Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “YA

He Chose Poorly, You Have Chosen Wisely

 Chosen Wisely

In April the rhetoric surrounding college admission inevitably comes to embrace the notion of choice as many students weigh their options prior to the National Candidates Reply Date on May 1. To be sure, the month of April is a portentous period for college-bound students and their parents as families begin to transition and necessarily start to contemplate a change in their configuration. Emotions run high as excitement and hope twine with a nervous energy that, in part, stems from a fear of missing out (FOMO, if you must). Here it would seem that much of the work of counselors lies in our ability to help students and families retain perspective through this process, validating their concerns even as we try to reframe them. On a practical level, individuals are often concerned with selecting the “right” college to attend and yet I cannot help but think about the invocation of “choice,” its assumed power, and its relationship to young people.

Back in 2012 I taught an undergraduate class on marketing ethics for USC’s Marshall School of Business and I began to cause a minor fuss over a recent Old Navy commercial that I had seen. Ostensibly aimed at a demographic that was of my age or older, I began a rant over how a company had come to appropriate the notion of choice in order to sell jeans that were functional but not necessarily noteworthy (which, I mean, is the whole purpose of commercial advertising). Although my students were generally too young to understand the original reference, I began to explain to them that I was upset because this move represented a blatant effort to wrest agency away from persons, presenting them with the illusion of choice while absconding with its power.

Taking a different approach, I had the students read the Beverly Hills, 90210 “I choose me” scene against the love triangle presented by Twilight—and the relative impossibility of readers aligning with Team Bella—to think about how the presentation of choice has changed in recent years. Young Adult (YA) fiction, in particular, has become an interesting place to explore the concepts of choice due to its relatively recent mainstream popularity and the rise in dystopian settings, which are often concerned with people making difficult choices and their ability to do so. Although some of my thoughts regarding the theme of choice in YA are reflected in a piece for Slate that reads Harry Potter against Divergent with respect to clans/identity/choice, what is more directly salient is not just the relative importance of choice but the implications of being asked to declare a binding allegiance as a young person. While useful as entry points, I also encouraged students to push back against the presentation of choice in Harry Potter and Divergent as both tended to focus on the connection between innate qualities and group identity, legitimizing individualism and genetics over context, environment, and existing social structures.

In spite of my occasional quibbles with them, I still think that there is a way to use YA texts like Divergent and Harry Potter (or, if you like, Enclave and Quarantine) to think about what it means for young people to make a decision that is, for them at least, often perceived as life-changing and somewhat irreversible. At its core, what does it actually mean to make a choice—in this case perhaps the choice of which institution to attend—in the college admission process? Is there merit to reframing the discussion in order to deemphasize the name of a school in favor of highlighting what the experience itself might bring? How can we change the college-going culture so that young people (and their parents) feel better equipped to make choices when they are presented? How do we get students and parents to complicate the notion of choice in order to consider that while an individual decision might be their own, the range of choices that they have are often influenced by external factors—for example, while an institution’s ranking might not be important in which school a student ultimately attends, a larger view also considers how the logic of ranking infiltrates education and makes particular avenues more salient for particular students in the first place—while remaining cognizant of the information overload that already exists? In what ways must we be self-reflexive as we guide students and parents toward making particular choices? Put another way, how do we, like Old Navy, encourage students to make particular kinds of choices in favor of others and what are the potential implications of our actions?

For me, the answer begins with a critical examination of choice:  I want to support the ability of students and families to make informed choices but the question always remains, “A choice to do what?”

I want students to choose wisely.

Advertisements

A Light in the Dark

Tom Swift

In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.

“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”

McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation

To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.

McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.

In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.

Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:

That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels more comforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.

The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.

Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.

I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy.  The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.

Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.

Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.


To Be Free Is Free to Be

My provocation is this:  utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.

 The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag:  Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:

“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”

Without pausing she fires back:

“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”

I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast:  youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.

Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:

There is another sky

Ever serene and fair

And there is another sunshine

Though it be darkness there

Never mind faded forests, Austin

Never mind silent fields

Here is a little forest

Whose leaf is evergreen

Here is a brighter garden

Where not a frost has been

In its unfading flowers

I hear the bright bee hum

Prithee, my brother

Into my garden come!

All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.

But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.

And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.

The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone:  utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.

Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.

Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.

Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.

I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.

So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?

For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.

But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.

