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Harry Potter, Deconstructed

An op-ed article appeared in Le Monde in Paris a couple of weeks ago, triggering a vigorous debate about town. It has been recently translated into English and republished in The New York Times Op-Ed section (July 18, 2004), "Harry Potter, Market Wiz" by Ilias Yocaris.

What’s all the fuss about? The EU referendum? Iraq’s long-term stability? Anti-semitism? The veil in schools? No, something way more important: pop culture fights! The editorial is a blazing example of the type of non-Anglo Saxon critique I’m getting more familiar with being based in Paris. In this case, the target is the Harry Potter series, which like everywhere has fire-stormed France. To get a taste of the author’s argument, here are a few key paragraphs:

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 a Gallic 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.

Yup, ‘dem are provocative words or just plain amusing, depending on your bent. But this is a good thing. Even if you disagree with the content, be happy you’re reading something like this, especially in the beleaguered, confidence-challenged NYT. Let me explain, first with an aside.

What most Americans don’t know about French intellectuals is that they only critique ideas and people they care about. It’s a sign of respect… err, most of the time. (This is alas one of the great misunderstandings driving the current Franco-American discord. The French care about America, but the reverse is not true.) Since culture is something they care a great deal about—in some ways the French see this as their specialty, with both good and bad consequences — this is naturally a topic analysts like Yocaris feel compelled to weigh in on. And weigh he did.

Of course, most reactions to this article will negative to put it mildly, not least amongst the neoliberal in orientation. Many will simply dismiss this as an over-the-topic, socialist response from a Frenchman. This usual means: too abstract, intellectually over-wrought, out-of-touch, xenophobic, and just not practical. Like, really, these are just kids’ stories, right? What’s the big deal? Kids aren’t going to pick up on these subtleties and structural dimensions. Perhaps. But I wouldn’t be so sure. The mind is a marvelous sponge, picking up many messages and metaphors unconsciously, especially during this formative age. Studies are showing just how instrumental stories are in helping children understand the world around them. In fact, the joke is on us adults: stories are proving to be the most effective way of communicating complex, multi-dimensional information across large organizations and groups. Pie charts, graphs, and quantitative analysis are quickly forgotten, whereas a good story resonates long after the telling. So stories are important, and not just the purview of kindergarten. Not surprisingly, the business world has cottoned-on to this and now storytelling (one of my calling cards) is now being taken seriously, albeit cautiously. See Steve Denning's stuff for an intro.

Returning to the main point: the case I want to make—and why I welcome the Franco-reflection — is that an important role exists for external observer-critics like Yocaris. As Marshall McLuhan pilfering a Chinese proverb framed it "I don’t know who discovered water but it sure wasn’t a fish." We’re all fish at times; the only way we can get a clearer view of ourselves is through seeing things from the outside-in. This often involves juxtaposing different perspectives with our own. Through contrast we see the contours of both our own position, which may have some hidden assumptions, and the other viewpoint. We may even see overlap and commonality instead of difference. What a remarkably simple, commonsensical practice, when you think of it! And not coincidentally, this is how we learn. This also shows the power of diversity in action: why heterogeneity is a fundamentally good and practical thing, and why the current trend towards homogeneity in thinking and pop culture is so worrisome. Of course, this is not always a very comfortable experience. Reading Yocaris’ critique stings a little. It vexes us. It may confuse us. And granted in some cases, this process ends up badly. Worldviews do "clash", if we let them. However, I wager that a better future is one where this practice is just a matter of shared curiousity, where this understanding is happening in conversation. I also would bet that this is the preferred mode of operating for most of humanity, if they had their druthers.

We’re all responsible for doing this in our own lives. But I do think we need some skilled guides as well, some leadership from the trenches, some translators of the various meaning-streams converging and colliding, and thus in confusion. Yocaris tries to be one of these. For lack of a more elegant phrase, these folks would be excellent "cultural archeologists" or "memetic anthropologists". They should trace the genealogy of the dominating ideas and influences of our time. These people already exist, but they are rare, mainly because this is hard work and mainstream media hasn’t found places for them. But this gap in discourse is dangerous. (Please forward me your favourite guides. Let’s create a nice list.) While the focus is on America’s physical conquests, and quite rightly so, the country also needs a better understanding about the long-term consequences of its pop cultural conquest of the world. The mounting pushback to this dominance is still poorly understood and under-discussed, despite September 11th. As many people have pointed out, Al Qaeda's sickly ironic message was clear when it used America's own pop culture and symbols against itself, the destruction of the Twin Towers no doubt inspired by a Tom Clancy novel and Hollywood action flicks. By the by, this is a classic asymmetric warfare technique, which is a philosophy of warfare that uses soft power targets over hard power targets. (I write about soft power, "Size isn't everything" here.)

