Stay away from Armitage! The “B” reading

The “A” reading was here.

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Not intentionally a subversive subtext: Richard Armitage with an unidentified fan who’s been cropped out of the picture, London, May 4, 2010, outside Radio 1 studios. The point is that all evidence has to be critiqued carefully; it can’t ever be taken at face value. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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So, having established that the “A” reading of the statement first of all offers no actual bearing on the truth or falsity of the assertion above, and indeed, gives us rather meager information for answering any questions at all about what Armitage thinks about fans and their behavior, we move on to the “B” reading(s) of the text, which is the minimum interpretive level we need to achieve in order to connect his statements to his sentiments about fans. The “B” reading diverges from the “A” reading in that it allows us to employ additional tools; we may insert textual and contextual clues from the text to interpret the statement, as well as linguistic convention, verbal or nonverbal cues (which we don’t really have, here), and common-sense conclusions based on our own experiences with everyday interlocutors. At the same time, it shares with the “A” reading the (perhaps shaky) assumption that Armitage means what he is saying in this interview, and does not have any motive beyond communication of his honest answer to the questions he’s being asked.

The argument that the text snippet means that Armitage wishes never to meet fans spontaneously is really a “B” reading, even though it is has called itself an “A” reading, one assumes to use an Occam’s Razor-style justification. It relies, however, on additional textual and contextual clues and assumptions. This reading suggests, for instance, that the interpreter has concluded that people who ask for autographs are fans, which causes Armitage to dislike meeting fans because they are asking him to do something he prefers not to do. We should note, however, that potential dislike for this activity might not be limited to spontaneous fan interactions. While it is plausible to assume that some people who seek autographs are fans who seek to meet Armitage spontaneously, this is not necessarily the case. Autograph seekers — and note, Armitage does not say that he dislikes autograph seekers or even meeting them, but only signing autographs in the street — could also follow the cultural practice of standing at stage doors, which would be a non-spontaneous meeting insofar as it is typically considered part of the professional life of a theatre actor to encounter fans at the stage door from time to time. Armitage could be saying here simply that he dislikes stage-door encounters with fans, or with autograph seekers — but these would not be the inappropriate attempts to meet him that the interpreter specifies are the target of this statement. They would, indeed, be completely appropriate, culturally accepted attempts to meet him; though, of course, Armitage might still dislike them. Indeed, although many recent pictures show him smiling while giving autographs, this evidence could be entirely deceptive. I say more about that possibility below.

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Deer in the flashbulbs? Richard Armitage leaves the Old Vic Theatre, London, England, after the 24 Hour Plays Celebrity Gala, November 21, 2010. Screencap from this cell phone video.

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Proximity of statements can also be an important contextual clue; in extrapolating her interpretation, this reader also appears to rely on a plausible but inconclusive reading of the previous paragraph, which does concern fans and their attitudes, but is arranged by the interviewer in a way so confusing as to yield little helpful information for interpreting Armitage’s statement. First, the interviewer attributes an attitude or a behavior to Armitage’s fans by inference, but this is not a conclusion drawn by Armitage himself (Armitage does not say, “I fear the possibility that fans will try to see me night after night,” although the arrangement of the paragraph implies that this might be the possibility to which he is reacting in the later quotation). Indeed, the only quotation from Armitage in this entire paragraph is that the role under discussion for him in The Rover would be “very different” from his previous engagements. Second, the interview then jumps from fans who might like to see Armitage on stage repeatedly to the organization of his fans on the Internet, which may or may not involve congruent groups. But the proximity of the statement about fan sites to the interviewer’s placement of the pronoun referent of the thing that Armitage does not like (“the recognition and attention that come with television work”) make it equally plausible to conclude that Armitage feels that he has a lot of Internet fans because of television, and so what he doesn’t really like is not fans who he might encounter at stage doors, but the unwanted recognition and attention from television work — fans he might not have had, had his career on stage prevented him from working in television — of which the virtual presence of his fans witnessed in three Internet sites is a symptom. In other words, we could also conclude equally plausibly from the statement that Armitage doesn’t like his virtual fans. Naturally, plenty of extraneous evidence is available to contradict that conclusion, but it is a possible reading of this article.

