freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Last night I dreamed what was either an epic fantasy novel or an epic fantasy video game which was effectively a mash-up between current American politics, current student politics at My Cherished Institution, some sort of unspecified contemporary urban fantasy with massively powerful secret female mage figures, and bits of Buffy. The whole overblown thing took place for no adequately defined reason in the endless carpeted corridors of an enormous, luxurious mansion, and was largely retroactive, in that it was shot through with the brooding, hopeless realisation that in the teeth of genre convention we, i.e. the good guys, had actually lost.

The main thing I remember is the huge meeting/negotiation sort of thing between the victorious Bad Guys, represented by Trump and George W Bush sitting smirking together at a corner of the boardroom table, and everyone else, mostly student political activists who were trying to call out the Bad Guys on their ideologically dubious fighting practices. The room was permeated with a sort of helpless horror as we realised how sneakily the Bad Guys had manipulated things to either disempower or destroy or suborn the powerful mage women (Willow Went Bad and betrayed us. Figures). In the background of the dream, various deposed female mage figures were trying desperately to regain the power they'd lost.

I woke up at the point that the werewolf mage lady was attempting a re-activation of her werewolf nature by strangling puppies. A whole row of them. Fuzzy black lab types. It was horrible. I really don't know what the whole thing says about my current state of geo-political despair, except that if Strangling Puppies isn't at least the penultimate level of the Despair Defcon, it really ought to be.

Upside: geo-political despair at least distracts one handily from personal despair, from which you can infer that neither work nor the job search are bringing me much in the way of joys. On the further upside, I haven't actually strangled any students or colleagues, either.

(My subject line is, of course, vamp-Willow).

whups, fellover

Tuesday, 16 September 2014 10:49 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I'm trying to work out why this is so funny.

Possibly because Giles, who is quite one of my favourite Buffy characters, and it's beautifully edited, but mostly I suspect that there's just something inherently funny about Chumbawamba.

I am Still Sick, although much, much better - now at the pale/shaky/weedy end of it, with occasional coughing and a throaty contralto, instead of the hacking-consumptive-bring-me-a-place-to-die bit. Doc has put me off work until Thursday. On mature reflection, this was sensible and necessary, because doing anything much makes me fall over, or at least want to.

(You can attribute the Cassie Claire weed-smoking Gandalf subject line to the fact that I rewatched the second Hobbit film last night, which only served to reinforce my convictions that (a) Martin Freeman is a tiny hobbitoid acting god, and (b) BC was born to voice the more intelligent sort of dragon.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It being Stv's birthday and all, we went out to Overture for supper last night. I feel that it is important and indicative that, if the Salty Cracker crowd could be said to have a favourite default restaurant at which to hang out and celebrate anything at all, it's bloody upmarket and one of the top ten in the country. The waitstaff know us. Stv got free champagne. At in excess of R600 a head for a four-course meal with a wine pairing, that's an expensive neighbourhood joint. (And a bit distant, too, being half an hour's drive away in Stellenbosch). It was a lovely evening, although slightly negative notes were introduced by the following:
  1. It's faculty exam committee season, which means I'd spent the entire day checking and annotating the 635 student records on a 364-page board schedule which is a fraction under 2.5cm thick. This puts me in a strangely zen state composed of equal parts of numerical trance, Machiavellian structural insight, advisor empathy and seething resentment, and incidentally renders me completely exhausted and glandular to the max. I was only really capable of conversation by the end of the first course and my second glass of wine. Overture was a kindly panacea to the day's ills, but conversely I wasn't really in the best state to enjoy it properly.
  2. We may be overdoing the neighbourhood joint five-star expensive restaurant thing to the point of over-exposure. The food was, as always, excellent, but I didn't think it hit its usual plane of dizzy high. Lovely tomato risotto (they always do great risotto), but slightly arb green bean salad with unidentifiable duck, and bland square chunks of mostly tender pork. Fellow diners' mileage may vary, you are perfectly free to blame my exhausted state rather than any diminution in quality, but I wasn't blown away. Beautiful evening on the terrace, though, exquisite dusk clouds, and as always the best sort of company.
  3. It is possibly fortunate that my tiredness was sufficient for me not to rise to the provocation offered by a fellow guest, who during the course of conversation incautiously offered a statement to the effect that she thinks Stephenie Meyer writes well. Them's fighting words, where I come from. It is my professional opinion that Twilight's stylistic and narrative infelicities are only marginally better than its gender politics in general loathsomeness. In default of the spirited debate and righteous suppression I would normally offer to such provocation, I present, as threatened, the blog which picks Meyer's grammar apart, with maximum snark. Fortuitously, today also gave rise randomly to this Slate article, which does statistical/linguistic analysis comparing three hugely popular texts - Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. It's a fascinating comparison, and in particular the tables which look at adjectives are extremely telling. Viz:

    The thing which immediately strikes me: Collins's characteristic adjectives and adverbs are generally more sophisticated, but they also relate to complex states and actions and very frequently to abstractions. Rowling's are very action-oriented, but you can see her younger audience intentions in their comparative simplicity, with a focus on straightforward emotional states which tend to reflect action. Meyer's are definitely less sophisticated than those used by Collins, but they're also almost entirely emotional, and when they're physical it's physicality which largely reflects or responds to emotion. This echoes the frustration I feel when reading Twilight (and, for the record, I've read the entire series twice and supervised a couple of graduate theses on the books, if I diss them it's from full knowledge and exposure), because really, when you get down to it, nothing much happens in them. You drift passively around in Bella's head while she angsts and reacts and feeeeeeeeeeels. The language is not accomplished at the structural level, frequently obvious and clumsy and weirdly unfocused (my undergrads can do better), but it's the pacing, characterisation and plot which are really problematical, and which are heartily outdone by almost any piece of fan fiction I have read recently. I stick by my assertion. Even without getting me started on the gender politics, Meyer does not write well.

