What else is speculative fiction other than a bagful of nickels?
This image, from Dexter Palmer’s book, has long haunted me since I first encountered it. Hope, possibility, dreams unrealized—the nickels manifest an interesting relationship between Harold and technology that extended far beyond the original creator’s intention. And, in a way, isn’t this what steampunk and science fiction are all about? It is what is represented by the nickels rather than the nickels themselves that are important and we might even turn to Saussure’s semiotic labels of objects, signified, sign as we realize that there also exists a tension because the only way to manifest the dreams is to spend the nickel—what is the balance between dreams realized and the pull of dreams left to dream?
Ultimately, however, we must also ask ourselves just how “punk” is steampunk? If the term endeavors to draw upon the Western history of punks from the 1970s, it must then speak to a form of subversion or resistance against the dominant culture of the time. Although one might argue that the aesthetic of steampunk along with an emphasis on construction or reappropriation of machines certainly represents a challenge to the status quo, the centrality of technology in the lives of steampunks certainly seems to remain aligned with current views. Technology looks different, but does it function in a fundamentally different way?
Although a casual fan of the culture, I also continue to wonder about just how deep this love of Victorian-era ideals go. Perhaps I am just sensitized to the resurgence of Gothic (e.g., horror, gothic Lolita, etc.) and Victorian because of my research interests? I find myself struggling with the grand visions put forth in steampunk (not unlike other forms of technological utopia we have encountered previously in the course) as erasing the very real struggles that surrounded the appearance of steam-powered technology in the 19th century. In addition to the pollution and physical hazards mentioned in Rebecca Onion’s piece, I also think about how the new machine culture affected workers’ health. But even beyond the scope of the machine and the factory, steampunk seems to pluck out fetishized elements of clockwork while leaving the very real (at the time) menaces of disease, improper sanitation, and corpse stealing that were intertwined with developing technology in the Victorian age.
But then again, perhaps I am reading this all wrong. Does steampunk speak to a deep cultural need for us to strip away the layers of shine and sheen that surround modern implementations of technology? To see the gears and pistons is to see behind the curtain and experience a different type of technological wonder all together. Is there a sort of excitement that comes from knowing that gadgets might not work? And, as mentioned earlier, surely the culture of production that pervades the experience of being steampunk speaks to an increasingly diminished notion of the average person as tinkerer.
But what is reality television? Although the genre seems to defy firm definitions, we, like Justice Stewart, instinctually “know it when [we] see it.” The truth is that reality television spans a range of programming, from clip shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, to do-it-yourself offerings on The Food Network, investigative reporting on newsmagazines like 60 Minutes, the docu-soap Cops, and many other sub-genres in between, including the reality survival competition that forms the basis for The Hunger Games. Although a complete dissection of the genre is beyond the scope of this chapter—indeed, entire books have been written on the subject—reality television and its implications will serve as a lens by which we can begin to understand how Katniss experiences the profound effects of image, celebrity, and authenticity throughout The Hunger Games.
She Hits Everyone in the Eye
For the residents of Panem, reality television is not just entertainment—it is a pervasive cultural entity that has become inseparable from citizens’ personal identity. Although fans of The Hunger Games can likely cite overt allusions to reality television throughout the series, the genre also invokes a cultural history rife with unease regarding the mediated image in the United States.
Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have a hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation. Boorstin argued that although the mass reproduction of images might provide increased levels of access for the public, the individual significance of the images declined as a result of their replication; as the number of images increased, the importance they derived from their connection to the original subject became more diffuse. And, once divorced from their original context, the images became free to take on a meaning all their own. Employing the term “pseudo-event” to describe an aspect of this relationship, Boorstin endeavored to illuminate shifting cultural norms that had increasingly come to consider the representation of an event more significant than the event itself.