I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.

In short, a utopia.

What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.

I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.

We’d never know how high we are

Until we’re called to rise

And then, if we are true to plan

Our statures touch the skies

Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.


The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Selves

“The end is nigh!”—the plethora of words, phrases, and warnings associated with the impending apocalypse has saturated American culture to the point of being jaded, as picketing figures bearing signs have become a fixture of political cartoons and echoes of the Book of Revelation appear in popular media like Legion and the short-lived television series Revelations. On a secular level, we grapple with the notion that our existence is a fragile one at best, with doom portended by natural disasters (e.g, Floodland and The Day after Tomorrow), rogue asteroids (e.g., Life as We Knew It and Armageddon), nuclear fallout (e.g., Z for Zachariah and The Terminator), biological malfunction (e.g., The Chrysalids and Children of Men) and the increasingly-visible zombie apocalypse (e.g., Rot and Ruin and The Walking Dead). Clearly, recent popular media offerings manifest the strain evident in our ongoing relationship with the end of days; to be an American in the modern age is to realize that everything under—and including—the sun will kill us if given half a chance. Given the prevalence of the themes like death and destruction in the current entertainment environment, it comes as no surprise that we turn to fiction to craft a kind of saving grace; although these impulses do not necessarily take the form of traditional utopias, our current culture definitely seems to yearn for something—or, more accurately, somewhere—better.

In particular, teenagers, as the subject of Young Adult (YA) fiction, have long been subjects for this kind of exploration with contemporary authors like Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, and M. T. Anderson exploring the myriad issues that American teenagers face as they build upon a trend that includes foundational works by Madeline L’Engle, Lois Lowry, and Robert C. O’Brien. Arguably darker in tone than previous iterations, modern YA dystopia now wrestles with the dangers of depression, purposelessness, self-harm, sexual trauma, and suicide. For American teenagers, psychological collapse can be just as damning as physical decay. Yet, rather than ascribe this shift to an increasingly rebellious, moody, or distraught teenage demographic, we might consider the cultural factors that contribute to the appeal of YA fiction in general—and themes of utopia/dystopia in particular—as manifestations spill beyond the confines of YA fiction, presenting through teenage characters in programming ostensibly designed for adult audiences as evidenced by television shows like Caprica (2009-2010).

 

Transcendence through Technology

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.”[1] But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.

Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex[2], violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but does represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television,[3] with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.

Taken at face value, shards like the one shown in Caprica’s first scene might appear to be nothing more than virtual parlors, the near-future extension of chat rooms[4] for a host of bored teenagers. And in some ways, we’d be justified in this reading as many, if not most, of the inhabitants of Caprica likely conceptualize the space in this fashion. Cultural critics might readily identify V world as a proxy for modern entertainment outlets, blaming media forms for increases in the expression of uncouth urges. Understood in this fashion, V world represents the worst of humanity as it provides an unreal (and surreal) existence that is without responsibilities or consequences. But Caprica also pushes beyond a surface understanding of virtuality, continually arguing for the importance of creation through one of its main characters, Zoe.[5]

Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture (Pesce, 1999). If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law” (2006), we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?

One answer to this presents in the form of Zoe, who creates an avatar that is not just a representation of herself but is, in effect, a type of virtual clone that is imbued with all of Zoe’s memories. Here we invoke a deep lineage of creation stories in Science Fiction that exhibit resonance with Frankenstein and even the Judeo-Christian God who creates man in his image. In effect, Zoe has not just created a piece of software but has, in fact, created life!—a discovery whose implications are immediate and pervasive in the world of Caprica. Although Zoe has not created a physical copy of her “self” (which would raise an entirely different set of issues), she has achieved two important milestones through her development of artificial sentience: the cyberpunk dream of integrating oneself into a large-scale computer network and the manufacture of a form of eternal life.[6]

Despite Caprica’s status as Science Fiction, we see glimpses of Zoe’s process in modern day culture as we increasingly upload bits of our identities onto the Internet, creating a type of personal information databank as we cultivate our digital selves.[7] Although these bits of information have not been constructed into a cohesive persona (much less one that is capable of achieving consciousness), we already sense that our online presence will likely outlive our physical bodies—long after we are dust, our photos, tweets, and blogs will most likely persist in some form, even if it is just on the dusty backup server of a search engine company—and, if we look closely, Caprica causes us to ruminate on how our data lives on after we’re gone. With no one to tend to it, does our data run amok? Take on a life of its own? Or does it adhere to the vision that we once had for it?

