Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for August, 2011

Coming in from the Cold

Although utopia—and perhaps more commonly, dystopia—has come to be regularly associated with the genre of Science Fiction (SF), it seems prudent to assert that utopia is not necessarily a subgenre of SF. Instead, a result of the shift toward secular and rational thinking in the Enlightenment, the modern notions of progress and idealism inherent in Western utopian thought find themselves intimately connected to science and technology in various forms. Early twentieth century American figures like Tom Swift, for example, articulated the optimism and energy associated with youth inventors, highlighting the promise associated with youth and new technology. [1]

After Robert A. Heinlin’s partnership with Scribner’s helped to legitimize science fiction in the late 1940s through the publication of Rocket Ship Galileo, the genre began to flourish and, like other contemporary works of fiction, increasingly reflected concerns of the day.[2] Still reeling from the aftereffects of World War II, American culture juggled the potential destruction and utility of atomic energy while simultaneously grappling with a pervasive sense of paranoia that manifested during the Cold War. As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia (see Tomorrowland in Disneyland), there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects.[3]Very much grounded in an anxiety-filled relationship with developing technology, this new ideological conflict undercut the optimism afforded by consumer technology’s newfound modern conveniences. Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety: from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of living in a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age with latent fears manifesting in literature and media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts. [4] In short, the utopia promised by access to cars, microwave dinners, and cities of the future only served to breed frustration in the 1960s as life did not turn out to be as idyllic as advertised.

Suggesting that utopian and dystopian notions were not intrinsically linked to technology, this pattern would repeat itself in the 1980s after the promises of the Civil Rights, environmental, Women’s Liberation, and other counter-cultural movements like the Vietnam War protests faltered. To be sure, gains were made in each of these arenas, reflected in an increase in utopian science fiction during the 1970s, but stalling momentum—and a stagnating economy—caused pessimism and disillusionment to follow a once burgeoning sense of optimism during the 1980s.[5]On a grander scale, bolstered by realizations that societies built upon the once-utopian ideals of fascism and communism had failed, the 1980s became a dark time for American political sentiment and fiction, allowing for the development of dystopian genres like cyberpunk that mused on the collapse of the State as an effective beneficial regulating entity. [6] Reflected in films like The Terminator, a larger travesty manifested during the decade through an inability to devise systemic solutions to society’s problems, as we instead coalesced our hopes in the formation of romanticized rebel groups with individualist leaders.[7] Writing in 1985, author John Berger opined that repeated promises from Progressive moments in the past had contributed to society’s growing sense of impatience. [8] A powerful sentiment that holds resonance today, we can see reflections of Berger’s statement in President Obama’s campaign slogan and the backlash that followed his election to office—“Hope,” it seems, capitalized upon our expectations for a future filled with change but also sowed the seeds of discontent as the American public failed to witness instantaneous transformation. For many in the United States, a lack of significant, tangible, and/or immediate returns caused fractured utopian dreams to quickly assume the guise of dystopian nightmares.

Furthermore, these cycles set a precedent for the current cultural climate: the promises of new developments in communication technologies like the Internet—particularly relevant is its ability to lower the barriers of access to information—have turned dark as we have come to recognize the dangers of online predators and question the appropriateness of sexting. Moreover, technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information—have allowed us to imagine a future that foresees the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics. Shifting our focus from the void of space to the expanses of the mind, utopian and dystopian fiction appears to be musing on the intersection of information (broadly defined) and identity. Spanning topics that feature cybernetic implants, issues of surveillance and privacy, or even the simple knowledge that a life unencumbered by technology is best, ultimately it is access to, and our relationship with, information that links many of the current offerings in utopian/dystopian Science Fiction.

[1] Francis J. Molson, “American Technological Fiction for Youth: 1900-1940.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[2] Comics at this time, for example, also spoke to cultural negotiations of science and progress. For more about the establishment of Science Fiction as a genre, see C. W. Sullivan III, “American Young Adult Science Fiction Since 1947.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[3] Bernice M. Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] See Paul Jensen, “The Return of Dr. Caligari.” Film Comment 7, no. 4 (1971): 36-45 or Wolfe, Gary K. “Dr. Strangelove, Red Alert, and Patterns of Paranoia in the 1950s.” Journal of Popular Film, 2002: 57-67 for further discussion.

