Friday, 22 June 2012

Escapism or Immortality?

A friend recently commented that the heightened interest in supernatural fiction is a result of a fascination with overcoming death simultaneous with a lack of belief in the possibility of achieving this via the progression of human technology and society. Vampiric immortality, then, is of interest because it offers a convenient deus ex machina, resolving the desire without confronting the obstacle. I’m not quite sure about this, but I can’t really offer a strong argument for why this is not the case. Instead, I have a suggestion about how supernatural immortality figures in a larger cluster of desires that vampire fiction embodies. Immortality is a mechanism rather than an end-goal.

Popular contemporary vampire novels such as Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse series basically offer escapist fantasy. The protagonist is a normal everyday girl, with normal everyday concerns, until the romantic interest of a vampire lifts them out of their relative banality and into a world of intense drama and danger. They are inducted into a hidden world, where their struggles and challenges are important to the fate of the world, revealing the mundanity of their everyday vicissitudes.

There are a few different elements to this. For one, the fantasy involves inversion of the character’s place in the social hierarchy. Sookie Stackhouse is a lowly bar waitress, socially ostracised due to her telepathic gift. Bella is a bit of a social reject, isolated and bullied at school. But their new lives allow them to transcend their social environment, so that those who remain mired in such can be identified as the petty fools that they really are. The characters have a new strength and, occasionally, social cachet due to their involvement in the hidden supernatural terrain. In other words, who cares if I don’t have the nicest shoes, I’m going out with a centuries-old hunk!

The lives of vampires are high-stakes affairs, where conflicts will determine the lives of many. Funnily enough, the vampires of the Sookie novels do have serious struggles, but they’ve been highly keyed up for the transition to TV. Instead of the witches being engaged in a petty fight over money, Fiona Shaw wants to destroy vampire-kind in general. While Russell Edgington is an undead gay Hugh Hefner in the novels, in the show he’s a genocidal maniac, intent on destroying/enslaving humanity with his army of trashy nazi-werewolves.

It’s interesting to note the differences here with previous vampire fiction, such as that by Anne Rice. Her stories do not involve the vampires in world-shaping conflicts, except in the dire Queen of the Damned. Instead, she focuses on the sociopathic hedonism and anomie that result from their detachment from human society. Her vampires are tragic figures, who tend to regret their isolation.

This might indicate a deeper point: the fear of meaninglessness is a fear of the inconsequentiality of our life’s work. Immortality might offer an escape route, but evading death produces its own ennui. How can we engage in meaningful work when we are detached from society? Does meaning exist only in the context of mortality? For Rice, the answer is No, However, True Blood makes being undead really cool, giving vampires their own highly developed social systems and institutions, over which they can have plenty of power squabbles.

So escapism seems to be the dominant impulse in the contemporary vamp-dramas that I’ve read. They serve to soothe the nagging sensation of inconsequentiality and mundanity that afflicts us in our everyday lives. People live their lives to benefit others and, denied a share in the wealth of society or the shaping of its direction, they are oppressed by banalities: the need to pay the bills, the boredom and indignity of low-paid work and the petty gossip of peers. With such concerns, who wouldn’t want to roleplay as a normal girl, whisked into a life of drama, iintrigue and danger (not to mention gorgeous men)?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Distributed Participation vs Incumbent Power Structures

A nine-year-old Scottish girl who attracted two million readers to a blog documenting her school lunches, consisting of unappealing and unhealthy dishes served up to pupils, has been forced to end the project after the council banned her from taking pictures of the food in school.
Girl banned from blogging about school lunches The Internet, as we all know, is an unrivalled technology for enabling mass participative communication. Sometimes this is put to major, world-changing uses, as in the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Sometimes it is a little more prosaic. Personally, I find the prosaic uses as interesting as the revolutionary ones. The small, incremental ways that communication technology enables people to affect the social organisation of the world seem to indicate major new possibilities. In my own small project, the Bike Accident Reporting site, the technical side has only been one element, the easiest of all. The wider picture - getting city planning to be more responsive to cyclist needs is much harder, impossible without the integration of the system into municipal decision-making, itself requiring the support of people inside. This means that we have, on the one hand, a participative mechanism for people to indicate issues of concern and, on the other, a hierarchical structure that has its own concerns. How does the hierarchical structure respond? This basic point is also found in the above case. A young girl starts a blog to talk about the quality of food served in canteens. She gets popular and is told to shut up. The council has no interest in public participation or scrutiny. Perhaps they could be challenged in a court (freedom of speech?) but it doesn't seem that that's on the cards. Either way, for partisans of participative democracy, this raises some questions (in no particular order): 1) How can we push for incorporation of public participation into extant governmental structures? 2) Should we do this at all? Is it better to focus solely on building participative democracy outside of the established institutions? 3) If we do get some levels of public participation in governmental structures, how do ensure that this is not merely window-dressing? 4) What are the advantages of public participation for ordinary people? What are the disadvantages?