Day 24. I’m not Sir Philip Bleeding Sidney

The Duck-Rabbit made a very exciting discovery this week. After searching fruitlessly, as you’ll recall, a few posts back, for a clip of a British bobby saying, “’ello ‘ello, what’s goin’ on ‘ere?” it accidentally this week came across such a clip. Here’s the link, which should take you precisely to the moment when he’s about to utter the immortal words. Now don’t get reeled in. Just watch him say the words and then come straight back.

All right. Did you watch it? Yes? But only that part? Just like I instructed, right?

Well, then, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, “but, duck-rabbit, that man’s no bobby! That man looks like Sir Philip Sidney!” Well-observed, gentle reader, well-observed. He does look like Sir Philip Sidney, but in fact he’s Superintendent Gaskell. [1] He’s been playing the role of “Sir Phillip Sidney” ever since his botched raid on a porn shop. [2] He rushed out in hot pursuit of the porn-peddlers, only to find himself, as you do, in the sixteenth century, where he is addressed as Sir Phillip Sidney, most reverently, by everyone he encounters. At first he insists, indignantly, that he is not Sidney, he is Superintendent Gaskell. But then, observing the high regard in which everyone, most especially the ladies, seem to hold this Sidney fellow, he decides he might as well play along. Gaskell-Sidney fills Sir Phillip’s shoes quite adeptly: he charms the ladies; he entertains his guests with witty anecdotes; he confidently mounts his steed and gallops off eagerly to defend the Netherlands from the invading Spaniards. He duels. He makes a perfectly adequate Sidney.

I stumbled upon this sketch while doing, ahem, research for my lecture on The Defence of Poesy. And it got me thinking: the character of Sir Phillip Sidney in this sketch embodies the very quality that the real Philip Sidney attributes to fictional characters in the Defence. In the Defence, Sidney argues that the poet’s skill exceeds nature’s, because while nature can only produce one of a kind, the poet who creates a fictional character spawns legions by dint of the fact that so many will be moved to imitate that character. In Sidney’s own words, referring to Xenophon’s depiction of Cyrus the Great, the poet bestows “a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses.”

Likewise, the—well, just who is the agent, here?—the culcha, let’s say, bestows a Sir Philip Sidney upon the world to make many Sidneys … until, that is, “Sir Phillip Sidney” discovers the Spaniards have a boat-load of dirty books, which is precisely when Superintendent Gaskell re-asserts himself with the “’ello, ’ello” you just witnessed. Gaskell’s still there, it turns out, underneath. Or, maybe it’s not Gaskell exactly, but that there is a new person, Gaskell-Sidney, who possesses some qualities of both. This is what the philosopher Peter Goldie would call an “in his shoes” situation. [3] It’s still Gaskell, but he’s in Sir Phillip’s shoes (not to mention his suit, which is fair and goodly cut, as Eric Idle’s porn-shop-proprietor observes). It turns out that you can take the bloke out of the Vice Squad, but you can’t take the Vice Squad out of the bloke.

If fiction is a kind of cloning, as Sydney’s Cyrus-begetting-Cyruses language suggests, it follows that a narrative concerned with the cloning or replication of humans inevitably reflects on the medium that conveys the story. This is an observation that one of my esteemed colleagues (he is also, as it happens, one of this blog’s readers!) makes in an essay about the 1982 film Blade Runner. He notes that the replicants in Blade Runner

are very much like film itself. In experiencing a narrative film we enjoy, we do not experience that film simply as a material object, but as something that contains a subject, or a series of subjects, with whom we identify and relate. If we do not actually interact with them, we may have an experience nearly indistinguishable (for those in its grips) from an interaction. It may be pleasurable or not, but it may even be more intense than our daily interactions with other people. [4]

Joshua hypothesizes that films encourage the viewer’s habituation to having an emotional response to a representation that is not reciprocated: “Our relation to a representation has the potential to dehumanize us insofar as it deprives us of the mutuality of experience that is the token of real social intimacy and real political bonds” (15). He concludes that—and here’s where it gets polemical—“Perhaps the best films teach us not to want them either” (16). He tells me that in his new book (titled, fantastically, Letter to M. Cavell About Cinema to echo Rousseau’s Letter to M. D’Alembert About Theatre), he is in fact going to argue that we should all stop going to see movies; or, at the very least, we should not kid ourselves that narrative art hones our empathetic abilities.

Ooh, don’t you love a good polemic? I do.

