Categorical thought and Priest

In Splice Today, @hoodedu (Noah Berlatsky, for the less twitter-inclined) drew several parallels between the vilification of vampires in the movie Priest and the real-life vilification of native Americans in the American West.  Not content to rest there, he made the provocative argument that by encouraging thinking in terms of categorical bias, Priest effectively promotes racism.

This has not sat well with many people.

DarylSurat: Uh yeah, I’m not gonna defend that Priest movie but to call it racist because the vampires and infected are evil is reaching pretty far guys

DarylSurat: OK we like to react to headlines, but this dude’s argument is literally “vampires = the Indians, infected = mixed race, this movie’s racist”

While I readily agree it’s not necessarily intuitive, I don’t think that automatically makes it wrong.  The problem with criticism like Daryl’s is the assertion that counter-intuitive criticism, or any criticism that ties together seemingly unrelated things, can’t possibly be valid. It certainly can – it just depends on whether or not it’s well constructed, and appropriate to the movie. Dismissing an entire category of criticism as “too much of a stretch” when it is standard discourse for academic journals only suggests to me that the one objecting may be unfamiliar with this line of criticism.

[Daryl] spent an hour* ranting on the deconstruction of Priest. Is it really that shocking? Stuff happens all the time in academic journals.

[*an hour between those posts and this one; in retrospect, that's not the same as a full hour ranting, though no other topic intervened.]

Noah himself eventually argued a similar point, though he went further:

The best part is I’m pretty sure most of them haven’t seen it. They just knee-jerk defend it on the grounds that calling anything racist is wrong.

On the other hand, Ed Sizemore, who certainly is familiar with academic journals, didn’t see the need to view Priest in terms of the potential implications of its thought patterns:

edsizemore: I saw it and enjoyed it for what it was. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see it as a Judge Dredd rip-off.

edsizemore: I think you see racism because you want to, not because it’s there.

And that’s a muddy issue: when is something racist?  If someone makes a joke, and part of the audience thinks it’s racist, but part of the audience doesn’t, is it truly racist?  Does intent matter?  Does only the end result matter? We all know that for workplace regulations, anyone feeling offended because of a possible racist interpretation is enough to classify something as racist.  But literary and art criticism need not apply legal criteria.  Which criteria, then, should apply?

Is it OK to think in ways that parallel racism as long as one isn’t racist in real life?  Or should people be on guard against such thought even in fantasy worlds?  I rather think this goes into the realm of scientific questions, as it should be possible to demonstrate statistically that repeated exposure to such thinking does or does not lead to racist thought – but who will run that experiment?

This is Priest: a movie, its detractors, the detractors of the detractors – and a problem called racism.

UPDATE: For those interested in the details, @hoodedu has posted the full text of his discussion with Ed Sizemore.

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Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 3:42 AM  Comments (5)  
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  1. I found this post purely by accident (someone could at least have told me about it), but first a couple of things:

    1. the fact that your “some people” you speak of in the above post is actually solely a cover to talk solely about ME and NOBODY ELSE makes me suspect the motives behind this post are not what they seem on the surface;

    2. hard though it may be to believe, I do actually work and have to actually stop posting on the Internet to do work on a regular basis, so I didn’t go on “for an hour” about this topic. (In fact, I’m writing this at work, where I’m not supposed to be on the Internet at all, so forgive that I have zero time to edit this.)

    But let’s actually talk about the topic in question. I’ll ignore the part where you passive-aggressively insinuated that I’ve never heard of the concept of academic criticism in my life and am thus speaking from a position of not knowing what I’m talking about. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been cited as a source in at least one!)

    I own and have read all of the Priest manwha that has been released in English. That’s something like 16 volumes worth. I have been reading it for years. I highly doubt this is the case for most whom I have encountered thus far that are suddenly quite interested in the underlying message of the work as of this week, so I won’t go into specifics. Suffice to say that the original comic is set in the Old West with the anachronistic weaponry of the PC FPS Blood and a structure reminiscent of Berserk by Kentaro Miura. In it, there are characters of different races portrayed in addition to the monsters (who are not vampires at all). One of these supporting characters is an Indian. To argue whether this character is or is not racist is beyond the scope of what we’re talking about because we’re talking about the movie, but you could definitely make a strong case that the comic conformed to long-standing archetypes/stereotypes such as the “noble savage” or what have you.

