Archive for January, 2010

Last night I presented a paper at the weekly graduate seminar series I attend and it went surprisingly well.

‘Blots, Others and Desire: The dossier of the anxious spy’

This paper navigates the development of the spy genre, beginning with the genre’s revolutionary roots, using Lacanian psychoanalysis as its compass. From the troubling blot of the hunted man to the curiosity of the accidental spy, Lacanian concepts enable us to meaningfully explore the psychology of the spy genre. In turn, the spy genre in turn offers fresh territory in which to expand our understanding of the big Other, desire and the Lacanian blot.

I didn’t quite stick to this abstract, however; in fact, I’d rather forgotten about it. Bad student.

My paper did look at the history of the genre, as a case study of the anxious subject, but I only briefly touched on desire and the Lacanian blot. Instead, I focussed largely on how the development of the spy-hero can be read through Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic and Real registers. However, I think I can be forgiven in light of the fact it was a seriously condensed version of the chapter I hope it will span out into.

It prompted a fascinating discussion afterwards on the concept of work (i.e. the adversarial spy who is employed to work v. the ‘professional’ spy who is a hero) and a debate on why the spy-hero is an object of desire (i.e. as the Other that knows and as a sexualised figure).

Came home with heaps of ideas on where I can take this thing next.


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I stumbled across Lacan dot com again recently and it left me wondering why I don’t spend more time there. It’s full of interesting articles by notable contemporary thinkers and is home not just to a very useful rundown of Lacan’s seminars, but also Lacanian Ink.

I’m fascinated by this magazine. I’ve never seen a copy in real life (top of the list for next British Library search), but I could scroll through the back catalogue online for hours. They give you just enough to let you know you need it, but not so much that your satisfied enough to move on. It’s an aching process.

What this suggests about my own desires, I won’t presume to comment.

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Bit last minute, but I reckon this round’s Forum topic could be rather interesting.

With the invention of the internet – that infinite cyber space – our world has both radically expanded and contracted. Opened up, as our practice of interacting with others has been drastically changed; but contracted, as this freedom has altered our experience of spatial distance forever. Older technological advances, such as the invention of air travel, initiated this movement by enabling us to traverse and therefore grasp space in new ways. But it is not just our conception of material space that has altered; the impact has also changed our experience of mental space as well. Our world, our cities, our domestic, private, and public spaces have undergone a drastic re-definition; these new spaces have forced a change in our understanding of the nature of space itself.

Submissions need to be in by 1 February and should be between 3,000 and 5,000 words.

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This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Some people might be wondering why I’ve chosen The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer as a text for InSpyNoMo. Basically, if you at all consider Ian Fleming’s 007 series to be a major influence in the genre (like it or loathe it), then you have to consider a number of texts that came before it and The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu is one of them. (Another is ‘Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond.)

While undoubtedly one of the most absurdly racist series ever written, the Fu Manchu series is highly influential. In terms of actual ability, Sax Rohmer is a second-rate hack at best. His works are loaded with his own personal paranoia about the Far East, which were largely unfelt by the rest of Europe at the time he was writing, so not exactly one to read for historical accuracy. In a number of places I think there’s some evidence that suggests this paranoias spills into obsessive delusion. However, his works achieve two key things that did help shape the genre.

The stories are told via a Watson-type character, a doctor named Petrie, who is long-time friends with Nayland Smith, the true hero of the series. He acts as an aide and a sounding board to Nayland and, though he often muddles things up, he inevitably does something to enable Nayland to

First, Rohmer established the secret agent as hero. Nayland Smith, though he is never outright called a spy, is clearly a Secret Service agent, a servant of the British government sent out to gather information and take action in foreign countries against potential enemies of Britain. He’s one of those heroes who is virtually infallible, yet bares the scars of battle. He can fight and spar with as much ease and seeming grace as he does manoeuver upper-class circles. He’s brusque and taciturn, yet suave and a gentleman. He’s tough and sentimental. Smith is a civil servant devoted to the office he serves, yet he gets bored with inactivity and will often act rashly in order to speed things up a bit. In short, he bears all the paradoxes and character traits we recognise in James Bond.

