The Philosophy of House of Cards
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition of The Philosophy of House of Cards, where we dive into the deeper meaning of House of Cards. We’re covering: Aesthetics, Theater & Politics; Legacy; and Politics as Spectacle.
Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Additional Artwork by: Jacob Salamon
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
The Philosophy of House of Cards
Hey Wisecrack, it’s Jared again, and this week we’re delving into the dark and scandalous world of politics with a show that goes right for thejugular: House of Cards. The American version.Starting as a Congressional Whip and the head of a non-profit, the show chronicles power couple Frank and Claire Underwood’s quest for power and the presidency at any cost.One could easily link the popularity of House of Cards to our increasing cynicism about the current state of American politics.But many American political dramas are either uncritical of our system, or offers us a morally righteous character who triumphs against the adversity of a broken system for the greater good.
House of Cards rejects this narrative, and instead offers us a system where raw power and cunning wins everytime.
Despite this, the show isn’t a tale of evil triumphing over good. Rather, the question that drives House of Cards seems to be: is there more to politics than pure spectacle? So without further adieu:
In the cynical world of House of Cards, charactersareconstantly maintaining an image, both public and private. For the careful viewer, it becomes abundantly apparent that the show’s creators are obsessed with aesthetics; that is, art and beauty within the show.
Important dealings are often done while reflecting on art. Claire’s appearance is carefully manicured, with her wardrobe being not only the subject of frequent dialogue, but real-life fashion listicles.
But once you peel away the pretty aesthetics and art references, what
lies behind the world of House of Cards? Well, uh, nothing – We’ll get to that.
The very structure of the show is a tribute to theater and, more specifically, William Shakespeare. Frank often uses soliloquies and asides, a theatrical device used heavily by Shakespeare wherein a character’s inner thoughts are explicated to the audience. Others have noted that much of the show’s plot and its characters are inspired by Shakespeare classics like Macbeth and Richard III, which inspire Frank’s charming asides about his terrible behavior. Petrov, in his visit to the White House, even quotes Mikhail Gorbachev quoting Richard III’s famous opening line.
Theater is just one facet of the political philosophy in House of Cards. Theater, aesthetics, art, all point tothe more fundamental concept that appearance drives politics.Politics IS theater, or at the very least, its own kind of performance.
For instance, Frank visits his father to seem more human, before revealing his true intentions.
His breaking of the fourth wall to address the viewer is more than just a convenient way to develop his character –it’s an important way to blur the distinction between the show and reality, and theater and politics.
Contemporary commentators bemoan the fact that politics has become theater, with catchphrases and slogans replacing real political argument. We see it in the show, too. Frank destroys Michael Kern’s career over an op-ed he didn’t even write, and Kern self-destructs when he’s unable to keep pace with the media’s chicanery. A brick through Frank’s window serves as a symbol against out of control teachers, which, Frank fabricated himself. To clarify – those commentators are totally right about the out-of-control theater of politics, but let’s complicate this for a minute.
According to German philosopher Hannah Arendt, the realm of appearances is the realm of politics. The idea of stripping away appearances to get at the core of things is pointless, because they’re the same. This idea originates in the ancient Greek polis, where politics meant entering into the agora, where individuals could speak and be heard in front of their fellow Greeks.
In this public realm, it was only the words, rhetoric and deeds of citizens (who were unfortunately all men –sorry ladies) that were to be judged by their peers. In other words, one’s political life was identical to how they appeared to others –kind of like an actor.
This idea is deeply rooted in how we experience the world, for humans, Arendt says, “appearance –something that can be seen or heard by others as well as ourselves, constitutes reality.”
Frank Underwood understands this Arendtian concept when he says:
Another way to read this, of course, is that Frank is a sociopath, and what he chooses to reveal to us is a carefully crafted manipulation to get us to like him. Seriously, how is it that we still don’t hate Frank Underwood?
The easiest criticism to leverage against Frank is his lack of sincerity and frequent use of deception. The idea that appearances are deceptive and unreliable is really, really old. One of the first things philosophy students learn is Plato’s allegory of the cave, where we have to disillusion ourselves of the misleading shadows on the wall to discover the “true”world behind them. Karl Marx used this Platonic distinction between appearance and reality in his theory of ideology. Even the Matrix is just a modern rehashing of this idea dating back to the Greeks. Those news commenters complaining that modern political media has become a grotesque spectacle concealing what really goes on behind closed doors are the modern torch-bearers of this millennia-old argument.
Frank, and Arendt, undermineone of the central tenants of this tradition: that there lies an authentic reality behind the world of appearances. For Arendt and Frank, appearance is reality. If we can’t hate Frank Underwood, it’s because there is no stable identity to hate. He’s a sometimes good husband to Claire,a manipulative murderer to Chloe, a kind boss and one-time lover to Meecham, a supportive friend to Freddy, a job creator for the masses, and a two-timing liar to…everyone else. Another angle of this problem is seen in Remy and Jackie’s relationship, who are ultimately unable to reconcile their professional selves with their authentic selves.
Through the show’s constant intermingling of art, theater and aesthetics, the show is challenging old ideas about how reality operates.
The idea behind this argument isn’t that Frank Underwood is good, or the perpetual lying of modern politicians is good, it’s that appearances and reality aren’t as easy to disentangle as we might think.
Nothing illustrates this better than a simple fact: Frank is the epitome of a hypocrite.
A hypocrite is someone who acts in a way that is inconsistent with their stated beliefs, but more specifically, puts on “false appearances”. Originally, the term comes from the Ancient Greek words for play-acting – another hint that the politics of House of Cards is mere theater.History hates hypocrites, Dante even put them in the 8th circle of hell.
