Whoosh! Issue 49 - October 2000


By Carlos Eduardo Rebello de Mendonca
Content copyright (c) 2000 held by author
WHOOSH! Edition copyright (c) 2000 held by WHOOSH
17188 words

Many thanks to my American research assistant,
Michele Andrea Markowitz,
who studies at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

To Cristina




Bourgeois? Moi?

Xena, a myth in the making.
From SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)

In the time of the ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle.

"And one day [the Muses] taught Hesiod glorious song when he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me: 'Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things' "
– Hesiod, THEOGONY, 22-34 [Note 01]

"Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where thou wilt, tell thou even unto us"
– Homer, THE ODYSSEY, I, 10 [Note 02]

"We can talk a lot of stupid things about myths, precisely because mythology is the kingdom of stupidity. And stupidity ... is truth"

[01] The title of this work will appear to many as something akin to an oxymoron. How can there be such a thing as a Marxist analysis of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (afterwards XWP)? Better, how could one analyze XWP from a Marxist viewpoint except through denouncing it as a form of ideological bad conscience? First, there is a deeply seated consensus among Marxists, coming from the days of the Frankfurt School, that all mass culture (the cultural industry, in the expression of Horkheimer & Adorno) is nothing but a source of vicarious, pre-codified enjoyments that thrill the spectators in order to restore them contented, once the spectacle is finished, into acceptance of the supposedly natural realities of capitalist society [Note 03]. The adventure TV series, as much as the action movies or the comic strips, would represent one of the most finished expressions of this kind of mass-titillation swindle, where audiences are supplied with an ever-changing variety of adventures is supplied only in order to be reconciled to the final restoration of order at the end of each episode. Ultimately, what is offered would be nothing but a transgression that is safe and liberties that respect the established order.

[02] Yet, there is something in the particular case of XWP that does not readily fit into the usual Marxist interpretive framework. Let us begin from the start, a most unusual vantage point these days. I remember that, as I watched my first episode sometime during 1998, that I was attracted, above all, by a bizarre element that fell outside the accepted genre conventions. First, there is no attempt whatsoever to conceal that what is presented is a fiction or the cheapness of the production. There is an attractive traveling circus quality in the ill-assorted variety of costumes. Second, the attractiveness of the costuming corresponds to the attractiveness of the plots, with their jumbling together of mythologies and historical episodes. Finally, there is the attractiveness of the main characters themselves.

[03] Anyone who has taken the time and effort needed to watch XWP must have a very quaint feeling about the unreality of the whole thing. We have before us what seems to be an entirely carnivalesque ambience woven around two bizarre main (female) characters. One is well-muscled and armor-clad in metal and black leather, resembling nothing more than a mixture of a Roman centurion, a highland rural bandit in the 1930s Northeastern Brazilian savanna, and the kind of "butchy-chic" (to coin an oxymoron) gay female one could expect to find in some lesbian bar in Manhattan. The other started out dressed in the kind of babyish, yet at the same time displaying evident sexual awareness, look that originated from the American middle-class high school, and has since become the look of wealthy, consumer-oriented, spontaneously reactionary female petit-bourgeois teenagers worldwide [Note 04]. The additional fact that the plot of the series, from a very early point on, hints at a possible homosexual relationship between these two characters does not seem to make things easier to interpret.

[04] There is, some ideology behind all that, but, please, comrade, ideology of what? What is that all about? That is the question we need to answer before we can proceed to more serious business. We have before us a most bizarre, carnivalesque, unseemly fiction that seems devoid of any actual meaning whatsoever something with the apparent overtones of a psychotic hallucination. For those of us, however, who do not follow the mystic notions of such hallucinations being the bearers of some deep and profound hidden meaning [Note 05], the arbitrary character of such a fiction would be proof enough of its utter futility.

[05] During my youth, I became acquainted with the history of the Trotskyist Argentinean cadre Homero Cristalli—commonly known by his codename, J. Posadas—who became paranoid during the 60s and developed a theory about UFOs becoming the harbingers of the communization of Earth. Outside from being a laughing-stock for the entire Left, these ramblings had no ideological—or any other - meaning; they were—as paranoid hallucinations go—entirely meaningless.

