Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Technology

She’s Not There?

Her

 

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.


Bring Me to Life

Cyborg

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.


Like So Much Processed Meat

“The hacker mystique posits power through anonymity. One does not log on to the system through authorized paths of entry; one sneaks in, dropping through trap doors in the security program, hiding one’s tracks, immune to the audit trails that we put there to make the perceiver part of the data perceived. It is a dream of recovering power and wholeness by seeing wonders and not by being seen.”

—Pam Rosenthal

 In Pieces

Flesh Made Data:  Part I

This quote, which comes from a chapter in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Control and Freedom on the Orientalization of cyberspace, gestures toward the values embedded in the Internet as a construct. Reading this quote, I found myself wondering about the ways in which identity, users, and the Internet intersect in the present age. Although we certainly witness remnants of the hacker/cyberpunk ethic in movements like Anonymous, it would seem that many Americans exist in a curious tension that exists between the competing impulses for privacy and visibility.

Looking deeper, however, there seems to be an extension of cyberpunk’s ethic, rather than an outright refusal or reversal:  if cyberpunk viewed the body as nothing more than a meat sac and something to be shed as one uploaded to the Net, the modern American seems, in some ways, hyper aware of the body’s ability to interface with the cloud in the pursuit of peak efficiency. Perhaps the product of a self-help culture that has incorporated the technology at hand, we are now able to track our calories, sleep patterns, medical records, and moods through wearable devices like Jawbone’s UP but all of this begs the question of whether we are controlling our data or our data is controlling us. Companies like Quantified Self promise to help consumers “know themselves through numbers,” but I am not entirely convinced. Aren’t we just learning to surveil ourselves without understanding the overarching values that guide/manage our gaze?

Returning back to Rosenthal’s quote, there is a rather interesting way in which the hacker ethic has become perverted (in my opinion) as the “dream of recovering power” is no longer about systemic change but self-transformation; one is no longer humbled by the possibilities of the Internet but instead strives to become a transformed wonder visible for all to see.

 Daniel

Flesh Made Data:  Part II

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica (2011-2012) transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.”[1] But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.

Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex, violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but might represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television, with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.

Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture. If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law”, we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?

Running with this theme, the show’s overarching plot concerns an attempt to achieve apotheosis through the uploading of physical bodies/selves into the virtual world. I found this series particularly interesting to dwell on because here again we had something that recalls the cyberpunk notion of transcendence through data but, at the same time, the show asked readers to consider why a virtual paradise was more desirous than one constructed in the real world. Put another way, the show forces the question, “To what extent do hacker ethics hold true in the  physical world?”


[1] Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist.


Until It’s Vegas Everywhere We Are

Olds and Milner RatIn 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.

Click BaitThe 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

Chris Tokuhama


[1] 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.

[2] 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.”

[3] 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.


Communicating Interest and the Interest of Communication

In “That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” Murray Davis outlines a number of variations on a single theme:  the reversal of established expectations constitutes the basis for an “interesting” finding. Although Davis adequately details of why a particular publication or study may hold interest for an audience, we must be careful not to equate interest with value (or, as Davis notes, with accuracy).

Additionally, we might note how Davis’ construction of binaries may struggle to find resonance is a post-modern world. While the core of Davis’ argument may continue to hold true, the language may benefit from a slight alteration:  instead of “X” versus “non-X” we may consider how interesting studies may contrast “always X” and “not always X.” For example, we might point to interesting developments in audience studies that argue against the passive nature of consumers. Although we see the emergence of agency and active audience, this phenomenon exists alongside passive viewing suggesting that our dominant assumptions about the audience need to be refined but also that an either/or binary must give way to a model that incorporates a both/and stance.

However, regardless of minor issues, we can apply Davis’ notion to a host of current theories in order to assess the relative level of interest that they may hold. Media theories, for example, may be considered “interesting” as they often unpack and denaturalize adopted or learned practices. The great potential for theories of mass media or media and culture to be considered “interesting” lies in their ability to challenge the simplicity of the everyday (e.g., watching television, reading a newspaper, or browsing the Internet), arguing that media is both impacted and consumed in incredibly complex ecologies. For example, we readily see that theory like that of the knowledge gap lends itself to the conclusion that the same media artifact can hold vastly different amounts of information for various populations (with extensions of this to media literacy) and, from there, it is a short leap to the notion that various groups may respond to, or be affected by, media in different manners.

