Hi there, and welcome to the blog of Speaker To Animals!
This site is intended to share my enthusiasm for popular culture, and my interests in linguistics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, sociology, cultural studies, politics, and whatever else takes my fancy.
You’ll gather pretty quickly that I’m a fan of television (particularly of Doctor Who), and of movies, of science fiction and other literature, and of comic books. I am also a collector of film soundtracks.
I’m also, recursively, interested in why I’m interested in what I’m interested in.
The site contains both Pages and Blog posts. Pages will be built around subjects I hope to say much about, highly influential books or films, for instance, or important issues in linguistics, sociology or politics, and will extensively cross-reference each other to create a hypertext illustrating connections and continuities between them. These are constantly ‘in progress’ – meaning many of them aren’t finished!
Blog posts will be about more topical events, or reviews, or about unjustly forgotten books, TV shows, or whatever, which I think deserve a second look. These will generally link back to Pages they relate to, so, for instance, the Blog post ”Crying Whorf?”, which addressed a then-current news story, links to a more general Page on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the Language & Linguistics section, while my Blog review of Arika Okrent‘s In the Land of Invented Languages (2009) refers to a specific text cited in my broader look at Constructed Languages. This means I can comment on whatever happens to interest me at the time in my Blog without having explain the general background over and over again, while also stopping Pages going off at too much of a tangent.
The site is partly a response to my dissatisfaction with the moralistic and judgmental approaches taken by other critics, in particular their attempts to pass off aesthetic preferences as matters of ‘political principle’ – especially where those critics prop up their arguments with appeals to dubious theoretical frameworks like Saussurian linguistics, psychoanalysis or Marxism. ‘Grand narratives’ merely ‘Other‘ the audience by stereotyping them as as pathetic victims of psychological or ideological forces of which they are unaware – but to which the critic is obviously immune! – rather than treating them as active participants in the production of meaning; they are discursive practices complicit with with the very issues of power and domination they pretend to expose. There’s nothing more ironic than a post-colonialist critic pitching their tent in popular culture and declaring it terra nullius – as if the indigenous population had no culture of our own!
What’s more, as I hope to demonstrate in my essays on Saussure, Freud, Lacan and Althusser, none of these perspectives have any theoretical or empirical justification whatsoever. Saussurian linguistics is, in the words of Noam Chomsky, an ”impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language” (Chomsky, 1972); psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience and a fraud (Cioffi, 1970, Eyesenck, 1985, Crewes, 1994); and Marxism is an imperialistic and authoritarian ideology dressed up as radicalism (Bakunin, 1872, Thompson, 1978). Part of the reason these perspectives survive – in Literature and Cultural Studies departments, rather than in the Linguistic and Psychology departments which have long since moved on – is a political commitment that blinds some ‘radicals’ to evidence. To a socialist or feminist schooled in Saussure, Freud, or Althusser, an attack on their founding fathers is an attack on socialism or feminism itself: to dissent from their prevailing ideologies is to risk being labelled an anti-intellectual and a reactionary – as if social commitment depends on an uncritical acceptance that partiarchal capitalism replicates itself through the initiation of the subject into the Symbolic Order through the resolution of castration anxiety during the Oedipal Stage! What the counter-example of Chomsky shows is that this is by no means necessary: that it is possible to retain radical commitments while keeping abreast of modern scientific understanding; so while others may offer Saussure, I offer Chomsky’s Universal and Generative Grammar; where others offer psychoanalysis I offer cognitive psychology; and where others offer Marxism I offer the anti-authoritarian politics of anarchism.
If there’s an over-arching theme to this site it is the way our enjoyment of Popular Culture is influenced by interpretation, and by the way that interpretation is shaped by language and the perceptual frameworks of our cognitive processes, and by socially determined factors such as education or peer groups. Its about how consciousness of those processes can help us construct meanings for ourselves which enhance our lives rather than reduce meaning to the dull, mechanical product of the institutionalised cynicism and paranoia of academia. ‘Meaning’ is largely something you read into texts, not something you ‘uncover’ from within it: ‘meaning’ is underdetermined by textual cues. To take umbrage at a ‘meaning’ the critic has imposed upon the text themselves – by means of inappropriate schemata and institutionalised heuristics – is the height of absurdity (see Making Meaning and Making Doctor Who Mean for more on this). If nothing else I hope to demonstrate that what you bring to what you enjoy is at least as important as the writers, directors – and critics; that the construction of meaning is an active, not passive, experience, which calls upon your own competences and creativity. If you have different tastes than me that’s not because either of us are mistaken about what something means, more that each of us brings something different to the encounter with the text.
