Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative


Trauma and Justice

Trauma and Justice

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

Jose Brunner


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”


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.


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.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Sigmund Freud



Freud, S. (2004). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Second ed., pp. 431-437). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.



The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation

—Jonathan Larson, Rent



Although Sigmund Freud received medical training as a student of psychiatry, he initially had an interest in philosophy and was likely influenced by his mentor Franz Brentano as he popularized psychoanalysis and the concept of the unconscious. Setting this path in motion, Freud studied with Jean-Martin Charcot, a noted neurologist who was also interested in mesmerism and hypnosis, which were popular at the end of the 19th century.  After working with Charcot, Freud modeled himself after Josef Breuer and began to use hypnosis in his practice and eventually came across a patient named Anna O., who allowed Freud to develop core tenants of psychoanalysis as he worked with her to uncover repressed trauma through a process that would later be called “the talking cure” (i.e., patients were placed into a relaxed state and encouraged to free associate). Although psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor in clinical practice—being displaced by schools of cognitive-behavioral therapy and neuroscience—it continues to assert influence in areas like film studies and the humanities. Largely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud’s thinking would go on to influence philosophers like Jacques Lacan (who maintained a clinical approach and Slavoj Žižek, fields like psychoanalytic feminism, and the vernacular of popular culture (e.g., id, ego, etc.).


This work revises Freud’s earlier thoughts regarding the pleasure principle (i.e., Eros), which is associated with the id and the desire to seek enjoyment and to avoid pain. Here a distinction should be made between Freud’s use of the terms “drive” (Gr. trieb) and “instinct” (Gr. instinkt):  instinct referred to an animalistic or base force that is essential to the functioning of an organism while a drive is not essential for survival and tends to cause erratic or unanticipated behavior in an individual. Thus, libido as a term that refers to the life instinct/force (i.e., the will to live) is differentiated from Eros, which refers to the desire to create life.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is often cited for producing the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos (although it should be noted that Freud himself did not use the term in the work and “Thanatos” is attributed to psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, a follower of Freud). In contrast to Eros, which is the desire to create life, Thanatos can be characterized by the desire for extinction.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud notes a series of stories in which he observes individuals who seem compelled to repeat a particular incident although the event itself does not appear to provide any source of pleasure. Forced to reconsider the id/ego binary that was established by the pleasure/reality principles, Freud worked to expand his theory so that it could account for cases of trauma, repression, and the play of children.

The excerpt in Literary Theory is from the second and third sections (of six) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and focuses on Freud’s thoughts concerning child’s play and repetition. Freud describes a situation in which a young child would throw a toy into the corner while uttering an approximation of the German word for “gone” (Gr. fort) and then “here” (Gr. da) upon recovering the toy. Freud suggests that the boy concocts the game in response to his separation from his mother:  by reenacting a traumatic situation the boy is able to take control and assert an active role in the proceedings. Freud makes several caveats here, noting that the child may be playing the game in order to benefit from some other unseen source of pleasure (in this case the pleasure principle would still apply) and that children furthermore tend to repeat things that they observe in life. Freud’s anecdote with the child also illustrates that although the pleasure principle and the death drive might be operating in opposition to each other, their presence is not mutually exclusive as pleasure could be experienced en route to the restoration of a balanced mental state.[1]

In contrast to the example introduced in Section II, in Section III Freud focuses on cases that have no origin in pleasure and are yet repeated.[2] Section III of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is more directly applicable to psychoanalysis (as is Section I’s discussion of trauma) with its mention of repression:  in this section Freud suggests that, in a process analogous to that of the child in Section II, patients are driven to repeat repressed thoughts until they are mastered and extinguished. In line with psychoanalysis’ overarching position, individuals are also not able to articulate the reasons for why they repeat their behavior (and, in fact, may not even be aware that they are doing so). Characterized by the term transference (i.e., the displacement of feelings onto other targets), Freud would also suggest that this process could be expanded beyond patients to the populace at large. In addition, Freud notes that the repressed thoughts are not themselves the issue here, suggesting that we should instead consider how the ego constrains and tries to protect our psyche through repression.

For additional information on the repetition compulsion, see Freud’s Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (1914).

[1] See “It is clear that the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses. That, however, is unpleasure of a kind we have already considered and does not contradict the pleasure principle:  unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other.” (434-435)

[2] “None of these things can have produced pleasure in the past…but no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led instead only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressur of a compulsion.” (435)

Somewhere Only We Know

The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations:  as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”:  “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.

Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:

“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”

In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility:  things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.

Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma:  according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?

