13 May 2012

(Welcome?) Changes

I think it was around February, maybe March, when I applied for a ‘Writing MA’ at my current university. And yesterday I got an email telling me my offer was finally made unconditional, which means I’m in. The selection was based on portfolio, so needless to say I am relieved as hell. While this does not mean that next year will be a relaxing one from a workload point of view (I’ve heard this particular MA is pretty tough), it will be a load off my back emotionally. After six straight years of philosophy, with little to no time, at least during the last two years, to focus on much else without pangs of guilt messing up my enjoyment of it, I’m more than ready for something new. Not that I will give up philosophy, of course not. It is probably too deeply engrained in my everyday life for me to just ‘escape’ it. That makes it sound so bad, like a demanding boyfriend – all I'm saying is it ties in with what I said a few days ago about elements in your life "moulding" you. Philosophy isn't exactly a virus. Or maybe it is, I don't know anymore. The thing is, I just don’t want to be a ‘philosopher’ exclusively. There are other things that investing my energy into makes me happy, and focussing solely on one single thing for too long can’t be good for you, otherwise Stephen King probably wouldn’t have written a book about it. Nor would G.W.F. Hegel, the philosopher I’m writing my dissertation on, whose work (the part I’m focussing on at least) implies that, when it comes to the activities you engage in in order to express yourself, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Conveniently enough, it seems that he agrees with me on diversity being key. Then again, I’ve spent over four months with my nose buried in his work – the least he can do is agree with me.
Anyways, I’m excited, and I can’t wait to put the final full stop on my dissertation so I can start a new episode in my life. 

11 May 2012

Claire Bretécher

Comic books are just that – books. And a lot of people read them the way they would read books: some read them the way one enjoys a novel, for pleasure. Others read them in a more academic way, analysing them critically as though they were tokens of the concerns and desires of a certain period of time, a certain demographic, etc. Basically, comic books and cartoons, like any other art form, can be found to capture the atmosphere of a time as conceived by their author, and their graphic aesthetics convey this to the reader often more clearly than words.

At this point I would like to pay a tiny tribute to a graphic artist and something of a sociologist in her own right: Claire Bretécher. Her cartoons have been around since the early '70s and have kept their wit and intelligence, paired with knobbly yet instantly likeable graphics, as they entered the '90s and became a part of my (finally somewhat literate) childhood. My parents had those cartoons lying around in the bathroom, the living room, and they appeared in a weekly newspaper that came to our house regularly. The humour is more or less deadpan, the characters are angry, frustrated, sometimes naive, and though she never allows them to look completely despicable, Bretécher does not take anyone's side and makes them fight their own battles. The setting is French-parisian middle-class society. The topics are, well, pretty much everything. I tend to separate Bretécher's work into two main categories, and I do this based solely on my concept of her work:

The first is "Agrippine", a character created and expanded throughout the late '80s, '90s and 2000s, and thus most relevant to me as she accompanied me through childhood and puberty. Conveniently enough, the eponymous main character is a parisian teenage girl, angry and cynical throughout the series, but with oddly nonchalant insight into the douchebaggery that surrounds her. Her daily feat consists of dealing with her peers at school, whom she finds alternately fascinating and ridiculously short-sighted, fighting her parents by throwing comically distorted fits of rage or frustrating them with unshakeable teenage logic, and finally, dealing with body image and the tragic realisation that she will probably never be famous. Sounds like a generic '90s teen, doesn't it? What is striking here, though, is the humour. The relationships between characters are overdrawn, and yet they never seem to veer too far from the possible. Another thing that is worth noting is that Agrippine is not pretty. Or maybe she is, but we can't tell because none of the characters in Bretécher's universe are drawn in a way that would make physical beauty easily discernible. After a while, we forget to ask ourselves what these characters would look like as real people and move on. This is similar to the aesthetic introduced by the Simpsons: physical appearance becomes secondary to the character's personality and his interaction with the world. And this interaction, in Agrippine especially, relies heavily on language. While the language in all of Bretécher's work is worth noting for its precise emulation of the actual language and expressions used by the group of people she is portraying, her parody of "teen speech" is remarkable, and I for one tremendously enjoy reading it. It's like code, and it takes you a while to figure out what the expressions Bretécher invents to put into her teen protagonists' mouthes. Though they sound like slang that could actually be in use, and you can find the occasional clue as to the logic behind its construction, it is still almost like a foreign language; it's a kind of mutant language, inspired by the real thing and then modified. If you've seen Clueless, or read/seen A Clockwork Orange, you'll know what I mean.
At this point I should probably say that I'm not sure whether Bretécher's comics are well-known, or indeed available, in the English-speaking world. If they are, I hope the translation does justice to the linguistic humour. If they are not, and you happen to speak French, I warmly recommend you give them a try.

The second category is "Les Frustrés", which is a collection of comics that deal mainly with sociological topics such as feminism, sexism, snobbism and the desperate attempts of the middle-class bourgeois to seem more bohemian. Occasionally, we are also privy to the frustrations that go with raising snotty-nosed brats who will not abide by one's idealistic standarts and just read Tintin or hit you over the head with a toy instead. And we get an insight into how hard it is to be those brats and to have parents who'd rather dump you into the arms of various clubs and activities rather than actually spend time raising you. We have secretaries enjoying everything about their job except the actual work, doctors with nervous breakdowns, and just generally intellectuals lounging on beanbags making their upcoming summer vacation sound less futile by boasting to their friends that they plan on re-reading all of Proust, because it just has to be done. The problem with Bretécher's humour is that to describe it like this makes it sound contrived and angry. I assure you, it is none of those things. Ultimately, she treats all of her characters, and the very human causes they represent, pretty much equally: with a lot of irony and perceptiveness, but also with a tenderness that hides between the roughness of her drawings, telling us that even though she sees through our bullshit, Bretécher hasn't lost faith in human beings. 

