Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

This piece was originally part of the UP Mindanao Department of Social Sciences discussion entitled “Flawed Revolutionaries, Anti-Heroes, and the Philippine Left” for the 2015 UP Mindanao Month last February.  Heavy title, but it sprang from wanting to examine the dialectics of fighting for a “perfect” society while one (and others) is deeply, deeply imperfect.  This also gave us a chance to dabble in pop culture, but not just in ways that were enjoyable, but also, hopefully, socially significant.  Spoilers ahead!

This lecture started out as a question/observation that has something to do with you guys, our students.  We noticed that nowadays there is this deluge of “progressive”, “anti-establishment”, even “rebellious” literature that have completely consumed the attention and imagination of many in your generation.

But, nevertheless, despite the “progressive” nature of many of these books, movies, etc., we saw that it hardly translated into actual action.  Of course, there may be many reasons for this.  It may depend upon the book being read or the individual reading it.  But, the general challenge is to tease out from the books we read and the movies we watch what they really tell us about the individual, heroism, and social transformation.  From the outset, I’m going to tell you that for The Hunger Games, for all of its “progressive” hype, have major elements that are surprisingly backward or even conservative – but there is nevertheless some grains of revolutionary truth in the trilogy that’s just a bit more difficult to tease out, but they are there.

This contradiction, I think, is clearest within the split of the books’ central character, Katniss Everdeen.  Yes, like many Marvel superheroes, Katniss is also a split character:  there’s Katniss Katniss, and then there’s Mockingjay Katniss.

Ok, quick backgrounder:  the Katniss persona is undoubtedly the most relatable persona in the book – she’s young, smart, she loves her family, she got thrust in events that were overwhelmingly beyond her control, she makes mistakes, is not sure what to do with the boys, she is almost always unsure of herself.  But as the Mockingjay, she’s something else.  This one is articulate, passionate, compassionate, and very dedicated to the cause.

Of course, the latter was a creation, or a construction, of a bunch of people:  President Coin, Plutarch, Cressida, and this fact kept Katniss uncomfortable with the entire Mockingjay idea, especially when she compares it with her experiences in the Capitol’s Hunger Games when she was packaged for the consumption and entertainment of the Capitol.

Let me segue a bit and point out that this here is one of the important contributions of The Hunger Games with regard to how we can go about changing society – and this is the full harnessing of the power of appearances.  The Capitol (or early 21st century capitalism) knows this too well, that’s why they packaged the Hunger Games as such.  The rebellion was also able to catch this too, that’s why they invested so much in their “propos” (short propaganda films by the rebels).  And this is beginning (or has already actually begun) to gain currency at the present:  that propaganda has really reached the virtual realm, the realm of appearances, and there are substantial battles to be fought in this realm.

So, let’s look at this phenomenon more closely.  I think that there are two possible readings for the motif of virtuality in The Hunger Games:  a reading that is Katniss Katniss, and a reading that is Mockingjay Katniss.

For Katniss Katniss, in her mind, there does not seem to be any difference between the propaganda of the Capitol and of the rebellion.  In both she felt that she is just a puppet on a string, which made her completely ill at ease with the idea of “playing” the Mockingjay.  This all the more fueled her distrust of the people running the rebellion.  In fact, she had a lot of trust – or belief – issues, perhaps to the point where we can say that Katniss became the ultimate cynic. She found herself unable to believe in anything anymore – of course she never believed in the Capitol, she didn’t believe in the rebellion, and – very often – did not even believe in herself.  The only motivation that kept her going was her relationships with individuals:  her love for Prim, her care for Peeta, both of which were later transposed as her consuming hate for President Snow.  And this shows another weakness in the Katniss persona because throughout the three books this motivation, even philosophy, never really changed.   That’s why, when asked to do the propos, she did them after securing several deeply personal conditions from Coin.  This was her way of dealing with something she saw as phony and manipulative.  Even when she was able to zoom out every now and then to see the bigger picture, she was unable – or maybe even unwilling – to sustain it.

But, in those moments, when she was actually able to zoom out, her narrative would give the readers a glimpse of just how different the propaganda work of the rebels were from that in the Capitol.  First of all, everything about the Capitol propaganda was fake.  The Capitol would never allow even just a hint of flexibility or improvisation.  That’s why Effie is there to make sure that Peeta and Katniss stick to the script.  This is a glaring difference with how the rebels work, and maximize each’s individual capacity.  There is this throw away line in Chapter 8 of Mockingjay where Katniss stops to admire the propo crew, led by Cressida, which was with her:  “They more than do their work, they take pride in it.  Like Cinna.”  I don’t think this is something that we can say about Gamemakers and the propaganda crew of the Capitol.  With Seneca Crane in mind, I think it’s safe to say that they are incentivized in ways that are quite different than just simply being allowed to take pride in their work (not so far-off from Performance-Based Bonuses and other neoliberal monetization-competition schemes, which, though not literally, can figuratively be deadly).

The ultimately progressive reading of the battle in the realm of appearances, or the battle in the realm of the virtual, is exemplified in instances when the Mockingjay spreads its wings.  When Katniss stops being the “real” Katniss and becomes the Mockingjay, she may be a creation –a creation by accident, a creation of really good hair and make-up, a creation of Plutarch and Coin.  But more importantly, she is a creation in the minds of all the districts that spontaneously rose up against the Capitol.

And this is what the “real” Katniss never realized (I feel like slapping her and telling her, girl, snap out of it!):  paradoxically enough, the Mockingjay was authentic in such a way that the “real” Katniss could never be.  Because when Katniss was the Mockingjay – on screen, in the realm of appearances – those were the moments when she was utterly free:  defying the commands of Plutarch and Haymitch and Boggs, for example, when she runs to defend the hospital in District 8, when she is focused completely on the welfare of others and not on her own.  It is also in such moments when she was able to effusively demonstrate the full potential of her (archer) individuality:  by single-handedly shooting down a Capitol hovercraft.

And if the Mockingjay allowed Katniss to do this, it allowed the other oppressed districts to do so much more.  The Mockingjay had become the amalgamation of all the ideals that were the complete opposite of the Capitol’s.  It was no longer about the “real” Katniss, it had become way beyond herself.  And if you read the book, this is best accomplished by two means.  The first is the literary device of the first person narrative, where we are swept up with Katniss’ own realization that “My ongoing struggle against the Capitol, which has so often felt like a solitary journey, has not been undertaken alone.  I have had thousands upon thousands of people from the districts at my side.  I was their Mockingjay long before I accepted that role.” (Chapter 7, Mockingjay).

The second is part of the plot, the dénouement after Katniss assassinates Coin, but it doesn’t really hurt the rebellion.  In fact, the newly installed rebel government appears to be in a better state.  Katniss Katniss has diminished, but the Mockingjay continues on.

So, what happens afterwards?  Katniss is despondent, she takes very long to recover and when she finally takes steps towards that, she opts for an “ordinary” life.  She takes comfort in the small “acts of goodness (she’s) seen someone do.” (Epilogue, Mockingjay)

Now this seems like a very sensible way of coping with trauma, and Suzanne Collins has said that this comes from her own experience with her soldier-father:  It’s an imperfect world, it’s a flawed world.  But that’s how it will always be so let us take solace in the small things.

Well, yes, kids, it is an imperfect world, but it is the voice of the dominant system that is speaking when we are urged to simply take solace in the small things – only the small things.  Because we know, deep inside, that it is beyond this scale wherein the sublime lie.  There is this call for grand courage to shape this virtual world of which we dream.  The key to reaching it is “deciding not to run away, that is the crucial first step” (Chapter 9, Catching Fire).

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