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…)

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Hat da jemand „Kultur“ gesagt?

Früher mal hatte “Kultur” eine klare Bedeutung: Alles was so an Schönem für Auge und Ohr produziert wird: Musik, Kunst, Theater, Poesie etc. Zunächst war der Begriff für bessere, „kultivierte“ Leute reserviert, aber es wurde bald anerkannt, daß die breite Masse auch kulturell aktiv ist: “Volkskultur”, “Populärkultur” etc.

Irgendwann im 20. Jahrhundert hat sich dann aber auch ein akademischer Kulturbegriff eingebürgert. Und der umfaßt so ziemlich alle unsere Alltagsroutinen, Interaktionsformen, Einkaufsgewohnheiten, Eßverhalten, Vorlieben und Abneigungen soweit sie nur irgendwie „gesellschaftlich geprägt sind“. Dieser Begriff ist in die Umgangssprache eingegangen und alle möglichen Verhaltensweisen Angehöriger von Minderheiten werden nun deren „kulturellen Hintergrund“ zugeschrieben. Eigentlich sollte ich mich als Soziologe ja freuen über diese Versozialwissenschaftlichung unserer Alltagssprache. Tu ich aber nicht. Und zwar deshalb:

Der sozialwissenschaftliche Kulturbegriff ist ziemlich komplex. Kultur „hat“ man nicht, man „tut“ sie. Kultur wird in der Interaktion mit anderen beständig reproduziert und verändert. Kultur ist nur in den allerseltensten Fällen statisch und homogen. „Kulturen“ (selbst schon eine problematische Verdinglichung) überschneiden und beeinflussen sich, untergliedern sich, vermischen sich, zerfallen, rekonstitutieren sich… und so weiter und so fort. Ein „kultureller Hintergrund“ – also die Lebenserfahrung mit häufigen oder für selbstverständlich gehaltenen, aber auch volatilen, flexiblen Verhaltens- und Ausdrucksweisen des Umfelds, in dem man aufgewachsen oder in das man hineingewachsen ist, „prägen“ einen auch nicht. „Prägung“ ist ein deterministischer Begriff aus der Ethologie, der Verhaltensbiologie (Sie wissen schon – Konrad Lorenz, seine Gänse, seine Nazis). Menschen werden nicht von ihren Erfahrungen „geprägt“ im Sinne von “determiniert”, sondern sie verhalten sich zu ihren Erfahrungen. Wenn Sie den „kulturellen Hintergrund“ (im vollen Sinne und im Detail – nicht einfach Religion plus Herkunftsland) eines Menschen kennen, kennen Sie diesen Menschen noch lange nicht. Sie wissen nur woraus, woran entlang und wogegen er sich zu einer eigenständigen Person entwickelt hat. Auch wenn jene, die immerzu von „Kultur“ und ihrer Pflege reden (Zum Beispiel…) das nicht so haben wollen.

Hätten Sie’s gern einfacher? Dann sollten Sie nicht von „kulturellem Hintergrund“ sprechen, denn das unterstellt eine Aufgeklärtheit, die Sie offensichtlich ablehnen. Wenn Sie sagen „Das liegt am kulturellen Hintergrund“, dann sagen Sie de facto: „Die sind halt so“. Wenn Sie das nicht so meinen, dann lassen Sie den „kulturellen Hintergrund“ und suchen nach konkreteren Erklärungen. Wenn doch, so sagen Sie doch einfach frei heraus: „Die sind halt so!“ Damit man gleich weiß, wie Sie so sind.

The Sign of the Broken Sword and Persistent Lore of Empire: Chesterton’s knowing of colonialist immorality and his defence of postcolonial hypocrisy

Introductory remark: This is a reflection jotted down without much research – i.e. I have no claim whatsoever to any Chesterton scholarship and I have not checked whether anybody has not come up with a similar assessment of Chesterton’s story: a strong parable on Imperialist guilt and a highly problematic anticipation of the way the majoritarian postcolonials preserve Imperial nostalgia as a means to maintain a positive sense of self – also known as “doing a Gove”.
update: of course St Slavoj has used this story – how could I forget the notorious Defence of Lost Causes? Well – I’ve been trying to (mental economy: keep head clear from nonsense). And of course he affirms that it is precisely the immoral act of abandoning truth for the pursuit of a seemingly higher purpose that makes it interesting. This merits a few words, but really only very few, so I put some into a PS.

