May 12th, 2011
Contrary to what you might have read in some Paul Cornell comic, it’s not all about cosy moderation in modern Britain. In fact, anyone with a functioning TV internet connection set of eyeballs could tell you that the citizenry have spent much of the last year very loudly rejecting the actions of their current government.
New Statesman columnist and freelance journalist Laurie Penny has provided the most incisive ground level commentary on these events. She also pisses all the right people off, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the chance to interview her about geek culture and politics for this very site!
Anyway, that’s enough of my blather. Here’s Laurie:
Firstly I wanted to say how honoured I am to be asked for an interview. I’ve been reading Mindless Ones on and off for years, and I love this blog. I rarely ever get the chance to talk about geek stuff, and I got a bit carried away.
Illogical Volume: You’re best known as a political journalist and riot grrl about town, but we noticed the Warren Ellis quote on your blog and the mentions of white badges and Battlestar on your twitter so we were wondering how much of a geek you are in your, uh, secret identity?
When I tell people ‘I’m actually quite geeky,’ they usually don’t believe me. Then I mention tabletop role playing and they go quiet and change the subject. Dungeons and dragons was my gateway geekery when I was about thirteen, progressing swiftly to Vampire: The Masquerade, in which I played Ravnos-Malkavian and every male member of the team played a sexy bass-guitar playing vampire lesbian. D’D was literally the only way for a weird, spekky, nerdy teenage girl to meet eligible men at that age: you could be, just for instance, the kind of strange gothy nutcase with unbrushed hair who hides in wheelie bins reading and jumps when anyone speaks to you, but walk into the play room with a packet of biscuits and you’re a godess. One of my teammates introduced me to Sandman and Buffy and that was it, really.
I’m a comics geek, a SF geek, a telly geek – my favourites are Battlestar and Babylon 5 – a Dr Who geek, which is quite separate from other telly, a sex geek, and a roleplay geek. I’ve even done LARPing, though I couldn’t quite take it seriously. Although sometimes I have watched police laying into kids at protests and thought, ‘fuck, double strikedown!’
Illogical Volume: Which comic or comic creator speaks most to you politically and why?
Politically? Warren Ellis. I first read Transmetropolitan when I was about 17, and knew instantly that this was a hugely important work – it spoke directly to the bit of me that was already writing articles and editing underground student papers, that believed that something in this society was deeply, weirdly off-kilter, that culture was cannibalising itself and that fearless journalism really could save the world, or at least a tiny part of it. It was and is romantic, but I don’t think there’s any harm in that, particularly not at that age.
Later on, when I left uni and started making a shot at writing full-time, I re-read the series. I remembered how much I loved the Yelena Rossini character, and as I happened to be short, gothy, stampy and foul-mouthed anyway, I decided to go ahead and start writing as if Yelena lived in London in 2007, was a feminist and had a blog. That was the model I had in my head when I started and I just ran with it, because it made me a little braver and more confident. I’m now actually friends with Warren – he’s doing the foreword for my new column book, and gives me lots of avuncular advice via intermittent exchanges of drunken emails. Which is weird and squeeful. I’ve been incredibly lucky in how things have turned out, really.
Elseways, I get something new out of The Invisibles and The Filth every time I read them. Also, book four of Morrison’s run on X-Men is one of the most perfect dissections of nascent adolescent political rage and iconoclasm ever done, although Quiteley’s art has a lot to do with that. Alan Moore’s take on the Cold War in Watchmen is wonderful, but at the moment the comic everyone seems to be referencing in the anti-cuts movement is V for Vendetta. Which is a little bit fucking worrying, really. But when you look at the photos of the Westminster Bridge kettle on the 9th of December you can’t help but get a bit of a chill. England prevails…
Illogical Volume: How close are we to V for Vendetta territory are we, in your estimation? D’you find any significance in the Anonymous masks, the internet troll culture? Or is that just for antagonising $cilons?
Well, V for Vendetta is a vision of how fascism would look in Britain. There are a lot of problems with the way this country is run, but we are not yet a fascist state. Some of the aesthetic hallmarks have a great deal of resonance, as does the constant invocation of the threat of terrorism to punish resistance and manufacture consent. The book and film are incredibly prophetic in that respect.
The model of resistance offered in V4V strikes a far more coherent chord. Anonymous is its own separate thing, an anarchic and brilliant thing, but the wider concept of anonymity itself as a political statement – whether online or offline – is gaining more and more ground as a way of rebelling against a political culture that not only seeks to root out unsavory elements with surveillance but which mandates individuality as a form of rigid conformity. Think about it: it you grow up being commanded to self-actualise, to be the best individual you can be, to define yourself by buying things, to be yourself and find your special centre and compete with your neighbors and colleagues, then choosing to be anonymous is an inherently revolutionary act, quite apart from the organising possibilities the phenomenon offers. Plus, there’s a growing sense that there is a great deal of power in the collective, in sharing a sense of solidarity, symmetry and protection in anonymity. The internet doesn’t change that, it just makes it all a hell of a lot easier to do.
The question of whether or not it is moral, politic or practically a good idea to cover one’s face whilst doing direct action is one that entire theses have been written on. The notion behind the black bloc shares some fundamental similarities with the idea behind the V masks, as I’ve said, but there are differences – in V4V, you have a character, a consciously created revolutionary storybook figure whose motions anyone can mimic. Black bloc is anarchy (in the philosophical sense of anarchy) without personality, and that’s a different kind of political statement.
Illogical Volume: Just how fucked are the Lib Dems, do you think? Have they been successfully used as hate-sponges by the Tories, or are they just returning to the low poll number they’ve received in the early ninties?
