Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Feminism and Frankenstein: The Subversive Power of Killing the “Angel in the House”

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley establishes clear gender roles based on the ideology of the “separate spheres” doctrine which held that “the man’s public sphere of commerce and activity was kept distinct from the woman’s private sphere of home and passivity” (Smith 313), and she uses these roles to develop her characters as extreme caricatures of gender identities. For example, both Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton exhibit characteristically masculine, public sphere qualities, and the narrow-minded exercise of these qualities creates chaos and conflict in the novel. Conversely, Elizabeth Lavenza exhibits typically feminine, private sphere qualities, and suffers the consequences of the actions of her overreaching masculine ‘cousin.’ Indeed, the only female character who escapes her situation is Safie, the Arabian, a woman who consciously rejects the role laid out for her and who embodies a combination of masculine and feminine traits.

Although the consequences of Victor’s passionate pursuit of knowledge and power are clear, Shelley does not challenge the nature of man or his place in society. Rather, her characters reveal the consequences inherent in not developing one’s identity fully. In “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that throughout literary history women have been portrayed either as monsters or as an ‘angel in the house’ who “has no story of her own but gives ‘advice and consolation’ to others” (815). Elizabeth Lavenza exemplifies this role and dies because of it. Gilbert and Gubar assert that “women must kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art” (820), and one such way of killing this unattainable, unproductive ideal is demonstrated in Shelley’s novel through the overt destruction of all that is feminine. When Victor completely rejects his role in the feminine sphere, his life begins to crumble, just as Elizabeth’s life falls apart for lack of possessing any masculine qualities whatsoever. As seen in Victor’s creation of his monster and the consequent passive deaths of Elizabeth and every other domestic character, Shelley’s novel reveals that the sharp distinction between male and female spheres results in underdeveloped individuals who become extreme caricatures of their genders, and who suffer greatly for it. Hence, although she explicitly presents highly stereotyped gender representations such as those which Gilbert and Gubar find problematic, by destroying every aspect of femininity in such an exaggerated way and by leaving the masculine ‘ideal’ to suffer and die, she ultimately subverts the existing gender code.

Victor’s description of his childhood exemplifies the division between public and private spheres, and shows that “the novel, as the genre most obviously in the service of social and material reality, necessarily recreates patriarchal culture and ideology” (Hodges 155). However, Shelley recreates this image of her culture not to support it, but rather to draw attention to its deficiencies. Shelley introduces Victor’s parents, Alphonse and Caroline, and explains that Alphonse “strove to shelter [Caroline], as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, [and] to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind” (42). From the outset, women are shown to have “soft,” vulnerable minds, thus justifying their relegation to the private, domestic sphere, and by depicting Caroline as such, Shelley paves the way for the upbringing of Elizabeth as a weak and defenseless creature. Elizabeth is introduced to Victor as his “pretty present” (44), and he “looked upon [her] as mine—mine to protect, love and cherish. All praises bestowed upon her, I received as made to a possession of my own” (44). Victor’s perception of Elizabeth fits accordingly with the gender roles of the time given that women were expected to be beautiful objects on pedestals whose sole responsibility was to encourage love and beauty in the home. This role for women is the primary source of the incomplete personal development to which Shelley objects, and also gives life to Gilbert and Gubar’s argument against the stereotyping of women and their relegation to the domestic sphere in literature and in life. Although Gilbert and Gubar argue against this representation of femininity as being indicative of women’s silence and lack of significance in literature, Shelley introduces the character of Elizabeth in such a way that there is no ignoring the blatant gendering and objectification of her, and thus her subversive power.

In addition to Elizabeth’s being brought up as a beautiful toy, Victor’s upbringing also results in incomplete personal development and serves to further satirize the oppressive nature of the stereotypical domestic realm. Because Elizabeth plays the role of the sensitive domestic, Victor takes on the role of the passionate, curious adventurer. Neither character has the opportunity or the inclination to develop other qualities, so they both become caricatures of their gender. Victor comments that Elizabeth “found ample scope for admiration and delight” (44)—although she never actually says this—simply by looking upon the beautiful landscape, and “while [his] companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things, [he] delighted in investigating their causes” (44). Just like Honoria in Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House” who “picks violets, loses her gloves, feeds her birds, [and] waters her rose plot” (Gilbert and Gubar 816), Elizabeth’s life consists of being beautiful, simple, loving, and gracious. She has no curiosity or self-motivation, and her poor education “emphasizes the limitations on [her] sphere of knowledge at the same time that it further condemns society’s relegation of women to the status of puppets” (Bennett 4). Conversely, Victor’s intense interest in the hidden truths behind things becomes exaggerated, and according to Kate Ellis, “Here we see the crucial difference in the respective educations of the two figures: Victor translates his interest in science into a career aspiration, while Elizabeth translates her interest into a substitute for experience, a way of filling a void created by her lack of contact with the outside world” (Monsters).

