Category Archives: postcolonialism

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New post at my other blog: “On fielding a press inquiry about how pop culture depicts the oil industry”

English professors don’t often get press inquiries, but a writer for EnergyWire, an oil business-facing news service, contacted me last week to ask what I think of the video for Justin Bieber’s new song “Holy.”…

New book chapter: “Institutions and Interpellations of the Dubject, the Doubled and Spaced Self”

I’ve got a chapter in Raphael Foshay’s just-published edited collection on Internet culture and politics, The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement.

“Institutions and interpellations of the dubject, the doubled and spaced self.” The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement. Ed. Raphael Foshay. Edmonton: Athabasca UP, 2016.

At the links you’ll find free, full-text PDF versions of the book and its individual chapters, including mine. (Athabasca University Press is an Open Access scholarly publisher that sells print copies and offers free PDF copies simultaneously.)
Here’s a quick intro to what my article’s about (and what a “dubject” is):

This essay develops the idea of the dubject as a model of remediated subjectivity. It will discuss some theoretical and institutional contexts of the dubject, and then will consider digital manifestations of the dubject with reference to how popular digital applications interpellate the user (see Althusser 1971)—that is, how they impose specific ideological and institutional conditions and limitations on applications and on users’ possibilities for self-representation. This work is an attempt to think digital identity and agency in the context of postcoloniality, as a complement to the more prevalent approach to mediated identity in terms of postmodernity. This work thus builds my larger research project of applying postcolonialist critique to popular culture, particularly that of Canada’s majority white settler society. (128)

Frankenstein as a figure of globalization

“Frankenstein as a figure of globalization in Canada’s postcolonial popular culture,” an article I published in Continuum 25.5 (2011), is now available for Open Access, via Athabasca U’s institutional repository. The abstract and downloadable PDF (post-print full text, but not publisher’s version) are available at http://hdl.handle.net/2149/3450.

Applying the popular ‘technological’ interpretation of Frankenstein to the problematic of globalization, these Canadian films [Videodrome, Possible Worlds, The Corporation] criticize the corporate institution, borrowing from Shelley’s story and its popular progeny to comment, with self-reflexive irony, on communication media and their instrumentality to globalization, its hegemonic naturalization, and the ‘imperialist aspirations’ of transnational conglomerates.

In support of Chief Theresa Spence and #IdleNoMore

Chief Theresa Spence (detail). Photo by Regina Notarsandsnobelomonte Southwind

Chief Theresa Spence (detail). Photo by Regina Notarsandsnobelomonte Southwind

From The Guardian: “The grassroots IdleNoMore movement of aboriginal people offers a more sustainable future for all Canadians. Canada’s placid winter surface has been broken by unprecedented protests by its aboriginal peoples. In just a few weeks, a small campaign launched against the Conservative government’s budget bill by four aboriginal women has expanded and transformed into a season of discontent: a cultural and political resurgence.”

“I won’t soon forget this clash between these two very different kinds of resolve, one so sealed off, closed in; the other cracked wide open, a conduit for the pain of the world.”

“Termination in this context means the ending of First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion of First Nations into Land Claims and Self-Government Final Agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities, their reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishment of their Inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. To do this the Harper government announced three new policy measures…”

“@PMHarper has been completely silent about Chief Spence and Idle No More, while cracking jokes about everything from the CBC to Chinchillas. (Update: Just after 4p.m. EST today, @PMHarper Tweeted “mmm… bacon,” accompanied by a video clip from the Simpsons. No, seriously.)”

“First Nations officially put Prime Minister Harper on notice. They plan to file a legal injunction to stop him from ratifying FIPA, the secretive and extreme Canada-China investors’ deal.”

It’s worth noting that, unlike former PM Paul Martin (quoted in the Guardian article), PM Harper is on record denying colonialism in Canada: “We are one of the most stable regimes in history. There are very few countries that can say for nearly 150 years they’ve had the same political system without any social breakdown, political upheaval or invasion. We are unique in that regard. We also have no history of colonialism.” He made the comment at a press conference at the G20 Pittsburgh Summit in September 2009; it’s quoted in Colonial Reckoning, National Reconciliation, a special 2009 issue of English Studies in Canada 35.1 (2009).