Secrets and Li(v)es

In retrospect, it was rather obvious:  I was intrigued by Cultural Studies before I even knew what it was. My fascination with PostSecret—a site that began as a public art project wherein people anonymously mailed in secrets on postcards—began in early 2005, particularly timely given that I was just about to graduate from college and was feeling no small amount of anxiety about what would become of my life. Beyond an emotional connection, however, I also loved looking at the way in which the simple declarative statements combined with typography and associated images to produce a rather powerful artifact; the choices that people made in displaying their secrets—these innermost thoughts—fascinated me and I started down my path toward becoming a sort of amateur semiotician.

Over the years, the site has floated around in my head but one of the foundations of the project/website also serves as one of its greatest barriers to study:  the anonymous submission process. All postcards are sent to an intermediary, Frank Warren, who selects and uploads the images to the site—this means that the original authors are impossible to study without violating users’ trust (and possibly a few laws). As a result, I cannot ascertain who feels compelled to create a postcard and, at times, that failure troubles me for these are the people who most need support.

I don’t mean to imply that I wish to know exactly who wrote which card but I would love to get an analysis of the demographics for the makers. What types of people feel the need to create cards and send them in? Are these individuals who feel as though they cannot express their voice through other channels? How does the population of makers compare to the population of readers? One might argue that there is likely to be a certain amount of overlap but the very notion that one set is driven to craft something is intriguing to me. And even if we were able to recruit study participants (ignoring likely IRB complications for a moment), we would have to suspect a kind of volunteer bias, particularly given the nature of the material being disclosed on the site.

So instead I endeavor to study the way in which the site and its associated products (museum exhibits, books, and speaking engagements) intersect with, and create, culture. The project raises a number of questions for me, specifically how it reflects our current culture of confession. In particular, I often wonder how the current state of media might have affected the success of a movement like PostSecret.

Growing up, I remember watching the first seasons of The Real World and Road Rules on MTV and was always entranced by the confessional monologues. As a teen, the confessionals possessed a conspiratorial allure, for I was now privy to insider information about the inner workings of the group.  However, looking back, I wonder if this constant exposure to the format of the confessional has changed the way that I think about my secrets.

The confessional has become rather commonplace on the slew of reality shows that have filled the airwaves of the past decade and the practice creates, for me, an interesting metaphor for how Americans have to come to deal with our struggles. As confessors sit in an isolation booth, they simultaneously talk to nobody and to everybody; place this in stark contrast to the typical connotation of “confession” and its associated images of an intimate discussion with a priest.

PostSecret, in some ways, is merely a more vivid take on St. Augustine’s seemingly far-removed literary testimony in Confessions and yet also an extension of the modern practice of mediated confession:  we hold our secrets in until we get the chance to broadcast them across media channels. We exist in a culture that has transformed the act of confession into a spectacle—we celebrate press conference apologies and revelations of sexual orientation make the front page. Has our desire for information transformed us into a society that hounds after secrets, compelling others to confess the things they hope to keep to themselves? Are secrets worth something only in their threat to expose or reveal? What does this whole practice of secret keeping tell us about the way that we relate to ourselves and to others? We oscillate between silence and shouting—perhaps we’ve forgotten how to talk—and we are desperate to make connections, to find validation, and to be heard. Are we so consumed with tending to our own secrets and revealing those of others that we have, in some ways, become nothing more than a site of secrets? How does this intersect with notions of empathy and narcissism?

These questions are, of course, not unique to PostSecret but I think that the project does offer a slightly different entry point into a community that can be secretive. Moreover, the development of an iPhone app might cause us to reflect on what is represented by the barrier of physically making and sending a postcard—does convenience lower the barrier to what might be considered a “secret”? As of yet, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between the secrets sent in through the postal mail and those generated by the app but this might be due to the fact that secrets are screened and selected prior to their public display.

I See Signs Now All the Time

The various Occupy movements that have sprung up around the country have an interesting name that certainly harken back to the American practice of the sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And although those in the movement choose to occupy places with their physical bodies, I also wonder how the very visual nature of Occupy works to demonstrate a claim over space in a different manner. Complementing the drum circles that serve to claim space through sound, we also see a high incidence of banners, posters, and signs.

The signs serve as the nexus of a complicated set of messages:  in addition to planting an ideological flag in the ground (which occasionally manifests as a literal flag) for media outlets and in-person viewers alike, the choice of motifs and thematic elements gives us some insight into who the protesters are. Take, for example, the images displayed in the Tea Party rallies and those of the protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin alongside those of Occupy and we begin to see points of contrast.