It is this drastic division that results in Victor’s abandoning of the private sphere in favor of the masculine, public sphere, and because there is no balance in his character, he takes his masculine pursuits to the extreme. Victor not only leaves his home in Geneva, but, more specifically, leaves the virtues and balance of the domestic sphere in pursuit of knowledge and glory through “the creation of a human being” (58). He asserts that “a new species would bless [him] as its creator and source” (58), and because he lacks the necessary domestic, feminine qualities of introspection and humility, he neglects to consider the moral and emotional consequences of this endeavor. Furthmore, his desire to create an artificial being rather than participating in the mutual creation and nurturing of an authentic one is indicative of the greater societal malady of men being disconnected from the role of nurturer. Not only have men come to expect the women to be the caretakers and creators, but they are supposed to so in subordination to men. Hence, As Devon Hodges explains, “Frankenstein’s desire for domination and his expectation of submission” are directly in line with the traditional posturing men take with women: “Frankenstein stands erect over [the creature’s] prone body, a position that has been called the classical spectacle of male power and female powerlessness in a patriarchal society” (159). This is not to say that Frankenstein consciously desires sovereignty over women or that he wants to be a mother, but rather that his role thus far has been as an overseer, a possessor, and thus, it is no surprise that he would adopt that role in relation to his creation. He extends his masculine dominance from merely dominating women to desiring dominance over an entire species, a species he will create without being dependent on a woman or the domestic sphere. It is this complete rejection of the domestic sphere which Shelley uses to highlight both the ineffectuality of being an “Angel in the House” as well as how living in a society of “Angel-women” creates men who do not appreciate the role of nurturer or creator.

Victor’s obsessive behaviors toward creating his monster directly parallel the thoughts and intentions of Robert Walton, revealing the pervasiveness of the male/female, public/private split and its consequences. Walton demonstrates his own appreciation for and eventual rejection of the private, domestic sphere in a letter to his sister Margaret: “A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character, that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised aboard ship” (32). Although Walton sees himself as having integrated the “refined” domestic qualities of his sister’s tutelage as seen in his repugnance for lesser, harsher men, he does not fully apply these qualities to his life outside of the domestic sphere. Rather, he embraces other aspects of the masculine sphere in his narrow-minded pursuit of success. When Walton asks, “Why not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” (Shelley 34), he explicitly articulates his intentions while simultaneously rephrasing Victor’s intentions as well. Walton sees the ocean as “untamed” yet “obedient,” just as Victor sees inanimate pieces of flesh and bone as malleable to his will. Neither man considers the risk or consequences of his actions, and both of them unconsciously reject the femininity of their upbringings in order to pursue their goals.

By highlighting the contrast between the feminine role of Elizabeth and the masculine roles of Victor and Robert, Shelley lays the groundwork for the consequences of one-sided, imbalanced personal development, and thus writes in line with the suggestions of Gilbert and Gubar. Robert’s ship becomes “nearly surrounded by ice” and was “compassed round by a very thick fog” (34), and his crew eventually challenges him in favor of aborting the mission. These consequences by no means match those experienced by Victor, who creates a monster and allows said monster to destroy every part of his precious, yet rejected domestic world. Because Victor isolates himself from the domestic sphere and because he, unlike Robert, is actually successful in his quest, he “sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy those parts of a potentially whole human psyche that he has already partly lost” (Ellis, Monsters). Not only does Victor’s monster push him further away from his family and domestic affairs, the monster fully destroys Victor’s private sphere by framing Justine, thus causing her death, and by killing William, Henry, and Elizabeth. The dramatic destruction of all things domestic provides two significant insights into the development of men and women: men must find a way to integrate feminine, domestic qualities in order to rein in their often destructive ambitions, and women must integrate masculine, active qualities in order to survive without the protection of men. Gilbert and Gubar explain that the angel-woman, “in the severity of her selflessness, as well as the extremity of her alienation from ordinary fleshly life” (817), often becomes an ‘Angel of Death’ as a result of her tendency toward caring for the dying as well as through her adherence to the “aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty” (817). This is exactly what happens to Elizabeth well before she actually dies, so when the actions of her male counterpart result in her violent murder, her character has already proven to be so weak and half-dead that her murder is anti-climactic. Hence, the killing of the “angel in the house” merely highlights the fact that the angel was already nearly dead, and thus Shelley subverts the very roles she appears at first glance to be upholding.

