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Monday, August 12, 2013

Hermione Granger Versus the Methods of Rationality

It's always difficult, I think, to broach the subject of flaws within Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the scientifically-focused Harry Potter fanfic that seems to have taken the Internet by storm. Regardless of the intent (and that, folks, is a phrase you're going to be hearing a lot more in this article) Eliezer Yudkowsky exudes an aura of almost unassailable wisdom. That, perhaps, is part of the problem: it's easy to fall into the trap, ironically, of not thinking critically about this text in part because the presentation suggests a reading of the text that accept Rationalist!Harry as both author surrogate and sole voice of reason.

I actually talked about this issue over a year ago in a frankly pretty shitty article that nevertheless made some good points. Let me try to isolate them here quickly:

...[R]ead the conversation with McGonagall after Harry accidentally causes a shop keeper to remember what are implied to be rather traumatic memories. Note the way the conversation transforms into a lecture on pessimism and accurate predictions of the future. It's fascinating stuff, to be sure, but narratively it means that even though we are told that Harry feels bad, his behavior is reinforced because A. he's temporarily transformed into the mouthpiece of rationality and B. he still gets what he bloody well wants in the end!
Harry needs to lose here--he needs to be wrong here--because these early chapters grant him too much infallibility. He wins so often that we assume that he is always right. This actually works in direct opposition to the skills that the story is teaching us--after all, as long as we can comfortably rely upon Harry as a guide, we don't have to analyze his actions from a standpoint of rational skepticism.  
I think, if nothing else, this demonstrates the fact that the narrative and the themes or purposes of a work have to be carefully set into balance, and it's very easy for one to get in the way of the other if they are not carefully arranged. It also shows that the transmission of ideas cannot rely upon an understanding of the ideas themselves alone. Communication is, by its nature, interdisciplinary, and understanding narrative from a liberal arts perspective can help even a staunchly scientific piece of writing.
 I stand by that assertion, incidentally. I think the text often works at cross-purposes with itself, because while the conscious meaning of the text promotes one attitude, the unconscious response encourages another. Texts train their readers how to read them, and this text has a recurring difficulty in telegraphing its intentions. And while you could, I suppose, simply shrug your shoulders and assert that people should be clever enough to listen only to the conscious meaning, frankly I would consider that an unartful and lazy response. If you're going to write, you may as well do it with a whole rather than a halved ass.

This is why Yudkowski's response to some recent plot events rubbed me in rather the wrong way. If you're caught up on the story you can probably guess what I'm talking about: (spoilers, obviously, from hereon out--not that I should have to say that at this point)

Hermione Granger is dead, and people aren't happy.

Which is to be expected, of course, when a beloved character dies. The issue here, however, is that many of the reactions I've seen are not what I'll call immersive reactions. I.E., they are not reactions that involve people saying, "This character that I love is dead, and it hits me hard emotionally!"

They are metatextual reactions: "This character that I love is dead, and it's a sexist choice!"

Metatextual reactions, of course, are not bad at all. It's a good sign of critical reading. However, when you have a bunch of (largely female, I think) readers responding to a major emotional moment in your story by calling you a sexist asshole... well, that suggests to me that there's been a major disconnect between the story you're attempting to tell and the story that people are reading.

So, I want to try to unpack, at least somewhat, why this was a foreseeable problem if you are aware of feminist pop media criticism, and why Yudkowski's reply was more than a little ham-fisted.

The first big problem, of course, that needs to be tackled is Yudkowski's suggestion that it is "unfair" to analyze an unfinished text. This is... well, I guess I can see how from a Formalist perspective this is accurate--after all, a Formalist criticism, as I've said before, BEGINS AT THE BEGINNING and ENDS AT THE END, as God ordains, forever and ever and ever Amen. It's a fine way of working because it allows you to examine how a theme develops and possibly turns on its head by the end of a narrative. But it is not accurate to how people react to a text. You do not read a text feeling completely neutral about it until the end, when you pass judgment. You do not read a text ignoring the theme until the end, when you pass judgment. For goodness sake, this is why people stop reading books or leave movie theaters.

Yet, Yudkowski presents this basic, totally predictable and frankly quite human reaction as not just a question of fairness or unfairness but almost as some strange, alien reaction unique to Feminist critics:
There is, I think, a very great divergence between feminists who try to be fair, and feminists who do not try to be fair. 
Attacking someone who cannot defend themselves, even in possible worlds where they possess a defense, is not fair. 
Authors of unfinished stories cannot defend themselves in the possible worlds where your accusation is unfair.
Let me be frank.

This is a shitty response to criticism.

And it's also kind of a sexist response to criticism.

