In this post, I will reflect on my experience of the MA in Modernities at UCC. Drawing upon previous blog entries, I will discuss various experiences of the past year such as that of working on this blog, attending research seminars and preparing for my thesis.
When assigned to compose a student blog, I decided to focus mine on popular culture. I took the theories and ideas introduced in the more contemporary course modules such as American Modernities and applied them to works of recent cinema, current television series and video games. For example, among the topics explored in American Modernities was metafiction in short stories such as John Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ and in the blog, I examined the ways in which certain television series similarly foreground their artifice and acknowledge their own status as ‘aesthetic artifacts’ (Nicol xvi).
In this post, for instance, I wrote about Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and the ways in which it constantly makes references to its own fan base:
Sherlock is somewhat metafictional in that it increasingly appears to make reference to the viewers watching it. For example, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’, Sherlock’s Series Two finale ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ ends with Sherlock Holmes throwing himself from the roof of St Bartholomew’s hospital and the next scene showing him to be alive as he watches John Watson visiting his grave. In the months leading up to Series Three, the fan forums were filled with speculations as to how Sherlock faked his death. For instance, a production source revealed that ‘Sherlock fans are known for their penchant for coming up with theories to solve mysteries we set’ while Moffat noted the ‘many people theorising about Sherlock’s death online’. This fact is overtly referred to in the opening episode of Series Three, ‘The Empty Hearse’, in that the character Anderson appears to be a stand in for the Sherlock fan base. After Sherlock’s ‘death’, Anderson is certain he survived the fall and forms a fan club obsessively dedicated to figuring out how. The group share theories similar to those one sees online and wear deerstalker caps resembling those worn by fans at conventions.
Sherlock is metafictional then because characters within the show appear to be cosplaying the fans.
I also discussed how David Lynch’s Rabbits foregrounds the techniques employed in comedy to generate laughter:
Sitcoms … order their audience to laugh. [They] are constructed in that a character will say something ‘amusing’ and then pause while a laugh track plays. This is the audiences’ cue to laugh.
David Lynch’s Rabbits … draws attention to comedy as something constructed. … The lines are punctuated by a laugh track. However, the laugh track challenges the sitcom formula because it … plays when a character delivers a line that is not inherently funny, as if, according to the article ‘Making sense of David Lynch’, ‘to say that the audience of a sitcom will laugh regardless of what they are seeing’. Loud laughter is heard, for example, when one [character] … asks ‘What time is it?’ Also, the duration of the … typical ‘applause’ heard when a character enters a room is played for too long. [Characters] stand eerily still and it becomes obvious that they are waiting for it to pass.
Therefore, the viewer’s laugh is just as constructed as the sitcom.
Also examined in this module was the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges and mutually exclusive narrative possibilities. I discussed this in relation to video games because the way such postmodernist texts offer the reader conflicting narratives is similar to playing a game:
A feature of postmodern narratives is transforming our position from passive readers unquestioningly receiving the narrative to more active participants with a degree of control over the text. For instance, postmodern narratives often … present us with multiple endings and thereby grant us the power to choose how the story ends.
In this sense, we can see video games as postmodernist texts. However, they take this idea of reader participation even further in that the player literally controls the narrative. Indeed, video games involve a combination of both narrative and gameplay as the player alternates between viewing cutscenes or reading text on screen and controlling the character’s actions. This is apparent in games such as The Last of Us because it appears to … blur the boundaries between literature and gaming. The high quality of graphics in the gameplay is identical to that of the cutscenes so there is a seamless transition between watching what is happening on … screen and controlling it.
Moreover, some games oblige the player to make moral choices and their decision will have a direct impact on the outcome of the narrative. In Bioshock, for example, the player can decide whether to kill or save certain characters and the ending will differ depending on which they choose.
Because of the level of participation … involved in video games, they can therefore be seen as postmodernist texts.
Additionally, postmodernism’s relationship with the visual arts was explored. When looking at the impact of the arts on popular culture, I considered contemporary cinema in relation to collage:
Cinema often blurs several genres into one narrative … and results in a work that resembles a collage, that is, an artwork made from an assemblage of different forms.
