WARNING: The following contains images that may be considered graphic in nature. As a former Biology student (and Pre-Med at that!), I have spent a number of hours around bodies and studying anatomy but I realize that this desensitization might not exist for everyone. I watched surgeries while eating dinner in college and study horror films (which I realize is not normal). Please proceed at your own risk.
At first glance, the anatomical model to the left (also known as “The Doll,” “Medical Venus,” or simply “Venus) might seem like nothing more than an inspired illustration from the most well-known text of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. To most modern viewers, the image (and perhaps even the model itself) raise a few eyebrows but is unlikely to elicit a reaction much stronger than that. And why should it? We are a culture that has grown accustomed to watching surgeries on television, witnessed the horrible mutilating effects of war, and even turned death into a spectacle of entertainment. Scores of school children have visited Body Worlds or have been exposed to the Visible Human Project (if you haven’t watched the video, it is well worth the minute). We have also been exposed to a run of “torture porn” movies in the 2000s that included offerings like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity. Although we might engage in a larger discussion about our relationship to the body, it seems evident that we respond to, and use, images of the body quite differently in a modern context. (If there’s any doubt, one only need to look at a flash-based torture game that appeared in 2007, generating much discussion.) Undoubtedly, our relationship to the body has changed over the years—and will likely continue to do so with forays into transhumanism—which makes knowledge of the image’s original context all the more crucial to fully understanding its potential import.
Part of the image’s significance comes from it’s appearance in a culture that generally did not have a sufficient working knowledge of the body by today’s standards, with medical professionals also suffering a shortage of cadavers to study (which in turn led to an interesting panic regarding body snatching and consequentially resulted in a different relationship between people and dead bodies). The anatomical doll pictured above appeared as part of an exhibit in the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (nicknamed La Specola), one of the few natural history museums open to the public at the time. This crucial piece of information allows historical researchers to immediately gain a sense of the model’s importance for, through it, knowledge of the body began to spread throughout the masses and its depiction would forever be inscribed onto visual culture.
Also important, however, is the female nature of the body, which itself reflected a then-fascination with women in Science. Take, for example, the notion that the Venus lay ensconced in a room full of uteruses and we immediately gain more information about the significance of the image above: in rather straightforward terms, the male scientist fascination with the female body and process of reproduction becomes evident. Although a more detailed discussion is warranted, this interest spoke to developments in the Enlightenment that began a systematic study of Nature, wresting way its secrets through the development of empirical modes of inquiry. Women, long aligned with Nature through religion (an additional point to be made here is that in its early incarnations, the clear demarcations between fields that we see today did not exist, meaning that scientists were also philosophers and religious practitioners) were therefore objects to be understood as males sought to once again peer further into the unknown. This understanding of the original image is reinforced when one contrasts it with its male counterparts from the same exhibit, revealing two noticeable differences. First, the female figure possesses skin, hair, and lips, which serve as reminders of the body’s femininity and humanity. Second, the male body remains intact, while the female body has been ruptured/opened to reveal its secrets. The male body, it seems, had nothing to hide. Moreover, the position of the female model is somewhat evocative, with its arched back, pursed lips, and visual similarity to Snow White in her coffin, which undoubtedly speaks to the posing of women’s bodies and how such forms were intended to be consumed.
Thus, the fascination with women’s bodies—and the mystery they conveyed—manifested in the physical placement of the models on display at La Specola, both in terms of distribution and posture. In short, comprehension of the museum’s layout helps one to understand not only the relative significance of the image above, but also speaks more generally to the role that women’s bodies held in 19th-century Italy, with the implications of this positioning resounding throughout Western history. (As a brief side note, this touches upon another area of interest for me with horror films of the 20th century: slasher films veiled an impulse to “know” women, with the phrase “I want to see/feel your insides” being one of my absolute favorites as it spoke to the psychosexual component of serial killers while continuing the trend established above. Additionally, we also witness a rise in movies wherein females give birth to demon spawn (e.g. The Omen), are possessed by male forces (e.g., The Exorcist), and are also shown as objects of inquiry for men who also seek to “know” women through science (e.g., Poltergeist). Recall the interactivity with the Venus and we begin to sense a thematic continuity between the renegotiation of women’s bodies, the manipulation of women’s bodies, and knowledge. For some additional writings on this, La Specola, and the television show Caprica, please refer to a previous entry on my blog.)
