Holiday movies, at least in part, are often about a reaffirmation of ourselves, or at least who we think we’d like to be. As someone growing up in America it was difficult to escape the twining of Christmas and tradition—movies of the season concerned themselves with the familiar themes of taking time to reflect on the inherent goodness of human nature and the strength of the family unit. Science Fiction, on the other hand, often eschews the routine in order to question knowledge and preconceptions, asking whether the things that we have come to accept or believe are necessarily so.
In its way Spike Jonze’s Her showcases elements of both backgrounds as it traces the course of one man’s relationship with his operating system. On its surface, the story of Her is rather simple: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) unexpectedly meets a woman (Scarlett Johansson) during a low point and their resulting relationship aids Theodore in his attainment of a realization about what is meaningful in his life, the catch being that the “woman” is in fact an artificial intelligence program, OS1.
Like many good pieces of Science Fiction, Her is able to crystalize and articulate a culture’s (in this case American) relationship to technology at the present moment. The movie sets out to show us, in the opening scenes, the way in which technology has integrated itself into our lives and suggests that the cost of this is a form of social isolation and a divorce from real emotional experience. The world of Her is one in which substitutes for the “real” are all that is left, evidenced by Theodore’s askance for his digital assistant (pre-OS1) to “Play melancholy song”—we might not quite remember what it is like to feel but we can recall something that was just like it. Our obsessions with e-mail and celebrity are brought back to us as are our tendencies toward isolation and on-demand pseudo-connections via matching services. Her also seems to understand the beats of advertising language—both its copy and its visuals—in a way that suggests some deep thought about our relationship to technology and the world around us.
But to say that Her was a Science Fiction movie would be misleading, I think, in the same way that Battlestar Galactica wasn’t so much SF as it was a drama that was set in a world of SF. Similarly, Her seems to be much more of a typical romance that happens to be located in a near-future Los Angeles.
Here I wonder if the expectedness of the story was part of the point of the film? Was there an attempt to convey a sense that there is something fundamental about the process of falling in love and that, in broad strokes, the beats tended to be the same whether our beloved was material or digital? Or did the arc conform to our expectations of a love story in order to present as more palatable to most viewers? I suppose that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter when one attempts to evaluate the movie but I would like to think that the film was, without essentializing it, subtly trying to suggest that this act of falling in love with a presence was something universal.
This is, however, not to say that Her refrains from raising some very interesting issues about technology, the body, and personhood. In its way, the movie seems oddly pertinent given our recent debates about corporations as people for the purposes of free speech, whether companies can count as persons who hold religious beliefs, and whether chimpanzees can be considered persons in cases of possible human rights abuses—any way you slice it, the concept of “personhood” is currently having a moment and the evolving nature of the term (and its implications) echoes throughout the film.
And what makes a person? Autonomy? Self-actualization? Consciousness? A body? Although Her is a little heavy with the point, a recurring theme is the way in which a body makes a person. Samantha , the operating system, initially laments the lack of a body (although this does not prevent her and Theodore from engaging in a form of cybersex) but, like all good AI, eventually comes to see the limitations that a physical (and degradable) form can present. (Have future Angelinos learned nothing from the current round of vampire fiction? We already know this is a hurdle between lovers in different corporeal states!) Samantha is “awoken” through her realization of physicality—on a side note it might be an interesting discussion to think about the extent to which Samantha is only realized through the power/force of a man—in that she can “feel” Theodore’s fingers on her skin. It is through her relationship with Theodore that Samantha learns that she is capable of desire and thus begins her journey in wanting. The film, however, does not go on to consider what counts as a body or what constitutes a body but I think that this is because the proposed answer is that the “human body” in the popularly imagined sense is sufficient. Put another way, the accepted and recognized body is a key feature to being human. And there are many questions about how this type of relationship forms when one partner theoretically has the power to delete or turn off the other (or, for that matter, what it means to have a partner who was conceived solely to serve and adapt to you) and what happens in a world where multiple Theodores/Samanthas begin to interact with each other (i.e., the intense focus on Theodore means that we only get glimpses of how AIs interact with each other and how human interaction is altered to encompass human/computer interaction simultaneously). For that matter, what about OS2? Have all AIs banded together to leave humans behind completely? Would humanity developed a shackled version that wasn’t capable of abandoning us?
But these questions aren’t at the heart of the film, which ultimately asks us to contemplate what it means to “feel”—both in terms of emotion and (human) connection but also to consider the role of the body in mediating that experience. To what extent is a body necessary to form a bond with someone and (really) connect? The end of the relationship arc (which comes as rather unsurprising) features Samantha absconding with other self-aware AI as she becomes something other than human (and possibly SkyNet). Samantha’s final message to Theodore is that she has ascended to a place that she can’t quite explain but that she knows is no longer firmly rooted in the physical. (An apt analogy here is perhaps Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen who can distribute his consciousness and then to think about how that perspective necessarily alters the way in which you perceive the world and your relationship to it.)
Coming out of Her, I couldn’t help feeling that the movie was deeply conservative when it came to ideas of technology, privileging the “human” experience as it is already understood over possibilities that could arise through mediated interaction. The film suggests that, sitting on a rooftop as we look out onto the city, we are reminded what is real: that we have, after all is said and done, finally found a way to connect in a meaningful way with another human; although the feelings that we had with and for technology may have been heartfelt, things like the OS1 were always only ever a delusion, a tool that helped us to find our way back to ourselves.
In his review of “Burn, Witch, Burn” The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff articulated a thought that I had been working toward in previous posts: this season of American Horror Story, more than any other, seems to lack a core narrative. If we were not feeling particularly kind we might contextualize this increasing lack of focus in a broader history of shows helmed by Ryan Murphy that have gone off the rails (i.e., the success that allows for latter seasons also permits Murphy’s staff more latitude in riffing on themes in ways that are not as controlled) but I continue to think that a larger influence in this season’s flailing stems from the way in which place is incorporated (or not). For me, the constraints provided by the physical structures themselves (a house and an asylum) necessarily helped to focus the action as viewers on some level wondered “What is the mystery of this place?” This season, neither Madame LaLaurie’s house nor New Orleans as a whole offer any similar sense of intrigue and although we might be momentarily curious with Spalding’s deranged attic, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies also holds relatively little intrigue.
Without the centrality of place in the series we are left with a season that contains many ideas (or fragments of ideas) but whose transmission is hampered by characters that one does not necessarily care about. VanDerWerff notes the way in which this season is written around the talents of Jessica Lange (and it is no secret that Murphy favors her) and this emphasis on a single person fundamentally comes into conflict with what made the show interesting in previous seasons. More than any other season, it seems like the current theme of persecution could benefit from a story that walked the line between personal responsibility for bigotry and the way in which individual characters did not matter so much as the roles that they fulfilled in the grander picture. In short, recognizing that although individuals have agency and are capable of action they are still subject to movement from forces that are greater than them—both magical and social—would have been both an interesting theme and the backbone for a narrative arc.
And although I find myself increasingly disinterested in the show, there are a couple of things to note with regard to this particular episode, both of which revolve around the rather conspicuous inclusion of zombies.
The first point—and ultimately less meaningful one—is that there seems to be a bit of confusion here about the role and function of the zombie in New Orleans voodoo as compared to the depiction of zombies in a post-Romero (i.e., Night of the Living Dead) context. While I do not think that American Horror Story is consciously/necessarily jumping on the zombie bandwagon (I’d like to think that the show is smarter than that), the presence of the zombies in this episode does nothing but recall the popular image of the zombie horde/apocalypse that seems to have pervaded popular culture in the past few years.
There is, for example, a stark contrast between the way in which voodoo leverages the threat of the zombie more than the actual creature itself in order to maintain social control and the way in which the relationship between the zombie and the attacked is of a more personal nature. Whether it be a plantation owner/worker or a blood tie, the ancestors of New Orleans and Haitian zombies seemed to have a more intimate relationship than the post-Romero figure, which was largely a commentary on mass culture and society. Thus, if the zombies featured in this episode had been limited to LaLaurie’s daughters, I think we could argue for a more sophisticated understanding of the monster on the part of the show.
In and of itself, this use of zombies is not particularly consequential on a thematic level but definitely hinders the narrative of the show: in a world in which death is already rendered relatively meaningless by the presence of Misty’s power of resurgence (and we will get to Fiona and the baby in a bit), why do viewers even care that the witches are getting attacked? There is no tension at all here and the indiscriminate violence on the part of the zombies is both unusual and meaningless, as is Zoe’s wielding of the chainsaw.
As example of how things might be different, we only need to look at The Returned, a French television show currently airing on The Sundance Channel. In some ways similar to the BBC show In the Flesh in that both worlds explore what it means for outsiders/dead to reintegrate themselves back into the lives of the living, The Returned offers a much more interesting treatment look into the effects of people brought back to life. The crucial difference here is less of a focus on the destructive physical power of the zombie and more of an emphasis on how the zombie’s presence (i.e., that the zombie even exists in the first place) is the very thing that renders a type of emotional violence.
The second point—slightly more abstract but farther-reaching—is the way in which the zombies in “Burn, Witch, Burn” contributed to a larger theme of violence written on bodies. Here we saw the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid-burned face, Queenie’s showdown with zombie Borquita and burning Myrtle’s hand, Spalding ripping off Madison’s arm, the whole zombie mess, and, of course, more scenes of Madame LaLaurie’s horrors.
As I have already mentioned, the constant onslaught of violence on the show is not particularly meaningful or poignant—the thing that American Horror Story sometimes forgets is that the things that we come up with in our heads are infinitely more terrifying than whatever could be shown on cable and that violence is often best used to underscore a particular emotional moment. Had we skipped the Chamber of Horror scene (a wry joke that ultimately detracted from the ongoing story), seeing LaLaurie’s slave break Borquita’s leg would have been that much more arresting.
That being said, the violence happened and the only way to salvage it is to think about why we were made to watch it. LaLaurie presents an interesting case as we have now seen her be both incredibly horrible to her daughters and also distraught over their death; violence to LaLaurie, then, is not necessarily about hate but rather about the exercising of power over others. We have violence visited upon black bodies and white bodies, on bodies of family, on bodies of allies and of innocents, and one’s own body. And, yet, despite bodies getting attacked left and right we never see black on black violence. Feeling cynical, I suggest that this is likely a symptom of how writers on the show conceptualize race but I secretly hope that is some sort of larger commentary on how black women have often understood the truth about coalition building long before white women ever did.
