Butlers theories of performative subjectivity provide a powerful set
of understandings of the ways in which identities and selfhood are constituted
in discourse and articulated in order to present selfhood as coherent, intelligible
and recognizable. While increasingly influential in contemporary cultural
studies, little attempt has been made to utilize the understanding of identities
as performative in the analysis of contemporary entertainment media. The
following article undertakes to develop a schema by which to analyse character
development, change and transformation in contemporary television series.
Focusing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a representative series which
locates questions of identity across long multi-episode narrative arcs,
the aim is two-fold: to read Buffy through Butler, and to draw Butlers
theories closer to media studies understandings of television programming,
genre and narrative.
From Butler to Buffy: Notes Towards a Strategy for Identity Analysis in Contemporary Television Narrative
<1> Given the increasing significance of questions of identity, subjectivity and selfhood in contemporary postmodern western cultures, it is important to begin acknowledging how these questions are reflected in contemporary media and television and to develop new strategies by which to analyse television characters in terms of identity and subjectivity. The scope for analysing television series' characterizations through recent postmodern and poststructuralist theories of non-essentialist, non-foundationalist subject/identity performativity has not yet been considerably explored. It is my contention here, however, that such a method both reflects the representation of self and identity transformation in new television series as well as provides new ways in which to consider popular media forms in their longevity. The performativity theories of Judith Butler are particularly useful, and not only as one among a constellation of poststructuralist philosophies on subjective identity, but as a theory which figures identity as non-voluntarist play invoking the language of act and theatrics within the constraints of the discursively-given.
<2> Although Butler's work is complex and wide-ranging, there are four major points or "nodes" of her notion of performative identity which emerge as significant for television characters and which can be summarized as follows: (a) following Nietzsche and Foucault, the "self" is an effect of a performance that is constituted in and through language, discourse and culture; (b) the self is performed reiteratively as process "in accord" with a discursively-given norm or set of norms and through performance comes to stabilize by producing a fiction of a fixed, inner, essential selfhood or subjectivity, always working retroactively to produce the illusion that there is a core doer behind the deed, (1993, 12); (c) selves are constituted in discourse but can be re-constituted or reconfigured differently in the encounter with different, new, imaginative discursive arrangements (1991, 18), and (d) the motivation to be articulated as a coherent, intelligible self stems from a cultural demand or imperative of coherence, intelligence and recognizability in order to allow participation in being and society (1997, 27), and to forge a sense of self and belonging across an array of identity categories or what I refer to here as co-ordinates -- which include common axes of discrimination such as gender, ethnicity, ability and age but might also be comprised of spurious experiences that are less easily categorizable and less well demarcated in an identity/difference dichotomy.
<3> I want to delineate in this essay a step-by-step process by which we can analyse characters in television series from the understanding that identities are performative, without foundation and open to transformation in the encounter with new discourses as represented by new experiences and new inter-relationships with other characters. To suggest such a methodology is not to seek to show how representations of characters operate as identities, nor merely to highlight the ways in which more postmodern and poststructuralist conceptions of identity are depicted in contemporary character portrayals, although both are worthy and related causes. Rather, it is to look to the ways in which the conventions of media production and, particularly, television narrative, work to enable and constrain the presentation of identities as performative. I will begin with a brief statement on the connection between the analysis of identity and contemporary television narrative, and then work through each of the four major premises of Butler's theory as I have identified them above using examples drawn from the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- a particularly useful case-in-point as a new narrative that provides a strong focus not only on postmodern conceptions of gender, ethics and youth politics but as one which highlights many of the instabilities of identity in a contemporary western late-capitalist culture.
A Strategy of Performativity Analysis in Television
<4> Performativity, then, is the understanding of subjecthood as the non-voluntary citation of the culturally-given signifier in a reiterative process that is never stable or guaranteed, and that always risks its own undoing by the necessity -- and instability -- of reiteration. While most use of theories of performativity have been made to consider -- often in "political" terms -- the cultural constitution and use of identity categories of gender, race and sexuality, they are well equipped to analyse the ways in which the individual subject of being, the "I," is constituted and performed in contemporary western culture. For Butler, the performative "I" is cited and performed through a materialising body, a psyche, a Foucauldian "soul" that imprisons and makes the body docile in coherence. And for the sake of consolidating individual subjectivity, this requires the establishment of borders through the articulation of a fantasy of inside and outside. By performative identity, then, I mean not merely to invoke the contemporary popular categories of identity demarcation -- gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality -- but the ways in which characteristics of these are variously cited and performed as "co-ordinates" of a self that comes to be articulated necessarily as coherent, whole and unified. Drafting out a methodology (although I prefer the term "strategy" given its resonance with ideas of "acting out" and "process") for the analysis of television characters' identities from a perspective of performativity is not simply the development of new tools that will aim ultimately to reveal the "truth" of our identities (Bouchard 17). The conversion of all theory into methodology is, as Deleuze and Foucault in conversation have suggested, not about development of a totalising method by which to make a unilateral set of claims about identity, but about the multiplication of possible narratives that work to "show up" the condition of subjectivity as contingent and historical (Foucault 1977, 208). To develop a methodological process, then, is to provide ourselves with new means of activating meanings around a media text, new means of interpreting and re-interpreting the stories we tell that provide different valencies to various and contemporary understandings of identity.
<5> One of the ways in which Butler's theory of performativity can be deployed best to discuss the subjective I of television characters is by considering the ways in which the very concept of the subject has been put in question in contemporary texts. In Buffy, Farscape, Star Trek and many other recent television series, subjecthood is shown to be torn between an enlightenment era notion of wholeness and a postmodern fragmentation, selective diversity and internalized variances. Much of this focus can be understood as a symptom of contemporary western culture -- a push-and-pull relationship between a compulsion to human subjecthood, and a postmodern or posthuman crisis of the subject. Where, for Fredric Jameson, the late capitalist period is marked by the fragmentation or dissolution of subjectivity such that the old bourgeois individual subject is no more (115), I suggest that it is not so much dislodged as effected within the constraints of a continuing, residual, humanist imperative for coherent identities and -- in a push-and-pull relationship -- an ongoing cultural assertion that identities are not authentic but can be made and re-made, most often through various practices of consumption. This subjective relationship with humanist imperatives and postmodern fragmentation calls for narratives of subjectivity that highlight the fact that such identity is never in itself complete, but always a process. The push-and-pull relationship between the coherent humanist subject and its fragmentation can be illustrated in the ways in which subjects establish borders in their performativity in order to consolidate a sense of subjectivity, but in which the abject that threatens those borders is assumed, assimilated or taken-on through subjective conversion in order to re-consolidate or re-cohere the threatened subject.