    The comic may be a fantasy/horror Western, but nothing in the comic carries over to the film. Nothing at all. Not characters, not setting, not plot, and not thematic elements. Nobody in the comic appears in the film. The main character is not even the same person and doesn’t even have the same name. Anyone looking to cite the source material and call this movie an adaptation of it who does not point this out has clearly never read it or heard of it prior to the film, which among other things is not set primarily in the Old West, but rather a distant future. It certainly contains some visual elements clearly taken from a traditional Western, but most of its visual and stylistic flourishes are derivative of movies like Resident Evil, Underworld, and the like. As a result, the Priest film lacks the themes and archetypes typical of either the American or Italian Western which are present in the original comic. It is because of this that the ascribing of traditional Western archetypes to the movie characters can only be done to the extent that one may ascribe traditional Western archetypes to that of its modern-era successor: the action-hero blockbuster. The lines may be drawn due to the lineage, but the argument is just plain less convincing as a result. I personally would have wanted the film to be MORE like the comic and be MORE like an Old West tale, but that was not to be.

    When people equate the Priest to The Searchers, as some guy on Rotten Tomatoes did and some other guy at Splice Today is still doing as of the very second I’m typing this, they are doing so on a basic surface plot premise level of “a veteran warrior and a younger accomplice search for an abducted girl.” That has little to do with what The Searchers is actually ABOUT contextually; among other things, it hand-waves away Ford’s emphasis on human group social rituals (for example, weddings). Race and racism was undeniably a significant factor in The Searchers, but to say that because The Searchers was about race and since Priest shares superficial plot similarities with The Searchers that it too must ALSO be about race on account that the hero hates the villains is highly questionable logic which I don’t buy into.

    Your predilection toward threaded conversations on Twitter does bring up an interesting point in favor of why I go out of my way to never use them, for I actually continued on about this topic with someone you were perhaps not following. A point I brought up to demonstrate a big problem with the “vampires are being used as a fantasy metaphorical stand-in for an oppressed minority, a la the X-Men” argument with regards to just this movie is the fact that the animated cinematic by Genndy Tartakovsky clearly shows that in the world of the movie, humanity has been fighting the vampires all throughout recorded history. Different armies, different geographical locations. We see the Crusaders fighting vampires. We see World War I-era soldiers fighting vampires in the trenches. We see howitzers being deployed. In this light, the metaphor of “the vampires are a fantasy stand-in for Indians in the American West” breaks down. For they would also have to be fantasy-based stand-ins for the Muslims, the Nazis, and various “others” throughout history all at once to the point where they’re…well, just “antagonists.” I can only assume that the reason you neglected to point out this part of my argument was because you never saw that I said it in the first place. Which only goes to show why I never use threaded replies on Twitter if I can help it.

    Look, we can throw allegations of “you never read the book,” “you never saw The Searchers,” “you never saw Priest” back and forth all we want and get nowhere, but please don’t make posts in which you imply my statements are saying that an interpretation can’t be valid because it’s counter-intuitive then not even inform me that you’re doing so. Because for what it’s worth, I still don’t believe I said anything of the sort. If you think I did then by all means enlighten me as to how. In any case, I’m far more confident in my knowledge of the Priest manwha, The Searchers, and the fact that racism or no racism the Priest movie is absolute garbage that should be watched by nobody.

    • Daryl,

      Thanks for your comment. We just had this long discussion on Twitter about why I didn’t contact you about the article (which you alluded to by noting my preference for threaded comments.) Let me reiterate:
      1) I usually don’t contact people when I pull public tweets for TMR. (I did not contact Ed or Noah about quoting them above, for instance.) If you were expecting elaborate journalistic courtesy, well, this is just a side blog for laughs. My time is limited too.
      2) I was under the impression that you didn’t really care to be contacted, as you never spoke to me directly the few times I directly addressed you in the past. I’m not in the habit of talking to people who don’t talk back.

      As for quotes, I found yours to be fairly representative of those who disbelieved in Noah’s assertion of racism because it was counterintuitive. The link has dozens more at the original article. I stand by my comment that your tweets I quoted are consistent with categorical denial of the possibility of racism, as they rely repeatedly on the counterintuitive property of the racism argument. Nor do I think they are out of context.

      If you had closely examined this article, you’d find I actually linked the tweet you just held up as evidence of deeper analysis: it came an hour after you started talking about Noah’s review, and said that you watched the opening of Priest.

      “I at least saw the Tartakovsky animated opening, which shows vampires vs Crusade knights, modern soldiers etc. Metaphor breaks.”

