Tuesday, June 28, 2005


I was first introduced to the concept of generationalism a few months ago. One of my subjects last semester included an assigned text called gangland: cultural elites and the new generationalism written by Mark Davis.
Before this, I had never heard of the term 'generationalism'. The book posed questions and critiqued Australia's literary and cultural politics. It asks whether there is a "backlash against young people and the way they think? Has an older generation of cultural apparatchiks, used to being at the centre and having a strong media presence, more or less systematically set out to discredit young people and their ideas, even progressive opinion generally?...Where are the 'serious' journalists under forty with columns of their own? There are a few, but not many. The field is dominated by opinion-makers who have been around for ten or twenty years, the 'usual suspects' who have nominated themselves as guardians of the nation's moral fibre...Where are the young feminists...What's happening in cultural politics?" (Davis, 1999).
This was a revelation to me. All of a sudden I began to notice who I was viewing on TV, who I was listening to on radio and whose writing I read in the papers. Following reading this book, I came across two articles that flabbergasted me. Both were derisory reports about Generation X. I think at this point I should make clear that if we are assigning ourselves to a particular generation, I am apparently part of Generation X.
Before I come to the two articles, I want to talk about Gangland. Davis stresses in the introduction that much of the book's argument "takes places in the context of the 'culture wars' over so-called political correctness, victim feminism, censorship and literary theory" (Davis, 1999). He also says that it is a book not attacking baby boomers, nor pitting the baby boomers and GenXer's against each other - the 'us and them' argument. However, when reading Gangland it is difficult not to envision an older generation pushing back a younger one.
Last month, an article printed in a Melbourne newspaper, The Age, spoke about GenXer's giving 'suburban life the push'. The premise of this report was of a generation of inner-city dwellers refusing to move out to the suburbs to have a family, "as their mothers did". What struck me about this article was the tone it was written in. Quotes such as "Three-wheeled jogger prams clogging the city's trendy cafe strips are a sympton of Generation X hitting its reproductive stride and eschewing a move to the suburbs...women born in the early 1970's deciding it's time to get on with it...although GenXers had reached the next stage of life, many were still in denial about their loss of youth- hence the rise of the three-wheeled pram...this is me clinging on to my groovy, marathon-running past...The rise of inner-city couples choosing to stay put with their first child would place stress on child care and schools there...burbs that they have been sneering at for 10 years" (Lucas, 2005). This report, admittedly, described just the situation I myself am in. I remember reading this article, waking up the next day, and still being so angry about it, I typed a response and emailed it to the newspaper as part of it's opinion letters. Sadly it wasn't printed. However, a letter echoing similar sentiments to mine was submitted by an Australian comedian, Kaz Cooke, illustrating that I was not the only person to take offence to this report.
Most of these derisive quotes were supplied by a Mr Bernard Salt, cited as a partner at accounting firm KPMG. The article also included quotes from Dr Bob Birrell, from Monash University and Professor Graeme Hugo, a population movement expert from Adelaide University. The latter two made non-derisive views, but the article only gave them fleeting mention towards the end. In the letter I submitted, I wrote that the reason for this, was probably because it made good copy as it was yet another article whingeing about Generation Xer's. I went on to say that just because my own mother may have moved to the suburbs does not mean that I had to. I posed a question asking why should we move out to the suburbs? and that I wasn't clinging to a 'groovy, marathon-running past', rather, I was making my own generational decision.
One week later, in the same newspaper, I came across another article entitled "Reality bites: GenX turns forty". The article began: "They were the slackers, the overeducated, under-employed kids who avoided everything from commitment and jobs to growing up. As the first wave of genXers turns 40 this year, Tim Elliott finds out how the 'loser generation' feels about the world now." (Elliot & Denham, 2005). The report begins with Melbourne journalist and children's author, Nick Place, sent out on assignment to see how specialists were addressing this topic. "How to talk to generation X." He describes it as being the funniest thing he's ever seen. At a conference, people got up to speak and "admitted that they had no idea who generation X were and that they couldn't define what it was but they were going to talk about how to 'speak to them' anyway." (Elliot & Denjam, 2005). Okaaay.......
This article defined Generation X as those born between 1965 and 1975. Having been born in the early seventies, I definitely fall into this category. Bernard Salt is again quoted, although this time he is cited as being a 'demographer' and his comment: "Generation X...has constantly been portrayed as the loser generation on the leeward side of the boomer mountain...many slackers have discovered that everything has a use-by date, even ennui. Stacking T-shirts and backpacking in India might work in your 20s but as the slackers hit their 30s, they found themselves craving what were clearly the essentials of any civilised middle-class existence: a house, a car, a new winter wardrobe and holidays in Byron Bay. And you don't pay for that by working at McDonald's. It's a curious fact that as the so-called 'slackers' march towards their 40th birthdays, they're working just as hard, if not harder, than their boomer parents, postponing marriage and parenthood in the process. Indeed, thanks to increased competition, Xers,...have to be absolutely brilliant to get the same job as a fairly mediocre boomer" (Elliott & Denham, 2005).
Hugh MacKay, a social researcher describes us as having revelled in an extended adolescence, "all in all, they've had a dream run. They certainly weren't the social pioneers that the boomers were and they rode on the coat tails of almost all the achievements of their parents, who bore the brunt of the gender, IT and economic revolutions. Xers...are also having children later and later and having fewer of them. As a result there is a lot of overparenting and childcentredness going on. But Xers also tend to be more 'values-oriented' and 'less materialistic' than the boomers, if only because material wealth-fashion, travel, all that - was new to the boomers, whereas the Xers were born into it and took it for granted." How's that for a backhanded compliment? Harsh criticism indeed for us GenXers.
I suppose in an effort towards balance the authors decided to include some commentary from some actual GenXers. Danny Kennedy differed from these views saying, "it was generation X who got up and challenged the juggernaut called economic rationalism and questioned the fundamental assumption that the world should be turned into a huge market. We put the brakes on that beast" Peter Fenton says, "whatever our generation produced, we're given these odious labels by the baby boomers. The natural enemy of gen X is the baby boomer. Baby boomers are selling us their houses at five times their original value! We may crave those nesting things but we find it difficult to afford a house." Finally, Cameron Daddo, "I never wanted to live my parent's lives although I respect them and don't judge them for their choices...Boomers keep their feelings very much to themselves. I think that's the main difference. I talk about everything. People in their 20s are amazingly creative but I think they're also trying to numb their feelings against the stress of life with all the party drugs. Society is so disposable and people want instant gratification. Boomers lived through a world war and dealt with hardship. They probably felt they had no choices.
Both Salt and MacKay surmise what's in future for GenXers. "Inter-generational conflict," says Salt. "there'll be a tussle over priorities as the boomers retire and demand less spending on defence, infrastructure and education and more on social security". Mackay agrees. "Boomers will retire with record debt levels and it'll be up to the next generation to support them...but, Xers have one thing on their side. They were always more creative and optimistic about the future than they were ever given credit for. That's lucky, because they'll need every bit of it".
Ominous words indeed.
In Gangland, Mark Davis talks about the "refusal of a certain cultural establishment to let go. In their determination to hang on to a virtual monopoly...on the ideas market, its members refuse to acknowledge that paradigms are clashing, changing, in almost every area of life, and they scapegoat a younger generation for the shifts. There is an unwillingness to admit that ideas can no longer pretend to cut across all times and places. 'Boomer-whinge' - a term that appears several times in this book - describes the particular set of values that underpins that refusal to let go...This is truly a community that fears being forgotten, that thought its particular truths were going to hang around forever, and is shocked that they haven't. These pundits seem to think they should be able to walk into an English department in any reputable university, twenty, thirty or even forty years after they received degrees, and find that their knowledge is still the knowledge, their paradigms the paradigms. Change is equated with decline: when we fade, truth fades; when we are gone, truth is gone" (Davis, 1999).
It is important to remember that Gangland is about literature and culture, and the articles are more general. However Bernard Salt does touch on Davis' critique when he says "That's something you see again and again with generation X...That movement away from public institutions, like the church and the mainstream media...Raised in an era of saturation marketing and mass communication- an era when, as writer Tom Wolfe put it, no person on earth was more than six mouse clicks away from one another...genXers can smell a vested interest a mile off and have championed a growth in alternative media" (Elliott & Denham, 2005).
Along with reading Gangland for my class last semester, we had a guest speaker from Text Publishing, speak to us in regard to publishing in Australia. Some of the topics we covered was on manuscript submission and how difficult it is as a writer to enter the literary mainstream. Salt hit the nail on the head by saying we champion alternative media. The way I see it, it's because we don't have any choice. 'Experience' is usually the term that is touted here. Last week I read an article about how the submissions for the Miles Franklin award grows smaller and smaller as each year goes by. Why is that? Is it because there is no worthwhile talent out there? Call this a GenXer whinge if you will, but I think this is because there is a whole generation out there who are cynical over the worth of the Australian literary establishment. You only have to go to a writers festival to be greeted with the 'ladies who lunch' brigade. The guest speaker from Text Publishing, offered blogging and zines as a possible solution. I think that is a cheap answer really. However, echoing Salt's observation; this is why blogging is so successful. This is why zines are so successful. There is another platform other than the mainstream media, to be heard.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Victorian Mystery and Detective Fiction: an evolving genre

