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  • Hey Wisecrack, it’s Jared again, and this week were delving into the dark and scandalous

  • world of politics with a show that goes right for thejugular: 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 system for the greater good.

  • House of Cards rejects this narrative, and instead offers us a system where raw power

  • and cunning wins everytime.

  • Despite this, the show isn’t a tale of evil triumphing over good. Rather, the question

  • that drives House of Cards seems to be: is there more to politics than pure spectacle?

  • So without further adieu:

  • In the cynical world of House of Cards, characters are constantly 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 being 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? Well, uh, nothingWell get to that.

  • The very structure of the show is a 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 its characters are inspired by Shakespeare

  • classics like Macbeth and Richard III, which inspire Frank’s charming asides about his

  • terrible behavior. Petrov, in his visit to the White House, even quotes Mikhail Gorbachev

  • quoting Richard III’s famous opening line.

  • Theater is just one facet of the political philosophy in House of Cards. Theater, aesthetics,

  • art, all point tothe 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, 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 and politics.

  • Contemporary commentators bemoan the fact that politics has become theater, with catchphrases

  • and slogans replacing real political argument. 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 the media’s chicanery. A brick through Frank’s window serves as

  • a symbol against out of control teachers, which, 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

  • theyre 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 (who were unfortunately

  • all men --sorry ladies) 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 Arendtian concept when he says:

  • 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. 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 to discover thetrueworld

  • 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, undermineone of the central tenants of this tradition: that there lies

  • an authentic reality behind the world of appearances. 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 Chloe, a kind boss

  • and one-time lover to Meecham, a supportive friend to Freddy, a job creator for the masses,

  • and a two-timing liar to...everyone else. Another angle of this problem is seen in Remy

  • and Jackie’s relationship, who are ultimately unable to reconcile their professional selves

  • with their authentic selves.

  • Through the show’s constant intermingling of art, theater and aesthetics, the show is

  • challenging old ideas about how reality operates.

  • The idea behind this argument isn’t that Frank Underwood is good, or the perpetual

  • lying of modern politicians is good, 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.

  • A hypocrite is someone who acts in a way that is inconsistent with their stated beliefs,

  • but more specifically, puts onfalse appearances”. Originally, the term comes from the Ancient

  • Greek words for play-acting - another hint that the politics of House of Cards is mere

  • theater.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.

  • The search for motives,”she says, “the demand that everybody displays [their] innermost

  • motivation...transforms all actors into hypocritesandhypocrisybegins to poison all human

  • relations.” The solution, for Arendt, is to realize that we have noability to distinguish

  • being and appearance.”After all, does Frank even know his true, unswerving 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 facade 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- somethingthat she must inhibitin order to

  • continue her quest for power. When Claire sees the news that Zoe Barnes has been killed,

  • she immediately turns to applying her makeup.

  • 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'd been seduced by his genuine bohemian lifestyle.

  • Unlike some TV characters, what drives Frank Underwood is amazingly simple. He wants power,

  • and will remind us every chance he gets.

  • 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 moks sand painting in Season 3. Also known as sand mandala, this

  • pratice of creating elaborate designs symbolizing the universe ends in a ritual destruction.

  • Frank is deeply annoyed by the Buddhist monks, and it’s no minor detail. 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 representthe 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’s civil war diorama is an interesting counterpoint to this - it’s a way to memorialize

  • Frank’s ancestors, before he destroys it as 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, Claireacknowledges 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 politicallife behind her despite the fact she toiled away for so

  • long on it.

  • Claire, too, struggles with legacy- but in a different manner. While she values and supports

  • Frank’s political ambition, she’s also discarded her own ambition: 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 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 legacythrough

  • 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 precarious --on the

  • verge of collapsing at any minute.

  • Frank is essentially striving for immortality, a not unfamiliar concept in the politics of

  • Ancient Greece, according to Arendt. 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 in our time.

  • 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 the media. 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? Why do people think of Peter Russo’s

  • phoenix out of ashes story? At othertimes, public opinion is something that can simply

  • be turned off.

  • Even the media, which our Constitution specifically protects as constitutive to our democracy,

  • is just a pawn as part of a larger political game. Zoe Barnes is fed information that’s

  • beneficial to Frank’s political machinations, Tom Yates is hired to writewhat 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 inthe Crisis of Parliamentary Democracythat

  • things like debate and openness have become a mere spectacle for the backroom dealings

  • of party leaders, such as, say, this.

  • 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 to our modern media

  • nightmare. Lies told by politicians and the media take on lives of their own, until information

  • circulates like commodities on the stock market. Frank and Zoe literally barter for information.

  • Her boss at the newspaper claims that before eventually getting canned, 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 herwork won’t be fact checked. Baudrillard says:

  • ore than just existing for its own sake, this circuit of information is seductive. Frank

  • Underwood is seductive, not only to his former classmate and Meecham, but to us the viewer

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • Aestheticscomes from the Greek word for sense and perception, and while we usually associate

  • it with how things look, it applies to our general sensory experience.

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Hey Wisecrack, it’s Jared again, and this week were delving into the dark and scandalous

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The Philosophy of House of Cards – Wisecrack Edition

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    羅紹桀   posted on 2016/03/04
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