Sunday, March 1, 2020

Why Are We Still Talking About James Bond in 2020?

To say that James Bond is the most famous of fictional spies, defining if not the image of the spy then at least a particular popular image of the spy, would be uncontroversial. Yet the simple truth is that Ian Fleming's creation of James Bond was not the moment of the invention of this style of secret agent. Rather he updated what was by then the half century old genre of fiction about such figures established by Erskine Childers in The Riddle of the Sands and, still more, William Le Queux in Secrets of the Foreign Office: Describing the Doings of Duckworth Drew of the Secret Service. The old clubland heroes had operated in a context where Britain appeared, if threatened and even in decline, still the predominant power of the day; where espionage appeared an individualistic adventure. The heroes themselves were ostentatiously, inaccessibly upper-class; chaste; genteel; in line with Edwardian ideals.

None of this was quite as plausible or as appealing circa 1953. Britain had officially lost much of its empire (the Indian Empire was formally independent now, the Dominions more assertive of their practical independence), and was fast losing the rest, while struggling with the bankruptcy brought on by three decades of world war and economic depression, and eclipsed in global economic and political life by the growing might of an increasingly outward-looking, world-trading and politically activist United States with five times' its Gross Domestic Product. The Bretton Woods financial system, the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—these were above all American creations that made that country more the workshop of the world, the creditor of the world, the setter and enforcer of the rules for everyone else in the system, and the marshal of the West than Britain had been even at its long-ago height. Meanwhile, if there were still those who sang the romance of the spy, the fact remained that the bureaucratization of national security, far from unknown even a generation earlier (W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden appeared way back in 1928), was all the harder to ignore not only as a result of long and increasing familiarity, but in the wake of six years of world war that had seen the British state ascend to new heights with regard to size, complexity, intrusiveness, control in British life.

And of course, at a time when Britian's upper classes had seen their privilege challenged and in respects even curtailed by imperial decline and post-war austerity, and by the domestic reform demanded by British working people finally achieving some success in asserting themselves, the image of clubland was less relevant or acceptable. The old sexlessness, too, was decreasingly credible. And where their taste in thrillers was concerned, Britons increasingly gravitated to the tougher, more cynical outlook of the hard-boiled fiction developed on the other side of the Atlantic by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and imitated for local consumption by the likes of James Hadley Chase.

Fleming's adventures, however, found a place for a British secret agent to have adventures in the old way within this Americanized, organized world. If Britain was far along the trajectory of decline, it was still a global presence, economically and militarily, with its remaining colonies and post-colonial defense arrangements and its sterling area, while in its participation in the broad Western alliance, and especially its "special relationship" with the United States, still a country with global interests, and where needed, America a prop to its resources enabling it to continue acting globally. If espionage had become bureaucratized, making the vast majority of those in intelligence cogs in the machine, Fleming was prepared to acknowledge the fact, even make the workings of that machinery a point of interest (making a great show of letting the reader in on the secrets of Bond's world in, for instance, the opening chapter of Moonraker), while concentrating on the exceptions to the image of a vast machine grinding away—those rare times when the individual mattered, with "double-o" operatives taking their orders directly from the chief of the whole organization once every year setting off on some adventuresome special assignment that will come to involve old-fashioned derring-do.

The character of Bond himself was substantially updated in these respects as well. Fleming is rather vague on Bond's background, which he did not think about all that much until faced with having to write an obituary for him in the character's eleventh novel. Obviously it is far from proletarian (we even learn Bond went to that most public school-y of public schools, Eton, as Fleming had), but his Bentley is secondhand, and he only gets into a place like M's club Blades as a guest; a man who certainly has glamorous experiences, but more generally as a result of his government position than his inherited resources—not nonexistent, but far from adequate to keep him in great style. (Indeed, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, it is "backdoor semi-aristocratness" rather than the just plain aristocratness of that antecedent most likely to be named, Bulldog Drummond.) About the author's preparedness to treat of the series protagonist's sex life hardly anything need be said here, and the same can almost be said for the harder edge of the adventures, their hard-boiled-flavored cynicism and violence far removed from the world of a Duckworth Drew.