<6> This push-and-pull relationship as I characterize it is one which is well reflected in contemporary television culture. Contemporary television series are heavily reliant on the presentation of a coherent narrative through continuity. Certainly it is the case that the economics of television planning and programming as the presentation of a range of genres guides the production of those genres simultaneously as markets (Cunningham & Miller 13). At the same time, the aesthetics of contemporary television content have permitted material that openly centres on questions of identity as unstable, performative and, in the case of science fiction and horror narratives, transformative. The dual role of the audience as, in Ien Ang's (1991) terms, both a public and a market guides the representation of the television narrative as governed by the push of tactics that inadvertently portray the humanist enlightenment subject through continuity, coherence and the need for audience recognition, and the pull of a content that tends increasingly towards the postmodern and to a fixation and even fetishization, whether explicit or subtextual, of the idea of the identity in flux.
<7> An analysis of television character representations through a theory of performativity must take into account, then, four factors: (1) The ways in which the character is performed in relation to the languages and discourses available to the character in the spatial and discursive "scape" of the series over a period longer than one episode. (2) The impossibility of asserting a foundation -- genetic, bodily or otherwise -- that is rooted in the enlightenment notion of a core responsible identity for the actions, relations and attitudes of a character. The different ways in which an identity foundation is asserted or denied depend particularly on genre and the ways in which a genre will utilize different structures reflecting different identity paradigms -- a series such as the original Star Trek or sitcoms as diverse as The Brady Bunch or Friends rely on episodic closure through identity resolution and depend on an articulation of a foundation or "inner identity core" that is variable or denied only as an "obstacle" within an episodic narrative and which must be rearticulated or restored in the closure of an episode, whereas more recent television which has embraced the multi-episodic and multi-seasonal narrative arc more readily espouse an identity that is represented as process; (3) character change and what is too-often referred to as "character development" are to be viewed as transformation of the performative self as some breach or disjuncture -- explicit or otherwise -- in which the performativity of the character's identity has broken the rule of coherence, been shown up as illusional or non-foundational, or transformed in the encounter with the new or the similar or, alternatively, the abject difference of otherness. This is particularly the case in horror and science fiction television (Tudor 1997). The introduction of new character arrangements, new relationships and new settings are often linked with transformation, and it is important to differentiate between a linear notion of "character development" and the disruptive idea of character transformation or re-constitution; (4) The ways in which the repetition of the character's attributes, moral codes, behaviors, attitudes is a necessity for their own coherence as well as for the coherent presentation to a recurring audience -- yet the disruption to coherent subject performativity is seen both in the encounter with otherness in individual episodes, and in the effect of that encounter in which the subjectivity of the character is altered over the longer term through personality, character relations, physical and knowledge-based attributes, proficiencies and moral codes of behavior. As a coda, it is important not to neglect the question of agency as a taut point in poststructuralism and in both the work and subsequent criticism of Butler. This is a question which can only be located within and correlated against the narrative "universe" or "frame" of the television program itself.
<8> In light of new television narratives, critiques of identity from non-foundational, anti-essentialist, transformative and performative perspectives are neither to be located in nor represented wholly within the plots of individual, stand-alone episodes, but in the structuration of the series as series. Buffy, as an example, takes its cue from such long-running television programs as The X-Files, which operates somewhere between the episodic series and the open-ended serial: producing episodes which stand alone, but at the same time casting certain ongoing plotlines across episodes and seasons (Reeves et al.:33). Story arcs in Buffy, as Roz Kaveney points out (12), extend across the self-contained thematics of each season and deal for the greater part in character development. Along with other on-going serial themes such as the Mayor of Sunnydale's ascension into demonhood (season three), Glory's hunt for Buffy's newly-created sister (season five) and Buffy's struggle against the First Evil as the satanic figure from which all demons emanate and take their cue (season seven), the central character and many of the subsidiary characters are located in a seven-year arc figured through "finding themselves," their "place" in contemporary society and "dealing with" the strange, mystical, powers many of them encounter or possess.
Constitution of Characters in Language and Discourse
<9> A first step in utilising Butler's theories of performativity in the analysis of television characters is to identify the ways in which such character identities and perceptions of self are constituted within and by language. For Butler, following Foucault, language may not be deterministic but it is always constructive, and never merely representational. For Butler, where there is a self, represented here as character:
who utters or speaks and thereby produces an effect in discourse, there is first a discourse which precedes and enables that "I" and forms in language the constraining trajectory of its will (1993, 225).Recent television narratives have displayed a marked understanding of the role of language as central to a power/knowledge network, and as that through which subjectivity is constituted, marked and articulated. The discourse and language of media forms from a poststructuralist perspective are never seen to represent objects or realities but to constitute them (Barker 23-24). To indicate this, then, is to infer that identities in a television narrative are constructed, performed and transformed in and through the encounters with the spatial and temporal structures of the mythological universe of the show, and in the ongoing encounters with other characters, artefacts, elements, objects and ideas. Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular has portrayed an awareness of language as performative, as that which brings into being what it names as an effect of the act of naming (Butler 1993, 224). As the side-kick character Xander learned when speaking the words Librum Incendere in front of a book and it literally was set on fire, the power of the utterance is one which enacts, not merely represents ("Superstar," 4x17; Overbey & Preston-Matto 73). Youth identity among the Buffy characters is offset against that of the adults by a particular utilization of language which demarcates this identity boundary (Breton & McMaster; Bowers). However, as Rhonda Wilcox has shown, this is by no means endemic to particular, pre-given identity categories such as youth/adult, for both the very proper English librarian Rupert Giles and the Master Vampire of Season One are able to use "teen language" (22), suggesting not that languages bind through mutual belonging, but enact the identities that stabilize into and through a sense of belonging.
<10> Television characters, much as non-television subjects, are performed as "process," in action towards a fictional notion of unity and coherence that can never be fully achieved. In Butler's conception of identity, the subject cites and repeats a discursively-given norm or signifier or, indeed, a range of norms and signifiers in such a way as to lend the illusion that there is a voluntarist unitary subject with an inner identity core. These norms and signifiers are given only in discourse and in ways which are complex, intertextual, multifarious and conflicting. For Butler as for Foucault, discourse remains the key to subjectivity, but her extension of Foucault's thesis provides a less universalized account of subjectivities. In a poignant phrase employed to explain Butler's work, Tony Schirato and Susan Yell suggest that people respond to these discourses by "'performing' their bodies 'in time' with these discourses" (201). Butler has taken great pains to point out that her theory does not suggest a conscious performance with all the agency that would be accorded in a humanist account (1993, x), and nor would she suggest that "people" pre-exist discourse as people. As she puts it, the
citation of the gender norm is necessary in order to qualify as a "one," to become viable as a "one," where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms (1993, 232).The phrase "in time," however, serves as a reminder of David Morley's analogy that readers of media operate much like jazz musicians improvising around a theme (19-20). Similarly, subjects, who in their reiterative performativity establish the retrospective illusion of their subjectivity, do not consciously improvise in terms of discourse as in the humanist understanding of the choosing-subject. The theme in contemporary western society (following the humanist accord) is the insistence of subjectivity. But the vast variation of subjective performativities -- generally along axes of discrimination such as gender, class, ethnicity and sexuality -- are the result of those improvisations on a theme. This would not be to suggest that there is a "core" theme upon and around which variations are made, but that the improvised performances themselves manufacture such a core. In a jazz performance, the theme is intelligible only through its repetition in the variations, improvisations, and innovations. Likewise, for Butler, performativity of a subjective category is a repetition of a "set of meanings already socially established" (1990, 140), but it is only intelligible as a repetition in its variant repetitions.
