Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Forget the Narrative

Spring, 2011
2-D Art, Niku Kashef
California State Northridge

Basic principles of design. Almost 3 months after class is over, let's see if I remember the elements that impact an image: Line, Shape, Value, Texture, Color,... and Space, according to Wikipedia, which makes sense but I don't recall emphasizing it. Not too bad. Principles of those elements...symmetry, movement, oh, now I remember illusion of SPACE, which I guess our class categorized differently, pattern, ...damn, that's all I got. Unity, Harmony, Balance, Emphasis, Contrast, Proportion, Pattern. Damn, I was way off. But I do remember Illusion of Space and Illusion of Movement, so I guess Niku Kashef and Wikipedia beg to differ.

What I did learn was the value of patience, neatness, and that ever-redundant lesson, the value of time. I've never fancied myself an artist. Even in movie-making I've identified myself at best as a kid with a toy. Hell of a lot of fun, but I never give care to the rough edges or paint drips. This class made me find the capacity to finish a piece with a more calculated eye. This made me realize that with even more effort I was capable of coming kind of close to achieving a professional result. The act of creating became slightly less mysterious.

Without further ado!

Assignment #1: Line
Title: Binary


Assignment #2: Shape
Title: At the Mountains of Madness


Assignment #3: Value
Title: Sebastian in Gray


Assignment #4: Texture
Title: Neo/Static


Assignment #5: Color
Title: Doomsayers- What Him 'Em


Final: Incorporate Elements & Principles of design into a themed book.
Title: Long Live the New Flesh
Where I learned to "let go of the narrative". This simple statement of Niku's opened this "3-part structure"storyteller's mind like Dream's ruby.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Science Fiction: What's Not to Love?

December, 2010
Philosophy of Biology Final- Dr. Weimen Sun
California State Northridge

Science fiction, also known as "sci-fi", is a tricky category of storytelling. Its goals are to tell an entertaining and compelling story, yet by its namesake claims obligation to the rigorous standards of science. So it is unsurprising that the genre has difficulty satisfying members of both the story-driven fiction realm and the fact-driven field of science. Hard-edged scientists and layman audiences alike scoff at the questionable techniques used in sci-fi plots. The morally concerned frequently criticize the genre for its gloom & doom interpretations of the future. But for sci-fi to accomplish its unique potential to accurately reflect both the cultural and scientific developments of an era, many considerations should be made before criticizing it for its bleakness or flawed sciences. I believe it is the function of modern sci-fi to mirror society's concerns regarding science through an accurately scientific-minded analysis of those concerns.

In order to fully defend science-fiction against its accusers, I will first detail the history of sci-fi cinema in respect to the technological/scientific developments of the time. Having armed the reader with a proper framework, I will attempt to persuade the reader that at its most affecting, sci-fi is able to competently portray an accurate representation of scientific methods and concerns while telling the story necessary to critically analyze all angles of the plot- an objective inherent in the field of science.

As technological society evolved with the scientific community, science-fiction grew proportionately more sophisticated. But in the early years of America in the 20th century, very little was understood by widespread society regarding science and its methods. The emphasis on religion and spirituality during the Great Depression was a hindrance to society’s understanding of or use for general scientific knowledge. Sci-fi during the 1930s was pure escapism. Films like 'Flash Gordon' and 'Buck Rogers' were incidentally set in space as a vehicle for their fantastic adventures. Little attention was paid to realism, placing sci-fi of 1930’s squarely in the fantasy camp. The purpose of films during this time was clearly not to explore the tenants of science, but to allow impoverished audiences an opportunity to escape for a few hours.

When the country emerged from World War II in the 1940's fresh from the discovery of nuclear fission, society's opinion of science turned toward potential and progress. American culture became preoccupied with the possibility of space travel. Although the creation and consequences of the atomic bomb spawned dramatic political implications and a bolster in paranoia, it nonetheless began a long-lasting and tumultuous relationship between science and society. What was once merely an ideology that conflicted with religion was fast becoming an integrated part of everyday life.

