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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: it’s a funny old world.
“Did you just look at me?” says Queen Anne to the footman and, as he shakes his head staring into oblivion clearly hoping this was not happening, she shouts “Look at me”. He reluctantly turns his head, looking at her in obvious discomfort when she screams “how dare you; close your eyes?” A short vignette from the television commercial advertising the award-winning film ‘The Favourite’ and very much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t for the poor hapless footman.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife to a bear fair in London; she makes vintage bears as a hobby and occasionally takes to setting up a stall at some fair to sell them. As I sat behind the stall navel gazing and wandering what the football scores were, when I was going to get something to eat and when would be an appropriate time to go for a wander without giving off the vibe that enthusiasm was now waning, my wife said, ‘did you see that’? ‘What’ I asked peering over a number of furry Ursidae heads (I’m told they don’t bite)? ‘That woman in the orange top’ exclaimed my wife. Scouring the room for a woman that had been Tango’d, I listened to her explaining that a 30ish year old woman had just come out of the toilets wearing a bright orange top and emblazoned across her generous chest were the words ‘eye contact’. ‘I suppose it’s a good message’ said my wife as I settled back down to my navel gazing.
I thought about the incident, if you can call it that, on the way home and that was when the film trailer came to mind as a rather good analogy. I get the message, but it seems a rather odd way to go about conveying it. From a distance we are drawn to looking but then castigated for doing so. A case of look at me, why are you looking at me? And so, it seems to me that the idea behind the message is somehow diluted and even trivialised. The top is no more than a fashion item in the sense of it being a top but also in a sense of the message. The message is commercialised; I wonder whether the top was purchased because of the seriousness of the message it conveyed or because it would look good and attract attention?
I discussed this with a colleague and she brought another dimension to the discussion. Simply this, where was the top made? Quite possibly, even likely, in a sweat shop in Asia by impoverished female workers. And so, a seemingly innocent garment symbolises all the wrong things; entrapment, commercialism and inequality. I can’t help thinking on this International Women’s Day that it’s a funny old world that we live in.
Halloween Prison Tourism
Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.
Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.
I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.
Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.
The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.
The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.
Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com
Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.
Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.
The true message of Christmas
One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media. An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld. It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss? Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood. Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!). In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones. Of course all in good humour, I thought.
Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping; or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day. The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight. There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions. Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.
Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas. Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore? Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone. Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with? If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.
According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile. The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion. He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned. “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). This is the true message of Christmas today.
Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East
The commodification of youth: waiting to grow up
I find myself reflecting on the problems of youth as I watch my two lads growing up and preparing to leave school. Well I think they’ll leave school and I think they’ll grow up. The latter begs the question, when is a young person grown up, when does a young person embark on that journey into adulthood?
In the eyes of the law an adult is 18 or over and yet in certain aspects, young people are treated differently until they are 25, for example, state benefits are not equitably distributed between those that are under 25 and those that are over. Young people cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18 and yet they can legally have sex, get married, with parental consent, and sign up to a near enough £30,000 debt as part of their commitment to higher education, a commitment that derives many a time from external social and economic pressures and expectation rather than personal choice.
At the age of 16 I left school and went to work with 5 O’ levels to my name. I had a choice and looking back, it was a good job I did; education at that time was not for me. What choice do 16 year olds have now? Stay at home and be funded by parents, an extension of childhood and then at 18 a debt that hangs over them like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to be sold off to the highest commercial bidder later on? Or simply stay at home with parents and then at 18 seek work in low paid zero hours contract jobs that belie the true state of unemployment in this country. A somewhat limited choice, I would suggest.
I have watched the manufacturing industries of the past disappear and with them the hope of jobs for many a youngster, perhaps not academically inclined to go through higher education. So the choice for young people is stark, low paid, irregular work usually in a service industry, resulting in a need to stay in the parental home, or a massive debt and some offer of freedom, albeit perhaps temporary.
Unemployment is at its lowest level and there are more people accessing higher education than ever before. On the surface a success story but delve a little deeper and it is the young that are a paying the price for the elongation and commercialisation of education. They are prevented from growing up by the restriction on school leaving age and the socio-economic pressures that seem to abound. But if the young cannot get jobs, are not allowed to grow up and develop into adults that contribute to the treasury’s coffers, then in the not too distant future they will not be the only ones to suffer as various services slowly disintegrate due to the lack of funding. It is time government rethought education but more importantly thought about the future of the young, they are after all our future and deserve better than a lifetime of debt, poverty and insecurity.
The Commodification of Abstinence
The inspiration for this short blog post comes from an incredibly stimulating discussion with some of my second year students studying the criminology module ‘Outsiders’. In class we were discussing how rather than constituting active forms of rebellion that resist the mainstream, various ‘trendy’ acts of so-called deviance, such as graffiti, parkour and ‘rooftopping’, have actually become absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture. Following this we began to discuss ‘new’ ways of resisting. Amongst the ideas offered was the notion of somehow disconnecting ourselves from the now ever-present network of social media and its frequent and avid advertisement of consumer items. Interestingly, having already discussed the tendency for social media’s ‘revolutionary potential’ to be integrated within rather than threaten capitalism (Crary 2013), this proposed disconnect would also require avoiding the latest online driven micro-revolution. The result of this discussion was the idea of ‘going mobile free for a week’.
The problem with this proposed ‘period of abstinence’ is that it becomes another micro-revolution that simply represents a new opportunity for commodification. This is because capitalism has the uncanny ability “to incorporate every attack by integrating the attack into the system” (McGowan 2016:12). It does this by taking the seemingly revolutionary practice and transforming it into a marketable commodity. With this in mind, we started to consider how such periods of abstinence would be integrated and commodified. It was suggested that a number of high-street retailers such as Game and HMV would perhaps have preparatory sales the week before to help us cope with the inevitable upset of ‘going mobile free for a week’. Similar offers would no doubt be made by a range of other providers; why not get into cycling, mountain climbing, or Zumba? That is after buying all the essential gear and merchandise of course. Then, once this period of abstinence is over, what better way to show how ‘resistant’ you were than by posting pictures of, or tweeting about, all the things you got up to during this ‘rebellious’ period; thereby further contributing to the marketing of consumer items.
Rather than representing some form of resistance then, this period of abstinence becomes commodified and successfully integrated into contemporary consumer capitalism. This does not mean that there is no alternative to capitalism, it simply means that if we wish to make a genuine attempt at resistance we should avoid being absorbed or forced into the next ‘trendy’ micro-revolution or simulated rebellion (Hall et al. 2008). Precisely how we do this is of course another matter entirely.
Justin Kotzé, March 2017
Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.
Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.
McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press.