The Liberal Democrats are ruined as a political party. It’s the entirely unsurprising death of liberal England. The Tories decided to use them as a human shield, soaking up the worst of public dissapprobium and rubber-stamping the most poisonous and innhumane of their policies with a bit of liberal legitimacy, and it worked. But Liberal reformism isn’t enough any more – far more radical changes are needed to stop most people’s lives becoming rapidly and permanently worse in this country. The Lib Dems put themselves forward as a party of protest, they turned around and reneged on all their important promises and behaved like all the other equivocating smiling Westminster bastards, and then they have the temerity to wonder why nobody likes them anymore.
Illogical Volume: You’ve been accused of dealing in “fiction” by some of the more rabid internet commentators, particularly in relation to your write-up of the events in Trafalgar Square on 26th March. This brings to mind two questions, (i) Do you think that the actions of the police in the miners strikes have already become forgotten history, just more grizzly details from a David Peace novel instead of something that actually happened?, and (ii) It seems hard to imagine that you might have the time in between your other commitments, but do you write any fiction?
I used to write a bit of fiction – and a bit of fanfiction, although none of it was ever on the internet, so don’t bother looking. I’ve always wanted to write a dystopian novel, and have one all planned out in my head, but I’ve no idea when I’ll ever find time to set it down.
In journalism, it’s always important to deal in the truth as far as possible. That’s why I don’t, despite all the smears, make things up in any of my reports: I tell the truth as I see it, it’s just not always the truth that gets reported in the Daily Mail. I don’t mind admitting to a bit of partiality: I am a person on the left, and solidarity has to mean something, but partiality is not the same thing as fabrication. Nor is fiction the same thing as narrative: good journalists don’t tell lies, but they do tell stories. It’s right there in journo shorthand: it’s never ‘what happened?’, it’s ‘what’s the story?’.
People live their lives through narratives and stories, the tales we tell each other to help ourselves deal with our short lives on this fucked-up planet, or the stories we’re told to persuade us to swallow all that right-wing bullshit. The Big Society is a story; the Royal Family is a story; the resistance movement is also a story, and they all contain important truths. Sometimes you pick those stories apart, sometimes you reject their terms, and sometimes you offer a different story altogether: but you never hide in half-truths. There’s no need to.
Illogical Volume: We joked about your “secret identity” earlier, but it now occurs that we first knew you as Penny Red. Reading your recent piece, on Riots and Romance, I was wondering how much you had consciously created a persona for yourself, and either way how that impacts on your statement that “A real campaigning journalist should be able to amplify unheard voices without distorting them”?
See above on Transmet, really. Penny Red was a cartoon character I created back when noone read my blog, a sort of armour, a way of writing about ideas and events that make me feel angry and powerless as if I really could be a hero and change things. Now I mostly write under my own name, which means using that persona a little less.
Laurie Penny has only been my name for a few years, though – my given name was something else – so I suppose that’s a bit of a persona, too. That’s the geek thing, really. It’s all about personas and stories, costumes and scenarios that give you new perspectives on the savage reality. As long as you don’t let yourself disappear into a fantasy world, it can be incredibly liberating. I reckon being a geek can makes you a far better political thinker, as long as one as one avoids the tendency to self-isolate, or to fall into the pattern of thinking that computers and the free market will save the world. Also, geeks are much better in bed. They’ve read the manuals, and some of them turn out to have exciting kit.
Illogical Volume: You were on 10 O’Clock Live recently. Did you get to touch Charlie Brooker – you know, him off the telly? It’s not that we’d be deeply envious if you did, but..
I didn’t get to touch him, but I did accidentally sit on his bag and coat in the Green Room. He called me a ‘fucker’. Twice. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Illogical Volume: What about prose writers, either in the traditionally “geeky” territory of genre fiction or outside of it? Is there anyone whose work is particularly resonant for you, politically or otherwise?
Oh fuck, so many. Politically, China Mieville, Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod are my absolute favourites – all different flavours of comrade. When I worked for the Morning Star, they let me interview all of them. I usually don’t get nervous about meeting important people, but when it’s sci-fi writers I go completely squeeful and fangirly. Having said that, one of my best friends and mentors in the whole wide world is the critic, poet and sci-fi writer Roz Kaveney, whose magnum opus is finally coming out next year.
Back when I used to be a teacher, I ran special classes on feminist science fiction, books like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Suzette Haden Elgin’s neglected Native Tongue Series. In terms of interesting ideas about gender, politics and sexuality, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is fascinating – some of the stories are based on Shulamith Firestone’s discourses in The Dialectic of Sex – as well as just being addictively trashy space-opera romps.
Ultimately though, all science fiction is political – it can’t help being political, because it’s all about imagining and creating new worlds, and new ideas for how society could function. If you’re inclined to believe that redistribution of wealth is a great thing, you will write one sort of sci-fi book; if you believe the market will one day give you an Invisible Hand Job, you’ll write another. What would the world look like if we had solved the energy crisis, if we were a post-scarcity or post-singularity culture? What would the world look like if men and women were truly equal, if we had cured cancer? What would happen if the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed, or if the Act of Union had? Those are questions only science fiction can answer. It’s about expanding one’s political imagination to the limits of the possible.
Oh, and the best political satirist of our age, bar none, is Terry Pratchett. I’m a lifelong fan, I’ve read them all.
Big thanks to Zom, Botswana Beast and bobsy for helping with the questions, and to Laurie for agreeing to this in the first place then taking the time to write such brilliant, in-depth answers!