<11> The analysis of discursively-constituted subjectivity occurs, then, in the act of seeking out the location of the character-identity within the programmatic discourses, and written/spoken language is a particular site of discursively improvised selfhood around given, socially-required themes, though by no means the only one. Just as the librarian Giles was able to pick up a particular sort of demon-speech, when a rival sorcerer, Ethan Rayne, has turned him into a Fyarl Demon ("A New Man," 4x12), it is in the propensity to speak differently that his newly-acquired demon identity comes to stabilize as an articulable, performative self. More important, it provides a node for various new and subjective inter-relationships, as he learns in his encounter with the vampire Spike.
Spike: Well. What do I spy with my little eye? (Giles stops) A demon. That would be . . . oh, right . . . the things I can kill.The ability to speak, and the ability to articulate himself as Fyarl demon through a language understood by another (if harmless) demonic subject allows the stabilization of his selfhood. As with all articulations of identity, the consequences are found in the proliferation and diversification of social relationships as sites of interaction (Barker 30). For Giles and Spike, not only does a comradely demon-in-arms relationship develop almost as instantaneously as Giles was transformed, but they enter a capitalist-laborer relationship as well, told in the Buffyscape through an ironic set of subsequent power relations. However, the most important set of articulations of identity performativity here is through the mutual stabilization of Giles' new discursively-given identity: the identity begins to perform, to play out, through his statements on the ways in which his new self makes him feel -- the performance that retroactively works to enact and confirm his demonic selfhood as the fictional I from which his actions will be seen to emanate.
Giles: ("why me?" tone) Spike. Wonderful. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Spike: (frowning) Giles?
Giles: (turning around, fists up) Go on, then. Let's get on with the fighting -- You understand me?
Spike: Of course I understand you.
Giles: I'm speaking English?
Spike: No, you're speaking Fyarl. I happen to speak Fyarl. And . . . by the way, why the hell are you suddenly a Fyarl demon? You just come over all demony this morning?
Giles: As a matter of fact, I did. Thanks to Ethan Rayne. You have to help me find him. He must undo this and then he needs a . . . good being killed.
Spike: And I'm just supposed to help you out of the evilness of my heart?
Giles: Y-you help me and I-I don't kill you.
Spike: Oh, tremendously convincing. Try it again without the stutter.
Giles: Money. I could pay you money.
Spike: (stepping closer) Oh, I like money. How much?
Giles: A h-hundred dollars.
Spike: A hundred dollars? You'll have to do a lot better than that. Two-hundred.
Spike: (surprised) Right, then.
Giles: Right, then.
Giles: I feel like I'm changing.The final line, of course, works to "show up" the ways in which the linguistically-articulated and articulable self is set up in a culturally-given dichotomy of difference, the human/demon binary that becomes so blurred in Buffy. Language does not, however, always enact and interpellate an identity in Buffy. Joyce's mothering is one which has relied on expert discourses, and it is stated several times in the series that she has listened to parenting tapes and "read all the parenting books" ("Passion," 2x17; Williams 65). Despite all of her humanist knowledge, the discursively-authorized power position it invokes and the operations of the mother/daughter binary, Joyce Summers is unable to invoke Buffy as an obedient subject. Such a socially-constitutive relationship, then, is deemed to be surpassed by the appeal of new, different and less-stable languages and discourses of relationship and power.
Spike: (sighs) Fine with me. So long as you pay me.
Giles: (growling quality) I really like this feeling. Sort of mindless need to destroy. This anger and rage.
Spike: Good times. Go with it.
Giles: (almost normal voice again) No.
Spike: Oh, it's fun. I can't do it, do it for me. Now let yourself go.
Giles: I refuse to become a monster because I look like a monster. I have a soul. I have a conscience. I am a human being.
Foundation and the Performative Self
<12> There is no presocial integrity, as Butler tells us (1990, 29). Gender, in poststructuralist theories does not emanate from a "naturally given" sexed body, but as a discursively given code comes to materialize bodies as sexed. Likewise, the array of identity positions or co-ordinates which make up the "self" are given discursively and do not emanate from an essentialist, pre-given body -- the idea of genetic, hormonal or bodily prescriptive locations of identity is that which is both unknowable and unintelligible. Identities and selves have no foundation but are, as Butler points out, reiterative citations of a previously-given discourse. When utilized for a methodological analysis of television characters, what this point necessitates invoking are questions around episodic closure, continuity and the presentation of coherence to a broad audience, and the ways in which differences of narrative occur across various textual and televisual genres, including the recent development of cross-genre programs. For example, more recent television narrative such as in Buffy or Angel allows the re-writing of characters' past through the use of flashbacks, new information or revelation of previously obscure character/identity material. The traditional television drama or soap does likewise, whereas the recurring and episodic nature of the television series depends upon establishing, often in the pilot, a clear foundation for a character's actions, expressions and self-articulation that is expected to only change in the encounter with various obstacles and to be resolved in the closure of each episode. Buffy has been regarded as a series which is willing to "tinker" with its own premises (Kaveney 2), and across its seven-year run we have seen how the introduction of a sister for Buffy -- through mystical creation and the alteration of memories -- has worked to change the relationships and, indeed, the history of the series, thus showing up the ways in which the foundational relationships and subsequent patterns of identity performativity are unstable and open to re-interpretation. Angel, likewise, experiences its most significant tinkering with the premise of the show in its current, 2003 season (the fifth), in which the Angel Investigations characters have joined and taken (at least partial) control of the Los Angeles branch of the demonic law firm, Wolfram & Hart, in order to better resource their anti-demon, anti-evil activities ("Home," 4x22). A significant shift in setting and character identity is also reflected in the shifting and highly unstable politics of the small group which "sells out," with the result of this significant turn remaining to be seen over the current year.
<13> As a strong example of the ways in which subject formation and development occurs for characters in Buffy we look to the program's own signalling of the instability and illusion of self-identity in Anya Jenkins, former human, turned demon, turned human, turned demon, turned human. Anya's self-identity has swung between one grounded in "demon" and one in "human" throughout the series and through the method of flashback. To characterize through a different set of categories: former market capitalist, turned socialist, turned rampant consumer capitalist. Or, otherwise, former doting girlfriend, turned man-hating radical feminist, turned doting fiancée, turned uncomfortable man-killer, turned fairly-contented independent woman.
