the-more-you-know

“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge

Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow a thinly-veiled attack on those in the classroom who, for whatever combination of socio-economic and educational reasons, might not have had access to that same store of shared knowledge that my colleague was referencing. Whether or not the attack was malicious is impossible to say, but there was no question that there were many in the classroom who felt alienated by this comment–and, just as importantly, by its delivery–and that a valuable moment of shared learning was therefore compromised.

What distressed me the most, however, was how built into that moment of not-so-subtle shaming was a profound sort of privilege of which my colleague seemed to be utterly unaware. It no doubt never occurred to him that some of us may have come from high schools or undergraduate institutions that did not place such an emphasis on the Western canon, or that emphasized other important works of western philosophy that were not dominated by dead white men. So embedded was my colleague in both his class and knowledge privilege that any alternative to his ways of knowing seemed to exist beyond the pale of acceptability.

Nor is this sort of privileged posturing and knowledge shaming limited to graduate students (who, it must be said, often face their own challenge. The pressure to perform one’s expertise is particularly acute in the graduate classroom). I have, on numerous occasions, heard faculty from departments from various universities and departments dismiss the level of “basic knowledge” that today’s undergraduate students possess, implying that they have somehow fallen down on the job in terms of preparing themselves for their college education. This is not to say that the faculty actually think this, mind you, only that it is often heavily implied in the way in which these critiques of students are delivered.

This is not to say that there aren’t real deficiencies in the preparation that many high school students undergo as they prepare for their academic futures in college. What troubles me is the implication that somehow the students are to blame and, relatedly, that our privilege as learners and knowers is somehow natural and that this renders us somehow superior to the students we teach. Rather than attempting to understand the unique perspectives that students bring to the classroom–including and especially their socioeconomic status–these assumptions presume that there is a standard to which everyone should be held, regardless of their background.Periodically, I will catch myself making assumptions about the body of knowledge that my students bring into the classroom. I have become so entrenched in the world of academia–in particular, I have become accustomed to being around my graduate school colleagues in a private, well-funded institution–that it sometimes doesn’t occur to me that not everyone has had the same privilege that I do. When I lose track of that privilege, when I assume that my students have a knowledge and then shame then when they don’t, I lose a valuable sharing opportunity.

As a result, I have begun making a conscious effort to meet my students where they are and to help them access and share the same love of knowledge and learning that I have always possessed. I encourage them to ask me if they do not understand something or if I make a reference (or even a word) that they do not grasp, because only by doing so can I ensure that we are all learning and engaging with knowledge together. Rather than ensconcing myself in my privilege, I actively work to deconstruct it.

This more nuanced understanding of socio-economic and knowledge privilege allows me, I believe, to be a more compassionate and effective educator. I can use my knowledge, accrued and developed through years of undergraduate and graduate training, to meet students on their own terms and show them new ways of thinking and engaging, even as they also educate me. Rather than viewing their lack of knowledge as a problem to be corrected, I see it instead as an opportunity.

And that, I think, benefits both myself and my students.

 

blak-lives-matter

“Thank You, Officer:” The Everyday Privilege of Whiteness

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me when I first became aware of my white privilege. Caught somewhat off-balance by the question, I answered that I would need to give it some thought in order to respond to this inquiry with the complexity and deliberation that it deserved. However, try as I might, I could not for the life of me think of a single, particular moment in which I became aware of my white privilege.

What I found most disconcerting about this exchange was the fact that I could not actually think of a singular incident that produced an enhanced awareness.  For an academic who remains committed to political and social justice, this was a startling realization, and I spent many an hour scouring my memory for that elusive moment that I could point to where this consciousness first became viscerally present to me.

Well, as it happened, a few nights later I was pulled over due to turning right on red (when there was a sign forbidding it) and making an illegal U-Turn. I fully expected that the combination of two traffic violations, in addition to the fact that it was 1:30 in the morning, would almost certainly lead to me getting a rather expensive ticket. To my great surprise, however, the cop waved me through without even giving me so much as a written warning. I went on my way, none the worse for the experience.

