Shaping Sense: The Paramaterial Phantasy

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What’s in a pin? Hollywood Revisions and the Ideological Power of The Hunger Games

Any film adaptation of a novel, even a popular and already cinematic novel like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, requires amendments, omissions, and alterations in the shift from page to screen.  One major alteration in Gary Ross’ recent film adaptation created a stir with adoring fans even before the film’s opening day.  The famous mockingjay pin that becomes part of Katniss Everdeen’s symbolic identity is provided a new backstory and origin.  In the novel, Katnisss is given the golden trinket as a gift from the mayor’s daughter, Madge Undersee, just after the “reaping” and before Katniss departs on her journey to the Capitol for the commencement of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games.  The gift, which eventually becomes a symbol of rebellion and the namesake for the third novel in the series has a special significance in the novel.  We first see it adorning Madge’s dress before the reaping, and, through Katniss’ eyes, we see it as a sign of excess and class division: “Real gold.  Beautifully crafted.  It could keep a family in bread for months” (12).  Whereas the pin, for Madge represents a pretty adornment to ensure that she will look nice if she is called to the Capitol, for the long time starving Katniss, the object is identified with its value in terms of purchase power.  The brief incident shows the class divisions within District 12 that separate the merchant class from the class of coal miners and their families. 

In the film, Katniss acquires the pin from a dilapidated shop.  The pin, no longer gold but only gold in color, is given to her not by a member of a much wealthier Mayor’s Daughter but instead by an elderly shopkeeper who refuses payment for it.  This act of kindness in the film shows a District 12 where the members of the district look out for their own and where solidarity seems to be the norm.  I’ll leave aside, for the moment, that by rewriting the pin’s origin, the film undercuts the nuanced way in which a sign of class division and difference ultimately becomes a symbol of rebellion to first address the way the re-scripted gift flattens out the mechanisms of power and ideology which stand at the center of Collins’ critique f power.

Rather than as a simple gift from a shopkeeper, the golden pin of the novel speaks to the class tensions present not only between the Capitol and the Districts, but to the tensions within the districts themselves.  Madge represents District 12’s ruling class who not only have enough food on their tables, but have a surplus of wealth enough to adorn Madge’s reaping dress with a pin that could feed other starving families were it in their possession.  While remaining separate from the ideological forces controlling the games themselves, the pin shows the ways in which wealth and class separates and differentiates people from within the districts.  While Madge herself is not exempt from the “reaping,” her class status does, as the novel makes clear, provide her with a distinct advantage over the characters like Katniss and Gale which have entered their names additional times in the reaping for a supplementary supply of food.  The pin has a valence tinctured with class difference from the very outset of the novel, and the symbol, like ideology and the character of Katniss itself is complicated further in the narrative.

The pin becomes a conflicted symbol later in the series as Katniss becomes identified with the pin itself.  The mockingjay points out the failure of ideological power since it was ultimately an inadvertent product of a manipulating authority, but also represents a method of coercion that backfired on state authority and exceeded its control.  The Capitol genetically engineered the jabberjay as an avian spy on its rebelling districts.  The state developed the jabber jay to act as a recording device and as a natural spy on the populace in its rebelling districts.  The jabberjay repeated the speeches of people it overheard and reported those speeches back to the Capitol.  As the novel points out, these spies became ineffectual once people in the districts discovered their purpose and function, using them instead as agents of misinformation.  When the Capitol accepted its failures, it left the birds to breed naturally with others, creating the mockingjay, a symbol to mock the coercive strategies of the Capitol.  In the film, the symbol itself remains intact, but as a gift from a shopkeeper without the same purchasing power of the gold offered by the novel’s Madge Undersee elides the class tensions readily apparent elsewhere in the novel. 

