|Can of Worms Responses to Features in The Virtuous Medlar Circle|
In response to
Elitism, Criticism, and Constructive Venting
Thus Spake Shrek: Elitism, Underwear, & Master Narratives in Shrek II
by Robert Burke Richardson
The original "Shrek" film (Shrek, 2001) is one of the most insightful genre films of the new millennium. Indeed, "Shrek" not only turns many tired heroic fantasy clichés on their heads, it also comments on the role of genre itself. The continuing ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction from mainstream ‘respectable’ literature is enacted in microcosm when Lord Farquaad exiles all fairy-tale creatures within his realm to Shrek’s swamp.
Farquar’s kingdom, Duloc, is to be an antiseptic Disneyland and Shrek -- an ogre -- proves to be the ultimate anti-antiseptic hero. "Shrek" is the story of those in the margins subverting and finally overtaking the quest master narrative: at the conclusion of the film, all becomes possible and all becomes permissible. Once created, however, how does
one live in this kind of post-Thus Spake Zarathustra world?
"Shrek II" is a somewhat successful attempt to answer this question, but where the original adventure drew much of its potency by attacking Disney-style
franchization, "Shrek" itself has nowbecome a major franchise. Minor characters like Pinocchio and the
gingerbread man see their roles greatly increased, and at least one additional major player -- the deadly and adorable Puss N’ Boots -- is added to the ranks. At one point in "Shrek II," the supporting characters actually take over the main narrative, rescuing Shrek et al. from jail, and delivering the heroic push that enables the climactic final battle against the power-mad Fairy Godmother. The way recurring elements are used in "Shrek II" strongly signals a third film which will revisit and further expand these concepts
once again (all of which I mention in order to establish that "Shrek" has become a major franchise -- just in case anyone missed the onslaught of Shrek &
Donkey lunchboxes and underwear).
If any series has the charm and intelligence to successfully become all that it despises it is "Shrek," but I feel the results are only partly successful. The jokes are as sharp as ever in "Shrek II," the parade of reinvented clichés even cleverer, but a lot of the attitude that gave the first film its
hip edge is blunted, if not altogether lost. With the exception of some wonderfully poor-taste fart-Jacuzzi jokes and stealing from Little Red Riding Hood in the
opening honeymoon sequence, Shrek himself has become almost politically correct. His adventures this time out see him turned into a handsome human male, but the internal emotional tension one expects is dissipated by the fact that Shrek has been acting like a fairly model citizen all along. He submits to domestic pressure, going to meet Fiona’s parents, and allows
himself to be listlessly manipulated through the (admittedly entertaining) plot.
Fiona too suffers from an inconsistency of character. The opening montage sees her flinging Disney’s Little Mermaid into the ocean -- where she is devoured by
hungry sharks! -- but once the plot gets going Fiona shows only token resistance to the sort of passive female role she was originally created to subvert. "Shrek II" separates Shrek & Fiona in order to reunite
them in the end, robbing the film of the Fiona-Shrek one-upmanship that infused the first film with so much fun, feminist humor. Like Shrek, Fiona is easily
manipulated and almost eager to let fate and her father decide how she will live.
Have Shrek and Fiona sold themselves to the status quo in order to feature prominently on children’s underwear? The truth, I fear, may be more sinister still. The Shrek of the original "Shrek" is Socrates
as characterized by Plato: he interrogates and reevaluates every convention and establishes a new and better mode of life. Shrek in "Shrek II," however, is Socrates as characterized by Nietzsche in "Twilight of the Idols": a petty man who tears down the old truth = beauty paradigm simply because he, himself, is ugly.
For the most part, "Shrek II" seems to follow two formulas: 1). attractive = bad and 2). normal = bad. The wolf with the deep voice wears grandma’s clothing all the time; Pinocchio wears ladies underwear. Broadly speaking, in order to gain beloved character status in the Shrekverse, you need to be socially
aberrant (consider that Fiona’s father has to turn into a frog (with a human wife) before the audience can forgive him). I should point out that I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with this perspective
-- it certainly flies in the face of the current
media-launched push toward homogeneity -- but I am distrustful of any narrative system this inherently exclusive.