Shelley does, however, provide one example of the successful combination of masculine and feminine, public and private qualities, and does so without any subversion or satire. This is presented in the character of Safie, the Arabian. Although Safie appears to be a minor, peripheral character, the juxtaposition of her traits with those of Elizabeth provides a powerful image of what is lacking in society as a result of the separate-spheres doctrine. Safie’s mother “taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and [to have] an independence of spirit” (Shelley 112), and because of this, she refused to be “immured within the walls of a haram, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements” (Shelley 112). Although free from external forms of oppression, Elizabeth’s education and daily activities are indeed no more than mere “infantile amusements,” and yet she does nothing to change her situation. Safie, on the other hand, “not only refuses to wait for the possibility that her lover will miraculously find her, but actively seeks Felix out, traveling through Europe with only an attendant for protection” (Ellis, Monsters). She is the only female character who transgresses the emotional, intellectual, and physical expectations of the private sphere given that no other female character chooses to leave the domestic sphere, especially to travel such long distances. Ellis explains that had Elizabeth been encouraged as Safie was, “she might have followed Victor to Ingolstadt and perhaps even have insisted that he provide the Monster a companion for his wanderings” (Monsters). In other words, if men and women contribute to each other’s development and embrace both masculinized and feminized attributes, they are more likely to be complete and healthy. Shelley encourages this balance of gendered traits in a way that does not present Safie as a monstrous woman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that “assertiveness, aggressiveness—all characteristics of a male life of ‘significant action’—are ‘monstrous’ in women precisely because ‘unfeminine’ and therefore unsuited to a gentle life of ‘contemplative purity’” (819), and yet Safie manages to merge the two. Her independent and assertive nature motivated her to leave her cruel father, and yet her feminine, caring, and nurturing nature motivated her to join the De Lacey family.

In all, Shelley addresses many aspects of the natures of men and women, and challenges many of society’s greatest conventions. Victor’s actions raise questions about the morality of science, and the monster reveals society’s inability to accept difference, but the most pervasive issue throughout the text, and really the source for all the other social comments, is Shelley’s portrayal of the roles of men and women. According to Ellis, “If the family is to be a viable institution for the transmission of domestic affection from one generation to the next, it must […] become hardy enough to survive in the world outside the home” (Monsters). Had Victor embraced the feminine, domestic attributes of sensitivity, humility, love, and compassion, he may not have followed through on the creation of a human being, or if he did follow through, he may have been more accepting of it. Additionally, if Elizabeth had learned more masculine, active qualities such as assertiveness, curiosity, and strength, she may have confronted Victor’s evasiveness and gained insight into the monster she was up against. She may have been able to protect herself rather than merely waiting for her moment to scream, and to die. Through her exaggerated use of the public/private split, Shelley develops Victor as “society’s agent, and the roles of women and of men in [his] world, by extension, are ultimately societal constructs that are destructive to all” (Bennett 6). Shelley conveys this message indirectly and unobtrusively by letting the extreme dichotomies speak for themselves and by establishing them as subversive foils of each other.

