politics

Cultural Hegemony: WTF?

In this, the third episode of my What the Theory? series on my YouTube channel, I take a look at the concept of Cultural Hegemony as developed by the Italian neomarxist Antono Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks.

 

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(Cultural Hegemony: WTF? | https://youtu.be/-LI_2-qsovo)

The Hunger Games is great Agit-Prop

Hands up – I’ve read the entire The Hunger Games trilogy.  I read them after the first film came out so I can’t lay any kind of hipster-esque claim to being an early-adopter to the franchise but I consumed the second two installments of the trilogy in pretty quick succession while on holiday in Prague (and during my short-lived Kindle phase).  And I have to say, taking into account every piece of theatre I’ve seen, book I’ve read and video game I’ve played – The Hunger Games is my favourite piece of political fiction I’ve read in a good few years.

Granted, book one has its flaws.  It has some pretty annoying teenage-love-triangle stuff and skates fairly close to being simply a westernised Battle Royale (many parodied it for this when the first film came out but I’d argue it differs a fair bit).  But in Catching Fire we begin to draw back and take a look at the wider society of Panam.  If anything it would have been weird if we didn’t – the entire concept of the annual Hunger Games makes you wonder about the society which could birth, and embrace, such a tradition.  It begins pretty light touch; we realise that President Snow is as much of a twat as we first assumed he might be and we get a tiny insight into some corruption and pretty standard near-future dystopia.  So far, so generic.  But Mockingjay, oh Mockingjay…

In a trilogy of books written for a young adult audience, we get such a beautiful, detailed and savage reflection of our own world.  I don’t know anything about the politics of Suzzanne Collins, in fact I know almost nothing about her at all, but what starts as a story set in an unrecognisable almost-sci-fi land ends up being very much about the state of humanity on earth in the early twenty first century.  And there is actual politics in there, at times pretty raw and exposed, not the made up politics of a future world but stuff which could be attributed to Paine, Marx or Tressel without anyone batting an eyelid.

Best of all, the films take much of this further.  There were times whilst watching Mockingjay Part One (the day it came out because yeah) where you could have removed ‘The’ from The Capitol and you’d have been listening to a diatribe on private ownership.

Obviously District Thirteen looks like Soviet Russia if the Berlin Wall had never been Jengaed (because someone’s still to inform Hollywood that it has) but, perhaps more interestingly, The Capitol is a pretty unflinching recreation of modern America.  It has an unrepresentative political class and a blindly supportive media with an obssesive culture on image and owning useless shit.

The best thing about all this though; unless you have the mindset of looking for the politics in everything you see (guilty as charged) then you might not even notice.  At least not at first.  The focus is never on making any kind of political or intellectual argument but on telling a pretty damn fine story populated by multi-layered, complex, conflicted characters.  The politics, by book three, becomes simply unavoidable and therefore come across more powerful as a result.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the trailer for Mockingjay Part Two…

“He turns the best of us against each other.  Tonight, turn your weapons to The Capitol.”

Try replacing one of the slides in The Battleship Potemkin with that and you’ll barely notice.

 

An Embargo on Boring

boredThis article has the danger of making me sound like a bit of an arse.  Although that’s probably a fairly good evaluation, I thought I’d preface with the disclaimer that this blog wasn’t inspired by anything in particular but by a general shift that I’ve sensed recently as much in my own work as anything I’ve seen (to the point of adding a sticky note to my computer monitor before the somewhat lacklustre adhesive let it fall to the floor).

I’m worried plays are becoming more boring. Or rather, I’m worried that playwrights aren’t taking enough care to avoid the one thing that can be fatal to a play. And it is certainly ‘plays’ (by which I mean here shows written by a writer and then staged by a creative team) that seem to be more prevelant on the diagnosis list than work made through other creative processes. When an ensemble or companies create work on their feet, anything ‘boring’ rarely makes it to the end of the day, but for the playwright sat solitary at a desk, it’s easier to let our greatest foe creep his way in to our writing.