<14> The poignantly-titled episode "Selfless" (7x05) is set a little after it has been confirmed that Anya has once again become a "vengeance demon" and is again killing men who have scorned women. She has, indeed, just slaughtered an entire fraternity at U.C. Sunnydale, an act which has other demons celebrating Anyanka's return to her "old self" as her fellow vengeance demon Halfrek enunciates it. Using flashbacks as a means of signifying the development of the character through her encounter with various signifiers of identity -- a device which has been used effectively to articulate the vampire Angel's own performativity in both Buffy and Angel -- we see her beginnings in Sjornjost in the year 880, finding her a little eccentric, devoted to her husband, and raising rabbits -- of which she has no apparent problem, although the recurring audience are aware that at some point later in her chronology she will become obsessively terrified of bunnies. Having discovered that her husband has cheated on her, she uses witchcraft to turn him into a troll. Impressed by her spell cast in vengeance, D'hoffren, leader of the vengeance demons, attempts to convince her to join his team by becoming a demon -- a bestowal made through his insistence on the signifier of the name.
D'hoffren: You are Anyanka. I'm afraid you don't see your true self.In a gesture to the Althusserian concept of interpellation (1971), Aud is hailed to her identity in the performative utterance of a name. D'hoffren's aim here is to confer that identity -- vengeance demon -- upon her, linking her name with a statement of what it is she is perceived, and comes to perceive herself, as doing best -- helping wronged women punish men. What is important here, however, is that she initially refuses the name, a refusal of recognition of herself in the act of interpellation. The failure to see her "true self" is not so much a failure, but a disavowal of d'Hoffren's claim to knowledge. She watches the scene of her village fighting with her husband-now-troll at a remove, as if a viewer watching the grainy image of an old film -- a point which emphasizes not only her remove from society, but the difference by which she is marked in bestowal of an identity that can only now be made coherent through a renegotiation of her sense of belonging.
Anya: Why do you keep calling me that? My name is Aud.
D'hoffren: Perhaps. But Anyanka is who you are.
Anya: What would I have to do?
D'hoffren: What you do best. Help wronged women punish men.
<15> She does indeed become that by which she was interpellated, taking on the broad identity of demon, her disavowal being only a temporary gesture. Her adoption of the new identity conferred in the name-ability link and in the provision of a category (demon) and set of codes of behavior (demonic activities, vengeance), is one which, as we go on to learn over the course of the episode, not a displacement or obscuring of some real, true and foundational self, but evidence that there was no such self in the first place. This is cued for the reader in the earlier reference to rabbits: while she bred and embraced rabbits during her life as Aud, she has adopted an (amusing) phobia of bunnies, carrying no traits of her doting wife, rabbit-loving identity.
<16> We later learn of her sympathies for communism in a scene set in St. Petersburg 1905 during the uprising which, as it turns out, she has inadvertently caused.
Dining in a palatial home.This sympathetic assertion of a revolutionary Marxism that will lead to "paradise on earth," given in a purely pragmatic tone, is in contrast from the benevolent and enthusiastic suggestion she makes in her earlier life that her excess rabbits could be given freely for the benefit of the town community. Much more significant and stark a contrast occurs in an earlier episode ("Tough Love," 5x19) but temporally later as a mortal in which she expresses her embrace of capitalism:
Halfrek: It's always work work work with you.
Anya: Well of course, what else is there?
Halfrek: What else is there? Why, the whole world for one. Darling, take a look around, there's a lot to see. There's a revolution going on outside that you are somewhat responsible for. Aren't you the teeniest bit interested?
Anya: Well, what is there to be interested in? The workers will overthrow absolutism, and lead the proletariat to a glorious communist revolution leading to socio-economic paradise on earth. I have better things to worry about.
Halfrek: But Anyanka, there's a whole world out there.
Anya: Yes, filled with wronged women who need my help.
Halfrek: But you're talking about work.
Anya: I'm talking about life, vengeance is what I do. I don't need anything else. Vengeance is what I am.
Anya: Yes. I've recently come to realize there's more to me than just being human. (proudly) I'm also an American. . . . So I've been reading a lot about the good ol' us of A (she says "us" not "U.S."), embracing the extraordinarily precious ideology that's helped to shape and define it.What is indicated in this shift is what Foucault refers to as a moral code. When taken in terms of identity performance, we might ask what a given -- if unstable -- identity does, as much as a self-identity is itself the product of the doing. In Foucault's analysis
Anya: Capitalism. The free market depends on the profitable exchange of goods for currency. It's a system of symbiotic beauty apparently lost on these old people. (turns to look at the customers) Look at 'em. Perusing the shelves. Undressing the merchandise with their eyeballs (turns back to the others) all ogle, no cash. It's not just annoying, it's unAmerican.
for an action to be "moral," it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply "self-awareness" but self-formation as an "ethical subject," a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. There is no specific moral action that does not refer to a unified moral conduct; no moral conduct that does not call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without "modes of subjectivation" and an "ascetics" or "practices of the self" that support them. (1985, 28).From a perspective of performativity, it is through the law or value-conforming action that the subject emerges as a particular type of subject. As a strategy for analysis, then, Anya's moral code is to be understood not as an expression of her inner, foundational self, nor as a divergence, nor as representative of a characteristic embrace of spurious concepts, but as that through which the performative identity and all its subsequent, related and recurring traits are articulated.
<17> What this suggests is that for Anya, her awareness of the self as it is categorized currently is performed through particular attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that work to "shore up" the self, to confirm she is the set of identity-subject characteristics she appears -- or is interpellated -- to be. Not just human, with the compulsion to perform, think and hold the attitudes of humans (as opposed to demons), but American -- thereby articulating an absurdly simplistic attitude towards (and position within) consumer capitalism. However, for Anya and for the Buffy audience, it is in her return to demonhood that the entire concept of the self is "shown up" as not only performative, not only unstable, not only compelling the Foucauldian "moral code" but as an illusion altogether -- that the individual, coherent subject never really existed in the first place (Jameson 115). In this episode which operates as a significant juncture in the overall narrative arc concerning itself with Anya's identity, we read the underlying message of the series: that selfhood does not merely reflect a coherent, recurring and ongoing identity but is shown up to have no roots or grounding to which to return in the process of performative articulation. As she puts it in a closing statement of "confused realization" of the complexities of selfhood and the mourning of the loss of a sense of foundational core:
Anya: My whole life, I've just clung to whatever came along. . . . Xander? What if I'm really nobody?Her search for an identity signifier to which she might cling is, then, a condition of being in postmodern culture. The desire to articulate coherence -- a point to which I return below -- is a necessity for all subjects, but one which has been "shown up" in Buffy in this final scene, and is able to be drawn upon in a methodical analysis from a performativity perspective. Rather than read it as a call for a return to humanist norms, or as an argument around the human "real" identity versus demon (and ex-demon) "falsity," it is available to be read as evidential of performative identity's principle lack of core and foundation as related through the program's narrative.
