Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Absence of the Abject

Kathryn Cramer makes some points on her journal which make me want to better explain what I mean by ethical critique. I may be opening up a can of worms here, in how this bears on what Cramer refers to as “Fail crit”, because I think that “Fail!” judgement is a moral reaction and I’ve made my position on morality pretty clear, on numerous occasions; I consider it invalid even when I’m ethically sympathetic to the sentiment of the moral dictum being applied. But I’m well aware of how “that’s invalid” can be an argumentative defense strategy, a way of denying the legitimacy of feeling offended. And if my ethics is existentialist, opposed to essentialist morality, that means I don’t rule out the possibility that the application of a moral dictum — even though it’s invalid — might be judged, in some contexts, the ethically appropriate response. When might it be ethically legitimate to apply a moral dictum that’s illegitimate in its essentialism — “You just cannot do that!”? When might it be ethically legitimate to apply moralistic judgement(alism) as a strategy because alternative action or mere inaction will (one believes) have more negative consequences? You decide. We’ll call this the Counteraction Caveat. Sometimes you “have” to do “wrong” to do “right”. That — quotation marks included — is the nature of existentialist ethics.

With that Counteraction Caveat established, let’s look at my notion of ethical critique with reference to the Gaeta character in Battlestar Galactica, the fact that his homosexuality is absent from the TV series, revealed only in the webisode “The Face of the Enemy”. (Note: it is possible to read him as bisexual in the webisode, but his relationship with a female Number Eight on New Caprica could equally be considered a subterfuge necessary to his aim of freeing resistance members; it is the absence of homosexual behaviour that is pertinent here, so I’ll refer to this absent character trait as his homosexuality even though, in an alternative reading, this would more accurately be described as “the homosexual component of his bisexuality”.) An ethical critique of the series might lead us to apply Fail crit at the point when we realise Gaeta's homosexuality just... hasn't made the cut in the core narrative. An ethical critique might pick up on the shoddy treatment of a gay character and cause us to cry, “Fail!” But that’s not to say the action of crying, “Fail!” is ethical critique. That action is moral, the application of a dictum. It is a reaction to the ethical critique, a change in the mode of response, from interrogative to imperative. Is that suspension of ethical critique appropriate here? Does the Counteraction Caveat apply? You decide.

Suppose we carry on with the ethical critique. Ethical critique, as I'm defining it, interrogates the aims of the work. It might question the validity of aims that are in evidence, but questioning the absence of aims that are not… a good reason is required or this is simply spurious. “This work doesn’t aim to address homophobia!” Well, no, it doesn’t; it’s about anti-semitism. “This work doesn’t aim to address anti-semitism!” Well, no, it doesn’t; it’s about homophobia. When a social group is abjected, they’ll tend to be written out of the picture by default. The absence of the abject is pressured for by the audience, which desires not to be confronted with that which it has abjected. (This is part and parcel of what it is to be abject.) The absence of the abject will therefore become normative, the default. The absence of gay characters from TV series is, I would argue, a manifestation of such an abjection. The absence of Gaeta’s sexuality in the TV series might therefore be considered normative and no more worthy of comment than the absence of gay characters in any other TV series.

(And no less so, of course. Those ethical critiques outlined above, critiques that would question the normative absence of aims that are not similarly highlighted, can be considered as relating the absence of the abject in a normative example to the presence of the abject in an ideal example, manifest in other comparable TV series, or as yet unrealised, the theoretical potential of a presence. Is this a valid critique? Is it fair to point to lesbian characters in Buffy or the “omnisexual” hero of Torchwood and ask why Battlestar Galactica writes gays out of its main narrative? Is it fair to imagine a strange fiction TV series that had a male (not female) gay (not bisexual) character in a core role and ask why Battlestar Galactica is, in comparison to this ideal… just like all the rest? You decide. I do think it’s interesting that the female-female relationships popular in straight male porn are apparent, and that male-male relationships as part of an unlimited sexual appetite are apparent, (and in this context, one might again note the possibility of reading Gaeta as bisexual in the webisodes,) but that I can’t think of a solitary honest-to-God homosexual core character in all of sf TV. You know, someone who might actually take it up the arse.)