Alongside the prevalence of scientific invention, another cultural phenomenon was booming- American science-fiction cinema. As society became more concerned with technology and its consequences, exploration of these worries emerged through the growth of the science-fiction genre. Since the 1940’s, science fiction cinema has become increasingly more sophisticated in both subject matter and depictions of scientific rationality. In the 1950's, science-fiction cinema reached what was to be its “Golden Age”. A proliferation of classics emerged like 'The Blob'(1958),'This Island Earth' (1955), 'Forbidden Planet' (1956), 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (1951), and 'War of the Worlds' (1953). The Golden Age referred strictly to the frequency and popularity of sci-fi, not to the realistic or accurate depictions of scientific rationality. Although there were some instances of expression of scientific curiosity and the methods of research, these films acted more as symbolic analogies for the increasing fear of Russian invasion and mass destruction in the era of the Cold War and atomic bombs. Nonetheless, the transition from the escapist fantasy of the 1930s to emphasis on scientific exploration and methodology illustrates the beginning of a shift in society’s growing understanding of science in everyday life.

The 1960s saw an acceleration of America's tension-filled competition with fellow nuclear power Russia, as exemplified in the Space Race. Issues like Kennedy's assassination and Vietnam contributed to a sobering new social climate concerned with truth and realism. Sci-fi began portraying a specific interest in conveying realistic science in a fictional context with the 'hard sci-fi' movement, "a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both." (Wolfe, "Critical Terms for Science Fiction") Along with writers like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and H.G. Wells, these writers comprised "hard" sci-fi author Arthur C. Clark's '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) was considered a pioneer in realism for science fiction. It explained to audiences the need for deep sleep during long journeys through space, the vast silence and black isolation of the universe. Scientific rationality as a tenant in sci-fi was beginning to emerge.

The 1970’s were a decade of disillusionment as the American people came to realize the detrimental consequences of fossil fuels and material abundance. Society as well as science fiction became highly speculative of man’s fate. One perspective was the newfound spiritualism of the 1970’s reflected in the Buddhist-like teachings of the Jedi Faith in the wildly popular 'Star Wars: A New Hope' (1977). On the other side was the cynical doubt cast on what had previously been fascination with science. 'Alien' (1979) made space less inviting and adventurous while in other fictions, men failed to make it into space at all. National science proclaimed gruesome population control methods in post-apocalyptic films like 'Soylent Green' (1973), as well as other bleak visions like 'Mad Max' (1979), A 'Boy and His Dog' (1975), and 'Omega Man' (1971).

The 1980’s represented a decade of cold rationality, abandoning any semblance of the spiritualist craze of the 70s. Computers were fast becoming a part of everyday life, and science-fiction films like Blade Runner were asking hard questions about artificial intelligence and identity in a vividly imagined and fully realized world. Audience’s scientific understanding was sophisticated enough to immediately grasp genetic theory when 'The Fly ' (1986) talked of DNA splicing. TRON (1982) paved the way for virtual interaction and digitization. Terminology that did not even exist when science fiction came about was now commonplace in a society of widespread science fiction. Sci-fi in the 1980’s required complex realistic worlds in which now scientifically savvy audiences could rationalize the realism of the environments.

Films during the infancy of widespread culture's scientific awareness required only based concepts upon which to prop their theories. But the 1990's and 2000's were able to approach audiences with the assumption that they had a basic grasp of science, its methods, and its quandaries. Portrayals of the digital eruption and genetic experimentation were everywhere. Just a few examples are 'Jurassic Park' (1993), 'Gattaca' (1997), 'The Matrix' (1999), and 'Strange Days' (1995). Rationality and the weight of morality and value questions, like the issue of "could we?" vs. "should we?" were becoming the key theme of these decades.

At its core, science is the practice of rationalizing choices, observations, perspectives, and contexts. When criticizing sci-fi for accurate portrayals of science, it is important to also consider the critical methods used to arrive at a theory, which are as essential to scientific progress as the theory itself. When we begin to look at the questions serious philosophers of science asked, we see their concerns and proposals accurately mirrored repeatedly in science fiction cinema. It is not enough to simply acknowledge the portrayal of accurate technologies and sciences. I believe where sci-fi succeeds in accurately depicting science is in its ability to weigh in on the core issues that precede technology, like the critical nature of observation and rationality.

