Tag: postcolonial complaining

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

This review contains spoilers.

It’s revealing that pretty much all the responses I’ve read to Fugitive of the Judoon (episode 5, series 12) consist of fan theorising, rather than, say, criticisms of character or plot. It’s not difficult to see why: this story of rhino-like Judoon descending into a weekday-morning Gloucester to menace an apparently unremarkable couple features a cameo from Captain Jack Harkness, back for the first time in ten years, a hitherto-unknown incarnation of the Doctor (the first played by a person of colour) and a cryptic reference to “the lone Cyberman” to which, we assume, the long arc of series 12 is bending. Oh! And a bonus sexy Time Lord. With its hints and mysteries, it’s not so much a standalone episode as it is a set-up for larger stories to come.

And yet it works pretty well, certainly in my view, as a lore-focused episode; in fact it’s probably the best of the series’ stories so far. Unlike, for example, Spyfall, it’s pretty consistent in tone and perspective, following a single mystery – why are the Judoon after a tour guide and someone who works at Bathrooms4U? – through to its conclusion, without getting distracted along the way.

I think that what makes it work so well as a fan-service story is that it’s self-consciously structured as one: it asks us to revise our understanding of Doctor Who just as it asks the Doctor to revise her understanding of her own past (a process whose significance will become clearer later on in the series). The first half of the episode juxtaposes the mundane and the alien: the Judoon in a quiet cathedral town, inside the cathedral itself (“this is a place of worship,” the Doctor says, “show some respect”), besieging an ordinary-looking block of flats.

The recurrent image of a lighthouse leads us, appropriately enough, into the second half of the episode. A lighthouse is decidedly not mundane; nor is the practice of living in it, as tour guide Ruth’s parents apparently did. This mysterious building, which Ruth sees a couple of times in flashback before taking us there, functions almost Gothically: it’s a liminal, haunted space where Ruth and the Doctor encounter unexpected truths about themselves, before travelling into the fully alien space of a Judoon spaceship.

So the episode leads the Doctor, and by extension us, through a psychological rupture, leaving our understanding of Chibnall-era Who fundamentally changed. Its biggest flaw is probably Captain Jack’s subplot: his literal only purpose is to kidnap Graham, Yaz and Ryan accidentally and give them a cryptic warning before depositing them back on Earth, which seems a rather clumsy way of removing the Doctor’s companions from the main plot. On the other hand, I appreciated the depiction of the Judoon as a trigger-happy police force – an analogy given particular force by the fact that Ruth is Black.

All in all, I’d call this the first good episode of series 12, a turning point leading into a relatively stronger second half.

Review: Swing Time

Narrated by a young biracial woman, who remains unnamed, from a housing estate in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time charts the course of a friendship. Our Narrator and Tracey meet at a dance class aged about eight. Tracey is a talented dancer; Our Narrator is a good singer but has hopelessly flat feet. Tracey is confident and straightforward; Our Narrator is inconsistent, passive, contrary.

The two grow up: Tracey strives for a professional career in theatre but never makes it out of the chorus line, while Our Narrator gets a glamorous, jet-setting job working as an assistant for pop sensation Aimee.

On the face of it, Our Narrator’s achieved the success Tracey was going for: she’s made it out of London, she experiences Aimee’s showbiz life almost first-hand. But Smith, of course, complicates this picture. Aimee’s philanthropic ambitions take her to West Africa, where she founds and funds a school for a rural village, but her glittering visions of educational excellence far outshine the unglamorous day-to-day support the villagers actually need, and do nothing to affect the structural reasons that put school out of reach for the young people there. Back in London, meanwhile, Our Narrator’s self-educated mother, freed of the burden of domesticity, makes a career for herself in local politics, serving the community she’s lived in most of her life.

Taiye Selasi’s review of Swing Time in the Guardian identifies change as a key theme of the novel, citing the various characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a narrowly-defined version of success. For me, however, the novel’s key concern is not change but inescapability. Despite these characters’ outward success, there’s always something pulling them back, back; unavoidable structural factors or personality flaws that keep them trapped in their own heads, that prevent them growing as people or achieving contentment. Nothing that Our Narrator can do can shake Aimee’s self-absorption, her cultural and economic power. That inability to reach her employer eventually sends her back to her old London housing estate, where she began. The narrator’s mother’s career in local politics can’t undo the decades of resentment and intellectual stifling she experienced when the narrator was a child. Tracey can’t escape her class and the circumstances of her birth, and like her best friend she, too, ends up where she began.

This, I think, explains Our Narrator’s passivity, even her lack of a name: she’s propelled through life by forces beyond her control. She has no agency to change her fate. Her one significant act in the novel, at its climax, achieves nothing. Like most people, her choices and her future are circumscribed by factors she has no control over: most notably socioeconomic class, but also race and gender – all three influencing the power structures she, and we, move through every day.

