I'm not a fan of the series myself--I've never read any of the books, and I fell asleep watching one of the movies--but I do think it's an interesting cultural phenomenon. For example, I find it fascinating that fans dressing up as their favourite characters, or their own characters they've created (!!), is regarded as a normal expression of their love of the series, whereas fans of other series like Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings are stigmatized for the same activity. Ultimately, I wonder if this has something to do with the function that the Harry Potter narrative serves in the symbolic life of our society. Is there something more acceptable about overt (some might say excessive) Potter-love because of a certain desire the series caters to? When I think about Harry Potter I'm drawn back to Jameson's concept of the function of narrative and its larger social purpose:
ideology is not something which informs or invests symbolic production; rather the aesthetic act is itself ideological, and the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions. (PU 79)What is the ideology being expressed by Harry Potter? What real contradiction is resolved in its narrative? Perhaps more importantly, what ideology is being expressed by the series' fans' appropriation of the narrative? What real contradiction are they using the narrative to resolve? To what extent are they rewriting the narrative to cover new contradictions?
I am also intrigued by the obsession with celebrity and the actors who play the main characters in the Harry Potter movies (see also the frenzy surrounding the recent royal visit to Canada). If the novels serve to resolve certain real social contradictions, the movies must do likewise (though not necessarily the same contradictions as the novels, I would imagine), as must the actors themselves. What contradiction(s) do the actors resolve for the fans, especially for the ones camping out in the pre-dawn hours to catch a glimpse of the actors at the premiere? What desires do they fulfill? The obsession certainly seems to have something of Freud's family romance in it:
Small events in the child's life may induce in him a mood of dissatisfaction and so provide him with an occasion to start criticizing his parents and to support this critical attitude with the recently acquired knowledge that other parents are in some respects to be preferred to them. . . . At about this time, then, the child's imagination is occupied with the task of ridding himself of his parents, of whom he now has a low opinion, and replacing by others, usually of superior social standing. In this connection he makes use of the chance concurrence of these aims with actual experiences, such as an acquaintanceship with the lord of the manor or some landowner in the country, or with some aristocrat in the city. Such fortuitous experiences arouse the child's envy, which then finds expression in a fantasy that replaces both parents by others who are grander. The technique used in developing such fantasies, which at this period are of course conscious, depends on the child's ingenuity and the material he has at his disposal. It is also a question of how much or how little effort has gone into making the fantasies seems probable. . . . For if one takes a close look at the commonest of these romances--the replacement of both parents or just the father by grander personages--one discovers that these new, distinguished parents are provided with features that derive from the child's actual memories of his real, more humble parents: the child does not really eliminate his father, but exalts him. Indeed, the whole effort to replace the real father by another who is more distinguished is merely an expression of the child's longing for the happy times gone by, when his father seemed to him the strongest and most distinguished of men, and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He turns away from the man he now knows as his father to the one he believed in as a child. The fantasy is actually only an expression of regret for the happy times that have vanished. ("Family Romances" 37, 38-39, 40; my emphasis)Coupled with this, does Harry Potter serve as some kind of distorted mirror stage for its readers: the recognition of an ego separate from the reader's actual self in society, the acknowledgement (and encouragement) of an inner life in which the reader is heroic, special, unique, magical? Is the popularity of Harry Potter a response to life in late capitalism? A symptom related to the quarter-life crisis? An attempt to live in a society in which each person is encouraged to believe that he or she is special and unique, with talents that deserve recognition and praise, and consequently no one is special and unique? That is, can the reader of Harry Potter assert--via the fantasies that the text allows him/her to have--"no, I am special. The qualities that make me special are just hidden. If only I could go to a world more like Hogwarts rather than [x], then I could show everyone my hidden, inner self"?
In asking these questions I don't mean to suggest that Harry Potter is bad or that it's not literature. I couldn't honestly make any such judgement, given that I haven't read the series myself. If Harry Potter has made readers out of non-readers, as the most commonly offered claim for its greatness goes, then I say "great." I wonder, though, if the series has made readers or readers-of-Harry-Potter. That is, how many people who are enamoured of the series go on to read other books regularly? I know plenty of people who love Harry Potter who can't name another book they've read. I know dozens of people who were already quite avid readers who love Harry Potter. I personally don't know anyone who would say that they didn't read for pleasure before Harry Potter but do so now that they've finished the series. I think the truth, as is so often the case, is a little more convoluted than Potter devotees would like to admit. Also, I have no answers to these questions, but I would be interested to hear what others think about this. Perhaps everyone who talks about Harry Potter got over these questions years ago and I'm behind the times. Based on the interviews on CBC yesterday, though, I rather suspect I'm not.