One might think that the American version of a show called The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present) might be somewhat sensitive to ethnicity, given the potential misreading of its title. Sadly, however, the show (currently in its 19th season) continues to exhibit signs of ethnocentrism as it shuttles contestants around the globe on a race around the world.
Assuredly, part of the problem manifests in the contestants themselves, who rarely, if ever, show large amounts of cultural sensitivity and/or knowledge. (It should be noted that there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but the general lack of awareness seems to be somewhat surprising given that contestants have had numerous opportunities to learn from past racers’ mistakes and although some have learned the value of doing research on a country or picking up a guidebook, none seem to grasp the utility of learning foreign languages or customs. To be fair, the situation may be admittedly more complex with producers having control over which teams are actually selected to race—I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems like selected teams do not have distinct advantages [e.g., nobody reports spending extended amounts of time overseas] and it is entirely possible that producers do not select teams who prepare in this fashion.) Perhaps unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype of “ugly Americans,” discourteous behavior is most often exhibited by teams/racers 1) yelling at foreign cab drivers (in English) and getting frustrated when said drivers do not understand the racers (even when the racers resort to speaking as they would to a child or an elderly person), 2) becoming upset that locals do not instantly know the location of some destination in the city (e.g., a specific plaza, street, or shop), or 3) complaining about India or China (size, poverty, food, smell, crowding, etc.).
Worse, perhaps, the show itself presents as a sort of extended travel narrative, painting the contestants as little more than tourists who zip from location to location, participating in challenges that are little more than thinly-disguised vacation package day trips. Ostensibly grounded in the traditions, customs, or ritual of the current location, the challenges that racers face (called roadblocks and detours) demonstrate little respect for the practices upon which they draw and definitely do not ask the racers to internalize the importance of the activity in the lives of those around them. Instead of asking racers to truly engage on a meaningful level, one might argue that the racers are, as Dean MacCannell suggests, “simply collect[ing] experiences of difference” (again, we need to question the role of editors/producers as such internalization may in fact occur for racers but such a transformation is never highlighted in the on-screen interviews, unless the reaction is so over-the-top as to be insincere). Moreover, building upon thoughts mentioned elsewhere in Lisa Nakamura’s chapter “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” one can see that, from a Western (in this case, American) perspective, The Amazing Race is constructed on pillars of Otherness, exoticism, and foreignness.
Take the above scene, for example, that features a font designed to invoke associations of “Asian culture” imprinted upon paper umbrellas, set in a temple. Putting aside the issue that the task at hand has nothing to do with any of the Asian “props,” the font itself is incredibly problematic as it represents Roman (i.e., Western) letters that are constructed out of faux brush strokes—a type of writing that finds a home in no Asian culture on Earth. Second only to the typography used on the stereotypical Chinese take-out container (see image to the right) in familiarity with a Western audience, the font used in The Amazing Race demonstrates just how shallow the program really is.
On a larger level, however, the show also demonstrates no small amount of Orientalism as it works to legitimize Western culture, often presenting local culture/customs in a tone that invokes terms like “quaint” or “backward.” (Although primarily focused on America, one might also note that the show’s host, Phil Keoghan, expands the narrative slightly, presenting a form of acceptable/valued Otherness in the form of a man who presents as White but speaks with a New Zealand accent.) The exotic nature of the locations/tasks is also often conveyed through their status as spectacle.
Watching the main titles, one can almost ignore the distinctly (yet ambiguous) “ethnic” soundtrack and compare the images to those of other travelogues. In particular, The Chipmunk Adventure (1987), a movie made for children, seems striking in its presentation of cultural icons from around the world, suggesting that The Amazing Race is not the first media product to treat foreign people in this way. This treatment, aspects of which are also mentioned in Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk, alludes to the trope of “forever foreigner,” which suggests that although dominant American culture may tolerate, absorb, or incorporate aspects of other cultures, titillation derives from the notion that one is participating in activity that is perpetually Othered and will never be as “American” as apple pie (amusingly, and perhaps rightly, Jennifer 8. Lee argues that this phrase should be changed to “American as Chinese food“) and country music.
