I’m back! Between attending Worldcon, attending the Royal Geographical Society conference and teaching in Singapore, I’ve been busy of late. As a start on updating you on my activities, I include a video of me presenting my paper “Comparing Colonialisms in The Terror“, contrasting the treatment of colonialism in Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel and AMC’s 2018 adaptation. You can read the draft paper on my Academia.edu site here.
So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.
By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).
Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).
The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.
Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.
One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.
See how this works?
An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.
What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….
The following blog post series is based on a talk I gave at Eastercon in 2018. While normally the talks I give at conventions usually wind up becoming either academic papers or magazine/fanzine articles, this one involves way too much visual content– videos, photos, links to outside sites– to work in this format. However, including visual content and meta-content is of course what blogs do best.
The subject of this series is the use of colour in space opera, and how colour and style are used to cue and direct the viewer, even without them necessarily realising it. According to structuralist anthropology, humans tend to view the world, unconsciously, according to certain classification systems (e.g. nature versus culture, raw versus cooked…), and the colours used in many space operas need direct our minds in certain ways.
For the present purposes, I’ll be defining space opera as an ongoing series based on or around a spaceship and its travels. If all television series are, to paraphrase the old saying, either Gilligan’s Island or The Fugitive, then space operas are the SF version of The Fugitive: rather than waiting in one place for the action to come to them, the protagonists go to where the action is. This a bit of a rough-and-ready working definition, as there are certain series, like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which tend to get considered “space opera” despite being based on and around a space station. However, in some ways they are exceptions which prove the rule: DS9 is not only part of a wider, more conventionally space-operatic, franchise, but after the introduction of the Defiant it fits much more in a space-opera mould, whereas Babylon 5, by virtue of being an epic saga spanning multiple star systems, manages to get the distance aspect as well.
My examples here will mainly draw on Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek is in some ways the archetypical space opera; as for the latter two, as well as representing some of the different directions space opera can go in, they are also series that I know something about, having written a book or two on them (that was the word from our sponsor. We can now resume the programme).
The nature of space opera has certain knock-on effects on production. One of them is the need to establish character fairly quickly and easily for anyone new coming in (particularly for programmes like original Star Trek, which don’t follow a story-arc structure but are made up of mostly stand-alone episodes), and even for regulars (as space operas tend to have constantly-changing guest casts). Mood also has to be established quickly, and not too blatantly.
The other main point is that you need to differentiate locations easily and cheaply. If a series is going to a different planet almost every week, building a whole new set is out of the budget even for a series like original Battlestar Galactica (at the time the most expensive television programme ever made). Locations tend to be affected by geographic proximity: you want to film somewhere within easy commuting distance of the studio (hence the frequent use of Vasquez Rocks in Star Trek, original Battlestar Galactica and other California-made series, and Kamloops in the 2003-10 Vancouver-made Battlestar Galactica).
Given this, it’s not too surprising that colours are frequently used to establish character and mood, and to turn a small number of sets and locations into a dazzling array of new planets.
Next post, I’ll be giving you a brief guide to what structuralist anthropology is, and what it’s got to say about all this.
Turned up a surprise on YouTube the other day: apparently, not only did they record my keynote speech at Kristu Jayanti College (Bangalore/Mangaluru) in 2015, but they posted the video on Youtube!
Here’s me talking about anthropology and business, on a hot and humid but rather lovely day.
My latest academic article, “‘National culture’ as an integrating agent in the post-acquisition organisation” is now available online in advance of publication in International Journal of Human Resource Management.
You can read it at the link here.