Within Victorian society, mystery and detective fiction was overwhelmingly popular and was written for an audience of its time. This type of fiction used idiosyncratic language of its day, social standing was often portrayed and domestic conditions were exposed.

The Victorian mystery was ensconced within London, its sights, sounds of the streets and modes of transport, thus making it familiar to readers' minds. It is important to remember that the Victorian era spanned almost a century, and historic events should be considered when examining how this type of genre evolved.

Examples are Le Fanu's Gothic The murdered cousin, and Charles Dickens work and finally the detective character Sherlock Holmes. The Victorian reading public guided this genre, they wanted the location to be clearly identifiable making the stories familiar and enjoyable.

The Victorian mystery and detective story frequently used poison, such as nightshade or arsenic as a murder weapon. Sometimes stiletto daggers were used. Events that commonly took place were murder, forgery, robbery and mistaken identity. The genre had a well-paced plot; characters were black and white, incorporating good versus evil (Cox, 1992).

An important element of the genre is the description of the setting, usually a ghostly ambience is created. A good example of this is from The murdered cousin by J S Le Fanu: "I shall not soon forget the impression of sadness and of gloom which all that I saw produced upon my mind...there was an air of neglect and decay...the grey walls of Carrickleigh were visible...and bore unequivocal marks of antiquity; the time-worm, solemn aspect of the old building, the ruinous and deserted appearance of the whole place" (Cox, 1992).

