An article appeared in Le Monde last week which has prompted a lively debate in the French press about the Anglo-Saxon values seeping through pop cultural phenomena like the Harry Potter series, in particular, The Goblet of Fire. The article was recently translated into English and found in The New York Times Op-Ed section (July 18, 2004), "Harry Potter, Market Wiz" by Ilias Yocaris.
A short piece, it's worth reading in its entirety; for now, a few key paragraphs will give you a flavour:
We have, then, an invasion of neoliberal stereotypes in a fairy tale. The fictional universe of Harry Potter offers a caricature of the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model: under a veneer of regimentation and traditional rituals, Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot. The psychological conditioning of the apprentice sorcerers is clearly based on a culture of confrontation: competition among students to be prefect; competition among Hogwarts "houses" to win points; competition among sorcery schools to win the Goblet of Fire; and, ultimately, the bloody competition between the forces of Good and Evil."And he concludes with the crescendo:
"Harry Potter, probably unintentionally, thus appears as a summary of the social and educational aims of neoliberal capitalism. Like Orwellian totalitarianism, this capitalism tries to fashion not only the real world, but also the imagination of consumer-citizens. The underlying message to young fans is this: You can imagine as many fictional worlds, parallel universes or educational systems as you want, they will still all be regulated by the laws of the market. Given the success of the Harry Potter series, several generations of young people will be indelibly marked by this lesson."
We don't have enough of this kind of meta-discourse in the Anglo-American world. Not enough self-reflection and self-criticism, except at moments of extreme crisis and then it's all out of whack and perspective (like now!). Not enough careful analytical archeology linking surface events and developments to deeper and slower moving drivers such as historical forces, which immediately purchase perspective. Of course, eschewing such deconstruction and reconstruction of these layers that make up our complex work is somewhat ironic because it was the American academe who took up the mantle of the deconstructionists, not its European originators. Even if you disagree with the deconstructionist as an intellectual movement —which I won't try to describe, defend or debate here, others do this better— some of their skills, approaches, and analytical techniques are still nonetheless useful in some contexts. Whatever their faults, these tools of deconstruction can help to gain a better understanding of the world we're co-creating. We use them all the time in the foresight and scenario planning business, incidentally, for businesses. But perhaps that's a dirty little secret I'm revealing?
Even as we sneak these into mainstream business, I fear the market for this mode of thinking is far too small in Anglo-America. It's seen to be too abstract and not "practical" enough. Please permit this digression, but this is a bug bear of mine: it's amazing how many times I've heard "practicality" invoked lately, the ultimate conversation and idea killer. I think the "it's not practical" accusation has become a proxy for "it doesn't solve my short term problems fast enough" or "it's too hard work to understand what this is really about." I say enough with this false dichotomy between thought and action! Thought and action are surely two halves of the same coin? One can't get sensible, enduring, and worthwhile actions without clear deliberation, conceptualization, and thus abstraction. I believe a critical pathology in today's society is a result of this dichotomy and under-investment in the skills of conceptualization. How are we going to reframe things to better reflect the emerging world we live in without these? Every innovation, whether it be in an artistic paradigm or a new business model—is a result of reconceptualization. The trouble is this is hard work and requires some time, two things I see in scarce supply these days. And we wonder why we aren't getting any traction as we constantly applying old solutions to fundamentally new problems!
Forgive the rant which deserves a full, well thought out essay to itself rather than this snippet. Let's return to pop culture and its titillations instead. Like unravelling a riddle, unpacking pop cultural IS particularly fun, intrinsically so, don't you think? I can't explain why. These days I find perverse delight when it boomerangs back into the Anglo-American world. I predict this is something we are going to see a great deal of— the inevitable source of future disruptive innovations and market-stealers. Marketers (already unsure of where the new party is) who fail to understand this complicated cultural dance, and the new vectors for innovation, will be out of a job in short shift. Some indicators: a friend of mine just emailed me this amusing story of "reverse globalization": THe 'wada pav' (batter-fried mashed potato with bread & chutney) is a daily fast-food staple of millians of Mumbai citizens. Now it has been branded and TQMed to compete with McDonald's and is all set to take over the world. I remember people writing about Pokeman like this; how embedded in its structure were quintessential Japanese values, like collaboration as opposed to the more American zero-sum "winning" style in games.