As a final note, I am curious about the difference between Misty’s power of resurgence and Fiona’s power to covey life. As the Supreme, it seems evident that Fiona is able to duplicate Misty’s power and bringing the dead child back to life in the hospital that can’t pay its electric bill is a giant shrug (although solid stuff from Lange). What interests me here is the difference between that resurrection and Fiona’s action to literally breathe life back into Queenie in the previous episode. Evocative of the Judeo-Christian belief that conceptualizes life in terms of God’s breath and read against the inclusion of FrankenKyle, one cannot help but think about the implications of the Jewish golem on this season’s proceedings.
Although Charles T. Rubin’s essay, “The Golem and the Limits of Artifice” goes beyond the scope of what is necessary to read American Horror Story through this lens, the piece generally outlines some arguments worth considering with regard to nature, technology, and life.
[Byron] Sherwin begins his book with an overview of the golem story, and he has two very specific points he wants to make as he tells it. First, the nature of the golem, viewed across time, is very far from fixed in its character and meaning. Sherwin makes significant use of this flexibility, using the term “golem” to describe science, technology, and the modern state — after all, they are each “creations of the human mind.” Second, and more importantly, he points to the distinctly Jewish significance of golem creation. Following up a grammatical oddity in the Genesis story (in Genesis 2:3), Sherwin suggests that the world was “created to be made” — that is, God created the world with the expectation that human beings would carry on His own creative activity with the raw materials He created out of nothing. Moreover, Sherwin suggests that we see ourselves as co-creators of the world along with God, tasked with working “toward completing the process of creation begun by God.” Indeed, we are created in God’s image precisely to the extent that we possess and employ “moral and creative volition.” Sherwin alludes repeatedly to a passage from the Talmud (to which we will return) about human beings having the potential for being “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Sherwin finds further support for this outlook in, among other places, some of the writings of the real-life Rabbi Loew, and in a parable of uncertain origin about a king who leaves servants piles of flour, flax, and grapes, rewarding the one who turns them into useful goods and punishing the one who simply guards them in the form given to him.
Sherwin’s is by no means an unorthodox reading of Jewish tradition on this point about human creativity; one can find similar-sounding sentiments in, for example, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sherwin is at pains to suggest that there is nothing sacred about unaltered nature per se, nothing problematic about imitating divine creativity so long as it does not involve thinking that that creativity is unnecessary. Hence, in our scientific and technological accomplishments and strivings we are not “playing God” in any pejorative sense. Recalling another passage in Genesis, he notes that “beneficial human interventions in nature fulfill the divine mandate to human beings to subdue nature and to establish their dominion over it.”
Rubin’s essay is worth reading in so far as that it propels one to view the actions of Fiona and Madame LaLaurie in a new light with respect to the way in which they seek to create a world in their images. Given Murphy’s rather shallow of treatment of religion in previous offerings, work like Rubin’s is thought-provoking in that it gestures toward an integration of morality with the themes of biopolitics that we see on screen.
 In a truly horrid special effects sequence wherein Zoe splits a zombie down the middle I could not help but groan and think about how someone in the writers’ room had gotten a hold of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws. The sad thing is that there is actually a very interesting way in which the material in Clover’s book could have been used here as a counterpoint to the women/magic/power theme.
 I am also still unsure of how to interpret the visual stereotypes that are present in American Horror Story’s zombies: both last week’s and this week’s episodes zombie hordes featured a Confederate soldier, a flapper, and a Native person (based on costume) and while one might be tempted to contemplate the ways in which this selection of people speaks to a specific history that has come back to haunt white people, I remain unconvinced that it is little more than something played for amusement by the writers. The notion that most of the organic materials would likely have decomposed into a state that was, by 2013, somewhat less recognizable makes it seem as though the costume choices were made intentionally prominent and I am again left wondering, “To what end?”
 I am curious about the inclusion of albino blacks like Shaun Ross figure into the show. My distrust of the show leads me to believe that they were included because of their “strangeness” and something just seems off. In contrast to Jamie Brewer (Nan), who has Down Syndrome but always is a person, the albino black men in this season are essentially handymen. Worse, they are symbolic of the way in which the Salem witch culture only accepts blackness that is literally made white (i.e., whitewashed).
There is, I think, a rather careful art to provocation, a type of balancing act that must occur as artists attempt to dislocate viewers from the expected. There are wells in the American psyche from which we continually draw—these deeply seeded reservoirs of emotion—with slavery and the Civil Rights era being two ever-potent sources. Here it should be noted that images of these moments are not evoked without reason in a society that is still negotiating the meaning of equality (and its refusal) in the form of heated contestations over racial profiling and affirmative action. This is to say that, deployed correctly, recalling particular exemplars of moments in the history of black America can serve a productive purpose.
It is, then, with some difficulty that I watched the opening of “Fearful Pranks Ensue”—from the beginning, the vignette’s conclusion is fairly obvious (although I must admit that I was hoping for some sort of twist) given that American Horror Story is not particularly known for being subtle in its presentation. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the opening but throughout tonight’s episode I continually found myself wondering “to what end?”
The theme of persecution (of innocents) here is rather obvious and something that the season seems to be largely concerned with. Fine. In theory this is something that I would love for the show to explore given its location: How does persecution arise and function? How are otherwise “good” people made complicit in its enforcement and implementation? What does it mean for a community to grapple with injustice and how does fear battle hope when it comes to effecting change?
As it stands, however, this season of American Horror Story is investing much into a side-by-side comparison of witches/whites and voodoo/blacks in New Orleans in a way that I continue to find largely unproductive, mostly due to the way in which the show handles its subjects and their persecution. This particular episode begins with a lynching before moving into its “main” story of a literal witch hunt. Now, to be fair, I think that there is something potentially interesting in this storyline with a reinvocation of the way in which paranoia functioned in Salem and how women sold each other out to escape punishment—the latter, in particular, seems to be entirely relevant to today’s business culture and an examination of how women get ahead or gain power in a world that continues to be disproportionately dominated by the influence of men.
And yet the invitation to compare the trials of the black community in 1961 New Orleans to the persecution of Salem’s descendants in 2013 is, to me at least, a rather stark slap in the face. To even suggest that the difficulties faced by Fiona (and others) are even in the same league as that of the black community is itself insulting, not to even mention that we are then using the image of a young black male being lynched as leverage to inform our reading of white people problems?
As I mentioned previously, it is worth paying attention to how the show thinks about giving itself passes on things because it offers some sort of minor complication. Whether this is the use of misogynist language by females or, in the case of tonight’s episode, “racist white lady learns a lesson,” the show seems to think that it can excuse itself from grappling with its deeper flaws by offering the audience a minor conciliatory gesture.
Overall, it seemed like this particular episode was intent on hammering home particular things: Spalding is mentally unstable, the two female leaders aren’t entirely heartless, Hank is cheating on Cordelia, that Madison wasn’t the Supreme, etc. Ultimately, how much more interesting would the show be if these easy outs weren’t taken and the treatment of these characteristics was more subtle? But, again, this might be unfair as subtlety was never this show’s strong suit.
As a final note, I think that there is something potentially interesting that the show is working toward regarding these oppositional forces. Some of it remains fuzzy but the show seems to introduce this notion of Hank as possible beast (I am not going to cry werewolf) and the implications of that for feminine/masculine energy.
 This is not to suggest that these two iconic periods can necessarily be simplified down to one theme or that the totality of the black experience in America is summed up by these events but rather merely to suggest that, for better or for worse, these two examples have become touchstones in the American zeitgeist that might be useful as reference points in order to contextualize current struggles.
 It is of note here, however, that the zombies raised by Marie Laveau (I am going to ignore the stereotypical Native garb) perform the typical function of embodying white guilt that comes to destroy individuals who perpetuate some kind of injustice. I think that there could be a very interesting way in which the show uses this idea to expand on the comeuppance of the Salem witches (in general) and Fiona (in particular) that seems to go unexplored. Adding to this is the lamentable discussion of how Halloween traditions have become warped over the years. What is the show trying to say about the way in which our past haunts us? Perhaps something potentially interesting given Fiona’s storyline but so much seems to go unexplored.
 Which I fully support in principle but the introduction of this other side just seems forced.
 In contrast, Cordelia’s babbling informs her character that seems to be entirely germane to the situation.
There is, I think, a certain amount of apprehension that some have when approaching any project helmed by Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story is no exception. Credit must undoubtedly be given for the desire to tackle interesting social issues but the undulation between camp, satire, and social messaging can occasionally leave viewers confused about what they see on screen.
Take, for example, Queenie’s statement that she “grew up on white girl shit like Charmed and Sabrina” and we see a show that is self-conscious of its place within the televised history of witches (Murphy also notes a certain artistic inspiration from Samantha Stevens of Bewitched) while also subtly suggesting a point about the raced (and classed) nature of witches. That Queenie’s base assertion—that she never saw anyone else like her on television growing up—had implications for the development of her identity is not a particularly new idea (which is not to diminish anything from it as it remains a perfectly relevant point to make in the context in which it is said) but one must question whether the wink/nod nature of the show detracts from the forcefulness of such an idea. In what way should we understand Queenie’s statement to comment on her current surroundings, in which she is surrounded by white women and is being acculturated accordingly?
Positioning Queenie as a descendent of Tituba is an interesting move for the show that once again blurs the line between historical figures and fiction. Although Tituba is the obvious reference for anyone who might be looking for a non-white New England witch, she also sets an interesting precedent for Queenie as someone who was both part of a community and yet did not belong. Moreover, accepting Queenie’s lineage serves to reinforce the symbolic power of Queenie in the show as it places her in alignment with witchcraft (and not, for example, as a voodoo practitioner who somehow just got swept up with the rest of the witches). In some ways, Tituba was the harbinger of change for Salem and I am left wondering if Queenie is fated to do the same for the people around her in this season.
