Type
Article
Category
Criticism
Television

Succession, Emma Bovary and the politics of style

I

One of the most striking features of Succession is the weird camera. This is a handheld camera that floats, wobbles, pans, and tilts, even doing so while tracking, as we saw in the first episode of Season 3 in a shot of two planes adorning a runway. This highly stylised mediation is specific and it hooks into other formal features: there’s often a cacophony of sound and voice in scenes; the characters don’t seem to follow strict blocking, but move randomly in and out of shot; and the duration of shots often means characters are seen reacting to speech as much as speaking. They’re both ignored and under observation. In this sense, the camera appears to be undergoing the same fight or flight response as the characters themselves.

I say appears, because in this show the interplay between camera, character, and plot prevents our access to characters’ interiorities, and in turn, this complicates the possibility of our sympathetic identification with them.

For example, in Season 3, Episode 3, Roman takes an interview for a magazine about his relationship to Logan. In it, Roman swaps Connor for his dad in a story about fishing as a boy. He’s mocked by Logan, when really Roman’s doing him a favour, and in a jokey aside Roman indicates that perhaps he has swapped Connor for Logan in a bunch of memories that help him to love or just deal with his dad in the present. The joke is that for these characters, memory is so abstract that it can simply be moved around to suit the information market, or the psychic organisation of a character, or both. But to get the joke, we don’t actually need to know what’s inside Roman’s head. Nor are we given it. With the camera buzzing around the two characters, all we’re allowed to know is that Roman feels some kinda way about the whole thing.

We can of course speculate on interiority and desire, but if the show doesn’t deal in those kinds of representations, what would be the point?

I’m suggesting that to watch Succession well, we should start by thinking about how its representations are mediated. This is to determine Succession’s mode of representation by thinking carefully about how its style interacts with the thematic conceit of the show, which is to do with information media, and a billionaire American family.

 

II

In 2008, Jacques Rancière wrote an essay called ‘Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed’. It’s a strange title for anyone familiar with the novel, which terminates with Emma Bovary’s suicide; and because, in Emma Bovary’s own words, ‘No one is guilty…’

For critics and for Emma Bovary herself, the question is usually why Emma Bovary died. This framing implies that strong interpretations of the novel’s conclusion should focus on the events that led to her death. Yet for Rancière, critics’ answers to this question have been unsatisfying, because to be sufficiently complex, they need to go beyond Emma Bovary’s psychology by accounting for social issues, which is to impute the wrong understanding of politics into the text.

If Emma Bovary killed herself because of bad debts, for example, this interpretation might be grounded in observable social issues in 1850s France, like the interplay between classed and gendered forms of domination. If someone wrote this interpretation, these social issues would be established as historical facts outside the novel, and would then be read back into it to construct the chain of causation that leads to the death of its main character. This is okay for a certain idea of politics, but such an interpretive practice may not adequately engage with the specific kind of mimesis that governs the novel in the first place. Part of Rancière’s argument is that while the text is mimetic, it should (but doesn’t) go without saying that the character Madame Bovary is not ‘real’, and nor is the world of the novel. This makes a difference to Rancière’s interpretation because his analytical ground becomes not why Emma Bovary was killed, but who killed Emma Bovary.

To shift the question like this is really to switch the way we’re defining the aesthetic object. For Rancière, there is an obvious and singular culprit.

It sounds trite to say that Emma Bovary was killed by Flaubert, but the sophisticated point is that when we carelessly identify the world we inhabit as the world created in a mimetic text, we limit the range of values we can bring to bear on the aesthetic object, and even the range of values that can be developed in relation to the object. We run the risk of valorising already existing social categories. This becomes a problem because the whole point of a good novel is that it is a specific formation of language that, in its best moments, gets outside of what Fredric Jameson calls the ‘narrowly political’ discourses that partly constitute what Rancière calls the ‘sensible’. In other words, good literature and good criticism can be productive, rather than just reflective of social life. If language was simply subordinate to plot and character, and if plot and character mapped perfectly onto real life, then there would be no need to read Madame Bovary at all. We could just read the Wikipedia page and compare it to history about France and pump out a take on whatever -ism we’re most committed to.

