Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for December, 2011

To Be Free Is Free to Be

My provocation is this:  utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.

 The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag:  Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:

“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”

Without pausing she fires back:

“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”

I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast:  youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.

Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:

There is another sky

Ever serene and fair

And there is another sunshine

Though it be darkness there

Never mind faded forests, Austin

Never mind silent fields

Here is a little forest

Whose leaf is evergreen

Here is a brighter garden

Where not a frost has been

In its unfading flowers

I hear the bright bee hum

Prithee, my brother

Into my garden come!

All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.

But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.

And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.

The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone:  utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.

Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.

Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.

Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.

I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.

So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?

For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.

But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.

I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.

In short, a utopia.

What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.

I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.

We’d never know how high we are

Until we’re called to rise

And then, if we are true to plan

Our statures touch the skies

Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.

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Merry Christmas. War is…Over?

I’m not sure when it started, but I am told that there is most definitely a “War on Christmas” occurring in America at the present moment. Well, reoccurring to be more accurate. In response we see comedian Jon Stewart formally declaring a (mock) “War on Christmas” even as other media outlets attempt to understand what the fuss is all about. What is a journalist to do? To ignore the situation seems neglectful, but to acknowledge the dispute is to grant a measure of legitimacy. In short, what is one’s responsibility when it comes to reporting something like the “War on Christmas”? Is there a way to contextualize the issue without engaging directly, perhaps seeing the fervor as the product of a channel that must find news (or create it)?

Part of the struggle, I think, lies in the notion that the commercialized Christmas has invariably become part of the traditional Christmas story in America. Even children’s specials support this notion, for despite Charlie Brown’s speech that commercialism will not ruin his Christmas, it is only after his sapling is transformed through the trappings of commercial celebration that it is allowed to bring the children together. This is not to suggest that we confuse Santa Claus with Jesus, but that both figures have become central to the Christian understanding of the season. If there indeed is a “War on Christmas,” are we even fighting the right enemy?

But beyond the rabble rousing, I am incredibly interested in the sensationalist deployment of “Nazi” in order to challenge those who are seen as hindering Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas for one of Nazism’s goals was the unification of the German people through the perceived threat imposed by the Polish. In line with a position heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, Nazism construed this assault in terms of a mortal danger—in this model, there would only be one type of winner and Nazis most definitely intended to ensure their own survival.

What happens, then, if we remove Nazis from the discussion (and, along with them, the inherent negative connotations) and instead consider the process employed by the National Socialist party? We must recognize that this sort of community building is not inherently evil nor is it a product of Nazism—to label it as such would be to ignore the larger ideological developments at play and to fail to understand its relative import to us today. This, to me, seems to be the real story at the heart of all of this rhetoric:  what are the ways that dominant ideology paints itself as a victim in order to garner support?

As others have noted, the “War on Christmas” is perhaps really just a battle in the larger “War on Christianity.” Viewed in this way, we can situate the current discussions alongside Lowe’s decision to remove its ads from All-American Muslim and concern over religious iconography on military bases. For me, the larger area of concern is not whether Christianity is in fact jeopardized but rather how such a war is being constructed in the first place. If we look back at tactics employed during the Nazi assertion of power, we can better understand the potential benefits of fostering an environment that finds itself in a perpetual state of battle with the secular Other threatening imminent demise.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies cultural anxieties that surround the social construction of the body. Throughout his work, Chris attempts to use Post/Transhumanism, Early Modern Science, Gothic Horror, and religion to answer the question, “How do we become more than our bodies?” 

Read up on Chris’ pop culture musings or follow him on Twitter as he endeavors not to eat his weight in holiday snacks.