(He is also hilariously described as ‘rapping’ out his dialogue, which I take to mean more ‘barking’ or ‘speaking with sharp intent’ than as a wonderful precursor to hiphop.)

Second, Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is the first truly evil mortal villain. I say ‘mortal’ because of course Dracula, et al., are all awful. But Fu Manchu is a man to fear because he is a man who seems like a god. He has built an empire around him, made up of followers who practically worship him. He has spies and consorts everywhere, virtually no move the hero makes goes undetected (and even when it does, Fu Manchu seems to maintain his one step ahead). He has the ability to infiltrate any circle, any class, and disguise himself undetectably. He is a criminal mastermind, who gains control over the minds of men and the bodies of women. The true horror surrounding Fu Manchu goes well beyond his racist roots.

Rohmer’s villain is a horrible thing to witness because he is able to shift seamlessly from a harmless old man to a baleful murderer in a matter of nanoseconds. He is horrible because he is an independent. He isn’t really attached to any government, and he’s so wealthy there’s no real need for him to commit the crimes he does. He does them largely for sport. However, the most terrible feature about him is that while our heroes wish him to be unknowable, something that is completely Other, they are all too aware that he represents all that we could become. He reminds us that evil is just as obtainable as good. Worst of all, he is uncatchable. I’ve not read the final book of the series, but as far as I can make out Fu Manchu always manages to wriggle out at the last moment, making him a perfect object a for Nayland to for ever chase after.

The portrayal of both the hero and the villain in Rohmer ultimately carved out how these character were to function in the sensational branch of the genre. Time and again we find the hero and villain held up alongside each other — seemingly diametrically opposed, yet frighteningly similar.

Fleming uses this dichotomy throughout the 007 series. Bond often remarks a grudging admiration, even affinity, for the villains he comes up against. Indeed, the villains usually possess similar character traits to Bond, holding them up against him as though reflected back in a distorted mirror.

In setting up Bond as a Super Hero Fleming takes this idea of the Super Villain and applies it to every villain Bond ever faces. Each of them is horrifying because they are so powerful and seem so unstoppable. Certainly, this can be seen in what is perhaps the most famous tribute to Fu Manchu: Dr No, whose own physical deformities (his heart is on the other side of his body) gain him wealth and power (because he seems invincible) and an entire island to rule (populated with devoted followers), and from which to take over the world (with the help of the Russians, who he will terminate once he’s in absolute power). But there, Fleming finishes the job by eventually allowing Bond to kill him and return home victorious. Perhaps, Bond’s successes are in part Fleming’s attempt to ‘correct’ Nayland Smith’s constant failure to secure the capture of Fu Manchu.

These stories are, as I said, exceedingly racist and make for uncomfortable reading because of it. As a white Canadian/British girl, I was aghast and not a little ashamed at the gross stereotyping and horrific way Rohmer paints anyone who is not white and British. He was practically fanatical in it, he intended these stories to be cautionary tales about the ‘wily’ and ‘dangerous’ East. But I don’t think it’s particularly useful to say it was a product of its time and push all that stuff under the carpet. If anything, in being confronted with such blatant prejudice the reader becomes forced to acknowledge latent racisms that continue to be present in whatever society they live in, which by default enters them into a dialogue that has the power to propagate change. And this, though clearly not what the author intended, is well worth any embarrassment felt in reading.

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This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Max Brand‘s The Phantom Spy (1937) is almost spookily predictive of the events that were to occur in the years that followed its release. It is very topical, featuring mentions of most of Germany’s higher politicians, speculations on British defence capabilities and considers the necessity of spies in a peacetime that was heading swiftly to war. The spies in question are Lady Cecil and Willie Gloster. At first it seems as though Lady Cecil is a bit of a proto-Modesty Blaise. She’s dynamic and resourceful and is the first person the head of the Secret Service calls when he needs someone to swoop in and steal the only map of the Maginot Line — a line of weaknesses in border defences — in existence from German possession. And, with the help of Willie Gloster as her trusty sidekick, she does the job admirably.