The beginning of any scientific research much begin with accurate observation. An endless amount of science-fiction depicts the brain-tickling question, "How do we know that what we are looking at is actually what we are seeing?"("Observation", Klemke, pg. 339 ) As phrased by scientific philosopher N.R. Hanson, who went on to say, "Perhaps there is a sense in which two such observers do not see the same thing, do not begin from the same data, though their eyesight is normal and they are visually aware of the same object." (Klemke, pg. 339) Within science-fiction, there is an entire sub-genre known as "cyberpunk" which addresses these issues of observational reality. One such film, 'The Matrix' (1999), revolves around that very idea. The main character realizes that his entire life was spent deceiving his instinct that beneath the world he observed lay another truth, and being open to that brought him closer to it. As he immerses himself deeper into the world that lay behind his observations, he comes to learn that reality as he knows it can be altered based on his willful perception. "Seeing is not only the having of a visual experience; it is also the way in which the visual experience is had." (Klemke, pg. 345)

In the science-fiction genre of film, the exploration of a question proposed by prominent scientific philosopher Carl Hempel in his paper “Scientific Rationality: Analytic vs. Pragmatic Perspectives” is frequently conveyed: “In what sense, on what grounds, and to what extend can scientific inquiry be qualified as a rational enterprise?” (Klemke, pg. 451) Take 'Alien' (1979), for example. A vicious, ruthless alien systematically kills the members of a space crew. But the android present onboard has been programmed to preserve alien lifeforms at the expense of the “expendable” crew. His orders were based on the emotionless acquisition of infinitely important information. This "analytically empirical" view found “the psychological, sociological, and historical facets of science as a human enterprise…irrelevant.” (Klemke, pg. 452) By portraying the android as evil and murderous, the filmmakers took the humanist stance of "historic- sociological" theory that “insist adequate methodology must be based on a close study of the practice of scientific inquiry.” (Klemke, pg. 452) What is the balance of cost between the lives of a few space-truckers and the first ever evidence ever of alien life? Hempel might describe the android’s justification as the “theory choice [of] activities aimed at certain scientific goals, and carried out in accordance with specified rules which can be justified by showing that these modes of procedure they prescribe are rational means of pursuing the given goals." (Klemke, pg. 455)

Day of the Dead (1985) is another wonderful example of the ways that sci-fi accurately depicts the value concerns of scientific practices. Two scientists of different objectively rationalized values are pitted against each other in a small group of survivors in an underground military base. One scientist wants to pursue a “cure” for the plague of living dead, a reversal of effects. The other scientist believes it is more rational to emphasize the neuro-physical behavioral influences possible, "training" the undead to resist eating human flesh. Both have a valid set of subjective values.

These examples illustrate Hempel's tenant of scientific philosophy: Which theory qualifies as rational? Although Hempel has determined two approaches by which to analyze scientific theory for rationality, they do not answer exactly how to balance all the human factors of rationalization. Hempel calls this the Janus-head methodology, the “fus[ing] of explanation with justification.” (Klemke, pg. 451)

Having explained the ways that science fiction has explored genuine concerns in the scientific field, I would now like to address what I believe is an even more detrimental attack on science fiction. The genre is frequently accused of depicting the worst case scenario of scientific consequence. Even sci-fi author Norman Spinrad was quoted to say "One of the social functions of science fiction is to be visionary, and when science fiction isn't being visionary, it hurts the culture's visionary sense. And when the culture isn't receptive, neither is science fiction. It's a downward spiral.'' ("Why Most Science Fiction Sucks", 2006) Beyond a concern for accuracy is the vilification of science and the people who pursue it. The bleak futures depicted in films like Terminator and Gattaca create the argument that the modern fiction of science only contributes to the uneasy mistrust felt by general society. Amidst the naysayer's accusations that science both plays god and promotes godlessness, science-fiction does little to encourage an optimistic perception.

However, I believe it would be irresponsible of filmmakers of the genre and misrepresentative of the critical methods science itself employs if the stories neglected the conflicts that science inherently implies. Sci-fi does not, as some critics suggest, create the negative perception of science. I believe sci-fi is merely the stage upon which the value system of the prevalent and influential field can be critically analyzed as any genuine scientist would want it to be. As Hempel himself says, "Clearly the advances of scientific technology on which we pride ourselves, and which have left their characteristic imprint on every aspect of this 'age of science', have brought in their train many new and grave problems which urgently demand a solution…A moments reflection shows that the problems that need to be dealt with are not straightforward technological questions but intricate complexes of technological and moral issues." ("Science and Human Values," Klemke, pg. 500)

Following scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s evolution of the norms and values that define an era, its paradigm, it is understood that they "provide [clear] examples of effective guidance in the presence of conflict…” ("Objectivity, Value, and Theory Choice", Klemke, Pg. 443) It is remarkable that historians have a clear record of values during the paradigm shifts in the 20th and 21st centuries of values and morality in science. The space age of the 1950’s-1960’s represented an entirely different set of values from the information age that began in the 1970s and exploded in the early 1990s. The space age was optimistic, forward thinking, and imaginative. The values of society of the time were celebratory in the post-depression, post WWII period. The possibility of finally penetrating deep space and all the implications that heralded a paradigm of wonder were combined with the fearful fascination with nuclear weapons. The space age’s values of imagination, wonder, and fear were clearly branded in science fiction. Classics like the television series 'Twilight Zone' (1959-1964) and the film 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (1951) still function as accurate depictions of society’s values and cultural objectivity of science at that time.

