Harry Potter and the Popular Consumption of Hegemonic Bourgeois Moral Ideology
Killing people. It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?
We… (and, in this instance, by the word ‘we’ I mean that rather narrow band of people who produce and consume the artefacts of the Western narrative culture industries) … we want to tell ourselves – in those bourgeois morality plays we call entertainment – that killing is WRONG. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The killing curse is an ‘Unforgiveable Curse’.
“Make the foundation of this society a man who never would”.
Luke can’t be won to the Dark Side because he won’t kill his father.
“Coward. Every time.”
“Stop! I command it! There will be no battle here!”
Etc, etc, etc.
But lookity here… our heroes kill people, or they support the necessity of killing people. Even the ‘moral’ ones (i.e. the ones who aren’t James Bond) do so. Luke is nobly refusing to kill his father even as Han and Leia and Lando are killing loads of Imperial soldiers in the big battles. The Doctor refuses to kill the threatened people of Earth even as the survivors of the Gamestation are fighting and trying to kill Daleks, and Rose solves the whole thing by coming back as the Bad Wolf and committing magical genocide. The Doctor decrees the end of the battle, but relies upon soldiers: the Brigadier, Bambera and Ancelyn… maybe even Ace too… and the Brig saves the world by pumping silver bullets into the Destroyer.
Etc, etc, etc.
Harry Potter never kills anyone. He barely ever fights anyone. But he manages this by hiding in a tent when the war comes, while Neville actually fights the Death Eaters in Hogwarts, and his mates form a resistance cell and an underground radio station. Yet Harry accepts the necessity of killing Voldemort. He passively accepts (as he pasively accepts everything) that killing Voldemort is his destiny. Luckily, as in every other instance (something Voldemort rightly points out), something comes between him and the ugly necessity. Wormtail dies when his own hand strangles him, assorted Death Eaters fall over and accidentally kill themselves and their friends in order to oblige Harry. In the same way, Voldemort gets shot by a wand, acting of its own volition out of loyalty to Harry.
In the Potter stories, killing is categorically wrong, evil, unforgiveable. So the goodies fight the magic-Nazis with jinxes that make you fall over. Luckily, the magic-Nazis also (for some reason) generally refrain from using the killing curse. Meanwhile, Voldemort clearly and explicitly needs killing… and Harry is Chosen to do it… yet he can’t do this without either
a) using the unforgiveable killing curse, or
b) getting very lucky (i.e. Voldemort accidentally trips over the hem of his own robes and falls onto the tines of a passing threshing machine).
Luckily, luck always comes to Potter’s rescue (as, once again, Voldemort rightly points out), and – through sheer good fortune – there’s some complicated business that means Voldemort gets killed by a sentient wand that, like so many expedient creatures before it, stands in front of Our Hero and does all the difficult, icky stuff for him.
(This is in the books only, by the way. In the movies, Neville kills Voldemort by killing the snake – the last Horcrux… an act which weakens Voldemort to the point where he just falls to pieces. Seriously, go and rewatch the last movie. Neville is totally the real Chosen One in movie canon.)
The Harry Potter stories are among the most successful, profitable, influential, widely-read books and widely-watched films produced by the Western culture industries in recent years. Like Star Wars and Doctor Who before them, they’ve had an enormous impact on millions of people – probably even more so than previous franchises. An entire generation feels that they ‘grew up with’ Potter his classmates. When some members of that generation took to the streets of London to protest tuition fees in 2011, some of them carried placards saying ‘This Never Happened at Hogwarts’, and chanted “Expelliarmus!” at the armed riot cops who were kettling and attacking them.
(Parenthetically… this sort of thing bears very little relation to any of the actual political valences or imports of the stories themselves, which are soft-liberal at best, and often highly charged with reactionary implications. There seems very little in any of the stories to suggest that the (unelected) Ministry of Magic’s various enforcers might be a threat to democratic protest – at least not until the Ministry gets infected with the foreign virus of Voldemortism. Indeed, there is no democratic protest in the Wizarding World. Rowling’s own politics notwithstanding. She seems like a perfectly nice – even, by current standards, conscientious – liberal, outspoken about supporting welfare, the need for rich people to pay their taxes, and the undesirability of persecuting gay people, etc. I give her no kudos for such bare minimums, but it puts her above many in her class. However, for instance, her Potter stories feature precisely one non cis-het character… and he’s only gay because the author decreed him so outside of the books… and his gayness is signified via one disastrous relationship that sapped him of all common sense and morality, and which he found so destabilising and immiserating that he never had another romantic or sexual relationship of any kind ever again. Rowling’s greedy, big-nosed, “swarthy, clever-faced” goblins are unsettlingly reminiscent of Nazi anti-Semitic ideas, in that they are clearly both evil bankers and also sneaky communists who fail to understand ‘human’ notions of private property based on trade. The books also feature a race of cutesy, servile elves who love to work and obey, roll their huge bulging eyes, and speak in what is recognisably a kind of parodic pidgin ‘black slave dialect’, i.e. “I is not doing it Sir!”. An entire species of happy drudges, depicted as pickaninny Uncle Toms. Absolutely fucking awful.)
I could go on with that kind of stuff (the books give me plenty of scope)… but the point here isn’t really to engage in a point-by-point trashing of the politics of the Potter novels. My point here is that these stories have come to be enormously significant culturally, gaining traction in lots of heads and being co-opted for political rhetoric even in radical or activist situations regardless of their objective content.
As noted above, the moral philosophy underpinning the books is muddled at best. Now, that isn’t a tremendous problem. I don’t demand that works of fiction rest upon meticulously consistent ethical systems (which, speaking as a reader, is just as well). But, being children’s fiction, the books greatly concern themselves with moral issues. (As I say, Western narrative culture is much preoccupied with moralising… and this goes double for cultural artefacts produced for children.) So you’d be forgiven for hoping for a reasonably consistent attitude to the morals being preached, especially since the books are the product of one sole author (to the extent that anything ever can be). But the Potter books do not have a consistent attitude on this. No more so than franchises with huge collaborative input from multiple authors. Actually, that’s the important point in all this: Rowling’s internal contradictions are not rare but common. They are, in many ways, par for the course. Especially in massively successful cultural artefacts.
One reason why certain works of fiction obtain massive amounts of popular success is that they are relentlessly marketed… but marketing (however despicable and loathsome it may usually be) doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People market stuff they think is marketable. Obviously. They market stuff they think people will like. You can’t make most people buy a kick in the teeth, even if you spend billions marketing it using the most sophisticated techniques available. There is, undeniably, a sense in which – and a degree to which – capitalism is absolutely right when it says that markets work, and that it (capitalism) gives people what they want. (There are all sorts of problems with this – not least the incorrect assumption that there is a ‘thing’ called ‘The Market’, and that it is synonymous with, or an invention of, or impossible without, capitalism… but we’ll let all that slide or we’ll be here all fucking day.) It’s true that the cultural and ideological industries of capitalism – marketing, for instance – can sell people shitty ideas, or get them to acquiesence to shitty things… but that isn’t quite the same thing. And often, the successful selling of shitty ideas is reliant upon disguising them, wrapping them up in more pleasant things, or spinning them so that they appeal to our worst tendencies while also flying under the radar of our better instincts. In short: it can be done, but it takes some doing. The telling fact is that capitalism has to devote so much of its time, money and intellectual effort to manufacting such consent and acquiesence.
But, to veer back in the direction of the point… aside from marketing, another reason why certain works of cultural production become hugely popular is because they reflect – in ways that are gratifying, satisfying, flattering, masochistic, clarifying or whatever – widespread ideas, especially about morality. Justice and injustice are essential parts of storytelling, I think. It’s in the nature of consuming a story that you think about the moral consequences of what is happening, the justice or injustice of it, the fairness of the distribution of suffering and/or retribution, the possibilities in oneself to act like this or that character, etc. It’s a commonplace observation that stories designed to be as marketable as popular tend to be more morally direct and simplistic, at least on the surface. They do it because it works. And it works because we like it. And we like it because it confirms, illustrates, dramatises and flatteringly reflects ideas and intuitions we already have. Even as we are shaped by the narrative commodities we consume, we shape them. They respond to us as we respond to them. It isn’t an equal, equitable relationship with both parties on a level playing field, but it is reciprocal. Dialectical, even. The point is that stories concern themselves with justice and injustice – inherently moral ideas – because that’s just, kind-of, what they’re for (a valid tautology). We, humans, make stories for this purpose. And have done for a very long time. The stories that ‘catch on’ – the myths that get repeated endlessly, from generation to generation, until they get written down… all the way up to the novels and movies that do billion dollar business – do so partly because they express some widespread moral sense. (Some might turn their noses up at an analysis which puts the financial success of Hollywood blockbusters down to their ability to express moral sentiments that chime with millions… but I want to be clear that I’m not saying audiences or film-makers are necessarily conscious of this, or that the interest of audiences necessarily equates to sympathy, or that their sympathy – when it happens – is always with what the film-makers expect, or that the role of marketing and ideology is at all insignificant, or that Hollywood films are ‘improving’, or that stories should be ‘improving’ in order to be ‘good’… or any of the other hundreds of ways you could choose to misinterpret what I’m saying.)
As it happens, I do think that film-makers know how important moral questions are in their mass-market dramas. Just look at almost any big budget narrative cultural product. They are all, almost without exception, morality plays of some kind or another. That goes for 12 Years a Slave as much as for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When George Lucas used to talk about Star Wars, he used to explicitly say that he set out to create a synthesis of modern moral notions in movie form (via Campbell, of course).
So, you probably see where I’m headed with this. One reason why the Potter franchise has been so hugely successful (remembering that in a bourgeois culture the ‘success’ of a cultural product is, ultimately, its profitability) is because it has, like Star Wars before it, hooked into some very widespread feelings among people in Western (and Westernised) culture about morality. If the purpose of profitable art is to hold the mirror up to culture, something as profitable as Potter must have done so quite well.
The point is that Rowling’s difficulties and self-contradictions and inconsistencies on this issue of killing people – and, by extension, the self-contradictions and inconsistencies that other writers get themselves into – mirror and express and dramatise the faultlines in bourgeois morality.
For all my blather, it’s actually a very simple point that I’m making: our culture kills people, and relies upon killing people, and is built upon mounds of bodies… yet we enjoy telling ourselves that we think it is wrong to kill. But this impression – that killing people is WRONG in a blanket sense, and that we don’t do it – is entirely an impression of the privileged. It is something that we can get away with believing if we are lucky enough to be far enough removed from the filthy realities of exploitation, oppression and mass murder that underpin Western capitalist culture, and/or from any immediate and pressing personal need to fight it.
January 6, 2015 @ 7:14 pm
the American scapegoat meme seems stronger now, not just in everything Clint Eastwood does. Whedon moved towards it from a less neocon stance. but even back in Buffy he left the outsider – the english one – to do the killing (S5,22 final) so the rest could walk away with clean hands.
Meanwhile we keep making human sacrifices (the poor, the old, the mentally ill, anyone who isn't a 'player,') to the great god we worship called 'free market capitalism.'
through which the myth-peddlers do very well.
I was particularly sad that the hunger games books, which had the potential to make us self-aware and revolutionary, were turned into blockbuster films which are the very circusses that keep the masses from revolting.
March 22, 2015 @ 12:19 pm
This argument is very similar to the reason why I was bothered by The Day of the Doctor; it changes the world of Doctor Who from one where – like ours – sometimes unthinkable choices have to be made, to one where a hero can always sidestep them thanks to conveniences in the plot. Moffat's insistence that the Doctor would never do what Davies said he would seemed to me to really be a statement that Moffat didn't think a show like Doctor Who could take that sort of position, which is possibly why under him everything feels so much emptier.
April 5, 2017 @ 10:38 am
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July 8, 2019 @ 4:33 pm
I feel like your discussion of this topic, while fascinating, overlooks the very key element of Rowling’s Christianity. The seemingly-confused morals of killing people in “Harry Potter” make much more sense if one reads them as more virtue-ethicist than consequentialist. Rowling tells us as much with the “committing murder literally rips up your soul” plot point: the problem with killing people isn’t that it makes people dead per se, it’s that it is A Sin (with “in the Eyes of God” left implicit because you can’t be too openly theist in a mass-produced story). In fact, the fact that Voldemort’s failed murder of Harry was enough to tear up his soul once more stresses that whether the murder actually has any tangible consequences is entirely besides the point of how evil it is.
Similarly, the fact that the necessary deaths happen despite Harry’s utter inaction, seemingly by sheer luck, is not plot convenience so much as Providence. He is unfailingly kind and does not give in to the Temptation to commit the Sin of Murder, and lo and behold, since an omnibenevolent God created his universe, no sin was ever needed for the Light to triumph.