Rantage and random analysis brought to you courtesy of my really rather strong feelings about this, did you notice? And by the sure and horrible knowledge that in about twenty minutes I go to meet my four-hour meeting doom. Doooooom! At least the energy from all that ranting has my blood buzzing enough to mostly compensate for my state of over-fed, mildly hung-over sleep deprivation. Now with extra glands. Sigh.

Subject line is still Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours", from The Suburbs. It's a ridiculously catchy, lilting, gentle tune which was playing in the car this morning and which has thoroughly colonised my head. It's curiously soothing, particularly after losing a day to board schedule checking. One feels they understand.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Several Things!

  1. I spent the weekend holed up in my study marking Honours and second-year essays, with the net result that when the EL bounded into the kitchen on Sunday morning with a cheery greeting he was the first person I'd actually spoken to since 9pm on Friday night. 36 hours in my own head, particularly my own head colonised by student effusions, is really rather a lot. You end up forgetting how to actually form sentences. Or was that the effect of all the student writing? Discuss.
  2. On Friday the sound system in my car had a psychotic episode and for some reason started playing through the albums on the MP3 player in reverse alphabetical order by artist, which means I unaccountably jumped from Arcade Fire to Velvet Underground. (Have become very addicted to The Suburbs, possibly in preparation for Reflektor, which is released today. New Arcade Fire! Score!). I haven't aired my Velvet Underground collection for a couple of years, so it was quite fun to play through Loaded and the one with Nico, which is my favourite. Then my Twitter feed exploded last night with the news of Lou Reed's death. It seems like an appropriate fortuity to an extent which is potentially slightly sinister. I am unable to escape the faint suspicion that in fact I was afflicted with a sort of anticipatory musical ghost. It seems like Lou Reed's style. Of which he had rather a lot. RIP on one hell of a life. (Lovely Neil Gaiman interview here, if you're into that sort of thing).
  3. On the subject of the Circle of Life and what have you, congrats to [ profile] dicedcaret and his nice lady wife on their acquisition of sudden offspring of the female persuasion. Her name is Eva, she arrived safely on Friday via caesarian, all apparently well.
  4. A random text message arrived this morning purporting to be from the City of Cape Town's weather advisory service, and warning of "Severe storms with large hail" today. Insofar as (a) today is cloudless and hot and has quickly burned off the morning fog, and (b) I'm not actually subscribed to any weather advisory service, this also seems a bit sinister. I am inclining to the notion that I've somehow received a text from an alternate universe in another leg of the Trousers of Time. Or exceptionally lateral phishing spam.
  5. I could have lived very happily for the rest of my life without having encountered, in a student essay, the term "phallic fluids". She was writing about Dracula, but still. Not even the worst of fanfic does that sort of thing.

Subject line from Velvet Underground, natch. "Pale Blue Eyes". His lyrics tend to the oddly complex and evocative.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
'Tis the very bloody time of year, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. No, wait. The bloody time of year is definitely true, it being Orientation Season, but the yawning churchyards and drinking hot blood bit probably has more to do with the vampire lectures. Contagion, on the other hand, definitely.

So, I'm on Day 2 of our first orientation programme, which means last week was a nasty stressful flurry of preparations. I'm currently giving a minimum of an hour and a half of curriculum talks daily, not to mention general programme wrangling, shouting at lecture venues full of students, and talking the OLs down from biting each other. In addition I am gearing up for registration, which means two separate advisor training sessions this week and a desperate attempt to bend space-time sufficiently to fit them all into a timetable. In a somewhat shortsighted gesture about which I am deeply unrepentant, I also offered to give Summer School lectures this year, which means I'm burbling about vampires for an hour on the first three evenings of this week, giving me something of the order of 13-hour days.

So yesterday ran to wrangling students (30 mins) plus curriculum talks (90 mins) plus introducing Herzog's Nosferatu to a slightly bemused collection of silver-haired seniors (20 mins) plus an advisor training session (2 hours) plus a lecture on vampires (1 hour). Today, rinse and repeat, minus the movie and the training and plus an additional hour-long orientation session. My traitor body has, of course, celebrated all of the above by acquiring quite the nastiest throat infection I think I've ever had, causing me to fight my own voice continually to actually produce sounds, and to spend most of last night unable to sleep owing to the wild temperature, coughing and general all-over-body aching. It is actually such an exquisite and pinpoint instance of abysmal timing, I'm rather floored. Currently taking bets on whether or not my voice will advance or retreat for all the large-lecture-venue projecting I have to do in the next few days. Thank heavens for microphones.

The vampire lecture last night went well, despite being unusually contralto, and caused me innocent joy by being precisely and exactly the right length. I've stuffed up the length of my last few conference papers so badly, I was beginning to lose faith in my own judgement. Also, producing powerpoints featuring near-endless strings of pretty vampire boys (for SCIENCE!) was rather fun.

Edited to add: Buggery. I've just had to cancel tonight and tomorrow night's lectures, on the grounds that my voice has slithered backwards down my throat, clawing desperately, and I'm not capable of more than a sort of strangled wurbling noise in place of actual communication. Tomorrow's orientation and training lectures are going to have to be given via the medium of interpretive dance. Honestly, it would be altogether less disruptive and painful if I broke my leg at this time of the year rather than losing my voice.

intellectual hock

Monday, 1 October 2012 06:25 pm
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'Tis the first of the month. The regularity with which that happens, month after month, is simply distressing. Or reassuring. One or the other. Possibly both. I've been teaching seminars on vampires and gothic and marginal indeterminacy all afternoon (it's alive! it's dead! it's attractive! it's repulsive! it's real! it's not!), and may consequently be a little more vague than usual. While conversely being thoroughly buzzed from teaching, of course. (To a rather reduced class: warning, there seems to be a nasty gastric bug doing the rounds, at least four of my students were missing, following plaintive emails on the how Laid Low they were. Concerned citizens may wish to refrain from breathing for a bit.)

