Text Box: FMA1202F Seminar 2
Theory and Methodology (Or How to Talk about the Hero Without Going All Over the Place)

The pervasiveness of heroes in our culture makes it an important topic, but also one that can be very impressionistic, inclusive and “all over the place” to discuss.  Here, as in most cultural studies topics (maybe more than most), methodological tools are important to keep our analysis focussed, and to help us arrive at more insightful conclusions than just the surface/obvious (e.g. “every society needs its heroes” or “heroes are constructed by particular social needs”).
	In a very real sense, whatever (beyond the obvious) we end up saying about the hero and society, depends on the methodology and theoretical assumptions we employ.  Theory/methodology makes certain assumptions about culture and society, and thus limit (but also shape) our reading of cultural phenomena like the hero.
	Some of the methodologies that are appropriate here (by no means an exhaustive list) include: structuralism/semiotics; 
narratology/genre criticism;  
Marxism/ideological criticism; 
Feminism/gender studies; 
cultural history; 
race theory.
This module is not a critical theory module, so we will not go in great detail into each of these theories (my Research Methodology webpage, EN4271 – available from my webpage, or URL http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellgohbh/en5101.html – actually has a bit more about some of these theories; or you can read a theory introductory text like Ann Jefferson and David Robey Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction, or Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin Critical Terms for Literary Study, or even M. H. Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms, if you are interested in further reading).  What we will focus on is in seeing how some of these methods can be applied to the hero as a kind of cultural test-case – i.e. it’s about application rather than in-depth knowledge of these theories, and our applications will centre on the hero, to give us a comparative sense of how each method works, and to see the range of meanings concerning the hero that this might give us.
	It is also necessary to point out that theories do not exist in isolation (many of them overlap in their assumptions, and have common origins), and probably should not be applied in isolation either (i.e. a combination approach is often very fruitful, partially overcoming the limitations of any one theory).

This is closely tied to the rise of linguistics and language theory as a field of study, in turn closely associated to the figure of Ferdinand de Saussure and his book Cours de Linguistics Generale.  Structuralist linguistics, as the name implies, is interested in analysing the structure of language, based on a number of principles: language is conventional (not natural or intrinsic, but a system of codes arising in a particular linguistic community); it is made up of small meaningful elements (memes) which combine meaningfully at larger levels (sentences, texts, discourses); different languages have different codes of meaning, and some useful insights can be made by comparing the different but related codes of different languages; and it is the synchronic (right now, at this instant) structure of a language which concerns us, not the diachronic (historical, evolving) changes in a language over time.
	Closely tied to structuralist linguistics is structuralist semiotics (or semiosis, or semiology) – the study of sign systems.  Semiotics is like linguistics in being concerned with a society’s coded meanings, except that it does not confine itself to words, but studies (in principle) any and every system of coded meanings: this could include street signs, comics, American sign language, gang signs, cryptography, dress and design, architecture, etc.  It thus is potentially very useful when it comes to visual texts, and can offer us a method of approaching the visual construction of the hero.
	Thus a general structuralist approach to the hero might look at the various memes that go into the “language” of the hero: David Lodge’s analysis of James Bond in The Modes of Modern Writing is a good example of this.  Lodge breaks the seemingly unified phenomenon of the hero into meaningful bits: the hero’s nemesis (origins; physical characteristics; ethnic typology; weapons at hand; evil plans, etc); Bond’s girls and romance (how many; what role each plays; what kind of relationship with Bond); Bond’s helpers/tools; types of action, setting, etc.  It is basically pattern analysis, which then allows us to see beyond the obvious surface of the Bond hero (the mere linear action), into what might be meaningful about the hero (e.g. the villains are mostly Soviet or Eastern European, and the allies are the powerful but interfering U.S., reflecting very strong but also very particular anxieties about Britain’s declining world importance and the emerging Cold War tensions; the villains’ plots are often aimed at global destabilisation, eg. the monetary destabilisation of Goldfinger, creating Bond as a global hero, not merely a national/British one; etc).
	Adding a semiotic and more visual analysis might cause us to look (for eg) in the setting or mise-en-scene for much of Bond’s actions (casinos, hotels, resorts, beaches), which might lead us to a class or socio-economic observation: something about Fleming’s upper-class aspirations or background, the original Bond’s specifically upper-class affiliations (not his origins, which are a bit more humble – more his profession and its class bias).  Or looking at the films, we can immediately contrast the polish of the Roger Moore Bond versus the rough edginess of the Daniel Craig one, which may tell us something about the smug materialism of Moore’s 1980s versus the more terror-driven realpolitik of Craig’s post 9/11 version.