This slippage between the distinct worlds of reader and text can lead to what Jameson calls the ‘ideology of theory’, which is a limited manner of interpretation that will never adequately differentiate between different kinds of texts, or between texts and the historical conditions that allow texts to emerge from the political unconscious in the first place.

Of course, it’s very difficult to appropriately explicate the historical conditions of possibility that have led us to binge Succession. Some of us have binged the show so deeply and voraciously that we are actually bothering to read what others say about it. But the ideology of theory is happening in many popular interpretations of Succession, which often follow lines of argument like these, listed in a 2019 piece from the LA Review of Books:

Depending on where you stand you might read Jesse Armstrong’s story about a family to be a satire ‘skewer[ing] the rich,’ or question how its ‘half-baked class politics‘ [sic] makes you care about the Roys. The text supports both interpretations, and personal sentiment (how you personally feel about the Roys) will affect where you land. I propose a third route; digging into Succession is a purposely winding road with no outlet. Succession means to make you conflicted and repulsed, guilty about your enjoyment, and gratified in discomfort.

Maybe, maybe not. To me, even this ‘third route’ isn’t really a way out. It’s a way back into the same order of analysis that unites the supposedly opposed interpretations about ‘skewering’ and ‘half-baked class politics.’ To me, all three ‘routes’ argue that watching Succession is an act of consumption that matters: because the representations are close to real life, interpretation of the show’s content must have something to do with politics and ethics. This is a kind of ‘you are what you eat’ argument, but you’re eating ideas. This doesn’t hold up, because that first phrase—’depending on where you stand’—shows how this kind of analysis is circular. You are what you’ve already eaten, and you’re only allowed to eat one thing. The range of values we can bring to the text are the same ones we already know about. And by being so moralistic (ethical-political) we run the risk of missing parts of the text that make it a unique (but not necessarily good) contribution to culture.

 The truism is that texts always support multiple interpretations, and so it’s just not that interesting to map your politics onto one. Even if you do so through a formal analysis (as the LARB piece does) that formal analysis is always being instrumentalised for use in narrowly political discourses, like the one about gratification and enjoyment. If that’s your aim, you could just say what your politics are and leave art out of it. As Rancière says in The Politics of Aesthetics, ‘there is no criterion for establishing correspondence between aesthetic virtue and political virtue. There are only choices.’

 

III

Instead of interpreting Succession with reference to concepts from my world that may or may not apply to it, I prefer to interpret Succession on its terms, with accurate reference to its mode of representation. This is good practice, but for me this is also simply the only way to enjoy the show, which is made to be enjoyed. You don’t judge Burger King according to the standards of a Michelin Star restaurant—supposing those standards are accessible to you in the first place.

While a bland moralism is inappropriate to Succession’s interpretation, the text is undeniably mimetic. To the extent that Succession’s world operates on the same physical and socio-economic principles as ours, there’s a literal relationship between many of Succession’s representations and everyday life. Nevertheless, these representations are mediated by a specific kind of style that resides primarily in the work of the camera.

In my reading of Rancière, style is what allows us to avoid the ideology of theory by considering Madame Bovary in distinction to the thoughts and feelings of Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s style propels the text into a ‘literary’ formation of language that can eventually pass judgement on Emma Bovary’s greatest sin, which was to mistake art for life. In Madame Bovary’s mimetic mode, this judgement has consequences for the everyday discourses that concern art and life.

When it comes to Succession and the critics from the quote above, to practice the ideology of theory is also to mistake art for life. Perhaps this is understandable. Because the plot of Succession turns on literal plots cooked up between characters, one impulse is to try to get inside them, to understand their motivations and predict their actions. This is enjoyable, but quite difficult—even when Succession uses the handheld camera to get in characters’ faces, and even when it does so through long duration shots that would usually produce intimacy.