And, in a way, perhaps it is no surprise that the Occupy movement is so highly visible, given its roots in Adbusters and the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous—both examples of ways in which images are played with in order to create memorable (and powerful) figures. To this history we add a likely population of individuals steeped in a culture of parody and satire (e.g., The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Funny or Die, and Saturday Night Live) and one might argue that individuals in this movement possess a visual fluency that differs from previous generations of protest and concordantly deploy their visual aids with a different intent.

Through all of this, I wonder about how our mainstream media outlets manage to keep pace with the recent changes in protests (or hasn’t). As we have unpacked the events of Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring,” we have come to see that although social media played a role in organizing and dissemination of information, it was not a “Twitter Revolution” in the sense that the movement was born on an online platform. Was the moniker simply something catchy and representative of the protest’s novelty? How much of the name was a desire by the media to collapse the complexity of the movement into a sound bite that could be readily conveyed? Similarly, I think about the media’s efforts to pin down the purpose of Occupy with many voices wondering aloud in the early stages. If we think about the recent set of unrests as a modified form of political protest, how much of the media’s vagueness (or our own for that matter) can be explained by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that our ability to comprehend the world depends on what we have language for? Are we struggling to develop a language for the different ways in which signs, symbols, and images are being used in political protests?

Women Who Say “Eat Me”

On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.

And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).

We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.

We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)

The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?

And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process:  increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.

I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!

Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.

Twinkle, Twinkle, All the Night

There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.

But, then again, who said it was going to be?

Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?

It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.

And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.

By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?

The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?

But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.

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.

However, I should also 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—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.

And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency:  each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?

This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.

How to Save a Life

I fully admit that this is not mine, but I think it raises many good points about the nature of the project and its dialogue. While I certainly don’t think that the project comes from a place of ill will, it may be somewhat misguided. Or, more accurately, I think that the scope of what this whole thing is trying to do is limited and the project is unable to recognize its own bounds.

Fuck No, Dan Savage!

queerwatch: “Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying”


“Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project as a response to bullying

(Ten Points, in order of appearance)

1. The video promotes metro-centric and anti-religious sentiment. By aligning their bullying with the religiosity and “small-town mentality,” Dan and Terry tacitly reinforce the belief (especially rampant in queer communities) that the religious and the rural are more bigoted.

2. The message is wrong. Sometimes it gets better– but a lot of times it doesn’t get any better. Emphasizing that things will improve upon graduation is misleading both to young folks struggling and also to people with privilege who are looking on (or looking away).

3. Telling people that they have to wait for their life to get amazing–to tough it out so that they can be around when life gets amazing– is a violent reassignment of guilt. Dan Savage telling kids that if they don’t survive their teenage years they’re depriving themselves? What kind of ageist garbage is that? This quietly but forcefully suggests that if you don’t survive, if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. It blames the queer for not being strong enough to get to the rosy, privileged, fantasy.

4. Stories of how your mom finally came around, over-write the present realities of youth. Arguing that in the future, the parts that hurt will be fixed, not only suggests that folks shouldn’t actually inhabit their own suffering but it also suggests that the future is more important. For a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter if your mother might come to love you and your spouse. It matters that right now she does not love you at all.

5. The rhetoric about being accepted by family, encourages folks to come out– even when coming out isn’t a safe idea. There is no infrastructure to catch you when your family reacts poorly. There is no truly benevolent queer family, waiting to catch you, ready to sacrifice so you can thrive. For a lot of folks, coming out doesn’t only mean that your parents will promise to hate your lovers– it means violence, homelessness, abuse.

6. Bar story: vomit. It’s no coincidence that this is the first place where Dan and Terry mention queer space. Codified queer-space, restricted to 21+, w alcohol? Try again.

7. We shouldn’t be talking, we should be listening. Telling our own stories from our incredibly privileged positions, overwrites youth experience.

8. Stories of over-coming adversity: no thank you. Narratives of how life was hard and but now is good, belittle lived pain, imply that a good ending is inevitable, and also undermine the joy and happiness in even bullied kids’ lives.

9. There is actually no path to change in this vision. Promoting the illusion that things just “get better,” enables privileged folks to do nothing and just rely on the imaginary mechanics of the American Dream to fix the world. Fuck that. How can you tell kids it gets better without having the guts to say how.

10. Then we get a baby and go to Paris? WTF? This is a video for rich kids for whom the only violent part of their life is high school. It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others. Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them– it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.

Plus three (with a little help from my friends)

1. When we treat campaigns like this like they’re revolutionary, they undermine all the really amazing work that the youth already does for itself. Too often in the LGBT world, we are asked to thank our brave queer activist ancestors who made the world safe for us. That does have its place. But queer youth take care of themselves. They nurture and organize and love in order to save themselves and each other. Making famous messages legible as THE messages makes youth-work look minor, haphazard, or unofficial.

