Theory of Subversion and Containment

Theory of Subversion and Containment

This article explains the "Theory of Subversion and Containment" as discussed by Stephen Greenblatt in his essay "Invisible Bullets". [Greenblatt, S (1988) "Shakespeare Negotiations" Clarendon, p21-65] Subversion and Containment is a means of control. At its simplest level this is achieved by manipulating the fact that another has doubt in their beliefs. The doubt is dubbed Subversion and control of this is Containment. Where this process is calculated, the Subversion is created by the party that wishes to Contain it - Producation, Subversion and Containment. This takes on many different forms.

The English in the New World

When Thomas Harriot was left at a New World colony by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586, it was partly his duty to bring civilisation to the Native Americans (then referred to as "Indians"). As civilisation was purportedly impossible without Christianity, this was to be imposed upon the Native Americans. Harriot documented two relevant observations in his "Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia". Firstly, that the natives had a degree of religion to their culture of which Harriot drew parallels to Christianity. Secondly, he noticed that everyday non-divine objects caused the natives to believe in the divinity of the invaders, noting:"Most things they saw with us, as mathematical instruments, sea compasses, the virtue of the lodestone in drawing iron, a perspective glass whereby was shown many strange sights, burning glasses, wildfire works, gun, book, writing and reading, spring clocks that seemed to go off by themselves, and many other things that we had, were so strange unto them and so far exceeded their capabilities to comprehend the reason and means how they should be made and done that they thought they were rather the works of gods than of men, or at the leastwise they had been given and taught us of the gods" [Harriot, T (1588) "A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia", p375-376] It would seem that Harriot used this to impose Christianity upon the natives. At one point, as the native crop was scarce one year, Harriot suggested that the Christian God would provide better for their land. [Harriot(1588), p377. Thus the Subversion was Produced and Contained.

This theory immediately implies maliciousness and Machiavellian callousness; this is not always the case. Greenblatt takes pains to stress that Harriot may not have been acting maliciously.Greenblatt (1988) p30-32] The name of the essay "Invisible Bullets" is so as the Subversion must be invisible to the Subverted; Harriot could not simply state that the natives were being converted to (or assimilated into) another religion and culture. If the Subversion and Containment were invisible to Harriot, he would be merely an agent of hegemony. It is not unlikely that Harriot wholeheartedly believed that England and its people were blessed by the only true Christian God, that the very fact that he was born into the bourgeous provided his intellectual (and divine) superiority - in which case he would have been acting out of compassion.

Calculated Production of Subversion

During Columbus's fourth voyage, the natives began aggression towards the invaders. Columbus, after consulting his calendars warned that God would demonstrate his favour towards the Europeans. Only he knew that a solar eclipse was to shortly occur. This greatly Subverted the natives' belief system.Greenblatt (1988) p24.]

Subversion is invariably easier to invoke upon those who are in some respect weaker, more needy or less technologically advanced. Machiavelli, in Discourses on Livy, realised that:"If any one wanted to establish a new republic at the present time, he would find it much easier with the simple mountaineers, who are almost without civilisation, than with such that are acustomed to live in cities [...] as a sculptor finds it easier to make a fine statue out of a crude block of marble than out of a statue badly begun" [Machiavelli (1513-17) "Discourses on Livy" p148.]

Application as Theatrical Theory

Greenblatt originally wrote of this theory in its application to theatre. He applied it extensively to Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V. Many academics have applied this theory, but ironically not many within the field of theatre.

Stephen Weeks, in his essay "The Question of Liz: Staging the Prisoner in 'Our Country's Good' "Weeks, S (2000) 'The Question of Liz: Staging the Prisoner in "Our Country’s Good" ' "MD". 43 p147] applied the Theory to Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good". Here, Weeks chronicles the Machiavellian connotations shadowing the teaching of 'high' language to a group of convicts. The convicts have their own codes and culture. They are offered the chance to take part in a theatrical performance, which gives them 'high language' that can be used to get them out of trouble. The language, however, is packaged with parts of culture which eventually causes them to betray their own culture and dreams. On the surface, "Our Country's Good" is a play about people discovering art but Weeks exposes this as an empirical act of Production and Containment and Subversion. Again it is ambiguous whether the English officer is callously converting the convicts or whether he is merely an agent of English imperial hegemony attempting benevolence.

Contemporary Examples and Popular Culture

Education. It can be said that all acts demanded by society are Producing and Containing Subversion. Primary Socialisation in the West by the state imposes beliefs upon weak (young) minds. This is invisible to the child and parents as they become to believe it is beneficial. This is also invisible to the officials and Ministers that organise it as they believe it is beneficial.e.g. Mill, J.S, "On Liberty" [1859] ; in Mill, J.S, "On Liberty and other Essays", (Oxford: OUP, 1998) 1, p84. This is not to imply that education is not beneficial]

Stargate SG-1. This popular Television series depicts fictional characters using technology for the purpose of Subverting others' cultures then Containing it by posing as Gods.

In Logan's Run, a 1967 fiction novel, the society "contains" the citizens "subversive" wishes to leave by providing a difficult escape route to anybody who is determined enough. This escape route, however, leads to an energy plant in which the would-be escapees are 'used' to provide fuel for the society. (also see Logan's Run (1976 film)).

ee also

* Stephen Greenblatt
* Thomas Harriot
* Machiavelli
* Sir Walter Raleigh
* Timberlake Wertenbaker


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