As history shows, these adjustments did the trick. And it may be said that, much as the world has changed and popular taste changed with it since 1953 (with Britain thoroughly post-imperial, the bureaucratic-technological quotient in intelligence beggaring any imagination of the '50s, and of course, notions about gender and sex much changed, enough so that one may question whether it is not all terribly out of date), there is an extent to which it still does the trick in a way that those older stories in whose wake Bond followed do not—at least, enough to allow for a credible makeover. (Truth be told, the more recent print versions of the character have strained to keep Britain a global actor in the old way, while the gender politics have become nearly unrecognizable.) It matters, too, that many of those writers who had similarly made a name for themselves in the genre in those years were, for all their accomplishments, and their popularity with audiences in their heyday, to prove less enduring (William Haggard's Colonel Russell novels, huge in the '50s, vanished into obscurity today, a case in point).

It matters also that the way in which espionage has developed since 1953 has not lent itself well to appealing images which might have replaced 007 in popular fiction. Not only has the field grown more bureaucratized, but it has grown more technologized as well in very particular ways. The mass surveillance of communications by the ECHELON/"Five Eyes" program, the intensive computerization of everyday life, the endless multiplication of the cameras pointed at anything and everything from above the counter at the corner store to near-Earth orbit to the drones increasingly filling the skies—the drones that are now used not only to watch the suspecting, but as a matter of routine, to kill them in cold blood from thousands of miles away—inspire revulsion, not romance. And of course, the sorts of technical specialists who happen to man these systems are stereotyped as anything but the dashing hero in a society ever more relentless in its nerd-bashing.

Of course, all that would have mattered a good deal less had it not been for the existence of a screen 007 far better known to the world than even the print version. Again, its success was not a matter of any novelty in the spy trappings. As a glance at the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "road" film Road to Hong Kong (which hit theaters a half year before Bond's big screen debut in Dr. No) demonstrates, or the remarks of all those critics who looked at the early Bond films and took them for some sort of weird parody of Hitchcock or B-grade science fiction, all that stuff was already cliché in 1962.

The key thing was instead the technique of presentation, which was nothing short of ground-breaking. The "high concept" film that plays like a two-hour commercial because it is at bottom a commercial for itself, with its quick-cutting succession of striking visuals mattering more than the story they convey, its luxuriating in a luxurious lifestyle, its brand name recognition that achieves and exploits a franchise success; that particular variant of this concept, the action-adventure film where what grabs and holds the viewer is a swift succession of shocks, substantially generated by spectacular set pieces filmed and edited for the maximum sensory effect (and everything else from narrative logic to character drama takes a back seat to that); the "blockbuster" mode of marketing and releasing films, with campaigns leading up to a wide release to bring the audience out up front, on opening weekend, while a tidal wave of related merchandise hits the stores to add mightily to the earnings from ticket sales—the Bond series did each and every one of these things first in its earliest films, just about covering the list by the time Thunderball hit theaters. Indeed, the producers of the EON Bond films substantially mastered this approach about a decade before upstarts like George Lucas and Don Simpson would begin guiding Hollywood along this path, and where action-adventure was concerned, Hollywood would still be in the process of assimilating the lesson into the '80s.

This is not the sort of innovation that literary or film historians tend to admire. But Bond's originality and ultimate significance in that innovation are undeniable. And if rarely spelled out in proper fashion, in part because those with the training to properly spell out such things cannot be bothered to do so, that is what really gave the series its place in popular consciousness at the time, what supplied the cachet it has since had, what the sequels that came out after the end of the series' really innovative period (the first half dozen films of the '60s) have traded on ever since in ways from recycled formulas to audience affections to retain some standing as what had been unique to the Bond series became commonplace, and then ubiquitous (along with the constant updating of the veneer in ways from new opening theme songs to more advanced special effects).