(Emphasis added; thanks to WG for this reference.)

Review essay on Afro-Futurist anthology

I’ve written a review essay on a recent Afro-Futurism anthology, Afro-Future Females, in the current issue of Extrapolation.

“Debating the histories and futures of black science fiction.” Review of Barr, Marlene S., ed. Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory (Ohio State University Press, 2008). Extrapolation 52.2 (2011): 246-68.

Barr’s edited collection is worth a look, as one

whose aims in reading black women’s sf are to re-imagine sf, to advance anti-racist critique, and to reckon with slavery’s legacies.

And it invites teaching uses by taking creative liberties with the edited collection format,

gathering fiction and interviews together with research and criticism … the collection’s dialogic mix invites the reader to a seat at the table where the histories and futures of black sf are being intensely discussed and debated.

But it’s also a book to argue with.

To claim—and I quote—that “Bill Cosby is the father of black science fiction” (18) is to do a gross disservice not just to Delany but to Sun Ra, to Lee Perry, to George Clinton … [and] is symptomatic of the book’s need to engage more closely with the extant literature on Afro-Futurism.

Either way, there’s lots of productive reading here. Find out more in the full version, or check out the book itself.

What’s Battlestar Galactica got to do with the copyfight?

My article on Battlestar Galactica and Canada-USA tensions over copyright is now available in open access full text at AU’s repository (courtesy of Liverpool UP). At the link you can read the abstract and download the PDF.

McCutcheon, Mark A. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24.

So what’s Battlestar got to do with copyright? Briefly, the show was produced in the USA, but it was shot in Canada, and it cast Canadian actors as the lead bad guys, who “download” a lot. At press time, Bill C-61 was on the table, but the argument remains relevant to C-32’s expected successor. The recently leaked cables showing the “U.S. swayed Canada on copyright bill” (Geist) add fresh evidence to my claims.

The OA version has neither the layout nor the frame-grab still shots from Battlestar that grace the publisher’s version. There’s an ironic copyright backstory story here. I got the proofs of my article laid out with lots of these still frames — none of which I’d chosen, let alone cleared. I told the editor the images added great illustrative value, but I was concerned about their copyright status — wouldn’t their uncleared use lead to litigation? The editor replied to say that, although “the copyright law around frame-grabbed images” had not yet been tested,

it is the case in the UK that they can be used without obtaining permission (and in the US and Canada, they are covered by fair-use clauses – at least until they too are tested in court). Publishers like [***] Press regularly use images without obtaining permission. We discussed this issue with Liverpool UP before launching the journal and they are prepared to go along with our understanding of the situation; and we do always credit the source of images, even though this is not strictly necessary.

Imagine my delight, then, that this essay on copyright got to appear in print accompanied by illustrative images used legally but without the Hollywood producers’ permission.

It’s only fair that research on copyright law should be openly accessible. It’s a bonus that fair dealing became a principle of this work’s form.

Work Cited

Geist, Michael. “Leaks show U.S. swayed Canada on copyright bill.” Toronto Star 3 Sept. 2011.

The line, the skyline, between then and now

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. – Walter Benjamin

NYC skyline (from the ferry), Feb. 2001

In a hugely absorbing (but disappointingly under-attended) session on Imperialism and Culture at the 2008 Socialist Studies conference, I suggested that the attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a line between past and present that feels uncannily like the kind of line described in science fiction, a line that sharply divides one’s lived and felt experience of time in its unfolding. (Think of Lionel Verney’s reflections on life before and after the plague in The Last Man, or Offred’s reflections on life before and under Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale…or Cayce’s reflections on life after September 11 in Pattern Recognition.) The session presenters suggested (and rightly so, I think) that to represent the attacks of September 11, 2001, in this way is to reproduce the kind of cultural imperialist ideology that has driven not only a lot of popular culture since, but also a lot of dubious-to-disastrous foreign policy decisions.

Point taken, and a fair enough one at that.

Lines of tragedy and trauma divide and sometimes dismember everyone’s lives, whether on the personal scale or the sociopolitical. Walter Benjamin observed that the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule. As witnessed by the helpless and horrified hindsight of Benjamin’s hypothetical angel, history is illuminated as a grim palimpsest of such lines, like a whip-scarred back: West African nations after slavery, the First Nations after colonization, Japan after August 1945, Rwanda after 1994. (This isn’t to homogenize different traumas and tragedies, only to suggest how they mar and mark time.)