October is possibly allowed because it's the month in which Catherynne Valente's second Fairyland novel is released (hooray)! (You can catch the first five chapters on, and I suggest you do). Be that as it may, the month is definitely here and I should pay my intellectual debts. In the merry month of September I have unceremoniously nicked quotes for subject lines as follows:

  • 3rd September: bittersweet leaving gestures from the Magnetic Fields, from "Sunset City", off The Charm of the Highway Strip, which I always think is my least favourite album of theirs until I actually listen to it again. I should also add for posterity that the song's wherever-I-lay-my-hat creed is absolutely antithetical to my personal philosophy, lifestyle choices and the depth of my Cape Town rootedness, and any coincidence was purely temporary and the result of maddened academic globe-trotting.
  • 5th September: as any fule kno, I am quoting T.S. Eliot, specifically The Waste Land, in a rare and futile gesture towards academic street cred. (I'm actually extremely enamoured of the poem, which is weird and elliptical and full to the brim with dodgy Grail imagery and also imprinted me extremely firmly in first-year English classes).
  • 8th September: this has passed into the proverbial, in a slightly cynical and world-weary usage I associate, for some reason, with the 1940s. Google has no idea. Sigh.
  • 11th September: Vogon poetry. The title of the multiple-book epic by Grunthos the Flatulent, who was, IIRC, the one whose own lower intestine strangled him rather than hear him recite.
  • 19th September: Tennyson, "Mariana", the lady who sits in her rotting moated grange with bats and tears and what have you, and bewails the non-arrival of someone or other, and which is quite one of the most self-consciously Goth effusions of all time. It's incidentally also probably an extremely valid and literal depiction of depression. Also, I seem to be having a very poetic quote month.
  • 25th September: a lame pun for which I decline to apologise.
  • 26th September: the Bee Gees. Again, without shame.
  • 28th September: a lame pun on the title of the Everly Brothers song. If it's any consolation, I thereby thoroughly earwormed myself with the damned thing, which is still circling aimlessly through my cerebellum in an incomplete and fragmented state.
So now you know.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the department which spawned me also despises my academic interests, and thinks they are Fluffy and Frivolous and UnAfrican. I am aware of this, and invoke my superhero power of Sheer Cussedness to insist on simply bumbling along doing them anyway, with considerable satisfaction and in the teeth of the odds. And, to be perfectly fair, while I will defend to the death my belief that fairy tale and genre and Gothic and non-realist narrative are neither fluffy nor frivolous, and that popular forms are valid and interesting in their own right, in my heart of hearts I know bloody well that they are as unAfrican as all get-out, at least in the contexts and iterations in which I pursue them.

What I do is really very Western: it's rooted in Western fairy tale, Tolkien, Victorian fantasy, the English detective story, Edwardian children's literature, and a resolutely educated technophiliac access to internet culture. It would mean, I think, absolutely nothing to a black kid straight out of a township, or from a rural community. It would be alienating, confusing, a language and idiom which was part and parcel of the strange, only semi-permeable membrane which keeps university culture - or, at least, the culture of this particular university - in the little Europe-fixated bubble which forms its identity, try we never so hard to transform. Black kids don't sign up for my seminars. I completely get it.

And, of course, to simply say that I should study African fairy tale is not, to my mind, a solution. While black languages and cultures absolutely have their own rich and varied non-realist and generic traditions, my access to them is limited by a similar membrane, a cultural and linguistic remove which I'd have to permeate only by acquiring the several new languages and multiple layers of sociological and postcolonial theory which would effectively make me into an entirely different creature, academically speaking. It's actually a fascinating mirror of the first problem: a black kid trying to understand, for example, Mary Shelley, is having to acquire equally wholesale an entire universe of cultural experience simply to place the text in context, and they're doing it from a starting point a whole lot less privileged than mine.

All of which is not, unfortunately, going to persuade me to transform myself into the differently-shaped, less eccentric academic creature who might actually be able to talk to said black kid about fairy tale on something like his or her own terms. Because, unAfrican or not, I like the shape I am.

In darker moments, I despair of being relevant. But I can also take heart from the little moments which hold out hope of bridging, just for an instant, that cultural divide. We had a fire drill yesterday, which of course ends up with the contents of the entire building disgorged into the road outside, including those of the 450-seater lecture theatre in the basement. One of the kids from the lecture was wearing a t-shirt I immediately coveted. This one.

He was a black kid. I didn't talk to him, so couldn't gauge his background; he may well have been an international student. But I'm hoping that he wasn't; that he was, at least, a middle-class black South African whose upbringing and experience were enough to introduce him not only to the (have you noticed how lily-white? Native American Metaphors notwithstanding) world of Twilight, but to enough of the far more robust Gothic tradition which gave rise to it that he can regard sparkly vampires with ironic distaste. Because I do read about impundulu even if I don't feel competent to write about them, and I'm made happy to think that somehow, somewhere, his world and mine might gradually converge. That's a conversation I want to have.
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Today I appear to be listening only to music from bands in the letter C. Reading from the top in the pile of random CDs which recently arrived from Loot and still need to be ripped to my work machine, these are The Cure, King Crimson and The Carpenters. I accept no responsibilities for muscle trauma resulting from your conceptual whiplash, thank you very much.

Talking about concatenations by odd thematic link, we had Movie Club on Friday night, with a theme of vampire movies which was - gasp - not actually chosen by me! Stv was, in fact, guilty of the choice, probably more accurately described as "really odd and thoughtful semi-art-house vampire movies", with a side order of "human emotional realism and pathos arising from unnaturally prolongued life". When I say that The Hunger wasn't in the mix but darned well should have been, you will (if an educated vampire-fancier) immediately realise that the movies we watched must have been Guillermo del Toro's Cronos, and the Norwegian Swedish Let The Right One In. Neither of which I'd seen, incidentally (although I have a copy of the original Let The Right One In novel, which I haven't got around to reading yet, does it count?), so I consider my vampire-fondling street cred to have been materially raised by the evening's watching.

