Monthly Archives: August 2017

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 August 2017

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s new book is a timely Washington D.C.-based political thriller.

Presumably finished soon after Donald Trump won the presidency in November last year, To Kill The President begins with an unnamed, newly elected and manically unstable Commander in Chief stopped at the last minute from ordering an unprovoked nuclear strike on North Korea – a storyline that got Freedland plenty of media exposure during the recent US-North Korean nuclear standoff.

Operating in the shadows is the president’s calculating, deeply unpleasant chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara, clearly based on the recently departed Steve Bannon.

Fighting the good liberal fight is Maggie Costello, a former UN aid worker and peace negotiator now working in the White House’s Counsel Office. Ordered to investigate the mysterious death of the President’s personal doctor, she uncovers a plot to assassinate POTUS, grappling with the personal, moral and political repercussions of her discovery. Should she try to stop the murder of the democratically elected head of state, or would the US and the world be a better place if the ignorant and dangerous demagogue was six feet under? This conundrum isn’t as interesting as Freedland thinks it is but nonetheless it’s an entertaining plot device, one that encourages the reader to root for the assassin, in a similar way to Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The centrality of the assassination plot means the book is inescapably premised on a particularly elite view of history – that the real power resides with Great Men and that significant, long-lasting political change is triggered if they are disposed. Social movements, grassroots activism, broad historical currents – all are ignored.

Talking of politics, as a long-time reader of Freedland’s Guardian articles, I was interested to see if his brand of liberal, establishment-friendly politics would be reflected in his writing, or whether he was a skilled enough author to escape, or atleast think critically about, his increasingly irrelevant worldview (e.g. his article just before the general election about Labour’s fortunes titled ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’).

Spoiler alert: it’s the former.

Diligently following the press pack, lamentably the book is preoccupied with the supposed dangers of social media, and those liberal bête noires – so-called Fake News and post-truth politics. In contrast Media Lens told the Morning Star last year the “media performance” of the corporate liberal media “is itself largely fake news”, arguing the term is deployed to demonise social media and bolster the corporate media. Indeed, Freedland isn’t averse to some post-truth politics himself. For example, “when violence resumed in Gaza” was how he described/dismissed, on BBC Question Time, Israel’s 2014 one-sided bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children, according to the United Nations.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office – who Costello reverentially remembers serving under – is represented as a benign, wise, rational man. Laughably, at one point Freedland writes that this Obama-like figure insisted an investigation into a “mid-ranking official” in his own administration had as wide a remit as possible to make sure it uncovered any corruption going on. Again, this power worship shouldn’t be surprising when one considers Freedland’s quasi-religious account of Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”, he breathlessly recorded.

“We will miss him when he’s gone”, he wrote about president No. 44, who had bombed seven nations, killing thousands of men, women and children, during his presidency. Freedland has acted as a defacto unpaid intern in the White House press office for decades. “I had seen a maestro at the height of his powers. Clinton was the Pele of politics, and we might wait half a century to see his like again”, he gushed at the end of Bill Clinton’s time in office in 2000. “I will miss him”.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask from To Kill A President, but the book – and no doubt Freedland – shows no awareness of the relationship between Obama’s neoliberal, status quo-saving politics and the rise of Trump. Or the key role played by liberal commentators such as Freedland in shielding the Wall Street-funded Obama from serious criticism.

Though it doesn’t match the excitement levels or political conspiracy of the best in the genre – think the unthreatening and simplistic politics of TV show Designated Survivor rather than the radicalism of Costa Gavras’s Z or the lightening pace of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels – Freedland has written an enjoyable page-turner. Just don’t read it to understand US politics, the Trump presidency or how real progressive change might be made in America.

To Kill The President is published by HarperCollins, priced £7.99.

 

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The Myth of Dunkirk

The Myth of Dunkirk
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 July 2017

The British public, one of my university tutors once said, are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The events surrounding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in late May 1940 are no exception. The popular story – one of the foundation stones of modern British national identity – goes something like this: facing the German army, the brave British forces were let down by their French and Belgian allies, and forced to retreat to the coast where they were evacuated to safety by the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ manned by volunteer civilian seafarers, given the opportunity to fight another day, and eventually help to win the war. Victory, the nation was told, was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It hasn’t been mentioned much but Christopher Nolan’s new Dunkirk movie isn’t the first blockbuster with that name. That honour belongs to Leslie Norman’s 1958 hit black and white feature. Watching Norman’s film today – made in the aftermath of the 1956 ‘Suez Crisis’ (AKA Britain’s invasion of Egypt) – it’s easy to laugh knowingly at its quaint nationalism and repetition of the Dunkirk myth. But while Nolan’s film is an incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience, politically it deviates little from Norman’s unquestioning picture made nearly 60 years earlier. Indeed, Nolan’s film has received glowing reviews in conservative organs including the Telegraph (“heart-hammering and heroically British”), the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, which said it should be “compulsory” viewing.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the popular Dunkirk narrative either downplays or omits to mention completely.

First, as Max Hasting notes in his 2011 history of the war All Hell Let Loose, it is important to recognise that “disproportionate historical attention has focused upon the operations of the small British contingent, and its escape to Dunkirk” in accounts of the fighting in May-June 1940. In reality “the British role was marginal”, he explains. “The overriding German objective was to defeat the French army.”

