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The Language of Interaction

Rafael Arrivabene

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 17-29.

 

Rafael Arrivabene

Game Designer

 

 

The Language of Interaction

 

Abstract

Actions, reactions, conditions, and restrictions form the basis of any game. The rules designed to conduct participation and behaviours of players and objects can be understood as a particular language. In an attempt to elucidate an expressive potential that may have been underestimated by game developers and researchers, this paper presents an approximation of game rules to linguistic concepts.

 

Key words: interaction, games studies, ludology, linguistics

 

Thinking games as interactive texts

 

Interaction is the most inherent aspect of the game phenomenon. Not every interactive system is a game, but every instance of a game, be it a digital game, a physical sport, or a verbal riddle, has some degree of interactivity. This word means mutual or reciprocal actions and influence. In a broad sense, an action is a process that induces alteration in something else[1]. Interaction is, therefore, the reciprocal dynamic between systems in an action-reaction, cause-effect or call and response fashion. Players interact with each other and with the game system itself. They interact with its physical components and rules, always changing the game’s state. Games are artefacts or events in which interactions are not just random or spontaneous, rather they are designed to achieve some purpose. In games, interactions are a way, a medium, to communicate ideas and create experiences.

In order to situate the understanding of interaction in games, it is useful to analyse it according to Schell’s Elemental Tetrad (Fig. 1), which states that any given game can be analysed in terms of four aspects: Aesthetics, Narrative, Technology and Mechanics[2]. The Aesthetics, one of the most visible aspects, is responsible for much of the sensory stimuli of the game and its nonverbal messages. Another explicit aspect is Narrative. This comprises the lore and the symbolic verbal communication of the game. In abstract games or sports, the Narrative aspect comprises the events that emerge from play. Technology is one of the two implicit aspects; it is what supports the very existence of the game. In a board game it would be paper cards, game boards, plastic tokens, and dice. In a digital game it would be the hardware and system specifications. Finally, Mechanics is the other implicit aspect. It stands for the rules of the game and the behaviour of its components and its objectives. Players engage with every one of these aspects and each of their elements foster some level of interactivity. But it is the Mechanical aspect and its elements—the rules—that account for most of the interaction in a game.

 

Figure 1. Elemental Tetrad of any game.

obraz 1

Source: made by the author, based on Schell (2008).

 

One can say that when Espen Aarseth defined cybertexts and ergodic literature, he shed light on the less visible aspects that are also found in other forms of texts. Aarseth was interested in the performance of the text, its material nature and the rules that bind the reader/user. Using Schell’s terminology with Aarseth’s perspective, one can say that judging only from the Technological aspect, a printed book would be less linear than a hypertext, since all pages and content are accessible to the reader in any given time. The material technology of paper-sheets glued or sewed together does not induce linear reading nor prevent page skipping, as a digital text might. From the mechanical aspect, however, a regular book is generally linear. The linearity of the printed text media comes from a socially established rule of reading, not from the attributes of the media itself. For Aarseth, a cybertext is one that promotes non-trivial interaction with the reader. The author gives examples of books that work under different reading mechanics, like the Chinese divination book, the I-Ching, or Ian Livingstone’s choose your adventure books. Although still physically incapable of directing the reader’s path through the text, these books require a non-trivial effort to be read properly[3].While traditional books’ mechanics only require eye-movement and sequential reading of words and turning of pages, these examples prescribe a set of actions that the reader must perform and a set of conditional reactions that also must be followed by the reader, as in a game of solitaire. It creates an interaction between the reader/player and the rules system of that particular text.

In these nonlinear books and tabletop games, both actions and reactions need to be performed by the users. Sports rely partially on the laws of physics which rule the movements of bodies in space and combine them with made-up rules that must be observed by players or referees. But in digital games, the very medium that supports the game can update the system state. The players do not need to know all the rules, neither do they have access to all its content and possible states. Instead, they are free to experiment within the designed possibilities and can learn the game rules from the designed consequences they face. In Janet Murray’s words this kind of participant is called an Interactor[4]. She perceives that it is a different kind of audience because participant involvement is central to the development of the piece. Also, she notes that authorship of interactive texts requires different knowledge and planning than linear narratives. The procedural authorship, as she calls it, comprehends the definition of a rule-based world that must enable and respond to the interactor’s performance. Acknowledging this difference from traditional participation and writing raises questions of how this affects the semiotic processes in this medium. In other words, what is the role of interaction in the meaning of games?

Pioneers of Play studies, Johan Huizinga and Eugene Fink, addressed meaning in games and play, noting that during these events objects, places, people, and actions are resignified. For a child, a wood plank may represent a doll, while a doll, in turn, may be become a person[5]. When puppies play, biting can be part of the playful enactment of a fight. But sometimes it can also suspend such a game by breaking its implicit rules[6]. In play and games, a symbolic dimension overlaps reality, bringing new and temporary meanings to normal signs. For Huizinga and Fink, games and play are forms of representing and understanding the world through the symbolic dimension. Later, when Gonzalo Frasca proposed ludology as a field of study, he claimed that due to their interactivity, games not only represent, but rather simulate the behaviours of objects and systems through mechanical rules[7].

Closed forms of representation such as paintings or movies can only describe the properties of something in a given time, but interactive and open-ended forms of representation like games and simulators model such properties and behaviours, making it possible for the user to experience a range of situations. As with any kind of representation, simulation is always partial and biased. Frasca affirms that a “simulation is the act of modelling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behaviour”[8]. It is impossible for a simulation to retain all aspects of a given system because if it did, it would be equal to the original system and would therefore no longer be just a simulation. Thus, the modelling of a system is bound by the objectives of the simulation, by its feasibility and by the knowledge its authors have about the original system itself[9]. Like choosing the best angle for a photograph, selecting which properties and behaviours from the source system will be retained is a form of conveying meaning in a simulation.

It must be acknowledged that to understand meaning in games, one needs to understand them as multimedia. Multimedia conveys meaning through a combination of signs from various media or languages. The signs of each language must be appreciated together to be fully understood. In games, as in an opera, verbal language, body language, sonic language and visual language must all join forces to achieve maximum expressiveness. But, as stated, games bring yet another language into play: the language of interaction. Many game researchers are therefore trying to understand the expressive potential of this particular language and how it works.

Ian Bogost discusses how game designers transmit ideologies through the rules of their games[10]. He develops the concept of procedural literacy and rhetoric, which in his words is “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions”[11]. Building on Bogost’s work, Joris Dormans applies the Peircean triad “sign-object-interpreter” to simulations. He shows that the way game designers define the rules through which they represent objects or events in their games can have iconic, indexical, or symbolic characteristics[12]. James Paul Gee argues that the meaning of signs in games is related to their function and purpose. He states that game designers construct grammars made of rules in an effort to conduct player interpretation of objects and actions. He also notes that the semantics of games will always be a negotiation between the functions that players attribute to objects, the goals they accept for themselves, and those defined by the author in the game rules[13]. Coming from Greimasian semiology, Óliver Pérez Latorre proposes an analysis method by which game rules are divided into three major categories of representation:

(1) the representation of the protagonist or player

(2) the representation of the world or environment

(3) the representation of activities.

With this division, Latorre shows how games can be organized as a rule-based discourse. The next section of this paper will try to build upon these ideas by sketching what could be the basic grammar and semantics of the language of interaction.

 

Thinking interaction as a language

 

First it must be declared that the purpose of this perspective is to suggest where and how meaning-making and poetics can occur in interactive pieces. The scheme presented next will borrow terms from logical languages and linguistics, but with some license to adaptation. To demonstrate how Interaction can be seen as a meaningful language, it will be compared to Verbal/Spoken language and Visual language. I will begin by looking for the very nature of the language, and then develop it into more structured elements. Each element will be explained and exemplified when possible. The table below starts this exercise by searching for the building blocks and main structure of these languages.

 

Table 1. Comparison between basic elements of the languages

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Physical Source Sound Light Time / Change
Fundamental Contrast Phonemes Values and Colours Causes and Effects
Meaningful Unit Words Shapes Rules and Actions
Syntactic Categories Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc. Lines, Plain Shapes, Volumetric Shapes, etc. Inputs, Outputs, Restrictions and Conditions.
Composition structure Linear Spatial Branched, multilinear

Source: made by the author

 

The atomic element of a spoken language would be the units of sound—as studied by phonetics and phonology—that by contrast are understood as phonemes that can be combined into words. In a visual language, the source would be just light, which by contrast becomes values of light and dark and hues of colours that are responsible for the perception of shapes and volume. Both are physical signals that affect the receiver, who in return (de)codifies them. The relative signal for Interaction language should be time as it promotes the ability to perceive change. By contrasting moments in time, we perceive changes in configurations. This enables us to understand that something happened and thus to infer cause and effect relationships. By acting in a given system, these causal relationships then inform us about general rules or laws that govern reactions in that system. As with words and shapes, so rules and actions should fall into some main categories that distinguish them by their syntactic functions or characteristics. Inputs are actions that the interactor performs or triggers. Outputs are the results of said actions. They are reactions from elements other than the interactor. Restrictions are rules that prevent actions. Conditions are contextual rules that, when met, enable, modify, or trigger other actions. An interaction piece is then constructed by creating conditional cases for each input and output that unfold into many possible scenarios. This minimal set of elements should be observable in many systems in which humans interact with designed Technologies and Mechanics.

It is worth pointing out that inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions can be physical rules or arbitrary rules. Taking as an example a child learning to play basketball, any move she makes would be a physical input in the game system. The movements of the ball would be then physical reactions or physical outputs. Physical restrictions would be natural forces and bodily limitations that prevent her from doing some actions. Weather is a physical condition that can modify the parameters of the game, making it easier or harder for her to play. Arbitrary inputs would be those actions in which she relies on some level of communication and agreement, like asking for time. Arbitrary outputs would be scores and penalty shots because they are events triggered by other actions. She will also learn from other players, referees or coaches that an arbitrary restriction prevents her from running while holding the ball and that there are some arbitrary conditions that change the amount of points given for a successful throw, based on the context.

She would soon appreciate the values to each rule. Dropping the ball unintentionally, for instance, can be contextually understood as a negative input, since its output would be the loss of control. Whenever she learns that by applying the right force, the ball will bounce right back to her hand, she may understand it as a positive action, because it brings different feelings and utility. According to Gee, if actions are signs, then their functions inform their meaning. The composition of a game is always open-ended or at least undetermined between the possible outcomes. The possibility space of a game like this is infinite. At each moment of play there is a current state of points, positions of players and ball, and the available actions that each player can chose to do next. Each decision branches the play to another configuration until an ending condition such as a time limit is met.

To show how interactivity can foster aesthetic expression, we can frame the design of games and other interactive pieces as a speech act using John Austin’s concepts of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts from verbal/spoken language[14]. The first concept, locutionary, refers to the spoken sentence—the actual words used by the speaker. In interaction language, it would be the material objects that support the interaction, the Technology in Schell’s Tetrad. The second term, illocutionary, is the intention of the speaker—the goal behind the message. It would be the design of such interactive objects—their behaviours and functions. The last speech act, perlocutionary, refers to the reaction produced on the listener by the sentence. These acts help to show how the intention of the speaker or designer may guide the composition of their texts. Serious messages may ask for more formality to avoid misinterpretation, while flexible structures may serve aesthetic purposes. The table below tries to demonstrate simple samples of messages in each language, split according to the formalism of their structures.

 

Table 2. Simple messages in order of formality

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Less formal Proverb Doodle Kaleidoscope
More Formal Warning Scheme Hand crank

Source: made by the author.

 

Note that a hand crank on an industrial machine was probably not designed to bring emotions to those who spin it, but a hand crank on a music box certainly does. Fink stated that tools are “meaning that has been impressed” onto materials, but for him these objects do not inhabit the same symbolic dimension of toys. Tools are objects that only have the dimensions of real life[15]. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that one could subvert the function of a tool and start using it as a toy. In the language of interaction, as in other languages, the meaning of signs is constructed by the context and other signals. Gee argues that the meaning of signs is always situational, given on the go by the participants of the communication. Signifiers are not really attached to a specific idea. Their meaning is constructed by contextually inferring the objective of the communication. In his example, the idea of coffee in a sentence is changed by the presence of the words “mop” or “broom”. These other signs are responsible for resignifying “coffee” by making us imagine it as liquid or solid. For him, the meaning of a sign in a game “is what players can do with it, how they can use it in the game”[16].

The presence of other media in games enhances the meaning of the interaction. Actions in a game, especially in video games, are often not just pure movements but symbolic representations of other actions or events which are completed by narrative or aesthetic aspects. Using a hammer to build something is different from using it to break something[17]. When a chess observer declares that the black horse was sacrificed to save the queen, he is naming actions according to the visual symbolism of the pieces. When the cartoonish character Mario smashes a turtle with his hammer, it produces dissimilar feelings than a hammer homicide in the game Manhunt (2003, RenderWare). Dormans would say that the difference between the horse and the hammer examples is that the first is symbolic while the latter is iconic. An icon is a sign that produces the idea of its object by sharing some of its physical attributes or qualities. When developers model a system to produce human-looking objects, aggressive-looking movements, and bone-crushing sounds, they are increasing the iconic properties of the actions. On the other hand, even if the pieces of a chess set were crafted in a detailed way, the action of killing the knight does not share any similarity with the real event. It is only understood as such by cultural convention; it is a symbolic simulation that is found in many board games.

A simulator, on the other hand, is expected to be a high-fidelity rule-based representation of a system. Simulators should be based on an adequate model—an abstraction—of complex real-world situations, with the goal of providing users with a better understanding of reality[18]. But while the purpose of a simulator is to be useful and educative, the purpose of a game is to be entertaining and fun. Dormans compares this difference with the one between a technical drawing and a painting[19]. But games such as Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain) play with such a distinction. Despite its title and realistic three-dimensional looks, in this game you take control of a goat that can destroy anything in its way, perform amazing jumps, and other uncanny actions. This is not a case of a bad simulation; it is a game based on ironic, silly rules. Similar to Cortazar’s Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase or Carelman’s Catalogue of Fantastic Things, this game plays with the expected structure of this form of communication. It is possible to make intentional stylistic choices for interactive pieces.

If the meaning of an action is constructed by its contextual function and by its contextual symbology, it should be possible to devise semantic categories for actions, just as homonyms, synonyms and antonyms are categories of words. Words fill these categories not according to their syntactic function, but according to what they mean in relation to other words. This is a subjective interpretation of signs that can happen in other languages as well. The dove and the white flag are different images that both mean peace in western culture. A big black dog can be seen as the visual antonym of a little white cat. Homonyms, however, are dependent on the context. While a skull in a yellow triangle may be read as a warning, a skull in a black flag specifies the idea of pirates.

Synonyms in an interactive piece would be actions or rules that produce the same functional outcome. Their function is the same, but their symbolism is different. This kind of rule is uncommon for it can be seen as unnecessary redundancy. Nevertheless, presenting these synonyms in a game can be meaningful. In Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999, Crystal Dynamics), health is restored by absorbing the souls of killed enemies. It is a ranged move that attracts nearby floating souls to the protagonist’s mouth. Another way to restore health is to suck blood from the necks of human bystanders. This is a close-range move, non-lethal for humans but a less effective way of gaining health. These rules encourage players to take more risks and fight more[20] because enemy souls restore more health than human blood. But it also adds a symbolic element. Raziel, the protagonist, used to be a vampire, so this action is there more to make this connection than to be useful from a gameplay perspective.

Antonyms would be actions or rules that have opposing functions. Basic examples are, to buy and to sell in economic simulations, or to punch and to block in a fighting game. The first inflicts damage on an opponent, while the second prevents damage to the player. In other example, Undertale (2015, Toby Fox), players can choose to fight or spare their opponents, and this opposition is central to the game’s lore and innovative gameplay.

Homonyms would be cases in which one action serves two or more purposes. Due to technical limitations, early video games had to make the most out of a few buttons and commands. In Super Mario Bros (1985, Nintendo), a simple jump has combat, movement, destruction, and activation functions. Recent games have a much wider set of actions. A contemporary game like Battlefield 1 (2016, DICE), has commands for jump, crunch, dodge, aim, shoot, reload, change weapon, change secondary weapon, drive, etc. Maybe by pursuing that iconic simulation Dormans criticizes, some developers have ignored the possibilities of games with fewer but symbolic actions. As a counterexample, Journey (2012, That Game Company) allows players to only walk, jump, and sing. Singing serves to gather items nearby, to activate mechanisms, to communicate with and to energize fellow pilgrims. However, it also draws the attention of dangerous enemies. It is an action that has both the positive function of recovery and the negative rule of increased danger. Journey is poetic not only in its visual and narrative aspects, but also in its mechanics. Players can open doors by singing and avoid danger by staying quiet.

 

Table 3. Examples of possible semantic categories in each language.

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Synonyms Different words,
same semantical meaning
Different images,
same symbolic meaning
Different actions,
same practical function
Antonyms Different words,

opposite semantical meaning

Different images,

opposite symbolic meaning

Different actions,

opposite practical function

Homonyms Same word,

different semantical meaning

Same image,

different symbolic meaning

Same action,

different practical function

Source: made by the author

 

By combining function with contextual signs, actions can hold strong meanings that can be played with by the authors of interactive pieces and games. As in poetry and visual arts, beauty comes when words or shapes are used in clever ways which explore their characteristics. The expressive potential of this language is related to the creative use of these possibilities. Procedural authors must know when to simulate events as they are and when to subvert their behaviour. They have to decide which actions need more detail and when to make them abstract and symbolic. They need to know how to play with the expected functions of inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions. By creatively playing with these choices, some patterns of composition must emerge. Just as with the rule of the thirds for photography, or redondillas in poetry, there should be characteristic stylistic elements for interaction. These will not be covered by this paper as this theory is still in an early stage, but it presents a goal for future research.

 

Conclusion

 

In search of how meaning is constructed in games, researchers have found that interactivity is a strong element of this media. Game studies should, therefore, pay attention to this element and its communicative properties. Games cannot be taken as just another representational media because interactivity brings at least two particularities: actions do not always represent something but meaning will still emerge from interpretations of how such actions function in a cultural system. Moreover, when actions are there to represent something else, they do this by simulating that something. Especially in this last case, actions become signs that reference ideas or concepts outside the game. They mediate the dialogue between the ideas of the creators and their interpretations by the players. They can be iconic, trying to be similar to the actions and behaviours they represent, or they can be symbolic, indicating events more by consensus than by accuracy. Choices concerning how to simulate these real or imaginary systems are rhetorical since the exclusions and adaptations made by authors are biased towards their intentions and knowledge. The final rules of an interactive piece—especially ludic pieces such as games—form an ergodic cybertext or cyberdiscourse that is materialized in a language of its own. In striving to understand such a language it has been loosely compared to other well-known languages in an attempt to discover useful similarities or differences. It seems that actions and rules can be positively thought of in linguistic terms. The development of this thought may lead to advantages in the analysis of video games and interactive art, and hopefully serve to improve the design of such works. Maybe in the future a basic grammar of interaction will help procedural authors to craft even more meaningful interactive multimedia discourses.

 

 

Aarseth Espen, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997)

Aarseth Espen, “Computer Game Studies, Year One” Game Studies. 1:1 (2001), http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980)

Bogost Ian, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007).

Bogost Ian, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2008).

Dormans Joris, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011)

Fink Eugen, ​Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016).

Frasca Gonzalo, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017

Frasca Gonzalo, “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html, date accessed 12 June 2017

Gredler Margareth, „Games and Simulations and Their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) (2014)

Gee James Paul, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013)

Huizinga Johan, ​Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949).

Latorre Óliver Pérez, Análisis de la significación del videojuego. Fundamentos teóricos del juego, el mundo narrativo y la enunciación interactiva como perspectivas de estudio del discurso, (Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra) (2010)

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015)

Murray Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997)

Robinson Stewart, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press) (2015).

Sauvé Louise, Renaud Lise, Kaufman David and Marquis Jean-Simon, „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007)

Schell Jesse, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008)

 

 

 

[1] Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes other common definitions and uses of the word action, but the interest here lies on the approximation with processes and alteration.

[2] Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008), p.41.

[3] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997), p.9.

[4] For more on this see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997), p.149.

[5] Eugen Fink, Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016), p.36.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949), p.1.

[7] See Gonzalo Frasca, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017.

[8] Gonzalo Frasca, „SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html date accessed 12 June 2017.

[9] Stewart Robinson has a series of papers on modeling systems for simulations. See for example Stewart Robinson, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. in Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press, 2015), pp. 1820-1834.

[10] Ian Bogost, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 117–140.

[11] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007), p. IX.

[12] Joris Dormans, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011), pp. 610-631.

[13] James Paul Gee, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013).

[14] John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980).

[15] Eugen Fink, pp.35.

[16] James Paul Gee, pp.45-46.

[17] Óliver Pérez Latorre, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128.

[18] For more on the differences between games and simulations, see Margareth Gredler, „Games and Simulations and their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2014) pp. 571–581, and Louise Sauvé et. al., „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007), pp.244-256.

[19] Joris Dormans, p.612.

[20] Another example of rule-inducted behaviour can be seen in Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games do Health [YouTube Video] Mark Brown, 1 August 2016, and in Óliver Pérez Latorre, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015), pp. 415-437.

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

Bianca Batti

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 30-46.

 

Bianca Batti

Purdue University

 

 

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

 

Abstract

The emerging field of feminist game studies is one that requires more extensive discussion regarding its methodological approaches in order to consider the methods that can be used to leverage the field’s position in game studies, the gaming industry, and the gaming community. As such, this paper will consider the ways feminist game studies can implement intersectional feminist methodologies and methodological pluralism in order to disrupt hegemonic structures in the gaming community. To do so, this paper will interrogate the conversation between feminist science fiction criticism and feminist game studies because such an interrogation will allow for a fuller understanding of the methodological strategies implemented in feminist SF criticism and the ways these strategies can be extended to the field of feminist game studies. This paper will explore the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism and will argue that this worldbuilding can be used by feminist game studies to disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies works to unsettle hierarchical and hegemonic structures of power in the gaming community and imagine alternate intersectional models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change.

Key Words: worldbuilding, intersectionality, feminist science fiction, feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies

 

Introduction: Imagining Feminist Alternatives through Intersectional Methods

 

While the field of game studies has worked to establish itself as an independent field, one autonomously bounded off from other fields of study[1] [2], the conversation occurring between game studies and other fields (such as the field of literary studies) requires additional consideration, especially regarding the implications such blurred, interdisciplinary conversations have for methodological approaches to the analysis of games. The field of feminist game studies, specifically, encourages intersectional methodologies in the study of games and looks toward feminist studies at large[3] in order to consider how and why such approaches might be utilized in feminist game studies scholarship[4] [5].

Nina Lykke argues that feminist studies requires “theoretical diversity and methodological pluralism” and encourages readers to think of feminist studies as “a field of knowledge production characterized by diversity, fluctuation, fluidity and change”.[6] This paper will work to enact such pluralistic knowledge production through the interrogation of intersectional feminist praxis in game studies and literary spaces in order to explore the intersections of criticism, production, and community. I will specifically interrogate the interdisciplinary conversation between feminist game studies criticism and feminist SF criticism in order to consider the ways both fields imagine alternatives to patriarchal structures. I will also examine the ways both fields’ methodologies work to legitimize their epistemological claims in academic spaces that view such criticism as peripheral. In doing so, I will assess the implications this conversation has for the implementation of intersectional feminist methodologies across academic spaces; as such, my goal is to assess the ways in which intersectional feminist methodologies can help to dismantle boundaries, claim space[7], and make room for criticism and production that centralizes the importance of inclusivity and intersectional positionalities and methodologies. Ultimately, I argue that these methodological efforts to imagine alternative configurations is a form of feminist worldbuilding because these efforts allow feminist work to disrupt and dismantle patriarchal structures through the (re)imagining of feminist alternatives—that is, through the building of feminist worlds. As such, I contend that feminist game studies can look to feminist SF criticism’s use of intersectional feminist worldbuilding in order to consider the ways in which feminist game studies can also implement such worldbuilding as a methodological tool.

 

Fluid Frameworks, Multiple Lenses: Defining Intersectional Feminist Methodologies

 

This analysis of intersectional methodologies and feminist worldbuilding is motivated by the manner in which feminist research works to establish interpretive frameworks. Nina Lykke argues that these interpretive frameworks result in a multiplicity of feminist methods, and she contends that the discussion of feminist methodologies is needed because “discussions of methodologies and methods have not occupied the same spectacular space in the limelight of feminist theorizing as have debates on epistemologies”.[8] And while conversations regarding epistemologies, methodologies, and methods often intersect, Lykke explains that it is important to note the differences between these terms:

A common distinction between epistemology and methodology is that the former deals with criteria for what constitutes scientific and scholarly knowledge, while the latter focuses on rules, principles and procedures for the production of knowledge. Distinct from methodology, methods relates to the concrete approaches chosen to carry out a particular piece of research. Since the process and the product of research—and issues concerning choice of approaches, methodological underpinnings of this choice and criteria for how a desirable outcome of the research can be reached—are so closely related, these issues are often discussed together.[9]

Thus, while these issues are often discussed together, methods and methodologies, as Lykke says, are often not the focal points of these conversations; and so, they require additional feminist theorizing so that we can better interrogate the approaches and procedures we can engage in for the production of knowledge. Lykke also argues that feminist epistemologies, methodologies, and methods all require pluralism—because “it is more or less self-evident that this entails a great deal of diversity when methods are to be chosen”[10] in any feminist work. As such, feminist methods and methodologies—feminist approaches and procedures—rely on and result in pluralistic approaches to knowledge production, and intersectional feminist methodologies, specifically, result in such epistemological pluralism.

It is important to stress, here, that intersectional feminist theorizing and praxis arise from the work of women of colour, and Kimberle Crenshaw first introduced the term intersectionality in 1989. Crenshaw argues that the “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”[11], and thus feminist and antiracist work needs to interrogate racism, sexism, and patriarchy because the “praxis of both should be centred on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties”.[12] Crenshaw also argues that praxis that centres on the life situations of people works off the “view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction”.[13] Thus, intersectional feminism “highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed”[14], and intersectional feminist theorizing “argues that racial and sexual subordination are mutually reinforcing…and that a political response to each form of subordination must at the same time be a political response to both”.[15] And, as Crenshaw contends, “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.”[16]

Methodologies that emerge from this intersectional theorizing, as Lykke contends, require feminist innovation that “emerges out of untraditional, non-authoritarian…approaches to existing theories, thinking technologies and tools”.[17] Thus, intersectional feminist methodologies “take an anti-canonical stance” and emphasize methodological diversity and pluralism in order to “break up stereotypes and ideas about sameness”.[18] Something that can break up these homogenizing ideas is the method of writing “from a non-innocent somewhere” during which “the author has an obligation to make herself accountable for her location in it”.[19] This methodological approach is inspired by Donna Haraway’s epistemology of situated knowledges and partial perspectives, in which Haraway argues for a “doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects”.[20] These situated knowledges, Haraway contends, allow “us to become answerable for what we learn how to see”.[21] In short, intersectional feminist methodologies require this understanding of situated knowledge because methodological pluralism implements “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives”.[22] Intersectional methodologies, then, incorporate and invoke “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity”.[23]

In short, my goal in unpacking intersectional methodologies by tracing the methodological conversation between feminist SF criticism and feminist game studies—goals that are themselves rooted in intersectional feminist praxis—is to guide readers through the implementation of a multiplicity of methods, processes, and perspectives and through the interrogation of the ways intersectionality’s methodological pluralism can allow the emerging field of feminist game studies to construct itself as a space based on inclusivity, solidarity, and the building of coalitions that acknowledge and respect different positionalities. This construction of inclusive space means that intersectional feminist methodologies are a mode of worldbuilding—a way to build feminist coalitions that imagine alternative modes of existence—because the pluralism and inclusivity of intersectional feminist methodologies allows feminist writers to build anti-canonical, anti-racist, patriarchy-disrupting worlds that instead construct alternative spaces that centre intersectional feminist coalitions and futurities.

 

Patterning, Anchoring, Launching: Building Worlds in Feminist SF Criticism

 

When interrogating intersectional feminist methodologies and unpacking their potential for feminist worldbuilding, it seems only fitting to discuss research that examines feminist science fiction as an example of such work. As Haraway notes, the genre of science fiction has been “such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory. I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its sources in many heterogeneous accounts of the world”.[24] For Haraway, then, feminist SF is a particular exemplar of this “reinvented coyote discourse” because of its ability to implement “heterogeneous accounts of the world” and to use these accounts as a form of feminist worldbuilding. Alexis Lothian, in working to define and frame feminist science fiction’s futurism—its reinvented coyote discourse—argues that the genre “is a world of imagination, but it is also just around the corner, always and almost already here”.[25] Debra Benita Shaw contends that feminist science fiction has historically worked to challenge and disrupt epistemological claims in both scientific and literary knowledge production because such fiction has “a socially or politically critical purpose”[26], a purpose that Marleen Barr says allows feminist SF to present “blueprints for social structures that allow women’s words to counter patriarchal myths”.[27]

Patricia Melzer similarly discusses the “socially and politically critical purpose” of feminist science fiction, and she discusses the feminist value of this “particular narrative mode”.[28] Melzer explains, “Two textual aspects that define science fiction are the structures and/or narrative devices that constitute its mode, on one hand, and themes and approaches on the other.”[29] Some of the narrative devices that Melzer identifies are “the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives, and the implication of new sets of norms that result in the factual reporting of fiction”.[30] Melzer explains that these narrative elements, then, “shape the reading process”[31] and “create ‘blueprints’ of social theories. Only within genres of the fantastic is it possible to imagine completely new social orders and ways of being that differ radically from human existence as we know it”.[32]

Melzer explains that the reason science fiction is a genre ripe for the feminist theorizing and imagining of “social and political change” is because of the “combination of strangeness and familiarity that make up the particularities of the genre. This tension between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ is at the heart of science fiction. It creates a reading process based on estrangement, which places familiar issues into strange territory…This estrangement also creates spaces of abstraction for theorizing”.[33] Yet, this space for theorizing does not solely rely on estrangement, but, rather, it also requires identification because, in science fiction, “we grow to know the protagonists and their world intimately…As in other types of fiction, the ‘realness’ of science fiction narratives enables individuals (and groups) to relate to and recognize the debates as relevant to their own lives”.[34]

Thus, the science fictional strategies of estrangement and identification are the methods that allow the genre of feminist science fiction, in particular, to be utilized as a crucial tool for examining issues of gendered and race-based power and oppression, and Melzer argues that an understanding of feminist SF’s thematic concerns, structural and methodological strategies, and goals of resistance reveals that “[d]iscussing science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation, and it acknowledges the spaces of agency located within the process of consuming and producing cultural texts”.[35] Thus, Melzer contends that reading and researching feminist SF in this way and interrogating its efforts to enact social and political change “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[36]

Raffaella Baccolini argues that, as far as the popular-cultural feminist theorizing in “science fiction is concerned, the intersection of gender and genre has generated new, subversive literary forms”.[37] And one of the subversive contributions of feminist SF writers has been the questioning and disruption of “masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction…Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers”.[38] Such thematic disruption and resistance is also mirrored by feminist SF’s disruption of genre conventions:

The attack, in recent years, against universalist assumptions, fixity, and singularity, and pure, neutral, and objective knowledge in favor of the recognition of differences, multiplicity, and complexity, partial and situated knowledges, as well as hybridity and fluidity has contributed, among other things, to the deconstruction of genre purity…It is the very notion of an impure science fiction genre, with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance to hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction and makes the new science fiction genre also multi-oppositional.[39]

In short, these are some of the ways that feminist SF builds worlds—that is, this worldbuilding works to construct a “new science fiction genre” that is fluid, “impure”, permeable, and hybrid, and this impure genre builds these new worlds in order to oppose patriarchal, hegemonic power structures within science fiction.

Melzer describes this feminist worldbuilding in science fiction as the creation of “systems of representation that create the freedom to voice assumptions otherwise restricted by a realist narrative frame, and the geographic displacement of identity formations”.[40] To be sure, feminist science fiction often makes use of such systems of representation—such worlds—in order to imagine possibilities for transformation. Feminist science fiction specifically conceives of such transformations through a lens that seeks to imagine a feminist future while, at the same time, recognizing the obstacles and challenges in the path toward such a future. In other words, many works of feminist science fiction engage in worldbuilding in order to conceive of different ways of experiencing gender; such worldbuilding critiques intersections of race and gender and the manner in which the oppression that occurs at such intersections might be transgressed and dismantled.

Just as feminist SF seeks to dismantle hegemonic knowledge production in science fiction, so too does feminist SF criticism seek to disrupt epistemic hierarchies, especially since the field functions in anti-canonical ways. Such efforts are emblematic of the fact that one of the things that feminist literary scholarship, more broadly, consistently interrogates is the idea of the literary canon—that is, what comes to count as legitimized knowledge in literary studies and who comes to count as legitimate researchers of such knowledge. The feminist interrogation of canon formation typically works to problematize the manner in which canonical hierarchies often come to be rendered on lines based on issues like race, gender, sexuality, and ability. But more than that, feminist literary scholarship works to disrupt the epistemological claims and implications of the canon—it works to destabilize the normative privileging of who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the academic field of literary studies. The field of feminist science fiction criticism exemplifies such goals, because, as Marleen Barr notes, it is a field that, when it first emerged, had to reconcile with the need to legitimize its epistemological claims in a space in which such claims were often deemed illegitimate as a result of it not only exploring women’s writing but also doing so within the popular-cultural genre of science fiction; indeed, Barr, in seeking to explain why she “chose to be a feminist critic who focuses on feminist science fiction” asks, “Why would I, a person who cares about professional success, embrace a twice marginalized field, a double whammy in relation to career advancement?”[41]

It would seem that those who, like Barr, embark on feminist SF scholarship do so not only to unsettle the marginalization of the field but also because this “twice marginalized field” is a space that allows for the imagining of other potentialities and futurities. Melzer argues that science fiction is a valuable genre for feminist interrogation because, even though it “has the reputation of being a male-dominated genre, it has always included women writers, and as a narrative style it is open to feminist appropriation”.[42] But more than this, feminist science fiction and feminist criticism and “readings of science fiction have challenged existing gender relations and have explored theoretical and political debates of the time”.[43] Melzer argues that such challenges work to reveal that “[w]omen’s increased involvement in science fiction has proven to be crucial both for the development of the subgenre of feminist science fiction and for feminist theorizing outside the science fiction community”.[44] Thus, Melzer believes that the interrogation of “science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation” and “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[45] Baccolini, too, discusses the role of popular culture and explains, “Traditionally, science fiction belongs to the category of popular literature, or paraliterature. Its position, in regard to so-called high literature, is one of marginality (at best) or inferiority (at worst). Several critics, however, rescue paraliterature from its associations with inferiority and have pointed to its subversive potential”.[46] The subversive potential of feminist SF and of the “twice-marginalized field” of feminist SF criticism is what makes the world of feminist SF ripe for feminist theorizing.

Joan Haran and Katie King also discuss the feminist theorizing that occurs in science fictional spaces, and they believe that the feminisms that occur during our science fictional times allow for collaborative, collective feminist projects that work toward interventions for the present in order to improve “the condition of our continuing”; that is, science fiction feminism is one that brings us together because “SF is multiply…[it is] variously contested and in coalition”.[47] As Haran and King contend, this multiplicitous SF means feminist science fiction allows us to consider such things in more productive ways than feminist theory alone can due to the many ways SF asks us to confront ourselves by generating “simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as ‘us’ and ‘them.’”[48] This generating of multiple selves—and this reworking of processes and hopeful practices—is what constitutes the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism.

This worldbuilding is something that informs Donna Haraway’s scholarly practices, for it mirrors the ways she thinks of her own scholarship; indeed, Haraway argues, “My multispecies story telling is inflected through SF in all the fibres of the string figures that I try to pattern and to relay.”[49] Thus, for Haraway, scholarship mirrors and is indebted to the structure and patterns—the fibres and string figures—of the forms under study. And for Haraway, since SF is a polyglot, polymorphic form, so too is her writing and research of it. Since SF is about worlding, about building worlds, so too is her feminist scholarship—because the question of how one might be “response-able is the consequential question in SF worlding. String figure games are practices of scholarship, relaying, thinking with, becoming with in material-semiotic makings. Like SF, cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns…Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”[50] Haraway’s conception of such patternings in scholarship, influenced by her embeddedness and interest in science fiction and feminist thought, reveals the ways feminist worldbuilding does not solely occur in fictional settings but, rather, can be implemented within feminist scholarship as well. In other words, feminist scholarship also manifests such methodological patternings, for academic worldbuilding and feminist methodologies make use of twists and skeins, knots, and webs, worlding and transmediality, which requires a similarly patterned methodological approach.

 

Seeking Material Change: Building Worlds and Disrupting Rule Structures in Feminist Game Studies

 

The disruptive methodologies conceptualized by feminist SF criticism have implications for the position of feminist game studies criticism, too. Joan Haran and Katie King discuss the ways feminist science fiction intersects with the world of video games, for they interrogate the idea of the screen as the space of confrontation in transmedia storytelling and explain that gaming “has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today”.[51] As such, games—as material practices, as apparatuses of risk, as metrics for sustainabilities—converse with science fiction because “[g]ames and media play upon our neurological and cognitive ‘screens’ with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with”.[52] These cognitive screens, these practices that occur within both games and SF, are perhaps the point of linkage at which the two intersect—an important intersection for feminist game studies to explore—for these screens are the location through which we engage with video games and science fiction and the screens at which we must orient our feminist practices in order to interrogate and confront the worlds that these screens convey. Thus, I argue that the disruptive methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism can similarly be utilized by feminist game studies in order to make use of intersectional methodologies to dismantle hegemonic thought in the field of game studies.

Something that opens up and complicates the ways feminist game studies scholars might critique video games is by understanding games as Alexander Galloway does—that is, to conceive of video games as actions, and he also argues that we are now located within “an interesting upheaval in the area of mass culture” that is the result of the recent emergence of a new medium “whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action”.[53] Thus, if video games are actions, then feminist critiques of games are also actions. And if, as Galloway contends, such action is oriented toward “material change”, then such an orientation is also the goal of feminist game studies—because this action, this orientation, is what encompasses the worldbuilding that facilitates the goals and methodological frameworks for feminist game studies, which seeks to enact change in the gaming community through active methodological disruption. Feminist game studies is thus methodologically disruptive in the ways it troubles boundaries and manipulates the rule structures of the dominant social order.

The concept of play, too, has methodological significance for feminist game studies. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart argues, “Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say.”[54] Significantly, Sicart notes that while all “contexts of play have rules of some type”[55], play can actually be a method for manipulating and challenging these rule systems: “A key ingredient of playing is thinking, manipulating, changing, and adapting rules. Rules, servant to the context, evolve while we play to address the necessities of particular play situations”.[56] Thus, play’s ability to manipulate rules means that play can “disruptively reveal our conventions, assumptions, biases, and dislikes. In disrupting the normal state of affairs by being playful, we can go beyond fun when we appropriate a context with the intention of playing with and within it. And in that move, we reveal the inner workings of the context that we inhabit”.[57] Thus, the intersectional methodologies of feminist game studies make use of this concept of play in that feminist game studies, as a discipline, engages in play’s efforts to unsettle the rule structures and normative systems in which we are situated. Feminist game studies—playfully, disruptively—reveals the inner workings of gaming culture and gaming narratives, thereby challenging the hegemonic conventions and patriarchal biases underpinning gaming spaces. In doing so, the disruptive play of feminist game studies establishes (to return to Sicart’s phrasing) a space for freedom.[58]

But what does feminist game studies look like? And what is at stake in its space for freedom? Mia Consalvo argues that such a lens “can help to give us a firm foundation on which to stand in order to shed light on the persistence of particular issues, point to historical solutions for overcoming similar difficulties, and thereby push for a more welcoming kind of game culture for everyone”.[59] Adrienne Shaw argues that a lens like feminist game studies offers “an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction…and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[60] This is where the disruptive lens of feminist game studies matters, for it allows us to explore how other lives (the lives of those outside the dominant audience construction) are lived in the gaming community and how other futures can be made possible in game studies.

We can look to Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon’s “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding” as an example of how feminist game studies’ disruptive methods can be put into practice, in their call for the emerging creative strategies “used by critics, academics, players, and others to critique, analyse, and change the video game community”.[61] Layne and Blackmon refer to these creative methods as post-play narrative modding, which reveals “some of the productive ways that feminists and those concerned about women in the gaming community can modify gaming narrative, protagonists, and the community in a positive way”.[62] Thus, post-play narrative modding is “a type of creative resistance” that works “by both disrupting what exists and insisting upon choice that acknowledges a diversity of viewpoints”.[63] Thus, Layne and Blackmon provide an example of the ways feminist game studies can enact creative resistance. They provide us with a framework for a methodology of disruption.

This is the kind of work undertaken by feminist game studies, and intersectional feminist thought, then, helps construct the methodologies used in the field of feminist game studies. Indeed, Nina Huntemann says that feminist game studies specifically works to “confront toxic gamer culture” by “documenting, archiving, analysing, and responding to sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia in games and game spaces”.[64] But she also addresses the challenges and resistance that scholars in feminist game studies face when engaging in this kind of disruptive work:

In a space where sexism and homophobia are performed and reproduced as if it is part of the digital code, feminist attention to video games and game culture is threatening. Those who wield gender, race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of social power in order to intimidate, silence, and oppress others will fiercely reject a feminist lens focused on the cultural products that serve as platforms for that oppression. The mere suggestion that these cultural products are not the domains of white, heterosexual men unleashes a torrent of vicious border policing.[65]

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm importantly point out that this border-policing occurs not only in the larger culture of video games but in the ways games are studied as well. Indeed, the discipline of game studies itself privileges certain forms of knowledge production in the field, and while the “discipline itself has grown rapidly…for most of game studies’ history, conversations about identity have only ever happened on the margins”.[66] Thus, game studies has systemically marginalized analyses that consider identity, representation, and embodiment—in other words, the kind of analyses in which feminist game studies scholars, for example, often engage—because “representational analysis becomes the less rigorous, less medium-specific way to approach video games, compared to a focus on ‘hard-core’ elements”[67] like rule systems, coding, game mechanics, and software. But the disciplinary and epistemological privileging that occurs in game studies, Malkowski and Russworm argue, “misunderstand both the nature and importance of representation in the medium. It is both possible and essential to study representation productively in video games, even as this pursuit might initially seem poorly aligned with the ontology of video games (built as they are on processes and actions) or with disciplinary trends toward areas like code and platform studies”.[68]

Thus, Malkowski and Russworm argue that the importance of this mode of analysis is due to the need to counter the ways representational analysis has been deemed peripheral in game studies “with the implicit justification that the discipline should focus instead on the richer objects of code and of game platforms as complex systems—not audio-visual surfaces. Yet… representation and identity are similarly complex systems that are always relevant to the ways in which games, codes, platforms—indeed, all technologies—are constructed”.[69] In short, Malkowski and Russworm display the need for intersectional feminist methodologies in the study of games because such methods allow feminist game studies scholars to disrupt the epistemological privileging and hegemonic knowledge production that occur in game studies; Malkowski and Russworm display the need, then, for feminist game studies scholarship that centralizes representational analysis because “[r]epresentation in game studies must be viewed as a system that functions as akin to—rather than as a distraction from—the discipline’s more celebrated, hard-core objects of study”.[70]

This, then, is where feminist game studies becomes helpful as a field that explores the complexity of intersecting systems. Feminist game studies can allow us to problematize video game culture, challenge its definitions of who gets to be a gamer and what gets to be a game, and disrupt game studies’ definitions of who gets to be a scholar and what gets to be studied. These methods and goals, too, parallel those implemented in feminist SF criticism—a field that has been similarly marginalized and delegitimized in literary spaces—for, like feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies makes use of active, playful, heterogeneous feminist worldbuilding to claim space in game studies. And if we think of feminist game studies as a field that works to dismantle and disrupt the power structures that exist within video game culture, game studies, and the gaming community, disrupting hegemonically constructed gaming epistemologies and positionalities seem like good places to start, which is something that Adrienne Shaw also argues in her assertion “that critical perspectives, such as feminist and queer theory, offer an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction—indeed outside of identifying as gamers—and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[71] Kishonna Gray, like Shaw, calls for and works to enact analysis that takes seriously those perspectives, and she explains that by “examining video game content through the eyes of the marginalized, by highlighting the virtual gaming experiences of minorities, and by interrogating possible solutions to intersecting oppressions”, the analysis of representation, race, gender, and intersecting oppressions in gaming spaces is “a much needed addition to the theoretical examination of video games”.[72] To be sure, such analysis is much needed in the field of game studies, and while many challenges to this kind of work still exist, feminist and critical race scholars like Shaw, Gray, and others are already providing inroads into centralizing such methodologies in game studies.