It's part of a long tradition of white, straight, cismales dividing activists (frequently feminists) into two camps: good activists and bad activists. It is no coincidence that the good activists are those whose message is most appealing to said white, straight, cismales. It's a good way of breeding division within a movement and stifling radicalism--after all, the stigma of being grouped in with The Bad Camp is a powerful swayer of behaviors, considering how much humans want to be accepted rather than persecuted. And, of course, Yudkowski here could easily have used the word "readers" and conveyed largely the same point, but he did not. He defaulted to "feminists," and regardless of the intent, the result is a singling out of feminism as a movement and an establishment of Good and Bad camps that others may use to tar and label literally anyone who has a problem with HPMOR from a feminist standpoint.

I'm sorry, were we talking about unfairness? Somehow, a male author singling out readers with a sociological stance that frequently elicits responses ranging from insults and harassment all the way up to physical and sexual assault as being particularly prone towards Bad Camp behaviors does not, to me, fit under the definition of "fairness," or "good forethought," or "really any kind of self awareness whatsoever." Regardless of the intent, this is punching downward. It is a weapon in the hands of misogynists--who, and I know this will come as a staggering shock, aren't exactly unheard of in the Hard Sciences and Atheist circles.

This is a concern, to me, largely because there ARE a number of problems with the text on a Feminist level, and Yudkowski effectively addresses none in his post here. He has, however, established a field of discourse where first a feminist theorist must prove her fairness and goodness before she can even begin to discuss the text itself!

I, however, will not be doing that, because sod that. The reason I'm bringing all this up is not to establish my own fairness, but to establish that Yudkowski fucked up here, wittingly or otherwise, and it makes the whole wider conversation a whole lot more difficult to have.

What is that wider conversation?

Well, let's start with the issue of Theme. On the one hand, I think Yudkowski is right to assert that MacGonnagal has a tight thematic arc. I really do agree with that assertion! Seeing the whole thing come together was actually pretty cool, because it was quite well plotted.

Well... mostly.

There's two problems with this defense, though.

First, just because a theme is present and coherent does not make that theme defensible from other critical standpoints. Like, it might make perfect sense thematically for MacGonnagal to go from a stern disciplinarian to a more flexible thinker, but if that arc is fundamentally a story of how she learned that Rationalist!Harry Ubermensch Potter was right about everything all along, that's not exactly going to make her a better character in the eyes of a feminist critic--nor should it!

This is an opposition as old as these two forms of criticism. Formalism--the New Criticism that sought to find deep themes in everything--always positioned itself as fundamentally universal and above such petty things as the status of non-white, non-straight, non-men in texts. Feminist theory, queer theory, colonial and race theory... this stuff all emerges in part as a critique of that purported universality, and the message frequently boils down to this idea: "If the champions of your themes are always straight, white, upper middle class, cismen, and every other narrative arc in the story bends around them, then you DON'T really have a universal experience or truth, do you? You have a narrow perspective that tells readers outside that narrow band that they should just be more like those straight white uppermiddleclass cismen."

So, saying that the theme was planned from the start, even from the perspective of whether or not MacGonnagal achieves agency in the text (which can be debated, of course), does not automatically remove any complaint of feminist criticism.

For example, a feminist might question why, exactly, MacGonnagal's character arc requires her to become rigid to the point of disaster, when other characters are quite openly altered for various purposes.

This is the problem, ultimately, with Yudkowski's veiled assertion that his choices with MacGonnagal and Hermione were, in fact, out of his control:

J. K. Rowling created certain roles and assigned them genders.  The story of HPMOR is built around the parallel-universe versions of those roles, and those roles (with one exception) retain whichever genders they had in canon.  HPMOR is not deliberately feminist literature.  S.P.H.E.W. is ultimately there because it is what Hermione Granger would do in that situation, not to balance gender scales.
This is nothing short of complete and utter nonsense.

Yudkowski happily has manipulated and altered characters as he saw fit. He altered everyone from Quirrell to Dumbledore to Snape to Sirius Black to Peter Pettigrew when the story, in one way or another, called for it.

S.P.H.E.W. is ultimately there because Elizer Yudkowski wished for it to be there, not because it was mysteriously preordained in the stars that it should be so, or because J.K. Rowling tied his hands. In fact, placing the blame (I mean, he says he isn't placing the blame, but let's be honest, he totally is) on Rowling is somewhat disingenuous considering the actual source material. There is nothing in the world to say that Harry Potter should, with the proper application of Oxford Professors, turn into a rationalist supergenius, but there is likewise nothing in the world to say that, should an author wish it, Hermione Granger should grow to meet Harry Potter. In fact, it seems incredible to me that she and Draco Malfoy should be put on equal terms, when Draco shows none of her ingenuity, wit, determination, and raw problemsolving ladygrit in the source material! And yet, in this text, she is the third wheel in the wonderful communion that is Harry//Draco. Not to say that I don't ship it of course but LOOK WE'RE GETTING SIDETRACKED HERE The point is that giving Harry the opportunity so constantly to win, then giving Hermione a chance to shine only to end up turning it into another game move between Harry and his opponent, is...