Xander: Don't be a dope.
Anya: I'm a dope?
Anya: That's a start.
Anti-Foundationalism and the Transformative Subject
<18> An area that stems from Butler's work which is less-often invoked is that of transformation or re-constitution. The obscurity of this concern is most likely the result of the preoccupation with the ways in which we come to perform fictionally "fixed" identity categories, rather than how they are diverted, morphed, transmuted. Concerning the ways in which the category of selfhood "I" comes to perform a lesbian identity that stabilizes partially through repetitive citation, Butler suggests that:
It is through the repeated play of this sexuality that the "I" is insistently reconstituted as a lesbian "I"; paradoxically it is precisely the repetition of that play that establishes as well the instability of the very category that it constitutes (1991, 18).Underlying this reconstitution is what is perhaps best referred to as the "encounter": the "I" can be reconstituted as a lesbian "I" through the repeated play and performance of the category and its recognizable, intelligible codes of behavior and desire, but only within the context of having encountered the discourses of sexuality that make such a performativity possible. This is a more pointed notion for sexualities than it is for "categories" such as gender and ethnicity: while the latter tend to be invoked from the birthing invocation in the doctor or midwife's declaration of gender or in the familial and lineage-based activities and cultures of an ethnicity, sexuality is usually an obscured cultural category until a given, culturally-indicated age, at which point all subjects are imperatively required to articulate a coherent sexuality through the performance of intelligible and categorical sexual desire.
<19> In Butler's analysis, transformation is possible only through a rejection of any identity foundation, which she sees as foreclosing in advance the "emergence of new identity concepts" and the "transformation or expansion of existing identity concepts" (1990, 15). Such transformative potential as given in poststructuralist accounts is neither a complete rejection of identity as a cultural process, nor a suggestion that fragmentary and contradictory identities are possible outside of a cultural concept of internal unity (Connolly 178). Rather, the transformation of the self into new identity configurations occurs in the practice of reading, viewing or encountering that produces not only changes in self-definition but bodily effects (Cooper 108). The intellectual potential for transformation through identity performativity is, then, only located in an anti-essentialist position which not only denies the possibility of change and discourages attempts at it (Buchbinder 6), but relies on ideals of combating alteration of incoherence with restoration and closure.
<20> It is perhaps in science fiction and horror television narrative that we encounter the notion of performative transformation of identities in a way that is more marked than experienced in "real life." Transformation in the encounter with the "other" in a television series is through the coming upon, confrontation with, or experience of new discourses which had not previously been a part of the characteristic scape of the series. These might be represented through revelations about a character's history -- the knowledge that one is adopted, for example, is quite common in youth-oriented television drama as an encounter with a new set of ideas or signifiers that work to disrupt the coherence of an identity and transform that character through reconstitution "in accord" with this new information or discursive framework of selfhood. Encounters with new characters, changes in settings, changes in emphasis on inter-relationship, unexpected alterations in a character's values are all likewise significant ways in which the re-constitutive encounter is represented. In televisual science fiction and horror, the encounter with the "abject" is as that which must for coherence's sake be "radically excluded" (Kristeva 2). The abject is that which upsets subjectivity, reminding us of our construction in the symbolic. It attests to the always tenuous nature of the symbolic order in the face of a series of dispersing semiotic drives. It threatens subjectivity by collapsing meaning, reminding us of the subject's necessary relation to death, corporeality, animality and maternal materiality. For this reason -- for maintaining a stable sense of subjective identity -- it must be repelled, quashed, shied-away-from. In a program such as Buffy, the demons, monsters, vampires and, indeed, the political-institutional arrangements, are often characterized as abject, but in ways postmodern enough not to represent the subject/abject as dichotomous and aligned with the good guys versus bad guys motif that marked North American dramatic television and science fiction film for many decades. What all of these forms of transformative encounter do is shake up the notion of the subject as fixed, forever categorized under a set of pre-given identity paradigms. It is thus the task of analysis to identify the ways in which the discursively-given abject is coded in narrative, and the variances in how that abjection is treated as it comes to destabilize, transform and redefine identity of its other.
<21> Ultimately, what Buffy and Angel as television narratives do is critique the notion of the fixity or essentialism of the subject of enlightenment. As the premise for the series, much of the text is devoted to Buffy coming to terms with her "superhero" status, torn between wanting what she calls a "normal life" (shopping, studying, dating) and her "slayer responsibilities" (training, alertness, being on-call, research, a status of reverse-abjection by demons who threaten her, her friends and family). Her "normal life" of consumption, schooling and partying are co-ordinates of performative identity, providing her with a sense of self that obscures the performativity and instability of self. In spite of trying, she has been unable to reject what has been referred to as the "primal power" of her slayer abilities, represented in a dream sequence by the "first slayer," a "primitive" or "native" dark-skinned aggressive hunter-woman (Restless, 4x22) -- a poignant if politically worrying representation of abjection. To overcome the inability to objectify and reject her powers, and struggling against the fragmentation that its representation as abject would bring about, Buffy has undergone significant transformation of her identity by embracing the abject powers she rejected in the first instance, and by remaining consciously open to the self-definitive and bodily effects of transformations in selfhood. The series began with her initial refusal to acknowledge her powers as that which makes her other than human ("Welcome to the Hellmouth," 1x01; "The Harvest," 1x02; Little 289), an angry attack on Giles (Wilcox 17) for reminding her of this aspect, this co-ordinate, of her selfhood. As Susan Owen has suggested, Buffy longs to be "normal," to have a boyfriend and to consume life without the demands and responsibilities of the abject within -- the "narrative opposes the costs of leadership and political potency, with intimacy, stable relationships and material comfort" (Owen 30). On several later occasions Buffy articulated a rejection of her powers ("The Gift," 5x22; "Normal Again," 6x17), and increasingly across the series, and in spite of Buffy's tenuous balancing of all co-ordinates of her performative selfhood, the powers are deemed to be abject. She is told by Dracula -- our cultural authority on all things vampiric and demonic -- that her powers are "rooted in darkness" and that he has indeed searched the world for "a creature whose darkness rivals my own" ("Buffy vs. Dracula," 5x01). In the episode "Get it Done," (7x15), the powers are indeed revealed to be demonic in origin, the essence of a demon given to the slayers by ancient sorcery. In Buffy's encounter with the sorcerers and their attempt to "top up" her power, the demonic essence is presented visually as a black, oily smoke that attempts to enter her body by her orifices, the sites at which abjection is made known. In the final episode of the series, Buffy acknowledges her transformations and her openness to further re-constitution as the process of being. Explaining this to the vampire Angel, she uses a cheap analogy:
Buffy: Because . . . okay, I'm cookie dough. I'm not done baking. I'm not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I'm going to turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day I turn around and realise I'm ready. I'm cookies. . . . It'll be a long time coming. Years, if ever ("Chosen," 7x22).What Buffy realizes here is not only that transformation in the encounter with otherness, abjection or the genuinely "new" is always a possibility, but that the self is neither guided by an inner identity core -- becoming that which one already always was -- nor is necessarily going to achieve coherence and unity, but that the process of embracing transformation and recuperating it in reconstitution is itself the process by which existence and being are played out. For Buffy, contentment with selfhood is not about a resolution of the struggle between a "chosen" slayer identity and her attempts to participate in everyday life as daughter, sister, friend, student, employee, nor is it about finding a stability in the context of modernist notions of identity fixity. Rather, the process of identity transformation is represented as existence itself -- only by embracing the process of transformative selfhood as existence does she find that contentment.