This isn’t to say that I don’t have value judgements of my own – as we’ll see in Parlare the Carny? value judgements are embedded in language itself – just that I aim not to pass my interpretations and evaluations off as objective or scientific fact. None of the analyses you will find here claim to be definitive: rather they apply interpretive tools in a way that adds to the enjoyment of films and television shows instead of measuring them against some ideological slide-rule.
My initial inspiration for this site was the critic Martin Barker, author of the outstanding Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics (1989), Action: The Story of a Violent Comic (1990) and A Haunt of Fears: The Stange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (1992), co-author of The Crash Controversy (2001) and editor of Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media (1984) and Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate (2001) and numerous other first rate Cultural Studies books. Barker has been a consistently grounded critic in a field which has so often taken flight into the realms of absurdity; he has also engaged directly in campaigns against censorship while others have contented themselves in arcane debates based on little but hot air. It was Barker’s work that lead me to Mikhail Bakhtin (via Valentin Volosinov), and to film critic David Bordwell. From Bakhtin I take the concept of dialogism, and his emphasis on the active participation of readers and audiences in the creation of meaning, and from Bordwell I take a cognitive approach, which reaches somewhat similar conclusions – albeit via a very different route: see Making Meaning. I’m not an academic and I can’t hope to match the rigour of either Barker or Bordwell, still less have I the resources to attempt the ethnographic fieldwork that grounds their studies; nevertheless, I borrow freely from their work (and others) and any errors or gross simplifications you find here are entirely my own.
Anyway, if you’ve already read Parlare the Carny? you’ll have an idea of what I’m aiming at: an exploration of Popular Culture through some of the more ‘productive’ ideas I’ve come across – and an exploration of those ideas through Popular Culture.
Anyway, here is what I rather pompously call my ‘manifesto’
- Politically and philosophically, I’m an Anarchist – of the fun-loving Emma Goldman sort and not a whiny, self-denying miserablist who sees indulging in any kind pleasure as a betrayal of something or other, and who thinks the world would be a better place if we all went back to growing our own potatoes. Anarchism, as understood here, is a more authentic form of socialism, stripped of the Marxist delusion that the State is the mechanism through which socialism will be achieved. The ‘socialist state’, as proven by history, is a self-perpetuating tyranny, and a contradiction in terms. I’ve some sympathy with the humanist Marxism of E.P. Thompson but none at all with the anti-humanism of Louis Althusser and his ilk. Anarchism rejects the monological utopia of Marxists and embraces the ‘heterotopia‘ where freedom from exploitation goes hand in hand with diversity, free speech and personal liberty. Anarchism is the only political philosophy which believes in the fundamental decency – or humanity – of human beings: other philosophies, which regard others with automatic suspicion, lead only to authoritarianism. This isn’t primarily an anarchist site – though it is anarchic – and I welcome a wide spectrum of people who share a generally liberal outlook – but my politics will obviously shape the assumptions implicit in some of these articles, and since part of the raison d’être of this site is to lay bare the processes by which meaning is created I should make my prejudices clear from the outset.
- I’m also a materialist, which means I believe the universe – including the social world of signs – obeys the laws of physics. Language, whether the spoken word, a word on a page, an image on film or a piece of music, has a material form (vibrations in the air and ear, colour and form transmitted by photons, a photochemical effect on film or the retina) and corresponding physical states within the biological organ of the brain. The most effective method for understanding the brain is cognitive psychology. There is no world outside the material world, no pure Platonic form or supernatural agency which shapes our destiny, no soul which lives on after your death. I’m not going to devote a whole lot of time promoting atheism or rationalism here but just because I recognise the cultural importance of, say, a ritual performance, doesn’t mean I accept it represents some transcendent truth. So, no idealism here, no gods and no masters.
- I intend to abide by the Principle of Charity where fandom is concerned: that is I aim to avoid attributing falsehood, irrationality or logical fallacies to readers and audiences without good reason. To treat others with automatic suspicion – as liars, as deluded, as victims of ‘false consciousness’, or simply as stupid – leads to totalitarianism. So, no cynicism towards a particular bit of Popular Culture simply because I don’t like it myself, or towards other fans who merely like things which I don’t – unless they show cynicism themselves, in which case they are fair game. There’s a whole cottage industry out there devoted to trawling for things to be offended by, or making other people look small simply for liking something that the critic doesn’t like; such people deserve no mercy. Political posturing, such as deliberately misconstruing a text and then concocting a straw man of fans based on that negative interpretation, is an exercise in intellectual bullying. Being smarter – or simply more articulate – than someone else is not a license to be a dick.