Continued from last episode…
The union rep is about fifteen minutes late. We hang about, some talk quietly, one of the black men talks on his mobile. I start reading the book I have with me, Wild Swans, but Pris wants to talk. She talks about how the Car Factory is a real local landmark; it used to extend over to the other side of the road, where there are houses now, “but they’ll put up houses anywhere there’s a spare inch of land, won’t they?” The young blond man on my other side complains that he is sick of union presentations as he has sat through far too many. One black man with a hawk nose and Middle Eastern accent is talking with the others in his row about South Africa, specifically the animals you find there. Sara, sensing the boredom, starts everyone playing a word game where everyone has to come up with a different country for each letter of the alphabet (I get G: Germany). The hawk-nosed man is particularly good at this, whispering hints to people unfortunate enough to get stuck with Q and W. Nobody could think of one for X; Jo claimed she could but didn’t enlighten us. When we got through with countries we started on rock bands (I’m G again: Garbage), and had gotten up to H when the rep arrived.
The rep is named Liam; he looks like a skinnier, older version of Noel Gallagher. He has a very monotonous delivery, stream-of-consciousness, and leans against the table with his arms folded. He says that 96% of the workforce are in the union. He outlines the benefits of joining: the first, he says, is the accident cover. He tells us about a man paralysed from the waist down in an industrial accident, and how the union were able to get him and his wife a settlement which allowed them money for a customised bungalow, car etc., although he never returned to work again. He tells more stories of equally horrible accidents. He adds that the union provides good fatal-accident cover, and that they have a free will service, which, he says, would cost you 40-200 pounds in the outside world. He goes on to say that the union will also provide representation in cases of disciplinary hearings, and tells us more war stories about these.
He passes out the form, and everyone, by this point thoroughly convinced of the benefits of union membership, fills them out. He asks if anyone’s already a member, and the blond guy says he is, and names his branch (a big hint that he’s worked at a Car Factory before). Liam asks him to reregister for here so that he can get more rapid cover. Liam emphasises that we should fill out all the fields of the address form; he says “it’s no good saying 10 Charlsbury Lane, thinking everybody knows where that is; this goes back to Newcastle.” He adds that we needn’t bother with the payroll number, though, as he can add that.
Continued next episode…
Mike explains about uniforms; we will be given T-shirts to reflect our shift. People on weekends are the Yellow Shift, and get four yellow T-shirts; people on rotating shifts are either on Red or Blue shift and get four T-shirts in the relevant colour; people on Permanent Nights get two red and two blue. The older woman, Pris, asks me why that is, and I suggest that it is to blend in with whichever rotating shift is currently on. We will also get black trousers, made with no metal parts because it might damage the paintwork. Likewise Mike says that people working in certain areas will need steel-toe boots, but that in other areas these are verboten, because they might damage the paint; most, he says, wear trainers. He says that we are not to wear uncovered rings or watches; tape and sports wristbands will be provided. He gives us a health and safety talk, and warns us against being offstation; on the line 37 cars come by an hour, so if you take a 2-minute bathroom break you’ve missed a car or two already. Smoking outside of the designated areas is also streng verboten.
He passes around sheets giving the shift patterns. There is one person on Weekend and about six or so on Permanent Nights. He then gets those of us not on Weekend or Permanent Nights to pick our shifts, by dint of saying that there are three spots to start at 6 tomorrow and the rest will do the night shift. I wind up on night shift.
He then passes out laminated cards depicting the dress code, and on the other side a diagram of How to Push a Car. Mike jokes about the cards, saying they’re valuable and rare: he then says, “Seriously, I really love this place, my father worked for Car Factory for thirty years.”
Sara discovers that all but the last six of us have now got our ID cards and sends the rest of us downstairs.
The six of us line up outside and wait: Pris goes first. I talk with the blond girl about the weather, while some of the boys go outside to smoke. After Pris comes out, I go in, and am directed to a table around the corner where an elderly man positions me on a stool in front of a digital camera. “Say happy worker!” he says. I do. He then asks me to do it again as he erased the first one. I do and get my card a minute later. When I come back up Sara gives me a sheet on which to fill out my shirt and trouser size; we start talking about my project as she wants to know more about it, but as it could take a while I say I’ll explain more fully at the break. I never do; she vanishes at lunch and I don’t see her again.