Katniss unwittingly touches upon Boorstin’s point early inThe Hunger Games, noting that the Games exert their control by forcing Tributes from the various districts to kill another while the rest of Panem looks on. Katniss’ assertion hints that The Hunger Games hold power primarily because they are watched, voluntarily or otherwise; in a way, without a public to witness the slaughter, none of the events in the Arena matter. Yet, what Katniss unsurprisingly fails to remark upon given the seemingly ever-present nature of media in Panem is that the events of The Hunger Games are largely experienced through a screen; although individuals may witness the Reaping or the Tribute’s parade in person, the majority of their experiences result from watching the Capitol’s transmissions. Without the reach of a broadcast medium like television (or, in modern culture, streaming Internet video), the ability of The Hunger Games to effect subjugation would be limited in scope, for although the Games’ influence would surely be felt by those who witnessed such an event in person, the intended impact would rapidly decline as it radiated outward. Furthermore, by formulating common referents, a medium like television facilitates the development of a mass culture, which, in the most pessimistic conceptualizations, represents a passive audience ripe for manipulation. For cultural critics of the Frankfurt School (1923-1950s), who were still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed. Although the exact nature of modern audiences is up for debate, with scholars increasingly championing viewers’ active participation with media, Panem has seemingly realized a deep-seeded fear of the Frankfurt School. It would appear, then, that The Hunger Games function as an oppressive force precisely because of its status as a mediated spectacle of suffering.
But perhaps we should not be so hard on Katniss. Growing up in an environment that necessitated the cultivation of skills like hunting and foraging, Katniss’ initial perspective is firmly grounded in a world based on truth. Plants, for example, must be checked (and double-checked!) to ensure their genuineness, lest a false bite result in death. In order for Katniss to survive, not only must she be able to identify plants but must also trust in their authenticity; prior to her experience in the Arena, Katniss undoubtedly understands the world in rather literal terms, primarily concerned with objects’ functional or transactional value. However, as hinted by Boorstin, additional layers of meaning exist beyond an item’s utility—layers that Katniss has not yet been trained to see.
Echoing portions of Boorstin’s previous work, 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 herein, we can momentarily consider how Baudrillard’s value categories of “functional” and “transactional” might align with Boorstin’s previously introduced concept of the “real,” while “symbolic” and “sign” evidence an affinity toward “representation.” Whereas the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness, the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Accordingly, being relatively weak in her comprehension of representation’s nuances, Katniss characteristically makes little comment on Madge’s gift of a mockingjay pin. However, unbeknownst to Katniss (and most likely Madge herself), Madge has introduced one of the story’s first symbols, in the process imbuing the pin with an additional layer of meaning. Not just symbolic in a literary sense, the mockingjay pin gains significance because it is attached to Katniss, an association that will later bear fruit as fans well know.
Before moving on, let’s revisit the import of The Hunger Games in light of Baudrillard: what is the value of the Games? Although some might rightly argue that The Hunger Games perform a function for President Snow and the rest of the Capitol, this is not the same as saying the Games hold functional value in the framework outlined by Baudrillard. The deaths of the Tributes, while undeniably tragic, do not in and of themselves fully account for The Hunger Games’ locus of control. In order to supplement Boorstin’s explanation of how The Hunger Games act to repress the populace with the why, Baudrillard might point to the web of associations that stem from the event itself: in many ways, the lives and identities of Panem’s residents are defined in terms of a relationship with The Hunger Games, meaning that the Games possess an enormous amount of value as a sign. The residents of the Capitol, for example, evidence a fundamentally different association with The Hunger Games, viewing it as a form of entertainment or sport, while the denizens of the Districts perceive the event as a grim reminder of a failed rebellion. Holding a superficial understanding of The Hunger Games’ true import when we first meet her, Katniss could not possibly comprehend that her destiny is to become a symbol, for the nascent Katniss clearly does not deal in representations or images. Katniss, at this stage in her development, could not be the famed reality show starlet known as the “girl on fire” even if she wanted to.
