Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

There is a lot to like about this book. In the preface, Chwe acknowledges his friends and colleagues “in reverse alphabetical order” (xi). My first impression was that he is funny and sounds like a nice guy—showing gratitude to UCLA for hiring both him and his wife and thus “making [their] family life possible”  and then teasing the modern reader who just might be reading these words “on some sort of device with an off switch” (xii).  Chwe argues that “exploring strategic thinking, theoretically and not just for practical advantage, is Austen’s explicit intention” and that Austen’s novels show that “strategizing together in a partnership is the surest foundation for intimate relationships” (1). He proposes that the use of game theory “allows us to interpret many details” that we often gloss over while reading Austen and allows Austen to explore “several explanations for cluelessness” (3). He explains game theory using specific examples from Austen, so I had no trouble understanding the diagrams (game trees), though when I first saw them, I was concerned this might not be for me. Austen, Chwe tells us, coined the term “imaginist,” which is “possibly the first specialized term for game theorist” (in Emma, no less!) (183).

Where Chwe stays focused on Austen, he makes some interesting points. Among them:

*”Strategic thinking is not the same as selfishness” (6).

*”Austen considers an individual as being composed of multiple selves, which negotiate with each other in a great variety of ways” (6).

*Preferences change (6).

*Constancy “is not passive waiting but is rather an active, strategic process [that] requires understanding of the other’s mind and motivations” (6).

*Though “some critics argue that rational choice theory glorifies selfishness and asociality, . . . for Austen, insisting upon the right to choose according to one’s own preferences is not selfish but subversive” (9).                                                                                                                                                       *”For Austen, choices bind. You can’t have it both ways” (99).

*”An inability to make choices can stem from a lack of resolution, which Austen consistently decries” (100).                                                                                                                                                                          *Having your “plan backfire demonstrates your strategic ineptitude better than having no plan at all” (112).

*Arguing with children, the way Mrs. Bennet (with Charlotte’s brother) or Mrs. Norris (with Dick Jackson) do, does not elevate you in the mind of Austen (112-113).

*Feelings do not need to interfere or be at odds with logical thought; in fact, emotion and cognition “are often integrated so that they jointly contribute to behaviour” (117 quoting Pessoa).

*Habits, too, though Chwe argues persuasively that Austen acknowledges that habits can affect behavior” but “does not like them,” are “not necessarily opposed” to rational choice (123).

*”Principles and rules are important to Austen, and people are often condemned for having poor or nonexisting ones,” but “Austen notes that the relationship between principles and choice is not so simple” (125).                                                                                                                                                        *Austen considers constancy a virtue and understands it as “fundamentally a strategic process” (167).

*Austen’s great heroes and heroines with strategic thinking prowess must learn “to realize that other people can think differently from” how they do (178).

*”A successful manipulation is always possible if you are creative enough” (185).

Strategic thinking does not have all positive results, however, and Chwe shows that Austen deals with those, too. In a rephrased discussion of sense and sensibility as ways to live, Chwe says Austen “acknowledges the importance of emotion, but intense feelings help her heroines choose better, not worse” (30). Rather than idealizing “a world in which everyone always acts strategically,” Austen “considers the disadvantages of strategic thinking” (30).  Austen, Chwe says, unlike most game theorists who “rarely go this far,” does recognize the downsides of thinking strategically (171). These include “mental effort,” constant requests by people who know your strategic skills to use them on specific occasions, “a more complicated moral life” than those of people without the gift, a greater sense of regret caused by holding yourself “responsible for a wider range of outcomes,” and pain (171-73). The reverse is also true: the lack, or apparent lack, of strategic thinking can be viewed as charming, sincere, safe, worthy even of confidence (174-75).

But Chwe does not stay focused on Austen for very long. He talks a lot about the research that has come before him and how his differs, largely in that the claim is stronger: “literary works such as Austen’s novels and African American folktales are game theory, written and told with the explicit objective of theoretically analyzing strategic thinking” (31). Chwe takes the reader through several African American folktales (such as Flossie and the fox) and has seemingly random political ideas to toss into his argument. In the process, the text demonstrates strange violations of “the rules”: citing mid-sentence, not shifting the pronoun for consistency within quotations, and re-establishing for each citation which book he’s citing, even when it is already clear (52). I expected better.

