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

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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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