	Strengths and weaknesses of structuralism/semiotics: it can really open up an analysis by training us to look for constituent small memes, and teaches us to compare constituent elements meaningfully.  Its weaknesses are the flipside of this: structuralist analysis is an open-ended, proliferating and theoretically endless activity (do we analyse Bond’s guns? Shoes?  Ties? Meals?).  It isn’t easy to close off and focus a structuralist analysis into a specific reading of the hero or society (it is probably easier to use structuralist analysis to give us evidence to reinforce a theory we already have about the hero and society: e.g. a Cold War reading about racial types and moral construction in Bond).  Another way to put this weakness of structuralism is to say that there is something quite “flat” or “circular” about structuralism’s focus on code-systems: it tends to point out patterns of correspondence between signs and their signifieds (e.g. settings and class values), rather than being able to tell us anything deeper about society itself.  In other words, it has limited ability to penetrate into the signified (society), because it is focussed mainly on the sign-signified relationship.

An archetype is a deep original source, pattern or model, on which other iterations/variations are based.  Archetypes therefore cannot be casual or general, and archetypalism is a kind of opposite approach to structuralism: if structuralism is interested in the casual, surface manifestations of culture (all and any signs/utterances/expressions), archetypalism tends to ignore all these except as manifestations of the real original archetype (the latter being archetypalism’s real emphasis).  Archetypes can thus only be based on some deep dimension of human experience: for Northrop Frye, this was in natural cycles such as the seasons, or in deep religious experiences such as recorded in seminal texts such as the Bible.  For psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes were found in a common pool or source of human preconscious ideas which he called the “collective unconscious,” wherein are found ideas so foundational that we can’t find their precursors, and on the contrary these ideas seem to crop up in so much other/later narratives: one of Jung’s example was the Mandala, the religious symbol of the circle as perfection, eternality, wholeness.  
	Apart from nature and seminal religious texts, other places where very old figures (archetypes, or near-archetypes) might be found would include folklore, myths and legends, especially those which have survived a long time (their survival suggesting their deep psychological relevance).  Some of these archetypes include the wicked stepmother (the “male mater” in Latin, the wicked stepmother from folktales), the angry old man (Frye calls him the “senex iratus” or blocking figure), the companion/helper figure, the wise talking animal, the virginal/innocent young girl – and of course the hero.  It is not just individual figures who can be archetypal, but also plots or actions: Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism offered the theory that the major genres can be plotted along a chart corresponding to the seasons, e.g. comedy is the narrative analogue to spring, realism to summer, tragedy to autumn, satire to winter.  Or we might see certain types of plots – “happily ever after”; sacrifice; death and resurrection – as archetypal stories of basic human impulses (marriage and hope; appeasement of nature; and concern with the afterlife, respectively).
	Apart from a focus on the foundational or original, archetypalism also works on an “original-displacement” axis – ie it tended to see texts and figures as being positioned along an axis of displacement from the original.  (Displacement, for Frye, simply meant how “far” or mediated or transformed/disguised the text was, compared to the original archetype).  Thus we might see Ripley in Alien III (the ending, when she kills herself, falling off the platform with arms outstretched) as a displaced version of the Christ sacrifice – she dies, or tries to, to ensure that the alien growing in her will not threaten mankind).  
	Archetypalism tends to be good at identifying deep underlying patterns in a story, which may help us appreciate some of the elements of the story that we might otherwise miss: e.g. seeing environmental horror stories as nature-appeasement stories might help us see the role, or lack thereof, of the sacrificial hero in contemporary environmental horror.  It has an inherently comparative method: comparing the displaced story to the archetypal one, or two displaced stories as different versions of the archetype, etc.  And like structuralism, there may be some insight to be gained from the comparison.  Its weakness is that it can be a bit reductive and backward-looking: looking back to a common archetype, rather than giving more insight beyond that archetypal quality.