Memorial mural, NYC, Apr. 2002

So it is perhaps not despite but because of this knowledge — knowledge of history’s lacerated hide, and of the military-entertainment complex that feeds greedily on it –that one still feels so keenly this line, this skyline, cut down through the lived experience of time in its unfolding.

Or its collapsing.

Such a strong storm buffets the angel of history, it’s impossible to tell which.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1940). Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Rpt. in Simon Fraser U http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Forsyth, Scott and John McCullough. “Imperialism and Culture.” Society for Socialist Studies annual conference, U of British Columbia, 4 Jun. 2008.

Casino capital’s frontier forays

Discussion with students in this term’s grad course on theory has been educational for instructor and students alike: for the former, in developing a critical vocabulary for contemporary capitalism that foregrounds its postcolonial contexts.

1. Frontiers and futures
In discussing the documentary The Corporation, two students wrote:

As opposed to traditional colonialism … corporate colonizers no longer require the local population to give up their beliefs in order to change their loyalty. They simply have to spend their dollars, pesos, euros etc., and with no value system outside of a growing bottom line, corporations are free to change their identity to adapt to the culture and beliefs of any market. … advancing capitalism pays a special eye to frontier thought, behaviour, and organization as these spaces create new areas to be exploited and appropriated by the system. (my emphasis)

In comparing corporate business to colonialism, the students referred to the work of Andrew Potter, who with Joseph Heath wrote The Rebel Sell, which investigates the frontier prospecting of capitalism, its ability to commoditize even the most resistant counter-cultural forms (e.g. Adbusters): “there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations … In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers.” (Potter qtd. in MacLean)

Potter and Heath’s argument relates to Fisher’s idea of SF capital, mentioned in my last post, in which futuristic speculation in culture becomes a renewable resource for economic exploitation by capital. But if the “rebel sell” thesis reproduces something of the core-periphery model of capitalist growth, in which the imperial core co-opts the “authentic” periphery, it also problematizes this model by assigning some responsibility for co-optation to consumers — the co-opted — themselves.

2. Casino capitalism: wheel of misfortune
After I mentioned “casino capitalism” with reference to a student’s commentary on Max Weber’s idea of the “spirit of capitalism,” the student asked, understandably, what I meant. Which made me realize I didn’t, actually, know precisely what I meant; so I did a bit of digging, then replied:

It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the past two years with reference to the US sub-prime mortgage bubble and the ensuing global financial chaos, and it made sense, on a broader historical view, as a characterization of the postwar global economic dispensation of postmodernity … a dispensation characterized by rapidly changing IT in the service of increasingly mobile, flexible, and “financialized” capitalism.
Turns out it dates from 1986, in a book of the same title by Susan Strange:
“The instability and volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional economies. Susan Strange (1986) calls this instability ‘casino capitalism,’ a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and the shift to self-regulation by banks (pp.9-10). (“Shifting”)
Maybe the term’s been re-circulating with a vengeance in the wake of the global economic turmoil, evoking not just the infrastructural features of the postwar global economy but also, now, the widespread sense that postmodern capital has indeed been running like a casino — meaning that most who go there to play will lose.

In addition to the scholarly literature on the casino capital thesis, it recurs from time to time in popular discourse, like editorials, about actual casinos. A decade ago, Toronto playwright and former Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin shared a problematic, provocative postcolonial angle on “lotteries and gambling” as a “sign of the times,”

a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life’s normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we’re seeing its spread as a way of life — and hope. The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in native-run casinos such as Ontario’s Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair. (“Who owes”)

Salutin was writing of casinos as a then-recently legitimized socioeconomic institution; since then casinos have moved from legitimacy to centrality as a staple source of government revenue, and an ever more symptomatic “sign” of neoliberal hegemony’s dominion). Gambling and casinos fund all kinds of public programs in Alberta, and it’s money many see as ill-got from the exploitation of people with addictive disorders. In 2005, Salutin followed up:

Governments of all stripes are hip-deep in promoting and advertising gambling and in effect encouraging addiction to it. Of course, not all gamblers are addicted, though addicts are central, since a huge cut of the revenue comes from a small tranche of heavy gamblers. But the real addiction problem belongs to governments, who’ve grown addicted to the returns, and turned into pimps and pushers. … the job of an institution like government should be to increase the odds — if you’ll pardon the expression — of hard work receiving a fair return, rather than reinforcing the message that you have to be rich or lucky to succeed. (“My gambling problem”)

3. The weirdest Western?
These critical models of late capital, with their disjunctive postcolonial contexts, together start to make the interlocking institutions of global capital seem a lot like a weird Western. As one film critic argues, the globalized culture industry of Hollywood has not shown itself to know how to make this kind of movie well. When it does, in films like Serenity — to say nothing of non-weird, ultra-naturalist Westerns like Deadwood, for that matter — what I’d suggest we encounter is an image of late global capital, in all its frontier freewheeling and monopolizing machinations: “The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets … in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there’s something out there, but chances are it doesn’t care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train.”

Just the laws of infinite growth and the bottom line.

Works Cited

Lamar, Cyriaque. “Dear Hollywood, you absolutely suck at making weird Westerns.” io9 19 Jun. 2010 http://io9.com/#!5567908/dear-hollywood-you-absolutely-suck-at-making-weird-westerns?comment=24778688

MacLean, C. “Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell.” Torontoist Nov. 2006 http://torontoist.com/2006/11/tall_poppy_andr.php

MAIS 601 Group Two. “The Group TwoPoration” (group response to The Corporation). MAIS 601, Athabasca U, 23 Mar. 2011.

Salutin, Rick. “My gambling problem, and ours.” Globe & Mail 5 Aug. 2005: A15.

—. “Who owes what in a racist world?” Globe & Mail 24 Aug. 2001: A15.

“The shifting nature of capital: exhilaration and anxiety.” Representations of Global Capital. Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Portland. n.d. http://legacy.lclark.edu/~soan370/global/casino.html

Canada’s digital doppelgängers: a footnote

As I argue in a 2009 SFFTV article, it’s symptomatic of US-Canadian border tensions over copyright (as Wikileaked cables confirm) that the US-produced Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004-09) was shot in B.C., and that its leading Cylon villains are played by Canadian actors (Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Callum Keith Rennie…I almost expected Bob and Doug MacKenzie to rise from one of those tubs of replicant goo). The Cylons are evil robots, indistinguishable from humans except for their copying practices: they “upload” their personalities to databases when they die, and “download” them into new bodies. Embodied by Canadian actors not necessarily recognized as such, the Cylons thus act out some of the cross-border differences in copyright law that keep Canada on the USTD’s blacklist of “pirate haven” nations.

In researching a forthcoming essay on new media and identity, I realized that Battlestar — as a Hollywood science fiction TV series casting Canadian actors in digital doppelganger roles — echoes an earlier show, Max Headroom (1987-88).

In that short-lived but fascinating experiment in “cyberpunk” TV, the main character, Edison Carter, was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. Carter is a videocam-wielding reporter for Network 23, in a near-future world styled after the McLuhanesque cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Cronenberg’s Videodrome: in the show’s “20-minutes-into-the-future” world, it’s illegal to turn off a TV, the state distributes sets to the poor, and a genre of hyper-condensed commercials, the “blipvert,” is killing viewers. “Max Headroom” is the name assumed by Carter’s electronic double, a strictly screen-embodied personality (like Videodrome‘s Brian O’Blivion). Presumed dead after a traffic accident, Carter unwittingly donates his body to an experiment to produce a virtual television personality, a kind of artificial intelligence “dubbed” from Carter’s own mind, an AI calling itself “Max Headroom” (one of the earliest deployments of CGI on prime time television, rendered by Commodore Amiga computers). Carter lives (of course), and Headroom, flitting from screen to screen, tags along to help him on adventures through the corporate-dominated, polluted, hyper-mediated world of the series: a talking-head ghost running amok in a toxic media ecology that, from the vantage point of 2010, looks sometimes uncannily familiar, other times a quaint paleofuture. Headroom’s signature stutter and replay turn his lines into a kind of spoken-word dub, which also doubles, in the script, the mise en scene’s mediatized doubling of a corporeal, corporate reporter and his pixelated doppelgänger, the signal-jamming saboteur.