This is … evident in works such as … Edward Scissorhands. The film incorporates elements of advertising, for example, [as] the character Peg Boggs, an Avon representative, often faces the camera, holds up products and describes them loudly. … The exaggerated performances of the residents and the pastel-coloured 1950s suburban setting [of the film] also liken it to an American daytime soap opera. Furthermore, Edward Scissorhands [also draws upon] … the horror [genre], specifically the German silent horror film. For example, at the end of the brightly coloured cul-de-sac is an enormous haphazard-looking mansion where Edward resides, resulting in a bizarre juxtaposition of the suburban and the gothic. Indeed, it is like a strange crossover of Desperate Housewives and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Moreover, the juxtaposition between these genres is further pronounced in the film when Edward moves into the suburban estate. Indeed, Edward seems to be in the wrong film. In contrast to the neon-dressed, melodramatic suburbanites, he looks and behaves like a character of silent cinema. For instance, he is completely devoid of colour in that he dresses in black, white and grey. Also, Edward barely speaks. He generally relies on facial expressions as a means of communication and his exaggerated physical gestures recall performances such as those of Charlie Chaplin.
Therefore, by blurring [different types of cinema] into one narrative, [Edward Scissorhands] appears to be drawing on collage in that it cuts and pastes a range of genres into one [film] and results in something completely new and unrecognizable.
Throughout the year, I also attended a number of research seminars. Two which were of particular interest to me were Dr Orla Murphy’s ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now’ and Prof Graham Allen’s ‘The Unempty Wasps’ Nest and Kubrick’s The Shining: Rethinking Adaptation’ because they dealt with contemporary issues and were therefore more in line with the interests of my blog. For instance, Dr Murphy’s seminar explored research in the digital age and the phenomenon of online personas while Prof Allen’s focused on the process of adaptation and character perspective in film. Similar to my engagement with the course modules, I considered these seminars in relation to popular culture. I chose to discuss them in light of contemporary science fiction and horror because both appeared to tie in with the fears and anxieties usually expressed in these genres.
For example, Dr Murphy’s seminar expressed concern over online personas and the increasing standardisation of human identity on the web:
Also discussed 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 Twitter accounts and Facebook 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. … Scan through enough profiles and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from another.
I saw this concern with social media taking over a subject’s individuality as very much in line with the fear of technology that is typical of the sci-fi horror genre:
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 … demonstrates 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 standardised 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 the 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 as the plot centres on a planetary epidemic of people getting trapped inside their computers and literally taking on their online identities.
Similarly, Prof Allen’s seminar was concerned with how Stanley Kubrick chose to represent the most frightening aspect of Stephen King’s The Shining in his adaptation, the interior monologue of characters:
While the internal monologue of characters is central to the horror of King’s novel, it is not possible to show it in the medium of cinema and Kubrick had to remove it from his adaptation. However, Kubrick compensates for this by bringing something new and just as frightening to it. In order to represent the interiority of characters, Kubrick instead emphasises characters’ vision and point of view. … A typical technique of representing what characters can see in film is to show their face before focusing on what they are looking at and Kubrick’s emphasis on characters’ perspective in the film is frightening because he unsettles this technique. For example, the scene where Jack and Wendy are discussing whether to leave the hotel cuts to a shot of Danny with his eyes wide open while their voices can be heard. Because we are accustomed to this technique of representing characters’ perspective, we as an audience assume he can hear them and this is what is disturbing him. However, this scene then cuts to a phantasmic scene of blood spilling through one of the halls in the hotel. Here, it is difficult to determine what exactly Danny is seeing and the distinction between the imaginary and reality is confused. This is frightening because it makes the viewer distrust what they are seeing and loose confidence in the reliance of their eyes. Indeed, Freud says in ‘The ‘Uncanny’’ that an uncanny effect is produced when ‘the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced’ (244). If the horror of King’s novel lies in his representation of the interiority of characters then, the horror of the film is the reverse of this in that it lies in our uncertainty as to what is going on in characters’ minds, whether they are seeing or imagining.
This suggestion that the horror of Kubrick’s The Shining lies in the unstable perception of its characters prompted me to consider how contemporary horror takes the idea of blurring the boundary between the real and imaginary a step further because of its increasing preoccupation with drug addiction and psychological disorders:
The boundary between reality and imagination is further confused when the protagonist engages in substance abuse or suffers from mental illness because their altered perception of reality has to be taken into account as well.