A very specific psychological approach, associated with Sigmund Freud and those who developed his or similar theories (Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, Otto Rank), including those who married psychoanalysis with other theories (e.g. the Marxist critics like Fredric Jameson, Deleuze and Guattari).  Psychanalysis tended to focus on the notion of the “unconscious,” which was postulated as a dimension within the self that was not accessible to the conscious mind, and yet manifested itself in a number of significant ways.  The unconscious was shielded by mechanisms of repression, but could emerge (in indirect ways, through mechanisms of condensation and displacement) through unguarded moments particularly in dreams (but also in dream-like symbols in literature and art).  Condensation refers to a disguising or masking of unconscious content through a kind of compression or merging of elements of different images (e.g. a centaur; or flying pen), while displacement refers to a similar process of disguising or masking through deferment from one proper place or figure to another (e.g. a hunter, instead of the father).  For Freud and Freudians, the unconscious content tended to be about taboo elements, things which civilised society prohibited and repressed: sexuality, but especially “aberrant” sexuality like incestuous thoughts or homosexuality, primal impulses like violence and murder, the death instinct (thanatos), etc.  It assumes a very basic family psycho-drama: the so-called “Oedipus conflict” of the son’s desire for the mother and hatred for the father.
	Psychoanalysis is a study which has generally been discredited or rejected by other (more clinical) branches of psychology, although there are a few remaining strongholds (in New York; in literary analysis; and combined with other theories such as Marxism).  But it does offer a very intriguing approach to literature and culture, in its belief in a primal human dimension which is tantalizingly present-absent in literature and culture, and which may offer us an insight into something veyr real deep down in human nature.  Its analytical method tends to look for the hidden, for clues to the unconscious (and therefore more “real”) meaning underlying seemingly innocuous textual/symbolic elements.  It can be seen as a very “dark” or “negative” undertaking, if you don’t share the psychoanalysts’ view of human nature.  
	For hero-analysis, psychoanalysis could predictably have things to say about dark heroes or antiheroes: the Batman (“Dark Knight”) kind of obsessive figure.  Psychoanalysis would probably be more interested in the dark hero’s relationship with and attitude towards his father (and how this affects his career as hero), than in anything overtly about the hero’s character per se.  Psychoanalysis would certainly be very interested in Batman’s sex life (or lack thereof), and his relationship with his sidekick Robin.  Holmes would be another interesting subject, again with heterosexual romance problems, and again with a constant male sidekick.  On the other hand, although Batman (or Holmes) would be a very predictable subject for psychoanalytic treatment, the method might have something more interesting and less predictable to say about a less “dark” hero – although then there would be a bit of an evidentiary/argumentative stretch, to make the hero fit the psychoanalytic reading.  It might have interesting things to say about heroes’ alter-egos and the need for disguise: Clark Kent as a kind of hyper-repressive construction of all that society sees as proper and acceptable (but also prissy, emasculated and ineffectual – what does this say about society? About Kal-El?) – correspondingly, Superman as another kind of construct (no less celibate and repressed, but now with a certain license for violence).  And even Bizarro Superman as a kind of alter-ego for the neat, constructed image of Clark and Superman.  Within all these personae, who is the real Kal-El?
	The strengths of psychoanalysis stem from its hyper-imaginative leap, its postulation of lots of unseen depths underneath the surface characteristics of the hero – unlike structuralism, which tends to remain on the surface of the sign-signified relationship.  The weaknesses of psychoanalysis are a certain kind of limitation or predictability in terms of theme (sexuality, incest, and other taboos), especially when the method is applied badly.  Also, the trouble with the unconscious is that it is very hard to evidence – if Freud is correct, it underlies almost everything that we do, even when our actions seem the opposite of those dark impulses (i.e. repression, displacement), but then how do we argue convincingly for the relevance of psychoanalytic readings?

Narratology/Genre Criticism
A broad methodology, not associated with any one specific figure or school, but rather this can be approached through a variety of theories: structuralism, discourse analysis, Frye’s archetypal plots, etc.  If there was a granddaddy of narratology, it was probably Aristotle and his analysis of different types of “action.”
	What is distinctive about narratology as a method is the focus on larger units of meaning: not so much character, or individual symbols, or even themes and sub-themes (although of course one cannot fully ignore these in a narratological analysis), but really the large overall pattern – not just action of course, but also narrators and point of view, the career or fate of the hero, how many heroes (or villains), what is the interaction between the hero(s) and villain(s), etc.