10 May 2012


I’d say they are due, as I don’t dabble in social media other than the real world. I am a post-grad, but I’d hate for that to define me. It has molded me, certainly, but so have a variety of factors. One of them, certainly, is living abroad. I haven’t lived at home (with my parents, that is) for over five years now, and every time I come back to their house I feel more and more like a guest. I’ve taken to asking for permission before I take a book out of the shelf, or turn the volume on the radio down. The fridge doesn’t contain the foods I enjoy eating on an everyday basis anymore, and whenever I come home my mum fills it with approximations of meals she remembers me liking a few years back. I suppose this is something most people experience as they move away from home, but this isn’t about my status as a special snowflake. Like many people, I have hair, I have increasingly wavering eyesight (something my studies have definitely had a hand in), I have dry skin, which, in spite of being an organ, behaves more and more like a tabloid set on divulging to people I don’t get as much sleep as my body requires. And, again, like a lot of people my age I actually enjoy taking care of all these things that cover me: I like experimenting with different foods, tonics, lotions, oils, anything fragrant and interesting and potentially contributory to positive changes in my skin and state of mind. I like finding out whether or not something works for me, and making notes on these things. – I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the form this introduction will take, because it is easiest to introduce yourself to an invisible audience by listing what you like, in a “you are what you like” kind of fashion. So what else do I like? I like makeup. Not for everyday wear, but I do like face-painting, making myself look like a dragon or drag queen or what have you. This started about four years ago, when I was doing my undergraduate studies and had a lot of time to waste on the internet. Like many girls, this is one obsession I get to blame mainly on youtube. Another thing I like to spend time on is cooking. This didn’t use to be the case a while ago: I spent my undergraduate years in Germany, and though organic food at reasonable prices was readily available, I just didn’t spend much time worrying about how to create intricate meals out of the combination of 5+ edible elements. Mainly, I threw dry stuff into a pan, added water, incorporated a few vegetables, because fibre (!) and sat on the bed (I had no table other than my desk, which served as bookshelf/rat-cage-holder) stuffing my face and lol’ing at the Simpsons. Probably sounds familiar to most of students. Or non-students, for that matter. Come to think of it, I don’t actually remember all that much from my undergrad studies other than a vague, blurry mix of sensations that could have technically taken place at any time. Sure, I can concentrate and maybe extract one or two specific memories from the blur, like meeting someone in town for coffee or idling on my bed with my feet in a rectangle of sunlight, but mostly it’s just one big warm sunny day involving both stress and enjoyment. It would be interesting to get an insight into how other people remember their past, and how it affects their relation to the present and perhaps the future. If anyone else feels like what they want from life, what drives them, is attaining, not a certain concrete goal (though some of those are nice to have) or status, but to get to a point where one is constantly immersed in a certain kind of atmosphere. I’ll try to explain: when I think back to the past, I become nostalgic, but this nostalgia is not directed at something specific I did; I do not become nostalgic for, say, the dance classes I took, or the people I hung out with at a certain period of time, or taking a camping trip. What I become nostalgic for is a feeling that I somehow connect with ‘the past’, and, as corny as it sounds, it is a kind of feeling similar to that of waking up early on a sunny day when you have the whole day in front of you and you get to choose what this day will be like. You’d probably think it would make more sense for me to revel in the future, then, and you’d probably be right. But that’s the annoying thing about nostalgia, it infiltrates your present mindset and draws you to the past, and because we’re all beings more or less conscious of our mortality, we prefer a state in which we are further away from death rather than closer to it. But I think I’ve diverged from the course of this post far enough... my mind does that a lot. It resembles a stray puppy more than anything else. Maybe a child in a supermarket. Anyway. Back to defining myself by listing things I appreciate. But what would such a list be without taking into account things I don’t like? I don’t like mushrooms. Of any kind. It has nothing to do with their seemingly hybrid nature. Nor, even, with their taste, weirdly enough. Mainly, it’s about how they look when cooked and sitting on my plate, cosily nestled in my food. It looks like a piece of zombie flesh, not that this makes any sense at all. Moving on. Another thing I dislike is vulgarity, and I suppose I’m not alone with that, though I imagine everyone’s concept of vulgarity will differ. I don’t think I’ll spend too much time on this topic, as it is something I enjoy complaining about occasionally, but rarely in written form. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood what compels people to write letters to magazines. Or attack people on social platforms. Unless they are being deliberately offensive and appear to be seeking a reaction of sorts, I don’t think most people upload content trying to provoke you into telling them they are stupid, or ugly, or fat, or of a sexual orientation that for some reason might not sit well with your view of the world. But I suppose all this belongs in a different post. So, wrapping this up because it is attaining ridiculous lengths: a last passion I will divulge here is writing. What a surprise this must come as. Anyway, I am about to finish my current MA, which is in philosophy, and to start another one next year, which will be in creative writing, something I hope this blog will help with, if only to get over the anxiety of shoving my writing into people’s faces and the possibility of rejection that goes with it. 
Finally, because this definitely deserves a “tl;dr”: I am a girl. I am a student. I am 24.