Unfortunately the German Service is just as quick to retaliate and the map is swiped right out from under their noses at a reception back in London, held in Cecil’s honour for her good works.

The story from here takes a bit of a turn, as Cecil turns to a man she thinks is ‘the greatest spy in Europe’. She runs off with him, leaving Gloster to pick up the trail. We stay with Gloster as he goes through various disguises, using the Richard Hannay method of deception, to track down the maps. Gloster turns out to be a very capable spy and extraordinarily at ease adapting to the various roles he must perform. It should come as no surprise that at the very end Gloster both successfully secures the map and reveals himself as the Great Spy.

If nothing else, this novel offers a ‘ground-level’ reading of the political situation in Europe in the late 30s. While it does not attempt to reconcile political tensions or even offer an alternative to the inevitability of war, it does demonstrate how the actions of private individuals can be just as powerful as the decisions of governmental bodies. The writing style still clings to an innocence of sentiment that pervaded throughout the 1920s. For that, and for the perspective of pre-war Europe, I think it’s rather worth the read.

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This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Strictly speaking, Peter O’Donnell‘s Modesty Blaise is not a spy, and indeed the book that bears her name isn’t really spy fiction. Much like Ian Fleming’s middle 007 series, this is the stuff of proper adventure stories, with capers and pranks and lots of bloodshed, but little actual espionage. However, it’s got some good secret agent stuff in it and O’Donnell borrows quite a bit from the crosses and double crosses we’ve seen in Dark Wanton and The Great Impersonation.

Modesty Blaise (1965) is the first novelised adventure of Modesty Blaise, which began as a comic strip in 1963. A very visual read, its beginnings are evident. The chases come off with adrenalin, the fight scenes are described vividly, the humour is so physical it’s almost slapstick; it’s a bit like reading a picture, and I suspect that’s just what O’Donnell was striving for. I first came across her in ‘The Giggle-Wrecker’, a short story from O’Donnell’s 1972 collection Pieces of Modesty. The story is pretty implausible, though by far more ‘espionage-y’ than this one, but there was something intriguing about Modesty and the sort of odd buoyancy of dangerous adventure that filters through.

Modesty is a hardened ex-con with a heart of gold and fists of steel, who, against impossible odds, can outwit the most wily criminal and outfox the most deadly killer. In this first book, she and her right-hand man, Willie Garvin, are pulled out of retirement to help the British government ensure the safe passage of a consignment of diamonds. Rumours of plans for a heist have been swilling. The suspected gang is ruthless, and if the rumours are true, they can be sure that the leader will stop at nothing to get at securing his haul.

Most of the book is merely groundwork, introducing Modesty and Willie to the reader, as well as to the other characters. It turns out neither Modesty nor Willie are at all what the reader or the other characters were expecting. It isn’t until we’re three-quarters of the way through that the plot begins to come together, and it’s at this point when Modesty and Willie’s abilities as secret agents begin to take effect, as they set up their entry into the gang as rivals for the diamonds. Although the ending is unsurprising (they win), how they actually run the race is well-played out and engagingly timed.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel (and the comic strips) is the portrayal of the men that surround Modesty. We often see them struggle against the clear strength and intelligence Modesty possesses, and the juxtaposition of a hardened killer encased in a voluptuous female form. She’s stylish and quite feminine, yet once on the job she ceases to be a woman in the sense they understand.

Her ability to operate with strict military unemotionality unsettles them, as does the authority that she assumes. This is particularly true of the men who either want to sleep with her (such as Paul Hagan, whose own feelings of protectiveness towards her nearly gets them both killed) or who don’t believe women can ever really be anything but the stereotype of femininity they expect of all women (such as the Right Honorable Percival Thornton, who heads the department that sends her). Perhaps the thing that they find most discombobulating of all is the fact that, as Lauren Henderson notes, unlike her male counterparts, Modesty has nothing to prove.