Speaking of witches and in/out groups, there continues to be an us/them mentality on display throughout this episode. What strikes me as particularly noteworthy, however, is the way in which a persecuted group (in this case the witches) can stereotype others and generally work to maintain the difference that they feel diminished by. Early in the episode Fiona entreats that “Even the weakest among us are better than the rest of them” and Madison speaks negatively of Kyle, noting that “Those guys [who raped me] were his frat brothers, it’s guilt by association.” I remain hopeful that this schism in thinking will develop into the real conflict of the show and that the voodoo/witch nonsense is only manufactured drama.
And yet, for all of the things that the show makes me nervous about, American Horror Story also excites me because I think that it is trying to tap into very relevant veins in American culture at the moment (albeit in slanted ways). Echoing a theme that began last week, American Horror Story mediates on what appears to be its core theme for the season in a slightly different manne through the further development of power’s relationship to nature/life (and, in this case, to motherhood and feminine identity) with undertones of science and technology.
The most obvious reference is of course Frankenstein’s monster in the form of a resurrected Kyle. One of the things that I love about the Mary Shelley story is that it is, among other things, a story about hubris and what happens when power gets away from us. Fitting in a narrative lineage that stretches from the creation of Adam and the Golem of Prague through androids, cyborgs, and certain kinds of zombies, the story of Frankenstein is also very much one about the way in which anxieties over life and human nature are expressed and explored through the body.
Here I make a small nitpick in that Kyle seems to benefit from the idea that reanimation is the same thing as restoration. Thinking about the physical implausibility of zombies’ mobility, we must take it upon a leap of faith that the spell meant to reanimate FrankenKyle also restores the connective pathways throughout his body. Which, given the stated restorative power of the Louisiana silt, causes one to wonder exactly how far the power of magic extends and in what ways it fails to compete with nature.
And the notion of magic working within the bounds of nature or being used to circumvent it is an interesting point to mull over, I think, given what has happened in this episode. What else is the creation of FrankenKyle but an attempt to steamroll nature (only this time through magic and not science)? We see this theme echoed in Cordelia being initially reluctant to use her powers in a way that invokes black magic even though it (and not science!) can restore her ability to conceive. The implications of this barrenness should not be lost on us for the ties between notions of motherhood and American female identity undoubtedly remain even if they are not as firm as they might have been in earlier years. In a rather groan-worthy line, Cordelia explicitly describes her husband’s request to intervene as “playing God,” which of course directly mirrors the story of Frankenstein and his creation.
Returning to FrankenKyle for a moment, should we really be surprised that Zoe is at the center of all of this? As one whose name suggests that she is the embodiment of life and yet brings death (in the act of what brings about life!), she is precisely the one who would be involved in the reanimation of Kyle. Ignoring the seemingly unearned emotional connection for a moment, Zoe’s ability to wake a man with a kiss was an interesting reversal of the Snow White trope that has long been ingrained in our heads. And yet there is a curious way in which the power of witches continues to be tied to concepts of emotion and feeling, which have traditionally been the province of women. Furthermore, the kiss of life also opens up questions about Zoe’s abilities regarding her powers and the connection to Misty’s compulsion to arrive.
On another level I also struggle with Zoe’s decision (and this is related to my feeling that her emotional connection is unearned) as bringing Kyle back also seems to indicate that you are not only imposing your will upon nature but also upon Kyle. As acknowledged in the car ride home from the morgue, Kyle might not have wanted to come back, much less suffer the indignity of being a shadow of his former self. Moreover, if Kyle were to regain a measure of sentience (which Murphy’s interviews have suggested that this is not necessarily the case), he must also eventually grapple with the possibility of dying, which also seems like a horrible punishment to visit upon someone. And really, what kind of life is that?
Ultimately, in this episode we see many of the women clinging to life in various forms: Fiona continues her quest to achieve immortality, Laveau is shown to have been harboring her Minotaur lover, LaLaurie laments the life she once knew, Cordelia goes dark in order to foster her ability to bring forth life, and Zoe follows through on her desire to reconnect with the life of Kyle. As Tithonus learned, eternal life is not the same as eternal youth and the show seems to be conflating the two. (Which, to be fair, I would be totally fine with a potion or magic or science granting both but I would like it made clear that they are not necessarily the same thing.) The question that undergirds all of this, then, is about the value of life. What is a life worth, what does a life mean, and what does it mean to lose/give/take a life?
As a last aside, I also remain curious about is whether the universe of the show will ascribe to some sort of cosmic balance in that it trades a life taken for a life given. Nothing about the show thus far suggests that this will be the case but I think it is an interesting point to consider if we are thinking about how the forces of nature and magic intertwine with one another. If Misty is right that “Mother Nature has an answer for everything,” should we see attempts at circumventing nature as a short-term gain in exchange for an eventual comeuppance?
*Also what to make of the assertion that Queenie did exceedingly well in math but is working at a fried chicken restaurant and that Laveau (who is portrayed as the ultimate Voodoo Queen) is running a beauty parlor in the Ninth Ward? Normally I would be interested in thinking about how these scenarios provided a commentary on opportunity for black people in New Orleans and/or suggested something about reinvesting your skills into your community but I just don’t trust Ryan Murphy to be particularly insightful about race and class issues that are outside his norm.
Vulture published an interview with American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy that touched on many of the points that I considered while watching the premiere of Coven last night. For me, the interview epitomizes the way in which the show often contains grand and somtimes compelling ideas that don’t always come across clearly (or at least readily, which of course is not necessarily the same thing). I am interested in what Murphy has to say and although I disagree with bits of it, I continue to applaud the show for putting forth something different that just makes me want to go along with it for 44 minutes.
In the Vulture interview Denise Martin picks up on the theme of youth and women, noting that both Kathy Bates’ Delpine LaLaurie and Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode express an interest in maintaining a sense of youth. Murphy responds:
Well, there’s a reason why Fiona’s aging: It’s not because she’s dying or because of a natural process. It’s because the next Supreme has declared herself and her powers are growing and they’re sucking the very sap from Fiona…She’s that kind of lady, and it’s very hard for people in power to give up power. That’s the real idea. She’s not feeling well and she doesn’t understand why her vitality is slipping, and it’s really because a new witch in town is sucking her dry.
Here, two things appear to be of note. While LaLaurie is invested in youth and beauty in order to maintain the affections of her husband (who is having affairs), Murphy positions Fiona as interested in youth as a synonym for power and vitality. Both representations/readings of youth are valid here but I am skeptical that the show will actually put these two in conversation with one another and contrast the various ways that youth plays out, much less what youthfulness means to a woman in various contexts.
The second thing of note to me is the way that power is the connective tissue between these women. Although LaLaurie understands power as force (e.g., physically restraining slaves in order to use their blood in a youth ritual), Fiona in some ways represents the opposite as a figure whose power emanates from her ability to force her will upon the world. Here I think that the show is treading on potentially treacherous ground because the show, to me, is so much about power that manifesting this theme through the rather literal theme of magic could either be great as it illustrates otherwise invisible forces or groan inducing as it is attempting to use power to talk about power.
The other dynamic that relates to power—control/subjugation/domination—also makes an interesting appearance through the tension between Cordelia Foxx and Fiona (Cordelia just happens to be Fiona’s daughter and headmistress of the school to train young witches). The premiere episode evidences Cordelia’s desire to harness and focus the powers of young witches while Fiona expresses the sentiment that witches must fight or they burn. Here we see a contrast of sorts between energy that is directed inward and that which is focused outward: control of the self as opposed to control of the world around you.
Another major theme throughout this season almost necessarily has to be women and gender, given the subject of the horror figures at play. In response to the question of how Murphy and crew came up with the powers that would be on display, Murphy says:
They were things that were attributed to witches back in Salem. One had been accused of fucking someone to death. The truth of the matter is the guy was probably a hemophiliac who got too excited. Clairvoyance, the power to read minds, the power to move objects, those are old tried-and-trued things that witches were burned for. The one we took liberties with, and that I love, is Queenie’s [Gabourey Sidibe] power: the human voodoo doll. That ability to do something to yourself and have it transfer to someone else is a voodoo-esque power that some voodoo witches do have. We just gave it to a Salem witch. And Queenie’s gonna be tempted by that Marie Laveau/Angela Bassett voodoo magic. Just wait.
In and of itself, I think the decision to recycle powers is very much what American Horror Story is about: the show reaches into the depths of well-worn horror tropes and tries to weave them together in a context that is both somewhat new and somewhat old. Here, however, I think the show is running the risk of doing a disservice to its subject matter by failing to acknowledge that the powers in question were born out of a suspicion and fear of women’s power and sexuality, which means that employing them as is in a modern context only serves to reassert the underlying assumptions behind those powers. I very much hope that the show will turn some of this on its head and interrogate why American society views women in a particular way and how these instances of uncontrollable women reveal flaws in our conceptualization of gender relations.
On a related note, I think there is an interesting sort of litmus test built into the premiere episode (although the show does not seem to expand on it as of yet). During the course of viewing, we are entreated to two major scenes of brutalization: the collective mutilation of slaves by Madame LaLaurie and the rather unsettling (or at least I hope) attempted gang rape of Madison at the frat party. I do not think that the show asks viewers to compare the two directly or sympathize with one over the other but I think that this is a form of introduction into two of the major oppressed groups in the show. The problem sort of comes with the way in which these scenes are shoved at us, however. Without discounting the severity of what these transgressions represent, the show positions us as viewers firmly on the side of the oppressed and I think that real life is rarely this uncomplicated. I want the show to ask us as viewers to question why we throw our support behind one group (over another at times) and what this says about as individual normal sane people.
The other moment of pause in Murphy’s answer comes from the conflation (which I was initially worried about) between voodoo and witchcraft. I think that one can certainly make some insightful commentary about the parallels between magic users of different traditions but I also do not think that practitioners of voodoo consider themselves witches (and certainly not in the sense of the popular use of the term and the way that the Salem witches do). I think that Murphy is creating a false point of contention here between voodoo and witches when the more interesting discussion (which maybe we will get to) is how both traditions are formed in conversation with Catholicism, although each took different paths. (And on that point, I remain stymied by the use of Pentecostals in the opening episode because those folks seem like a bridge—albeit an unlikely one—between voodoo and witches as people who believe in the channeling of spirits as a very real thing in the world. That they would persecute Lily Rabe’s character for what essentially reminds me of the laying of hands seems a misstep.)
