visualculture

Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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(Credit: Imdb)

The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.

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(Credit: Sweatpantsandcoffee.com)

“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at: http://archiveofourown.org/tags/Poe%20Dameron*s*Kylo%20Ren/works


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

Part I: Female Identity, Representation, and the Inscrutable Self (1 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Feeling the franchise fatigue? It’s understandable. Whether through filmic expansions on original texts – Parts 1 & 2, for your viewing pleasure and box office sales – recalling nostalgia for a past childhood – I’m looking at you, Finding Dory (June 2016!) – or in the face of Marvel’s ever-expanding arsenal of white male superhero fantasies – poor Peter Parker, doomed to repeat high school once again – viewers all around are perfectly justified in just waiting for the next recycled sequel to hit Netflix or Redbox.

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Presented without comment.

(Credit: Reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts)

And then, came a day that shook up the status quo; a day to live on forever in the hearts of fans everywhere: December 18, 2015.

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(Credit: Dailydot.com)

In light of heavy-handed promotion, plenty of folks were warning against Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens fatigue even before the film premiered. At present, however, close to two months and 2.028 billion USD[1] in earnings, fans have already begun to anticipate the next installment, set to premiere in December 2017. Fueled by set photos posted on Twitter, cast lists, and conspiracy theories,[2] the Star Wars fervor continues. Amidst all the rumors, one central mystery inspires and drives forth the bulk of narrative speculation:

Who is Rey?

Bringing in a cast of young, diverse, new characters while reintroducing the old seems like a good way of reinvigorating a franchise arguably dulled by lackluster prequels, although naysayers will have their complaints. Put a lightsaber in the hands of a young woman of mysterious origins and incredible Force sensitivity, and absolutely everyone loses their collective bantha-shit.

Popular theories diverge into two camps:

Whether cast as Luke Skywalker’s illegitimate daughter with yet another absent-possibly-deceased mother, or as Kylo Ren’s long-lost sister (which leads all Reylo shippers into a rather uncomfortable position; a mistake twice made in the same franchise), proponents of this theory usually point to the instant affection expressed by both Han Solo and General Leia Organa upon meeting a young woman who, on all accounts, ought to be a complete stranger. This is, of course, in addition to the unreadable look Luke gives his own maybe-daughter while doing his cool posturing on the edge of a cliff.

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“Luke…you ARE the father!”

(Credit: Moviepilot.com)

Sure, Jedi aren’t supposed to give into strong emotion, much less foster long-lasting relationships outside the realm of fraternal or familial affection, but hey, Obi-Wan Kenobi was quite the suave character. Not to mention, he must have sought out some company whilst in exile on Tatooine.

A third camp proposes Rey might be completely unrelated to the tightly enclosed Skywalker family, and thus unconnected to the rather incestuous network of characters who have been causing imbalances to the Force and disruptions within the galaxy for decades. This minority expresses excitement over the introduction of a new and potentially unaffiliated player to the already crowded chessboard, especially given the evidence of parallel narrative structures inherited from the original trilogy.

Alongside the ongoing primaries, you could make your voice heard! Vote here!

But how does Rey define herself?

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“Classified, huh? Yeah, me too.”

(Credit: Screenrant.com)

“I’m no one,” she protests to the keen-eyed Maz, who can tell even without her magnifying goggles that Rey’s estrangement from a nuclear family unit matters little in the grand scheme of epic adventure, inherited destiny, and lightsaber-chosen fate. Some quick-witted fans have already made the connection to Odysseus’s claim of being “Nobody,” extending their conjectures about Rey’s role into a full-fledged allegorical analysis following the Greek hero’s epic journey.

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In the words of another modest recluse, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”

(Credit: Poets.org)

But while Rey might feel better off in the comfortable obscurity of being “no one,” the lack of properly signifying markers referencing a stable identity produces both excitement and unease. Who left Rey alone on Jakku as a helpless child? What trauma might have happened in the long stretch of years since that abandonment, and whose return does she so faithfully and tragically anticipate, despite all evidence of permanent separation from her former life?

In her artifact-triggered, Force-induced vision, Rey comes face-to-face with the child-version of herself, wearing similar garb, and even the same hairstyle as her present appearance. While recalling the uncanny encounter of looking at one’s younger self and experiencing one’s memories as in a mirror, the image suggests simultaneous development and stasis. The younger Rey pleads for the return of an unidentified entity, object, or individual – a deliverance still unrealized in the life of the adult, and finally surrendered as an irrecoverable loss. Yet even with this presumably unfiltered glimpse into Rey’s mind and subjective memory, her identity remains murky. Ultimately, such revelations give rise to more questions than they answer.

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Rey as a child, pleading with a departing ship.

(Credit: reddit.com)

As a character composed of complex signifiers that fail to reveal a cohesive legible image, Rey is an inscrutable character. She represents a text both oversaturated with possible meaning from an overflowing archive of materials in the Star Wars universe, and, at this specific liminal moment, an identity constantly under revision.[3] In contrast to George Lucas’s writing of Luke Skywalker as his own self-insert, the potential for Rey’s development appears all the more infinite given the wealth of questions The Force Awakens stubbornly declines to answer.

Certainly, viewers can anticipate the unfolding of Rey’s identity throughout Episodes VIII and IX, and despite the opacity of her narrative backstory, the popular reception of this new heroine has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite numerous instances of the purposeful exclusion of Rey’s character in available toys and merchandise, the revelation of which resulted in the trending of #WheresRey in backlash, there are those who continue to celebrate the opportunity that such inscrutability grants. Filling in narrative gaps with their own relevant meanings has long been a common fan practice, an exercise in claiming representation, and a process of interpretive meaning. Although Rey appears uncertain as to the ins and outs of her own identity, the construction of such as a work-in-progress appears far more relatable than any pre-made Self.