2. Campaigns like this lump everyone together. It doesn’t honor or respect the individuals. It turns them into icons. It sends confusing messages that we only attend to folks when their dead– when giving care doesn’t actually take anything out of us.

3. Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting. We should help folks feel seen— by trying our hardest to see them.

It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like, is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.

No one is skittish about giving things up so that others can live comfortably. But they are unspeakably afraid of giving away something so someone can merely live. Campaigns like this exacerbate these realities by dehumanizing the people they address, turning them into a depressing mass, ready to be farmed for beautiful tragedies, and transformed into class-passing, successful adults.

How about instead of hope: change. Even if it’s really small change. Even if it doesn’t inspire anyone and no one is grateful and no one even notices. How about doing the kind of work that makes differences in peoples lives without holding them responsible—without turning them into an icon of suffering or of hope, without using their story for a soundbyte, without using their life as your proof of goodness, or of how the world is so liberal, or how it’s great to be gay. I mean money. I mean listening. I mean time. I mean giving people space that we respect and don’t enter. I mean listening to needs and finding ways to fill them.

How about instead of honoring the bravery of youth and the sadness of our times: respecting queer youth for all the incredible work they do– despite the fact that it is so rarely recognized as work, or as adequate work.

Instead of jettisoning our religion, our upbringing, our origins: a cohesive self.

Instead of narratives of suffering and then, finally, success: a celebration of the pain and pleasure throughout.

And listening– way more listening. Because telling your personal story of adversity from a place of privilege, might have a lot of applications, might be asked of you perpetually, might seem alluring because it’s so often milked from us. But it’s not the way. Saying, “I know how you feel, because I used to feel that way, and let me tell you, I don’t feel that way anymore,” doesn’t help, it hurts. You’re dwelling in the present. Don’t insist that those in pain relocate themselves to the future.”


I really relate to the critical commentary on the It Gets Better project. I feel like my rural upbringing was in many ways a product of the gay rights movement settling down in urban areas and abandoning the rest of the country, without safe spaces, without infrastructure, and had this attitude of a binary—be closeted and rural or run away to the city and the university to have rights, be happy, and function. When we don’t return to our origins, to the communities we come from, we deprive those we leave behind of such richness of diversity and wisdom that come from experience and moreover, they fail to see the beautiful possibility of queer and trans rural youth who live, survive, and thrive, and make themselves ignorantly blessed to the continual struggles of these populations who deal with even more barriers and bigotry.

My town is a three-hour drive from San Francisco. I read the following on Wikipedia under the entry for Trannyshack, a SF-based drag venue regarding a tour they took: “Trannyshack also holds the annual Trannyshack Reno bus trip. Hosted by Trannyshack veteran Peaches Christ and held over Easter Weekend, participants are encouraged to dress and act as outrageously and/or provocatively as possible and imbibe alcohol heartily over the course of the weekend. During the ride from San Francisco to Reno, ***the tour bus makes several pit stops in relatively conservative places such as Placerville and Donner Pass, designed partially to get a rise out of small-town locals and unsuspecting travelers, all in real life scenes reminiscent of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert***. The culmination of the event is a special Trannyshack show at a Reno nightclub, followed by Easter Sunday brunch the next day at a local casino.”

I was so sad that I had missed this group of fabulous queens and kings…but also frustrated that they only came by my rural town of Placerville, in order to “get a rise” out of the ‘conservative’ population—what about actually networking with the rural town’s queer, trans, and allied populations, WHO EXIST, and are generally without resources and lack fabulously queer entertainment??? I would have loved them to perform for us, to have the opportunity to speak with them. To show them that queers exist beyond the city limits.

Beyond this note, I think that the argument that Dan Savage and crew are making about how queer life improves linearly with time ignores the experiences, past and present, of queer and trans elders/seniors, whose needs are not part of the mainstream gay rights movement’s agenda—are they really “better off” because they are no longer queer youth???

And for all the awesome power of the online video platform he uses, the self-replicating-ness of the video testimonial doesn’t really do much beyond go in a circle like a dog chasing it’s tail—what kind of policy change, structural change, cultural shift is he advocating? How do Dan Savage’s friends from similarly privileged backgrounds telling a similar story mobilize and organize the viewers to act?

—Zoe Melisa

Body Damage

Dwarfs, bastards, eunuchs, and cripples—A Game of Thrones is filled with those who must suffer the indignity of living in a world that delegitimizes their existence. For many of these individuals, the only response to their presence is disgust.