<22> It is only in the long-term reading of the Buffy series that such identity transformation as process can be worked out and analysed. As importantly, the development of the television genre is as significant as the content. Programs like Buffy and Angel indicate a shift in television formats. Reeves et al. characterize this as a shift from that which is described as TV I, representing a modernist, Fordist manufacturing economy to TV II as a niche marketed, post-Fordist service economy (24). The effect on programming of this variation in economic structure is the invocation of competition "that has encouraged the networks to develop programming forms that inspire devoted rather than casual engagement" (26). Certainly this shift marks the advent of an appreciation of the role of avid fandom as a style or category of reception, and it distinguishes the serialized content from the episodic in that restoration of plot, character and character identity does not occur such that the program's premise is clear from the beginning of any casually-viewed episode. More than X-Files and the 1980s and 1990s Star Trek series which worked to straddle the episodic and the serial, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel shift television drama even further into the serial by playing with the complexity of episodic closure that is never quite closure, or episodic closure that closes one set of plot strands and resolves certain obstacles, while leaving open the questions around identity transformation. We might best characterize these programs as the culmination of TV II narrative style, showing how well science fiction, horror and fantasy -- the program formats which rely on questions of identity transformation -- are suited to new television narrative and, particularly, how a coalition of audience interest in these subjects sponsors the economic workability of the long narrative arc beyond the reliance on an avid fan audience segment. Without the reliance on episodic closure and in the embrace of the long, multi-year narrative arc, the identity transformation, contingency and re-constitution are made possible. The need to follow the generic pattern of transformation as an episode's obstacle and restoration as the episode's closure are rendered moot in the long television narrative. This provides us with an awkward responsibility, then, to analyse identity not only as it is incorporated within one episode, but as it is played out across an entire series. The logistics and tactics of such a task are, of course, complex, particularly as they require not only extensive viewing and familiarity with an entire series (seven years in the case of Buffy alone; approaching twelve years of Buffy and Angel combined), but the difficulties inherent in speaking, lecturing and writing about such large topics in limited time or space, and where it is difficult to isolate a single episode or scene or to display an individual example that encapsulates the longer-term identity concerns. The need to consider the longer narrative in terms of continuity, change and transformation becomes paramount in a Butlerian analysis of contemporary television.
<23> Narratives of subject performativity in Buffy and Angel are marked both by the continuity of elements (co-ordinates) of the self and its experiences and, at the same time, the change that occurs in the changing surrounds, the encounters with new knowledge of the world, and -- in ways specific to the horror genre -- encounters which change, disrupt or alter the body in some way. On the side of continuity, we have the deferral of desire by both Buffy and Angel as it results in an erotic insatisfaction for the characters across the narrative (Krimmer & Raval 159; Braun 89); the constancy of place -- Sunnydale as hellmouth, until its destruction in the final episode of the series -- or the behavior that is driven by the various locales of school, university, home and the workplace (Sayer 117) or the myth of Los Angeles as city-ideal underwritten by underworld criminal and demonic activity (Wall & Zryd 56); the imperatives of community responsibility and community participation; the economics of everyday life ranging from the need to labor for wages to the immediacy of paying bills. Elements of transformation, however, occur most pointedly in the encounter with otherness. The figure of the human turned animal, as we see in Xander's transformation into a human-hyena hybrid in "The Pack" (1x06), in which his actions, responsibilities and desires come to be driven by an invading force that works to critique the unity and wholeness of the self, the unity and wholeness of the human. Willow's encounter with the powers of magic between seasons two and seven -- and as a particular theme across season six -- transform her not only in terms of character development, personality and attitudes to moral responsibility, but even physically: it is to be particularly noted that in the act of casting a spell, her eyes blacken as with other witches but she embraces the otherness of magic and spell-casting in an act of fury in the final three episodes of the sixth season, her face is marked by veins, her hair turns instantly black, her body becomes haggard and sickly. Witchcraft is signified here only as other-worldly, but often as abject, dangerous and always transformative -- as the Watcher Giles warns Willow: "channelling such potent magicks through yourself, it could open a door that you may not be able to close" ("Becoming, Part I," 2x21). All of these are to be read as the ways in which the human self remains responsible to the social and cultural needs of presentation and unification as a coherent, intelligible and recognizable identity-subject, but torn, shattered, bursting, fragmented and available for performative transformation in the encounter with otherness.
<24> Likewise we have Oz the werewolf struggling between his humanity and the "wolf within" that is brought about by the invasive penetrative bite of another werewolf ("Phases," 2x15). He comes to understand that his werewolf nature is not something which occurs during the three days of full moon each month, but that his entire identity, and the moral codes of performance of that identity and its desires has been transformed and cannot be contained to the three days in which he protects the town by being voluntarily caged ("Fear, Itself," 4x04; "Wild at Heart," 4x06). Abjection is built in here with the temporal link to menstruation. Leaving town to seek a spiritual means by which to control his "inner wolf," he returns later in the season claiming success only to find that magic, herbs and meditation are not enough to restore his humanity, but that the process of finding a stability and balance in light of his transformation must remain the "identity goal" by which he will perform his selfhood ("New Moon Rising," 4x19). Similarly, Buffy's season four and five boyfriend Riley is torn between his military training and his sudden discovery of the evil designs of the military, on top of struggling between his "mere humanity" next to Buffy and the dangerous drugs and implants the secret para-military organization The Initiative provided which gave him a temporary super-human strength. Under the guise of having to "accept" unwanted or frightening facts about themselves and their lives, the performativity is altered as they struggle to maintain coherence and individuality.