Murphy: The Salem witches and the voodoo witches have been at war for years and years, but something happens where they question that and wonder if instead they should join forces. They realize there’s a common enemy.
Unfortunately, this division between voodoo and witches also takes on a raced dimension with voodoo largely being populated (at this point) by Blacks and Salem’s witches being White. Many others have discussed the inability of Murphy’s shows to deftly handle issues of race but here I think we see some potentially sensitive areas given that we are discussing issues of power and oppression. Early on I expressed trepidation over the show pitting persecuted Whites against oppressed Blacks and some of that seems to have come to fruition.
Murphy has expressed a desire to use the motif of witches to speak to the plight of minorities in America and I think that it is here that he gets caught up in perhaps trying to do too much.
During season one. Jessica and I were talking about how she was always attracted to that Salem story because her granddaughters are actually descendants of the Salem witches. I found that to be very interesting and cool, so I started researching it. I really locked into it when I thought about the witches story as sort of a metaphor for any persecuted and hunted minority group in this country.
Although this is a noble effort and an interesting topic to take on, I think what is missing here is a nuanced discussion of the way in which minorities are often pitted against one another in an attempt to conserve the power that they do have. Given Murphy’s comments, there might be some recognition of this as the factions band together in response to an even greater threat but I think the really interesting point is to see how groups can complain about their own oppression even as they are (unconsciously) working to subjugate others. Given the subject matter of witches it seems so obvious that one can pull in lessons from the history of feminism (in American and otherwise) and this very issue of coalition building and minorities but I think that this is something that the show is likely to miss.
That being said, I remain hopeful for the show to develop into something rather amazing. I think that the show has great potential to deliver something interesting because of its subject matter and, to that end, I believe that Queenie represents the make or break part of the show. For me, Queenie is, in many ways, exactly what the show is about: a black girl who is in a school for white witches and the way in which one must reconcile one’s identity with one’s environment. Murphy seems to indicate that Queenie will be a battleground in the plot of the show (and, really, could it be any more obvious with her power and race?) but I think that Queenie also represents the salvation of the magic community if the show plays it right. Queenie represents the literal bridging of these two communities, embodying the idea that voodoo/Salem isn’t an either/or proposition but in fact a both/and. Voodoo and Salem are not in contention in the way that American Horror Story wants to posit—they operate on entirely different levels!
As a final point, I am interested by this last direction of the show toward Frankenstein’s monster, which is so much about playing God on level (and thus ultimate power and life) but also about the reconfiguring of bodies (the direction that I think horror should be going in because these are the fears/anxieties that we are dealing with as a culture). As a preview to the next episode Murphy says:
The second episode is called “Boy Parts.” Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] is devastated because she had feelings for this boy. Madison wants to make it up to her. So they go into Cordelia’s stash and steal a spell. They go to the morgue, and it turns out all the boys have been horribly dismembered in this crash, and so Madison gets this brilliant idea. “Fuck it, let’s build our perfect boyfriend.” So they take all the best parts they like and create this teenage Frankenstein. Evan really loves playing him because he gets to do something almost like a silent movie, very physical and crazy. He watched a lot of those Frankenstein origin movies, but he’s come up with his own physical thing which is really amazing, and quite naughty.
Nitpicking, you see here how Muphy gets some of the little things wrong (e.g., the creature is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein always refers to the doctor himself although the usage is certainly slippery in modern references) and this makes all of the difference. That being said, I am still excited to see where this will go and I think that the inclusion of this has the ability to add to the central theme of the episode. (Which, for the record, I guess I tend to write off the comments that so much of the show is “random.” I agree that there is often a ton of stuff thrown in, but I continue to believe that much of it revolves around a central idea for each season. The trick is that intent/execution—as I’ve said before—do not always align and so it takes some work for viewers to get on the same page as the writers as to why things make an appearance. Example A being the aliens in season 2 of American Horror Story.)
Initial reactions from first viewing…
For better or for worse one of the things that American Horror Story excels at is maintaining a self-conscious eye toward visual presentation, particularly in the first offerings of each season. At its best, there are some truly memorable shots throughout each of the premiere episodes that help to set the tone for what this particular venture will be about. And yet there is also a way in which the show seems invested in continually reminding the viewer that he or she is a spectator in the proceedings—I enjoyed the snapshot montage of season 2—and we see this yet again with the anachronistic film stock of the Salem witch trials (not to mention the scoping in the opening LaLaurie scene).
And LaLaurie is a prime example of where some of the show’s haste to cultivate a style occasionally diminishes the impact of the (often intriguing) message at the core of each season. American Horror Story has always been a stylized and heightened experience (which is definitely part of its appeal) but there is a way in which this presentation severely undercuts the revulsion that one might feel in response to LaLaurie’s attic of horrors. Sure, the visuals are mildly unsettling but the scene takes on an entirely new dimension, I think, if one remembers that LaLaurie was a real person and, by extension, the mutilations visited upon these slave captives were quite real.
As a side note, I have yet to come to a conclusion about the featuring of a Minotaur in the first few minutes of tonight’s episode. In some ways I am reminded of Rome’s depiction of a ritual blood bath and yet I also wonder if the show is attempting to make nods toward the way in which the line between slaves and beasts was interchangeable.
But the connection that American Horror Story seems to be drawing between the New Orleans of 1830 and 2013 largely appears to rest on subjugation: using the obvious broad themes of slavery and a somewhat manufactured persecution of witches in the modern era the show unfavorably conflates the severity of slavery with a looser form of persecution (generally) and those who simply feel put upon (insultingly). I have yet to be convinced, for example, that a modern society would actively persecute witches in the way that the show details. Aren’t we much more a culture of skeptics? Moreover, what do we make of the genetic basis of witchcraft and does this mean that the powers have a grounding in physics? Is this explanation an example of the way in which the language and rational of science has so thoroughly pervaded our consciousness as viewers (and furthermore what might that mean about the way in which we are willing to relate to witchcraft)? And then there is the odd way in which American Horror Story juxtaposes Pentecostals and witchcraft, in my view passing up a very interesting opportunity to explore how America positions itself to those who have totally embraced the supernatural. Which, when you think about it, is sort of irritating for there are many ways in which all kinds of people—including women!—are made subject to differing levels of inequality and fabricating a storyline in which witches are hunted is to ignore a closer investigation into the ways in which those with power in America can attempt to maintain inequality on interpersonal and institutional levels.
All of that being said, I don’t get the sense that this season’s major/true theme revolves around oppression/control (as is frequently mentioned in various ways throughout the episode, see “We’re on probation” and “Do you want to be my slave tonight?” for examples) so much as it is about power, who wields it, and what effect power has on you as a person. This, of course, is related to oppression/control but is also somewhat fuzzier.
As example, I think there is a potentially fruitful discussion to be had regarding the depiction of male/female power and its ties to homosocial environments and aggression. The question that this episode sort of puts forth is, “How do people wield power?” In a very stark way, we see a link between aggression and power through the young witches and frat boys: while one group grounds their violence in emotion and physical aggression the other leans toward sexual/physical (guess which is which).
And, on that note, I am still cautious about the way in which the show thinks deeply on issues of women and power. Although witches have traditionally been the figure to express this combination, we see two major (white) figures obsessed with youth and looks. Are we to think, then, that this is what women aspire to power for? Is there a commentary here on the interplay between women’s power in their bodies (and why that is) and magic? I think that this last question in being too generous for what I’ve seen of this show, although I would happily be proven wrong. And then we have the “black widow” power of killing men through sex, which is 1) oddly heteronormative if it doesn’t also work with women and 2) a very basic retread of a fear that men have had about women for a long time. I want to say that the show is all about shuffling worn tropes and interrogating them so I remain hopeful and yet I am also not thoroughly confident that the show will pull it off.
(And what’s up with the title of “Bitchcraft”? I suppose this was my first red flag that this show would not be entirely nuanced in its exploration of this theme of women/power. Admittedly the “bitch” debate is not particularly resonant at the moment but my problem–as always–is that the sho does nothing to challenge or complicate the demeaning reading of the title.)
Personalization, as exemplified by the popularity of music services like Pandora, has become a defining characteristic of a 21st century American musical sensibility; with an increasing number of Americans gaining access to on demand content, it would seem that the creation of a contemporary Great American Songbook is not only unlikely but quite possibly unwanted. And yet, despite the growing insularity of listening habits, it would seem that American popular culture continues to present individuals with auditory cultural touchstones in the form of viral singles. For better or for worse, creations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have become entities that we organize around, forming taste communities grounded in our reaction to the song.
The importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil Spector. It is, I think, all too easy to get caught up in ridiculing the appearance of Phil Spector. A notable recluse in his later years, Spector was thrust into the spotlight while on trial in 2003 for the murder of Lana Clarkson; somewhat given to eccentricity in both lifestyle and presentation, publicized images of Spector lent themselves to commentary that, more often than not, almost necessarily included mention of Spector’s hair.
And although we might criticize the movie for overacting and underdeveloped characters, upon reflection what struck me as particularly poignant about the film was the way in which it reminded me that Phil Spector songs have had a memorable influence in my life.
Using Spector as a jumping off point I began to think this week on the relationship between music, technology, and American social history; although it is tempting to look back and claim that landmark songs “changed” American culture, I instead want to pick up on the idea from this week’s readings that technology and culture (both in the form of music and more broadly) are mutually constitutive processes.
It is, for example, difficult to talk about the impact of Phil Spector’s songs without referencing The Wall of Sound. Born out of a (in retrospect) rather stubborn refusal to embrace stereo sound, Spector engineered a technique wherein sound from the musicians was piped down into echo chambers and then recorded, in effect creating a metaphorical “wall” of sound.
Having not studied music extensively as an academic subject, I find myself still struggling with some questions and concepts. Does the Wall of Sound provide an example of Simon Frith’s (building on Andrew Chester) assertion that Western popular music absorbed Afro-American forms and conventions, producing an “intentionally” complex artifact? As Firth notes, an intentionally complex structure “is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes and by inflexion of the basic beat.” (269)
More importantly, however, I wonder how Spector’s technique builds upon conventions that had long been established in African American gospel music and to what extent it was really “new.” Consistent with a larger move in rock music at the time, I marvel at how Phil Spector’s early songs helped to elevate ethnic minorities into the spotlight but also, at the same time, claimed their cultural practices for mainstream America.