Consider Season 3, Episode 3, where Kendall follows the camera down a hallway after backing out of an interview on a late-night comedy show. The shot is tight on his face—he’s clearly feeling fucked up—and the bouncing camera mimics the shots we see of celebrities jostling towards their cars as they emerge from courthouses. These are stylistic features that complicate without overturning the dominant mimetic mode, because our experience is to observe rather than participate in Kendall’s emotion. When Kendall finally becomes vulnerable, sinking into the corner of the room in a kind of upright foetal position, the camera observes him from the other side of that room. We’re on his outside. We don’t necessarily have knowledge of his state of mind. We’re observing him scientifically.

This strong style is what makes an interpretation like this one so weak:

But if you make it past the pilot — in which, among other things, middle-son Roman tears up a million-dollar check just to mock a working class child — you will suddenly realize that you’ve started to sympathize with these extremely bad people … You will do this because, like it or not, they are the show’s protagonists; if you keep watching, there is no alternative.

It’s weak because, to return to the Kendall example, sympathy just isn’t commensurate with what’s given to us by the camera. We’re given his face, but his affect is flat. We’re given his vulnerability, but as a piece of quantitative, clinical information—his vulnerability doesn’t propel us into a sympathetic or empathetic state of awareness. We could try to sympathise by speculating about what’s going on in Kendall’s head, but really, to the extent that any of these characters have interiority at all, it could exist at best as desire in the Lacanian sense of a Big Other beyond our reach. Nor can we adequately use the eruption of desire into plot as a way to reverse-engineer an understanding of interiority, based on a character’s conduct—such an understanding could only last a second, because by then new information would have arrived, and we’d have to start the process again. (If you are a Lacanian, perhaps the characters really are starting to look like real people.)

But then, even if we could get past the problem of bringing our subjectivity to bear on this representation of the historical contingency of the subject, we need to learn our lesson about Emma Bovary, who was killed. We need to be clear that all of this character action and intention is mediated by the handheld camera, by style. In formal terms, this means that interiority is off the table as a qualitative value, as something we can know by feeling. We’re doing mimesis, but we’re not doing Madame Bovary; it’s mimesis as entertainment, not introspection.

In Kendall’s hallway scene, the closest we could get to feeling his interiority would be to associate the camera itself with his character. This logic would then have to apply to the text as a whole. Under that interpretation, we could argue that the camera in Succession appears to mimic characters’ states of mind, in that it’s dynamic, it moves, it has no idea where it’s going next. It wants to capture all of any given scene from many angles, even though that’s impossible. It’s plotting something.

But again, this is the wrong wording. More accurately, the style of the camerawork implicates itself in what may or may not be the characters’ states of mind. And the fact of this uncertainty makes our feeling a character’s possible state of mind impossible—we’re trapped in the conceptual order, trying to sort information, rather than being propelled into the reflective kind of contemplation that allows for sympathetic identification. In this way, Succession’s style is always showing how physically proximate yet emotionally distant we are from characters. This is omniscience, but drunk.

When I watched Kendall stumbling down the hallway, what was interesting wasn’t what he was feeling, but whether he had made the correct political decision. Maybe he should have just gone on the show; maybe the letter wasn’t that bad? To answer either question, Kendall’s state of mind is less relevant than his action. My mental state of awareness was being produced by the physically dynamic but emotionally distant camera. Even though I was thinking speculatively, my framework of evaluation of Kendall’s action wasn’t based in the morality of my world. Kendall isn’t teaching me anything; he’s a joke delivery machine. The work of the camera here is in separating Kendall from me, and indeed from all actually existing human beings.