So the “B” reading must occupy itself heavily with the meaning of the pronoun “it,” and the referent the interviewer supplies for it (“recognition” and “attention”). Any good faith interpreter must thus add, here, that the term “recognition” is in itself vaguely employed by the interviewer. Armitage could be saying, “I don’t like to be recognized as Richard Armitage on the street,” or equally, “I do not like to have my work acknowledged in any way; I prefer to do the job and not be praised or noticed for it,” or both. I mention this ambiguity because an equally plausible “B” reading here might be the following: That Armitage doesn’t dislike spontaneous encounters with fans, per se, but rather that his problem involves doing things that draw attention to himself — an apparent wrinkle in his personality that fans have noted before. Spontaneous fan encounters on the street would then be a reminder that people are noticing him; but the problem isn’t the fans, but rather the attention. He could be happy or at least willing to meet fans, in other words, but cringing in advance about the praise that they have a tendency to pour over him.

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Standing around on stage, showing off in musical theatre: the figure in the blue wifebeater at the center of the photo is thought by many fans to be Richard Armitage in rehearsal for Cats in London’s West End (1994). Source: RAFrenzy.com

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Such a reading would require us to adduce his statement about the reasons for his discomfort with musical theater as the primary contextual clue for understanding his later statements. According to this interview, Armitage didn’t like musical theater because it was not sufficiently “truthful,” “too theatrical,” and “all about … showing off.” If this material is the context for his statement about work, then we might conclude that the sense in which he dislikes recognition is not so much the attention to his person, as the tendency in certain kinds of performance situations for the performer to be mugging to the crowd. Signing autographs “in the street” (a public place) would then be a feature of a performer who’s seeking to draw attention to himself, something that apparently filled Armitage with enough unease as a younger performer that it caused him to seek out a different career path; he contrasts “signing autographs” in his statement to “getting on with the job,” which is the acting — rather than the display of self to the admiring crowd. In short, he’d rather work than take the credit for it. This particular “B” reading thus concentrates on Armitage’s statements as a description of his own state of mind, rather than a description of his reaction to the fans.

A last matter regarding the “B” readings: Various fans I’ve talked to have noted that this interview ends with an apparent bomb, and that was also one of my initial reactions to it at the time, so it’s worth spotlighting the rather explosive parting shot which Armitage is quoted as making:

First of all, I find it unlikely, though possible, that that’s the statement with which Armitage actually concluded the interview. I suspect that this is a strategic intervention by the interviewer for reasons of which I’m unaware and which my lack of interest in the “D” reading for our purposes means I won’t explore. One strong possibility is that the journalist is participating in the typical cultural vilification of fans — we make a cheap target for journalists even as, or not least because, we fill the pockets of media conglomerates. (In this light, I found Peter Jackson’s statements at ComicCon, or in vblog #8, I don’t recall exactly, that fans are exactly the kind of people he wants to hang out with, sweet, even if they were potentially made out of pecuniary motivations.) Second, however, in a conversation I had about this interview recently, the one that finally motivated me to sit down and detail my thoughts on the spurious evidentiary usage of this quote as linked above, a fellow U.S.-ian said, “the end of that interview practically makes him sound churlish — that can’t be what he intended.” No, indeed; one hardly thinks so; even if he feels churlish, it’s hardly in his interest to sound that way, and he so rarely does that one almost always ends up concluding that either Armitage had a terrible day, or the tendentious interest or bad mood of the interviewer took uppermost. But parsing this interview, given its organization, makes a lot come down to what Armitage could possibly mean by the statement, “Because I am polite.”