 

Conclusion

 

These, then, are the intersectional and interdisciplinary methodologies needed in feminist game studies—methods that are the extension of those already implemented in feminist SF criticism. Such methods will allow feminist game studies to enact disruption by problematizing the controlling images[73] within video game narratives and imagining new worlds and alternate possibilities for representation. Feminist game studies’ methods also work to establish intersectional coalitions based on feminist solidarity in order to dismantle and disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies work to unsettle hierarchical, sexist, racist, homophobic, and colonialist structures of power in the gaming community and imagine models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change. Such worldbuilding allows feminist game studies to create a space within the world of video games, the gaming industry, and the field of game studies. That is, feminist game studies is a space that imagines new worlds, new possibilities for representation, and new models of existence and futurity in the gaming community.

Thus, feminist research on games works to claim space not only in game studies, but also in video game culture and the gaming industry at large. It does so by being enacted, methodologically, in a multiplicity of ways—both intersectionally and interdisciplinarily—in order to seek change and in order to create “a safe environment for women”, for people of colour, for LGBTQI members of “the larger video gaming community”.[74] In short, feminist game studies, like feminist SF criticism, makes use of feminist worldbuilding as an intersectional methodology in order to transgress and dismantle the network of oppression that marginalized groups systemically face in gaming spaces, communities, and research. And because feminist game studies is an emerging field, its intersectional methods and praxis will continue to shift and grow—and will continue to learn from and incorporate approaches from other feminist spaces in order to do so—so that the field can better serve the marginalized communities feminist game studies seeks to centre.

 

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Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000).

Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014).

 

 

[1] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

[2] Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

[3] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

[4] Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

[5] Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

[6] Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 3.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

[8] Lykke, pp. 145.

[9] Lykke, pp. 144.

[10] Lykke, pp. 160.

[11] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989), p. 140.

[12] Crenshaw, pp. 166.

[13] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991), p. 1242.

[14] Crenshaw, pp. 1245.

[15] Crenshaw, pp. 1283.

[16] Crenshaw, pp. 1299.

[17] Lykke, pp. 161.

[18] Lykke, pp. 3.

[19] Lykke, pp. 4.

[20] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988), p. 581.

[21] Haraway, pp. 582.

[22] Haraway, pp. 589.

[23] Haraway, pp. 589.

[24] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, pp. 594.

[25] Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[26] Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000), p. 2.

[27] Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993), p. 7.

[28] Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006), p. 1.

[29] Melzer, pp. 1.

[30] Melzer, pp. 1.

[31] Melzer, pp. 2.

[32] Melzer, pp. 2.

[33] Melzer, pp. 3.

[34] Melzer, pp. 3.

[35] Melzer, pp. 34.

[36] Melzer, pp. 34.

[37] Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000), p. 15.

[38] Baccolini, pp. 16.

[39] Baccolini, pp. 18.

[40] Melzer, pp. 1.

[41] Barr, pp. 2.

[42] Melzer, pp. 7.

[43] Melzer, pp. 9.

[44] Melzer, pp. 9.

[45] Melzer, pp. 34.

[46] Baccolini, pp. 15.

[47] Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[48] Haran and King.

[49] Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[50] Haraway.

[51] Haran and King.

[52] Haran and King.

[53] Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006), p. 3.

[54] Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014), p. 5.

[55] Sicart, pp. 8.

[56] Sicart, pp. 8.

[57] Sicart, pp. 14.

[58] Sicart, pp. 18.

[59] Consalvo.

[60] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[61] Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”,  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[62] Layne and Blackmon.

[63] Layne and Blackmon.

[64] Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[65] Huntemann.

[66] Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

[67] Malkowski and Russworm.

[68] Malkowski and Russworm

[69] Malkowski and Russworm.

[70] Malkowski and Russworm.

[71] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[72] Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

[73] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

[74] Layne and Blackmon.

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

Garfield Benjamin

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 47-64.

 

Garfield Benjamin

University of Birmingham

 

 

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

 

Abstract

Games offer a scaled and scalable experience of technologically mediated human action and interaction. The study of games therefore holds the potential to offer a far wider analysis of our technical and social structures than might be first apparent. Yet this scaling of behaviours and frameworks is applicable not only beyond simply an increase in degree, but also across different types of meaning, society, reality, and our understanding of them. Thus, to assess the expansion of games beyond conventional dimensionality, we can identify in games and game studies a fractal metaphor to guide our analysis. Drawing on concepts of iteration, self-similarity, recursion, complexity, and scalability, this article examines key games that embody a fractal dimension to their in-game universe, the player’s experience, the game’s development, and games as a field of study. The fractal analysis of a game will thereby be revealed as also an analysis of the metagame and its situatedness in broader concerns of technoculture and its academic study. The model offered will be applied to specific games and the existing literature through which game studies is formed as an interdisciplinary fractal conceptual space of its own.

 

Key words: fractal, game studies, games, No Man’s Sky, Everything, EVE Online

 

 

Introduction

 

The playing of a particular game generates iterative and often functionally self-similar experiences for players based on the ludic and narrative constructs that constitute the game itself. Yet these experiences are increasingly interdisciplinary in their relation to human activity, creating ever more total works of media that engage with simulations and representations of our social and technological realities and fictions. This necessitates an inherent and increasing interdisciplinarity to the study of games that expand the player’s interaction from the quantum to the cosmological, from the individual to the collective, and from the fictional to the real. This article offers a new mode of viewing games as both a mode of interaction and a field of study: the fractal mediation of humanity by technology.

Firstly, we will construct a fractal metaphorical framework through close analysis of examples that directly address such mediation of humans at different levels of reality. The highly anticipated, controversial, and often much maligned game No Man’s Sky creates a procedurally generated reality that expands algorithmically to produce a fractal game on the ontological level. Everything takes the fractal experience to an extreme by offering the player the opportunity to interact with the universe by ‘being’ everything, scaled from cellular to stellar levels. Consideration will also be given to similar games that involve such fractal realities even in their construction, generating a relation with players during the design stage through user-created content and responsive beta testing. Worlds Adrift creates an environment filled with floating islands created by users during alpha testing, expanding fractal interaction between players and with the environment according to a functional mediated logic developed further through beta testing. We Happy Few takes this beta testing further with extensive player involvement that has initiated major changes in the game’s aesthetic and the relation between which ludic and narrative aspects players would prefer to see emphasized. Finally, the long-running EVE Online demonstrates fractal human organization with its emergent and expansive economies and politics from the individual to the guild up to the entire player base and game world. Across these examples, a fractal expression of representation, reality, and relationality can be elucidated in the ludic structures and open narratives. Beyond the restrictions of closed objectives that define clear methods of interaction, the ludic mediation and human engagement still results in self-similar or iterative experiences of fractal play.

We will then address the fractal study of games across disciplines – the similarly situatedness of gaming in broader social reality, and the recursive relationship between games and our own world. Focusing on the extensive literature of EVE Online and applying these findings to newer games, the discussion will explore the necessary links between different fields in game studies. In the analysis of games, particularly those with MMO, procedural, or social aspects, there is an inherent need to take into account mathematics, computer science, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, literature, media, and many other fields. Yet the mediation of the ludic experience unveils scalable and self-similar features between these fields, already embedded within the construction of game studies as a distinct discipline. Indeed, it is notable that game design itself straddles the arts and sciences, employing programmers, writers and artists (to name a few) to construct a full experience across traditional disciplines. Amidst the myriad future paths of game studies, therefore, the article will posit the need for fractal modes of thinking about play and narrative in the persistent mediation of humans by their ludic creations, as well as the broader mediation of our society and experience by technology.

 

Fractal Games

 

Fractals – a concept with a long history in science, mathematics, and culture, but given voice as a coherent theory by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s – has perhaps most poetically been defined as a way of seeing infinity in the mind’s eye.[1] Indeed, fractals appear to have had almost limitless applications and have contributed to the understanding of chaos and of conceptual and actual spaces beyond the conventional three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. The term fractal has its roots in fragmentation, with the aim of breaking down the infinite complexity of nature into human-readable patterns. Yet for all their mathematical precision, it is important to remember that “there are no true fractals in nature”[2]. Fractals only ever offer an approximation of natural phenomena, an abstraction of patterns far beyond human understanding. The use of fractals should therefore always be combined with an acknowledgment of their position as an artificial framework of thought. Fractal analyses to some degree therefore always create the precise pattern they are analysing. Indeed, as an abstract human construct, the development of fractals was inherently bound to that of computers, another quantized reality that builds worlds through rigid codes not possible in the physical world. Not only did Mandelbrot work as a researcher for IBM at the time he developed fractal geometry, but it was the increasing access to and power of computers that enabled Mandelbrot and others to calculate fractals and construct the abstract shapes they produce. The artificial forms of fractals, while offering a way of abstracting and understanding nature, tend to exist “entirely inside a computer’s memory”[3]. They thus provide a constructive analogy and conceptual framework for understanding the abstract and computational dimensions of computer games. Not only that – and moving beyond the simple use of fractals as actual graphic constructions in the style of computer-generated landscapes or trees used in many films or games – but the application of fractals to diverse fields of natural and human activities lends itself to an exploration of the social aspects of games and the broader facets of game studies.

Yet fractals persist as an elusive concept, with definitions relying more on a series of typical characteristics.[4] For the present discussion, therefore, a few key concepts will suffice as a starting point to develop a fractal framework for thinking about games. Firstly, fractals are iterative, simple to define and often recursive. They produce the same patterns at arbitrary locations and use the same functioning – the same code – to create evolving and scaling structures. They are also often self-similar, spreading this symmetry and iteration across scales. These characteristics combine to form the “pattern inside of a pattern”[5] whereby the part matches both other parts and the whole. While this is not necessarily an essential part of all fractals,[6] it defines simpler linear fractals and appears in some form (for example, quasi- or statistically self-similar) in most practical definitions of the concept. Thus, self-similarity allows us to view patterns between arbitrary facets that may indeed have chaotic or emergent properties, or which obfuscate simple comprehension via high complexity. Another key concept is the notion of scale. Fractals allow us to view symmetry not only between parts of equal size, but also across scales. The recursive quality of fractals enables a shift in perspective between large and small levels of difference and irregularity, thus offering a mode of viewing functional rules in even the most chaotic data. In computer games, this shifting in perspective can occur at the technical or social level, between systems, renderings, and servers or between players, economies and conceptual spaces. This scaling goes beyond an increase in conventional dimensionality into partial and even abstract dimensions that cut across individual human perspectives and thereby reveal, at the level of the metagame, a hidden order in chaos and functional consistency between apparently disparate parts of a complex whole. Between these various parts and scales is revealed the complexity of fractals, which cannot be expressed through simple geometry. Indeed, the emergence of games as a distinct field of study highlights the additional experiential intricacies compared to traditional art, film, or other media. From complexity stems the notion of a fractal dimension, itself open to variable definition but always signalling a dimensionality greater than its topology. At a basic level, this can be expressed in the link between the concrete world presented on the screen and the vast array of code beneath it. Using procedural generation and non-linear structures, across player narratives and experiences it forms the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality that generates the ‘replay value’ of games. Procedural generation, originally developed in ‘roguelike’ games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a process of compressing the game world. This was exemplified in the space exploration game Elite, which sought to create a huge world using only 22k of memory.[7] By reducing the internal reality of the game from a detailed description to a functional algorithm, a much greater space can be unfolded from comparatively minimal code. Finally, fractal dimensionality can be seen in the multiple fields that games straddle and the implied relation to our own world that games can address, stage, and critique, expanding our metaphor to situate games in their broader context. We will now elaborate this conception of games through examples that address gaming reality, gaming experience, and game design.

 

No Man’s Sky: a fractal gaming reality

 

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is a vast procedurally generated universe of unprecedented size, containing 264 (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) planets. While this 64-bit algorithmically-created galaxy falls far short of the unknown limits of our own physical universe, the scale in relation to human perception achieves the same relative infinitude. Even at the impossible rate of one planet per second, it would take over five billion years to explore every single planet in the game – longer than the lifespan of our own sun.[8] Fractals, as a way of converting limitless complexity into scales perceivable by humans, offer a convenient method of understanding the construction of this game reality. Much like the mathematical functions of fractals, No Man’s Sky creates its reality according to strict deterministic calculations that can nevertheless generate a far larger universe than any single human could ever hope to experience. Yet it is not only the construction of No Man’s Sky at the planetary scale that takes on a fractal quality, the analogy scales too. Rather than loading a new environment when a player hopes to explore a given planet, the game’s procedural generation scales down to render landscapes, mineral deposits, environmental factors such as weather, and a rich population of fauna and flora. Yet this functionally limitless expanse returns to haunt us in its endless iteration. The looping nature of the gameplay extends beyond an identical algorithmic mediation of one player and another. The algorithmic construction of similar planets initially offers wonderment and variety, but after visits to multiple planets the appearance of the same kinds of worlds exposes the underlying iteration and an evolving self-similarity through time. This limit of the aesthetics of the game reality applies also to the gameplay. The open exploration, the often repetitive (particularly in the initial release before the streamlining aspects of later updates) nature of gathering resources needed for survival and travel, and the scaling of achievements (in terms of both in-game economic attainment and the convention of ludic ‘achievement’ rewards) can end with the player seeing through the complexity and reaching a level of predictability to the game over longer timescales through fractal understanding. Thus, the kaleidoscopic non-novelty highlights the creative limitations of self-similarity and the ontological limitations of the No Man’s Sky reality, as after a certain number of iterated experiences everything looks the same (much like many fractal images), creating a scalar shift in perception whereby the detail becomes flattened. Here we can attempt to behold the entirety of the complexity at work, and the processes of mediation reveal themselves within the literal frame of the screen and the conceptual framing of the universe held within the computer and within the game.

However, the narratological aspects of No Man’s Sky further this relation to iteration and scalability in constructing a reflexive ontology that loops into itself. What sparse storyline there is to find across the vast emptiness of space reveals a universe that embraces its algorithmic functionality and challenges its relation to the player. The main ‘goal’ –  although this is entirely optional and only one path of achievement a player can explore – of No Man’s Sky is to follow the instructions of a being called Atlas to reach the centre of the galaxy. Along this path the play encounters two recurring NPCs, Nada and Polo, who describe themselves as errors within the simulation. They are counterposed to the Sentinels, a variety of robotic entities that enforce the rule-based system of the Universe’s will by attacking players who rapidly interfere with the landscape by mining for resources or killing fauna. The player is part of a universe-wide experiment to break free of these rules and discover the source of the Sentinel’s power,[9] and it is the ultimate quest of the player to become an anomalous entity by achieving self-awareness of the rules and systems of the universe. The ending of the game, the big reveal at the centre of the galaxy, takes on a tragic tone that embraces the full despair of mediation and control by technology. The universe is revealed to be a simulation, nothing more than an absolute deterministic causal structure – a game – and while the character (the ‘traveller’) becomes self-aware, the player is returned as a new traveller on a new starting planet at the edge of the galaxy to begin the cycle anew. As the player learns more and more information, gaining greater and greater detail as they move closer to the centre of the reality, they end up being thrust outwards to the broadest scale. The player’s perspective, and their causal relations with the game, go beyond even a fractal towards a strange loop, “a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop”.[10] Even in a supposed critique of the medium itself, the recursive element exposes the iterative repetition of game playing and the rigid and ultimately deterministic causality of apparent complexity and chaos in both fractals and gaming structures. Perhaps this is why Mandelbrot himself focused on consequences over causes,[11] working backwards from human-readable problems to create gradually more detail from the chaos of recursive complexity. Cast into a universe and expected to find not only our own meaning but to discover for ourselves the limits of the simulation, the monstrous character of fractals unfold in No Man’s Sky as a ludic and narrative experience beyond rational scientific or philosophical explanation.

 

Everything: a fractal gaming experience

 

A game that embodies fractals in the experience of the player is Everything by David OReilly. Described as “a magical playpen of being, rather than doing”,[12] and – with an eleven-minute trailer that made it the first video game to qualify for an Oscar – Everything displays the fractal experience of being-in-the-world. Players interact with the universe through being anything and ‘everything’. Starting as a mammal, players can shift from item to item and ascend/descend scales to play as approximately three thousand different objects. These items fall into a variety of categories and include natural objects such as animals as well as man-made objects as well as more abstract entities. Examples include a shoe [attire], cigarette butt [trash], warped ruins [space junk], scale manipulator [tool], recursive house [home], convex stellated polyhedron [3d], and Planck length [1d]. This selection in particular highlights a focus on scale and a relation to fractal perspectives and experience. The objects themselves and the perspectives the player encounters create a fractal reality whereby we are offered the self-similar experience of simply ‘being’ across all scales of matter. Like No Man’s Sky, this universe is procedurally generated, but it is also connected and persistent, remembering the state of a previous scale when you next return. However, the map at each scale is not particularly large, enacting spatial loops where necessary that are visible upon zooming out but not ascending to the next scale. But a fractal universe does not need to be large (and even if it is, as with No Man’s Sky, there is fundamentally no difference between ‘more’ space and ‘more of the same’ space). The expansive environment here comes from the fractal dimension, moving beyond three dimensions to folded spaces of experience and new perspectives of scale.

Initially, however, the player can simply move around (and even that is somewhat stilted as the movement animation for mammals is a rather ignominious and awkward four-frame roll). As one early-encountered NPC (a mammoth) remarks, “you can’t control Everything//not yet anyway”.[13] Indeed, the game often plays with the double meaning of its own title and the objects it contains, applying the different levels of parts and the whole within its very construction. The ability to move around as objects (no matter how improbable their independent locomotion might be in our universe) is gradually augmented through talking to (or ‘thinking as’) other objects. Increased abilities include being able to join with other entities of the same kind or category, moving around as a collective being and even dancing together in order to create new objects. The player also obtains the ability to ‘ascend’ and ‘descend’, moving up and down in scale. Manipulation of the environment here stems directly from expanded notions of being in greater dimensions beyond human perception, a philosophical and even spiritual sentiment reinforced by the inclusion of recordings of a lecture by Zen philosopher Alan Watts concerning nature, patterns across scale, and being. This grows in Everything with the player’s expanding experience. For example, once you have ‘become’ a particular item, you can become it again at any time via the encyclopaedia, but it will then be scaled to the current perspective, offering a self-similar and scale invariant quality to even objects usually experienced at a single given scale. Further, if one is to keep ascending or descending far enough, the game universe loops round between galaxy clusters and atoms via a ‘feedback sphere’ at the one-dimensional Planck scale. This embodies Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ in terms of space-time, a sentiment echoed in Max Tegmark’s loop between cosmology and quantum mechanics via a multiverse of mathematical structures.[14] It also embodies recursion in terms of human consciousness as a feedback loop that intensifies over time.[15] In Everything these two feedback loops are one and the same, for our consciousness of the game expands fractally alongside our experience of being at different scales, or even simply perceiving/thinking as the game autoplays if left to its own devices.

The fractal strange loop of causality and the gaming medium that we saw in the ending of No Man’s Sky returns once more to haunt us at the ending of Everything. As another game with sandbox-like and experiential open play, the term ‘end’ must be used loosely, but open reaching a certain level (having achieved ‘being’ a certain number of objects) the player may descend into the ‘Golden Gate’. Here an abstract space of random objects awaits in a collision of different scales. Among these, surrounded by pieces of skeletons, is a computer which duplicates the player’s screen on its own monitor. After a lengthy but vague monologue lamenting the frustration of Everything in this place, the player is instructed to ‘empty your mind’ in order to escape this world. The player is finally allowed to ascend the Gate, triggering an ending cut scene of a glowing particle flying through different scales before returning the player once more to a starting position (with new abilities such as instantly bonding with objects or a documentary mode). There is no escape from a fractal game, as with all games. The fundamental mediation of a game system is to keep playing, returning always once more to a reality of rules which deterministically controls not only itself but our own actions. Whether we play as an abstract concept or a piece of shit, we experience the same mediated play in a simulated universe, beholden to the whims of the game developers.

 

Fractal game development and its problems

 

If fractals can be used to analyse the in-game ontologies and the experiences of the players, they can be applied also to the existence of the game throughout its development. No Man’s Sky received much positive attention prior to its release, so much so that the developers received death threats after announcing a delay to the release date. And when the final release of the game failed to meet certain advertised promises, the backlash was again significant. These issues span creative, cultural, and legal concerns in the feedback loop of perception and expectation. The spiral of hype that led to death threats, as part of the often vitriolic cultural sphere of gaming,[16] was echoed in the spiral of disappointment that led to a (cleared) advertising standards investigation. This latter issue, whereby key features such as multiplayer, ship design and others were missing from the initial release, sparked a fractality to the development of the game itself. While DLC add-ons to games is becoming increasingly common, and updates or patches are standard practice, the free updates to No Man’s Sky instigated major changes to the way the game plays. The development of the game after its release thus constructed a temporal fractal zoom, adding greater and greater detail to the game with each iteration. Each upgrade made visual improvements, refined the interface, and provided more content in various categories. The first (1.1 Foundation) update added the freighters and base building that were originally missing; the second (1.2 Path Finder) added exocraft, online base sharing, multiple ship ownership and ship specialization; and the third (1.3 Atlas Rises) added missions, increased story mode, portal travel and (crude) multiplayer. This last development was a major change, and one that was high on the list of missing features. While communication between players outside the game made it possible relatively easily, the original idea with No Man’s Sky was that it would essentially be single-player in a multi-player universe, for the odds of randomly encountering another player were astronomically low. Yet this feature was only added later, transforming the game fractally by adding greater levels of interaction and expanding the experience not only in level but also in kind, creating new dimensions of play. As an indie developer trying to create an AAA title, Hello Games had given themselves an unenviable task. Yet the later additions have not simply added what was originally promised. Rather, they have evolved in an emergent manner in light of the game being released in the world. The interaction between players and developers creates new perspectives and functions that otherwise may not have been thought up.

In the wake of the release disaster of No Man’s Sky, other games appear to be learning from their mistakes. While open beta and early release testing is now commonplace via platforms such as Steam, Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios involved players before even the alpha release in order to create a user-generated world. Functionally quite similar to No Man’s Sky, Worlds Adrift is an open environment for exploration and resource gathering. However, it has several key differences. The game is highly multiplayer, indeed for many activities collaborative play is nearly essential, and it is highly creative, being based on players/groups designing and building their own ships with which to travel between floating islands in a limitless sky. Thus, while the expansive universe of areas is much reduced, there are greater dimensions of interaction. Not only that, but the islands themselves are procedurally generated content as well as user-created content, embedding players in the pre-alpha stage via a separate, free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator game. Thus, throughout and before the extensive closed and open beta phases, players were able to work with Bossa Studios to collaboratively create a game that itself opens up opportunities for free interaction between players, building on core functionality before adding visual detail in a fractal development of form and content. Beyond the initial release, Bossa set up mechanisms to continually include players in the game’s ongoing development. The Sky Crier, a weekly news summary of stories from players, highlights the importance of player experience in the history of the game, while further developments to the Island Creator have been aimed at turning players into game designers by producing new levels and new experiences for other players.

The desire to integrate this degree of player involvement is also echoed in Compulsion’s We Happy Few, which, in strong contrast to Hello Games’ closed development and the misinformation of No Man’s Sky, focuses on transparency and inclusion.[17] As another small studio thrust into creating a higher profile game than they had intended, Compulsion sought to make regular public announcements about the process. This helped guide their relationship with players through an extended, delayed, and not unproblematic development. But it was not only communication that aided them, for they made several key changes to the game in response to early player comments. As the developers describe, “What the public and the press were telling us they loved about our game wasn’t anything like the procedural, story-light, rogue-like survival game we were creating at all”.[18] As a result, they switched their focus to develop in greater detail the story, the world, and the mechanics in response to what players wanted. The move to Kickstarter also emphasized a literal investment by players, drawing them into the game world not only through the experiential suspension of disbelief for this psychedelic drug-fuelled horror game, but also as co-creators and co-owners, bringing all perspectives into the discussion across different scales and types of engagement. This extended to further types of gameplay based on five drug-specific modes, as well as a suspension of the gaming framework with the addition of a non-violent ‘Birdwatcher’ mode in which players could simply explore the environment and, much like Everything, enjoy ‘being’ in the game. After the shift in expectation towards an ‘AAA’ level game by partnering with Gearbox Software, however, the communication and inclusion broke down somewhat. The sudden doubling in price and further delays angered many fans, although the level of engagement already established did allow for some mitigation of these problems. Bonus content was promised to early backers, and the financial support from the larger studio enabled a fourfold scaling of Compulsion’s team. This reminds us that the business side of gaming cannot be forgotten, for while the reactive nature of the development that increased in size to handle the increased expectation does itself embody a certain fractal quality, the problem of shifting scales highlights the competing forces at work in game development. In We Happy Few, we can at least see the creative intent towards creating a fractal experience that extends between layers of in-game perspective, modes of gameplay, and involvement in the design process.

The fractal model at the level of the metagame is thus achieved by enabling players to engage at multiple scales, creating their own local perspective through the emergent differences between iterations. Far from being a rigid abstract reduction, the conceptual ‘geometry’ of such games could only be mapped in multidimensional relations between the designers, the manifold facets of the game, and its many players. The feedback loop of a fractal game extends spatially, temporally, and conceptually back into itself as an evolving experience for all involved.

 

Fractal Game Studies

 

We have explored how fractals might be used to view games, but what of game studies as a discipline? Fractals can be considered one of three major revolutions in twentieth century science[19] and, perhaps even more so than the other two (relativity and quantum mechanics), have far-reaching interdisciplinary applications not only within the sciences but across social science and the arts. Mandelbrot’s initial work on fractals, coalescing a collection of vaguely similar approaches in mathematics spread sporadically across several centuries, was driven by a combination of geography (the problem of measuring an infinite coastline at high enough resolution) and economics (the need to balance sudden dramatic fluctuations with periods of stability). But his own work and the work of others quickly spread the fractal concept across a wide range of disciplines, and today there is a rich yet often unconnected literature that applies fractals to diverse fields. Indeed, perhaps the fractal as a field of study is itself fractal in its iterative self-similarity and possible application at various scales and in various locations. However, it must be remembered that fractals only ever offer an approximate representation of reality, an abstraction and reduction of complexity into human frameworks of thinking. The broader application of fractals therefore takes on an inherently aesthetic quality within scientific thought, a mathematical description of a topic rather than a rigid methodological framework. Examples abound of this fractal interpretation of our universe and society: in physics, fractals have been used to understand the two other key developments of modern science (quantum physics[20] and relativity[21]) as well as cosmology[22]; in economics they have been applied not only by Mandelbrot but also to financial crises[23]; in organization theory they are useful for assessing interdependence and multi-dimensional folding in networks[24], as well as management[25] and organization design[26]; in biology, furthering Mandelbrot’s focus on analysing nature, they are relevant in, for example, the organization of cell nuclei[27]; in psychiatry to movement and depression[28]; and in applied computing it can assist in understanding IT needs for complex organizations.[29] Fractals can be useful to understand any natural, human and artificial systems at scale, and the field itself therefore takes on its own implicit metafractal quality in its interdisciplinary application.

In a more explicitly and intentionally interdisciplinary manner, games as a field of study also acts as a fractal description of human culture and its mediated constructions of reality. There is a microcosmic quality to many games, particularly those that display MMO, exploration, or social characteristics. Indeed, the field of serious and educational games demonstrates the usefulness of games as a scaled-down staging of wider society or reality, especially when speculating on complex behaviours in exceptional environments or circumstances. From individual experiences to inter-human relations and up to the overarching societal structures, games offer a sandbox arena for experimentation (for designers and players) and analysis (for scholars). However, we must remember that games are never an accurate or neutral microcosm for concrete experiments. Rather, they are a hyperreal, mediated representation. It is this quality that expresses the fractal nature of the field, amplifying characteristics of reality with their dimensional reduction to the scale, logic, and experience of a game. A game can thus act as a more extreme expression of diverse problems in diverse fields, iterating broader concerns in specific implementations and intensified at a smaller scale. Some aspects will always be lost (otherwise the game would simply be reality), but this in turn generates the non-integer dimensionality of games as a fractal simulation of reality. The chimerical nature of games as a discipline is applicable in inspiring an engaged and experiential response to many issues, from the grand questions of reality down to the specific problems of individuals in an unequal world. The complexity of these issues drawn into the sandbox experiment of the game universe and mediated framework reveals an increased dimensionality of the impact of games in their necessary analysis through the lens of other fields. These various perspectives combine to generate a much broader view that expands into the spaces between disciplines and between the game and reality. We will now turn our fractal metaphor to the context of games within their field of study, taking the exemplary case of EVE Online.

 

EVE Online: a fractal metaverse of game studies

 

EVE Online is a ‘sandbox’ reality, not quite a game and not quite a virtual world but displaying characteristics of both. This space exploration and conquest environment combines the vast open universe and free economy of virtual worlds with the player-versus-player space combat one might expect from a game. There are a number of key aspects of its design, however, that differentiate it from other such games or worlds and emphasize its fractal quality as an object of game studies. Firstly, EVE Online goes beyond the iterative environments of many MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) in that, rather than placing players on different servers to deal with population overload and different rulesets, EVE takes place in a single universe on a single server with scalable architecture and adaptive workload management. While there is also a free to play version with much reduced player violence, this is more like a demo than a separate game environment. The main EVE platform is therefore not only a marvel of scalable technological achievement but in making the entire universe open to players, what is usually a series of parts becomes a whole system and the simulated reality becomes itself a closer iteration of our own physical environment. The similarity with the material world is emphasized through EVE’s second distinctive feature, the lack of constraints. Other than active cheating, almost anything is permitted in EVE, including mass player on player violence, scamming and other such nefarious activities. Like a Wild West in space, EVE reflects humanity’s best and worst relations, bringing together conflict and collaboration as large-scale guilds are formed for mutual protection and economic or political attainment. As one player review comments, “imagine if every chat troll had guns, and were in the same room as you. That’s EVE in a nutshell”.[30] The characteristic behaviours of humans playing games is amplified in a social feedback loop that allows us to zoom in on radical social interactions at a much faster pace and greater scale than is often the case (in either a game or the real world), and the actual financial value of assets that might be lost or stolen only further emphasizes the social intensity of EVE.

The universe of EVE takes on a further fractal character through its persistence – a temporal scaling of experience that has, running since 2003, outlasted many other continuous game worlds. This historicity, to an even greater extent than what Worlds Adrift is attempting to achieve, forms a feedback loop of the game’s internal truth, reality, and identity, between the players, the technology and the designers. Aside from any fictional narrative, the history of EVE Online is now that of its players, its guilds, its own pivotal moments, all of which express the shift from narrative to ludic history that Neal Stephenson later detailed as the battle not between arbitrary good and evil of writers but between player-chosen colour palettes in his novel Reamde.[31] EVE now includes player activities in its own lore, embedding the human interactions within the game structure in a fractal narrative with a higher degree of ‘reality’. This history and player experience scales even beyond the singular game itself, with a tie-in first-person shooter game Dust 514 expanding the universe onto the planet’s surface. More than a game set in the same fictional universe, Dust offered a fractal experience in the same game universe, connected in real time with the events of EVE, to the extent that players on the surface in Dust could signal for orbital bombardment from their guild’s battleships in EVE, and the players in EVE could benefit from resources won in Dust. The universe of EVE Online is thus constantly expanding in a fractal level of detail in space and time, with new experiences contributing to the constant increase in the game’s multidimensional size and impact. This impact extends also into the real world, with Project Discovery turning minigames with in-world rewards to the cause of actual space discovery, using players’ enthusiasm for astronomy to sort through telescope data to find new exoplanets. The fractal metagame thus expands outwards from itself, iterating through our own reality in social and epistemic detail.

In academia, the scale of the game’s impact is such that there is even an EVE Online reader,[32] establishing the singular game/platform as a worthy field of study on its own. And, much like fractals themselves, EVE Online has acted as a lightning rod for various disciplines as a scaled study of many aspects of human behaviour, society, and technological mediation. This includes (again, offering only a representative sample) applications in: law, for an assessment of property[33] and normative behaviours;[34] history, as collective memory;[35] politics, for the study of online propaganda[36] and political economy;[37] social sciences more broadly for issues in identity,[38] gender[39] and ethnography;[40] business, for studying the links between supply chains and skills development;[41] technology and networking, for issues of workload and player behaviour,[42] scaling,[43] and EVE Online’s unique novel approach to server architecture to overcome these challenges;[44] and mathematics, in relation to science fiction and reality.[45] Of particular note is the importance of scaling in both the technology and the socio-political structures. Scalability is a challenge in system design whether it be of the order of CPUs or legal frameworks, echoing human society in general in the complexities across scales of material and social dilemmas. The fractal nature of games reiterates the fractal character that appears in all technology, its design and mediation of human life. The importance of technology studies as an interdisciplinary confrontation with our mediated society reflects the necessity of game studies as a fractal field of its own – a scale model of the relation between humanity and technology that can provide valuable insights into the fundamental processes of mediation that increasingly define our digitized world.

 

Conclusion

 

We have demonstrated the application of fractals as a metaphor for the construction and analysis of games as objects, as a medium and as a field of study. The scalability of gaming experiences offers not only an application of the fractal model but also a model with which to view the interdisciplinary relations inherent to technologically mediated human society. Through the analysis of feedback loops, self-similarity across iterative player experiences in different parts of the same game, and the scaling of experiences to the game world as a whole and the metagame of development and expansion, we have viewed No Man’s Sky, Everything, Worlds Adrift, and We Happy Few as models of fractal games, and EVE Online as a model of fractal game studies. A fractal mode of approaching games allows us to view multiple aspects of ludic and narrative experience alongside external facets of the game in its context. Thus, the fractal metaphor becomes a metafractal analysis whereby the model is itself fractal in nature, self-similar across the various scales and objects of its intellectual gaze, and iterative across disciplines. Games and game studies stand currently at a multidimensional crossroads, having transcended the ludo-narrative dissonance of the field itself, while integrating and spreading across multiple traditional disciplines. It will be essential to find new ways of understanding the intersecting topics and interactions across the ever-expanding dimensions of gaming as a medium.

 

References

Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

Falconer, Kenneth, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical Foundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014).

Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998).

Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes In Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals From Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983).

Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017] , Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015).

Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

 

 

[1] James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998), p. 98.

[2] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxix.

[3] Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983), p. 10.

[4] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxviii.

[5] Gleick, p. 103.

[6] Mandelbrot, p. 166.

[7] David Braben in Emma Boyes, “Q&A: David Braben–from Elite to today,” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-david-braben-from-elite-to-today/1100-6162140/ date accessed 27 February 2018.

[8] Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

[9] See from 10:00 – Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

[10] Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007), p. 102.

[11] Mandelbrot, p. 423.

[12] Colin Campbell, “Everything review”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/21/14991494/everything-review-ps4-PC date accessed 1 September 2017.

[13] See from 9:16 – JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[14] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015), p. 358.

[15] Hofstadter, pp. 19-23.

[16] Such as gamergate, an example of mass abuse by collections of gamers against (in this case female) games developers.

[17] Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[18] Quoted in Conditt.

[19] Gleick, p. 6.

[20] Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

[21] Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

[22] Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

[23] Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

[24] Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

[25] Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

[26] S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

[27] Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

[28] Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

[29] Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

[30] Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017], Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

[31] Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

[32] Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

[33] Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes in Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

[34] Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

[35] Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

[36] Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

[37] Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), pp. 365-388.

[38] Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnold, “Avatars, Characters, Players and Users: Multiple Identities at/in Play” OZCHI’12 (2012), pp. 68-71.

[39] Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

[40] Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

[41] Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

[42] Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

[43] David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

[44] Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

[45] Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming

Katherine Mancey

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 83-101.

 

 

Katherine Mancey

University of Liverpool

 

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming

 

Abstract

Whilst the study of music in audio-visual media is a well-established academic field, the fast and constant evolution of gaming technology creates the need for a simultaneous evolution in the analytical methodologies of video game music, and results in a need to draw from a wide range of disciplines, from film music studies to cognitive science. The rising popularity of virtual reality gaming, with the mass market introduction of VR headsets such as the Oculus Gear VR and Sony’s PSVR opens up a new field of discussion for the evolving role of non-diegetic music in gaming, and its subsequent effect on the player experience. My article addresses the shifting role of music from 2D screens to the in-world experience of virtual reality, and how this alters our perception of diegesis. This is supported by a discussion of varying neuropsychological explanations for the relationship between music and emotion, its effect on various theories of immersion/presence, and their application to this new visual immediacy. Through an analysis of a selection of films and video games, including the most recent Batman: Arkham VR, I will be questioning whether the same need for a non-diegetic underscore exists, or if this new visual experience calls for more musical fluidity across the diegesis where soundtrack and in-game audio flow seamlessly. Now that the physical distance between the player and the graphics has been drastically reduced, I question whether traditional non-diegetic video game scores will break the fourth wall rather than enhancing the player’s immersive experience. By examining where we draw lines within diegesis, this paper acknowledges the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between soundtrack and in-game audio, as gaming technology moves away from the traditional static screen experience and into an edgeless game world, highlighting the significance of analysing all game sound as a guide to emotional response.

Key words: music, virtual reality, video games, soundtrack, Batman, film

 

The soundtrack has been a vital part of audio-visual media since its introduction in early film. However, before discussing the evolution of the soundtrack from silent film to virtual reality gaming, it is important to first contextualise virtual reality within both the gaming world and the wider technology sector. Whilst VR video games and 360º visual experiences have only recently emerged on the mass market, the design principle of Darlene Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope is still used today for the Google Cardboard and other lower budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones, using two different 2D images side by side to build a 3D image. One of the first ‘VR’ gaming experiences for the mass market was Nintendo’s table top console, Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it used the same stereoscopic principles to create a 3D display but without free head movement. This proved unpopular with global sales of only 770,000 units[1]. Since then, developments in technology, such as an increase in graphical fidelity, have led to greater sophistication in virtual reality technology and in 2016 three premium VR headsets were released, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PSVR. Of the three, the PSVR has been the most commercially successful, perhaps due to its lower price point and easier set-up, requiring a PS4 to use rather than a high specification gaming PC, selling roughly one million units in its first six months.[2]

The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have applications outside of the gaming world, with their virtual reality technology starting to be introduced into a range of industries. For example, VR headsets allow architects to better ‘feel’ the spaces they are designing[3]. There has been a rise in 360º video production too, with popular entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed sharing numerous 360º videos on their YouTube channel. To be experienced, their videos use stereoscopic principles which require lower-end VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, or they can be viewed without a headset by scrolling around the video, bringing this new cinematic experience to a much wider audience, and beginning to normalise the virtual reality experience in popular culture. Although these videos are not interactive, it shows a rise in the popularity of this visual engulfment, with their ‘How Animals See the World’ video being viewed over 4 million times[4]. In contrast, the PSVR is only used for gaming as it works in conjunction with the PS4. Due to its popularity and sole gaming function, I will be focusing on the PSVR and games made for the PSVR specifically whilst discussing the shifting role of music from film to 2D video games, through to virtual reality.

The soundtrack is well established as an essential part of film, television, and video games, serving many functions both practically and aesthetically. Before the advent of synchronised dialogue in 1927, films were completely silent but the theatres themselves were far from silent. The machinery involved in projecting films was loud, and audiences treated going to the movies as a social occasion. This gave music a functional purpose as it could drown out the real world, drawing attention to the screen. Music was seen as part of the performance of a film, with composers Hans Erdmann and Giuseppe Becce questioning in 1927 whether films needed music at all[5], as it was believed that non-diegetic music during dialogue scenes could annoy viewers who were trying to concentrate on the dialogue. But this opinion was not universal; when film makers managed to synchronise dialogue with image, the fidelity of the sound playback was poor. Actors had to stand awkwardly still and close to hidden microphones which lead to unnatural line delivery. This resulted in actors on screen appearing ghostly, as suggested by Adorno and Eisler, ‘For the talking picture, too, is mute. The characters in it are not speaking people but speaking effigies’[6]; without music films became ‘emaciated, bloodless, lacking in emotional appeal’[7]. It was music’s job to bring emotion to scenes and to breathe life back into the ghostly figures, overcoming the ‘questions of belief, immediacy and illusion’[8] from the audience. Musical ensembles differed between theatres, with some using full orchestras, but most movie theatres employed solo theatre organists or pianists to accompany the film. After reading the director’s ‘emotion’ annotation for the scene, they would use a mixture of improvisation, original scores, and compiled scores from pre-existing music to express this emotion to their audience; as noted by Stuart Oderman, ‘The tremolo increased suspense…A diminished chord called for resolution’[9], creating the foundations of a soundtrack. This use of soundtrack to convey human emotion has carried through to video games. As Collins suggests, sound in video games is a ‘simulacrum of the real’[10], whilst this also applies to the reactive sound effects in games, the principles behind the use of sound are still the same, to stop the on-screen action from feeling alien and detached.

