Sunday, 20 March 2011

In lieu of an introduction

I've tried to sit down and write an introduction to this blog a few times. However, each time, it becomes long and unweildy – and I can not imagine an internet reader ploughing their way through what I have written.

So this is written in lieu of an introduction. I'll have to carry out this full task elsewhere, probably in a series of posts, and I'll mark them as a "thread" – with a name like "starting points." The problem is that for me, there are just too many starting points for this project to get to grips with all at once. It's origins spread out like the root of a tree.

However, basically, the project perhaps starts with a kind of a problem, rather than an answer. it's a research project in search of a question, if you like.

It started for me with a collision of two things.

First, I was reading Fernand Braudel's trilogy of books Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800. This is a magisterial reading of the early history of capitalism, before its modern-day industrial manifestations. Braudel charts capitalism's slow growth, and its transformation of everyday ways of life. One thing (amongst many) that struck me was Braudel's description of the countryside and towns of the European middle ages and early modernity as heaving with perpetual unrest harbouring uprisings at a rate that perhaps even puts the twentieth-century in the shade. This contrasted with a "common-sense" understanding that I had – one which is supported in such accounts as Thompson's famous Making of the Working Class – that it was only the with the industrial revolution and its experiences of labour that a "revolutionary" political consciousness of class, exploitation, and of ordinary people's abilities to change their fate and the composition of their society developed.

At the same time as reading Braudel, I was watching quite a few kung fu movies – these have become, for me, something of a passion! The motif of revolting peasants from Braudel seemed to resonate with what I saw on screen. Revolt is a key theme within the kung fu genre, as is the problem, generally, of resisting tyranny and exploitation. The settings of kung fu films often involve a (fantasised) past – like Westerns, they obsess on that moment of transition between the modern and a world before modernity has fully arrived. They are primarily rural in setting, and so what we see so often in them are peasants in revolt.

This juxtaposition is more beset with problems than with any immediate solution – so many problems that in this introduction I can hardly even start to sketch out their outline, so will save this for later posts, too.

However, around the meeting of a Braudellian history of the longue durée of capitalism and martial arts cinema a number of fascinating issues/questions seem to intersect:

1. Does this collision help think traditions of revolution and revolt as stretching back into the (pre-industrial) past, and stretching forward into our own (post-industrial) present and its future?

2. Might popular culture (in spite of its highly Spectacularised and ideological nature) harbour cultural memories of such traditions, and are there resources in it for (future) popular movements?

3. What would kung fu films have to add to our thinking of the questions of revolutionary – or for that matter imperialist/capitalist/authoritarian/etc. – violence? (such questions of the ethical and practical nature of violence in revolt have been very much in the air in left-wing circles of late, for example in the writings of Badiou or Zizek; such debates seem to me, intuitively, to have much to do with the strange and double-edged histories of martial arts as on the one had military technologies of domination, and on the other a matter of traditional forms of popular defence and struggle...)

4. I'm also interested in the theme of work/labour, which is, of course, at the heart of Marxist analyses of capitalism and of its forms of exploitation. It's also, I think, an important and little-discussed theme in kung fu films. This is, however, probably something – like much I've said here – that remains, necessarily at this stage, at the level of suggestion rather than argument: it is something that the unfolding research of which this blog is a part will have to persuade people...

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