Proposing an entirely different type of transcendence, another character in Caprica, Sister Clarice, hopes to use Zoe’s work in service of a project called “apotheosis.” Representing a more traditional type of utopia in that it represents a paradisiacal space offset from the normal, Clarice aims to construct a type of virtual heaven for believers of the One True God,[8] offering an eternal virtual life at the cost of one’s physical existence. Perhaps speaking to a sense of disengagement with the existent world, Clarice’s vision also reflects a tradition that conceptualizes cyberspace as a chance where humanity can try again, a blank slate where society can be re-engineered. Using the same principles that are available to Zoe, Clarice sees a chance to not only upload copies of existent human beings, but bring forth an entire world through code. Throughout the series, Clarice strives to realize her vision, culminating in a confrontation with Zoe’s avatar who has, by this time, obtained a measure of mastery over the virtual domain. Suggesting that apotheosis cannot be granted, only earned, Clarice’s dream of apotheosis literally crumbles around her as her followers give up their lives in vain.

Although it is unlikely that we will see a version of Clarice’s apotheosis anytime in the near future, the notion of constructed immersive virtual worlds does not seem so far off. At its core, Caprica asks us, as a society, to think carefully about the types of spaces that we endeavor to realize and the ideologies that drive such efforts. If we understand religion as a structured set of beliefs that structure and order this world through our belief in the next, we can see the overlap between traditional forms of religion and the efforts of technologists like hackers, computer scientists, and engineers. As noted by Mark Pesce, Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names spoke to a measure of apotheosis and offered a new way of understanding the relationship between the present and the future—what Vinge offered to hackers was, in fact, a new form of religion (Pesce, 1999). Furthermore, aren’t we, as creators of these virtual worlds fulfilling one of the functions of God? Revisiting the overlap between doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian fiction as noted in the paper’s opening and Science Fiction, we see a rather seamless integration of ideas that challenges the traditional notion of a profane/sacred divide; in their own ways, both the writings of religion and science both concern themselves with some of the same themes, although they may, at times, use seemingly incompatible language.

Ultimately, however, the most powerful statement made by Caprica comes about as a result of the extension to arguments made on screen:  by invoking virtual reality, the series begs viewers to consider the overlay of an entirely subjective reality onto a more objective one.[9] Not only presenting the coexistence of multiple realities as a fact, Caprica asks us to understand how actions undertaken in one world affect the other. On a literal level, we see that the rail line of New Cap City (a virtual analogue of Caprica City, the capital of the planet of Caprica)[10] is degraded (i.e., “updated) to reflect a destroyed offline train, but, more significantly, the efforts of Zoe and Clarice speak to the ways in which our faith in virtual worlds can have a profound impact on “real” ones. How, then, do our own beliefs about alternate realities (be it heaven, spirits, string theory, or media-generated fiction) shape actions that greatly affect our current existence? What does our vision of the future make startlingly clear to us and what does it occlude? What will happen as future developments in technology increase our sense of presence and further blur the line between fiction and reality? What will we do if the presence of eternal virtual life means that “life” loses its meaning? Will we reinscribe rules onto the world to bring mortality back (and with it, a sense of urgency and finality) like Capricans did in New Cap City? Will there come a day where we choose a virtual existence over a physical one, participating in a mass exodus to cyberspace as we initiate a type of secular rapture?

As we have seen, online environments have allowed for incredible amounts of innovation and, on some days, the future seems inexplicably bright. Shows like Caprica are valuable for us as they provide a framework through which the average viewer can discuss issues of presence and virtuality without getting overly bogged down by technospeak. On some level, we surely understand the issues we see on screen as dilemmas that are playing out in a very human drama and Science Fiction offerings like Caprica provide us with a way to talk about subjects that we will confront in the future although we may not even realize that we are doing so at the time. Without a doubt, we should nurture this potential while remaining mindful of our actions; we should strive to attain apotheosis but never forget why we wanted to get there in the first place.