Honestly? I really have no idea whether narrative art hones, dulls, or has no discernible impact upon our empathetic abilities. I’ve read studies by psychologists that purport to show that reading literary fiction improves one’s ability to read other people’s mental states based on their facial expressions. [5] I have no idea if this is true. In some ways, it seems counterintuitive that exposure to simulations of people would make you better at making predictions about real people. Except that, as Joshua points out, summarizing a treatment of Blade-Runner that follows Wittgenstein and Cavell, in real life, “we never achieve certainty about other minds.” We don’t, that is, have a version of the “Voight-Kampff” test, which is used in Blade-Runner to determine whether a subject is replicant or human. Rather, as Joshua puts it, paraphrasing Andrew Norris’s argument, “we recognize the suffering and autonomy of other beings as we recognize it in ourselves. To deny it via a demand for certainty is itself a moment of inhumanity” (7).

Given that we lack any verification of the existence of other minds, mightn’t entertaining fictions, rather than dehumanizing us, alternatively help us to appreciate that just as we can see events from a fictional character’s point of view even as we know that there is no mind there, so too we can imagine events from a real person’s point of view even as we can never really know what it is to be them? [6] For that matter, we can’t give a good answer to the question of what it’s really like to be ourselves, can we? [7] Sure, Superintendant Gaskell is play-acting at being “Sir Phillip Sidney” but wasn’t the real Sir Philip Sidney likewise just playing at being Sir Philip Sidney? [8] “How can it not know what it is?” Harrison Ford’s Deckard asks of Rachael, the replicant with whom he will fall in love. The irony is not only that Deckard (in one reading) does not know what he is, but that none of us do, even in a world without androids.

I am not here staking the value of narrative art on its ability to cultivate empathy. I mean, when I make a big pitch to students about the value of studying literature, my point is not that studying literature makes you a better person, but that it makes you a better reader. I think Joshua’s argument points to ways in which the effort to justify the humanities by pointing to art’s supposed efficacy at improving us may be misguided.

I’m skeptical of arguments that locate literature’s value in a kind of cognitive or ethical calisthenics. Because, uh, what if the tests start coming in with different results? Surely, it’s only matter of time? Here I can’t but help think of the parody of changing dietary advice in Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi caper Sleeper. The scientists in the future are incredulous when 20th-century Miles asks for wheat germ for breakfast, and one scientist explains to another that in the olden days they had confused ideas about what was healthy. What, says the other scientist, was there “no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?” No, “those were thought to be unhealthy,” explains the first; “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.” In a post-Atkins, paleo-diet-obsessed America, that joke isn’t even funny any more, which is precisely the point!

My point is that if it can happen to steak, it can happen to Jane Austen. If we put too much stock in studies that purport to prove that literature is a kind of intellectual wheatgerm, what are we going to do when the tests start showing that reading Pride and Prejudice doesn’t make you smarter and more empathetic, it makes you more stupid and inconsiderate? Then we’ll be fucked.

So, I’m not going to advance any grand claims for narrative art’s self-improving qualities here, except to say that reading fiction teaches you about fiction and watching films teaches you about film and watching television teaches you about television, and that all of these activities are rewarding and of value in themselves. Take the Canadian television show about clones, Orphan Black, which, if Blade Runner is a film about films, is a television show about television shows. Part of the show’s mystery concerns the identity of the original clone: who is the Cyrus who brought forth the many Cyruses? Although the clones are all written from the same DNA script, they clearly, as a friend (Gazza!) who watches the show observed to me recently, all belong to different television genres: for example, Beth (R.I.P.) was straight out of a Law & Order style police procedural; Alison lives in a Twin Peaks/Desperate Housewives murder-in-the-suburbs dark comedy; Cosima belongs in a CSI forensic show featuring a female scientist in a lab coat whose smarts are established by her glasses and fast-paced speech.

I’m thinking of being Sarah Manning (the, er, main clone on the show) for Halloween. I mean, I already have the name and the slightly dodgy sounding London accent. I might as well, you know? Obviously, my costume would be enhanced by the presence of my other clone-sisters. In a twist of fate it so happens that this October the 31st I’m attending a seminar on “post-critical interpretation.” I ask you, what other group of people anywhere in the world are more likely to be up for a Halloween clone-fest than a bunch of academics getting together for a seminar on post-critical interpretation? No other group, is the answer. I have the email addresses of the other participants. Do you think I should notify them ahead of time which clone they’ve been assigned? Or should it be a surprise?


[1] Well, obviously, he’s actually Michael Palin, but now we’re splitting hares and, as I’m sure you’re aware, hares are terribly fussy about that; they get positively apoplectic about us freakish duck-rabbit types meddling with proper full-bred hares. There goes my vision of breeding a nice hare-tortoise (not too fast, not too slow: just right) to keep me company.

[2] His first name is (mis)spelled with a double “l” on the caption that reads, “The Life of Sir Phillip Sidney” that appears as the sketch gets underway.

