Xena Warrior Princess and the Texture of the Religious: Re-imagining the Role of Popular Culture in Academic Discourse
David A. Adcock, Rice University
People are fond of discussing two types of religion, historical and mythical . . . . Maybe the time has come to retire this distinction as irrelevant and to replace it with another. The more useful distinction might be between mythical religion, a religion that gives one the final word about “reality” and thereby excludes the authentic experience of mystery, and parabolic religion, a religion that continually and deliberately subverts final words about “reality” and thereby introduces the possibility of transcendence.
-- John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval, 105.
Fans, as one long-time Trekker explained, ‘treat the program like silly putty,’ stretching its boundaries to incorporate their concerns, remolding its characters to better suit their desires.
-- Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers, 156.
[W]e need a mode of analysis which is connective and integrative and which tracks the social and ideological relations which prevail at every level between cultural production and consumption.
-- Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, 41.
We [must] leave behind the conception of the literary work as object and . . . recognize our own complicity in bringing artistic ‘objects’ to life. The text itself may be dismemberable through analysis . . . but the work that the text and the reader cooperate in making cannot be objectively parsed because it cannot be isolated from experience . . . . [W]e cannot settle for the distortion of dynamic activity into stasis.
-- John M. Foley, Immanent Art, 40.
very episode of Xena Warrior Princess opens with a narration. It begins, “She was Xena, a mighty princess” and ends with the phrase, “Her courage will change the world.” Changing worlds mark(s) the trajectory of both Xena and this essay, and it is precisely the locus of the televisual as an expression of popular culture which will serve as the vehicle for articulating certain concerns about critical discourse. To speak naively about popular culture, religion and academic discourse as separate--or even separable--“entities” is becoming increasingly difficult. The French theorist of religion and culture, Michel de Certeau, insightfully traces the inextricability of cultural forms from the dynamic of culture in general. Cultural dynamics and our-selves are already co-implicated in each other. In addition, others, like the self-acclaimed a/theologian, Mark C. Taylor, have also argued that the religious and the secular cannot be extracted as separate conditions of existence, for the two are different aspects of the same condition. De Certeau theorizes as to why we sometimes think of these as separate conditions. He notes, as an example, that “science”--or to make the observation relevant for this essay, the critical-reflective discourse of the academy--claims to give to itself its own “proper and appropriable” place or identity. It places the “world” [or the other] as the object of its study and scrutiny. In an effort to distance itself from its object, it “constitutes the whole as its remainder," as something outside itself, and this “remainder” is what we call culture.
- Complicating the academic appropriation of pop culture has been the historical trajectory of cultural studies. From Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall, to the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, to the more recent work of Pierre Bordieu, cultural theorists have viewed culture as a site of struggle. The materials of cultural expression become objects which, when studied appropriately, reveal these conflicting forces. These are then portrayed as a hierarchical relationship, expressed by means of a rhetoric of dominance, power and resistance. However, pop culture critic Angela McRobbie notes:
Culturalism, in so far as it was concerned with the active experience of culture by subordinate groups and classes, fell foul of its own complexity.. . . [I]t found slippages and inconsistencies and contradictions. . . . The founding categories of class, gender and race were invariably cut across by other, often stronger, points of identification such as region, religion, or nationality. And there were other problems. Culturalism emphasized agency and the active engagement of the group or individual in creating their own cultural space. This was often stressed at the expense of other acts of conformity or quiescence.
- In other words, McRobbie recognizes that while culture certainly includes conflicting forces, it also includes homogenizing tendencies, forces which seem to minimize distance and difference.
- Another problem in the trajectory of cultural studies concerns what once was called “mass culture.” Leslie Fiedler, in a 1969 critical essay, “Cross the Border, Close the Gap,” drew attention to a “new” trend in the “popular” culture which blurred the distinction between “high” and “low” cultures. He noticed that a part of the larger culture, at least in America, appropriated “high” or “authentic” cultural forms like art or classic literature. Yet, they re-contextualized these into new “popular” forms in which the “originals” were almost unrecognizable. He predicted the rise and dominance of a “popular” culture which, as a matter of course, promiscuously combined bits and pieces of “authentic” cultural entities, thus collapsing any “illusion” of a distance between the elite and the populace. He argued that increasingly critical reflection on such a cultural amalgam would require a broader contextual sensitivity in which the “proper concern” of the critic would be “the private juncture of a thousand contexts . . . in the consciousness of the lonely reader (delivered for an instant, but an instant only, from all of those contexts by the ekstasis of reading).”
