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November 25, 2005

Reading James Bond - Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007

Posted by Jeremy Black

Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007
(Eds.) Edward P. Comentale, Stephen Watt and Skip Willman
Pp. 306. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005
Hardback, $50; Paperback, $19.95

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter and author, amongst much else, of The Politics of James Bond - considers the latest collection of academic papers on the James Bond phenomenon.

This is a book worth persevering with, if only because the best chapters are numbers eight and twelve. It is really two books. One, which I shall turn to later in my review, offers some searching reflections on aspects of the Bond phenomenon. The other is a joke, a good one, but an over-long one that should have been pruned by editors or publishers, both of whom appear to have been somewhat remiss.

The joke is to use Bond in order to produce a satire on cultural studies, gathering together a collection of ridiculous theories, unfounded speculations, and self-regarding theoretical reflections, wrapping them up in a hilariously sustained example of all that is mediocre, confused and opaque in the prose and vocabulary of the genre, and serving it up without a hint of irony.

Judith Roof, for example, clearly thinks it useful to offer her students an example of how not to write. Among the gems which invite rearrangement in order to see if any meaning arises are (p. 84):

The retro associations of Bond's style exploit and perform this nostalgia for Law, but as a measure of homeopathic resistance. Bond's efficacious style is a version of the same absolutist efficacy as that practiced by all world nemeses, who are themselves singular Mosaic figures delivering the word from on high.
Dennis W. Allen shares the joke in his essay "Alimentary, Dr. Leiter." Anal Anxiety in Diamonds Are Forever (p. 31):
Not surprisingly, then, one of the meanings of the rat fantasy is the analysand's repressed desire for and anxiety about anal eroticism, which Freud traces through a number of metonymic and metaphoric linkages, most notably the symbolic equation of rat and penis, so that, rather obviously, the rat becomes a central symbol of anal intercourse. But Bond is not the Rat Man, and one of the functions of the scene is to show the ease with which Bond triumphs over the film's symptoms of anal anxiety.
Many of the contributors shine in this satirical competition, possibly because they are aware of the drawbacks of some of what they have felt obliged to write elsewhere, but it can become wearing. After all, how much anal-fixation do you want?

Alongside Allen we have Edward Comentale employing it in a discussion of how Fleming's novels work to (pp. 3, 15):

justify the increasingly corporate structure of the nation Despite its racy content, his fiction gives expression to the demands and contradictions of a specifically professional society, and its hero, James Bond, is less a hero of consumer culture than he is a hero of the corporation A literal or symbolic death of the father stymies the son's entry into the phallic order, thus forcing the latter's retreat back into the anal.
Moving from the joke, it is instructive to read Brian Patton's grounded piece on the tension between Fleming's view of post-war England, as revealed in Moonraker (1955), and the approach associated with the "angry, young man", or Skip Willman's discussion of the Kennedys, Fleming and Cuba, an attempt to link fantasy with the vicissitudes of history.

Alexis Albion provides a valuable cross-cultural discussion of the "global historical moment of Bond in the mid-1960s" (p. 203), one that she carefully delimits, not least by pointing out the absence of Bondomania behind the Iron Curtain. James Chapman provides a skilful assessment of Bond and Britishness that emphasises the origin of Bond in a particular British context and stresses "the ideologies of Britishness" (p. 141) involved in the Bond stories. Stephen Watt ably brings the story up to date in 007 and 9/11, Specters and Structures of Feeling, arguing that Fleming ably anticipates the current representation of global terrorism.

This chronologically specific approach, like that of Albion, is useful as a qualification of broad-brush approaches. As a result, there is still room for much more work on both novels and films. Klaus Dodds, for example, has recently profitably located the Bond genre in terms of international relations.

This able grounding has been taken further in an article that offers an instructive comparison, J.T. Richelson's "The IPCRESS File: The Great Game in Film and Fiction, 1953-2002", International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence, 16 (2003). Indeed, the conference at Indiana on which this volume is based included among the papers not published in the proceedings, three others that offered effective comparisons, Cynthia Walker's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Ian Flemings Other Spy, Mark Best's The Superspy in a Superhero World: Marvel Comics' Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and "American" Masculinity and James South's "All That James Bond Stuff": Appropriation of Bond in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Each offered more than several of the papers published in the proceedings. This underlines the questionable nature of the editorial process, one not happily treated by their somewhat self-satisfied Introduction. Despite its serious flaws, a handsomely produced volume that is good value.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Politics of James Bond (Greenwood Press, 2001, & University of Nebraska Press, 2005) and of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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I am confused, can someone please enlighten me. Prof. Black says:

The other is a joke, a good one, but an over-long one that should have been pruned by editors or publishers, both of whom appear to have been somewhat remiss. The joke is to use Bond in order to produce a satire on cultural studies, gathering together a collection of ridiculous theories, unfounded speculations, and self-regarding theoretical reflections, wrapping them up in a hilariously sustained example of all that is mediocre, confused and opaque in the prose and vocabulary of the genre, and serving it up without a hint of irony.
Judith Roof, for example, clearly thinks it useful to offer her students an example of how not to write.
Now, what I cannot follow is this, is the book really a joke upon cultural studies - or is Prof. Black being extremely rude about the book? Is Judith Root trying to take the piss out of a certain type of academic writing - or does she really write like that? I would appreciate enlightenment on this point.

Posted by: David H at November 25, 2005 12:20 PM
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David, I felt it was pretty clear that Prof. Black was taking the mickey rather dramatically. Alas Judith Root not only writes like that but is probably rather proud of the fact...

Posted by: E M Q at November 27, 2005 11:57 AM
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I have tried to resist Jeremy's baiting tactics over the past year: the review printed here and extremely disparaging comments he made about the book and conference in his notes to an article. But enough is enough. Here are a few facts:

1. He neglects to disclose in his review that he in fact attended the conference in question, something mentioned in the book's introduction.

2. As explained in the introduction, he gave a truly lamentable scolding to some scholars, particularly Dennis Allen and Judith Roof, in part on the grounds of their theoretical interests. His comments about gay studies, some of which were extremely offensive, caused Roof, Allen, and others to walk out of the conference in protest.

3. After the conference was over, he seemed increduluous that he was not invited to submit a paper for publication. As he had never actually bothered to write one--the scolding being ad hoc and ad hominem--it is hard for me to understand how, in the article mentioned above, he could accuse the volume's editors of censorship. There was nothing to censor.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Black apparently felt no ethical requirement to disclose these things before posting his "review" of the book. Yet don't such facts make him something of an interested party--and to what extent do they provide an important context within which his "review" should be read?

I would thus urge all readers interested in Fleming and Bond--and this includes the Bond phenomenon, its various consumers and readers, and, yes, even filmgoers who may not even know the novels--to come to their own conclusions about the merits of the book, especially that part of the book Jeremy deems a satire of Cultural Studies.

Finally, to answer the commenter who asks if Professor Black is being "extremely rude" to scholars like Judith Roof--the answer is "yes." Jeremy might be better advised to ask himself why this book bothers him so much, why he can't seem to leave it alone.

Again, I am sorry to have to make these remarks; I feel as if I have no other choice in this matter.

Stephen Watt

Posted by: Stephen Watt at November 30, 2005 07:59 PM
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