Session Three: Botting, Zizek, Haraway and Modes of Thinking

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This week’s readings were a little, ahem, challenging, but were certainly good practice in helping us learn about different ways of looking at a text as well as the pleasures and the pitfalls of theory.

Some of the issues that came up were:

1) Theorists like the sound of their own voice, or their own typewriter, and can be loquacious to the extreme. (Textual irony in the use of loquacious intended).

2) The use of examples is much appreciated as it makes understanding complicated ideas far easier.

3) Theories are just theories and should be interrogated and pulled apart sometimes just for the fun of it. They can be pieced together like Frankenstein’s monster to create a disturbing new way of looking – with the warning that whatever comes of this may return to haunt you destroying your latest beloved ideas.

4) Language is flexible – it both informs our way of thinking and is our way of thinking. Words return with different meanings: at once familiar but strange, filled with an uncanny power. In the same way, the Gothic bleeds from fiction into non-fiction thus what should help us to understand the world of fiction and clarify who exactly is the monster only distorts what we see further. The looking glass is cracked.

All three authors dealt with modes of looking or thinking about the ‘real’ world and how these inform the world of fiction, from Gothic, to cybergothic, to cyborgs.

Zizek’s use of Levi-Strauss’s village model, ie, what role you fulfill in the village informs how you understand the structure of the village as a physical reality, helped to elucidate how it is possible to have two versions of the Real co-existing. It was pointed out that The Turn of the Screw shows this perfectly: whilst we read the text we are able to believe both that the ghosts exist and the children are haunted but also that the governess is mad, or haunted herself. Trying to ‘solve’ the text and find the final, dominant explanation or viewpoint actually stakes the Gothic.

As Botting’s exploration of the ‘fort/da’ game in relation to the Gothic suggests, the power of the Gothic is that once you think you understand what’s going on (the children are haunted, the ghosts are real), this understanding moves away from you to the opposite point of view (no, no, you correct yourself, that’s ridiculous, the ghosts aren’t real, the governess is mad). Whatever stance you take, its’ double (the ‘Other’ meaning) returns to haunt the text. Note: that which ever meaning takes the form of the Other haunting your understanding, as Zizek suggests, is much to do with your stance on reality. This repetitive movement between the two distracts from the absence at the heart of the Gothic: that which cannot be signified – which the mind can’t encompass.

Haraway engages the concept of multiplicity: stepping outside the dualistic framework of Western rhetoric: man/ woman, civilisation/ nature, human/ animal, good/ evil, fort/da(?). For her, the future is of many voices that create affinities to bridge the chasms between the different view points to form a cyborg way of looking: hybrids as stronger because they are not looking for a single origin. Haraway attacks the myth of there being this single origin, a moment in history when we (in all its possible meanings) were one, a pre-Lapsarian state to which we dream of returning.

(Zizek also invokes ideas of Utopia both as a timeless place outside of our concept of linear history but also, to a postmodern world, as a more innocent, natural past. Botting suggests that the Enlightenment – as the root of the Gothic – promoted a narrative in which the past is brutal and we are moving towards a civilised future; in this framework of understanding the past is like a state of childhood but not one of idealised innocence but rather controlled by its primitive urges).

 We can use Haraway’s model of a cyborg future to suggest that our attempts to find one true meaning in a Gothic text is part of the myth of trying to return to this perfect, simple past where there is one truth. 

The questions we were left with were:

1) Can there be a Gothic text set in the future? Or is the Gothic necessarily historical? In which case is sci-fi the opposite of Gothic?

2) How do we naturalise ideas such as the Law and Science? And how do these concepts come to inform our moral and political judgements?

3) And finally, the million dollar question: if all modes of thinking are simply reflections of their time are our ideas not simply reflections of contemporary culture thus our attempts to think beyond this are, like any good Gothic heroine, doomed?

And on that positive note, I leave you for today.

