Adirondack Community College Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. And this week we’re delving into the dark and scandalous world of politics with a show that goes right for the jugular: House of Cards. The American version. Starting as a Congressional Whip and the head of a non-profit the show chronicles power couple Frank and Claire Underwood’s quest for power and the presidency at any cost. One could easily link the popularity of House of Cards to our increasing cynicism about the current state of American politics. But many American political dramas are either uncritical of our system or offers us a morally righteous character who triumphs against the adversity of a broken government. President Jed: "We must do better and we will do better." In the end, we're always offered redemption. If the system is temporarily broken it at least pertains a mechanism for good to triumph over evil. House of Cards rejects this narrative and instead offers us a process where raw power and cunning wins every time. Despite this, the show isn’t a tale of evil overcoming good. Rather, the question that drives House of Cards seems to be: Is there more to politics than pure spectacle? So without further ado, welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of House of Cards. Part one: Aesthetics, Theater and Politics In the cynical world of House of Cards,characters are always maintaining an image, both public and private. For the careful viewer, it becomes abundantly apparent that the show’s creators are obsessed with aesthetics, that is art and beauty within the show. Important dealings are often done while reflecting on art. Claire’s appearance is carefully manicured with her wardrobe not only the subject of frequent dialogue but real-life fashion listicles. But once you peel away the pretty aesthetics and art references what lies behind the world of House of Cards is... Well... nothing.... We’ll get to that. House of Cards preoccupation with aesthetics also manifests itself in the show's frequent tribute to theater and, more specifically, William Shakespeare. Frank often uses soliloquies and asides, a theatrical device used heavily by Shakespeare wherein a character’s inner thoughts are explicated to the audience. Others have noted that much of the show’s plot and characters are reminiscent of Shakespeare classics like Macbeth and Richard III, which inspire Frank’s charming asides about his terrible behavior. Frank: "When you're fresh meat..." "KILL" "And throw them something fresher." Petrov, in his visit to the White House even quotes Gorbachev quoting Richard III’s famous opening line. Petrov: "...of an end to our winter of discontent." Theater is just one facet of the political philosophy in House of Cards. Theater, aesthetics, and art, all point to the more fundamental concept that appearance drives politics. Politics is theater, or, at the very least, its own kind of performance. For instance, Frank visits his father to seem more human Frank: "Oh, I wouldn't be here if I had a choice." "But I have to do these sorta things now." "Makes me seem more human." before revealing his true intentions. His breaking of the fourth wall to address the viewer is more than just a convenient way to develop his character it’s an important way to blur the distinction between the show and reality and theater in politics. Contemporary commentators bemoan the fact that politics has become entertainment with catchphrases and slogans replacing real political argument. *crowd cheering* Frank: "A vote for Frank Underwood" "is a vote for America Works!" We see it in the show, too. Frank destroys Michael Kern’s career over an op-ed he didn’t even write. And Kern self-destructs when he’s unable to keep pace with media sensationalism. A brick through Frank’s window serves as a symbol against out of control teachers, which, of course, Frank fabricated himself. To clarify, those commentators are totally right about the out-of-control theater of politics but, let’s complicate this for a minute. According to German philosopher Hannah Arendt the realm of appearances is the realm of politics. The idea of stripping away appearances to get at the core of things is pointless because they’re the same. This idea originates in the ancient Greek Polis, where politics meant entering into the Agora where individuals could speak and be heard in front of their fellow Greeks. In this public realm, it was only the words, rhetoric and deeds of citizens that were to be judged by their peers. In other words, one’s political life was identical to how they appeared to others, kind of like an actor. This idea is deeply rooted in how we experience the world. For humans, Arendt says, “appearance--something that can be seen or heard by others as well as ourselves, constitutes reality.” Frank Underwood understands this concept when he says: Frank: "We are nothing more or less than what we choose to reveal." "What I am to Claire is not what I am to Zoe" "just as Zoe is not to me, what she is to her father." Another way to read this, of course is that
