Monday, May 18, 2009


I learned a new word on the weekend while reading movie reviews. MacGuffin: "an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance" (Merriam-Webster). Slavoj Zizek has put it to use in analyzing the Iraq war. Alfred Hitchcock described it as follows:

the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever. (Screen Online)

The idea that the Maltese Falcon "lacks intrinsic importance" in The Maltese Falcon is counterintuitive enough to justify a bit of scrutiny. But perhaps the fact that it turns out to be a fake is the telling point. That fact does not really matter to the plot. The story could have developed in exactly the same way if the statuette had really been priceless. The fact that it is worthless only serves to mock the ambition of the bad guys, I suppose. When Spade describes the falcon as "the stuff that dreams are made of" he is, of course, also describing a MacGuffin.

Academic writing is neither dreaming nor mere story-telling. Still, I wonder if we can identify a MacGuffinesque element in academic texts, i.e., an object that moves the argument along while being of "no importance whatsoever" to the writer and reader. In a story, we must accept that the characters are very interested in the object, but we must not ourselves be interested in it.

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