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.)
Thomas Fahy, Ed. The Philosophy of Horror. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.259 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-8131-2573-2. $39.95.
The Philosophy of Horror, a collection of essays edited by Thomas Fahy, belongs to a series of volumes called The Philosophy of Popular Culture. The classification is important here as books in the series are targeted toward a general audience and endeavor to introduce traditional philosophical concepts through examples in popular culture. In addition to an introduction by the editor, The Philosophy of Horror contains fourteen chapters that are largely (with two exceptions) grounded in particular media artifacts that span television, film, and print. Mostly based in traditional conceptualizations of the horror genre, the volume also notably includes media that might be classified as “thrillers” (e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume), a move that acts to expand the definition of horror beyond a genre in order to encompass an emotional state or a type of relationship between audience and artifact.
Indeed, editor Thomas Fahy creates this framework through his introduction wherein a story about skydiving allows him to describe the emotive experience of interacting with a piece of horror fiction. Referencing the book’s namesake, Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Fahy notes that, at its core, horror presents a paradox: twin forces of attraction and repulsion, fear and relief, or suffering and justice appear as consistent themes throughout the works that are described with the label of horror. As any scholar of horror will well note, although the setting may appear fantastical, the central issues in any piece of horror are grounded in the human experience. To this end, Fahy notes that the following key philosophical concepts are evidenced throughout the book: morality, identity, cultural history, and aesthetics.
Taking the broadest view of horror, the book’s first two chapters—Philip J. Nickel’s “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds” and Philip Tallon’s “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection”—each attempt to discern and elucidate the function of horror. Ultimately, both essays reflect upon horror’s ability to explore the fundamental human sense of vulnerability and fragility; in one respect, this sense of insecurity certainly relates to the perennial issue of mortality that pervades most horror but also to the larger philosophical question of morality for horror also forces the question of who gets to live and why. Importantly, however, both authors move past the susceptibility of the human body in order to discuss a wider range of vulnerabilities: in the tradition of the postmodern, absolutes are questioned and assumptions are questioned in ways that ultimately lead individuals to become introspective as they examine their own preconceptions regarding how the world works and which moral positions are justified.
In addition, however, the kind of questioning suggested by the book’s first two essays naturally sets the stage for an examination of identity; the process whereby one deconstructs one’s value system almost necessarily involves a period of reflection on who one is to begin with. Dealing with the theme of identity most directly, Amy Kind’s “The Vampire with a Soul: Angel and the Quest for Identity” thinks through the implications and responsibilities of having a soul. The key contribution Kind puts forth is to divorce the possession of a soul from notions of personhood, instead pondering the way in which a soul makes one an individual. For us as humans, this distinction makes little sense but the realm of the fantastic offers a great space for us to consider how alternate beings (in this case demons, but we might also include androids) do not necessarily become “human,” but can in fact become individuated.
Moreover, just as Kind’s essay speaks to a need to reevaluate the world and our preconceptions of it, Jessica O’Hara’s “Making Their Presence Known: TV’s Ghost-Hunter Phenomenon in a ‘Post-’World” uses the trope of paranormal investigation television to think through ways in which the world around us is perceived and how those insights are examined. O’Hara’s work also bridges the gap between identity and cultural history for it, on one level, necessarily juxtaposes the present with the past; one way in which to read the popularity of shows about ghosts is to consider that they may speak to the cultural renegotiation between private and public space in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although one might make an argument that these ghost shows more prominently feature domestic spaces and therefore privilege the private sphere, a stronger position might suggest that, at their core, ghost stories also speak to the most grievous defilement of privacy and security: the home invasion.
This theme of unease with the domestic space is also echoed in John Lutz’s “From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History,” which looks at subjugation in The Shining on three levels: domestic, colonialism, and commodification. Much more than a clichéd “things are not what they seem” The Shining ruminates on abuse(s) in various settings and the way in which these themes are circulated throughout our identity as Americans. Unlike the narratives of the ghost hunters, cultural black marks like slavery, internment, and colonization evidence a need for resolution that allows us to appropriately repent and then move forward as we wash our hands of responsibility regarding the violation.
And violation, it would seem, is also a core component of Jeremy Morris’ “The Justification of Torture-Horror: Retribution and Sadism in Saw, Hostel¸ and The Devil’s Rejects” and Fahy’s “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” The films of the torture-horror genre—specifically, here, those that have been released in the mid-2000’s and have been wryly labeled “torture porn” for their graphic and voyeuristic elements—obviously and overtly speak to a type of violation of the body that clearly aligns with a desecration of the self and, resultantly, one’s identity. Returning to the ever-present paradox in horror, Morris looks at the unstable definitions of torturer and tortured and questions how we, to a degree, participate in both roles. Moreover, we once again witness the familiar themes of powerlessness and agency that appear in O’Hara’s essay on ghost hunting while also transforming these issues into something more visceral and personal. Films like Saw and Hostel not only cause us to contemplate the unpleasantness of having torture visited upon ourselves but also ways in which we are complicit in torture or, as an extreme, might participate in the torture of others in order to preserve our own safety. Along with Fahy’s essay on Capote’s In Cold Blood, Morris asks us to think past “senseless” violence in order to consider the unsettling realization that we are all harboring secret monsters and capable of untold brutality if pressured.