The simplification of ideology’s effects on consciousness in the film comes through a heightening of the separation of a Capitol with a bad consciousness and a genuine authentic consciousness of the opposing underclass.  The altered backstory of the pin reduces ideology to something that is generated wholly top-down, from the mind of a President Snow rather than an all encompassing force that creates tensions of authenticity and inauthenticity in its appearance in the minds of the underclass.  What Katniss represents in the novel, the revolutionary never quite in control of her rebellion against authority opens up a conflicted space where identity and ideology compose consciousness and direct it even at the moments it seems most under control.  In the film, what we are left with is a centralized manipulator of ideology where “we” oppose the false consciousness propagated by a manipulating force of ideology without recognizing the ways in which power and ideology affect and influence behavior even when supposedly set in opposition to it.

One of the most important tensions of the novel concern Katniss’ performance of love for her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta.  Because of the Panoptic quality of the state run Hunger Games, Katniss is left never really knowing the “truth” of her own feelings for Peeta.  While she steps into and performs the role of star-crossed lover, both she and the reader are left wondering where these performances begin and end.  The inauthentic displays lead to, but also result from, a genuine feeling but, as they are subject to state power, a murkiness clouds and obscures those feelings both from character and reader.  Even the light provided by the concluding third novel is not enough to dissipate the darkness to see the truth of Katniss’ real feelings for Peeta.  Despite all her revolutionary and counterrevolutionary acts, Katniss ends up torn between the competing forces of authenticity and inauthenticity which define her.  Rather than simply displacing bad consciousness onto Snow and the Capitol, Katniss too grapples with the ideological forces that shape and are shaped by her.  While ideology contains her, it is the moments when ideology most seems in control of her that she, like the mockingjay to which she is symbolically linked, threatens to point out the limits of power.  It is this nuanced critique of ideological frce that is lost in the film’s re-scripting of the pin. 

The new back story simplifies power by glossing over the class structure that separates the underclass within the Districts and the powerful shaping of the Capitol.  What we are left with, in the film, is a way to ignore our own class divisions and tensions by identifying with the “authentic” members of the district against the ridiculous and inauthentic manipulations of power.  In this flattened out world, lost too are the inter-psychic manipulations of power that create inter-district class divisions.  The audience becomes the homogeneous force against the false consciousness of the Capitol without experiencing the ways in which that power manipulates, affects, manufactures and fractures consciousness.  Within this fattened out world, the similarity to our own class conflicts are similarly elided.  What becomes obscured in the process is the mechanisms of power and ideology that control and manipulate our psychic lives at a much more fundamental level, both producing and obscuring ourselves. 


The Shifting “Horns” of Thomas More’s Utopian Womb

To begin at the beginning of Book II of More’s Utopia, I begin with a footnote: “[Utopia] is about the size of England; it is the shape of an atoll or (for the Freudian-minded) of a womb” (31).  While still trying to repress my own latent Freudian thought (my honor’s thesis advisor as an undergraduate, Richard Wheeler, is a psychoanalytic critic), the description of the island is not only open to a psychoanalytic reading, but also one can buttress this idea with an understanding of Renaissance representations of the “womb” (my attempt to kill the father by combining my repressed psychoanalysis with cultural poetics).  Hythloday opens his “description” of the island with the island’s geography.

Utopia “is two hundred miles across the middle part where it is widest, and is nowhere much narrower than this except toward the two ends.  These ends, drawn toward one another as if in a five-hundred-mile circle, make the island crescent-shaped like a new moon” (31).  While this description alone would lend itself to a psychoanalytic reading of the description of the island, the next sentence refers to the two “ends” as “the horns of the crescent.”  What is particularly important for my reading is that the use of the word “horns” operates in the lexicon of medical/ anatomical representations of the female body.

The problem here is that the horns of the crescent island of Utopia are near the opening rather than at the top, and would consequently appear more cervical rather than ovarian.  While the horns of the island seemingly do not properly map onto the island-as-uterus, the reference in combination to the similarity to the island-as-womb does suggest a connection.  In anatomical and obstetrical books contemporary to More’s Utopia, the “horns” of the uterus were either placed near the top of the uterus or at its bottom.  Some depictions of the womb included “horns” at the top of the uterus:

While one can find images where the “horns” are placed in their “correct” anatomical position, one also finds anatomical depictions of the womb where the “horns” lie closer to the bottom of the “matrix” as one can see in the following image from the 1530s:

The Uterine Horns from Berengarius' Isagoge Brevis (1535).

