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Jack Solomon

Every Witch Way But Loose

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Nov 12, 2015

serveimage? again, I begin with a billboard.


As usual, I encountered this promotion for Vin Diesel's latest on my drive to work, and once again I found a treasure trove of cultural information.  It all lies in the title of the movie—The Last Witch Hunter— and the catchy come-on that movies always seem to use to get you into the theaters: "Live Forever.  Hunt Forever."  That's just about all we need.


Let's begin with the title. My first impression was one of surprise that in the era of Wicked and Wicca a movie would still be targeting witches as the objects of a manhunt (I use the word "manhunt" quite deliberately here), for with her traditional feminine identification, the witch would have seemed to be a figure that Hollywood no longer slated for demonization and destruction (I leave out of this analysis the connotation of "witch hunts" in the wake of the McCarthy era).  So, to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, I decided that maybe it was using the word "witch" in a genderless manner, including warlocks (the traditional male witch) within its range of reference, and went online to research its plot.


It turns out that my first impression was correct, however.  This is a movie about an age-old war against a very female witch (who, not so incidentally, is portrayed by actress Julie Engelbrecht, who, again not so incidentally, just happens to represent central casting's paradigmatic image of blonde feminine pulchritude), who has been plotting to destroy humanity for about eight hundred years.  Never mind the fact that she has a male demon (the not so very subtly named "Belial") in her employ: what matters is that what we have here is a beautiful blonde woman cast in the hero's gun sights.  And here is where cultural signifier number one lies.


Can you spell "male panic"?  I can't help but associate a storyline of this type with Basic Instinct, whose beautiful blonde villain just happens to have a witch as her mentor.  Nor can I help associating it with the recent Yik Yak threat at Fresno State University to "take a headshot at a hot blonde" in revenge (apparently) for favors not received, not to mention Elliott Rodgers's killing spree outside a UC Santa Barbara sorority last year, motivated by a similar resentment.  In other words, it appears that Hollywood hasn't gotten the message yet: that demonizing attractive women isn't, let's say, doing anything to tamp down the flames of a violent misogyny that is not only a worldwide scourge but an especial problem on America's university campuses today.


So, a big "F" for gender sensitivity for The Last Witch Hunter, and the fact that the movie is doing quite well at the box office is a sign that such insensitivity still pays.  Do we see a vicious circle here?


Now to cultural signifier number two, which (witch?) appears in the catchy come-on: "live forever."  A plot check reveals that, indeed, the movie is all tied up with various kinds of dark immortality, and this, too, is meaningful when situated in a system of associations and differences.


To begin with, making immortality central to a storyline is nothing new in the movies (consider It's A Wonderful Life, complete with guardian angel).  The 1990s was a particularly fertile era for benign immortals—from Michael, to What Dreams May Come, to TV's Touched By an Angel—but at the same time, another immortal, the vampire, was also rising to prominence then (remember Buffy?), and by the early 2000s vampires had pretty much driven the angels onto the lesser stage of Victoria's Secret, only to be (partially) displaced themselves by an even nastier variety of immortal: the walking dead (aka zombies).


The difference between the angelic immortal and the demonic one is the kind of difference that points to cultural significance.  Angels tend to be in the ascendant when a society is feeling good about things; demons serve as metaphors for all kinds of social anxieties (it was no accident, for example, that the Cold War-tormented 1950s saw so many monster movies).  So the fact that the immortal demon is getting most of the popular cultural play right now is meaningful.  This turn to the dark side is especially evident in the way that George R.R. Martin has effectively turned J.R.R. Tolkien upside down, transforming the ultimately green and good Middle Earth into the grey and grim Westeros.  A generation that once wrote "Frodo Lives!" on subway station walls has been succeeded by one whose imagination is casting dark shadows upon a bloody ground—a not very surprising reaction to a world overshadowed by the aftermath of the Great Recession and the 9/11 terror attacks.


But there is still more to the analysis, for there is also the full bore fascination with immortality as such to consider, the endless parade of movie characters who do not die, or, when they do, manage to come back to life—yeah, I know that Tolkien did this too with Gandalf, probably getting the idea from Conan Doyle, who once brought Sherlock Holmes, after a fall into an abyss, back to life, too—but it is getting excessive.  This is a different kind of immortality from that of, say, What Dreams May Come, where the afterlife takes place in an afterworld which is wholly different from the one you lived in before you died.  Somebody else is in charge in that afterworld, and the rules are different.  In the current image of immortality, by contrast, you come back to life within this world, the ordinary one, and that may be a dangerous fantasy.  Because I can't help but think again here of those campus killers who post up a grotesque kind of posthumous "survival" on the Internet before going out on what are often conceived as suicide missions.  One has to wonder whether these killers really believe that they are going to die, or whether, deep down, they believe that they will somehow survive (or return) to enjoy their sudden "fame."