Cronos made me realise exactly why Guillermo del Toro was keen on a Mountains of Madness adaptation, and why he'd be perfect for it. While being considerably beyond my ick-barriers in terms of the usual delToroid gaping wounds and peeling flesh, Cronos made me incredibly happy because it's completely and perfectly Lovecraftian. It has the fascination with the past, with ancient tomes filled with occulted, terrible, secret knowledge; the greed and blind obsession of men desperate for particular kinds of power at any cost; the occluded mystery and inexplicable significance of supernatural manifestations; and the inevitable self-destruction which results from grasping at the forbidden. No-one does "hideous things man was not meant to know" better than Lovecraft, and del Toro gets that, perfectly. He's materially assisted by the cinematography, which is atmospheric and often oddly beautiful - the framing of the last scene in particular was heartbreaking. (Guillermo Navarro, the cinematographer, also shot Pan's Labyrinth and both Hellboy films, and, oddly enough, From Dusk Till Dawn).

Cronos was particularly fascinating, though, because del Toro also has a far more real and meaningful grasp on actual human emotion than Lovecraft ever did (other than fear, of course); the grandfather/grand-daughter relationship at the heart of the film is warm and vital and often endearingly sweet, which makes the bloody horror of the film's denouement all the more telling. Mad props to the child actor playing Aurora, who speaks precisely one word in the entire movie, but manages to convey volumes through her silence. (Also, Ron Perlman is always watchable, if hammy beyond ham. Seeing his cheerfully dim lout stumble through the film somehow made me want to see him play Bulldog Drummond). As a vampire movie it's also interesting in its ability to render explicit the costs of immortality, and the abject, bodily grossness of an addiction to blood-drinking.

I don't think Cronos is a great film in absolute terms, but I think it offers an almost perfect rendition of its chosen tropes. Let The Right One In, on the other hand, is a great film. It's exquisitely shot and beautifully paced, and the story-telling has a minimalist restraint which is peculiarly satisfying and deeply evocative. Once again the film is carried as much by its child actors, who are wonderful, as by the stark chill of its snowscapes which so powerfully underpin its exploration of childhood themes - innocence, trust, dependence and, ultimately, power.

I loved Let the Right One for its exploration of the vampire myth. For such a deliberate and thoughtful film, it's actually using an extremely conventional version of the vampire - supernatural strength and speed, sensitivity to light, inability to enter without an invitation. All that's missing is the fangs. Nonetheless Eli is anything but a stereotype, a fascinating construction skating with exquisite poise on the liminal edges of child/adult, predator/vulnerable, monstrous/pathetic. One responds to her with a curious mix of terror and empathy, as does Oscar himself. In fact, empathy is a powerful device in the film; you cannot help but sympathise with the dogged, desperate incompetence of Eli's protector, with the narrow but likeable world of her victims, even with the abusive home life of Oscar's main tormentor. Ultimately, though, the film suggests that Eli is not the monster; her violence and her disturbingly drifting identity (this film does incredible things with gender) are simply an externalisation of the strange undercurrents of alienation and violence and eroticism which underlie Oscar's everyday world.

The vampire in the twentieth century has become internalised, psychologised; rather than othering the monster with proper terror, we seem to be driven to understand it. Both these films represent a highly-developed form of that impulse. They deny the easy erotic appeal which motivates many more popular versions, in their empathetic address to the unnaturalness, the loneliness, the physical distastefulness of being a vampire. If the monster is not in the vampire, disturbingly, it must be in us.
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The drawback - or, possibly, the advantage - of wearing quirky t-shirts pretty much continuously, these non-working days, is that you find yourself in the odd position of having to deconstruct them to your therapist. She is a sharp lady who has been remarkably game about delving into the academic discourse of non-realist fiction, mostly on account of how its weirder corners are absolutely central to my self-definition. Today she went "Hmmm" a lot, and proceeded to prod me into an in-depth analysis of Gothic fictional tropes and their representative status vis-a-vis certain aspects of my life. My head is spinning slightly. On the other hand, deconstructing my T-shirt was fun, so I'm going to do it properly.

This is a Scary-Go-Round shirt, quite my favourite example of John Allison's severely lateral thought processes. It's weird and niche enough that it wasn't a popular shirt, alas, and is no longer available, but I do encourage you to peruse the other SGR shirts if you mind unhinges in that particular way. I think there may be a Major Teacup Space Patrol in my immediate future. And a "Devour your enemies", for those psychotic PMT days.

This is, of course, on the most obvious layer a self-consciously Goth shirt, all dark grey and black and vampires and shit. It gains serious Goth points for its use of "Nosferatu" rather than "Dracula" - "Dracula doesn't share his toffees" is far less euphonious, somehow, but also lacks the force which the self-conscious invocation of quite the most pretentious and gloom-laden version of Dracula permits. Apart from being pretentious, "Nosferatu" recalls both the hunched, grotesque, goblinoid figure of the Murnau and Herzog films of that name, and the heavily black-and-white German Expressionist gloom which permeates them. This is not, it says, your suave, sexy Dracula.

All of the above simply sets up the beautiful elegance with which the juxtaposition of "Nosferatu" and "toffees" punches a hole in Goth pretentions. The blood-lust hunger of the vampire, its obvious evil, is refigured as simple greed for sweeties, a trivialisation of evil into naughtiness which is reflected in the vampire's possessive pose - more pantomime than monstrous. It's a peculiarly childhood transgression, refusal to share. That deflation is echoed in the artwork, the minimalist cartoon both succinctly referencing Klaus Kinski's grotestque, bald Nosferatu, and rendering it innocently cute. The movement in the picture is also significantly away from some unidentified toffee-stealing threat - the vampire as vulnerable, prey rather than predator.