      I didn’t address it, but I’ll do so here. I don’t see temporal breaks in a metaphor – particularly in an opening montage – as having the slightest influence on Noah’s train of thought, which is: categorical vilification of groups of fictional characters leads to racism. Let me draw you a real-world example and you’ll see what I mean: the same Japanese military officers who revered ancient Chinese philosophers butchered modern-day Chinese by the thousand in WWII. It’s entirely possible for a racist to say “this group used to be noble” and “this group is now subhuman.” Since one doesn’t preclude the other, asserting that Priest shows vampires as better at some other point in time (if that’s really what it does – an endless history of strife is not necessarily better) does not mean the movie as a whole has no racist content.

      Did you write more after I stopped reading Twitter to write this article? Sure, though I waited an hour and you looked done. Does your later writing have more depth? Maybe. I’m willing to believe it. If there’s more that you said before article time and I missed it, I apologize. But I think you’re taking this as some kind of personal attack when I was interested only in discussing these ideas about Priest and how they came about. Four people are quoted here (Noah, you, Ed, and myself.) The article isn’t about you.

  2. “asserting that Priest shows vampires as better at some other point in time…does not mean the movie as a whole has no racist content.”

    I certainly agree with you. However, no such assertion was ever made on my part. In fact, I said the direct polar opposite: that in the movie, the vampires were always evil and have fought humanity from the dawn of time across MULTIPLE civilizations such that they cannot be likened to any single group.

    For the allegations of racism in fantasy works to be somewhat warranted, one must first present sufficient evidence that a group depicted in the film is meant to mirror a real-world group. This alone doesn’t prove the point but without this established point there is no analogy to draw.

    Make no mistake. I’m 100% sure someone out there wanted the vampires to be akin to the Comanche in The Searchers. They were going for that. But I don’t think they succeeded, and even if they did I don’t think there’s sufficient material here to support the charges made. The crux of the “the vampires are the Indians” argument is the fact that they are more or less confined to reservation lands in the present-day events of the film. Everything else as far as “the infected represent miscegenation,” and such stems from this.

    But the symbolism of this isn’t that strongly established because it’s humankind that lives in the isolated areas strictly monitored by the ruling body, NOT the hive insect-like vampires. If there is a zone reminiscent of a real-world reservation, it’s closer to the city with the people in it.

    And really, a city of that sort wouldn’t even be there in a Western. In a Western, the frontier is still “wild”; civilization–traditionally represented by the construction of the railroad–is making its inroads, and the government/law has little to no real established power. Towns are small settlements. The world of the Priest movie is the direct opposite of all this. The authorities rule absolutely. The railroad train of THIS film is to be used by the vampires to destroy the civilization in which humans reside, not establish it. If the vampires are meant to be the Indians, then they wouldn’t be in control of it. They would be the ones trying to stop it. But it’s the other way around.

    In a Western, the threat of the Indians was that everyone thought they were just out of eyesight and they’d sack your fort and steal your women if you weren’t careful. “The savages are out there and will kill us if we don’t kill them first” is not a concern here like it is in the world of the Western, as the civilization by and large does not even acknowledge the existence of vampires in the first place. For vampires to truly be analogous to “the Injuns,” the people in the film would need to know they were out there, be afraid of them for their differences (a critical driving element of racism), and humanity’s warriors would need to be revered as protectors of the civilized world. But it’s all backwards here.

    Everyone’s so wrapped up by the surface elements that they think Priest truly is a fantasy Western like its source material, and therefore such analysis holds water. But the only water it holds is puddle-deep. I’m not “categorically denying” the possibility that racism could exist in a fantasy movie, intuitive or counter-intuitive. I am however saying that if you want to play that card, one must first establish that the group in question can be mirrored to an existing group in terms of behavior, speech, appearance, or what have you. I do not feel this case has been sufficiently made, and even if it was, one must then demonstrate that the actions of the fictional group conform to negative stereotypes of the real one. The actions of the vampire antagonists in Priest simply don’t match up to what people stereotypically assume the Indians would do. They kill and infect people. They kidnapped a kid. But vampires do that sort of thing on a regular basis, and I don’t recall people claiming, say, Underworld or Blade was racist for it.

    • I can’t help but note that you don’t seem to think this discussion as a whole is valid. I’m curious as to why not, if you say you don’t categorically reject the possibility of racism in Priest.

      “For the allegations of racism in fantasy works to be somewhat warranted, one must first present sufficient evidence that a group depicted in the film is meant to mirror a real-world group.”