Now, of course there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about this traffic violation. What was extraordinary, at least to me in hindsight, was how much privilege explained the dynamics of this situation and my feelings during it. I could not help thinking:  what if instead of a fairly nondescript white guy I had been a young man of color? Would I have been given such a cursory pass? Would I have even made it out of this encounter alive? I was and am haunted by these questions, precisely because recent events have shown us in no uncertain terms the way(s) in which the legal and justice system implicated in systems of oppression.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you cannot avoid the fact that people of color are exponentially more likely to be murdered by police in the course of routine traffic stops than their white counterparts. Their names are a litany of our collective national shame, and a call to arms for all of those who would like to see this world made safer and more justice for everyone, regardless of skin color:  Sandra Bland was pulled over for failure to signal while changing lanes, was arrested, thrown in jail and ended up dead under mysterious circumstances; Philando Castile was shot in his car while reaching for his identifying information; the list goes on and on.

Even now, weeks later, I am disturbed by the fact that the awareness of my inherent privilege in this incident never even occurred to me until a day later and even then it only happened because my friend had inquired when I became conscious of it. So pervasive was my experience and feeling of privilege that my first response to not getting a ticket was:  “thank goodness I didn’t get an expensive ticket!” rather than “thank goodness I didn’t get shot.” I was not was raised to believe that my life was subject to the whims of a police state intended to continually monitor and discipline bodies that looked like mine. As a young white man, I was never given “the talk” by my parents warning me never to speak back to the police or those in power, to protect myself through silence and docility.

Realizing this was something like a punch in the stomach, one of those deeply unsettling moments when you realize just how much you are embedded in the very systems of oppression and injustice that you have committed your life to ending. (H0w) can one fight against the system from which one stands so much to consciously (and unconsciously) materially benefit?

I can hear some of you asking:  what do we do now with this knowledge that you inhabit a body that has encoded on it certain forms of legal and social privilege? How do we take this kind of self-reflexion and turn it into something politically effective?

Well, for one thing, we should all be more self-aware of the various types of privilege that we occupy and how this affects the way that we live in the world and engage with other bodies in space. By becoming more aware of your own position(s) of privilege, it becomes more possible to view the ways in which other bodies are not granted that kind of power merely by the way that they appear in the world.

For another, we should all be supporting Black Lives Matter. This is one of the most crucial and needed political movements of our era, and when some attempt to mitigate its effectiveness by shouting “All Lives Matter” in response, we need to explain to them why such a gesture effaces the real-life disparities in power, in violence, and in lived experience that black and brown bodies face on a daily basis. We cannot afford to let vital political movements and gestures be drowned out by the power that seeks to silence them.

It’s all too easy to pay lip service to an increased awareness of privilege and how it works in the world. It’s substantially harder, though, to really take a hard look in the mirror and recognize, despite how difficult your life may seem, the systems of privilege that allow you to take certain aspects of life for granted. And it’s even harder to actually begin to change our everyday lived realities in order to effect larger political and social change. However, if we want to make this world a better place, if we truly believe in a future that is better than the present, then recognizing and deconstructing our own privilege is an important, nay a vital, first step.

are-you-gay

“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege

For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this incident at first blush. People frequently intrude into other people’s space when they have had a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t even than unusual for her to note that I had an unmistakable look of disgust on my face.

What happened next, however was, as we academics like to say, problematic.

This young woman, whom I had never met, abruptly inquired, “Can I ask you a personal question” (always cringe-inducing), and having procured my assent proceeded to ask, “Are you gay?”

Yes. You read that right. She asked me if I am gay.

To be clear, I have no problem telling people in public spaces that I’m gay. I have no investment in “straightness,” and I certainly do not have a (conscious) investment in traditional hegemonic masculinity nor in a performance of it. In fact, I actually take a lot of pleasure in performing my queerness and will, in most cases, tell people I’m gay within a few minutes of meeting them. For me, proclaiming my sexuality on my own terms can be a profoundly liberating and empowering act. However, that is a choice that make. It is not one that is forced upon me by someone else.

While I was not upset on my own behalf, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the other people who might have been in my position. What if I was someone who wasn’t even close to coming out, or someone who was struggling with their sexuality or, heaven forbid, what if I were just a man who doesn’t perform masculinity in the way expected of straight men? Had I been one of those people, this moment would have been even worse.

If ever there was a time when Eve Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet–the idea that the closet remains a structure with which all queer people must contend, either implicitly or explicitly, in their daily lives–was made material, this was it. As Sedgwick explains: “every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not.” In other words, every encounter with a new person demands that the queer person decide:  will I tell this person who I truly am? And what will the consequences be? Do I keep this part of my identity secret, or do I live openly?