I’m aware that this is all sounding Very Depressing. It isn’t, really: its inevitability is leavened by moments of genuine connection and understanding. And alongside its tracing of power structures goes some insightful exploration of the limitations of Western philanthropy, the importance of community and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. I enjoyed Swing Time a lot.

Review: Fire in the Head

Can we talk a bit about cultural appropriation in Neopaganism?

Because it’s everywhere, it seems. Take sage smudging, which is ubiquitously recommended across the Neopagan net (including at the generally-reliable Learn Religions) as a way of cleansing or purifying a sacred space such as a ritual circle. Very few of these resources mention that sage smudging is originally a Native American practice, and that at least some Native Americans are not happy about its widespread adoption/appropriation.

I found this out last week. I’ve been reading and thinking about Neopaganism (though, thankfully, not practising sage smudging) for eight months. What else could I be doing that is harmful without knowing it?

Look, Neopaganism is not an established religion. Even reconstructionists are filling in copious blanks with their own personal gnosis, which, yes! do what works! let a hundred flowers bloom! but also, “if it works, it works” is not an excuse for taking traditions we have no right to and stripping them of cultural context. Which is exactly what’s happened to sage smudging, it seems to me. Yes, I personally need to be more careful about researching the history of ubiquitous Neopagan practices; but I think Neopagan writers also need to do better at identifying the cultural contexts for these practices.

Which brings me onto Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head, subtitled “Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit”. According to his website, Cowan “combines universal core shamanism with traditional European spirit lore”. I don’t want to get into these concepts too much, I am very much not an expert, but “core” shamanism, it appears, was basically invented by Michael Harner, a white American who took some drugs, read some books, wrote down some similarities he saw between Native American spiritual practices and Siberian shamanism and asserted these as universal (and therefore contextless) shamanic principles. I mean, this is pretty much textbook cultural appropriation: stripping minority religious practice of crucial cultural context in order to make it appealing to white wealthy Westerners. (Here are some people talking about Harner’s work from a Native American standpoint.)

Now, for me at least, if Neopaganism is about anything it is about context. Context and specificity: the idea of deity as immanent, present in all aspects of life, however mundane; connection with local landscapes and local ecosystems. I suspect that’s sort of where Cowan is coming from with the Celtic angle, but that’s still a category error, since in fact shamanism isn’t transplantable from the cultures where it was developed. (Incidentally, Cowan’s website says that he studied with Michael Harner.)

In short, I think the shamanism aspects of Fire in the Head are invalid and damaging. I think dressing core shamanism up in Celtic clothing so that Western readers can feel more comfortable because it’s “their” heritage is misleading and appropriative. I do not think you should read, much less buy, this book.

However – given the fact that I have read the book –

As a study of Celtic myth and motif, it does have some gems, such as the discussion of decapitation (cf. the magical head of Bran the Blessed) and of missing limbs, which it posits as a marker of an encounter with the Otherworld. These connections are occasionally tenuous, but as an ex-literature student I find them useful in showing possible approaches to the mythology, things to look for in constructing readings, Cowan’s bullshit conclusions notwithstanding.

But, seriously. Don’t read this. And don’t neglect your critical thinking skills.

Doctor Who Review: Spyfall

Spyfall, a two-part story, kicked Season 12 and Jodie Whittaker’s second season of Doctor Who off with…a fair amount of confusion, I thought. Part 1 begins with spies dying and disappearing in mysterious ways all over the world, leading the Doctor to two men: Daniel Barton, CEO of a major search engine company; and O, a former intelligence agent and friend of the Doctor living in the Australian outback. Two men, and the Kasaavin: a race of extra-dimensional beings apparently made of light who are the direct culprits of the murders. But Why?

The story looks at first to be a fairly formulaic Who tale: a tycoon in league with an alien race, both of them up to no good; classic, if slightly unoriginal, fare. That’s until it takes a hard left at the end of Part 1, with the reveal that O is actually the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master in disguise (played by Sacha Dhawan), and that he’s been orchestrating the entire caboodle for nefarious reasons of his own. “Everything you think you know is a lie,” he says, before vanishing from a plane that’s plummeting from the sky.