This differential treatment of bodies continues to exist today, with the aforementioned Saw providing a pertinent (and graphic) example. Compare the image of a female victim to the right with that of the (male) antagonist Jigsaw below. Although the situational context of these images differ, with the bodies’ death states providing commentary on the respective characters, both bodies are featured with exposed chests in a manner similar to the Venus depicted at the outset of this piece. Extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this writing, but I would like to mention that an interesting—and potentially productive—sort of triangulation occurs when one compares the images of the past/present female figures (the latter of whom is caught in an “angel” trap) with each other and with that of the past/present male figures. Understanding these images as points in a constellation helps one to see interesting themes: for example, as opposed to the 19th-century practice (i.e, past male), the image of Jigsaw (i.e., present male) cut open is intended to humanize the body, suggesting that although he masterminded incredibly detailed traps his body was also fragile and susceptible to breakdown. Jigsaw’s body, then, presents some overlap with Venus (i.e., past female) particularly when one considers that Jigsaw’s body plays host to a wax-covered audiotape—in the modern interpretation, it seems that the male body is also capable of harboring secrets.
Ultimately, a more detailed understanding of the original image would flush out its implications for the public of Italy in the 19th century and also look more broadly at the depictions of women, considering how “invasive practices” were not just limited to surgery. La Specola’s position as a state-sponsored institution also has implications for the socio-historical context for the image that should also be investigated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, scholars should endeavor to understand the Medical Venus as not just reflective of cultural practice but also seek to ascertain how its presence (along with other models and the museum as a whole) provided new opportunities for thought, expression, and cultivation of bodies at the time.
4 out of 5 dentists agree. Or so we’re told. But how often do we stop to question how this data was obtained—just who are these dentists? Although the catchphrase has managed to burrow itself into our collective psyche, the data behind this survey has never been released to the public (not that it really matters anymore, anyway).
I suggest that, above and beyond attributions of authority or group preference, the Trident slogan works because we exist in a society that demands data, equating the presence of scientific inquiry with legitimacy. We have come, since the Enlightenment, to accept Science as the structuring philosophy of our world (perhaps in lieu of Religion) and what else is data but evidence of that process? Although data is itself abstract, it represents something tangible (or at least quantifiable) for opinions were counted, preferences measured, and votes collected. We have become trained to respond to data, unaware of how statistics and “facts” can be manipulated. We have become reliant on data’s ability to simplify our world, unwittingly engaging in a trade-off that ignores nuance in favor of broad strokes; in a world rapidly becoming overwhelmingly complicated, we demand clear and readily apparent answers.
What we do not demand, however, is scientific rigor.
As a public, we do not generally care how data is obtained, only occasionally pausing to note flagrant violations in collection methods (exceptions are of course made for specific lines of inquiry but the broader point here is one of everyday experience). How often, for example, do we take the time to ask how respondents were selected for a candidate popularity survey? What types of questions were asked and what language was used to ask them? Were the questions asked in a particular order? And, again, just who are these people being asked? We not only fail to demand rigor from those who would present data, but also from ourselves as we blithely accept that the graphics on the nightly news broadcast represent “the truth.” Data tells how we are different from others but it is to our detriment that we rarely ask ourselves why.
One consequence of this lack of action is the overwhelming influence of the social sciences on Americans’ thinking (as noted in Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American), with an especially profound impact on the way that we conceptualize ourselves, particularly in relation to others. Once the practice of surveys had been generally accepted, it seemed that most anything could be measured and therefore every aspect of life, identity, and thought had a theoretical mean; the legacy of this new paradigm was (and still is) a perpetual state of unease as self-evaluation through data sets coupled with a mid-century culture already juggling paranoia, neighbors, the suburbs, and conformity.
And surveys, like Alfred Kinsey’s (in)famous investigation, laid bare the most private aspects of our lives even as it refocused our attention on the concept of normalcy—a shift that directed our attention toward commonalities instead of outliers. In retrospect, this change seemed somewhat natural as the intent of the surveys being conducted in the mid-20th century was to establish and define a national identity with the data collected suggesting that an “average American” was indeed a possibility. In other words, our thoughts about who we were (along with who we could/should be) came out of exposure to heretofore unseen aspects of ourselves—moving forward, our theories were shaped by our experiences as we incorporated our knowledge of data into various identities (e.g., personal, community, national).
