So You Think You Want a Revolution?

30 August 2008

The Misbehaving Middle Classes and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

Revolutions are rarely what they seem. Forget streets awash with slogan cant and fists clenched in undiminished rage. Ignore pundits who proclaim the death of hope as wayward regimes slide beneath the waterlines of hubris. Revolutions move, change, retreat and advance. They’re about people doing things beyond the norm, when the status quo no longer holds sway. Revolutionaries might well be ideologues, or keepers of the faith, but within the chaos of change they haven’t really got a clue. Revolutions fail because all things fail – that’s preordained – but their dynamics catch everyone by surprise. Take the time to read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and you’ll ask yourself not so much what you’ve learned about the act of revolution, but how much you’ve cast aside.

What does Satrapi’s graphic novel, re-released to accompany the film of the same name, tell us about this weighty matter, this thing we call revolution? How can a mere comic book speak of concerns more significant than teenage angst and passing fancy? By combining two earlier volumes of black and white simplicity, by illustrating with an economy of effort that balances a density of dialogue, it gives us tumultuous change through the eyes of a girl who grows into a woman, and grows apart. By casting herself as the main character Satrapi tells us that revolutions are not simply events, they’re intensely personal. And by their very nature they’re built on middle class misbehaviour, with the bourgeoisie struggling to retrieve a relinquished past that they might or might not really understand.

At one level a simple account of teenage rebellion, along with premonition and consequence, Satrapi’s narrative also slaloms across her more impressive family history. Her grandfather was a prince of Persia, her uncle imprisoned by the second Shah of Iran and again after the Shah fled, she a teenage brat packed off to Austria after radical Islamists captured the post-revolution state and made of it a doctrinaire training camp for martyrs in the war against Iraq. To mention, without that sort of reflection, that her parents were committed Marxists who lost their rebellion and chose quietude over death would have been to offer a sanitised middle-class soap opera. Instead we are given pathos in the repudiation of action to ensure that young Marji might know freedom elsewhere.

Even after the girl slinks back from Austria, a whiney, unlikeable adolescent stumbling into adulthood, it is to her parents’ home she returns. And it is they who refrain from condemning the calamity of her marriage, her many mistakes. When Marji finally leaves for France as an adult her personal revolution is complete. She has returned to her origin and gained the freedom to move out again. All the while her parents, and her almost ever-present grandmother, counterbalance the changefulness of the Iranian regime. They offer freedom and growth, they give their daughter the chance to learn for herself, while the regime constrains, deforms, murders.

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When the Message Matters

20 May 2008

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

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Not the Usual Fare

15 April 2008

On the Value of Exceeding Expectations

Direction, by 23am.com, with Creative Commons licenceExpectations are what ground us in life. They give us instructions about the things we’re likely to value, or fear, to treat with indifference or just plain disregard. But they also lead us away from perspectives that require a little too much thought in peculiar directions. I mentioned this briefly when I wrote about cartoonist Scott Adams recently – he has always succeeded against other people’s expectations. But what about ideas? Are we too dismissive of ideas that don’t fit our expectations?

That’s what I had in mind when I set out to write a new batch of microreviews this week. The books highlighted in the sidebar aren’t the usual fare. They shift from the surprising delights of comics to the far more dubious social mechanics of drug-dealing gangs, all the while taunting, asking whether you, leisurely reader, will buy their big ideas. And whether I appreciate them or not, that’s a valuable asset in itself.

Probably the most disappointing book of the batch is Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. An account of Venkatesh’s unusual approach to sociology forms most of one chapter in Seven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. But where that version cuts to the bone and reveals society writ small in the economics of drug dealing, Venkatesh’s book wallows in a sort of tough but scared sociologist mode.

Aghast in Green, by Irish Typepad, with Creative Commons licenceAnd there’s also a sort of repulsiveness about the subject that makes it at once fascinating and almost loathsome. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution describes the effort as very interesting but “somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept”. Interesting because it offers a unique view of how close gang dynamics are to more acceptable social norms, but evil because Venkatesh spent years encouraging and supporting the vicious gang leader JT. As a narrative the book fails, but as a surprising affront to middle-class values I truly hope it lingers on the best-seller lists.