And disgust, one of Paul Ekman’s basic emotional states, becomes significant as it serves to position entities along a superior/inferior continuum. Here, even without formal titles, trappings, or structures, we witness the formulation of class distinction—a process of differentiation that almost necessarily has political implications. Put another way, the simple act of feeling an emotion like disgust is enough to transform individuals into political agents!

But the objects of disgust are also inherently political creatures, according to philosophers like Mikhail Bakhtin who argue that the ambiguous nature of the grotesque body serves to articulate and contest latent boundaries in society. Tyrion, perhaps the best example of this concept, not only destabilizes the highly ordered familial social structure of Westeros through self-acceptance of his dwarfism but also demonstrates a penchant for cleverness, a trait that, by its nature, plays with established limits in thought or speech.

Building on the medieval fascination with monstrous bodies (i.e, transgressions of the ideals of the classical body), this paper will draw upon work by Richard Schusterman, John Dewey, and Gilles Deleuze with respect to somaesthetics, phenomenology, and the body as political/cultural metaphor in order to explore how grotesque bodies challenge the fictional socio-political world set forth in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. Although primary emphasis will be placed on Martin’s first book, A Game of Thrones, material from other sources (e.g., the television adaption) will be used to support the argument that grotesque bodies work to subvert the existing social structure of Westeros[1] through their very existence as well as through their actions. Modern implications for the body as political agent will also be discussed with the hope that the reader will contemplate how changing perspectives in the late 18th century served to simplify the conceptualization of the body’s narrative (i.e., the ability of the body to simultaneously manifest multiple layers of meaning), a process that contributed to the disenfranchisement of the body in modern culture. Ultimately, through this process, it is hoped that readers will be given tools to reinscribe meaning onto their physical bodies as they simultaneously gain a renewed sense for the latent socio-cultural voice that lies just beneath the surface.

[1] It is important to note that this argument applies primarily to the continent of Westeros and the society developed therein. A less “civilized” space by the standards of Westeros, Essos manifests different social structures that consequentially are not largely challenged by the issues embodied in grotesque/monstrous figures. There is admittedly some reference to the grotesque among the Dothraki and blood magic that will be reconciled in the course of the paper.

Body Assembly

There is, for Western male bodies in particular, a very distinct sense of the body as discrete and whole. In contrast to permeable female body—associated with tears, lactation, childbirth, and menstruation, women demonstrate a tendency to ooze—male bodies appear much more concerned with integrity and resistance to invasion or penetration.

The male anxieties surrounding penetration are also a bit ironic given that, in some ways, the current ideals of straight Western male bodies derive from an attempt by the gay community to respond to the threat of AIDS. In short, one factor in the rise of the ideal hard body—although certainly not the only influence—was the effort made by gay individuals to project a healthy and robust body in the 1980s. As AIDS was considered a “wasting disease” at the time, exaggerated musculature served as an immediate visual signal that one did not have the disease. As this particular image propagated in society, societal norms surrounding the male body changed and straight men began to adopt the new form, although importantly not for the same reasons of gay men.

This process, then, challenges the naturalization of the ideal body—and even the idea of the body itself. The concept of the body can be seen as a constant site of negotiated meaning as our understanding of what the body is (and is not) arises out of an intersection of values; this means that we must look closely at the ways in which we privilege one form of the body over another, maintaining a static arbitrary form in the process.

Here, Jussi Parikka’s notion of body as assemblage offers an interesting lens through which to examine the concept of the body:  the “body,” in a sense is not only an amalgamation of parts, sensations, memories, and events but also is forged in the interaction between the components that make up the body and those that surround it. What if we were to rethink the sacred nature of the body and instead understand it as a fusing of parts on multiple levels? Would we care as much about the ways in which organic and inorganic pieces interacted with our bodies? What if we changed our understanding of our body as inherently natural and saw it as a prosthetic? The state of the body is in constant flux as it responds to and affects the world around it—put another way, the body is engaged in a constant dialogue with its surroundings.

On a macro scale, this adaptation might take the form of Darwinian evolution but on an individual level, we might also think about things like scars or antibodies as ways in which our body (and not our mind!) evidences a form of memory as it has been impacted by the world around it. Although layers of meaning are likely imposed upon these bodily artifacts, on their most basic level they serve as reminders that, as stable as they seem, our bodies continually contain the potential to change.

And, ultimately, it is this potential for transcendence that forms a thread through most of my work. Stretching across the lineage of Final Girls who had power in them all along, to youth striving to maximize their education, to the transhumanist tendency to push the boundaries of the body, I hold most affinity for people who cry, “This is not all that I am.”

Points for Trying?

The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.

At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.

For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.

Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”

Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.

But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?

Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.

