Friday, September 01, 2006

Oh, Really?

I once took a class, as an undergrad, called "Folkloristics."

I had more fun in that class than in any other class I've ever had.

That's not to say that I liked that class more than any class I've ever had. I had fun. Most of that fun very, very subtly at the teacher's . . . in fact, the entire discipline's expense.

The point of the class was to take verbal and written constructions of any sort--stories, myths, jokes, newspaper articles, anything--and discern the hidden political (in the vague sense--not in the actually-related-to-governments sense), semi-historical, and emotional content of the construction.

So, we looked at the traditional Beauty and the Beast story and decided that it was a morality tale designed to get girls to love the husbands being forced on them by their families, no matter how beastly the husbands' behaviors. It buttressed the lamentable insititution of arranged marriages, palliating the victims with the tepid platitude, "But he's not as bad as he looks, and you're doing something good for your family."

We looked at the urban legend which inspired the "Stranger Calls" movies--a babysitter receives a telephone call from a stranger, only later to discover that the call is coming from (cue scary music) inside the house. We discerned that it was a tale designed to frighten principally mothers, to urge them not to surrender care of their children to babysitters, who can't be trusted not to know when someone is smothering, decapitating, or otherwise harming the children, and who probably enabled the whole operation by sending the kids to bed unnecessarily early.

And so on.

The point was that nothing was what it was--it was whatever you found it convenient to be. As long as you used the right code words in describing what it really was, you decided what it really was.

I discovered very quickly what the code words were.

I felt a little bit like Jane Austen. Not in that I was a brilliant intellect, a devastatingly incisive observer of human character, or even terribly literate. But she wrote novels that were, simultaneously, a sharp critique of the sorts of sentimental novels of her time and the height of what sentimental novels could achieve.

I didn't speak or write one word in that class that wasn't a mockery of all it stood for. I willfully imposed the most spurious possible interpretation on anything that came my way. None of what I said had any basis or justification other than my own desire to say something.

I recounted a joke that my father-in-law told my husband and I, early in our marriage. (Why don't Baptists ever have sex standing up? Someone might see them and think they're dancing.) I uncovered his "hidden" motivations. He thought he was telling us a funny joke; what he was "really" doing was authorizing our sexuality, which had been legitimated through marriage, and proposing a method for dealing with our religious differences (I grew up Baptist, they were Methodists).

I compared the two amateur videos taken at our wedding, and uncovered the "hidden" structuring principles behind each one. One, taken by "Aunt Vicki," had a subtle but discernible (to my trained eye, of course) desire to tell a story of how my husband's side of the family felt about our marriage. She thought she was recording a happy family event--but in fact she "really" was documenting their approval of it. Her camera angles, her inclusions and omissions (and we could tell what she omitted because of the other video), her voiced-over interpretations of the events all combined to betray her effort to legitimate the marriage by displaying its emotional acceptance.

The other video, taken by "Anita's boyfriend, what's-his-name," had other intentions. He thought he was doing a favor for his girlfriend's friends; what he was "really" doing was legitimating the marriage by displaying its adherence to the traditional form of the liturgy. His camera angles, inclusions and omissions, etc., all constructed a story whose "real" purpose was to show that the marriage had taken place: I had walked down the aisle; the groom was in the proper place; the pastor did say the usual hocus-pocus at the appropriate time; there were witnesses; there was a tasteful number of attendants; etc. etc.

Did you notice the code words? I'll bet you could do it now, too. Try these: "authorize," "legitimating," "hidden motivation," "privileging a story," "power differential," "societal traditions."

I got a 100 in the class. Did you catch that? I didn't just get an A. I got a 100. I was without flaw. There was not a single error in any one of my contributions. I had no deficiencies.

And in what was I not-deficient? In wrestling meaning from cultural artifacts. In "teasing out" what was "really" going on. In short, in imposing my will on people and cultures and leaving them no possible way to answer me.

How could my father-in-law say, "Well, no; I really was just telling a joke!" I had shown what he was "really" doing, whether or not he knew it. How could "Aunt Vicki" say, "But I had to change batteries--that's why I omitted the sermon!"? I had shown why she "really" did it.

Now, I'm grateful to have been made to realize that, for example, news articles aren't just news articles--that their placement on the page, whether and how they are illustrated, etc., all have an effect (often an intended one) on the reader. Or to be able to see how an advertisement is constructed--Our product will save you from the embarrassment when your mother-in-law arrives; Our product will make you more sexually attractive to the Swedish Synchronized Swimming team; instead of Our product will clean your clothes reasonably well or Our product tastes good. It's useful to recognize propaganda.

But it troubles me, deeply, that I have been given power with no restraints. There were no limits to what I could prove. There were no limits to how forcefully I could twist the meaning of an event. I had tools in my toolbelt, but nothing and no one to ensure that I was hammering nails rather than heads. Intellectual power with no restraints is no less dangerous than political power with no restraints. Demagogues and tyrants aren't terribly different. It's just that the latter leaves more visible proof of his power because it is wrought on bodies rather than on minds and wills.


Lostcheerio said...

I get your point, but is it really power that you're wielding? I mean, the power to dissect and analyze the information you receive is kind of a personal power, right? More of an internal process. And I think it's one more people need. You ascribing agendas to fairy tales isn't going to blow up any buildings, you know? If people would look more at subtext, it might actually help a lot of problems. Or maybe not.

revabi said...

Sarah, no wonder you are the graduate student and I am not. Thank God for people like you. Okay what am I doing.
I am going to learn a lot and enjoy reading your blog.
But it is scary the power you have.
Poor family members. a little tongue and cheek again.