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Who Are You?

2 April 2008

The Difficulty of Identity

Mystery Guy, by walmink, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more perplexing questions we deal with is that of identity. Sure, you know who you are – or a least you think so. But there are many different ways of describing yourself, and probably even more ways in which people can see you. Identity is never really certain; it shifts, changes, falls apart and re-forms in unusual ways. So after banishing the last set of microreviews to the dedicated page, I pulled together a new set of books that could say something about the ever-present difficulty of identity.

The latest reviews are now in the sidebar at the right. They cover comics, cartoonists, geopolitics and representation, already a mismatch of ideas. And that’s the thing about identity – we think of it as a defining element in our lives when it’s often elusive. How do we know who we are? From Sigmund Freud via Jacques Lacan, psychiatrists have come to understand the formation of identity as a process in which the small child observes in itself those things that are variations in others. Cultural theorists put it this way: the Other imperfectly reflects the Self.

M, by FredArmitage, with Creative Commons licenceForgive the capitalisation, it merely indicates that these are emphatic categories – just like the West and the East, which was much the point of Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism. Said detailed how those who we might now call ‘Western’ scholars built a system of knowledge around an image of the benighted ‘East’ that they essentially wanted to see, that confirmed their own conceptions of an enlightened West.

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Technotes 1.0

22 March 2008

Microreviews from the Realm of Technology

Screen Technology, by rutty, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more intriguing things about what we vaguely call technology is not what it can achieve, but how we perceive it in many and varied ways. We can embrace change and its sometimes dubious ramifications, take up the new tools of our times, or we can stand back and watch as our expectations shift. We can also shout angrily at the mute gods of permanence, demanding that they bring back what we knew and loved.

Constantly we stand on the daunting threshold of the new.

In that spirit of change I’ve banished last week’s microreviews to the dedicated page. Their counterparts this week, now in the sidebar, were inspired by a range of reactions to technology – my own, of course, and those of people around me. In a follow up to my earlier post on the limits of copyright, I’ve also been reading the emotionally charged work of Andrew Keen, the Cassandra’s Cassandra when it comes to all things participatory on the Internet. In 2006, Keen grouped Larry Lessig, the Stanford law professor who sits on the board of Creative Commons, with those he labelled “intellectual property communists”.

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What Makes Literature Great?

20 March 2008

A Contribution from Comicdom

Book of Hours, by Jeff Tabaco, with Creative Commons licenceSometimes the writing that affects us most is simpler than we’d like to admit. Occasionally, context outweighs convention and the comic book can offer more of substance to mull over than a dozen learned tomes. Right, you’re thinking, as if . . . But consider for a while Bill Willingham’s comic masterpiece, Fables.

Now in its seventy-first issue, Fables has scooped Willingham and his main artist Mark Buckingham numerous Eisner Awards, the American comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. It’s one of the more successful titles managed by Vertigo, the ever so slightly avant-garde imprint of DC Comics. The Fables community here on the Internet is very active, and as Kieran Bennett made obvious in a blog post recently, ever ready to stamp on perceived deviations from the quality it expects.

Beauty, Prince Charming, Flying Monkey and Flycatcher, Fables 53, copyright Bill Willingham & DC ComicsBut what makes Fables particularly worth our attention is more than success or failure in a fanboy popularity contest. The series speaks to childhood and adult days alike, combining the rigour of contemporary life with the lackadaisical fantasy of stories read a lifetime ago, cast in new shapes and given new meaning.

Willingham carries with him the central tradition of fantasy writing, casting about for old archetypes with which to people his tales. Dark days have fallen on the many worlds of story; the rise of a crushing empire has pushed the best figures of the old fables and some of the new into our world. No less than in an upmarket New York neighbourhood.

So we have exiles from tales you might remember – Cinderella, Sindbad, the Arabian Nights, Little Red Riding Hood and a wealth of others – cut adrift in our mundane world, straining to cope with displacement and the disappointment of the ‘mundy’ lives we lead more comfortably. Their community, too, is more like our own than the benevolent autocracies they were forced to leave behind. Its creaky but barely democratic form of government, its security concerns, the way its citizens are disciplined and punished all point toward our own ways.

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