I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.
For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!
Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.
Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize: although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.
Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”
When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.
In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.
The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal utterance that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.
This noise, often accompanied by a stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in horror. Many of my peers, in speaking about their brushes with the genre, mention how media has instilled a perpetual sense of fear in them: to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It or apprehension about blind dates to Audition. Those around me see horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.
To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, told to fear invasion, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Fear has become a modern lingua franca, facilitating discussion that ranges across economic recession, immigration, religion, and moral politics. Perhaps worse, I internalized fear as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores in an unforgiving educational system, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel, I realize that fear continues to have a haunting effect on my life: I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will become frail, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.
And I don’t think I’m alone.
As a genre, horror touches on our collective desire to explore fear along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies as transgressions of the norm or discover exhilaration in horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of violating cultural standards without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath oft-cited morality pleas (“Good girls don’t!”) we negotiate themes of power, gender, and sanctity of life in a rich field ripe for exploration. As one example, torture/survival films, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, potentially facilitate an exploration of humanity at its extremes: both assailant and victim are at limits—albeit very different ones—of the human condition and provide us with a vicarious experience of dominance and helplessness.
Despite my interest in the various mediated manifestations of horror, television holds a special place in my heart as a representation of shared cultural space that serially engages with its audience. Not being an active churchgoer, I find that television is my religion—I set aside time every week and pay rapt attention, in turn receiving moral messages that reflect and challenge my vision of the world. Building off of this connection, I have begun working with Diane Winston in order to understand how lived religion in television programming can convey community, values, rituals, and meaning making in a function analogous to that of institutional religion. Admittedly not a theologian by training, I hope to extract themes from religion (e.g., the enactment of religion through bodies and the alignment of religious belief with practice) that will provide additional perspectives on my central interests of horror, myth, and narrative. I have begun to realize that religion, like horror, prompts individuals to contemplate the mystic and the infinite; although they employ different approaches—religion concerns itself with the path toward while horror obsesses over the inescapable nature of the great abyss—both frameworks ask, “What lies in the void?” Auditing “Religion, Media and Hollywood” has cultivated a solid foundation in the shifting concepts of sacred/secular and re-enchantment, which in turn have provided additional theoretical support for an understanding of how narrative structures are propagated, transmitted, and interpreted by individuals and groups. Prompted by Dr. Winston, I have learned that “good” television has the ability to assume varied meanings for its audiences, providing multiple narratives (and thus entry points), and lends itself to a reworking by viewers whose productions then become a part of a larger cultural context. Through television, I have learned that “my story” is really “our story.” Or, more accurately, “my stories” overlap with “our stories.”
Growing out of a childhood filled with the fantasy of Piers Anthony along with a healthy appreciation for classical mythology (and an unhealthy one for Stephen King), my head became filled with stories of wondrous alternate places. Enraptured as a young teen, it was only later that I began to understand exactly how much these fictions had allowed me to explore alternate expressions of self, causing me, on some level, to consider existential questions like what it meant to be human, how I defined justice and morality, and why I valued life.
In 2004, during a memorable viewing of Saw—which I soon realized was a spectacularly poor choice for a date movie—my head spun as I fought off a surge of terror, contemplating questions I had long avoided: What gave my life meaning? What would I do to survive?
My stomach shrank as I felt something inside of me break. While the gore was not exceptionally appealing (the fear of suffering before dying was firmly placed in my mind after an ill-advised viewing of Misery in my younger days), the sinking feeling that I experienced came from the realization that, if this scenario were real, I would be a target of the Jigsaw killer for I didn’t appreciate my life. Long after the movie had finished, I remained terrified that I would be abducted and end up in a basement chained to a wall. “After all,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I deserve what was coming to me? Just a little bit?”
After a week of sleepless nights, I finally realized that the solution to my problem was actually rather simple: start living my life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling. Instead of being terrified, I chose to work through my fears and be empowered; I challenged myself to start taking risks and to do things that scared me.
A Light in the Dark
My personal history with the genre is part of the reason that I am excited to explore the opportunities present within horror, which spans across such seemingly disparate areas as the occult, Gothic, science fiction, slasher films. The seeds planted by the relatively simple pop culture themes of my childhood have now turned into my academic focuses: aliens have become an interest in exploring the Other, witches have given me insight into alternate forms of female power, Greek myths have caused me to question the presence of gods (or God) in our lives, vampires cause me to consider an obsession with eternal life, and zombies raise notions of decay and paranoia. An interest in horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction has sparked a quest to understand the structuring role of narratives, replete with a questioning of not just how the world is but how the world could be and should be. And the world could be—and should be—better.
In contrast to conventional notions, full of frozen faces and cowering victims, I see the field of horror as an incredible space to explore some of the concepts that most challenge society. While it may be true that storytellers working in the genre aspire to scare us, they do so as a means to a larger goal: fright is used as a provocation that forces us to consider why we are terrified in the first place. Whether we realize it or not, exposure to horror allows us to understand the mechanisms of fear and, in the process, realize that the unknown is becoming the known. Although not necessarily therapeutic, areas like horror can be enlightening and potentially empowering. When we choose to experience a work of horror, we make a concession that the content could (and probably will) frighten us—an acquiescence that gives media the freedom to explore psychically stressful issues. I focus on horror because I am fascinated by the genre’s potential for self-exploration, but I choose to study media and culture because I am more broadly fascinated by the ways that stories intersect with identity: we continually create narratives and are, in turn, shaped by them.
More than a mere research interest, I fight to study mediated narrative and popular culture because I see them as spaces for the negotiation and development of voice for youth. From Buffy in “Hush,” to Disney’s Ariel, to Echo (both the Active and the nymph), the media we experience and love often deals with issues of voice and my hope is to use these mediated representations to begin a dialogue with young people about their voices and the power contained therein. Inspired by scholars such as Carol Clover, Nina Auerbach, Judith Halberstam, and James Twitchell, I endeavor to recast the minority voice, transforming it from one of terror to one of triumph. Realizing that I was lucky enough to have discovered my voice early in life, I am compelled to help others find theirs. From my work with the non-profit 826LA, which helps to build writing skills in youth, to my involvement with the Norman Lear Center, USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, and Asian Pacific American Student Services, I am racing to build my skills in new media literacy and cultural studies so that I can empower young people to think critically about the world around them and to reclaim their voices. Driven by my desire to advocate for youth, I see a responsibility to leverage my education as a Ph.D. student into meaningful change, helping other students understand the impact of popular media and to realize that they can be incredibly powerful if they only let themselves be.