Instead of taking the opportunity to truly educate an American audience about the complexities and joys of life abroad, The Amazing Race pushes an ideology that, in large and small ways, reaffirms just how great it is to be American. With a television as passport, we are able to visit distant lands (from the comfort of our couch, no less) and accrue knowledge, if not understanding. We watch for an hour a week and come away feeling worldly, content to accept the manufactured diversity on screen (through composition of racing teams and locations) as substitute for the real thing as we reassure ourselves that we, as White Americans, truly represent the amazing race.
When reading the fiction of Cordwainer Smith, I found myself making connections to Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend. Although I would classify I Am Legend as more of a horror story than a work of Science Fiction—that being said, the genres have a tendency to overlap and a strict distinction, for this current article, is not necessary—both pieces were published in the 1950s, a time assuredly rife with psychological stress. Although we certainly witness an environment coming to terms with the potential impact of mass media and advertising (see discussion from last week’s class), I also associate the time period with the incredible mental reorganization that resulted for many due to the increased migration to the suburbs—a move that would cause many to grapple with issues of competition, conformity, routine, and paranoia. In a way, just as 1950s society feared, the threat did really come from within.
And “within,” in this case, did not just mean that one’s former neighbors could, one day, wake up and want to eat you (one of the underlying themes in zombie apocalypse films set in suburbia) but also that one’s mental state was subject to bouts of dissatisfaction, depression, and isolation. Neville (the last human in Matheson’s book, who must fight off waves of vampires) and each of the protagonists in Smith’s stories is othered in their own ways and although Smith overtly points to themes of empowerment/disenfranchisement, I could not help but wonder about the psychological stress that each character endured as a result of a sense of isolation. Martel (“Scanners Live in Vain“) fights to retain his humanity (and connection to it) through his wife and cranching, Elaine (“The Dead Lady of Clown Town“) falls in love with the Hunter and fuses with D’joan while Lord Jestocost (“The Ballad of Lost C’mell“) falls in love with an ideal, and finally Mercer (“A Planet Named Shayol“) unwittingly chooses community over isolation by refusing to give up his personality and eyesight.
Throughout the stories of Matheson and Smith, we see that the end result of warfare is a shift in (or acceptance of) a new form of ideology. (This makes sense particularly if we take Smith’s position from Psychological Warfare that “Freedom cannot be accorded to persons outside the ideological pale,” indicating that there will necessarily be winners and losers in the battle necessitated by differences in ideology.) In particular, however, I found “Scanners Live in Vain” and “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” most interesting in that their conclusions point to the mythologizing of characters (Parizianski and Elaine), which is the same sort of realization had by Matheson’s Neville as he comes to terms with the concept that although he was, in his own story, the protagonist, he will be remembered as a conquered antagonist of new humanity. Neville, like Parizianski and Elaine, has become legend.
Ultimately, I think that Smith’s stories weave together a number of interrelated questions: “What is the role of things that have become obsolete?” “What defines a human (or humanity)?” “How is psychological warfare something that is not just done to us by other, but by ourselves?” and, finally, “If psychological warfare is an act that is committed to replace and eradicate ‘faulty’ ideology, what is our role in crafting a new system of values and myths. What does it mean that we become legends?”
To be sure, broadcast media are constructed around an agenda. Although we might argue whether the underlying goals of mass media are anti- or pro-social, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that we are continually being influenced (alternatively manipulated, persuaded, informed, etc.) by media. This particular view does preclude the possibility of audience agency, but also suggests that we must remain mindful of top-down messaging, no matter what kind of meaning is construed by viewers.
Often caught in the middle of this tension are media outlets, who evidence a complicated relationship as corporate subsidiaries who may or may not be working in the public interest. To become cynical and overly suspect of media channels is to disengage from the system but failing to question the broad range of factors that shape media production is to be naïve and to remove oneself in another fashion—where, then, is the happy medium? How much energy can and should be invested into understanding how mass media intersects with all levels of life (e.g., individual, interpersonal, and communal)? When have we done our due diligence and when have we become paranoid?