And his hair looks like Kramer's.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) in 1920. What a guy, what a thinker. He inspired many, angered more.
Courtesy of the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive.

[06] When all Social Sciences theoreticians, since the Nineteenth Century, have been declaring that there is no such a thing as a meaningless fiction, it's somewhat of an intellectual tour de force to admit that there are phantasies which, being completely arbitrary structures of words that do not refer to anything existing before, can have a personal meaning to their concocter, but cannot have any actual hermeneutical value other than a purely personal one. They are utterances, void of any meaning whatsoever. One can actually speak false things "as though they were true". We must suppose, for a start, that the apparent arbitrariness of XWP plots could possibly be not only apparent but also actual. More than that, we must suppose, also for a start, that such arbitrariness would come from the arbitrariness of the raw material of the series—Greek mythology. For what could be more arbitrary than these tales of gods and heroes that have been handed down to us after thousands of years of manipulations and accretions for the most various purposes, out of first versions that remain shrouded in the mists of time?

[07] Yet, we see, even today, some profound and deep meaning in the phantasies of a Bronze Age shepherd from Ancient Boeotia talking about a vision of the Muses wafting above the Helicon mountains, in order to teach him the genealogies of the gods. However, we do not pay the slightest attention to the phantasies of a deranged Trotskyist cadre about the social system prevailing in Alpha Centauri. Please, what is the difference?

[08] Those who have more postmodern intellectual preferences will undoubtedly remember Nietzsche when he said, in the beginning of BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, that the desire to strive in search of something (existing before words and deeds that would consist in the true essence of things; what things really are) is to confound one's particular striving with the supposed essence of things. All Marxists have, naturally, since Nietzsche, desired to discard such a relativistic view as the most glaring example of a petty-bourgeois ideology that legitimizes the most narrow egotistic desire of accumulating (bourgeois) wealth and prestige as the eternal aim of human existence. Since an ideological bad conscience will want, above all, to regard as eternal a transitory class interest, Nietzsche's view can only represent the petty-bourgeois striving for looted capitalist wealth, a straight line existing between Nietzsche and the Nazi lootings during WWII (see, for instance, Gyorgy Lukács' THE DESTRUCTION OF REASON).

[09] In fact, the Nietzschean notion of ideology is more extreme than the Marxist notion, at least in the more trite view of Marxism. Marx sees ideas as a kind of front for a concrete class interest attached to what is at the same time "good" for the ruling class and for the development of the productive forces, therefore submitting the ruling ideology to the control of a functional outside criterion of utility. In commonsense Marxism, the demise of a ruling ideology, and with it the change of the ruling class itself, are directly connected to the inability of the old ruling class in developing the forces of production. Where, in short, Marx sees the ideology as a functional interest, Nietzsche sees interest only, not only as something oriented towards the accumulation of use/exchange values, but as oriented towards the mere expression of a way of living:

"You want to live 'according to the Nature's measure'? Oh, you noble stoics, what misuse of words! Think a while, how Nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent to any measure, without intention and second thoughts ... Think about this Indifference as a power - how could your measure life according to this Indifference? To live - isn't that precisely to want to be different from what that Nature is? Isn't living but to evaluate, to prefer, to be unfair, lop-sided, to want to be different? Put into a nutshell, Your Imperative, 'live according to Nature's measure' means, finally, something like 'live according to Life's measure'—and how could one not do that? " [Note 06]

[10] In short, an ideology is, above all, a sectional interest striving to realize itself expressively, and nothing more, and, therefore, liberated from the necessity of being functionally explained. We are already, naturally, in the realm of the Foucauldian Discursive Praxis. For we do not need to explain anymore, for instance, in what way the performing of the rain dance of the Zunis in some way corresponds to the economic interest of their ruling classes and therefore to invent some ad hoc explanation. The Zuni tribal overlords find the rain dance expressive, and therefore impose its continued existence as a hub of tribal life [Note 07]. This kind of explanation in our postmodern age, when the demise of socialism seems to have given way to a flowering of a whole host of expressive (and, at the same time, exclusive, narrow, and mutually exclusive) sub-cultural identities, seems to suffice to explain a phenomenon like XWP. Perhaps even as something as simple as a lesbian masquerade, that challenges accepted sexual stereotypes by being expressive on its own right. Is this true or false? Who cares? [Note 08]

