Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Sunday, July 17, 2005


Wayne over at Commentary has an entry on the free market economics of Harry Potter and book prices in South Africa. What I find so interesting about the whole Harry Potter craze is just trying to understand – how the hell did it get so big? What is actually so fantastic about the books that seem to have caught the popular imagination, and would the books and films have caught on to this level without the power of the great media machine behind them? I can understand that children and even younger teens love the books, but adults also going so completely and totally gaga is a bit more difficult to grasp.

As well as the books themselves being so popular, the attempt to understand the phenomenon has spawned a huge body of literary and philosophical criticism and analysis. So not only are there Harry Potter books, there are books about the Harry Potter books.

In “Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives” – what an academic mouthful over a kiddies book - Tammy Turner-Vorbeck criticizes how children seem to be exploited by corporations seeking to cash in on the popularity of the books:

“Corporate consumerism is increasingly targeting child culture... The infringement on child culture is particularly evident in the mass marketing of the Harry Potter products...The proliferation of these items constitutes a blatant exploitation of the genuine excitement for children’s literature that stems from children’s true interests... Once a cultural phenomenon such as Pottermania takes hold, the majority of children are destined to find their first exposure not to the authentic items of child culture (in this case, the Harry Potter book itself). Rather, their first experience is often with the marketing spin-offs, which represent corporate America’s interpretation of the real thing.”

And what would any criticism worth its salt be without a gender perspective, Elizabeth Heilman writes:

“Males are represented more often, but they are also depicted as wiser, braver, more powerful, and more fun than females. It is not simply who is present, but, also, how characters are portrayed and what they do that matters.... The inferior position of females is further reinforced through characterizations that highlight their insecurities and self-hatred, especially as it relates to their looks and bodies.”

Of course, the philosophers have to get their five cents in too. In "Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts", David Baggett looks at the connections between literature, imagination, and morality:

“Good yarns, such as Rowling’s, appeal to both the head and heart, eliciting from us the right sorts of emotions, and providing us vivid moral paradigms that Aristotle thought were essential to moral education. More suggestive than dogmatic, they teach us to empathize with the sufferings of others, enhancing our capacity for seeing the world through another’s eyes.... A powerful imagination functions centrally in any commitment to morality, because so much of ethics consists in having the right kinds of emotional and intuitive responses to situations as they arise.” ......OK – whatever?

Naturally, the religious conservatives are concerned about the book’s potential to bring Satan’s influence into the lives of our children. Envoy, is a website aimed at “bringing Christ to the world”:

“In early December, Rome's official exorcist, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, warned parents against the Harry Potter book series. The priest, who is also the president of the International Association of Exorcists, said Satan is behind the works. In an interview with the Italian ANSA news agency, Rev. Amorth said "Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil." ….errr….no comment.

And then it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous where Harry Potter is seen alternatively as "the first literary hero of the antiglobalization movement" and as "a summary of the social and educational aims of neoliberal capitalism. Like Orwellian totalitarianism, this capitalism tries to fashion not only the real world, but also the imagination of consumer-citizens. The underlying message to young fans is this: You can imagine as many fictional worlds, parallel universes or educational systems as you want, they will still all be regulated by the laws of the market."

Being the cynic that I am, I am tempted to say that this is all really much ado about nothing. The Potter books have got kids reading again, and if I’m not mistaken this is actually a good thing. As for the huge materialist, consumerist spin-offs, well, unfortunately, that is the reality of the world we live in. I know how I would handle the situation if I were a parent, but people need to make their own choices. I do think that as a society we need to be consuming less and not more, but that is another topic in itself.


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