The "Shrek" franchise, particularly in the first film, is smart and inventive. This leads to another schema, which is taken to extremes in the second film: stupid = bad. But is the stupid = bad formula morally wrong? Or we may ask, perhaps more
importantly, is it wrong for we bright genre fans to favor intelligence over empty beauty in the narratives we spin for ourselves? Surely we too are entitled to
I found the answer to this question in "Shrek II" disturbing, though I understand that it was intended to be funny. At the end of the film, Shrek and his socially maladjusted allies go to see the Muffin Man, famed in gingerbread lore, and have him create a monstrous -- and stupid -- gingerbread man. Shrek et al. storm the castle, and the giant gingerbread man has his arms torn off and falls into the moat (after being scalded by steamed milk). The film’s treatment of all this suggests that this moment is funny: it is acceptable for the giant gingerbread man to die (or spend the rest of his life in the moat, at any rate),
simply because he is not smart.
After overturning the dominant order, Shrek and Fiona -- perhaps inevitably -- have established themselves as the new status quo. Dreamworks has established
"Shrek" as a major film franchise, and Shrek has twice established himself as a hero within his fictional realm: it’s no wonder they should wish to play things
safe. But playing safe, I would argue, is the one thing "Shrek" can never do, without its narrative structure imploding.
In its own humble, entertaining, and tongue-in-cheek way, the "Shrek" franchise is attempting to answer the
question collectively posed by Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche (among others) over a century ago: namely, how does one live in a world
without God? I, for one, will be watching to find out.
In response to
The Mountain and the Tiger
by Neal Stanifer
cannot dazzle us with truth. They are dismissible, if not dangerous to culture
and thought. Now, I can't speak to Rennie's own understanding of theory; nor will I presume to know his motives for engaging in this strategy. But I would like to set the record straight about literary theory.
In the history of theory, the poststructuralists and the postmodernists form only a small band of a broad spectrum--a hiccup, a prodigy, important but not representative. They are well worth reading for what they have to say, but not for what they could have said. Though Foucault may be inspired by Borges, Derrida by Beckett, they do not confine themselves to writing about authors and books.
This last is taken by Rennie as evidence against them, as though it were somehow a dereliction of duty. But we should be clear that, while these writers wrote occasionally about literature, they were not theorists of
literature in the main. That their ideas have proven useful to those who write about books does not oblige them to confine themselves to literary studies.
There is no shortage of genuine theorists of literature. We have Walter Benn Michaels and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Elaine Showalter. We have Henry James of The Art of the Novel, Matthew Arnold of Culture and Anarchy, and Toni Morrison of Playing in the Dark. These are the writers, and these the works, that cross and re-cross the threshold between theory and criticism, between the
idea and its execution. And there are many more like them, stretching back to Aristotles The Poetics. That's why literary theory is a discipline and a tradition.
But let's not talk about theory. Let's talk about mountain-climbing. Let's get past represen-tation to the real, lived experience.
Frank Norris, a real American writer who helped to innovate Naturalism, claimed that "life is better than literature," by which he meant that writing cleanly and brutally about lived human experience, in plain, accessible language, was preferable to chasing after mannerly literariness. Norris breathed deep the mountain air. Norris also believed in economic determinism, and his theories
influenced his writing of McTeague, just as the same theories influenced Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Theodore Dreisser. That's how theory works.
But we've come a long way since the turn of the century. Surely our reality is more real than theirs. Surely we don't need to question our perceptions..
Just because we say we're not into theory, does not mean that theory is not into us. We were all of us raised in the shadow of formalism. Do you know about development, climax, and denouement? Then you have theory in you. Do you know that readers prefer a sympathetic protagonist? Then you have theory in you. Theory is "always already" everywhere, and climbing a mountain won't help you to escape it.