So ends the first episode, rather propulsively. The second episode, which sees the Doctor propelled through history by the Kasaavin, with Ryan, Graham and Yaz working to foil Daniel Barton’s apocalyptic plans, is quite frankly a mess. There’s a heck of a lot going on here and writer Chris Chibnall doesn’t seem terribly interested in much of it. The Doctor meets a couple of famous women, Victorian computer programmer Ada Lovelace and WW2 British spy Noor Inayat Khan, only to wipe their memories of her at the end of the episode, non-consensually, to “[wipe] away the things [they] shouldn’t have knowledge of” – treatment notably not extended to Nikola Tesla when he appears a few episodes later. Graham, Yaz and Ryan discover that Daniel Barton intends to turn the entire human race into biological hard drives, only for this plan to be foiled off-screen, anti-climatically, by the Doctor’s judicious use of time travel. I’m not even entirely sure where the Kasaavin come into all of this, or why they were needed in the first place.

No: this story is very much about the Master and the Doctor. It’s hard not to see it as basically a sparring match with the entirety of humankind at stake, which I think is what bothers me about Spyfall, and all the Who stories (most of them written by Steven Moffat) that are essentially about themselves. This isn’t, like Russell T. Davies’ The Waters of Mars, a story that draws attention to Time Lord hubris. Nor does it have the kind of deliberate, consistent imagery of a story like The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, which for all its overblown sentiment does carry strong religious/moral overtones. There is no such consistency here, as we see from the pile-on of ideas and themes and images. There is only fannish self-absorption in the show’s own history; a self-absorption that treats other people as backdrop or soapbox (it’s nice that Chibnall wants to showcase notable women in history, but not if he won’t give them any agency).

This self-absorption plays out rather uncomfortably at one point, when in WW2 Paris the Doctor takes advantage of the Nazis’ racism to have the Master taken away. Like…really? you went there? There’s just this…lack of awareness of how story-imagery works on viewers. The Nazis in this story are handy tools to be used in service of the plot, regardless of the heavy, heavy associations they carry in the West today.

Yeah. I didn’t like Spyfall very much. And although it didn’t turn out to be exactly predictive of the concerns of the rest of the series (or, at least, the half of it I’ve got around to watching!), it’s not an auspicious start to it.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no point asking questions about the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, which sees Our Heroes racing around the galaxy in search of various MacGuffins which will eventually help them tackle the resurrected Emperor Palpatine, who’s assembled a massive secret fighting force on a remote planet.

The film just isn’t interested in considering such pressing procedural questions as, “How did Palpatine hide all those ships?” “When did Sith Lords get the ability to come back to life?” “How did the First Order not notice the traitor in their ranks?” and so on. There are a lot of these questions. The answer to all of them is *shrug*.

No, The Rise of Skywalker is, I think, best read in terms of its emotional content; as an example of what Adam Roberts calls the “visual spectacular”. In this reading, things happen because they make emotional (rather than logical) sense; they fit the meta-narrative that director J.J. Abrams is trying to tell. So: what is that meta-narrative?

I want to start with one of the scenes I found most effective; by which I mean, it damn near made me cry. Towards the end of the film, as Rey faces down the fearsome Emperor Palpatine, the Resistance faces certain destruction at the hands (cannons?) of his mega-army. Someone comes up with a daring plan: what if we just ask for help from everyone in the galaxy? Everyone who hates the First Order? And, at the last minute, the cavalry arrives, a motley fleet of thousands of ships of all kinds and sizes, led by the legendary Lando Calrissian – “That’s not a fleet,” says a First Order officer in wonderment, “That’s just…people.”

Just people. Just ordinary people who have chosen to resist tyranny. This is the sentiment at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker, maybe of all of Star Wars since Episode IV. Here I like Andrew Rilstone’s reading of the film as a place where ordinary people – like Poe’s ex-lover Zorri or the ex-Stormtrooper Jannah – get outsize roles and meaningful character development. And it’s impossible – or, at least, it was impossible, back in December when coronavirus was hardly a blip on the West’s radar and we were all still worried about climate change and American politics and Brexit – not to see in the film’s strong imperial/resistance imagery (filtered through the lens of most current pop culture) metaphors for the rise of the co-opting of the machineries of government by the alt-right; which is to say, it’s impossible to watch The Rise of Skywalker without thinking about Donald Trump. Not just because the imagery is in itself suggestive, but also because everything is about Donald Trump at the moment, meaning a lot of pop culture referencing itself, creating a cultural shorthand that means The Trump Administration. What The Rise of Skywalker is intending to suggest, clumsily, is that this is a time for ordinary people to make extraordinary decisions; to resist, in the small ways that each of us can, the rising tide of intolerance, bigotry and tyranny.