By All Accounts, Unforgettable
Returning briefly to reality television, we see that Panem, like modern America, finds itself inundated with the genre, whose pervasive tropes, defined character (stereo)types, and ubiquitous catchphrases have indelibly affected us as we subtly react to what we see on screen. Although we might voice moral outrage at offerings like The Jersey Shore or decry the spate of shows glamorizing teen pregnancy, perhaps our most significant response to unscripted popular entertainment is a fundamental shift in our conceptualization of fame and celebrity. Advancing a premise that promotes the ravenous consumption of otherwise non-descript “real” people by a seemingly insatiable audience, reality television forwards the position that anyone—including us!—can gain renown if we merely manage to get in front of a camera. Although the hopeful might understand this change in celebrity as democratizing, the cynic might also argue that fame’s newfound accessibility also indicates its relative worthlessness in the modern age; individuals today can, as the saying goes, simply be famous for being famous.
Encapsulated by Mark Rowlands’ term “vfame,” the relative ease of an unmerited rise in reputation indicates how fame in the current cultural climate has largely divorced from its original association with distinguished achievement. Although traditional vestiges of fame have not necessarily disappeared, it would appear that vfame has become a prominent force in American culture—something Katniss surely would not agree with. Recalling, in part, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on nihilism, vfame’s appearance stems from an inability of people to distinguish quality (or perhaps lack of concern in doing so), resulting in all things being equally valuable and hence equally unimportant. This, in rather negative terms, is the price that we pay for the democratization of celebrity: fame—or, more accurately, vfame—is uniformly available to all in a manner that mirrors a function of religion and yet promises a rather empty sort of transcendence. Although alluring, vfame is rather unstable as it is tied to notions of novelty and sensation as opposed to fame, which is grounded by its association with real talent or achievement; individuals who achieve vfame typically cannot affect the longevity of their success in substantial terms as they were not instrumental in its creation to begin with. Stars in the current age, as it were, are not born so much as made. Moreover, the inability of the public to distinguish quality leads us to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences; although vfame and its associated lapse in thinking might be most obvious in the realm of celebrities, it also manifests in other institutions such as politics. As a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.
Born out of an early to mid-20th century society in which the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America, concepts like vfame built upon an engrained cultural history of the United States that was firmly steeped in a Puritan work ethic. Americans, who had honored heroes exemplifying ideals associated with a culture of production, were struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment now focused on consumption. Although Katniss, as proxy for modern audiences, might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today: in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status. To this day, our relationship with celebrities is a tenuous and complex one at best, for although we celebrate the achievements of some, we continue to flock to the spectacle created by the public meltdown of others, unable or unwilling to help; we vacillate between positions of adulation, envy, contempt, and pity, ever poised for incensement but all too willing to forgive.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reality television puts us a little on edge, as the genre represents a fundamental blurring of fact and fiction. Celebrities, we see, are just like us—just like our neighbors, who, through the magic of reality television, can become stars! Ever-shifting classifications leave us on unstable ground. But also consider the aforementioned philosophy of Boorstin: stars are, among other things, individuals whose images are important enough to be reproduced, which causes “celebrity” to transition from a type of person to a description of how someone is represented in society. In other words, we witness a shift from a term that labels who someone is to a term that designates who someone seems to be. Celebrities, it might be argued, derive at least a portion of their power in modern culture because they embody a collection of images that has been imbued with some sort of significance. Ultimately, it seems that much of our unease with celebrity and fame centers on notions of authenticity.
All I Can Think of Are Hidden Things
Long before Katniss ever becomes a celebrity herself, she exhibits disdain for the Capitol and its residents, evidencing a particularly adverse reaction to things she considers artificial. As previously discussed, authenticity played a particular role in Katniss’ growth and her ability to survive: for Katniss, a false image literally represented an affront on the level of life or death, for a lapse in judgment could have resulted in possible electrocution or poisoning. Concordantly, Katniss dismisses the strange colors of the Capital along with the characteristic features of its citizens—stylists, in particular, are purported to be grotesque—because she is not readily able to reconcile these visuals with her established worldview. As Katniss operates on a literal level, directly associating identity with appearance, the self can only present in one way (in this case, relatively unadorned) and maintain its authenticity.
