BBC Radio 4 recently dramatized William Morris’s 1890s Utopian novel News from Nowhere as part of their Dangerous Visions season, which advertises itself as a series of “dramas that explore contemporary takes on future dystopias.” It’s odd to find the unabashedly sanguine News under this heading, but if the producers wanted to stage it for a change of pace or because they particularly wanted to work with this text, fine. I’m for abandoning an over-arching structure in a case such as this (i.e. a series of loosely-thematically-connected, discrete pieces) when it isn’t doing good work. In fact, if the series’ “contemporary takes” framing is what gave us the topical Boaty McBoatface joke in this play’s introduction, destined to wither faster than the speed of meme, I feel they could even have broken with that structure a bit more dramatically.
I was not expecting great triumphs from the Dangerous Visions series to begin with. Maureen Kincaid Speller, the editor of this section/a local seller of hot takes and pies, pointed out elsewhere that “the BBC’s latest Dangerous Visions season [is] very male, very white, and the big-ticket dramas are mostly adaptations of things that have been done before. I really wouldn’t mind a lengthy chat with the programme planners about all the stuff they’re missing out.” Paul Kincaid, referring to the important 1967 short story collection edited by Harlan Ellison of the same name, observed, “wouldn’t it be interesting if they dramatised some of the stories that were actually in Dangerous Visions? Still 50-odd years out of date, but more up to date than most of what they’re offering. From the BBC you’d never guess that there were actually one or two science fiction writers out there [now], and some of them were actually female. But then, that might actually be dangerous, and despite the title that is clearly not the BBC’s intent.”
X-FILES intermediate size Return of the X-Files: the truth is … unclear: “So a new X-Files could perhaps happen. Perhaps the real question is: should it? What would it even be about? Since the show’s original 1990s run, reality has caught up with the paranoiac outlook of Mulder: we’re desensitised to amoral governments acting against the interests of their people, been exposed to unsettling conspiracies that go to the heart of the establishment, and have felt the effects of shadowy cabals of financiers and terrorists operating across international borders with impunity. We live in an X-Files world now, and it’s actually rather depressing. Discovering that aliens have been at least partly responsible for how we’ve messed up as a species might actually come as a relief.”
Hans Weiditz the younger (1495-1537), ‘Gossip sisters and the Devil’, engraving
Something Understood’s “Gossip and Whispers” was simultaneously a good program, with some nice insights and well-chosen readings and music, and a deeply irritating one. The inclusion of the Calypso piece really didn’t go anywhere, the mood and theme of what should have been an essayistic program lingered and looped, and, though I’d have said it was almost impossible, this program about gossip entirely ignored gossip’s traditional connection with women’s speech. I didn’t necessarily need it to be a thoroughgoing feminist examination of ‘gossip’ as a category, but I did need it to nod to that incredibly obvious link.
Relatedly, I’d like it to have troubled the degree to which gossip is just passing along certain kinds of information that aid in social navigation–the extent to which it might be amoral, even a necessary part of keeping social orders running without constant ruptures. At what point IS something gossip? The program assumes a lot about what ‘gossip’ is and how you feel ‘gossiping’, and also treats gossip as a transhistorical thing that functions the same in a variety of communities. This is very disturbing from a History of the Emotions point of view.
In re: women’s speech, perhaps the big issues of the moment in re: ‘rumors and reputation’ and social media (all of which the program wants to talk about) are rape allegations, whistle-blowing and conflicting testimonies in situations like the year’s high-profile American police scandals. The program avoids these questions of gossip, power and legitimate speech like it’s written by Aaron Sorkin. This is mediocre scholarship/programming, and it insidiously reinforces some dangerous paradigms. If the episode didn’t want to talk about real shit, it could at least have bothered to draw a blatant chalk circle around the stuff it WAS interested in. It would thus have avoided de facto situating ‘allegations of misconduct through unofficial channels/all discussion on social media’ within a delegitimizing ‘feminine’ framework the program does nothing to recuperate.
Are these topics too much for this episode of Something Understood to deal with? Tough. The nature of gossip is /that/ you can’t fully control and defang it, and producing a safe program on gossip is antithetical.
As someone who works on charm, I’m interested in the phenomenology of gossip–the seductions of sharing, in-group communication, the type of information shared, gossip’s role in persona-building for all parties involved, and the way different ways of telling generate or degrade the charm of those parties. IF the program was going to dodge some of what are, for me, the constituent questions about gossip, then the program could have probed these topics, which it did evince a desire to cover, more deeply.