Works Cited

Bennett, Betty T. “'Not this Time, Victor!': Mary Shelley’s Reversioning of Elizabeth, from Frankenstein to Faulkner.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Ellis, Kate. “Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family.” The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. U of California P, 1979. Literature Resource Center. 26 April 2009

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An
. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 812-

Hodges, Devon. “Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion in the Novel.” Tulsa Studies in
Women's Literature
, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983), U of Tulsa P, pp. 155-164. JSTOR. 26 April 2009 <

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1831). Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

Smith, Johanna M. “‘Cooped Up’ with ‘Sad Trash’: Domesticity and the Sciences in Frankenstein.” Mary Shelley Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Addie Bundren: Breaking the Literary Mold

Addie Bundren is dead, and yet, it is only now that she actually has a voice. William Faulkner’s 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying, is literally the story of Addie’s last moments of life, but the fact that the majority of the novel’s events (and particularly the chapter containing Addie’s monologue about her life and thoughts) all occur after she has died appears to show her as a stifled, trapped woman. However, Addie is not a literary monster as so many critics have claimed, nor was she as innocent and stifled as others have argued. Rather, she represents exactly what Fetterley and Gilbert and Gubar argue for: she is the ultimate combination of the angel and monster, as well as a roundly developed character to which women (and men) can relate.

In “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Gilbert and Gubar assert that women throughout literary history have been portrayed as either the delicate ‘angel in the house’ who “has no story of her own but gives ‘advice and consolation’ to others” (815) or as the dangerous female monster, as aberrations “who are only committed to their own private ends” and who “are accidents of nature [and] deformities meant to repel” (820). The male (and sometimes female) writers who utilize this side of the dichotomous representation of women intentionally or inadvertently create women who “negatively reinforc[e] those messages of submissiveness conveyed by their angelic sisters” (820). Gilbert and Gubar argue that “women must kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art” and they must also “kill” the angel’s opposite: the monster (812). Addie Bundren is the embodiment of this murder of the angel and the monster. Rather than develop a flat or single-minded character as this dying matriarch, Faulkner manages to stay within the bounds of certain conventions while boldly breaking out of others. Where Gilbert and Gubar assert that the female character is a fragmented and subjugated one, Faulkner creates a woman who fits neatly into her role as wife and mother while simultaneously breaking out of that role after she dies by admitting her hatred of the confinements inherent in that role.

Furthermore, she does not hate her husband and most of children simply because they confine her as a woman, but instead because they confine her as a human, and this is an entirely unconventional means of portraying womanhood. Initially, Addie is shown to be a violent, death-obsessed single schoolteacher. She would “look forward to the times when [the students] faulted, so [she] could whip them” (Faulkner 170), and yet, she experiences extreme and intense love for her firstborn son. She hates the children for not being hers, and then she hates her own children for being hers. Although these traits seem rather unbecoming of a woman and a mother, and thus, seem to be in line with Gilbert and Gubar’s argument regarding women in literature, Addie’s possession of these traits and reasons for her actions ultimately reveal her to be more a complicated individual than an evil woman.

Indeed, Addie is a character to whom most of us do not want to relate. She is dark and complicated and brutally honest about her views on life and its disappointments. Fetterley argues in "On the Politics of Literature" that because “American literature is male” and lacks any rounded or fully developed female characters, “the female reader is co-opted into participation in an experience from which she is explicitly excluded; she is asked to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her; she is required to identify against herself” (Handout). On the surface, As I Lay Dying appears to uphold this state of literary affairs—Cora Tull is a one-dimensional, ignorant woman, Dewey Dell is obsessed with aborting her unwanted pregnancy, and Addie is dead. But unlike these first two women, Faulkner presents Addie not only as the novel’s central character and the basis for the reference in the title, he also develops her character more fully and directly than any of the others. Although her opinions are harsh, and her actions are morally unsound at times, she is no Dame Van Winkle, she is no monster, and she is certainly no angel. Addie is not bound by any single fragmented or stereotyped identity. Instead she is seen through many perspectives and presented as the amalgamation of them all in addition to her own perception of herself.

Hence, Fetterley’s assertion that women will only be able to reinvent, rewrite, and re-relate to American literature once they have raised consciousness is essential in reading the impact and significance of the character of Addie Bundren. Instead of simply leaving off that Addie is dead and unimportant, or dead and silenced, or trapped by social convention and thus a victim of the male gaze (all of which imply that we have not revised our vision and perception of women in literature), it is imperative that we see her as representative of the human race. She is a woman but she is also soul-sick. She is an idealist who is trapped in a realist world—the world of family and love and children. She made a life-choice and was not satisfied by it. If this character were male there would be no question about his actions and motivations; it is only because she is female that critics desire to suffocate, silence, or reduce her to being yet another partial person. Instead of doing what so many authors have done and what Gilbert, Gubar, and Fetterley object to, critics can very well avoid subjugating Addie and thus see her as a the well-rounded, significant, whole person that she is. In effect, she is the equivalent of the Rip Van Winkle or Nick Carraway: she, just like them, can “speak for us all” (Fetterley, handout).

