Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for August, 2011

Rip My Feelings Out Before They Make Me Doubt

The sun!

It’s hard to come back from an episode that ends with a fade to white and a gasp. Taking a bit of a breather (was there ever any doubt that Jessica was in real danger?), it gives us a chance to reflect on times when the one thing the want—the thing that we burn for—is the very thing that will kill us. This story has been told time and again throughout history, with varying levels of moral shading, but, in some ways, it’s one of the things this show has always been about. It’s really kind of amazing, when you think about it—in this season, there’s the idea that the repressed part of you is going to destroy you, the notion that we will kill ourselves in order to save or protect the ones we love, and this last bit about the death drive.

And maybe this is particular to me, or the way that I see the world, but my favorite episodes with this, Caprica, BSG, or Six Feet Under are always ones where things are crumbling down everywhere you look. I suppose that part of it is that I trust these shows and know that the breakdown is delicious because it helps the characters prioritize and realize what is really important and what is really worth fighting for. I am always interested in the the choice to become hard or to become strong and episodes penned by Alan Ball do that so well.

Knowing, for example, that Eric will eventually get his memory back only makes it sweeter when Sookie allows herself to believe that Eric will never betray her. Sookie being happy and/or in love are somewhat surface issues for me—the real question is how, when, and why we choose to pursue a path that we know is going to come back to bite us in the end. The pain is going to be that much worse for all that we put into it. I don’t think the show comes down on either side but hopefully causes viewers to think about which choice is right in their own lives.


Iowa’s Straw Poll Helps Us Take Stock, Not Just of Candidates But of Ourselves

In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.

Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.

Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information:  religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.

And, in a way, maybe they are.

During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.

So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.

But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community:  if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.

So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he searches for LA’s best iced coffee.


I Can Be Your Hero, Baby

The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.

—Albert Einstein

These words, known to most who have ever encountered a course on Ethics, set the tone for HBO’s documentary Superheroes, which profiles individuals involved in the Real Life Superhero movement. Although there is truth to Einstein’s words—for failing to stop injustice can represent a form of evil—the question becomes one of perspective:  in a simplified system that includes three perceived parties (victim, perpetrator, and savior), the solution seems rather obvious for we know what we should do, regardless of whether we actually intercede. But what happens when we situate the same concept in the context of a community or society? Vigilante justice leads to societal breakdown as we each enforce our own moral codes.

It is for this reason that I’m often suspect of these individuals who undoubtedly have good intentions. Although it is easy to judge and express disdain for grown adults who seem out of touch with society, the fringe often worry me. I’m not so much concerned that they do not look like I do or that they “dress up,” but rather worry because they do not play by my rules. And, ultimately, isn’t it just a short hop from there to a defining characteristic of a villain? Regardless of if the individual in question is a nuisance, helpful, or a menace, the fact that he or she has checked out of the system that you live in raises should raise some red flags.

The invocation of Kitty Genovese is also perhaps unsettling because it misses the forest for the trees. Again, on an individual level, the story is perhaps one that inspires you to action, but donning your gear does nothing to address the larger issue of apathy, the bystander effect, or the diffusion of responsibility (whatever you choose to call it).

And although it has not yet come to this, what if super villain groups formed in opposition to these real life superheroes? Not just gangs or the mafia, but groups of individuals who preferentially targeted those who would do good? The streets would devolve into a sort of war zone with casual citizens and public property caught in the crossfire. I suspect that these superheroes only survive because nobody is actively trying to hunt them.

This of course raises the notion of who should be a superhero.

I certainly get some of the impulse to become a superhero, transforming yourself into a powerful figure as you draw out the traits in yourself that you most admire. In many ways, I am all for that. And I also recognize the power and prestige that comes from donning a mask or a cape or a costume—these accouterments are symbols of your office and confer power, status, and meaning.

My constant struggle, however, is to walk the fine line between seeing the everyday as worthy of superhero status while fighting the impulse to disconnect from the system. In the best possible world, everyone is a superhero and everyone works together (using the particular talents that we each have) to contribute to a whole. In some ways, perhaps, similar to Communism (and we know how that went), but never with the expectation that you are going to necessarily get something for your efforts. You work because you believe in the system and because you place hope in your community.

And is this also just another symptom of a society that has become desensitized to extreme and spectacle? That we believe that, in order to be empowered, we have to become superheroes? Has the groundwork been laid by Stan Lee’s shows, which have “trained” real life superheroes? Where do we draw the line between a good citizen (one who is, perhaps, civically engaged!) and having to create a superhero persona? Ultimately, why can’t we integrate the actions that we would undertake as a superhero into our everyday sense of self?

The old questions that were first raised with virtual selves and MMORPGs continue to haunt me:  are these people who are compensating for a feeling of powerlessness elsewhere in their lives? In some ways, their actions seem to be a direct response to the inefficiency of law enforcement but I suspect that it runs deeper than that. If you still believed in the system, wouldn’t you fight for reform instead of doing it on your own? Is there something just viscerally satisfying about putting yourself in potential danger that adds to the equation?