[5] Peter Fitting, “A Short History of Utopian Studies.” Science Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (March 2009): 121-131.

[6] Lyman Tower Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” Diogenes 209 (2006): 11-17.

[7] Constance Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia.” Camera Obscura 5, no. 3 15 (1986): 66-85.

[8] John Berger, The White Bird. (London: Chatto, 1985).

Stuck in the Middle with You

Although it seems doubtful that viewers of the 2011 Video Music Awards (MTV) would conceptualize their actions in such a fashion, they were, in part, observing a celebration of the image and of semiotics. Having become literate in the “language” of music videos, audiences undoubtedly learned to extract meaning from the images paired with songs downloaded on mp3 players. And yet, although each of the featured music videos could be deconstructed in productive and informative ways, one of the most interesting moments, for me, was the tribute to Amy Winehouse.

50s aesthetic of Bruno Mars aside, the choice to pay homage to a fallen singer through the use of a motif directly derived from Andy Warhol’s pop art movement was a curious one, as Warhol’s work was born out of a response to a viewership inundated with the mechanically reproduced image. Repetition, for Warhol, spoke to the relative meaninglessness of the image in a culture saturated by media but also challenged viewers to then reconcile slight variations in the image, begging audiences to develop a discerning eye. In some ways, examples like the Winehouse tribute cause me to wonder about the modern visual sensibility, for it seems as though the very process that Warhol spoke out against has come back to haunt him; the very notion of an image’s repetition rendering it meaningless has come to apply to Warhol’s own work!

And perhaps there was something to the concerns of Warhol (along with a slew of cultural theorists in the 50s), who was reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it. For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.

Although the cultural climate has changed somewhat since the mid-20th century, modern Americans continue to find themselves assaulted by images, particularly in the form of advertising.

The advertisement above, for example, represents a fairly straightforward—and yet beguilingly complex—image to promote a sound dubbing service. Undoubtedly played for a laugh, careful analysis of the image speaks to a potentially more disturbing reading of the situation.

The most immediate reading is likely that of a threesome (undoubtedly playing off of the cliche that sex sells), but closer inspection suggests that this is a particular type of engagement and most definitely geared toward a particular type of audience. Without much effort, we can clearly see that this ad portrays an encounter between two women and a man (it is unlikely that any of the participants are transsexual as nothing in the ad suggests as much to the reader) in fulfillment of the stereotypical straight male fantasy. Furthermore, the man is actively engaged in the act of viewing the sexual encounter between the two women, suggesting an element of voyeurism and the male gaze; in contrast to the women, who are embracing with their eyes closed, the man is not shown to have any physical contact (his body posture actually suggests that he is pulling away, creating space for the women to “do their thing”). Women, in this scenario exist to be watched and/or perform for the man as they reinforce the notion that lesbianism (temporary or otherwise) exists to provide males with sexual pleasure. In some ways, we might also think about how this image reaffirms a heteronormative stance (with a small exception for lipstick lesbians who perform not for their pleasure, but for a man’s) with traditional gender representations.

The copy also serves to reinforce a male-dominated view of sexuality, with the laugh coming from the disconnect between the line’s attribution to a man versus a woman. Humor in this scene derives from the fact that we, the viewer, are supposed to chuckle that a woman is uttering the phrase “If my dad could see me now, he’d be so proud” because we know that no woman would ever say such a thing. We are, then, operating under a social/family structure that speaks to the notion of the good girl (or possibly “daddy’s girl”) and assume that if this woman’s father actually saw her, he would be disappointed rather than proud. Moreover, we see that the “correct” attribution of the phrase is its attachment to the male, which then positions him as a member of an all-boys club that he and his father can participate in. The underlying suggestion is that father and son can share a fond story over the son’s sexual conquest of two women (perhaps invoking a similar story from the father’s youth) and that father, like son, uphold the devaluation of women. Looked at in another way, we can see Willamson’s referent systems at play in this ad:  man is asserting his ability to “tame” the wild/sexual nature of women, moving them from “raw” to “cooked.”

