Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jamie Oliver is the Roland Barthes de nos jours

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that some people whose names appear prominently on the covers of books have limited input when it comes to the words contained therein. But I still find it intriguing that Jamie Oliver – nominal “author” of nearly 20 culinary tomes – has just finished reading a book for the first time. This isn’t to belittle Oliver himself, who is dyslexic; but I wonder how the thousands of people who have bought his titles feel about the fact that he presumably hasn’t even read them, let alone written them.

Many people object to literary theories such as Barthes’s Death of the Author, or Wimsatt and Beardsley’s Intentional Fallacy, which argue that conventional criticism pays too much heed to what a writer means to convey; the notion that a work is effectively written and rewritten by each successive reader is just a step too far into postmodernism. Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby and we read the same Nicholas Nickleby and that’s all there is to it. But the same people seem pretty relaxed about the notion that Jamie Oliver or Katie Price or Victoria Beckham can claim some kind of responsibility for a book in which their involvement was distinctly meagre. The name on the front is simply a brand, bestowing a sort of integrity upon the product; it must be good because that nice Jamie Oliver off of the telly says it is. But how can Oliver transfer any of his chirpy, heart-on-sleeve, pukka integrity malarkey, easy tiger, to a book if he doesn’t even know what’s in it?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Marcel Duchamp is alive and well and living in Stockholm

And I find myself in the lovely capital of Sweden, where I eat a great deal of herring, watch the Changing of the Guard (because I Am A Tourist), go out and buy a toothbrush in broad daylight at 10:30 pm (because it’s midsummer) and walk up a gentle hill to the Moderna Museet for the Surrealism & Duchamp exhibition. The museum has an impressive collection of pieces by the arch-conceptualist, although closer inspection reveals that most of them are in fact the work (if by that we are discussing the person who physically made the thing) of one Ulf Linde; Duchamp visited Stockholm in the early 1960s and authorised copies to be made of his major works.

Does it matter? Since Duchamp’s appeal is all about provocative, incongruous ideas rather than fine craftsmanship, should it bother us that some of the pieces we view might never have been touched by the hands of the man to whom they’re credited? It’s the idea that matters, right? Well, yes, and after a century there are still people who are challenged by the idea of encountering a urinal in an art gallery. But ultimately, if the idea is so much bigger than the execution, why go to the bother of remaking a readymade? Why not just write down the idea on a PostIt note and put that in a gallery? But then Ulf Linde might copy the PostIt...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jezebel and The Guardian and the fine art of taking offence

The problem with any rational discussion of censorship is that it requires the public airing of the material that some might want censored, which rather defeats the purpose. The same paradox applies to the modern, lightweight variant of censorship, which stops short of demanding an outright ban but leaves you in no doubt that the matter in question is a very bad thing indeed and that the people who like it and the people who consume it aren’t much better. And to prove it, here it is.

Two recent examples: a Guardian appeal for photographs of sexualised imagery that readers find offensive; and Jezebel’s piece about why a Vice fashion spread depicting the suicides of female writers was a bit iffy. The latter is particularly delicious because the Vice piece has been taken down while the Jezebel one is still around. It’s today’s variant on ironic quotation marks; you can put the most horrible material in the public domain, provided you make clear the extent to which you disapprove of it. The question is, in the modern media world, is an eyeball still and eyeball if it’s topped by a raised brow?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Amen Corner and the limits of colour-blind casting

Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre’s new production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, has suggested that the UK lags behind the US in casting black actors, while ignoring the fact that the US has more black people – and presumably more black actors – both in an absolute sense and in terms of a proportion of the overall population than is the case in Britain. “In America, there is much more colour-blind casting,” he says. But then: “Of course The Amen Corner's going to have an all black cast – you can't possibly do otherwise...”

OK, people, let’s have a think about this one.

PS: I’ve just remembered, I rambled on about this sort of thing a few years ago as well. And here too.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Turkey: memage à trois

For a cultural meme to survive, it needs to adapt, retaining the power of surprise; otherwise it’s just a cliché. Inevitably, this process of evolution is often propelled by a dialectical form of sexual reproduction, as two memes mate to create something new and (potentially) interesting. It’s still not that common, though, to see the offspring of a threesome; especially a threesome that combines a meme that’s very old and tired, one that’s getting that way and one that’s brand spanking new. Respect, then, to the Turkish capulcu, or looters; full story here.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Game of Thrones post you’ve all been waiting for

To be honest, I haven’t been watching Game of Thrones, nor have I read the sturdy tomes upon which it’s based, so I confess to being a little baffled as to why the most recent episode has provoked such a loud and anguished reaction among the fan base. In fact, the response seems to have drowned out the sound of the show itself; as in the 2 Girls 1 Cup meme, the people watching are more interesting than the nominal subject matter. That said, I still can’t get my head around the practice of photographing your food so the idea of people filming each other watching TV is pretty baffling.

But although this is an age of supposedly unparalleled narcissism, such behaviour has precedents. I’ve written before about the tank-topped kid in the Top of the Pops studio when Bowie played Starman, captivated not by the homoerotic history being made in front of him but by his own image on the monitor. We are all stars. Until our throats are cut and they kill our poor dog.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Nil combustibus pro fumo

A mighty peculiar story in the Mail today; apparently...
David Cameron has held crisis talks at Downing Street after being told of allegations of a sensational love affair which has potentially significant political implications for him.
The paper is stingy with the details, beyond the facts that the participants in the “tryst” are middle-aged (whatever that means), neither is in the Cabinet, and the relationship is now over. In fact, there’s so little meat that they’re permitted to serve us that there seems little point in publishing the story, beyond the need to make a point about the whole Leveson thing. Look, Paul Dacre seems to be saying; we’ve got something that’s in the public interest (in the sense at least that the public might be interested in it, in a rather sordid way) but we’d love to be able to tell you, but we’re not allowed. Moreover, in the wake of the Bercow-McAlpine brouhaha, Twitter is a little backward on the gossip-and-guesswork front, innocent faces notwithstanding. The medium that stuck two fingers up at superinjunction-happy lawyers is keeping its hands in its pockets.

So I won’t speculate on any possible identities; except to argue that there’s only one senior Tory not in the Cabinet that anyone cares about, and everyone knows he’s an incontinent shagger anyway, and if there were revelations that put him in a bad light, it could only be good news for Cameron. The funny thing is, the story has arisen just a few days before the 50th anniversary of John Profumo’s resignation from the Commons, following his admission that he had lied about his relationship with Christine Keeler. Is this latest story of the same magnitude, or just a desperately concocted bit of tittle-tattle in order to make us think that newspapers might still be relevant? I have no idea. But some of the hideous images that have been rattling around my imagination since I first read the story are certainly not fit to publish.