Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Science

Underneath It All

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.

I Know This Much to Be True

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.


Man of Science, Man of Faith

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.

Of Mice and Men

“Lost” is perhaps the best one-word characterization of ABC’s Lost (2005-2010); in varying ways, individuals on the program frequently find themselves physically displaced but also, possibly more significantly, spiritually or psychically fractured. Accordingly, although the healing properties first observed on the island manifest in the form of bodily restoration, the real power of the island lies in its ability to heal wounded souls. Although the effects of the island can be traced along a number of individual characters’ trajectories, John Locke evidences a number of incredibly intuitive arcs, if not the most immediately relatable.[1]

One of the episodes that delves into John’s past, “Deus Ex Machina,” presents Locke’s life prior to his arrival on the island and thusly invites the viewer to puzzle the relationship between the two depictions, particularly as the character explores the role of the potential powers inherent in choice and destiny.  Lost, however, is not a program that lends itself to overly simplistic representations or one-dimensional readings and, as a result, evidences additional meanings when examined through the lens of banal religion (Hjarvard 2008). The opening scene, for example, depicts the game Mousetrap and features Locke explaining the rules of the game to a curious child, including the phrase, “If you set it up just right.” While this bit of dialogue could easily be written off as innocuous, we can think about the relationship of Mousetrap to a larger religious context:  this particular game requires that players follow a precise sequence of predetermined rules and Locke’s statement is indicative of his belief that control and rigid structure are prerequisites for success. Supporting this idea, our reintroduction to Locke’s characters in the “previouslies” comes in the form of him shouting, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” Locke, before the island, is a character who lashes out because he does not yet understand the bigger picture.[2]

Compare this incident of machine building with Locke’s attempts to construct a trebuchet that will break into a mysterious hatch. In some ways, although Locke has now professed a belief in the will of the island, his actions demonstrate a failure to understand that fate cannot be forced; had Locke actually internalized this message, he would most likely not have even attempted a trebuchet in the first place. Although Locke later fully embodies the Man of Faith, we see that he is still growing at this point in the series. Fittingly, the trebuchet not only collapses but also physically injures Locke—the island is taking back the mobility it had bestowed. However, rather than view this as a punitive gesture, we can understand that the island is instead arguably attempting to teach Locke a larger lesson that only beings to manifest at the end of the episode as he struggles to carry Boone back to camp despite his weakened legs:  our limitations can be overcome but we must be willing to exert effort.

[1] Along with Jack, Locke’s actions support the ongoing series conflict between Science and Faith. In “Deus Ex Machina” Jack demonstrates the dominance of Science through his diagnosis of Sawyer’s hyperopic vision (i.e., Science is one path to the truth) and the equation of phantom smells with a brain tumor, which builds upon Emily’s (Locke’s mother) schizophrenic condition and the notion that hallucinations and irrationality are negative qualities. Contrast this subplot with the validation of Locke’s dream and we begin to see the virtually invisible ways that the episode weaves together competing ideologies.

[2] Whether in the form of a mind-control ray, manipulation, enchantment, mesmerism, being a slave to fate, Haitian zombies, possession, or being bound to a wheelchair, we continuously encounter the same themes; the manifestations vary with each telling but they all partially speak to a latent fear of losing our free will and our personal sense of agency. This is, I feel, such an issue for us because we have developed in a society that ascribes to Individualism—there is, in fact, an “us” to lose.