Always Starting Over But Somehow I Always Know Where to Begin

As students in my section undoubtedly were aware, the Critical Analysis of Social Issues (CASI) model is one that I struggle with—mostly because, I think, of the word “context.” The trouble is that the word is much too broad to mean much of anything for me:  I can talk about unequal power structures or socio-historical background…but aren’t these all forms of context? I understand events like the Irvine 11 as situated in a number of overlapping contexts:  political, economic, social, historical, geographic, and temporal. Moreover, the way in which I choose to examine any particular issue also brings with it a certain set of affordances and limitations—I must remember that I too am a sort of context for the event is being interpreted though a series of lenses and filters that have developed out of my personal combination of experiences.

But I do not mean to imply that this effort is unworthy just because it is limited or because it is difficult. I think of critical thinking as a series of skills or tools that one can employ in order to contemplate an issue from multiple angles. The biggest challenge for our group seemed where to begin:  with so many questions floating in the air, how does one even begin unpacking it all? Every answer is necessarily connected to another and it seems like a ball of string that folds back in on itself, offering no place upon which to perch. The answer, for me, is to begin analyzing something along one line of inquiry knowing that your work will be incomplete but moving along anyway—you can, after all, always go back and add to what you have uncovered. Only through practice does the plodding turn into instinct.

Eat My Dust: Uncovering who is left behind in the forward thinking of Transhumanism

It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated. [1] In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?

Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?”[2] Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.

If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.

And dignity[3] plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”

Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.

However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.

Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.

[1] Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.

[2] This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.

[3] A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.

Works Cited

Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.

Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.

Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.

Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.

de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.

Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.

Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.

Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.

Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.

Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.

Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.

Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.

Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.

Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.

Stay Classy

So although class and immigration are not necessarily my areas of expertise, I’m going to go ahead and give this one a shot with the caveat that I have not done extensive amounts of outside research.

In and of themselves, class and immigration exist as two fairly large and complicated issues in contemporary America. Looking at the current state of politics, it seems hard to ignore either with proclamations of “class warfare” flying, Occupy Wall Street (not to mention events occurring in major cities around the world, Sesame Street, and Education), the 99%, the 53%, the Dream Act and immigration legislation…the list goes on and on. We can employ the CASI model from last week to begin analyzing the question in terms of economics and politics but I also notice that students in our session spoke to notions of cultural capital.

Although there is a rich history on the subject, I encourage to students to think about how cultural capital represents one of the ways in which one can compare differences in class/immigration status.

Stolen from Wikipedia

Cultural capital (Frenchle capital culturel) is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since it was first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron first used the term in “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1973). In this work he attempted to explain differences in children’s outcomes in France during the 1960s. It has since been elaborated and developed in terms of other types of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power and status.[1]

Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu. They usually apply it uncritically, and depending on the measurable indicators of cultural capital and the fields within which they measure it, Bourdieu’s theory either works to support their argument totally, or in a qualified way. These works help to portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept in analysing (mainly educational) inequality but they do not add anything to the theory.

One work which does employ Bourdieu’s work in an enlightening way is that of Emirbayer & Williams (2005) who use Bourdieu’s notion of fields and capital to examine the power relations in the field of social services, particularly homeless shelters. The authors talk of the two separate fields that operate in the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legitimate and valued in each. Specifically they show how homeless people can possess “staff-sanctioned capital” or “client-sanctioned capital” (2005:92) and show how in the shelter, they are both at the same time, desirable and undesirable, valued and disparaged, depending on which of the two fields they are operating in. Although the authors do not clearly define staff-sanctioned and client-sanctioned capital as cultural capital, and state that usually the resources that form these two capitals are gathered from a person’s life as opposed to their family, it can be seen how Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital can be a valuable theory in analysing inequality in any social setting.

In many ways, cultural capital is encapsulated in the types of things that one just knows as a result of one’s upbringing. Knowing how to voice one’s political opinion, how to navigate city government, and blend into the public are all forms of cultural capital and I would suggest that it is fruitful for students to contemplate how their sense of accrued cultural capital intersects with power.

I Am…I Said

This week our students tried to wrap their heads around the notion of identity, which I must admit is a rather tricky subject. As Nicole mentioned, identity is difficult to compartmentalize in discrete moments, but, on a broader scale, we can definitely compare periods in our lives in order to demonstrate a change in identity. How do we draw lines between discrete parts of our identity? Do we even need to? Part of the challenge, I think, lies in our inability to take a step back and see ourselves as subjects of inquiry; to us, everything forms a continuous stream (how could it not?) wherein one experience feeds off of, and folds into, the next. Despite the difficulties that come from any attempt to unpack identity, the struggle is important for I believe that our identities are not things that are waiting to be discovered but are in fact formed by the very actions that we take to find it.

