Master Detective & Race

Note: … I seem to have got that urge to demolish the innocence of my reading pleasures (as done previously with Father Brown). I still love how in the old Sherlock Holmes stories the difficulty of problems is measured by the quantity of cigarettes it takes to solve them and various quantities of brandy are a universal medicine for just any ailment. Still… that concept of “masterfulness” had it coming like the wall in the BBC’s Sherlock episode “The Great Game”. This post is based nearly exclusively on my reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories (having re-read all 56 of them) and the BBC adaptation Sherlock (having watched all episodes… at least twice). But the primary purpose of those readings was not analysis but entertainment. I do not have any claim to Sherlockist expertise in literary criticism – nor to anything approaching expertise in critical whiteness… so I would not be surprised to find that similar arguments have been made (or rejected) more competently by someone else already.

The brilliance and wit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories remains captivating and the latest BBC TV adaptation with Benedict Cummerbatch and Martin Freeman are great watching. Yet re-reading the original stories became ever ever less comfortable as I progressed. As is nearly inevitable in Victorian fiction, reading Sherlock Holmes sooner or later one is confronted with the protagonist’s (and author’s) problematic views on “race”. While you may debate how prominent they are across the canon there is no question about Holmes’/Doyle’s blatant racism in the late story The Adventure of the Three Gables. It opens with a hired thug, Black boxer Stevie Dixon, trying to intimidate Holmes. The detective teases him using the crudest racist stereotypes describing him as smelly, woolly-headed, thick-lipped. Dixie is portrayed as strong and stupid. And Holmes subdues him using his investigative prowess as an intellectual whip while Dr Watson lies in waiting with the iron poker in case physical force was needed after all. There is no debating away the racism in this story (not for lack of trying – various Sherlockians have had a go across the fanzines). Also, it cannot simply be set off against the anti-racism of Sherlock acting as noble defender of a child from a mixed-race marriage in The Adventure of the Yellow Face or his action against the KKK in the Three Orange Pips – racism is not a carbon-emissions-like quantity. (more…)


Consumerism into Fascism – Part 2: The Chesterton Slide

I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. – King Auberon in G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

In the first part I have highlighted how, despite suggestion to the contrary, consumerism as heir to Romanticism is incompatible with fascist politics in one crucial aspect, namely its anti-heroism and its rejection of immediate reality and realisation which lies at the heart of this anti-heroism. Their, so the damning verdict of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, ‘occasionism’ and refusal to act decisively in the world extended even to the reactionary visions of German Romanticism from Novalis’ medievalistic utopia to Wilhelm Hauff’s sycophancy of old Württemberg. But on the other hand it is difficult to deny that fascist propaganda does take inspiration from consumerism, especially from advertising. There are also some uncanny parallels in the mode of expression and the collective effervescences induced by both. And finally, the fundamental opposition of fascism to both Romanticism and consumerism[1] is one that concerns the mode of cultural production and consumption – not necessarily its content.

[footnote: By ‘consumerism’ I do not mean simply mass consumption of industrially produced goods, but the mass use of such products for identity-relevant hedonistic daydreams. I am also not claiming that totalitarian regimes had no such consumer culture at all. Especially Fascism more so than Stalinism allowed and encouraged consumer-cultural escapes by permitting apolitical, non-subversive cultural production for a free consumer market (as long, of course, the producers were not classified to be “racially inferior”). Walter Lacqueur points out that there were consumerist ‘joys of everyday life’ under fascist rule:

‘The less interest a person had in public affairs and the more he or she ignored politics, the freer that person could feel in his or her private world. The authorities in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and equally in the Soviet Union) used propaganda to an unprecedented extent, but people were still not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays. The authorities probably suspected this would be counterproductive.’ (Lacqueur 1996: 72f.)

The point is that this is a concession to the practicalities of governing a country with a developed capitalist economy – a deviation from the dream of an organically integrated, totally mobilised people. The total war which is the vanishing point of all fully-fledged Fascism notoriously makes sure that those private worlds would shrink away in the end and with it all the distractive Neugier, Zweideutigkeit and Gerede. end of footnote]

Wilhelm Hauff, for example, not only created in Georg von Sturmfeder (protagonist in Lichtenstein) the kind of steadfast Tatmensch (man-of-action) and true follower of his national cause the Nazis wrongly thought Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to be – Hauff also delivered, with his antisemitic novella Jud Süß, a template that Veit Harlan and his team of writers could then further worsen into the script for their even more viciously antisemitic 1940 feature film of the same title, one of the most successful propaganda movies of the Nazi era. The overt ultra-nationalism, racism and misogyny at the core of fascist ideology is alien to consumer cultural products (although racist and sexist undercurrents remain pervasive – and a sublimated form is lived out into fantasies of annihilation when it comes to aliens from outer space).  The motif of the Tatmensch and celebrations of the heroic, the mythological and mechanised war, however, are quite common place. The question I am trying to tackle here, therefore, is whether and how there is a danger of a slide from the romantic consumerist imagination into fascist politics – a slide that was as mentioned envisaged in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.


sufi and cinematic imagination

Slowly making my way through Elif Şafak’s Pinhan I’ve come across these lines, in which the protagonist’s favourite Sufi teachers are described thus:

