Monday 16 November 2009

Books as Social Markers

There was an article by Peter Munro in The Age on Sunday under the title Lost in Cyber Space in which Prof. Bob Cummins (Deakin University, convener of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life) lamented that he had "lost a social marker" after he emptied his shelves of books.

The fact is that I just never read those books and was never going to read them again—they were just academic props. But maybe they filled a function as that—as a prop for who Cummins is … probably shouldn't have done it … I guess walking into an academic's office and finding a wall of earnest books is quite consoling; it means at face value you look like the real deal. Someone sitting in their office with bare shelves—how odd, what's wrong with them?

It is surprising that Prof. Cummins, who has a Personal Chair in the School of Psychology uses words like maybe, guess and probably in the above quote. I would have thought it was reasonably obvious that he would lose not only his social markers but some of his academic credibility.

The article goes on:

Possessions help define us, brand us, but what happens when they start to hide away in boxes in top cupboards—CD stacks supplanted by iPod docks, film collections by downloads, libraries by wireless reading devices

It is an interesting question, but the answers proposed by the article are not very convincing. Sharing playlists, reading lists etc are not really the equivalent of letting someone look over your shelves or your cds. And for a true collector, or the conspicuous consumer, it isn't remotely the same. To know someone is "listening to" The Beatles (when, in fact, they are a collector of first pressings, and the singles and LPs on their shelves are worth more than your house) or that they have Dracula on their shelf of "favourite books" (when, in fact, they have a first edition in a dust-wrapper which is worth more than your house) tells you nothing. This is because, records or CDs and books are material objects which encode a myriad of social markers in their very materiality.

I recently helped sort through some of the books left behind by a retired academic. Many of the books had the name of the academic concerned, a date and a place neatly written in pen on the front free fly-leaf. Collectively, these "earnest books" were not just "academic props"—though that was undoubtedly part of their function—they marked the progress of an academic life over five decades and on three continents. Battered, filled with marginalia, with ticket-stubs and call-slips as place-markers, sorting through them was like reading a biography of their owner.

How anyone could leave so much of themselves behind is a mystery to me—I tend to be quite sentimental about such things—because the owner of these books left behind a substantial part of their own personal history, not just "a social marker."

Biblio-sentimentality aside, the article seems to ignore the fact that as an increasing number of the things in our life (books, music, film, photos) make the transition from physical to virtual we accumulate an increasing number of new things that store, use or manipulate our virtual books, music, films and photos: digital cameras, photo frames, mobile phones, PDAs and hybrid devices like PDA-phones, ipod-cameras, etc.

It is these objects that now carry social markers, and are the evidence of our conspicuous spending. So, if Bob Cummins really wants to impress his colleagues and students he need only install two side-by-side Macs on a long and spartan black desk, a wall-mounted ipod doc sound system, and a 46 inch flat-screen to display album-covers on or to display a virtual fish-tank. Easy-peasy.

Oh, and he can send me his book cases. Because I always need more of them.

Monday 2 November 2009

The Chevalier D'Eon

While I was on leave over the last few weeks I watched Le Chevalier D’Eon (2006–7), a twenty-four episode anime series.

The series begins in Paris, when the body of a woman named Lia de Beaumont is found in a casket floating along the Seine. The only clue regarding her death is the word "Psalms," which is written in blood on the lid of the casket. D'Eon de Beaumont, Lia's younger brother and a knight in service of King Louis XV, takes it upon himself to investigate his sister's mysterious death, along with the strange disappearances of a number of French women.

The scriptwriter, Shotaro Suga, explains, "the intended atmosphere [was] of a cathartic drama of people who were and were not loyal to their country 'on the eve of the French Revolution'." Most of the action occurs in Versailles, Paris, Moscow and London and involves a range of historical figures appropriate to these locations: Louis XV, Robespierre, Cagliostro, Empress Elizabeth and Catherine II of Russia, Princess Caroline of Great Britain, Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Sandwich etc.

The central character is loosely based on the extraordinary historical figure Chevalier d'Eon (Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont, 1728–1810), a French diplomat, spy, soldier etc who lived as a man until 1777, but as a woman thereafter. (See the Wikipedia entry here.)

The Chevalier d'Eon's lived in London from 1763–77 and from 1785–1810. Questions about the Chevalier's sex started circulating reasonably quickly. Not surprisingly, a number of works about the Chevalier appear in my Checklist of Eighteenth-Century Erotica:

An Elegy on the Lamented Death of the Electrical Eel … as placed on a Superb Erection, at the Expence of the Countes of H---------, and Chevalier-Madame d’Eon de Beaumont, by Lucretia Lovejoy, sister to Mr. Adam Strong, author of the Electrical Eel (London: Printed for Fielding and Walker, 1777).

An Epistle from Mademoiselle D'Eon to the Right Honourable L[or]d M[ansfiel]d, C[hie]f J[ustic]e of the C[our]t of K[in]g’s B[enc]h, on his determination in regard to her sex (London: Printed for M. Smith, 1778).

A Sapphick Epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the Honourable and most Beautiful Mrs D['Eon] ([London]: Printed for M. Smith, and sold by the booksellers near Temple-Bar, and in Paternoster-Row, [1778]).

When the Chevalier died in London in 1810, doctors examined the body and discovered that the Chevalier-Madame had been anatomically male (the Chevalier had previously stated that such an examination would be dishonouring, whatever the result). Whether the Chevalier had a hormonal condition that prevented the function of his sexual organs, or the development of other sexual characteristics, is unknown. Consequently, it is impossible to know whether the Chevalier was an intersex individual or a cross-dressing male. Given the lack of evidence, and the Chevalier's preference that the subject be left unexamined, the less said the better.

* * * * *

When I saw this DVD on the shelves—knowing what I did of the real Chevalier-Madame—I found it impossible to resist, even at the thumping price of $70.00. Having watched it, I am not sure I'd recommend the expense to anyone less interested in the real Chevalier-Madame than I am.

The animation is okay, in fact some of the backdrops and effects are great, but the plot is pretty confusing, most of the characters are not very appealing, and some of the few who appealing at the outset do not stay that way. The stand-out character, the Madame D'Eon, does not get anywhere near enough screen time. I liked the magics but there was no real exposition, or explanation, about them: the source of the power of the Psalms or the powers of those who wield the magic.

It is also obviously difficult to escape the depressive atmosphere that results from depicting a large number of frivolous, stupid, ambitious, duplicitous and disloyal characters who are "on the eve of destruction" (i.e. revolution).

Of course, now that I am clear about the plot-line and the motivations of the major characters I am tempted to watch the series again and see if I enjoy it any more, but there is so much else to watch and read and do … so it might have to wait at least until I reach my vampire movie target (two hundred. Forty to go.).