But the presence of Gaeta’s sexuality in the webisodes points up the absence even if we don’t simply challenge the normativity on point of principle. It makes of that absence a meaningful negative space. In the webisodes, in this interstitial narrative existing in the gaps between episodes of the TV series, offered via a different medium entirely, an aim is clearly established: to represent a gay character. It is a minimal aim, but it is self-evident. We can assume it’s no mere accident of mistyped pronouns, a blotch of white-out on a character description obscuring the “fe” in “female”. We don’t have to fret over whether the writers really meant for us to read homosexuality into their presentation of one man in a romantic relationship with another. This isn’t a question of authorial intent, but of an objective clearly set out in the text itself: to represent a gay character. (Or a character in a gay relationship at least.) Given that the same character is, in the TV series, not represented as gay, it seems safe to say also that the TV series lacks this objective. Pointedly so. It is as if the webisodes had a character — Starbuck, say — revealed to be racist, only for the main series to make no mention of this basic character trait.

We might well ask the question: Is this the absence of an aim, or an aim of absence? In other words, given the presence of Gaeta’s homosexuality in the webisodes, does its absence in the TV series simply constitute a limiting of focus, or does it denote a deliberate editing-out of that sexuality? Is it simply that the webisodes, as additional material, will have additional aims not evident in the core narrative — such as casting an eye on the personal lives of secondary characters? Or is it that this aim — to represent a gay character — was consciously rejected for the TV series? Was a decision made to not represent this gay character as gay?

If we assume that the first possibility is the case, that Gaeta’s sexuality was simply left unrepresented in the TV series because it was not considered worthy of focus, this in itself raises issues. In a strongly character-based drama that roots much of its drama in heterosexual relationships, (Adama & Roslin, Apollo & Dee, Starbuck & Anders, Lee & Starbuck, Tigh & Ellen, Tigh & Caprica, Galen & Boomer, Galen & Cally, Athena & Helo,) this signifies that Gaeta’s relationship with Hoshi is less important than any of these. Given that Gaeta and Hoshi are both relatively minor characters for much of the series, subordinate players to the key agents of the action, we might simply conclude that this is appropriate; their relationship is simply not worthy of coverage. Or we might turn this around and question why the homosexual relationship is allocated to minor characters, why it is not allocated to a character of significance. It is difficult, from a queer perspective, not to consider this an act of marginalisation, a relegation of both gay characters to the sidelines. More questions: Is this a tacit dismissal of the capacity of gay characters to take the role of key agents in a narrative? Is it a tacit dismissal of the capacity of gay men to take the role of key agents in the real world?

In fact, we may place these questions to one side. We should not disregard them, since both Gaeta and Hoshi are presented as essentially servile facilitators (operating the Galactica’s computer systems for Adama, assisting Baltar in his presidency, operating the comms for Adama), but in the Mutiny story arc, Gaeta does become a key agent of the action, does ascend to the status of a major player. This does not mean that his relationship with Hoshi is given any more coverage however. Regardless of the fact that Hoshi does not support Gaeta’s attempted coup. To be clear, Hoshi not only doesn't support the mutiny but chooses to remain on the bridge, sides with Adama over his lover. Here we have the scenario that a key agent in the action is on the opposite side from his lover in the conflict that is currently the narrative focus — is in fact one of its two instigators and leaders, the military complement to the political Zarek. Not only is no drama made of this severance of sympathies; no indication is even given that there existed sympathies to have been severed. In this situation it is hard to sustain an argument that the neglect is an appropriate level of (in)attention. Rather we are faced with a palpable contrast in the treatment of homosexual relationships versus heterosexual relationships, an active disregard.

This seems dubious even if it is unconscious, suggestive of a focus limited by prejudice, an unwillingness to engage with the material, an exclusion that renders Gaeta’s homosexuality quite literally obscene in the root sense of the term — off-scene, out of sight. What if we consider it a conscious decision however, if we assume the first possibility outlined above to be the case, that a choice was made to deliberately refrain from representing this gay character as gay within the TV series? Given the narrative potency of the situation — lovers on opposite sides of a conflict — it seems fairly conceivable that the possibility of representing the gay relationship was considered and rejected for some over-riding reason. At this point, considering the consistency of the absence throughout the series, the fact that the absence is complete, we’re left looking at the possibility that whatever over-riding reason there might have been prevailed throughout the show, that the aim to “not represent a gay character” was structural. The question then becomes: Whose aim?

