Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Last night was the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and the CBC reported that fans had been lining up outside the theatre since 5:30 AM. Interviews conducted with various fans of the series were played throughout the day yesterday, and a number of people called in to share their tales of fandom.

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.


  1. I'm fairly upset - I spent, like, 3 hours writing a comment, and then Blogger gave me an error message when I tried to submit it and erased it.

    Too bad now, I guess. Now you'll never know what I was going to say.

  2. Okay – I’m going to try this again. Far Shorter and more succinct than last time, but here goes:
    As a long-time, admittedly obsessive Harry Potter fan (not so much of the movies, although I admit that I’m quite excited to see the final installment this weekend), I must concede that the series has influenced my reading habits very little. I was an avid reader when I first discovered Potter, and I’m an avid reader still. Therefore, I can’t say whether or not it encourages youngsters (or older audiences) to go out and renew their library cards (the question of whether or not the series is “literature” seems to me infinitely idiotic and irrelevant. Of course it is, and who cares?) I’m sure that it has introduced many a child to the larger world of books, but I seriously doubt that it is the heavy harbinger of literary literacy that some would make it out to be.
    I don’t know, though, Ian. I haven’t actually heard a great many people claim that the series’ greatness stems from the fact that it “gets kids reading.” It certainly has been praised for doing so, but that seems to me more a signal of its reach and influence than its inherent quality (two very different things.) The Transformers series may bring (sad, sad) people into movie theaters in droves, and therefore be a force for good as far as cinema attendance is concerned, but it’s still utter and complete, mind-numbing shit.
    No, Rowling’s work is not great because it encourages those video-game playin’ monsters to pick up a book; Harry Potter is “great” because it is a sprawling, delightful, page-turning epic, steeped in a larger cultural and mythological framework and carried along (often breathlessly) by a masterful storyteller (admittedly, Rowling gets better as she goes along - no one can argue that these are flawless works.) Taken as a whole, Rowling’s accomplishment is monumental, a world peppered with hundreds of memorable characters, filled with indelible details, all impeccably woven together and brimming with menace, heart, and (yes, I’ll say it) magic.
    Furthermore, this is a series that champions the values of friendship, courage, and selflessness with a combination of breezy effortlessness and teeth-baring tenacity. Rowling never bludgeons you over the head with a “message”, but you can’t walk away from any one of these books without a stronger sense of right and wrong. Apart from that, Rowling deserves infinite credit for making a *school* the coolest place on earth, and for creating a fictional world where education is essential to success (in a very crucial, life-or-death kinda way.)
    I can’t *wait* until my girls are old enough for me to read this series to them. It’s something I look forward to just as much as teaching them to ride a bike, or dropping them off on their first day of kindergarten. I can think of no other story for children (and adults – HP left the realm of “children’s lit” or “teen lit” somewhere between the third and fourth books) with such an abundance of potential to inculcate a love of story-telling and narrative, to fire the imagination, and to nurture a fair, tolerant, and (dare I say it?) moral worldview.
    But I guess all of this is kind of a digression. You ask in the beginning of your post why HP fans get to dress up and parade around as nerds without fear of stigmatization, whereas LOTR, Star Wars, or Star Trek fans get no such break? Well, I think I’m going to have to disagree, there. As a culture, geekiness in general is, if nothing else, somewhat in vogue. Twenty years ago, that kid with the glue-on Spock ears would no doubt get the shit kicked out of him, but I don’t think that’s so much the case anymore. I mean, I’m sure that bullying of this type still exists, but thanks to properties like Potter, Peter Jackson’s LOTR adaptations, and Abrams’ new take on Star Trek, it’s far less prevalent. Comic books, too, once seen as infinitely nerdy, are now deeply embedded in the wider cultural consciousness, thanks to the gazillion (mostly awful) movie adaptations.


  3. (cont . . .)