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 812-825.

Fetterley, Judith. “On the Politics of Literature.” (Handout from1st ed. of: Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan).

Gender and Feminism Presentation

First of all, I love baking cookies. Once I read the Gilbert and Gubar piece, I knew that I wanted our group (since it was so large) to represent the many faces of “woman” in literature, and since one such face is that of the housewife or angel in the house, I figured that cookies were a necessity.

After reading the assigned texts, I proposed to the group that we begin our presentation in costume to demonstrate the fragmented state of “woman” in literary representations. This fits with both the Gilbert and Gubar and Fetterley texts . I proposed that we each find a representative or explanatory quote from one of the texts in order to ground our ‘character’ in the criticism. Also I initially wanted to break the class into essentialist and constructionist groups, and proposed that the class answer a qualitative survey and construct their own gender identities (Butler) or prove their essential masculinity/ femininity (Irigaray). When Sharlene and I met last week, she proposed instead that we have each member of the class draw a classmate’s gender identity. That seemed like more fun than a survey. I also served the group as a mediator and organizer. I emailed individuals in the group and the group as a whole, and made sure that everyone was on the same page.

This was a most enjoyable and interesting experience given how close to home the issues of sex and gender are to me and (presumably) to most of the class. I was impressed by the insight and contributions of my classmates, and in particular, the divergent reactions to the Barbie debate. I was also glad to see that there were inconsistencies in how individuals code certain characteristics—that someone who is athletic, etc. is coded as a male even though she is female.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thoughts on Foucault and Butler

Foucault uses the concept of the panopticon to demonstrate the extent of a governing body's ability to influence its people. If people are willing to govern themselves in accordance with the governing body's intentions and conventions, then the government need do very little governing. Given that there is no such thing as a system where the individuals govern themselves completely, it makes sense that Foucault does not promote the panopticon in a literal sense. There are very few instances where governments were able to govern without resorting to physical means of punishment or threats of violence. Our nation is an example of this. For the most part, we as Americans abide by rules and laws not necessarily because we think they are 'correct' or 'just' but more so to avoid the embarrassment or shame inherent in getting caught. This is a form of self-surveillance. If there were large goons with guns pointed at us, we would be more likely to act out of fear of actual violence than out of fear of embarrassment.

However, it is more than evident that many individuals within this American society of ours do not act in accordance with these principles of self-surveillance and fear of being socially ostracized. These individuals are either incapable of watching their own behavior or simply don't care. Hence, a governing body must step in and dictate exactly and explicitly how these individuals must be treated and how they should act. Knowledge itself is not enough. Now they must resort to the 'plague' system of supervision and overt threats.

My point is that these varying ways of governing individuals within a given society are also indicative of the ways individuals are gendered within society. When a girl is born, she is wrapped in a pink sheet. She is raised to be less aggressive and less outspoken than her male counterparts. She eventually learns to instill these behaviors and traits within herself. She watches herself and her body and her voice and her facial expressions to make sure she is acting in accordance with the governing body's prescribed notion of what it looks like to be a feminine female. It is imperative to enact these gender traits because not doing so would bring great shame and social rejection.

Of course, just as there are 'madmen' and criminals, so are there men and women who reject their prescribed gender roles. These individuals construct themselves differently--they become androgynous or too masculine for a female or too feminine for a man. These individuals either cannot help their inability to fulfill traditional or conventional roles, or they simply do not care. They want to live how they want to live and are not afraid of social rejection or shame. And just as the government punishes individuals who break the law, so does society punish individuals who break convention. There is no perfect society where everyone watches him or her self perfectly, nor should there be. The problem is not in whether or not people act in accordance with the law or convention of their own volition, but rather whether or not the laws and conventions are viable.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fascism versus Panopticism: What's a Puppy Got to Do with It?