This exchange also revealed much about the way in which sexuality and gender remain wedded together in the vernacular imagination, since I’m speculating that it was my failure to adequately perform masculinity that prompted her to ask her question. What was it about me, I wonder(ed) that allowed her to read me as gay? Was it my ever-so-slightly “effeminate” affect and behavior? Was it my voice? My mannerisms? Some combination of the above? Some other affect that cannot be quantified but only felt by those that I come into contact with, something that triggers the proverbial “gaydar” in my fellow human beings? I don’t know the answer, and that in itself troubles me.

What’s more, this incident revealed to me, in a shockingly visceral sort of way, how privilege works in everyday life. This person asked me an incredibly invasive question, and without any sort of self-awareness that what she was doing was in any way intrusive. To her, it seemed perfectly natural and acceptable to ask this sort of question, and it probably never even occurred to her, in this Modern Family, post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, that such a question is itself a form of violence. She just assumed that I would be perfectly comfortable answering her question, and that it wasn’t a form of violation to ask me this in a public space (keep in mind that we had never met each other before this evening). To her, it no doubt seems that all gay men (and probably all queer people) feel comfortable confessing their orientations to complete strangers, regardless of the social setting.

Furthermore, it also forced me to consider:  why did I even feel compelled to answer this question? What was it about the power relations that she established with that question that put me in the position where I felt compelled to answer? After all, I could have just told her, in a matter-of-fact way, that it wasn’t any of her business (which it wasn’t). Part of it, of course, stems from my own avowed investment in owning and displaying my queerness, but part of it also stems from the fact that I was expected to be willing to answer that question without feeling put upon or violated. For that matter, so were my friends, who were also asked the same perplexing question, in a similarly nonchalant manner. Her privilege, unassuming as it was, enabled her to ask this question without a trace of chagrin or discomfort.

Some time ago, my brilliant colleague Melissa posted a brilliant piece on this blog about the power of gay male privilege, and what strikes me about my own encounter is how it is the inverse of her experience. Rather than being the recipient of said privilege, I was now being subjected to someone else’s. It was one of those increasingly common moments when I recognized that privilege works in all sorts of ways, not all of them immediately obvious. If we are truly invested in making this world a more just and equitable one for all citizens, we need to start by calling out these moments of privilege for what they are. If I could go back and redo that night, I would have informed her that it was none of her business, reclaiming my agency from her privileged grasp.

But I didn’t, precisely because it never occurred to me to do so.

And that truly disturbs me.


T.J. West III is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, tentatively titled History’s Perilous Pleasures:  Experiencing Antiquity in Post-War Hollywood Film, explores the historico-biblical epic and the ways in which it attempts to mitigate the terrifying nature of modern history through an appeal to the ancient world. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

 

Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”

-Machiavelli

As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

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Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.

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Picured: An unscrupulous politician

 

In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.

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Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.

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As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/view/Entry/111832?redirectedFrom=Machiavellian (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22537324

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/the-infinite-mercy-of-bill-belichick

[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

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Part II: Wicked Women and the Negotiation of Female (Dis)empowerment (1 April 2016)

“Not only did she dupe me into believing she still loved me, she actually forced me to implicate myself. Wicked, wicked girl. I almost laughed. Good Lord, I hated her, but you had to admire the bitch.” – Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, (Flynn 345) [1]

The majority of Gone Girl’s masterful storytelling depends on Flynn’s fascinating, journalistic style of characterization and description, a thriller’s requisite plot twists and explosive reveals, and the unreliability of the two narrators, Nick and Amy Elliott Dunne.[2] Throughout the majority of the novel’s first part, “Boy Loses Girl,” while Nick narrates the present-day events concerning the disappearance of his wife, readers learn about Amy through various diary entries, the first of which details the night she and Nick met at a writer’s party – a charming, witty, and thoroughly romantic meet-cute scenario that plays perfectly into the image of a happy couple destined for a wrong turn, somewhere, somehow. After all, no one is perfect, least of all Amy Elliott herself.

