Monday, 13 May 2013

Context is not a myth: Stewart Lee's "Carpet Remnant World", Tim Maughan's "Havana Augmented" and notions of society

I've been talking a lot recently about the values that writers impose on the stories they tell and what effect that has on the story, and I realise that part of my obsession with this idea comes not from narrative fiction but from stand-up comedy. Exploring the notion of idealised societies and how we behave in collective groups is a theme that runs through Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World, a two hour comedy routine in which Lee, in character, attempts to tackle a serious issue but serially fails to develop the idea in a coherent way because he's constantly being distracted by the day to day problems of touring and looking after a small child (no clips, you need to watch the whole thing for it to make any sense at all).

But idealised notions of society are what writers in the realm of speculative fiction are all dealing with. What makes these visions utopian or dystopian is how humans collectively behave within those societies. In Carpet Remnant World, Lee gives us a few examples taken from the news, juxtaposing the hysterical, vengeance-fuelled celebrations of some Americans on the death of Osama Bin Laden with some observations on the religious rules of islamic societies. He roves around British prime minister David Cameron's idea of the "big society", the degeneration of the postwar social fabric under Thatcher (via the framing devide of an imaginary Scooby Doo movie), the shifting nature of development and regeneration of urban spaces, the effects of social media, in particular Twitter, and then finally, the more fantastical and abstract ideas represented by the titular "Carpet Remnant World". Within a lot of this are the questions what does this society or social structure stand for, and what does our behaviour within that social space say about us and how well we uphold those supposed values?

The problem with some of these films and stories like 300 and King Arthur that I've been talking about recently is that the values are pasted on, out of context and there is an internal contradiction between the stated values (i.e. freedom) and the behaviour we're actually presented with (often despotic) when a more interesting story would be to look at what you actually have and show us a bit about why those people are willing to fight for it.

A good example of a story that grapples with this is the story Havana Augmented by British writer Tim Maughan. The story is set in a Cuba that is even more than now a socialist island in a sea of free market capitalism. Freedom is still an issue here, as it is in the two other stories that accompany it in the Paintwork collection, but the implications of that freedom are more clearly explored. The kind of freedom Maughan is interested in manifests itself in the ownership of public space, something the kids in Havana Augmented engage with with their AR robot street battle games (and which the characters of Paintwork deal with via street art -- the other story, Paparazzi, looks at the romanticisation of medieval fantasy and reminds the reader of whose backs the freedoms of the privileged few are built on). Rather than simply being a battle against the communist establishment for the kids' right to, y'know, have fun'n'that, Maughan instead looks at how commercial entities exploit kids like his heroes in ways that are damaging to the wider fabric of society. Crucially, the protagonists of Havana Augmented reach the culmination of their arc not by embracing some nebulous notion of freedom, but by thinking in tune with their environment -- not just by their local knowledge of the battlefield, but by thinking like Cubans, protecting their shared values against an invading ideology that comes wrapped in the flag of liberty but promises only a new kind of subjugation.

In a larger and less benign scale, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl pulls off a similar trick of getting int the mindset of a different culture and making decisions they make that run contrary to our own established way of thinking seem internally consistent and understandable. Having the larger canvas of a full novel to work with, he's able to draw more fully on the environmental and political world in which his characters live in order to sculpt their actions and reactions.

As I've said before, it's thrilling to be able to read something and see a person act in a completely alien way to your own way of thinking, yet at the same time have that decision completely logical. Speculative fiction is all about this kind of thing, but you see it just as much in contemporary drama that deals with cultures that you are unfamiliar with. The Wire is an excellent drama for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it presents you with characters behaving in horrendous ways but every one of them is scrupulously logical, and more often than not, David Simon & co. have a parallel example of the same logic in play in a different, perhaps more familiar arena. The viewer is never let off the hook.

Where foreign drama doesn't work, something similar is often at play. I often found myself baffled by the behaviour of characters in the Hong Kong films I used to watch as a teenager, because they were acting according to Chinese cultural conventions that had no traction in the West. Chinese audiences were clearly expected to understand this as natural, but the film gave me no context to understand it. The scriptwriter wasn't making allowances for outsiders, and looking back, this made me doubly conscious of the way American films presuppose American values without giving them context, especially given that American cultural products are made with the expectation of international consumption (something Asian works often aren't). Waving the word "freedom" in people's faces without giving them an idea of what that freedom is meant to mean is just as nonsensical as waving Japan-centric notions like honne & tatemae in someone's face and expecting them to get it immediately.

It's not impossible though. All cultures understand freedom, although they might have different notions of what it means, and the contrast between one's true feelings and the face you wear in public is far from unique to Japan. Cultural notions are often slippery, but there are usually ways into them if contextualised sensitively.

This idea of sensitivity is one that Stewart Lee returns to at the end of Carpet Remnant World. Given that he has spent the whole of his two hour show deliberately sabotaging his own attempts to discuss the concepts of idealised societies, he indirectly (and probably unintentionally -- Lee would perhaps shy away from such a trite observation) makes the point that all societies are imperfect, and his failure to discuss it in a coherent way is simply an echo of that. Against a utopian cityscape composed of rolled carpets of varying sizes, he delivers the line: "a ragbag of seemingly disparate and unrelated items, people, concepts, things, can, if stitched together in the correct order with an degree of sensitivity, give the impression of being a satisfying whole." And in a way, what Lee has done with his comedy show is the same as what a good speculative fiction writer would do. He's taken no concept for granted, he's broken down every idea into its constituent parts and left you with no room for lazy assumptions, and at the same time, by showing us the "Carpet Remnant World" in which his character lives, he's made sure that this arrogant, neurotic comedian living in fear of his own death (or worse, irrelevance) now not only makes sense to us but commands our sympathy.

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