Interestingly, this ad says nothing about the ability of the company in question (Herbert Richers Sound Dubbing) to fulfill the function for which they would be hired, instead relying on goodwill generated by humor to translate into positive affect regarding the brand. Given that nature of the advertisement, the company must rely on a visual representation of the syncing process (in this case, showcasing something that is out of sync) and the purpose of the ad seems to create name recognition, for no contact information is given.

In order to study this image further, it would be helpful to know more about the context in which it appeared. As Herbert Richers is a Brazilian dubber, it stands to reason that this ad was displayed in Brazil (but the copy is in English and not Portuguese) but the question remains if it appeared on a website, magazine, or billboard. Was it part of a campaign that played on similar themes (and how how might it affect our reading if we knew that there was a mirroring ad that featured two men and a woman)?


Mattson, K. (2003). Mass Culture Revisited: Beyond Tail Fins and Jitterbuggers. Radical Society , 30 (1), 87-93.


A twenty-something coming to terms with being an adult in Southern California, Chris Tokuhama is interested in attempts to transcend the human body. With research interests that range from Early Modern Science to Gothic horror and transhumanism (with a bit of religion sprinkled in), Chris hopes to increase media literacy in youth so that, in future threesomes, all partners can participate equally. Read more about Chris’ take on pop culture on his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Smells Like Burning


In a flash of light it happens.

It makes sense that Sookie’s faerie powers help to set Eric right, for his reclaimed memory is conveyed through a set of remembered images. Faeries, as masters of light and image, allow us to realize what has been in front of us but just out of sight. And, what does it mean that the show conflates Wicca and witchcraft? Is magic grounded in Nature and, if so, what does it mean to break that spell?

Nan, with her head in the game, reminds us that image is all important.

In so many ways, this episode is about collapsing the structures that we have erected around us:  physical, ideological, and of course those associated with personal identity. (It’s a more direct way to show that everyone’s starting to wake up from their various dreams.) Tommy, who gave up on himself a long time ago, killing himself time and time again as he became anything he could to escape, finally finds release.

And as heartbreaking as Tommy is, we have Marnie who becomes grosser (and more dangerous) than we could for she is the kid who’s so beaten down by the world that she has become vengeful. She will bring the world down just to see the pain end. It’s a dangerous proposition at best and one that will only get uglier before it gets better.

Role-Playing Games

Manipulation seems like such a dirty word.

And yet, as a Social Psychology student, my books were filled with terms like “influence,” “persuasion,” “schema activation,” and “behavior modification”—apparently, my undergraduate years were spent learning how to constrain the range of salient choices available to others. Over the years, my work has evolved, but I often think back to my initial interest in the subject and how it was closely linked to the work of Goffman, although I was not able to articulate the connection at the time.

As a former admission officer, the implications of self-presentation are often glaringly obvious for anyone who has set foot inside of a high school:  from stereotypical cliques to personal dress and demeanor, students broadcast an incredible number of messages as they attempt to manufacture, consolidate, express, and identify their senses of self. Goffman suggests that this exchange of information can occur through processes that the actor willfully controls (or is perceived to) and those that are communicated without conscious knowledge. Further exploring the relationship between audience, message, and source, we encounter the work of Gross who labels sign-events either “natural” or “symbolic.” Although natural sign-events undoubtedly have a measure of usefulness when it comes to interacting with the physical world around us, the symbolic seem most relevant to Goffman’s discussion of interpersonal interaction and the nature of socially-constructed reality.

Although we might discuss the potential of fashion to figure into this process, I tend to think about it more broadly in terms of information and power; as Goffman mentions, a constant tension exists between actor and audience as both parties attempt to ascertain who knows what about whom. And, in many ways, possessing a more complete picture of the situation allows one to better dictate the nature of the interaction, for understanding the rules of the game (i.e., Goffman’s “working consensus”)—or even knowing that you are playing one in the first place!—leads to more desirable outcomes, particular when we are trying to deceive others about who we are.