In a way, Fahy’s essay works to transition between Morris and Lorena Russell’s “Ideological Formations of the Nuclear Family in The Hills Have Eyes” as it continues to ruminate on the capacity for violence even as it gestures beyond violation of the person toward a transgression of interpersonal structures. In the case of Fahy and Capote, we are witness to the aftermath that permeates a small town in the wake of a vicious murder while Russell chooses to examine the way in which The Hills Have Eyes comments on the breakdown of the nuclear family. Centering her arguments in the ideology of the family, Russell presents a series of arguments about the family that continue to resonate today; in particular, one of the strongest points that Russell makes is to consider how the original film and its remake speak to the growing divide between urban and rural sensibilities (here it should be noted that the horror films of the 1970s often spoke to this disjuncture, although such critique was not usually tied so closely to family structures). Like with most films in the genre, the real horror is realizing that the term “monster” is relative and that we are all monsters in a given light; moreover, the danger presented by those who are like us is often the more hazardous as it represents the threat that we never see coming.
Shifting away from identity and toward cultural history, we also have John Lutz’ “Zombies of the World, Unite: Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead,” and Paul A. Cantor’s “The Fall of the House of Ulmer: Europe vs. America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat.” Although well argued, Lutz’ essay adds the least to the its respective field of study as it retreads upon the position that zombies can be read as critiques on class and race in America. Cantor’s essay, on the other hand, provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the essays in the book as it uses The Black Cat to think through foreign perceptions of America in the post-World War I period.
This element of critical commentary focuses on the aesthetic in the final essays of the book—Susann Cokal’s “’Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear’: Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Tranformation in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,” Robert F. Gross’ “Shock Value: A Deleuzean Encounter with James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms,” Ann C. Hall’s “Making Monsters: The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein,” and David MacGregor Johnston’s “Kitch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night; or Sontag and Adorno at the (Horror) Movies”—and resembles more traditional forms of film analysis. Of the four, Johnston and Gross’ essays are the most enlightening, although the latter may well represent the most challenging piece to read in the entire book.
With its range in topics and perspectives, The Philosophy of Horror is a good choice for those who are fans of horror or who are looking to situate themselves within the field of study. The essays in this volume may very well spark a reader’s interest and introduce new arguments but will also undoubtedly leave them reaching for a more substantive volume on their subject of inquiry.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies how the definition of “the body” is being contested in American culture. Particularly interested in the confluence of horror, religion, gender, and youth, Chris is currently working on projects that explore the ways in which children are configured in the shadow of apocalypse, catastrophe, and trauma.
It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated.  In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?
Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?” Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.
If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.
And dignity plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”
Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.
However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.
Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.
 Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.
 This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.
 A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.
Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.
Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.
Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.
Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.
de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.
Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.
Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.
Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.
Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.
Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.
Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.
Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.
Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.
Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.
Despite not being an avid fan of Science Fiction when I was younger (unless you count random viewings of Star Trek reruns), I engaged in a thorough study of scientific literature in the course of pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences. Instead of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I read books about the discovery of the cell and of cloning; instead of Jules Verne’s literary journeys, I followed the real-life treks of Albert Schweitzer. I studied Biology and was proud of it! I was smart and cool (as much as a high school student can be) for although I loved Science, I never would have identified as a Sci-Fi nerd.
But, looking back, I begin to wonder.
For those who have never had the distinct pleasure of studying Biology (or who have pushed the memory far into the recesses of their minds), let me offer a brief taste via this diagram of the Krebs Cycle:
Admittedly, not overly complicated (but certainly a lot for my high school mind to understand), I found myself making up a story of sorts in order to remember the steps. The details are fuzzy, but I seem to recall some sort of bus with passengers getting on and off as the vehicle made a circuit and ended up back at a station. I will be the first to admit that this particular tale wasn’t overly sophisticated or spectacular, but, when you think about it, wasn’t it a form of science fiction? So my story didn’t feature futuristic cars, robots, aliens, or rockets—but, at its core, it represented a narrative that helped me to make sense of my world, reconciling the language of science with my everyday vernacular. At the very least, it was a fiction about science fact.
And, ultimately, isn’t this what Science Fiction is all about (at least in part)? We can have discussions about hard vs. soft or realistic vs. imaginary, but, for me, the genre has always been about people’s connection to concepts in science and their resulting relationships with each other. Narrative allows us to explore ethical, moral, and technological issues in science that scientists themselves might not even think about. We respond to innovations with a mixture of anxiety, hope, and curiosity and the stories that we tell often reveal that we are capable of experiencing all three emotional states simultaneously! For those of us who do not know jargon, Science Fiction allows us to respond to the field on our terms as we simply try to make sense of it all. Moreover, because of its status as genre, Science Fiction also affords us the ability to touch upon deeply ingrained issues in a non-threatening manner: as was mentioned in our first class with respect to humor, our attention is so focused on tech that we “forget” that we are actually talking about things of serious import. From Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, the Golem, Faust, Francis Bacon, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (among many others), we have continued to struggle with our relationship to Nature and God (and, for that matter, what are Noah and Babel about if not technology!) all while using Science Fiction as a conduit. Through Sci-Fi we not only concern ourselves with issues of technology but also juggle concepts of creation/eschatology, autonomy, agency, free will, family, and society.
It would make sense, then, that modern science fiction seemed to rise concurrent with post-Industrial Revolution advancements as the public was presented with a whole host of new opportunities and challenges. Taken this way, Science Fiction has always been about the people—call it low culture if you must—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.