We can draw parallels between the use of musical cues in early film and in video games. Just as audiences had to read slides, in early video games the players had to read text to continue the narrative, reinforced by music (see Fig 1.1). Without the capacity to play dialogue, music had to bring the text to life. Whilst still very obviously non-diegetic, this music was a key communicator of diegetic mood. Square Co.’s Final Fantasy I (1987) employs this technique. After reaching the Light Warrior Memorial Bridge, a prologue screen opens accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture (see Example 1.1)

Zrzut_07 2018-07-29 00.46.05

Example 1.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nWX1M6xTA0>

 

The music during the prologue has to set the scene for adventure, achieving this through a variety of compositional techniques. If we analyse the opening melodic statement (See Fig 1.2 and 0’0’’ to 0’13’’ from Example 1.1) we can see how its structure mirrors the beginning of a journey. It starts with the tonic note in the bass and the fifth in both melodic lines, followed by a minor seventh leap. The seventh pushes us to the expansion of an upper octave in the safety of the tonic key opposed to a more nostalgic return to the original octave[11]; therefore, its use in the opening of the prologue readies the player for expansive adventure as the on-screen text reads, ‘And so, their journey begins…’. The use of the seventh is repeated in sequence; transposed up a tone to G minor it accompanies the text, ‘What awaits the Four, they do not know’. By using rising sequential repetition and a minor chord, tension builds which creates an air of mystery to mirror the text, finishing with a C major 7 chord which propels the music forwards as the ear wants it to resolve, again creating an expectation of exploration and a sense of adventure.

Zrzut_08 2018-07-29 00.46.36

The melody, harmonic structure and overall musical phrasing is reminiscent of baroque music, using a continuo bass and melodic counterpoint alongside binary form and faster-paced chord changes. However, Finally Fantasy I is not set in 17th Century Western Europe, therefore the decision to use this baroque style is not reflective of the diegetic world. When Final Fantasy I was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, only three audio channels were available, and during gameplay one channel had to be left open for sound effects. As Collins suggests, ‘technological constraint has shaped aesthetic decisions’[12]. The use of this baroque style fit nicely within the three-channel system, it allowed for melodic lines to be effective whilst sounding in similar timbres akin to the contrapuntal melodic lines in Bach’s piano preludes, building and resealing tension to add depth to the pixilated characters. It also gave a sense of grandeur to the otherwise thin textures, making the resolve to the major tonic feel triumphant.

Final Fantasy I has spawned a series of sequels since its 1987 release. The most recent, Final Fantasy XV (2016), has a vastly greater capacity for audio with huge development in both the technology within the game engine and consoles (such as memory and processing capacity), and the technology used to record the music itself (such as microphone fidelity and digital processing) since the 8-bit three channel system, resulting in a high-fidelity and far more musically intricate soundtrack. It uses the same prologue theme from Final Fantasy I, but this time it is heard at the end of the game and in much richer scoring (see Example 1.2).

 

Example 1.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EojQj4UI58A>

 

As Summers suggests, ‘The total time, on average, that a player spends with any one game is significantly longer than the running time of most mainstream films’[13], and the player’s exposure to this prologue motif is significantly longer if they have played through all fifteen games in the series. This familiarity and long-term association with the motif adds greater emotional value to the piece above the sociocultural meaning accompanying its musical style, reinterpreting the prologue theme from the opening game play of Final Fantasy I as a finale theme to bring the whole series full circle. Yoko Shimomura’s re-orchestration of the prelude theme takes the music from a string quartet, to a piano-led quintet, through to a fanfare using brass, percussion, and a choir. This mirrors the journey the player has taken throughout the game (and throughout the whole series,), moving away from the baroque scoring techniques used in Final Fantasy I and using more contemporary scoring techniques with no technological restriction. For example, the opening string quartet uses homophonic harmonic movement with a leading violin melody on top, previously impossible via earlier 8-bit technology (See Fig. 1.3). However, both Example 1.1 and 1.2 are taken from cut scenes. These passive moments from otherwise interactive experiences allow for a linear score which lends itself to filmic musical tropes: scoring can be thicker, and the certainty of linear playback allows for greater melodic and harmonic development. Whilst this interpretation of the theme is much grander and has been humanised through the use of acoustic timbres and performance techniques such as varying vibrato, the music is still firmly non-diegetic and there is a clear distinction between the sounds and timbres of the game world and those of the soundtrack.

 

Zrzut_09 2018-07-29 00.46.57

 

Numerous studies have been conducted analysing the effect that music has on emotion; Schäfer et al. found in their study that the faster the rhythms, the more stressful and dangerous a situation the listener experiences[14]; this correlates with the use of fast-paced music in chase scenes. Chia-Hung Yeh et al. found that participants in their study could easily and accurately identify the emotions behind a piece of popular music even through different cover versions of the piece using varying lyrics in different languages[15], thus showing how powerful melody can be. Lipscomb and Kendall analysed participants’ ability to determine which music best fit a scene from Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from five musical examples. They found that participants could identify the ‘correct’ music for each scene with a high degree of accuracy, and this level of accuracy increased when scenes included human characters as the music worked to mirror human gestures[16].

This reaction to musical cues works in reverse too, as found in Bullerjahn and Güldering’s study in which participants watched intentionally ambiguous film clips accompanied by a range of music, and found that musical genre had a great impact on the participants film outcome predictions, such as ‘thriller’ music leading them to imagine a more adventurous and violent film ending than the ‘melodrama’ score which lead to visions of happier, family-centric plot conclusions[17].  Imagining an accompanying image is a commonly reported reaction to music[18] and whilst each image in the mind of the listener may differ from the next, Osborne found that listeners often associated relatively similar images to specific music[19], which shows how music can be used as a powerful tool in video games to underpin gameplay and create a vaster picture of a game world than can be shown on the screen. Musical foreshadowing is a powerful tool in video games too; as Whalen suggests, ‘the paradigmatic atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing’ in relation to the interactive ocarina feature in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which ‘the melodies they learn have an eerie familiarity’ as they are heard throughout the game [20]. Therefore, as discovered in each of these studies, music has a profound impact on the players’ emotional reading of a scene, with musical cues both aiding the emotional understanding of current gameplay and also creating narrative expectations for gameplay sequences to come.

There are varying neuropsychological explanations for these emotional responses to music. Juslin and Västfjäll suggest that the emotional response is controlled by brainstem reflexes, and that emotions are induced by music because of their fundamental acoustical characteristics, signalling a potentially important and urgent event[21]. For example, a large shift in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo is alarming to the brain and can result in an emotion of fear or shock, manipulating an evolutionary response to sound. Berlyne suggests this emotional-arousal property of music, regulated by the brainstem, explains why there is a preference for certain music at certain times[22], such as soft and harmonically predictable music being relaxing. Another explanation for the relationship between music and emotion is evaluative conditioning, which suggests that a formerly neutral stimulus such as music is transformed into a conditioning stimulus by its repeating pairing with an already existing emotionally charged stimulus[23], such as the repeated pairing of kiss scenes in film with lyrical string melodies to create an association between lush string scoring and romance. Another theory, emotional contagion, relates musical expression and gesture with an internal mimicking of that gesture by the listener, which in turn reproduces the emotions felt by the performer. This phenomenon has been seen in facial expressions in which musical expressions of fear have been recreated in the tensing of certain facial muscles by the listener[24]. Davies’s theory of emotional episodic memory works with theories of the personal semiotic values of music, as it suggests that specific emotions can be induced by the relationship between an emotional memory and the sounds of that time, also called the ‘Honey, they are playing our tune’ phenomenon[25], and can also be used to explain the emotional currency of nostalgia. All of these theories attempt to describe the way music can trigger emotion within the listener, and whilst exact emotion responses are unique to each person, they all suggest there is some commonality in emotional reactions to certain audio stimuli, whether it be an evolutionary response or a culturally embedded and subconsciously learned response to certain musical stimuli.

This use of music to aid emotional depth is a significant contributing factor to a player’s level of immersion, so that the player can experience the sensation of feeling spatially located in the game world environment[26]. There are a range of theories as to what creates this feeling of immersion and how it can be sustained, but there is a general consensus amongst scholars that immersion is a multi-faceted process. Wirth et al. suggest that this immersion process happens on two levels, influenced by media factors, process components, user actions and user factors. Primarily, the media factors and user factors work together to create both controlled attention, such as the player actively choosing to play a video game, and automatic attention, such as game music drawing the player’s eye to the screen. Once the player is engaging with the game, they suggest that immersion moves to a secondary level where the player experiences a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as they adapt to the laws and physics of the game world[27]. Brown and Cairns suggested a three-tier system: The first is engagement, which includes learning the controls and game mechanics when a conscious effort has to be made to play the game. The second is engrossment, when the controls have become second nature the player is susceptible to emotional influence from the game as their focus moves from learning to experiencing. The third is immersion, when the player is totally emotionally invested in the game at that moment and their own emotions are influenced by the characters and narrative in the game world[28].

Sweester and Wyeth focused on quantifying what creates immersion, developing their GameFlow model, using a table of ‘GameFlow criteria for player enjoyment in games’ in an attempt to explain the process of becoming immersed in video games[29]. From this table they can award games an individual GameFlow score, but their calculation does not take into account the role of music on any of their criteria, which is arguably a prominent influencer on player immersion, as suggested by Lipscomb and Zehnder’s study[30]. Using game play sequences from Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they measured player enjoyment with and without music using a verbal scale and found a positive correlation between music and enjoyment. Nacke, Grimshaw and Lindly’s study furthers this notion, analysing the impact of both music and sound effects on player enjoyment in a first-person shooter game, and found through their gamer experience questionnaire that the most enjoyable play occurred when both music and sound effects were present, and that playing without music and sound effects resulted in a tenser and less enjoyable gameplay experience[31]. The fact that these two studies focused on games from distinctly different genres but resulted in similar findings highlights the universal importance of music for player enjoyment, as it created a better environment for player immersion to occur.

 

The Batman franchise serves well as a case study to discuss the varying use of music to evoke emotion from early film through to virtual reality gaming, with a long lineage of films, video games and now a virtual reality video game for PSVR to analyse. Batman is a long-standing figure in popular culture, with the first Batman story, ‘The Case of The Chemical Syndicate’ published in Detective Comics issue #27 in May of 1939[32]. He first appeared in films during the 1940s and has since been a staple character of the blockbuster, rebranded in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, taking him further away from the underpants-over-tights comic book hero and into the more sophisticated ‘dark’ hero that Batman is best recognised as in current popular culture. This new image for Batman proved popular, with the two sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), also directed by Christopher Nolan, earning over $1 billion worldwide.[33]

Throughout his appearances in film, television and video games, Batman has existed at the extremes of musical gesture. Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 The Batman, released during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, uses a full orchestral score synonymous with that era of film, with culturally embedded musical tropes such as tremolo strings and rising melodic lines to create suspense (See Example 2.1). In 1966, Batman was brought to television with a live-action series based on the comic books, its theme tune is in stark contrast to the music of Lambert Hillyer’s film, with obvious influence from popular music of the 1960s in both musical style and instrumentation, using a jovial, catchy melody (See Example 2.2). In further contrast, the use of music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins moves away from the heavy orchestral scoring of the 1940s and the up-tempo theme of the 1960s, and takes a more reduced, almost acousmatic approach to scoring Batman’s scenes (See Example 2.3). The first Batman video game, Ocean Software’s Batman, was released in 1986 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and other 8-bit personal home computers. Even with the limitations of the three-channel audio system, the game opens with a chip-tune version of the Batman theme from the 1966 television series (See Example 2.4). This ease of adaptation to fit changes in contemporary popular culture aesthetics throughout the past century shows the robust nature of Batman and his sustained popularity as a character, from early film to television through to video games.

 

Example 2.1:  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVmIit0PXU>

Example 2.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDWSHNEbkII>

Example 2.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8tT_2QMwxI>

Example 2.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5_cHljImI0>

 

Just as there is a long and varied history of Batman films, Batman has been a staple character of video games across gaming platforms for decades, appearing in over sixty titles, of which he is the main character in over thirty. The portrayal of Batman in these games has largely stayed in line with his portrayal in film and television. Due to technological limitations of the 8-bit systems, the earliest Batman video games used soundtracks typical of 8-bit games during gameplay but still took musical cues from other Batman media where possible (See Example 2.4). In 1990, SunSoft developed four video games with the title Batman; each game was tailored to its platform (Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, PC) resulting in a difference in gameplay across platforms, but it is best associated with the release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, selling over a million copies[34]. Whilst it was released just after Burton’s film Batman (1989), the game’s narrative does not bear much resemblance to the film, and Naoki Kodaka’s soundtrack is independent of Elfman’s film score. However, they do share some melodic characteristics. For example, in the first level (See Example 2.5) the overall melodic contour is similar to that of Elfman’s scoring for the film’s opening scene (See Example 2.6), with both melodies rising up from the tonic to the sixth and falling to a sustained fifth (See fig 2.1).

 

Example 2.5: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HktXo2AgWBk>

Example 2.6: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXGXllCMOQg>

Zrzut_10 2018-07-29 00.47.32

As the possibilities of game audio increased, the music of Batman video games became more stylistically reminiscent of film scores as it was possible to use a full orchestral linear score during interactive cinematic cut-scenes and more sophisticated modular cues that are triggered during gameplay. Tsunami Music’s score for Eurocom’s Batman Begins (2005) is far more closely linked to Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005) than Sunsoft’s Batman (1990) was to Burton’s Batman (1989) in both character representation (See fig 2.3) and soundtrack, due to improvements in both graphic and audio fidelity. This considerable increase in game audio fidelity caused a shift in video game soundtracks as composers could broaden their use of timbres and move away from the synthesized sounds of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.

Whilst the music in Batman video games does reference its use in film, especially during interactive cinematics, film uses a fixed linear narrative which creates a passive audience experience, while video games use a more flexible interactive narrative and active player engagement which calls for a difference in compositional approach during gameplay. Ryan suggests that interactivity appears on two levels, one constituted by the medium and one intrinsic to the work itself. She suggests these can exist as internal, where the user plays the role of an individual in the narrative, or as external, where the user has a god-like role. This creates two main types of user experience: the first is exploratory, in which the user has no creative power in the story world, such as in films; the second is ontological, in which user actions create objects and cause effects that bring lasting change, as in video games. These can be combined to create four types of interactivity: external-explanatory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory[35]. Dogramain and Liptay discuss the relationship between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ realities, suggesting that the anticipation of liquid spaces breaks down the barrier between the viewer and media[36]. Although they discuss this in relation to visual art, this anticipation of liquid space works within Ryan’s descriptions of interactivity as the premise of a liquid narrative environment invites player immersion, as seen in the external-ontological and internal-ontological narrative structures. This ontological narrative results in a need for dynamic, reactive scoring, based on modular cues. As discussed, music has a prominent effect on emotion, but the player’s ability to direct the narrative leads to the condensing of musical tropes to short looping cues which can seamlessly fade in and out of the non-diegetic score during gameplay. This use of adaptive scoring further cements the internal-ontological status of the player within the game world, as they are leading the soundtrack through their narrative choices.

Though there is a need for different approaches to music with linear versus modular scoring, film and 2D video games share a need for music to draw focus to the screen and to help transport the audience/player into that 2D world. However, virtual reality gaming brings a new visual experience to the player, totally separate from that of 2D video games, film and even 3D film. It creates for the first time an edgeless game world, where the player experiences total visual engulfment. With the headset on, there is no room to look away from the screen, giving the game world an immediate sense of vastness. There is no separation between the player and the action, with characters appearing to be standing directly in front of their face. This alters music’s function as it no longer needs to attract the player’s attention to the screen, and this change in function can be seen in comparing the opening of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) with their Batman: Arkham VR (2016). The opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum (See Example 3.1), uses orchestral timbres such as horn swells, rising sequential string melodies and a choral pad. In stark contrast to this, the opening of Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.2) uses a more processed string sound, synthesised pad swells and a melody heard once in octaves on horn and strings before launching straight into thick atmospheric sounds. There is no melodic development, more synthesised timbres, thinner scoring, and a much shorter title sequence. It still depicts the darkness of Gotham City and the image of Batman as the dark hero, but in a musically simplified way in comparison with the 2D game. The ‘Suit Up’ scene in Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.3) does use a slightly thicker score for this interactive cinematic, but it is still far sparser than the music of the 2D game. We hear the theme but again in octaves with no countermelody or obvious harmonic reinforcement, underpinned by a synthesised pulse and low horn and string pad which swells when the player is not engaging with the game mechanics. This use of more prominent processed timbres and less prominent orchestral timbres both reinforces the visuals of the technology surrounding the player and also compliments the new ‘high-tech’ experience of virtual reality.

 

Example 3.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXR4QIQPsA>

Example 3.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTiTnY9FPgk>

Example 3.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bedb1UBtEc>

 

Another explanation for this use of reduced scoring could be the change in the physical delivery of the sound to the player. More than ever before players are encouraged to use surround sound headphones with the PSVR; a pair is included with the headset and there is a headphone jack on the headset control with its own volume control, making it easy to adjust the sound. This change in delivery plays with the notion of diegesis as the sound feels closer to the player and there is greater accuracy in the reception of stereo imaging. A busy soundtrack using orchestral timbres runs the risk of breaking the fourth wall for players as it becomes more obviously non-diegetic whilst they are totally visually situated within this game world. Using these electronic timbres that are more congruent with sounds of the game world creates a less obviously non-diegetic soundtrack which can aid player immersion and comfort without making players hyper aware that they are playing a video game. This soundtrack is reduced further during gameplay, when moving sound creates a 360º audio picture to accompany the image and to further reinforce the player’s feeling of being surrounded by the game and at the centre of the image (See Example 3.4). Just as the player is totally encompassed by visuals, they are totally cloaked in sound. Techniques applied to orchestral scores to create tension are instead applied to game world sounds to create a sense of unease without it being obviously musical. There is a constant pitter-patter of rain, setting a pulse, then rhythmic fragments are created by the blowing wind which moves between left and right and occupies the higher-end frequencies usually inhabited by violins and upper woodwind in an orchestral setting. This is underpinned by a consistent sub-bass rumble, then dissonances used to create tension come from the moving sounds of trams which pan from side to side and slide in pitch from high to low or low to high depending on their starting position in relation to the player, reminiscent of the doppler effect. Where these sounds intersect, dissonances are created, as if these tram sounds were an evolving instrumental pad; the dissonances do not resolve, they simply fade away as the trams pass, building suspense as the ear waits for a solid resolution.

 

Example 3.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsjbn-6e30>

 

This use of music alters our perception of diegesis as it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic timbres that work together to create a soundtrack, existing somewhere in between the two sound worlds. It also changes the relationship between music and sound effects: rather than existing as two independent devices, they exist as one multifunctional device. Barnabé suggests that the notion of space in video games can be broken down into three concepts. The first, cosmos, is the game world that exists regardless of play participation, game narrative, or game objective. The second, diegesis, is the cosmos which is oriented by the story as its construction is necessary to allow for gameplay. The third, ludiegesis, is the diegesis as ruled by the player’s actions, the space that exists as a result of the player’s decisions[37]. If we apply this framework to virtual reality, the collaboration between in-game and external sound sources facilitates the smooth transitions between these virtual spaces as the player moves from the diegetic, such as an interactive cinematic scene, to the ludiegesis during gameplay. For example, Batman transitions from the ludiegesis, where he has the ability to capture the Penguin, to the diegesis, where he listens to the Penguin’s dialogue, back to the ludiegesis, without an obvious break between the fixed scene and the gameplay as there is no change in the sound world (See Example 3.4). Virtual reality easily accommodated this transition as the characters appear to be directly in front of the player, so a full screen close-up of their face can appear in both gameplay and the cinematic without needing an obvious change in camera angle. The seemingly randomised interactions between the various sound sources that creates the soundtrack also means there is no sense of interruption to the underlying score as the player transitions between these game states, allowing the player to feel as if they are always actively engaged in play even when a non-player character is delivering dialogue to progress the narrative.

From Wheatstone’s stereoscopic invention to modern day virtual reality technology, there has been growing interest in experiencing total visual engulfment. Although it has many cross-industry applications, the largest mass market for virtual reality is currently in video games, and an increasing number of game developers are creating virtual reality-only games and adding virtual reality downloadable content to their other titles. Throughout history, sound has accompanied moving image and has adapted to developments in visual and in audio technology. By analysing the way soundtracks have been used from early film through to virtual reality, we can see its evolution from the thick romantic scoring of the ‘golden age’, to the baroque stylings of early video games, to the use of modern film music technique. However, what has been shared throughout all these iterations of soundtrack is the use of a clear distinction between the diegetic world and the non-diegetic music, whether this is the live accompaniment during silent films or the full orchestral scores used in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Virtual reality brings with it another change in music scoring technique, sound design and sound delivery to the player. It shares some fundamental characteristic with 2D video games, such as anchoring the player in the game world, but there is a contrast between the way these are executed. Now, the player’s perception of diegesis is warped as they are wholly visually engulfed in the game world, and the use of greater fluidity between music and game-world sound reflects this. We are still at the beginning of mass market virtual reality gaming, and whilst it is popular, it could take a few generations of virtual reality technology and a decrease in system prices before more players become accustomed to the new visual experience. However, through combining theories of immersive play, music’s representation of emotion, and its influence on feelings, with a discussion of the development of soundtrack over the past century, it is clear that music and sound are still vital to the gaming experience. The new game world of virtual reality may be edgeless, but our field of vision is still 114º, needing sound to add emotional context and depth to build a 360º experience.

 

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Films

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy)

The Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

The Pawnshop (1916, Charlie Chaplin)

 

Video Games

Batman (1986, Ocean Software)

Batman (1990, SunSoft)

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, Rocksteady)

Batman: Arkham VR (2016, Rocksteady)

Batman Begins (2005, Eurocom)

Final Fantasy I (1987, Square Co.)

Final Fantasy XV (2016, Square Enix)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Electronic Arts)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)

 

[1] Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

[2] Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

[3] Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

[4] How Animals See the World, Buzzfeed. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqmBa8FPMx8> accessed 28th August 2017.

[5] Discussed by Reay in Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

[6] Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947) p76.

[7] Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931) p359.

[8] Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000) p64.

[9] Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996) p38.

[10] Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013) p135.

[11] Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

[12] Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008) p209.

[13] Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014) p206.

[14] Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

[15] Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014).

[16] Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

[17] Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994)

[18] Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

[19] Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

[20] Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004) p43.

[21] Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

[22] Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

[23] Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

[24] Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

[25] Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

[26] Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

[27] Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

[28] Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

[29] Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

[30] Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

[31] Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

[32] Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

[33] Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

[34] Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

[35] Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

[36] Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

[37] Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 102-121.

 

Kristian Ahm

University of Copenhagen

 

 

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

 

Abstract

This paper will present the argument that Nathan Drake, the player-figure in Uncharted 4, is an intermedial entity. By this, I mean that he is an entity with the ability to cross media borders. Based on this argument, the concept of gameworlds will be discussed and it will be suggested that the worlds players encounter in modern digital games should be perceived as intermedial landscapes. This landscape is traversed by the player via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. In doing so, the analysis is meant to highlight the potential fruitfulness of utilizing perspectives from intermedial studies in the analysis of individual games, instead of mostly focusing on processes of transmedial adaptation.

The paper will begin by defining the concept of the player-figure and Nathan Drake as a player-figure will be analysed. It will be argued that by appropriating the same player-figure to different contexts, the player-figure switches back and forth between being perceived as an avatar and a character.

Subsequently, the concept of intermediality will be introduced and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the player-figure crosses media borders. It will be argued in this analysis that a fundamental change takes place on the spatiotemporal modality when the game transitions from gameplay to cutscene. This marks a crossing between two qualified media – from that of games to cinema.

In the discussion, the argument is presented that Nathan Drake is an intermedial entity because of the audio-visual consistency of the player-figure, which means it is the player-figure itself traversing the media borders. From a media studies perspective, this paper focusses on the intermediality of the player-figure to highlight how intermedial perspectives can be useful in the analysis of the player-figure and its relations to the player controlling them.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on what intermediality could potentially bring to game studies. Most importantly, it will allow for a more granular analysis of what defines the digital game as a medium.

 

Key words: intermediality, player-figure, gameworlds, ludo-narrative, media borders, game studies, digital games

Introduction

 

While digital games are always mediated, seeing as they are dependent on the processing power of computers and (almost) always on some sort of screen output, it is only in recent years that researchers have highlighted the fact that contemporary digital games are something more than just games. Aarseth points out that games, fundamentally, are “complex software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel [and] graphic novel […]”[1]. He goes on to call these “games” ludo-narratological constructs, highlighting their composite nature, consisting of elements from games as well as narrative media[2]. For clarity’s sake, the paper will primarily refer to games as ludo-narrative software. The acknowledgement of the multimodality of digital games seems to suggest that the intermedial perspective would be especially fruitful for the analysis of digital games. This is especially the case for contemporary games that, due to great advances in processing power, can mix earlier and newer media in innovative and interesting ways[3]. For now, we can broadly define intermediality as a concept describing “the totality of cross-media phenomena, […] involving a crossing of borders between media”[4]. Within game studies, the intermedial perspective has been used to study transmedial phenomena such as the adaptation of games into movies or tv series into games[5];[6]. This paper makes a distinction between what we could call external intermediality, which focuses on transmedial processes of adaptation, and internal intermediality, which focuses on the crossing of media borders within a single media object. The present paper will not engage with external processes of adaptation across media, but instead focus on the internal intermediality of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016). As such, the object of analysis is the crossing of media borders within the ludo-narrative software itself, between the qualified media that constitute it. Recently, Fuchs performed an intermedial analysis of Alan Wake in the same internal vein, focusing on how the constellation of several media managed to create a sense of gothic uncanniness[7]. This paper however, will focus on the player-figure of Nathan Drake, the swashbuckling hero the player controls during gameplay.

This article will consist of four parts. In the first part, Nathan Drake will be analysed through the lens of Vella’s concept of the player-figure. Next, the concept of intermediality will be presented and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Part 3 will discuss the results of the analyses and present the following arguments:

1) Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intrinsically intermedial player-figure. This distinguishes him as a new kind of media entity, different from earlier, multimodal player-figures.

2) The worlds encountered in modern ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which players traverse via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on how intermediality can contribute to the field of game studies. Specifically, it will be highlighted how intermedia studies can present new perspectives on what constitute digital games as a medium.

 

  1. The Player-Figure

 

Theory

 

Klevjer argues that avatar-based gameplay, i.e. games where players take control of a character in the gameworld, creates a sense of bodily immersion which is based on the embodied experience of play[8]. The immersion is not a trick of fiction, but the result of experiencing playing the game. This prosthetic agency is created through real-time control of in-game elements[9]. He also remarks that a distinction needs to be made between the avatar understood as a playable character and the avatar as an entity that grants the player agency and presence within the gameworld[10].

This is where Vella’s theoretical framework enters the picture. In his dissertation he lays the foundation for his concept of the player-figure. He makes an ontological distinction between avatar and character[11]. The avatar refers to the player-figure as a game component, while the character refers to the player-figure as a represented individual in the game’s heterocosm[12]. He goes on to define an avatar’s most important characteristic: that all player interactions are structured through them[13]. The character, on the other hand, is both a mimetic representation of a possible person, and a textual construct constituted of signs[14]. A character is built up of characterization statements (from now on called CSs), a stream of signifiers that allow the player to construct a mental image of a character[15].

This differentiation into avatar and character does not imply a duality. Instead, Vella describes the player-figure as a hybrid-identity, where the player may waver between perceiving it as an avatar or a character[16]. This hybrid-identity is possible because of what Vella calls the double perspectival structure; that the player has an internal and an external perspective on the game’s events[17]. From the internal perspective, the player inhabits the I can of the avatar and has a first-personal experience of playing out subjective experience within a domain. From the external perspective, the player sees a translation of events of her being-in-the-gameworld into discourse “in the form […] of a temporal sequence of audio-visual representation”[18]. This again relates to the player either perceiving the player-figure as avatar or character.

 

On- and off-line engagement

 

In the coming analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure, I will be focusing on the differences in perception of the player-figure during gameplay and cutscenes. I will be using the concept of on- and off-line engagement[19] to refer to these parts of the game. On-line is to be understood as “the state of ergodic participation that we would […] think of as ‘playing the game’” [20]. On the other hand, off-line “describes periods in which no registered input control is received from the player” [21]. When I refer to on-line segments in Uncharted 4, I mean parts where the player is granted control of the player-figure by the software. Conversely, off-line segments refer to parts in which the player is not in control of the player-figure.

 

Analysis

 

On-line engagement.

 

During on-line segments, the Nathan Drake player-figure functions mainly as an avatar, a game-systemic entity. This is especially the case during action-filled shootout sequences. Here, the player must fight to survive, not because they fear the character Drake will feel distressed if he dies, but because the player wants to overcome a challenge and progress to the next chapter. Drake becomes a vessel for the player’s engagement within the gameworld and has systemic characteristics that structure the player’s decision making. For example, if Drake gets shot too many times in a row, the game stops and returns Drake to an earlier part of the game. The player utilizes the actions afforded by the player-figure to overcome obstacles, i.e. find cover and shoot henchmen. It seems reasonable to believe that during shootouts the player identifies as Drake. This is further stressed by Drake’s utterances during such segments. If a grenade is thrown near Drake, he will frantically shout “No, no, no, no!”. In Vella’s terms, this outburst could be perceived as a CS originating from the character Nathan Drake[22]. However, I would argue that the outburst functions more as a signifier of the grenade having landed within a certain radius of the player-figure, who is implicitly warning the player to get away from it. While this point is arguable, it makes sense if one views Nathan Drake the avatar, as a virtual game object that has certain behavioural properties, which places him on a different level than the fictional[23]. The utterance does not characterize Drake as a character who dislikes grenades, but as a game-systemic entity that also functions as a dynamic information source to the player.

During on-line segments of exploration, the Drake player-figure manifests traits of a character through numerous instances of CSs. In Chapter 11, Drake must traverse a Madagascan street market. The player still controls Drake’s movement and must guide him towards a destination, but small verbal exchanges and constraints on player actions function as CSs, creating a mental image of who he is as a character. The player-figure fluidly changes between being perceived as an avatar and a character. When walking through a crowd, Drake automatically squeezes through crowds and occasionally mumbles “Excuse me”.

 

Figure 1. Drake traversing a Madagascan street market

obraz 1
Source: YouTube[24]

 

Here, a combination of dynamic mimetic elements[25], i.e. the context-based animation of the player-figure and voice, create an image of Drake as a character, not a game-systemic entity. While it could be argued that the cover and shooting animations experienced during shootouts also characterize Drake, the point made here is that the dynamic mimetic elements utilized in the street market are more overtly expressive about Drake, since they are unique to him. Drake’s companions, who occasionally join him in battle, are programmed to shoot and take cover using the same animations as Drake.

Further on, the player can choose to buy an apple from a vendor. If the player chooses to do so, she does not get a health bonus or any kind of boost to their avatar’s systemic attributes. Instead, this serves as another dynamic mimetic element where the player, through her actions, decides what type of character Drake is.

 

Figure 2. Drake buys an apple from a vendor

obraz 2
Source: YouTube

 

The most notable CSs stem from the lack of player actions possible in the market sequence, compared to the wealth of actions possible during shootouts. Besides walking and looking, the only other possible action is to “look closer”, which makes the game camera zoom in. This action is performed by pressing the button that normally makes Drake aim his weapon. Although the 3D model of the player-figure is visibly equipped with a gun and rope hook, they are no longer signifiers of possible player actions, but are part of the character’s costume[26], characterizing him as an experienced adventurer. This shows how the player-figure’s features, both semiotic and mechanical, can be appropriated to different contexts, thereby facilitating the seamless change back and forth between avatar and character.

 

Off-line engagement.

 

During off-line segments, the Drake player-figure functions only as a character. I would argue that the player, no longer having agency within the gameworld, takes on an external perspective on the events of the game. Although the word ‘cutscene’ may have problematic implicit meanings, I will summon it now to help properly explain what these off-line segments are. According to Klevjer, a cutscene is a “cinematic sequence that suspends regular gameplay in order to convey plot, characterization and spectacle”[27]. Because the Uncharted series is deeply inspired by action-adventure cinema, the cutscenes are indeed cinematic elements that form the most explicitly narrative parts of Uncharted 4. Here, the player is fed a stream of static mimetic CSs[28], as if they are watching a movie. Static mimetic elements are “statements regarding fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” such as name and appearance[29]. Some might argue that the instances in cutscenes, where the player is asked to choose a response on Drake’s behalf, turns the player-figure into an avatar. I would argue that this is not the case since these choices, like the situation with the apple vendor, only serve to characterize Nathan Drake. What is particularly interesting when examining Drake as a character in off-line segments is how much emphasis is put on showing his face to the player. Because of the sophistication of the performance capture technology used, Drake’s expressiveness during cutscenes is very impressive. It thereby foregrounds him as a represented individual. As engagement changes from off-line to on-line, the view of Drake’s back signals the change from character to avatar. He is stripped of his salient characteristics and reconfigured into a vessel.

 

Figure 3. Drake player-figure off-line

obraz 3
Source: YouTube

 

Figure 4. Drake player-figure on-line

obraz 4
Source: YouTube

 

This concludes the analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure. It has attempted to demonstrate how Drake can switch between being perceived as an avatar and a character by the player. The fluidity of this transformation process is important for this paper’s argument that the player-figure is an intermedial entity. By reconfiguring the same player-figure, players are confronted with a visually coherent player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders, instead of being split into several different representations.

 

  1. Intermediality

 

Theory

 

Intermediality is the study of all instances in which different media interact with each other, assuming a theoretical “in-between space” where these interactions take place[30]. In Elleström’s words, intermediality is something “that sometimes ‘happens’; an effect of unconventional ways of performing medial works”[31]. As such, it is important to define what intermediality means in the context of this paper[32].

The intermedial focus of this paper is the subcategory of media combinations[33]. This is to be understood as media objects that combine “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation”[34]. Of interest for this paper is the crossing of borders between qualified media, considered a key intermedial phenomenon[35];[36]. Because of Uncharted 4’s status as a piece of software, within which are encompassed several distinct media, I believe it is ripe for intermedial analysis because of the novel ways it seamlessly changes between those media. The word “media” has been thrown around quite a lot by now. Let me elucidate what the term means in the context of the coming analysis. Elleström divides the medium into basic media, qualified media, and technical media[37]. Basic media are media that are “mainly identified by their modal appearances” such as “still images”, “moving images” or “organized non-verbal sound”[38]. Qualified media are what we would normally call “art forms and other cultural media types” which are constituted by both historic contexts and communicative conventions, and which consist of basic media[39]. While the first two categories are abstractions that help us understand how media are formed, technical media are the physical objects or physical phenomena that “‘realize[…]’ and ‘display[…]’ basic and qualified media”[40].

These distinctions help me clarify my last statement: When I talk of the novel ways the Uncharted 4 software transitions between media, I am referring to transitions between qualified media. As will become clear when I begin my analysis, I am interested in the ways the software transitions from the qualified medium of games to the qualified medium of cinema.

To properly analyse these transitions, I will be utilizing Elleström’s analytical framework, based on his four modalities of media. The term “modality” is related to the term “mode”, which is a “way to be or do things”[41]. In Elleström’s analytical framework, which will be introduced presently, he uses the term “modality” to refer to the different ways media can manifest themselves. He describes these modalities as “the essential cornerstones of all media without which mediality cannot be comprehended […]”[42]

The first of the four modalities is the material modality, referring to “the latent corporeal interface of the medium”[43].

Second is the sensorial modality, which relates to the “physical and mental acts of perceiving the present interface of the medium through the sense faculties” – through sense-data, receptors, and sensation[44].

Third is the spatiotemporal modality. This modality covers “the structuring of the sensorial perception of sense-data of the material interface into experiences and conceptions of space and time”[45]. In other words, this modality refers to the way a person perceives and constructs the experience of space and time in the medium at hand.

Finally, the fourth modality, semiotic modality, relates to the “creation of meaning in the spatiotemporally conceived medium by the way of different sorts of thinking and sign interpretation”[46].

For my analysis of Uncharted 4, I will be focusing on the spatiotemporal modality since I believe an important shift happens in this modality when the game transitions between gameplay and cutscene. I will argue that this shift in modality marks a transition between games and cinema.

 

Analysis

 

Please note that in the following I will be writing numbers in parentheses, the decimals will refer to the images within Figure 5.

 

Setting the scene

 

In chapter 8, Drake and his brother are exploring a cave-system.

 

Figure 5. Transitions between on- and off-line segments

obraz 5
Source: YouTube

 

The player is in control of the player-figure, meaning its current status is an avatar (5.1). Occasional chat between the brothers deploys verbal CSs that characterize their relationship. The player steers through the cave-system and begins climbing a wall (5.2). As they press the jump button, which makes the player-figure jump up onto a small ledge, they lose control of the player-figure and the camera closes in on the brothers (5.3).

A cut, and the viewer is now witnessing a conversation between the antagonists, which the brothers are listening in on (5.4).

As their scene ends (5.5), it cuts back to the two eavesdropping brothers (5.6).

As they converse, the camera automatically pulls out (5.7) and control of the player-figure is returned to the player (5.8).

 

Time and space

 

It is the argument of this paper that a change in modality has occurred within Uncharted 4, thus signalling a transition between the media encompassed within. For this analysis, I will focus on the changes happening on the spatiotemporal level, since this modality most effectively indicates the crossing from the medium of games into the medium of cinema.

If we begin by looking at the temporal level, the change is obvious. We move from the partially fixed sequentiality of games to the fixed sequentiality of cinema[47]. I refrain myself from claiming that Uncharted 4 has non-fixed sequentiality, since the game’s linear nature does not leave much room for the player to improvise.

On the spatial level, it is not as easy to use Elleström’s concepts of spatiality to make relevant distinctions between the types of space the player encounters during on- and off-line segments. Instead, I will use the concepts of gameworld interface[48] and scenographic space[49] to make these distinctions.

During on-line engagement, the player controls Nathan and must navigate the cave without falling to their death. The world is presented to the player in a wide view, allowing her to survey the world through the player-figure. Also, the player can control the view she has of the gameworld. Small reliefs of stone communicate to the player that she can grab them. The space functions as a gameworld interface, a space that’s “designed to support and inspire certain gameplay activities” and which allows the player to “take gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld”[50]. The space changes as soon as the player loses control of the player-figure and thus also the view they have of the gameworld, signalling a change to a different modality.

The nature of the space changes to that of a scenographic space, where the player, now a passive viewer, constructs the world through visual and auditory cues[51]. Unlike before, the player cannot control where they want to look, but are fed cues that help them construct the space in their minds. This is most explicitly the case with the room in which the antagonists converse since the player-figure will never set foot in that room. The room’s function is not to feed the player information about relevant gameplay actions, but to set up expectations for the unfolding narrative. From this perspective, it could be argued that a change has also taken place on the semiotic modality, since the player/viewer employs different types of “sign thinking and interpretation” depending on whether the player perceives the represented space as a gameworld interface or as a filmic, scenographic space[52]. What is important to note is that this perception of space is dependent on whether the player can control the perspective (i.e. the camera) or not. Keep in mind that the scenographic space is still technically constructed in the same way as the gameworld interface: inside a game engine. The fundamental difference is that the player during on-line segments can control the perspective and thus engage with the world in a different way than if they did not control it. Interactivity, it seems, also plays a big part in cueing the player/viewer to employ a specific type of sign interpretation.

Based on this analysis, I am arguing that a transition has taken place between two qualified media: games, and cinema. What is particularly interesting is the seamless nature of these transitions, which can be quite jarring when the player is engaged in the real-time control of the player-figure. This seamlessness rests on the design decision to present the player with information in an ecological, integrated manner in a way that does not draw players’ attention to the fact that they are playing a game[53].

Before I move on to discussing the implications of these blurred media borders, I will quickly summarize the results of my analysis.

By analysing the player-figure of Nathan Drake, I determined that he is mainly perceived as an avatar during on-line segments of gameplay, but that he was able to manifest traits of a character through different kinds of CSs. During off-line segments, he was perceived only as a character. This transformation from avatar to character is seamless because of the constant reappropriation of the same player-figure.

In my analysis of the player-figure’s media border crossings, I concluded that the modality of the software changed fundamentally on the spatiotemporal level, turning the heterocosm from a gameworld interface during on-line segments, to a scenographic, filmic space during off-line segments.

 

III. Discussions and Contributions

 

The Player-Figure as an Intermedial Entity

 

As has been pointed out in the analysis, Uncharted 4 jumps to-and-fro between different qualified media. It does so in an almost seamless way, both by reconfiguring the player-figure and the perspective on the space the figure inhabits. But does this seamlessness exclude it from being categorized as an intermedial phenomenon? Rajewsky highlights digital media’s ability to simulate earlier media forms and to erase perceptible media differences[54]. This is certainly problematic since the study of intermediality is based on the existence of perceptible borders, which can be crossed. With that said, this paper would like to present an idea of where this perceptible border might be found.

In ludo-narrative software, the perceptible border between media is grounded in the player-figure and its ability to be mapped onto several qualified media in a way that is perceived as being coherent. Nathan Drake as a player-figure can be either a game-systemic entity, i.e. an avatar, or a character. We as players perceive him as a unified whole and this is key to him being an intermedial entity. Another very perceptible way that the player-figure signals a crossing between media borders is by having the player relinquish control of it.

 

Multimodal and Intermedial Player-Figures

 

This does not mean that all player-figures are intermedial. Cloud, the protagonist from Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) could certainly be called a multimodal player-figure with the hybrid-identity of both an avatar and a character[55]. However, the player-figure of Cloud is built up of several different audio-visual representations. Avatar-Cloud is a small polygonal man during on-line segments of exploration and a slightly more realistically proportioned man during combat. The Character-Cloud found in off-line segments is a wholly different, third representation. This compartmentalization of several different player-figures makes the types of border crossings seen performed by the player-figure in Uncharted 4 impossible. This does not make the intrinsic intermediality of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 some technological goal that developers should strive for. Instead, the realization that a player-figure can consist of several representations opens new avenues of inquiry. What implications do these multiple representations have aesthetically, ontologically, functionally? The recent World of Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 2016) acknowledges the multiple representations of its protagonists and incorporates their shape-shifting abilities as a part of gameplay. What does this self-reflexive design practice tell us about the ontology of the player-figure? This brings up another point. While Vella’s study of the player-figure is very detailed, many of his analyses are based on games developed in western countries. Except for a footnote mention of Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999), all the role-playing games mentioned in his dissertation are western. It would be interesting to analyse how Japanese role-playing games utilize multiple representations to create a coherent player-figure. As Fuchs points out in his analysis of Alan Wake, the co-presence of several representations of the same character can have an aesthetic function, e.g. to create discomfort[56].

In summary, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is intermedial because he is audiovisually consistent across media, in a way that has been hard to achieve until now for technological reasons. This consistency is instrumental for the player perceiving the player-figure as both an avatar and a character. Even in the previous game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011), changes from off- to on-line engagement are marked with a second of black screen. This second of black is a way of compartmentalizing the player-figure into different modal strata. The player-figure is multimodal in this instance but not intermedial, since the figure itself is not crossing any media borders.

The observation that the Nathan Drake player-figure in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial entity brings me to my next point.

Discussing Spatiality in Digital Games

 

If we accept the argument that Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial player-figure, we must also accept how this problematizes the ways digital game worlds are conceptualized. As was argued in the analysis – in tandem with the player-figure’s transformation from avatar to character and the player’s loss of control of it – the spatiotemporal modality of Uncharted 4 changes. Instead of being a gameworld interface, it transforms into a filmic, scenographic space. The implication of this is that we can see the world of the ludo-narrative software as an intermedial landscape that can be both a gameworld and a traditional filmic space. It is never just a gameworld or a scene, it is something in-between and can switch between these. To echo Aarseth[57], it would be metonymic to simply call them gameworlds since the world in Uncharted 4 is used as much more than an obstacle course for players to conquer. While the concept of intermedial landscapes is used by Fuchs in his analysis of Alan Wake’s uncanny, gothic world, it is used in this paper to call attention to a fundamental characteristic of the worlds players are confronted with when they play modern digital games.