- Xena Warrior Princess aptly illustrates the collapse of Fiedler’s “authentic” high culture. Birthed out of the quasi-Greek mythical world of the almost-equally-popular Adventures of Hercules series, Xena mixes Greco-Roman mythology with contemporary and historical cultural tropes like the western, the often criticized and parodied beauty pageant, Indiana Jones-like archaeological adventures, Dantean visions of Heaven and Hell, Roman crucifixions, Hun-like hordes, and even the biblical figure of Goliath. Xena equally reconfigures and experiments with conceptions of gender, class, and ethnicity, as well as religious symbols and ideas.
- Xena performs a mythological reconstruction and reconfiguration of the self, and this performative text projects new possibilities for imagining our-selves and the world. Still, it is precisely this kind of anarchic, textual refabrication which Fiedler predicted would become problematic for cultural studies. French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard describes these textual reconstructions as “third-order simulacra,” a copy of copies for which there may be no “original.” This certainly can be said of Xena. Xena appropriates “authentic” cultural tropes, mythemes and icons, but in the retextualized fabric, the entire “original” is called into question. For Baudrillard, the un-reality of such a simulacrum is not only “fake,” but it becomes an un-real real (hyper-real), or what Taylor calls a virtualization of the real. The “original” disappears from sight, having never been “real” in the first place, but rather only another textual fabrication. Suddenly, “the real” seems to have always already been virtual.
- Xena exposes the virtualization of the “real,” not as counterfeit nor as externally equivalent product, but as textile, as fabric, as textual event. As such, unweaving and reweaving cultural tropics becomes not only thinkable, but an event itself. The hyper-realism of the simulation and the virtualization of the real become interchangeable. The text of Xena exposes “real” or “authentic” culture as another fabrication. Xena’s work is subtle. Xena does not claim itself to be an authentic representation of “authentic” cultural texts. Nor does it attempt to “reproduce” cultural types in relevant contemporary fashion; i.e., it is not a hermeneutical enterprise. Xena re-structures the signs of classical culture to re-deploy the signification of these signs otherwise. Although East-West intersections are common, these no longer hold central place. Mythic themes are appropriated from far ranging, often un-connected texts of many diverse cultural trajectories. The are re-threaded into a new cultural fabric in the guise of a fantasy world. Yet, Xena is not simply a “fantasy” for the sake of imaginative consumption. The signs of the times in which Xena is produced are re-deployed under and within the re-(de)signed cultural tropics. Xena becomes a “voice” which speaks between the signs of the “present” and the “past,” and between the sign-posts of the cultural artifacts, and between the story-text and the narrative framework of the reader/watcher. Moreover, the simulated fabric of Xena exposes something else: that the reader/watcher is part of the textual process; the reader/watcher is not outside the text. Not only is the world virtual, but the subject is shown to be inseparable from the virtual.
- Putting aside the virtualization of “the real” for a moment, what all of the heretofore mentioned readings of culture have in common is a consistent objectification of the artifacts of culture, or, in Fiedler’s case, a three-fold objectification: namely, the cultural medium, the contexts of cultural production and the subjective consumers of popular culture. De Certeau offers what one might call a corrective to this problem by exploring the relation between the text and the reader. He rejects the notion of reading as a passive exercise of receiving what the text or the media or culture “gives” or produces. Although the reader does not take “the position of the author nor an author’s position,” the reader “invents in the text something different” than what the text itself intends. The reader actively creates and shapes the space organized by the combination of the constraints established by the text and the reader’s capacity for indefinite plurality of meanings. This extension of the simulacrum in the act of reading, which is clearly not limited to textual production or performance alone, complicates the process of critical reflection even further.