	At the simpler level, narratology would look at the types of actions or plots rather like structuralism or archetypalism would: what is the hero like?  What does he do?  What is the villain like?  What happens at the end?  Does this resemble any deeper archetypal pattern?  Does it divert from that pattern, and how?  Etc
	But narratology could include a focus on other elements which might be useful to our understanding of heroes: who narrates the hero’s story, and from what point of view (in the present-time as things happen?  Or in retrospect?  And with how much inside knowledge?  How closely are the narrator and the hero connected/related?  Is the hero a kind of proxy for the narrator?).  Or it could look at the ways in which genre and media differences (comedy versus tragedy – but also more subtle differences between outright comedy and realist-comedy or tragic-comedy, the differences between novels and films, anime, comics, gaming etc).  Thus one very major point to be made is that even with the same hero, differences in media would mean quite profound differences in narrative/action/characterisation.  Film heroes often die at the end – gaming heroes don’t die (or if they do, you can always start again).  This has very different implications for the way we relate (emotionally, psychologically, viscerally) to the hero.
	Narrative/genre/media approaches remind us that a hero is not a pre-existing almighty entity, but one that is constructed through cultural texts – the ways that this construction takes place, has all kinds of implications for what kind of hero we end up with, and also what kind of societal needs are in operation.  Obviously a dark anti-hero, constructed through gritty realist narrative forms, with endings in which bystanders die without getting saved, and maybe even the hero dies, speaks of a much darker and gloomy social mood than comic heroes.

Marxism/Ideological Criticism

As the name indicates, this arose out of the economic criticism of Karl Marx and other Marxist thinkers.  It was a position opposed to capitalism and the free market, which saw money and the market transforming human relations into “abstractions” of value, into “reifications” (things rather than people).  At the same time, capitalism and the middle class life created a system of (not always conscious) thought and belief which he (adapting from Hegel and also from French thinkers of the “encyclopedist” school) called “ideology.”  Not just a system of ideas (which is what the term tended to mean when Marx encountered it), Marxist “ideology” was a kind of blinkeredness, a mental blindness which prevented people from seeing the exploitative and dehumanising power of capital and the market.
	Like psychoanalysis, Marxism was a kind of investigation into hidden meanings and motivations – not the individual unconscious, as with psychoanalysis, but a societal one (or “political unconscious,” to use the title of one of Fredric Jameson’s books).  This political unconscious is the underlying truth about the ways in which culture reinforces the economic base of capitalist/market society.  Marxist criticism tended to focus on certain literary forms – especially the novel – and certain periods – the late 18th, and 19th centuries especially – because these were the crux of the industrial revolution, and the form which most closely reflected capitalist society.
	At an obvious level, Marxism is concerned with class oppression, figures of the oppressed underclass.  Less obviously, it looks at figures who may not obviously be of the underclasses, but whose nature and peculiar position in society may nevertheless be created by their exclusion from the privileged classes – Terry Eagleton’s study of Wuthering Heights in Myths of Power is a good example.  His reading of Heathcliff as an isolated anti-hero who is pushed into his anti-social role and actions because of the structure of landowning society has bearing on our study of heroes and anti-heroes.  On the other hand, there may be other figures (different kinds of heroes) whose function and characterisation is structured by their service to capitalism – e.g. Holmes?
	Marxist approaches would tend to see heroes as a necessary but disguised function of a society intent on reinforcing certain ideological beliefs.  Many heroes (Batman, Superman, like Holmes) are implicitly defenders of the status quo, whose actions overlook (and distract our attention from) other social inequities (racism, ghettosization).  Heroes may embody a nationalist position that helps us overlook problems in international relations: heroes like Bond (or the appropriately-named “Captain America”) entice readers into identifying with their side of the story of international relations, ignoring the other (Soviet, Chinese etc) story.  The more enticing/exciting the hero, the easier it is to ignore the (socio-economic, racial, political) Other.
Feminism/gender studies
The feminist part of this can be fairly obvious – how many female heroes (heroines) are there, compared to male ones?  Slightly less obvious is to ask whether female heroism is depicted differently (more effete and dependent – Batgirl? – or, when effective, is there something aberrant or disturbing about female violence, e.g. Catwoman?  Are female “villains” actually potentially heroes, but who get constructed as villainous simply because of their gender?).  This leads to other related questions about sexuality, and whether society’s “heteronormative” and repressive sexual codes automatically write someone as a villain if s/he does not conform to those codes – in other words, does society actually play a role in (partially) creating certain kinds of villains?  Including through issues of childhood psychological/emotional abuse?  
	“Black Widow” or sexually-aggressive women are good examples of this – if it were a man doing these things, would he be villain, or admired as a playboy?  
