Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Walter Benjamin

Standing on the Edge of the World

Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.

In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.

Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which  also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.

But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.


Focus on the Family

This week, our class continued to explore ideas of gender in the world of Caprica. Focusing primarily on the women, students began to contemplate the ways in which sexuality and gender intersect. Although I study this particular overlap extensively in respect to Horror, our class evidenced some interesting ideas in this arena and I will leave it to them to carry on the discussion.

Before proceeding, I should take a quick second to differentiate the terms “sex” and “gender”:  I use “sex” in reference to a biological classification while I see “gender” as socially constructed. Although patriarchal/heteronormative stances have traditionally aligned the two concepts, positioning them along a static binary, scholarship in fields such as Gender Studies and Sociology has effectively demonstrated that the interaction between sex and gender is much more fluid and dynamic (Rowley, 2007). For example, in our current culture, we have metrosexuals coexisting alongside retrosexuals and movements to redefine female beauty (the Dove “Real Beauty” ads were mentioned in class and their relative merits–or lack thereof—deserve a much deeper treatment than I can provide here).

Although a number of students in our class focused on the sexuality ofAmanda Graystone, Diane Winston poignantly noted that the character of Amanda also invoked the complex web of associations between motherhood, women, and gender. Motherhood, I would argue, plays an important part in the definition of female identity in America; our construction of the “female” continually assigns meaning to women’s lives based on their status as, or desire to be, mothers. (Again, drawing upon my history with gender and violence, I suggest that we can partially understand the pervasive nature of this concept by considering how society variously views murderers, female murderers, and mothers who murder their children.) In line with this idea, we see that almost every female featured in the episode was directly connected to motherhood in some fashion (with Evelyn perhaps being the weakest manifestation, although we know that she has just started down the path that will lead her into becoming the mother of young Willie).

Amanda, the easiest depiction to deconstruct, voices a struggle of modern career women as she feels the pressure to “have it all.” Although Amanda tells Mar-Beth that she suffered from Post-Partum Depression, and explains her general inability to connect with her daughter as a newborn (the ramifications of which we have already seen played out over the course of the series thus far), she later informs Agent Durham that she circumvented Mar-Beth’s suspicions by lying (we assume that she was referring to the aforementioned interaction, but this is not specified). For me, this moment was significant in that it made Amanda instantly more relatable—something that I have struggled with for a while now—as a woman who may have, in fact, tried desperately to connect with her daughter but simply could not.

Both Daniel and Amanda, it seems, had trouble fully understanding their daughter Zoe. While Amanda’s struggles play out on an emotional level, Daniel labors to decipher the secret behind Zoe’s resurrection program (a term charged with religious significance and also resonance within the world ofBattlestar Galactica). Here we see a parallel to the female notion of motherhood–Daniel, in his own way, is giving birth to a new life (he hopes). Yet, as the title alludes to, Daniel experiences a false labor:  his baby is not quite ready to be let loose in the world. Moreover, like his wife, Daniel attempts to force something that should occur naturally, resulting in a less-than-desired outcome.

For Daniel, this product is a virtual Amanda, who was discussed by some of our class as they pointed out stark differences in sexuality and sexualization. Although the contrast between the real and virtual versions of Amanda holds mild interest, the larger question becomes one of the intrinsic value of “realness.” Despite Daniel’s best attempts, he continues to berate the virtual Amanda for not being real, much to her dismay as she, through no fault of her own, cannot understand that she is fundamentally broken. Although not necessarily appropriate for this course, we can think about the issues raised by virtual reality, identities, and reputations along with our constant drive for “authenticity” in a world forever affected by mediated representations. Popular culture has depicted dystopian scenarios like The Matrix that argue against our infatuation with the veneer—underneath a shiny exterior, some would argue, we are rotting. Images, according to critics like Daniel Boorstin and Walter Benjamin, leave something to be desired.

Sub-par copies also appear in Graystone Industries’ newest advertisement for “Grace,” the commercial deployment of Daniel’s efforts, along with a contestation over image. Daniel quibbles about his virtual image (which is admittedly similar to the one that Joe Adama saw the first time that he entered V world) but doesn’t balk at selling the bigger lie of reunification. (Exploring this, I think, tells us a lot about Daniel and his perception of the world.)

On one level, what Daniel offers is a sort of profane/perverted Grace that is situated firmly in the realm of the material; although it addresses notions of the afterlife and death, it attempts to exert control over them through science. Drawing again from my background in Horror and Science Fiction, we can see that while Daniel’s promise is appealing, we can come back “wrong” (Buffy) or degrade as we continue to be recycled (Aeon Flux). Media warnings aside, I would argue that the allure of Daniel’s Grace is the promise of eternal life but would ultimately be undermined by the program’s fulfillment. In a similar fashion, religion, I think, holds meaning for us because it offers a glimpse of the world beyond but does not force us to contemplate what it would actually be like to live forever without any hope of escaping the mundanity of our lives (Horror, on the other hand, firmly places us in the void of infinity and explores what happens to us once we’ve crossed over to the other side).

