ext_841: (eliot)
[identity profile] cathexys.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] the_comfy_chair
I've been very interested in the general response to [livejournal.com profile] synecdochic's Freedom, and I wanted to collect my thoughts and hopefully hear some different/opposing interpretations. Some of these ideas are influenced by the comments I read (esp. the author's interchange with [livejournal.com profile] luthien and [livejournal.com profile] cesperanza), some are from comments [livejournal.com profile] synecdochic made directly. I have decided to focus on two (among the myriad of things) that interested me in the story, and I hope it's OK to post them together.

trauma as structural conceit
Many fan stories employ a particular narrative conceit in that they work around a secret, a traumatic memory or loss, which, through the course of the story, gets revealed to the reader. It's an almost mystery-like approach, and, when done well, can be very successful in keeping our suspense and making us decipher the clues along the way. Sometimes, the characters themselves are not aware of the horrific secret (i.e., they have repressed the memory of their childhood abuse, for example, or the horrible things they did while on drugs [[livejournal.com profile] wickedwords's recent story Locusts and Wild Honey would be an example of that] and thus the readers and protagonist share a position of ignorance; sometimes the reader knows more than the characters (I can only think of watching Mysterious Skin last week, but I'm sure there are plenty of fannish examples); other times, the characters know, but the reader is kept in the dark (and somehow I think death stories are the typical example here, where we are shown a loss but cannot figure out where a character is or what happened to him/her, until the story reveals the details; or abuse recovery stories, like [livejournal.com profile] mmmchelle's A Better Fate where confronting the trauma eventually allows us to learn what has been treated with silence before or [livejournal.com profile] auburnnothenna's Legion the Things where the narrative moves back and forth clearly suggesting the central trauma yet not revealing it to us, the reader, until later).

Part of this method of evasion, of circling the trauma without mentioning it is explained both by psychoanalysis and trauma theory. In fact, a lot of trauma studies emphasizes how narrative rarely ever is able to confront the traumatic memory directly but needs to circumscribe the events,sealing them off and approaching them asymptotically at the same time. At times, then, we are given glimpses of knowledge as clues, like in [livejournal.com profile] mmmchelle's Looking Glass, where the first lines put us in Rodney's consciousness and experience, yet for the rest of the story we remain firmly in John's point of view, not knowing what Rodney experienced. We thus are put in the position of the trauma victim, with glimpses of memories and truths without being able to properly contextualize them.

Freedom is really not that kind of story. And yet it is. In fact, I'd argue that we're given two traumatic memories that mirror one another, are interdependent, and that the story offers us visible clues for one when, in fact, much of Rodney's reactions are about the other. The very first lines offer a clear suggestion that John may be dead, and while his name is never mentioned, thus providing the traumatic loss/lack around which the story seems to center, it is made almost certain to the reader that he is indeed dead, that Rodney wears his dogtags and commemorates him with so many of the touching rituals described throughout the story (and their physicality [the shooting, the workouts] stands in interesting juxtaposition to the academic and intellectual work to which Rodney has returned). Except that he hasn't returned to it. Clearly he can publish as we later learn in the story, but he chooses not to. He is hiding on a second rate campus, punishing himself for something that, to me, is the actual secret of the story.

It's not that John's loss isn't visible and permeates the story; it's that it isn't the secret the story centers around; it isn't the driving motivation to Rodney's behavior and the trauma from which he needs to be rescued/which he needs to confront. That trauma is his killing of Atlantis, his using his ability to intersect (like John) to kill someone he respects and is professionally bound to honor (like John in Rising). John thus doubles both for the Atlantis that died and Rodney who killed it, thus connecting the two traumatic events (which clearly are not too far apart temporally either, it seems). As such, I don't want to necessarily suggest that one is more or worse than the other, but that Rodney is dealing with the John portion of it in ways he isn't, at the beginning of the story, dealing with the Atlantis one.

Because it is his killing of Atlantis that remains the central narrative conceit, only to ultimately be fully revealed to us and confronted by the protagonist in his meeting with Zelenka. Before that, he hides his intellectual work, hides himself, punishes himself by not taking comfort in his Atlantis family as punishment for what he must see as a kind of betrayal of what bonds them together,i.e., their love for Atlantis (since they all call her she, after all). The narrative arc thus parallels Rodney's intellectual return, his ability to connect with his students and mentor them, and his ultimate ability to admit to Zelenka what he had done and ask for the forgiveness that isn't needed.

Atlantis is not more important to Rodney as much as it more guilt inducing, of course, but also less inevitable. The last lines (if read in earnest and not as Rodney's denial) where Rodney explains how he went into the relationship with John knowing that John very likely would not reach old age, clearly juxtapose with an Atlantis that survives and waited for thousands of years only for Rodney to destroy its potential for good. Since it is Atlantis that allowed him to finally connect with people and become part of a group (if not on the show all the way yet, most certainly in the extended years that are remembered here), it clearly had to be his connection to people he severs; if Atlantis is the apex of his intellectual curiosity and achievement, it had to be his publications he refused himself.