There seems to be a biological imperative for deception, as the act, in its many forms, can serve to reduce the cost of obtaining something of value (e.g., goods, services, protection, contentment, etc.), but while animals have traditionally employed this tactic for self-preservation (e.g., mimicry), human beings have taken the practice to more complex levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as we slowly exit the Age of Information, many current deceptive practices revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Online, we might “fudge” our profile pictures in an attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life or we might alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that allows us to process anxiety and judgment from the safety of our homes. I often wonder how those of us who use social media cultivate our profiles, tending to them like gardens:  to what extent do we fetishize our online presence, letting it define us instead of the other way around? It would seem that while the relative ease of online deception confers us some cognitive defense, it also threatens to overwhelm us with delusion.

We lie to others and, perhaps even worse, lie to ourselves.[1] We look outward for acceptance and affirmation instead of delving inward to confront the deepest parts of ourselves. Technology has allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most.

[1] Although this is a separate topic, I am incredibly interested in the ways in which perform acts of self-deception, as I think that these have the potential to harm us in spectacular ways. Using Goffman’s theater metaphor, I think it is fascinating to consider what happens when the “backstage” is really just the “front stage” for our inner psyche.

(My Baby’s Got A) Secret

2005 was the year that I became a fan. It was a year full of turmoil for me:  within a few months I had graduated from college, learned how to bribe Mexican police, started a serious relationship, started a new job, and moved. Quite a lot for a 22-year-old with plenty of education but no real life skills.

And then, PostSecret happened.

PostSecret started out as an art project in 2005 that simply asked people to submit a secret anonymously on a decorated postcard. These secrets were then published on the Internet through the PostSecret blog or in a series of books. No real guidelines were given to participants—they merely had to reveal something about themselves that they had never shared before.

I soon found myself anxious as I waited for the weekend to roll around, specifically Sunday morning, bringing with it a new batch of secrets. I was fascinated with the statements on these cards. Many of the images reflected my own fears and hopes (some I didn’t even know I had) and ranged in topic from secret crushes to quiet crises to guilty consciences.

Over the years, I have been exposed to hundreds of images, but, in particular, there is probably one card that I will never forget. It said, “I wish I had been a better sister than you were a brother. Yours was not the only life you took. I miss you. I hate you. I love you. I am sorry.”

Despite its humble beginnings, PostSecret has developed into a full-fledged community with over 300 million site visits, eventually resulting in a movement with an interest in suicide prevention. Although some members surely embrace this philosophy more than others, the director, Frank Warren, has occasionally mobilized the group in support of the Kristin Brooks Hope Center and its teen crisis line.

We can measure civic engagement by the number of dollars raised for suicide prevention, but we can also think about how this particular community has allowed for the development of an individual’s empathy. This group has permitted members to feel what it means to be a part of a community and surely that has some value in developing the skills necessary for participatory culture. Movements like PostSecret have the power to allow our young people to realize how they relate to others in society.

Frank put forth this idea in the form of a statement followed by a question:  “Everyone, no matter how long you’ve known them, probably has a secret, that, if he or she told you, would break your heart. How does this change the way that you interact with those around you?” I ask, “How does this change the way that you think about those around you?”

A year after I saw this image, my friend’s brother killed himself. This card, written by an anonymous stranger, allowed me to connect with my friend in a way that had previously seemed impossible. An only child, I had no idea what it was like to lose a sibling, much less to have a loved one commit suicide. But this card—this image—elicited feelings that are the closest that I will get to understanding my friend’s pain in that moment.

Seeing that card allowed me to engage in a dialogue instead of being scared or overwhelmed. Seeing that card pushed me to work though a script in a space where I felt safe to explore my emotional limits. Being a fan of this community had equipped me to handle this unforeseen situation and gave me tools that afforded action. This, on a very personal level, is the potential power of fandom.

Participation in this community can cause members to undergo a paradigm shift as they see the world through entirely different lenses. My inherent cynic and college admission officer wonders if these sorts of affiliations result from mystique or ambiance rather than inherent virtue. I’d argue that, in some ways, young people have become much better at manipulating their image and that the joining of these clubs can represent a form of brand management; students leverage their brand in order to gain social capital.

Communities of participation like PostSecret develop their own knowledge base but also a common language and a shared understanding. Projects like these brand themselves and their participants as part of a movement—affiliation with the group implies that you have incorporated certain things into your identity.