This paper suggests that the worlds players encounter in ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which the player traverses via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. It seems salient at this juncture to point out that this view builds on the fundamental observation that videogames are not simulations, but virtual worlds that are ontologically distinct from the physical world[58]. Uncharted 4 is not a simulation of the physical world but is its own virtual realm in which these border crossings are a very real phenomenon.

Finally, future research endeavours utilizing the intermedial perspective will be outlined.

 

  1. Future Research

 

Towards a Conceptualization of the Digital Game Medium

 

The intermedial approach could potentially be useful in the investigation of understanding what digital games are as a medium, beyond simply calling them a “virtual hypermedium”[59]. What is the medium of games? What borders surround it and how do we identify these? Wolf states that media borders are created by conventions[60]. Elleström’s concepts of the two qualifying aspects of media could be useful for investigating these conventions[61]. The contextual qualifying aspect relates to the use of a medium in specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances[62]. By performing analyses of the discourses, practices and conventions surrounding the videogame medium, we gain insights into its evolution, but more importantly we may be able to discourage the use of normative views and colloquialisms[63]. The second aspect, the operational qualifying aspect, relates to the aesthetic and communicative conventions of a medium[64]. Much work has been done in this field, with researchers from different disciplines attempting to describe and explain how videogames as a medium communicate and foster aesthetic experiences.

In this academic context, the intermedial analysis of individual games that could be categorized as unconventional medial works would be particularly interesting. To use this paper as an example, by being aware of communicative conventions from several qualified media, an argument has been formulated that relates to the ontology of ludo-narrative software and the modern player-figure. Wolf writes that media function “as cognitive frames for authors as well as recipients and are therefore […] part of the message itself”[65]. This suggests that the individual media present in the media constellations we normally call “videogames” have a great impact on the experience that emerges when interacting with the media object. As a future research endeavour, it could be interesting to analyse contemporary experimental games that combine media in novel and surprising ways. Examples of this could be Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015), Her Story (Barlow, 2015) or Uriel’s Chasm (Barry, 2014). All of these games utilize real video footage captured in the physical world, but they utilize this footage in a different way than they were used in the 90’s, when the future of games was envisioned as being a combination of action cinema and shooting games (see Sewer Shark (Digital Pictures, 1992)). Kattenbelt writes about intermedial studies being a way to investigate “those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other […]”[66]. This seems like an interesting avenue of research and one which this paper hopes to contribute to. How is the inclusion of the basic medium of ‘moving images’ reshaped by being put in different types of ludo-narrative software? In Sewer Shark it serves as part of the gameworld, with video footage being overlaid on a game interface and sprites of enemies. In Her Story, the video clips of a woman being interrogated are framed more like collectible objects, with the player tasked to unearth as many clips as possible to solve a murder mystery. What could an analysis of this change in convention potentially tell us about the medium of videogames? What does it tell us about how the borders surrounding the ludic medium have been reshaped in the last 20 years? What Kattenbelt’s quote also suggests is that the search for a clearly definable digital game medium is futile. The field of game studies has struggled with defining games since its conception. I certainly do not think that an adequate, stable definition can be found, but a history of game media conventions would have academic and historic value. For investigations like these, Elleström’s analytical framework of the four modalities would be a powerful tool for thinking about these (un)conventional media constellations with greater granularity. As Schut points out, every time a medium is presented in a digital game, it is no longer the exact same medium as before, since it is put in a new context.[67]

Wolf writes that the study of intermediality, “if carried out wisely”, will strengthen the core of the field of study[68]. While it is not entirely clear what Wolf means by “wisely”, perhaps Elleström’s advice to study all kinds of media “with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial modal differences and similarities of media” is an answer[69].

The more we know about videogames as a medium, the closer we get to answering the question of what games are as a phenomenon, and this would be an important milestone[70].

 

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), pp. 129-133

Aarseth Espen, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 484-492

Beil Benjamin & Schmidt Hans Christian, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015), pp. 73-88.

Bolter Jay D.  & Grusin Richard, Remediation Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (1999)

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

Burn Andrew & Schott Gareth, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004), pp. 213-233.

Elleström Lars, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 11-51.

Fuchs Michael, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global) (2016), pp. 39-54

Hennig Martin, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), pp. 17-33.

Jørgensen Kristine, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

Kattenbelt Chiel, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), pp. 19-29

Klevjer Rune, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Klevjer Rune, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 301-309.

Newman James, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002),

Rajewsky Irina, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), pp. 43-64.

Schut Kevin, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 324-330.

Vella Daniel, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015)

http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th 2016.

Wolf Werner, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999)

Wolf Werner, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), pp. 15-43.

 

Games:
Cibele (2015, Star Maid Games)

Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)

Final Fantasy VIII (1998, Square)

Her Story (2015, Sam Barlow)

Sewer Shark (1992, Digital Pictures)

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016, Naughty Dog)

Uriel’s Chasm (2014, Dylan Barry)

World of Final Fantasy (2016, Square Enix)

 

 

 

 

[1]  Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press) (1999)

[4] Martin Hennig, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), p. 17.

[5] Benjamin Beil & Hans Christian Schmidt, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015).

[6] Martin Hennig.

[7]  Michael Fuchs, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016)

[8] Rune Klevjer, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 2

[11] Daniel Vella, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015), p. 216.

[12] Ibid., p. 217.

[13] Ibid., p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 371.

[15] Ibid., p. 374.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Ibid., p. 364.

[18] Ibid, p. 364.

[19] James Newman, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002), http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Daniel Vella, p.393.

[23] V.M. Karhulahti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

[24]All Figure sources: Youtube (2016). Uncharted 4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME 1080p No Commentary (Chapter 1-23). RabidRetrospectGames. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxaw6CqVMss

[25] Daniel Vella, p. 393.

[26] Ibid., p. 379

[27] Rune Klevjer, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 301.

[28] Daniel Vella, p. 376

[29] Ibid.

[30] Irina Rajewsky, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), p. 46.

[31] Lars Elleström, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[32] Irina Rajewsky, p. 45.

[33] Ibid., pp. 51-52

[34] Ibid.

[35] Irina Rajewsky, p. 46.

[36] Lars Elleström.

[37] Ibid, p. 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid., p. 14.

[42] Ibid., p. 15.

[43] Ibid., p. 17

[44] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[45] Ibid., p. 18.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Lars Elleström, p. 19.

[48] Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambdrige, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

[49] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

[50] Kristine Jørgensen, pp. 2-3.

[51] David Bordwell, p. 113.

[52] Lars Elleström, p. 22.

[53] Kristine Jørgensen, p. 147.

[54] Irina Rajewsky, p. 62.

[55] Andrew Burn & Gareth Schott, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004).

[56] Michael Fuchs, p. 47

[57] Espen Aarseth, pp. 129-133.

[58] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

[59] Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), p. 23

[60] Werner Wolf, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999), p. 37, in Lars Elleström, p. 28.

[61] Lars Elleström, p. 24

[62] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[63] Ibid., p. 25.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Werner Wolf, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), p. 23

[66] Chiel Kattenbelt, p. 25

[67] Kevin Schut, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 329.

[68] Werner Wolf, p. 21.

[69] Lars Elleström, p. 38.

[70] Espen Aarseth, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014).

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 122-141.

Jayme D. Mallindine

University of Texas

 

 

 

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

 

Abstract

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun, and Pokémon Moon – video games that shattered sales records and expectations – show that the Pokémon brand continues to capture the hearts (and wallets) of people all across the world. Sidestepping questions of whether Pokémon’s influence is the direct result of conscious player choice, corporate control, or political power plays, this paper investigates the inflammatory lines between power and play. This paper argues that Pokémon products, as a branded transmedia franchise, have the ability to spark moments of nostalgic recall for consumers through the use of memory mechanics called “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to a player’s embodied history of play. Drawing from Laura Marks’ work on “radioactive memory fossils” and Deleuze’s “time-images”, this essay investigates a few Pokémon gestures that operate both intra-platform (within the same type of platform, such as between the animated film and the animated series) and inter-platform (between different types of digital media platforms, such as between the animated series and the video game). By investigating these gestures, we expose ways in which the Pokémon brand can inspire the recollection of memories in ways the player and producer can influence but not entirely control. Pokémon’s presence as a branded transmedia experience embedded in individual biographies of players opens avenues of resistance to traditional lines of influence in the media industry by reframing power not just as the ability to control, but also as the ability to surprise.

 

Key Words: memory, transmedia, Pokémon, branding, time-images

 

Introduction

 

In the late 1990’s, there was a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of strangely cute monsters making their way into the United States. The children were in love. The adults? A little confused. The monsters were Pokémon[1] and they were the most recent pop culture craze from Japan. Their almost over-night popularity with youth in the United States was so surprising that the phrase “pokémania” was coined to describe what appeared to be an irrational obsession for these pocket-sized toys.

Twenty years later, Pokémon remains a transmedia heavyweight. In 2016, Pokémon proved, with the release of Pokémon Go[2], that Pokémon as a brand was still powerful enough to break the internet. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine reported that Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that utilized Pokémon imagery, developed by Niantic and released to iOS and Android, experienced such unexpected high demand that the developer’s overloaded servers crashed within two days of the game’s initial release.[3] Pokémon’s continued popularity is not limited to smartphones either. The 2016 hand-held console video games, Pokémon Sun[4] and Pokémon Moon[5], became Nintendo’s fastest-selling titles ever in the Americas by selling 3.7 million copies across the American regions within the first few weeks of sale. [6]

The popularity of this twenty-year-old brand has sparked conversations about why these toys garner such intense affection and what that means for players and society. Some viewed Pokémon’s success in terms of global politics, with the brand’s popularity seen as evidence of Japan’s burgeoning ability to counteract the hegemonic media industry of the United States.[7] Others focused on smaller-scale and individual responses and uses of Pokémon products.[8] Researchers and journalists wanted to understand how and why Pokémon had burrowed its way into the youthful hearts of U.S. children and who ultimately was the one responsible for its popularity. Was the Pokémon takeover planned from the top down as the result of corporate ingenuity, or did Pokémon gain its influence from the bottom up due to player autonomy?

This essay posits that Pokémon itself, outside of purely corporate or consumer control, can move meaning and value through memory. Looking at the various ways in which Pokémon products create their own affective and nostalgic value, I argue that Pokémon products can spark involuntary moments of recall for consumers using mnemonic “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to embodied histories of play encapsulated within the memory of the consumer. This makes the vested popular interest in Pokémon lie somewhere within an assemblage vast enough to include a multitude of various components: corporate goals, political power struggles, consumer agency, as well as meaningful memories not always controlled by either consumer or creator.

Noticing the ways Pokémon can move meaning independently of conscious thought is not to say that power inequalities, whether between producer and consumer or between nation-states, are non-existent or unimportant. It instead provides an increased awareness of tools that open the potential for media to swerve within the configured lines that typically shape the movement and flow of entertainment and information. This swerving is based on Amit Rai’s conceptualization of clinamedia, “the intensive process of becoming” that he believes is the new order of media assemblage. The ability for media to swerve like “the clinamen of Lucretius”,[9] deviating from the straight lines of cause and effect dictated by outside forces, opens up the possibility for a type of political tweaking, offering additional methods of resisting the enforced methods of control. Gestures, when seen as a type of swerve, are not ways to avoid acknowledging power differences, but instead are sources of hope that hegemonies and power structures do not always have the final say on meaning. There are ways to move outside of power imbalances, and the playful gestures found in toy objects are just one of many.

 

Gestures and Memory Mechanics

 

Pokémon’s current success in part deals with the brand’s existence as a nostalgic entity. Nostalgia, a “yearning for something that tends to have been within living memory rather than distant historical memory”, is a key component in the construction and marketing of video games today.[10] As video games, including the Pokémon franchise, age as a medium, nostalgia and memory have made appearances in the research behind why certain games become cultural and financial hotbeds of activity. Nintendo is especially known for this, with academic volumes on gaming and nostalgia, such as Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, referencing the success of Nintendo’s franchises as proof that memory and video games are significantly intertwined.[11]  But how are people encouraged to remember previous Pokémon experiences, and who controls those memorable moments?

In Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, memory is described as something that is stored bodily, as well as something that is not always called upon consciously. Marks identifies that media can be a hotbed of triggers that uproot a previous flow of experience (i.e. a memory) involuntarily on the part of the rememberer/viewer, making memory a minefield of potentiality that opens up a person to multiple flows of time simultaneously.[12] Images or objects, which she terms radioactive memory fossils, inspire this jump to the past and disrupt the time and coherence of the present plane. This launches the viewer outward into other planes of both time and experience,[13] revealing that “the past [the image] represents is not over”[14] and that it continues to live on and influence the present moment, with the present moment also reaching backwards to inexplicably influence our past experience.

Marks’ writing works in part from Deleuze’s theory of “time-image”. Time-images, as compared to movement-images, do not follow the chronological order and representation of narrative actions and reactions. While past, present, and future are all clearly differentiated from each other in movement-images, time-images flatten that temporal plane, making past, future, and present indistinguishable.[15] Pokémon achieves a similar effect through use of “gestures” which, like Deleuzian style time-images, are movements, actions, or images that disrupt the development of linear narrative by pointing towards other memories and media products within the transmedia franchise. This creates a wider system of moments that extend beyond the specific medium and moment at hand. These gestures are not “gestures” in the sense of a physical movement by an actor within the story, but rather a “pointing towards” another aspect of Pokémon through the mirroring of a familiar image, phrase, character, game mechanic, or environment. The presence of a gesture involves movement from the present moment to a previous one and has the feel of a verb – a moment that moves you – versus a noun, a moment one has.

As we learn from Marks, memories are not always purposeful, and these gestures towards the remembered past do not necessarily imply voluntary action on the part of the viewer. Rather than being a recollection in the form of purposeful nostalgia, the gestures can point to the past regardless of whether the player intended to imagine it or not. The viewer cannot choose to remember or not remember and is instead moved to memory by the gesture itself. It is an excavation of the past not by the methodical digging of a shovel-wielding archaeologist, but by an unexpected and explosive tripwire.

These types of gestures disrupt the place and time of the present experience when they surface. When a gesture moves you while you are playing the newest Pokémon game, you are pushed into a moment where your memory of playing Pokémon previously exists simultaneously with your current experience of playing, all in the very same moment. Due to the player’s embodied, tactile memory of having interacted with other Pokémon products, these gestures do not simply disrupt via the rational plane, but also via the affective one. Playing is an action, a very bodily one, and memories of play are also memories of movement and body.

The word gesture also in part draws from Bergson’s discussions on the explosive nature of repetitive, unconscious, and “disruptive comic gestures”, which he says contrast with intentional or conscious actions.[16] In the case of Pokémon, these gestures disrupt the narrative using mimic-able images, actions, game mechanics, and phrases that are associated with other temporalities, like Marks’ radioactive memory fossils. They both “condense time within themselves”[17] and expand time outwards upon the viewing or “excavation”. Using the word “gesture” instead of “fossil” is appropriate for a transmedia franchise that originates with a game, a media form that more obviously relies on physical movements of the player for a story to unfold. Using the word gesture more easily brings to mind movement, which helps us to remember the interactive (and therefore action-oriented) nature of games. This is not to say gestures are more powerful than other types of references, like music or visual imagery, just that gestures are well-suited to transmedia franchises that involve games. All forms of transmedia storytelling use a variety of different narrative-making techniques, but the narrative found in games is intertwined with game mechanics – system-based feedback mechanisms that affect how a narrative is experienced. Using action-based ideas versus noun-based ideas helps not only pay homage to what is unique about video games, but also expands our conception of transmedia memory-making beyond what an audience member remembers seeing, but also what an audience member remembers doing.

 

Brands and Memory-Making

 

Transmedia, in addition to being multiple kinds of interrelated stories based on the same fictional universe produced on multiple types of media platforms, is also a type of brand. When someone says a media product is part of a transmedia franchise, like Star Wars, the label brings with it certain expectations about what an experience with that product will be like based on previous experiences with products made under that same umbrella. Branding relies heavily on affect and past experiences, and corporations have been harnessing the power of memory to create effective branding for quite a while. In Robert J. Foster’s book, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea,[18] Foster studies how soft drink brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi become more than mere commodities as they spread globally from place to place. For Foster, the qualifying of the meaning and value of Coca-Cola lies beyond production or simple commodity consumption, but in the affective work that consumers do through their association of past experiences and feelings with the Coca-Cola brand.

This affective significance comes as a result of Coca-Cola embedding itself into the everyday lives of consumers to such a degree that it becomes part of people’s individual biographies, “a prop for the particular narratives through which individual consumers actively produce their own pasts”.[19] Coca-Cola’s value and meaning is essentially produced by creating a time machine, a type of time travel only possible to consumers with previous, embodied connections with the Coca-Cola brand in physically salient ways. An example being the bodily experience of drinking a Coca-Cola during a particularly memorable summer spent at summer camp. When you see an ad for Coca-Cola, you not only rationally recognize and read the message, but also remember the emotional and physical feelings of drinking from that cold glass bottle on a warm pier. The value of a brand such as Coca-Cola comes from two interlinked sources: one from the actual consumption of a commodity marked by brand image, and the other of the memory of that consumption upon viewing the brand image later. Each product must be able to stand alone as a complete experience, but also gain in value, depth, and meaning when it becomes a node in the network of memories and experiences that make up a consumer’s experience with that brand.

Framing Pokémon as a brand like Coca-Cola makes for easy connections. Brands are created when consumers (or players, in this case) form emotional relationships with the franchise through a brand’s ability to connect products to remembered individual biographies. While brands like Coca-Cola do this through advertisements in relationship to a single experience – that of drinking Coca-Cola – Pokémon is a brand that stimulates similar time-traveling tendencies not for one product, but for a large collection of media products. Each encounter with a Pokémon product can connect various aspects of the consumers’ individual biography and identity, linking together different times and experiences of the player’s life into the continually expanding Pokémon universe.

Colin B. Harvey in Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, identifies memory and nostalgia as key mechanisms through which transmedia products are created and spread.[20] For Harvey, “the role of memory can be understood as central to transmedia storytelling, in which the invocation of ideas, characters, plot points or audio-visual imagery between elements of a franchise are central to that project’s success.” [21] This makes sense. It would be difficult to link different forms of media together (linking stories together being the basis of transmedia storytelling all together) if an audience member could not remember any of the previous stories.

When discussing the significance of memory when it comes to creating canon, Harvey examines “the multiple ways in which creators, fans and other commentators seek to control and negotiate the tensions between subjective and collective remembering of a storyworld’s diegesis” [my emphasis].[22] The emphasis on control and negotiation implies that memory is something that can be controlled through agency of either consumer or creator. This is seen again in the final chapter, where Harvey explains that,

the degree of control exercised by the IP holder in each instance in relation to how memory is controlled directly affects the particular narrative being told and the wider storyworld. Equally the lack of control experienced by those outside of such legal arrangements determines how memories can be articulated, and the extent to which they can be subverted.[23]

Control of memory, collective memory especially, is important when it comes to transmedia storytelling. While memory can be affected, encouraged, and subverted by both authorial intent and consumer choice, there are also additional ways to subvert power that are not as tied into conceptions of control. Memory, as Harvey says, can be “an unruly beast”[24], and memory’s ability to continually surprise us provides an alternative way to think about the way media moves us.

 

Producers, Players, and Play Objects

 

From the beginning, concerns about power, both why Pokémon held such a powerful position in the imaginations of players, as well as who controlled that power, were at the forefront of conversations surrounding these pocket-sized monsters. Alternatively called “Cool Japan” or “Japan’s Gross National Cool”,[25] the success of Japanese media products like Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty, and Pokémon in markets outside of Japan, especially the United States, could be interchangeably seen as either a symbol or a symptom of Japan’s rise in “soft power”. Japan was viewed as a blossoming media powerhouse, and more eyes on Japanese media meant Japan was increasingly able to affect culture, values, and politics through the appeal and attraction of their nation and their nation’s media products.[26]

This assessment of Japan’s growing persuasive capacities in globalized media networks was problematized by Iwabuchi Koichi, whose analyses of the extensive localization practices of Pokémon showed that all visual cues that marked Japanese media as being a specifically “Japanese product” were effectively removed. These localization processes revolve around the intention of making these products culturally neutral, something Iwabuchi terms “culturally odorless”.[27] In that case, it means the popularity of products like Pokémon cannot easily be interpreted as consumers appreciating or yearning for anything that, in Iwabuchi’s language, is “distinctively Japanese”. For Iwabuchi, the success of Pokémon stems not from Japan’s rise as a cultural superpower, but rather from the successful removal of all specifically Japanese references so that the world of Pokémon is familiar and comfortable for American audiences.

One of the primary limitations to research like Iwabuchi’s and McGray’s is that, as macro-level and global political commentaries, they do not consider how individual players interact with and emotionally relate to Pokémon products. It is hard to tell what consumers of media products think without researching their actual opinions, and the media itself can tell a narrative or story that moves the meaning beyond just international power struggles. Both Iwabuchi and McGray reduce Pokémon and its consumers to symbolic static straw men for clashing sovereign powers in a way that turns the individuals engaged with the media, as well as the media itself, into somewhat passive mirrors of larger, external political vying for international power. That is a meaningful conversation to be had, to be sure, but not the only one.

Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination offers up a different reading of Pokémon. By interviewing young Pokémon fans and examining the crossover media traffic between Japan and the United States, Allison argues that Japanese entertainment goods such as Pokémon are not static objects, but instead examples of the interlocking relationships between things like Japan and the US, or fantasy and reality, effectively becoming mutable assemblages that attract youths through their ability to move, shift, and transform.[28]  While children admit to the importance of these products coming from Japan in terms of authenticity, Allison argues that the popularity of international Japanese media goods instead derives from a “Japan” that operates as a brand signifier for a certain type of fantasy-ware, rather than a marker of specific geographic or national origin.[29] In some ways, this type of scholarship fills in the gaps left over from a heavy emphasis on structural powers or national intentions. Rather than players being totally under the influence of sovereign agencies, the individual and multifaceted ways in which children are actively utilizing these toy objects in day-to-day life shows how macro processes and symbolism are not the only ones in control of the media and its meaning.

Other types of Pokémon scholarship have also focused more heavily on the relationships players and fans have formed with Pokémon, flipping the focus from macro to micro to examine the ways children actively interact with and use Pokémon products on an individual or demographically narrow level. The topics covered are highly varied, from being impressed by the information and data gathering of young players,[30] to documenting how French children purposefully integrate Pokémon cards into more traditional French card games,[31] to demonstrating how children purposefully use Pokémon to construct new identities for themselves.[32] Rather than practices that are entirely reflective of larger social or cultural narratives, this type of research reinforces the agency of young players in their creative play.

In the research mentioned, Pokémon products become inert tools in either the international hands of nations and corporations, or the somewhat smaller hands of children. I seek instead to complicate this hierarchical relationship, placing Pokémon alongside both the player and producer in terms influence and power, rather than strictly below or above. The value players imbue the Pokémon brand with is not entirely a result of top-down decision-making, with The Pokémon Company solely managing the brand and its meaning, nor is it entirely a product of consumers dictating their own emotions and use of Pokémon products. The answer is between all these things, with the producer, the player, and the actual play product itself interacting on a playing field that is not entirely predetermined, hierarchical, or even adversarial.

 

The Method Behind the Memories

 

To catalogue all the interconnections within the vast and ever-expanding universe of Pokémon would be a monumental endeavour and beyond the scope and limitations of this essay. Instead this article provides a digestible snapshot of how gestures can be located and understood using only specific parts of the Pokémon franchise. I avoided looking at narrative similarities between media products, which lean towards being “movement-images” that utilize rationality versus emotion and affect as the primary driving force. I concentrated instead on the memories that were playful or action-oriented, elements of the world geared towards memories of doing or playing. These gestures are slight, large enough to jar something loose in the memory banks of someone who has played or experienced other Pokémon products, but small enough to not disrupt the story or seem out of place to someone who did not understand the reference.

I started with two specific iterations of the Pokémon franchise: the 1999 cinematic release, Pokémon: The First Movie,[33] and the 2013 video game release, Pokémon X. The gestures found in these two iterations flatten time both intra-platform and inter-platform. Intra-platform gestures point across new or older versions of the same type of product. (i.e. the newest version of a game pointing towards older versions of the game). Inter-platform gestures point across different types of platforms or formats (i.e. an animated television episode pointing towards a video game). This sort of snapshot analysis shows how these gestures are not limited to a specific type or era of Pokémon media, and how gestures can tie together a transmedia brand across multiple products and platforms. The presence of memory gestures across multiple renditions of the franchise, and even across different decades, make this aspect of the media a part of Pokémon’s lasting transmedia brand and emotional legacy.

 

Intra-Platform Gestures

 

“Who’s That Pokémon?” is a question-and-answer segment featured in numerous episodes of the Pokémon animated television series.[34] During each episode, before a commercial break, the silhouette of a Pokémon is shown with the voice of the narrator asking the audience to guess the name of the Pokémon being shown. To ask the question, the narrator always uses the same phrase: “Who’s that Pokémon?” After the commercial break, a human character from the show shouts the name of the Pokémon as the fully detailed and non-silhouetted image of the Pokémon appears. For instance, in figure 1, the answer is “Pikachu”, the main Pokémon throughout the series. In addition to being a playful game to pass commercial time, “Who’s that Pokémon?” is also an intra-media memory gesture, a moment pointed towards by Pokémon’s first full-length film.

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Gekijōban Poketto Monsutā: Myūtsū no Gyakushū)[35] was released in 1998 in Japan before making its way to the United States in 1999. As reported by Anne Allison in her book Millenial Monsters, the movie earned opening day profits that at the time exceeded all other films in American film history except for Star Wars. [36] The film was based primarily on the characters from the syndicated animated television series: Ash, Misty, and Brock (as they are called in the American release). In the film, our human protagonists, plus Pikachu, face Mewtwo, a bioengineered Pokémon made from the cloned DNA of Mew, the legendary Pokémon, and the super-Pokémon clones MewTwo has created. Like any good iteration in a transmedia franchise, it is a stand-alone film, and it is possible to find enjoyment watching it without having played any of the Pokémon video games or having watched any episodes of the animated television series. While previous knowledge and experience with a Pokémon product is unnecessary to understand what is happening, there were special, memory-laden gestures that offered additional depth and meaning for viewers who did have familiarity with other Pokémon products.

During Pokémon: The First Movie, the “Who’s that Pokémon?” gesture is referenced during a scene in which two members of Team Rocket, Jessie, and James (a pair of “villains” that often act as comic relief rather than a serious threat), are trapped in the underground laboratory of MewTwo. In the giant stadium above, MewTwo captures the Pokémon of the various trainers he has lured to his island (including Ash, Misty, and Brock) and sends the captured Pokémon down to his lab to be cloned. The cloning machine, while the captured Pokémon go through an assortment of tubes, displays on an overhead screen the silhouette of the Pokémon being cloned. At one point, when James sees a Pokémon’s silhouette on the screen, he mutters aloud “Who’s that Pokémon?” (see fig. 2). While this scene is part of a larger narrative arc revealing how MewTwo is creating his team of super-powered Pokémon, the moment when James asks quizzically about what is being shown on screen, and in fact even the existence of the screen itself, are largely unimportant for continuing the action of the story. But for viewers with previous experience of the animated Pokémon series, this gesture could potentially point towards memories of playing this specific guessing game while watching the animated television series on a couch in their living rooms, therefore recalling a past moment and layering it on top of the present to create an experience that extends backwards through time.

 

obraz 1 obraz 2

Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right). A side-by-side comparison of a screenshot of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” segment from the first Pokémon episode, “Pokémon, I Choose You!”, in the United States (Fig. 1) versus a screenshot from Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Fig. 2).

 

The Pokémon video games also make use of intra-media gestures. Pokémon X, one of two of the first sixth generation games published in 2013, includes instances of gestures that take players out of the present moment by bursting backwards into older video games. For instance, at one Pokémon Center, a type of building that provides healing services within all of the games (its continued existence a type of gesture in and of itself), a non-playable character you speak with makes mention of the changes that have happened to Pokémon Centers within the last ten years (see fig. 3). One change the non-playable character notices is that of building aesthetics.

The Pokémon Centers, while common staples found in most of the main-franchise role-playing games, have gone through several changes in terms of their appearance as the games have developed over the years. The mention of there at one point being two stories is temporally important, as the two-story Pokémon Centers in old games (most notably the original 1998 video games Pokémon Red[37] and Pokémon Blue[38]) were due to technological specifications of the Game Boy console. The “Pokémon Cable Club”, as the character mentions, used to be housed on the second floor of the Pokémon Center in Pokémon Red and Blue. It is where players went to trade Pokémon with friends via physical, real-world cables connecting one Game Boy console to another before wireless transfer was made technologically possible.

For players of the original video game, stumbling across this innocuous comment in Pokémon X [39] could push the player back in time to a moment where you sat two feet away from your friend, impatiently watching a grey blob travel along tubes on your black-and-white pixilated screen as you waited for a trade to complete. It could also work in reverse. If you first encountered Pokémon X, encountering the second story in Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue could cause you to “remember the future” of the franchise, adding meaning to the in-game architecture through your previous experiences of future renditions of the Pokémon Center.

 

obraz 3aobraz 3b

Fig. 3. Screenshots of a conversation with a non-playable character in Pokémon X while at a Pokémon Center.

 

The Pokémon themselves are their own intra-media gestures. As time goes on, the Pokémon franchise adds new Pokémon that are available for capture and training in addition to the ones that already exist. Generally, Nintendo only adds more Pokémon to the Pokémon universe, and never takes any away. Even if all the Pokémon are not available for capture within the same game, a player’s digital Pokédex (like an encyclopaedia or a field guide) holds information about every single Pokémon ever created. While the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, started with a total of 151 Pokémon, the official online Pokédex compiled by The Pokémon Company on Pokemon.com lists a total of 801 different Pokémon as of 2017.[40]

Since the available Pokémon changes from game to game, recent developments have made it possible to transfer Pokémon from older games to newer games, so players can more fully complete their Pokédex. That means Pokémon from different generations can still be played with inside the game no matter what game you are currently playing. This has some interesting affective possibilities. If, as a player, you choose to move some of your old Pokémon to your new system, that means when you battle it is not just any Venosaur you’re playing with, it’s the same one you’ve owned and trained since 2004, the Venosaur that has seen you through different birthdays, bad romances, and good years. Pokémon you previously formed a relationship with are now available in your present moment, blurring the temporal lines between the battle you are having now and the battle you had ten years ago when you first levelled up the Pokémon on your screen.

 

Inter-Platform Gestures

 

The tendency to throw in moments that bring to mind other renditions of the Pokémon franchise is not limited to referencing products within the same type of platform. Pokémon: The First Movie, in addition to gesturing towards the animated series, also pointed the viewer towards the original video game, Pokémon Red. Upon revealing his powerful Pokémon clones before the final battle, MewTwo describes the very impressive battle trio standing in the frontlines as the “ultimate evolutions of the three Pokémon any trainer can get upon starting their journey”.[41] The Pokémon he is talking about are Charizard, Venosaur, and Blastoise, the final evolutions of Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. This might mean nothing to the average viewer, but players of the Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue video games would know that Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle are the first three starter Pokémon you must choose from at the beginning of the first Pokémon games. Hearing MewTwo’s speech brings the viewer back to the first time they ever turned on their Game Boy, reminding them of how difficult it was to choose which cute and cuddly battle monster would be their comrade for the remainder of the game.

Pokémon: The First Movie gestures towards more than just one video game. Pokémon Yellow[42] was released in 1999 as an almost a direct copy of Pokémon Red and Blue with only two big changes: Pikachu is the only available Pokémon to start with (rather than the typical trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur), and Pikachu follows the player around on the screen rather than being carried in a Pokéball. This is directly gestured towards by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu in the film. It is quickly revealed to the audience that Pikachu is different than other Pokémon, namely because Pikachu refuses to go inside his Pokéball, which is where most Pokémon spend most of their time, even when critically injured. Watching that episode can instantly suggest the memory of navigating the game-world in Pokémon Yellow, with that tiny pixilated Pikachu you were forced to choose following happily along behind you.

Game mechanics are their own sort of gestures, with most Pokémon games utilizing some variation of in-battle moves relating to attack, defence, switching to another Pokémon, using an item from your in-game inventory/bag, or running away (if you are battling a wild Pokémon). While these game mechanics have stayed similar from game to game, changing little between iterations, they also re-appear across different platforms. “Thundershock” is a move used by Pikachu in Pokémon X, but is also seen in the first episode of the animated series.[43] It is also available as an attack move on some of the Pikachu playing cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game (see fig. 4).[44]

 

obraz 4

Fig. 4. A Pikachu card found in Pokémon Trading Card Game, listing “Thunder Shock”, a move seen in both the anime, film, and in video games.

 

Game mechanics like this are unique to transmedia franchises that incorporate or are based out of games. Game mechanics and actions, rather than providing additional narrative depth or filling gaps in a story-line, combine media threads together through memories of repetitive action to create bonds between different kinds of media.

 

Who is Choosing Who? Purpose vs. Potential of Implanted Gestures

 

While these examples are just a few among many, they expose the multiplicity of ways that Pokémon could potentially inspire memories on the part of the player. The key point here is that of potential. While it is likely the creators purposefully implant some of these gestures throughout the franchise, the order in which the gestures are experienced and the effect they will have (if at all) is not entirely predictable. If your memories of a certain game are entrenched with memories of hiding in your room while soon-to-divorce parents are downstairs screaming, a game unintentionally causing you to go back in time to that moment might be met with frustration and sadness rather than joy and happiness.

Additionally, like all transmedia franchises, not everything will inspire moments of memory, in part because there is no specific chronological order in which to encounter the Pokémon franchise. Creators have little control over the order in which the franchise is experienced. A player can start anywhere, either the card game, anime, a video game, or movie, and still be able to participate in the main narrative arc of each Pokémon variant. Tajiri (the creator) says this himself in an interview with Time Magazine:

TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?

Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are

introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or

the video game, they approach it differently each time.[45]

Some people start with the newest video game and work their way backwards to the classics, while others have purchased every video game since 1998. Some start in the middle. Some skip a game. Some people participate in all levels of the Pokémon franchise, from the card game to the anime, and still others participate maybe in only one or two types of the Pokémon media medley. Unlike a series, in which starting at the wrong point would cause confusion, the Pokémon franchise has many entry points that are constantly expanding outwards. The gestures work regardless of what order they move you, mainly because they have nothing to do with chronological time or narrative sequence. Each entry, each memory, each action, is just another addition to the individual biography, the individual Pokédex, of the player’s life which can be collected in any order.

These Pokémon products can exist separately even while being enmeshed in networks that bind them together across various stories, times, and method of engagement. The ability to pick up and engage with the Pokémon franchise at any point, even though these games are laden with references to other parts of the franchise, is possible because these types of gestures are not essential for narrative action. In fact, as a game, the glue that holds much of this transmedia franchise together is not even the narrative arc, but rather types of actions a player or audience member has performed when interacting with this world sometime in the past. These gestures draw the consumer in through the engagement of their individual, and very active, biographies, busting the present moment open to the possibility of pollution by other times and other experiences throughout the player’s life.

The possible effects of these radioactive memory gestures embedded within Pokémon products not only hold parts of the branding of this transmedia franchise together, but also provide a way to move meaning in ways not entirely calculable by producer or the player. Catching these movements of memory, or at the very least the moments in which these movements are possible, helps us better understand the ebbs and flows of media and its meaning as it crosses national borders, media platforms, and individual relationships. Catching just the power of the state or the power of individual intent is not enough. Put in the language of the Pokémon universe itself, we “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

 

References

Allison Anne, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006).

Bergson Henri, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999).

Brougere Gilles, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Deleuze Giles, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

Foster Robert J., Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

Frank Allegra, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Harvey Colin B., Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

Iwabuchi Koichi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Taylor Laurie N., Whalen Zach, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Lien Tracey, “How successful is Pokémon? Take a look at the numbers!”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/18/6030089/Pokemon-sales-numbers, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000).

McGray Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Go (2016, Niantic, iOS and Android).

“Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (1999, The Pokemon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

Rai Amit S., Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009).

Reading Anna, Harvey Colin, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Sefton-Greene Julian, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Tobin Joseph (ed) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Willet Rebekah, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

“All Pokémon Video Games”, The Pokémon Company http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/all-pokemon-games/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

“Pokédex”, The Pokemon Company https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

“The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

[1] Because the single word “Pokémon” is used to describe and name a cornucopia of media objects and things, I utilized a specific key to help readers recognize references more easily. Throughout this paper I use the term “Pokémon” to discuss the creatures, or objects of capture, that inherit the Pokémon universe; I use the italicized “Pokémon” to discuss specific products (i.e. cartoons, movies, card games, video games, etc.); and I use the underlined “Pokémon” to discuss both the franchise and brand itself, as well as the universe in which Pokémon and Pokémon discussions are situated in or centred around.

[2] Pokémon Go on iOS and Android (2016, Niantic).

[3] John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[4] Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[5] Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[6] Allegra Frank, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[7] Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

[8] Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[9] Amit S. Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009), p. 218-219.

[10] Anna Reading and Colin Harvey, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 164-179.

[11] Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 65.

[13] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[14] Laura U. Marks, pp. 81.

[15] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

[16] Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999), p. 130.

[17] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[18] Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New

Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

[19] Robert J. Foster, pp. 85.

[20] Colin B. Harvey, Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

[21] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 34.

[22] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 92.

[23] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 200.

[24] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 183.

[25] Douglas McGray.

[26] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

[27] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 53-79.

[28] Anne Allison, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006), p. 34.

[29] Anne Allison, pp. 277.

[30] Julian Sefton-Greene, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 141-164.

[31] Gilles Brougere, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 187-209.

[32] Rebekah Willet, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 226-240.

[33] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

[34] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

[35] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[36] Anne Allison, pp. 237.

[37] Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[38] Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[39] Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[40] The Pokémon Company, https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

[41] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[42] Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition on Game Boy (1999, The Pokemon Company).

[43] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”.

[44] Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

[45] “The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

 

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 142-161.

 

Ciara Smith

Auburn University

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea:

A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”[1]

 

Abstract

This paper posits folklore studies as an appropriate lens through which to examine a specific gaming community. Game studies, itself an emerging but recognized field of study, offers an alternative possibility. In practice, folklore seems to be more appropriate. Ludology, the study of gameplay, lacks methodologies and metrics specific to the field by which to study communities, their practice, and the process of coherent group creation. Other gaming studies research focusing on gaming communities invariably employs techniques and terminology of other disciplines in order to contribute to the growing compendium of gaming studies that have been conducted. The following paper might be seen to contribute to practices by which folklore studies provide similarly lendable terms and methods; it also clearly represents the expansion of folklore studies into the realm of the digital world. Accordingly, three aspects of folk group study are examined: community beliefs, community creation practices, and communally significant material culture. In each, there is a necessary process of adjustment from the physical to the digital iterations of these traditionally examined aspects. These aspects represent only a few of the myriad possibilities of digital versions of folkloric methodologies.

Key words: gaming studies, digital folklore, gaming communities, MMOs, MOBAs

 

Introduction

In 2007, webcomic artist Randall Munroe posted a comic called “Online Communities” which features some of the most popular websites, social media systems, virtual communication tools and online gaming communities reimagined as a geographical map, complete with the Gulf of YouTube, the Mountains of Web 1.0, and the Blogipelago.[2] By 2010, this map was obsolete and he produced “Online Communities 2”. After an interval of only three years, the area devoted to MySpace had shrunk considerably and is now located near the “Wasteland of Abandoned Social Networks”; Facebook sprawls Sino-Russia-like across the top of the map and YouTube has become its own land mass with smaller areas like the Britney mountains and the already-abandoned Rick-Rolling Hills. “Communities rise and fall”, Munroe writes, “and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. [‘Online Communities 2’] uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there”.[3]

Society is already happening online, and although geographic location is still an important factor in a person’s life, online activity (and “where” this activity happens) is becoming just as important. While the art community expands to include the digital arts and humanity scholars examine the “written” word that is now being transmitted and consumed virtually, those who study the artists, the writers, and their societies must learn to incorporate the reality of online identity. Alan Dundes, claimed that:

The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It doesn’t matter what that factor is – it could be a common occupation, language, or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.[4]

In their chapter on folk groups in Living Folklore, an introduction to folklore study, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens qualified this definition. Citing Dunde’s and the definitions of a number of other folklorists in regard to folk groups, Sims and Stephens eventually arrive at what they consider the centrally important ideal of group: that the group is “doing folklore”. “Basically, if a group has folklore, it’s a folk group”.[5]  Such a definition is clearly applicable to online societies which produce or revolve around a number of recognized forms of folklore. Even before such an in-depth exploration as is attempted below, personal experience renders undeniable the claim that online communities produce such items as jokes and art – two forms that are mentioned in Dundes’ non-exhaustive list referenced by Sims and Stephens.[6]

The possibilities of a folkloric study of an online gaming community are potentially endless. Such a community’s status as a lore-producing group seems clear, but despite the current rise in participation in virtual folk groups there has not been so drastic a rise in corresponding study of such groups. Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank has identified one of the potential reasons for this slight:

On the surface, it may appear that the identification of “folkness” via a technological medium (such as the internet) is presumptuous, or worse, inherently “non-folk”, since it requires some technical prowess with computer-mediated communication in order to be engaged. However, there is an inborn “folk” presence in cyberspace by virtue of the fact that people are behind nearly every symbolic interaction that takes place online and through new media technology.[7]

Technology, Blank claims, is merely a conduit through which folkness is expressed.[8] As stated in the Randall Munroe quote above, online communities are in a constant state of rise and fall. Even as communities are abandoned, the nature of the Internet itself means that an archive of these communities is already being created.

One of the longest lived online communities is that of World of Warcraft. WoW, as it is generally known, is one of the most exoterically recognizable of online gaming communities, yet its community is incredibly esoteric.[9] WoW is an MMO (or MMORPG), a massive multiplayer online game where players from all over the world can interact with others and make friends. Such a game is inherently social in nature, mimicking real life societies in terms of race, class, and faction divisions (somewhat comparable to national divides). Players themselves recognize the social aspects of the game:

When I started, WoW was more of a social experience than gaming. I spent the bulk of my time chatting with people, and that was the reason I logged on everyday…

And theres [sic] more to it than levelling. You can do professions, gather pets, earning money, exploring, immersion, roleplay… And most important of all; friendship! Youll [sic] undoubtely [sic] meet some people. Ive [sic] played WoW for many years and I have friends all over the globe.[10]

This is a member of the WoW community’s response to someone who was trying to play the game without any real motivation, “just because”. These ideas of social interaction online are not restricted to MMOs, WoW, or even to the game communities to which this article will eventually turn its attention: DotA and DotA 2. However, such online communities as these are clearly defined, esoteric, and somewhat homogenous in ways that, for example, social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.[11]) are not.