The first candidate for consideration is, of course, the creator and producer, Ronald D. Moore. The series was his work, under his creative control; we can assume that the responsibility for such decisions rested with him. But Moore was equally in charge of the webisodes that do represent Gaeta as gay, which begs the question of why in one but not the other. The webisode would tend to indicate that this is not a prejudicial neglect on Moore’s part, that he did not adopt the aim to “not represent a gay character” here simply as an instance of a general aversion to representing gays in his work at all. Indeed the direct relationship of the webisodes to the TV series indicates a choice to deliberately represent a gay character in this work — if we consider the webisodes part of the work as a whole — or at least in a supplementary extension to it. The webisodes demonstrate a commitment to that aim on the part of the creator.

The possibility has to be considered, I think, that Moore’s commitment to that aim was consistent, but over-ruled in the instance of the TV series by a higher authority, which one would have to presume to be the network. One would think. The idea that commercial networks might adhere to limitations based more on conservative mores than FCC regulations is hardly shocking. Yet, this just passes the contradiction up the chain, to network executives who were happy for Moore to write the homosexuality into the webisode. We have to ask ourselves, I think, what is the source of the contradiction? What might be the purpose of the distinction? The actual nature of the distinction between the TV series, aired on conventional television to a mainstream network audience, and the webisodes, put out over the internet for a dedicated fanbase comfortable with the new media, might be worth considering. A dedicated fanbase willing to actively seek out the additional material is an audience clearly favourably disposed to the series. An audience that’s more technically savvy, engaged with the Internet, invested in progress, might be a different demographic to an audience flicking channels to find an action/adventure series with heroes in khaki and dog tags, fighting for survival, led by a resolute President and a gruff military commander. To be sure, the series raises issues of prisoner torture, occupation, suicide attacks and other such topical political concerns, but it consistently draws back from expressing these in a form that might challenge a conservative outlook. Generally, in fact, it utilises “the survival of the fleet” as a deciding factor in ethical conflicts that might have a political reading, rendering the whole quite sympathetic to a hard-line right-wing viewpoint favouring adamant pragmatism over liberal conscience. One might wonder if the pointed absence of Gaeta’s homosexuality is an absence purposed to not alienate a significant proportion of the audience. One might ask whether it was decided on ultimately not by Moore or even the network executives but by a conservative audience who do not want their television to represent a gay character.

The speculation, it should be stressed, turns on the absence not being the accidental product of blind prejudice, not being a simple marker of an attitude so dismissive of gay characters that the fact that Hoshi is Gaeta’s lover is simply forgotten. The absence of the abject in fiction is rather notable when one is a member of the abjected group, but it is entirely possible that to one who is not it would seem entirely unremarkable to offer a sop to gay viewers by representing a gay character in the webisode only to blithely unrepresent his homosexuality in the series -- and at the point where it is most pertinent, most potent with dramatic tension. This is the absence of the abject, in many respects. If one is inclined to be judgemental, one might simply draw the conclusion that Moore is exhibiting a profound ignorance, a hollowness in his heart. But judgemental is too easy.

There is one other option — unlikely, I think, but conceivable. Let us suppose that the decision resides in the audience, that it is the audience that votes with its ratings, creates a commercial pressure upon the network not to confront them with the abjected. Let us suppose that this decision is communicated via the network, via some suited executive, to the creator of a show who has decided he wants to make a relatively undeveloped character in his series gay. (There was, so I understand, a common tendency amongst fans to read the character as gay even before the webisode; Moore's aim in the webisode may not have been unrelated to this.) Whether that decision comes as a decree or as a gentle discouragement, a creator might cave and comply because he recognises the arbitrating might of the bottom line buck. Insisting that this character should be established as gay might be futile. It might be that (or simply the fear that) the audience simply won’t accept an honest-to-God faggot on their screens.

Or at least one audience simply won’t. And there are these webisodes in development for a different medium. A different audience.