If interiority and Flaubert-style mimesis are out, does it really matter who we identify with, or what the ‘politics’ of the show are, as the reviewers from the quotes above suggest? If it does matter, does it matter outside the very limited, moral and ethical discourses of standpoint theory that replicate what Hegel calls the politics of the ‘heart,’ in which what’s good is good, and so there is no need to reflexively evaluate value? Surely some interpretations are just bad, even wrong. Because the entertainment mode is the only mimetic one at work in the text, there’s just nothing to be gained by reading capitalism or morality or politics more generally onto the characters in the text from outside it. Nor is there any point in judging our own world with reference to the characters in Succession’s, by connecting the morality of individual characters to world historical phenomena like the Murdochs, or Trump, the pandemic, whatever. That transcendental transposition of text-world onto ours will never adequately deal with mediation and style, and so that’ll always lead back to the circular ‘depending on where you stand’ analysis too.

Simply put, the failure of the pieces by the LARB, The Week, and many others, is in running the wrong diagnostic on the wrong text.

With all of this in mind, perhaps the pleasure of Succession is about relinquishing our own schemes about the characters and plot, so we can just laugh at the jokes. This would be to enjoy the style of Succession. But it would also be to think of Succession as more of a sitcom than a drama. This kind of enjoyment is commensurate with the mode of representation: this is the mode of enjoying not knowing what happens next. It’s the mode of enjoyable surprise.

Under this framing, the politics of Succession reside in its comedy, in its jokes, rather than in clumsy attempts to map life to Succession, or vice versa, in order to extract its ‘politics’.

 

IV

In Season 3, Episode 2, we get a sort of bottle episode where the siblings meet with Kendall. We know they’re there for information, but we don’t know what motivates them individually. Roman’s constantly saying he’s ‘with Dad.’ Shiv seems to be hearing Kendall out, but her choice surely turns on who’s more likely to make her CEO, and that’s probably not Kendall. Connor doesn’t really matter, but I always like his appearances because they’re just so fucking degraded. All of these characters’ positions make sense and we can trust them to be true in a way, but there are no soliloquies in this show. The one consistency seems to be that they’re all self-interested, but prediction is hard because we’re being invited to consider something that actually doesn’t exist: these aren’t real people, and they only have motivations and desires to the extent that they’re given to us, and in Succession, what’s given is untrustworthy. We can only be so sure.

This scene really got me thinking that interiority is the only form of value not readily available to all of these Roys. This isn’t just about acquiring information, it’s about basing business decisions on the only input that can’t be controlled with money. Money motivates the characters and lets them deal with the problem of interiority uniquely, but the characters are constantly trying to figure out what everyone else thinks, so they can turn that qualitative information into a quantitative result. This is to identify other characters’ desires, and abstract them into a form of equivalence that can be traded in deals to get outcomes. Information is vital, but not for its truth-value. Perhaps, in the absence of interiority as a qualitative value, under Succession’s mimetic mode of representation we have the theme that underpins it, which is about turning information into money.

One point to make now is that aside from representing human beings, the characters of Succession are also enacting the privatisation of information media as such, which is the thematic conceit of the show. This complicates the mimetic regime of the text because it produces the opportunity for a symbolic, potentially allegorical, interpretation of not only its characters, but also an allegorical reading that takes interiority to represent the production and circulation of information media in general.

Because interiority is private property in the show (in both the allegorical and mimetic modes) this produces a kind of crisis of certainty. There are no facts in Succession, just situations, decisions, and deals. We’re truly living in the present. Having said that, one thing that does seem certain is that the privatisation of interiority is primarily an intra-ruling class concern. For money not to matter, you don’t just need a lot, you need to be a character capable of making business decisions of importance.

We’ve all seen the first episode where Roman offers a kid a million dollars to hit a home run. That kid isn’t really a human person to Roman. Whereas in Season 3, Episode 3, Connor says he’ll sign Shiv’s letter if he gets some ‘suck-suck on my dicky-dick.’ This could mean he just wants money, but the characters rarely ask for it if they can get a use-value instead. The fact that the dialogue happens at all means that even Connor, whose place in the pecking order is near the bottom, has some power. To Shiv, perhaps suck-suck means Connor isn’t going to sign. The cost of his interiority is too high, because the price is her power.