[1] Scott Mendelson, “Star Wars: Force Awakens Passes Avatar Today to be Top Grosser of All Time in U.S.,” Forbes.com, Jan. 6, 2016.

[2] Exhibit A: Jar-Jar Binks’s triumphant return as Supreme Leader Snokes?? (http://moviepilot.com/posts/3738681)

[3] According to a host of news sources, the postponing of Episode VIII to December of 2017 came as a result of rewrites focusing on characterization  and groundbreaking representation of queer characters.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

 

The English Renaissance “Timeline” (11 December 2015)

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

In a post for her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova introduces the above quotation by asserting photography as “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it.” “This seems especially true,” Popova continues, “if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.”

Popova’s post and, in particular, Susan Sontag’s quotation, reminded me of an image I came across about a year ago while studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was doing research for a dissertation-related project exploring the relation between practices of literary invention and English Renaissance ideas about mutability, mortality, and memento mori (Latin: “Remember that you have to die”). The following turned up in my search results:

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Fig. 1   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 43r. [i]

Click here to zoom in.

The image is of an illustration from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book, or miscellany, A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures, compiled between 1592 and 1598, to which he later made additions in July 1622. Fella was a calligrapher and draper from the Halesworth area of Suffolk County, England. He didn’t attend university, and most of what is known about him derives from two extant writings, including his commonplace book. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting about him: little is known about Fella – “who” he was, what his life was “like.” But if we turn, for clues, to the images and aphorisms copied into his commonplace book, or “timeline,” as it were, it’s striking that those which he thought to include seem to be, as Popova writes, reminders “that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.” While the invention of photography postdates Fella’s commonplace book by about two and a half centuries, Popova and Sontag are, I think, instructive for how we might interpret certain of Fella’s illustrations and, more broadly, a particular historical moment in print, visual culture, and memory.

*

Issuing from the man’s mouth in Fig. 1 is a banderole, or “speech bubble,” on which appear the words “Tempus Omnia terminat” (Latin: “Time ends all things”) – a sort of memento mori proclaiming “time’s relentless melt.” What initially attracted my attention to this image, however, was the phrase written within the second banderole: “Life is death and death is Life.” Fella’s appropriation of the phrase isn’t unusual; I’d encountered it before in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons, all of which place it within the context of St. Augustine’s City of God (462 AD). Variant iterations of the phrase crop up in other English Renaissance texts, most famously in Hamlet’s musings on being and not being – “To be, or not to be.”

However, Fella’s deployment of the phrase participates, per Sontag, “in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” namely English Renaissance printer John Day:

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Fig. 2   Folger MS, f.515v

Click here to zoom in.

In the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, there is, included at its end, a woodcut-cum-miniature portrait (quasi-photograph?) of John Day, Foxe’s printer. The woodcut is included in all editions of Actes and Monuments. Engraved within the ribbon that encircles Day’s profile is the phrase, “LIEFE IS DEATHE AND DEATH IS LIEFE,” bookended by Roman numerals indicating Day’s age. Forty.

The few scholarly paragraphs devoted to Fella’s commonplace book are driven, primarily, by a desperation to find out how he was able to access texts such as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – whether he owned them, borrowed them – and what other texts the images might have been copied from: the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin,” as Derrida has it.[ii] I share this desire somewhat differently, however: what fascinates me is the delicate balance that Fella strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.

While this image suggests a heightened attention to the sensuous particularities of everyday objects, namely Fella’s interest in the materiality of the woodcut, I think that copying the woodcut communicates this interest in a different way: it holds the memory of its past engravedness, of its former life, in Foxe’s book. The aesthesis of Day’s woodcut is memorialized in the shading techniques used by Fella to detail Day’s apparel, hair, and beard. If memory, as defined by William Fulwood in The Castel of Memorie (1562), is the faculty by “which the mind repeateth things that are past,”[iii] then copying – repetition – is, for Fella, an aesthetic technique through which he preserves, yet also recreates, the medium of the woodcut in his own “timeline” – the English Renaissance commonplace book.

Indeed, the phrase and numbers that encircle, confine, Day’s profile in Fig. 2 are, in Fella’s rendering, notions over which he has physical and sensual control: life and death he grips with his hand, but Fella also used his hand to write those italic words into the swirling banderole on which they appear. Whereas Day’s woodcut indicates his age, or the passage of time, via Roman numerals, Fella’s illustration ostensibly speaks of time’s finitude, and of age, as memento mori – “Remember that you have to die.” Fella thus participates in Day’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” by “slicing out,” or copying, the woodcut into his commonplace book.

*

Fittingly, the phrase “Tempus omnia terminat” – “Time ends all things” – is the epigraph to Fella’s “end” page (Fig. 3), at once testifying “to time’s relentless melt” and acknowledging the inevitable end point of his own timeline/commonplace book: “And all must ende that ever was begonne.” The whole of Fella’s miscellany is preoccupied with mortality – and, for someone alive during the plague-ridden English Renaissance, understandably so. But if A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures is “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it,” so, too, is my interest in it. I participate in Fella’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” as I look at, and write about, a digitized image of his copied image of Day’s woodcut image.

However, the phrase “Life is death and death is Life,” especially Fella’s deployment of it, has a chiasmatic formulation – it implies circularity rather than antithesis. Time’s melt is relentless; but, as Hamlet so often reminds us, memory is the only human antidote to mortality.

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Fig. 3   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 75r

Click here to zoom in.

[i] All images from Thomas Fella’s A booke of diverse devices and sorts of images are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 91.

[iii] Guglielmo Gratarolo, The castel of memorie, trans. William Fulwood (London: 1562).


Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.