Is Bridget Jones a Feminist?

Next week the much anticipated third Bridget Jones novel will be available in bookstores and yet again internet and newspapers are infected by a true Bridget-frenzy. Just like in the 1990s, journalists all over the world try to answer the one question: Is Bridget Jones a feminist or the incarnation of a conservative, pre-women’s-rights-movement image of a woman? Continue reading

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Postmodern State of Mind

Recently I have engaged in some more or less heated word battles with one of my professors at university. Although I like him, admire his knowledge and appreciate his opinions, I felt rather offended by some of the things he said about cultural studies. I have started off as a literary studies student myself but lately I feel more and more fascinated by the lure of cultural studies and everything it entangles. I have fun analysing Batman, a Britney Spears video clip, Shakespeare on the internet and more (pop)cultural phenomena like these. This blog certainly proves this and I always hope that you have as much fun with it as I do.

However, my professor argued that pure postmodern thinking degrades literature and the “high arts”. What you basically think in postmodernism is that nothing has an essence anymore, nothing has meaning by itself. Instead meaning is created in acts of consumption and by means of representation. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard goes so far as to argue that we live in a hyperreality governed by simulacra in which we have lost every connection to a prior reality because the signs that structure our lives are more real to us than reality. His prime example is Disneyland which presents to be unreal and fictional just to disguise that actually it is America itself which is fictional and created by arbitrary sign systems. (Sounds a lot like The Matrix, doesn’t it? Well, it is certainly no coincidence that Morpheus has a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation on his bookshelf.)

Postmodern thinking was formerly more restricted to artistic products. For example, it argued that Shakespeare as we know him is no longer the historical person Shakespeare but became “Shakespeare”, the myth. We have lost the “real” Shakespeare and everything we have is a “Shakespeare” that can take on any meaning we would like him to have: we can freely deconstruct his authorial authority (according to Roland Barthes the author is dead anyway), we can see him as an original genius and the greatest poet who ever lived, or we can see him as a cultural projection of our nostalgic desires.

Nowadays postmodernism has taken a grip on every aspect of life: love is a cultural construct, fear is a cultural construct, sex is a cultural construct. We are no longer divided into men and women, but Simone de Beauvoir has taught us that we are not born as girls/boys but raised as such. We no longer fall in love but are on a psychoanalytical quest trying to fill the void that has been left with us as soon as we entered the symbolic stage… leaving reality behind.

When my professor asked me whether I really thought that Shakespeare can be analysed in the same way as TV commercials can be analysed and whether I really thought that fear is an ideological construct, I answered yes. His next question was whether this wasn’t a very pessimistic perspective. I do not think so. To me, postmodernism doesn’t mean getting rid of all feeling and emotion but to see your life itself as a story. Once you really believe in the artificial construction of everything that surrounds you including feelings of love, friendship, or even death, it is actually quite liberating. You need a good amount of what Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to lead a “normal life” but it works. Heterosexuality works for me although I know that it is a social construct and I believe that there is no essential difference between the sexes. Falling in love works for me and when I fall in love I do not think about its constructedness but indulge in the feeling.

My life is a postmodern jigsaw puzzle: I chose the best constructs and assemble them in a wonderful deconstructionist bricolage and I am having a hell of a lot of fun with it!

Cultural Diseases, Part 2: NOSTALGIA

In an earlier blog post I have identified love as one of the most threatening and dangerous cultural diseases of our time. Of course, love itself is a wonderful feeling but only a few relationships survive or manage to uphold the fascination experienced in the early days of romance. If this initial feeling of love is lost, a new cultural disease takes its place: Nostalgia.

The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by a young Swiss student of medicine who used it to describe the physical illness that results from homesickness (nostos = to return home, algos = pain). In these early days, nostalgia was a pure physical disease which could be easily treated by taking the patient back home or even by merely promising him this desired return.

In the 19th century, however, the term was more and more applied to a mental state of pain and longing. Its spatial nature was displaced by a temporal location, which instantly made the patient’s treatment more problematic. Nostalgia now refers to a longing to travel back in time to an idealized past that actually never existed in the first place. The past is glorified and will always serve as the Other to current dissatisfaction.