The thing is, though, Amy knows this. From the start, she laughs at her own claims of being a writer – even as the author of the diary, Amy undermines her own narrative authority by admitting that she only writes personality quizzes for tween magazines. Such a confession makes Amy likable and relatable, with a sweet girl-next-door kind of charm. She acknowledges her shortcomings as a daughter, and tells the story of how her parents actually created a literary avatar of a perfect child – aptly named Amazing Amy – that represents, in Amy’s words, a plagiarized correction of all her life’s faults, which “was not just fucked up but also stupid and weird and kind of hilarious.” (27). In comparison to her husband, Amy is refreshingly honest. She is forthright, self-conscious of her own faults without being too teeth-grittingly self-effacing, and tries so hard to be a decent, good woman – a good wife. She faces the economic downturn, the loss of financial security, and the gradual dissolution of her marriage to Nick with the occasional emotional outburst. These, however, are quickly quelled by confessions of “being a girl,” coupled with declarations to rise above the stereotype of the embittered wife: “I won’t blame Nick. I don’t blame Nick. I refuse – refuse! – to turn into some pert-mouthed, strident, angry-girl” (65).

She is also a skillful liar, a schemer, an angry sociopath, and a very, very vengeful scorned wife.

The title of the novel’s second part is “Boy Meets Girl,” and insinuates a re-discovery, a recovery of alternate meaning. Just as Nick unravels his wife’s treasure hunt of punishment, humiliation, and retribution that frames him for her murder, readers are also made aware of their own identification with Nick[3] – outsmarted, outwitted, and duped by an unreliable narrator and a literary lie. Even if we don’t share in Nick’s philandering ways, repressed misogynistic impulses, or his present role as entrapped husband and suspected killer, we too have been beguiled by Diary Amy and her romantic fiction.

“I’d like you to know me first,” Amy writes. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of a woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand.” (220)

And yet, from this point on, the narrative spirals into a multiplicity of Amys: Diary Amy finds herself cast off by Actual Amy (220), who merges in and out of Dead Amy (234), Ozark Amy (244), Other Dead Amy (246), and under the pseudonyms of Lydia and Nancy. Besides these alternate versions of her self, Amy has had close to four decades to cycle through a laundry list of “people I’ve already been” (236), which reads like a closet of Barbie-identities, suitable and discarded as soon as the wearer begins to tire of it.

As a first-time reader, I understood some of Nick’s reluctant admiration. Personally, my moral compass didn’t encourage identifying with or cheering on a wicked woman who accused a man of rape just to teach him a lesson, who would gaslight a teenage girl into nearly committing suicide, or vindictively wish for her husband to be ass-raped in prison.[4] On the other hand, Amy Elliott had significant truth bombs to drop, and drop them she did. “I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable…She’s easy to like…I wrote her very carefully, Diary Amy. She is designed to appeal to the cops, to appeal to the public should portions be released. They have to read this diary like it’s some sort of Gothic tragedy…They have to like me. Her” (237-8), Actual Amy now confides to the reader, and the shock – dare I say the magic – of the narrative manipulation is no less deft for the revelation of such.

Ironically, in successfully duping the reader alongside beguiling her cheating husband, the cops, and the entire American public, Amy shows her hand. Actual/Real Amy’s anger lies in the fact that Nick fell in love with one of her personas – Cool Girl Amy, specifically – and then out of love with her unadorned, real self. “Can you imagine,” she seethes, “finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” (225). Add infidelity to the list, Nick has thoroughly shaken his wife. By his inelegant actions, he has reduced her to “Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy” (234), and toppled the wicked woman from her throne. Not only does it sting to be thrown over for a younger Cool Girl model, but Amy’s anger mingles with shame – to rekindle the romance, she had actually been willing to retry her hand at being the Cool Girl that she so deplored, and Nick loved.

In the end, while Amy gives into her misreading of Nick’s rekindled love for her true self, and the marriage continues with both partners acting their part – for the arguable betterment of both – Amy nearly gets the last word on her self-fashioning and the definition of her identity. She is no mere “psycho bitch,” as Nick accuses; she sees through his attempt to label her as a lazy cop-out. “It’d be so easy, for him to write me off that way. He’d love that, to be able to dismiss me so simply” (Flynn 394) – which indeed, Nick takes morbid pleasure in having married “the world’s foremost mindfucker” (271). But despite her success, the thought of waking up every morning, and being herself, doesn’t thrill like she thought it would.

What then, wicked woman?