To make things even more complicated, identity can present on multiple levels! Throughout the course of our session, students flushed out concepts of personal and common identity, but did not tend to see how these two forms of identification are interrelated; even as our students talked about their sense of personal ethnic identity and pan-Asian identity, they did not articulate ways in which community is built off of one’s individual sense of self or how the sense of common identity can also work to inform one’s individual identity. Instead, our session seemed to gravitate toward notions of authenticity, performance, and identity, an area that is also important for students to explore. Interestingly, however, there did not seem to be much discussion about ethnic identity as a form of performance (i.e., students did not talk about the pressures of having to “act” as particular ethnicity in order to conform or distinguish themselves from others).

To address some of these lines of inquiry—and to try to tie everything back to the articles—I challenged the students to think about  how the “I” cannot exist without the “other” (what Charles Cooley called the “Looking Glass Self”). In short, Cooley builds upon Georg Hegel’s notion of the “Other” when he argued that one’s conception of “I” takes into account what one imagines the “Other” thinks of the “I” (which, of course, brings up an interesting conversation regarding individuals with developmental disorders that prohibit the reading/understanding of affect). Although admittedly much more complex, the take home message from Cooley and Hegel is that one knows oneself only in relation to others (how similar or different one is to others)—if we accept this position as true, how does this inform our readings of the articles for Week 2? Immediately, we see resonance with the notion of “in group” vs. “out group” as an outgrowth of this process.

And furthermore, once we have established a process by which individuals consolidate into groups, the question is, of course, how these groups relate to one another. This week briefly introduced the notion of racism at the institutional/structural level and we will continue to develop the implications of these power struggles as we turn toward discussion of social issues next week.

Objectify My Love

I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.

For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society:  functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!

Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.

Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize:  although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.

Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”

Although our initial discussion focused on The Amazing Race (per the assignment instructions), I must admit that a deeper discussion can be had regarding the commodification of secrets.

When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.

In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.

Racing on the Thunder and Rising with the Heat

This week, our students were asked to reflect on the question “Who is your Asian American hero?” and have done so quite admirably. Looking through the responses, I am struck by how many of our CIRCLE participants chose to write about family members; in some sense, the easiest answer to provide, the phenomenon also causes me to reflect on the factors that might account for this pattern.

In our sessions this week, we talked about push and pull factors with regard to immigration and I would suggest that the people selected as heroes are also the result of a combination of influences like availability and media. On one hand, we have the idea that, when presented with such a question as this one, we tend to respond with answers that are most readily available—in this case, images of family members and friends are most likely to appear. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this, but we might also want to take a step back and consider another dimension:  why is it that our families/friends are the most salient representations that come to mind? Part of the answer to that question, I would argue, stems from a general lack of other people that might be considered Asian American heroes (at least initially). Examining the other environments we inhabit, we might sense a relative scarcity in those worthy of the title “hero.” Sure, we have the occasional Asian celebrity, but I also wonder how the construction of these individuals’ images reinforces dominant stereotypes about who Asians are and, perhaps more importantly, who we should be.

And this, in turn, raises another question for me:  just who is worthy of being called an Asian American hero? Do Asian American heroes have to be Asian? How do we determine who receives the title and who is not? Is this distinction based on achievement? On character? On community impact or influence? Can everyday people become heroes? What type of hero? Do all heroes have to have a costume? And, on the flip side, whose stories do we choose to exclude or devalue when we do not consider them heroes? How does the process of selecting community heroes set a bar that all future “heroes” must live up to? Is there a way to celebrate the achievements of individuals in our community without raising the expectation for accomplishment for others?

I Want to Break Free

It seems only fitting that Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” begins with a domestic scene that features a housewife vacuuming, for perhaps no time in recent history has been as evocative as the mid-20th century matriarch.[1] Arguably trading potential for security, women were indeed presented with “overchoice” as hundreds of new products became available for consumers—but although the sheer number of choices available increased, one might also argue that the meaningful choices that a woman could make also decreased as society restructured itself in the years following World War II. Science fiction offerings by authors like Pamela Zoline and James Tiptree, Jr. point to various roles for women in America at the time, illuminating the narrow ways in which women could insert themselves into a world that was not their own. Moreover, the path highlighted society lay fraught with ennui, boredom, monotony, and despair—so much so, in fact, that Pamela Zoline’s Sarah Boyle attempts to disrupt her routine and, in so doing, bring about the heat death of the universe (and the end of her suffering).

Fast forward fifty years and we again see another batch of Desperate Housewives, who suffer from some of the same emotions as their 50s counterparts. Restless and losing a sense of self, the women on Marc Cherry’s drama attempt to illustrate that even well-to-do mothers living in gated communities still struggle to have it all.