Above all, "toffees" is genius because their most obvious quality is their chewiness, the way they stick to your teeth. Vampires are all about the teeth, and the self-indulgent ordinariness in the idea of sticking your mouth up with toffees both defangs the vampire in a particularly comic fashion, and echoes, on another level, the deflation embodied by of the greed for sweets replacing the lust for blood. The bite becomes the chew. It's beautiful.

I love this shirt. I'm never sure anyone else ever really gets it, probably because this depth of random analysis is the particular vice of the academic. But now you do, whether you like it or not. There is no end to my evil!
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Two random inscriptions made me happy on the way home from campus today. One was a Daily Voice billboard which simply read "MUGABE IS A LOSER". Why, yes. Yes, he is. One has to wonder why it's taken so long for the media to notice. The other was on the back of the car in front of me. Apparently it was a deliriously absurd model called an "telstargle". Mature reflection suggests that there's a missing space in there at a critical juncture, but the momentary amusement was worth it. More serious things should have "argle" in their names.

In other news, I badly need distraction on account of how I'm supervising a Masters student's dissertation on vampires in literature, including Twilight. I am thus halfway through a re-read of the series, which would be driving me to drink if my Warfarin levels allowed it. Gods, they're badly written. I'd forgotten how badly written, and how horribly immature their characters. It's not insignificant that the major literary intertexts are Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet. The former is about unbridled adolescent obsession with an undertone of violence, the latter about really bad and obsessive romantic decisions made under the influence of adolescent lust and persecution complex. Sounds about right. However, aargh. The things I do for teaching.
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In addition to the depredations of the neighbourhood ginger Tom, who comes into the house and sprays randomly, we have also had poor Todal in a cone and confined to the house because of the stitches in her back - which is also, in fact, quite probably the result of the maurauding tomcat, because he's a bugger and beats up our kitties something 'orrible. (Hobbit, who must outweigh him by a factor of two, has a distressing tendency to look the other way whistling when the tom is around, the wimp). As a result of both of the above (Todal apparently has no truck with litter boxes), the house has been subtly and distressingly redolant of cat piss since I got back from hospital. Cat piss has that tendency to be all phantom: mother and I and a blacklight the other night spent twenty minutes trying to find the patches without success. Today, the efforts of my inexhaustible mother have finally borne fruit; the wretched tomcat appears to have sprayed up a pile of rolled papers in a corner of my study, which we didn't pick up with the blacklight as the paper itself fluoresces. Rendered unfit for human consumption: three rolls of wrapping paper (one of them shocking pink for benefit of niece), and the extremely amusing Fawkes/Codex poster given to me lo these many months ago by, if I remember correctly, [ profile] strawberryfrog. Phooey. Bloody cat.

I have been very quietly at home for several days, apart from odd visits to doctors and pathologists and what have you. (Pathcare's warfarin monitoring programme is really reassuringly efficient, they SMS you same day after a blood test with a warfarin intake programme for the week. My blood thinness levels are currently way too high, so I'm off it for a couple of days). The leg is much better, and I can hobble around the house reasonably effectively, leaving the crutch for long trips only; my main problem right now is complete and utter exhaustion as soon as I do anything other than lie on the couch with my feet up. Which is OK, because the nice physician man mutters things like "serious life-threatening illness" and "recovery period similar to pneumonia" and "systemic inflammation during embolus was particularly high", and has put me off work until the end of next week. It is an index of my state of health that this causes me very little of the usual off-work guilt, and instead a vast feeling of relief. The thought of the first week of term next week was terrifying me.

I have also noticed a recurring feature of the last two weeks of blood-letting. I am covered in horrible little bruises from needles - a blinding array across my stomach, where they injected heparin twice a day while I was in hospital, plus giant yellow patches on my wrists from the pulse-point needles, and several on my arms from random painkillers. The elbow veins, of course, were black and blue, although they've gone down a bit now. Thin blood from warfarin means one makes spectacular bruises. But the most striking recurring feature is the cheerful professional relish, at times downright vampiric, with which the needle technicians pounce on my arms. "Oooh!" they say excitedly. "Oooh, you have lovely veins!" I feel as though I should be in a Victorian nightgown and a dreamy state of passivity as the bat comes through the bedroom window.
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Marking this latest batch of third-year essays on vampires and eroticism has vouchsafed me something of a revelation. Well, several revelations. Not that most of them are revelations, as two decades of university teaching without realising certain eternal verities would constitute a particularly slow-on-the-uptake response even for me. But I was struck anew by two things:

  • The fact that students don't read. Primarily they don't read the bloody question, which is a recurring whinge of mine, and which means that a lot of their otherwise interesting analyses and insights are simply irrelevant to the task at hand. This batch was particularly bad: I marked the first four, and then went back to check the class handouts and online stuff in the sudden sinking fear that the question I'd set them wasn't actually the question I thought it was. But it was. They just didn't read it. They have no excuse at all, I spent ten minutes in two different lectures patiently explaining how important topic-focus is in my personal marking scheme. I don't know if they don't care, or simply don't have the tools, but either is terrifying in a third-year student.

  • A new, striking revelation: what most of them actually lack is passion. The best essay in this batch was from a lovely child who is a fervent and dedicated fan of manga. She found an excellent set of selections from her favourite manga, and proceed to dissect them ruthlessly, in strict keeping with the demands of the topic, and with a highly sensitive and insightful awareness of genre and cultural contexts and their expressions in the text's rather complicated layering. It was a delight to read. What she has is identical to the fascinated passion I have for fairy tale, or science fiction, or pervy genre-fondling in general. It's the basis for all really good academic insight. I wish the rest of the class could summon a fraction of it. I also wish I knew what their actual passions are for, they're bright kids and I'd love to read what they're capable of when actually engaged.