Writing the Future

I saw it there, unmistakable; it was unlike anything I had seen before (or would ever see again).

Often existing just on the edge of familiarity—there exists here a certain resonance with Freud’s “uncanny“—the realm of Science Fiction (SF) might be seen to possess an intuitive relationship with design, with the distinctive look and feel of a crafted world often our first clue that we have transcended everyday reality.[1] On one level, the connection between SF and design seems rather banal, with repeated exposure to depictions of outer space or post-apocalyptic visions of the Earth—we have been there and done that (figuratively, if not literally).

Yet, upon reflection, I think that it’s not only natural for SF to be concerned with the concept of design, but a part of the process itself for both concepts ask the same basic questions of how things could be and how things should be. Science Fiction, then, like design, is concerned with contemplation and speculation, a point echoed by Brian David Johnson.

And contemplation and speculation in SF often takes the form of artistic expression that is largely driven by the realization of relationships that do not yet exist:  if a job of a writer is to commit unexplored connections to paper—or perhaps to see established links in a new and/or unexpected light—then the SF writer might tend to focus on relationships as they intersect with technology. In other words, one possible function of SF writers is to explore the interaction between us (as individuals or collectively) and the world around us, highlighting technology as a salient subject; SF provides a creative space that allows authors to probe the consequences of permutations latent in the near future.

The term “technology,” however, should not merely imply gadgets or machines (although it certainly includes them), but rather a whole host of tools (e.g., paper) and apparatuses that comprise the tangible world. We might even broaden the scope of our inquiry, asking whether “technology” is a product, a process, or both. We see, for example, that Minority Report pushes the envelope by proffering new conceptualizations of tools used for imaging and data storage, but John Anderton’s interaction with information surely suggests a rethinking in process as well. Does this practice, on some level, constitute a new technology? Or, perhaps we return our gaze back to futuristic buildings and structures:  advances in construction materials certainly represents a new type of technology (in the traditional sense) but architecture as a form also underscores a kind of social interface, its affordant qualities subtly hinting at directions for movement, observation, or interaction. How, then, might the design of something also be considered a type of technology?

So if elements of technology infuse design, and a quick mental survey indicates that design is largely concerned with technology, we might argue that Science Fiction possesses the potential to intersect with design on several levels.

One such implementation, as John Underkoffler points out in his TED talk, is the development of the user interface (UI), an incredibly important milestone in our relationship with computers as it translated esoteric programming syntax into a type of language that the average person could understand. Indeed, as our abilities become more sophisticated, we seem to be making computers more accessible (and also intuitive, although this is a separate issue) to even the most basic users  as we build interfaces that respond to touch, gestures, and brain waves.


[1] Alternatively, one might also suggest that “we are not in Kansas anymore” as a nod to the transformational properties of the third of three related genres:  Horror, alluded to by the the uncanny, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.


Shine as Though You Never Had Any Doubt.

It hung there, slightly faded and more than a little wrinkled. Nestled among bright advertisements for football and spirit rallies lay a humble flyer, no larger than a quarter of a page, that caught my attention.

To Write Love on Her Arms

My ascent up the stairs to the college counseling office slowed as I reached out to touch the rough surface of the advertisement. So humble, so easy to miss, but yet the most powerful thing on the bulletin board—this was the thing that mattered the most (yes, even more than football).

During my presentations, I often make it a point to bring up things like “To Write Love on Her Arms” or “PostSecret” as I feel that these are important tools that allow me to connect with my audience. Through these websites and stories, I remember the stresses and the pressures of friends, of parents, and of school. Admittedly, I am a young professional and while I can generally relate to being a high school student (I was one at one point in my life), things like PostSecret vividly remind me of what it is like to be a junior or senior in high school. If nothing else, PostSecret has taught me that everyone has a secret that, if told to me, would break my heart.

This has changed the way that I look at the world.

One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.

For this reason, I find myself absolutely thrilled when high schools have groups like “To Write Love on Her Arms” because I think that so many of our students can use an outlet. I am certain that individuals are dealing with various amounts of baggage (or maybe not at all) and I am so glad that St. Margaret’s has taken it upon itself to offer support for peers in need; whether the situation revolves around academic pressure or thoughts of self-harm, I see clubs like “To Write Love on Her Arms” as an invaluable part of the school community.

However, lest one become depressed, I should mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect:  any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—they can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.

