Friday, December 9, 2016

More Shapeshifting

It's possible in covering all the good things about First Class, Wednesday's post went through fairly quickly what was so extremely interesting about the depiction of Mystique, who is a fantastic subversion of a concept most viewers do not even have a name for.

So let's start with shapeshifters in film. The most memorable shapeshifter in modern cinema has to be Terminator 2's T-1000, who not only bring a sense of dread that he can become anyone you know or trust, but also the beautiful liquid-metallic morphing that emphasized that everything was on the surface and there was no real internality. (The obvious feminine aspect of the shapeshifter was exaggerated to almost satirical degrees in Terminator 3, and the theme is explored more interestingly in the underrated Terminator Genisys.) But they're a favorite of many genre movies: Loki in the MCU, the mysterious assassin in Phantom Menace, various Star Trek creatures, the face masks in Mission Impossible, etc. Filmmakers love playing with this fluidity of appearance.


And logically, what does the shapeshifter usually do? Well usually they are some sort of trickster figure (since they can fool naive mortals) but not a full on anarchist, since they generally derive their power from the authority system they can imitate. They think they are above the oppressive system, and undoubtedly can take advantage of it, but they are still very much a part of it.

Critical theorists call this sort of thing the "posthuman."

In critical theory, the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human. It is the object of posthumanist criticism, which critically questions Renaissance humanism, a branch of humanist philosophy which claims that human nature is a universal state from which the human being emerges; human nature is autonomous, rational, capable of free will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence. Thus, the posthuman recognizes imperfectability and disunity within him or herself, instead understanding the world through context and heterogeneous perspectives while maintaining intellectual rigour and a dedication to objective observations of the world. Key to this posthuman practice is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself through different identities. The posthuman, for critical theorists of the subject, has an emergent ontology rather than a stable one; in other words, the posthuman is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can "become" or embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives.

In ways that are familiar to any queer theorist, this can be very subversive. A patriarchical order demands that everyone have some single fixed identity, that the system can easily classify you by. Think about the obsession X-men villains have with establishing registries where every mutant puts their name and power in a database.

And yet, to a more advanced capitalist system, this sort of subversion is absolutely fine. That's the wonderful thing about capitalism after all, it responds to demand and is infinitely adaptable. If one of its cogs also wants to be adaptable, that's great, no problem there. Hence the Zizek quote from my previous post:

What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences. I mean even na├»ve positivist psychologists propose to describe today’s subjectivity in terms like multiple subject, fixed-identity subject, a subject who constantly reinvents itself, and so on. So my big problem with this is the painting of the enemy as some kind of self-identified stable substantial patriarch to which these multiple identities and constant reinventing should be opposed. I think that this is a false problem; I am not impressed by this problem. I think that this is a certain logic, totally within the framework of today’s capitalism, where again, capitalism, in order to reproduce itself, to function in today’s condition of consumption society, the crazy dynamics of the market, no longer needs or can function with the traditional fixed patriarchal subject. It needs a subject constantly reinventing himself.

An excellent example of this would be the Mystique from the first non-prequel X-men movie. After Magneto is imprisoned, and a homophobic mutantphobic Senator dies, she impersonates the Senator, thus taking his power. We root for what sort of sabotage she can accomplish, but really, how much can she do? She really has done the conservative government a favor - rather than having to acknowledge the traumatic disruption of one of their own having been kidnapped, turned into a mutant, and killed, it can proceed as if nothing happened (and indeed, nothing does happen to the US government except that it continues its anti-mutant drift.)

And yet... Mystique in the X-men mythos is not a T-1000 or Loki or some selfish capitalist who uses her ability to fit in and constantly reinvent herself for further benefit. Nor is she a compassionate, feminine figure working alongside Xavier who thinks everyone can get along, because she doesn't have any trouble getting along with either human or mutant. Instead she is pretty consistently a terrorist/freedom-fighter on behalf of the extremist Magneto, always fighting for mutant rights she herself doesn't really need. That's interesting. Why?

For whatever reason, First Class chose to devote a huge amount of time to this question, placing it within the context of sixties sexual politics (while freely departing canon with inventions like "Mystique as Xavier's adoptive sister.") And so their answer was that Mystique (or Raven) was a posthuman torn between different aspects of her identity, in a very classic feminine narrative.

On one hand, the accommodationist Charles, who has undoubtedly read his Foucalt, thinks her true identity is the appearance she crafts for herself, much like a woman whose self image includes her makeup, does not need to worry if her "true self" is really just the naked face. On the other hand, Eric respects her both as a sexual being and for her default monstrous appearance. Mystique is not simply seduced by his appreciation of that face, but rather, it is the question of that identity that continues to torment her. Which leads her to desiring a much more fundamental revolution of social relations than Xavier can offer.

It doesn't end at this movie of course, with Mystique continuing to explore the path of the revolutionary through the next two movies, developing violent skills, choosing to thwart an assassination, and training Xavier's shock troops.

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