I don't get to teach the vampire stuff next year, it'll be all internet sexuality, as really we don't have space to do justice to both halves. I'm going to miss it. Although I'm not going to miss having to mark mangled effusions about Twilight.
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My irritation at Eternity hijacked my microfiction this week: the alien invasion story I had mostly written will have to wait for another theme. Instead, "Impundulu". Because it had to be done. It may make more sense if you know the legend, try here. Real African vampires will kick your butt, broody Western undead.
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Oh, lord. South Africa apparently feels the need to leap on the broody, glittery Twilight bandwagon and produce vampire movies of its own, presumably on the principle that if District 9 can make a roaring success out of South Africanising genre films, so can anyone. And thus we rejoice in the possession of Eternity, which I know about because a marketing email popped up in my campus inbox this morning. (And what's with that? are they spamming local universities, or was it a pin-pointedly accurate hit on someone who teaches vampire movies to SA students? if the latter, I darkly suspect that someone I taught is on the production team.)

Um. I am actually torn between "this doesn't look terrible" on sheer production values, and "this looks terrible" in terms of pretty much everything else. From the limited synopsis/trailer info this isn't really Twilight, it's more the sensibility of Blade or Underworld or even Angel, although this last may be only because they seem to be adhering to the "lame and his hair sticks up" trope rather more fannishly than is strictly necessary. (See poster). But any of the above simply means that, unlike District 9 and pretty much as usual, SA is coming to the blockbuster clichés a decade late and a dollar short. This is done. This is done done done to a crispy done turn in a hot oven for far too long. It's dried out and unappetising. Urban setting, check. Broody vampires with guns, check. Looking for love, even1. Goth babes, check. Vampire power struggles, check. We can walk in sunlight, check. If it wants to be the vampire District 9, it's missed the whole, central, amazing point of the film, which was that it didn't just adopt the tropes, it adapted genre tropes to the SA setting, illuminating and refreshing both setting and tropes thereby.

I may be maligning this movie horribly on insufficient information, but neither synopsis nor trailer seem to suggest any attempt whatsoever to make this a South African vampire movie rather than a vampire movie simply set in Joburg. Vampires are about power; power in South Africa is inextricably about race. Almost all the vampires seem to be white. What's with that? is the film doing that simply because the stereotype says vampires are pale, or are they actually going to examine their assumptions there? are vampires the ultimate colonial power? what about African legends of supernatural monsters with affinity for blood or night? where's the impundulu? the asanbosam? is this building up into a postcolonial rant? aargh, it is. My department has infected me.

I am disappointed in the preliminary way in which this film presents itself. I have low expectations of originality or interest. I may watch it when it comes out, but I'll be seriously surprised if there's any substance here.

1 I recently came to a sudden awareness about vampires and their love-lives (while watching, naturally, The Vampire Diaries). It's perfectly simple, really. Being bitten by a vampire clearly arrests your emotional development completely at the point at which you were chomped. The world is full of 300-year-old vampire adolescents because they were all 17 when they were bitten, and they haven't advanced any. Clearly the teen hormones are still seething around their systems and neutralising the effects of several centuries of actual experience, leading to tumultuous world-ending love affairs, abysmal communication skills and a tendency to emo brooding. It explains everything.

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  1. A topic which allows one to be subtly rude about Twilight's vampires can't be all bad. Conversely, this is a better paper now that I'm being subtly rude rather than writing TWILIGHT VAMPIRES ARE STUPID! across it in letters of fire.
  2. There may still be inherent flaws in this paper if certain paragraphs are still shot through with little pink comments boxes containing Notes To Self such as "This paragraph is FULL OF HOLES, sort it out."
  3. It may become necessary to examine my commitment to the academic project if I still have to bribe my way through writing this bloody thing by eating Nutella straight from the jar with a spoon.
  4. Words I use too often, largely unnecessarily: Intrinsically. Thus. Powerful. Inherent. The last edit of any paper always entails creeping through the thickets of prose with a shotgun and taking them down with merciless precision, along with the flocks of semi-colons. Words I no longer use too often, owing to rigorous training by my immediate social circle: Resonate. Evoke. Shut up, stv.
  5. The Russian formalists are sadly underrated in our postmodern age. They rock.
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Sometimes I think that my teaching interests tend to colonise the world around me somewhat wholesalely. A rather sweet young lady student, coloured, absolutely non-gothy, a bit scatty, just put her birth year down as "1900" on the form she was handing in, resulting in the following interchange:

Me: You were born in 1900? You're looking very good for your age.
Her: (absolutely straight-faced) Thank you. Actually, I'm a vampire.
Me: (with vague acceptance) Oh, right. How's the sunlight thing working out for you, then?
Her: (waving a hand around) Oh, I have this ring... (she is, in fact, wearing rather an ornate silver one).
Me: (with satisfaction) You've been watching The Vampire Diaries.
Her: (with a broad grin) So have you.

Ensues a brief, fangirly exchange of opinions on said show, the incalculable hotness of Damon, her fervent denial of his psychopathic nature, my refusal to believe that he's just suffering and misunderstood and needs someone to love him, my inevitable sweeping Twilight diss, and a brief excursion into vampire chronology and why Interview with the Vampire isn't actually derivative. Also, she'd like to believe vampires are real.

I'm rather amused at how enormously Vampire Diaries seems to be Flavour of the Month with The Yoof, including those I'd absolutely not have included in the usual vampire demographic. Hot young men and bucketloads of angst apparently cross all boundaries. I also sometimes wonder how students actually feel when they discover their lecturers, administrators and other godly bods are capable of investment in the same texts as themselves, and can moreover demonstrate a breadth and depth of vampire knowledge which knocks theirs into a cocked hat. Possibly they think I'm just sad, but I feel faintly smug.
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My browser currently has an open tab entitled "When Hollywood Sucks, or, Hungry Girls, Lost Boys, and Vampirism in the Age of Reagan." Occasionally my life ain't 'alf bad. (Although that last student essay absolutely was. Apparently it's not enough to wantonly plagiarise most of your essay, in bizarrely fragmented bits, from a critical piece only vaguely related to the topic, you also have to randomly scatter it with entirely erroneous page references for a completely different article you don't seem to have read. Honestly).