[11] Nevertheless, contrary to the trite explanation in the framework of the Base/Superstructure model, Marx was also very much aware of the existence of an ideology that did not represent any direct economic interest of a ruling class, namely, Classical Greek mythology. This problem of the unreality of some fictions, especially in the meaning of their irreductibility to any concrete interest, for Marx, appears, some time before Nietzsche, in a well-known passage at the beginning of the Grundrisse, written during 1857/1858:

"In the case of the arts, it is well-known that certain periods of their development are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence to the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare ... Is the view of nature and of social relations in which the Greek imagination ... is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan as against Roberts & Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier?" [Note 09]

[12] What are Xena and her companion Gabrielle as against Hillary Clinton, or Bill Gates, or Windows NT? Or the Chase Manhattan Bank? Nevertheless, most people in our late capitalist society are almost entirely indifferent to Windows NT, which they take as a matter-of-fact, and some, at the same time, have deep emotional ties with the entirely fictional characters of Xena and Gabrielle [Note 10]. We have here a most un-Hegelian development, in which the particular quality of our imagination does not at least seem to correspond to the real development of the human espirit. We remain indifferent to the real development of rational technology and, at the same time, to pay the best of our attention to the same kind of fiction that Hesiod and Homer concocted in the Hellenic Middle Ages after the downfall of the Mycenaean civilization.

Let's go shopping!

Xena and Gabrielle go together like soup and sandwich.
From CHARIOTS OF WAR (02/102).

[13] Perhaps because these fictions "smuggle", to use Comrade Stalin's vocabulary, some hidden ideological meaning relevant for the struggles of today? Long before me, a comrade in the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky newsgroup at Usenet tried to extol XWP in these terms:

"Xena consistently fights and beats racists, warmongers, homophobes, chauvinists and imperialists of all kinds" [Note 11]

[14] But before we proceed to make Xena a card-carrying member of the Party, it is necessary to note that such comments do not apply to most of the story plots, and that, aside for leaving a trail of bashed villains, Xena and Gabrielle do not seem to care about changing the social system in order to avoid the recurrence of such villainies. Most of the episodes' plots have almost nothing to do with anything akin to private capital accumulation, and have more to do with metaphysical tragedy. Yet, neither is The Iliad an indictment of the ills of the property system prevailing in Homer's time. Aside from the social and political preeminence of the kings and their retainers, we do not gather much about the details of the property system as such in the Homeric poems [Note 12]. Furthermore, Homer's heroes spend ten years in what, in normal conditions, would be a very unprofitable piratical venture. They were in it not primarily for loot, but for regaining Helen. Something that astounded even Herodotus:

"Even if Helen had been the wife of Priam the king, he would have given her back to the Greeks, if to do so offered a chance of relief for the suffering that the war had caused" [Note 13]

[15] This state of affairs caused Herodotus to believe that Helen had been taken away from Paris and held in custody by the legendary Pharaoh Proteus, when Paris had to make a scale in Egypt en route between Sparta and Troy. Therefore, Helen had been retained in Egypt during the entire Trojan War, when Menelaus, not having found her in the ruins of Troy, finally gave credence to the Trojans' disclaimers and sought for her in Memphis. As a historical materialist of his age, Herodotus could not believe that a desire for prestige could prevail over material interest.

[16] Interestingly enough, this alternate version of the Trojan War, although popular enough in Classical Antiquity to be used by Euripedes as the basis for the plots of his play about Helen, and to be mentioned by Plato in his Phaedros, was never given much attention. The standard account of the Trojan War has Helen at Troy watching over all the fighting. But, as Herodotus himself knew already [Note 14], Homer must have rejected the alternate version as unsuitable for epic poetry. This concerns not just material motive as a trigger for the actions of the characters.

Newspapers may burn, but they won't break.

An ancient Greek news account of the Trojan War.
Courtesy of the Perseus Project at Tufts University.

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