Like Katniss, we too may be tempted to summarily reject the unfamiliar; our modern anxieties might best be encapsulated by the question: What to do with a problem like Lady Gaga? Perhaps the strongest contemporary mass image that mirrors the visual impact of the stylists on Katniss (followed closely by New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein), Lady Gaga suffers continual criticism for her over-the-top theatrical presentations. With dresses made from meat and Hello Kitty heads, it is all too easy to write Lady Gaga as “attention-starved,” simplifying her presence to the succinct “weird.” Yet, it seems rash to write off Lady Gaga and the world of fame as nothing more than frivolity and fluff, for pop culture is only as vapid as our disinclination to engage in it.
Consider, for example, how the Capitol and its residents (of whom a prominent one would undoubtedly be Lady Gaga) embody the spirit of Decadence, a particularly prominent theme in Victorian culture. A reaction to the 19th century movement of Romanticism, Decadence championed concepts like artifice, which served to demonstrate man’s ability to rebel against, and possibly tame, the natural order. Although this inclination toward the unnatural manifested in myriad ways, French poet and philosopher Chrarles Baudelaire viewed women’s use of cosmetics as a particular site of interest, for proper application did not just enhance a woman’s beauty but acted to transform her, allowing transcendence through artifice.
With this in mind, we begin to understand the innate control wielded by figures such as Cinna and Caesar Flickman. Perceived as facile by some, these two men represent a class of individuals adept at understanding the power inherent in fame, reputation, celebrity, and appearance; in the Capitol, image mongers such as these hold sway. Although one reading of these characters plants them firmly in the realm of artifice, painting them as masters of emotional manipulation and spectacle, an alternate view might consider how these two have come to recognize a shift toward a new localized reality—one that Katniss must adapt to or perish.
And yet, despite their commonality, these two individuals also underscore fundamentally different approaches to image: Caesar (and, perhaps, by extension, the Capitol) wields his power in order to mask or redirect while Cinna endeavors to showcase a deep-seeded quality through the management of reputation and representation. Coexisting simultaneously, these two properties of illusion mirror the complimentary natures of Peeta and Katniss with regard to image. Peeta, skilled in physical camouflage, exhibits an emotional candidness that Katniss is initially unready, or unwilling, to match; Katniss, very much the inverse of Peeta, is characterized by traits associated with hunting, finding, and sight in the “real” world all while maintaining a level of emotive subterfuge. Over the course of the 74th Hunger Games, however, Katniss quickly learns to anticipate how her actions in the Arena will affect her representation and reputation beyond the battlefield. With the help of Haymitch, Katniss begins to better understand the link between a robust virtual self and a healthy physical one as she pauses for the cameras and plays up her affection for Peeta in exchange for much-needed rewards of food and medicine. As she matures, Katniss comes into alignment with Cinna and Caesar, individuals who, despite being participatory members of a system arguably deemed inauthentic, distinguish themselves from the majority of Panem by understanding how image works; Cinna and Caesar (and later Katniss) are not just powerful, but empowered and autonomous.
Herein lies the true import of Collins’ choice to weave the trope of reality television into the fabric of The Hunger Games: throughout the trilogy, the audience is continually called upon to question the nature of authenticity as it presents in the context of a media ecology. Ultimately, the question is not whether Katniss (or anyone else) maintains a sense of authenticity by participating in the games of the Capitol—trading a true self for a performed self—but rather an askance of how we might effect multiple presentations of self without being inauthentic. How does Katniss, in her quest to survive, embody Erving Goffman’s claims that we are constantly performing, altering our presentation as we attempt to cater to different audiences? Is Katniss truly being inauthentic or does she ask us to redefine the concept of authenticity and its evaluation? Struggling with these very questions, users of social media today constantly juggle notions of authenticity and self-presentation with platforms like Facebook and Twitter forming asynchronous time streams that seamlessly coexist alongside our real-life personas. Which one of these selves, if any, is authentic? Like Katniss, we are born into the world of the “real” without a ready ability to conceptualize the power latent in the virtual, consequentially resenting what we do not understand.