I often wonder if the impulse to ignore the impact of media on our lives is less willful and more of a survival instinct. If we accept that modern humans are now assaulted with thousands of things that demand our attention, perhaps the drive to search for simplified narratives makes intuitive sense—our brain would shut down if we attempted to juggle all of the outside factors which, at any given moment, may or may not be affecting us. As such, broad declarations (helped along by catchphrases or clever wording) like “video games cause violent kids” or “television rots your brain” represent stable, if perhaps incorrect, positions about the ways in which media intersects with our lives. Taking the stance that “the Internet is for porn,” for example, uncomplicates one’s position to the Internet, removing all of the conditional clauses—the hemming and the hawing—and, in short, eliminating all of the subtlety.
And while I certainly do not expect all people to be as inherently interested in media as I am—to do so would be arrogant and short-sighted—I do often wonder about how I can encourage other people to want to engage with the subject. More than just modes of resistance, I think it is important for individuals to think about what kinds of power are inherent in the media (and its associated systems) and how this power can be leveraged. Resistance and disruption are one possible outcome, but I am much more inclined to develop a broader framework and set of skills.
Speaking to this notion of complexity, Eva Illouz comments on the value of canonic texts, noting that they are valuable not for some inherent quality of “excellence,” but because they offer new ways to organize knowledge. These structures, along with the resulting viewpoints, also provide theorists with a vocabulary to employ while supporting and contesting their positions and it is this process—what Illouz calls “tension”—that allows us to refine and articulate our perspectives. Tensions forces us to not only define the boundaries of our own thoughts but defend how, when, and why we draw the lines that we do.
Ultimately, although the products of this process are important, I think that it, in contrast to the practices of most modern Americans, speaks to a fundamentally different mode of engagement with media. We can complain all we like, lamenting about the manipulation of the masses, but we must also take a close look at ourselves, for we too play a role in all of this. If we are truly concerned with the inability of the average American to think critically about the potential influence of media, we must roll up our sleeves, get dirty, and engage with those whom we wish to help—and do so on their level. We cannot expect citizens to wake up one day and realize that they had it all wrong (nor did they necessarily) and we cannot chastise people for not intuitively grasping what is, to us, so clear. Rather, we need to think carefully about how we can encourage people to grow into a position where they actively question the media that they are exposed to.
 Let us ignore, for the moment, the outlets at the extremes of this continuum (e.g., state-run propaganda machines or pirate radio stations).
1660 was a year of great upheaval in England, with the beginning of the English Restoration marked by the ascendancy of Charles II to the throne. That same year, another event—lesser known, although no less revolutionary—occurred, which would affect the future of Science forever: the invention of air.
Now I don’t mean that someone found a container and mixed together 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and some other stuff. Air as a gas had existed for millennia. And I don’t mean air as an idea or concept. Rather, I mean the invention of air as an object of inquiry—something that could be studied and was worthy of such scrutiny.
Using the recently invented vacuum pump as an experimental apparatus, Robert Boyle published a book called New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, a volume that aimed to describe the properties of air. Although this milestone may seem somewhat uninteresting to non-science geeks, the thoughts forwarded in this work formed the cornerstone of Boyle’s Law, which would later become incorporated into our fundamental understanding of how gasses behaved in closed systems. In short, Boyle’s publication helped to change the way in which we saw the world, rendering the once-invisible apparent, if still ephemeral.
But when we think about air today—if at all—we don’t stop to ponder how it works. We just know that it does. We instinctually know that creating a small vacuum at the top of a straw will cause the liquid below to move up due to a pressure differential and this, in many ways, demonstrates the true power of science, for many of its principles are simply accepted as truth.