Apparently all you lot don't also read my Twitter feed, which means the happy occasional link I fling out there for general delectation passes you sadly by. (By "all you lot" I possibly mean Jo, actually). I am absolutely going to sign up for Delicious one of these days, honest I am, but in the meantime, just for you, the latest random happenstance which has brought me linkery joy. (Ecited to add: "one of these days" apparently means right now. Who knew. Go me. Delicious link in left-hand sidebar, under "Extemporanea Elsewhere").

  • This is a rather seriously good discussion of relationships in Buffy, although by "seriously good" I may actually mean "Jennifer Crusie gets the Spike chivalric lover bit in the same terms I do." Whatever. Worth a read.

  • Space Nazis! No, seriously, Space Nazis. I really want this film to be made.

  • James Blue Cat has posted the first quarter of his kids' fantasy The Cabinet of Curiosities on his blog, further chapters to follow. It's a very happy-making piece of writing that pushes a lot of kids' fantasy geek buttons with wanton deliberation. [ profile] pumeza, you may enjoy playing spot-the-reference. It's also very nicely written - tight, focused, pacey, quirky, should make kids as happy as geeks. By a bizarre freak of happenstance I'm currently reading Robin Jarvis's The Woven Path, a kids' fantasy also featuring a strange magical museum full of references, and Cabinet is making me realise how badly written Jarvis's is. Honestly, I suspect I'm going to chuck The Woven Path before finishing it, it has a line in staggeringly awful sentences and clumsily unnatural action which is reminding me forcibly of some of my students. (Which is sad, because I adored Deathscent). I shake my tiny fists impotently at the Cosmic Wossnames for the fact that some twit published Jarvis and no-one wants to publish James. Sigh.
I suddenly recollect that there are at least two parcels waiting for me at the post office, and by some miracle there aren't actually students scratching feebly at my door. *flees while the getting's good*
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Winter is here. It's been bucketing with rain at intervals for days, the nights are moderately icy, and the four cats are occupying precisely-defined positions around the heater, mathematically aligned by status and level of feline bloody-mindedness. I love this time of year. So, apparently, does the garden: my vegetable boxes have been unduly encouraged by a week's pattern of rain-rain-astonishingly warm sunny day-rain, and are leaping skywards with unseemly enthusiasm. I've just had to beat back the tomatoes again, they're making a break for next door.

It's been a busy weekend, if only slowly productive because I'm all sinusy and glandular again, sigh. While I spent a good part of Friday and yesterday wrestling with complicated minutes for a meeting of a committee I don't belong to and for whose deliberations I have absolutely no context, I also have a pile of vampire essays to mark. (This is a good thing. I'm weird that way). Students choose their own text to analyse: so far there is a predominance of True Blood, but we also rejoice in Buffy, Lefanu, Tolstoy and Robin McKinley. So far, no Twilight, which means students are actually capable of insight if it's a matter of self-preservation. I suspect the whisper is flying around the class, "She hates Twilight! you'll fail!" Which is not, in fact, the case, but it's a difficult text to discuss in erotic terms, mostly because it's constructed around absence rather than presence. Oh, and it's very badly written. I may have mentioned this once or twice. A minute.

There's also a maddened outbreak of The Vampire Diaries in this pile, it seems to be the text du jour. I've watched the first four episodes. It's ... cheesy. Slightly lame, cheesy teen television whose primary effect at the moment has been to make me realise how absolutely unoriginal Twilight is. Protective stalkery non-human-drinking fated-lover high school vampire boyfriend, anyone? Books published in 1991, Twilight in 2005. Not to mention the echoes of Roswell (1999). About the only thing I think Diaries may have going for it is its small-town setting, and the way they seem to be working the vampires into the history of the town. It could be interesting. But I bet they screw it up. Mildly amused but not impressed, me. Also, it's making me realise how good the Buffy scriptwriters were.

Tonight we celebrate the weather by feeding raclette to [ profile] dicedcaret and Tanya and [ profile] first_fallen and [ profile] librsa and all. Plus gingered hot chocolate pudding. Did I mention I love winter?
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So, vampires. I teach 'em. (And, may I add, for the record, that no fewer than three members of my flist did yesterday start their posts with "So, ...", which is probably expressive of something important, I'm not sure what.) I hasten to add, before you all obligingly imagine rows of little five-year-olds with pasty complexions and pointy teeth sitting attentively in a midnight classroom while I hold forth, I teach undergrad students about vampires rather than trying to teach vampires anything. (A bit difficult to maintain teacherly distance and mystique when pardon me, your teeth are in my neck). Also, I teach vampires and the erotic to strictly third-years, who presumably by this stage of their development are capable of reacting sensibly and without giggling, or at least without too much giggling, to explicit discussions of sex and phallic imagery and Freudian what have you. In the course of this epic teaching quest, currently filed under Department of Things That Keep Me Sane, I naturally get to be very, very rude about Twilight, and yesterday came to a quite sizzling and spontaneous insight which added about fifteen minutes to the lecture by way of digression and interesting debate. I shall now inflict it upon you, whether you like it or not.

See, in a broadly narrative sense vampires morph. They mutate. They are as all symbolic as all get-out, and thus are quite beautifully dense and layered reflections of their context - social, moral, historical, cultural. What vampires have mostly done for about two hundred years is provide us with powerful myths through which we can talk about sex, because the act of biting is a particularly explicit metaphor for sexual penetration, but the nature of the sex has changed over time. They fill, if you want to keep with the Freudian imagery, gaps - they're about desire, and desire is about something missing. Victorian vampires explore sex and seduction and intimacy, in a relatively simple way, because sex and seduction and intimacy were not OK as topics of ordinary literary representation, but were OK when you slithered them off sideways into the symbolic. They were particularly powerful as a vehicle for women to vicariously experience sex, and for men to vicariously work through all their anxieties about homo-eroticism, or women nicking phallic authority. Victorian vampires rock some serious repression.

