Monthly Archives: October 2014

Research Seminar: ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now’

ipadCyberman

I have recently attended the research seminar ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now’. This seminar looked at how we read and access information having moved from reading the pages of books to reading from web pages in a digital age, how we now read often ‘multivalent texts on multiple screens’ (Murphy). Also discussed however was our increasing dependence on technology to the extent that new ways of representing the subject have emerged. Indeed, we have various online identities such as our Twitter accounts and Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. The web then appears to be a space in which we are free to express ourselves. However, there is an extent to which that freedom is limited. A representation of a person is reduced to ticking particular boxes. We claim to create ‘individual’ profiles on Facebook for example, but our identity is reduced to a number of basic facts such as name, birthday and nationality. Also, all Facebook profiles are essentially the same in appearance. They are all blue and while we may have the option of including a cover photo, that photo consists of the same dimensions as everyone else’s. Scan through enough profiles and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from another.

This seminar then has provided me with fascinating insights into how the web structures not only how one reads but also who is reading as we create online personas. However, the web has also considerably transformed what we are reading as literature increasingly reflects upon this impact of social media. Major technological advances have always been documented in fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, for instance, reflects the profound fear of science current in that era. Contemporary culture is no different as popular sci-fi and horror appears to demonstrate a similar concern with the technological. This is often represented by the figure of the robot in science-fiction films such as I Robot and 9 which express a hysterical fear of the machine ‘taking over the world’. However, there is another major preoccupation in sci-fi that appears to stem specifically from society’s increasing dependence on social media and the phenomenon of standardized online identities, that is, the cyborg, the idea that technology takes over not only the world but also those that inhabit it, the fusion of human and the technological. In the series Battlestar Galactica, for example, characters fear they may unknowingly be Cylons programmed to think they are human. Similarly, one of the most persistent enemies of Doctor Who are the Cybermen, a race of cybornetically augmented humanoids seeking to increase their numbers by converting humans into fellow cybermen. This process involves removing a human’s brain and personality, resulting in a uniform group of beings. We can read this as representative of society’s increasingly uniform online identities because their sense of individuality is literally removed as they succumb to the technological. Moreover, Doctor Who takes its critique of social media further in ‘The Bells of Saint John’ because the ‘monster of the week’ in this episode is the Internet itself. Similar to the 1982 film Tron, there is a planetary epidemic of people getting trapped inside their computers and literally taking on their online identities. In the scene where The Doctor informs his companion Clara of the situation, for example, an anxiety over society’s life in cyberspace is made explicit:

The Doctor: This whole world is swimming in WiFi. We’re living in a WiFi soup. Suppose something got inside it. Suppose there was something living in the WiFi. Harvesting human minds. Extracting them. Imagine that. Human souls trapped like flies in the World Wide Web. Stuck forever. Crying out for help.

Clara: Isn’t that basically Twitter?

Therefore, not only has the web altered the form of the texts we read and watch but also the content and ultimately, our identity.

 

The paranoid opening scene of Doctor Who’s ‘The Bell’s of Saint John’:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrxJuYvjGE8

An article discussing the fear of ‘The Rise of the Robots’:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2013/05/04/should-we-fear-the-rise-of-the-robots/2/

 

Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore. Universal Television, 2004-2009. Television.

Murphy, Orla. ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now.’ University College Cork. 30 Nov. 2014. Lecture.

Solana, Michael. ‘Dystopian sci-fi is making us fear all new technology.’ Wired, 15 August. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015. Web.

‘The Bells of Saint John.’ Doctor Who. Writ. Steven Moffat et all. BBC, 1963-present. Television.

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Ghost World and the trauma of postmodernism

GHOST WORLD PICTUREPostmodernism is characterised by an ‘incredulity towards meta narratives’ (Lyotard), that is, a distrust of any large scale explanation of how the world works, so history and religion, for example, are viewed merely as constructed narratives we apply to the world to give it meaning. This idea is related to the trauma of postmodernism in that this trauma is caused by such rejection of meta narratives because it undermines previously held certainties of how the world works. This particular trauma is a major concern in postmodernist texts and it is often represented by the way in which a text is devoid of meaning. For example, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves constantly prevents the reader from imposing any meaning onto the text. Indeed, it is never resolved how or why the interior dimensions of house in the novel exceed that of its exterior. Such lack of closure is brought home to the reader in Footnote 123 at the centre of the novel in particular. It is a lengthy footnote in the shape of a key with a line running through it, giving the appearance of a crossed out key and thereby suggesting that there is no meaning or ultimate ‘answer’ to this text. Similarly, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is a novel concerned with connection and meaninglessness and throughout there are continual patterns of promised revelations that never happen. O’Donnell in New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, notes the novel’s concern with ‘the fear that, in the end, nothing makes sense’ (1-2).