In her book Always Already New, Lisa Gitelman draws a parallel between the adoption of scientific knowledge and acceptance of media, arguing that both must fight to prove themselves and, having done so, proceed to weave themselves into our lives until they become unremarkable and it becomes difficult for us to ever imagine how we functioned without it. Divorcing media from technology, Gitelman suggests that a key point in understanding the impact of media is describing the social experience that arises around new forms of media and tracing how these experiences evolve over time. Indeed, the transitions between introduction, acceptance, and banality often tell us much about the socio-cultural context in which media reside, with concerns inevitably transitioning from “What is this new technology replacing (i.e., what is lost)?” to “What are the health implications (e.g., is this going to give me cancer)?” to “What are the implications for the community (e.g., will this bring about the apocalypse)?”
Gitleman further argues that as we forget the social processes that govern media, allowing its protocols to become invisible, media gains a sort of authority and legitimacy, as the state of being influenced by media becomes “the way it always was” even though it wasn’t. Take a second and think about how protocols surrounding media—all media, not just new media—have become incorporated into your life. How do you interact with media? What are the rules (official or otherwise) that govern such behavior?
In front of us is a sampling of the ways in which we might interact with media and, latent in these actions, is a set of protocols that instruct our behavior. But, more than just guiding our interaction with the media, Gitelman argues that these protocols also serve to update and stabilize our sense of the abstract public, with communities rising around shared ritual. Another way to think about this is that we ascertain our position in the community by locating ourselves within an ecology of practice.
In some ways overlapping with community bounded by taste, we see that similar patterns of interaction with, or response to, media helps to delineate those who are like us from those who are not. Speaking of taste how many of you prefer the ad to the left? The right? No preference?
In late 2009, IKEA decided to change its font from Futura to Verdana, a process that has little, if any, inherent significance. The switch, however, provoked no small amount of discussion online, with ardent supporters arguing against equally strident naysayers. Aesthetics aside, the interesting take home message from all of this is the way in which fonts—and typography in general—represent precisely the type of incorporation that Gitelman was talking about with respect to media. As media becomes naturalized, we tend to focus on the content such that methods of production become invisible. When we encounter text, we register what is said before we think about how it’s presented. To quote Adrian Frutiger,
“If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page…When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”
Gitelman goes on to introduce other forms of inscription, namely recorded sound and new media, suggesting similarities between the cultural relationships that surrounded both sets of protocols.
“Whole new modes of inscription—such as capturing sounds by phonograph in 1878, or creating and saving digital files today—make sense as a result of social processes that define their efficacy as simultaneously material and semiotic.”
We see resonance between the early Dictaphone and speech-to-text input software like visual voicemail or between the gramophone and code-to-speech programs like auto-translation. Gitelman warns, however, that inscriptive media also are inextricably connected to history and attempts to examine these artifacts historically are necessarily affected for we are studying the process of inscription through the products those processes produced! Problematic, to say the least. I suggest that the first step to successful study is to attempt an understanding of the factors that guide our inquiry: our primary sources for understanding the phenomenon of recorded sound come from print, which means that we must necessarily question the relationship of print to recorded sound at the time.
How did these two media forms coevolve, abut, and compete? If we accept Habermas’ position that the protocols of print media and speech were ensconced in public life and that recorded sound helped to reshape the public, we immediately see the need to question written accounts of recorded sound.
Ultimately, Gitelman’s point is that the socio-historical investigation of media presents a dense and complex web of associations for the would-be researcher, with recorded sound intersecting with family structures, gender, economic demands, and socio-political concepts. The introduction of recorded sound, like that of new media, necessitated a corresponding response in established social structures as it floated out from the gramophone and through the ether, leaving a trail of revolution and restructuring…just like the last time we invented air.