Frank is a sociopath. And what he chooses to reveal to us is a carefully crafted manipulation to get us to like him. Seriously, how is it that we still don’t hate Frank Underwood? The easiest criticism to leverage against Frank is his lack of sincerity and frequent use of deception. President Walker: "Peter Russo is dead." "Suicide." The idea that appearances are deceptive and unreliable is really really old. One of the first things philosophy students learn is Plato’s allegory of the cave, where we have to disillusion ourselves of the misleading shadows on the wall and discover the “true”world behind them. Karl Marx used this Platonic distinction between appearance and reality in his "Theory of Ideology". Even the Matrix is just a modern rehashing of this idea dating back to the Greeks. Those news commenters complaining that modern political media has become a grotesque spectacle concealing what really goes on behind closed doors are the modern torch-bearers of this millennia-old argument. Frank and Arendt undermine one of the central tenants of this tradition — that there lies an authentic reality behind the world of appearance. For Arendt and Frank, appearance is reality. If we can’t hate Frank Underwood, it’s because there is no stable identity to hate. He’s a sometimes good husband to Claire a manipulative murderer to Zoe a kind boss and one-time lover to Meechum a supportive friend to Freddy a job creator for the masses and a two-timing liar to... well everybody else. Another angle of this problem is seen in Remy and Jackie’s relationship, who are ultimately unable to reconcile their professional lives with their authentic selves. Through the show’s intermingling of art, theater, and aesthetics, it challenges old ideas about how reality operates. The idea behind this argument isn’t that Frank Underwood is good or that the perpetual lying of modern politicians is good Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." it’s that appearances and reality aren’t as easy to disentangle as we might think. Nothing illustrates this better than a simple fact: Frank is the epitome of a hypocrite. Frank: "Do you think I'm a hypocrite?..." "Well you should." A hypocrite is someone who acts in a way that is inconsistent with their stated beliefs but, more specifically, puts on “false appearances”. Originally, the term comes from the Ancient Greek word for playacting, another hint that the politics of House of Cards is mere theater. Frank: "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy..." "...and causalities." History hates hypocrites Dante even put them in the 8th circle of hell. But rooting out hypocrites — the search for true motives in politics — has historically gone really really bad. The hunt for the Frank Underwoods of the world is impossible behind of the aesthetic nature of politics. As Arendt says, “The search for motives, the demand that everybody displays [their] innermost motivation... transforms all actors into hypocrites and 'hypocrisy' begins to poison all human relations.” The solution, for Arendt, is to realize that we have no ability to distinguish between “being and appearance.” After all, does Frank even know his true, unwavering convictions behind every action? Sure, he makes a point that power is his end game, but why? Arendt’s argument is that when you try to strip away the façade of appearances we all adorn you don’t reveal the real person inside of us, but just more mystery. And then there’s Claire. Claire’s whole portrayal in the show suggests that, unlike Frank, there is something behind the mask, something that she must inhibit in order to continue her quest for power. When Claire sees the news that Zoe Barnes has died, she immediately turns to applying her makeup, as if aesthetics suppresses her true feelings of disgust about Frank's deeds. And while we may try in vain to hunt down an authentic Frank, Claire's love of art seems to indicate a yearning for authentic self expression — to stop performing. Claire seeks authenticity in aesthetics, like photography and origami. Even her relationship with the photographer suggests that she's seduced by his genuine bohemian lifestyle. Part 2: Leaving a Legacy Unlike some TV characters, what drives Frank Underwood is amazingly simple: He wants power and will remind us every chance he gets. Frank: "Power is more important than money." "I'm a powerful friend to have right now." "The most you'll ever make of yourself is" "blowing men like me." "Men with REAL power." But power is the foundation of Frank’s larger dream — to build a legacy. We could even liken Frank’s quest for power as part of a larger quest to build a work of art in the form of his legacy. Consider the Buddhist monks sand painting in Season 3, also known as sand mandala, the practice of painstakingly creating elaborate designs and then destroying them. Frank is deeply annoyed by the Buddhist monks, and it’s no minor detail. "They'll be here for a month." Frank: "A month?" Sand mandalas stand in stark contrast to most of the Western artistic tradition, which routinely seeks to create art to endure through the ages with bonus point if it’s gigantic. Sand Mandalas represent the fleeting nature of our own existence, so should we be surprised that Frank, the man who wants to achieve immortality through his quest for power hates it? Frank: "Money..." "is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years." "Power..." "is the old stone building that stands for centuries." "I cannot respect someone who can't see the difference." Frank’s civil war diorama is an interesting counterpoint to this — it’s a way to memorialize Frank’s ancestors, before he destroys it and he realizes it, like his presidency, is fleeting. There’s an important insight about Claire here worth noting. She doesn’t detest the sand mandala like Frank does and its destruction seems to foreshadow her departure from Frank. Like the mandala, Claire acknowledges that nothing, not even her marriage, is permanent. Just as the monks destroyed the thing they worked on with painstaking detail, so too does Claire leave her political life behind despite the fact she's toiled away