Strangely retrospective in style, Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Father-Brown story “The Sign of the Broken Sword” in which the crime to be solved is a historical one and the narration is that of a conversation between Father Brown and his companion, the ex-criminal turned private investigator, Flambeau, brings out the historically-investigative best and morally worst in the fictitious detective/priest. The crime (spoiler alert – if you want to enjoy what, despite being ideologically tinged – is an extremely well-constructed narrative – read it first here) is the following: the celebrated British General St Clare, celebrated for his role in the maintenance and extension of the Empire around the globe and very likely to be modelled on General Redvers Buller, murders one of his officers, Major Murray, while on campaign in Brazil. The Major had found out about the General’s immoral conduct and outright criminal activity. But while St Clare manages to kill him with a stab of his sword, the purpose of the crime is not achieved since the tip of the sword breaks off and remains in Murray’s body as evidence. St Clare ingenuously and callously covers up that crime by burying the corps in a forest of corpses, as Father Brown puts it:

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?”

“Well, well,” cried Flambeau irritably, “what does he do?”

“He grows a forest to hide it in,” said the priest in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”

(more…)

daily mail on middle class whiteness and the purity of language

The Daily Mail  really should come with a subtitle “The Sociologist’s Friend” – it is a spring  of examples to be used in undergraduate teaching, e.g. on race and class. Here the Mail’s Nick Harding is deeply concerned about the spread of inner city London accents into the Shires.

With her ear glued to her mobile phone, my 11-year-old daughter, Millie, was deep in conversation, her brow furrowed as she discussed some arrangement with a friend.

I listened in, as I made jam in the kitchen. ‘Lol, that’s well sick!’ Millie said. ‘DW, yolo!’

This indecipherable code-speak (‘sick’ means awesome, ‘DW’ is don’t worry and ‘yolo’ means you only live once) was delivered in an accent I could only place as somewhere between South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica.

It certainly isn’t indigenous to our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills.

This invasion of what the author calls “Amerifaican” (and a worse because, I assume, even blacker version: “Jafaican”), but, he tells us, academics call “Multicultural Youth English” or “Multicultural London English” troubles him. But why? He talks of “linguistic atrocities” and a “random hotchpotch”. It seems to be a matter of aesthetics. So that means it’s about class. Well, it is in this case. For one, there is an open acknowledgement that accents are relevant in the labour market and the fear that speaking like a black London kid will lead to declassement.

“It is not just snobbery about accents which is stoking parental concerns. Diction has a direct bearing on how speakers are perceived, especially in the job market”

Note how the open admission of racial and class discrimination in the labour market is taken as an unproblematic fact. It only becomes problematic when the middle-class White English person confuses matters by not speaking “posh”, sorry: “received pronunciation”. This is textbook Bourdieu: class boundaries are maintained by the internalisation of ahabitus that comprises all aspects of comportment including ways of walking, ways of talking etc. A middle class taste to go with this also includes a preference for visiting museums in the cultural capitals of the world. But what will the neighbours say?

Her new language, comprising alien words and abbreviations delivered with faux West Coast American inflections, will not stand her in good stead when she embarks on a school trip to visit museums in Berlin.

Now, Berlin has changed a little since Lord Rothermere last stayed at the Hotel Adlon. It is a bit like London actually, inclusive a metropolitan multicultural idiom known under the name of “KanakSprak”. So in all likelihood Nick Harding’s daughter will, in case she comes in contact with the locals, come across as doubly cool. One because she’s British, and two because she’s urban (yes, that’s sort of culturally “Black” in the way David Starkey meant it…).

“Kanak Sprak” is, actually, an interesting case: In Germany there are the same fears about loss of purity, messed-up grammar and style. Of particular concern, however, is the loss of inflection in verbs, articles and nouns due to the mixture of languages (the main ingredients: German, Turkish and some Slavic languages are all highly inflected). Surely a language needs inflections – the more the better. Hold on. What now counts as “good” English (which, I hope, I am using right now) has undergone this very process centuries ago when Anglo-Saxon was infused first with Danish and then French. Learning English is by no means easy, but the one thing the learner does not have to worry about is inflections – just an “s” at the end of third-person verbs, that’s all. That English still is one of the main languages in world literature shows that the beauty and power of a language is not a property of its grammatical awkwardness and the number of redundant features. The (in comparison to France and Germany) relative absence of the nationalistic penchant for purity may have allowed for inflections to go out of the window, but it has also opened the door for new words which resulted in the richest and most nuanced vocabulary. Multicultural London English has been a major contributor to this refinement of English over the centuries. It is the conservationists that do most harm to language as in an attempt to maintain its utility for race and class segregation they curtail its organic growth as a means of expression and communication.

As Nick Harding professes he’d much rather see fluency in a proper foreign language like French or German, here’s a quote from the great Austrian literary critic Karl Kraus’ Die Sprache

Die Sprachreiniger sind in Wahrheit nur das, was sie auch außerhalb ihrer Funktion sind: Sprachpeiniger

Or just take it from Stephen Fry