We are all aware of power from our earliest moments that we are subject to multiple sources of power. Even before we have the word power at our disposal, even when we are among the population of speechless infants (and even when we once more join the legion of the speechless as we approach the embrace of death) we know that power buffets us. Judith Butler has considered the nature of power more deeply than most scholars, perhaps because as a scholar focused on the topic of gender she is constantly examining the ways in which force in its many forms enters every conversation, verbal or not. This essay uses one of Butler's essays to explore the dynamics of power, force, and identity as they are played out in the movie Wendy and Lucy and the ways in which power is and is not the same as violence.
Following Butler's model (although surely unintentionally), the movie creates a series of images and circumstances in which a character becomes trapped by opposing vectors of power. And, as Butler argues, the result of this kind of entrapment is that the character loses both her own sense of control over her life and fate and abandons in important ways a dedicated quest for a truer understanding of self. This leads in turn to ways in which such losses (of a sense of control, of any hope of being able to define oneself as a unique entity) lead one to a state of mourning.
The movie is a quintessentially one, although other versions of this tale appear in all narrative traditions. The story focuses on a young woman named Wendy who decides (as so many young people do) to find herself, in part because she feels herself trapped in her world. The path she takes, or attempts to take to lead her to freedom is one that marks this as an American story of power and freedom and loss is that her heart and her feet take her westward, west to Alaska since the continental frontier that ended at California's Pacific Coast no longer called the young to "Go West" to the gold fields.
The movie focuses on Wendy Carroll. With this given name it is hard not to wonder if the movie's director and the writer of the short story on which it was based are asking us to consider the Wendy of Peter Pan, a girl who learns to grow up because she falls in love with a living symbol of what it is like never to grow up. She desperately wants to make a new life for herself and does not see how this could possibly come about without finding a new place to live, hence her desire to go to Alaska. The chariot that she proposes to ride to this new world is an old car and a few ordinary domestic possessions and an amount of money gravely inadequate for the journey.
Her success at this journey becomes even more improbable when her car breaks down in Oregon, forcing her to abandon it. She takes to stealing to survive and when the police release her after she is caught shoplifting she finds the Lucy, her beloved and only companion and protector, has disappeared. The majority of the movie follows Wendy as she tries to find her dog and fix her car and resume their trip to Alaska, where she is sure that she will find work in a fish cleaning plant and stop her wildly spinning ride into poverty. The whole movie is an extended riff on a woman desperately trying to hang onto the very bottom rungs of a ladder.
Butler argues that we (all of us, and certainly including Wendy) tend to view power as something that comes from the outside, that presses on us and that oppresses us. Something that we fight back against without truly becoming a part of it, or its becoming a part of us. We engage in power struggles, Butler writes, while remaining in some important ways "pure" (although this is neither the language nor the system of imagery and metaphor that she uses). We humans, she writes, may think that we can engage in power struggles with the rest of the people in the world without getting our own hands or psyches dirtied, but this is in fact not the case.
Butler takes up the topic of how we as individuals are opaque to ourselves in a number of her essays (although perhaps most eloquently in Giving an Account of Oneself). She believes that in general none of us has a clear sense of who we are, and even the most insightful of individuals lack the ability to see very deeply into our own selves. We can only understand our true natures (to the extent that we are able to do so at all) by joining ourselves to the world. Using the language-based metaphors that run as a common thread through philosophy over the last three generations, Butler describes the process of acquiring self-insight as one of having to join in the we of the world and of society in order to be able to understand from that context what the I means.
Wendy is an essentially isolated character, which is why the loss of Lucy is so terrible for her: Lucy is all of the social world and thus represents to Wendy (although Wendy herself is probably unaware of this fact) the only chance that Wendy has to understand herself and her life and what it all means: Lucy and Wendy are the we from which Wendy must determine her I. Moreover, a collective experience (in this case the one that Wendy and Lucy share) is the only way in which Wendy can acquire a sense of being a moral agent in the world.
Butler insists that the only context in which Wendy can learn to know herself and, Butler would also insist, learn to understand what are her responsibilities as an individual is by continuing entering into relationships that will provide her with opportunities to understand the ways in which power pushes both ways. Power pushes in from the outside and it pushes hardest against those who are the most powerless in society. (Indeed, this could well serve as a definition of powerlessness, with apologies for the circularity.)
Wendy is relatively powerless because she is young and a woman and poor. In the context of the current historical moment (which is also, of course, the historical moment of the making and setting of the film), the fact that she is poor is the most important in sense of understanding what it is like to have so few options. The safety net that exists for her is badly torn, the safety net that has been shredded and continues to be shredded by the 1% is the most obvious aspect of her interaction with the external world. But Butler reminds us to look always for something that we cannot easily (or even ever) see: For every force there is an opposing force meeting it.
This is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. When a ball hits the earth, for example, it bounces back up because the earth pushes against it. But -- and this is as true and it can be hard to believe -- the ball also pushes the earth away. We see the one and not the other, of course, because the ball moves farther than the earth and the earth moves so little that we cannot sense it with or human eyes and ears alone. But to be truly aware of what is happening in the world we must always be attentive to the fact that powerful forces are pushing back against everything, even when we do not see them.
If we bear this thermodynamic principle in mind, add to it Butler's model of a social and ethical world that can be understood only in the context of contending forces, and the characters of Wendy and Lucy, we come to an understanding of the larger constellation of power, ethics, and self-identity that the movie allows us to see. Wendy is being pushed down by society with such force that even she cannot believe that she has the power to push back.
She seems at various points of the movie to be drowning, a woman who has already gone under the water for the last time and knows that she is not coming back up into the air again and is simply at the point when she is still holding her breath for the last time before the water rushes into her lungs, reversing the initial point of life when a fetus emerges into an air-breathing baby. Therefore part of what she learns in the course of the movie's narrative is that she has power in the same way in which the ball pushes the earth away, something that she…