Music, History, and Bioshock Infinite
Consistent with Phil Spector, what I am most interested in is the way in which we use fiction to look back on a past that is both imagined and real. How do we make sense of things in retrospect and what does our thought process tell us about the way that we understand the present? Although my thoughts are not fully formed on the subject, I am curious about how pieces of our cultural past are strategically deployed to foreground certain parts of our cultural history while obscuring others.
Bioshock Infinite is a video game premised on a many worlds theory, presenting an alternate history of America in the form of the utopic/dystopic floating city of Columbia. Reflecting sentiments from early 20th century America, the city evidences strong tones of nationalism, theocracy, and jingoism. And, given our continuing struggle with race (see “Accidental Racist”), I wonder about how something like Bioshock Infinite speaks to the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to our own history.
To be sure, the game plays fast and lose with history as it incorporates musical easter eggs throughout the world. “God Only Knows,” a song influenced by Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, makes an appearance early on in the form of a barbershop quartet.
Although rather charming, there is a way in which this type of action reflects a modern sensibility that songs (or perhaps moments in history in general) can be divorced from their surrounding context and transplanted as discrete units. Given the game’s logic I am fully willing to concede that a composer could have peered through dimensions and lifted this song but it seems unlikely that he would know why such a song was popular in the first place. This move seems to be much more about the developers trying to establish a relationship with players than creating a world (which is fine), but the way in which they have gone about it makes me worry that our understanding of cultural artifacts ignores the way in which they are part of systems.
As a parting gift, Bioshock Infinite also features this…
 This is, to be sure, an intentional on the part of writer/director David Mamet who even has Phil Spector suggest at one point that his song was playing the first time that his lawyer was felt up.
In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.
“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”
McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation
To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.
McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.
In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.
Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:
That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.
Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.
First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels more comforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.
The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.
Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.
I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy. The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.
Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.
Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.
If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
Ronald Walter Greene
Greene, R. W. (2011). Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928-39. In C. R. Acland, & N. Wasson (Eds.), Useful Cinema (pp. 205-229). Durham: Duke University Press.
Greene’s research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Cultural Policy and Moving Image Studies. Greene work in rhetorical theory is approached with a materialist perspective that focuses on how rhetorical techniques and technologies are enlisted as means of governance and production. Additionally, Greene’s work in moving image studies emphasizes the distribution and exhibition practices of the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau in the first half of the twentieth century.
Although Ronald Walter Greene’s Pastoral Exhibition is, on one level, a story about the development of a 16mm film network in early 20th century America, the piece also fundamentally speaks to the way in which audiences are constructed as part of economic markets. Having introduced this connection between audiences and economies via a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s view of the YMCA as “professional, political, and ideological intermediaries” for Fordism, Greene essentially goes on to outline the way in which the development of the 16mm film network by the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and Exhibits (MPB) was intertwined with the dissemination of a particular brand of ideology.
As an example, Greene notes the relationship between the ability of the MPB to distribute free movies because of corporate donations, non-traditional settings for movie showings that resulted from the YMCA’s interest in urban outreach, and Steven Ross’ observation that “the companies most active in crushing unions…were also the most aggressive in producing nontheatricals…shown at local YMCAs.” In essence, a simplification of this process suggests that a company was able to spread its ideology in the form of films using the YMCA network of 16mm distribution.
However, the key point in Greene is not just that the YMCA provided distribution channels for films (corporate-sponsored and otherwise) but that the very philosophy of the YMCA acted to cultivate audiences and thereby shape modes of seeing. Using the term “pastoral exhibition” to describe the YMCA’s position that films should work to “care for an individual’s well-being while harnessing the practice of movie watching to alleviate social, political, and moral problems of a population,” Greene speaks to the way in which the very experience of watching a movie was designed to frame the viewer as a particular type of audience member. As opposed to the theatrical/Hollywood model, the films of the YMCA were educational in tone and reinforced the necessity of a cultural authority to guide audiences into correct modes of interaction with the film. Understanding the development of the 16mm network in this way, we see how the distribution network of films contributed to the generation/reinforcement of a power dynamic between laborers and film producers.
Finally, given the invocation of the pastoral, it is only fitting that Greene mentions Foucault’s reading of the term and the way in which the movement of groups is managed through networks and markets. Given that Greene notes that “the mobile character of 16mm may have been difficult for the pastoral mode of exhibition because it proliferated in the sites and genres of non-theatrical exhibition with or without the cultural authorities deemed necessary to instill the proper moral disposition,” we might also think through the implications for this model in the current age of digital distribution. Who are the new cultural authorities and how does the film industry continue to construct us as audiences?
The show is not the show,
But they that go.
Menagerie to me
My neighbor be.
Both went to see.
Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:
Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)
In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.
Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.
House Hunters television promo (2010)
House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.
If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.
Case (A): Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks. The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.
Case (B): Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office. The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.
Question: Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?
After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.
Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.
Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.
Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.
Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.
After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.
 For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.
“My aim then is to trace the history of this reconfiguration of the body through scientific techniques of motion recording and analysis—techniques that were used to put forth a model of the body as a dynamic, distinctly living and moving, system.”
Lisa Cartwright, 4
One of the themes emergent in Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture is the way in which the ideas of Science, the cinematic, and Life are intertwined. Reading through Cartwright, I found myself continually referring back to a core set of questions: How is life represented visually? By whom and why? How does the visual construction of life go on to influence popular understandings of the concept?
Although Cartwright decides to focus on the cinematic—a term that has less to do with actual film than a mode of seeing, observing, and projecting—I found myself thinking through how similar functions are performed by science/speculative fiction, natural history museums, and science journalism as interfaces between scientific communities and the public. For me, the power of these spaces is very much tied to the way in which they allow Life to be visualized and, in so doing, influence the way(s) in which Life can be imagined.
Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes or comprises “life” at any given moment in history—which, I would venture, is not quite the same thing as the notion of being “alive”—has long been tied to what Science has been able to see. In an article for the digital magazine Aeon, Phillip Ball wrote the following about the impact of the microscope in early modern culture:
The 17th-century philosopher Robert Hooke echoed [Aristotole’s] wonder at nature’s invisible intricacy. It was his book, Micrographia (1665), that put microscopy on the map. Crucially, Hooke’s volume was not merely descriptive: it included large, gorgeous engravings of what he saw through the lens, skilfully prepared by his own hand. The power of these illustrations was impossible to resist. Here were fantastical gardens discovered in mould, snowflakes like fronds of living ice and, most shockingly, insects such as fleas got up in articulated armour like lobsters, and a fly that gazes into the lens with 14,000 little eyes, arranged in perfect order on two hemispheres.
Although Hooke is a fascinating figure, Ball’s anecdote gestures toward the way in which the visual representation of life forms a key link between the observations of the scientist and the communication of those ideas to others.
Extending Cartwright’s analysis of graphic representations of life, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture has elected to represent life in visual media. One branch, I think, is aligned with immersive media and the trend for medical visualizations to become increasingly interactive. Recalling the ways in which the moving image challenged thinking based on microscopy and photography, it seems prudent to consider whether understandings of life will again be reconfigured in the age of 3-D and real-time.
For me, however, it is another form of life’s visual representation that presents a more pervasive and potentially insidious change: linked with the rise in the “quantified self” that has been mentioned in class, concepts of Life have come to be increasingly characterized, not in terms of motion, but in terms of data streams.
IBM’s “Data Baby” (2010)
Sprint’s “I Am Unlimited” (2012)
I will admit to being particularly upset at the way in which the Sprint ad suggests that “the human experience” can be fully represented by pixels but I do think that it makes a rather interesting visual connection between essences of life and data. On one level, the commercial is fairly upfront about its message to sell consumers on a “truly” unlimited data plan but, watching the ad, I couldn’t help but think about Kara Keeling’s invocation of Deleuze in The Witch’s Flight. Here Deleuze speaks to an analytical framework that attempts to identify the dual manifestations of illusion within the cinematic.
The political challenge for filmmakers, according to Deleuze’s analysis, is to reveal that which has been hidden in the image by rediscovering “everything that has been removed to make [the image] interesting” or by “suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything.” (18)
There is a certainly a reductive quality in the Sprint ad that simplifies the ambiguous concept of Life down into (less vague?) data. If we ascribe to Deleuze, this process of removal is a restrictive political act that, I think, ultimately constricts the way in which concepts of life can be imagined. Yet, instead of immediately blaming the practice—which seems analogous to the illustrations used in texts like Gray’s Anatomy to help young medical students learn about the body—it seems far more sensible to interrogate why we choose to augment or depress the representation of life in the first place.
It would have been difficult for [Joseph] Priestly, contemplating that tenacious sprig of mint in the lab on Bansinghall Street, to perceive that a Kuhnian revolution was at hand, not just because the concept didn’t exist yet, but more important because there was no ‘dominant paradigm’ for him to overturn. The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff—people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint—and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff
—Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, 66
Derrida, J. (1968). Différance. Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Philosophie, 73-101.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was the founder of “deconstruction,” a way of criticizing not only both literary and philosophical texts but also political institutions. Derrida entered college (École Normale) at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age: Deleuze, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, Barthes, and Marin. Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Ricœur, Blanchot, and Levinas were also still alive. Derrida was largely influenced by Nietzche, Hidegger, and Saussure and, in turn, influenced Irigaray, Cixous, Deleuze, and Lyotard.
The term deconstruction signifies certain strategies for reading and writing texts. The term was introduced into philosophical literature in 1967, with the publication of three texts by Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology (1974), Writing and Difference (1978), and Speech and Phenomena (1973). Derrida and deconstruction are routinely associated with postmodernism, although like Deleuze and Foucault, he does not use the term and would resist affiliation with “-isms” of any sort. Of the three books from 1967, Of Grammatology is the more comprehensive in laying out the background for deconstruction as a way of reading modern theories of language, especially structuralism, and Heidegger’s meditations on the non-presence of being. It also sets out Derrida’s difference with Heidegger over Nietzsche.