“It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side?” Gillian Flynn writes, calling for a triumph of “violent, wicked women” over the watered-down “girl-power” rhetoric of a supposedly post-feminist era. “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”[5] If exposing wickedness by showing its construction gives such women a chance to shine, it also weakens the mystification of the wicked woman’s power – dispelling the myth, tarnishing the shine of glorification, and making wickedness just a little bit more human.

[1] Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Broadway Books, Random House. 2012.

[2] The majority of this blog post will examine both Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation, of which Flynn wrote the screenplay. Given the emphasis on acting, deception, and the unreliability of signs in reading the self, I consider the literary and visual text alongside one another to heighten the instability of self-depiction/description and markers of identity.

[3] In some ways, life imitates art: Ben Affleck’s partial Irish heritage, working-class roots, and troubled relationships fit characterizations of Nick Dunne perfectly. “I have a face you want to punch: I’m a working-class Irish kid trapped in the body of a total trust-fund douchebag” (32), Nick admits soon enough, and most of my students agreed that Affleck had been a rather stellar casting choice for that quality alone.

[4] Gillian Flynn responds to accusations of misogyny and anti-feminist rhetoric in the novel by turning the tables on such a script, and argues for an expansion of feminism to include villainous women. For more, see The Guardian interview: “Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny” (May 2013).

[5] “I was not a Nice Little Girl.” For Readers – Gillian Flynn. Web. 20 March 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

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Part I: Wicked Women, Active Deception, and Narrative Opportunity (25 March 2016)

 

Recently, my thoughts have been preoccupied with wicked women.

As a student of the humanities – namely, English literature, and even more specifically, Victorian literature, in all its verbosity – whose field of study recognizes the pivotal inextricability of words from complex networks of cultural meaning, contemporary and historical connotations, and critical scrutiny, I feel the need to explain what I mean.

Just that assertion, the typical aha, gotcha! factor necessary for any captivating opening line, required some consideration and several revisions. “Evil” brings to mind Miltonic images of Eve’s “golden tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved”[1] or of equally mythic personages such as the so-called Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, who bathed in the blood of virgins – an apt model for Stoker’s brides of Dracula. “Naughty,” on the other hand, has already been so thoroughly appropriated for the weirdly incongruent rhetorical camps of child-minders and the marketing of adult entertainment, which intersect in disturbing cases of the Lolita-inspired schoolgirl: the jailbait, childish version of the seductive vixen, all grown-up save in physical form. “Bad” may suit well enough, but those who have experienced attempting to explain ‘90s slang to an older or younger generation may understand the shortcomings of that particular descriptor.

Meanwhile, there’s a secret thrill that accompanies the concept of the wicked. The very concept invites a conspiratorial grin, a winking with the one eye while closing the other against the injunctions of a too-stringent, too-prudish society; an empowerment, a tantalizing call to action for personal gratification, or just enough fun in the rebellion to make any censure worth the risk. When gendered, the mystique becomes doubly attractive – male wickedness seems tame, in comparison to the female strain of the same.

Sing along; you know you want to…

The greater part of this peculiar interest stems, as it should, from my current reading material: amidst the host of blushing heroines of angelic disposition, graceful white arms and nary a selfish thought in their heads, much less the least shred of wickedness in their souls, I happen to stumble across a Jezebel and a Delilah, a Lady Macbeth and a Cersei Lannister. Presumably, any a reader may hesitate to define what “wicked” means, but could beyond a shadow of a doubt name a fictional female representative of such an epithet.

If pressed to apply an admittedly narrow descriptor to such women, one befitting their literary status, and in homage to another house bearing green iconography, we might find ready meaning in the words of the Sorting Hat: “Those cunning folk use any means // To Achieve their ends.”[2]

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(Credit: Slytherinhouserules.tumblr.com)

“There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” they say. I say: Slytherins, represent! 

For those more comfortable with the precise, authoritative statements given in reference texts, the following may provide an apt grounding for the following investigation:

Wicked, adj (n. and adv)[3]

Etymology: Middle English (13th cent.)

  1. Bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to willful wrong-doing; practicing or disposed to practice evil; morally depraved. (A term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.)
  2. of a person (or a community of persons).
  3. of action, speech, thought, or other personal attribute; also transf. of a thing connected in some way with such action, etc.
  4. Designating a stock evil character in a fairy-tale, as Wicked Fairy, Wicked Stepmother, Wicked Uncle, etc. Freq. transf.