The trauma of postmodernism and a general anxiety over the meaninglessness of existence are similarly expressed in popular culture. The film Ghost World is a prime example of this. Ghost World narrates the life of Enid Coleslaw, a high school graduate who discovers everything she encounters in her life to be utterly meaningless. The film opens, for example, with Enid’s graduation ceremony and the typical inspirational speech presented by one of the high achieving students at her school is filled with stock phrases and empty cliches that do not really add up to anything. Enid and her friend Rebecca are shown to be aware of this as they clearly appear bored and exchange knowing glances. The rest of the film consists of a series of scenes depicting Enid and Rebecca drifting from one location to the next such as their local diner or music store and we as an audience expect something significant to happen each time they visit one of these locations in order to drive the plot forward but nothing does. The film reflects the trauma of postmodernism and the meaninglessness of life then in its strcutre as well because there is little or no narrative progression. Narratives are usually divided into three parts: set up, conflict and resolution. While the plot is set up in that Enid and Rebecca are introducted, there is neither a conflict nor resolution in this film. For example, Enid meets Seymour, a collector of vintage memorabilia and the audience expects their relationship to lead to some resolution, i.e., Seymour introduces Enid to a particular band, this inspires her to learn guitar and she then decides to join a music group and becomes a famous musician thus giving her life and this film meaning. The end. However, such conventional narrative structure is subverted in that their relationship merely fizzles out and becomes another ‘thing’ Enid encounters on her seemingly endless series of pointless experiences. Moreover, the film ends with Enid leaving town on a bus in search of meaning elsewhere. However, there is no resolution here because the ending consists of Enid once again drifitng to another location and it is thereby suggested that she will encounter a further series of experiences that will inevitably add up to nothing. Like House of Leaves and The Crying of Lot 49 then, Ghost World is representative of the trauma of postmodernism in that it similarly suggests life to be like Seymour’s collection of plastic memorabilia: artificial, constructed and ultimately, meaningless.

 

Here is a scene where Enid shows advertising and the media to be pointless:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL3RO1_8KgQ

This scene is also an example of Ghost World‘s critique of consumerism. For further information on Ghost World and its relation to commodity culture see here:

http://publish.uwo.ca/~dmann/ghost.htm

 

Danielewski, Mark. Z. House of Leaves. New York: Manchester University Press, 2011. Print.

Ghost World. Terry Zwigoff. United Artists, 2001. Film.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1983. Print.

O’Donnell, Patrick. New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. London: Picador, 1979. Print.

Consumerism in Edward Scissorhands

Storage

Andy Warhol’s silkscreens and Pop Art in general are subjected to two dominant readings, a simulacral and a referential. The first, advocated by Roland Barthes, is that the world of Warhol is nothing but image, that Pop images in general represent only other images: ‘the Pop artist does not stand behind his work, and he himself has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures: no signified, no intention, anywhere’ (Barthes). Conversely, the second reading connects his images to real events in the world. Critics such as Thomas Crow, for example, see meaning behind his work and tie it to different themes.

A similar argument can be applied to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, the dominant reading of the film is that its subject is interiority, about looking beyond appearances. The phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, for example, appears frequently in reviews of the film. However, like the Warhol simulacral/referential argument, Edward Scissorhands can equally be read as a story of surfaces rather than what lies beneath them in that the film can be taken as a narrative of consumer culture with a product in place of a protagonist.

Edward Scissorhands is set in 1950s American suburbia, an age of mass consumerism. The film even opens with an advertisement as Peg Boggs, an Avon representative, attempts to sell cosmetics to her neighbours. When her efforts fail, she notices an old mansion atop a hill. Thinking she has found an opportunity to make a sale, she enters and climbs the stairs to a dark attic. There she meets Edward, a part mechanical man with scissors in place of hands. In an act of kindness, she offers to take him home and his domestic skills soon become apparent to her and neighbours. They begin to ‘borrow’ Edward and he becomes a kind of human appliance as they employ his abilities to cut hedges and hair, groom dogs, make ice sculptures and chop vegetables for local barbeques. Consumerism has become so excessive that the human has literally become a commodity. Edward becomes ‘the new thing’ everyone is talking about, similar to that of the latest kitchen appliance or hair dryer everyone enthuses about upon its release. However, new products inevitably malfunction or get superseded by a superior model and Edward too becomes outdated with the neighbourhood tiring of him when he is framed for a local robbery, i.e., when he stops functioning in the way they, the consumers, expect him to. They gradually turn on him and chase him out of the estate. As a result, Edward returns to his dark attic in the mansion and the film ends with him incessantly making ice sculptures. This final scene can be read as putting an outmoded product back into storage.

Therefore, while most readings of Burton’s film will emphasise interiority, like Warhol’s silkscreens, it can be simultaneously read as pure surface.

 

Here is the scene where the inventor dies before finishing his product/creation. It takes place in a factory and highlights how Edward is literally constructed by a manufacturer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_kwFxbBY5U

Similar to Edward Scissorhands is Disney’s WALL-E, the story of the obsolete robot that continued to work long after humanity had abandoned the earth. Here is a link to an essay that discusses the film in relation to consumerism and the environment:

http://www.philanthromedia.org/archives/2008/07/walle_and_the_consumerism_of_t_1.html

This is an article that explores consumerism and the 1950s in other Burton films:

sarahjay.wordpress.com

Another brief article that looks at consumerism and the setting of Edward Scissorhands:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/183030506/Edward-Scissorhands-pdf#scribd

Also, this is a review and breakdown of Edward Scissorhands. Of particular interest are its remarks about the bland setting of the film, its highlighting of the character Bill’s essentially empty remarks on consumerism and the film’s relation to celebrity culture:

http://imaginarycinema.com/edward.html

 

Barthes, Roland. ‘That Old Thing, Art…’ Post-Pop Art. Ed. Paul Taylor. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. Print.

Crow, Thomas., ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol.’ Ed. Thomas Crow. Modern Art in the Common Culture. London: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.

Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.

Fenton, Rosalyn. ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ Scribd, 10 Nov. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015. Web.

WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Pixar Animation Studios, 2008. Film.