While this paper is primarily occupied with the attempt to speak of a gaming community as a folk group, an obvious question remains: If folklore is a discipline ill-suited to the task of examining this group, what discipline would be more appropriate? The field of gaming studies is particularly apropos, but similar studies on gaming communities by scholars of games and gaming communities have been largely conducted by sociologists with an interest in gaming. While folklore studies must change and adapt to online life and the new facet such phenomena bring to a study of communities, gaming studies continues to develop as a field that is inherently interdisciplinary.

In general, ludology, the emergent term for the study of play, seems far more suited to the aspects of play than the communities themselves. According to Gonzalo Frasca, “A ludologist is somebody who wants to have a better understanding of games”.[12] Notably, Frasca used this description when trying to differentiate ludology from narratology, implying that these two fields are similar and neither of them seem concerned specifically with the study of the players and their communities. While games such as WoW allow players to create personas and interact in their community during gameplay, DotA and DotA 2 games are often very short. DotA players spend almost as much time out of game taking part in their community as in the game. This does not mean, however, that the gaming aspect does not matter to DotA players. Nor does it mean that this external component of community is exclusive to these communities. In his work on identity expressions in the gaming subculture, J. Patrick Williams has noted the way that items, understanding, and gaming history including success statistics all play a part in the identity of players of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. He notes for these games what might be applied to the community-identity aspect of most if not all games: “Multiple, overlapping processes are involved in the construction of ‘authentic’ identities”.[13] Such a statement highlights both the social complexity of these groups and the way in which the construction of such identity is not limited to in-game activity. Ludology’s focus on gameplay seems, therefore, to fall short of a comprehensive study on the DotA communities. Recent developments in gaming studies posit the game as a tri-part artefact of technology, individual activity, and social pastime. It is this final aspect with which this researcher is most concerned and which would be broadened by the use of folklore studies as a research apparatus.

Where relevant, the following examination of the DotA and DotA 2 communities has attempted to refer to gaming study articles and works that examine related aspects in other games and their communities. In general, even when the authors of these works primarily deal with digital studies, games, etc. they are dependent on these other disciplines for methodology and terminology. Furthermore, the myriad ways in which this case study examines aspects that are often divergent or oppositional between the DotA communities and similar ones in other studies conducted by scholars of games speak of the breadth and range necessary for broader attention to community studies in the still emerging discipline of game studies. The idea of a single discipline of gaming studies assumes qualities that are unique to games. However, the current status of gaming studies as an inherently interdisciplinary field both recognizes the unique qualities of games and allows them to be seen as a newer subsection of humanities and liberal arts studies, neither so different as to be unrelated nor so similar as to be subsumed by earlier works.

Below, the DotA communities will be examined through a folkloric lens, but like folk groups situated in the “real” world, the DotA communities are comprised of members who in turn populate myriad other groups. The influence of other folk groups is omnipresent: many gamers are a part of the WoW community or choose to participate in DotA alongside real life friends with whom they form a different sort of community. Although this digital folklore exploration is far from a one-to-one comparison between online and “real life” folk groups, I’ve chosen to focus on creation stories and beliefs, community making, and “collectanea” within these online communities.

Although mediated by technology, such folkloric forms are recognizable as variations on their non-digital analogues. I’ve therefore conducted this research primarily through examination of various websites where players interact with each other. Some of these websites are forums and literal discussions while others are websites such as Wikipedia and DotA and DotA2 Wikipages. Such sites are often viewed as neither legitimate nor credible but are particularly useful here as they represent archives created by and for members of these communities. Also, email interviews have been conducted with a few members of the DotA 2 community. These members, while hardly representative of a large and thriving community, do allow for more personalized feedback than can be drawn from simply observing community activities.

 

Creation Myths: Dota Beginnings, IceFrog, and Game Deities

 

According to Sims and Stephens, belief is an important aspect in folk groups, indeed it is one of the ways that “cultural information is most often communicated within groups”.[14] For many folk groups, “the question of belief is often most apparent in studying religious elements.[15] Some games include an in-game religion that players become pseudo practitioners of during gameplay. In her book-length study on an MMO called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Celia Pearce elaborates on some of the ways in which players of this game participate in a specific religion.[16] While DotA and DotA 2 players do not participate in religious activities per se, they have long exhibited an interesting set of creation myths regarding the existence of the games. These creation myths, in conjunction with famous figures within the community, regularly lead to community members expressing their beliefs about the game in terms and phrases that mirror religious participation.

As the 2 in “DotA 2” implies, DotA 2 is the more recent of two games. DotA[17], while strongly related to WoW, is not an MMO, but a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game in which teams compete for a specific goal or specific amount of time on a game map that is much more restricted in size than the world map of an MMO[18]. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a reference to the goal of the game. Two opposing teams of 5 players defend their “Ancient”, which isn’t specifically defined. An explanation can be extrapolated from in-game contexts and definitions of the word, such that it becomes a combination temple/tower/deity. Regardless of how the term is understood, these opposing Ancients figure in the game as attackable structures in opposite corners of the game map with a limited amount of “life”. Teams must attack and destroy several tiers of towers and eventually the Ancient of the opposing team while protecting their own towers and Ancient. The team whose Ancient falls first, loses the game.

DotA began as a kind of sub-game in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, [19] which included a world builder, where players could create custom scenarios. “These custom scenarios can be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they can be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like Defense of the Ancients”.[20] Because gameplay was located within the Warcraft game, original players were part of the Warcraft community. However, in 2013, the standalone sequel DotA 2 was released as a free-to-play MOBA by Valve Corporation, allowing gameplay for experienced DotA players as well as newcomers unfamiliar with Warcraft. Hero names, images, and other in-game terms were changed, but DotA 2 is easily recognizable as a “sequel to DotA”.[21]

The DotA mod for Warcraft was originally created by an anonymous player named Eul in 2003, who soon disappeared from the scene, allowing for a series of other notable “modders” to step in and curate gameplay, heroes, and the map, including Guinsoo, Neichus, and IceFrog.[22] Players were invited by IceFrog to comment on what changes they wanted made in the game, and IceFrog listened to these requests, reportedly changing a hero’s abilities less than two weeks after a newer version had been released because the community claimed that the hero was too powerful.[23] In 2009, it was announced that IceFrog would be working at Valve Corporation to develop a new game.[24] While community involvement in the creation of DotA 2 wasn’t as public as it had been in DotA, it was created by the same people who were controlling DotA.

Although anonymity isn’t a requirement of the DotA and DotA 2 communities, it does seem to be a mark of the creators to remain anonymous[25]. This did not stop community members from speculating about IceFrog’s identity. A defamatory blog post by an alleged Valve employee identified IceFrog as Abdul Ismail was published in 2010 during the development of DotA 2.[26] Although Valve Corporation denied these rumours, a man named Ismail does appear to be a Valve employee, as his name appears in the credits of several Valve projects including their DotA 2 documentary Free to Play. DotA players’ devotion to IceFrog is apparent in the comments section of this blog post. Despite the claims that IceFrog/Ismail had previously worked for a rival game company, comments largely amounted to: “I don’t care as long as DotA 2 is good”. Meanwhile, commenters that leaned towards condemning IceFrog/Ismail professed a dislike for DotA players in general,[27] demonstrating a clear break between DotA community members’ adoration and the cynicism of non-members.

Another theory behind IceFrog’s identity explored by those in the community includes the possibility of IceFrog’s being Bruno Carlucci, a statistician, programmer, and DotA player and game commenter. Bruno’s publicly available timeline doesn’t match up very well with IceFrog’s apparent one. IceFrog was announced to have been working with Valve from 2009, while Bruno announced in May 2014 that he’d “recently accepted a job at Valve as a Software Engineer”.[28]  Nevertheless, rumours that Bruno is IceFrog persist. Forums discussing the possibility cite age, astrological sign, tweeted pictures, and even an apparently shared love of mangoes as evidence for this. There are also several interviews in which co-workers of Bruno appear to ask him directly why he refused to make certain changes in DotA, implying that he indeed was the IceFrog controlling and editing the game according to player suggestions.

I’ve been referring to this quest to determine the identity of DotA and DotA 2 developers as a creation myth because the mystery surrounding the game’s creation and players’ interest therein mirrors the creation story questions posed by other societies. Most of the conversation and evidence surrounding these ideas are provided by community members who are active curators of official DotA history in avenues such as Wikipedia pages on DotA content and self-written DotA histories, such as that published on Facebook by professional DotA player Bu Yanjun “YaphetS”, from China.[29]

However, there are other strains of what will be termed “worship” and “belief systems” in the DotA communities. The aforementioned YaphetS is one of the players who has occasionally had “god” attached to the end of his name because of his “godlike” skill level. These DotA gods are described by a strange mixture of fan speculation and “official” information, often with mythic claims like “labeled by the Chinese”.[30] In addition to the worship that seems to be inherent in labelling someone a god, players have been known to share items with other players they believe to be DotA gods or professional players.[31] There is also talk of fraternization between the DotA gods and IceFrog. YaphetS’s hero of choice in gameplay was Shadow Fiend, whose alternate name on DotA was “YaphetS”. This name was reputedly given “by IceFrog himself”, in tribute to this player.[32]

Furthermore, DotA and DotA 2 players often “believe in the RNG gods and either their favour or disfavour”.[33] RNG stands for Random Number Generator (or, occasionally, RNG is Random Number Gods). As a game that relies on strategy and skill, there is still a certain amount of random “luck” involved in DotA. A number of heroes possess skills that randomly deal more damage than at other times, while a number of items will similarly randomly deal damage or randomly block attacks. The “disfavour” of the RNG gods is demonstrated by a random number that works in a player’s disfavour.

Interestingly, rhetoric surrounding IceFrog, the DotA gods, and the RNG gods, while usually clearly parodic, is often religious in nature, revealing if nothing else a tendency by DotA community members to explain DotA conventions in terms of belief. Players have created and posted parodies of the Lord’s Prayer as prayers to IceFrog and to the RNG[34]. In one forum, a community member posed the question “Is IceFrog a god?” and responses to the post intentionally understood the question to be about IceFrog’s divinity rather than his playing ability. Responses include such assertions as “Eul is the Creator and IceFrog is the Savior”, and “IceFrog is a merciful god”.[35] The rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned DotA gods, meanwhile, seems mythic in nature as community members attempt to pass on the correct lore to new(er) players. “These titles were given during the DotA1 times”, one community member says, explaining the DotA gods to a self-professed new player asking about them on a forum.[36] These stories don’t always agree, and players are quick to defend their views using the same language. “Vigoss is the first god; they called him V-god because it sounded like Vigoss, and this is when he redefined how Dota was played. At least this is the legend I’ve heard…”[37]

Game designer Aaron Oldenburg has demonstrated the potential for virtual games to “simulate religious faith” through procedural and emotional response-provoking elements. His exploration, however, limits itself to first person games. Not being a folklorist, Oldenburg’s interests do not extend to a gaming community’s creation of such faith. However, Oldenburg’s assertion that “religion and games often seem separate from the everyday world, as believers and players (by no means mutually exclusive categories) choose to follow agreed upon sets of rules and narratives that distinguish them from non-believers and non-players” has a certain poignancy when applied to the DotA communities”.[38] Religion and gaming become inextricably linked as markers of community participation.

 

Community: Self-Regulation and Groups within Groups

 

An important aspect of community participation is ritual, which includes not only religious and coming-of-age rituals, but also initiation rituals. “Initiations involve activities that an individual initiate or group of initiates perform to prove their worthiness or to bond them to each other and/or to the group”.[39] Gaming communities have their own sets of rituals, including initiations. Through playing the game in his research of Magic: The Gathering, Williams discovered that before a player is able to play, he or she must construct a deck of cards, usually by buying a number of packs of cards from which players choose a combination to create a deck, which may or may not be strong depending on players’ skills and available cards. Although ready-to-play decks are available for purchase, Williams notes that players typically do not buy these decks,[40]  indicating that the process of creating a deck – which demonstrates investment and understanding – is a sort of ritual for these players. Initiation and ritual in the DotA communities include such aspects as the structured act of downloading the game and completing the tutorial as well as the less rigidly defined period of time in which new players go from being hazed by experienced players to joining in the hazing of “newbs”.

DotA is a game created and regulated by the gamers who play it. Despite the way updates and changes were made to the game by apparent individuals like Eul or IceFrog, the changes were suggested by the community at large:

“Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach.[41]

Community members are aware of their own power in this game-creation, and they extend this regulation to the moderation of the community itself.

With the release of DotA 2 as a free-to-play MOBA in 2013[42], entrance into the DotA community became much less restricted for new players. Before this, it had technically been restricted only by purchase of the Warcraft III game. However, WCIII was notably the third game in a series of games with an already-tight community. DotA 2’s easy availability removed the lingering traces of esotericism in terms of familiarity with the Warcraft games. However, the DotA and DotA 2 communities are self-regulating. Although the common stereotype of gamers such as these includes social awkwardness or inability to express themselves, these community members are incredibly prolific on forums, blogs, and YouTube. While access to the community is never officially denied, ignorance, lack of skill, or inability to learn from past mistakes is vehemently ridiculed and derided by the community. That DotA has a “steep learning curve” was attested to by three of the community members interviewed, all of whom confess to playing as many as six hours a week.[43]

Because of the large number of heroes (each with their own set of abilities) that players can choose from, and the even wider selection of items that change the in-game situations, DotA and DotA 2 gameplay necessitates the ability to strategize; this requires a commitment to practicing as well as the inherent ability to mentally organize, calculate, and remember the items and heroes. Many players learn by watching public matches, watching YouTube videos, or reading Purge’s guide to DotA, subtitled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. Purge is a professional commentator and sometimes professional player.[44] The guide was originally written for DotA in 2011, before the public release of DotA 2 and it was updated for DotA 2 in 2012 and again this year. Purge’s most recent version changes his opening line from “Welcome to DotA, you suck” to “Welcome to DotA, you su… well actually you guys have gotten a lot better”.[45] This guide represents the starting point to even the minimal level of skill in DotA for many players. A number of blogs suggest this as a starting point, and this researcher has been personally told that reading this Guide is the best way to learn to play.

However, until the recent updates which thank players for “taking a chance on this game” that “takes a long time to refine your skills and learn”, the guide read almost as a discouragement from entering the community.

You suck, and you are going to be constantly reminded of this fact for about 6-9 months (if you learn). If you read this guide and use your brain and be actively aware of how bad you suck, you can easily shave 3-6 months off of your complete noob status… You are going to feed. You are going to ruin games, and someone is going to be happy to tell you why.… You are going to have to have thick skin to play DotA.[46]

Learning by playing can be similarly discouraging. In public matches, opposing teams will openly mock the losing team. Furthermore, many players talk about and practice “rage quitting”, in which a particularly good opposing team or, more often, a particularly unskilled set of allies will lead to a player getting angry and leaving in the middle of a game. Interestingly, the community seems to regard these ostensibly destructive relationships as constructive criticism. DotA forums hold regular discussions on rage quitting, in which members show a mild amount of embarrassment after rage quitting while other players often console them with similar stories. Players sometimes describe these actions as necessary: “Someone on my team picked Necrophos, bought a ward and went to our ancient jungle camp. I knew what had to be done”.[47] Such phrasing in these responses and even in the titles and original posts (“everyone has done it at least once in their gaming lifetime”) posits these actions as intrinsic parts of playing DotA.[48]

Such a hard-to-enter community, however, doesn’t actually seem to discourage players. Instead, the high standards set by the community seem devoted to regulating the skill and care that goes into playing. Half-hearted community members are culled out, but even poor players who are committed to playing will be allowed to remain in the community.

Professional DotA players belong to teams, but regular public matches often loosely consist of teams as well[49]. The five players interviewed all know each other in real life and sometimes, but not always, play together as a full team[50]. One of them says that he began to play because “it had been getting a lot of press at the time due to The International 3 tournament going on” in 2013.[51] The others all profess that they began playing because their friends were playing. With the exception of one of them, however, they all claim to play even with only one or two of their friends and often with “randoms”, players they don’t know.

These interviewees met in college, and DotA seems to have presented an opportunity for the friends to “stay connected”, though many of them have moved to distant states. Even when only three or four of them play, they regularly use a different program than the one provided by the DotA 2 game to audibly chat with each other. In addition to offering a hands-free chat mechanism, this separate program allows these friends to talk to each other without having to talk to any “randoms” that might be playing as their teammate. These friends usually opt instead to include the random teammates in strategies via typed messages.

Although members of the DotA communities at large, the interviewed players maintain a community within a community. They are each active within the community to varying degrees, often keeping up with the professional DotA circuit, online forums, and occasional public matches without their friends. However, they seem to largely view the DotA 2 community to which they belong as a virtual conduit that allows them to continue the community they established prior to playing together. “We have a private chat server, and a lot of times we talk about our lives, our jobs, and things that have nothing to do with Dota around the game or while we play”.[52]  Even when the players are physically together for visits, their conversations and activities are largely DotA-related. Sometimes, this group will play together while all in the same room, foregoing the virtual chat system to plot strategies and discuss the game aloud. Digital community for them has become a stand-in for a physical community, but apparently is no less realistic.

 

Collectanea: Digital Collectibles and Player Creations

 

Sims and Stephens have identified material culture as an important genre in folklore studies. For traditional studies, this material culture looks at permanent and ephemeral objects such as architecture or food, respectively. “Permanent or not, material culture has in common that it is tangible – can be touched, seen, eaten, or lived in”.[53] The study of a folk group’s material culture includes not only items produced by/within that community, but also items used by the community. These items acquire relevance and meaningfulness for folklorists through the method and purposes of their production as well as the occasion and frequency of their use.

Although there are a number of physical objects associated with the DotA games, such as T-shirts and figurines, there are also a number of digital items and activities that, while unrelated to actual gameplay, are very much a part of the DotA communities. Players can, for example, buy a $35 hero set for a hero named Crystal Maiden which includes new clothes, new animations for her in-game abilities, and a wolf pup pet that follows her around during the game. These items are not necessary to gameplay in the way that some items are necessary for gaming, such as the cards in the collectible card games that Williams has examined.[54] Williams spends a significant amount of time elaborating on the capitalist aspect of such games. While it is possible to acquire a particularly strong card in a cheap pack of randomly assorted cards, it is much more common that strong cards are held by players who have invested more monetary capital into the game by buying more random packs and increasing the odds of getting a good card or by outright buying expensive cards from other players. DotA 2, however, is a free to play game and while some items are bought and paid for, they do not have the power to affect player or character skill or strength.

Perhaps the most popular digital content in DotA 2 is the Compendium. Each year, a new Compendium is released which gives players a number of in-game challenges that allow them to win prizes, many of which are available for purchase and some of which are specific to the Compendium. These special items are displayed during gameplay and players can see each other’s achievements. Although such items are not as unique, as the anime artist Trevor Blank examines in his chapter on digital collectors, his claim that such collectanea represent “a type of fetish in both an imaginative and a social sense” seems apt here as well. “Ownership”, Blank says, “means absolute possession of a specific, emotionally significant event in the narrative created by using the object. For this reason, possessing such an object invests the owners with equivalent social power among those sharing the same reverence for that narrative”.[55] Similarly, Pearce has spoken of the way that artefacts in the Myst games are often common to most or all iterations of the games, demonstrating the way that physical (or the digital version of digital) objects are an integral part of a community.[56] The acquiring and exchange of items and knowledge as well as original creations such as art or fictions that are based on DotA characters or experience in the DotA communities are likewise markers for community involvement and participation.

The sales from the Compendium fund one of the other main out-of-game activities that community members participate in: The International. The International (TI) is a tournament that happens every year, most recently in Seattle, WA. DotA 2 fans and players can travel to watch the tournament in Washington, or they can watch live online. In August 2015, the tournament was also broadcast live in a number of theatres both in America and in other countries, so that members of the DotA 2 community could watch the championship match live, even if they were unable to travel to the tournament. TI is truly an international tournament, demonstrating, as the small sub-community I’ve chosen to interview attempts to do, the way that this online community is unrestricted by distance. TI consists of Chinese teams, Korean Teams, Argentinean teams, and teams that are comprised of members from multiple nations, like Team Secret, which is located in “Europe”, but has players from Sweden, Canada, and Germany, for example.[57] TI watching is an interesting activity that imitates the gameplay between friends discussed above. DotA community members meet together and combine online activities with physically present social situations.

The DotA communities, furthermore, regularly create and share material that is relevant to the communities at large. DotA’s loading screens are community members’ fan art. Other community creations include guides such as Purge’s guide to the game as a whole and his other guides for individual heroes. Players, furthermore, have access to “builds” for each hero in-game. These builds function as minimalist guides, suggesting which abilities to prioritize and which items to buy during the game, but without the explanation and commentary of the longer guides that players often create. Builds can be rated by community members, helping other players to make informed decisions regarding which build they use.

Other community creations include YouTube videos of games and tactics. These can sometimes be used constructively for gameplay by members but can also be used for entertainment. During my interviews, several players claimed to have learned the game by watching, but some of them specifically mentioned watching the “DotAWTF” YouTube videos, which are a series of videos highlighting particularly poor in-game choices by players.[58] The comments, like on the forums, are often extremely negative and/or harsh. There are more than 150 videos and the views and likes on the individual videos sometimes total more than 2,000,000 and 34,000, respectively.

There are, finally, community creations that have little to do with gameplay and more to do with creativity. Although not at all relevant to gameplay, each hero has a bio and story. During my interviews, it was revealed that the interview was for a folklore seminar, and the players were then asked if they had any ideas about how DotA 2 related to folklore. One of them pointed me to these hero profiles, which read like short fantasy summaries.[59] Another provided an internet link to an hour-long film created by a Chinese DotA player in 2011. Using scenes from the game, the player creates a story about Mirana, Magina, and TerrorBlade, wherein Mirana and Magina are in love. At the climactic end, TerrorBlade (Magina’s brother) kills Mirana. Instead of the common harsh criticism typical of the community, the film seems to be well received. The comments are overwhelmingly about how touching the movie is. Interestingly, the negative comments also seem to be caught up in the movie, as commentators flame the film character using the same language of in-game censure: “Use your ultimate [on] mirana [sic] and kill yourself noob uninstall dota”. Responses to such criticism, explanations like “He was too far to ult”, use in-game experience and logic to argue the point.[60]

 

Conclusion

 

The DotA communities and their lore demonstrate the growing presence of online identities and an opportunity for an extended examination of how traditional folkloric practices are transposed to a virtual space. Although the virtual and physical activities occasionally intersect seamlessly, the digital has largely become the real for such communities. From their beliefs, to community boundaries, to creation, this lore is being distributed virtually to a group of gamers whose physical presence is as realistic as their virtual one.

As a field that focuses on the unique qualities of a community as well as the development and practice of these qualities, folklore seems an apt field for discussions of gaming communities. It’s clear that even though these communities are formed and practiced online – their involvement and focus on games rather than more “traditional” activities like quilting (also a common focus for folklore studies) – gaming communities are not so radically different from traditionally recognized folk groups that a new terminology or methodology is necessary for examination.

As a competing field for the most suitable field by which to study gaming communities, gaming studies poses an interesting possibility. However, although frequently recognized as an independent field, game studies is not only made up of scholars from other fields, but it also often relies on long-established methods and terms used primarily in other disciplines. Perhaps folklore studies will eventually become one of the fields from which scholars enter gaming studies, as sociology, anthropology, and literature are now. Eventually its methodologies and vocabularies may become regular players in gaming studies works focusing on individual gaming communities. For this current project at least, folklore is a fitting field through which to examine the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of these particular communities. The way in which these methodologies prove successful in being applied to digital communities’ comments upon the potential trajectory for further folkloric studies of digital communities, gaming-focused or otherwise.

 

References

Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012).

“Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

“Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980).

Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015.

masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?”, Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011)

O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

“Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015.

pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

“Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company, 2006).

Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015.

YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

“YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

 

[1]My title comes from a popular DotA guide, discussed below. The community members often use such harsh language with other community members in a stringent display of community building.

[2] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[3] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[4] Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980), pp. 6-7.

[5] Sims Martha C. and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2011), p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, 8.

[7] Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012), p. 2.

[8] Ibidem, 3.

[9] I am using the words “esoteric” and “exoteric” here and elsewhere as reference to “insider/outsider” knowledge. “Esoteric” refers to aspects, language, etc. that is easily understood or recognized by those within the gaming world – usually participants but also researchers or other observers. “Exoteric” refers instead to knowledge that is recognizable even to those outside of the gaming world.

[10] InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

[11] Pinterest users, for example, don’t form a community in the way that gaming groups do. Instead, Pinterest seems to be a place to declare to which communities a user belongs, including WoW and DotA.

[12] Quoted in Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

[13] Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company) (2006), p. 89.

[14] Sims and Stephens, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] See Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

[17] Although I will sometimes refer to it as “DotA 1”, the first game is rarely called as such, and is only done so anachronistically. Different companies control the two games. DotA 1 was never trademarked as a game and there was no intention of a sequel.

[18] Although DotA was not the first MOBA, it is often cited as one of the most influential. As a testament to its ubiquitous fame, you can reach the MOBA Wikipedia explanation page by following a link for “Dota (genre)” from the Dota Disambiguation page.

[19] Although I feel as though “sub-game” is a sufficient explanation for the relationship between DotA and Warcraft, it is somewhat inaccurate. The Warcraft games are actually a series of several games that are related but not dependent on each other, and they comprise several different genres. Blizzard entertainment first began releasing Warcraft games in 1994. These were RTS (Real Time Strategy) Games, to which MOBAs are directly related, since gameplay involves strategizing against the opposing team. World of Warcraft was the fourth game in the series, and the first that is an MMO rather than an RTS game. DotA, meanwhile, debuted in 2003 (one year before 2004’s World of Warcraft) as a “mod” of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These first 3 games, including DotA required a purchase of the game, but not of a subscription like that of WoW.

[20] “Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[21] For more information on the copyright agreements between Blizzard and Valve, see Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[22] “Defense of the Ancients”

[23] Ibidem.

[24] O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[25] Usually, but not always. For example, Guinsoo’s real name, Steve Feak, is publicly known.

[26] In May 2017, only a few months after the original research in this study, IceFrog’s identity was confirmed to be Ismail by the papers in a court case in California. Forum posts on reddit obscured Ismail’s name when announcing that the mystery was resolved, implying that some community members might prefer the belief and speculation to the truth. See pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

[27] As is common in online communities, many of these remarks included an impressive display of vulgar language and insults, but some of the milder insults referred to them as “dota fan boys”, implying weak-minded bias. For a more detailed look, see Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[28] “Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

[29] YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[30] See Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015. and “YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[31] Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?” Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[32] See just kiddings’ response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[33] Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[34] The RNG prayer was made by a member of the WoW community, referencing things outside of DotA gameplay.

[35] See Aircross’ and killer3254’s responses to Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

[36] See terryken’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[37] See Dusk562’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[38] Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011), pp. 51-52.

[39] Sims and Stephens, p. 119.

[40] Williams, pp. 79-80.

[41] Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[42] DotA 2 was released for play in 2011 for professional players. TI1, the first international tournament for DotA 2 was held in Cologne, Germany in 2011. However, the game wasn’t available to the public until 2013.

[43] According to emails from players Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., and Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[44] “Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015, and Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[45] Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

[46] Ibidem.

[47] Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[48] masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[49] “Teams” is perhaps a misleading term here. 2–5 friends can choose to play together, and any extra players needed to fill the 5 player slots will be filled with random players.

[50] There are several other members of this group whom I did not interview, but that sometimes join them in playing.

[51] Smith Matt, “Dota Interview”

[52] Tucker, “Dota Interview”

[53] Sims and Stephens, p. 15.

[54] See Williams, “Consumption and Authenticity”

[55] Blank, p. 167.

[56] See Pearce, pp. 158-167 and throughout.

[57] “Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[58] Tucker, “DotA Interview” and Caboose, “DotA Interview”.

[59] willjaf, “DotA Interview”.

[60] WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

Marcin Petrowicz

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 177-183.

 

Marcin Petrowicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

 

The problem of genre is probably as ancient as literature itself; anyone who takes up this topic not only has to face the tradition of genre studies but also has to justify the validity of applying narrative fiction concepts to game studies. Therefore, Maria B. Garda’s book Interaktywne fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych (Interactive fantasy. Genre in digital games)[1] was a daring endeavour from its inception. Yet, after reading through the first chapter one abandons initial doubts regarding Garda’s thesis.

Genre been thoroughly examined not only in many academic disciplines dealing with different media, but also in popular discourse. Labels such as fantasy, gothic, thriller, or romance are used by researchers and connoisseurs of different media, and by novice amateurs, children, and unsavoury fans that are just learning to recognize and understand the vast landscape of different cultural artefacts. Marketing copywriters use genre tags to set expectations for their consumer base; media producers employ genre effects, using them as a recognizable means of communication. Garda argues that game culture in many ways replicates the Hollywood film complex, in which “genres are by definition not just scientifically derived or theoretically constructed categories but are always industrially certified and publicly shared”.[2] Yet the fact that these collections of conventions and effects are constantly used and transformed makes it almost impossible to create an ultimate definition of any genre. Furthermore, living in a world where different types of text converge, exchange, and leave their native platform—a postmedia landscape[3]—the quest for the academic definition of genre is so much more difficult. Therefore the author of the reviewed book writes, “That is why the goal of my work is not to define the concept of [game – M.P.] genre, but rather to examine the role of genre distribution of digital games in relation to similar divisions in film and literature”[4]. Inspired by the concept of genre layers[5], Interactive Fantasy introduces the original concept of merger models and analyzes an example of a well-established one: hardcore fantasy RPG.

 

Genre layers

 

Genre layers assign games to specific genres on different levels. In Interactive Fantasy… three such layers are presented: thematic, ludic, and functional. “Thematic genres relate to categories of semantic systems and are defined primarily on the basis of the representation”[6]. These genres are easily identified throughout any medium that uses any kind of narrative or figurative imagery. Fantasy, horror or western are examples of thematic genres; they are transmedial and mostly originate from creations preceding videogames, thus frequently the tools for their analysis are derived from literature and film studies. The second layer is the ludic genres that are defined by the rules, mechanics, and conventions of gameplay. A point-of-view perspective paired with a three-dimensional environment and shooting-based gameplay will result in an FPS (first-person shooter) game, for example, the Doom series (id Software, 1993–2016), while continuous time plus a commander’s perspective and a gameplay based on economy and military conflict will be an RTS (real-time strategy game) such as the StarCraft series (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998–2017). The Ludic genre is also transmedial, as there are card games (Gwent (CD Projekt RED, in public beta from 2017) and poker), roleplaying games (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986–2009) and The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015)) and wargames (Panzer General (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) and Warhammer 40,000 (Games Workshop, 1987–present)) created for different media; but at the same time there are platformers (Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985)), tile matching (Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012)) or dexterity games (Twister (Milton Bradley Company, 1966)) that could not have been transferred to any other platform than the original one. The third layer presented by Garda is the functional genres defined by the context of reception and the modes of participation. The author introduces two independent divisions of games within functional genres. The first relates to the declared goal of the product; whether it is an entertainment game or whether it has another purpose besides fun; the latter is the case of serious games, which can be further divided into educational games, advertisement games or persuasive games. The second division is based on the designed cognitive effort that the game requires from the player, resulting in either hardcore or casual games, as defined by Paweł Grabarczyk[7]. This is probably the most interesting and the least recognized genre layer, because although much is written in academia about serious games, there is little reflection on casual or hardcore games as genres.

 

Genre effects

 

Within each of the described genre layers, the games are divided by a different set of distinguishable features: narrative, gameplay, and social context. Yet, even within the categories the differentiators for each genre label are not of the same nature. FPSs are defined by environment whereas RTSs (real-time strategies) are defined by usage of time. Therefore, as Garda states, the role of the genre is less that of classification, but rather that of interpretation. To analyse this situation, she uses genre effects borrowed from Dominic Arsenault:

Playing a game is experiencing a constant flux of (genre, series or intertextual) markers, that depending on the individual spectator and his competences, can produce the genres effects that precise their expectations and prepare their favourable disposition for the upcoming semiotic sequence.[8]

A genre marker can be one of many differentiators for a single genre, like progression of character statistics in role-playing games, but a marker can also be used in several games of different genres, such as the multiple endings marker. Under this tag on the Steam platform there are listed such different games as triple AAA role-playing game The Witcher 2: Assassins of the Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2014), indie narrative adventure game The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), or a visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012). Genres arise, mix, and evolve so the gaming community and industry use not only names such as cRPG or FPS, but also tags, which Garda refers to as genre labels, which can either signify a whole genre, e.g. FPS, or also relate to just one genre marker, e.g. multiple ending.

 

Merger models

 

Upon those theoretical foundations, Maria Garda presents her original idea: genre merger models[9]. She argues that specific genres from different layers attract each other and have been historically proven to be popular clusters. For example, the ludic genre of HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) is frequently combined with the detective story theme and a casual mode of engagement, resulting in a recognizable historically embedded trend. Merger models describe a specific convention popular at a given time, “those relations change historically, as today many genres that were in the past associated with a hardcore mode of engagement open up to more casual practices”[10]. We could ask about the popularity of the WWII hardcore FPS model of the early 2000s, and how this model has changed now in a time of a possible revival of the model with the premiere of Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). Garda emphasizes that the list of layers is not complete and can be expanded with labels beyond what the gaming community considers genres. Two interesting additions would be the hardware and nationality layers. A collection of specific local merger models that are highly popular in a particular country could shed light on the national style of game development, while analysis of merger models related to a specific console would tell the story and reveal the strategy of the owner company.

Merger models ought not to be limited to genres; while this framework can serve to interpret a specific genre and its evolution, in my opinion it is more of a tool for writing histories of games. What it should provide us with is an insightful multidimensional map of interconnected trends in game development and its transformations over time. As presented in Interactive Fantasy, the merger model concept can be used to holistically and thoroughly describe a group of games, such as hardcore fantasy RPG, or to analyse chosen aspects of single or multiple games, as Garda does in the last chapters of the book.

 

The Exemplar Model

Fantasy

 

The fantasy genre as it is applied in video games is most indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, his successors, and followers. Yet Garda does not limit herself to this genre core and presents a brief history that led to the creation of Middle-earth. She describes the inspirations of early fantasy writers (mythopoeic narratives, romantic nostalgy for the pre-industrial world and the English Fairyland) as the roots that set the genre’s standards for the following decades. Following the arguments from Tomasz Z. Majkowski’s monograph of the 20th century fantasy “In the Shadow of the White Tree”, Garda adapts her definition of fantasy based on three main characteristics:

  • its ‘otherness’, geographical and chronological distinctiveness from the areas identified with the common reality (…)
  • presence of fantastical elements motivated by magic,
  • conventional ancientness or ‘medievalism’[11]

Tolkien is also indirectly responsible for the popularity of magic and elves in 21st century popular culture, firstly by inspiring the nascence of tabletop role-playing games in the ‘70s and later with the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (2001–2003, Peter Jackson). Not satisfied to just follow the history of fantasy popularity, Garda goes on to summarize the academic research dedicated to this genre. While it is not the main point of interest in the book, it is deep and thorough and can be an interesting read not only to uninitiated scholars.

 

Hardcore

 

The chapter devoted to hardcore games, or more precisely games that demand high cognitive engagement, is mostly focused on gamers’ culture and players’ typologies; it is the chapter that concentrates on the social context of games instead of the artefact itself. Following various researchers, Garda presents a history of the rise and fall of the gamer. Looking for the birth of the gamers she summons Greame Kirkpatrick, who places it in the middle of the ‘80s and points to British gaming magazines as the source of this identity[12]. The author of Interactive Fantasy rightly adjusts this statement to a Polish context, in which gaming culture experienced a similar boom in the ‘90s. On the other hand, she sees the beginning of the fall of the gamer in the Casual Revolution—the transformation of the video game industry in the early 2000, when developers opened their products to wider audiences who would not call themselves gamers, as described in Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games[13]. Garda follows the different definitions and characteristics of the engaged user and describes how the RPG genre relates to them. While for years role-playing was considered to be the definition of hardcore games, in her opinion it is more interesting to see the latest changes in that matter. As more and more developers adopt casual strategies for their work, we see titles that have the characteristics of role-playing, but are also more open to casual players, like Games of Thrones: Ascent (Disruptor Beam, 2013), which is analysed in a later chapter.

 

RPG

 

Role-playing games are one of the most popular and vital genres in games culture and even in trying to grasp the topic broadly, Garda has a lot to cover. Yet she does so in a brief but detailed and engaging form which covers the archaeology of computer role-playing games, presenting the details of the creation of Adventure (Will Crowther, 1975), the ancestor of all RPGs. Later Garda discusses the periodization of the genre as defined in Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton[14]. However, the most important part of this chapter is the reflection on the foundation elements of role-playing and especially how they changed over time. Nonetheless, the two defining traits of role-playing are just as relevant now as they were in 1998, when the book Garda quotes was published. These essential RPG genre effects are the character development system (aggregation of points) and the player’s diverse interaction with the game world (role-playing)[15]. The analysis of these elements gives insight into the genre’s roots and also its relationship with its tabletop counterpart.

The last part of Interactive Fantasy shows how the theoretical model conceived by Maria Garda can be used in analysis. Especially valuable is the ludic analysis of the roguelike genre, in which the author delves into the history of this convention, describes the revolutionary effect of Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996), and the recent popularity of neo-roguelike. This part not only presents an insightful research of a forgotten breed of games but is also a great example of a middle-range game analysis.

I am convinced that Interactive Fantasy. Genre in digital games will be an essential book in Polish game studies curricula. It is a great handbook for games genre theory, presenting all the necessary concepts for aspiring students. The different theories and wide range of topics related to fantasy role-playing games will make it also engaging reading for fans or avid gamers, as the academic nature of the publication does not make it inaccessible or overly complex. On the other hand, in Interactive Fantasy Maria Garda presents an original and inspiring theoretical framework that could be useful for seasoned game researchers. The genre merger model is an insightful concept that is open to further developments and, despite its name, should be developed and adopted to game aspects beyond just genres.

 

References

Altman Rick, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

Arsenault Dominic, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

Barton Matt, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

Celiński Piotr, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

Garda Maria, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012)

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

Grabarczyk Paweł, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

Juul Jesper, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

Kirkpatrick Graeme, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

Majkowski Tomasz Z., W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

Uchański Aleksy, Gawrysiak Piotr, Mańkowski Piotr, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Voorhees Gerald, Call Josh, Whitlock Katie, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012)

 

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

 

[1] Maria Garda, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

[2] Rick Altman, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

[3] Piotr Celiński, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

[4] Maria Garda, p. 22.

[5] Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, Katie Whitlock, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012).

[6] Maria Garda, p. 25.

[7] Paweł Grabarczyk, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

[8] Dominic Arsenault, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

[9] Maria Garda, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012).

[10] Maria Garda, (2016), p. 27.

[11] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

[12] Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

[13] Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

[14] Matt Barton, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

[15] Aleksy Uchański, Piotr Gawrysiak, Piotr Mańkowski, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Abstract

In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II

 

Introduction

 

The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.

 

From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games

 

According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.

 

The Influence of 9/11

 

Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.

 

Cinematic Imagery

 

These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]

 

The Decline and the Revival?

 

New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.

 

References

 

“Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

Aarseth Espen, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 35–44.

Allison Tanine, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 183–193.

Andersen Robin, Kurti Marin, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 45–65.

Auster Albert, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 98–104.

Baudrillard Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003).

Bolter Jay David, Grusin Richard, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999).

Borch Fred L., “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

Campbell James, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), pp. 183–200.

Clearwater David A., Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006).

Crecente Brian, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

Creel James W., “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

Cruz Trent, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

Dittmer Jason, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

Dyer-Witheford Nick, De Peuter Greig, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2009).

Frasca Gonzalo, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

Kingsepp Eva, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 366–375.

Kingsepp Eva, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 60–89.

Kleck Gary, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

Kobylarz Łukasz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302

Kokonis Michalis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9:1 (2015), pp. 171–188.

Mirzoeff Nicholas, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002).

Nieborg David B., “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, in Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA) (2004).

Onder Cade, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

Ouellette Marc, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

Pötzsch Holger, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

Ramsay Debra, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015).

Reed Kristan, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-medal-of-honor/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

Rosenberg Adam, “Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?”, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Safire William, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008).

Salvati Andrew J., Bullinger Jonathan M., “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

Schiesel Seth, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Schulzke Marcus, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8:2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

Silverstein Ken, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Susca Margot A., “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16.

Terkel Studs, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

Voorhees Gerald, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continnum) (2012), p. 89–111.

Wetta Frank J., Novelli Martin A., “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), pp. 861–882.

White Geoffrey M., “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

 

 

[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

 

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.

 

Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg

 

Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

 

 

Abstract:

 

The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.

 

Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism

 

 

Introduction: Film and the War on Terror

 

The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.

 

The Rise of Technology

 

When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:

 

Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]

 

Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:

 

Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]

 

Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?

 

Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man

 

Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.

 

Transformers: Humanity in Machines

 

Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.

 

Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?

 

In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.

 

References

 

Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).

 

 

[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.

 

[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 34-50.

Jane Hanley

Macquarie University

 

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

 

Abstract

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro are contemporaries and compatriots who have charted different paths in their careers as makers of major international releases. Between Babel’s realist network narrative and the science fiction spectacle of Pacific Rim, the actor Rinko Kikuchi offers one connecting thread which can provide us insight into different transnational visions of the global. Pacific Rim establishes the typical global stakes now a cliché in expensive blockbusters, which increasingly depend on international markets for profitability and cannot incorporate too much locally specific experience incomprehensible to non-U.S. audiences, however del Toro’s particular vision suggests a more complex reading of subjectivity in transnational space than the humanity vs. aliens plot may initially suggest. In this context, the figure of Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is arguably the central character in terms of the narrative despite the film apparently being framed around Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket. On the other hand, Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko Wataya in González Iñárritu’s Babel is at the centre of one story in the geographically dispersed but intersecting meditation on the relationship between the locally specific and global systems, with the Tokyo setting emphasising the alienation experienced by the character. Ultimately, Babel reproduces a sense of isolation whereas del Toro’s global aesthetic and speculative world-building underpin transgressive intersubjective, intercultural, human-machine and human-monster communions.

Key words: del Toro; Iñárritu; borders; alienation; liminality; science fiction film.

 

Introduction: Transnational Themes in Transnational Productions

 

Films which encompass transnational issues and endeavour to engage global audiences must necessarily situate themselves differently from films which cleave closely to a specific culture or subculture, co-located with the film’s projected audience. One aspect of this is the approach transnational films take to their central characters. How can their relationship to their environment be understood by different audiences, and how does this spectrum of legibility mesh with the thematic preoccupations of the film? Films provide one medium for exploring the way globalised experiences and connections produce contemporary subjectivities. This idea frames the interpretation of the characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi in two quite different but related transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro and 2015 Academy Award winner Iñárritu are two of the so-called Three Amigos, along with 2014 Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón.[1] (The awards are worth mentioning for the way popular reception and generic conventions frame characters for the audience.) The three directors are at the centre of a recent perceived boom in Latin American cinema, a construct related to select Spanish-language works finding an international audience. All three have also made successful well-financed English-language films, though quite distinct in terms of material and reception.