- Still, this notion that neither texts nor readers are merely passive objects or subjects is not new. J. L. Austin’s classic work How to Do Things with Words (1962) has made remarkable progress in understanding the relation between reader and text--or even speaker and hearer--particularly in terms of the forces at play in this relationship. His careful attention to the details of how the “acts” of the text or words affect the meaning received both within the textual narrative (or performance), and between the text and the reader, help to articulate the performative force of words, whether spoken or written. Seymour Chatman, in Story and Discourse:Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978), likewise, makes useful distinctions between story and discourse, again articulating a dimension of the text’s power over the reader and opening up a theoretical space for more nuanced critical observations. This space of critical reflection upon the relationship between text and reader has led to a sizeable following of what is often called “reception theory” or “reader-response criticism.”
- Alongside these developments, however, has been a nagging philosophical anxiety that the relation between the text and the reader is not so neatly parsed. Jacques Derrida has repeatedly raised the question of the non-arrival of the message. This non-arrival recognizes that not only is there a continuity in the relation between text and reader but a discontinuity as well. Wolfgang Iser, in his work The Act of Reading, suggests that in every encounter with a text the reader finds gaps which must be filled. De Certeau says as much when he refers to the “reservoir of forms to which the reader must give a meaning,” but this “giving” falls short of both the text and the hermeneutical poeisis. To put it another way, the received text is always somewhere between the text and the “reader.”
- It is precisely this virtual or “between” aspect which Xena’s complex textual reconstructions expose so well. Xena is a performative between--a between that is multi-layered at the very least--that becomes another between in the very experience of Xena, a between between, a virtualization of virtuality which does not merely subvert “the real” but opens upon a strange--or brave--new world. It is a world which is itself un-real, but opens up possibilities for a remaking of the self and the world. Still, this between is always slipping away, never quite graspable, always just beyond reach. It is this “always just beyond reach,” which Mark C. Taylor describes as religion:
Religion is about a certain about. What religion is about, however, remains obscure for it is never quite there--nor is it exactly not there. Religion is about what is always slipping away. It is, therefore, impossible to grasp what religion is about--unless, perhaps, what we grasp is the impossibility of grasping. . . . This strange slipping away is no mere disappearance but a withdrawal that allows appearances to appear.
- Xena, in other words, becomes a religious performative, an acting out of that which cannot be grasped, that which is never directly exposed, but is always slipping away. And what appears is the text as an appearance, an apparent-ness that is always virtual, never the “real” text.
- Before we go further, I would like to return to an earlier problem which I raised, namely that of the objectification of both text and reader. It is when the text and/or it’s “meaning” is objectified that the between entirely disappears and power-discourse becomes the dominant framework. One might say that the problematic which remains when one objectifies the text and reader, and simultaneously allows for the “free” reconfiguration of cultural tropes, is that culture becomes a site for interpretation, for critical reflection, for talk about what is normal and abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable. In other words, culture, having been objectified, becomes a site for the ethical, but only in terms of the observation and/or management of conflict. This obsession with governmentality, Foucault might say, reveals a double movement of a tendency toward centralization--or even homogenization--on the one hand, and dispersion or dissidence on the other, not only in culture itself, but even in the appropriation of culture for study.
- Yet, what undermines this legitimate exercise of critical reflection is that the apparent arbitrariness of textual reconfiguration, let’s say in a text like Xena, suggests that even critical discourse may be arbitrarily configured, especially when such a text is appropriated for critical analysis. What seems most important, in my opinion, is that the apparent arbitrariness of this reconfiguration expresses a vulnerability in language itself. It reveals the risk and the possibility of reducing language and the materials of culture to mere means. In other words, the risk which Xena exposes--at least when the text is objectified--makes culture not only the site of conflict but a weapon to be used against itself. Media technologies become tools for the subjugation of the particularities of culture, and only power becomes a limiting condition for the advancement of particular cultural paradigms.