The introduction of the detective in Victorian mystery is commonly attributed to Edgar Allan Poe and his story "The murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Here Poe develops a central detective character named Chevalier C August Dupin.

This is a defining point in the Victorian mystery and with the introduction of the detective, a formulaic approach arose. Aside from the central figure, there now was a formal process of "investigation, deduction and revelation" (Cox, 1992). Indeed, until this point, previous Victorian mystery could be construed as a form of sensationalist gothic literature.

The detective story uses the design of narrative with individual viewpoints. The reader is unable to be objective, and each character or witness has a motive. So, the victim could have been murdered by A, B or C and perhaps even, in any number of ways. This manipulative technique, where the reader is kept guessing and left uncertain, gives the author complete control and this still holds true today. Dorothy Sayers calls this the "fairplay rule" (Cox, 1992).

A series of events occurring in Victorian England contributed to detective fiction, evolving the genre and transforming it. Events such as: the "formation of the Bow Street Runners...the passing of Sir Robert Peel's Metroplitan Police Act of 1829 which established the Metropolitan Police and led to the setting up in 1842 of a special criminal Investigation Department dedicated to detective work" (Cox, 1992).

Furthermore the idea of the literary detective was introduced by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House (1853), he uses a police detective.

The market for detective fiction grew and the reading public increasingly demanded sophisticated "crime and mystery with minuteness and particularly of a detective officer" (Cox, 1992). At this juncture the public is presented with one of the most legendary and renowned detectives of its time: Sherlock Holmes. The reading public embraced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character. Again, playing upon the familiar, Holmes was a figure who was "solid, contemporary...dominated by London and its suburbs" (Cox, 1992). Furthermore, Holmes empathised with his readers when he became "increasingly...articulate, indeed to defend the values of the broad middle stratum of English Society" (Cox, 1992). The public could associate with him, ordinary individuals could call upon him. It was not uncommon for mail addressed to Baker Street; pleas for Sherlock Holmes' help, his character being so embedded in Victorian society.

The Sherlock Holmes' stories were structured in a sequential fashion. Holmes and Watson would wait until consulted, or perhaps a newspaper story would catch the eye, observations would be made, analysed, until finally, with only Holmes knowing the truth, Watson and readers alike were enlightened, the mystery was solved. This formula using a central character, was repeated time and time again. In the end, Doyle tired of this structure and finally killed his character off. Regardless, Holmes and what followed were the professional amateur sleuth and consulting detective.

Before Sherlock Holmes, the detective novel would often result in a natural or providential turn of events. That is, it was not mere deductive power that brought a criminal to justice, but rather, an act of God. Holmes' rationality and analytical intelligence paralleled what was scientific and technical within that era. "Doyle consciously decentres the lurid details of acts of criminality in the interest of fictionalising the processes through which crime is detected" (Longhurst, 1989). With the advent of a new police force and new technological advances, such as fingerprinting, the emergence of a new discipline, criminology, it comes as no surprise that "most academic studies which puzzle over detective fiction argue that it is, at root, a literature of social and psychological adjustment" (Longhurst, 1989).

So prolific was the detective story, academics tried to contain this popular fiction. Developing a cultural canon, in an attempt to "codify...(and) in a sense to civilise the popular fiction industry" (Longhurst, 1989). Whether or not this attempt to contain the genre within a 'proper' literary form succeeded, it is clear that it is a category where "the mystery (is) a pleasurable puzzle or game, albeit a competitive one in which the reader is pitted against author/detective; seeking the mystery's solution before it is officially announced" (Longhurst, 1989).

Evolving from the Victorian 'thriller' or 'shocker', the mystery and detective novel is still today an immensly popular genre. If a timeline is to be drawn, it is easy to see from the Victorian era, how social forms, scientific progress and readers' desires have shaped the mystery and detective story, and that the writing of today's mystery has an easily identifiable structure that had its beginnings more than a hundred years ago.

Cox, Michael, 1992, Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection, an Oxford anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Longhurst, Derek (ed.), 1989, Gender, genre and narrative pleasure, Reading popular fiction, Unwin Hyman, Great Britain.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Jasper Fforde (Review)

The Eyre Affair
Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
Something Rotten
Jasper Fforde

So far there are four books in this series. The first title caught my eye in a bookshop a few years ago, because it related to Jane Eyre, and of course it being one of my favourite novels I had to pick it up and see what this was all about. I read The Eyre Affair and soon following were two birthdays I was to attend. I bought two copies for each of the birthday girls, and they, like myself, couldn't put it down. Luckily Jasper Fforde has made his idea into a series. I say idea, because although there is a plot in each, his books has an encompassing ideal. His books are quite literally set in the literary world!
Thursday Next is the heroine, and she is a literary detective. She is the person who makes sure nothing untoward happens to our main characters within the worlds' canonical texts. There would be no more Jane Eyre if something happened to Mr Rochester, or the story may change completely if an alien was seen traversing the grounds of Pemberley! Thursday, part of Spec. Ops. division is the law and order of our Classics.
Jasper Fforde has a lot of fun with his writing, much to the delight of his readers. There are many literary nuances that as you read them you cannot help but laugh out loud.
I think that even if you're not a big reader of the classics you'll enjoy these books. Really they're books any reader can enjoy. My local bookshop has these books classed in the Science Fiction area. I disagree with this. I think they should be classed in literature as they are definite examples of postmodernism. Thursday Next manages to weild her authoratative prowess through the world of text and in so doing shows the fascinating machinations of the book world.