In fact, I first looked at the story as Rodney returning to the life he might have had/would have had without John. Hiding in the familiar environment of his youth, the clearly delineated lines of academia that somehow exist outside of a real world in their self-referentiality (which, of course, he realizes is an illusion, because the real world can and does intrude), seemed like he ended up living the loveless life he would have had. Except that he has John's memory and he doesn't have the intellectual satisfaction, i.e., his refuge is both more and less than it would have been: knowing and loving John adds the knowledge of love and trust and cameradry at the same time as it makes its absence all the harsher; knowing life outside of the ivory tower makes publishing less crucial at the same time as he begins to realize how central teaching is.

[And I'm just starting to think about this as I'm writing it, but as someone who constantly tries to decide whether she teaches to be able to publish or publishes to be able to teach, this story might have spoken to me in the way it did, because it does confront that dilemma. Whereas old Rodney would never have bothered with students except as a necessary evil, this Rodney has learned (and is (re)learning throughout the story) the importance of teaching, of sharing one's work for others to continue it. And, in turn, his students give him back the desire to publish.]

Not publishing is Rodney's intellectual retreat in a way that not emailing his friends is his emotional retreat. [And it is telling, i think, that the only thing he does publish is John's, an In Memoriam so to speak.] And to me both circle around Atlantis. So, to beat the already dead horse: while both John and Atlantis, doubling one another, are at the center of the narrative, I think for us readers one trauma is almost hiding the other in a weird moment of Deckerinnerung, of screen memory. And this doubling, this simultaneous presence/absence of John is what might give us such varied responses as to Rodney's state of mind. I started off thinking he was scared and shoring what little fragments he had left against the ruins of his memories. I read him as surviving because he had to, as living a life that might at one point have been enough but after loving and being loved couldn't ever be.

But the more I thought about it, I began to realize that this was a slightly melodramatic, a slashy reading where lovers are always already soulmates and only true love can fulfill our lives. As I thought more about Atlantis rather than John being at the center of Rodney's trauma, I started realizing that he was not in mourning for John as much as living with the lack of John [as both living and also with, i.e., he had already mourned him (maybe already before his actual death if the last lines are any indication) and was indeed living and more so than he would have had he never known John].


fannish tropes
Throughout the story, there were moments, sentences, scenes that broke my heart, little throwaway lines that told entire stories. One such line was John's shape behind Rodney helping him hold his gun, another were the dogtags. And then there was the musical instrument that Rodney played in secrecy and John's mathematical article and the hinted at John/Atlantis intersection as well as Rodney's almost getting lost in it. And suddenly I realized that these were all fannish tropes, moments in one or several other stories. Now, fanon is an evil word in the circles I travel, but I am very interested in what I instead call shared interpretations of a given interpretive community. In fact, I've done some work on the way fan stories are always not only intertextual with the source text and culture at large but also with the fantext (i.e., the collective intellectual and artistic creation of a fandom) itself.

At its worst, that means that fanon runs wild, nicknames and one stop characterization and plotting by numbers. At its best, it means an active engagement with fannish tropes, means taking a cliche and twisting it, repeating with a difference and making something entirely new and original out of it. After all, art is always about talking to the past; even outside of fanfic intertextuality is at the core of it, most especially in postmodernism, which I think has a lot in common with fanfiction. At its best, fanfic references the fannish debates and other fan stories and yet doesn't make us feel like we've seen this before or scream because we cannot see that particular scenario (however endearing it may have been at first) ever again.

Case in point: as a former mathematician and married to one, I have quite personal issues with math wizard John. I cringe at the conflation of idiot savantish number abilities with mathematical intuition and ability. And yet when presented in a good enough story with sufficient surrounding supporting characterization, I love me some math!John. Reading Freedom, I immediately flashed back to [livejournal.com profile] astolat's Time in a Bottle where I didn't so much as blink seeing John being taught higher math by Rodney. Likewise (and maybe because this was the story I instinctually plucked in) it didn't bother me in Freedom either. Maybe it was because every one of these references called up a story I really liked, that really worked for me. So [livejournal.com profile] synecdochic's work became hommage rather than fanon use, it evoked other stories, almost effortlessly including them into her narrative.

In so doing, it became canonical fanfic to the fantext as far as I'm concerned, consistent with a variety of stories, so that I could see her Rodney be the Rodney who rescues John from merging with Atlantis and be the Rodney who finds the organ and starts playing again and be the Rodney whom John gives his spare dogtags instead of a more visible symbol and be the Rodney who grows closer to John as they practice again and again until Rodney can hit every single time...and on the one hand, I can name very particular stories, but then there are often more than one (thus the trope :-) and as such it references them all simultaneously, I think.

