Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dumbledore "is" gay, part the second

In his NYT piece, "Is Dumbledore Gay? Depends on Definitions of 'Is' and 'Gay'," Edward Rothstein opines that even if Dumbledore "is" gay, the books make him asexual, like all proper old wizard dudes.
This is why Dumbledore’s supposed gayness is ultimately as unimportant as Ron’s shabby clothes. These wounded outsiders recognize the nature of evil, and finally that is what matters.
But what does "asexual" mean, when the default is heterosexual? Isn't the wise mentor figure above "sex" because he is above women, who are simply defined as the sexual?

When Merlin "falls," for example, isn't it to female pollution, as opposed to the pure Socratic bond with Arthur? It seems disingenuous to suppose that there is no economy of gender at work in the genre, even surrounding the "asexual" mentor figure (isn't it convenient that they're all men, however "asexual"? and that their mentees are similarly male?). Suppositions of sexuality, or lack thereof, are finally not extricable from the gender values that surround them.

I think that if Rowling is arguing for tolerance, as she claims, then it seems odd that she would create a "homosexual" character with, in fact, no discernible sexuality in the books.

It also seems odd that the sole homosexual encounter of the series (if we take it as such) is tragic (not to mention undertaken with a Hitler figure).

Rothstein takes this to mean that we can ignore Rowling's pronouncement. He seems to breathe a sigh of relief, as gayness is brushed to the side as irrelevant.

I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wallace Stevens. T.S. Eliot. Dana Gioia. I think I see a lineage!

From the NYT, of course (via Silliman, source of the best linkspam around):

I’ve always thought of myself as having two careers, one as a poet and the other as making a living. I figured that since Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot managed to combine business careers and literature, I could do the same.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The child as ideal automaton

Apparently I can only post about children's lit lately, but I swear this comes from a non-children's lit source.

I attended Scott Bukatman's keynote address at the ParaSite New Media Symposium today. The talk, titled "Disobedient Machines: Autonomy and Animation," discussed the tradition of created beings (e.g. the Pygmalion myth). Bukatman, reading Disney’s Pinocchio, noted that interesting automata in film —- the good kind, the kind that really come alive —- always rebel. Their disobedience is a sign of their autonomy, a sign that creation was successful (insert long passage from Paradise Lost here).

Bukatman discussed this in terms of cinema’s creations, specifically the uncanny (but cute) disobedient creatures of animation (which are subsequently schooled, like Pinocchio or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the sublime disobedient creations of live-action film.

But what struck me was his revelation that many of the 18th century automata (the clockwork mechanical bodies some folks were apparently fond of constructing) were automated children. Bukatman’s talk raised the idea of the child as a kind of disobedient (and therefore successful) creation. As Anne Scott MacLeod and Myra Jehlen have observed, American childhood (boyhood, in their formulations) is seen as constitutively disobedient, and this disobedience and unsophistication (construction as children’s literature) only makes it seem more quintessentially American (the American is the infantile, the unmediated), such that Huckleberry Finn can be pronounced the American novel. The resemblance between Twain’s project of vernacular realism and Disney’s project of simulated photography in films like Pinocchio -— both projects that seek to render the created boy “real” -— is striking, especially given how that realism is figured as specifically American (at least for Twain; I don’t know that much about Disney). I’ll have to think more about this.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Ruby in the Smoke

I read Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke recently.

From the Gosh, I Sure Am Surprised department comes the initial description of Sally Lockhart, the protagonist,
alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose.
. Beautiful? Check. Pale? Check. Slender? Check. Bonus points for blond hair? Indeed! Fortunately, Pullman didn't go all Tamora Pierce on us and actually give Sally purple eyes, but our Waifish Victorian Heroine has a lot more going for her.

As if emerging triumphantly from a secret notebook of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sally has Connections With The East. The beloved father isn't a dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer, but rather a former dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer turned shipping agent, and he croaks on schedule before the novel begins. Mother is of course also dead (double-plus dead, as it eventually turns out). Sally is left alone in the world with just her wits and her education.

Oh, and her education? Sally's education is explicitly masculine, capitalist, and imperialist.
Mr. Lockhart taught his daughter himself in the evenings and let her do as she pleased during the day. As a result, her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art, and music was nonexistent, but she had a thorough grounding in the principles of military tactics and bookkeeping, a close acquaintance with the affairs of the stock market, and a working knowledge of Hindustani.
I was fascinated by this choice because this is not the average YA protagonist skill set. In the books I've been thinking about recently, including His Dark Materials, protagonists have to acquire specialized humanities training, usually in the form of special reading skills (for instance, Lyra learns to read the alethiometer). In The Ruby in the Smoke, it turns out that the humanities (English literature, French, history, art, and music) are worthless. When reading skills are needed, the best training comes, not from The Golden Bough and the Blue Fairy Book, but from penny dreadfuls -- and it isn't Sally who reads them.
"It was Jim," Rosa explained. "He -- you know these stories he's always reading -- I suppose he thinks like a sensational novelist. He worked it out some time ago."
Of course, as I mentioned above, The Ruby in the Smoke is not fantasy, and I suspect the demand for humanistic knowledge is particular to fantasy as a genre. Sally, for her part, finds happiness in accounting.

The story rests on some charming period standbys like a Chinese woman full of cryptic wisdom; a victim of sexual violence who's turned into a mad, greedy hag; and a double-crossing Eurasian.

Oh, Philip Pullman. Always so partial with the surprises.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

I'd like to learn woman-French, please.

The Guardian has published some excerpts from linguist Deborah Cameron's new book The Myth of Mars and Venus.
The idea that men and women "speak different languages" has itself become a dogma, treated not as a hypothesis to be investigated or as a claim to be adjudicated, but as an unquestioned article of faith. Our faith in it is misplaced.
Cameron cites Mark Liberman's heroic denunciation of the false claims made in Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain. (You can hear Charlotte Perkins Gilman snorting in the background. "The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.")

Liberman closes the loop by posting on the Guardian's coverage of Cameron's work.

One of the most interesting things that Cameron mentions is that she's noticed a trend in contemporary analysis: all social and political problems are attributed to problems in communication, as if, if we could just talk, everything would be solved. I'm not sure what to make of this yet, but it's an observation that strikes me as plausible. A quality of the information age, I suppose.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ph.D. comics

Piled Higher and Deeper appears to be the grad-student-centric web comic of choice. Unfortunately, PHD is all about engineers. The recent addition of a humanities grad student (Gerard, the medieval Scandinavian philosophy student) only drives home that the author of the comic knows almost nothing about the humanities, and considers disciplines legitimate only insofar as they are quantitative.

On the other hand, there is Dinosaur Comics, which is pure brilliance.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

We Have to Save the World (of Warcraft)

In the New York Times today:

Limbaugh Latest Victim in War of Condemnation

Victims of real war: soldiers and civilians injured or killed in Iraq; displaced and impoverished populations; children permanently traumatized by war.

Victims of metaphorical war: Rush Limbaugh, criticized by Democrats.