- It should be emphasized that the vulnerability of culture to the violence of forced retextualization does not exist only as imaginative artistic self-construction. It is vulnerable whenever the artifacts of culture (virtual or not) are appropriated objectively, even for study. Jude Davies, in an article on punk rock and postmodern theory, recently noted that “a fundamental problem in academic study of popular culture [is] that the projects of understanding and explanation are . . . carried out in discourses of mastery.” Davies argues that because culture, popular or otherwise, is deemed by the academy as being “in need of and susceptible to explanation,” the academy attempts to preserve its authority as a legitimate critical judge of cultural texts and their “meaning,” and it does so through critical explanatory methods which Davies considers are another attempt at domination. In addition, Davies argues that the bias of the academy, which sees culture in terms of conflict, or in terms of ritual or symbolic forms of resistance, predetermines the framework of academic readings of culture. Moreover, this bias is embedded in a claim to power and the right to “explain” from the very beginning. As a corrective, Davies recommends paying “particular attention to the subject positions taken up and rejected” in the conversation between the text and reader, or in his case between the punk music culture and the person who participates in the culture.
- The line of reasoning so far has been to expose the risks which the academy takes upon itself in the objectification of popular culture as texts to be critically read. Recent trends in literary, biblical and cultural studies circles have taken seriously the notion that one never encounters an absolute “text”, but instead one participates in a larger textual conversation in every semiological context. Mark C. Taylor argues in Hiding that the objective text--in his words “the body”--is no longer a viable concept. He writes of the disappearance of the body as “body,” finding ourselves only leaving traces in the wake of our passing in the world. He attempts to replace an objective view of the world with one which is characterized by a complex network of non-hierarchical, distributive, associative co-relations. It is here, precisely at this point, that Taylor, Foucault and de Certeau agree, not in Taylor’s solution to the problem, but in the assessment. In Foucault’s words, “One governs things.” Objectification of the text or the subject is a movement toward domination, an exercise of power over the other.
- It is precisely in the objectifying kind of approach to the study of pop culture texts like Xena, that we see the problem we face. Xena dismantles cultural texts, mixes them and reconstructs them into a new textual vision. When we view this artistic creation--in essence, when we view Xena as artifact--we see a creative attempt to express plurality, tolerance, new social configurations, and powerfully encouraging new ways of looking at the self. But in the moment of objectification, the text-as-object weaves its spell on the critic as well as the reader. The radical heterogeneity expressed by the “text” of Xena becomes a powerful, homogenizing force, imposing itself upon the reader, thus subverting its own heterogeneity. The reader gets drawn into an economy regulated by forces of power in which the reader either identifies (the fan) or simply absorbs (the mere normative force) or rejects (resistance). But this view ignores the complex disseminative quality of every textual experience, a quality which Mark Taylor considers a movement of the religious itself. Neither the reader, nor the producers of the text, nor the text itself, nor the critical observer exist outside the fluid relations of the larger contextual fabric of world and sign-relations. Objectification, in other words, takes the simulated “world” of Xena, constructed out of a playful poaching of cultural texts, and in turn virtualizes the world by imaginatively recreating our concepts of the world. This subversion of the world, does not in turn effect a heterogeneity in the world, but actually pushes out of view existing particularities which are already heterogeneous, and forces the imaginative possibilities of Xena’s world upon the world of the reader, thereby supplanting it. The “real” world of the reader and the critic, thus, becomes subsumed under the virtual world of Xena’s text, a textual world which does not exist as such.
- How do we, then, avoid the dangers of critical appropriation of popular culture? Recently, Regina M. Schwartz has argued that focusing on the meaning of texts (i.e. on texts as objects) actually breeds violence. She argues that paying attention to the nuances of the conversation helps us to identify ruptures in the conversation which provide spaces both for self-transformation and for an openness to transcendence. Texts, she argues, are performative gestures calling us into conversation. It is only when we see them in terms of content or dogma that we risk the violence of governmental rule or normalizing force. She calls us to enter the play of the conversation, performing the religious exercise of conversing with the other.