In the first of the Austen chapters (by the time Chwe got us there, I was really eager to read about the Austen, game theorist, the title had promised me), he first ranks the six novels in terms of “the depth of their concern” with strategic thinking (49). Pride and Prejudice he ranks least concerned because both central figures have “been well equipped [with strategic skills] from the start” (49). Emma, by contrast, demonstrates the “dangers of learning too well” and of being “overconfident” in one’s strategic ability (49). In his summary and subsequent analysis of Pride and Prejudice, Chwe suggests that Lydia “knows that her best shot at marrying with any money at all is to create a crisis situation in which wealthier members of the extended family . . . must bail her out to preserve the family reputation,” but I think such a claim negates what the novel shows us about Lydia’s character: she acts on whims, is overly romantic in nature, and doesn’t concern herself with the family’s reputation (as opposed to her own in the sense that she’d like everyone to be talking about how young she is to marry, how handsome her husband is, etc) (53). He gives Mrs. Bennet too much credit in supposing she may have set up the card game anticipating that Elizabeth won’t play and will leave the room, thus freeing Mrs. Bennet to get everyone else out so Bingley can be alone with Jane and propose already (139).

In his summary of Sense and Sensibility, Chwe makes some interesting observations in astute language. He says, for instance, that Marianne begins with strong strategic skills, but that hers “require recalibration” (54). He says that “strategic skills do not have to be used for mercenary purposes . . . One can be a strategic Elinor without being a gold digger Lucy” (57). Though I’m not sure I can support Chwe’s suggestion that Marianne allows “herself to become ill . . . to motivate Willoughby’s journey of return” and to “hasten her mother’s arrival,” at least with that claim, Chwe acknowledges that “perhaps we are making the . . . mistake . . . [of] seeing strategic premeditation where none exists” (59). There is a fascinating discussion of Elinor Dashwood’s philosophy, which Chwe says is “Austen’s defense of independent thought” (129). It is one thing to alter behavior to fit “norms of what is socially expected, but you cannot allow [other people] to affect your judgment or thought processes” (129).

For Persuasion, Chwe suggests that Anne and Wentworth are “guided from start to finish” by Mrs. Croft, Captain Harville, and Charles Musgrove! (67) it’s an interesting claim to watch him try to prove, but I’m not quite convinced.

In the section about Northanger Abbey, Chwe argues that, since “strategic skills are not inborn” and Catherine Morland has not acquired many when the Bath opportunity first arises, she goes through an education with respect to understanding other people’s feelings and anticipating their behavior based on that understanding (67). (If that’s true, how does Susan Price in MP have “much good sense” even without having had “no cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts”? 83) He gives Catherine more strategic credit, though, in an least one instance, than I think Austen does, saying when Catherine demurs in response to Thorpe’s suggestions that an old song announces that “going to one wedding brings on another,” she does so because she is “more than prepared” now to “make her own decisions” (69). I think she really still does not understand his suggestion (which is why she later is appalled that Isabella thinks there’s a future between Thorpe and Catherine). In the harshest criticism I recall reading of Henry Tilney, Chwe argues he, in essence, does not take Catherine’s concerns about Captain Tilney seriously and demonstrates “repeated mild negligence” rather than loyal friendship (145).

I was already somewhat divided between enjoying Chwe’s sometimes far-fetched explanations and scoffing at them when Mansfield Park analysis arrived, interrupted by political claims.  When discussing Rushworth’s decision to follow Maria and Henry, Chwe adds: “another example [of the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy] is the U.S. reluctance to disengage from Vietnam” (77). He’s welcome to whatever political views he wants, but if I’m promised a text on Jane Austen as a Game Theorist, I’m really not signing up for what turned out to be a whole host of at best, annoying, and at worst, highly offensive political diatribes from the professor.