Imagine a world without emotion, a world without anger, love, happiness, or fear. In Equilibrium, Christian Bale’s Preston lives in such a world, a nation in which emotions are illegal and the punishment for them is death. He is a “grammaton cleric,” an enforcer of the anti-emotion law. He has been trained not only to feel nothing, but to destroy all things that feel or inspire feeling. This is how the fascist government of Libria maintains its supposedly ‘peaceful’ and ‘harmonious’ state: by committing heartless acts of violence upon its citizens and abruptly halting any and all cultural or intellectual progression or accumulation of knowledge. Prior to this scene, Preston destroyed the original “Mona Lisa” because it inspires emotion. But in the following scene, he does just the opposite. He, too, has begun to feel. He is now inspired to act in accordance with his own ‘conscience’, his previously suppressed internal governing force, and this internal force has proven to be quite a match for the external, oppressive forces of the Librian government.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault presents two models for governing the masses: the plague model versus Bentham’s Panopitcon. The plague model details the extent to which the governing magistrates went in order to prevent the spread of the plague. All citizens were locked in their homes from the outside and all houses, streets, and city borders and gates were supervised by armed guards. Foucault writes that “the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects” which resulted in the sick being “caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning” (553), but although this model was perfect, it was also “absolutely violent” (556). He explains, “to the disease that brought death, power opposed its perpetual threat of death” (Foucault 556). The concept of the Panopticon is an extension of the segmentation, differentiation, and individualization of the plague model, but with one significant difference. The plague model involves an externalized power of violence and threats of violence whereas the Panopticon results in power-over through the internalization of the governing forces without violence. Foucault explains that those who possess knowledge will also possess power, and that this power is most effectively exercised when it becomes a part of the individual himself; when he exercises it over himself.

The Librian government in Equilibrium attempts to create this Panoptic form of government. All citizens appear to be governing themselves: they inject the anti-emotion serum daily and supervise themselves and each other. But the existence of the ‘Clerics’ is enough in itself to prove that the power lies not in the internalization of knowledge-power, but rather in the ever-present threat of death. This is the primary fault of Libria. It indirectly professes to be a Panoptic nation, one which, “although it arranges power, […] it does so not for power itself, nor for the immediate salvation of a threatened society: its aim is to strengthen the social forces—to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, [and to] raise the level of public morality” (Foucault 556). But Libria does not actually do these things. Instead, it suppresses knowledge within individuals and within the disciplines. Only a select few have knowledge, and thus, as soon as an individual gains knowledge for himself, he will not govern himself according to those in power, but rather according to himself and his newfound insight. A society based on the “old principle of ‘levying violence’” is not conducive to the Panoptic “principle of ‘mildness-production-profit’” (Foucault 563): the people will rebel against external government, against the threat of violence, more so than they would be inclined to rebel against an internalized governing force.

This thin veil of ‘self-surveillance’ inherent in the Librian government is quickly torn asunder when Preston sees the defenseless and cuddly puppy. He has been trained to destroy such emotion-inspiring stimuli, but because he, like most humans, is more influenced by internal forces than external ones, he chooses to protect it. Furthermore, the fact that he has no stake in preserving the status quo other than the threat of physical harm (which he cares little about) means he is not afraid to act in opposition to it. This is a prime example of the need, in modern society at least, for more than just external governmental forces and threats of violence. The use of the disciplines, rather than violence, to “assur[e] the ordering of human multiplicities” (562) is proven in this scene to be the preferred means of government. Had Preston been taught to internalize the disciplines, to believe he is an empowered individual with a stake in the success of his culture, he would have been less inclined to disrupt that culture. However, there is no way to reconcile a fascist state (and Libria is literally one, what with its head of state being called “Father”) with one which encourages individual self-surveillance and self-government. Preston is proof of this.

But even if this film emphasized the success of a Panoptic state, Preston would still be a rebel. For he uses the disciplines, the knowledge he accumulates, to act in subversion of his culture. He acknowledges the current state of things, the ways of thinking, the expectations, and prescribed behaviors, and he enacts them as long as it suits him. He infiltrates his own society, and tears it down from the inside. When Foucault writes that “panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion” and that “the ‘Enlightenment,’ which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines” (565), he demonstrates that knowledge has always been and will always be used to govern individuals, either through force or coercion. Thus, individuals like Preston who acknowledge knowledge, but then use their knowledge of knowledge to subvert those in power or the internal coercive power, are the only ones who are capable of creating change. But because this is an action movie first, and a political commentary second, he resorts to extreme ‘matrix-esque’ violence and saves the day that way.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 549-566.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Eddie Izzard: The Comedy of Ideological Subversion

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.
—Karl Marx, from The German Ideology