This form of nostalgia is everywhere: it is the reason why we love museums and why we watch documentaries. It exists in our longing for the pastoral, peaceful time of Jane Austen in which we just need to wait for Mr. Darcy to stop by and to take us back to Pemberley, thus also explaining the Austen cult. However, in this process, many problematic and troubling aspects of this reimagined past are glossed over: the BBC-Austen-adaptations do not let us glance at the poor and they gloss over Austen’s socially critical irony in order to foreground the romance plot and successfully to exploit our nostalgic sensitivity.

Nostalgia and economic exploitation are closely connected. An engagement with the past allows you to escape your daily life and to indulge in former glory. Historical reproductions, which are often taken to be the original, are another aspect of nostalgia with one of the prime examples being the rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at London’s Southbank. We do not have an exact idea of what the original Globe theatre actually looked like and all the information we have is basically drawn from some written accounts and a sketch taken from an original sketch, which is lost. Original authenticity is unrecoverable which allows us to speculate freely and to refashion a past as we would like to see it. A past that is always already infiltrated by our own retrospective.

The past is always history and this history is always already our own favourite fiction.

Cristiano Ronaldo and the Three Ghosts of Football

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, greedy and misanthropic entrepreneur Scrooge is visited by three ghosts in order to convey some basic truths about his life. The ghost of christmas past shows him his childhood and his lost love, the ghost of christmas present allows him a glance at the lives of the family of one of his workers who celebrate christmas in poverty and threatened by illness, the ghost of christmas to come shows him his own grave.

So what does this have to do with football and with football and media star Cristiano Ronaldo? I would argue that every footballer has to face the three ghosts of football in every single match. 

When you join a new club you get a number attached to your shirt. But this number comes with a tradition. A footballer has to give up his identity to a certain degree in order to become the latest member of a chain of previous footballers. When Cristiano Ronaldo went to Manchester United in 2003 he became ManU’s number 7, a number which will be attached to his name from now on and which transformed Sporting Lisbon’s Cristiano Ronaldo into CR7.

“After I joined, the manager asked me which number I’d like. I said 28. But Ferguson said “No. You’re going to have No. 7.” and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honour.” (C. Ronaldo)

ManU’s No. 7 has formerly been worn by George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham who – interestingly enough – is also Cristiano’s predecessor in the Armani underwear commercials. These famous players thus became CR7’s ghosts of football past. He could not avoid comparisons with his predecessors and the No. 7 became part of his identity.

“I thought asking Cristiano Ronaldo to wear David Beckham’s number would be too much, but I hope things continue to work out as they have so far.” (Luís Figo)

When it comes to describing the ghost of football present it is a bit more complex. Battling the predecessors in direct combat is impossible and you can only try to live up to and break their records. They will never fight back. It is much harder though when it comes to battling your current opponents. In the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, this is undoubtedly Leo Messi. Ronaldo’s duel with FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is infamous and has already become a myth of football. His Real Madrid teammates state that it is fascinating watching Ronaldo watch Messi on TV. Messi is his nemesis, his shadow, his cryptonite. There are heated discussion on who is the world’s best footballer at the moment. Whenever these two titans of modern football clash, a football match is turned into an international event and broadcast all around the world. El Clásico nowadays does no longer mean Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona, but rather CR7 vs. the Flea.

“But I don’t want to be compared to anyone – I’d like to impose my own style of play and do the best for myself and for the club here.” (Cristiano Ronaldo)

Yet, these fights against your predecessors and direct opponents are a kindergarten fist fight in comparison to the duel fought out with the ghosts of football to come. I have not been a football fan for long but I know the important names: Péle, Ronaldo, Maradona etc. As a football newby, I always perceive of these players as eerie ghosts whose last match symbolizes the death of their footballing personas. They have been great, they leave the pitch and their number goes on to the next player who tries to break their records and to live up to the expectations, just like Cristiano.

“There have been a few players described as the new George Best over the years, but this is the first time it’s been a compliment to me.” (George Best on Ronaldo)

They will be remembered just as we remember loved ones but a footballing life is a short life. You always know that someone else will be out there to replace you, to beat you, to make people forget about you. Nowadays football stars are a lot like artists, only with the exception that you are more individual as an artist. As a football player you are a number on a shirt and the next one to wear your shirt will be your artistic heir, no matter how much his style of play differs from your own. He will challenge you. He will fight you. He might beat you.