In this respect, it’s particularly interesting that bith the comics and the novelisations were written just as the Second Wave of feminism was beginning to gather (The Feminine Mystique was published the same year Modesty was born as a comic; The Female Eunuch came 5 years after this novel). She might have big boobs and she might use her body to get something out of someone, but much to my surprise, Modesty provides a stronger female role model than I think had ever been seen before. The blurb on the back cover my my edition quotes The Observer, which raves, ‘Before Buffy, before Charlie’s Angels, before Purdy and Emma Peel there was Modesty Blaise’, and after reading the story I reckon the likes of The Bride and ├ćon Flux ought to be added to the list, too. Spy fiction might not owe anything to Modesty Blaise, but iconic female heroes owe plenty.

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This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Peter Cheyney is probably best known for his hard-boiled detective novels starring Lemmy Caution, but Dark Wanton (1948) is part of his ‘dark’ series of spy novels. His brief foray into espionage fiction was to be fairly influential. Many writers, such as Ian Fleming and Len Deighton, would go on to emulate the unsentimental intelligence of his protagonists, and the cleverly tangled plotlines. Indeed, Dark Wanton is tinged with a degree of ‘dirtiness’ that you often see in Cold War spy thrillers.

Dark Wanton is very typical of British novels written during the 1940s and into the early 1950s in that it somewhat grudgingly admires women with a bit of chutzpah and does everything it can to convince the British reader than Britain is still a mighty force to be reckoned with. It follows the post-war British Secret Service on the chase for two missing documents, which hold the names of unknown war criminals. Though we never see the contents of either of these documents (in fact, we never see the real documents at all), we get a glimpse of what it must have been like for those agents who were forced to settle into ‘normal’ life after the action of the Second World War, and the temptations that must have haunted them.

Cheyney does quite a marvellous job of weaving a myriad double-crosses schemes and tying them up both realistically (in the context of the world of the novel) and artfully. In this respect, it’s a remarkable examination of performance and the experience of performing. But this I mean every character plays their role rather than is their role. Facades for each character are always already in place and always already known by the other characters.

The other characters expect Antoinette Brown to be a vaguely icy virginal figure and always unruffledly shocked at impropriety. Thus Antoinette acts like a vaguely icy virginal figure and always unruffledly shocked at impropriety, even when she is caught in the act of breaking into one of the leading male protagonists’ flat. Aurora Francis is expected to be curious about men and thus able to be trapped by her curiosity, and so she allows herself to be seen as curious about men and thus trapped by her curiosity.

Academically speaking, the duplicity of the narrative and the contrivance of how each character is maneuvered is fascinating. The (omniscient, anonymous) narrator is very honest about these various levels of deceit. The reader is always aware that events are being staged rather than happening organically; equally, the reader is always aware that characters are performing their part and so react as their part would react rather than as they would themselves. They allow themselves to act so and allow themselves to be acted upon. It’s all a great game of open pretense.

One of the more inviting observations Cheyney allows his protagonists to make is that of the double double cross:

To think of what the other man is going to do. Even to allow for his thinking that you knew what he was going to do and then, deliberately, to allow for his doing the opposite. The double double-cross used a million times in the war by ‘double agents’ — those supreme beings who worked on two sides but gave loyalty to only one side.

What all of this ends up achieving, at least in terms of the relationship between the reader and Cheyney himself, is a very interesting variant of the double double-cross. With everything directed, and the direction so transparent, escapism is virtually impossible. Even the excruciatingly Hollywood dialogue ends up highlighting just how ‘staged’ it all is. In this respect, with the artifice of the story ever exposed, even the grubbiness of its subject feels glossed over. The reader pretty well knows what the outcome of the story is yet must pretend to be surprised when the denouement is flawlessly presented at the end. Loyalty, then, is ultimately won by the author, but (rather like the other characters he’s been manipulating) the reader resents rather than admires him for it.

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