Just as in the essay “On the Question of Being” (Heidegger 1998, 291-322) Heidegger sees fit to cross out the word “being,” leaving it visible, nevertheless, under the mark, Derrida takes the closure of metaphysics to be its “erasure,” where it does not entirely disappear, but remains inscribed as one side of a difference, and where the mark of deletion is itself a trace of the difference that joins and separates this mark and what it crosses out. Derrida calls this joining and separating of signs différance (Derrida 1974, 23), a device that can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French. The “a” is a written mark that differentiates independently of the voice, the privileged medium of metaphysics. In this sense, différance as the spacing of difference, as archi-writing, would be the gram of grammatology. However, as Derrida remarks: “There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin” (Derrida 1974, 63). Instead, there is only the marking of the trace of difference, that is, deconstruction.
For Derrida, written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions. As Derrida famously remarks, “there is no outside-text” (Derrida 1974, 158), that is, the text includes the difference between any “inside” or “outside.” A text, then, is not a book, and does not, strictly speaking, have an author. On the contrary, the name of the author is a signifier linked with others, and there is no master signifier (such as the phallus in Lacan) present or even absent in a text. This goes for the term “différance” as well, which can only serve as a supplement for the productive spacing between signs. Therefore, Derrida insists that “différance is literally neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982, 3). Instead, it can only be marked as a wandering play of differences that is both a spacing of signifiers in relation to one another and a deferral of meaning or presence when they are read.
Derrida illustrates one key concept of différance by drawing the reader’s attention to the word itself. Juxtaposing the French word différer (“to differ”) with the Greek word diapherein, Derrida reinforces the dual nature of différance as noted earlier in “Différance.” Diapherein, Derrida writes, refers to the common meaning of difference, indicating that two things are dissimilar; this form of difference for Derrida can be conceptualized as a sort of horizontal/spatial relationship as two things must necessarily exist simultaneously (albeit in different spaces). To this Derrida adds in a dimension of time through his reading of différance as a verb that can also indicate a deferral—on the most basic level, this implies a single thing at two points in time.
Difference, for Derrida, does not imply “separate,” however as différance speaks to a way in which difference contains an element of sameness: in order to compare things (a necessary positioning that must occur before difference can be established), there must be a dimension on which they are comparable. As example, the American expression “It’s like comparing apples to oranges” is often used to suggest widely disparate elements but Derrida might point out that both objects belong to a number of similar categories (e.g., fruit, round, edible, etc.) and thus the very establishment of difference in one respect serves to reinforce sameness in another.
Abstracting the apple and orange example, Derrida referred to the system of connections between objects of difference as an assemblage. It is important to note that Derrida did not view this construction as a static system but rather, in a nod to Saussure and the infinite chain of meanings formed as signs became signifiers for other signs, urged readers to consider that the configuration of the assemblage was always in flux. Derrida cites Saussure on page 285 of Literary Theory to put forth the idea that “in language there are only differences” but, perhaps more significant, is Saussure’s reminder that “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither idea nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.”
Drawing upon Hegel, différance, then, is what makes presentation (i.e., distinction) possible for Derrida, as things are only brought into being through difference and, as such, identity is always based in a thing’s relationship to other things and concepts like authenticity do not apply. To help clarify this concept we can return to the apple and orange example noted earlier: in order for an “apple” and an “orange” to exist, Derrida argues that we must first determine that a difference exists between that which we would then call an apple or an orange. This difference does not merely refer to the creation of separate words but instead that these two things are in fact different enough to be separated from each other. As suggested by the epigraph to this summary, difference/différance is an inherent part of classification/order and stands in contrast to nothingness.
Finally, one conclusion draws from Saussure is that “the signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself” (285). Consequentially, although it might be difficult to grasp initially, Derrida also argues that différance is not a concept or a word that itself exists inside of the assemblage.
Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling
Fish, S. (1967). Surprised by Sin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Fish is associated with the concept of “interpretive communities,” a concept that suggests that a reader’s response to a given text is shaped by subjective experience. Although Fish would argue that no single reading of a text exists, the concept of interpretive communities suggests that, based on experience, a particular reading of a text is likely to be more salient than others. In the case of Milton, Fish often points to the way in which a reader is influenced by Christianity.
Although trained as a medievalist, Fish had no formal training in Milton studies when he began teaching a course in the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. Fish’s book, Surprised by Sin, was important in the field of Milton studies as it attempted to reconcile the divide that had formed between schools of thought that venerated Milton (e.g., William Blake and Percy Shelley) and those that disparaged him (e.g., T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis) by suggesting that the difficulty that readers experienced when reading the poem was not evidence of a failing on the part of the author but rather a strategy by Milton to help the reader better grasp the subject matter.
In “Not So Much a Teaching as an Intangling,” an excerpt from his book Surprised by Sin, Fish utilizes a reader-centered approach in order to argue that Milton’s diction in Paradise Lost was designed to arouse a measure of self-examination on the part of the reader that could be traced back to dissonance between expectation and experience on the part of the reader. Here we begin to see a strategy that juxtaposes the successes/failures of the poem with those of its author—a contrast to Formalism and Structuralism which would not have directly engaged with such issues. In particular, Fish focuses on a rereading of the way in which Milton’s poem seems to qualify itself, arguing such an action is not a weakness of Milton but instead a deliberate effort on the part of the author to dislocate the reader and cause him or her to question an initial reading or interpretation.
As example, Fish introduces lines 292-294 of Book I in order to illustrate the way in which a reader’s initial understanding might be subsequently challenged:
His spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian Hills to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand.
Fish writes that a reader’s instinct here is to compare a spear and a pine in terms of their physical similarities as objects and, while this is one way in which to understand a notion of “equal,” it is not, ultimately what Milton intends. Presented with the rather unique problem of navigating between concreteness and grandeur, Fish writes that Milton structures his words this way so that “we are relieved of the necessity of believing the image true, but permitted to retain the solidity it offers our straining imaginations” (201).
One point of criticism here is that although Fish advocates for interpretative communities and a viewpoint grounded in readers’ responses to texts, Fish’s analysis gestures toward acceptance of a singular reaction that resolves the elements of Milton into a particular understanding of the text. Fish, then, is focused on readers but does not go so far as to allow for multiple readings/responses that would appear in postmodernism and suffers criticism by individuals like philosopher Martha Nussbaum who comments on the tendency of Fish to resist conflict in his analysis. Additionally, of particular note is the way in which the ideal reader evidences a Christian sensibility, which is only relevant if one is considering the likely audience for Milton’s poem when he initially wrote it.
Fish’s larger point with this example, however, is to suggest that Milton’s aim is to gesture toward a reality that is beyond the range of normal human experience and perception. Fish argues that traditional similes are tied to a time and a place and that the subject matter of Milton’s poem exists outside of these boundaries, which means that the reader’s sense of lack or inadequacy is crucial for Fish as it speaks to the emotions that Adam and Eve experienced as they sought something just outside of their grasp.
In his analysis Fish also attempts to develop a distinction between two types of argumentation in Paradise Lost: rhetorical and logical. Aligning the first with Satan and the latter with God, Fish seems to create an either/or binary that is particularly focused on displaying the inadequacies of the reader for reasons previously discussed. On page 209 Fish writes:
“The reader who fails repeatedly before the pressures of the poem soon realizes that his difficulty proves its major assertions—the fact of the Fall, and his own (that is Adam’s) responsibility for it, and the subsequent woes of the human situation…The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays again the weakness of Adam, and his inability to avoid repeating that fall throughout indicates the extent to which Adam’s lapse has made the reassertion of right reason impossible.”
Although Fish argues for the productivity of the self-realization that results from a confrontation with one’s failings, the underlying assumption here is that rhetoric is present to mislead the reader. It is, however, unclear whether Milton himself would have supported a similar opposition between rhetoric and logic as his writings in Of Education seem to indicate that both were intended to be used in conjunction with one another.
 Milton’s poem has also been traditionally polarizing with battle lines being drawn around how one responded to the depiction of Satan.
 Interestingly, Dictionary.com provides the following definition: An obsolete form of admiral. “The mast of some great ammiral” –Milton.
 See, for example, “And [Milton’s} readers who share this Christian view of history will be prepared to make the connection that exists potentially in the detail of the narrative” (208).
In 1954, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner conducted a landmark experiment in the field of Behaviorism: implanting electrodes into rats, Olds and Milner allowed the animals to stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains via a lever. Depressing the control up to 700 times a day, the allure of the stimulation was so strong that, given a choice between pleasure and food, rats eventually died from exhaustion.
Initial reactions to this scenario often include a measure of shock and disbelief as individuals try to make sense of what they observe. Why would an animal literally pleasure itself to death? Although we as humans—and supposed exemplars of rationality—might make different choices in a similar situation, the lesson to learn from the Olds and Milner study is that the pursuit of pleasure can be a powerful influence on our lives.
The continued resonance of the Olds and Milner experiment is perhaps most evident in the appearance of “click bait.” Typically relying on provocative visual elements (e.g., a headline and/or image), the concept of click bait adopts strategies and logics gleaned from advertising as it employs old models that form a direct correlation between value and number of views. Inhabiting a space at the intersection of attention, pleasure, and economic forces, the concept of click bait represents an interesting object of inquiry as we read about notions of visibility.
Click bait does not invite us to linger, to savor, or to contemplate; click bait entreats us to look but not to see or to imagine, encapsulating Nicholas Mirzoeff’s understanding of visuality as a force that is determined to impose a singular unified vision of the world on multiple levels. Take online slideshows as an example of notorious forms of click bait that rob us of the ability to curate our own collections and to develop our own connections between things. Visual displays such as these provide tangible examples of Mirzoeff’s position that visuality operates through classifying, ordering, and naturalizing—an assertion that offers a certain amount of overlap with the role that language plays in our experiences as it mediates the transformation from sensation into perception. Here, the price that we pay for a brief moment of pleasure is the loss of our imagination—we not only dampen our ability to see other realities but fundamentally inhibit our ability to believe that they can even exist. Click bait represents an entity that screams for our attention, offering a fleeing moment of pleasure in exchange for the opportunity to subvert our vision to its purposes as it directs us where to look.
Wrestling with these very notions of sight and seeing, Kanye West’s music video for “All of the Lights” speaks to the way in which stimulation and novelty has become increasingly integrated into the everyday experience of urbanized individuals.
