Sunday, July 18, 2004

Harry Potter, Market Wiz

In this essay -- The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Harry Potter, Market Wiz -- a French writer argues that Harry Potter exists in a capitalist universe that undermines the very nature of childhood daydreaming and fantasizing by bounding it with the laws and values of market-driven consumerism. According to this writer, "Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot."

Now, I've read a total of zero of the Harry Potter books, but I'm surprised that anyone else would be shocked to find that the universe there would mirror the one we currently live in, where kids look forward to shopping, and conceive of magic as a matter of owning the latest technological marvels, be they GameBoys or X-Boxes or what have you. I think of the imagination it takes for most of us to imagine a world where the confines of capitalism aren't the underlying basis of values, even for those of us who are desperately trying to fashion such a world, and I'm hardly surprised that a children's author would reflexively incorporate such things as the criticism of bureaucrats and the celebration of entrepreneurship that this op-ed author chastizes her for. We all know without having to reflect how pleasurable it is to own, how right it feels to acquire more, even when we already have more than we can use. We know the pleasures of winning. We all scorn the findings of social scientists that undermine our sense of personal autonomy, and champion those classic arguments in favor of personal control, of our individual uniqueness and our inviolable freedom to make whatever choices we want. Harry Potter is probably afforded the same panoply of choices we are offered, the only choice he can't make is the choice to reject the underlying system that lends logic to our values, that makes a reckoning of good and evil possible -- measuring what is bad by how much productivity it prevents, measuring ourselves against others by how much we own, etc.

But I am rambling. The point is, How many books don't re-create the capitalist world's assumptions? Such books would be barely comprehensible by most of the reading public, and even if they could understand them, they would reject them vehemently, and they certainly would not rise to the level of notoriety where a scholar working in a different language would have felt the need to respond to them. I can't think of any, save explicitly radical works like Monique Wittig's novels. And if you've tried to read those, you'll know what I mean about incomprehensibility.

That the Times printed this fairly mediocre asssessment of the Harry Potter phenomenon has nothing to do with the argument espoused, of course. They are more interested in belittling French culture while reassuring Americans that university thinking about culture is hopelessly inane and perverse, reading a bunch of foolishness into perfectly obvious children's books, which should obviously be taken at face value, like all otehr entertainment product. And that's a shame, because that's really the French writer's point: Harry Potter feels so perfectly obvious and accessible because it so wholeheartedly adopts bedrock prejudices of consumer capitalism, and children reading them are certainly being indoctrinated into those precepts -- the palpable presence of them makes the reading feel right, I'm sure; even children, maybe especially children, can pick up the synchronicity between the books and the values espoused by all the other media they consume, and they respond enthusiastically to these things that promise a complete coherent system. That the system is perfectly ideological only makes its completion possible, conceivable.

Texts, be they children's books or op-ed pages, can't exist without an ideological matrix that makes them coherent. America seems to take special care to obfuscate that fact, and pretend its media exist in some perfectly "spin-free" space, as if that would be preferable even if it were possible. Fox News goes farthest with this, offering the most extremely distorting right-wing propaganda as mere reportage, and then flattering its viewers with the notion that they "decide" what is true, or what to believe, as if their feelings on the matter have anything at all to do with what is really actually happening. This is the height of idiocy, akin to those USA Today polls that ask uninformed citizens to give their opinions on substantitive matters, and then report the results as newsworthy, as having some bearing on reality: 75% of Americans believe Saddam Hussein worked with Bin Laden, therefore it's that likely to be true. All of this is a result of people being encouraged to believe in an unreasonable individualism that claims that they can choose perfectly the world the wish to live in and clouds their minds to all the rather obvious ways this isn't so. That they believe that they can "decide" about news reports shows just how much they are clouded. But in truth, our opinions about Iraq don't matter, our belief about what has happened in the Middle East has no bearing on what is going on. It's not all subjective, as people seem to love to say about more and more of experience -- a nicely defensive posture that permanently protects you from ever seeming ignorant. But as long as we do think our opinions shape our own private reality, we won't waste our time figuring out what really happened in the shared world, and we'll live in a fantasy world based entirely on what we choose to believe, which will very likely, come to think of it, resemble that world Harry Potter lives in, where conflicts are structured in such a way that a child could immediately understand them and resolve what is right and wrong within them, where individuals always trump bureaucracies and personal profit is king, where passive ownership and magic makes everything happen.

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