Spy narratives and the spy as a locus for cultural fantasies


I decided I needed a copy of Intrigue: espionage and culture, by Allan Hepburn, when I read William J Palmer’s very warm review… Palmer is right – my copy’s already full of pencil lines and marginalia. Some statements I particularly enjoyed from this investigation into “the spy as a locus for cultural fantasies” (p.xv) include:

The spy’s identity is contingent …on violence as a cause for social change.” (p.xiii)

“…spies challenge narrow definitions of political agency. Ideology produces spies, but spies, like most people, temper ideology with private motives. Intrigue occurs where psychological and ideological commitments overlap and mask each other. The spy embodies ambiguous allegiances, some declared, some concealed. The spy therefore stands as a cipher for conflicts waged among national, international, familial, human, humanitarian, ethical, and romantic identities. A marionette in the theater of competing interests, the spy improvises roles by drawing on one or more of these identities at any given time. Acting a part, the twentieth-century fictional spy tells us that authenticity may be irrelevant to commitment or character. Indeed, a spy’s identity is often an illusion.” (p.xiv)

“The spy… is a symptomatic manifestation of ideologies that play out as historical events and as representations in fiction and film. (p.xv)

“Most of the narratives that I examine… are located in roughly contemporary time and therefore promote a conception of the thriller as a commentary on politics. As the expression of wish fulfillment, narratives of intrigue allow readers to engage their political imaginaries, to speculate on the nature of statehood and citizenship. As documents of recruitment and survival, spy narratives allegorize civic responsibility by figuring competing loyalties to one’s country, one’s family, or oneself.” (p.xv)

Fear of death and fear of being caught motivate spies’ actions. Yet no adequate definition of fear as an aesthetic effect exists, especially when aesthetic effects have a political valence. Fear has its own properties and consequences. I define the cathartic implications of fear and thrills, which bring various individuals – readers, deviants, spies – into line with dominant ideology. The thrill, a bodily event, destabilizes individuals and frequently results in conformity with, not revolt against, the state. In the thrill, catharsis is neither ideologically neutral nor aesthetically pure. Spy thrillers imply that political commitments are ambiguous, in that spies rarely adhere to a single ideology. They manipulate social and political codes to their advantage, and their bodies are made to signify, in encoded fashion, split allegiances.” (p.xvi)

Figured as games or puzzles, espionage narratives blur meaningful details with meaningless details. Interpretation requires vigilant separation of truth from lies.” (p.xvi)

“The spy, by definition, eludes representation.” (p.xvii)

Intrigue plots create and manage crises of belonging. In effect, a spy belongs nowhere.” (p.11)

“The Edwardian thriller creates ways of representing the spy’s body that carry through the twentieth century. Fear of invasion from without in Childers’s novel masks dangerous doubleness within the body politic and within the body itself. Paranoia concerning allegiance and commitment appears on the body as a telltale sign. Carruthers and Davies read [-p.12] bodies for clues about motive and allegiance. They scrutinize tics, gestures, scars, and accents that belie treachery in their foes. Not fully in charge of its desires and convictions, the spy’s body announces various kinds of treachery. …Both sides suspect that the other is hatching plots, and the way to uncover those plots is through a scrupulous monitoring of the body. …According to the laws of spy narratives, the subject has no control over physical manifestations of identity. The spy’s body registers national identities in physical characteristics, voice, and gestures.” (pp.11-12)

“The spy’s appeal is his ambiguity, his articulation of doubts, violence, and mixed motives. The spy’s body – a vessel, a valise, a vault – contains hidden allegiances and predispositions. Disguised as a meek professor or ordinary bloke, the spy conceals his corporeality because it is a liability to his mission as an [-p.14] agent.” (pp.13-14)

“Typically, the spy represses desires that issue from the body, including sexual desires and the desire to commit to a single purpose. The spy’s body expresses a dialectic of mind over body, in which the body executes orders issued from the brain, command post of the human organism.” (p.14) “…narratives of intrigue represent the spy’s body in unusual ways by comparison with other narratives or generic types. Semiotics of the spy’s body include his idiosyncratic relation to libidinal energies. The spy frequently resists pleasure or separate it from his clandestine activities. Or, as in the allegations leveled at Mata Hari and Christine keeler, sex is deemed useful as a means to obtain information.” (p.14)

“Reading sex and romance in spy narratives allows us to see how the male spy’s body figures as invulnerable to sentiment, including the sentiments of effeminacy, happiness, sadness, or charm. Love is a weakness for the male spy; sex, a betrayal. Love or sex figures as a pause in the momentum of intrigue narratives, a reward for punishments inflicted on the [-p.15] male body. The spy does not typically seek romance, although it arises with great frequency as a compensation for the spy’s disconnectedness from communities and social orders. Being out in the cold leads to a desire to come in from the cold. With great frequency, romance contributes to the downfall of the spy….” (pp.14-15)