I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school, I observed Lent, and was even an altar girl once the politically correct/ equal opportunity movements found their way into the Church. I believed; but according to Luis Althusser, I believed because I acted. I acted not because I was afraid for my afterlife or being controlled by the 'earliest form of government' as I have so often professed, but rather because I recognized the material manifestation of this ideology as a part of my subjective self. Eddie Izzard takes this dominant ideology, as well as those of the Church of England and the Protestants, and shows them to be just that—ideologies. They are physical and material behaviors which create a sense of meaning, but which are not the result of a ‘higher power’ or divine inspiration. Izzard subverts the often taken for granted ideology behind Catholicism by highlighting the arbitrariness of its origins, and he does the same with the birth of the Church of England. By doing so, he aligns himself with the writings of Marx, Althusser, and Gramsci in that he, too, challenges the accepted meaning, significance, and manifestations of dominant ideologies.

Althusser writes that the recognition that occurs between a subject and an ideology is similar to when someone knocks on your door and says "it's me" in response to "who's there?" (698). It becomes obvious who the knocker is. The same applies to one's recognition of the material manifestation of an ideology. For centuries, various religious leaders maintained their dominance based on the assertion that their religion came directly from ‘God’. Izzard asserts, conversely, that religion comes from people, and even worse, that these people create religions for self-serving purposes. In "The German Ideology", Marx writes that “we ascend from earth to heaven” and that “we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive […] in order to arrive at men in the flesh” (656). Instead, we begin as real men (and women) and create our dominant ideologies; we produce ourselves into existence through our actions. However, this production of ideologies through action is typically limited to those who are in power: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx 656). Once those in power enact their preferred ideas, these ideas become ideals, and then ideologies, and then universalities.

This is exactly what Izzard mocks in his discussion of the birth of the Church of England. Rather than being divinely inspired, it was merely the result of a selfish and power-hungry king who wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. Izzard also mocks the Catholic Church by commenting that it follows the “teachings of Cathol.” The fact that a comedian can get away with such a commentary is indicative of the progressive decline in power of these previously dominant ideologies, and this in turn is indicative of a shift in what Antonio Gramsci calls “social hegemony” (673). Hegemony, according to Gramsci, entails the “‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (673), and the Catholic bishops and Pope and King Henry VIII both utilized this means of disseminating ideas and ensuring compliance. Because these leaders are no longer in power, the ideologies have lost their significance. But these leaders would not have been able to dominate their subjects had they not utilized their primary advantage: their ability to control the “material force of society” (Marx 656). Henry VIII, for example, had control over the means of production as well as the labor power of his subjects so he was able to change the dominant ideas of the epoch. By changing the dominant ideology from that of Catholicism to that of the Church of England (both of which are quite similar), he inadvertently highlighted the weakness of both of these ideologies. If something that everyone ‘believed’ in is so malleable that a king can just up and change it, it must not be very strong. And if it is possible to create a new religion in one day, it, too, must not be independent or divinely inspired.

Thus, Izzard’s commentary on the significance of and meaning behind dominant ideologies supports the ideas set forth by some of the strongest and most influential Marxist/ Economic theorists. However, what Izzard neglects to mention is the relationship between the subjects and the leaders in terms of propagating and perpetuating ideologies. Althusser states that the recognition and enactment of ideologies by subjects are ultimately synonymous with “the reproduction of the relations of production and of the relations deriving from them” (701). In other words, the creation of religion to suit a King’s desire for independence from the Pope and for the ability to divorce his wife resulted in the birth of new ideology, and this ideology only became dominant because the King’s power over his subjects in a material sense is reflected in and motivated by the ideology. The ideology itself is nothing without the subjects’ enactment of it (through praying the right way, paying Church taxes, etc.), and the subjects are motivated to act out this ideology as a result of their preexisting production relations. They are already inferior in terms of their class, so it is acceptable for the majority of them to be inferior to the King in terms of ideology.