While the directors are important in each other’s careers and share the same cultural moment, speaking of their work as Mexican is to apply an artificial categorisation related to an outdated concept of nationally-based film production. Their cinematic works are quite distinctive, as Peter Hutchings has pointed out.[2] Their shared context is of interest however for the ways in which their professional trajectories are informed by both their origin and aesthetics, and how these inflect their portrayal of the global. All three have been acclaimed, but Cuarón and Iñárritu have been lauded for a higher degree of perceived seriousness. In comparison, Del Toro’s most lauded cinematic achievements are positioned in opposition to his supposedly more commercial works that explicitly belong to the genres of horror and science fiction, especially when these works are in English. Hutchings remarks on this fetishizing of non-English language films, noting that in del Toro’s Spanish Civil War films the specificity of Spanish history and memory anchors the content in a national cinema, making palatable categorisation easier.[3] Of course, this Spanishness is complicated, since both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth engage more with displacement than with belonging.[4] The former in particular is informed by Mexico’s own reception of Spanish Civil War exiles, and was originally conceived as a Mexican Revolution narrative. Neither film tells a story bounded by a particular national moment; both break barriers between the real and unreal and between memory and imagination.[5] Audiences—especially international audiences with less awareness of the particular transnational features of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the ways it is represented in these films—can more easily fit the films into the Spanish national mould. In contrast, del Toro’s English-language films with their more recognisable genre elements supposedly ‘lack significant ex-generic referents to endow them with “cultural heft”‘.[6] Geek culture may rule the twenty-first century box office, but it convinces critics and juries only rarely. Yet both films fit into del Toro’s career trajectory in its fundamental unpredictability of genre and aesthetic. Del Toro is ‘the imperfect mimic, the perpetual outsider who imitates more or less successfully but who is also an awkward, troubling presence who moves back and forth across national borders and cultural distinctions without becoming assimilated’.[7] Davies similarly identifies all del Toro’s films as ‘gleefully impure’.[8] A breadth of influences mingle together, horror merges with art, refusing genre classification. Pacific Rim’s action science fiction grew out of cult monster movies, but the narrative structure, according to del Toro himself, is essentially of a sports film.[9]

Babel and Pacific Rim

Both Babel and Pacific Rim have a transnational crew and cast, notably in their significant focus on characters played by Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi. This is not coincidental, since Kikuchi asked Iñárritu to put her in contact with del Toro to arrange an audition after hearing that del Toro was seeking a Japanese actor for a project.[10] Nor is she the only cast or crewmember the two films have in common, reflecting the ongoing cross-fertilisation in production conditions between the three Mexican contemporaries, drawing on their long acquaintance. In addition to these transnational material conditions, various features of the stories reflect an encompassing transnational vision of a sometimes confused sort. Many performances in both films require degrees of cross-cultural roleplaying, with Babel aiming for but sometimes missing greater verisimilitude, speaking to the challenges and potential compromises involved in putting together a work of this nature. Kikuchi contends with the least of this compared to other major cast members, as she is not performing a national origin different to her own in either film. Nevertheless, her characters in both films do still suppose forms of doubling in their positioning for a global audience both in terms of aesthetic and the pairing of language and culture.

In Babel Kikuchi plays Chieko Wataya, an adolescent girl with deafness. Her performance therefore is sub-national but still cross-cultural in her portrayal of a teenager in the Japanese deaf community. Chieko is the main character in one of the four interlocking stories of the network narrative. The film switches between Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico via the plot device of the accidental shooting of a U.S. tourist (played by Australian Cate Blanchett).  Chieko’s story is the most narratively disconnected from the other three, which all pivot around the family of the U.S. couple at the core of the film whose story is the only one that reaches traditional resolution. The Japan sequences are designed to serve the film’s central themes of miscommunication and the capacity or incapacity to overcome differences via empathy. These resonances, as encoded via Chieko’s grief after her mother’s death, her general feeling of alienation, and her use of minority language (Japanese Sign Language), are only connected to the rest of the plot itself through the contrivance of her father having left in Morocco the gun involved in the shooting.

Pacific Rim is a typically explosive CGI-heavy action/sci-fi blockbuster featuring pilots of giant robot-suits (jaegers) defending Earth from invading monsters (kaiju). It was explicitly conceived and designed in tribute to mecha (the robot-suits) and tokusatsu/kaiju or monster-based Japanese cultural products. The film’s aesthetic deliberately references the effect created by such films’ live action performances in monster suits, despite relying heavily on current technology to generate the action.[11] This aesthetic and narrative DNA is obviously significant for the film’s engagement with Japanese culture and the portrayal of Rinko Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, the only Japanese character with a substantial presence in the film. Mako is a pilot candidate for the jaegers, raised by military marshal Stacker Pentecost after losing her parents in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. The trauma occasioned by this event is the principle obstacle to Mako realizing her heroic role as a pilot via the ‘drift’, the film’s conceit of two or more pilots uniting telepathically via their memories in order to jointly control their jaegers. Both the presence of a significant female protagonist in an action-focused narrative and the exploration of linking or fusing with other people and with technology are common features in certain genres of manga and anime.[12]

Along with creating robot and monster designs that principally refer to existing popular texts, the places in which the narrative unfolds are similarly imaginary and play more on science fiction cityscapes than real contemporary cities. The shatterdome from which the Jaeger launch, the cinematic future city version of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo of Mako’s memories (informed by the Tokyo of the director’s memories of past kaiju-film urban destruction) are intertextual inventions. Future cinematic Hong Kong, in particular, where most of the action unfolds, is a purely imaginary space, the defining referents being other urban images from popular culture, even though in some instances they might imposed over real-life Hong Kong terrain. Humans do not traverse Pacific Rim Hong Kong and shape it with their bodies; it has been designed to be broken through and brought down by the destructive enormity of the kaiju. The fragments of the city respond to the future-imaginary of need and desire for both creators and audience. While Pacific Rim’s specific referents are from Japanese cultural products that achieved cult status outside Japan, the orientalising of the future has been normalised in Hollywood cinema since Blade Runner[13], and in some sense is what audiences expect from portrayals of the future. To better understand Chieko Wataya’s interaction with and situatedness within the much more realist aesthetic of the Toyko of Babel, it helps to frame this city, in contrast to Pacific Rim’s Hong Kong, as a Foucauldian heterotopia.[14] In the particular consideration of transnational cinema with varied audiences, it is useful to follow Raussert’s lead in extending Foucault’s concept via Massey’s exploration of place-as-process wherein places are discursively rather than geographically bound, existing ‘within consciousness rather than physical borders’.[15] This facilitates the application of the heterotopia not just to the theatre and the interaction of screen, experience, fictional space and real space, but also to the multiplicity of ways the spaces portrayed in film are experienced by both the characters and the audience.

Babel-Tokyo mirrors Tokyo-as-lived (with the mirror being one of Foucault’s examples, alongside the theatrical stage, both with obvious resonances for film). The cinematic reproduction of Tokyo, however, takes it out of specific time and place, and creates an unstable and constantly mutating function underscoring both the radical absence of Tokyo and the absence of the viewer themselves as they are transported into each other. Babel’s Tokyo has both intertextual referents and real referents, and a shifting significance both diegetically, for the inhabitants portrayed, and non-diegetically, for the film’s diverse viewers.

Asia as Global Space

The analysis of Chieko Wataya and Mako Mori draws together different critical threads. The first is the projection of global space in transnational films in relation to the Mexican directors’ trajectory. Deborah Shaw has extensively explored the function of the transnational in both the production and the reception of these directors’ work, noting that ‘culture is rarely, if ever, “pure” and that there is no neat distinction between “Western” and non-Western: transnational movements of people and ideas must be considered’; and that it is false to categorise films as ‘Latin American’.[16] If Mexico is having a moment, partially thanks to these three high profile directors, it is only understood as such by defining the cultural spectrum from an Anglo-American centre, since their work both in English and Spanish (or multiple languages, in this case) is understood in the Spanish-speaking world according to different definitions of mainstream film production. Shaw still sees value in contrasting directors and works that share production characteristics, even if only to highlight differences in intent and effect. It would be equally artificial to declare Pacific Rim and Babel incomparable because of their disparate apparent genres. Indeed, genres have provided as incomplete a set of working categories as national cinemas. It is productive to explore not only the divergences, but also the parallels of different kinds of cinematic space.

The second major critical thread is the analysis of Hollywood images of Asia and Asian people, drawing on Jane Park’s concept of oriental style, which reinforces Shaw’s assertion of the impossibility of a pure national or ethnic product. Cultural creation and reception are all fissures.[17] Park and Marchetti both describe the emergence of post-modern pastiche as a prevailing aesthetic mode for global blockbusters, in which Asia becomes, in Marchetti’s words, ‘an imaginary construct of past representations from other mass-mediated sources’.[18] Park makes the additional critique that the ironic mode of using racial signifiers detaches race from the history of power and actual inequality, drawing on Nakamura’s concept of cosmetic multiculturalism.[19] This charge can be levelled at Pacific Rim, but with caveats that become clear through further analysis of the film’s multicultural characters.

Some existing critical approaches to the representation of Asia, particularly Marchetti’s, start from a standpoint of considering films within the context of consumption by U.S. domestic audiences. The transition Park described in its early stages is now complete: contemporary mega-blockbusters have to make their money back in the international market. This market constraint can either further or limit creativity, and certainly produces interesting effects in terms of the varied legibility of character and space in different markets. This constraint applies even for Babel and other films at the art film end of mainstream Hollywood. Despite their more limited financial expectations, spaces in these films must nevertheless be intelligible to an extremely diverse projected audience.

In Babel, Iñárritu tries to tell a situated but global story, both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. It explores the limits of communication but allows multiple entry points for different audiences to engage with the narrative. The film pivots around a single temporal point (the shooting) that represents a crisis occasioned by and occasioning violence. The strategy is the same as in the director’s breakthrough Amores perros.[20] However, with connections between the different characters even more dispersed than in the class-variegated Mexican setting of the earlier film, the use of a dramatic pivot point is less effective. As a result of tensions between the thematic ambitions and projected global audience of the film, the images of Chieko and her movement through Tokyo are neither truly local nor disruptively specific. Shaw’s discussion of the global gaze agilely critiques Babel’s use of a tourist perspective in contrast to the art film signifiers of Carlos Reygadas’s Japón.[21] The tourist gaze provides an organizing function. Iñárritu and cinematographer Prieto’s production designer Brigitte Broch portrayed Tokyo through a pink-purple palette representing the ‘diluted blood of futuristic essence’ in contrast to Mexico’s primary red for ‘straightforward Mexican passion’, with the overall aesthetic distinctions between locations geared at enhancing, according to Prieto, ‘the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally’.[22] Tokyo is the now-cliché site of hyper-modernity (versus Mexico where emotions are supposedly unmediated). It is a prevailing image of that city, with the small benefit of partially disrupting the ‘classic Orientalist spectrum of progress’ which situated Asia in the past.[23] Shaw suggests that Babel’s Tokyo responds to the demands of the international art film genre and its intended audience via employment of ‘familiar and expected locations and types’, in which ‘Japan is hyper-modern, featuring the latest mobile phones, cool clubs, trendy cafés, and impressive neon-bright cityscapes’.[24] Early in the Japan sequences the film presents now-stereotypical elements of urban Japanese adolescence, such as pop music videos and arcade games.

Rinko Kikuchi’s Globalised Body

Chieko herself, and her frustrated desire for a human connection and a way to physically express her grief and guilt, partly embodies the alienation associated with technologized modernity and the failure of technology to replace human contact. She uses technological aids for the deaf to assist in interacting with her environment and communicating with people. However, here these aids do not symbolise the Asian future’s technological erosion of the human, but the character’s intimate reality, an important difference. In critiquing Babel’s reinforcement of global images of Japan, Chieko’s specific experience notably disrupts some established readings of spaces, because they are intermittently silenced as the film shifts into her sensory point-of-view. Hearing members of the audience are required to make a cognitive leap to understand the difference in Chieko’s experiences of space. She perceives only part of what the hearing viewers do. In that partial perception, non-Japanese hearing viewers may also approximate something of the partiality of their own comprehension and the spatial experiences that are opaque to those outside the deaf community.

It is also interesting to consider, following Isabel Santaolalla’s analysis of the figure of the mute woman in cinema, the connections between Chieko’s relationship to language, her physicality and her sexuality.[25] Then 25 year old Kikuchi plays a teen girl who seeks power or reconnection through sex. Babel reproduces, among other tropes, a sexualised schoolgirl as the natural vessel for situating ‘urban Japanese teenage angst’.[26] However, Chieko’s sexual agency is presented without any kind of erotic charge geared at viewers. It emerges from her feelings, initially mysterious to the viewer and only gradually revealed as her sexual gambits intermingle with other seemingly aberrant behaviours to present a panorama of performances of confusion, guilt and pain. Analyses suggesting Chieko’s character functions as a sexually available version of the classic Orientalised woman who cannot reply and is presented purely for scopophilic consumption are unconvincing. Her relationship to both language and sex is more complex. Santaolalla has outlined the close association in certain films of the normalisation (the achievement of communication, especially speech) of the mute woman with social and sexual control—even, often, sexual violence and rape.[27] At the same time, Santaolalla is careful to underline the complexity of the interrelationship between body and silence/language, allowing that both, together or apart, may offer sites of resistance and challenge. In a key moment in Babel after a flirtation is derailed by the boy’s realisation of her deafness, Chieko signs that the hearing ‘look at us like we’re monsters’, and describes her vulva as the ‘hairy monster’. Sex is an attempt to reframe her own position in the eyes of others, to challenge their assumptions, and transform her experience of her own monstrousness (her guilt over her mother’s death) into something active.

The complexity of the body-language relationship also links to the tongue’s role as the instrument of speech. Chieko does not have audible speech, but uses her hands, the instrument of touch. Her tongue, meanwhile, becomes an instrument of touch in ways that unsettle the expected pathways of communication: she licks her dentist, and later she sucks on the policeman Mamiya’s finger. The written word, which provides an alternative channel for language, is only semi-legible to viewers. It is ultimately completely obscured when her final note to Mamiya, tucked into his hand, is concealed from the audience, contents unknowable. Chieko’s physical, emotional, and auditory isolation is the ultimate form of sovereignty, but she is desperate to breach it, to connect, to be human.[28] Entanglement and messiness are pathways to community. However, ultimately Chieko does not achieve this horizontal community, and certainly not on the terms by which she sought it.

The positioning of women’s bodies as sites for performing power goes beyond the narrative to extradiegetic features. The Babel team explicitly marked futuristic Tokyo with a pink-purple palette and gave the actor purple streaks in her hair to match the colour design. Del Toro similarly marked Mako through blue and also gave Kikuchi blue streaks in her hair.[29] However, in Pacific Rim, the blue is Mako’s own grief and trauma, the ongoing influence of her memory of loss, whereas in Babel the purple is remote from Chieko’s individual trauma and merges the character with the city. If Chieko’s image stands in for the future metropolis, it is vital to consider Chieko’s physical relationship to inside and outside spaces. Bringing together the disruptive opacity of her silent experience of space and her positioning in tension with the stereotypical sexualized Japanese schoolgirl are her public and semi-public nudity and partial nudity, for example, as well the intersection between the audio and the visual, and Kikuchi’s performance oscillating between disruptive monstrousness and other forms that suggest the cultural encoding of speech and body.

Shaw has also noted that to be effective a text must recognise its own limitations and the impossibility of universalism.[30] Babel relies on emotion for audience empathy rather than interrogating the function of class in a global system in determining the range of possibilities for its characters and its viewers. Empathy for supposedly universal human emotions leaves the audience mournful, perhaps, but also helpless. This emotional universalism tends to undermine the estrangement provoked by the moments in which the character’s experience remains resolutely illegible to an “outsider” (hearing and non-Japanese in the case of Chieko) viewer. Death, grief, and familial love are legible, but they are not human experiences that provoke action out of solidarity. If Chieko finds some solace or connection at all, it is through the closeness of death in the film’s flirtation with suicide and, perhaps, the reestablishment of a family unit—order—in her father’s embrace.

Mako, in contrast, has a conventional hero narrative, as can be seen in her triumph over trauma and realization of vengeance for past losses. The film is at least equally Mako’s, and del Toro describes her story—and her childhood memory—as the film’s heart (Pacific Rim director’s commentary). The male protagonist Raleigh and his brother Yancy are the initial heroes. Raleigh is framed as an impetuous youth who audiences expect will be tempered through undergoing some drastic trial, based on conventional Hollywood narrative. Hunnam is a large white man to put on posters and do English voiceover during battles. While the story of the U.S. couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) clearly propels Babel, despite the prologue of Pacific Rim showing the backstory of Raleigh rather than Mako it is her story that anchors the film. After Yancy’s death and Raleigh’s departure from the program, we discover that the Beckets’ jaeger (Gypsy Danger) was drastically altered by Mako, who is also shown to have technical skills and jaeger-combat abilities surpassing those of any other pilot candidate. Mako adds to Gypsy Danger a massive sword, allowing her to enact a samurai’s revenge for the loss of her family and community as she thrusts it through the body of a kaiju in the climactic battle. In another move with shades of Babel—unexpected in a film positioned in the action blockbuster marketplace—Mako speaks mostly Japanese. Her farewell to Pentecost—sensei, aishitemasu—is untranslated.[31] The full significance of a moment easily milked for sentiment is restricted to a knowing audience.[32]

In contrast to Babel, in which a known figure—the Japanese schoolgirl—is both used to make Japan swiftly legible to global audiences and disrupted by Chieko’s relation to sexuality and to language, the character of Mako draws on types perhaps less familiar outside Japan. Del Toro said of Mako that ‘She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut-off shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character’.[33] To the extent that the Mako-Raleigh relationship has any erotic component, it is in her gaze on his body. In contrast to the nudity Chieko uses as part of her arsenal of challenging behaviours, Mako Mori is very clothed throughout. ‘As a means to, even the substance of, a commutable persona, clothing as performance threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject’.[34] This performative element of the subject, however, is also read differently by different audiences. Chieko’s nudity and Mako’s clothing/armour link to the audience’s reading of their characters as Japanese, or more generically as Asian women.[35] Inside Japan, both characters correspond to or subvert particular aesthetic traditions (principally from manga), whereas outside Japan this intertextual reading may be less obvious. Images of Asian women outside Asia are less nuanced; they do not draw on the full spectrum of female figures from all areas of cultural production as is naturally the case inside Asia. Instead, racial and gendered characteristics are often linked together in reductive essentialism. Shingler has outlined the way this expectation requires Asian stars to vacillate between stereotypical and universal subjectivity.[36]  In terms of Asian women performing opposite white men, Marchetti described the way ‘interracial sexuality’ and the use (and generally domination) of Asian women to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero had become a part of the ‘stylistic mélange’ of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking.[37] Charlie Hunnam is an imposing physical presence in the film; however, his character’s relationship with Kikuchi’s does not unfold along these lines. He is intermittently shirtless and Mako—and the audience—look at him, but despite the film’s projection of a jocular macho environment among male jaeger pilots and support staff involving the casual objectification of women, Mako herself is not sexually objectified either by the camera or by any character, including Raleigh, within the film. This environment contributes rather to the locker room effect of the male-dominated sports world, with Mako seamlessly assuming the role of untested but talented rookie.

The two characters, rather than potential lovers, are mirrors, with matching and converging narratives. In the choreography and the mise-en-scène Raleigh and Mako, when appearing together, are framed as physical counterparts, in balance with each other.  At their first meeting, Mako awaits him on an airstrip at the Shatterdome, and the two look at each other, each holding a black umbrella. (Umbrellas are prominent visual and narrative elements in manga and anime, although the constant rain also triggers comparison to Blade Runner). This initial encounter is bookended by the final shot of the two together in the film, their heads inclined towards each other, foreheads touching, and bodies in compositional symmetry as they kneel atop a life raft at sea. Between these two framing images there are many other instances of the two characters physically mirroring each other as they converge.

Among the most significant of these are the hand-to-hand fight choreography, supposed to indicate their elite combat capabilities but also, more importantly, their combat compatibility, and the subsequent sequences of them piloting Gypsy Danger side by side, clamped into synchronised interfaces. There is a dual doubling at work, with each other and with the machine, taking to a new level science fiction’s fascination with the limits of the human and the appeal of the non-human, especially where the non-human serves as the human’s double.[38] While the first and last shots of the two together suggest their joined character arcs, the choreographed mirrored sequences support Pacific Rim’s central concept of the drift, the memory-based telepathy allowing two (or more) compatible pilots to jointly control their jaeger.

Isolation versus Fusion in the Global Gaze

The experience of the drift serves as a motif of communion in terms of contrast to the individual isolation and alienation of Babel, an important point of contrast for the two films’ presentation of globalised subjects. The fusion of characters in Pacific Rim, the ways in which they are relational and intermingled even in how they experience their memories of their own past selves, is a more challenging concept of subjectivity than that put forth in Babel, which ultimately reinforces the integrity of the individual self and the obstacles in the way of transcending our isolation. This difference is not that surprising considering their different genres, with Babel in the realist art-film vein taking emotion—emanating from the self and building on the specificity of individual experience—as its centre, whereas Pacific Rim, in the way of science fiction, engages with the limits of the human.[39] Both films use central characters—notably Kikuchi’s Mako and Chieko—to show aspects of the human response to trauma and our capacity to understand the emotional components of our reaction to external threats on a global scale.

In the context of thinking about the interconnection of threat and trauma, it is relevant to analyse the two films’ treatment of the security apparatus that is supposed to reinforce our sense of integrity against an external force. The connections between borders and enclosure and the relationship between security and exclusion in Babel are obvious, but there are several ways in which Pacific Rim‘s engagement with these concepts is more disruptive. Babel shows the profound incapacity to communicate or transcend barriers. Its representation of unequal power and its relationship to global networks has already received a great deal of critical attention, which its explicit engagement with the consequences of globalisation positively invites.[40] Pacific Rim, in contrast, has one very obvious critique of the politically-motivated folly of building a wall that cannot hold, and the central plot of coming together to face a common enemy is a simplistic cliché. To consider this cliché in the context of the critical question of global visions in contemporary transnational film, the coming together of diverse characters may represent ‘the apotheosis of the transnational qualities so often associated with del Toro, with the giant robots dependent on the support of a racially and ethnically mixed group of human beings who can interact very effectively across national differences’.[41] In practice, however, beyond these clear representations of two different immediate responses to outside threats, the ways that both bodily and cultural boundaries are represented in Pacific Rim is more interesting.

Park relates Morley and Robins’ ‘techno-orientalism’ and Hollywood’s use of Tokyo as the ‘quintessential postmodern metropolis’ in which Japanese people are machine-like, suggesting that the self-hatred of modernity is displaced onto Asia.[42] Fear of modernity as symbolised by alienation in techno-mediated Tokyo is perhaps evident in Babel. In Pacific Rim, however, the prevailing mode is technophilia. Walls are not the solution. Fusing with technology is the solution. Even fusing with and loving the enemy is the solution. Boundaries, which are comforting illusions, must be transgressed. This transgressive tendency is one of the benefits of the genre. ‘Borders and markers in the science fiction film are seen as extendable—and their contents as spilling over into each other, possibly merging’.[43] From the film’s beginning, we see that the jaeger is as much a fantasy protection as the giant coastal wall, for Yancy Beckett is ripped out of Gypsy Danger’s skull—and ripped out of Raleigh’s mind—with ease. It is clear from that moment that jaeger fighting kaiju, though the film’s primary spectacle, cannot offer a solution. Only fascination as a starting point for becoming/assuming the cloak of the kaiju can liberate humanity from its coming destruction. The jaeger alone is imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Similarly, the human characters are imperfect, incomplete and penetrable. Mako herself loathes the kaiju. But as del Toro explains, the characters in Pacific Rim are limited types that are really all one character. The characters move through different positions in a series of dyads of love/hatred, fascination/fear, technophilia/xenophilia, reason/instinct, obedience/rebellion, and arrogance/self-sacrifice. These, however, must somehow be fused or collapsed together for humanity to overcome its obstacles.

This is not to overstate the case the film makes for fusion as a mechanism for overcoming the alienation of contemporary human subjectivity, as Pacific Rim remains a story essentially about violently expelling aliens. In Babel, crossing boundaries and understanding the other, while nearly impossible and accomplished only in extremis, allow empathy and communion. While the narrative spans the globe, however, the focus on the intimacy of individual experience as a source of empathy means an answer for the disconnection and miscommunication between people remains elusive. In Pacific Rim, empathy, communion and understanding the other facilitate destruction and exclusion; at least when the other is the monstrous alien. By focusing on the continuities in del Toro’s work, his ‘focus on liminal characters caught between worlds’, this destruction and exclusion is undermined.[44] If Pacific Rim has indeed been successful enough to trigger a Pacific Rim 2, it would be unsurprising to see greater complexity brought to this conclusion—the kaiju were pushed back and cut off, not annihilated, after all. A triumphalist representation of the sacrifice of the jaeger and their pilots for the greater good of a united humanity, given the venality and pettiness of the wider world hinted at in the film, is unlikely to remain the prevailing vision. In del Toro’s worlds, barriers, whether between races, genders, species, past and present, or reality and fantasy, are rarely allowed to stand.

References

Anker Elizabeth, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013).

Bâ Saer Maty, Higbee Will, “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw”, in De-Westernizing Film Studies, ed. Saer Maty Bâ and Will Higbee (London/NY: Routledge) (2012).

Carreno Victor “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2009).

Davies Laurence, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity”, in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. ed. S. Wasson and E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press) (2011).

Foucault Michel, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies”, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984).

Gilchrist Todd. “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012 http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015.

Hanley Jane, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007).

Hutchings Peter, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

Jones Norma, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014).

Kerr Paul, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema” Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Kuhn Annette, Alien Zone (New York: Verso) (1990).

Kuhn Annette, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, (London: Routledge) (1985).

Locke Richard, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007).

Lopez Aguirre Sergio, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

Marchetti Gina, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1993).

Park Jane, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2010).

Raussert Wilfred, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011).

Santaolalla Isabel, “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema”, Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998).

Shaw Deborah, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, (London: Continuum) (2003).

Shaw Deborah, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011).

Shaw Deborah, The Three Amigos: The Transnational Filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2013).

Shingler Martin, Star Studies: A Critical Guide, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2012).

Sneider Jeff “Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’”, Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

Sobchack Vivian. 1990. The virginity of astronauts. In A. Kuhn (ed.) Alien Zone. New York: Verso.

Tamaki Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2011).

Telotte J.P. “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso) (1990).

Tierney Dolores, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders”, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009).

Notes

[1] Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are the surnames commonly employed to refer to these directors in the English-speaking world, and will be used throughout.

[2] Peter Hutchings, “Adapt or Die: Mimicry and Evolution in Guillermo del Toro’s English-Language Films”, in The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro ed. A. Davies, D. Shaw and D. Tierney (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.84.

[3] Peter Hutchings, p.85.

[4] The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo del Toro); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro).

[5] Jane Hanley, “The Walls Fall Down”, Studies in Spanish and Latin American Cinemas [Studies in Hispanic Cinemas] 4:1 (2007), pp.35-45.

[6] Peter Hutchings, p.86.

[7] Peter Hutchings, p.96.

[8] Laurence Davies, “Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, or the Pleasures of Impurity” in Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010 ed. S. Wasson & E Alder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p.88.

[9] DVD director’s commentary.

[10] Sergio López Aguirre, “En entrevista con la protagonista de Pacific Rim, recuerda su filmografía” Cinepremiere 9 July 2013, http://www.cinepremiere.com.mx/30555-rinko-kikuchi-habla-de-titanes-del-pacifico-babel-murakami-y-mas.html date accessed 17 March 2015.

[11] Norma Jones, “Review of Pacific Rim”, Film & History 44:1 (2014), p.45.

[12] The most obvious mecha referent that might come to mind for non-Japanese audiences, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is, according to del Toro, not a direct influence on the aesthetic of Pacific Rim in the way that some earlier mechas are (DVD director’s commentary).

[13] Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott).

[14] Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984), pp.46-49. The heterotopia now routinely appears in film analysis.

[15] Wilfred Raussert, “Inter-American Border Discourses, Heterotopia, and Translocal Communities in Courtney Hunt’s Film Frozen River”, Norteamérica 6:1 (2011), p.23.

[16] Deborah Shaw in Saer Maty Bà and Will Higbee “Moving away from a sense of cultures as pure spaces. An Interview with Deborah Shaw.” De-Westernizing Film Studies (London/NY: Routledge, 2012), p.236; Deborah Shaw, Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films (London: Continuum, 2003), p.5.

[17] Jane Park, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p.199.

[18] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p.202.

[19] Jane Park, p.xi.

[20] Amores perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu).

[21] Deborah Shaw, “(Trans)national images and cinematic spaces: The cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002)”, Iberoamericana 11:44 (2011), pp.117-131.

[22]Rodrigo Prieto in Jeff Sneider, Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’. Variety 3 January 2007, http://variety.com/2007/film/awards/rodrigo-prieto-babel-1117956612/, date accessed 15 September 2015.

[23] Jane Park, p.5.

[24] Deborah Shaw, “Babel and the Global Hollywood Gaze”, Situations 4:1 (2011), p.21.

[25] Isabel Santaolalla “Bodyscapes of silence: The figure of the mute woman in the cinema” Journal of Gender Studies 7:1 (1998), pp.53-61.

[26] Paul Kerr, “Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2011), p.47.

[27] Santoallalla, pp.57-58.

[28] Elizabeth Anker, “In the Shadowlands of Sovereignty: The Politics of Enclosure in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 82:4 (2013), pp.950-73.

[29] DVD director’s commentary.

[30] Shaw “Babel”, p.26.

[31] Jones p.46.

[32] Rinko Kikuchi does not herself consider being Japanese an essential part of her role in the film, citing instead the universalism of stories (in Todd Gilchrist, “Comic-Con 2012: Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi Says She Was Jealous of Co-Star Charlie Day”, 19 July 2012, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/comic-con-2012-pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchi-charlie-day351981, date accessed 28 September 2015). The signs of nationality in the intercultural space of Pacific Rim are empty; it is interpersonal fusion that is important.

[33] DVD director’s commentary.

[34] Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1985) p.54.

[35] The omnipresence of the schoolgirl needs little elaboration. For an exploration of female warrior types in manga and anime see Tamaki, Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl transl. by J. Keith Vincent & Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). These types are discussed mainly with reference to girls rather than women, but Tamaki’s analysis is still informative for understanding the aesthetic and narrative for the character of Mako Mori and the complexity of presenting her in a non-sexual way.

[36] Martin Shingler, Star Studies: A Critical Guide (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p.179.

[37] Gina Marchetti, p.203.

[38] Telotte suggested that the spectatorial fascination of the double in science fiction is a narcissistic impulse that may suppose the dissolution of the desire for the other. J.P. Telotte “The Doubles of Fantasy and the Space of Desire” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990).

In Pacific Rim, however, doubles—Raleigh/Mako, Raleigh/ his brother, other drift-compatible pilots, scientist/alien, the two scientists, and of course pilot/jaeger—are unstable and multiply, suggesting the fluidity and possibility of transcending the limits of the individual self.

[39] A priori definitions of the genre are problematic, but Kuhn notes that effective science fiction films have often prompted critics to zero in on the way speculative fictions can interrogate the prevailing preoccupations of their moment. Annette Kuhn “Alien”, p10.

[40] For example, Dolores Tierney, “Alejandro González Iñárritu: director without borders. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7:2 (2009) pp.101-117; Victor Carreno, “Travels and Borders in the Representation of the U.S.-Mexico Border: Cartographies in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel”, International Journal of the Arts in Society 4:4 (2011), pp.265-274; Richard Locke, “Globalization and its Discontents”, The American Scholar 76:2 (2007), pp.114-117, among others.

[41] Peter Hutchings, pp.95-96.

[42] Jane Park, pp.7-8.

[43] Vivian Sobchack, “The virginity of astronauts” in Alien Zone ed. Annette Kuhn (New York: Verso, 1990), p.113.

[44] Peter Hutchings, p.93.

Jane Hanley is Head of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of International Studies: Languages and Cultures at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her current research project is on the influence of transnational mobility and networks and the representation of transnational experience in different popular genres. She is a member of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research. Dr Hanley coordinates Macquarie University’s Spanish language courses as well teaching on topics related to travel and tourism, migration, past and present popular culture in Spain, and contemporary Mexico. Her research interests include travel writing, transnational cultural production, and gender in Spanish-language popular culture. She is also interested in curriculum design and implementation, student assessment and student experiences of learning, and is currently Director of Quality and Standards for the Department of International Studies.

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 79-89.

Bartłomiej Nowak

 

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

 

Abstract:

The article is an attempt of re-reading selected film adaptations of the classic British literature. The author confronts them with the images of history, British culture and ‘Others’ that are present in the literary works on which they are based. Is the gaze of the ‘center’ looking at the ‘margins’ present in the books transgressed in the movies or do the movies repeat the historical views of the authors and works unchanged despite different social and political context of the contemporary times?

For example, does Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, combining the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of the Bollywood cinema, reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer „read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject? How are the themes of slavery and postcolonialism treated in Derek Jarman’s and Julie Taymor’s movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Is David Lean’s A Passage to India progressive or conservative in its portrayal of the Raj?

The author points to the works of postcolonial theoreticians (such as Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said), interpretations of the movies and analysis of the literary works on which they are based. He tries to answer the question: is the spirit of the British colonial and imperial history still present in the film culture that is product of the changing (but neocolonial) world? Can this question be answered unambiguously?

Key words: postcolonialism, adaptations, British literature, rewriting history, interpretation

In this short article, I try to analyse a few film adaptations of classic British literature and compare the images of ‘Others’ they contain with those present in the texts on which they are based. I focus on four films: A Passage to India (1984, dir. David Lean), Bride & Prejudice (2004, dir. Gurinder Chadha), and two adaptations of The Tempest (1979, dir. Derek Jarman and 2010, dir. Julie Taymor). I try to answer the question: is the spirit of British colonial and imperial history still present in film culture that is a product of the changing (but neo-colonial) world?

Let me begin with Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, which combines the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of Bollywood cinema. Does this movie reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer “read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject?

Bride & Prejudice was made more than two decades after the beginning of British cinema’s ‘heritage cinema’ movement (which started with Chariots of Fire, 1981, dir. Hugh Hudson). It depicted the British Empire and the class society of the nineteenth or twentieth century and was frequently accused of being morally and socially conservative and the product of Thatcherism and its politics. Sometimes considered as a smaller part of the movement (and sometimes as a parallel phenomenon), the so-called Raj Revival cinema, which depicted the times of the British rule in India, was described by the British scholar, Andrew Higson, in the appropriately titled text Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film, in the following manner:

the imperialist fantasies of national identity found in the cycle of films and television programmes about the Raj, such as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, […] can be seen as conservative responses to a collective, post-imperialist anxiety. Retreating from the social, political, and economic crises of the present, they strive to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete and in place. Yet like so many nostalgic narratives, they return to a moment of stability and tranquillity in the social order as they themselves chart the process of decay, the fall from this utopian national ideal […][1].

In contrast to this nostalgic cinema of the past, the socially aware movies of the decade, such as Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), depicted the times of Margaret Thatcher and a society of the mixed ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Heritage cinema did not avoid topics such as homosexual orientation (Maurice, 1987, dir. James Ivory; Another Country, 1984, dir. Marek Kanievska), or the situation of women in patriarchal society (A Room with a View, 1985, dir. James Ivory); however, it treated them (at least in the eyes of some scholars) in a conservative manner.

However, contemporary movies did not forget about the changes in the national structure of modern society and this was probably the biggest difference between them and heritage cinema, which usually showed the British nation as homogenous, white, and divided only by class and gender (despite the fact that black people were part of British society as early as the 16th century[2]). The movies and TV series of the Raj Revival movement obviously showed people of colour, but not usually as the main protagonists of their own history. Salman Rushdie in the essay Outside the Whale cites the words of David Lean, director of the movie A Passage to India (1984), which was adapted from the novel written by E. M. Forster in 1924 (some twenty-three years before India gained independence from the British Empire):

 Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj and so on. I suppose it’s a tricky thing to say, but I’m not so much. I intend to keep the balance more. I don’t believe all the English were a lot of idiots. Forster rather made them so. He came down hard against them. […] As for Aziz [the Muslim protagonist of the novel], there’s a hell of a lot of Indian in him. They’re marvellous people but maddening sometimes, you know…. He’s a goose.[3]

Such a statement shows that the Raj Revival movement might be seen as “a revisionist enterprise”[4]: an attempt to change history, conceal its atrocities, and show the empire as a still valuable model for the national and social future of Great Britain.

Gurinder Chadha’s movie was made more than a decade after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Jane Austen was not popular with directors in the 1980s, but was rediscovered in the next decade when at least few movies based on her works were made. Her popularity did not end with the beginning of the 21st century but Chadha’s movie differed in more than one way from most of Austen’s adaptations. She changed the setting from 19th century Britain to modern Britain, India, and the United States. Elizabeth Bennet, the main protagonist of the novel, is now Lalita Bakshi and Mr. Darcy’s citizenship was changed to American. If the change of the name of the main heroine is justified mainly by the new setting of the story (India), the fact that Darcy is now a citizen of the United States is the result of the new world order in which the United Kingdom was replaced by the USA in the role of the main world power. It is even said in the movie when Lalita complains about Darcy’s plans to build a new hotel in India for tourists from the West: “I thought we got rid of imperialists like you!” To his words “I’m not British. I’m American” she responds “Exactly”.

It might be said that Chadha clashes here with the nostalgic atmosphere of heritage cinema. By recontextualization of Austen’s text, changing of its time and place, it no longer has the power to evoke the past. At the same time, by using British text as a background for the modern story of cultural clashes, Chadha asks questions about the meaning of nation and cultural identity, about belonging to the national whole. Two of the main characters in the movie are British Asians. Their cultural identity is compared (rather unfavourably) with the identity of Indian people (Lalita and her family), still immersed in Indian tradition.

Lalita accuses Darcy and other rich people of the West of trying to turn India into a ‘theme park’, and Chadha’s movie can be seen as a response to this type of thinking about the Orient and Eastern cultures. There are scenes in the movie that show the colourful world of Indian culture that might appeal (by its ‘otherness’) to Western audiences; for example, scenes of singing and dancing reproducing the style of the Bollywood musical movies (or ‘masala’ movies as they are called), local garba dances and mujra, etc. However, these scenes do not function in the diegesis of the movie as the Oriental attraction, but are the proof that Indian culture still pulsates with life and is much more than a picturesque place from tourist guides of neo-colonial businessmen. The final scene shows Darcy riding on an elephant, clearly being taken by the beauty of India. This might be seen as a symbolic triumph of a postcolonial culture over a neo-colonial power, even if for Western audiences this could also be a phantasmatic neo-colonial dream of wild adventures in the Eastern milieu becoming reality.

When the movie protagonists travel to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is shown in a sequence of short cuts of landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, or the London Eye. Among them is one that is not as known abroad, but here it is treated as just another landmark building: the gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh temple situated in Southall. Such editing punctuates the multiculturalism of British society and the British capital city.

Combining the new vision of postcolonial and multicultural Great Britain with one of India—still honouring its traditions and withstanding neo-colonial attempts of new imperial powers to constrain its freedom by global economic forces—Chadha shows a totally different reality than the one seen in heritage cinema and the movies of the Raj Revival movement, and the fact that her movie is set in contemporary times is not the only reason for this difference. As previously mentioned, heritage cinema avoided difficult topic of ethnic diversity and—in the movies of Raj Revival—recreated the image of empire and British rule in India, but turned away from the necessity of dealing with the racist and violent atrocities of the past. When historical movies of the 1980s did touch on the topic of the violent British rule—as was the case with Gandhi, 1982, dir. Richard Attenborough, which shows the massacre of 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when many innocent people were killed after orders of the British general Reginald E. H. Dyer to shoot at a peaceful demonstration—this tragedy is shown as an aberration, as an error of one man, not the whole imperialistic system. “The moral mission of imperialism, while certainly discredited in some respects […], is also partly recuperated through an insistence on the essential rectitude of the British national character […]”, notices Bart Moore-Gilbert, author of a book analysing the works of Hanif Kureishi, a British writer, screenwriter and director who wrote screenplays for the aforementioned movies of Stephen Frears. “Whereas Attenborough clearly sentimentalises Gandhi, the more obviously ‘political’ Jinnah is an antipathetic figure, cold, rigid, aloof, and cunning, who compares badly not just with his rival but with many of the British officials.”[5] Such differences tend to show (by contrast) that the British nation did bring civilisation and gentlemanship to the allegedly uncivilised world of precolonial India.

Chadha’s movie contrasts such a presentation of history and India. It is worth noting that it is set in Amritsar, the city of the Amritsar massacre, and this tragedy had an impact on Chadha’s previous work: in her debut short movie I’m British but…, in which she presented the phenomenon of bhangra music and talked with young British Asian people about their national identity, this crime of the British empire is remembered. One of the female protagonists of this document says, I don’t think that one should forget one’s history. […] You can’t forget about events like the Amritsar massacre”. We also hear a song with the words: “Recall that it was these same foreigners | That took their rifles to us – | […] And every corner lies in witness. | O Jallianwala Bagh”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a city that became a symbol of colonial criminality was chosen by Chadha as the setting for Bride and Prejudice, with all its critique of neo-colonialism.

Not all modern readings of British classic literature are as apparently postcolonial in their interpretations. A lot has been said and written about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its antagonist Caliban. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in the book Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History notice:

In any event, scholars have wrangled over Caliban’s genesis since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. What did Shakespeare intend when he fashioned his puppy-headed monster? Was his paradigm the American Indian, for example, or an African perhaps, or Europe’s mythical wodewose? And if he had American Indians in mind, were they Montaigne’s noble savages or their ignoble opposites or a combination of both? Or, on the other hand, did the playwright shun obvious exemplars and contrive instead a creature unrelated to existing figures or types? The answer, of course, is elusive and endlessly debatable.[6]

This debate is caused by the constantly valid question of presentation: is Caliban a racist creation, based on all Western presuppositions about the alleged savageness of primitive cultures, or maybe we can say that his “rebellion against Prospero’s control—in whatever form it is represented—embodies issues fundamental to a culture’s ideology”[7]. In our context, “ideology” might mean Western faith in its superiority and supremacy over lands and people colonised through the ages.

There have been more adaptations of The Tempest, but I would like to centre on two of them: the one made in 1979 by Derek Jarman, and the other directed by Julie Taymor in 2010. Taymor did not give up the colonial and racial connotations of presenting Caliban as a black character. In the role she cast Djimon Hounsou, an actor born in Benin, Africa. It might be said that Taymor is not

bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor […] but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. […] Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.[8]

Such moments of human dignity are completely absent from Jarman’s adaptation, but he decided to cast white blind actor Jack Birkett in the role and thus abandoned the more obvious colonial and postcolonial meanings that were important for Taymor more than three decades later. In the Polish monograph of Jarman, Małgorzata Radkiewicz claims that the way in which he is presented in Jarman’s version (of Birkett’s acting is grotesque and full of caricature) makes Prospero more delicate and subtle in comparison (despite his tyranny over Caliban and Ariel)[9]. For both Jarman and Taymor, gender issues are more important than racial ones; however, the subject of slavery, which could not disappear even from Jarman’s version, exists there behind themes of queerness and physicality. Taymor even changed the sex of Prospero and made him Prospera and Jarman spent a lot of time sexualising the sculptural body of David Meyer, who played Ferdinand. However, the theme of disobedience of the enslaved Caliban is still present in both versions and its meanings cannot be ignored despite the stereotypical savagery of both Calibans (and the whiteness of one from the earlier movie).