"Always already." Rennie waves this phrase, among others, like a bloody shirt, an indi-cation that theory is insipid because it is opaque. Its just a bunch of jargon.
If I say that "published critique of the capitalist mode of production is always already complicit with that mode of pro-duction," I'm saying that there is no point within capitalist print production when printed critique of capitalism is free of the thing it critiques; from its very beginning as a printed artifact, the critique is (and has been) playing by the rules of capitalist production. "Always already." No matter how far back you look, you can't find the start of the thing. Simple, no? All we had to do is think.
But the biggest barrier to our understanding of theory--not our castigation of theory, which comes as easily as throwing rocks at nerds--is our failure to recognize when our own assumptions are standing in the way of inquiry. We stand on our mountaintop and feel mysteriously closer to Nature, and we let
that feeling blind us to the fact that we still don't know what Nature is, or how we fit into it, or (here's the real biscuit) how Nature fits into Literature. We might even take a look around us, suck in a deep lungful of God's good air, and tell ourselves, "By God, so THIS is reality! Why, I'm going to write about Nature the way it REALLY is."
Borges knew better. So did Foucault. So do most thoughtful writers who think not only about their craft and its obstacles, but about the world around them. Like Borges, they keep chasing that "other tiger." Like Borges, they know they will never pin him to a page. The struggle, not the achievement, gives life to art. Literary theory seeks to make sense of that struggle.
Neal Stanifer lives in New Orleans, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in American literature of the nineteenth century, literary theory, and the history of the book. He may be contacted at email@example.com
Alistair Rennie replies: The Tiger and the Loch Ness Monster
“Common sense”? No, not I. I would tell you that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, and that it is not a plesiosaur but a kelpie. My concern is whether or not theories have a practical value, not whether they correspond to common sense. When I cease to care about theories I start to think of ideas, which require no practical value at all. The Loch Ness Monster is both a theory and an idea. As an idea, I believe in it. As a theory, I only pretend to believe in it to do my bit for the Scottish tourist industry. You don’t learn about the anatomy of the Loch Ness Monster in a zoology class.
Neither does God or his ‘good air’ enter the equation. There is, I think, nothing occult about nature, nothing ‘mysterious’. I leave some scope for the metaphysical, but only in the sense that it is an extension of the physical, and in certain landscapes I entertain the idea of the existence of supernatural creatures. To imagine an inanimate state is the closest we could come to “knowing” nature but that, of course, is a contradiction in terms. Our physical and emotional relations with nature, however – they are knowable; and they are nothing to do with breathing in ‘God’s good air’. Mountain air has a highly reduced oxygen content which can make breathing very difficult and, in the case of higher mountains, can be fatal. So I wouldn’t call it ‘God’s good air’ at all.
As regards our assumptions ‘standing in the way of inquiry’, does this mean that inquiry and theory are the same thing? Inquiry, surely, succeeds or fails according to whether or not it produces definite results. Postmodernist literary theory, however, produces no definite results whatsoever. By advocating the need for inquiry, moreover, one is admitting a desire to know an object. And yet the object, it is claimed, is unknowable. This implies that every inquiry, whether through art or theory, is always already void. This reinforces my previous argument about ‘one thing superseding another and suddenly rendering the other invalid’. Fine.
So, the impossibility of pinning the tiger on the page (which sounds more like a question of mimesis rather than truth-value) is the struggle that gives life to art. Which is as if to say that our inability to locate truth or reality in art is what makes it worthwhile. But I happen to think that art speaks many truths and, in speaking these truths, forces us then to ask, ‘Why?’ It is the “why” of these truths, not the “what” and the “where”, that is the struggle of art – to make something psychically (not mimetically) viable and then ask, ‘Why?’ The truth-value of art does not depend on the success or failure of re-presenting mountains or tigers but in how it allows us to approach them on their own terms. Interesting to think, too, that unlike “the other tiger” there is no “other Loch Ness Monster”. There is only one, and he or she belongs entirely to stories. Unless, of course…
begun 22 September, 2004 © 2004 by Anna Tambour