Not all is lost, however, in the Mansfield Park section, in which Chwe draws an interesting link between Fanny learning to trust her own judgment and not always Edmund’s and Anne Elliot having to do the same with Lady Russell in Persuasion (80). Chwe likens Fanny’s behavior of “active listening” in securing Edmund’s heart to both Lucy Steele’s in getting Robert Ferrars and Charlotte Lucas’ in getting Mr. Collins (85). Fanny, he argues, is the only heroine who “makes a decision in the face of everyone’s active opposition, without a single supporter” (85). I had never thought of her in that way (“hard-core,” he terms it), but that’s true! (85) Emma, by contrast, is a “corrective for those impressed by their own abilities” (including, in strategic thinking) (86). I didn’t like the comparison of Emma taking “up Harriet’s improvement as her personal project” to Henry Crawford’s doing the same with Fanny Price—they’re not the same at all! After he reiterates Austen’s argument that “strategic partnership is the truest foundation for marriage and intimacy,” he then goes right into the regular partnership between Mr. Knightley and Emma (such clear evidence) but interestingly then to Fanny and Edmund (141). I had forgotten Fanny’s line: “Do not check yourself. Tell me whatever you like,” which so reminds me of Emma forcing herself to hear Mr. Knightley when she thinks he’ll be sharing feelings she does not like (143).

I eagerly anticipated Chwe’s chapter on “Austen and Cluelessness,” in which he analyzes five explanations Austen offers for cluelessness with their requisite examples from the novels (188). Unfortunately, though there were light, Austen moments, such as poor Mr. Collins having “all four” characteristics of weak strategic thinkers, too much of this chapter and the rest of the book focused on topics that were not Jane Austen at all—and not appropriate for this type of text (194). Such observations range from the slightly ridiculous citing of a scholar who “finds many . . . Autistic spectrum character traits in Pride and Prejudice” such as “Mr. Darcy’s dislike of dancing [which he says] is shared by people on the autistic spectrum, who often find it difficult to coordinate their body movements, especially with others” (193). Perhaps Chwe forgets that Mr. Darcy doesn’t actually dislike dancing with someone he likes.

Then the observations became political again. I was able to gloss over the other ramblings, however incongruous they seem. When he claims that “perhaps people think strategically only if they have to,” and people who consider themselves lower-class are more likely to “spend the mental effort to think strategically” than people, say, with college degrees, because they are more often “buffeted by the actions of others” and thus “need to,” I could read, ponder “hmm, that’s an interesting view, but I don’t think so” and move on (212). When he begins with an “argument,” which suggests, as each does in Paradise Lost, that the average reader may need things spelled out for him, and then makes some surprising links between Austen and African American folktellers, both of whom, he argues, “speak as outsiders” and “build a theory of strategic thinking not to better chase a Soviet submarine but to survive,” I could do the same (2). Even when he throws in the one-liner that “one problem with making threats (nuclear escalation, for example) is that they can be very costly to carry out,” I could still wait eagerly for more analysis of Austen (48). But then he goes too far.

In his chapter on “real-world cluelessness,” he concludes with his illustration of what he calls “the relevance of cluelessness in the real world . . . the U.S. attack on Fallujah in 2004” (211). I admit freely I did not go into this with an open mind. Certainly there are many nations in the world who have made greater errors—both in strategic thinking and in basic morality—than the modern United States. I’m not a fan of attacking our own just because here, we can. On the journey to his point, he shamelessly compares Lady Catherine’s presumption in trying to force Elizabeth to promise not to marry Mr. Darcy to the U.S. insistence that Ho Chi Minh stop “supporting insurgents against the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon” during the war (215). Perhaps for Chwe, this was just an intellectual exercise (what political links can I draw between Austen’s novels and the bad behavior of the greatest democracy in the world?), but I found his suggestions offensive and forced, and his language crudely biased (calling U.S. troops, for instance, “an occupying power” in Iraq) (215, 221). Even that, however, didn’t prepare me for Chwe’s egregious attack on L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, who, after four U.S. Military contractors were ambushed and killed and then “their bodies  . . . mutilated and hung from a bridge” by Iraqi insurgents, spoke to the new graduates of the Bagdad police academy, reminding them that they stand for “the honorable of majority” of Iraqis who are putting “to shame the human jackals who defiled the streets of Fallujah” by committing this atrocity” (225-26). Chwe’s emphasis is on the use of the word “jackal” and how it shows “cluelessness” of the enemy. He then suggests that such a choice led to the inevitable subsequent use of weapons by the Fallujah Brigade to kill innocent people (227). Chwe’s suggestion is shameful—and he is certainly not the possessor, in this case at least, of the supposed understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings he claims we all should be if we can.

Overall, I enjoyed many of the sections of this book, primarily the ones that actually dealt with what the title promises: Jane Austen and game theory. When Chwe segued into his other interests, cultural myths, autism, and world politics, I found myself less interested and more disappointed.

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Published in: on September 22, 2013 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment  

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