In the Norton critical edition, the translation translates (repetition intentional- so Repetition is possible- take that Kierkegaard) the word “cornua” for “horn,” which maintains the connection to the reference as taking part in the lexicon of anatomy (cornua uteri is still the medical term for the connection between the fallopian tubes and the uterus).  What is interesting about Utopia as womb is that there are various defense methods mentioned in this section that allow strangers to enter safely or to be killed instantly, for “with the shallows on one side, and rocks on the other, the entrance to the bay can be very dangerous.., [and] since… other rocks lie under the water, they are very dangerous to navigation.  The channels are known only to the Utopians, so hardly any strangers enter the bay without one of their pilots; and even they themselves could not enter safely if they did not direct themselves by some landmarks on the coast.  If they should shift these landmarks about, they could lure to destruction an enemy fleet coming against them, however big it was” (31).

Obviously, it is important for the way the Utopians live to have an impenetrable (when necessary) and highly defensible island, but this passage combined with the inference that the island itself is womb-like carries with it interesting valences.  The womb in the Renaissance represented a place that was at the same time ideal and dangerous, generative and destructive, hidden yet often expressive, a “good place” and a “no place.”   It was a place valorized and important for creating legitimate heirs, suspected in reference to bastard children, and scorned as a possible breeding ground for monsters.  In Utopia, strangers only enter if the inhabitants themselves allow them to, and the literal “signs” on the coast can be manipulated in order to destroy unwelcome guests.  This description of the island, in effect, gives birth to the text of Book two and Hythloday’s encounter with the Utopians allows a “stranger” to tell the tale to his listeners, just as More’s (the narrator’s) encounter with Hythloday allows him to tell the tale of the tale, just as More’s (the man’s) encounter with his own imagination (also often associated with the womb) also spawns the entire narrative.  The problem here is who controls the landmarks at the shore?  Do we engage with the text as if Utopia is an ideal or do we deal with it as full of potentially dangerous ideas?  Are we to be allowed direct access to Utopia or will we be destroyed upon the rocks?  We have a stranger’s account of a stranger’s account of a place that does not exist, but to complicate matters More (the man) created the text without the assurance that Hythloday has within it.

When More (the character) objects “that men cannot possibly live well where all things are in common,” Hythloday responds: “I am not surprised… that you think of it in this way, since you have no idea, or only a false idea, of such a state.  But you should have been with me in Utopia, and seen with your own eyes their manners and customs as I did-for I lived there more than five years, and would never have left, if it had not been to make that new world known to others.  If you had seen them, you would frankly confess that you had never seen a people so well governed as they are” (29).  The repetition of the appeal to actual physical perception within the text makes sense, but outside of the text the possibility of “seeing” them is foreclosed, and by this foreclosure understanding or learning from the Other (imagined race) MAY also be foreclosed.

The text ends with More stating his persistent doubts about the question, and he will probably remain in such ignorance (at least according to the logic of the text) because he can never acquire the epistemological certainty Hythloday possesses.  From this assured perspective, Hyhloday sets out to “describe” the island to his listeners, but he does attempt to “defend” them.  This presentation of the entire fiction as a type of “description” is complicated because to “describe” implies a simple relation of facts, while in fact the act of fiction making fabricates those facts the entire time.  This circles us back round, in crescent-like fashion, to the womb, because in the Renaissance there were also debates over the female’s function in the creation of children (for some the womb was simply a warm place for the seed to grow, and for others the woman supplied the body while the man supplied the soul, and for yet others that they both took part in the creation of the soul and body- but often in these passages there is a movement to suggest that the man had a more important role in generation- for reasons I will not go into now).