    I do, though, think the series caters to specific desires, and holds a particular attraction to teenagers in general who are feeling lonely, whose bodies are changing, and who are looking for an identity. Underneath all the WWII imagery and parallels, and Rowling’s strong reaction to Thatcherian conservatism, there’s also a pretty basic bildungsroman at work in all those dense pages, and Rowling works hard to make sure Harry has all the usual pubescent concerns, along with needing to save the world and all that other good vs. evil business.
    By devoting themselves to the series through wearing costumes at movie premieres, or writing fan-fiction, or whatever, fans (particularly young ones) are, in a sense, standing up and saying, “yes – I, too, have felt alone and alienated.” It’s a way of simultaneously owning pain AND expressing love for stories that allowed them to work through that pain (I imagine that fans of Twilight express their fervor for similar reasons – “hey – I’ve had a crush before!”)
    But that’s only one infinitesimal speck of the Harry Potter phenomenon.
    I don’t think you can pinpoint any one ideology being expressed by Harry Potter fandom. The series is socially liberal (and can very easily be read as an allegory for homosexuality), although many fans (just ask any of my wife’s intensely conservative, but nonetheless Potter-crazy family) fail to pick up on Rowling’s political subtexts. I don’t love the series for all the same reasons my grandmother does, for example, or for those of my eight-year-old niece.
    I think you’re spot-on when it comes to the celebrity angle, and I like your reading of Freud there, but it’s not an aspect of fandom that I can particularly answer to. I usually see the movies reluctantly (although I loved the last one, I have to admit), and I couldn’t care less what Emma Watson is doing with her hair. However, I’d argue that this kind of fervor is also brought on for scores of different reasons, but at its heart it’s very much part of our culture’s general fascination with celebrity and glamor.
    Okay – I’ve been working on this for way too long, and I’m not sure it made any sense.

  4. Jer,

    Good points all around. I think my comment re: Potter fans and the lack of stigma surrounding them is a little weak and outdated, so I stand corrected.

    In terms of the "is it literature" debate, I agree that it's pointless and a waste of time; obviously the series is literature. I do think, though, that outside of the actual fans--and even within some specific subsets of fans--the "Harry Potter makes people read" claim is touted as the primary sign of the series' greatness (I think it's somehow perceived as a (misplaced) demonstration of the intellectual/moral worth of the series, whereas the kind of commentary you offer is much more valuable in that regard). For example, during the interviews and call-ins on CBC yesterday, virtually all of the fans started their comment with a reference to the connection between Harry Potter and reading habits.

    I appreciate your insights into the appeal of the series. Given my own lack of experience with HP, I'm pretty much unable to answer any of the questions I asked in the post. It's nice to hear what a fan has to say about all this. I would be lying if I didn't have a few more question, though: why is HP the bildungsroman kids/tweens/teens/adults latch onto? There are, of course, millions of them out there. Is it Rowling's talent as a writer (there are a number of really great, really famous bildungsromans from some of the most talented writers in the english language) or Rowling's talent to appeal to certain needs/desires in our particular social/cultural moment? Are the two separate? I realize this makes Rowling seem like a hack (she's no such thing). I'm just genuinely curious about what makes a cultural phenomenon, and HP seems about as a good an example of a cultural phenomenon as I can imagine.

  5. I don't think people (young or old) are attracted to this particular bildungsroman because of Rowling's talent (which I wouldn't consider as in dispute), although I would argue that her skills as a story-teller will keep HP relevant and popular long after Twilight has gone the way of a moldy, impaled vampire.

    The appeal comes, I would think, from dozens of different factors. Partially, I think the world was ready for a new, great fantasy epic (9/11 helped there - HP brings escapism even as it reassures readers of the fundamental goodness of mankind, all against a backdrop where fascist dark wizards commit acts of heinous terrorism on a regular basis.)

    In addition (and this is a bigger factor than people would think, I'd argue), the episodic, 7-year-spanning nature of the series fills a need that we have for . . . well, long, epic stories. As a species, we long for this kind of story-telling, and I don't think we get that need fulfilled the way human beings once did. The bible, oral traditions, etc . . .
    Harry Potter meets that need on a mass scale.