The secret history (Review)

The Secret History
Donna Tartt
Published 1992

A few years back this book was on the best sellers list. I managed to pick it up for $4.99 during the summer sales! It sat on my bedside table for months until just a few weeks ago. It was certainly worth the wait. This is not a short novel, by any means, but it flows along nicely, with the authors descriptions evoking a sense of yesteryear. To give you a sense of what I mean, imagine curling up in an old leather wingback chair, in front of the fire, warm beverage by your side. It's the sort of book you read wearing your warm woollen socks.
Set in a small University in America's New England, Richard the protagonist begins a course in the classics. However, this is not your usual run-of-the-mill lectures and tutorials. Richard somehow gets into an exclusive class of five people run by a talented professor. The surroundings are gothic, with an old fashioned boarding school feel and as a reader you immerse yourself into academia. At the same time, there are reminders that the book is set in contemporary times. The other students, the drug taking and partying. But this book, although set in a university, is not solely about these sorts of issues.
The book is a murder mystery/thriller. It opens with Richard telling you of the murder that he and others have just committed. So you begin. Knowing who is dead and you are compelled to read just how they got to that point. It is all in the telling and Donna Tartt does so very nicely.

Two ladies in Verona (Review)

Two ladies in Verona.
Lionel Black
Published 1967

Working in a University Library there are often fictional books on the shelves minus a dustjacket. It can be difficult browsing as there is no way of judging a book by its cover, rather it has to be done by its title. This caught my eye. I think this was because it was set in Verona, and a few months back I had returned from holiday and Italy had been one of my destinations. Although I hadn't actually visited Verona whilst there.
I'm digressing. I didn't know really what to expect, and after reading the first page, it piqued my interest so I took it home.
The book turned out to be a detective (mildly spyish) thriller set in the sixties. There were movie stars, exotic locations, villians with thick German accents, really it was a comfortable cliche. But this is what made it a really nice read. I think the best way to describe it, is as a delicious detective classic. The plot reminded me of one of those midday mattinees they used to show during the week when I was little.
The heroine is a British spy, who gets caught up in a colleagues espionage. Somehow she has to warn headquarters before it's too late. Time and again she is almost caught, so there's lots of car chases, cliff top scrambles, and in one part of the book she is trying to escape by venetian vaporetto's!
I think I'll leave it there, hopefully it's enough to tease a booklover's tastebuds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Simpsons and a consuming popular culture