With the German army quickly advancing through Belgium, in his book 1940: Myth and Reality Clive Ponting notes the British started pulling back from the frontline without telling the Belgian forces on their flank. British forces also refused requests from the French high command to fight alongside French forces (British soldiers were formally under French command at the time), says Ponting. Writing in his diary, General Pownall, Chief of Staff to the Commander of the BEF, described the Belgium military as “rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves.” Asked about the possibility of evacuating Belgians troops, Pownall replied “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians”.

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy”, according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding the perpetrator replied “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation. This policy, combined with the widespread fear of ‘fifth columnists’, led to a “large number of executions without trial”, writes James Hayward in his book Myths and Legends of the Second World War. For example, Harman notes the Grenadier Guards shot seventeen suspected spies in the Belgian village of Helchin.

With the evacuation at Dunkirk moving ahead, Ponting notes “the British relied on their allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners.” On 29 May French troops were manhandled off British ships – a fractious relationship highlighted in Nolan’s film. “There are many reported incidents of British officers and soldiers resorting to firing upon their French counterparts at Dunkirk”, Prysor notes. In the end around 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued, including 125,000 French troops.

And what of the “little boats of Dunkirk”? As the historian Angus Calder notes in his 1991 book The Myth of the Blitz “Few members of the British Expeditionary Force owned their passage to ‘little ships’ manned by civilian volunteers”.

Moreover, former Telegraph editor Hasting argues that like all significant historical events “the legend of Dunkirk was besmirched by some uglinesses”.

“A significant number of British seaman invited to participate in the evacuation refused to do so, including the Rye fishing fleet and some lifeboat crews”, he notes. According to Calder the Royal Navy had to commandeer boats in Devon whose owners would not volunteer. However, this is not surprising – Calder explains the British public was only informed of the evacuation in the evening of 31 May, by which time around three-quarters of British personnel had been rescued, so it’s likely many would not have known what they were volunteering for.

Rather than the simplistic and patronising bedtimes stories the British public have been told at school, by the news media, television and film industry, the evidence presented here points to a complicated, sometimes unpleasant – more human – reality.

However, as George Orwell once wrote about the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark”. This happens “without the need for any official ban”, he argued, but by “a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” The accuracy of Orwell’s truism is demonstrated by the reverence the allied role in the Second World War continues to be held in – across the political spectrum it seen as the Good War, the ultimate Just War.

The problem with this framing, the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

Can it really be a Good War when it included “Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men”, according to historian A.C. Grayling? Were the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US knew the Japanese government was on the verge of surrendering, part of a Just War? What noble aims and values lay behind British forces working with German collaborators to violently suppress the popular anti-German resistance movement in Greece in 1944-5? Were British forces rescued from Dunkirk so at the end of the war British troops could work with the defeated Japanese forces to crush nationalist uprisings in Vietnam and Indonesia, as written about by the journalist Ian Cobain and historian John Newsinger, respectively? And while we are at it, why were tens of thousands of British troops ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in summer 1940?

Where are the blockbuster films about these campaigns conducted by British forces and their allies in the Second World War?

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2017

Since Trump was elected President of the United States the Democratic Party establishment and Hillary Clinton supporters have blamed everyone – including FBI Director James Comey, the Russian government and backers of Bernie Sanders – except the Democratic candidate herself.

How I Lost puts the spotlight firmly on Clinton, arguing she lost because she is “an economic and political elitist and a foreign policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans”.

The book’s wheeze is that Clinton is the author, based on the fact it’s largely based on Clinton’s own words taken from her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails – both leaked by Wikileaks last year. However, Clinton’s authorship is a red herring – it is former Wall Street Journal correspondent Joe Lauria who provides the important context and inconvenient facts (for Clinton anyway) to help the reader make sense of all the leaked information. Wikileaks Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange provides the book’s foreword.

The emails paint a picture of Clinton and her team as deeply Machiavellian characters, her “embrace of centrist neoliberalism” completely out of touch with our turbulent political times. Journalists are shown to have an extremely cosy relationship with Clinton’s campaign, while emails are presented showing that Clinton’s entourage and the Democratic Party establishment colluded to crush Sander’s insurgent campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency. The Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee sent Clinton’s team advanced warning of questions to be asked by the audience in debates between Sanders and Clinton, while the DNC’s Chief Financial Officer suggested to the DNC Communications Manager that Sanders should be challenged about his religious beliefs, which they saw as a potential weakness.

On foreign policy, the emails highlight Clinton as an aggressive military interventionist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the “shit show” (Barack Obama’s description) that is Libya. Though she publically called for the US setting up no-fly zones in Syria, in a private 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs she suggested caution as it would “kill a lot of Syrians.”

So how can Trump and the Republicans be defeated at the next presidential election? Lauria is clear: the Democrats need to “find a candidate seriously committed to reversing the betrayal of the party’s traditional working-class base and restore the badly eroded New Deal.” Who that should be is unclear, though one thing is undeniable – it can’t be Clinton or someone with her politics.

How I Lost by Hillary Clinton is published by OR Books, priced £14.

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2017

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, is Co-Editor of the book Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

I asked Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.


Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it +matters+ whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity – which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’ – even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture – even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on. One of the things this does – for us – is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected +and+ creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.