[3] See Peter Goldie, The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 2000: chap. 7.

[4] Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Blade Runner’s Humanism: Cinema and Representation,” Contemporary Political Theory, published online May 2014 (, print forthcoming 2015. 1-19. 9.

[5] One that got a lot of attention in the mainstream press was by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano: “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342. 6156 (2013): 377–80). See also Kuiken et al, “Locating Self-Modifying Feelings Within Literary Reading,” which is explicitly concerned with investigating and attesting to the existence of circumstances in which “literary reading adds intricacy to reflection on the forms of life in which the reader participates” (282).

[6] Goldie distinguishes between what he calls “in his shoes” thinking, in which the thinker retains aspects of his or her own point of view, and empathy, which he defines as seeing a narrative from another’s point of view. See Emotions, chap. 7.

[7] I don’t know if I really believe this, though, because I can bloody well tell you what it’s like to be in the duck-rabbit’s shoes: my feet are killing me. I blame a combination of lecturing, over-enthusiastic relevé-ing in barre class, running, aging, and my beloved grey ankle boots with the really-not-high-but-I-suppose-not-as-sensible-as-they-could-be heels. Can I coin a new cogito? “My feet hurt therefore I am”?

[8] C.f. Hume’s Treatise Book I, Part IV, section VI, “Of Personal Identity.” (“The mind is a kind of theatre,” etc. etc. )


3 thoughts on “Day 24. I’m not Sir Philip Bleeding Sidney

  1. Alex says:

    Love this post–and so good to have a bit of the imagined community of Duck-Rabbit readers fleshed out a bit (hi Joshua!). I’ve often found the sort of instrumentalized view of literature you see in Martha Nussbaum and other good empathic humanists so odd for many of these reasons, but before now I haven’t been able to quite articulate what I find so unappealing about this sort of reflexive defense of the humanities. Empathy via Austen may indeed prove to be embarrassingly short-sighted in the long run. Just as troubling though is that the narratives-make-us-empathic view is so oddly blind to the fact that much of what makes up literature historically is not in fact narrative (from which, I’d say, 99.9% of their examples are drawn), but poetic or lyrical or at any rate, not representing another person’s reasons for behaving the way they do in time. Now of course, one can make a claim that the lyrical “I” is precisely calibrated to evoke empathy in its reader–a claim that I think would be harder to substantiate than it seems at first blush, because, you know…irony–but even bracketing this quibble, we’re still left with a host of other poetic modalities and speech acts through which poetry works at cross-purposes to empathy and belonging. Another reason that I find myself resonating with this post is that there’s something refreshing (and, dare I say, Wittgensteinian) in the insight that studying literature is important because it makes you a better reader and that that is itself a good because we take pleasure in these sorts of cultural activities. That this is refreshing speaks to the subtext of these debates: an obsessive concern with monetizing academic labor or otherwise proving the value of work in the humanities in an era of advanced capitalism. If that’s the concern, I don’t know why we don’t plant our flag on that pleasure and argue from there. It may be that the difficulty in monetizing the degree is proof that we’re onto something.

  2. I pressed the “Like” button. But then I wanted to press it again. And again. So:
    Like! Like! Like!
    That is all.
    Except, also: I really hope that you were wearing your Wittgenstein T-shirt when you wrote this comment.

  3. Paul K. Anonymous says:

    “Ooh, don’t you love a good polemic?” Ooh, Yes, if it’s indeed GOOD. That’s the key word. Most polemic now, as Rabbit-Duck and its acute acolyte Alex point out, is BAD as people scramble to justify academic funding on grounds that study of the humanities will transform absolutely anybody into a paragon of empathy and social utility right up there with business school grads, psychologists, and engineers. 18 c didacticism lives! (according to such polemics). With wonderful and rare lucidity, Rabbit-Duck clears away these cobwebs by asserting in its polemic that “reading fiction teaches you about fiction and watching films teaches you about film, and watching television teaches you about television, and that all of these activities are rewarding and of value themselves.” Necessary even though Shocking to say this in our resume-haunted era, maybe even more than when essentially the same point, though with more general emphasis on art, was made in an interview with my old Pal Vladimir, printed in the January, 1964 issue of PLAYBOY (I only read it for the interviews). When Vlad (OK,OK, he’d cringe at my familiarity, but he can’t complain now, RIP, and continues to be a real buddy) was asked whether art (i.e., literature) makes any contribution to society, he replied:
    A work of art has no importance whatsoever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me. I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care for the slogan ‘Art for Art’s Sake’—because unfortunately such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and various dainty ;poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists—there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art. (V,N., STRONG OPINIONS (1973; rpt Vintage International, 1990)
    Now I have two good polemics to love.

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