The shift of society's objectivity and values from the 'space' to 'information' age is also traceable through science-fiction cinema. Once the country began to see the repercussions of human activity and waste from the over-abundant celebration of the Space Age, moralistic implications of the consequences of scientific choice were brought to a forefront. Jurassic Park (1993) said it succinctly when Dr. Malcolm, in his challenge to the creator of an an-eating dinosaur park, emphatically states “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” It became the responsibility of sci-fi to accurately represent these concerns and consequences. Had the genre been filled with utopian fantasies, they would have appeared as just that- propaganda filled fantasies. Given the scenario presented in films like 'Day of the Dead', 'Alien', and 'Jurassic Park' during this paradigm, I think it is safe to say that sci-fi films “assert the existence of significant limits to what the proponents of different theories can communicate to one another.” (Klemke, pg. 449) If science fiction uses philosophically scientific principles to accurately explore the future of science, it would be counter-inuitive to neglect all the possible outcomes at the expense of reassurance.

Because the nature of science is self-critical and intrinsically interested in approaching conflicts and hypothetical variables, even fictional ones, from every angle, the modern depictions of rational science in fiction should naturally be treated likewise. It is not the fiction which asked if science "[Can] serve to establish objective criteria of right and wrong and thus to provide valid moral norms for the proper conduct of our individual and social affairs?" (Klemke, pg. 500) It is the decisions of our warfare and our consumption which spawned these concerns. Hempel describes the relationship between science and society best: "Without entering into details, we may say here that a person's values- both those he professes to espouse and those he actually conforms to- are largely absorbed from the society in which he lives, and especially from certain influential subgroups to which he belongs." (Klemke, pg. 505)

The use of fiction to express scientific quandaries was in place long before science-fiction cinema. French astronomer Pierre Laplace used the analogy of a demon to characterize the idea of a universal casual determination. He used this fiction to illustrate an existing quandary, but is never accused of creating it. Modern sci-fi is merely fulfilling its obligation "to evaluate the various probable sets of consequences of the alternative choices under consideration."(Klemke, pg. 507) It is not sci-fi that created militarized weapons of mass destruction, it is not sci-fi that melts the ice caps or encourages mass deforestation, distributes mood elevators. Although many real sciences bring us advances in lifespan, health, communication, travel, and bionics, science-fiction would be neglectful of its responsibilities to avoid exploring the consequences of these conveniences. Again, Hempel's analysis of scientific morality and value judgment outlines the key social elements that science -fiction is capable of addressing in rhetorical, fictional experimentation:

"It is scientific knowledge and investigation that must provide the factual information which is needed for the application of our moral standards. More specifically, factual information is needed, for example, to ascertain a) whether a contemplated objective can be attained in a given situation; b) if it can be attained, by what alternative means and with what probabilities; c) what side effects and ulterior consequences the choice of a given means may have apart form probably yielding the desired end; d) whether several proposed ends are jointly realizable, or whether they are incompatible in the sense that the realization of some of the will definitely or probably prevent the realization of others." (Klemke, pg. 511)

I believe science-fiction will continue to merge with society's evaluation of scientific enterprise. As society and culture incorporate new aspects of technology and advancement, current concepts of science-fiction will become more marginalized. We are even beginning to see an emergence of the 1960's "hard" sci-fi movement, being re-imagined as "mundane" science-fiction, pioneered by author Geoff Ryman. The requirements are similar to those of the "hard" science-fiction genre, in that it must adhere to theoretically accurate science, but also demands the even stricter requirement that none of the sciences can extend beyond what is currently utilized. No manned deep-space exploration, no intelligent life elsewhere, and a consciousness towards excessive waste.