I Make My Own Reality…And Maybe Yours

Influenced by Linguistics, Kenneth Pike constructs a set of terms (etic and emic) that help describe different observational stances. However, although the classification utility of Pike’s phrases seems without question, the major contribution of Pike’s work seems to be a shift from either/or thinking to one that is described as both/and. Although Pike describes the merits of both etic and emic lenses, he also importantly suggests that a unit of information can assume varied—but reconcilable!—layers of meaning. In fact, Pike alludes to the interconnected nature of etic and emic positions, noting that etic work might provide general theories that are refined by emic inquiry, which might resultantly generate newer working hypotheses that are etic in nature. Furthermore, Pike implies that a more sophisticated analysis can occur when a researcher is able to see/understand both layers simultaneously—in other words, being able to conceptualize how data fits into a broad/horizontal array while also appreciating its role in a closed/vertical system.

In a similar fashion, James Carey’s chapter in Communication as Culture speaks to a paradigmatic model of Communication that also features two complimentary—though distinct—views. Throughout this work Carey endeavors to expand the perception of communication, challenging readers to look past the more commonplace understanding of communication as a means of information transmission. Invoking concepts that highlight religion and ritual as a community of practice, Carey’s words overlap with Robert Orsi’s thoughts on lived religion. Using religion as a lens, Carey comments on religion’s ability to reflect culture even as it acts to create it:  a critical study of communication allows one to glimpse the ordering structures that serve to imbue symbolic meaning in culture while our interaction with media (e.g., checking a website for news as part of a daily routine) becomes a ritual whose practice is then incorporated into culture! In fact, in some ways, Carey’s ideas speak to communication as a force that can act to maintain or change; it is in this dual nature that we see resonance with Pike, for communication seems to be able to assume these roles without contradiction. Moreover, etic and emic lenses can be applied to Carey’s newspaper analogy for while one can see that the same general categories of news continue to exist (e.g., Politics, Economics, Entertainment, etc.), the specifics of those topics (e.g., amount of space/attention given, tonality, order in the newspaper) are often particular to a given culture in a particular temporal context.

The major contribution of Carey, however, seems to be a recognition of communication’s ability to superimpose an additional layer of meaning upon the world:  in effect, communication transforms the reality of “what is” into a reality of “what is understood” in a process that mirrors the distinction between sensation and perception in Psychology. Although the presentations can assume various forms or modes, the important point seems to be that reality is realized through communication and it might be argued that, in some ways, the symbolic reality matters more than whatever the objective reality might be. In short, the reality formulated by communication constitutes a reality of meaning.

In this regard, Carey’s work builds upon work by Gross, who speaks to the symbolic power of communication and reminds readers (through Piaget) that communication contains an ability to structure reality. Furthermore, although some data may have inherent value, it becomes useful knowledge only after it is construed in relation to other bits of information—in other words, information becomes valuable largely because it is structured. Challenging readers to look beyond the American privileging of verbal symbols, Gross speaks to other modes in a process that foreshadows Carey’s example of maps that can be pictorial, oral, or kinesthetic. In some ways, we continue to suffer from the culture lamented by Gross in modern scholarship with American Higher Education largely privileging lexical skills while generally dismissing multi-modal production; although the model seems to be changing slowly, most educational settings appear to ask that students continually funnel symbolic knowledge through speech or writing.

Also speaking to the confluence of education and communication, Edward Hall points out the pervasive influence that learning styles can have on culture. Although it may seem obvious to any who would study culture in the modern age, Hall points out that ways of seeing are shaped by the learning process; cultural misunderstandings, then, result from an inability of people to transcend their own learning styles and to assume the perspective of others. Applying this to Communication, it reminds us that we must not only study content but also endeavor to understand how a particular piece (or set) or information was acquired.

In Too Deep

Extrication is the name of the game.

What happens when you’re in over your head and up against things that you couldn’t possibly understand? What happens when the adage holds true and “too much of a good thing” becomes your reality? When the thing you wanted becomes the thing you fear?

The only way out isn’t up—the only way out is through. Debbie, Tommy, and Lafayette get it. Jessica’s finally got the tools. Jesus and Jason got it because they’ve lived through this before. Eric, Sookie, and Bill will get it in the end.

And Marnie? She’ll get it just before she dies. Again.