Fleming's updating of what in his time had become the worn-out image of the heroic spy. The filmmakers' transformation of Fleming's update into the first of the high-concept action-adventure film blockbusters. One can, of course, point to other aspects of the franchise that seem to merit remark, but where Bond's standing as a pop cultural fixture two-thirds of a century after Fleming began banging away at his typewriter is concerned, that is what matters. One may regard it as a rather slight basis for the continued cranking out of new James Bond films, new James Bond books, new James Bond everything, but crank it out they do, and, along with the cooperativeness of the mass media with such sales pitches and the general credulousness of the general public apart, that is why the pop cultural news pages are subjecting us to the early phase of a publicity blitz in preparation of the public for the twenty-fifth film of the series, due out at the beginning of next month.

The Real Reason No One is Reading Your Blog

I have long regarded what we so inaccurately call "self-help" with deep distaste.

Ultimately, the reason for all that is that its premises are deeply at odds with reality.

Self-help culture assumes that life is some kind of individual test where individual outcomes accurately reflect individual virtue, or the lack thereof. It assumes that one is in total control of their life, that their problems are entirely of their own making, that all they need is the generic "one size fits all" advice it offers to enable them to unmake the problem and live the life they want.

You can be a billionaire! Everyone can be a billionaire! Yes, all eight billion of us on this planet! They just need to do what it is in this book/seminar/program.

And if they don't, well, whatever happens to them is their fault.

The stupidity--and cruelty--of this ultra-simplistic outlook beggar description.

And yet it goes on flourishing.

As anyone familiar with the nonfiction book market knows, apart from gossip (memoir, biography and autobiography and "history" and "current affairs" indistinguishable from either, tabloidy "journalism" like so much true crime), self-help (especially if one counts in those diet books that have somehow never put a dent in the obesity problem, and overtly religious tracts coming from the same place) is pretty much all the publishers sell to a broad audience.

A certain amount of this, of course, is directed at those attempting to make a name or a place or a career for themselves online, writing for an audience. For instance, bloggers whom such "gurus" presume to give advice about "why people are not reading your blog."

You, they snarl, are not going about it the right way. You do not post frequently enough. Your posts are uninteresting. You do not pay enough attention to feedback. You do not have each and every post professionally edited and copyedited in advance of posting. Your blog is not pretty enough.

And so on and so forth.

But the reality is that while the prospect of writing professionally has always assumed a low ratio of content creators to content consumers--one to many thousands, or millions--the ratio, in the age of social media, seems to be approaching one-to-one.

The reality is that computer screens lend themselves poorly to any sort of long-form reading--which people are less inclined to attempt in any medium with each passing year as the alternative uses of time multiply, and the pessimist would say, the requisite faculties wither. Meanwhile the ratio of creators to consumers may be even higher here than with other kinds of online content, because of that faintness of demand relative to supply. (Fellow bloggers, how much time do you spend reading other people's blogs relative to working on your own?)

The reality is that the search engines are not friends to most of the "competitors." Secretive as the companies which created them may be about the algorithms that spit out the results, the reality is that they favor those who have been successful in the past over those trying for success now, favor those who are associated with high-profile platforms over those striking out on their own, favor those who pay to be promoted. Thus go your chances of being at the top of the list of search results--any distance from which hits means the exponential decay of the chances of anyone clicking the link at all.

The reality is that in these circumstances the only real hope for the obscure, no matter their talent, is going viral--and as I have had occasion to remark before, nothing ever goes viral.

No, it isn't that you are necessarily doing anything wrong.

Rather it is that whether you are doing everything right or wrong simply does not matter, the chances so few that the meritocrats' notion of life-as-a-test-with-the-worthy-guaranteed-to-get-ahead-and-the-failures-deserving-to-fail is even more meaningless here than it is in most other areas of life.

And there is nothing we can do about that bigger problem individually.

Alas, such little truths do not sell seminars and books and the rest. And so no one has much incentive to talk about them. But for what it is worth, they have been published here.

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