consciousness and then onto some work on Eliot. They loved it. And they can write. Oh God, these kids can write so well if you let them.

I worry about the idea of saying that you can't be 'clever'. I think there is shame attached to it. But it is also the expectations of failure. I also really hate (sorry, going to offend everyone here again) the term 'Chav' - it's actually a Romany term, which is a colloquial term for a wide-boy really. It isn't really meant to be denigrating or derogatory. The way that working class kids are held by the system is frightening. It is Bourdieu's symbolic violence. Often the most sparky, wonderful kids are held back. They are fantastic and get the difficult stuff first time.

And when you have faith in them and trust them...they do really, really well. I hope I do them justice. If any kid comes out without an A-C grade I let them pelt me with flour and eggs. And...well...I've never got pelted yet...and well...I'm not a patronising 'Dead Poet's Society' teacher, no way. I just get on with it in a quiet, passionate way. It is not bad to be clever. What a shame about that article. It makes me mad. There are pockets of defiance and resistance though. I promisexx

Oh dear...I really do sound 'Dead Poets'..oh dear...tis what I am passionate about...so I shall post this anyway.

Also, in The Guardian today....it said that 'heavy' readers read four books a year. I must be mighty heavy. Four books a year? Oh dear.

Tim Footman said...

I wish I'd noted all the details at the time, but I remember a few years ago there was one of those perennial debates about school history consisting of nothing but Hitler and Stalin. One teacher in Newcastle was quoted as saying that if the core subject were something complex like the French revolution, his students wouldn't be able to cope.

If you can't cope, on a basic level, with the underlying causes of the French revolution, you can't cope with the Enlightnment. If you can't cope with the Enlightenment, you can't hope to understand the modern conflict with radical Islam.

So this teacher had essentially decided that his students were unable to understand one of the most important geopolitical arguments facing the world today. And rather than do something about this, he asked for exams to be kept easy.

Molly Bloom said...

EXACTLY! Well, you know...I'm always astounded at what kids can understand. All kids. Unbelievable. Sometimes they frighten me with their open minds. They are open to all things. Don't shut down the mind - open it up to all possibilities. Let them taste as much as they possibly can. If they don't like it, fair enough. If they do like it, brilliant. Everyone should have access to all culture and art. Don't close down doors. Language is power, but also knowledge is power.

And although some people knock it, I'm fascinated by students' reactions to Shakespeare. Fascinated. The less able (I hate labels, but cannot think of a better one here) students always 'tap' into it. They get the story like that. *Snaps her fingers* They read it so well. And, they get the humour of it. I had one top set and one bottom set of eleven year olds and they were so different. The bottom set (I hate labels...have I said that?)were rolling around laughing and they were talking about great concepts about the language. When I asked them why they could tap in...they said that it was similar to the rhythm and sound of rap artists. Yes, I know, please don't groan. But, actually, the way they read it was very clever. It was fantastic actually. And when they went to see it in Regent's Park, they knew it all. It rocked. They were the ones doing the Eliot too.

Well, I could bore everyone all day with this...but I won't. Sorry.

If you don't put faith in young minds...then you get what you ask for.

Molly Bloom said...

PS - don't get me wrong...I love low and high culture. You should see some of my insane ramblings. I like to play with both extremes.

dh said...

Say what you like about Mel Gibson he isn't bland. Headstrong, indiscreet, and a second-rate actor maybe but not dull.

I believe work on the TV Holocaust series was never started. The Disney production 'Apolcalypto' could turn out to be a big box-office success. Then what?

Oh dear, I'm in trouble now.

Tim Footman said...

I agree. Like Robert Downey Jr, his tumbles off the wagon increase the net joy of mankind.

But he does strike me as something of a cunt, albeit an interesting cunt.

dh said...

Well you know what they say...one man's cunt is another man's cant.

Anyway it looks like Mel is targeted for destruction. Maybe he deserves it...who knows? I'm not qualified to make that kind of judgment myself.