Frantz Fanon in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks, when writing about the image of blackness or otherness, notices:

The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression. The magazines are put together by white men for little white men. This is the heart of the problem. In the Antilles – and there is every reason to think that the situation is the same in the other colonies – these same magazines are devoured by the local children. In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.[10]

Even if these sentences are not as true nowadays as they were when these words were written (there are black comic book writers these days etc.), they show how the proper representation of otherness (or lack thereof) can affect human identity and self-respect. So how is the history of slavery treated in the adaptations of Shakespeare that are being discussed here? In addition, does this correspond with postcolonial thinking about the past or sustain the colonial ideology of race and the superiority of the Western civilisation?

Janja Ciglar-Žanić claims that: “Jarman […] locates the issues of colonization, subordination, and domination on the territory of the human body, and uses The Tempest to speak for those repressed Others, whose subordination and repression has been effected through the deployment of the dominant ideological construct of human sexuality.”[11] I suggest that this might be also the case with Taymor’s version. The unnatural cover of Caliban’s body, these “mud and fish scales”, as Alan A. Stone described them in the previously cited analysis, quite literally transfer the issue of subordination onto the surface of the human being: this cover hides the natural blackness of Hounsou’s body and forces viewers to see him through it. Part of Hounsou’s face is covered with white make-up. This might remind us of the title of Fanon’s book, already cited here: “black skin, white masks”. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s text and previous interpretations of his play very often treat Caliban as a beast-like creature, I suggest that Taymor’s version is only seemingly similar to them. By casting a woman (Helen Mirren) in the role of Prospero and gay actor (Ben Whishaw) as Ariel, she showed that gender, body, and sexual issues are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (and this was also the case with her previous movie adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s play, Titus, 1999). “Mud and fish scales” might be read as a veil, a mask (of the whole body) and the wild, ‘primitive’ behaviour of Taymor’s Caliban as the physical, colonial stereotype that is just the normative cover behind which lies the truth about the Other which is as elusive as it is desired (this desire of knowledge and understanding of the Other is also found on Caliban’s body: Hounsou is strong, perfectly built, and indisputably attractive despite the unnatural skin cover). Obviously, this might be read as the stereotypical sexualisation of the bodies of black men, and the fact that Caliban’s sexual force is tamed now by a woman, Prospera, asks questions about the position of genders in the postmodern world: the real one and the one of Taymor’s adaptation. However, it would be deceptive to read Taymor’s movie through conservative glasses, forgetting about all the body issues that are at the same time stereotypical and transgressive. For example, questions about colonialism have to be asked differently when Prospera is no longer a figure of patriarchal power.

As Edward W. Said says in Culture and Imperialism about Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which re-writes Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Carribean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. That impulse to contend is part of a grander effort to discover the basis of an integral identity different from the formerly dependent, derivative one. Caliban, according to George Lamming, »is the excluded, that which is eternally below possibility… He is seen as an occasion, a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another’s own development.« If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban’s own effort. One must, according to Lamming, »explode Prospero’s old myth« by christening »language afresh«; but this cannot occur »[…] until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendants of languageless and deformed slaves«.[12]

Does a similar attempt to regain Caliban’s history for himself show up in Taymor’s or Jarman’s movie adaptations? I have tried to suggest here that gender and race issues are equivalents in both movies and that by emphasizing the enslaving nature of gender and sexual norms, Taymor and Jarman show the core of Western culture in which the Other (regardless of the reason of his Otherness: his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc.) is tamed by norms that have to be broken, taken off like these “mud and fish scales”, to get to the true (but elusive) nature of his identity. Physicality always was one of the main reasons of intolerance and inequality: queerness and womanhood gain power in both movie adaptations of The Tempest and therefore it might be said that Jarman and Taymor contest patriarchalism: its history and its model of thinking about the Other and its place in the social structure of the past and the present. Non-whiteness is not forgotten, even if it is removed from the diegesis of Jarman’s movie. By casting a white actor as Caliban, Jarman forces viewers to ask themselves questions about power, norms, slavery etc. without connecting them directly with themes of race and ethnicity and therefore making them fundamental subjects of Western culture, significant in all kinds of contexts.

As part of this article, I would like to return to Lean’s A Passage to India. I have cited already Lean’s words about his approach to E. M. Forster’s novel. After all that has been written here about both adaptations of The Tempest, it is worth noting that both E. M. Forster’s novel and Lean’s movie can be interpreted as conservative or progressive, depending on the analysed aspect of the book or film. T. Muraleedharan in the text Imperial migrations: Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s writes:

The most significant feature of the rewriting of history attempted by A Passage to India and Heat and Dust [another movie of the Raj Revival movement, 1983, dir. James Ivory] is the films’ neat reversal of the oppressor/victim dichotomy. Colonised India—a victim of political and economic oppression and exploitation—ends up appearing in these films as a mysterious and evil force that disrupts the middle-class domesticity of England.[13]

The most recognizable example of such a ‘reversal’ in A Passage to India is the scene in which one of the female protagonists of the movie, Mrs. Moore, during her journey to the fictitious Marabar Caves, loses breath when she becomes surrounded by a group of Indian inhabitants in one of the caves. Such an image suggests that she is a victim of the ‘aggressive, sensual […] physicality”[14] of the Indian people, while she actually is (as a British citizen) one of the imperialistic oppressors.

On the other hand, the gender politics of E. M. Forster’s text (and Lean’s movie) help to transgress the boundaries of the conservative colonial (or postcolonial) content of the book and film. Thus, once again gender politics might be key to a progressive re-reading and reinterpretation of the classic text. Leela Gandhi claims in her book Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction that no one understood the colonial ‘hostility’ between British women and Indian men better than E. M. Forster[15]. This hostility was related to the national identity of Indian men and the stereotypical model of Indian womanhood that was allegedly endangered by European women and their style of living. At the same time, British women were jealous that the bond between their partners and Indian men might be homoerotic[16]. Such suspicions were the results of the Western perception of Oriental sexuality and the stereotypes of the alleged effeminacy of Indian men. Such a bond also found a place in Forster’s novel. Forster was gay and the main protagonist of his novel, Fielding, befriends a local Muslim man, Aziz, and even if their friendship does not have a clear homosexual subtext, Fielding supports Aziz when he is accused of a rape attempt by an English girl, Adela Quested. Fielding does so despite the resistance of his compatriots.

This subtext (regardless of its meaning: whether it is clearly homosexual or not) allows criticism of the colonial discourse that simplifies sexual and gender differences between the East and the West. The mythical superiority of the colonizer (who allegedly should be heterosexual because his homosexuality would ruin the cultural construct of manhood) is questioned because it is revealed that the sexual and gender discourse models of the masculine West and the effeminate East are only constructs that can be (and very often are) transgressed.

This content of Forster’s novel stays intact in Lean’s movie and therefore it might be interesting to watch his film through pink glasses of queerness. I wanted to show that even texts that are usually read as conservative might contain content that can be seen as progressive and anticolonial and that one-sided reading of cultural texts is very often problematic.

To finish this article, let me rephrase the question from the first paragraph: do postcolonial movies reinterpret classic texts of the British literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, this question cannot be answered in a simple way. However, I have tried to show in this article that modern attempts to read the classics differently, by theory or reinterpretation, let modern cinema cope with the colonial past in a way that contests the old thinking about norms, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

References:

 

Bourne Stephen, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Chari Hema, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001).

Ciglar-Žanić Janja, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008).

Higson Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006).

Lamming George, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984).

Moore-Gilbert Bart, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010).

Muraleedharan T., “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983).

Radkiewicz Małgorzata, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003).

Rushdie Salman, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

Said Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994).

Stone Alan A., Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

Vaughan Alden T., Vaughan Virginia Mason, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999).

Notes

[1] Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006), p. 104.

[2] Compare with: Stephen Bourne, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 58.

[3] Cited by: Salman Rushdie, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

[4] Salman Rushdie.

[5] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010), p. 76.

[6] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999), p. xx.

[7] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, p. xvi.

[8] Alan A. Stone, Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

[9] See: Małgorzata Radkiewicz, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003), p.27.

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008), p. 112-113.

[11] Janja Ciglar-Žanić, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997), pp. 73.

[12] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994), p. 256-257. Cited in: Janja Ciglar-Žanić, p. 82-83. Said cites Lamming from: George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984), p. 107 and 119.

[13] T. Muraleedharan, “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 150.

[14] T. Muraleedharan, p. 150.

[15] Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1998), p. 97.

[16] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983), p. 9-10. Cited in: Hema Chari, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001), s. 281.

Bartłomiej Nowak, prior to completing his Ph.D. in Humanities in Art Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, he studied film studies and computer science. His doctoral dissertation about the presentation of ethnic minorities in modern British cinema and the postcolonial content of British movies was defended in 2015. His academic research concerns, among others, cinema, ethnic and sexual minorities, gender and postcolonial issues.

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 90-99.

Bilge Gölge

Bilkent University

 

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

 

Abstract

In the initial stages of “modern, transnational yoga”, the image of the Indian yogi in a yoga pose became an effective medium for introducing the discipline to Western society. Due to this, the Indian subject began to be spoken about in terms of “showmanship”[1]. At the same time, yoga began interacting with the practices of Western gym culture. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography have created a different approach to yoga by practitioners. At the end of the historical process of modern postural yoga’s development, we encounter modern Western individuals who today utilize yoga as a way to present themselves through visual materials again, but in a digital space and different cultural context. In this paper, I present the historical evolution of yoga practices in Western society to reveal the re-contextualization of yoga as a transnational concept. Moreover, I question how transnational yoga became a means for modern individuals to present their identity in the context of social media. Here, the body is used as a means for both constituting a social dialogue and communicating self-identity. Even if these two subjects have different approaches towards yoga, Indian showmen and the modern yogi still have commonalities regarding the “show” in a Goffmanian sense[2]. To investigate the transformation of yoga and highlight similarities and differences due to both technological changes and the dominance of visuality in culture, Instagram is an appropriate platform, as it claims to connect people via images. Drawing from a visual analysis of Instagram posts and a comparison of the bodily practices contained within them against publicly available images of the first yogis in the West, bodily representations are interpreted in the re-contextualized setting of modern society.

Key words: yoga, yogi, self-presentation, transnational body, photography, social media

Introduction

 As a physical discipline in the modern fitness culture of the West, yoga has been welcomed around the world and appreciated by the masses for its benefits to people’s lives since the early nineteenth century. Due to this growing popularity, the International Day of Yoga was adopted on the 21st June 2015 in a declaration by the UN General Assembly. The event was organized with the co-sponsorship of a record number of 175 nations. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, proposed this Indian-led initiative, which is now celebrated all over the world, and the United Nations responded by emphasizing yoga’s “global benefits” in terms of individuals’ health and well-being[3].

Along with the widespread embracement of yoga by various cultures, regardless of diversified traditions, customs, religions, or geographic regions, the interaction between this Indian discipline and the West makes it worth investigating as a transnational concept, as it is influenced by global flows of knowledge disseminated through modern visual technologies. While there are a variety of types of yoga, postural yoga—a popular physical activity based on bodily practices—is the focus of this paper. Instead of meditation-based branches of yoga, non-religious yoga practice has been chosen for examination since it is prevalent in contemporary society today. Although spiritual aspects of yoga are promoted in the public eye, common practice in the West suggests that yoga’s increased popularity is due to the physical activity involved and the fact that it offers an enjoyable way of spending free time. Iyengar[4], who is one of the most well-known yoga gurus in the world, offered the definition of yoga that states that it is not a religion, but is intended for personal growth and physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual balance. While the religious roots of this Indian discipline are not ignored, the concerns of this paper are limited to styles of yoga based on asana, yoga posture, and physical techniques for physical and mental health of individuals. The flexibility of postural yoga has made it suitable for a multitude of social settings, as proven by the celebration of Yoga Day in 175 countries.

Here, digital photography of yogi Instagram users was analysed to identify yoga as a means of presenting self-identity in the digital realm. Through this presentation, the body becomes the focus and the modern subject uses social media and Instagram to live out their yogic self online. To investigate the bodily representations, the data was obtained from Instagram posts of Western yogis and the mass-distributed images of the first yogis in the West. According to Gillian Rose[5], images cannot speak for themselves: they must be analysed in a specific context in order to be meaningful. Therefore, it was important to consider the visual material in relation to the historical and social settings in which they were produced. Appropriately, the data was interpreted in terms of its content and the composition of the photographic images. Furthermore, understanding how users experienced the visual technologies as they developed over time is important in social research[6]. Hence, the photography’s discursive construction was examined, focusing on medium-specific features of magazines with early image production technologies, and social network services in the era of digital photography. It is also worth noting that the term yogi refers to male yoga practitioners, whereas yogini is used for female practitioners. To avoid repetition, the term “yogi” is used here for yoga practitioners, regardless of gender. Furthermore, “asana”, which means yoga pose or posture, is used throughout this paper for yoga moves in a sequence synchronized with breathing exercises[7].

Yoga as a Transnational Practice

 Stemming from the Sanskrit word yuj, the literal meaning of yoga corresponds to the English “unite”, which is interpreted as uniting body and mind[8]. Since the late 19th century, yoga—with its diverse set of rules— has preoccupied Western society; from the techniques of hatha yoga, which has become a generic term for yoga based on physical posture, to vinyasa yoga, which is based on a sequence of yoga moves. While “every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga”[9], its benefits on health and emotional stability have been manifested in dominant discourse.

As opposed to the common understanding of yoga in terms of its ancient roots and spiritual references, the modern postural yoga that we encounter today in the United States and European countries has a history of around 150 years[10]. Based on the works of Mark Singleton, one can affirm that what is practiced outside of India today should be viewed in relation to international gym culture. Concurrent with the proliferation of yoga in the West, it has continued to interact with contemporary physical practices. At the end of this historical process, society encountered yoga as a transnational product. It is a result of the colonial process while India was under British rule, nationalist movements in which yoga was used as a means for Indian identity, and finally global influences that are very powerful in forming modern yoga through increased mobility and developed communication technologies[11]. However, rather than being linear, the formation and re-formation of postural yoga has been influenced by increasing mobility in the modern world. Jain explains this, stating:

… (Yoga) does not move from India to Europe and North America, but rather moves back and forth among a plurality of spaces, resulting in multifarious forms that are perpetually constructed and reconstructed anew to adapt to new discourses, demands, and trends in the modern yoga market[12].

In the contemporary era, yoga is instrumentalized for Westerners’ self-presentation in a different cultural context. This time, beyond the offline lives of the individuals, the digital realm provides a Goffmanian stage for the yogic self. Especially on profile-based Social Network Services (SNSs) such as Instagram, the yogi portrays a different self than the one lived out by the Indian yoga gurus of the 20th century. Yet, the yogi still presents relevant aspects of her/his identity through the utilization of visual material whose aim is to influence the viewer’s impression. The self-identity in question appears in connection with consumption preferences regarding the yogic lifestyle, which is conveyed via specific sign equipment. Erving Goffman explains sign equipment as the tools that people employ for presenting themselves to others. These tools include the social setting of the communication, manner, and appearances, and allow individuals to sustain their performances during social interaction.[13]. For instance, healthy dietary habits are often shown on Instagram galleries and being a “vegetarian yogi” or “vegan yogi” is indicated in the biography section on Instagram. Leisure time activities and yoga outfits are also used as sign equipment for the construction of self-identity in the digital realm. After all, it is important to point out that all the choices framed in posted shots have a connection with the yoga body of yogis.

Regardless of the period of transnational yoga, the body has become the focus of the visual narrativization of yogic-identity and asana, or yoga postures; it has been used as a means of transmitting the messages beyond the physical practice itself. In addition to periodic differences and the characteristics of yogis, the yoga body has been portrayed within the bounds of the technology of its era. In this paper, I will investigate two periods of modern postural yoga and provide a comparison between yoga as self-representation by a post-colonial subject and self-actualization of the late-modern individual.

Here, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach provides a frame for explaining what the yoga body corresponds to on Instagram. Subsequent to the impact of photography, the emergence of the Internet and digital photography created a new relationship with yoga that has still some commonalities with the portrayal in a Goffmanian understanding. Instagram is an appropriate platform for investigating and comparing this transformation due both to technological changes and the superiority of visual imagery in contemporary communication as it claims to connect people via images that create stories.

By considering bodily practices of yoga (asanas) and their relation to cultural health and strength training trends beyond India, I attempt to provide a deeper understanding of how the yogi body conveys certain aspects of the performer’s identity from the past to today. Although the context and the motives have changed over time, I suggest that the visual presentation and dominance of viewing are effective for both the communication process of the yogi as well as the formation of transnational yoga.

The Subject of Yoga in the Age of Photography

 In the historical process, the nineteenth century appears as a breaking point in terms of the transformation of yoga into a global case. Several studies on the history of modern yoga suggest that yoga was a spiritual, male-dominated local discipline before it started to be re-formed through European influences; it subsequently evolved into a physical practice that appeals to both men and women and has become a secular and transnational phenomenon[14].

Especially in the second half of the 19th century, yoga was liberated from its traditional Indian context; after its interaction with other physical cultures such as Scandinavian gymnastics, a new phenomenon, which I refer to as modern postural yoga in this paper, entered the modern world’s stage. Mass production and distribution of images from India to Europe and United States were highly influential in bringing yoga to the West. Trips by yoga gurus to other parts of the world and the transmission of visual material via magazines, photographs and even films, led to transnational yoga becoming an issue to be considered beyond the context of India. In other words, it changed discourses in the international realm, re-contextualizing what yoga signifies. However, I would first like to explain the migration of yoga to the Western world, followed by a demonstration of what postural yoga portrays on today’s digital platforms, especially in the case of Instagram.

Turning back to the initial phases of modern yoga, the Indian post-colonial subject started to discuss his/her (mainly his) identity through yoga with the goal of presenting a national identity based on physical capability[15]. At this point, the development of photography enabled them to present their imaged bodies to the world. These mass distributed images made the introduction of modern transnational yoga to Western society possible, while Indian showmanship focused on the exotic and acrobatic Indian body, drawing attention to a discipline which was supposed to be an ancient tradition[16].

From colonial influences on Indian society to the revival of a national subject, yoga grew into an asana-based physical practice that took place in Western fitness culture, while the spiritual aspect of yoga has disappeared. In the modern era, national ideals have influenced the physical attributes of yoga to show strength and the vigour of the Indian man. In the past, yogis were not welcomed by society, rather, they were viewed as beggars or unwanted people. Freed from this pressure through a change in attitude, a new wave of physical culture appeared. When images from the period are examined, the man in a challenging yoga pose reflects a claim of Indian competence. On one hand, yoga is a means of supporting Indian ideals, which are the strength of the national subject and supremacy of the country’s tradition. On the other hand, as in international gymnastics, showmanship is practiced at the same time.

The case of Krishnamacharya is a good illustration of how an Indian man freed from British rule presented a performance to Western audience with intriguing bodily dispositions. This yoga guru, who was also the trainer of Iyengar—one of the best-known yogis in the world—introduced a yoga based on asanas that was similar to gymnastic exercises and aerobic moves. Yet, it is still unique as the embodiment of the authentic East in Western societal perception. In addition to still images, a few videos display him surprising and entertaining audiences with extraordinary poses. These depictions of him with some poses, such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand), Shirshasana (headstand) or Vrschikasana (scorpion) made him popular. Today, the videos of Krishnamacharya on YouTube have been watched more than 150,000 times.

fig 1 Golge

Figure  1: Krishnamacharya in a yoga pose (photo source: Wikipedia)

As illustrated in Figure 1, Krishnamachary’s pose bears a resemblance to contemporary yoga asanas. Here, the pose reflects both the strength and flexibility of a yoga body. Thinking in the context of the early periods of the 19th century, one can understand how surprising and—in a certain sense—entertaining this was for Europeans and North Americans.

The Yoga Body on the Social Network Stage

 In the age of social media, the medium for displaying yoga poses has changed and transformed from photography to digital tools and visual signs. In Instagram’s case, its medium is its megadata, which is constituted by still or moving images, text, and hashtags. Today, the Western subject itself has become a figure of spectacle. However, the body has remained central in visual communication, even in a re-contextualized sense in which publicly distributed images of yogis of different societies represent various narratives in their own contexts.

fig 2 Golge

Figure  2: An Instagram post of a handstand pose (courtesy of account owner)

Although its spiritual aspects are underlined and almost caricaturized in the public eye, yoga’s increasing popularity and common practice in the Western world are related to free-time physical activities. Within the context of late-modernity, it can be said that yoga is a physical discipline that is associated with identities and lifestyles. Accordingly, individuals faced with daily complexity due to a plurality of choices consistently construct their identities in relation to consumer culture[17]. Drawing on the definition of lifestyle sport[18], yoga practitioners “identify themselves through recognizable styles, bodily dispositions, expressions and attitudes, which they design into a distinctive lifestyle and a particular social identity”. In other words, yoga’s connotations with certain ways of living reflect the characteristics of late-modern society and its efformation of a subject that is flexible, fleeting, and self-reflexive. Furthermore, the influence of the consumption-oriented disposition is seen in the subject formation in question.

As a way of self-actualization, yogis and yoginis share similar experiences that tie their bodily practices to non-physical attributes (but again by utilizing ‘tangible’ or ‘visible’ tools) in terms of a holistic physical culture. Asanas communicate a way for self-actualization and, as Giddens states, the modern yogi presents his/her social-self agency during his/her daily life [19]. Handstands (see figure 2), for instance, are an indication of the physical and mental strength of the individual, while a personal message is represented via an unusual bodily practice. Flexibility, openness, and being at peace with himself/herself are other examples of characteristics yogis emphasize about themselves on Instagram.

In the context of late-modern society and the culture of connectivity,[20] yoga practitioners from Western societies use Instagram galleries to feed their identity construction and share emphasized characteristics of themselves via digital images. In their posts, where they can be seen standing on their hands or heads, wearing yoga pants, or on a yoga mat, these people publicly exhibit more individualistic performances compared to their Indian predecessors.

Many of the posts are supported by the composition of visual elements, hashtags, and tags that provide a relevant personal message about the yogis. These are specific characteristics in the contemporary case. Since the current technological possibilities enable yogis to produce and share these images instantly, and the hegemony of visuality in society forms the presentation in question, the yogi Instagrammers have a direct focus on visibility. When patterns of Instagram use are analysed, it is clear that the motive is to reach as large an audience as possible. For this reason, even though both context and content have changed, the “show” continues to be performed.

By viewing popular yogis on Instagram, we can say with some certainty that handstands, headstands, or other acrobatic poses still draw the public’s attention, likely influenced by the display-like Indian showmen. However, compared to the early period of modern postural yoga, we now see Western subjects and find individualistic messages about their self-identities. At this juncture, the presentation of the yogi self suggests a spectacle in the Debordian sense. Defined as the manipulation of the visual world to enforce late-capitalism’s expectations of the individual, the spectacle can be observed in the late-modern periods of yoga, in particular on the digital stage. “Spectacular representations”[21] of the yogis intercommunicate with experiences commodified through consumption-related preferences. Accordingly, the yogic identity in question is communicated by mixing different elements of everyday life, and auto-narratives are re-created for maintaining the self-presentation according to the conditions of contemporary consumer culture. In this self-communication, yoga appears as a means for a reflexively constructed self-identity of the late-modern subject.

Conclusion

 In conclusion, it can be said that modern postural yoga is a transnational phenomenon that arose from the interaction of the Indian original with colonial, nationalist, and global forces. Since its introduction outside of India, followers of yoga have reached an extensive number worldwide. Currently, its state reflects a new setting and context for the performances of yogis. Within the present social media environment, including Instagram, yoga has become related to both prevalent use of the online platform as a spectacle and its potential for supporting yogi self-actualization.

Because the visual medium has changed, the importance of keeping the performances updated and connecting asanas to more authentic meanings such as being physically and mentally strong has risen. This is achieved by supporting photography with texts on SNSs; in this way, transnational yoga is constantly being formed.

Drawing from visual analysis on Instagram posts of selected account owners and comparison of their bodily practices with the analogue photography of the first yogis in the West, there is ample support for the claim that the yoga body is a means for sustaining a display for social interaction and communicating self-identity, both in the past as well as today. However, it seems that due to changes in display, the concept has been transformed into a transnational phenomenon of the cultures with which yoga has interacted. Consequently, we can claim that modern postural yoga is a product of both the health and fitness system of the West, as well as original Indian tradition, and distributed by means of analogue images or smart phones.

 

References:

Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).

Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.

 

Notes

[1] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010).

[2] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Center). (1959).

[3] International Day of Yoga, http://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/background.shtml, date accessed 5 August 2016.

[4] Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga: Yoga Vka, (Shambhala Publications) (1989).

[5] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies; An Introduction To The Interpretation Of Visual Materials, (London: Sage). (2001).

[6] Sarah Pink, Doing Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, (London: Sage) (2001).

[7] Andrea R. Jain, „The Dual-Ideal of the Ascetic and Healthy Body: The Jain Terapanth and Modern Yoga in the Context of Late Capitalism”, Nova Religio 15:3 (2012), pp.29-50.

[8] Definition of Yoga, http://yoga.org.nz/what-is-yoga/yoga_definition.htm, date accessed 1 November 2016.

[9] David Gordon White, Yoga in Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2012), pp. 2-22.

[10] Mark Singleton.

[11] Andrea R. Jain.

[12] Andrea R. Jain, p. 30.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] See, for example,  Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (Oxford University Press) (2010). And also see, Sarah Strauss, „The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39:2/3 (2002), pp. 217-241.

[15] Mark Singleton.

[16] Mark Singleton, pp. 40, 154, 164.

[17] Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, Jock Young, Cultural Criminology, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd.) (2008).

[18] Belinda Wheaton, „Introducing the consumption and representation of lifestyle sports”, Sports in Society, 13:7-8 (2010), pp. 1057-1081.

[19] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age, (Cambridge, Polity Press) (1991). p.57.

[20] The phrase is borrowed from van Dijk who has a book with the same title.

[21] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit, Black & Red Publications) (1970).

 

Bilge Gölge is an M.A. student in Media and Visual Studies Program at Bilkent University. She holds a BS from the Middle East Technical University and a minor degree in architectural culture. She is currently completing her master thesis, which investigates self-presentation of Turkey’s yoga community in social media, specifically on Instagram. Her research interests include social media, online self-presentation, and communication patterns through visual media.

Contact Information: bilgegolge@bilkent.edu.tr

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 152-156.

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University

 

 Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

 

The second half of the year 2016 was generous for Polish fans of dreadful stories as two interesting books came along. The first, Wiedza potworna. Horror w badaniach kulturowych (The Monstrous Knowledge. Horror stories and cultural studies) published by the Nicolaus Copernicus University Press, contains seven essays by faculties and PhD candidates of the Cultural Studies Department of the same University. The essays cover a wide range of topics, from Polish folk tales to Japanese horror stories. The second book is an anthropological monograph of the horror film Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy (Phantom of the camera. The cultural history of the horror film) by Magdalena Kamińska, published by Municipal Gallery Arsenał in Poznań, Poland. This book is the outcome of a series of lectures on the history of horror films conducted by Kamińska in the Gallery. These publications complement each other, providing the reader with a wide range of contexts and references of horror stories.

The authors of the essays contained in the The Monstrous Knowledge, who work in the field of anthropology and cultural studies, deal with a wide range of issues from folk tales to video games. Each essay is devoted to a specific problem that may be genre, national context, or a figure such as a vampire or zombie. The opening essay by Dariusz Brzostek is somewhat out of the box; it takes up the figure of an anthropologist coming back from field research as a monstrous character and a source of threat for his/her people. The threat is based on the transition of the scientist from Western rationality to the savage (monstrous) knowledge of the people who were supposed to be the subject, not the source of wisdom. The anthropologist is presented as a double stranger: for both the researched community where he/she arrives and for his/her own people upon return. This initial essay is not only an self-referential game undertaken by a culture researcher, but also introduces the primary theme of the whole book: monstrous knowledge as a non-scientific, non-rational (in the academic, Western understanding) pattern of world interpretation and possible scenarios of action. It is knowledge that permits the supernatural as the actor in reality, as it dresses up the otherness in monstrousness.

The second chapter, written by Piotr Grochowski and Pamela Staroń, is devoted to the powerful Polish folklore figure of the phantom. In fact, it is a monography of the phantom in Polish traditional culture and reshapes its image, which is already grounded in Polish ethnography. Phantoms used to be described by folklore researchers as a multitude of locally characterised figures of different genders and scopes of action (e.g. vampire, nymph, and spook). However, the authors propose treating all these creatures as creations constructed from a wide range of folk motives that would be activated whenever needed.

The remaining chapters of The Monstrous Knowledge deal with horror stories either in literature, film, or in video games. Those by by Aldona Kobus and Wojciech Jaracz are discussed in more detail below.

In her essay on Ann Rice’s vampire novels, Kobus focuses on two elements: the gothic and the queerness as elements that constitute Rice’s writing. Using them, Kobus presents the novels as transgressive and opposing the dominant ideology, but also points out that these qualities were constitutive of the 19th century gothic prototypes of Rice’s literature. Kobus recalls the multitude of examples of drag, lesbian relations, male women, and feminine men in gothic literature and Rice makes use of these one century later by introducing, for example, a queer family and homosexual desires into the vampire community she describes. This vampirical subversiveness also penetrated film adaptations, marking them with transgressive tensions; however, Kobus points out that the wave of romantic stories about vampires that followed Interview with the Vampire (1992, dir. Neil Jordan) resulted in narratives that were extensively erotic, but also extremely conservative on closer inspection. The chapter closes with an in-depth critique of the True Blood series (2008-2014, HBO).

Wojciech Jaracz concentrates on horror films of the second half of the 20th century, pointing out the changing status of the body as their driving force. In fact, horror films owe their power more to the horror of the body and disgust, rather than fear. The fitter and more well-kept the body was supposed to be in the second half of the century, the more dreadful were the associations with animality, death, aging and pain. Jaracz underlines both the dominant discourses and the fact that the counterculture valued the body highly as a source of self-expression. In this context, the disintegration of the body and the cruelty in horror films is explained as a powerful element of the genre.

The second book is The Phantom of the Camera, by Magdalena Kamińska, who has experience in both culture and media studies. Her book is the first Polish monography of horror film since 1986; others were mainly lexicons. Kamińska’s first and foremost assumption is that the horror story is a universal narrative and fulfils “an anthropological task” (as she calls it). The core of a horror story is an anti-miracle, a conflict between humans and supernatural forces. Horror stories wake up existential fears as well as strategies for coping with the fear of death and unknown in the real life of readers, listeners, and viewers.

Kamińska starts with a reflection on film genres and horror movies in particular. She states that rather from traditional culture and folk tales themselves, horror films come from their transposition by gothic literature; however, she does not negate the powerful influence of contemporary urban legends on horror films. Due to literary reinterpretations, during the 19th century folk creatures gained emotions, motivations, and psychological depth: they were no longer simple representations of pure evil and malice. Telling the story of the horror film, Kamińska moves back and forth between Europe and United States. She begins in 1920’s Germany, where the genre was born (yet not proclaimed nor coded) in the expressionistic tales of Murnau, Dreyer, Wegener, and Lang. Then she moves across the Atlantic to Hollywood, where the canonical figures of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were taken up and fully exploited in the following decades. She then goes back to Europe to tell the story of eurotrash films, especially British Hammer productions, and follows the counterculture in the United States with the new wave of sophisticated, award winning horror movies, as well as the birth of gore and splatter. The latter are defined by the author more as an aesthetic style than a subgenre and not exclusively associated with horror. Kamińska closes with a rather bitter reflection on the rebirth of horror in the 1990s in the form of neo-baroque, which for some reason she defines as digital, although the films that Kamińska credits as such do not contain much CGI. As a great fan of F.F. Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), I have to mention my doubts regarding the presentation of this film. It was classified by Kamińska as digital neo-baroque, even though Coppola openly gave up CGI and generated almost all the special effects using old-fashioned, analogue techniques. This decision was crucial as the whole movie is an (successful in my opinion) attempt to capture the history of the vampire film in a nutshell. It evokes the German tradition of vampire-the monster, the early Hollywood tradition of vampire-the elegant, the foreign aristocrat, and the exploitation tradition of vampire-the sexual predator. This aspect (that seems extremely interesting) as absent from Kamińska’s analysis.

The book is a vibrant and entertaining narrative on the history of the horror film. The author claims the genre is based on universal human needs and emotions, regardless of administrative or national borders; however, her selection of films and trends is limited to Western or even more narrow Anglo-Saxon realms. It is in fact the history of American and British horror films with a few short detours into German, French, and Italian trends, evoked whenever Anglo-Saxon film tradition related to or used them. Basically, non-Western films are absent from the landscape of Kamińska’s history of horror movies. The closing chapter is indeed devoted to Japanese horror films, but starts with The Ring (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and does not present much more. Even when they are mentioned, non-Western horror films are evoked only from a Western point of view; The Ring being the first Japanese horror story to catch the attention of American and European audiences. Other than Japanese movies, Asian horror films are only signalled, and South American, African or even East European are not even mentioned. In addition, films belonging to the genre but not regarded as important, cult or classic (from today’s perspective) are not included in the book at all or only briefly mentioned.

All this makes Kamińska’s book a history of the Western classic (or mainstream) horror film; richly inlaid with contexts, cultural backgrounds, curiosities, and the like, and it fulfils its role brilliantly. Phantom of the Camera is a valuable proposition, a diachronic narrative concentrating on the links between the trends and subgenres, trying to ground them in both the culture and production schemes of specific periods. Kamińska reconstructs the cultural and film contexts as well as the production aspects, rather than abbreviating the plots of the specific films, which is often the case and a real sore point of Polish film studies.

What needs to be mentioned concerning Phantom of the Camera is the beauty of the book. Hard covered and printed on fine paper, it conveys not only Kamińska’s narrative, but also the highly consistent graphic layout and illustrations by Paweł Flieger. The book is solicitously edited with pages having separate layouts combining text and Flieger’s graphics. This conscientiousness is worth praising as, on today’s Polish publishing market, academic books as nicely published as this are not common, as (often appearing in publishing series) they follow the pattern of economic paper, ink, and usage of space.

Both books are of a great value as reflection on horror stories (in both literature and film) is painfully underrepresented in Poland, where popular culture seems unworthy of serious academic interest. They are interesting when read together as in many aspects they complement each other. Kamińska’s book casts a broad light on the long-term development and relations and influences of the horror film, while The Monstrous Knowledge spotlights specific tropes, figures, and contexts.

Magdalena Kamińska, Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy, (Poznań: Municipal Gallery Arsenał) (2016).

Potworna wiedza. Horror w badaniach kulturowych, ed. Dariusz Brzostek, Aldona Kobus, Miłosz Markocki, (Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University Press) (2016).

Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.1

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.1

 

(Dis)emancipatory technologies

 

(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces

Hannah Ebben

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« 

nili R. Broyer

The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

 

Varia

 

My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola  

Andrzej Pitrus

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Krzysztof Loska

Sixty years later

Alicja Helman

(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 1-4

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University

 

 (Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

 

In the 19th and especially the 20th century, powerful emancipatory processes were taking place that reached a climax in the middle of the 20th century. The massive civil rights movements of the late 1960s included women, aboriginal people, people of colour, ethnic and sexual minorities that were fighting for respect and representation within Western societies. These were powerful generational experiences and set the pattern for the emancipatory movements throughout the second half of the 20th century of groups seeking empowerment and social change, including deaf and disabled communities.

Most definitions emphasize the processual character of empowerment that regards either individuals[1] or communities[2]. As Marc A. Zimmerman points out, this term can be understood as both value orientation for policy makers and social change, and as a “theoretical model for understanding the process and consequences of efforts to exert control and influence over decisions that affect one’s life, organisational functioning, and the quality of community life”[3].  What is in common across many various empowerment definitions are the issues of reclaiming control and gaining access to resources (including information). In many cases, technology plays the important role of empowering artefact[4] that balances inequalities in access to resources and the communicational public sphere, helping both individuals and collectives to gain self-esteem, representation, and independence.

Communication technologies are perceived as powerful allies of communities fighting for empowerment and recognition. Skilfully used mass media such as press, radio, and television may greatly assist minorities’ efforts to influence public opinion and thereby pressure policy makers. This scenario is called “the boomerang effect”[5]: the media or NGOs are engaged to support and amplify the voices of groups whose causes are not audible in the public sphere due to oppression (such as lack of access). Thus, with the help of journalists or activists, the initial social, cultural and communicational inequalities are balanced.

However, the positive impact of communication technologies is not limited to mass media. There are examples of DIY technological practices that have had an important impact on oppressed groups. Teletypewriters for the deaf (initially invented, distributed and managed by the deaf themselves) that were introduced in the late 1960s in the United States and in the 1970s in Western Europe helped the deaf to overcome the constraints of voice-based telephony.  Behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern European countries, both DIY radio receivers and skilfully used commercial models made it possible for people to access alternative Western free sources of information.

For the oppressed and excluded, electronic communication technologies seem even more supportive, especially social media. The rise of electronic media shows the emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies such as hacktivism or cloud protesting. It has made self-representation and activism much easier for communities whose options are limited due to their minority status, disability, and social or political situation, as shown by Mary L. Gray in “Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America”[6] or Stefania Milan in “Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change”[7]. Technology enables limitations of the physical world such as the geographical spread of community members or architectural barriers to be overcome and makes it possible for minority groups (including the disabled) to enter the public sphere, network, and gain representation. On the other hand, technology may also act as a barrier that disabling users due to technical issues such as inaccessible software (as described and analysed by Katie Ellis and Michael Kent in “Disability and New Media”[8]. In 1999, Lawrence A. Scadden, a blind researcher, enthusiastically wrote, “The proliferation of optical character-recognition systems connected to speech synthesizers has brought me the ability to read almost any printed material independently. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has resulted in my ability to communicate independently in text with people all over the world just as it has for you and for millions of other sighted and blind people. The ability to conduct research on-line has provided me a new-found independence”. However, he added, “This increased independence has been threatened from time to time with the emergence of new technology and new approaches for information presentation, but we continue to enable accessibility to evolve almost as fast as the technology”[9].

Similarly, the impact of social media on so-called cyber revolutions that empowered the oppressed, such as the Arab Spring and the #occupymovement, was not as powerful as was initially recognised. These movements quickly gave up extensive usage of social media, as it is an extremely easy target for surveillance and abuse. In fact, technology can be an oppressive element from which some groups seek emancipation: perfect examples include the governmental and medical technologies, such as statistics and eugenics, which have been used in constructing normalcy in industrial societies since the 18th century.

There are more complex and in fact paradoxical examples of relations between technology and empowerment, such as the western deaf education system. Founded on the idea of the rationalized social order of Enlightenment, deaf residential schools were a tool for organising society by removing non-normative group members from the social domain and placing them in special institutions. Schools for the deaf (and also for the blind) were initially not educational but charity institutions, where children were normalized: taught how to fit in with hearing society. These institutions had full control over pupils’ bodies and constructed their professional lives by training them for a limited choice of occupations—all for the sake of making society more efficient. Schools for the deaf served as an apparatus for eliminating from society those who did not fit in, and returning them adapted and rehabilitated. However, schools at the same time gathered the dispersed deaf in one, physical space, thus creating a propitious milieu where unified sign language and later Deaf Culture emerged. In fact, the technology that was supposed to integrate the deaf into mainstream society facilitated the creation of a distinctive Deaf community and identity: a community of ‘others’. The most vivid consequences of these educational governmentality practices may still be observed in the United States (which inherited the French educational system), as strong and dynamic communities arose around schools for the deaf. They provided opportunities to meet future partners and friends and make life-along bonds, in fact to create an alternative social sphere.

Inspired by the diversity and ambiguity of the role of technology in emancipatory processes and practices, we present this issue of “TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies”, which is devoted to both the emancipatory and disempowering effects of technology. There are seven articles covering five thematic areas:

  1. The role of technology in minority groups gaining representation under oppressive circumstances. In the article Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai analyses the film Naali/The Stream (directed by Murugavel and Lakshmanan; 2012). Shot with a simple handycam, this documentary brought the life and struggle of the local Tamil community into public discourse. The author points out the democratising potential of low-end technologies; however, it is also shown how they can be used both for and against local communities. The second article, Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi by Rajan Benson, is grounded in field research and concentrates on social media usage by one particular minority group. Benson shows the double-edged sword of technology that enables the Christian community in Delhi to gain representation and build collectivity in a hostile social and political realm, while also making it also possible to trace and threaten individual activists.
  2. The discriminative and disempowering potential of new media In Shaming and socially responsible online engagement, Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, and Laura O. Franklin investigate the problem of online linguistic and visual shaming based on their qualitative research of online communication.
  3. The technologically boosted reshaping of the (self)representation of people with disabilities. Here we recommend two articles. The first is Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces, in which Hannah Ebben analyses the potential of online video platforms for autistic community representation by studying videos uploaded by individuals within the spectrum. The second is “Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?, in which Marta Stańczyk analyses the most popular prosthesis users in American popular culture and investigates the shift within the meaning of prosthesis: from a sign of vulnerability and passivity to an identity-building element of individual empowerment.
  4. The narrative refiguration of ableism and disability may be found in the article Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« by nili R. Broyer. Applying transhumanism theory, the author tries to redefine the oppositions of ableism and disability within the narratives of the films.
  5. The impact of newly created technologies on artistic practices. In her text, The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz presents four progressive Japanese visual artists who have gained more artistic freedom and access to potential audiences with skilful usage of digital technologies.

Notes

[1] D. Mechanic 1991, “Adolescents at risk: New Directions, conference paper cited after Marc A. Zimmerman, Empowerment Theory. Psychological , Organisational and Community  Levels of Analysis”, in Handbook of Community Psychology, ed. J. Rappaport, E. Seidman, (New York: Springer  Science and Business Media) (2000).

[2] Cornel Empowerment Group 1989, “Empowerment and family support”, Network Bulletin, 1, 1-23, cited after Marc A. Zimmerman.

[3] Marc A. Zimmerman.

[4] Carin Roos PhD & Åsa Wengelin “The text telephone as an empowering technology an empowering technology in the daily lives of deaf people—A qualitative study”, Assistive Technology 28:2, (2016), p. 63.

[5] Leszek Porębski, „Internet jako narzędzie mobilizacji politycznej mniejszości”, in Agora czy Hyde Park. Internet jako przestrzeń społeczna grup mniejszościowych ed. Ł. Kapralska, B. Pactwa (Kraków: Nomos) (2010).

[6] Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York University Press) (2009).

[7] Stefania Milan, Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change, (Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

[8] Katie Ellis, Michael Kent, Disability and New Media, (Routledge) (2010).

[9] Lawrence A. Scadden, “Empowerment Through Technology”, Assistive Technology, 11:1 (1999) 59-65.