Perhaps more importantly, however, the reunited parties in the commercial for Grace reconstitute a family:  after panning over a torch bearing two triangles (which, if we ascribe to Dan Brown’s symbology lessons, could represent male/female), we see a husband returned to his wife and children. Needless to say, the similarities between the situation portrayed and Daniel’s own are obvious. On one level, the commercial has a certain poignancy when juxtaposed with Daniel’s low-grade avatar but also subtly reinforces the deeper narrative thread of the family within the episode.

Picking up on a different representation of the family, classmates also wrote about the contrasting depictions of motherhood as embodied in Mar-Beth andClarice. Although some students focused on the connections between genderroles and parenting, others commented on the divergent views of Mar-Beth and Clarice concerning God and family. One student even mentioned parallels between Clarice and Abraham in order to explore the relationship between the self, the family, and God. Culminating in a post that considers the role of mothers and females in the structure of the family, this succession of blog entries examines family dynamics from the interpersonal level to the metaphysical.

Although we each inevitably respond to different things in these episodes, I believe that there is much to gain by looking at “False Birth” through the lens of the family. For example, what if we look back at a relatively minor (if creepy) scene where Ruth effectively tells Evelyn to sleep with her son? Much like Clarice (and arguably Mar-Beth) is/are the matriarchs of their house, Ruth rules over the Adamas. Since we are exploring gender, let’s contrast these examples with that of the Guatrau, who holds sway over a different type of family—how does Clarice compare with Ruth? Ruth with the Guatrau? How does the organizational structure of the family in each case work with (or against) religion? We often talk about the ability of religion (organized or lived) to provide meaning, to tell us who/what we are, and to develop community—and yet these are also functions of family.


  • Hinted at by the inclusion of Atreus, whose story is firmly situated in family in a fashion that would give any modern soap opera a run for its money, we begin to see a pattern as the writers continually reinforce the connections between family and the divine. The short version of this saga is that Atreus’ grandfather cooked and served his son Pelops as a test to the gods (and you thought Clarice was ruthless) and incurs wrath and a curse. After Pelops causes the death of his father-in-law, Atreus and his brother Thyestes murder their step-brother and are banished. In their new home, Atreus becomes king and Thyestes wrests the throne away from Atreus (after previously starting an affair with his wife). In revenge Atreus kills and cooks Thyestes’ son (and taunts him with parts of the body!) and Thyestes eventually has sex with his daughter (Pelopia) in order to produce a son (Aegisthus) who is fated to kill Atreus. Before Atreus dies, however, he fathers Agamemnon and Menelaus, two brothers with their own sordid history that includes marrying sisters (one of whom is the famous Helen). As most of you know, the Trojan war then ensues and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia; although Iphigenia is happy to die for the war, her mother, Clytemnestra, holds a grudge and sleeps with Aegisthus (remember him?) and eventually kills Agamemnon out of anger. The son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Orestes, kills his mother in order to avenge his father and, in so doing, becomes one of the first tragic heroes who has to choose between two evils. If we want to take this a step further, we can also examine the resonance between Orestes and Mal from Firefly, to bring it back full circle.
  • The name of Mar-Beth may be an allusion to MacBeth (although it is entirely possible that I am reading too much into this), which is also a story about power, kings, and family. Although I am most familiar with Lady MacBeth and her OCD (obsessed with her guilt, she is compelled to wash invisible blood off of her hands), I would also suggest that Lady MacBeth overlaps with Clarice and the relationship between the MacBeths is similar to that of the Clarice and her husbands.
  • As much as our class does not focus on institutional religion, a background in the Christian concept of Grace provides some interesting insight into Daniel’s project. Although I am not an expert in the subject—I very much defer to Diane—I think that we could make a strong argument for the role of Grace in Christianity and its links to salvation as thematic elements in “False Labor.” Building off of my reaction post, we might think about the role that Grace plays in Daniel’s life and how Joe’s words to Daniel on the landing of the Graystone building speak to exactly this concept.
  • There seems to be an interesting distinction developing between notions of the earth/soil and the air/sky. The Taurons/Halatha, as we have seen before and continue to see in this episode, evidence a strong spiritual connection with the soil (and are also called “Dirteaters”) as Sam utters a prayer before he is about to be executed. We also see the Halatha grumble when the figure of Phaulkon on a television screen, whose name can be associated with flying and the sky. Moreover, in their ways, Daniel and Joe embody this duality as they both show concern for their families but attempt to resolve their issues in different ways–Joe, as is his want, concentrates on the material while Daniel looks toward the intangible.