Ryman himself beliefs that this form of sci-fi can be used to encourage betterment of our current environmental and moral conundrums by spotlighting our infinite potential to improve at any given moment. For those who would wish to see science-fiction display fantastical, utopian futures, Ryman asks, why must it be in the future? "Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don't. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand. Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history--our own personal history, our country's history. Where we are deluded by fantasy--our own fantasy, our country's fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy whenever possible. And then use them against each other." ('Was', pg. 369)

Works Cited:
1. Wolfe, Gary K. (1986). "Hard Science Fiction". Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship.
2. Hanson, N. R. "Observation." Philosophy of Science. Comp. E.D. Klemke. 3rd ed. Amherst: Prometheus, 1998. 339-45. Print.
3. The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999. DVD.
4. Hempel, Carl. "Scientific Rationality: Analytic vs. Pragmatic Perspectives." Philosophy of Science. Comp. E.D. Klemke. 3rd ed. Amherst: Prometheus, 1998. 451-455. Print.
5. Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerrit. Twentieth Century Fox, 1979. DVD.
6. Day of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Lori Cardille and Terry Alexander. Dead Films, Inc., 1985. DVD.
7. Bennu. "Future Hi: Norman Spinrad: Why Most Science Fiction Sucks." Norman Spinrad: Why Most Science Fiction Sucks. 15 July 2006. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. .
8. Hempel, Carl. "Science and Human Values." Philosophy of Science. Comp. E.D. Klemke. 3rd ed. Amherst: Prometheus, 1998. 500-514. Print.
9. Jurassic Park. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Sam Neil and Laura Dern. Universal, 1993. DVD.
10. Kuhn, Thomas. "Objectivity, Value Judgment and Theory Choice." Philosophy of Science. Comp. E.D. Klemke. 3rd ed. Amherst: Prometheus, 1998. 435-450. Print.
11. Ryman, Geoff. Was: a Novel. New York: Knopf, 1992. 369. Print.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Safe in My Garden

When you go out in the street
so many hassles with the heat
no one there can fill your desire
Cops out with the megaphones
telling people stay inside their homes
Man, can't they see the world's on fire?

Somebody take us away...
Take us away...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Altrusim, and the Genetically Predetermined Human Spirit

When last I discussed the construction of human identity, the topic of serial killers and the influence of society on them was considered. Via ‘American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, I addressed different theories of cultural studies regarding the notion that our self-identity is entirely comprised of fragments of societal influences. This would imply that a psychotic is the result of a psychotic environment or upbringing. But real-life American psycho Ted Bundy was raised in an arguably normal environment, and still emerged with homicidal tendencies. Two people can grow up in nearly identical circumstances and produce two entirely different kinds of people. To assign responsibility for personal identity entirely to acculturation begs the biological question of genetic predisposition.

As I will soon detail, modern culture work is focused on pinpointing the balance between both societal influence and biological determinism when analyzing today’s post-modern identities. And, as both culture and science rapidly hybridize with technology, I believe a cinematic trend has emerged. As self-reflexive, post-modern audiences cope with the complexities of the societal, technological, and biological influences on their existence, filmmakers address the intricate controversy by essentializing the inexpressible human condition. I will be using cultural studies to explore modern depictions of hypothetical futures in science-fiction cinema affected by population control, artificial intelligence and biological hybridization, as well as betrayal by the system to determine essential, normative, but autogenous ideals of self-sacrifice and cooperation.



Our culture is fast approaching the end of the border of science-fiction and tumbling into a scientific reality. Our culture is rationalizing and measuring like never before, grasping at strands of meaning as mainstream religions continue to fail the changes of post-modern society. Bryan Turner dubs this the “somatic society,... in which a ‘major political and personal problems are both problematized within the body and expressed through it” (Barker, 118). Aptly named for the sedating affects of the widely distributed tranquilizer in Aldous Huxley’s future of ‘A Brave New World’, the concept of a ‘somatic society’ addresses the nature of sociobiology and genetic determinism, as seen in films like ‘Gattaca’ and ‘Equilibrium’.