I don't know.  But I do rather wish that popular culture wouldn't keep encouraging such fantasies.  I don't see it doing any good.



Tags: cultural semiotics, The Last Witch Hunter, fantasy, campus shootings, misogyny, popular culture, current events

All eyes have been on Missouri this week. In fact, Missouri has been on my mind a lot, certainly since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August of last year. But for the last few weeks, tensions at the state’s flagship University of Missouri have intensified as African American students reported on and protested a series of racist incidents, leading to Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike and eventually a walk-out of some 30 Missouri football players, a move supported by their coach. One result: on November 9, the University’s President and Chancellor both resigned, as the students demanded. Like most of you, I’ve been following these events with growing concern, and I’ve thought a lot about the combination of speaking, writing, and acting/performing that characterized the student protest—a rhetorical situation played out on the national stage.


Flash back for a moment to 1968, to the Black Power movement, to the Mexican Olympics, and to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised fists on that Olympic medal platform, raised fists that represented the frustrations of African Americans as well as Black pride. Those readers who were alive at the time will remember the uproar that followed, the media coverage of this event. Those readers may also recall that in the aftermath of that event, Edward P. J. Corbett published “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist” (CCC 20 [December 1969]). He opened this essay with a reference to Zeno, who used the metaphor of the hand in discussing various relationships between knowledge and power. Corbett notes that by the Renaissance, Zeno’s “closed fist” had become associated with the spare, tight, rational discourse of logic, while the “open hand” was linked to the “relaxed, expansive” discourse of rhetoric. In the turbulent 1960s, Corbett suggested, we should perhaps see the open hand as representing the reasoned, sustained discussion of issues and the closed fist as representing discursive activity that “seeks to carry its point by non-rational, non-sequential, often nonverbal, frequently provocative means” associated with the Black Power movement. Corbett went on to acknowledge that such “provocative” activity is sometimes called for, so he does not reject such rhetorical action out of hand. But it’s clear that he hopes for a return to what he calls the “open hand” of rationality.


Well, that essay was published nearly fifty years ago, and today it seems in some important ways shortsighted, especially in terms of the material lives of African Americans and their ongoing demands for equality. But I think Corbett’s essay and the metaphor of its title are worth recalling today, not only because 46 years on we are still plagued by the effects of racial divide, but also because the open hand and closed fist no longer seem a supportable binary, with rationality on one side and non-rational emotionality on the other.


We now know, for instance, that human beings do not make most decisions based on reason and rationality, that emotion plays a crucial role in human action (and that it is distributed throughout the body, brain included). We know that the hegemony of the written word is challenged by the rise of aurality/orality, of the embodied, performed word. And we know that ethical and effective persuasion today calls for recognition of this knowledge and for imaginative combinations of discursive acts.


We have seen such combinations at work on the Mizzou campus: the letters of protest; the signs, T-shirts, and placards; the spoken, chanted, shouted words of student protesters; the embodied argument of Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike; the collective action of football players and coach. Were we to return to the metaphoric binary, we might see President Wolfe as the closed fist, shut down, holding tight, not responding, and the students as engaging more in the “expansive” rhetoric of the open hand. But I really don’t think the binary holds: what we saw on the Missouri campus was a situation that required a combination of moves and strategies as well as an understanding of kairos, a seizing of the opportune moment.


Professor Corbett was right that the grounds of argument and argumentation have shifted. The shift is obvious in the lessons from Missouri as well as in arenas stretching from public debate to academic discourse. At the end of his essay, Corbett quotes from Robert Scott and Wayne Brockriede’s The Rhetoric of Black Power: “Black Power, no matter what shapes it assumes in the next few years, will remain vital as one starting point for the study of the American ethos which is now developing. . . .”


The powerful Black Lives Matter movement—now worldwide—and the events at the University of Missouri remind us that teachers of writing and rhetoric have an obligation to study “the American ethos” and the way that ethos is manifesting itself today, on campuses across the country and on the world’s digital stage. We have an obligation to engage our students in the study of this ethos  and these ongoing shifts in argumentation as well as to help them consider how, when, and where they will engage in such ethical argumentation—speaking, writing, acting, performing—in their own lives.