Friday, June 3, 2011

How do you unsee someone?

This past semester, I got to teach a course on modern fantasy literature at Valparaiso University.  It was probably the greatest class I've ever taught, not just because I loved what I was teaching, but because I had some of the best students I've ever had.  They were all really excited about the course material, and that made them that much more engaged in the readings, the assignments, and the class discussions.The City and The City

One discussion that was a particular highlight of the class was a student-led discussion of China Miéville's The City and The City.  Hilary Madinger and Christine Albain came up with an extremely well-conceived exercise to get the class to understand the mechanics of one of the central ideas of Miéville's novel--unseeing.  [Warning: spoilers after the jump]

The City and The City is, as you know if you have read the novel (and if you haven't, why are you still here?  Go read it first, and then come back for this!), a murder mystery featuring Inspector Tyador Borlú, a resident of the city of Besźel.  While the book starts out seeming like a fairly standard mystery story, there is a key moment at the end of the first chapter where Borlú sees someone that he realizes he shouldn't, and then he unsees her.  This moment introduces the key difference between this novel and a standard murder mystery: the city of Besźel is crosshatched with the city of Ul Qoma--that is, they exist in the same physical space, with some areas being part of both cities at once.  What keeps the two cities separate are the residents themselves and the everpresent threat of Breach, which is a mysterious power that is invoked if a resident of one city commits the crime of seeing something in the other city.  Because of this, unseeing is as important as seeing is, as it enables the residents of the two cities to maintain their cultural identities and their ways of life.

Many of the recurring questions of my class's discussion of Miéville's novel hinged on the nature of unseeing.  Was it conscious action or involuntary reflex?  What were the ethical implications of unseeing someone?  How could you go through life living like this?  Hilary and Christine developed an exercise that proved to be very useful in answering many of these questions about what it means to unsee someone.

The setup:

Students were split into two groups, with members interspersed among each other.  They were told that they would be engaging in a discussion with only the members of their own group.  They were also told that they were forbidden to interact with members of the opposite group in any way, and if they did, they would be removed from the discussion by "Breach."  I played the role of Breach.  The class had about 22 students.

What happened:

Hilary and Christine each led one of the discussions, and they started by asking very similar questions--something along the lines of "Describe the characteristics of Besźel/Describe the characteristics of Ul Qoma."  Students were a bit hesitant at first--they clearly didn't want to misstep and interact with someone they shouldn't even be acknowledging.  Slowly, however, students got braver, and the class engaged in two very lively discussions.  Very few people breached, or even came close to it, which was impressive, especially given their initial hesitation.


After the exercise, we talked about what had happened and how that affected our understanding of seeing and unseeing.  Here are some of the highlights:
  • Several students commented on the importance of establishing reference points.  One student said that once she figured out that two of the students directly across from her were in her group, she worked to maintain eye contact with them, since that kept her firmly grounded in the right group.
  • Christine pointed out that many of the questions that she and Hilary were asking were actually very basic, but that students were jumping all over themselves to answer them.  She noted that students were actually more engaged than they had been in past discussions and speculated that this higher level of engagement made it easier for students not to breach.
  • As far as my role in the exercise, I actually found it very difficult to play the role of Breach.  It was nearly impossible to tell where exactly students were looking, and I found myself jumping at the slightest possible infraction.

Overall, we came to the conclusion that unseeing was more a matter of intensely focusing on what you should be seeing, rather than intensely ignoring what you shouldn't.  The intense level of the discussion raised a whole new set of questions about whether or not living in a place like Besźel/Ul Qoma might actually be a better way to live, because it requires residents to be more active participants in their own lives.  If I were to tweak the exercise in the future, I would give more students the opportunity to play the role of Breach, since the difference between seeing only one group and trying to observe both was very noticeable, and could be helpful in understanding why Borlú couldn't resume his old life at the end of the novel.  I also wouldn't try the exercise with many more than 25 students--one of the biggest challenges for the students was engaging with other students who had their backs turned to them, which is pretty much unavoidable when you get much bigger than 25.  Overall, though, this was a great exercise that brought to life one of the key themes in Miéville's novel--and it was a lot of fun!