Sociobiology is a branch of biological sciences that explores the biological evolution of a society and the socialized individuals within that society. As explained by Edward O. Wilson in his paper titled “Heredity”, humans have a social structure that cannot be mistaken for the patterns of insects or reptiles. For example, we are comprised of small social circles and long childhoods of maternal reliance. Wilson cites the 1945 research of anthropologist George P. Murdock, who listed the recorded characteristics of “every culture known to history and ethnography:

Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool making, trade, visiting, weaving, and weather control.” (Wilson, 1978:15)

Although there are some irrefutable observations that sociobiology determines, not all aspects of the study find consensus- especially amongst sociologists and culturalists who believe that these findings are biologically reductionist, “that there are invariant features of human genetic endowment that are resistant to change.” (Barker, 112) The idea that a rigid science could impose limitations on our free-will and agency can be offensive to a post-modern society that practices self-awareness, and to a lesser degree, self-improvement. However, science and culture are inextricably linked. Barker remarks in the book ‘Cultural Studies’ that “culture forms an environment for the human body and feeds into evolutionary change. Hence, environmental change, which includes the social and cultural aspects of human life, can change biological development outcomes” (113). We are coming to see the fruition of this understanding, and science is gently being urged towards the manipulation of DNA to improve human lifespan.


In the film ‘Gattaca’(1997), the main character, Vincent, is a naturally born man in a world of where genetic pre-determinations can be made in utero to emphasize the strongest genetic material possible during your development. Therefore, when Vincent tries to pursue a career as an astronaut, he is discriminated against for being ‘genetically inferior’. Through this film, we begin to see the dangers of this biologial reductionism. Once we begin to assign definitions and values to the flesh, we can more easily discern and ascribe material value to a personhood, and thus, an identity.

Vincent is forced to “borrow” the identity of a genetically superior person who has been crippled. They lend him DNA samples so that he may pass all the various physical exams to qualify for the high-ranking position he seeks. This is a portrayal of a hypothetical near future, but Barker is already recognizing the consequences in today’s society: “Biological reductionism...has [made it] apparent that ill heath is distributed differentially by age, class, gender, place, etc” (122).

This sort of future is nearly upon us- the use of enacting ‘disciplinary bodies’, that is, according to philosopher Michel Foucault, “the mechanism of ‘policing’ societies by which a population can be categorized and ordered into manageable groups” (Barker, 121). To differentiate and value individuals based on their health is already in motion through modern insurance systems, and easy to conceptualize through Gattaca.

Another film that utilizes the control of biology is the 2002 film ‘Equilibrium’. In this fictional society, the film’s main character, John, is a high-ranking government official that participates in the location and execution of ‘sense offenders’. ‘Sense offenders’ are people who choose not to submit to the mandatory government instilled mood equalizers. The tranquilizers negate all emotions of sympathy and compassion, which also removes many of the loving activities noted by George Murdock above. When John misses a dose of the drug, he begins to feel natural emotions again continues neglecting the drug.

Barker notes an important point about the nature of chemical emotions: “Though emotions are culturally mediated, the sharing of broad emotional reactions is one of the features that forge us together as human beings. We all feel fear and we all have the potential to love” (128). Both ‘Gattaca’ and ‘Equilibrium’ work to recognize the innate, essential qualities of humanity to practice self-sacrifice and compassion. In the case of Gattaca, we see the people around Vincent sacrificing their adherence to the system to see someone who has already lived past science’s projections to fulfill a dream. Even when using science as its foundation, society cannot measure an innate aspect of human survival. In Gattaca, the preference for emotion and sensual indulgence is portrayed. We also see the stark contrast of immediate compassion when compared with the gray emotionless world that surround the ‘sense offenders’. John, without being surrounded by a culture of compassion nor being taught the nature of compassion immediately falls into the practice of doing so, regardless. This films works to illustrate evolutionary biology’s suggestion that there is a high “likelihood that there are cultural universals.” (Barker, 128)


Science-fiction uses artificiality and the construction of an identity to highlight the binary relationship to humans. In a Saussurian sense, knowing the artificial interpretation of technology gives us insight into what actual humanity is. Science-fiction enables the exploration of identity and reality by fully constructing artificial versions of them and asking audiences what the essential differences are.

It has been suggested that the advent of technology has pushed the concept of a self-identity to the forefront. “For Elias, the very concept of ‘I’ as a self-aware object is a modern western conception that emerged out of science and the ‘Age of Reason’. People in other cultures do not always share the individualistic sense of uniqueness and self-consciousness that is widespread in western societies.” (Barker, 216) According to Stuart Hall, this is an example of western society as an ‘enlightened subject’, which is “based on a conception of the human person as a fully centered, unified individual, endowed with the capacities of reason, consciousness, and action, whose ‘centre’ consisted of an inner core...The essential centre of the self was a person’s identity. ” (Barker, 219)

In science-fiction, audiences are exposed to concepts like these and then allowed to see the theoretical implications of living in the world we are watching ourselves create. Humans create machines to instill convenience in their lives, offloading monotonous tasks. In these fictions, we see the machines get increasingly more sophisticated in function. In ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), the androids, known as ‘replicants’, were off-world slaves. ‘The Matrix’ (1999) repeats this theme as indentured robot slaves rebel against their human oppressors. In ‘Terminator’ (1984), the Skynet networking system became self-aware and initiates a nuclear holocaust on the humans.