Matt Groening’s award winning series, The Simpsons is a good example to examine some major theories, where a contemporary understanding of mass and popular culture can be found. This essay will explore theories of the Frankfurt School, Ideological Hegemony and Counter Hegemony, the ideas of Stuart Hall and postmodernism. Issues that will be considered will be the family, globalisation, identity, and how the idea of identity is played out on screen and how this reflects within an audience. The Simpsons, examines popular culture, providing social comment using comedy as its weapon.
In the 1990’s, The Simpsons, was a television show that subverted the traditional ideals of the happy family that was usually portrayed on television. It is a show that is often charged with depicting dysfunction, and in so doing, shows how a ‘real’ family behaves.
“Their apparent truthful reflection of life in the contemporary nuclear family. The bitchy put-downs between family members, the frustrations and irritations the perennial material discomfort, the sloth and general air of amorality, the mocking of father’s long-lost patriarchal authority are all played in stark contrast to the sanitised, happy families of situational comedies” (Martin, 1994, p. 71).
The Simpsons is not portraying a dominant ideology of ‘father knows best’, seen in other television shows such as Happy Days, and The Cosby Show, but rather, a subversive one. Homer Simpson is the antithesis of Howard Cunningham and Bill Huxtable. An example of this comes from an episode where Homer takes the “National Fatherhood Institute Test” and fails miserably. He knows “jack” about his son Bart. (Cantor, 2001, p. 75) this apparent subversion even led the former US President, George Bush, to remark: “What America needs is families like The Walton’s, not families like The Simpsons” (Wark, 1992). This is significant; an American president is concerned about what television portrayal of a family like the Simpsons will do to America’s culture.
Here is an interesting question. Just what are the effects of popular culture and a television show like The Simpsons, upon mass society? To answer this, Stuart Hall provides a perspective. He asserts that society consumes culture and either live in a permanent state of “false consciousness” or they are “cultural dopes who can’t tell that what they are being fed is an updated form of the opium of the people” (Samuel, 1981, p.232). Certainly it seems that George Bush thought this was the case. Hall goes on to say that the view of society’s cultural consumption shifts between two poles of “pure autonomy” and total “incapsulation” and that is unacceptable. (Samuel, 1981, p. 232) Instead, Stuart Hall believes that audiences can distinguish reality from representation. That is, The Simpsons is representing cultural complexities within reality. “They are perfectly capable of recognising the way the realities of working-class life are reorganised, reconstructed and reshaped by the way they are represented” (Samuel, 1981, p. 232). Stuart Hall believes audiences are canny. They know and can cotton on to the difference between families on television and families in real life.
The Simpsons popularity is immense and it “offers one of the most important images of the family in contemporary American culture, and in particular an image of the nuclear family” (Cantor, 2001, p. 70). Subversive yes, but dysfunctional? The Frankfurt School would argue, that although The Simpsons may not be the image championing the ideal of a patriarchal functional family they are a nuclear one. The characters in the show do care for one another and they do have traditional roles.
Homer Simpson is the main breadwinner, working in a nuclear power plant; Marge Simpson remains within the inner sanctum of the home with baby Maggie, while Bart and Lisa Simpson attend school. As well as this, religion features prominently in their lives. A “dysfunctional family has to be, at some level, a broken-down family, a family that is not really what families should be” (Martin, 1994, p. 74). A Frankfurt school theorist would argue that the status quo remains and although the show pokes fun, traditional roles exist.
Status quo is also apparent within the town of Springfield. Monty Burns is the town’s richest man, he owns most of Springfield, lives in a big mansion and enjoys the good things in life. Homer goes to work each day and is working class. Viewers also get to know other high status characters like Mayor Quimby, Police Chief Wiggum, Reverend Lovejoy and Principal Skinner. All having significant ‘pillar of the community’ roles. The Simpsons also advocates the free market and capitalism, Homer telling us, “American donuts – glazed, powdered, raspberry filled – now how’s that for freedom of choice?” (Cantor, 2001, p.102). Again, the status quo is adhered to. Finally, the town of Springfield “harks back to an earlier age, when Americans felt more in contact with their governing institutions and family life was solidly anchored in a larger but still local community” (Cantor, 2001, pp. 80-81).
All these are examples a Frankfurt school theorist would applaud. However, The Simpsons is a postmodern text. Although all these issues are portrayed with a maintained ideological hegemony, it is at the same time counter-hegemonic. Marge may remain within the inner sanctum of the home, but there are numerous instances that show her as the feminist she is. Politically and socially astute, she is not only a wife and mother. Audiences have learned that in high school, Marge Simpson burned her bra, the quintessential feminist act, and in another episode “she goes off on a jaunt a la Thelma and Louise” (Cantor, 2001, p. 74).
Like her mother, Lisa also shows feminist attributes, she is also political, a vegetarian and an environmentalist. Lisa Simpson is a character that reminds us of the important issues, even though the show’s producers benefit by ridiculing and parodying matters for debate. One episode emphasising this is when Lisa decides to be a vegetarian. At the dinner table she questions where her meat has come from. Later in the episode we see her trying to turn others to her way of thinking. Eventually realising the futility of this she despondently ends up at the Kwik-E-Mart. Here she finds out that Apu is also a vegetarian together with his friend’s Paul and Linda McCartney. They discuss vegetarianism and Lisa learns that it is better not to push her own values on to other people, but rather, live diplomatically side-by-side.
Raymond Williams insists, “cultural hegemony operates within a whole social life-pattern” (Gitlin, p. 510). What this episode highlights is the tension between the meat-eating dominant ideology and Lisa’s counter-hegemonic actions.
Another counter-hegemonic example is of Springfield itself. Already pointed out is the town’s hegemonic structure. The Simpsons in true comedic style, is able to parody each and every example that maintains this status quo. Monty Burns is the richest man in Springfield, but he is also the one with the least morals. Homer goes to work each day, but it is rare for audiences to see him working, more often than not he is stealing donuts or has his feet up and eyes closed. The town’s authority figures are systematically ridiculed. Mayor Quimby provide viewers with antics that have a marked resemblance to the Kennedy’s; Police Chief Wiggum is inept, share’s Homer’s love for donuts and resembles a pig; Reverend Lovejoy lacks passion and enthusiasm for a church leader, Ned Flanders usually eclipsing him in that respect, and Principal Skinner, still lives at home with his mother and goes so far as to share the school property, turning part of it into a jail. All these leaders are parodied in some way, so that an audience may see representations of elitist characters. Their behaviour often belies the ideal a Frankfurt theorist would deem ‘proper’.
Springfield may depict its people enjoying an institutional relationship that seems local, but at the same time globalisation appears to be prevalent. This final counter-hegemonic example, explores small-town American archetype, but at the same time other nations are also dealt with. The Simpson’s often travel the world, Japan, Australia and the UK have been some destinations. There is a continuous stream of international visitors and in one episode Bart is banished to France for misbehaving. “The Simpsons effectively portrays the globalisation of America in the 1990’s” (Cantor, 2001, p. 91) and another example is of Homer purchasing art supplies from “’Mom & Pop Hardware’, which turns out upon closer inspection to be “a subsidiary of Global Dynamics Inc.” (Cantor, 2001, p.96).
The TV show depicts a globalised town, Apu is an immigrant from India, and through one episode we learn that Moe has dubious American citizenship, emigrating perhaps from Eastern Europe? “For small-town people, the Springfielders are in their own way remarkably cosmopolitan, especially when compared to their antecedents in the sitcoms of the 1950’s” (Cantor, 2001, p. 91).
It must be remembered that The Simpsons is part of a popular culture. Although Frankfurt theorists, feminists and Gramsci advocates would find merit in the show, ultimately it is created in the USA, animated in Korea and shown all over the world (Cantor, 2001, p. 91). Even the exterior of the show is dictated by globalised economic and consuming values.
The Simpsons show characters within the show consuming culture, just as the audience is consuming them. This postmodern idea is important because The Simpsons’ self-reflexive consumerism is our cultural artefact. We are often told, “in a media-laden landscape that identity is closely tied to the active consumption of products offered by the media and leisure identities” (Ott, 2003, p. 56).
Literary theorist Pierre Bourdieu, asserts that identity is integral to culture. It is possible “to tell someone’s social class by the concerts they see and the magazines they read” (Brasted, 2004, p. 2 of 10). Television is no exception, nor is the absorption of a TV show like The Simpsons. Many people can identify with The Simpsons because it is a show about consumption. In a popular culture viewers are very aware of this concept.
“The Simpsons reflects an odd tension concerning consumption…it intoxicates some viewers by providing a multilayered text that promises pleasure in its endless consumption, as it simultaneously teaches other viewers to be wary of such action” (Ott, 2003, p. 72).
Thus, the value viewers perceive in a show depicting consumerism and culture is through the “endless intertextual gestures that animate the series each week [where the show will] function as a sort of quiz, testing viewer knowledge of both high and popular cultural texts” (Ott, 2003, p. 70). It is the idea of ‘getting it’ and The Simpsons is a postmodern text of popular culture that gives its viewer an identity. Stuart Hall emphasises this saying:
“If the forms of provided commercial popular culture are not purely manipulative, then it is because, alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialisation and short circuits there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognisable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding” (Samuel, 1981, p. 233).
Further, it could be argued that Homer’s doltish antics provide a victim of excessive consumption. Homer publicly embarrasses himself and through the “comic fool, viewers are shown the error of their ways, and chastened not to consume blindly, but to use the culture industries…strategically” (Ott, 2003, p. 72).
Earlier this essay asked the question, what effects did popular culture have upon society at large? To understand this further, we again turn to Stuart Hall and his model of:
“encoding-decoding media discourse which represented the media text as located between its producers, who framed meaning in a certain way, and its audience, who decoded meaning according to their rather different social situations and frames of interpretations. Social position or social class does not influence the meaning an individual takes from a text” (Brasted, 2004, p. 5 of 10).
Therefore, a text would have an effect depending on how it was interpreted and social standing would have influence over this. This idea also takes into account the issue of identity previously explored, where the show’s manipulation, reflects how it is decoded and accordingly fit into the dominant ideology. The Simpsons could be enjoyed by the CEO of a company and at the same time a young junior employee or member of the cleaning staff.
Adults and children alike enjoy it. Roland Barthes speaks of “readerly and writerly texts” (Fiske, 1989, p. 103). This is when a readerly text,
“invites an essentially passive, receptive, disciplined reader who tends to accept its meanings as already made. It is a relatively closed text, easy to read and undemanding of its reader. Opposed to this is a writerly text, which challenges the reader constantly to rewrite it, to make sense out of it. It foregrounds its own textual constructedness and invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning” (Fiske, 1989, p. 103).
Barthes echoes Hall’s earlier ideas of encoding-decoding. Both theorise that an audience make what they will of representations and meanings presented to them in a text.
This essay has examined the ideas of the Frankfurt school, ideological and counter-hegemony and the theories of Stuart Hall. It has used these theories to explore the televised sit-com family and how The Simpsons portray this. Also explored are globalisation, the town of Springfield and finally the issue of identity and consumerism. All this give a valid contemporary understanding of mass and popular culture and the role television plays. How an audience consumes a TV show like The Simpsons as the Simpson’s simultaneously participate in a consumer popular culture.