The realm of media also invokes questions about the ways in which communication is affected by information and communication technology. Ranging from issues of presence to uses and gratifications and computer mediated communication, this cluster of theories attempts to investigate the ways in which communication aided by technology may in fact be a more complex process than originally thought. Put another way, these theories question the assumptions made around the design and use of communication technologies challenging the notion that the protocols surrounding technology adoption and implementation are in any way natural.

Similar to media, of which the average person typically has an intuitive or common sense understanding, we can consider how theories of persuasion and advertising may be deemed “interesting” as they cause us to reconsider something that we rarely contemplate because it is ever-present and, on some level, simply assumed to be part of life. Alternatively, we see that persuasion theory can also be interesting as it deflates the sensationalism of catch phrases like “subliminal advertising” and explores how the process of priming actually works. This field has also seen a minor resurgence after the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with regard to the process of decision making for we have been exposed to the idea that our choices may not be entirely up to us (and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?).

Ultimately, although we see that Davis provides one method for determining whether a project is “interesting,” we must also remember that not everything that is of interest is also significant. Using novelty as a guide may give us a place to start our investigation but we must also think carefully about the import of the cultural assumptions that surround our questions. As scholars, we must also challenge ourselves and our work to go beyond a threshold of “interesting” and be relevant and meaningful.


Secrets and Li(v)es

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On a Mission?

Consumables are the product of how a culture understands its relationship to the world around it (although it should be noted that they are not the only way) with items following an underlying logic about the way in which the world works and often fulfilling a perceived need for consumers. Manufactured products, then, are not just products but also serve as tangible artifacts of entire ideological structures:  “products” are the result of, and indicative of, a specific type of relationship between consumer and consumable and it is this relationship that speaks to the underlying ideology. Accordantly, it does not seem out of the question to argue that the trade of products also allows for the transmission of values.

Although this process is most likely apparent when trading groups are most dissimilar (e.g., when trade is first established between two communities), we can continue to glimpse aspects of this process occurring in our highly globalized Western societies. On one level, we have products that are closely connected to our understanding of culture that make their values highly visible—fashion, for example, transmits ideas through aesthetic (e.g., color, structure, cut, textile choice, etc.) that reflect how a particular group of people see themselves. Beyond just notions of status or ornamentation, we might also consider how a group’s use of materials like fur or toxic dye also reveal how a culture positions itself relative to other things in the world:  things in the environment are tools or resources to be used in service of humans.

Certainly, cultural products like fashion, film/television, art, music, comics, and literature all contain a fairly visible sensibility that is easier to recognize (if not isolate) and discuss. Take, for example, the highly visible way in which Disneyland/Disneyworld portray a very particular understanding of the world through the ride “It’s a Small World.” Getting past anger that may arise from stereotypes or characterizations, we see that the animatronic dolls depict the world through a set of Western eyes (which, given their locations and likely audience makes a certain amount of sense). But also fascinating is the way in which this ride is reproduced around the world and how those iterations help to reveal the ways in which a product can not only reflect, but produce, ways in which we see ourselves in our surroundings.

Here we can look at how a likely Western family is experiencing China’s take on Disney’s version of countries like China—incredibly rich, to say the least. But we can also think about how theme parks like Disneyland/Disneyworld represent a physical sort of colonization in countries like Japan and France. Colonization, it seems, has become less about invasion and domination through force and more concerned with buying into a particular ideology through consumption; put another way, our missionaries are no longer people but products.

But we can also consider how the development of the Internet has allowed for an incredible flow of information around the world. While there are certainly positive aspects to this development (e.g., the potential for access to information and the creation of different channels for individuals to be heard), we must also grasp with the very real concerns that a free flow of information also creates a competition for survival amongst the ideas of the world. In an ideal world, this sort of competition would be the “survival of the best,” but increasingly it seems as though it is the “survival of the loudest.”

As we discussed last week, English has an incredible influence on the types of articles and information that are published in scientific journals (the influence is less in journals that concern Natural Science but English seems to continue to exert a large presence). Although some of my classmates may be able to speak to this in more nuanced ways, I also wonder about the effect that the dominance of English has on the ways in which we understand the world. I am not fluent in another language but find that when I try to speak in Japanese, I need to think in Japanese and that this causes me to adapt a different set of behaviors and thoughts. If this sort of shift occurs on a larger scale, we then not only have to question the content of the information being circulated around the world but also the form in which it manifests.