The prominent theme of amnesia seems of note in this week’s readings, gaining resonance when paired with the larger connective thread of advertising. Although one might argue that amnesia has taken on a negative sheen thanks to its popularity in soap operas, the mechanic has been employed in a number of popular contexts that range from retconning (effecting a kind of imperfect amnesia on the audience as cannon asks them to “forget” history), dissociative fugue, and cyclical histories/journeys that continually reset. The last of these manifestations, which we see in Frederik Pohl‘s “The Tunnel Under the World,” invokes memory of myths in which the hero must repeat his trials until he learns a lesson that speaks to some supposedly profound truth. Offerings like Groundhog Day and Dark City come to mind, although these two offerings contain messages that diverge in interesting ways: while the plot of Groundhog Day focuses on an individual transformation, Dark City also nods to a sort of “cultural amnesia” that plagues the inhabitants of the self-contained city.
An easy target for this malaise is the spell cast by advertising, with such accusations made in “The Tunnel Under the World.” Written in the middle of the 20th century—a time period that saw increasing emphasis on commercialization and industrialization—it makes sense that Pohl casts the inhabitants of Tlyerton as robots driven by a consciousness that is both duped and dead!
Amnesia and complacency also manifest in Henry Kuttner‘s “The Twonky,” and here we can contrast the amnesia of time-travelling Joe with the induced state of inaction that Kerry Westerfield experiences as a result of his interaction with the Twonky. In their own ways, both Pohl and Kuttner draw a connection between media and the subjugation of the human mind and/or spirit. (Interestingly, there also seems to be a stratification of media with the telephone being suspect [speaking perhaps to telephone salesmen?] while Westerfield finds a bit of sanctuary under the marquee of a movie theater. Cinema, then, perhaps represented a higher cultural form that was less susceptible to the corrosive influence of advertising, although this notion has changed somewhat over the years as any modern moviegoer can attest to.) Given the context in which these two authors wrote, it is not overly difficult to connect the dots and see how both of these short stories spoke to advertising being conveyed through media channels as it infected the general population, supplanting natural sentience with manufactured thought (or nothing at all!) in a process that invokes some of the pessimistic views of institutions like the Frankfurt School.
Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application
College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding
Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)
Secondary school counselors, CBOs
Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.
The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.
But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?
College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.
Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).
However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.
It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.
Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”
A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 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. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.
WARNING: The following contains images that may be considered graphic in nature. As a former Biology student (and Pre-Med at that!), I have spent a number of hours around bodies and studying anatomy but I realize that this desensitization might not exist for everyone. I watched surgeries while eating dinner in college and study horror films (which I realize is not normal). Please proceed at your own risk.
At first glance, the anatomical model to the left (also known as “The Doll,” “Medical Venus,” or simply “Venus) might seem like nothing more than an inspired illustration from the most well-known text of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. To most modern viewers, the image (and perhaps even the model itself) raise a few eyebrows but is unlikely to elicit a reaction much stronger than that. And why should it? We are a culture that has grown accustomed to watching surgeries on television, witnessed the horrible mutilating effects of war, and even turned death into a spectacle of entertainment. Scores of school children have visited Body Worlds or have been exposed to the Visible Human Project (if you haven’t watched the video, it is well worth the minute). We have also been exposed to a run of “torture porn” movies in the 2000s that included offerings like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity. Although we might engage in a larger discussion about our relationship to the body, it seems evident that we respond to, and use, images of the body quite differently in a modern context. (If there’s any doubt, one only need to look at a flash-based torture game that appeared in 2007, generating much discussion.) Undoubtedly, our relationship to the body has changed over the years—and will likely continue to do so with forays into transhumanism—which makes knowledge of the image’s original context all the more crucial to fully understanding its potential import.
Part of the image’s significance comes from it’s appearance in a culture that generally did not have a sufficient working knowledge of the body by today’s standards, with medical professionals also suffering a shortage of cadavers to study (which in turn led to an interesting panic regarding body snatching and consequentially resulted in a different relationship between people and dead bodies). The anatomical doll pictured above appeared as part of an exhibit in the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (nicknamed La Specola), one of the few natural history museums open to the public at the time. This crucial piece of information allows historical researchers to immediately gain a sense of the model’s importance for, through it, knowledge of the body began to spread throughout the masses and its depiction would forever be inscribed onto visual culture.