To “describe” would seem to map onto the idea of the womb as simply a place to translate spirit into matter, a passive act of translation, while in fact the text is wholly generative, and the fictionalized account gives birth to the narrative.  As Margaret Tyler proclaimed in the letter to her the readers of her 1578 translation of The Mirrour of Knighthoode, her text is implied to be a product of her “sport” with the original text (an intellectual rather than physical sexual act).  Like Hythloday’s description of the island (and further, English translations of More’s Utopia) Tyler’s translation is the offspring of such an encounter, but the question is whether or not this offspring is legitimate or a monster, and her act of the seemingly passive act of translation also becomes a point of resistance, for “seldom is [a] tale carried clean from another’s mouth” (A.iii.).

More, Thomas. Utopia. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Ortúñez de Calahorra, Diego.  The mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood.  Trans.  Margaret Tyler.  London: Thomas East, 1578.

Pleasure Reading: A Reminder that I Needn’t a Pen to Read

As a graduate student spending far too many years in the pursuit of my PhD in literature, I am used to reading with a pen in hand.  The copious notes, the marginal glosses, the half-worked out system of asterisks, underlies, circles and boxes have become, detrimentally, part of my reading practice.  When my then girlfriend, now my wife graciously purchased a Kindle for my birthday several years ago, her doing so initially upset my practice.   The idea of reading without a writing instrument unsettled my reading habits and practices, but I quickly adapted to Kindle’s method of note-taking and underlining.  They served as extensions of my old habits.  I had to drop my system of circling and squaring keywords, motifs, or phrases, but retained asterisks in the comments for key moments in the texts I read on the device.

The time I spent in graduate school reinforced these behaviors and habits, making the concept of reading without some form of note-taking unimaginable.  Even when reading something not related to my dissertation, to me, required notes since I could never be certain when that odd early modern recipe book, herbal, bestiary or scientific treatise would somehow later relate to my research on the early modern imagination.  One thing that these habits distracted from, which happened while I was unaware, was the ability to blissfully disappear into a piece of imaginative fiction.  The note-taking kept me from fully occupying the imaginative space conjured from the pages of a particularly engrossing fiction.  My notes kept me outside of the text, which became an object of investigation and a site of cultural meaning no matter if it were a printed book or a Kindleized version of some obscure treatise I pulled from the virtual Early English Books Online shelves.  In short, this practice, which had become second nature, kept the texts I read at arm’s length, constantly forcing me outside the world constructed by the text and into a critical mindset and mode.

My time in graduate school has sapped me of my ability to get lost in another world somehow mysteriously conjured in my imagination from the words on a page or screen.  The very things that led me to love literature had morphed and altered, and I hardly ever read for pleasure anymore.  Every text is a potential object of study.  This past weekend, however, I decided to try something new.  I decided to read a book that I would never have an interest in writing about; something that had no relation whatsoever to my research or the early modern period.  I read Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games.  Betraying the habits that have been so ingrained in my reading practice, I abandoned note-taking and allowed myself, for the first time in a long time, to become engrossed in fiction, and the experience was so refreshing that it was unsettling.  Sure, Collins’ book cannot compete with the brilliance of a Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, and was not as beautifully written as much of the literature to which I’ve become accustomed, but, for once, it reminded me of the joys of reading, of getting lost in a text; I reveled in the strange and disconcerting way a book can transport oneself, where the object forges a new world in the imagination in which you can lose the sense of yourself in front of a book itself.  The book didn’t become an object of study, but rather a source of abandoning the sense of myself.  For hours, I lost the sense of myself and did not even notice that I had been moving my eyes across a page or that I had been flipping pages.  Instead, I dwelt, for a time, in the space presented to my imagination.    Sure, it’s cliché, and probably doesn’t even need comment, but the experience was liberating and powerful to me, reminding me of why I wanted to go to graduate school in the first place.  It reminds me of the powerful affective quality of abandoning oneself to the power of fiction and how, at times, I need to remember to read without a pen in hand.  Although I’ve taken as my task to write about the representations of the early modern Phantasy, I had forgotten the pleasures the imagination affords when reading for pleasure.  A lesson I should strive to remember as I return to my work.

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