These are not the concerns of the late twentieth century, which got progressively more open-minded about representing sex; post the sexual revolution of the 60s and the feminist movement, simple sexual freedom or women with fangs were not the major source of anxiety. Which isn't to say there weren't anxieties, and the last few decades of the 1900s saw a huge upsurge in the popularity of vampires - often angsty, interior, half-sympathetic monsters of maximum attractiveness. They kept the vampire power, though, the qualities of strength, mind control, shapeshifting, and were thus a beautiful vehicle to talk about the aspect of sexuality which wasn't OK in these particular times, namely the pleasures of submission. In a feminist and post-feminist age it's somewhat frowned upon, other than in the fringe of BDSM, to enjoy the jolly old stereotypes of an explicitly heterosexual dominance/submission relationship: gosh your fangs are so big, I'll just relax and enjoy it, shall I? So more modern vampires are powerful, dominant, with a swing towards violence (Buffy, Blade), but a subtext of seduction and desirability nonetheless. They're deeply non-PC in all sorts of ways, and we lap them up, hence the ridiculous success of Anne Rice, Laurel K. Hamilton and the rest of the heaving bosoms.

Twilight, though, Twilight is something different. Of course its attitude to sex is all up the pole, being as how it's a thinly-disguised (and badly-written) Mormon abstinence tract; Edward is all desirable but horribly dangerous because SEX! is DANGEROUS! and you SHOULDN'T HAVE IT! no matter how much you want it, cue yearning, repression and smouldering stalker behaviour. He could snap you like a twig, you know, and you're only allowed to get off on the idea because he's not actually touching you.

But I realised yesterday that that's only half of it. Meyer is plugging straight into the American zeitgeist, namely the religious right's frothing hypocricies about sex, but she's also allowing her vampires to morph yet again into another reflection of their context: celebrity culture. Edward glitters. He's a beautiful, powerful, distant, shiny object that you desire hopelessly but can't have. Bella's response, and the response of any screaming Twihard who wants him, is identical to their response to poor Robert Pattinson - it's a fan relationship of the more obsessive kind, desire for a distant ideal which is always unattainable. The first three novels are emotional porn for exactly this kind of relationship, spiced up with the unbelievable, wish-fulfilling fact that the iconic object of affection, in all his unreal beauty, actually reciprocates. Meyer's also not alone in exploiting this fact of modern media life: if you look at the fang-bangers in True Blood or the Sookie novels, they're basically groupies to the celebrity cult of vampires in general. Dracula had his gypsies, but in this day and age he has hordes of teen and post-teen idiots conditioned by media cultures into slavish and often self-destructive devotion to a powerful object of desire.

We get, in short, the vampires we deserve. I can only hope to goodness we grow out of them soon. I also have to say, I didn't realise how incredibly overt with all this Annie Lennox is in Love Song for a Vampire. I should totally have shown that to the class, if only for its lovely concentration of vampire symbolism. Also, does anyone have The Vampire Diaries? Half my class seems to be obsessed with the show, which means I should probably watch it. Sigh.

sultry stuff

Tuesday, 9 March 2010 03:21 pm
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Cape Town has been ridiculously, absurdly, stinkingly hot, and yesterday was a complete killer, certainly the worst this hot season. It was made worse by the fact that in the heat of the afternoon I had to do a run to the Motor Neurone Disease Association to drop off the wheelchair and walker my dad had been using. The Association is a truly wonderful group of people who offer support and services to MND sufferers and their families, and we wouldn't really have been able to deal with all this without them. But the errand made me realise quite how much I loathed and detested that bloody wheelchair - a great, ungainly, difficult creature, hard to steer and tricky to collapse and reassemble when transporting it. It was a necessary thing and allowed my dad to get around, but I swear the wretched machine was possessed of an imp of perversity.

The combination of the heat and my last tussle with the Wheelchair of Intractability left me a bit shaken and twitching, so I wandered into the air-conditioned calm of the bargain book place in Pinelands, and browsed for half an hour. Result: two cookbooks, a clutch of Philip K. Dick, and Guilty Pleasures, the first of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels. (These last two make interesting bedfellows. For a value of "interesting" involving, I suspect, bad sex on mind-bending drugs).

Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series is one of the long-term success stories of the madly-burgeoning paranormal romance/urban fantasy category: Anita Blake is a modern-day vampire hunter and "animist", i.e. she raises the dead. (And lowers them, too.) I really had very low expectations of this series, since The Word On The Net has been that while many people adore the books they quickly degenerate into gratuitous supernatural sex. This is, however, apparently worse in the later books (there are almost twenty of the things) and I was interested to see what the first one was like - not least because I'm about to embark on my vampire lecture series again, and I get a bit completist about vampire texts. (If a student references a vampire text I haven't read/watched, there is Serious Shame.)

Um. It was actually fairly dreadful. The character is interesting, but unrealistic, the world likewise, and the whole is not well written. It was fascinating to see the parallels with Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels, since both deal with a world in which vampires have Come Out and are an accepted part of society and a source of major sexual fascination. Harris's first book was in 2001, Hamilton's in 1993, so one cannot acquit Harris of influence, but the truth is her treatment of the same basic premise is infinitely more accomplished. Above all I have to say that Hamilton's simple control of narrative and plot are severely lacking - the story is bitty, floundering and strangely unfocused. The sexual elements are also considerably more perverse while being, to my mind, infinitely less convincing. I wasn't gripped and I certainly wasn't titillated. In fact, phooey. Despite Hamilton's attempt at a get-out-of-jail-free quality pass in the book's title it's the Sookie novels I have read and re-read as a definite and unabashed guilty pleasure, and the whole set of which I own. I won't be going back to Anita Blake.

On the other hand, I'm sinusy and, cooler temperatures today notwithstanding, heatstressed, and have a horrible headache. Maybe I should have read Anita Blake in winter. But maybe it wouldn't make a difference.


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