Although Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser argue differently and to different ends at times, I cannot help but notice the circularity and interconnectedness of their ideas. Nor could I avoid relating these notions to Izzard’s commentary on religion and to my own views on religion. I accept that religion itself is not a negative or destructive thing; however, when it or any ideology is constructed by men as divinely inspired or bigger than mankind, and then is used by said men to manipulate the masses, it is important to note that these ideologies are not about the people's thoughts, but about their actions. And if ideologies are only successful based on the physical practice of prescribed behaviors, then there is the possibility of freedom from them by altering one’s actions. This is why I am no longer Catholic—because I am no longer practicing. It is that simple. Unfortunately for all the victims of religious oppression or persecution due to ideological differences, these ideas were not available previously. Instead, they were convinced that if they did not act in accordance with the dominant ideology (and unknowingly create the dominant ideology through their actions), they would be punished by God, the Law, the King, etc., and they would be considered “inconsistent, […] or cynical, or perverse” (Althusser 696).

Works Cited

Althusser, Luis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 693-702.

Gramsci, Antonio. “Hegemony.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 673.

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 653-58.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Danzig's Oedipal Strife

Anyone who hears about a conflict between a prospective suitor and his lady’s parents would not be shocked. This is one of the most common story formulas in history: boy meets girl, boy must prove to girl’s parents his worthiness, and parents either approve and consent or disapprove and reject. This formula in itself provides us with plenty of material with which to understand humans within a familial and social context, but when Glenn Danzig takes it a step further, we are able to see even deeper into human consciousness, unconsciousness, and the defense mechanisms we use to protect ourselves.

On a structural level, Danzig’s song appears to be a warped version of the ‘boy meets girl’s parents’ formula in that he is talking to her parents and mentioning his desire to take her out for the night. Danzig’s use of this typical formula as a means to convey a very atypical message is indicative of his own inner conflict and lack of resolution of the Oedipal stage. Danzig does not sing to the mother and father to convince them to let him take their daughter, but rather, threatens the daughter and father, and entices the mother. Hence, the singer reveals a manifestation of his repressed desire for his mother, and his continued struggle for dominance with his father. However, instead of playing out this conflict with his actual parents, he does so with the parents of a presumed love interest because the pain of the original conflict it too much for the ego to bear.

Sigmund Freud explains that “the tie of affection, which binds the child as a rule to the parent of the opposite sex, succumbs to disappointment” and concludes that “the lessening amount of affection he receives, the increasing demands of education, hard words and an occasional punishment—these show him at last the full extent to which he has been scorned” (435). This initial disappointment, as experienced by the child’s realization that the mother cannot and will not be his, is usually resolved by the child’s alignment with the father and the phallus. For Danzig, however, this conflict and disappointment is not necessarily resolved in the typical way. Rather than overtly challenging his own father and pursuing his own mother, he feigns interest in a heteronormative partner in order to pursue a different mother and challenge a different father. Indeed, Danzig is bitter towards his mother and yet still deeply desires her, and because he cannot quite have her, he is willing to settle for nothing less than another mother.

Danzig begins his song with words of warning and threats towards the mother’s children. He asks, “Can you keep them in the dark for life? Can you hide them from the waiting world?”, but he does this not to actually warn them, but rather to express his resentment and disappointment resulting from his separation from what Lacan calls the “motherer”. At some point, he was launched out of the ‘Imaginary’, where he was one with the motherer and completely safe from the “waiting world”, and dropped into the ‘Symbolic’, where he is acutely aware of his separation from her and of an overall ‘lack’ in his life. Rather than cope with this loss through repression or by connecting with his own father, Danzig latches on to another’s parents and attempts the entire Oedipal process all over again while simultaneously accusing the new mother of the crime of forcing her own children into this world of pain.

He then goes on to challenge the father by asking “do you wanna bang heads with me?”, and entices the mother by saying “if you wanna find hell with me, I can show you what it’s like.” Here, Danzig’s challenging of the father is representative of what Freud calls an “identification with the father” (439)—he would like to be the father. But rather than learn how to be the father with another woman, he attempts to be the father by defeating one. Conversely, his enticement of the mother shows his desire to have her rather than identify with her. She is his object, and the purpose of this song is to convince her to give up her role as mother to her children and wife to her husband, and to become mother and wife to him alone. He cannot achieve this with his own mother, and so, just like the little boy who throws his toys away, “by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, [...] he took on an active part” and made himself “master of the situation” (Freud 432-33). Whether he is successful in attaining a new motherer or not is irrelevant. The only thing that matters for this man is his ability to recreate his Oedipal stage over and over again so that he does not have to feel the loss of his original object, his mother.

Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Ed. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

---“Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Ed. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.