      This misses the point. As I pointed out in my comment to his blog, Noah’s argument can be seen as either, “Categorical vilification of fantasy creatures leads to real life racism, which is bad,” or “Categorical vilification of fantasy creatures is bad because it IS racism.” In neither case is direct identification of the fantasy creatures with any real-life groups necessary.

      Similarity of thought patterns is the issue: if our culture encourages us to think this way repeatedly, rather than encouraging a more nuanced approach, maybe the brain will eventually slip into thinking badly of entire groups of people, too. In fact, that is the very reason I suggested a scientific study – to verify or disprove a link between exposure to categorical vilification of fantasy creatures and racism in real life. Your ongoing argument with Noah over the historical nuances of Westerns and how well or poorly Priest conforms to them is interesting, but ultimately a side issue: a film need not be a Western to promote racism.

      Perhaps neither Underworld nor Blade caused many people to claim the films were racist, but even if true, that has no bearing on whether or not it contained content that could be seen as racist. Arguments to that effect might still be be constructed.

  3. I am actually arguing that the vampires are deliberately linked to Indians, and that that accounts in large part for the genocidal fantasy’s particular offensiveness. Pointing out, as Darryl does, that vampires kidnap and infect in other instances doesn’t really address the fact that those predilections are in this instance explicitly and insistently linked (via the Searchers) to the Indian customs of kidnapping and adopting whites into the tribe.

    The filmmakers have apparently stated specifically that the film is a tribute to the searchers, and that the vampires are taking the role of the Comanches.

    Darryl’s (deep) confusion appears to lie in the belief that racism only exists if the caricature is accurate; if the racist content mirrors real speech, actions, etc. This is the opposite of the truth. Racist caritcatures are racist because they are not accurate. If they were accurate, they wouldn’t be racist. The fact that the vampires do not behave like real Comanches is why linking them to comanches is offensive. Actual comanches do not drink blood and kill indiscriminately. Caricaturing them as creatures that do is racist bullshit.

    Darryl’s got some bizarre notion of what a real western is. The whole thing seems kind of ridiculous; virtually every review of the film notes that the thing uses western tropes; the creators say it’s a western; the things got a badguy in a black hat; indian reservations; locomotives, frontier towns sacked, and the classic honest farmers beset by crazed natives scene. It’s got a quack medicine man selling cures. And, despite Darryl’s assertion to the contrary, it’s got the people in the frontier towns all talking about how worried they are that the vampires are going to come and get them — the exact theme he says defines the western and its relation to the indians. It’s true that the church in the distant cities denies that there are indians…and that is the part of the story that is least like a western. But the film’s a bricolage — and a big brick is the western genre.

    The fact that the movie reverses some tropes — having the vampires on the train rather than attacking it, for example — just shows it’s playing with western tropes. Playing with western tropes doesn’t make it not a western. It makes it a western. The fact that Darryl can go through and say, “everything’s reversed!” in fact means it’s working in a western vein. If the vampires were wandering around new york making quips with Diane Keaton, for example, then you could say, “no, this isn’t a western, it’s working off of Woody Allen tropes.” As it is, you’ve got the indians, you’ve got the train, you’ve got the cowboys. The fact that things are a little mixed and matched just means that the filmmakers are playing around with their genre, secure in the knowledge that everyone will still find it recognizable, and that most people will enjoy the play. (And everyone did find it recognizable…though the play is fairly leaden and literal, so I don’t know how many people exactly enjoyed it.)

    Also, this is just bizarre:

    ” and humanity’s warriors would need to be revered as protectors of the civilized world.”

    Since when? The heroes in westerns are almost always portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy. Wayne in the searchers is seen as dangerous and untrustworthy. It’s a major theme of westerns that the heroes are part of the frontier and so opposed to the civilization they are supposed to be helping.

    Anyway…I disagree Mori that the genre issue isn’t important. For Priest, the way it plugs into genre has a lot to do with what’s racist about it. Linking the genocidal plot to native americans like that is really, really offensive.

    I think in any context a genocidal storyline raises issues of racism — the Ender’s Game series, for example, or the film Starship Troopers both do. But Orson Scott Card goes out of his way to show compassion for the creatures killed, while Verhoeven is making fun of exactly the kind of fascist extermination he celebrates. I don’t know that either of them is entirely off the hook…but neither is anywhere near as vile as Priest (the film; no slander on the comic intended.)


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