Not just that, though. The Rise of Skywalker is full of ruins – the ruins of the original trilogy, Episodes IV through VI – most notably in a magnificent scene in which we see the Death Star II fallen into a turbulent sea, rotten, dead, yet full of menace. Rey is dwarfed by it, larger in death than it was in life, as she clambers through it in search of some plot coupon or other. She and Kylo Ren, who inevitably turns up to battle her there, are like “squeaking ghosts” (Tolkien) amid this colossal wreck. And there are other fragments of the original films too: Leia herself, played by a Carrie Fisher who was dead before filming began; an aged Lando Calrissian; Luke’s old spaceship, brought up from the depths of another sea. There is in this semi-Gothic abundance of ghosts and ruins and fragments a sort of nostalgia for the (imagined) simplicity of an earlier age. In the original films there were no parents grieving for radicalised sons; no children taken by the empire to be made into soldiers; good and evil were separate, easily distinguished; to return to real-world politics, we were not fighting an enemy within. I don’t want to suggest that The Rise of Skywalker is morally ambiguous; it clearly isn’t. But it is about living in an authoritative regime in a way that the original trilogy isn’t (and the prequel trilogy is). The world of The Rise of Skywalker is weary, the realm of the ordinary, not of heroes.

Which makes the film’s assertion that, contrary to what The Last Jedi had to say, Rey is actually the scion of an important family – Palpatine’s family, no less – puzzling. Or, not puzzling, really, in the way that the various plot inconsistencies are not puzzling; just annoying, and self-contradictory. There are other anti-progressive moves on the part of the writers that are problematic for an anti-Trump reading of the film: the sidelining of Rose Tico, the only woman of colour to have a starring role in the Star Wars universe; the fact that the only significant female character apart from Rey, Leia, gives up her life to redeem her son; the ultimate redemption of Kylo Ren, mass murderer, architect of genocide, radicalised space Nazi in all but name. None of these things speak particularly of standing up to bigotry, more indeed of enabling it.

In fact, let’s talk about Kylo Ren some more. I recognise, intellectually, that Kylo’s redemption, based as it is on saving a single very important life before he dies, is unearned and insufficient to atone for the millions of lives he has canonically ruined. But Adam Driver sells Kylo as conflicted, misguided, ultimately lovable teenager so well; I may also have shed a tear at the film’s climax, when Rey and Kylo get the kiss they’ve been building up to for three films. This is, though, of a piece with The Rise of Skywalker‘s feelgood, ill-examined liberalism: ordinary people are important, thus we must give the benefit of the doubt to all people, even if they are mass murdering space Nazis (who are “ordinary” by dint of really being confused teenagers, and isn’t everyone confused and misguided and hurt some of the time? Yes, J.J., but most people don’t turn into white supremacists).

While I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I wouldn’t say it’s a good film. There are great ideas, but most of them don’t go anywhere much. The writing is lazy, depending on a general cultural shorthand to generate much of its affect, which means that the conclusions the narrative comes to are muddled and contradictory. I can’t really see myself watching it again, is what I’m trying to say.

Film Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a warm-hearted send-up of the cosy mystery genre: the Agatha Christie-type stories where an eccentric detective plucks a murderer from a tight-knit family/social unit of seven to ten people. In this case, the eccentric detective is Benoit Blanc, a man of idiosyncratic methods played by Daniel Craig in a deeply improbable Southern US accent. He’s been engaged by the police to investigate the murder of Harlan Thrombey, a famous writer who’s amassed a vast fortune through churning out bloody mystery novels. The suspects are his family, who are all in various ways hankering after or reliant on his money, the housekeeper Fran and his Brazilian nurse Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant.

Director Rian Johnson steers us through a host of twists and turns as Benoit Blanc (who we always suspect is slightly incompetent) seeks his culprit, asking seemingly inane questions and plinking piano keys as the regular police interview the suspects. This is a film both full of surprises and utterly familiar, plot-wise: a place where we can safely expect the unexpected.

The politics of Knives Out, however, upend this comfortable conformity. The Thrombeys fall into two political camps: comfortably-racist-bordering-on-white-supremacist (complete with a radicalised teenage boy who spends his time viewing alt-right websites on his smartphone) and blinkered white liberals who can’t see their own racism. Both use Marta as a talking point in their immigration debates, a comment on their shared inability to see people of colour as fully human, and, when things get nasty, both camps are willing to threaten and/or manipulate her in order to get what they want. But the film – and Benoit Blanc – is firmly on her side throughout: on the side of kindness, decency, professionalism, humanity. And the end of the film sees not a comfortable return to the status quo – which is how many of these stories end; violence and discontent contained by the solving of the mystery so life can go on as normal – but an upheaval of the social order. Marta inherits the Thrombey house, and Harlan’s grasping family leave empty-handed, Marta looking on silently from an upper balcony. Not a return to the status quo, but perhaps a hopeful instatement of a new status quo, where the good inherit the earth.

In other words: watch Knives Out! It’s a beautifully-made film, colourful in character and incident, a universe to fall into and a site of hope; cosy and progressive at the same time.