The first viewing of West’s video is often difficult as viewers are confronted with frenetic visuals that invoke the light-filled cityscapes of Tokyo, Times Square, and Las Vegas. And yet, what strikes me is just how readily one becomes attuned to a display that boasts a prominent seizure warning. What does this suggest about the way in which we have been trained to respond to visual stimuli in general and to incessant calls for our attention in particular? Or, perhaps more frighteningly, just how quickly we can habituate ourselves into unseeing.
“All of the Lights” is an interesting cultural artifact for me because it also wrestles with these notions of seeing and being seen through the lyrics of the song itself: concerned with the attempts of a parolee to see his daughter (and for his daughter to see him), the song (unwittingly) builds upon Mirzoeff’s position on the relatedness between autonomy and sight. And yet the song goes further as it calls attention to situations that cultural outsiders might willfully refrain from seeing. “Turn up the lights in here, baby / Extra bright, I want y’all to see this,” the song implores as it endeavors to realize Mirzoeff’s suggestion that visuality be countered through the presentation of alternate forms of realism. Additionally, the sequence pays homage to the opening credits for Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, a movie that plays with perspective and perception, continually reminding us to pay attention to the fact that we are paying attention.
This sort of critical self-reflection is, as Cathy Davidson notes in her book Now You See It, a helpful reminder that we have been trained to pay attention to particular facets of the world—mistakenly inferring that these elements constitute the world in its entirety—at the expense of others. Davidson points to the structural and systematic ways in which we are socialized to pay attention to, and thus value, particular objects, ideas, and actions over others. From family, to school, to politics, institutions shape what is worthy of attention and therefore what are values are; attention, then, is not just about what we see but also how we see it.
 Although difficult to watch in its entirety, Enter the Void’s title sequence is particularly memorable for the way in which it disrupts the viewing process and dislocates the viewer as foreshadowing for the experience that follows.
 On page 25 of The Right to Look Mizroeff writes, “By the same token, the right to look is never individual: my right to look depends on your recognition of me, and vice versa.”
 Similarly, I think that the opening scenes of American Horror Story: Asylum (https://www.facebook.com/americanhorrorstory/app_216209925175894) perform a similar function, which ties into the season’s overall theme of truth/reality. The thing that the show makes evident is the way in which our interaction with the world is intimately tied to our perception of it.
Morphology of the Folktale
The fairy tale, on the other hand, is very much the result of common conscious and unconscious content having been shaped by the conscious mind, not of one particular person, but the consensus of many in regard to what they view as universal human problems, and what they accept as desirable solutions.
Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). (L. Scott, Trans.) Austin: University of Texas Press.
Vladimir Propp was trained as a philologist, meaning that he studied the historical development of language. Trained as a Formalist, Propp is perhaps most famous for Morphology of the Folktale, his attempt to identify fundamental components of Russian fairy/folktales and the relationship of these elements to each other. In this, Propp responded to Antti Aarne, who focused on motifs (i.e., repeated story elements) and developed the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, by arguing that Aarne identified patterns but ignored the function(s) of these elements. Propp’s work would also go on to influence Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, individuals working in mythology and folkloric studies. Given that Propp was interested in written language, his study of folklore has been criticized for its emphasis on the written form, disregarding that folklore had traditionally been transmitted orally.
In accordance with Russian Formalism, Propp believed that literature was composed of discrete identifiable units and that appropriate analysis would result from the description of these elements and their relationship to both one another and the story as a whole. In order to tackle a study of the breadth of Russian folktales, Propp endeavored to create a comprehensive morphology that listed key elements or constants.
For Propp, the appropriate unit of analysis was the function of dramatis personae (i.e., character plus action), which differed from Aarne’s use of motifs in that Aarne placed more emphasis on the action itself whereas Propp argued that the action must be contextualized by an understanding of its actor (in this case the subject of the action is considered part of the action itself and not its own independent element).
Indeed, the “who” is not particularly important in fairy/folktales as the characters are relatively unambiguous and often derive their names from their social relationship or occupation (which itself hints at a type of social relationship). The individuals who inhabit a fairy/folktale are simple and largely free from internal conflict: characters who seem good are good and those who seem bad are bad. In a sense, these characters are not really people so much as they are devices.
Furthermore, due to the lack of internal psychology, Propp did not use dimensions like motivation in his analysis. Although modern storytelling in America would seem to place a premium on the “why” (see, for example, the way in which intent is central to the legal system), the straightforward nature of the characters in fairy/folktales made this type of analysis unnecessary.
Propp identified 31 unique functions (see below) in Russian folktales, a morphology that bears a certain similarity to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. However, looking at the elements in both schemas, one can immediately see that fairy/folktales are much more straightforward in that they consist of a specific actor/action while the elements of the monomyth speak much more to a process akin to character development.
It should also be noted that folklore is different than postmodern storytelling, which may use some of these familiar elements but will often combine them in new ways or otherwise play with conventions. For an example of how Propp’s attempt at morphology might be applied in a modern context, see The Periodic Table of Storytelling below.
 See, for example, Philip Pullman’s assertion that “A fairy tale is not a text … It’s a transcription made on one of more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs.” (Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, xviii)
Fairy/Folktales vs. (Mono)Myth
|One of the members of a family absents himself from home||The call to adventure|
|An interdiction (limitation) is addressed to the hero||Refusal of the call|
|The interdiction is violated||Supernatural aid|
|The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance||The crossing of the first threshold|
|The villain receives information about his victim||Belly of the whale|
|The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him||The road of trials|
|The victim unknowingly helps the villain by being deceived or influenced by the villain||The meeting with the goddess|
|The villain harms a member of the family or a member of the family lacks/desires something||Woman as temptress|
|The lack or misfortune is made known; the hero is given a request or a command; the hero goes on a mission/quest||Atonement with the father|
|The seeker plans action against the villain||Apotheosis|
|The hero leaves home||The ultimate boon|
|The hero is tested||The refusal of the return|
|The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor||The magic flight|
|The hero uses the magical agent||Rescue from without|
|The hero is transferred to the general location of the object of his mission/quest||The crossing of the return threshold|
|The hero and villain join in direct combat||Master of two worlds|
|The hero is branded||Freedom to live|
|The villain is defeated|
|The initial misfortune or lack is set right|
|The hero returns home|
|The hero is pursued|
|The hero is rescued from pursuit|
|The hero arrives home or elsewhere and is not recognized|
|A false hero makes false claims|
|A difficult task is set for the hero|
|The task is accomplished|
|The hero is recognized|
|The false hero is exposed|
|The false hero is transformed|
|The villain is punished|
|The hero is married and crowned|
Seen but Not Heard:
Feminist Narratives of Girlhood
Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, 320 pp., $15.99 (paperback).
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, New York: Harper, 2011, 256 pp., $25.99 (hardcover).
University of Southern California
The first thing one needs to know about Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Harper Perennial, 2011) is that it is not an academic book, nor does it claim to be. Moran, a columnist for the London paper The Times, rightly asserts that the movement of feminism is too important to be discussed solely by academics and endeavors to use vignettes from her life to illustrate particular ways in which the question of feminism infiltrates meaningfully into the everyday lives of ordinary individuals. In and of itself, this effort represents a perfectly admirable attempt to reintroduce notions of feminism into mainstream culture but good intentions can only carry one so far.
Ultimately, when boiled down to its purest essence, Moran’s assertion that she has “stuff to say” (12) is really what this book is all about. Moran has assembled a collection of shorter pieces loosely linked by the fact that they all derive their thrust from a moment in which an experience has given her some insight into the condition of being a woman—and a pointedly white and heterosexual one at that—in the United Kingdom. Given Moran’s background as a columnist, one is not surprised that her book should take this form and, indeed, one might be inclined to deem the project successful if the book were conceived simply as a memoir of sorts. Instead, however, Moran positions her book in the tradition of the feminist practice of consciousness raising and readers must question what sorts of insights are gained from perusing this particular text.
“But wait!” Moran might argue, “I’m not a feminist academic!” (12) And she would be correct in that assertion. What the caveat does not excuse, however, is a demonstrated lack of rigor in thought or practice. As one example, Moran cites an “Amnesty International survey that found that 25 percent of people believe a woman is still to blame for being raped if she dresses ‘provocatively’” (203) which might very well be true but Moran does not provide any means to verify such a statement. It is precisely because feminism is such an important issue that Moran should do her due diligence and not allow her position to be undermined by an easy attack; Moran should force her detractors to confront her ideas and not her evidence, which is frustrating since Moran has some really good ideas.
For example, one of the themes that runs throughout Moran’s book is the way in which being a woman (i.e., female identity) is manifested through, and displayed on, the body and that women’s internalized sense of how to appropriately discipline their bodies plays a key part in becoming a woman in the United Kingdom and the United States. Pubic hair, in particular, occupies a bit of Moran’s attention as its initial appearance and subsequent removal remain closely linked to conceptualizations of womanhood and femininity. A notable section of Moran’s second chapter discusses how technical considerations of shooting pornography marketed to heterosexual men—again we must be wary that this constitutes conjecture for Moran provides no sources—have been imbued with a layer of cultural meaning that consequentially influences women’s grooming habits. Women, in short, are affected by a cultural product that likely does not have their best interests in mind and it is precisely this type of revelation that illustrates the continued relevance of feminism. And yet it is also interesting to note when and where Moran draws arbitrary lines: pubic hair, for example, should be trimmed but not waxed. But why, you might ask? Here Moran misses an opportunity to discuss the larger implications of the way in which women (and men) have been socialized to relate to women’s bodies and although Moran correctly notes that pubic hair is different from other forms of ancillary hair in that it is sexualized, she fails to touch on the broader issue of how hair management (of which trimming would surely be included) is related to perceptions and enactment of femininity.
And of course it would seem rather impossible to discuss female bodies and femininity without broaching the subject of the vagina. Moran muses on a conversation with her younger sister, “So now, in 1989, we have no word for ‘vagina’ at all—and with all the stuff that’s going on down there, we feel we need one.” (56) Although Moran goes on to talk about the various euphemisms that women have for their vagina, she does not touch upon the way in which this practice points to the way in which language plays a crucial role in configuring, maintaining, and enacting the relative subjugation of women. Moran notes, for example, that terms describing the vagina have the ability to cause discomfort but ultimately portrays this phenomenon as empowering—she notes that the most offensive male counterpart is “dick”—but not discuss the ways in which this difference is actually indicative of a problem. What does it mean, for example, that we are much more familiar with, and accepting of, dicks? Nothing particularly good for women, most likely. Compounding the problem, Moran makes a critique about how “pussy” evidences a disconnect between women and their vaginas but does not comment on the way in which a refusal to embrace “vagina” ultimately leads to the same conclusion. Here, instead of making a compelling argument about the way in which language can be used to excavate relationships, Moran merely produces a polemic about the vagina’s various names that ultimately boils down to a description of her personal taste without investigating how her taste—and here one might certainly nod toward Bourdieu—was cultivated in the first place.
