Thursday, September 29, 2011

Anonymous, the movie

First of all I want to point out that the movie trailers for that new version of the Three Musketeers makes the baby Jesus cry. Seriously, why are you remaking the book ---- no, more accurately. why are you making an explosion-action movie with boobs and tacking the title of the Three Musketeers on to it? It certainly doesn't get the point of the book nor really seem to bother with any of the plot details. Or even really the costuming of the period, which was more than just decolletage. There's a funky mark somewhere on that word, isn't there? Eh, I'm not gonna look it up.

But now on to the big point, which is someone has made a movie about the Oxford conspiracy. You know, the whole "Shakespeare couldn't have written Shakespeare's stuff, so it must have been a nobleman of your choice depending on what week it is." Seriously, is that interesting? Do people really care who wrote Shakespeare? Wasn't the point of Theory and Foucault's What is an Author that the whole concept of "author" is socially constructed anyway?  I didn't think even Shakespeareans cared, since it's not like we know a whole lot about his biography. You still have the plays. Doing criticism through straight-up biographical criticism is about as interesting as whether you find a character "relatable."

But you know I wanted to ask all my Shakespeare peeps about the film and see what they thought and if there was anything exciting they could weigh in on.

I was thinking it would be more of an interesting movie if they did a thing where the author of "Shakespeare's plays" wore the Anonymous mask from V for Vendetta. Ooh, and also tried to blow up Parliament. And ran Wikileaks. While tweeting from inside the Iranian revolution. Because that would be a story, at least. And really they should just go with this new and interesting story and jettison the stupid attempts at referencing history altogether. Then they could work on imagining new ideas and representing our lives back to us in original ways rather than rely on the crutch of a pre-made story everyone already sorta knows to allow them more time to work on getting all those expensive explosions perfect. Oh. Well that explains a lot.

Well what does our buddy Michel have to say about this?
We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. ... The truth is quite the contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. In fact, if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion. One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production. The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.
In other words, to hash it up a bit, We don't care if Joe Brown did or did not write a laundry list or even a particular play. And we only care that Shakespeare did or did not write some plays or even about those plays at all because an immense amount of cultural work erected an apparatus of meaning and value around them, from festivals to English departments to RSC videos to required reading lists and mandatory high school assignments --- to say nothing of the many parodies, citations, or homages of those plays and the very notion of "Shakespeareness" you see constantly in popular culture.

This, I think, is why I have lately become very depressed about the latest rollouts in social media promising to "seamlessly integrate" every single search and button clicked on the web with your "real life" identity --- and now with a "timeline" function that will chart out your every awkward attempt to reinvent yourself in the past. No more moving to the big city and starting a new life, or hiding your photos from a bad fashion moment or bad relationship ---- you get to carry your baggage with you and share it with anyone who clicks "friend." And that's to say nothing of the skeletons you may have in your closet, whether mental illness or money problems, you might want to conceal in order to start over with new people and a clean slate. Or even the ability to be whimsical and random and inconsistent and changeable in mood ---- can you "seamlessly integrate" all the disparate identities we usually paper over with the term "subject" and roll them out on a single timeline?

It really does seem like "we fear the proliferation of meaning" and want to make sure that, once and for all, all identities get securely pinned down to one name, one body, with full authenticity and no masks, role-playing or contradictions. No pretending to be someone else, no imagining what it could be like as someone else. Ironically, to lock down the proliferation of meaning and fasten it securely to a single unified identity, we all must endlessly proliferate data to be mined for corporate commerce as playlists and shopping preferences, and upload representations of ourselves that we sign away all rights to.

He goes on to say that, although he recognizes that doing away with the author-function is utopian, or "pure romanticism," conceivably, as the culture changes from bourgeois individualism and private property into something else, the author-function might be replaced by something else entirely, "and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint-one that will no longer be the author but will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced." In this new social configuration, "there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?"

What difference does it make who is speaking, indeed, Mike. Except for that earlier bit you said about authorship being born out of torture. When it comes to torture, as long as it's still a risk, a lot rests on who is speaking.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Hey, I care who wrote the plays! It's not so much that I'm super-invested in the idea of "Shakespeareness," as such, but it annoys me when people believe things that are unsupported by any of the available evidence. (This is not to say that I spend much time tilting at this particular windmill in the classroom, but I do make damn sure my opening lecture includes plenty of pics of title pages with Shakespeare's name on them, and examples of what his contemporaries had to say about him.)

BTW, we actually do know a lot about Shakespeare's biography, it's just that most of the stuff we know is pretty boring. (I really think that might be the impulse behind authorship conspiracy theories, more so than snobbery. I mean, Marlowe wasn't an aristocrat either, but nobody doubts he wrote his own plays. Heck, some people even think he wrote Shakespeare's plays. But Marlowe was a gay atheist spy who got stabbed to death in a bar brawl and / or assassination before he was thirty, whereas Shakespeare ... got married, had three children, and invested in real estate. Not so much fun.)

Susan said...

No no no, Fretful, Marlowe didn't die, but went to Italy and kept writing plays that were produced as Shakespeare's.

But I care, because all the canons of historical scholarship (or maybe just most of them) are violated by the authorship folks. There is a reason that there are no early modern historians among the doubters!

Oh, and for historians it does matter who is speaking...

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The funny thing to me is that no one doubted Shakespeare's authorship until the 19th century, and it was an American who started this absurd business.

What I tell my students is that a lot of people like the idea of Shakespeare not writing the plays because it's a conspiracy. And aren't they fun?? But the truth is, it would have had to have been a pretty deep conspiracy. Shakespeare had rivals, after all. Don't you think they would have "outed" him if there were any way to undermine his success? Of course they would have. Plus, the conspiracy would have involved everyone from the crown to the peasants. There's just no way a secret like that could have remained, well, secret.

I also tell my students about a NYT survey from 2007 that asked Shakespeare professor about the authorship question. The question that stands out the most to me is this: Do you think that there is good reason to question whether William Shakespeare of Stratford is the principal author of the plays and poems in the canon?

6% Yes

82% No

11% Possibly

1% I don't know

82% No?? If we had that much consensus on anything else in the nation, we might have a completely different world.

I'm probably going to see Anonymous. But the reason why is because I know I'm going to spend the next decade of my career arguing against its idiocy. Sigh.

Flavia said...

A lot of Shakespearians are in fact weirdly invested in Shakespeare's unitary authorship, and in leaping to all kinds of ridiculous conclusions about him and his personality from the plays (this is not the same thing as Fretful's position, which I basically share). And this is despite the fact that Renaissance studies has taken very happily to post-structuralist theory.

A professional friend has a good post on this movie (which I myself haven't seen yet, but suppose I'm professionally obligated to see).