‘Kul Hüseyin ile Budala Tosun dudaklarından tebbesüm eksik olmayan, ağızlarından bal damlayan, kimsenin kusurunu görmeyen dervişlerdi. Adeta tüm ömürlerini, dâr-ül hayal ile dâr-ül hakikati birbirinden ayıran hatt-ı fasılı silmeye vakfetmişler.’ (Şafak 2001: 18)

‘Kul Hüseyin and Budala Tosun were dervishes whose lips never lacked a smile, from whose mouths dripped honey and who never saw fault in anyone. They had dedicated their whole lives to wiping away the dividing line between the realm of imagination and the realm of reality.’ (my translation)

One could say that Şafak here characterises the work of the Sufi as cinematic – in the sense that Walter Benjamin celebrates the cinematic imagination as welcome intrusion into the grey modern day life.

‘Unsere Kneipen und Großstadtstraßen, unsere Büros und möblierten Zimmer, unsere Bahnhöfe und Fabriken schienen uns hoffnungslos einzuschließen. Da kam der Film und hat diese Kerkerwelt mit dem Dynamit der Zehntelsekunden gesprengt, so daß wir nun zwischen ihren weitverstreuten Trümmern gelassen abenteuerlich Reisen unternehmen.’ (Benjamin 1963: 41)

‘Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.’ (Benjamin 2005)

In traditional Marxist manner, it would be easy to dismiss both the Sufi and the cinematic imagination as ideological veils – or one could see both as carrying a utopian potential that transcends the societal orders that produced them. As Appadurai puts it:

On the one hand, it is in and through the imagination that modern citizens are disciplined and controlled – by states, markets, and other powerful interests. But it is also the faculty through which collective patterns of dissent and new designs for collective life emerge.’ (Appadurai 2001)

Appadurai, Arjun (2001): ‘Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination’, A Appdurai (ed.): Globalization,Durham: Duke University Press.

Benjamin, Walter (1963) [1936]: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Benjamin, Walter (2005): The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marxist Internet Archive

Şafak, Elif (2001): Pinhan, İstanbul: Doğan Kitap

İnce Memed and Paternalism

I just found out that somebody (from behind a pseudonym) has accused me of engaging in “fascist cultural production” – mainly on the basis that I reject “paternalistic systems of domination”  which my accuser identifies with “all non-capitalist relations”. That’s nonsense, of course, as fascist cultural production is, for the most part, precisely this: a celebration of paternalism.

For anybody thinking highly of paternalism because it looks like a cosy alternative to capitalism, I recommend the work of a socialist who knew paternalism inside out – Yaşar Kemal.

In his most renown novel İnce Memed (Memed my Hawk) it is when the protagonist first gets away from the villages controlled by the ağa, secretly making a trip to the kasaba,the local market town, that the possibility of a life free of oppression occurs to him. After a day in the shops, after being treated with respect by shopkeepers who want to sell to him, and after finding out that there are inequalities between haves and have-nots, but no single master, no ağa, whose control seems inescapable, Memed’s world changes:

‘Dünya kafasında büyümüştü. Dünyanın genişliğini düşünüyordu. Değirmenoluk köyü bir nokta gibi kalmıştı gözünde. O kocaman Abdi Ağa karınca gibi kalmıştı gözünde. Belki de ilk olarak doğru dürüst düşünüyordu. Aşk ile şevk ile düşünüyordu. Kin duyuyordu artık. Kendi gözünde kendisi büyümüştü. Kendini de insan saymaya başladı. Yatakta bir taraftan bir tarafa dönerken söylendi. “Abdi Ağa da insan, biz de…”’

(Kemal, Yaşar (2005) [1955] İnce Memed, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, p.80)

“In his head, the world had grown. He was thinking about how wide it was. In his eyes his village, Değirmenoluk, had shrunk to a small point. That mighty Abdi Ağa had shrunk to the size of an ant. Maybe this was the first time that he thought properly. He thought with passion, he thought with zeal. And felt hatred. He felt he himself had grown. He began to see himself as a human being. While turning from one side to the other in bed he told himself: “Abdi Ağa is a human being, but so are we…”

True: urban life is far from free of oppression, inequality, violence, humiliation. Kemal would be the last to celebrate “the market” as the ultimate utopia of freedom and justice (after all he spent time in prison for “communist propaganda”). But however unjust and thereby illiberal the “free” market is – it contains the promise and possibility of freedom and justice. Simmel rightly remarked that socialism is a product of the pervasive use of money and its cultural impact (and Marx often implied the same).

Memed underlines his status as individual by bringing back tokens from the markets (which he has to hide from the ağa who forces the villagers to buy from his own shop) – and in order to stand up for equality and freedom one has to achieve such individuality. Memed’s failure to achieve something more fundamental than just the death of one oppressor is due to the fact that he is one of only a few who manage to establish such individuality in a quasi feudal world.

Marx postulated the necessity of individualisation on a mass basis as a precondition for any communist revolution (explicitly so in the German Ideology). (It is Gerald Cohen’s take on this: the liberation from “engulfment”, that the anonymous paternalist took issue with.) The capitalist market has this power of alienation and thus both the frustration to drive change and the individual agency to perform it. Paternalism, if left alone, can reproduce itself endlessly.