In the case of ‘Blade Runner’, replicants are made entirely in the human image. They are capable of intelligent language and signification. They are capable of highly complicated, self-aware reasoning skills, enough to create their own agency and rebel against their creators. A bounty hunter, Dekkert, is hired to retrieve a band of runaway replicants, and in the process falls in love with one. How can the post-modern, self-aware audience account for the difference between a real human self and an other made in the image of our selves? Through enlightenment and reason, it would seem that for all intents and purposes the replicants have become free agents, and thus, human. Audiences are capable of making these associations because of the sympathetic, essentially human characteristics of affection witnessed between Dekkert and the replicant.

A different perspective causes rationality to again tug at our conception of identity. Returning to ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Terminator’, we see that these artificial intelligences are just as self-aware and capable of rationalization. They have agency and motivation as many culturalists note as the key to identity. By chance of unintended evolution, these robots are also capable of sociological selves formed in relation to their environment (Barker, 220), triggered by some sort of arrangement of complex computations or even faulty programming. But we do not give them as much empathy or credit. The only discernible difference is the lack of compassion, the pure hatred and destruction that seems to be the aim of these films’ post-war machines. If we understand these androids to define humanity by acting as their binary, we again see that science-fiction is defining humanity as essentially altruistic, instinctively drawn to a sense of justice and peace.


Science-fiction also explores our attempts to circumvent the flesh, to reject the socio-biological implications that our weaknesses insist upon. As in reality, these films will instill elaborate virtual realities for characters to indulge in so that they may avoid their real-life identity.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle examines the fragmented nature of our acculturation in comparison to the “conditions of postmodern multiple identities...the idea of multiple identities refers to the way people take on different and potentially contradictory identifications at varied times and places.” (Barker, 361) Films like Strange Days and the Matrix take the concept of being able to choose which aspects of your identity you are most comfortable with and allowing you to choose them, all the time. In The Matrix, people who exist under the false pretense of reality as we know it are given the option of remaining before finding out the bleak truth that they are actually living in a construction. Their fundamental choice is to accept all aspects of their existence, of their influences and their selves, or to live in a dream world that offers them a false sense of security.

In Strange Days, there is an underground activity in which you can purchase someone else’s memories and physically experience the sensations of their past. This has the consequences of not only just repeating the same good memories over and over again, never to have another original moment, but also the exploitation of someone else’s history.

Both of these films offer their hypothetical populations an attractive virtual alternative. But as Turkle points out of players and their game-lives, the false reality “merely highlight[s] the limitations and inadequacies of their ‘real life’.”(Barker, 362) Again, we see the Saussurian binaries at work- the quality of real-life and the experience of the flesh creates an essential argument to confront and maintain humanity, even in troubled times.


After we’ve controlled our genetics and chemicals with science, after we’ve attempted to replace our reality or simply construct extensions to make it easier, after we’ve exhausted our resources and technology, science-fiction is still capable of showing us what human potential is made of. Post-apocalyptic films set in a future where technologies have been destroyed are an interesting study in how our culture would survive, adapting to the conditions of history while recovering from the future. Although mankind was incapable of preventing its mass self-destruction (always self), something inherent lives on.

‘Day of the Dead’ (1985) addresses a group of scientists and soldiers trapped in an underground military base after a widespread outbreak of zombie plague. After attempting to cure, socialize, and kill the zombie population, it is realized that it is pointless to fight against. The main characters ultimately find their peace when they decide to enjoy what lives they have left building a small community together, nurturing the cooperative instincts that ensured our survival in the first place.

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy simply but gently tells the story of a father and his son trying to find relief from the bleak and barren landscape of cannibals and pillagers. All along the way, the father motivates the son to continue on with the explanation that they are “the good guys” who “carry the fire”. There is nothing else in the world to grasp, and yet the will to survive is expressed as the most worthwhile when honoring the most difficult aspects of humanity, self-sacrifice and compassion.