Works Cited

Lessig, L. (2006, January). Socialtext. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from Code 2.0: https://www.socialtext.net/codev2/

Pesce, M. (1999, December 19). MIT Communications Forum. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from Magic Mirror: The Novel as a Software Development Platform: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/pesce.html


[1] Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist. Moreover, I think that there is something rather interesting about presenting a heavily visual concept through a visual medium that allows viewers to identify with the material in a way that they could not if it were presented through text (or even a comic book). Likewise, reading Neal Stephenson’s A Diamond Age (which prominently features a book) allows one to reflect on one’s own interaction with the book itself—an opportunity that would not be afforded to you if you watched a television or movie adaptation.

[2] By American cable television standards, with the unrated and extended pilot featuring some nudity.

[3] Much less Science Fiction as a genre!

[4] One could equally make the case that V world also represents a logical extension of MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs. The closest modern analogy might, in fact, be a type of Second Life space where users interact in a variety of ways through avatars that represent users’ virtual selves.

[5] Although beyond the scope of this paper, Zoe also represents an interesting figure as both the daughter of the founder of holoband technology and a hacker who actively worked to subvert her father’s creation. Representing a certain type of stability/structure through her blood relation, Zoe also introduced an incredible amount of instability into the system. Building upon the aforementioned hacker tradition, which itself incorporates ideas about youth movements from the 1960s and lone tinkerer/inventor motifs from Science Fiction in the early 20th century, Zoe embodies teenage rebellion even as she figures in a father-daughter relationship, which speaks to a particular type of familial bond/relationship of protection and perhaps stability.

[6] Although the link is not directly made, fans of Battlestar Galactica might see this as the start of resurrection, a process that allows consciousness to be recycled after a body dies.

[7] In addition, of course, is the data that is collected about us involuntarily or without our express consent.

[8] As background context for those who are unfamiliar with the show, the majority of Capricans worship a pantheon of gods, with monotheism looked upon negatively as it is associated with a fundamentalist terrorist organization called Soldiers of The One.

[9] One might in fact argue that there is no such thing as an “objective” reality as all experiences are filtered in various ways through culture, personal history, memory, and context. What I hope to indicate here, however, is that the reality experienced in the V world is almost entirely divorced from the physical world of its users (with the possible exception of avatars that resembled one’s “real” appearance) and that virtual interactions, while still very real, are, in a way, less grounded than their offline counterparts.

[10] Readers unfamiliar with the show should note that “Caprica” refers to both the name of the series and a planet that is part of a set of colonies. Throughout the paper, italicized versions of the word have been used to refer to the television show while an unaltered font has been employed to refer to the planet.


The Truth Shall Set You Free?

Young people handle dystopia every day:  in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.

—Lois Lowry[1]

The Age of Information.

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us invisible as it is inescapable. In many ways, we are still grappling with the concept as struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We complain about the overbearing nature of algorithms—or, perhaps more frighteningly, do not comment at all—but this is not the first time that Western society has pondered the role and influence of information in our lives.

Access to information provides an important thematic lens through which we can view dystopic fiction and although it does not account for the entirety of the genre’s appeal in and of itself (or, for that matter, the increase in its popularity), we will see that understanding the attraction of dystopia provides some insight into the the societies that produce it and elucidates the ways in which the genre allows individuals to reflect on themes present in the world around them—themes that are ultimately intimately connected with the access and flow of information. My interest here lies specifically in YA dystopic fiction and its resonance with the developmental process of teenagers.

Lois Lowry’s quote suggests that today’s youth might be familiar with tangible aspects of dystopia even if they do not necessarily exist in a state of dystopia themselves; dystopia, then, is fundamentally relatable to youth.[2] Interpersonal violence in schools—on both the physical and virtual levels—has become a growing problem and can be seen as a real life analogue to the war-torn wastelands of YA dystopia; although the physical destruction present in fiction might not manifest in the everyday, youth may identify with the emotional states of those who struggle to survive.[3] And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.[4]

As a writer, it should come as no surprise that Lowry, like literary critic Darko Suvin, primarily describes the concept of dystopia in literary terms; while a valid, if limited perspective, this does not preclude the term also possessing socio-political implications, with one potentially arguing that the relatable nature of dystopia extends far beyond the iterations outlined by Lowry into the realm of ideology.[5] On a basic level, dystopia often asks protagonists to perform a type of self-assessment while simultaneously evaluating preexisting hierarchal structures and systems of authority.[6] Given that this process asks individuals to contrast themselves with the society that surrounds them, one might make the argument that the themes of utopia and dystopia possess an implicit political element, regardless of authors’ intentions.