Experiences, it might be argued, have much to do with the formulations of our theories, as exemplified by the role of the black swan (the animal, although Kinsey would undoubtedly have much to say about the recent Aronofsky offering) in Early Modern Science: once presumed to be a nonexistent creature, discovery of black swans in Australia pointed to the possibility of highly improbable outliers that caused a fundamental rethinking of prior assumptions. Prior to the discovery of black swans, an entire set of assumptions was made by philosophers/scientists grounded in the idea that swans could only ever be white; based on a lifetime of experience, people came to see the world in a particular way, which determined the types of questions the way in which they viewed the world, the types of questions they could ask, and perhaps more importantly, kept them unaware of the types of questions that could not be asked.
Experience, then, can cause investigators to develop a type of confirmation bias as they unconsciously (or consciously!) begin to collect data that confirms preexisting beliefs about how the world operates. Although the scientific method exists to shield us from this type of behavior, experience can be a difficult influence to mitigate as it ingrains in us a particular way of seeing/interacting with the world and constantly challenging stable environmental patterns would cause us much cognitive stress. To take this practice to the extreme would be unfeasible as we would be paralyzed by inaction while we analyzed the veracity of everything around us so instead I suggest that we, as a first (and smaller) step take a page from epistemology and simply begin by training ourselves to ask the question, “How is it that I know what I know?” As responsible scholars we need to be transparent about our theoretical foundations and honest with ourselves as we actively reflect on our process and our results.
I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.
Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.
Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information: religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.
And, in a way, maybe they are.
During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.
So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.
But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community: if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.
So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.
In today’s world, it seems that “secularization” is all too often matched with a sense of loss: whether it be the decline in institutional religion or the dissipation of enchantment, we seem to employ the term in order to forward the idea that we are moving away from something that was once valued. And, to be fair, this is true. The modern age has, since the Enlightenment, been, in fits and starts, shifting away from a life infused with religion. But, I also think that “secularization” can also speak to something larger, and more significant, than that.
Unfortunately, it appears as though “secularization” has become synonymous with Science and been placed in opposition to Religion–atheists rigidly adhere to a rather static ideology that denounces aspects of religion, preferring the explanations proffered by experiments and equations. Yet, are we simply trading one set of dogma for another as we move between extremes? For me, Science works best when it challenges Religion (and vice versa) to keep pace with the developing world. The sense of awe, mystery, and wonder inherent in religion keeps scientists humble and science reminds us that some holy laws must be reconciled with modern culture.
One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor’s A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive — as long as it leaves open a “window on the transcendent.”
The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn’t dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.
The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don’t rely on political endorsement.
We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.
We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era’s emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.
The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.
It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the “historical Jesus” and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.
This so-called “critical method” wasn’t an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.
Seeing the synthesis of these two areas is what makes studying modern religion so fascinating. Despite a formal training in Natural Sciences, I have gradually come to appreciate the power inherent in religion and am quite excited to be in some other great minds at the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion blog.
Flailing, lingering, drifting; in a word: restless. Horror is filled with those who cannot sleep. Ghosts, perhaps our first association, are ultimately the least helpful for they have one thing that all other undead envy: a purpose. Conversely, modern day vampires struggle to reconcile their “true natures,” cyborgs wrestle with post-humanism, and despite zombies’ evident drive, they are still miles away from truly possessing purpose. In their own ways, members of the undead horde toil without rest. Although we continue to tell tales, huddled in the dark, perhaps the decline in ghost stories means that we are no longer haunted by our pasts, instead unsure about our futures.
Narcissistic, apathetic, bored; in a word: restless. Modern youth have increasingly been painted in negative terms, each indicative of declines in the current generation. Yet, instead of castigating youth, how might we use the undead as a lens to sympathize with teenagers’ search for meaning? Both groups exist in worlds that have begun to move away from institutional and overt aspects of religion—how does each endeavor to fill the void? In a post-modern world, where all paths are equal (and hence, equally unhelpful), how do the undead and youth both fight to inscribe meaning through lived religion?