It is interesting to note that most TV commercials featuring Cristiano Ronaldo (and sportsmen in general) not only play on the notion of fighting and battleship, but also alluding to the idea of a split personality. CR7 is shown multiplied or split up by mirrors and fighting with his own Doppelgänger. You need to become more than the man on the pitch nowadays. Distinction and diversity on and off the pitch are the way to attach your own name to the number on your jersey.

Have a look at the double Ronaldo! It’s worth it.

And if you cannot get enough of Cristiano, klick here. Pay attention to the multiplying of him in the first spot. Mirrors are generally a symbol of narcissistic desire and this spot epitomizes the symbolic value of mirrors.

Cultural Diseases, Part 1: LOVE

According to wikipedia love is “an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment.” According to the Beatles love is all you need. According to Shakespeare the course of true love never did run smooth. According to Nietzsche there is always some madness in love.

But what exactly is love and why are we always trying to achieve it? How come that we all have certain ideas about “true love” and where do they come from?

When a person is falling in love it is often the case that this state shows symptoms that we rather associate with diseases and illness: sweaty palms, inability of articulation, insomnia, lack of concentration, etc. This also leaves room for the question: Is there a cure?

According to Lynn Pearce and Jackie Stacey, scholars on romance, there are two ways of explaining our cultural and individual obsession with love.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the first one is rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Freud libido is dependent on obstacles: you desire exactly that which seems unobtainable to you. If there are no real obstacles (such as a family feud in Romeo and Juliet, a fatal disease in Love Story, or the class divide in Pretty Woman), mankind invents obstacles in order to make love more enjoyable. One of the most common obstacles to love, which paradoxically heightens libido and desire, is the overvaluation of the loved one, Lacan’s object á, as maybe most clearly and nervewreckingly exemplified in Bella Swan’s constant adoration of sparkling, gorgeous, rich vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight. Freud further argues that this dates back to oedipal attachments in early childhood. The child idealizes the parent of the opposite sex as source of all knowledge and prime caregiver. You try to identify with this person, which is also why – in later life – we want someone who is like us, you understands us and who “loves us the way we are” as Mr. Darcy feels for Bridget Jones. Yet, despite a cultural perception that women are the ones who overvalue and who consume romance and love stories, Freud claims that this idealization of the loved one is more true for men:

“Where (men) love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love.” (Sigmund Freud)

One of Freud’s successors in psychoanalysis and the father of psychosemiotics, Jacques Lacan, also feels that our adult perception of love is intrinsically connected to childhood experiences. He claims that in the mirror stage the child enters the symbolic order and simultaneously loses its connection to the imaginary order in which he/she conceived of him-/herself as perfect. This creates a loss and a constant feeling of lack which we try to fill, for example by looking for the perfect relationship and for someone who makes us “whole again”.

But there is a second explanation for our desire for desire, which stems from structuralism. Here it is argued that the very pattern in which love stories are organized is extremely simplistic: falling in love – experiencing love – fulfillment of love in marriage/or loss of love. The very simplicity of this pattern allows for various re-writings of love plots and those re-writings can be adapted to current cultural norms: Patrarchan love sonnets deal with courtly love, Jane Austen allows you to look into women who fall in love, Whitney Houston sings about endless and eternal love, and Friends’ Rachel and Ross show you that the love of your life might have been there for a long time and that you need some perseverance to have your happily ever after.

“To invoke the metaphor of a virus, it is its capacity for mutation which has enabled romance to survive.” (Romance Revisited, Pearce and Stacey, 1995. P. 12)

Western culture appreciates a good story and the simple romance plot which can either end as tragedy or comedy, with its similarities to a fairytale structure, is the perfect archetypal story. We organize our relationships as stories, starting with the initial meeting and ending in a happy end and failure but we tell the stories over and over again and everyone can “invent” their own love story with this simple plot structure. French semiotician Roland Barthes systematizes love by exploring a discreet set of “figures” (e. g. “waiting”, “declaration”, “jealousy”, “fade-out”) and a set of exactly 79 emotions which can be tied in with the figures. This allows for a wide range of different love story patterns, which can be shaped into a narrative form like a jigsaw puzzle.

In 1992 Haddaway asked “What is Love?” but he didn’t provide an answer. Neither can I. Whether our quest for love is a relic of the oedipal stage or is rooted in our appreciation for a good story… I don’t know. I just know that love is all around.