We’re consuming narrative from increasing sources.  TV, film, books, video games, theatre etc etc.  Each medium has a particular area where it shines and Theatre seems to have identified BIG ISSUES as the thing which it’s going to hold close to its chest and run with.  This is something I am totally okay with and perhaps the work that, as an audience member, I seek out most.  For where better to discuss the large stuff than in a communal space among others?  Yet this comes with its dangers.

The Economy on its own isn’t a barrel of laughs and Voting Reform doesn’t come out of the packet as a fun evening out.  Now, I’m under no illusion that to say that they have the potential to be is in any way prophetic, but its somewhat harder to find the warmth, humour and character in Society’s Relationship with Religion as it is in a man walking into a pet shop with a dead parrot in his hand.  I don’t think anyone sets out to write a dry play about any of these topics but when starting from a theme more at home on BBC Parliament than BBC Two (or Three…), one has to tread carefully.  When I think through my favourite plays, which
aren’t exactly a controversial collection, they all combine the BIG ISSUES with plenty of chuckles.  Often I spent the majority of my time in the auditorium giggling and it isn’t until I have time to think it through later that I have time to find the life-changing observations of the nature of life.

So I’ve made a bit of a pledge to myself.  Perhaps something I already thought I was doing but something which I’m now going to keep firmly in my conscious when writing (with or without the help of Post-It’s finest).  I am introducing a programme of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Boring in my work.  Even as a massive politics nerd, I would rather see a night full of nob-gags than a show which discusses something incredible but communicates it through a thick sludge of technical language or linguistic deconstructions of opposing arguments.  Often, the line between playwright and polemicist becomes blurred, mainly because we’re a pretty angry bunch.  But there’s a clear distinction – where polemicists turn people into arguments, we turn arguments into people.  And people make nob-gags.

Defence Against the Dark Arts

To compare things in the present to events in 1984 is a pretty over-subscribed cliche and is obviously simply a useful distraction for our reptilian overlords. Like most of Orwell’s work (and yoga) it’s pretty popular amongst lefties and therefore everyone who works in the arts.

As someone who works with words, its the ideas surrounding Newspeak (the official language of Oceana) which have always fascinated me. The Party realises that, by restricting the language people have at their disposal, you limit their ability to communicate with any specificity. If you erase the language which allows us to declare the difference between a cow and a horse then good luck complaining to the chef about your horsey burger.

And yet, a few years ago, a word started to disappear. In newspapers, in government briefings and on organisation websites, it’s frequency was slowly reduced until it was almost invisible. The word ‘art’ (pronounced a:rt) had been taken out to a field, beaten over the head and buried in a deep grave at a crossroads. Seemingly, no one wanted to talk about art anymore. Over a period of months I’d gone from working in ‘the arts’ to working in the ‘cultural industries’ and from being an artist to being a ‘creative entrepreneur’.

Simply put, we got defensive. As soon as David Cameron limped into office with the help of Nick Clegg, we knew dark days were ahead. Fair enough, if we were going to go for this whole austerity thing, I’d rather we miss out on another production of Hamlet than close a school down and much of the electorate would agree. At the first hurdle though, we agreed to have this debate in their language – they’d brought the ball so we’d play this out by their rules.

At a time when Nigel Farage was gaining popularity by ‘saying it like it is’, we were trying to role-play House of Cards in order to protect what we could. Don’t get me wrong, cultural leaders across the country did this for the best of reasons, and unlike independant artists it’s less acceptable for them to use naughty words at politicians, but it meant we instantly started this fight on the back foot.

At around 6am this morning it was clear that David Cameron wasn’t gonna be needing a removals van and I’m not sure that it takes a genius to work out that the arts might be in for a further beating. We’ve got a fight on our hands again, but this time, lets sound proud of what we do. That starts by not using their language. If we’re gonna head into battle, then let’s dictate the rules ourselves.