Reading the Gothic Fourth Session: Set Texts

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For this session we are swinging back to the past, the classic Gothic of the Enlightenment if you will, before coming back to the 20th Century. (A reading version of the ‘fort/da’ game which Botting explored in our readings from the third session). Most of these texts are available online and I have hyper-linked the titles of those that are available.

‘The Terrorist System of Novel-Writing’ , Anonymous (Monthly Magazine, August 1797: 102)

‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, Ann Radcliffe (New Monthly Magazine, 1826: Vol. 16, No. 1)

‘Whatever Happened to Evil’, in Transparencies of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomenon, Jean Baudrillard, translated by James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993)

‘The Psychological Attraction of Horror’, in Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror, James B. Twitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Using these texts we can start to look at horror versus terror: which is more effective? how are these ideas used in Gothic? and how useful are these concepts in themselves?

Along with the readings from the third session this should set us up for an engaged reading of ‘The Accursed’ and can see how these ideas are interrogated and deconstructed in this novel.

Frankenstein – National Theatre

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein & Jonny Lee Miller as the Monster

I recently saw the National Theatre production of Frankenstein and it surpassed all my expectations. I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s novel and am always cautious of film or stage productions of my favourite Gothic novels – the current Dracula series gets a big thumbs down from me (hey, it’s only my opinion!).

So i was taken aback by Nick Dear’s version, directed by Danny Boyle, which had the audience rivetted  throughout the performance. The plot is almost true to Shelley’s account, but explores the characters (and especially the Monster) in a much more ‘personal’ manner. Its unique selling point is that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller take it in turns to play the lead roles – one night Frankenstein, the next night the Monster. I saw Miller as the Monster, and he was sensational.

Seriously, i cannot express how good his performance (and the play generally) was. The Times awarded the play five stars and called it a ‘Theatrical Coup. They were not wrong. If you get the chance, go and see it – its a must-watch!

The plot and the acting was first class, but the stage props, the lighting, the music – it all combined to make the play an epitomy of Gothicness.

 

 

For people to still suggest we have nothing to learn by studying such ‘fantasy’ as this (see earlier post) is bewildering: using science to create life, playing God, is this really just ‘fantasy’ in the modern world? Dear’s portrayal of how the Monster learns about and thus perceives Man and the role we play within Nature is sublime – I have learnt the values of Man, he tells us…how to hate, how to destroy, how to lie. But he also learns how to love, how to reflect and, perhaps more importantly, how to see. He understands the beauty of nature,  of the birds, of the moon, of life. Sadly, because of how he is perceived (he is monstrous, after all) he loses the ability to see these wondrous elements of life, and is consumed by hatred and a lust for revenge and destruction.

We are all born innocent, we learn, but many of us lose this innocence as we grow beyond childhood and become, like the Monster, disillusioned by life. Oh the horror….

The vampire and the werewolf usually take centre stage (forgive the pun), and this for me shows they are still integral within modern society. This stage version of Frankenstein showed how relevant this ‘monstrous beast’ remains also. There is a text of Dear’s script for the play available, and this is something we could perhaps look at in one of the future sessions of our Gothic Reading group.

Incidentally, The Guardian recently featured Mary Shelley’s novel within their Best 100 novels and you can read the article here.

 

Maleficent!!! (Or possible Reading the Gothic FieldTrip)

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So this movie contains two of my great loves: Angelina Jolie and Maleficent – the costume for whom was never in the Disney store much to my childhood disappointment.

Maybe we could make this a fun little outing for all of us to go watch it and then we can read some Gothic fairy-tales and chat re-visioning and re-framing classic stories.

Text for the New Year

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Just a cheeky head’s up. We will be reading The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates over Christmas for the first session back in the new year.

It’s a fair size so if you want to get prepared by starting to read it now that might be a good idea. (It’s also had fairly mixed reviews so I am hoping it starts some serious debate/ discussion).