Also important, however, is the female nature of the body, which itself reflected a then-fascination with women in Science. Take, for example, the notion that the Venus lay ensconced in a room full of uteruses and we immediately gain more information about the significance of the image above: in rather straightforward terms, the male scientist fascination with the female body and process of reproduction becomes evident. Although a more detailed discussion is warranted, this interest spoke to developments in the Enlightenment that began a systematic study of Nature, wresting way its secrets through the development of empirical modes of inquiry. Women, long aligned with Nature through religion (an additional point to be made here is that in its early incarnations, the clear demarcations between fields that we see today did not exist, meaning that scientists were also philosophers and religious practitioners) were therefore objects to be understood as males sought to once again peer further into the unknown. This understanding of the original image is reinforced when one contrasts it with its male counterparts from the same exhibit, revealing two noticeable differences. First, the female figure possesses skin, hair, and lips, which serve as reminders of the body’s femininity and humanity. Second, the male body remains intact, while the female body has been ruptured/opened to reveal its secrets. The male body, it seems, had nothing to hide. Moreover, the position of the female model is somewhat evocative, with its arched back, pursed lips, and visual similarity to Snow White in her coffin, which undoubtedly speaks to the posing of women’s bodies and how such forms were intended to be consumed.
Thus, the fascination with women’s bodies—and the mystery they conveyed—manifested in the physical placement of the models on display at La Specola, both in terms of distribution and posture. In short, comprehension of the museum’s layout helps one to understand not only the relative significance of the image above, but also speaks more generally to the role that women’s bodies held in 19th-century Italy, with the implications of this positioning resounding throughout Western history. (As a brief side note, this touches upon another area of interest for me with horror films of the 20th century: slasher films veiled an impulse to “know” women, with the phrase “I want to see/feel your insides” being one of my absolute favorites as it spoke to the psychosexual component of serial killers while continuing the trend established above. Additionally, we also witness a rise in movies wherein females give birth to demon spawn (e.g. The Omen), are possessed by male forces (e.g., The Exorcist), and are also shown as objects of inquiry for men who also seek to “know” women through science (e.g., Poltergeist). Recall the interactivity with the Venus and we begin to sense a thematic continuity between the renegotiation of women’s bodies, the manipulation of women’s bodies, and knowledge. For some additional writings on this, La Specola, and the television show Caprica, please refer to a previous entry on my blog.)
This differential treatment of bodies continues to exist today, with the aforementioned Saw providing a pertinent (and graphic) example. Compare the image of a female victim to the right with that of the (male) antagonist Jigsaw below. Although the situational context of these images differ, with the bodies’ death states providing commentary on the respective characters, both bodies are featured with exposed chests in a manner similar to the Venus depicted at the outset of this piece. Extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this writing, but I would like to mention that an interesting—and potentially productive—sort of triangulation occurs when one compares the images of the past/present female figures (the latter of whom is caught in an “angel” trap) with each other and with that of the past/present male figures. Understanding these images as points in a constellation helps one to see interesting themes: for example, as opposed to the 19th-century practice (i.e, past male), the image of Jigsaw (i.e., present male) cut open is intended to humanize the body, suggesting that although he masterminded incredibly detailed traps his body was also fragile and susceptible to breakdown. Jigsaw’s body, then, presents some overlap with Venus (i.e., past female) particularly when one considers that Jigsaw’s body plays host to a wax-covered audiotape—in the modern interpretation, it seems that the male body is also capable of harboring secrets.
Ultimately, a more detailed understanding of the original image would flush out its implications for the public of Italy in the 19th century and also look more broadly at the depictions of women, considering how “invasive practices” were not just limited to surgery. La Specola’s position as a state-sponsored institution also has implications for the socio-historical context for the image that should also be investigated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, scholars should endeavor to understand the Medical Venus as not just reflective of cultural practice but also seek to ascertain how its presence (along with other models and the museum as a whole) provided new opportunities for thought, expression, and cultivation of bodies at the time.