Well, it sucks.

It feels like bait and switch.

And worse, the message seems to be that ultimately, the voices of sexism in the story were correct: there is no role for Hermione to be her own hero. She is always the child watched from a distanced by cool, intellectual Harry, the logical male who sees beyond the girl's silly concerns.

For gibberflipping fuck's sake, Yudkowsky fabricated an entire core plot point--the Interdict of Merlin--because it suited him, but we are to accept at face value this statement:
I am building off J. K. Rowling’s canon, in which, as Professor Quirrell observes in Ch. 70, “It is futile to count the witches among Ministers of Magic and other such ordinary folk leading ordinary existences, when Grindelwald and Dumbledore and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named were all men.”
What utter nonsense! There is a vast, unexplored range of open space here, and Yudkowski apparently cannot imagine anything other than these three men! I would normally have been quite charitable here and pointed out that this assertion comes from an evil character, BUT YUDKOWSKI IS AGREEING WITH HIM! And then he goes on to graciously assert that we should not blame Rowling for this state of affairs.

Well, no, we should not, because in canon, Voldemort's most feared lieutenant was a woman, a woman who, upon breaking out of Azkaban, immediately starts hexing everything in sight, cackling all the while...

...A woman who, in Yudkowski's world, is reduced to a barely-sapient, brainwashed girl and subjected to repeated rape at the hands of Voldemort's other followers.

In canon, MacGonnagal fights furiously for her students' well-being, even if it means refusing them the freedom they wish for, and frequently comes across as an extremely clever, extremely capable woman, a highly worthy successor to Albus Dumbledore...

...While in Yudkowski's world, any disagreement she might have with Harry Ubermensch Potter is portrayed as being the result of her own stubbornness, lack of insight, and inability to keep up with Dumbledore and Harry in their manbrilliance.

In canon, Ginny and Luna are heroic characters who are fundamental both to the victory of the main trio, and are fundamental to Harry's struggle to maintain his own sanity and his own humanity...

...While in Yudkowski's world, Luna is just a punchline in a single joke and Ginny is Sir Not Appearing In This Film.

In canon, Hermione Granger is the smartest witch of her year, an equal with Harry and Ron, part of a trio of three powerful young mages who ultimately save the world...

...While in Yudkowski's world, her ultimate role is to become Harry's friend so that she can die.

And she dies in order to motivate Harry to action.

She is not his equal, the companion that sticks with him through everything and helps him right up until the end to defeat his opponent.

She is, at the end of the day, a plot device, to be used and discarded as Harry goes on alone.

And perhaps that will change. Perhaps I am being "Unfair." But I don't think that the last few chapters of this story will suddenly redeem the other characters that Yudkowski has treated so poorly.

Nor do I believe that the presence of the other SPHEW members truly balances out the other issues with the portrayal of women in the text. They are jokes. They are the comic relief squad. Like it or not, they are not there to be serious heroes or to have any potential of rising beyond their rather shallow characterization, because HPMOR is ultimately about the triumph of rationality, and Yudkowski does not see fit to elevate these characters, to bring them into his ideal mindset.

The theme of the tale and its presentation is fundamentally at odds with a feminist reading of the text, and to suggest that the text is that way simply because it is realistic or it is how the characters would act is an unsatisfying, disingenuous answer. For the latter, it should be clear by now that there is no action of the characters outside the scope of the will of the writer--if he makes choices to manipulate the text elsewhere, he could make choices to manipulate here. For the former... well, I'll let you ponder on that. Perhaps you can see, without too much prompting, why asserting that the lack of Rational women that can come close to the male ubermenschen in the story is realistic would come across as just a leeeettle eensie weensie bit sexist.

I stand by my conclusion in my other shitty article. Rationalism as a doctrine is not, in and of itself, able to make up for a fundamental lack of understanding of other disciplines.

Ultimately, I cannot get behind any sentiment that scolds and chides and derides readers for reacting to a text. It's one thing to say that some strategies within feminist criticism are bad. It's quite another to say that some feminists are bad, solely because they are mildly frustrated (read, again, the post Yudkowski singles out--how uncharitable is that post being, truly? Does it really deserve the reaction it gets). And I think it's important to recognize where a text fails. This, for many readers, was such a moment of failure, and it behooves us as critics and authors to try to understand why there was a communication breakdown, and how other elements of this text led, cumulatively, to a reading that caused this reaction.

And I mean really...

When you kill off a character that to a whole lot of women is a symbol of female strength and intelligence...

You're really gonna play it like you can't understand why some people get upset?

Now now, Hermione, let's not get personal here.

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