Then again, if interiority is inaccessible to the characters and to us, does it really make sense for me to say why Shiv might or might not engage with Connor’s banter? More importantly, does that kind of analysis let us enjoy what is one of the classic Succession-y jokes—a strange attempt at a hard-talk business idiom that comes out like the playground taunt of a preschooler? In other words, is such an interpretation of Shiv appropriate to Succession’s mode of representation?

Again, we don’t need to know what Shiv makes of Connor’s joke to find it funny. And maybe it’s funnier not knowing. Perhaps the presentation of the privatisation of interiority isn’t really an invitation to the audience to mimic the characters’ quest to acquire interiority for exchange. (Who would we exchange it with anyway? Our housemates? Is that fun?) If that’s the case, we’re on team camera. We’re watching Succession by strapping in and deferring the interpretation that leads to judgements of taste, and we’re also deferring the interpretation that leads to the acquisition of conceptual knowledge. It’s a romp.

This leads to a new and properly political question, which is about comparing the consequences of interpreting the show in its mimetic versus allegorical modes. On the one hand, we’re watching the ruling class produce interiority as a quantitative value for exchange, which makes it resemble a commodity. On the other, we’re watching the characters symbolise the production and circulation of information media more generally. Despite being framed as an intra-ruling class concern (it’s not exactly ‘alienation’ in the normal sense) this allegorical interpretation might lead to a discussion of reification.

In a recent conference keynote, Achille Mbembe said that ‘the masters don’t need their slaves anymore.’ It’s an interesting idea, because it suggests that the ruling class no longer require a working class to extract surplus value. This is certainly true of finance capital in real life. Perhaps it’s relevant to a representation that stages the privatisation of interiority.

In the mimetic mode, are we watching the representation of masters who don’t need us? If so, and if we’re on team camera, is the nature of the thematic conceit of the show being obscured by the mode of representation? Marx said the ideas of the ruling class are dominant in any epoch. If this is a sitcom, are we doing false consciousness? Are we enjoying Succession without adopting a critical attitude towards its aesthetic form, which is difficult to do, because of the combination of Succession’s strong cinematographic style and the inaccessibility of interiority, which produce the representation where the billionaires turn interiority into an exchange value? This seems a bit perverse. We know TV is bad for us, but is this the specific bad here—it’s a show that just makes us want more of it, or, if we’re a writer for the LARB, to impose a lazy literalism onto it? Is the real joke of Succession that there is nothing to actually get, nothing to actually learn about our world in it, other than by subjecting it to an unfashionable, potentially elitist, and difficult symptomatic critique? Perhaps this is where someone correctly tells me to stop reading Adorno, and that we should let people have nice things.

On the other hand, if this is allegory, perhaps our distance from the interiority of the characters opens up a more reparative (to use an annoying but appropriate word) channel of interpretation. If it’s allegorical, our distance from these characters might enable interpretations that let us understand some of the contradictions of capitalism—like the possibility that interiority can have an exchange value, and more than that, a value in quantitative but not qualitative form. But I wonder whether the powerful style of the show actually allows such interpretations, and also, whether it allows us to enjoy the show while making them.

At this point I make the critics’ choice. Not the random one that produces the ideology of theory, but the proper one that derives from a formal analysis of the aesthetic object. Allegory is off the table here, as we intuitively know from our own experiences of watching this show. Succession is not Flaubert and it’s not Brecht. This isn’t some sort of anti-sitcom. It’s politics of the heart stuff, and what our hearts are being told to want is to watch more show.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Michael Graham is a writer from Aotearoa, living in Naarm/Melbourne. He is a PhD Candidate and tutor at the University of Melbourne.

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Comments

  1. Meanwhile, in the real world, succession is happening within the Murdoch empire.
    Would that explain their recent backflip on climate change, or are they simply being expedient?

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