Jane Austen, Game Theorist: UCLA Poli Sci Prof Finds Shrewd Strategy in “Cluelessness”

Pro­fes­sion­al jeal­ousy is prob­a­bly the worst rea­son to dis­miss a new per­spec­tive, whether it comes from with­in one’s field, out­side it, or any­where else. Snob­bery leads to inbreed­ing and intel­lec­tu­al dead-ends. So when Michael Chwe, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at UCLA who spe­cial­izes in game the­o­ry, has an epiphany about Jane Austen as a pro­to-game the­o­rist, maybe his insights should change the way Eng­lish profs—and every­one else—read the author of Pride and Prej­u­dice.

I don’t know. I haven’t read Chwe’s book, Jane Austen: Game The­o­rist (read a sam­ple chap­ter here), but I’ll con­fess, I’m skep­ti­cal of any­one who calls Austen’s lit­er­ary work a “research pro­gram” that has “results” in a book of “230 dia­gram-heavy pages.”  It seems to miss the point some­how. Austen is per­haps these days the most-adapt­ed of British writ­ers, and her aca­d­e­m­ic cachet couldn’t be high­er. But the best takes on her work—whether schol­ar­ly or popular—are fun, focused on char­ac­ter and lan­guage, not tech­no­crat­ic the­o­ry.

But maybe I’ve mis­judged Chwe’s intent. He was, after all, inspired to read Austen by “watch­ing movies and read­ing books with his chil­dren.” And one of the con­cepts Chwe ascribes to Austen is that of “clue­less­ness,” a term he takes from that clas­sic nineties movie Clue­less (inspired by Austen’s Emma, clip above). In Chwe’s analy­sis, clue­less­ness is not at all gar­den-vari­ety stu­pid­i­ty; it’s the benev­o­lent devi­ous­ness of Eliz­a­beth Ben­net or the “dumb blonde” act Ali­cia Silverstone’s char­ac­ter pulls off in con­vinc­ing oth­ers that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, all the while manip­u­lat­ing, cajol­ing, and demur­ring to get her way.

Chwe also pur­sues the dark­er side of clue­less­ness, relat­ing it to grim episodes like the 2004 killing of four pri­vate con­trac­tors in Fal­lu­ja. Over­all, his book iden­ti­fies fifty “manip­u­la­tion strate­gies” he finds in Austen. While his book seems to promise some enter­tain­ing obser­va­tions it also might fur­ther con­firm for seri­ous Austen read­ers that the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry nov­el­ist was one of the most psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly insight­ful writ­ers of the past few cen­turies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

New Stamp Col­lec­tion Cel­e­brates Six Nov­els by Jane Austen

As Pride and Prej­u­dice Turns 200, Read Jane Austen’s Man­u­scripts Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jmagness

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