Moreover, consider the prevalent construct of the secret as a defining characteristic of dystopian societies like those presented in the classic works of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[7] Often located in the cultural history of the dystopia (e.g., “What events caused us to reach this point?”) or the sustained lies of the present (e.g., “This is for your protection”), acquisition of new (hidden) knowledge represents a fundamental part of the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the reader’s—journey. For young adults, this literary progression can mirror the development occurring in real life as individuals challenge established notions during the coming-of-age process; viewed through the lens of anthropology, dystopian fiction represents a liminal space for both the protagonist and the reader in which old assumptions and knowledge are questioned during a metaphorical rite of passage. [8],[9] And, although the journey itself provides a crucial model trajectory for youth, perhaps more important, however, is the nature of the secret being kept:  as Lowry alludes to, modern youth undoubtedly realize that their world—our world—like that of any dystopia, contains elements of ugliness. The real secret, then, is not the presence of a corrupted underbelly but rather why rot exists in the first place.

Aside from the type of knowledge or even the issues latent in its accessibility, however, we can see that modern culture is undergoing a rather radical reconfiguration with regard to the social structures surrounding information flow. Although we still struggle with the sometimes antagonistic relationship between citizens and the State mirrored in classic and YA dystopia, we have also developed another dimension:  citizen versus citizen. Spurred on by innovations in technology that have made mobile gadgetry increasingly affordable and accessible to the public, on-location reporting has grown from the relatively useful process of crowdsourcing information to a practice that includes surveillance, documentation, and vigilante justice as we display our moral outrage over someone else’s ungodly behavior through platforms like paparazzi photos, tweeting of overheard conversations, and the ever-popular blog—we, in effect, have assumed the mantle of Big Brother. It would seem that, like Dr. Moreau, we have been granted knowledge and ability without wisdom.

Moreover, let us consider how youth currently exist in a culture of confession that was not apparent during previous cycles of utopia/dystopia. Spurred on in part by daytime talk shows, reality television, press conference apologies, and websites like PostSecret, the current environment is suffused with secrets and those willing to share their intimate stories for a price. Somewhat in opposition to confession’s traditional role in Catholicism, secrets now play an active role in public life despite their private nature, a process that mirrors the juxtaposition of personal and public histories by protagonists in YA dystopia.[10],[11] Moreover, we quickly come to see the increased relevancy of this trend when we consider how individuals, groups, organizations, and societies begin to define themselves in terms of the secrets that they hold about others and themselves. The prevalence of events like corporate espionage, copyright infringement lawsuits, and breakdowns in communication between youth and parents all point to entities that wish to contain and restrict information flow. If being an American in the 20th century meant being defined by material possessions, being an American in the 21st century is to be defined by information and secrets. And, if this is indeed the case, how might we view our existence as one that occurs in a series of ever-expanding dystopias? As it turns out, Lowry might have been more correct than she realized when she noted young people’s familiarity with dystopia.

But perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge.[12] In opposition to the idealistic pursuit that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern conceptualizations seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Furthermore, the influence of commercialism on Education (i.e., the institution charged with conveying information from one generation to the next) has been probed, conjecturing that educational priorities might be dictated by concerns of the market.[13] Notably, these cultural shifts have not disavowed the value of knowledge but have changed how such worth is determined and classified.

The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic views of mass culture’s relationship with economic influences and independent thought aside, Lyotard also points to the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state.[14] Businesses like Facebook and Google accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without castigating such companies—although some assuredly do—we can glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the totalitarian dictatorships prevalent in so many dystopian societies. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems, combined with current debates over issues like privacy, piracy, and Net Neutrality indicate that power no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] One might even argue that those who read dystopian fiction most likely do not inhabit a dystopian world, for they would not have the leisure time to consume such fiction.

[3] This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.

[4] See Ken Rigby, New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002and Marilyn A. Campbell “Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 15, no. 1 (2005): 68-76.

[5] Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.

[6] Kennon, Patricia. “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 15, no. 2 (2005): 40-49.

[7] Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.

[8] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[9] Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.

[10] Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama, “PostSecret: These Are My Confessions.” The Norman Lear Center. June 10, 2010. http://blog.learcenter.org/2010/06/postsecret_these_are_my_confes.html

[11] John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.

[12] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).

[13] Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, “Retooling Play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. (Cambidge: The MIT Press, 1998).

[14] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.