Headroom isn’t the villainous machine that the Cylons are; he’s more of a high-tech jester and trickster. But then again, the decade in which Battlestar got re-made wasn’t the same decade that gave us Headroom. We were more worried about the Cold War than global warming; “free trade” with the USA had yet to prove itself as a vehicle for neo-colonial annexation (which the current government now wants to extend to Europe?); and the Internet was still just a military-academic experiment, not the front in a total war on copying, of all things.

Like Lou Reed sings, you know, those were different times. (How much do I owe his label, now, for quoting him?)

What’s wrong with “reality TV”: scripting crapitalism as democrazy

In the graduate course on theory I’m now teaching, we are discussing the performance theory of Erving Goffman. A question has come up about reality TV shows as examples of Goffman’s theory. The specific question is whether reality TV shows “reflect” the reality of North Americans’ everyday social roles.

In participating in this discussion, I kind of got into a critical rant. But it’s helped me identify something I profoundly dislike about the “reality” genre.

Every “reality” program is cast to generate as much character drama as possible. This is as true of talent competition shows as of more game-oriented shows: contestants aren’t chosen just for talent; that may be part of their selection, but I think they’re chosen as much if not more for the drama they bring to their roles (and thus the ratings they’ll be expected to command). And then every show is meticulously edited to exaggerate as much character drama as possible.

And while character drama is common to reality TV and classical theatre alike, there seems to be an exceptionally specific kind of character produced by reality TV programs, and I actually worry about the implications of this kind of character becoming naturalized as a “role model” for viewers — a naturalization nurtured, in part, because of the presumed (but entirely artificial) “realism” of the “reality” genre.

I worry, because the character that seems to dominate reality TV is something of a villain: a selfish schemer, a cunning manipulator. The kind of character who’s always issuing some vapid, vicious threat like “Bring it” or “Game on” or “Don’t hate the player.”

And I worry because of the peculiar kind of game that this character excels at. I’m thinking here of some of the longest-running and most popular shows, like Survivor or American Idol or any number of Bachelor-type shows.

Take Survivor.

The game requires players to “outwit, outplay, outlast” each other. They are required for their own self-interest to co-operate, collaborate (and in the process dissimulate) with each other. Most insidiously, I think, at the end of each episode they are called on to vote — but to vote someone else out. They are called upon to exercise a cruel, inverted parody of the democratic franchise, in which the vote does not help to build the consent of the governed, but rather eliminates the competition. Voting is symbolically transformed from a democratic exercise into a kind of capitalist enterprise. The voting process in Survivor is thus a telling symptom of the disturbing ease with which democracy is confused with capitalism (in the cultural imaginary of the USA in particular, but certainly in Canada and the other overdeveloped nations as well).

The roles promoted by reality TV seem to me, then, to encourage the popular adoption of a very specific kind of ideological disposition. That reality shows represent a now entrenched and increasing sector of the cultural industry, and — moreover — that increasing numbers of applicants and recruits know what reality producers are looking for in contestants (possibly without knowing precisely how or what they know) and can “act the part” of the particular kind of role described above all suggest a particularly insidious colonization of young Westerners’ minds by the norms and values of very narrowly defined and privileged media business interests.

For example, take a look at this promotional sequence for a new Canadian show based on Jersey Shore. Look at the self-aggrandizing, intensely competitive fronting — and the corresponding, bombastic effrontery — with which the participants perform “themselves.” Note, too, the derision with which the hosting website’s commentary describes them. Either nobody recruited for a “reality TV” show realizes they are farce fodder, or everyone does, and plans to leverage it for selfish and commercial ends, like a recording or book or other TV deal to squeeze out of it.

That said, I do like The Amazing Race. It’s the only “reality” show I regularly watch. But why do I enjoy it? Largely, I confess, for the spectacle of North American tourists getting lost in other parts of the world, complaining there about “foreigners” and “how nobody speaks English,” and also, sometimes, reckoning (in however token and insulated a way) with the stark, dire poverty in which most of the world lives. It’s a spectacle that plays all too easily into the increasingly smug and self-assured brand of Canadian nationalism that seems to have started displacing our traditional diffidence.

But that’s a rant for another post.