Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Television causes...Not smartness!”: The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie

There is, believe it or not, an upper limit to how much forced zaniness I can handle in Dirty Pair. As it turns out, that tolerance threshold is somewhere around “Mouse Nazis”.

This episode is pretty much the inverse of “What? We're Heinous Kidnappers!”. Like the earlier story, this absolutely doesn't work in any conceivable respect, except this time it's the first half that's an unwatchable disaster and the second half that features one or two intriguing bits of erudition. Let's just get the big one out of the way right off the bat: The plot is, ironically enough, insufferably dumb and idiotic. There's a very fine line between “offbeat and clever idea” and “unbelievably annoying idea”, and this episode leaps across that line with boundless enthusiasm. For the first time on Dirty Pair, absolutely none of the humour feels natural or appropriate: Kei and Yuri's incessant quips about vacations and bonus pay, disarmingly cute and endearing in “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys” and “Hah Hah Hah, Dresses and Men Should Always be brand New” now just feel strained and overused, and that's just one example. There's an overwhelming, and unsettling, feeling of the show trying far, far too hard to be “wacky” and the whole thing just comes across as stilted.

The 3WA gets overrun by an army of mice who want to form Mouse Nazi Germany with swastikas and everything! Aren't we clever! Mughi (who we've retconned from being an advanced sentient extraterrestrial being to a genetically engineered house pet) is terrified of mice! Isn't that so funny? Let's have Nanmo fly in at the last second and shoot some stuff to save the day because robots! Everyone in the building is shockingly cruel to Kei and Yuri, who spend half the runtime throwing temper tantrums, breaking things or talking about boys, vacations and special bonuses! Those girls sure are silly! We even have our own more-than-vaguely racist comedy relief Chinese stereotype now, who naturally will go on and on about ancestors and Chinese history and is actually named Chan, because those funny Chinese people across the pond are quirky and strange and we don't quite understand them.

You get the picture. Frankly, fuck this.

There is, obviously, an attempt at meta-commentary about the novel and short story Flowers for Algernon here. This episode is trying to do something similar to what “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal” did by referencing a familiar plot, mashing it up with a mixture of different motifs and signifiers and then from there exploring themes that build off of the ones in the original work, but are fundamentally separate from them. However, it can't even do that right, because this episode isn't *referencing* Flowers for Algernon, it *is* Flowers for Algernon, down to the plot centring around a genetically engineered laboratory mouse with artificially enhanced intelligence who is actually called Algernon.

(The story, for those who haven't read it, concerns a janitor named Charlie Goodwin who undergoes the same treatment as the titular Algernon, swiftly gaining and then losing remarkable intelligence, and is about how people treat him differently every step of the way. The twist this episode wants to give the story is the idea that somebody like Algernon or Charlie would likely rebel against his creators and appoint himself dictator because he'd realise he was smarter then the people controlling them.)

But forget all this. I refuse to quit on Dirty Pair, even when the show catastrophically derails itself: The concept is too good for that, both in terns of value judgments and narrative structure. Dirty Pair can never let us down, we can only let it down, and those house rules still apply. And the back half is certainly entertaining, with Kei and Yuri leading an all-feline brigade charge at the gates of the 3WA building, now fallen to Algernon's forces. This turns out to be a part of a massive misdirection gambit on the part of the girls, who, in the end, wind up outsmarting everyone. This is more revealing then it thinks it is. Throughout the episode, there's been, obviously, a recurring theme about intelligence: Algernon is, of course, genetically engineered to have superior intelligence and, as Kei points out, this causes him to rebel against his creators, whom he feels are stupid. There's a doomsday weapon in the form of experimental head lice that causes widespread necrosis of the brain. The 3WA thinks Kei and Yuri are stupid and reckless, which is why they pit them against Algernon in the first place. The episode itself even seems to want us to sympathize and agree with the 3WA, right up to the climactic scene.

The episode is trying to make a point about how an uneducated and unenlightened populace is easier to control, and how authority figures are all stupid. This is only half true, and its overall effectiveness further hampered by a fixation on the Intelligence Quotient as a quantitative measure of who's smart and who's stupid, which is problematic for its own reasons. Yet, through their irreducible power of narrative magick, Kei and Yuri once again save us. The Angels cast another spell, just as they did in “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!”, and this time they pull the ultimate trick and change the mark of their own show. Through the clairvoyance gifted to them by their connection to the cosmos, Kei and Yuri are able to briefly see into and invoke a possible future, anticipating Avital Ronell's landmark reconceptualization of stupidity.

In her 2002 book of the same name, Ronell argues that stupidity is not actually a signifier in the traditional sense. It is thus not even a proper “concept”, but a “paraconcept”; not “the other of thought”, but rather an accusation leveled at a certain kind of thought in order to marginalize and dismiss it, and thus, perhaps even a sort of “pure thought”. Ronell is a scholar and redeemer of the marginal and persecuted in all things, which makes her what amounts to an ur-feminist, as feminizing is, of course, arguably the primordial form of marginalization. The guiding impetus for this project, according to her, is how so many perspectives deemed unacceptable to hegemony are written off by being labeled “stupid”, namely those held by women and ethnic minorities. In this light, Ronell casts stupidity as the enemy of certainty, agency and control, concepts which she considers fundamentally patriarchal.

A primary example of hers is the “stupor-like” mindset that accompanies writing poetry, a surrender to the process of creation. Ronell has said elsewhere she experiences all of her writing not as a “writer”, but as a “writing being”, taking “dictations” as the “secretary” of some etherial force. We write because we must and because we need stories. Ronell evokes the phrase “I am stupid before the other”, by which she jointly means the historical reality that there have always existed marginalized viewpoints dismissed as stupid by the ruling classes and Master Narratives, but also the fundamental constructed nature of the idea of certainty. Perhaps the only universal statement is, in Ronell's words, “I don't know” or, “I'm not sure I know”. Ronell has stated that she is “stupid before [her] students”, and I think most authors, if you really press them, would agree that they're “stupid before their readers” too. This project, even this post, has changed shape numerous times already. I'm not exactly where I planned to be with Dirty Pair, I let the experience of watching and writing help guide the direction of this voyage. We transform and improvise in our performative interactions every day.

It's telling then that intelligence is so heavily connected to IQ in this episode: In other words, quantitative, Scientistic certainty. Kei and Yuri are stupid before their audience. Note how part of their gambit is to pretend to be bitten by the brain-destroying lice (another performance), and how on a number of occasions they point out that it might be nice to be considered stupid. Notice also how they're the ones who outsmart the hyper-intelligent villains, and how this changes the context of the fickle and unflattering way they're depicted in the first half of the episode. As avatars of divine, reclaimed femininity, Kei and Yuri are by definition opposed to the patriarchal constructs of certainty and agency, they are fundamentally marginal figures both in their transgressive power and the way the human universe shuns and fears them, frankly for being women as much as for their reputation, and their bond with the larger cosmos means they have always been and will always be in a sense guided in their actions. Their will harmonizes with that of the universe, as both an extension and a reinterpretation of it.

I am we are stupid before you.

1 comment:

  1. "its overall effectiveness further hampered by a fixation on the Intelligence Quotient as a quantitative measure"

    Yeah this episode just felt like ideas were being thrown at the wall with a hope that they would stick. There were moments of pleasure, but brief compared to other episodes.

    "We transform and improvise in our performative interactions every day."

    I more and more now take a path through life where I let it guide me perhaps in the vein of the Fool, letting events touch and expand me, rather than my trying to exert apparent certainty onto situations and people - which usually fails somehow. Mystery and fun interests me always much more than absolutes and IQ.