Two Meanings of the Word ‘Representation’

Adam Roberts
Nov 15 · 4 min read

A topic to which I often return in my blogging is the difference between primarily metaphorical literatures and primarily mimetic ones — between, in fact, metaphor and metonymy. Here for instance; or more directly here. It does seem to me an important matter. And it’s obvious which mode I prefer, since my great love as a reader and a writer is science fiction. SF, as Samuel Delany put it, is a metaphorical literature because it aims to represent the world without reproducing it.

Representation in the sense of ‘how texts figure and inscribe the world and its concerns’ overlaps with another sense of the word: representation in the sense of not occluding or effacing the variety of groups and peoples that actually make up the world. The first kind of representation is often, today, put at the service of the second kind: making sure that our literature and culture is more than merely white and male and straight — that there are characters in our stories who are women, gay, people of colour and so on.

The consensus now is that a more diverse representation (in this second sense) is an unalloyed good thing, and I’m certainly not here to suggest that it’s not. But I am going to ask a question about what happens when these two modes get tangled together.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are no churches or temples in Middle Earth; no priests or popes or worshippers among the population. This is not because Lord of the Rings is an irreligious book. On the contrary, as Tolkien said (in a letter to his friend, the Jesuit priest, Robert Murray): ‘the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’

We could put it this way: LotR is not a mimetic novel — there is no actual Middle Earth which it aims, accurately, to reproduce. It is a metaphorical novel: a novel about Christian revelation, about power and temptation, about resilience, hope and love.

So here’s the question: would it enhance the way LotR expresses its religious meanings to add temples, priests and congregations to its storytelling and worldbuilding? Or would it (as Tolkien believed) dilute and undermine it?

Here’s a more recent example. The X-Men comics, and the movies made from those comics, tell a collective story about outsider-ness; about what it’s like having special qualities that lead the conformist mainstream to fear and shun you — about the way being treated as a monster turns some people into those very monsters, but also about the way some others don’t become monsters, and work for the good of those bigoted and fearful ordinary people nevertheless. In these stories, ‘special powers’ begin to manifest around puberty. There are expressive parallels between being closeted and the mutants’ concealment of their powers.

Bryan Singer has said repeatedly that he was drawn to make the first X-Men movies because the comics seemed to him to say important and eloquent things about what it is to be gay. I think that’s right, and that it works irrespective of the notional sexual orientation of the specific X-Men characters themselves. It works because the text signifies metaphorically, not because these stories are mimetically representing an actual group of in-the-world superpowered mutants.

One difference between the old X-Men comics (and the first movies) and the newer ones, is that to this mode of representation has been added the second kind of representation. Iceman was created by Jack Kirby in 1963, and the sexual orientation of the character was not disclosed — until 2015, when the All-New X-Men #40 revealed that he is gay. Nor is he alone. To quote Wikipedia: ‘gay and bisexual X-Men characters include Anole, Bling!, Destiny, Karma, Mystique, Psylocke, Courier, Northstar (whose marriage was depicted in the comics in 2012), Graymalkin, Rictor, Shatterstar, Shade, the Ultimate version of Colossus and Iceman.’ This is now an major part of the way X-Men figures, textually.

I repeat my LotR question. Representation in the second sense mentioned above is mimetic business. Does it enhance the metaphorical force and eloquence of X-Men’s representation of queerness to include actual queer characters? Or does it on the contrary diminish and dilute it? Is it a kind of belt-and-braces, more-is-better kind of deal? Or is it a kind of confusion, a collapsing-together of not-wholly-compatible modes of representation?

I should be clear: I am very much not saying that art and literature should attempt to erase the existence of (for instance) gay and bisexual people. On the contrary, a literature that did that would not only be mendacious — since gay and bisexual people are part of the world — it would be an enfeebled and limited literature. As I say here: ‘that diversifying representation avoids excluding non-white, non-male, non-straight (and so on) folk is a good in itself (for those people who have hitherto felt themselves locked-out of cultural representation) and it is a larger, social good in the sense that it normalises our collective sense of diversity as the truth of society. Moreover diverse stories, by virtue of their very diversity, are more varied and therefore interesting stories.’ I think its important that gay and bisexual people be represented. My question is about the different modes of doing that.

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