But rooting out hypocrites, the search for true motives in politics, has historically gone really, really bad. The hunt for the Frank Underwoods of the world is impossible behind of the aesthetic nature of politics.
“The search for motives,”she says, “the demand that everybody displays [their] innermost motivation…transforms all actors into hypocrites”and “hypocrisy”begins to poison all human relations.” The solution, for Arendt, is to realize that we have noability to distinguish “being and appearance.”After all, does Frank even know his true, unswerving convictions behind every action? Sure, he makes a point that power is his end game, but why? Arendt’s argument is that when you try to strip away the facade of appearances we all adorn, you don’t reveal the real person inside of us, but just more mystery.
And then there’s Claire. Claire’s whole portrayal in the show suggests that, unlike Frank, there is something behind the mask- somethingthat she must inhibitin order to continue her quest for power. When Claire sees the news that Zoe Barnes has been killed, she immediately turns to applying her makeup.
And while we may try in vain to hunt down an authentic Frank, Claire’s love of art seems to indicate a yearning for authentic self expression- to stop performing. Claire seeks authenticity in aesthetics, like photography and origami. Even her relationship with the photographer suggests that she’d been seduced by his genuine bohemian lifestyle.
Unlike some TV characters, what drives Frank Underwood is amazingly simple. He wants power, and will remind us every chance he gets.
But power is the foundation of Frank’s larger dream, to build a legacy. We could even liken Frank’s quest for power as part of a larger quest to build a work of art in the form of his legacy.
Consider the Buddhist moks sand painting in Season 3. Also known as sand mandala, this pratice of creating elaborate designs symbolizing the universe ends in a ritual destruction.
Frank is deeply annoyed by the Buddhist monks, and it’s no minor detail. Sand mandalas stand in stark contrast to most of the Western artistic tradition, which routinely seeks to create art to endure through the ages, with bonus point if it’s gigantic. Sand Mandalas representthe fleeting nature of our own existence. So should we be surprised that Frank, the man who wants to achieve immortality through his quest for power, hates it?
Frank’s civil war diorama is an interesting counterpoint to this – it’s a way to memorialize Frank’s ancestors, before he destroys it as he realizes it, like his presidency, is fleeting.
There’s an important insight about Claire here worth noting. She doesn’t detest the sand mandala like Frank does, and its destruction seems to foreshadow her departure from Frank. Like the mandala, Claireacknowledges that nothing, not even her marriage is permanent. Just as the monks destroyed the thing they worked on with painstaking detail, so too does Claire leave her politicallife behind her despite the fact she toiled away for so long on it.
Claire, too, struggles with legacy- but in a different manner. While she values and supports Frank’s political ambition, she’s also discarded her own ambition: At times throwing the CWI under the bus, or shunting her desire to have kids. When Claire hands a homeless person money – itself a symbol of the power and status her and Frank have achieved – he rejects it, and instead turns the bill into origami. Claire is essentially being confronted by the choice she’s made: power and wealth over creation.
She takes up the hobby, as if a symbol of her desire desire to create a legacythrough family rather than power.
We could use this as an opportunity to explore the title of the show. Is Frank building a lasting legacy, or simply a house of cards, whose very existence is precarious –on the verge of collapsing at any minute.
Frank is essentially striving for immortality, a not unfamiliar concept in the politics of Ancient Greece, according to Arendt. The point is to struggle to make a name for yourself through your great deeds and words. That this idea has become so alien to our society that it can only be distorted through vainglorious characters like Frank Underwood is symptomatic of the loss of genuine politics in our time.
It might seem strange that a show about America’s political system is suspiciously lacking its central tenet: democracy. In House of Cards, our political system is essentially reduced to backroom dealings and the media. Frank even likens Congress to a game of chess where one should keep their pieces concealed. Public opinion is important, but only as a variable to be manipulated: What color should Claire’s hair be? Why do people think of Peter Russo’s phoenix out of ashes story? At othertimes, public opinion is something that can simply be turned off.
Even the media, which our Constitution specifically protects as constitutive to our democracy, is just a pawn as part of a larger political game. Zoe Barnes is fed information that’s beneficial to Frank’s political machinations, Tom Yates is hired to writewhat is essentially propaganda, the list goes on.
There are, frankly, too many thinkers who tackle this problem to cover here.
German philosopher Carl Schmitt argued in “the Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy”that things like debate and openness have become a mere spectacle for the backroom dealings of party leaders, such as, say, this.
But one philosopher takes this a step further. While lots of people argue that deception masks an inner reality, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that there is no truth behind the lies.
For Baudrillard, to have a lie concealing a truth is child’s play to our modern media nightmare. Lies told by politicians and the media take on lives of their own, until information circulates like commodities on the stock market. Frank and Zoe literally barter for information. Her boss at the newspaper claims that before eventually getting canned, as if to prove the integrity and depth are relegated to the dustbin of history. Slugline, the new standard for media, is more concerned about seeming edgy and bleeding edge, so much so that Zoe’s boss informs her that herwork won’t be fact checked. Baudrillard says:
ore than just existing for its own sake, this circuit of information is seductive. Frank Underwood is seductive, not only to his former classmate and Meecham, but to us the viewer Frank knocking his ring at the end of Season 2? leaves us confounded with a feeling of awe.
If we, too, are seduced by Frank Underwood, what does that say about our political system? Do we enjoy the performance? Are we doomed to fall in love with the real Frank Underwoods of the world?
If House of Cards is so good, it’s because it has so many incredible layers to it. It’s ultimately a show about the politics of appearance, whether through art or theater. Whether or not that’s a bad thing is up for debate, but so far it’s looking pretty bad.
Aestheticscomes from the Greek word for sense and perception, and while we usually associate it with how things look, it applies to our general sensory experience.
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