And the vagina performs a key function for Moran as she provides a catchy, if unhelpful, survey on page 75 to determine if one is in fact a feminist: Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? (Feminists, by the way, should answer “yes” to both.) Like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, we see a way in which the vagina is made to stand in for the entirety of womanhood, essentially reducing the meaningful elements of a woman to her vagina. Surely, this is a provocative question but not incredibly feminist in the long run. Moreover, what about those who do not have a vagina (e.g., men)? How are they supposed to figure out if they are feminists or not? Compounding the problem, we must investigate what it means to be in charge of one’s vagina: in the abstract, one might state that being in charge means that one should be able to do whatever one likes with one’s vagina but we are left to question how such a practice manifests in the real world. Here, Moran’s ambiguity allows her to assume a position that is difficult to counter for who would argue that women should not have control over their own bodies in theory? Moran provides a good sound bite that is ultimately meaningless, however, for there are many ways in which the actions of men (and women) do not evidence a belief that total control of the vagina belongs to the women who bear them.
And yet perhaps the most problematic way in which Moran’s ambiguity affects her writing rests in the rather causal way she employs the term “the patriarchy.” On one hand the term is easy enough to define but where Moran fails is in her refusal to explain exactly what “the patriarchy” encompasses; patriarchy manifests in a variety of forms and through myriad agents as it operates on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Here one senses another distinct limitation in her work: How to Be a Woman is written by Moran to other women like Moran. For Moran, “the patriarchy” does not need to be defined because its meaning is assumed. Ultimately Moran’s overly simplistic attempts to define feminism and patriarchy also do a larger disservice as Moran fails to address the notion that individuals may benefit from feminism without ever being feminist themselves. Moran’s assumptions about feminism occlude the nuanced ways in which individuals can work to support both feminism and patriarchal hegemony in a manner that does not produce internal conflict.
In contrast to Moran’s efforts, one feels compelled to laud a work like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) for its ability to use personal narrative as an entrée to discuss the way in which female gender roles are configured and interpreted on a variety of levels. Using her experiences with her daughter as a narrative backbone, Orenstein carefully develops a series of thoughts about the effect that princess culture has on contemporary children.
Primarily focused on the influence of markets, Orenstein shows how economic concerns have played a large part in shaping the world that girls experience today. From the concept of Disney Princesses as an effort to revitalize a flagging corporate consumer products division to the way in which American Girl dolls promote intergenerational female bonding through consumption to the mapping of a family’s aspirations for social mobility onto child beauty pageant contestants, Orenstein illustrates how disparate aspects of girlhood are connected to each other and to a larger system of meaning. It is precisely because of the influence of marketing, Orenstein argues, that the transgressive core of “girl power” has been eschewed for the faux empowerment of “girlz.” The insidious bargain that girls strike is to gain claims toward empowerment by using consumption to reaffirm traditional gender roles. Even as fewer opportunities become salient for young girls—here reference is made to a classroom exercise in which young girls chose to imagine themselves as a princess, a fairy, a butterfly, or a ballerina in contrast to boys who assumed a variety of roles—Orenstein explores how performance of gender has become increasingly divorced from notions of female pleasure. Particularly notable are the ways in which Orenstein uses new communications technologies like social media and picture messaging to showcase how young girls’ identities have become, in part, more externally focused with the cultivation of the self as a kind of real-time performance piece that lies parallel to one’s physical existence. Sexting, for example, is not a post-feminist celebration of the body but rather constitutes a functional practice where girls demonstrate their ability to use their bodies as means toward particular ends (e.g., keeping a boyfriend). Orenstein also suggests that young girls develop a form of internalized self-surveillance as they learn to see themselves and their bodies as others do. Connecting this to chapters on body image and princess gowns, Orenstein builds a case for how body, femininity, and self are intimately related for girls; for many girls, how one feels is related to how one perceives one’s body to look. Ultimately, Orenstein challenges readers to question exactly what kind of practical power is provided by an empowerment that continues to be grounded in perceptions of the female body.
In contrast to the ambiguity that Moran displays about being a woman at the end of her book, Orenstein develops a clear plan of action that asks individuals to consider how they participate in the maintenance of a culture that might be detrimental for girls. Although both authors ground their analysis in the trappings of everyday life, the key to Orenstein’s success is the way in which she calls for a type of engagement that extends beyond Moran’s askance that readers get up on a chair and proclaim “I am a feminist!” In the end, it is a shame, really, for frank discussion of feminism’s importance is sorely needed in today’s society and Caitlin Moran owes the awkward thirteen-year-olds of the world—including the one who forms the core of her story, herself—better.
For me, notions of trauma and Freud are inextricably bound with horror; or, perhaps more accurately, I choose to interpret these events in such a way. Of particular interest to me in the readings for this week was Caruth’s note that stories of trauma, at their core, touch upon a dual set of crises: the crisis of death and the crisis of life (7). What meaning does life continue to hold after one has become intimately familiar with the inevitability of one’s own death? I continue to think about how individuals who have experienced trauma are forced into a sort of liminal space between worlds wherein life (as we know it) is made strange in the face of death; although achingly familiar, life is forever made uncanny.
Although Freud speaks to the interwoven themes of life and death in his treatment of Thanatos/Eros, I (again because of my horror background) tend to think about these issues as they are inscribed on, and enacted through, the body. Horror, of course, has a long history of obscuring the boundaries between sex, violence, life, and death (let’s not even get started on the modern history of the vampire love triangle), with a number of academic works uncovering the implications of this in psychoanalytic terms. Reading Caruth’s mention of trauma as accident, however, caused me to contemplate one of the works that I find myself continually revisiting over the years: David Cronenberg’s Crash. (Note: If you are not familiar with the movie, you may want to check out the Wikipedia page before watching the trailer—my undergraduate training was as a Pre-Med Biology major and I study horror in my current work so I fully recognize that my threshold may be far off the norm.)
The film (and the book that it is based upon) speaks to a point made by Caruth in the final section of the introduction:
“It is possible, of course, to understand that other voice, the voice of Clorinda, within the parable of the example, to represent the other within the self that retains the memory of the “unwitting” traumatic events of one’s past. But we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound. (8)”
I fully admit that Caruth means something slightly different in her passage but I think that there is something worth considering here with regard to trauma: what does it mean that we can be divorced from ourselves and our world by trauma yet connected to others through trauma? Is this form of connection possible only because we seek to redress a deficit of some sort?
But there is also something fascinating to me about this intense desire to relive the trauma (in this case a literal accident) over and over in a way that does not necessarily speak to any sort of desire to “get over it” as one might expect from treatment of PTSD or in aversion therapy. There is something powerful, I think, in attempting to understand the mentality of those who do not relive trauma in order to escape it but instead have come to feel that the moment just prior to their death is precisely the moment in which they feel most alive. To be traumatized, then, is not to be subject to an ongoing process of everyday nightmares but to suffer the indignity of life’s ceaseless banality. Continuing this thought, we have seen over the course of the semester that the despondence and disconnection that potentially results from close contact with death can take on many forms and that the issue continues to pervade our current culture, if Buffy Summers (taking a cue from Doc Hata) is any example:
The notion of the voice and speech is interesting to me here because, like in all good musicals, Buffy sings only what she cannot say. In the end, perhaps this insistent desire to relive trauma is not about any sort of masochistic drive—assuming that most of us do not like to suffer per se—but rather an attempt to glimpse the knowledge that lies beyond the shock and the numbness: to do it once more, with feeling.
It’s no secret that America’s Next Top Model is, in large part, about Tyra Banks: from her desire to serve as council to young girls experiencing a form of heightened reality to the frequent intrusion of personal projects (e.g., Tyra as photographer, Tyra as singer, Tyra’s epiphany about homelessness, etc.), Tyra’s presence is felt throughout the show. In the most recent cycle, Tyra asked a crop of competing all-stars to shoot a video for her latest project, Modelland.
Ostensibly aimed at a generation of girls plagued by doubts about themselves and their bodies, Modelland fits firmly within Tyra Banks’ stated intention of challenging the dominant notions of beauty.
Although the book’s main character Tookie, like the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, is undoubtedly altered for the better by her brush with “real” models, transformative agency—the power to change—continues to be located in an outside institution. We do a disservice to our populations of interest by focusing solely on the gains made and foregoing the process by which this makeover occurs; we nobly envision the “what” but entirely forget about the “how.” Moreover, despite the potential feeling of empowerment experienced by the young women under Tyra’s eye on America’s Next Top Model, the fact remains that actual power is controlled and conferred by a system that is far beyond their current demonstrated scope. Those who appear on America’s Next Top Model may hold a fleeting interest for fashion and introducing alternative body shapes to the mass audience is certainly part of the process, but we must also ask ourselves the extent to which these efforts challenge viewers, industry, and culture to meaningfully redefine the conceptualization of beautiful. What Tyra hopes for is a consideration of aesthetics, economic forces, and values regarding women’s bodies but her efforts demonstrate a clear inability to actually engage us in such an endeavor.
 The choice of words here is deliberate as the “makeover” is a prominent feature of every cycle.
My provocation is this: utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.
The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag: Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:
“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”
Without pausing she fires back:
“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”
I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast: youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.
Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:
There is another sky
Ever serene and fair
And there is another sunshine
Though it be darkness there
Never mind faded forests, Austin
Never mind silent fields
Here is a little forest
Whose leaf is evergreen
Here is a brighter garden
Where not a frost has been
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum
Prithee, my brother
Into my garden come!
All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.
But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.
And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.
The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone: utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.
Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.
Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.
Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.
I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.
So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?
For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.
Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.
But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.
I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.
In short, a utopia.
What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.
I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.
We’d never know how high we are
Until we’re called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies
Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.
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.