In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, for example, Laura Palmer is a cocaine addict [and] … a victim of childhood abuse from her father Leland who is regularly possessed by a demon called BOB. Whenever Leland hurts Laura, she sees him as the demon. … Because of the introduction of substance abuse into the narrative, it is difficult to distinguish between the real and imaginary because we are offered conflicting explanations of events. Because Laura is on drugs, it is implied that she is hallucinating. … At the same time, BOB’s existence is confirmed in that he is seen by other characters.
[Similarly], in Donnie Darko, the protagonist Donnie suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and it is suggested that he is on medication. Throughout the film, Donnie sees and converses with Frank, a time traveller wearing a horrific rabbit costume. Once again, it is difficult to discern whether these encounters are actually happening and we are offered conflicting explanations of events because of the protagonist’s altered perception. For instance, we can take it that Donnie is a schizophrenic and is hallucinating Frank. In the scene where Donnie is in his therapist’s office, the therapist says she cannot see Frank while he menacingly stands behind her. However, it is simultaneously suggested here that Frank is real. As in The Shining, the camera focuses on Donnie’s face and eyes in this scene and then cuts to Frank thereby letting us know that this is what Donnie is seeing. However, when Donnie turns away, the scene is still intercut with shots of Frank which suggests that he is not a figment of Donnie’s imagination. … Viewers are thereby uncertain as to whether the film is depicting reality or Donnie’s altered perception of it.
Therefore, horror in film, in contrast to novels, derives from the form’s inability to clearly represent the inner workings of the mind.
During the year, I was also preparing for the thesis. I plan to write on representations of trauma in postmodernist texts such as Twin Peaks and the module Postmodernism in Literature and Film was essential to my research. For instance, trauma theory was discussed in relation to novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five but I could take these ideas and apply them to my chosen text:
Twin Peaks can be read as a postmodern trauma narrative of childhood abuse. … It centres on … a high school student named Laura Palmer … and narrates her struggle with her abusive father [Leland].
A common reaction to a traumatic episode is the inability to process it and in turn replace it with something more tolerable (Melley 126). In Slaughterhouse-Five for instance, in order to protect himself from his traumatic memories of the Dresden bombings, Billy Pilgrim imagines he is a time traveller abducted by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians who inform him to ‘Ignore awful times, and concentrate on the good ones’ (85). In Twin Peaks, there is a similar displacement of traumatic events onto the supernatural. … Whenever Leland enters Laura’s room at night, she does not recognise him as her father but as BOB, an aging demon from another dimension, because the idea that her father is her abuser is too horrific to confront directly.
Also discussed in this module was the ‘trauma of postmodernism’ and when I considered this idea in conjunction with what I had learned about metafiction in American Modernities, I came up with an interesting idea that I can bring into the thesis as to how postmodern trauma is represented in Twin Peaks:
Postmodernism is characterised by an incredulity towards metanarratives (Lyotard xxxiv), that is, a distrust of any large scale explanation of how the world works such as history or religion. … This postmodernist view of discourses produces a type of trauma itself, that is, the trauma of postmodernism, because it undermines previously held certainties of how the world works.
This is often represented by what I call a symbolic space. … Often a text can feature a piece of architecture … that is representative of the theme of the narrative. … John Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’, for instance, is a metafictional short story and … the protagonist enters … a hall of mirrors, so this space is symbolic of the story because it reflects itself. My suggestion is that we can take this idea of symbolic spaces and apply it to texts that deal with the trauma of postmodernism. … Twin Peaks, for example, features a space [called the Black Lodge] in which the structures we place on the world … such as language [and geography] seem to disappear thereby representing … the increasing decline of metanarratives. When Dale Cooper enters this space, … rational language does not occur [because] … the figures he encounters here … utter nonsensical phrases and make illegible gestures. Navigation and any sense of direction is similarly pointless. Wandering this space, Cooper finds himself continuously returning to the same room no matter which direction he takes.
Reflecting on my experience of the MA, I believe that the combination of modules, research seminars and blogging in the course ultimately prepared me for writing the thesis. The seminars gave me the opportunity to see how research is carried out, the modules provided me with theories that I can draw upon and the blog enabled me to explore these in relation to my own research interests and in the process generate ideas for the thesis. Having completed the MA then, I am now ready to begin independent research.
Allen, Graham. ‘The Unempty Wasps’ Nest and Kubrick’s The Shining: Rethinking Adaptation.’ University College Cork. 4 Mar. 2015. Lecture.
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