	Sometimes feminist studies turns the lens back on the reader/society, to ask about our complicity in these kinds of unequal codes.  E.g. masculine heroines, like Linda Hamilton’s character in T2: Judgement Day, or Demi Moore in G. I. Jane, or the women in American Gladiators: do such masculine female characters frighten or intimidate us (men and women viewers alike)?  If so, what does that say about our fears and anxieties?
	Then there is the role of fetishisation or exoticisation (often combined with racial issues) – the geisha ninja figure (Lucy Liu in Kill Bill), the heroine or strong woman who can only be tolerated by depicting her as completely foreign, aberrant, Other.

Race Theory
This is in many ways related to gender approaches, in both cases looking at marginalised and minority groups.  Again, the obvious thing is to note how relatively few positive (heroic) figures there are from such groups.  The less obvious thing is to see under what conditions minorities can become heroes – is there a certain patronising “token-ism” about minority heroes, a feeling that they are not all that interesting, and just there to “make up the numbers”?  Do potential minority heroes become villains because of dominant (here, racial-power) structures?  An interesting example is Jet Li’s character Wah Sing Ku in Lethal Weapon IV – the action plot and comfortable alignment of our values with the American, white-black buddy value system in this formula Hollywood movie, almost blind us to Wah’s cause, which is to free his brother from imprisonment by a corrupt Chinese general, and to act from certain Chinese/Asian values of obedience and unquestioning loyalty very alien to the American mindset.  In other words, it is almost villain-hood by cultural abjection – a point that is driven home (so to speak) in the excessively violent end that is meted out to Wah.
	Jackie Chan’s hero figure in Rush Hour and The Tuxedo offer a different take on the minority hero: a competence (particularly in his physical agility, courage and martial arts prowess) that can only take center stage through comedy and abasement.
	Do different minority groups get constructed in different ways?  Evidence would suggest that they do – Russians and East Europeans are still seen as violent and brutal, East Asians tend to be the “model minority,” Latinos are under-achievers, Blacks are threatening and overtly sexualized.  The “Blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s (e.g. Shaft) created Black heroes who could only be heroic through these stereotypes – the unorthodox, borderline-criminal, sexually-aggressive Black detective.  American society could only move on from there by emasculating and controlling the Black detective, through humour – Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop – or through menialisation (the secondary figure of the menacing Black detective, Hawk, played by Avery Brooks, in the otherwise white detective show Spencer for Hire).  Minority heroes (or anti-heroes) thus have to be negotiated according to the different power dynamics and cultural politics governing their racial image or perception.
Cultural History
Much can be gained by a kind of historical-evolutionary study of the hero: seeing how a specific type of hero arises in a specific kind of society.  A good example is the rise of the detective in the late 19th C, the age of capitalism and the ideological need to protect property.  There is a kind of blind spot in scholars that tends not be able to see the socio-historical constructedness of our own time – we fail to be historical about ourselves (our present moment is also constructed, also historical).  The value of cultural history is that it constantly reminds us that every meaningful figure or type is socio-historically contingent and constructed.  There is also much to be gained from a kind of evolutionary-comparative angle: is the late 19th C detective figure the same as the early 20th C, or the contemporary detective?  (compare Holmes with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with agent Hochner in Criminal Minds, or even Adrian Monk in Monk?).  What is similar (obsessiveness, the myth of the super-human faculties of the detective, which reassures society about the hope for law and order)?  What is different (a greater vulnerability, a greater personalisation in contemporary detectives?  Hochner has a family, unlike Holmes and Poirot, and that family is both what inspires Hochner and other such contemporary detectives, as well as makes them vulnerable and prone to cynicism and disillusionment)?  Does this show us the “late capitalist” nature of our society, compared to earlier capitalist eras – a greater degree of cynicism, exhaustion, disillusionment often seen in our “postmodernist” age?
	Even a single long-lived figure can give us a very useful historical-evolutionary perspective: e.g. the Sean Connery vs Roger Moore vs Pierce Brosnan vs Daniel Craig (ignoring the minor figures in-between) versions of Bond, tell us much about evolving Western media and society from the 1970s to the present.
	Cultural history can provoke very interesting and meaningful questions about heroes and societies: when did the anti-hero become establishment (e.g. vampires – Dracula vs Edward), and what is it about social change that helped make this happen (late liberal individualism?  The acceptability of boredom and “deviance,” once bigger issues of life such as food and clothing were abundantly satisfied?  The disappearance of overt enemies like the USSR?  What has changed about the female hero from the 19th C to the present day, and why?