This statement offers a gorgeous demonstration for the problematic position of the literal interpreter, because I suspect that the explanation that one does something because one is polite has a slightly different valence in the U.S. than it might in the UK, where conventions for expressing negative judgments are more clearly regulated. (So that, admittedly, “don’t really like” might be more emphatic than I tend to think it is, at first.) To put it bluntly, one might hypothesize that in the U.S., being polite is an expression of falseness, while in the UK, it is a demonstration of one’s character. My own first reading of this article had me paraphrasing his statement as, “I try to respond to people who exert themselves on my behalf and write long letters [only] because I am polite.” The mood of doing something because it is polite in the U.S. plays into our discourse about the value of openness in feelings — at least since the 1960s, many Americans have been preoccupied by the supposed contradiction between sincerity and manners. Action that stems from genuine feeling is real, while manners are feigned. On that reading, Armitage would be saying, “I’m not responding because I want to, but because politeness demands it of me.” On that reading, the interview ends with Armitage expressing a grudging resentment that he must respond to people who take a lot of time to write thoughtful letters. Politeness requires that a performer who’d rather not do so acknowledge the accolades of his audiences. Blech. If we read the closing quote that way, it sounds indeed like Armitage wishes his fans would go away. This is not a response specifically to spontaneous fan meetings, but taken as a contextual clue to the meaning of his earlier statement about signing autographs, it could imply that he finds it all a lot of bother and all the evidence of pleasant interactions with him in situations both planned and unplanned is generated by a gargantuan act of will on his part. This act of will explains why he’s almost always photographed smiling both in fan candids and in autograph settings like that at ComicCon — because he makes himself do it — and thus undermines any evidence for the possibility that he has enjoyed meeting fans spontaneously.

You’ll object that that reading is unnecessarily and unwarrantedly hyperbolic. Yes. I exaggerate the features of that reading for two reasons. First, because I think it’s a subtext in the first “B” reading, which emphasized Armitage’s desire not to see his fans at any times other than he can anticipate doing so in advance. The second reason, however, is that I’m trying to make it ridiculous. I honestly don’t think that’s what Armitage meant to say.

Two reasons for this conclusion fit into the second “B” reading, which is about the statement as a function of Armitage’s reluctance to be noticed and dislike of actions that make it seem he’s showing off. The first is the general significance of manners in the UK as signs of breeding and social adroitness; when one’s there, one realizes that they take on an importance as a social sign in ways that are profoundly different from their role in the U.S., because the shadings of British class structure are so subtly different. Not showing off is a much more important component of manners in the UK than it is in the U.S. More significantly for Armitage as an individual, however, I want to refer back to a post I made about manners following Ms. Betty Pattison’s death, because it caused me to look at the Pattison College website carefully to see what kind of training Armitage had gotten. A statement about the school mission that moved me and which seems relevant here: “The school is not academically selective and will accept pupils whom it considers would benefit from a traditional education where discipline, hard work, consideration for others and good manners are an important part of the school ethos.” That’s a fascinating statement from a school that’s training future performers — the point being that the school trains its pupils not to put themselves forward, but to fit into a working team, and that these attitudes are skills applicable not only to the stage but to life in general. If we consider this statement, as well as the remarks that Armitage made about the role the school and Ms. Pattison played in developing his character at her memorial service, the statement, “Because I am polite” is not a grudging response to attention he doesn’t want, but an ethical statement about his own behavioral choices. He’s expressing not resentment, but a central piece of his way of being that allows him to distinguish between frivolous attention that comes because of a performer’s preening for the screen, and which should not be taken seriously or perhaps even shunned, and the attention that comes from care, to which one wants to respond politely — which means, not with perfunctory manners, but via an ethical response. If we take this reading as a contextual clue to Armitage’s statements about signing autographs, then, the point is not the problems created for him by noisome people who seek his attention inappropriately, but the way that standing in the street to sign autographs would conflict with his own fundamental values about the negative features of “showing off.”

My offering here of an alternative “B” reading is designed primarily to point out that the first “B” reading — Armitage never wants to meet fans spontaneously and they should stay away from him — requires significant interpretive interventions to make sense and is riddled with problematic assumptions. I like the alternative “B” reading — Armitage is focused on living out his internalized ideals about modesty — better, but not as well as I like the “C” reading. The problem with the second “B” reading from my perspective — as charming as I find it as a statement about Armitage’s identity — is simply that it also relies on a tropic intervention, albeit a more broadly popular one among fans: “virtuous Armitage.” For various reasons I’ve articulated in different places on blog and won’t rehash here, I am suspicious of the interests behind any reading of his statements that cast Armitage as a victim, and so I prefer a reading that emphasizes his strength and agency.