<25> Even the "enemies" of Buffy are represented as available to identity transformation: Angel -- Buffy's vampiric lover -- is always in a process of transformation, but is to be particularly noted for the presentation of self-complexity as he turns evil in Buffy season two, endangering the town. The solution to the Angel problem for Buffy was a multiple one: seek his restoration or destroy him -- neither of which becomes the case as he is sent to a hell dimension to suffer torment, before being returned to Sunnydale altered, traumatized, mal-adjusted. The fifth-season "big bad" is at first presumed to be a nearly-omnipotent, demonic, trashy uber-consumer called Glory, but as we eventually discover, she is a goddess trapped inside the body of a young doctor called Ben. The relationship between the two is, as Roz Kaveney points out, presented at first as sister and brother, "but later revealed to be divine prisoner and mortal prison" (Kaveney 26-27) The identities of the two characters merge, with the mortal Ben's desires affecting Glory's evil designs, while her own self-serving evil comes to govern his desire for self-preservation. Central to the villainy in that season, we see these characters undergo the same sorts of transformative processes as the others -- and it is in her own realization that identity is never fixed that Glory finds her greatest frustration and a considerable weakness.
<26> What is significant, then, are the ways in which characters change and develop through confrontation with new configurations of being, new sets of discursive co-ordinates, categories and signifiers which are then cited and come to "make" the character in an ongoing process of performance that aims for coherence over a longer period of time. This has certainly been the case for the central character of Buffy Summers, who has been represented as being "always" in the process of becoming, a process that is never ended. For her, it is a process of transformation and negotiation between the various strands or co-ordinates that make up the coherent, confessional presentation of the self, with particular emphasis on the compromise between human subjecthood and other-worldly, slayer powers.
<27> The trajectory of the vampire Spike between seasons two and seven displays this transformation across the longer narrative just as adequately. When Spike arrives in Sunnydale, he is represented as the great challenge to Buffy, a vampire who has previously killed two slayers, a criminal mastermind with grand plans for ruling the dangerous night of the small town. In season four, he is captured by the para-military organization The Initiative who insert a computerized chip in his brain, preventing him from harming humans. To Spike, the chip is the abject, a constraint on his desires, a foreign object implanted in his head. Figured throughout much of season four as the comic relief, his desires, attributes, abilities and sense-of-self are transformed as a result of this "interruption" of his vampiric identity: he discovers feelings of an ethical compulsion to help save the world from new demonic and apocalyptic threats, visibly holds back tears of compassion for Buffy after the death of her mother, falls in love with Buffy, makes a binding and selfless promise to look after Buffy's sister Dawn. The abject chip comes to be as constraining as Angel's soul, an invasion of the body that destabilizes the self and causes the performativity of his personal identity to change, convert, be re-cognized and presented anew. More importantly, it sponsors Spike's intention to seek a "real" soul, so as not to be viewed either by Buffy or by himself as an animal "caged" by a cyborgian electronic implant. Rather than being merely a recurring character as vampire, or a regular cast-member as a vampire "troubled" by the intervention of the chip, we witness the transformation of this character as he struggles with attempts to restore his vampiric abilities, the pain of realization that such restoration is now impossible in the light of experience, passion and emotion, and a self-conscious attempt to seek his own transformation. It is up to us, then, to see the utility of the chip as abject from Spike's point of view, rather than to locate it in a wider humanist discourse which would advocate the "harnessing" of the vampire as mythic of violence. The allegory of identity transformation that the program provides holds greater valency for the analysis of subjectivity than the discursive possibilities for analysis as they are located in the extra-textual in this case.
The Cultural Demand for Coherence
<28> In the case of each of the characters in Buffy and Angel, we witness a long narrative about what happens when the subject is forced to recognize the instability of identity, the "abject" as that which disrupts or threatens subjectivity and the need to incorporate such abjection into a performative identity through recognition of identity's lack of foundation and through the embrace of transformation. Such needs are driven by a cultural imperative of coherence that is the requirement for social participation and belonging (Butler 1997, 27), and to forge a sense of self and belonging across an array of identity categories -- which include common axes of discrimination such as gender, ethnicity, ability and age but might also be comprised of individual experiences (to use a banal example, whether or not a character sat at the back or the front of the class in highschool). For Butler, all identities are constituted within ambiguities and incoherences (1990, 31-32), but these are suppressed and redescribed within the reified framework of contemporary metaphysical understandings of identity. As Butler puts it in her consideration of gender identity:
the "unity" of gender is the effect of a regulatory practice that seeks to render gender identity uniform . . . If repetition is bound to persist as the mechanism of the cultural reproduction of identities, then the crucial question emerges: What kind of subversive repetition might call into question the regulatory practice of identity itself? (1990, 31-32).Much as our own social existences are predicated on the imperative to confess a unified, intelligible and recognizable self that draws all co-ordinates into unity and integrity, so too are television characters within the context of the program's own mythical setting.
<29> Of the four strategies of performativity analysis covered so far, subjective coherence is perhaps the one which is most driven by the generic patterns of television production than purely an element that occurs in broader culture and is replicated within the media text. Much as the novel is more than a representation but can be understood as a cultural practice seeking to provide a way of relating elements that achieve a sense of cultural totality (Colebrook 145), the television series traditionally has been defined through continuity, whether that be the continuity that is found in repetitive and insistent episodic closure, or the continuity of character, history and setting across the dramatic serial. For a program such as Buffy which has straddled the series and the serial, continuity remains central, and for all television series which breach continuity in a way that ruptures the coherence and unity of the program's history and mythical space, there will always be a fan -- and, recently, a fan website -- to point out the continuity flaws. Both the practice and the guides to writing television scripts place considerable emphasis on continuity. Indeed, as William Miller's Screenwriting for Film and Television (1998) puts it:
If you're freelance writing a series episode, be consistent with the series. Don't have anyone behave in a way that would be out of character (and maybe alter the future of the series). Don't introduce a long-lost relative, get the character a pet, or take the character to some exotic (and expensive) locale (118).This drive for coherence is, as one might expect, driven by the requirement to retain audiences, although it does have its roots in the coherence of the novel, the play, and other historical, western art production. Some programs that have been more readily labelled postmodern than others, such as David Lynch's Twin Peaks, force the audience to work harder at perceiving coherence across character changes, and this perhaps explains the lack of widespread popularity and appeal of this series. Likewise, the reduction in interest in The X-Files in its final couple of years can be attributed to the growing character incoherence and concern around continuity as the program grew increasingly complexified in its narrative. Where once a lack of closure was its trademark, perhaps one could argue that the cultural need for closure in order to shore up coherence remains intact enough that the failure to close means the failure to find and maintain an appreciative audience.
<30> A second, but as important, relationship between the media text and the concept of coherence involves the universe that a program establishes over time as mythical, as the "scape" of its narrative. The more unified the narrative, the less imperative is the referential function to an external reality for meaning to be conveyed (Dahlgren 1992:14-15). What this means for the analysis of identity is that the coherence of a performative selfhood must remain coherent within the context of the series, but not necessarily coherent from the perspective of the extra-textual, much as that extra-textual is always already intertextual in the first instance.