I Believe That Children Are Our Future

Kids say the darndest things. Or so we’re told. Maybe, then, it is only fitting that we have turned children’s responses into a form of entertainment as adults exhibit a general reluctance to truly understand what children are saying; instead of striving to understanding the process of meaning making in the world of children, we filter their words through perspectives that, in some cases, have entirely forgotten what it means to be a kid.

In June 2011, an article published in the Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current Young Adult (YA) fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter.[1] Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion, like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse, seem outside the scope of YA dystopia, the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.

Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society.[2] (And here we see the humor presented by shows like Kids Say the Darndest Things, for we, as “knowing” adults, can juxtapose the answers of children with the “correct” responses.) Informed by a Romantic tradition that presupposed the legitimacy of children’s perspectives, privileging them over those of more traditional authorities, this stance also suggests that teenage protagonists are largely not responsible for understanding the intricacies of how their environments operate, expecting the realized world to instead align with their personal vision. Illustrating the potential pitfall of this practice, we need only look back a few years to the exclusive utopian vision promoted by President George W. Bush; dystopian for everyone who did not share his view, Bush’s “utopia” legitimized only one version of the truth (his).[3] Although discontent may be an integral part of the impetus to change, we begin to glimpse elements of narcissism and indignation as protagonists develop a moral imperative for their actions.

Building upon this model (and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s) mid-20th century YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists.[4] In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.

And even if the teenage protagonists of YA fiction represent those select few who transcend the impulse to do nothing, are they ultimately reactionary and thusly not truly empowered? An initial reading of genres like YA dystopian fiction might suggest that readers can extract philosophical lenses or skills through their identification with protagonists who struggle not only to survive but to thrive. However, further rumination causes one to question the accessibility of the supposed themes of empowerment at play:  although characters in dystopian fiction provide value by suggesting that hegemonic forces can be challenged, the trajectories of these extraordinary figures rarely do much to actively cultivate or encourage the enactment or development of similar abilities in the real world. In essence, young readers are exposed to the ideals, but not realistic actionable steps. Furthermore, although Roberta Seelinger Trites correctly cites power and powerlessness as integral issues in YA dystopia, one is left to question whether true power is a result of internal struggle and achievement or is instead conferred upon the protagonist through some external force.[5] Perhaps a product of a youth mindset that tends to focus on the self, teenage protagonists often fail to recognize (and thus comment on) the role of external factors that aid their quests; Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, routinely fails to mention (or seemingly appreciate) the ways in which her success are intimately connected to those who bestow gifts of various kinds upon her. Further challenging notions of empowerment, although Katniss develops throughout the course of the trilogy, she gives no indication that she would have become involved in rebellion had she not been forced (i.e., chosen) into a situation that she could not escape.

Echoing this idea, Lara Cain-Gray sees similar trends in the dystopian tendencies of teen realist fiction. In her analysis of Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, Cain-Gray argues that the protagonist, Plum, longs for some measure of extraordinariness—a saving grace from a dystopian world born out of banality.[6] Here again we see that agency is ascribed to an external source as characters yearn for salvation; individuals long for someone to save them because they have not yet learned how to save themselves. Regardless of later strides made by Plum, a lack of scaffolding means that her model remains inaccessible to readers unless they have also received a jump start. If we refer back to the idea that utopia and dystopia inherently contain political elements, it seems to follow that encouraging a wider recognition of, and sensitivity to, existing social structures might address gaps in the developmental process and help youth to become more active in real life, while combatting the adult-imposed label of apathy that is currently in vogue.

Perhaps the problem lies in how we traditionally conceptualize youth as political agents (if at all). Although there are assuredly exceptions to this, the primary readership for YA dystopia—loosely bounded by an age demographic that includes individuals between 12-18 years of age—largely does not possess a type of political power commonly recognized in the United States. Prohibited from voting, a majority of the YA audience is often not formally encouraged to exercise any form of political voice; it is not until they near the age of adulthood that the process even begins to take shape with, at best, a course on Civics in high school. And, in absence of a structured educational process that promotes reflection, critical thinking, outreach, and activism, youth might be seen to cobble together their political knowledge from sources readily available to them. As author Jack Zipes suggests in his book Sticks and Stones:  The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, youth seek out agency through literature like dystopian fiction.[7] However, one might argue that what youth are really after is a sense of empowerment that they are unable to find elsewhere in meaningful quantities.

