Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for March, 2013

Admission + Confession

If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.

 

Individualism and Neoliberal Thought

Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.

Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah:  Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.

Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.

 

The Manifestation of the Post-

And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).

The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture:  Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.

Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.

 

Problematizing Irony as Social Critique

How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.

One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?

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Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928-39

Ronald Walter Greene

Bibliography

Greene, R. W. (2011). Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928-39. In C. R. Acland, & N. Wasson (Eds.), Useful Cinema (pp. 205-229). Durham: Duke University Press.

Biography

Greene’s research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Cultural Policy and Moving Image Studies. Greene work in rhetorical theory is approached with a materialist perspective that focuses on how rhetorical techniques and technologies are enlisted as means of governance and production. Additionally, Greene’s work in moving image studies emphasizes the distribution and exhibition practices of the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau in the first half of the twentieth century.

Summary

Although Ronald Walter Greene’s Pastoral Exhibition is, on one level, a story about the development of a 16mm film network in early 20th century America, the piece also fundamentally speaks to the way in which audiences are constructed as part of economic markets. Having introduced this connection between audiences and economies via a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s view of the YMCA as “professional, political, and ideological intermediaries”[1] for Fordism, Greene essentially goes on to outline the way in which the development of the 16mm film network by the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and Exhibits (MPB) was intertwined with the dissemination of a particular brand of ideology.

As an example, Greene notes the relationship between the ability of the MPB to distribute free movies because of corporate donations, non-traditional settings for movie showings that resulted from the YMCA’s interest in urban outreach, and Steven Ross’ observation that “the companies most active in crushing unions…were also the most aggressive in producing nontheatricals…shown at local YMCAs.”[2] In essence, a simplification of this process suggests that a company was able to spread its ideology in the form of films using the YMCA network of 16mm distribution.

However, the key point in Greene is not just that the YMCA provided distribution channels for films (corporate-sponsored and otherwise) but that the very philosophy of the YMCA acted to cultivate audiences and thereby shape modes of seeing. Using the term “pastoral exhibition” to describe the YMCA’s position that films should work to “care for an individual’s well-being while harnessing the practice of movie watching to alleviate social, political, and moral problems of a population,”[3] Greene speaks to the way in which the very experience of watching a movie was designed to frame the viewer as a particular type of audience member.[4] As opposed to the theatrical/Hollywood model, the films of the YMCA were educational in tone and reinforced the necessity of a cultural authority to guide audiences into correct modes of interaction with the film. Understanding the development of the 16mm network in this way, we see how the distribution network of films contributed to the generation/reinforcement of a power dynamic between laborers and film producers.

Finally, given the invocation of the pastoral, it is only fitting that Greene mentions Foucault’s reading of the term and the way in which the movement of groups is managed through networks and markets. Given that Greene notes that “the mobile character of 16mm may have been difficult for the pastoral mode of exhibition because it proliferated in the sites and genres of non-theatrical exhibition with or without the cultural authorities deemed necessary to instill the proper moral disposition,”[5] we might also think through the implications for this model in the current age of digital distribution. Who are the new cultural authorities and how does the film industry continue to construct us as audiences?


[1] Gramsci, A. “Americanism and Fordism,” 302

[2] Ross, S. Working Class Hollywood, 224

[3] Greene, R., 214

[4] See also the Haidee Wasson quote that the 16mm network represented “a whole new way of thinking, seeing, and being in the world.”

[5] Greene, R., 226


On Portmanteaus and the Death of American Wit

I very much disagree with this Slate’s Culture Gabfest take on portmanteaus. There is, I think, a rich discussion regarding relationship between (new) words/concepts and the ways in which people understand limitations in the ability of their current language to express an idea. We could think about how multi-lingual people run into this as well when you switch to another language because your current one simply doesn’t contain the word (in its fullness) that you are looking to say. Portmanteaus are not new and they are not the real issue here.

Alternatively, it seems like what the original Slate article is trying to get at is the death of American wit and the way in which “clever” wordplay has come to stand in for an actual depth of meaning. I am not mad at this.

All of this to say that I think that both of these lines of inquiry are productive to explore and I think that the most insightful bit of commentary is to dive into how individuals deploy language as a positional/relational tool.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2013/03/chillax_wikipedia_and_bridezilla_are_not_puns_against_adjoinages.html


Admission People Problems

This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.

Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?

I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.

We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”

In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.


Trauma and Justice

Trauma and Justice

The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa

Jose Brunner

Bibliography

Burnner, J. (2007). Trauma and Justice: The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa. In Trauma and Memory: Reading, Healing, and Making Law (pp. 97-118). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sometimes the tissues of community can be damaged in much the same way as the tissues of mind and body, as I shall suggest shortly, but even when that does not happen, traumatic wounds inflicted on individuals can combine to create a mood, an ethos—a group culture, almost—that is different from (and more than) the sum of the private wounds that make it up. Trauma, that is, has a social dimension.