- There’s going to be no psychoanalysis here, or at least no psychoanalysis which isn’t framed in such a way that I won’t immediately demolish it, because psychoanalysis is twaddle for reasons I’ll examine more deeply in my essays on Freud and Lacan, and further elaborate in my essays on Noël Carroll‘s Mystifying Movies and Laura Mulvey‘s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience discredited decades ago by psychology proper and is little more than a footnote in the history of the subject – unfortunately it has taken root in the Literature, Film Studies and Cultural Studies departments like Japanese knot weed. As Martin Barker says in From Antz to Titanic, ‘to read the stuff is to make forced marches through jungles of jargon, behind who’s every frond lurks a phallic snake, biting, accusing.’ Psychoanalysis misrepresents the text, the author and the reader. As Barker puts it, psychoanalysis ‘thrives on making assertions about audiences, and absorbedly avoiding empirical checks on them.’ I’ve employed psychoanalysis myself in the past knowing even then that it has no empirical foundation because that’s what critics are ‘expected to do’ but no more: I’m not prepared to waste time psychoanalysing a text any more than a physicist should be expected to spend time contemplating the luminiferous aether. I will also stick the boot into Freud and psychoanalytically inflected criticism wherever I find it.
- I aim to provide links and references, wherever possible, so readers can check what I’m saying for themselves. There will also be space for readers to comment, and none of the articles are ‘closed’ in the sense they have taken on a final, immutable form: I will clarify or revise them in response to the feedback I get. One of the principle philosophical figures who inspired this site is Mikhail Bakhtin and what I’m doing here is to open up my own articles to dialogue. I’m also going to offer a kind of ‘meta-critique’ of how ‘interpretation’ works, and the rhetorical techniques critics – including myself – use to persuade people the meanings we have created – not found – are worthy of attention (see Making Meaning, for example). No authority is to be trusted, not even mine, and hopefully I can give you some of the tools, and confidence, you need to come up with your own interpretations.
- I’m going to try to stick to the point as much as possible. There’s a tendency in cultural theory in particular to throw everything including the kitchen sink into every article just to demonstrate how widely read the author is: for instance, an earlier draft of my own Parlare the Carny included a couple of paragraphs on Pierre Bourdieu (who is worth an article in himself) with a few nods to Paul Willis. The rewrite restores Bakhtin to centre place, digressing only onto other members of the Bakhtin Circle, such as Valentin Volosinov (who’s work, in any case, is often attributed to Bakhtin), and to work directly influenced by Bakhtin such as that of Julia Kristeva (specifically her concept of intertextuality). It doesn’t then wander the usual path of free association into the forests of Freud and Lacan (not least because psychoanalysis is twaddle), Foucault and Derrida, unless there’s a damn good reason. Such ostentatious displays of erudition take focus away from the main subject matter and onto the writer – and my life genuinely isn’t that interesting. If I wish to discuss other writers I’ll write articles specifically for that purpose or include something in the footnotes.
- In line with my avowed anarchism, and with deference to Proudhon, I regard ‘intellectual property’ as theft. In Textual Poachers (1992), Henry Jenkins says ‘Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.’ In my view this applies to all fan activities: once out in the public field intellectual property belongs to the fans, the readers and the viewers, to use and exploit, to parody and to otherwise enter into ‘dialogue’ with. By all means credit authors where credit is due but to place a legal restriction – copyright – on the use to which intellectual property is put is an act of censorship.
- And finally, if you don’t like clowns – or puppets – you’ve definitely come to the wrong place!
- Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill & Bryan S. Turner (1984) The Dominant Ideology Thesis
- (1984) Sovereign Individuals of Capitalism
- Althusser, Louis (1969) For Marx *
- (1969) ”Contadiction and Overdetermination” in Althusser, L. (1969) For Marx
- (1969) ”Marxism and Humanism” in Althusser, L. (1969) For Marx
- (1969) ”Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” in
- (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays
- (1969) ”Freud and Lacan” in Althusser, L (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays
- (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays
- Anderson, Perry (1980) Arguments Within English Marxism
- Bakunin, Mikhail (1872) Marxism, Freedom and the State Chapter III
- Barker, Martin (ed., 1984) Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media
- (1989) Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics
- (1990) Action: The Story of a Violent Comic
- (1992) A Haunt of Fears: The Stange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign
- & (2001) The Crash Controversy
- & (eds., 2001) Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate
- Bordwell, David (1989) Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema
- Chioffi, Frank (1970) ”Freud and the Idea of Pseudo-Science” (1970) in Borger, R and Chioffi, F. (1970)Explanations in the Behavioural Sciences
- Crews, Frederick C. (1994) ”The revenge of the repressed” in The New York Review of Books, part I, Nov 17, 1994: 54-60; part II, Dec 1, 1994: 49-58.
- Eysenck, Hanz J (1985) Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire
- Jenkins, Henry (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture
- Mulvey, Laura (1975) ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Mulvey, L. (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures
- Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph What Is Property?: or, An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government
- Thompson, E. P. (1978) The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays