Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter and international culture

I will always be grateful to J.K. Rowling because the Harry Potter books taught my youngest son, Stephen, that a long book could actually hold his attention. For a while there I worried that he would not be a reader -- and he is more of a visual learner than a reading learner. Since the Potter books started coming out, however, he's read them all and actually gone on to read other books, including non-fiction (college helped).

That said, I confess I haven't read any of them. It's seemed a frivolous thing to do when there was another book like "The Empire Has No Clothes" or something on the Iraq war to absorb. I have seen a couple of the movies, however, and I could hardly avoid absorbing something about Harry just by living in this culture.

So I thought this TNR piece by one Daniel Nexon, who teaches at Georgetown and has actually edited a book called "Harry Potter and International relations," would be interesting to others as well. We read that Harry Potter is an international phenomenon (interesting for something so identifiably English), having been translated in 66 languages and all that, but Nexon has actually peered into the influence it's had.

"Harry Potter, in fact," he writes, functions something like a Rohrschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxietiues about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they poerceive as Harry Potter's Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality." And do on.

He points out that religious traditionalists, from fundamentalist Christians to traditional and Wahhabist Muslims find the whole magic thing unsettling. Translators often incorporate local myths and culture into their translations, and there Potter knock-offs or "further adventures, in local locations and with local added characters, in India and Indonesia.

Quite interesting: He says "we still tend to think of cultural globalizatin as synomomous with 'Americanization.' The Harry Potter books -- with their distinctively British boarding school setting, slang, and cuisine -- provide a subtle rejoinder to such impressions and subvert the equation of globalization with relentless homogenization."

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