So pop culture is important. We've known this awhile. Yet as a discipline, studying pop culture— lamented one researcher I just met—is still considered too low brow and not treated that seriously. Why is this? If you ask someone at a cocktail party to name prominent pop culture thinkers, we still get the tired Andy Warol (80s) and maybe Camille Pagalia (early 90s). Who should we been looking to for navigation and insight? How many reputable think tanks and departments are devoted to these questions? Not many, I found in a quick scan. But please correct me if I'm wrong! Here is one think thank run by Margaret King, The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. I think this has to change. One could argue we need these outside-in observers and this kind of study more than ever, precisely at this moment when the consequences of American pop culture's conquest of the world is becoming apparent, with increasingly scary push-back from various places—the Islamic fundamentalists being the most spectacular case in their appropriation of a Tom Clancy, Hollywood-esque destruction of the Twin Towers.
Getting back to the article and the discussion surrounding it (yet to be translated), what is omitted is just as interesting as what is articulated. For instance, I thought it interesting that Yocaris and others have missed the social-cultural implications of the term "Muggles." Muggles, in Rowling's universe, are people without magic: those unfortunate masses who lack the requisite amount of creativity and insight to see this alternative way of being, and/or lack the necessary verve and individuality to stray from mainstream consciousness and be different. I thought the concept of Muggles brilliant because this is exactly the kind of comforting message any awkward preteen needs to hear, unsure as they mostly are about his or her place in the social scheme of things.
The significance of Muggledom probably escapes the author because in French culture conformity, especially within the educational system, is enforced from an early age. While this is a gross exaggeration, French students are trained in the "old school" way—with rigor, rote learning, emphasis on "hard" disciplines like science and math, and with the teacher firmly in control at the top. (Except maybe in the problematic banlieues areas, the slightly anarchic suburbs of Paris.) In the French system, hierarchy and the status quo is to be preserved and this message starts in the class room. Thus creativity and any chance of doing things differently are discouraged if not completely preempted. I know a parent who recently pulled her daughter out of high school in Paris, fulminating that "the education system was a root based on humiliation." If you don't toe the line and do what's expected, if you ask challenging questions of the teacher or the curricula, the standard procedure is public sanction and censure. I thought this statement a bit extreme, the feelings of a perhaps too-indulgent Californian mother (I still see merits of some "rigor" in education), but after working here some years now, I see the residues of this French-Muggle-culture in the business environment; it's imprinted on the organizational dynamics of many French companies not to mention the civil service (note Yocaris's defensiveness of the maligned bureaucrat), and this has arguably taken its toll on the long term health of France's cultural production and wealth creation capabilities. There are some notable exceptions of course. Indeed, France has many paradoxes. In many ways, it is a land that protects individualism more than America, and it does still produce the occasional gem—a truly unique set of ideas or form of artistic expression—which given this culture of conformity is quite remarkable. But is another rich discussion and I'm still an early learner when comes to understanding France.
So much like how Rowling probably wasn't conscious of the implicit worldview underpinning her stories, Yocaris is probably unaware how his Frenchness precludes him mentioning the value that Muggledom implies—that is, a tolerance of difference— which is after all one of the positive contribution that an Anglo-American worldview brings with it. Rowling I can more easily forgive if there were some honest manipulations; Yocaris, however, is a trained deconstructionist and should perhaps be more evenhanded. Both, however, are making positive contributions; both a getting people to engage and talk, in one breath spanning the superficial to significant. Let thoughtful conversations about the interaction between the worlds of thought and entertainment continue.
'Posted by nicole at July 18, 2004 04:47 PM