Elizabeth Braithwaite comments on one such example of the YA dystopia’s potential political influence and agency in her discussion of post-disaster fiction. Building upon work by Erich Fromm, Braithwaite notes the important difference between social orders labeled as “freedom from” and “freedom to”:

Fromm explains that the two types of freedom are very different:  a person can be free of constraints, be they obviously negative or the ‘sweet bondage of paradise’, without necessarily being ‘free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.’[8]

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States.

On a level arguably more immediately pressing for a teenage readership, however, let us invoke the issue of bullying, which has become a somewhat high-profile topic in recent educational news. In line with the discussion surrounding forms of oppression elsewhere, much of the rhetoric present in this topic focuses on a removal of the negative—and admittedly quite caustic—influences of teenage aggressors. Prompted by a rash of high-profile suicides attributed to this phenomenon, New York Times columnist Dan Savage started a project entitled “It Gets Better.” Ostensibly designed to encourage youth to refrain from suicide (and, to a lesser extent, self-harm), “It Gets Better” seemed to effuse a position saturated with the ideology of “freedom from.” Although an admirable attempt, “It Gets Better” ultimately projects a hope for a static utopia free from bullying—which, as has been previously demonstrated, inevitably leads to a dystopia of one sort or another. By telling youth that things will get better someday (i.e., not now) we are ultimately choosing to withhold information about how to make it better. Intentional or not, we have begun to slide into a practice of knowledge containment that mirrors the regimes of dystopian societies as we fail to challenge youth to become active participants in the process of change. Propelled by thinking grounded in a stance of “freedom from,” we are, in indirect ways, in the name of protection or aid, stripping youth’s access to information that would act to empower them.

In marked contrast, we witness a different tonality in movements like those involved in the support of gay marriage or the Dream Act. Perhaps coincidentally, both efforts have embraced the notion of “coming out” and the liberation that this freedom of self-expression brings. “Freedom to,” it would seem, allows individuals in the modern age to effectively begin the process of challenging patriarchal and heteronormative stances—as any child of the 1970s and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be…You and Me” well knows.

So what do we do, then, with the complex space represented by the intersection of youth, adults, publishers, and YA fiction? Ultimately, I argue for a reevaluation of the value of youth voices in discussion surrounding YA fiction. As adults, our natural inclination may be to protect children, but we must also endeavor to understand the long-term implications of our actions—after all, isn’t our real goal to equip the next generation with the tools that they will need to become successful citizens of the world? We must walk a narrow line, fighting our tendency to view modern youth as romanticized wunderkind while respecting the demographic as one that is increasingly capable of amazing resilience. If our generation is to have any hope of disrupting the adversarial cycle so prevalent in YA dystopian fiction, we must take it upon ourselves to educate youth in a way that encourages their empowerment while remaining open to all that they have to teach us. It is only through this integration, and a more sophisticated flow of information, that we can hope to avoid the manufacture of a disenfranchised generation destined to suffer the ultimate indignity of being born into a dystopia. To get there, we must whole-heartedly engage with children, seeking to understand the ways in which they process information and perceive their environment. Although we are armed with mountains of theory, we need to realize that we do not necessarily know better—we merely know differently. We need to take the time to truly listen to our youth and attempt to see the world through their eyes:  focus groups can be used to ascertain descriptive language while large-scale surveys provide an element of generalizability. Inventories might help researchers get a sense of things like the pervasiveness of self-harm or the recuperative value of YA fiction. Follow-up interviews or focus groups could help us to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs, allowing us to alter our course should the need arise. In short, we need to actually talk (and listen!) to those whom we would serve.


[1] See Meghan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible.” The Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011 and Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal. June 9, 2011 for constrasting views on this topic.

[2] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[3] See Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” 2006 and Maureen F. Moran, “Educating Desire: Magic, Power, and Control in Tanith Lee’s Unicorn Trilogy.” In Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Adults, 139-155. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[4] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000).

[5] Trites, Disturbing the Universe. 2000.

[6] Lara Cain-Gray,  “Longing For a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 35-38.

[7] Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[8] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Erich H. Fromm, Escape from Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994: 34).


Free to Be…What, Exactly?

In June 2011, an article published in The Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current YA fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter. Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse seem outside the scope of YA dystopia (in that they are not always elements in the genre), the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.

Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society. Building upon this model and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists. In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.

(more…)