on it for so long. Claire also struggles with legacy, but in a different way. While she values and supports Frank’s political ambitions, she’s also discarded her own, at times throwing the CWI under the bus or shunting her desire to have kids. When Claire hands a homeless person money, itself a symbol of the power and status that her and Frank have achieved, he rejects it and instead turns the bill into origami. Claire is essentially being confronted by the choice she’s made: power and wealth over creation. She takes up the hobby as if a symbol of her desire desire to create a legacy through family rather than power. We could use this as an opportunity to explore the title of the show. Is Frank building a lasting legacy or simply a house of cards whose very existence is on the verge of collapse at any minute. Frank: "I will win." "And I will leave a legacy." Frank is essentially striving for immortality a not unfamiliar concept in the politics of Ancient Greece Frank: "When they bury me" "it won't be in my backyard." "And when they come to pay their respects" "They'll have to wait in line." The point is to struggle to make a name for yourself through your great deeds and words. That this idea has become so alien to our society that it can only be distorted through vainglorious characters like Frank Underwood is symptomatic of the loss of genuine politics of our time. Part 3: Politics as spectacle It might seem strange that a show about America’s political system is suspiciously lacking its central tenet: Democracy In House of Cards, our political system is essentially reduced to backroom dealings and media. Frank: "Democracy is so overrated." Frank even likens Congress to a game of chess where one should keep their pieces concealed. Public opinion is important, but only as a variable to be manipulated: What color should Claire’s hair be? Claire: "Whadda ya think." Frank: I don't like it. What do people think of Peter Russo’s phoenixout-of-ashes story? At other times, public opinion is something that can be simply turned off. Even the media, which our Constitution specifically protects as integral to our democracy, is just part of a larger political game. Zoe Barnes is fed information that’s beneficial to Frank’s political machinations Tom Yates is hired to write what is essentially propaganda the list goes on. There are, frankly, too many thinkers who tackle this problem to cover here. German philosopher Carl Schmitt argued that things like debate and openness have become mere spectacle for the backroom dealings of party leaders Frank: "You're finally one of us." "The men in their smoky backrooms." But one philosopher takes this a step further. While lots of people argue that deception masks an inner reality, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that there is no truth behind the lies. For Baudrillard, to have a lie concealing a truth is child’s play compared to our modern media nightmare. Lies told by politicians and media take on lives of their own, until information circulates like commodities on the stock market. Frank and Zoe literally barter for information. Before getting canned, her boss at the newspaper claims: "Zoe Barnes..." "Twitter..." "Blogs..." "Enriched media..." "They're all surface." "They're fads." As if to prove the integrity and depth are relegated to the dustbin of history. Slugline, the new standard for media, is more concerned about seeming edgy and bleeding edge so much so, that Zoe’s boss informs her that her work won’t even be checked. Zoe: "Oh, I thought you might wanna take a look." Carly: "The goal here is for everyone to post things faster than I have a chance read them." "If you're satisfied with the article, you just put it up." Baudrillard says: "Where we think that information produces meaning, the opposite occurs. Information devours it's own content." Zoe: "Is that true?" Frank: "It will be after you write it." More than just existing for its own sake, this circuit of information is seductive. Frank Underwood is seductive, not only to his former classmate, Tom Yeats, and Meecham, but to us the viewer. Frank: "Great man once said, that everything in life is about sex..." "except sex." "Sex is about power." Frank knocking his ring at the end of Season 2 leaves us confounded with a feeling of awe. If we, too, are seduced by Frank Underwood, what does that say about our political system? Do we enjoy the performance? Are we doomed to fall in love with the real Frank Underwoods of the world? Conclusion If House of Cards is so good, it’s because it has so many incredible layers to it. It’s ultimately a show about the politics of appearance, whether through art or theater. Whether or not that’s a bad thing is up for debate but so far it's... looking pretty bad. Hey Wisecrack! 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on our Dark Souls video. Thanks for watching everyone. Peace â˜Ž New York Theological Seminary.