Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A few thoughts on agency and narrative

A book I edited, Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Strategies, currently at the printers, grew out of a lively, contentious panel at WisCon 32 on narrative politics; it offers essays by a lot of highly conscious writers as well as a some thoughtful scholars (viz., Eleanor Arnason, Samuel R. Delany, Alan DeNiro, L. Timmel Duchamp, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Nicola Griffith, Eileen Gunn, Andrea Hairston, Lesley A. Hall, Ellen E. Kittell, Claire Light, Lance Olsen, Susan Palwick, Rachel Swirsky, Wendy Walker, and Rebecca Wanzo). I may be done with the book, but I can't say the subject of narrative politics has released its hold on me. Last weekend when I read Dr. Franklin's Island by Gwyneth Jones writing as Ann Halam, I found myself pondering the conscious construction of a fantasy by the novel's two main characters that is based on a consensual lie. The novel is, of course, interesting for other reasons, but this particular moment in the novel struck me powerfully-- disproportionately so in relation to its importance to the overall story. I'd like to talk a bit about that, but first need to set up some backstory of my own to make that possible.

For conventional fiction, the prescribed narrative boils down to a protagonist (usually in the singular) facing a challenge and meeting it. In some forms of literary fiction, failure is an option, but not, usually, in science fiction (unless, of course, the failure results in some sort of tragedy, preferably apocalypse). If the main character is female, she's permitted to be passive and rescued, especially if her rescue coincides with her getting the boy (though some people, particularly feminists like those of us who hang out on this blog, won't find such a narrative satisfying). Agency, that is to say, is essential for lead male characters, but not so much female characters. This narrative imperative is the reason why Sully, in Avatar, must according to the rules of conventional narrative be endowed with the cosmic specialness that makes him the leader in a situation where he should, logically, be the leader's helper.

Agency has always been an issue for writers of feminist sf. Back in 1972, Joanna Russ articulated some of the problems in her article, "What Can A Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write." But looking further back, I suspect that most women writing sf have grappled with how to create and depict active female characters (rather than damsels in distress)-- characters able to survive the depredations of readers' gender politics. Female agency, of course, can be found in the early years of sf. C.L.Moore's Jirel of Joiry offers a strong example of a female character who exercises agency (and is therefore powerful). But Jirel is the antagonist of the stories in which she appears rather than the protagonist. (Because yes, Virginia, it's easier to create powerful female antagonists than powerful female protagonists...)

Although female agency has always been important to women writers (think of Christine de Pisan!), it became profoundly important to second-wave feminists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least partly in reaction to the examples and images of female subordination that had become so constantly present in the movement as a result of, on the one hand the anti-pornography/anti-violence-against-women wing of the movement (later known as "cultural feminism") and, on the other hand, somewhat ironically, the underside of consciousness-raising, which was all about women confronting their subordination and oppression in order to take charge of their own lives. The images and attitudes of 1960s and early 1970s US culture were more overwhelmingly sexist than anyone who wasn't around for it could possibly imagine, and so exposing and naming the pervasive effects of sexism was the first step to agency. But if memory serves me, some cultural feminists got so tightly focused on the facts and machinery of subordination (and its apparent totalization in US culture) that they couldn't believe any female agency was possible for as long as the sexist system remained in place.

In reaction to cultrual feminism's essentialism and (in my view, anyway, negativity and ressentiment), other feminists devoted themselves to identifying and celebrating women's agency wherever they looked. The effects of this strategy were on the whole excellent since it enabled women to insert themselves back into history and see themselves as actively involved in making the world they live in. Equally importantly, it enabled white women to see the intersectionality of oppressions and, consequently, their own privilege. (Much of the Marq'ssan Cycle is about this, which is not very surprising, I suppose, given its date of composition.) At the same time, I can't deny that agency also became something of a fetish for feminists, with sometimes ridiculous results, as feminist scholars used elaborate casuistry to establish a claim for agency in unlikely and even inappropriate situations, producing a narrative about an ugly situation that doesn't make them intolerably uncomfortable. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that a weird sort of morality has developed in which it is de rigueur for feminist analysis to locate some sort of exercise of agency in every situation, as though not finding and recognizing agency in some way disses the woman seen to lack it. The results of such a moral imperative can on occasion be grotesque.