—Kai Erikson, “Notes on Trauma and Community”

Biography

Jose Brunner appears to be largely interested in work that sits at the intersection of history, trauma, and memory, with publications that largely involve either Freud or psychoanalysis. According to Brunner, his main areas of research and publication include the relationship between law, memory and identity, the history and politics of psychoanalysis, the politics of the mental health discourse on trauma, psychological theories of Nazism and genocide, modern and contemporary political thought, and the history of compensation for Holocaust survivors in Germany and Israel.

Summary

Brunner opens his essay by recounting a key moment in the history of the industrialized West:  the use of demographic data allowed governing bodies to conceptualize risk in terms of statistical probability, which then allowed for the development of insurance as a system to provide recompense for injury. Although the implications of this even are much more significant than Brunner indicates,[1] he introduces the idea in order to begin a discussion of how trauma sits at the intersection of law, government, and health.

This context is a key one for Brunner as he intends to focus on the association between trauma and justice as a means to begin a discussion that uncovers embedded moral codes surrounding trauma and its treatment. Using Axel Honneth’s concept of “moral grammar,” which speaks to the way in which individuals’ responses to transgressions of moral order in everyday life form the basis for social justice movements, Brunner introduces three separate dimensions on which trauma discourse can be placed (suspicion-compassion, silence-solidarity, and victimhood-healing) as it moves from a modern to postmodern context. Brunner’s overall argument is that each case presented exemplifies that time period’s concerns over the politics of life.

Suspicion-Compassion (late 19th and early 20th century)

In the wake of an 1889 decision by the Imperial Insurance Office that allowed German workers to seek compensation for trauma (as a form of injury) experienced while on the job, doctors in Wilhelmine became suspicious that 1) opportunists were taking advantage of the situation to press their claims and that 2) providing such a safety net would subtly encourage the transformation of acute symptoms into chronic ones. Exemplified by Hermann Oppenheim, the counter position argued that the process of redress was itself traumatic in that it stigmatized the petitioner and involved a prolonged revisiting of the original trauma. Although arguments ultimately resulted in the Simulationsstreit (debate on malingering), Brunner notes that this case speaks to a way in which the medical community challenged the law, citing it as detrimental to those it purported to help and thus invoking a moral claim that stemmed from the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

Solidarity-Silence (mid-20th century)

After a broad introduction[2] that essentially argues that cultural recognition of trauma must precede medical and legal legitimation and the irony that “as a rule, the traumatized could achieve acknowledgment of their powerlessness, vulnerability, victimhood, and suffering only when they managed to gain the power or status needed to overcome at least part of the marginalization and exclusion mechanisms that silence the traumatized” (105), Brunner goes on to suggest that the creation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[3] as a diagnosis destabilized the victim-victimizer dichotomy in trauma, opening up new frameworks through which to understand trauma.

Victimhood-Healing (late 20th century)

Brunner’s final dichotomy looks at efforts of therapeutic jurisprudence to assist in the healing process, specifically focusing on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Furthering the scope of trauma outlined in the previous section, Brunner notes that the TRC identifies five categories of trauma sufferer: victim, perpetrator, families of victims, the community, and Commission personnel. In exploring the ramifications of this classification scheme, Brunner essentially invokes Maria Root’s concept of insidious trauma, which looks at the ways that the effects of an initial trauma can radiate out. Root’s interest is in examining how the knowledge that one is subject to trauma forms a type of oppression that is damaging to an individual. Brunner ultimately argues that the net effect of this focus on the community was to move trauma and healing outside of the confines of a victim/therapist model such that individuals could help treat each other and themselves.


[1] This is in fact one of the key developments for a discussion of biopolitics and the “new conception of the relationship between the state and its citizens” (98) that Brunner invokes is important not only for understanding the changing legal responsibility that the state had toward its citizens but also for how the state thought of its citizens and therefore what the citizen meant to the state.

[2] Brunner then makes a rather large leap in suggesting that individuals increasingly grew distrustful of the law’s ability to protect their interests. Although this sentiment may certainly be true, Brunner does not seem to provide sufficient evidence to support this claim.

[3] Despite a discussion about the possibilities that an individual can experience multiple forms of trauma and that scholars are increasingly interested in studying the effects of trauma in non-Western contexts, Brunner frustratingly fails to interrogate the limits of PTSD’s aforementioned comprehensiveness. As a diagnosis that was largely conceived of and interpreted by white males, “generally outside of the usual experience” was a guideline that was necessarily limited by the white male perspective. Most egregious is Brunner’s failure to comment on the way in which the very diagnosis of the PTSD also serves to reinscribe silence into trauma even as it destabilizes it.


Privatizing Privacy

The show is not the show,

But they that go.

Menagerie to me

My neighbor be.

Fair play—

Both went to see.

—Emily Dickinson

Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:

Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)

In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.

Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.

House Hunters television promo (2010)

House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.

If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.


Insufferable People Problems

This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.

Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?

I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.

We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”

In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.