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Cantor, P, 2001, “Simpson Agonistes: atomistic politics, the nuclear family, and the globalization of Springfield”, Gilligan unbounded: pop culture in the age of globalisation, Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland USA, http://ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au, [accessed online reserve].

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Fiske, John, 1989, Understanding popular culture, Unwin Hyman, USA.

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Alchemy of the Macabre (final)

The next day when I awoke, sunshine streamed through my window. I still felt heavy, but found that I could at least sit up. As I remembered last night's events humiliation swelled through me. My cheeks burned and I cringed with mortification. This soon changed to anger. I stood, swayed, but I managed to hold myself upright by use of the wall. I was still clothed in yesterday's garments. My intention was to find Oliver and beat him to a pulp. I did not have to look long, finding him downstairs in the kitchen eating a sandwich.
"There you are," he boomed. I looked at him incredulously. How could he behave so flippantly? His brow furrowed and he looked at me in consternation. "Now, don't get tied up in knots. It was just harmless fun." I stood ragged, still exhausted by whatever drug he had given me, for I was quite certain that it was a drug that had produced this effect.
Oliver came over and pulled a chair from the table, guiding me into it. "I'm going to let you into my secret." I stared uncomprehendingly. "I am a scientist. I have been experimenting and have made a discovery." His eyes gleamed as he stood over me and I listened as he pontificated about his wondrous achievements in his diabolical laboratory. Oliver had taken the alchemists of old and their premise and taken it further. He said he had accomplished the unparalleled. Instead of turning metal to gold, he could make the dead live again. Looking closely at geology and metal, he had somehow mastered earthly matter and this plane of existence, leading him to other planes beyond. This house was full of ghosts making it perfect for his experiments. To make it all work he needed flesh and body liquids, copious amounts.
"You're mad," I told him. Oliver laughed gleefully. He danced about the kitchen, belying a sense of lunacy.
I know now, that it had been an elaborate hoax from the beginning. There was no position at the college; the situation had been an insane invention by Oliver. Mrs Stanton was gone, where, I do not know. Nobody knows of my whereabouts. Oliver has made certain of that. He told me, he had written to those concerned, informing them of a sudden fever and of my eventual demise. From fear of contagion he said he had my body cremated. The Madame is Oliver's link to the other side. The harlot? Long gone. Oliver's henchman come and go, silent and brooding. Even now I cannot describe the indignities and tortures I have endured. I am half the man I used to be. I can attest that Oliver's actions are that of a complete madman. Whether Oliver has truly succeeded, I do not know, as I have not seen any evidence with my own eyes. He wholly believes in his experiments and that he has achieved what no other has. I know I am at my last moments. I can see in Oliver's face that my use to him is at an end. I know, that already, he has contrived a plan for a new victim as he has openly boasted of this to me. I am sure I was the first; I have no idea where or with whom it will end, or if it ever does end. my only hope is that my end will be soon and mercifully quick. These days, I can only lie here, hearing my shallow breathing and the clock ticking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Alchemy of the Macabre (con't)