Now, clearly the concept of the fantext is theoretical only, since we haven't all read the same stories and you may not have read even the ones I reference earlier on let alone the ones I'm thinking of just now. But just like there's mynon which is slightly different but usually overlaps a great deal with a given interpretive community's fanon, so, I think, we can think of a mytext, which overlaps with a give community's fantext. In fact, one may not even have read certain stories to have them make it into their mytext [OK, not word coinage at its best *g* Any better contenders?], because as others talk about it, we pick up certain ideas and interpretations and controversies.

One of the things Freedom does for me and does really well, is acknowledging the fantext, acknowledging that we have created hundreds and thousands of stories about John and Rodney and Atlantis. Freedom builds on these stories and relishes them, commemorates them even as they are mostly absent, because they reference a time of John and Rodney together. One of the biggest fanon offenders are writers who are so certain of their OTP that they don't give us any indication of how they got from snark (or even outright hatred in some pairings and fandoms) to soulmatey love. And the reason the writers have a difficult time not doing so, is that in their minds all this stuff has already been dealt with, i.e., in their interpretive shipper community, all these things are clearly already covered, because aren't their hundreds of stories that have done that? [livejournal.com profile] synecdochic quite consciously employs this method by referencing stories as collective memory for us: Rodney recalls John the same way she makes us recall other stories. Not to shorthand and skip the necessary steps but because this story is clearly not about *that*.

In fact, someone suggested to me yesterday that the story could be read as gen. I found that interesting and as I'm pondering my personal fantext (which is very John/Rodney heavy) and think of the stories I come up with, I could imagine a similar set of stories (maybe not the dogtags and, as [livejournal.com profile] monanotlisa reminds me, Rodney does mention his status as being widowed to a partner of 5 years) that are simply emphasizing their bond, that are about Rodney being part of a team and having a good friend...and that could be enough to change him in the ways we see in Freedom. In other words, maybe the way we read the story is very much dependent on what we fill in for those years in Atlantis. But then again, every story we read is ultimately affected by what we bring to the text, our reading of the source text, our knowledge of Hugh Latimer, as well as what other stories in the fandom we read and write, what discussions we've taken part in, and, of course, our own writing or those who write...not all of us do :-)

Date: 2006-03-14 02:56 am (UTC)
ext_1637: (Default)
From: [identity profile] wickedwords.livejournal.com
the slash tropes kind of require the story to be all about the John

Well, yes and no, in my mind. The slash trope requires that the sexual relationship be a central component of their lives. The way the story is structured, with the relationship in the past and showing how Rodney pieces his life together and moves on, it's...hmm. In the past? I know that sounds like a tautology, but that's more how it feels to me. The overwhelming grief happened in the past, off-screen, and he's creating a new life for himself, by himself; it's over and done.

the traces of the previous stories remain

Yes, and all of the conversations we've had too. *g*

Date: 2006-03-14 03:34 am (UTC)
ext_1637: (Default)
From: [identity profile] wickedwords.livejournal.com
slash tropes require a slash story to be about the pairing and since this story doesn't have it at the center it doesn't "feel" like slash.

Yes, exactly. The relationship isn't central to Rodney's life anymore, so it's not central to the story, which is what makes it feel more like gen than slash to me.

Date: 2006-03-15 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lydiabell.livejournal.com
Coming in late, because I didn't realize I could comment on this thread:

I think that while the relationship itself is obviously in the past, and Rodney has grieved and is moving on, the relationship is still present throughout the story by its very absence. By which I mean: I think the story is fundamentally about Rodney moving on after the loss of Atlantis, the loss of that ideal, and what he had to do to the city. He's trying to find a purpose to replace the purpose that the Atlantis mission gave him, and to leave the world a better place than he found it. But -- and this is important, and removing this aspect would alter the story greatly IMO -- he's having to do it alone. Without all of his friends and colleagues from the Atlantis expedition, yes, but the most palpable absence is John's. He does not have his lover by his side and, even though in a sense he never expected to, he still feels that absence, that hole, every day. The relationship isn't what the story is about, but it colors everything.

Date: 2006-03-15 10:21 pm (UTC)
ext_1637: (Default)
From: [identity profile] wickedwords.livejournal.com
The fact that John was his lover isn't actually important to the story, in my mind, though the fact that they one had a close relationship is a part of what he is moving on *from*. So to my mind, it's not about the sexual relationship; it's about Rodney reassembling himself after what happened. Those other relationships are sattelites in this story, revolving around Rodney's core. We never see how the Rodney of canon became this Rodney, and to me it's accumulation of things; the sexual aspect of his relationship with John is in fact pretty minor in the story.

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