- Although I doubt that substituting conversation as an object in place of the objectification of the text will help much, the point is that texts exist in a complex web of relations which are not merely static points of a power discourse, but rather, they are movements or gestures in a web of conversations, sometimes conflicting and diverging, sometimes drawing together into a sense of connection or identity. Still, we must admit that such movements are aspects of power as well. Indeed, we must take seriously the possibility that a single textual perspective, let’s say Xena, can level the conversation or dominate the discussion in such a way that certain particularities or voices become silenced in the process. Indeed, it is this silencing of certain voices which have rightfully been the concern of the academy for some time. However, even a well-meaning discourse which exposes the silencing of certain voices risks becoming another form of domination. It may only substitute previously silenced voices for the once dominant ones.
- In conclusion, I would like to make one brief comment and end with a moral taken from Henry James’ "The Figure in the Carpet.” First, I would like to suggest that we take seriously the risks of reading into consideration when we critically approach popular culture texts, and that we not forget that projects of self-reconfiguration like that of Xena expose a slippery between that provides us with opportunities for new reflection. I think that if we do so, we may leave open the possibility that genuine, uncoerced self-transformation is possible in any number of contexts, including popular culture. Indeed, I think this openness to that which cannot be grasped objectively is of significant religious importance, and may “open” us up, as Regina Schwartz suggests, to the possibility of transcendence. At the very least, it may leave us open to a justice which resists objectifying the other in our midst.
- Finally, I’d like to take a reading of Henry James from a biblical-literary critic named Robert M. Fowler:
The first-person narrator of Henry James’s short story “The Figure in the Carpet” is a critic who takes as a professional challenge the discovery of the hidden meaning that he feels necessarily must lie at the heart of the latest novel of the writer Vereker. The critic publishes a review of [the] novel in which he is confident he has solved the puzzle . . . and has laid bare its hidden meaning. [But the novelist rejects the critic’s solution.] The critic redoubles his efforts to uncover the hidden meaning of the novel. [He refuses to give up even after the novelist, the novelist’s wife and their closest friend all die]. The story ends with the secret still undiscovered by the narrator and therefore never made known to the [reader] either. In the end we are as much in the dark as the narrator of the story.
- Fowler argues that the “more intently the ‘figure in the carpet’ is sought, the more elusive it becomes.” He writes:
Our critic-narrator wants to find a meaning clearly delineated in the lines of the printed text, but the closer he looks, the more blanks and opacities he finds. . . . [Sadly,] He never discovers blanks and opacities as invitations to make his own contribution to the text. He is blind to the clues that point to the possibility that ‘the figure’ is to be found, not in the text, but perhaps in the encounter with the text, or maybe even in love, in art, or simply life itself.
- In this light, Xena is not a text to be interpreted, but is much like a partner drawing us into a reconfigured world of possibilities. Exploring the worlds which Xena transforms, changes the way experience of the world unfolds. Indeed, to view through Xena’s text the “worlds” or texts upon which Xena draws is to see “the” world differently, to see otherwise. In the face of such differentiation, or such radical fabrication, the real no longer maintains its value. As a result, to treat “the text” as a site for cultural archaeology--what the producers mean to say or how the culture of the time is expressed in certain themes--ceases to be a viable way of reading. Texts like Xena, instead, introduce trans/formations which change the shape of the cultural and critical landscape. They shift the play of signifiers to reconfigure relations between signs. This changing landscape opens up fruitful possibilities for some aspects of culture and closes off other avenues. As the difference between the real and the virtual collapses into textual event, it is not the “figure in the carpet” which is discovered. It is the differential signifying space of the between which exposes the movement between a complex of textual threads and radically transformed signifiers. These movements between signs, then, become significant for critical reflection, for the critics find themselves in between as well.
David A. Adcock is working on his doctorate in philosophy of religion at Rice. He earned his M.Div.BL from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas and his B.A. from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He also studied briefly at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Adcock is currently editing a series of interviews with American philosophers of religion. His interests include postmodern religious thought, ethics, and religion in culture and film.
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