Oliver did not join me for dinner that night and at first I was relieved. By the end of the meal I was feeling satisfied and content. I thought about the sudden appearance of Oliver and began to feel peevish over my attitude to him. After all, it was not his fault he had rubbed in the wrong way. I resolved to make more of an effort with him. Tonight he would see a different side of me, one that was cheerful, convivial.
I had just put my plate away in the kitchen when Oliver appeared. "Ready?" He asked. I followed him into one of the smaller downstair rooms. I had not heard them arrive, but there were four others seated at a round table: two women and two men. The men wore nondescript clothing and sat hunched furtively. The women by contrast wore bright lurid colours. One who was extremely large wore overflowing bright blue, the voluminous fabric covering her rolls of fat. On her head she wore a turban of the same material. She reeked of cheap perfume and I took care not to stand too close to avoid being overcome by floral fumes. She held Tarot cards.
"As you can see, there are cards, but we're not going to be playing the sort of games you supposed." Oliver heartily slapped me on the back and the others laughed at his jest. The other woman, wearing far too much lipstick and rouge, threw back her head in laughter, exposing a missing front tooth. I tried to hide my distaste. This was not the sort of company I was used to. Swarthy, ill-kempt men, one woman with contrived good looks and the other, some sort of Madame of the Occult. I could see Oliver watching me, waiting for a reaction. Remembering my earlier resolve, I squared my shoulders and sat by the woman who reminded me of a harlot. Oliver sat on my other side. "Brandy?" He asked. I nodded, feeling the need to fortify myself. He poured a glass. There was cigar smoke in the air, as the two men were smoking these. Oliver himself proffered one to me. I declined.
I had never been to a seance before, never had any cards read, not offered my palm to be scrutinised. I was surprised, however, that someone like Oliver could be mixed up in clairvoyance. The Madame began her show and I found, after a spell, her voice receding to the background of my mind and then intermittently rising to the surface. I sat in a stupor, my eyelids heavy. The faces around the table blurred and I felt as if weights had been placed upon my limbs. There must have been sweat on my brow, for I felt clammy and longed to undo my collar button. To my horror, I felt nimble fingers undoing my trousers. I could see the harlot woman leaning forward toward me and then moving downward, her's being the fingers indecently placed where they should not have been. The room swayed, my cheeks felt afire and I felt sensations that were at once acutely pleasurable and repulsive. Oliver handed the woman a goblet, she spat into it and then gave it back. I was struck dumb by what had just happened, and wanted to leave, but did not have the strength to move.
I must have passed out because later I realised I was upon my own bed. Oliver stood looking down at me. "What have you done?" I asked weakly.
"Never mind all that. You just rest for now." With that he was gone.

Alchemy of the Macabre (con't)

The ghost had again returned! At least this was what I first thought, but on closer inspection I could see that his dress was not so old-fashioned and that the bottom of his trouser legs were dirty and wet.
"Who are you?" he asked. I introduced myself, adding I was to teach music at the college and was acting as caretaker. His face remained passive, but I could see his mind ticking over. "I'd forgotten the college had employed someone." He finally said. "I am Oliver Blake." He smiled suddenly, showing very white teeth. "Call me Oliver." He had an air of arrogance and seemed very capable. He came over and shook my hand, and in doing so, steered me towards the direction of the house. "Well, I have returned. Just back on the London train. I sent a taxi on to the house with my luggage. I like walking and after being cooped up in that damnable train carriage, I felt the need to stretch my legs." He took a deep breath. "It's important to keep active you know." He stopped suddenly. His gaze had alighted upon a crow, atop the boundary wall. Picking up a stone, he threw it with all his might and with an obvious skill. It missed, grazing the bird, which frightened took flight. I heard him blaspheme under his breath. Then he looked at me smiling brightly. "Fresh carcass for my experiments." He looked at me quizzically. "Have you met Mrs Stanton? I dare say she's told you about my experiments." He grinned, "absolutely hates them."
By now, we were within view of the house, and his stride quickened. All this time I had been feeling gauche and awkward in his presence. It reminded me of being at school among other boys who were good at sports when I wasn't. This Oliver was good looking and athletic and had the demeanour of one who knew it. In comparison I felt closeted and bookish.
Later at my desk in the sitting room there was a knock at the door. Oliver poked his head in. "Not disturbing am I?" As he said this he proceeded to walk into the room. Irritated at the interruption, I opened my mouth to say I had a lot of work to do, but I didn't get the chance. "Tonight I'll be having some guests. I just thought you should know. Don't want to disturb you or anything. They'll arrive after dinner." He paused. "On second thoughts, why don't you join us?"
"I'm not very good at card games."
"Cards? Oh. Well, yes, I suppose there may be some card playing. Just not the sort you're thinking of. I tell you what, why don't you come along and see if you like it, and if you don't that's fine, you can leave. I just thought I'd do the polite thing and invite you too." His last sentence was said with an air of frustration, as if he was trying to be friendly and I was the proverbial stick in the mud. To decline now would seem ungracious. I nodded my head in assent. "Great! Well I'll leave you to it then." As he left his eyes swept the room. It may have been my imagination, but they appeared to hover for a moment upon the wing chair.