<31> Buffy has been definitive in the maintenance of coherence through continuity and the presentation of character-identity within the framework of its narrative space. Where characters such as Anya, Willow or Buffy herself encounter transformation and "show up" identity as always non-foundational and performative, such poststructuralist ideals are "contained" within the notion of coherence, even if that is a coherence read only by the audience and not by other characters in the inter-relationships that define identity in television dramatic series. For example, as each of the characters has come to terms with whatever abjection is encountered, it is presented as an addition to selfhood, an additional co-ordinate of the web of barely-unified identity that has been recuperated in an act of reconstitution. Not one such act has ever thrown a character into a complete loss of coherence in terms of continuity -- even Spike with his restraining chip and later his soul has continued to express the desires, tastes and styles of his pre-constrained vampiric self. Angel, on the other hand, broods over his melancholic attachment to Buffy and to doing good for the sake of redemption, but when his soul has been removed or lost (on two protracted occasions, season two in Buffy, season four in Angel) he is verbally cruel, has a greater propensity for using popular cultural references in his speech. The incoherence between these two halves is recuperated here not through continuity alone, but through intertextual myth: the Jekyll and Hyde allegory serving to shore up his selfhood in the cultural example of the two, diametrically-opposed "halves" of the self. Indeed, even his naming encodes the two-half approach -- Angel when ensouled, the Latinate Angelus when free.
<32> Interestingly, the only characters which are presented in ways which fail to be "fleshed out," as it were, in terms of complexity shored-up as coherence are the two "big bad" characters who are said to pre-date language and the written word -- the extra-dimensional goddess Glory and the First Evil. Glory is incoherence personified, not only expressing outbursts representative in our terms as insanity but making other characters insane as she penetrates their head with hands to suck out their energy, a penetration that aligns her with the subjectivity-critiquing abject. Moreover, she is incoherent in continuity terms -- her rampant consumer identity and love of clothes, shoes and hair style are shunned off without explication when she points out in a battle with Willow having had her dress slashed and her apartment trashed by magic:
Glory: Is that it? Is that the best you can do? You think I care about all this, the apartment, the clothes? ("Tough Love," 5x19).Glory need not be presented as coherent within either the narrative scape of the series nor within cultural dictates, because as an entity she is not constructed within language, but is that unintelligibility that has its origins in the extra-discursive and therefore the unrecognizable. We might hazard the guess that she is more recognizable and intelligible to the audience than to the other characters, at least in the sense that her fragmentary identity as it contains both herself and her bodily host, Ben, is apparent to the audience but magically obscured from all characters bar Spike in the series. Likewise, the First Evil is never fully formed in coherence, but is also said by Giles to have pre-dated language. As the "big bad" of the seventh and final year, we know the First is at war with the Slayer lineage, but the reasons are never stated. More importantly, the fact that the First is only ever represented through the bodies, voices, identities and behaviors of people who have previously died, and has no continuing representation -- or actor -- of its own, allows us to read the character as lacking continuity, yet shored up into a form of coherence within the program's narrative by intent, rather than in the nowness of the performative -- theatric, acted -- deed.
The Question of Agency
<33> An important aspect of the Buffy text is that while Selfhood might be not only constructed socially (or magically in Dawn's case), and that it is process and performance, there is a concept of agency that works in tandem with the network of selfhood, ethics and empowerment. Agency may not always work -- some of the prophecies come true-but it is something for which the characters strive in terms of the complex ethics we have worked out. As Zoe-Jane Playdon has argued, Buffy and her gang express agency through
their transgression of boundaries, their rejection of authoritarian systems of control, their exclusion from socially accepted norms and their creation of alternative ways of living (Playdon).This is a highly significant consideration for the strategy of character analysis here. In a poststructuralist analysis, agency to transgress is a spurious concept at best, because transgression applied requires a transgression of discourse per se. There can indeed be a concept of the extra-discursive, as Derrida has shown in his articulation of the ancient Greek khora as the container which exists but the contents of which are unintelligible to us (20, 34-36). Likewise for Butler, there is some type of "outside" to that which is constructed by discourse, although
this is not an absolute "outside," [but] an ontological thereness that exceeds or counters the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive "outside," it is that which can only be thought -- when it can -- in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders (1993, 68).However, the propensity to transgress discourse by enacting from an external position that is at best only accessible from the margin is a problem for the concept of agency. As Clare Hemmings rather neatly puts it:
Continually shifting boundaries do not necessarily denote new territories, or new discourses. Transgression of the status quo can, in fact, consolidate the dominant discourse, rather than undermining it. Dominant discourses rely on the presence of an "other," defining what is dominant through what is not. There is no guarantee that a postmodern focus on difference . . . is not simply setting up an alternative opposition . . . Unless transgression actually disrupts the underlying forms of the discourses being challenged, the attempt runs the risk of becoming yet another partner in the endless spiral of binary oppositions (48).
<34> What matters here is not the identification of the Buffy text as having performed an epistemological error from the standpoint of a poststructuralist set of theories. Rather, our methodology needs to look at the concept of discourse not only within Buffy or as constituting Buffy (or the character Buffy), but as Buffy. Among both fans and scholars of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the all-encompassing narrative and mythic "rules" of the Buffy (and Angel) are referred to collectively as the "Buffyverse" (e.g. Sakal; Winslade). Of course, all television programs present mythical universes that are separated or framed off, as it were, from each other (Silverstone 76). No matter how complex the intertextual and allegorical references that are made, and in this case particularly to other popular culture texts, the articulation of the program's internal "real" is a bounded universe that prevents slippage into the universes of other texts. Transgression and agency to transgress may well be narrative units in the program's universe, but the question of transgression must be treated carefully. Transgression according to programmatic representation is no more transgressive than in Hemming's analysis. Rather, transgression must occur in terms of the bounded rules of the narrative, in precisely the way that transgression of discourse per se in our universe cannot. To give a brief example: in an analysis of political figures in Buffy, Daniel Clark and Andrew Miller suggest that "the corruption of authority and power in the Buffyverse literally means not only a loss of morality and ethics, but also the loss of one's soul" (3-4). Two points for the purpose of establishing an analysis, then, are emerging here. Firstly, the rules of subjective identification in the discourses of the Buffyverse do not necessarily have to be representative of the discursive rules by which "our universe" is theorized -- indeed, they cannot work to represent. If a corrupt politician can lose a soul in Buffy in a definitely, categorical way, then we are at once at odds with contemporary discursivity in "our universe," which has no such easy parameters or regulations. Secondly, the possibility to transgress, then, is the possibility to transgress the discursive law as it exists in and as the Buffyverse (even in all its intertextual openness to difference, recondition and intelligibility in its audience interpretation). In a Foucauldian analysis, transgression is tied to a concept of intensity; it is the taking to extremes of the everyday rather than crossing some normative divide into a knowable extra-discursive space or establishing a dichotomous opposition (Gutting 22). Following this, it is in the analysis of the intensity of characterization that pushes at the margins of a television narrative as a bounded universe that agency is to be encountered and is available for analysis.
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