More than this, Hepburn points out, with reference to Bourne’s relationship with St. Jacques, “The male spy has sex not because it interests him, but because it proves that his wounds cannot interfere with his mobility. (p.15)

Technology increasingly invades the agent’s body during the twentieth century.” (p.17) Indeed, “The spy’s body is an investment. As technology encroaches on the body, as microchips are implanted in brains and vision is enhanced with computers, the spy is pushed to new limits of inhumanity, of struggles that have nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with gamesmanship. In scenarios where the spy is technologized, his body belongs to the state and is manipulated like a pawn in a game that proves the arbitrariness of ideology. (p.17)

“Espionage is not strictly a novelistic phenomenon, nor a twentieth-century one. Literature and spying have a long intertwined lineage. […However,] Spies become novelistic creatures in the nineteenth century.” (p.18)

Recurrent tropes in spy fiction acquire new meanings when located in different narratives, since variations in representation bring variations in signification. The problem of intrigue narratives is not one of formulaic repetition, but of interpreting repetition as a clue to ideologically sensitive material.” (p.22)

“…narratives of intrigue pose riddles of political identity. These riddles are often represented as a spy’s lack of knowledge or a deficiency in a spy’s agency. Spy fiction speculates on the meaning of action in different scenarios.” (p.22)

“False action compounds epistemological crises in spy narratives. Recruited into ideology, the reader, like the spy possesses imperfect information about plots, counterplots, and laws that circumscribe subjectivity. Secret agents are out of touch with their operators. They are figures who do not know or do not know enough. Through their ignorance, they challenge epistemology. One never possesses enough knowledge, yet one is forced to act nevertheless.” (p.23) [and here I couldn’t help thinking about the position of adolescents in society – and their representation as spies in various children’s/YA fictions…]

And again, I thought of adolescent fiction when Hepburn writes: “The spy’s performance turns anxious when he loses sight of his allegiances or forgets the rules of the game, when the unconscious threatens to overwhelm conscious control. What he does not know about himself, or about the plot in which he has been implicated, will result in rash action. Out of anger or miscalculation, Richard Hannay, James Bond, and Jason Bourne sometimes make stupid moves that jeopardize their safety. Ignorance motivates their decisions.” (p.23)

“Narratives of intrigue play up and play on the fears of individuals who are at a loss about their place in the social order. Fear is useful, indeed indispensable, in the making of political subjects.” (p.23)

The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity, as a narrative of intrigue, represents the relation of character to action as a puzzle. Intrigue means the underhanded machinations of the state, though it refers equally – in Ludlum’s thriller and in spy fiction generally – to the fundamental obscurity of identity in relation to convictions, belonging, citizenship, and agency.” (p.4)

Ludlum’s novel can be taken as representative of spy fiction. The Bourne Identity defines political subjectivity as a mysterious, if thrilling, set of contradictions – mysterious principally to the agent who lives out the consequences of those contradictions. While exploiting espionage tropes of recruitment, codes, thrills, chases, fear, bodily durability, violence, enmity, darkness, and disappearance, The Bourne Identity suggests that every corpse has a position in history.” (p.5)

“…novels of intrigue involving spies provide speculations on the duties of citizenship. Certain unjust acts, if undertaken rationally to combat other unjust acts, are not judged by universal laws but according to the contexts in which they transpire. …Spy novels worry about the disequilibrium of justice for individuals over and against justice for a polity. Should a citizen remain faithful to a political regime that denies liberties to its citizens? Spies are emblems of doubt insofar as they [-p.6] live at a distance from conviction and keep testing allegiances.” (pp.5-6)

Like most spy novels, The Bourne Identity demonstrates that clandestine agency requires a body. If, as I have suggested, the spy emblematizes disagreement with ideology, that disagreement can be measured by harm inflicted on the spy’s person.” (p.8) In spite of the many wounds Bourne suffers, Hepburn explains, he remains mobile – a mobility that reflects the political situation in which his actions and identity have meaning. (It’s a really interesting and convincing argument).

“Like other spy thrillers, The Bourne Identity makes the narration of the body meaningful within a political paradigm.” (p.10)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Allan Hepburn (c2005) Intrigue: espionage and culture. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

Ref: Palmer, William J. (2006) Spies and Their Novelists Contemporary Literature, Volume 47, Number 3, Fall , pp. 497-501 [Review of: Allan Hepburn, Intrigue: Espionage and Culture. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2005. 352 pp. $35.00.]


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