Alchemy of the Macabre

The taxi turned into the drive that meandered through lush foliage. The drive's final curve led past large pine trees to a glorious Tudor house, all mullioned windows and warm red brick with a high imposing roof. There was ivy growing on the West side and over an out building, that later I found served as a garage.
I had received a communication advising me that I had been appointed the postion of Musical Director at Hammerstead, a boy's College. I had also been asked if I would consider acting as a caretaker of a house nearby. The college had ideas of making the house into a music museum and library. This intrigued me, so I accepted enthusiastically.
Mrs Stanton, the housekeeper, greeted me at the door. She had lit fires in the gigantic stone fireplaces and from the front I could see a sitting room with an antique desk that could be used for my work. Further in was an alcove where a grand piano sat, the area easily large enough for recitals and lesons. Already I could imagine the strains of music. It was term break and classes were due to begin in a week's time.
Mrs Stanton asked if I would like tea served. After a rather long train journey a pot of freshly brewed tea was particularly enticing.
"Has the house been empty long?" I asked, as I motioned for Mrs Stanton to sit and join me. She settled herself, taking a few moments before answering.
"There is Oliver Blake. He's a young Scientist who has been working down below and is writing a book. He comes and goes. Strange man, always talking to himself. I never did take to him." She stirred sugar into her tea. "Last I heard he's in London, trying to get his book published." She made a face as if to say the chances of that were remote.
"I thought I was the only one here?"
"I suppose with Mr Blake gone so much it may have been thought better to have somebody here, rather than shut up the house," she replied.
"He works below you say? Is there a basement of some sort?"
"Oh yes, that's his laboratory. Under this house all manner of experiments are done. The smells that would rise from that place!" She wrinkled her nose.
After taking tea, I decided to retreat to the sitting room and settle my things. Adding another log to the fire, I immersed myself in assorting my music in the sitting room. I was disturbed only once, when Mrs Stanton said goodbye. Soon it was so dark I could only just perceive the outline of furniture from the light cast from the fire. I stretched my arm to switch on the lamp. It clicked uselessly. Upstairs I found a box of fat beeswax candles in the linen closet. I carried as many as I could and placed all of them in the various candelabras. Settling back at the desk, I continued reading and sorting. The fire cracked loudly. A movement across the room caught my eye. In the large wing chair, slightly turned toward me, sat a man. His dress was formal and we gazed at each other. He inclined his head in some sort of acknowledgement. I blinked. Once...twice. He was gone. My body trembled. Was he a trick of the light? Had I imagined him? I sat in my chair not daring to move. Slowly the fire died down and the candles burned low.
The next morning I heard movement downstairs. Last night I had eventually built enough courage to rise from my chair and go upstairs. I lay in bed fitfully, as questions jabbed my mind. Finally I conceded that it was an old house and there could very well be ghosts. Quickly I made my ablutions and went downstairs. Mrs Stanton fried eggs and bacon for my breakfast. The only sounds were of the house creaking and the opening and closing of kitchen cupboards together with the rattle of pots and pans, as I ate silently. A few times I thought I could hear footsteps overhead. Thrice I attempted to ask Mrs Stanton about spirits or any haunting, but each time I tried to formulate the words I felt foolish, so in the end I said nothing.
It being a Saturday I was in the habit of a constitutional walk after breakfast. By the side of the house I found four steps leading down, which I surmised to be the basement that Oliver Blake used as a laboratory. Access was gained through two wooden doors, which swung outwards. As they were not locked, I pulled at them, revealing more steps leading even further down. I peered within, but it was too dark to see. I could vaguely discern the smell of sulpher and could well understand Mrs Stanton's dislike of the experiments performed here.
I continued roaming the grounds. On the outskirts of the property I came upon a crypt. The sun had vanished behind some clouds, and the chill of winter was now upon my shoulders. The trees over the crypt had lost their leaves and their branches seemed like withered arms, eerily reaching downward to the souls interred therein. A blackbird warbled nearby, breaking the morose silence and I gave myself a mental shake, trying to break the feeling of despondence. I started and my heart leapt to my throat. A figure of a man had suddenly manifested before me, appearing suddenly from behind the stonewall of the crypt.
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