Presented at ISA 2006, March 24, 2006, San Diego CA (USA)
Work in Progress. Comments Welcome.
“You desire what you see,” is the cryptic clue handed by Dr. Hannibal Lecter to Agent Clarice Starling in the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs. The psychologically astute serial killer’s statement encapsulates the underlying premise of the creation, perpetuation and satisfaction of human desire. Given the information-rich contemporary culture that constantly and consistently bombards us with images, sounds and ideas, we often overlook the ways that our desires are constantly being formed and transformed, often to reflect, refract and repeat millennial traditions – of love, jealousy, envy, hate. In a world with a surfeit of mass media, we ignore Lecter’s warning at our own peril – if we desire what we see, we desire what we see most often – commodities, heroes and ideals. We need not rely on Dr. Lecter’s word for it – much of mimetic theory covers similar ground. Other theoretician have debated the merits and functioning of this mechanism (Girard 1965. See also Auerbach, 1953, Bauml, 1984, Gerard, 1989)
Of more importance, for the purpose of this presentation is the question – given that we desire what we see, what precisely do we see in the new millennium? This question forms the crux of understanding how popular media constructs new ideological and idealist edifices of desires, often building on past structures, but always finding new material to re-enforce the foundations.
Let me first place some qualifiers to the answer however: Beyond the confines of the world of the Sopranos and Desperate Housewives, or even the sanitized polygamous world of Big Love, the world still turns to millennial stories – from the Bible, Koran, Ramayana for a start, but also from other treasure troves of tales that define and explain our lives and worlds. And this world is not necessarily reflected, re-created or re-presented in technologically archaic forms of oral or even print storytelling. From Gaza to northern Nigeria, or the banks of the Amazon to Bombay, storytelling in the 21st millennium is done with the moving image – celluloid, television, digital camera are all required. And they throw up interesting possibilities – to enjoy, admire, desire and imitate. Even in markets that Hollywood dominates, the images refer to and build upon earlier archetypes, endlessly recreating, distorting and transforming earlier ideals in a constant mimesis of the past, contemporary realities and possible futures. However, let us work with primarily Western examples for this section – not for the lack of material from non-Western audiovisual industries, but for the assumption that most material referred to would less familiar to a primarily Western audience. Please note, however, that the paper shall refer to historical and contemporary non-Western cultural products when necessary, either for comparison or for elaborating a point.
For the new millennium, one well known product is the Peter – trilogy based the eponymous novel by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings. This paper uses the novel to delineate some ideas, without necessarily separate reference to the film-trilogy. The reason for this conflation is not to avoid discussions on the merits of the Oscar-winning film or its filmic pleasures and discontent. Indeed, a discussion of the film trilogy would open a can of worms, not only on the issues of (mis)representations and imperialist agendas implicit and far more pronounced and complex in the film adaptation than the original literary text, but also on the possible meanings of director’s recent oeuvre which shows a marked tendency toward reviving some of the more noxious works of colonialist and racialist discourse.
The attempt to discuss Tolkein’s novel and simply referring to the films as necessary and only as apparently faithful re-presentations of the events described in the novel is intended to retain focus on the idealist and ideological content of the same. Moreover, the novel written in mid-20th century presents us with a neatly fragmented tryptich of heroic archetypes. These archetypes occur in older works of course, often embodied in the same hero. In Tolkein’s own fragmented contentious modernity, they no longer overlap and bleed into each other, fortuitously for us, allowing us to draw three clear models.
Tolkein’s novel provides an interesting case for mimesis, referring to, reflecting and recreating ideas long embodied by a range of texts, including the Old and New Testaments, Norse mythology and Greco-Roman legends. This paper considers mimetic theory in its adapted, transformed contemporary state, and refers to Girard’s idea as a base but not a doctrine. “Mimesis is a complex, multifaceted process of re-presentation and re-creation, in the course of which new works come into being via the misconstruction and transformation of models.” (Gebauer and Wulf, 1995). Since the early writings by Girard, mimetic theory has itself been misconstructed and transformed to include the phenomenon of constant inter-reference between art and society that mutually re-enforce, contradict and subvert each other. This plurality of referentialities reminds us that “To restrict mimesis to the mere reproduction of existing model thus falls far short of a satisfactory conception. We shall get farther in our efforts by attempting to conceive this process of re-presentation as a process of recreative transformation.” (Gebauer and Wulf, 1995).
This is why we are left considering how images shape society and vice versa. The much celebrated Lord of the Rings trilogy – regardless of its unthinking ethnocentricity – threw up earlier and highly resonant archetypes which deserve more than a cursory look. The trilogy recreates the ideal heroes, referring back to Tolkein’s pseudo-epic, written in a simpler age when despite the ravages of the WW2, the ideals of the benign empire could be cherished. The book draws on a plethora of archetypes – using both pre-Christian and Biblical strands to create its heroic narrative. From the Biblical standpoint, where “the meek shall inherit the earth,” Frodo Baggins is given a burden greater than he can bear – to carry the ring to the fiery mountains and destroy it. The apparently weak, disadvantages race of the Hobbits take on distinctly Biblical tints of the “chosen people,” in somehow selflessly saving the world. It is the Hobbits – specifically Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, along with their companions – who are capable of “great deeds” regardless of their abilities, strengths or talents. Any similarity to heroes of the Old Testament was entirely understandable – I suppose - from the standpoint of the author.