Thursday, October 15, 2009

Using Misery to illuminate conflict theory

Last residency, I was chatting with Dr. Wendlend about dong a PhD program, and I complained that I would have to choose between Conflict Resolution (in which I have an MA and teach) and Literature/Writing. And how I hated to throw away everything I'd learned/studied about conflict res in order to get a PhD in literature. His response (in a voice only Al can do): "Well duh, put them together!"

However, I don't have the slightest idea how to actually going about doing that. But what is a novel if not a written interpretation of a conflict? Characters must be in conflict, or else there is no story. As one of the prompts for our term paper is to "Discuss how psychological horror fiction illuminates or critiques a specific field of science or art," I thought I'd make a first, short attempt here, flush the ideas out for the term paper, and see if there is any possibility of me stumbling upon something that might head me toward a dissertation.

Conflicts escalate in two ways: scope and severity (there is tons of research on conflict escalation, but this is the base level of escalation theory). As a conflict escalates, it requires more people are involved (scope) and participants intensify their actions (from yelling to name-calling to punching; or from diplomacy to threats to war). The audience is important here, because the audience is always pulled in, and always forced to pick sides (in high-intensity conflicts, such as ethnic cleansing or genocide, the moderates who refuse to pick a side are always executed first. Similarly, the friend who refuses to take my side when I whine about my husband is the one I ignore :).

The point here is that it is almost impossible for the audience to stay neutral in the face of a conflict, and as the conflict escalates and becomes more polarized, neutrality becomes even more difficult (again, there is tons of theory and literature on neutrality in conflict, but I'm staying simplistic here). In the average literature, the audience is the reader. We pick sides. We choose who to root for. We want a specific outcome for the in-group (our group, the character we identify ourselves with, primarily, the protagonist(s)) and for the out-group (the "others" the "them" in us vs. them, or primarily, the antagonist(s)). This is why, in series with love triangles, the two groups can become rabid against each other (I have seen literal cat-fights erupt in book-signing lines over who Stephanie Plum should marry in the Janet Evanovich series). But in normal literature, there's not a lot of room for escalation. We as readers can't take action to influence the conflict outcome.

In Misery, King flips this on its head. He puts the audience directly in the conflict, instead only peripherally. Instead of the audience identifying with the protagonist, the audience becomes the antagonist. The protagonist (in-group) is the writer himself, and the antagonist (out-group) is the readers/Annie. Rather than the audience just demanding a particular outcome in letters and thoughts and such, Sheldon's audience has literally taken him hostage and demanded a specific outcome, complete with threats and punishment for failure.

There's all sorts of room for escalation now, and boy does it escalate fast. With escalation comes both polarization and dehumanization.

Annie's a psycho, no doubt about it. She's killed hundreds of people, seemingly without conscience. But here's the really interesting contribution conflict theory can provide. She didn't need to be a psycho. Misery is conflict at its height,
when one side (Annie/readers) have completely dehumanized the other side (Paul Sheldon/writers). Conflicts escalate through a prescribed set of steps, and as escalation and polarization increase, trust and communication diminish, enemy images set in, more and more violent tactics are used, and finally, the enemy is fully dehumanized. Once dehumanization occurs, any level of atrocities are possible.

Any society or group, given the right set of circumstances, leaders, enemies, and resource shortages, can dehumanize an enemy. In Rwanda, is wasn't psychos like Annie going around chopping up Tutsi villagers, it was every day, "normal" Hutu citizens. In Nazi Germany, it was average citizens running concentration camps.

King's fears (presented vicariously through Sheldon) were justified fears. Once the conflict (between Sheldon and his readers) had escalated enough for the enemy
(i.e. Annie and readers) to dehumanize Shelden , anything was possible. Was it scary because she was clearly a psychopath? Sure. Did she have to be a psychopath? Not really. Makes me wonder which would have been even more terrifying.

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