This is an utterly perverse reading of the work, but if it were intentional it might almost be an act of cunning subversion, to let the implicit judgement of audience mores stand for itself in the stark contrast between the core narrative addressed to them and the material that sits in the margins, pointing at the gaping, ragged hole in it, the absence of the abject. If it were intentional (and how much does it actually matter whether it’s intended or not if that is what it does?), one might well cry “Pass!” rather than “Fail!” at the accusing finger, this little finger of narrative that says (though sadly it most likely does so, I suspect, entirely unintentionally), Look! This is what it is to be marginalised. This is what it is to be written out of the story. This is what it is to be disenfranchised, alienated, other. See me here, and take a good look over there where I should be. What do you see? What is that nothing you’re looking at, that void of unrepresentation?

That’s the absence of the abject.


Blogger S Johnson said...

If I read this right, identifying a dramatic lacuna on a politically/culturally sensitive topic is objective, but we are required to read the lacuna as both affirming and subversive.

In the example given, Gaeta being gay is an objectively identifiable lacuna in the broadcast series (merely because of the webisodes, to be sure.) But this lacuna may be a subversive admission of censorship, like a newspaper leaving blank spaces in place of the snipped article. Or equally it could be a deliberate rejection of the excluded material.

But we have to read it both ways, as near as I can make out because, although we can't criticize the omission of moral grounds, we also can't criticize the intention on moral grounds because the intention is unknowable, as well as irrelevant.

Thinking about BattleStar Galactica brings an example without cultural prejudices to mind: One whole episode hinged on a TV report making clear the pressures and sacrifices the soldiers were under, while ignoring the verbalized (but undramatized) "fact" that the civilian population was right there on the battlefield.

By the reasoning above, this dramatic lacuna was an admission that BSG was not about a population threatened with extermination (but a series about "Our Heroes" at was while we sit on our fat asses.) And it was simultaneously a profound meditation upon the real human meaning of heroism, as opposed to the childish Dudley Doright images brandished in partisan misrepresentation.

I think what is dramatized is what's important. When some information, events or what have you is meant to be withheld for some dramatic purpose, the withholding is dramatized. Hitchcock would have two characters talking behind glass doors. More typical is the sudden fade out.

As far as Gaeta goes, since he was such a loser not announcing he was gay was possibly the nicest thing they could have done. Except that anyone who paid any attention noticed that Gaeta was the only regular character who wasn't specifically heterosexual. Since BSG was much more about romantic angst than genocide, anyone who could draw a conclusion knew what that meant. (Yes, I got into one of those stupid internet arguments. Which is why I went to the trouble of watching the webisodes!)

7:03 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Well, I'd say it's as near objective as we can get to identify a dramatic presence in the webisodes. Identifying the *lacuna* is dependent on a decision of relevance which is pretty damn legitimate but maybe still subjective. And I wouldn't say we're *required* to read it as affirming and subversive, just that addressing that possibility is value-added. Similarly we *can* judge the intention/omission on moral grounds but this takes us into an action (the application of a moral dictum) that is not critique but the application of critique in a social interaction. We *can* nevertheless criticise the intention/omission on ethical grounds but there's value-added if we take the ethical evaluation further, consider it more thoroughly.

Generally speaking, I do think what's dramatised is what's important. But sometimes what's dramatised is a signpost to an absence. The pauses in Pinter are a good example of negative space used deliberately. There's a moment in The Royal Tennenbaum's, I think, where an exchange between Gene Hackman and Gwyneth Paltrow has what I can only describe as an unspoken line, a pause where you virtually hear in your head the statement left unsaid. I can't remember the details though, so I'm afraid I can't be more detailed. The point is it's subtle clues in the looks between characters, in the context of that which *is* dramatised, that creates a palpable lacuna.

I'm taking Gaeta's sexuality in the webisodes as readable in such a way -- a closed door. If we look at it as part of the work as whole, then it is dramatised but in a significantly sidelined way.

But in this kind of critique, as I see it, the focus is so much on subtext and the text as discourse that you may not end up either condemning a work or commending it at all. Examining a text for how it illuminates ethical aspects of the culture it comes from, whether by accident or design -- it could just be a matter of saying, look, here's an aspect of our culture revealed within the text.

7:53 pm  

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