From the vast assemblage of personages inspired by this “term of wide application,” my subject of inquiry over the next two weeks will focus on two characters who thoroughly earn the infamously attractive epithet. They play their parts to beguile, to perform, and master the sympathies of the naïve and, significantly, even the knowing reader, who cannot help but stand amazed. In other words, a wicked woman, as proven by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, and Gone Girl’s Amazing Amy, must be an impeccable actress.

The Victorians held an ambivalent attitude toward actresses – some, like the celebrated Ellen Terry, enjoyed a prosperous stage career and earned enthusiastic acclaim particularly for her role as Lady Macbeth, as immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s painting. On the whole, however, most held suspect – especially those who could not, or would not give an “honest” account of her character. Like their maligned cousins, the French ballet girls or opera singers, these were women who not only dared to labor for wages, but stooped so low as to perform onstage and in public, to adorn their bodies with artificial rouge and roguery, to sell their person for entertainment – in short, to channel physical charms and feminine wiles through the unnatural art of deception. Despite the emerging trend in Victorian celebrity culture that patronized and flattered literary lions such as Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens, actresses represented a common, immodest kind of woman cultivated from the same fallen stock as prostitutes.

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 (Credit:Wikiart.org)  (Credit: charlesdickenspage.com)

Mary Robinson as Perdita, (left) and Ellen Terry (right)

Mary Robinson (1758-1800) was an English actress, novelist, poet, and perhaps one of England’s first female celebrities. At the age of twenty-one, she played Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, caught the eye of the then-Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and became his first public mistress. Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) – who must not be confused with her contemporary, the aforementioned Ellen Terry – remains a much more controversial figure, and is best known as the young actress with whom a married and middle-aged Dickens engaged upon a sustained love affair, a secret intrigue starting when the former was eighteen years old.

Robinson’s constructed public persona worked greatly to her advantage: as the Prince’s mistress, she gave up her acting career and was left to negotiate the disastrous aftermath of a ruined reputation when her lover eventually broke off ties. Throughout the affair, she thus crafted a representative identity through careful stylizing of fashionable dress, and later reinforced that image through her own literary productions, determining who would have the privilege of seeing her, of reading her body through the scripts she wrote. The image of Ternan, on the other hand, has up until recently been largely ignored by the majority of Dickens’s historians, fans, and those who would guard his legacy; their correspondence burned, the woman herself effaced from the historical record.

Were these women wicked? By Puritanical standards, maybe.

But in comparison, neither Robinson nor Ternan fit the same type as William Makepeace Thackeray’s small, French, social-climbing governess, or Gillian Flynn’s calculating Manhattanite who wields a Master’s degree in psychology with more finesse than any weapon. The type of acting that interests me pushes beyond the bounds of mere self-fashioning; it is a rampant, powerfully manipulative, chameleon-like reinvention of the self. This clever and constant re-writing of one’s image implies more than a comprehensive knowledge of signifying codes; it urges readers to stand in awe at the character’s mastery of the fluidity of meaning.

The seductive reach of the wicked woman extends beyond her textual place. She threatens to hold both fellow fictional characters and readers enrapt, against better senses. She has elevated wickedness into an art form, manipulating social signs encoded through appearances, behavior, and culturally reinforced signifying practices.

Next week, I will discuss how Becky Sharp, an orphan who rises through the ranks of society through her quick wit, a penchant for intelligent scheming, and an aptitude for changing her manners with every elevation or drop in station dwarfs the position of the stock character that her satirizing author would make for her within the narrative. Against this vivacious but rather two-dimensional character, I will bring in the formidable Amy Eliott, the merciless, sociopathic trust fund daughter turned scorned wife, who uses the sensational media and private narrative to turn popular opinion against her philandering husband, and perhaps even earns a hearty cheer of support from the reader in the process. In these two characters, ambition mingles with the skill of dissimulation, and issues of modesty, silent long-suffering, and fidelity – the common lot of many a female character – quickly become irrelevant. Perhaps, then, we who have longed for so much more than these in women’s narratives, like their wickedness all the much more for it.

 

[1] Paradise Lost.org, (4.303-304).

[2] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 7: “The Sorting Hat.” (113-130). New York: Scholastic, 1998.

[3] “wicked, adj. 1 (n. and adv.).” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 18 March 2016.


 

Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

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Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.

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“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at: http://archiveofourown.org/tags/Poe%20Dameron*s*Kylo%20Ren/works


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.