I can think of several times in my own life that I've knowingly lied when asserting that doing such and such was my own choice and desire--claiming an exercise of agency where there was, in fact, none-- when instead I'd felt coerced or without real choice and was simply acquiescing to the situation. In one of those instances, I simply lacked the stomach for the fight it would have taken to resist. In another case, resistance would have entailed serious damage to myself or others. In a couple of other instances, I wasn't quick-witted enough to make a choice when I had the opportunity so that when the window of opportunity closed, and it was too late to do otherwise, I made a show of embracing the default. Claiming in each case that the choice was mine served various social-psychological purposes (that I didn't consciously consider at the time), most of them to do with my self-respect and pride. I suspect that claiming agency where none was exerted is all about a certain moral psychology.

As I mentioned when I began this, a passage in Dr. Franklin's Island impelled me along this train of thought. Semi and Miranda, teenagers who have washed up from a plane wreck on an island owned by eponymous mad scientist in the title, are prisoners lying under full-body restraint in strait jackets, on the eve of being submitted to surgery that will genetically re-engineer their bodies in radical and shocking ways. As the narrator, Semi, is about to "start screaming and screaming," Miranda says, "her voice...a light I could follow, like the little glowing lights that led to the emergency exit" (on the plane):
"List, Semi. This experiment is exciting. Exciting, do you hear? Say it.

"Exciting, I whispered. I didn't understand, but I was trusting her with my life."

"We're going to be made more than human, we're going to have superpowers."

"I want to go home."

"Well, you can't go home. That's over that's out. So concentrate on the adventure....We're going to imagine we've volunteered for this. The stratjackets are to... to keep our muscles rested, before the operation. We've volunteered, and now we have to be brave, really brave and tough. That sounds good, doesn't it? Doesn't it sound good? I like the idea of being brave."

"We're going to die."

"Yes," she said, with a shake in her voice. Probably. But we don't have to die screaming. Let's go for quality of life? For believing anything that makes us feel better? Come on, Semi. Try it."

The tactic works. They get through the night. And after the surgery, Semi continues to use the tactic. She isn't fooling herself, but rather is creating a sort of antidote to the mental effects of helplessness-- which Jones makes brilliantly clear is a survival strategy. Vis-a-vis the narrative, of course, Semi and Miranda do manage to save themselves and crush Dr. Franklin. But it's clear that until they are in a position to actually exercise agency, they need to cultivate a state of mind that makes that exercise of agency possible for that moment when they discover a break in the walls of their imprisonment.

All of which leads me to think we need a term for that particular state of mind, a term recognizing that it's not the same as an exercise of agency, but that it is nevertheless not passivity. We need to acknowledge, in other words, that agency is not a toggle switch that's either off or on.

To go back to narrative politics: maybe we need a different way to think about agency in narrative. I think Dr. Franklin's Island would have been a different story if Jones hadn't depicted her characters coping with total entrapment in this way. Until this point in the book they'd been vigorous in their efforts to survive (both before and after capture by Dr. Franklin). And a bit later, they become active again. But depicting their mental activity in the face of forced inaction in effect insists that exercising agency doesn't simply comes naturally to certain people, but requires a certain kind of work that makes an exercise agency, in the right circumstances, possible.


Cat Rambo said...

Interesting stuff. I've added both books to my reading list. would you be willing to titillate us by posting the ToC of the Narrative Power book?

Josh said...

It's a variation of what a therapist of mine once called the "fake it till ya make it" strategy of living. And I've only ever heard women and male Red Scare survivors talk about it.

Those feminists who tried to find agency everywhere ended up converging with the cult studs who tried to find "resistance to hegemony" everywhere and doing some ugly things. Books that celebrated the "free choice" of women to get cosmetic surgery and like that.

On the issue that you raise at the start, of the conventions of agency in SF, that's not only why some readers found Mission Child and Outlaw School unintelligible; it's why Roger Ebert can't make head or tail of Brazil or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. They still expect superheroes!

Remember that Phil Klass remarked "The Campbell plot is: you find a way out." And said he'd spent his career challenging that.

Therem said...

All of which leads me to think we need a term for that particular state of mind, a term recognizing that it's not the same as an exercise of agency, but that it is nevertheless not passivity.

How about "optimism"? The word has a bit of a negative, Candide-influenced connotation these days, but the books on cognitive behavioral theory that I've been reading all tout the benefits of positive thinking regardless of how "realistic" it is. It is also a habit that can be learned, so it is active in its own way.

Josh said...

Janice, I'm not persuaded that Martin Seligman has figured out how to "address the clash between truth and happiness." So how about "Strategic Optimism," as a parallel with the "Strategic Pessimism" celebrated in Barbara Held's Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching and Julie Norem's The Positive Power of Negative Thinking?