These modern day depictions of the future, sometimes near, sometimes distant, are useful for analyzing what people today believe about the destiny of our culture. While the post-modern self-reflexivity of these tellings could only mean that we are acknowledging our eventual destruction, I believe it is speaking more to that ingrained sense of indefinable, essential humanity.

Works Cited

Barker, Chris. "Biology And Culture, A New World Disorder?, Issues of Subjectivity and Identity, Digital Media Culture,." Cultural Studies. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. "Heredity." On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978. 15-25. Print.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 1982.

Children of Men. Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Perf. Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. Universal Pictures, 2006. DVD.

Equilibrium. Dir. Kurt Wimmer. Perf. Christian Bale and Sean Bean. Dimenson Films, 2002. DVD.

Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. Perf. Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Columbia Pictures, 1997. DVD.

Mad Max. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Mel Gibson. Kennedy Miller Productions, 1979. DVD.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. Village Roadshow Pictures, 1999. DVD.

Day of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Lori Cardille and Terry Alexander. Dead Films Inc., 1985. DVD.

McCarthy, Cormac (2006). The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Strange Days. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Perf. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. Twentieth Century Fox, 1995. DVD.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World of Lifecraft

Our assigned text, "Cultural Studies" by Chris Barker, in the chapter entitled "Digital Media Culture", gives a heartily optimistic view of the potential of the internet. Citing enthusiastic points that the internet will "make us all cultural producers," (pg. 352) and that "a number of writers have hailed the Internet as enabling new forms of activism" (pg. 352). I instead agree with the proposed alternate view that the internet misleads people into believing they have taken action when instead "...The rise to the illusion of dissent in the face of actual powerlessness." (pg. 355)

Based on my personal plunge into the world of online gaming, and my first-hand accounts of the vast population that inhabit these fantastical worlds, I think this issue is something that needs to be addressed to a deeper degree if we are to begin deconstructing the culture of the internet. The final sentence of the section "Computer Gaming" quotes Sherry Turkle, a Social Studies professor as warning of "the danger of being lost in cyberspace and mistaking the dream for the real world." (pg. 363) I wish this had been the first sentence of the section. Since going cold turkey on World of Warcraft over a year ago, I still find myself feeling sensations of "homesickness" for the virtual landscapes of the game. It is a wonderfully intricate community, and offers many of the leisurely activities of the real world. Not only that, it is possible to forge many cooperative friendships when teaming up with others to achieve a lucrative goal. I have a hard time convincing myself that the time I spent sitting statuesque, but for the flying of my fingers, is time I should regret wasting. I believe that the virtual world, as a simulation of our real-world culture, is just as capable of teaching us self-identification and acculturation as the real world. I would love to see some more studies exploring the changes in a person's confidence level.

Turkle also describes players "whose game-life has merely highlighted the limitations and inadequacies of their 'real life'." (p. 362) I'm not sure what to make of this. Many of the people who are attracted to these games may not have found solace in anything else the real world has to offer. I think we are fortunate for people who are disabled or seen as physically unfit for 'normal' social interactions to have an opportunity to truly be them'selves' when the fleshly world shuns their inner spirit. However, it is important for these same individuals to take the self-worth they have discovered and apply it to a real-world context, so that they may not always be afraid to make any changes in the world around them. This goes back to the original point that the internet can feel more productive and active than it actually is. This is especially relevant in gaming, where short and long-term goals seem endlessly available in the same small context. In short, as the famous proverb says, "you can't take it with you when you go."

But just in case it turns out the Egyptians have a better idea of life after death, I will fill this blog-y tomb with the relics of my virtual wealth.





Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seinfeld Group

I feel fortunate to have been part of a group that had so many hard-working, intelligent people. Because of that, it's hard to say what I may have contributed independent of the team effort. I did assist by taking notes when we had our meetings and typing them out, then e-mailing them to the people who could not make our meetings. I was active in discussing the formatting and content of our discussion, and I participated in constructing the section on modern vs. post-modernism, pulling text from the chapters and connecting it to the show. I broke down the clips and made sure I was familiar with their context in the show so that I could readily navigate them the day of the presentation. A point that I was fascinated by but did not have an opportunity to discuss was Seinfeld's similarity to the other post-modern text we viewed, "Annie Hall". If given the opportunity, I would have discussed their similarity in the way they addressed the foibles of everyday life, the emphasis on Jewish culture in New York City, and the self-reflexive nature of their comedy.

Thanks to my group members, I think our presentation turned out exactly as we hoped.