How untimely, then, that a deeper exploration of popular culture—a key actor in the repertoire of soft power weapons— seems to have gone out of fashion. Yet pop culture as a discipline, lamented one researcher I just met, is still considered too lowbrow and fluffy to be treated seriously. Indeed, 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). But who should we been looking to for navigation and insight for 2000s? Give me some names and links, svp. Where are the reputable think-tanks and departments devoted to these questions? Not many, I found in a quick scan. For now, here is one source: at a conference, I recently learned about The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis in Washington, DC.

Even if we fail to ignite a substantive exploration of pop culture, perhaps we can appeal to more fast-moving drivers. Like pure commercial motive and market cool-hunting, for instance? Or even more superficial than that: like unraveling a riddle, I find unpacking pop culture just plain fun. I can't really explain why this titillates me so. For instance, I remember geeking-out when someone deconstructed Pokeman by showing how it had embedded quintessential Japanese values in the game like collaboration as opposed to the more American zero-sum "winning" style in games. And these days I derive perverse delight when American pop culture boomerangs back home after its trajectory into non-western terrain. A friend of mine emailed me this " amusing story which he called “reverse globalization." In a nutshell, it’s about the wada pav (batter-fried mashed potato with bread & chutney), which is a daily fast-food staple of millions of Mumbai citizens. Now it has been branded and trademarked to compete with McDonald's, with a business plan to go global.

I predict this kind of "boomerang effect" is something we are going to see more of, and it will continue to surprise us. This will be an inevitable source of future disruptive innovations and market-stealers. Marketers, already unsure of where the new party is, really don't understand this complicated cultural dance yet. They aren't even looking yet, and thus don't get that the new vectors for innovation will not be white in colour. What Japan did to the automobile and consumer electronics industries in the 1980s was just the distant thunder of the market storm to come. I call this the “Revenge of the BRICS” scenario. (BRICs stand for Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator's Dilemma, and others allude to this all well in The Great Disruption" article. Conditions are ripe of waves of creative destruction. So Anglo-American world, watch out! Developing world entrepreneurs go for it! And marketers get with it— or get a new job. The exodus of your fellow ad executives may be just the beginning.

Getting back to the article, I can't resist throwing this back in Yocaris's face a little. For instance, I thought it interesting that Yocaris (and others in the discussion here in Paris) have conveniently skimmed over the "Muggles" concept, a construct that has some interesting social-cultural implications for France. Muggles, in Rowling's universe, are people without magic: those unfortunate people 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 Muggles invention 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 this escapes the author because France suffers from many aspects of Muggledom. Namely, culture conformity is enforced from an early age, especially within the educational system. French students in "le système" 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, the slightly anarchic suburbs outside of Paris.) In the French system, hierarchy and the status quo is to be preserved, and this message starts in the classroom. I know a parent who recently pulled her daughter out of the public high school in Paris, furiously declaring "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. Thus creativity and any chance of doing things differently are discouraged, if not completely preempted. I thought this statement a bit extreme, the feelings of a perhaps too-indulgent Californian mother, 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, and I’m still an early learner when comes to understanding this place. But this problem within the educational system is well known, yet still completely stuck and in paralysis as a French Minister recently admitted off the record at a conference in March.

So it’s the fish problem biting our backsides again: much like how Rowling probably wasn't conscious of the implicit worldview underpinning her stories, Yocaris is probably unaware how his Frenchness precludes him from seeing his own culture's issues within the story. Surely a tolerance of difference— what Muggledom tenaciously fights against —is one of the positive contributions that an Anglo-American worldview brings with it? Rowling, being a self-taught novelist, I can more easily forgive; however, Yocaris is a trained scholar, a deconstructionist no less, and should perhaps know better. Both, however, are making positive contributions. Both a getting people to talk, read and engage. An improbable, funny thing is happening as a result: we are hearing conversations that span the distance between the seemingly superficial and significant, a playful banter between the worlds of big ideas and entertainment, and back again. With pop culture as the bridge, perhaps we're already half way there to making these questions a focus of critical reflection? Perhaps.

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Wow, always a pleasure to read your elegant and thoughtful writing Nicole! Two sites you may like:

A bise,


Posted by: Alfredo on 23 Jul 04

Where have people been? In the '70s and mostly '80s when academia was hugely selling out to scientism and corporate contol, a brave little group of people started up the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture. For a time, they kept conversations going that brought solice to the soul and sharpened polycutural positions thru attention to the details of daily life, including pop culture, linked to archetypal patterns. Since then some of the best storytellers of my gen, Meade, Estes carry on with depth and style. As the vitality shifts relentlessly into places we cannot see with our day eyes, we need our writers to keep on sniffing about. Ventura is good at this.
Dallas Institute printed solid publications, esp Stirringa of Culture, ed. Sardello and a series of the delicious later works of that Frenchman Gaston Bachelard....Spring Journal, now out of New Orleans, is pretty racey, as is Spring Publications. This is more of the continuation of Renaissance moves grounding our fortunes here in contadiction and humors of there and about. I've heard now days that some of that vitality has moved on, but for that moment it held many of us from getting stuck in reactions as yet unreflected and gave the images a place to articulate.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 23 Jul 04



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