To the “C” reading.

~ by Servetus on August 8, 2012.

11 Responses to “Stay away from Armitage! The “B” reading”

  1. […] To the “B” reading. Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

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  2. […] “B” reading was here. (Note that this is a series starting with the “A” reading — so if you’re […]

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  3. This is fascinating. I am going to weigh in eventually as a former member of the media on why you have to take these kinds of interviews with a grain of salt, but for now I will merely say, “Keep up the good work, prof.”

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    • Thanks! You should do that. I don’t go into the “D” reading here, which would have to deal with the nature of the media, because it doesn’t deal with Armitage, but it’s always good to have that perspective.

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    • it strikes me that reason number one is that most newspaper articles are written so that single paragraphs can be chopped for space needs without the reader noticing. So who knows what the interviewer provided that the editor cut for whatever reason.

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      • Exactly! Listen, I had some articles of mine that were horrendously edited by a former composer (the person who laid out the pages on the computer) in order to fit rather than to jump to another page simply because he’d goofed around surfing the Net and was now pushing a deadline. *grumble, grumble*

        And even with good judicial editing, what is removed can sometimes sublty alter the slant of an article. And quotes are one of the first things to be cut in these types of stories. So who knows what else Richard might have said.

        Yes, members of the media are supposed to impartial, nonjudgmental, but sometimes bias can slip through and the writer can end up editorializing outside of the editorial.

        Also, we aren’t privy to the ENTIRE interview. We haven’t heard everything said by both parties; we haven’t seen the writer’s complete notes or heard the complete audiotape. All that material has to be condensed down for the final piece. Sometimes you have lots of material but not a high word count with which you can work.

        Depending on how the writer puts together that article, how he/she chooses to slant it, there may be a little or a lot left out that might very well paint a somewhat different picture for the reader were they able to access it.

        In other words, don’t take everything you read in such interviews as the last word on any person or subject. It’s definitely open to interpretation.

        And thanks again for doing this. Great stuff.

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        • yeah, this would all fit under “D”. I didn’t care about it because most people in this setting will not be convinced that an interview like this says absolutely nothing reliable about the subject as opposed to the author and editor. That would be a bit too radical, especially for this subject. But when people forget that he is not only trying to sell himself in certain situations, but that he is being sold as a commodity by people who have control over everything he is “allowed” to have said, they really oversimplify the universe.

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          • Exactly. I guess being part of the media for a decade taught me you definitely don’t accept everything you read/see/hear at face value. IThe entertainment field is a business at the end of the day and people want to work and they have to sell themselves. That’s the reality. And don’t get me started on my cynicism concerning politicians and interviewing them. 😉 I can show you the politician’s “handshake of sincerity” and their “I am deeply interested in what you have to say” facial expressions.

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  4. Interesting what you say about being polite or politeness and the American view. I was raised in the US, but my family is not from the US , and I do not see being polite or politeness in general as being false in any way. I’ve never seen RA’s politeness or even shyness and reserve as being a negative in any way, but just the opposite. He’s a grown man, an intelligent man, and I have no doubt he can handle himself well in any situation, including with fans. Yes, we should take all his interviews with a grain of salt because he’s doing it to promote his career, or his project, not as a confessional to the world.

    Interesting analysis.

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    • well, there’s no single American view, of course. My family also considers politeness important, for instance, to the point that my nieces are not allowed to call me by my name without using the title “aunt,” and they are not ever allowed to call adults by their first names, even if invited. Maybe a better way to put it would have been — while both cultures consider politeness important, in British culture there’s a stronger emphasis on politeness as an element or indication of character.

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  5. […] (for instance, the “Stay Away from Armitage!” series from this summer, parts 1 and 2 and 3). In that sense, I don’t have the same trust in the fandom that I have in my classroom, […]

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