Applicants to the University sometimes want to get inside my head and to gain insight about the college admission process. Often, people want to know how to get in, how to make an impression, and how to stand out from their peers. I will be honest and say that a clever title on your essay or photos of you in USC garb is not the most effective means; tell me a compelling story, however, and I will be hooked. I understand that this process is difficult, particularly for young writers, but one of the things that sets you apart from all other applicants is the truth of your story. Believe it or not, I want to learn more about you as an individual and these sorts of stories are the ones that I love to hear. These tales do not always have to be tragic or morose—I love the stories of triumph as well—but I would encourage all of you to dig down deep and figure out your narrative. I am fully aware that this process of self-discovery is quite scary (who knows what you might find?) but rest assured that college admission officers are not in the position to judge you and we are not laughing at you behind your back; instead, I believe that students who are brave enough to open up should be rewarded.

I am hopeful that this piece has given you more of a sense of not only what matters to me and, perhaps more importantly, why these things matter. I want to convey that the admission process is human and that we care more deeply for you than you might realize. We, along with your college counselors, are fighting for you to realize your potential and it is my profound hope that we can make this inherently frightening process less scary; I hope that we have made it easier for you to venture out into this sometimes daunting landscape of college admission and shine as though you never had any doubt.

____________________________

Chris is in his fifth year with the Office of Admission at USC and also studies the intersection of popular culture, media, and online communities as a Masters student in Annenberg. When not on campus, Chris spends his time blogging or volunteering for 826LA in an effort to use his meager writing talents for social good. Chris is excited to write for the St. Margaret’s community and always welcomes any invitation to drink overpriced coffee while discussing the cultural merits of Six Feet Under, True Blood, or Gossip Girl.


Scarlet Letters

I may not be proud of what I did, but I am proud of who I am.

My forearm still bears the mark–you can see it if you look closely enough–the little half-moon, a result of the one time I couldn’t stop. Things were so much simpler then:  dig in, hold on, and focus on the pain. Focus on the pain not because you are a masochist, but because this pain–this pain–is at least definable; this pain is tangible, real, and quantifiable. I refused to pick up anything sharper, lest I turn into one of those tragic emo kids splayed out in the tub with one arm crooked over the edge of the tub–or maybe the truth was that I was just too much of a coward–so this pain was, for now, all I had.

I ran my finger over my arm in lazy figure eights, writing my name so many times over in those angry scarlet letters.

Now I write my names many times over so I will not forget:  I put ink to skin so that I will not forget who I am, what I am, and, most importantly, what I am worth. I write so that I will never hear someone say, “I knew you when.”

Part of the reason that this matters so much  is that I, for whatever reason, have managed to get out of that space–that I have miraculously survived. My whole drive in life is to teach youth to brave the depths of themselves and to learn to love the dark as well as the light. Because if you can love the parts of yourself that you most hate–and know that love isn’t the same as acceptance–well, that’s just magic. It’s part of the reason why I study Horror. It’s a hard lesson to learn, I think, that things aren’t just always going to magically get better and that you often have a lot of work in front of you, but that you have to be able to see (or, better, believe in) something better. It’s always this journey from stasis, to anger and discontentment, to wonder, beauty and love.

But ultimately, you fight for kids you’ve failed, for those you’ve yet to reach, and for those worth saving (hint:  it’s all of them). There are times when I feel overwhelmed because fighting is all you can do and yet it’s never enough–there’s always more to do and ways that you could have been better. But I’ve learned to take a break and get some perspective; I’ve realized that the world is hopefully a little bit better because I gave a damn and although you might not inspire every kid, that doesn’t detract from the ones that you do manage to move. Success can’t be measured in gains versus losses–I have to think about it in terms of the difference between me doing something and nothing at all.


Man of Science, Man of Faith

In today’s world, it seems that “secularization” is all too often matched with a sense of loss:  whether it be the decline in institutional religion or the dissipation of enchantment, we seem to employ the term in order to forward the idea that we are moving away from something that was once valued. And, to be fair, this is true. The modern age has, since the Enlightenment, been, in fits and starts, shifting away from a life infused with religion. But, I also think that “secularization” can also speak to something larger, and more significant, than that.

Unfortunately, it appears as though “secularization” has become synonymous with Science and been placed in opposition to Religion–atheists rigidly adhere to a rather static ideology that denounces aspects of religion, preferring the explanations proffered by experiments and equations. Yet, are we simply trading one set of dogma for another as we move between extremes? For me, Science works best when it challenges Religion (and vice versa) to keep pace with the developing world. The sense of awe, mystery, and wonder inherent in religion keeps scientists humble and science reminds us that some holy laws must be reconciled with modern culture.

One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor’s A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive — as long as it leaves open a “window on the transcendent.”

The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn’t dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.

The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don’t rely on political endorsement.

We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.

We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era’s emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.

It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the “historical Jesus” and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.

This so-called “critical method” wasn’t an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.

Seeing the synthesis of these two areas is what makes studying modern religion so fascinating. Despite a formal training in Natural Sciences, I have gradually come to appreciate the power inherent in religion and am quite excited to be in some other great minds at the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion blog.