And, in many ways, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have dealt with the same issues throughout the years, with witches in the 60s like Samantha Stevens (Bewitched) going through the same sorts of domestic trials as the modern Halliwell sisters (Charmed). Important in both of these shows is the presence of the accepting/tolerant (White) male who, although occasionally lacking in comprehension of women or their magic, is certainly understanding. In the case of Bewitched, we see a male who puts up with his wife’s misdeeds and tolerates the existence of magic even as he discourages its use.

Additionally, we see women in these shows often struggling with the expectations of motherhood, which raises notions about feminine identity, female bodies, and reproduction. Explored by Octavia Butler, we are introduced to the theme of male pregnancy, which often results in disastrous consequences for men.[2] Men’s bodies, it seems, cannot handle the task of birth as they are often destroyed in the process of labor.

Although uncomfortable, I believe that these types of fiction allow our culture to wrestle with pertinent questions about our relationships to our bodies. Although some scenarios seem impossible (at present, for example, biological males are unable to give birth to offspring), the idea that technology might eventually intervene and allow men to carry to babies to term does not seem to be out of the question. Should such a day come, we can refer back to fiction like that of Octavia Butler in order to better articulate our views on reproduction and sex as we come to see that what we have long considered “natural” is, in fact, merely socially constructed.

[1] Additional layers of meaning of course exist given the drag performance of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury.

[2] Here I think about the work of David Cronenberg and the deformations of male bodies in conjunction with the Alien series.

Mass Upheaval

As Lang and Lang point out in their paper “Mass Society, Mass Culture, and Mass Communication:  The Meaning of Mass,” the term “mass” has a history rife with negative associations, particularly in recent decades. Acting as a site of convergence for multiple themes, the mass is subject to criticism from both Conservative and Liberal viewpoints as theorists point out the potential downfalls of a public that is homogenized, malleable, and pedestrian. Indeed, it seems as though some positions against mass culture contain an air of elitism (although this is not always expressed overtly), suggesting that those who criticize the masses have somehow managed to escape its thrall (and are better for it).

Although one cannot necessarily fault critics of the masses—as Lang and Lang note, the term took on a new set of meanings between the end of World War II and the Cold War as a reaction to world events—there has been an effort to rehabilitate the term, which also argues for a reconsideration of what “the masses” encapsulates.

Combining the work of Benedict Anderson—who famously wrote on the imagined community—with that of Gabriel Tarde and Paul Lazarsfeld, we begin to see an argument that speaks to positive (or, at the very least, functional) aspects of the masses. (We must of course recognize that both Anderson and Tarde wrote in cultural contexts that differed from each other and from the mid-century critics mentioned above.) For if we take Anderson’s description of the initials forms of imagined communities (i.e., those that were built on religion), we see that Lazarsfeld’s “opinion leaders” become the priests while media takes the place (or supplements) our religion. The idea that we form a sense of community based on notions of nationalism or belief in religion is a powerful one, for we begin to see that the very linkages that cause us to constitute a “mass” also allow for the development of a democratic state.

And although we cannot discount or ignore the potential power of the mass media, Lazarsfeld’s work speaks to the idea of a “two-step flow” or “limited effects model” of communication, which argues that individual people possess the ability to mediate the messages broadcast to the masses. If we grant Lazarsfeld’s work validity, we begin to see that, despite the fears of those who would consider the masses as mindless herds, the potential for agency does exist in audiences. The question, then, is whether we teach individual actors to exercise this power.

But we can also push beyond the notion of an imagined community to think about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and how it attempts to unpack the notion of collective intelligence, offering insight into when (and why) the phenomenon works. Throughout his book, Surowiecki points out the dangers of groupthink, mass hysteria, and insufficient communication—some of the very things that we might think of when considering the downside of masses, the tendencies identified by Surowiecki might speak to movements that are best described as mob rule.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Surowiecki also notes that when collective intelligence works, it can produce some amazing results. The go-to example of Wikipedia aside, the 21st century has seen an incredible rise in distributed intelligence and crowdsourcing along with some equally incredible results, as evidenced by success with Foldit (a game designed to help discern the structure of a protein that makes up the AIDS virus).

Off to See the World

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.

The Amazing Race – Season 19, Episode 1

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.

Chipmunk Adventure Clip

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.

Legends of the Fall

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?”

Canon Fodder?

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.[1] 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.

[1] Let us ignore, for the moment, the outlets at the extremes of this continuum (e.g., state-run propaganda machines or pirate radio stations).

I Swear I’ve Heard This One Before, Somewhere…

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.

Underneath It All

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.