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 5-20

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Michigan State University

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

 

Abstract

My essay on the significant Tamil social activist documentary Naali/The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) makes a strong case against the displacement of the indigenous people who live on the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains), along the borders of the states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, in South India. The film documents their lives through video footage shot with a small handycam (a 3CCD prosumer video camera) to argue for how low-end technology has enabled the empowerment of the local people by making possible the digital writing of a bottom-up history which opposes the official version constructed by the State. Nonetheless, the essay argues that this low-end technology is a double-edged sword, as it simultaneously enables “documentation” by NGOs to project the tribal people as causing the endangerment of the lives of the wild animals in the Blue Mountains. Thus, on one hand, innovations in technology and the democratization of media—enabled by the accessibility and affordability of digital video recording and editing—has inspired a lawyer and his poet/activist friend, both of whom are invested in the lives of the original inhabitants of the Blue Mountains, to critique displacement in the name of development by corporate bodies, with the connivance of non-profits or NGOs. On the other hand, the technology enables the appropriation and retooling of images of the same indigenous people to make a case for displacing them from their lands in the name of the conservation of forests and wildlife.

Key words: documentary, Indian documentary, environment, ethnic people, low-end technology, wildlife and forest conservation, ngo documentary

Introduction

The Tamil documentary film Naali /The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) was shot with a small handycam: the National Panasonic NV-GS 230, a 3 CCD consumer camera.[1] According to P. Thirunavukkarasu, the publisher of the preeminent Tamil cinema journal Nizhal, which focuses on documentaries and short films, Naali has been one of the most widely screened Tamil documentaries in recent years, particularly among the ethnic populace in South India. The documentary, however, has been mainly screened in alternative spaces like schools, colleges, universities, community halls, and documentary film festivals, and has not been broadcast on public or private television channels in Tamilnadu because of its politics.[2] Due to the absence of funding from the state since the 1990s, the documentarians in Tamilnadu have been forced to depend increasingly on non-profits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Naali, however, is unique in that not only is it independently produced, but it also posits itself as a critique of NGOs.

Naali documents the history of the Western Ghats (a range of mountains on the west coast of India), particularly the Nilgiri (The Blue Mountain), which is located on the borders between the southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. It focuses on the lives of the tribal people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad areas, which are located to the west of Tamilnadu and the east of Kerala. It is a collaborative effort between Murugavel, a lawyer who is a strong advocate of human rights, and Lakshmanan, a theatre-activist who is also a radical poet. Naali is an extension of their public lives in the Nilgiri as a committed lawyer and a radical artist for more than a decade and it exemplifies their investment in raising awareness regarding the socioeconomic problems of the ethnic populace. The project itself became possible when Lakshmanan bought a small digital video camera in 2002 and started shooting with it while he travelled with his collaborator Murugavel to the high altitude areas of the Western Ghats. The lightweight camera that enabled one to shoot even as the other steered the motorcycle was a major factor in the production of the documentary as it allowed them to gather amateur video of the landscape and portraits of local people during their regular work-related visits to the tribal neighbourhoods on the slopes and the top of the mountain ranges of the Nilgiri. The video, which they viewed once they were back at their editing room in Erode, a city a hundred miles down the hill, gave them the encouragement to shoot further and expand the documentary as they discovered that the tiny digital camera could withstand the cold weather and give them reasonably good images in the predominantly foggy conditions at high altitudes. They were initially unsure about the results of their shooting in the misty conditions at the top of the mountains, often at 1500 meters above sea level, as they could not carry any reflectors or lights in their backpacks that were filled with the warm clothing and blankets they needed for the four days of their stay up in the Ghats during their first unplanned trip. Their initial idea was to document the plight of tribal villagers who were the target of the wrath of elephants. In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of attacks on villagers and their homes by desperate elephants whose traditional habitats have been eroded drastically due to the connivance of corrupt government officials, mainly from the forest department, with traders, businesspersons and corporations in plundering the dense forests of the Ghats and its fertile mineral resources.[3]

Initially, their aim was to inform their audience through a short documentary about the condition of the people living on the Nilgiri, but as Lakshmanan and Murugavel started shooting for their documentary and interviewing the subjects, they often ended up spending many weekends travelling through the tribal areas and interacting with the locals over extended periods of time, thereby starting to learn in depth about their history, traditions, and culture. Their deeper exploration of the subject of their documentary was feasible because of the unobtrusive handycam and the small external microphone that accompanied it, as they could be put in one of the smaller pockets on the sides of their backpacks. Unlike a lawyer or a theatre performer from outside, their reaching out to the locals as documentarians with a compact camera and spending hours with the tribal people as they went about their daily life gave them an insight into their ethos: for instance, the cutting of trees like bamboo which regrew faster for creating shelters.[4]

Such deeper understanding of the ethos gradually changed the focus of their documentary: Murugavel and Lakshmanan decided to recover and showcase the long history of the Nilgiri and the rich traditions of its inhabitants, and foreground their lives and culture against a backdrop of globalization and mindless exploitation of natural resources in the name of development. Naali, therefore, blossomed into a painstaking effort on the part of Murugavel and Lakshmanan to counter the contemporary economic disempowerment of ethnic people by rewriting their history from the ground up. They also wanted to protest against their displacement by drawing attention to their lifestyle, which epitomizes coexistence between nature and habitats at high altitudes. The digital writing of such a subaltern history through a small handycam, they believed, could counter and challenge the many official versions of the government, the corporates, and the non-profits driven by vested interests.

This essay, therefore, studies how the use of low-end technology made possible the recording on video of the history of ordinary people living in the Nilgiri. More importantly, Lakshmanan and Murugavel could make the documentary from their own resources because of the economy offered by recent developments in technology, exemplified in this case by the prosumer camera that—while blurring the line between the consumer and the professional—also makes it possible to discover and work on new ideas during the making of a film. It can shoot in low light conditions and, because of the cheaper cost of recording mediums such as mini-dv tapes and SD cards, for long periods. This essay, therefore, details how Naali epitomizes both the recovery of the history of indigenous people and the documentation of the politics of the artists at the lower end of the spectrum: the ethnic populace of Nilgiri and the committed documentarians with their low-end technology.

Naali and Low-End Technology

In this context, it would be productive for us to explore low-end technology’s centrality in the very conception and execution of Naali during its early stages. For documentaries without external funding, the most crucial factor is the initial investment of time and labour. In this case, this could be organized around affordable technology as it offered acceptable images and sound during production (Panasonic handycam) and effective appropriation and organization of materials thereafter (Adobe Premiere editing software), thus giving an impetus to the successful production of an ambitious independent documentary without any significant external financial support. Therefore, considering Naali‘s context within the discourse surrounding digital technology and contemporary cinema is productive in this context.

The recent discourse surrounding digital technology and the loss of the “real”—framed generally as digital cinema and the loss of celluloid cinema’s ‘indexical identity’[5]—does not take into account the convenience of recording which digital technology offers at the low-end of the spectrum, wherein the traces of the real can be preserved electronically instead of through the complex chemical processes involved in developing and fixing silver halides on a nitrate or polyester base, as in the case of films.[6] Scholars are either elegiac about the passing away of cinema, or euphoric about digital utopia.[7] However, for many activists and documentarians like the ones I am detailing here, the primary question is one of having an affordable recording medium with which to catch “life unaware”, as the iconic Dziga Vertov proclaimed through his documentary/experimental film Man with the Movie Camera (1929) almost nine decades ago. For such filmmakers, the question of having the luxury to explore various ways to enhance or manipulate the originally recorded material on location did not arise. The scholarship on new media or digital cinema is not paying careful attention to the continuing relevance of digital video and its indexicality, particularly in the context of documentaries, which in reality are not restricted to low budget ones. For instance, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008) uses photographs taken in the Abu Ghraib Prison by a small group of low-ranking military police at the prison with their cell phones. Similarly, Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (dir. Callum Macrae, 2011) uses cell phone videos shot by Sri Lankan soldiers of their abuse of the men and women of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) during the genocide of the Tamils in May 2009. Is it, therefore, enough for us to limit ourselves to thinking of events during which human rights are grossly transgressed in inhumane and often unexpected ways as the only moments when low-end technology can offer indexical recordings of reality? What about low-end technology’s capacity to record quotidian lives at distant locales through its affordability and accessibility, and to lend itself to the needs of the activist filmmaker who may otherwise find it difficult to make a documentary? The small digital video camera enables these filmmakers to record the “reality” of the lives and times of the people who matter to them, apart from helping them to explore the potential and the various possibilities of the subject matter in hand by overcoming the consideration of money or funding as the primary constraint or preoccupation of the documentarian. The freedom offered affects the very process of making a documentary and—as in the case of Naali—shifts the focus of the narrative.

Naali‘s Context

At this point, a brief trajectory of Indian documentary films after India’s independence (i.e. from 1947 onwards) and the place of Naali in such a trajectory would be productive to understand its historical context. As scholars like Anuja Jain (“The Curious Case,” 2013) and Camille Deprez (“The Films Division,” 2013) have detailed, The Films Division of India, which was established in 1948, followed in many ways the model established by the British documentarians for supporting socially relevant documentaries, and was influenced by the Griersonian discourse. The early documentaries of the Films Division were focused on disseminating knowledge and educating the masses in the context of addressing the nation. As in the British documentary movement, there were many who privileged personal expression and explored the documentary as an aesthetic form beyond its objective of information and propaganda, particularly from the 1960s onward. The 1970s also saw the expansion of Doordarshan, the public broadcasting service in India, which started its national telecast in 1982. Doordarshan provided space for the national exhibition of documentaries, though it was steeped in red tape and corruption.

In the beginning, the Films Division had its own employees direct the documentaries, and later contracted outside directors and producers to make films on specific topics. For instance, Mani Kaul, the master of experimental cinema in India, also made critically acclaimed documentaries for the Films Division. In a documentary like Arrival (1980), he mainly worked as an outside/contracted director using the technical crew and facilities of the Films Division, whereas in Siddheshwari (1989), he collaborated as an outside/contracted producer who had the freedom to choose his own crew (for instance the cinematographer Piyush Shah, who was not a Films Division employee) and facilities. Doordarshan had two major ways of providing support to documentaries: one was the “funded program”, in which funds for making a documentary are sought by submitting the idea and developed script in stages for approval to a committee, and the other one was “on royalty basis,” wherein a film is produced and—depending on its reception and critical acclaim, for instance, winning a National Award or its acceptance in major film festivals—Doordarshan telecasts your film and pays a royalty to the maker.

The 1990s saw India shifting its economic gear from the socialism-driven Nehruvian policies to liberalization and privatization. Therefore, subsidies were taken away and funding from the government shrank for documentaries; however, non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gradually started producing documentaries on a regular basis. Like the government, many NGOs also have their agendas, often driven by their rich and powerful donors abroad. In spite of this, some documentarians have made use of the space available through NGOs to make the kind of films they believe in, recalling Basil Wright’s interventions in a film like The Song of Ceylon (1934), which undermines the Orientalist objectives of its sponsor, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.

Naali is unique in its uncompromising stance against the agendas of the NGOs, as it perceives them as the vestiges of colonialism, particularly in the context of the displacement of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri. The mid-1990s also saw the arrival of digital cameras in India, which facilitated the production of documentaries. However, it is only during the last five years that the production of documentaries with low-end and affordable digital technology and their exhibition through easily available LCD projectors in alternative and remote spaces have become possible. Naali, produced in 2012, exemplifies such a seminal moment.

Naali: The Beginnings

Naali begins with the history of the ethnic populace living on the western mountain ranges in south India, particularly the lives of the people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad, located on the borders between Tamilnadu and Kerala. Naali‘s writing of such a history attains its significance mainly because it remains unwritten from the perspective of these local people of the Nilgiri. There have been numerous documentaries made by the Films Division of India in which the tribal people appear in their colourful costumes as objects of spectacle as they dance in the idyllic backdrop of the mountains in the high altitudes where they live. Such exoticization has further distanced the people living on the plains from the harsh realities of the lives of the tribal people on the Nilgiri, and it is such an Orientalist representation and official history that Naali deconstructs right from its first frame.

The film begins with a title card “Naali: The Journey across the Blue Mountains” accompanied by the sound of birds. The soundtrack is dense, but through its indistinct quality it recalls archival material or found footage on the internet and suggests that the “Journey” suggested by the title is not the luxurious expedition or tour wherein we are going to trek along the picturesque mountain ranges of the Nilgiri with the filmmakers, but the seeking of the ordinary voices of its tribal people. The shots that follow further reinforce the objective of the documentary: a pan on the mountain ranges in a long shot from right to left dissolves into a static shot of the snow-clad Nilgiri accompanied by the sound of birds, which is now less intense due to the sudden reduction in volume. After this classically composed static shot of the Nilgiri, with a tree on the left branching into the frame, there is a dissolve again to a long shot that vertically tilts up to showcase the expanse of the mountains of the Western Ghats. A dissolve again leads us into the next shot as it zooms into the flattened snow-ridden landscape from another angle in a frame covered ornately by leaves to the music of string instruments that begins as the camera starts zooming in. This flat-white surface further dissolves into a landscape with passing clouds that acts as a wipe to lead us into a fleeting shot of two birds sitting on the right side of the frame in profile, as the voiceover recounts, “The Western Ghats have long been the backbone of South India.” Thereafter, we see a long shot of the (paddy) fields in the plains as the camera now pans from left to right and comes to rest in a closer shot, along the same axis, with the two flying birds landing on their feet. The voice-over continues: “The happiness and the misery of the (people of the) plains depend on these (people of the) mountains.”

Naali: Images and Sounds

This prelude effectively prefigures the form and content of the film through the minimalism in its visual style and the juxtaposition of its rhetorical politics thorough its voice-of-god narration. The low-resolution visuals—not only in their uploaded YouTube version but also on the original DVD copy of the documentary—draw attention to their low-end origins.[8] Furthermore, the use of found footage like the one with the birds further makes it clear that these documentarians are not aiming for the technical finesse of popular channels like National Geographic, but are invested in borrowing visuals freely and retooling them to illustrate what is narrated through the sound track, so that the images remain subservient to the rhetoric of the narrator.

Thereafter, the verbose narration overwhelms the soundtrack without any reprieve for the audience: there are no silent or musical segments without voiceover in this film, which has such rich possibilities for musically driven landscape montages from images available on the web and found-footage archives. The only moment when the sound allows the visual to directly speak to the audience is when the Naxilite leader (Arikkad) Verghese, who mobilized these ethnic people for an armed revolution, was killed by the cops because of insurgency.[9] Though the narrator is silent when the camera zooms in slowly on Verghese’s photograph towards the end of the sequence, there is an elegiac song in the soundtrack paying homage to the slain leader who enabled some of them to be freed from bonded labour. Thus, this reprieve from the monotonous voice-of-god—or reverse brainwashing, in this particular case—is due to the impossibility of layering the rhetorical voice over the image of the slain revolutionary leader at the poignant moment of his death/sacrifice, rather than being an aesthetic decision.

Such an approach immediately marks Naali as different from the many uploaded videos— particularly at tourist spots like the Nilgiri, on sites like YouTube, Vimeo, etc.—wherein it is not uncommon to see “picnic” videos shot on DSLR cameras and cell phones that are loosely edited to popular film or keyboard music.[10] Naali is co-written and codirected by Murugavel and Lakshmanan, with the latter also credited with videography and narration. The rawness of Lakshmanan’s voice as a narrator, as it reflexively draws attention to his background as a street-theatre activist, also distances us from the visuals since it is permeated with a sense of urgency and anger, and is far removed from the smooth and sophisticated voices generally associated with travel diaries or autobiographical video essays. Right from the very beginning, when he categorically asserts that the plains are dependent for their well-being on the mountains, there is a plea/advocacy for empathy towards the predicament of the tribal population which pervades the film, often bordering on propaganda. In Naali, the monotonous voice-of-god narration—generally the staple of government newsreels in India—is undermined by juxtaposing it with the fleeting, grainy visuals that are often in soft focus because of the fog in the high altitudes of the Western Ghats or due to the appropriation from a low-resolution upload on the web. Such a counterpoint aesthetic, between the constantly changing visuals in low resolution and the monotonous sound without any fluctuation, work in Naali’s favour as the film focuses on the paradox of the tribal people of the Nilgiri and their centuries-old history which goes back to prehistoric times, and the significance of their eco and environment-friendly culture, even as these indigenous people are forced to give up their traditional way of life and dispossessed of their land in the name of development.

The next segment ties the mountains and plains with shots of rivers and streams flowing down and underscores how plains are dependent for their basic needs on the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats which, according to the narrator, have been enabling the rain in these regions by obstructing the westerly winds (or the southwest monsoon winds) from the Arabian Sea, like walls for the “last 2 million years approximately.” Such mentioning of historical facts with adjectives like “approximately” sets up Naali’s perspective on history: while acknowledging the help/advice of Mrs. Vijayalakshmi, the curator of Sullivan Museum in Kotagiri and the personnel of Nilambur Teak Museum and Wayanad Museum through the initial title cards, Murugavel and Lakshmanan make it clear that in Naali historical data and oral history will together serve the purposes of their politics regarding the protection of the flora and fauna of the Nilgiri and its people. Nonetheless, their attention to detail is underscored by their careful mentioning of the height of the Nilgiri as ranging from 1500 to 2000 meters and the speed of the southwest monsoon winds at 20/30 kilometres per hour.

In the following section, when the narrator details how until 200 years ago the Western Ghats were covered with greenery which prevented soil erosion, the colourful visuals from the web are dissolved with snow as a transitional device to focus on the water that flows from the Nilgiri to provide for the needs of the people in the three southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The choice regarding the colourful visuals in this section were, however, restricted to the available videos that could be downloaded in higher resolution. Nonetheless, some of such retooled videos are sharp and others are grainy and soft in focus. According to the editor of the film, Ashok, when the film was being edited in 2011/2012 most videos on the web were in very low resolution and became grainy and soft when downloaded and imported into the documentary.[11] Presently, with file-hosting and video-sharing services like Dropbox and Vimeo, it has become easier, whereas during Naali’s postproduction it was difficult and tedious to download high-resolution videos and reuse them. Here, I would like to draw attention to the significance of transparency in the context of digital video. John McMullan claims that the “[f]ilm’s shallower depth of field is what makers of movies for the cinema screen employ in order to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular object/subject on screen, as well as to create a fictional narrative world with parts of the screen that a viewer cannot themselves bring into focus. It is an aesthetic of the artistic more so than the scientific: the unabashed manipulation … for fantastical purposes. It is the filmic look that videographers have been attempting to emulate since the inception of video.” (Italic mine, McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II).[12] McMullan, draws from Babette Mangolte to argue for how such a “film look” is predicated less on transparency and more on manipulating the shutter speed.[13] For instance, the standard 24 frames per second shutter speed used in the shooting of a film does not allow for the kind of transparency in an ordinary pan shot, where the characters move at a normal speed, when compared with the normative 29.97 frames per second (NTSC) television standard. Therefore, for McMullan, the film look is an aesthetic that focuses on deviation from the real: “[It] lies in remediating the cinematic system of signs that implies artistry, quality, and expense; not in the realm of exhibiting a greater transparency.”[14] Here, what is significant for us in Naali‘s context is the fact that it was shot prior to the contemporary obsession with the shallower depth of field in digital video through the use of DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras, wherein the filmmakers try to emulate the “film look.” The relatively much smaller sensors in the handycam used in Naali broadly kept most things in front of the camera in focus. The grainy or the foggy quality in some of the shots were due to the weather which, when juxtaposed with the greater depth-of-field offered by the lens, not only gives a specificity to the look of the visuals shot at unusual altitudes, but also adds to the indexicality of the image by carrying the traces of the weather conditions under which it has been shot. Even more important, it draws attention to the sensuous but difficult colder temperatures under which the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri lives.

Naali and Bottom-Up History: Nilgiri and Its People

As an advocate, Murugavel was looking for a space to foreground the “collective voice of the people of the mountains.” However, when the idea of the documentary took shape, Murugavel and Lakshmanan were not sure how much the inhabitants of the Nilgiri would cooperate or speak up in the interviews, but their earlier public life as an advocate and a street-theatre activist helped them in gaining the trust of a tightly-knit but closed ethnic community. Over the last two decades, these people have been witnessing the aggressive onslaught of the corporates who, along with the conniving NGOs and corrupt government officials, have been successful in occupying or leasing their land and displacing them.[15]

pic-1-naali-old-woman-walking

Lakshmanan also believed that the retooling of the stereotypical shots associated with the picturesque terrain and the ethnic people of the Nilgiri could be effectively used to contrast the romanticism surrounding the hills and the mythos of their colourful traditions with their present state of deprivation.[16] Such a visual scheme of the juxtaposition of the classical with the contemporary certainly proves effective in Naali, as exemplified by the sequence in which the narrator informs us of their ancient lineage: an illustration with old photographs from the museum of the people belonging to ethnic groups like the Irulars, Kurumbars, Vedars, Todars, Paniyars, Muduvars, and Kothars, is juxtaposed with the immediacy of the contemporary times through a shaky handheld shot in the present which showcases eager tourists on their trip to their favourite hill station. This sequence concludes with a classically composed ancient cave painting at altitude.

In stark contrast, the following segment has two shaky shots, apparently shot on the handycam without a tripod: one a pan and the other a tilt down that frames tourists to Edakkal caves in Wayanad district through long shots. By the choice of the long shot, the tourists are not privileged and are underscored as people in search of the exoticism of a primitive culture, as exemplified by the classical photographs that we just saw. The way the camera pans over the tourists to frame them as crawling ants is suggestive, and questions our understanding of them as tourists: it is clear that the tribal populace of today could merge with the tourists seamlessly in terms of their (modern) costume and demeanour. Thus, reflexively questioning our own interest in their exotic history, the narrator finally leads us to the cave painting to reinforce his statement that these ordinary human beings have been harmoniously living here in the Western Ghats with wildlife since times immemorial.

(Dis)empowering Low End Technology: The Double-Edged Sword

The significance of the above segment dawns on us later in the film when we realize that our curiosity as travellers is only a mask to hide our intention of poaching, as the film draws parallels between King Pazhassi’s (1774-1805) supposedly benevolent encroachment/intrusion to defend the ethnic populace and the welfare measures of the contemporary NGOs that are invested in disenfranchising the tribal people of their land and displacing them from the Nilgiri. Naali focuses on the history of the Nilgiri through players from outside: the colonizing British and their investment in tea, coffee, and oak trees, which played havoc with the ecology of the Nilgiri and the fate of its people; the iconic kings like Kumbala Raja, who deceptively defeated the Paniyar tribe and enslaved them and the caste-driven Phalassi Raja; and the NGOs with their agenda of displacing the tribal people in the name of wildlife conservation. By progressively juxtaposing them with the everyday lives of its inhabitants, the film blurs the difference in time and space by showcasing the history of the tribal populace as a linear narrative of occupation and plunder by outside forces.[17]

In a narrative which echoes the cyclical and the multi-layered form of the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, Naali, after setting up the ancient lineage of the Nilgiri tribes, details the history of the various oppressive feudal landlords who were disempowered by Tipu Sultan, the progressive invader from Karnataka, only to be later reinvested with their authority by the British. As an extension, Naali traces the continuing exploitation and displacement of the ethnic populace at the hands of the Forest Department of the Government of India, and by the devious interests of some of the NGOs that epitomize the indirect rule of the global corporates in contemporary times.

While researching the etymology of the Nilgiri, which literally means ‘the blue mountain’, Murugavel and Lakshmanan could trace its roots to a stone carving of the Hoyshala period of the twelfth century, when Vishnuvardhan was the king. In accordance with Naali‘s aesthetic of counterpoise, they balance the ethereal and colourful past invoked by the artistic alphabets carved on stone by juxtaposing it with a shaky handheld shot of the mundane Sulthan Bathery bus station. The incongruity of a small quotidian bus station stands out in a sequence that is littered with the influence of Jainism and its aesthetic finesse, as exemplified by the finely carved monks with their exquisite features and meditative poses on the stone.     Nevertheless, even the poised Jaina king Vishnuvardhan defeated and ruled over the Todars, the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri. Naali suggests that such constant aggression by outsiders and their repeated occupation of the Nilgiri were possible because of the nomadic lifestyle of the tribal people who preferred to live in unison with nature rather than confront it. Naali, through such an aesthetic of interspersing the classical or ornate art work with the raw digital video shots of the quotidian life around a mundane bus station, questions our prejudice regarding the film’s privileged access to indexicality: film or digital video both allow for infinite possibilities to manipulate when the accent is on the ornate or the classical rather than the immediate and the indexical. Naali‘s low-end technology-driven aesthetic thus enables its politics of intervention through its aesthetic of contrapuntal juxtaposition, wherein the consummate/rich or the saturated is undermined in favour of indexicality of the real/imperfect/poor.

However, the same low-end technology has enabled the non-profits or the NGO’s to project a different picture of the indigenous population living on the Nilgiri/Blue Mountains as being chiefly responsible for the endangerment of the wild animals. With similar handycam technology, NGO’s construct narratives of a pristine land where it is not modern man with his machines, but the tribal populace who live in the mountain that is the enemy. The facility to digitally upload and subjectively modify photographs and mobilize a powerful group invested in their own interests, of benefiting from the (invisible) donors abroad, has relegated the reality of the lives of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri to the background.[18] The empowering low-end technology, thus, is a double-edged sword as it can be effectively used to make a case against the disadvantaged and underprivileged people by the educated (upper) middleclass, who are conversant with the possibilities inherent in modern technology to manipulate and to further their own interests as the neo colonizers in these contemporary times of rapid globalization.

Sarah Pink in her seminal book, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research (2007), engages with photography, video, hypermedia, and ethnography to shed light on the significance of arbitrariness and subjectivity in “visual ethnography.” Though aural and visual recordings have been central to ethnography, Pink’s intervention in the context of the polysemy of an image in terms of the specificity of its reception is productive for our understanding of digital technology as a double-edged sword in the context of the digitally manipulated photos/videos of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri:

[T]he same photograph may serve a range of different and personal ethnographic uses; it may even be invested with seemingly contradictory meanings. The meanings of photographs are arbitrary and subjective; they depend on who is looking. The same photographic image may have a variety of (perhaps conflicting) meanings invested in it at different stages of ethnographic research and representation, as it is viewed by different eyes and audiences in diverse temporal historical, spatial, and cultural contexts. (pp. 67-8)

Naali: Displacement of People/Language

In the final segment, after a long fadeout which marks the transition to the 1990s, Naali focuses on the global NGOs like the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund) and Wildlife Protection Society, which have been advocating for “humanless forests” with the help of local NGOs in India. Naali—through archival footage and photographs—narrates the attack on Ahwahnechees, the native Indian tribe of America. In 1865, Europeans gradually evicted them from Yesomite Valley where they had lived for centuries to clear the picturesque land for zoological parks and tourism. The ideology of the separation of wildlife from inhabitants originated there and led to the proliferation of several non-profits which have ever since advocated for wildlife sanctuaries and humanless forests, i.e., for the displacement of the ethnic people from the mountains and forests where they belong. Through a string of talking-head interviews interspersed with close-ups of the indigenous people of Nilgiri, Naali posits the greedy official machinery of the government and its conscienceless forest department as responsible for the poaching, stealing of wood, and destruction of wildlife in Nilgiri for decades. Through an insightful interview with C. R. Bijoy, an activist working for the cause of indigenous people through coalitions like Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Naali underpins the nexus of the NGOs, the government and the corporates, as being at the root of the misery of the ethnic populace.[19] With colourful graphics, designed with the help of affordable software like After Effects (Ashok, Dec 2013),[20] Naali illustrates how agendas of a globalized economy such as carbon trading, which incentivizes governments to minimize damage to the environment through reduced emissions, have to be necessarily tied to afforestation in a growing economy like India. This unites the global corporates with the local government with its imperatives of retaining at least thirty per cent of its land as forests. NGOs join in this partnership due to the possibilities of advocating for wildlife conservation and sanctuaries: the irony is that the forest department—the real cause for the erosion of wealth and resources of the mountains and forests—is above scrutiny, but the people who had for centuries lived in harmony with nature and wildlife are getting evicted.

pic-2-naali-protest-against-displacement
Protest against displacement

Nonetheless, Naali is honest and self-reflexive about its complicity in the disempowerment of the local populace through the dis(re)placement of language. Towards the end of the film, in a spontaneous response to the interviewer, a teenage girl reveals that in their school they are not taught their tribal language but Tamil. Naali, thus, reflexively draws attention to Tamil, which is the language of the people on the plains, as the language of the documentary. As it documents the displacement of the inhabitants of Nilgiri, Naali itself, narrated in a dominant and subsuming language, becomes a reflexive document of the erasure of their language and thereby their disempowerment, which is the conduit to the ethos of their culture. Nonetheless, Murugavel and Lakshmanan have created a space in Naali for quotidian voices to be heard through their retelling of the history of the Nilgiri and its people through the aesthetic of low-end technology. It enables them to strategically retool the ornate paintings and archival photos from the museum, which epitomize the vestiges of the colonizer, the feudal lords, and the decadent kings, as well as the digitally produced high-end technology driven media from the web, exemplifying the façade of globalization, corporates, and the NGOs. They have been successful in keeping the Naali—which means a “stream” in the ethnic language—of protest alive.

References

Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Oct. 2013.

Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Nov. 2013.

Ashok, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Bijoy C. R., Grain.org. 26 Oct. 2007.  http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, date accessed 23 June 2014.

Deprez Camille, “The Films Division of India, 1948-1964: The Early Days and the Influence of the British Documentary Film Tradition”, Film History: An International Journal. 25:3 (2013), pp.149-173.

Jain Anuja, “The Curious Case of the Films Division: Some Annotations on the Beginnings of Indian Documentary Cinema in Postindependence India, 1940s-1960s”, The Velvet Light Trap 71 (Spring 2013), pp. 15-26.

“Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District.” Deccanchronicle.com 8 Dec. 2013.  http://www.deccanchronicle.com/ 131208/news-current-affairs/article/jumbo-attacks-again, date accessed 8 September 2014.

Lakshmanan, Flyer of Naali. Jan. 2013.

Lakshmanan, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Mangolte Babette, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog Versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey”, in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

Manovich Lev, “What is Digital Cinema.” http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/what-is-digital-cinema, date accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

McMullan John, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, in IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II. Conference Proceedings  (©IM/NASS 2011. ISSN 1833-0533), imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=362, date accessed 3 March 2016.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2013.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2014.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Oct. 2013.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Nov. 2013.

Murugavel and Lakshmanan. Naali (2012): Tamil Documentary Movie Part 1, 2, 3, and 4. Online Video. YouTube. 8 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 October. 2014.

Pink Sarah, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research, (London: Sage Publications) (2007).

Reporter Staff, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track.” Hindu.com. 19 Dec. 2007, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/elephant-herd-marches-on-railway-track/article1970423.ece, date accessed 14 March 2015.

Rodowick D. N., The Virtual Life of Film, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

Rosen Philip, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001).

Thirunavukkarasu P., Personal Interview, June 2013.

Warrier Shobha, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists” Rediff. Com. 27 May 2013, http://www.rediff.com/news/interview/an-open-market-with-democracy-is-better-than-communism/20130527.htm, date accessed 15 March 2015.

Wayanad Honeymoon 2, Online Video. YouTube. 1 July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, date accessed 15 March 2015.

 

Notes

[1] This model was released in October 2007 and is not manufactured anymore. In fact, cameras like this marked the end of (mini dv) tape-based video shooting and prefigured the (present DSLR-Digital Single Lens Reflex-era’s) SD (Secure Digital) card usage for shooting and storage. In fact, the Panasonic NV-GS was one of the rare models which offered the choice between a mini dv tape and an SD card to record.

[2] My Personal Interview with P. Thirunavukkarasu, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[3] For the attacks of elephants on villagers, see: “Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District,” Deccanchronicle.com., 8 Dec. 2013, accessed 8 Sept. 2014. For the conflict between elephants and Forest Department, see: Staff Reporter, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track,” Hindu.com., 19 Dec. 2007, accessed 14 March 2014.

[4]  My Personal Interview with Murugavel at Chennai, in June 2013.

[5] See for details: Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema,” Manovich.net, accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

[6] For details see: John McMullan, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II, Conference Proceedings (2011).

[7] See for details, Philip Rosen, “Old and New: Image, Indexicality, and Historicity in the Digital Utopia”, in Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001), pp. 301- 434. Also see, D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

[8] Naali, Directors Murugavel and Lakshmanan, Coimbatore: Kovan Veliyeetagam, 2012, DVD.

[9] Naxalite or Naxalbari movement, which had its origins in Naxalbar village in West Bengal, believes in armed struggle for realizing its revolutionary objectives. See for details on the charisma and influence of the Naxalite leader Verghese: Shobha Warrier, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists,” Rediff. Com., 27 May 2013, accessed 15 March 2015.

[10] See, for instance, Wayanad Honeymoon 2,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, YouTube, July 2009, accessed 15 March 2015.

[11] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Nov. 2013.

[12] See John McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II,  imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=370, p. 13, accessed 3 March 2016.

[13] See for details Babette Mangolte, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey” in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

[14] John McMullan.

[15] My personal interview with Murugavel, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[16] Personal Interview with Lakshmanan.

[17] In the sequence about the planting of the teak trees by the British, the shots of Nilambur Kovilagam are framed through a handycam and contrasted with classical archival photographs and paintings. Even more striking is the interspersing of the shots taken from inside the car of the passing teak trees as they were at the time of the film’s production in 2012, with other illustrative and ornate images from the past to anchor the narration. Similarly, the brief history of the industrial revolution and the consequent demand for teak in the early 19th century is framed through (museum) paintings, which bookends the shaky handycam shots of the teak trees both in full bloom and after harvest. Thus, there is a remarkably consistent aesthetic of editing which drives Naali from the beginning to the end, even if the documentary borrows heavily from the archival footage to structure its subaltern history.

[18] Ibid. Ref: the photographs published in the brochure distributed. I have done extensive video coverage of the “documentation” done by the NGO’s to update their donors regarding their activities in lieu of the funds that they receive. See, the outtakes of my documentary on Tsunami relief and rehabilitation: Waves from the Deep (2005).

[19] See for details, C.R. Bijoy, Grain.org, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, 26 Oct. 2007, accessed 23 June 2014.

[20] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Oct. 2013.

Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai is an associate professor in the Departments of English, and Media and Information at Michigan State University. He is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and has a PhD in film studies from the prestigious University of Iowa. He is an accomplished filmmaker and his recent documentaries include Migrations of Islam (2014) and Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2015). His research focuses on the history, theory and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His recent books on cinema are Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum (Nizhal, 2013), an anthology of essays on documentaries and experimental films in Tamil and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015).

Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 21-36

Rajan Benson

MICA, Ahmedabad

 

Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

 

 Abstract

Technology has become ubiquitous in modern life, propagating digital media as a means to social equity and empowerment. Digital culture is believed to provide opportunities for religious communities to reshape their identity based on virtual group interactions.[1]

The digital universe has provided a platform for Christian minorities to re-represent themselves beyond the mainstream media’s projection of them as a community that uses education, health and other benevolent social services for religious conversion. Such representation has left the Christian community in Delhi victimised by a series of attacks that has taken place since the arrival of the new political regime.

Media houses perceive the attack to be a consequence of ‘Hindutva’ Hindu Nationalist ideology. The communal propaganda of ‘Hindutva’ imposes a parochial notion of purity and a drive for a majoritarian theocratic state, which puts minority religious communities at high risk.

This paper presents the findings of a study conducted with the Christian communities in Delhi. This study represents nine Christian denominations and seeks to understand their digital religious representation. The embodiment of the digital[2] has assisted in empowering as well as oppressing these Christian communities. The new efficacies of digital religious participation have empowered the Christian community to exercise digitally their Constitutional rights of freedom of religion. On the other hand, it has heightened anxiety and fear for digitally active members through online threats and abuses.

Key Words: representation, digital disability, surveillance, anxiety, hindutva, digital bodies, empowerment, christian

 

Introduction

The Churches in India are facing a new materiality, bringing alterations to their communication strategies. This digital materiality is a consequence of the growing usage of the smartphone in people’s daily affairs. The materiality here is the objects used for digital life such as, smartphones, laptops, and tablets. The materiality is also applied to move away from the binaries that have emerged between old media and new media. These digital materialities have performance capabilities that have consequences for the embedded reality of its users. The ubiquity of the digital is an embodiment of the same consequences.

The growing use of the Internet by Churches in Delhi has brought new ways to connect with both individuals and groups of Churchgoers that are transcending physical boundaries. The digital Church, brought about by the inclusion of the digital in the functioning of the church, is changing patterns and practices in the physical Church. This digital church reflects the extension of practices from physical to digital format. This movement has emerged with the influx of smartphones in the church that has facilitated increased use of religious applications like Bible apps, commentaries on sacred texts, faith memes, faith videos, and so on. Similarly, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. have also aided in the formation of digital religious communities.

However, the digital is also representing the Churches in its larger socio-political environment. This is also a consequence of growing Internet and smartphone penetration in Indian markets. This growth is most visible in urban spaces, which contain 152 million of India’s active Internet users.[3] In urban spaces, the growing use of social media on smartphones is developing technological perceptions about the medium. These perceptions of managing agency, self-efficacy, and privacy in the ubiquitous digital landscape are proving to be a rich platform for religious institutions to utilise apps for their mandate.

Moreover, the growing access to digital technologies in India has not aided in creating a pluralistic space for religious expression. The preamble to the constitution proclaims India a ‘secular state’. Here ‘secular’ signifies the state’s assistance and participation in all religions equally; unlike the western concept of secularism that separates the religion from the state.

Digital freedom in India is a negotiation between religious and political concerns. Religious freedom is represented in the constitutional rights as “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”.[4] Technology as a medium has played a crucial role in the freedom to propagate one’s own religion. However, the potential of the medium to both stir communal riots by hurting religious sentiment and become an instrument of worship through Holy Scriptural apps and Daily devotional content makes the medium an authority in the religious space.

India is witnessing a new form of religious intolerance. This competitiveness has become unsavoury when individuals have been abused, harassed, and killed for converting to another religion, despite the constitutional safeguard in Article 25, which states, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of consciousness and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion”.[5]

Christianity in contemporary times is closely tied with the digital. The online space has become a space for assimilation of religious groups; some of these online sites propagate mutually exclusive and fundamentalist viewpoints that have triggered violent communal tensions offline. The Christian community in Delhi is anxious as they are at the receiving end of physical violence from Hindutva forces. Hindutva is another name for Hindu nationalism; a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. One of the most pertinent events of Hindutva was the Ayodhya Ramjanmabhumi mobilisation. The belief of the Hindu extremists of Ayodhya, which is the birthplace of Lord Ram, led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. During this event, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to prominence as the electoral instrument of Hindutva. Since then, Hindutva has been juxtaposed with communalism on the basis of religion, race, and so on. There is a feeling that Hindutva groups are waging a large-scale campaign of hate against Christians and Muslim minority groups.[6] These expressions are spilling over onto digital spaces, where Christian communities are seeking ways to exercise their civic rights through participatory actions.

 Theoretical Framework

Digital Conceptions

 Smartphones have achieved an intimacy with users that incorporates the self and the external world.[7] The networked digital world blurs the boundaries between public and private spaces, depending on the way the apps represent the individual. As Mark Poster argues, “culture is increasingly simulational in the sense that the media often changes the things that it treats, transforming the identity of originals and referentialities”.[8] Smartphones have become so intertwined into our day-to-day affairs that the way they represent content becomes our conception of reality.[9] Smartphones have become part of the meaning making process; the cognition of meanings establishes the intensity of personal interactions on a device.[10]

The sheer pervasiveness of digital gadgets[11] is encouraging the clergy to use it to meet the Church’s evangelical mandates.[12] Smartphones have enabled a deeply personal and emotional form of social interaction. The unavoidability of the device is the popular narrative about the inclusion of social media apps in the life of churches. The use of representational apps in the church has a similar functional capacity to projecting the self in a public sphere.

The mediation of faith as an extension of one’s body is reflected with smartphones.[13] This is because the materiality of the smartphone extends to its functionality and this in turn is inclusive of relationships, cognitions, public representations, and emotional responses in social digital networks. The urban Church is an information-intensive environment that is driven by hyper-fast content creation and distribution. This pattern is a self-reinforcing system that is socially-technologically interweaving in nature. Digital materiality has formed ways of life by the “irreducible relation between technologies, embodiment, knowledge and perception”.[14] This is evident among the youth, who are constantly engaged with digital devices that are a part of their existence. This exists as a socio-technical hybrid where the body and screen are constantly gazing at each other, acting like mirrors and windows into reality. The content one shares becomes a window for others to look into and likewise the representation is a mirror of the self. Thus, the Church, seeking to influence and guide people in their religious journey, wants to access these windows so that it can shape the core values of its congregation. Ideally, the church aspires to see its beliefs and values mirrored in peoples’ virtual lives.

 Methodology

 This study is grounded in the premise that access to reality can be gained through socially constructed means of communication that are shared through language.[15] This research applies the narrative paradigm. Narratives are defined as interpretations of an individual’s experience that have contextual focus.[16] These narratives are guided by the affective lens in representing transcendent encounters and mobilisations. I conducted 70 in-depth interviews across churches in Delhi to understand the new digital culture that is driving minority community participation in the public sphere. The in-depth interview was chosen as the basic mode of inquiry because it can portray affective traces when the individual recounts narratives that consequently lead to their participation.

Analysis

Public Sphere and Participatory Action

 The public sphere carries the possibility of large congregations of crowds that provide visibility to certain groups and their issues. This idea of the public sphere as argued by Habermas is a consequence of the rise of democracy, which provides space for congregating and passing collective judgement on issues.[17] Visibility lies at the core of being public, which is unobstructed visibility.[18] To gain such visibility, protests and mobilisation have traditionally been used to represent the concerns and voices of the marginalised in society.

The history of protest and mobilisation has not prominently featured the Indian Christian community. During the struggle for Independence, Gandhi’s criticism of the Christian community was grounded in the effect of fragmentation it had on lower caste communities. This, according to Gandhi, “undermined unity and mobilisation among these depressed classes in the nationalist movement”.[19] However, small groups such as the Presbyterian mission schools in Punjab protested actively against the British government through demonstrations and strikes against the Rowlatt Bill of 1919.[20] This active political participation by the Presbyterian community was the exception, as they did not participate in the subsequent Satyagraha movement. In Lahore, the Presbyterian community is known to have sided with the British government as the British were seen as a Christian government that had protected the interests of the missionaries from the start.[21]

Nonetheless, the Christian missions were attributed with changing social status and allowing mobility among certain repressed groups in colonial times. The Nadar’ women, who were not allowed to cover their breasts, found support from the Christian missionaries who used the language of Christian modesty and womanly decency to uphold the Nadar’s protests.[22] Another instance of Christian intervention was through the Jesuits, who supported the low caste ‘Shanars’ in opposition to the high caste ‘Vellalars’, who wanted a barrier built in the Church to segregate them from the ‘Shanars’.[23] These are the only documented cases of Christian groups standing up for the underprivileged in the public sphere during Colonial rule.[24]

The post-Colonial phase has seen the influence of liberation theologists from Latin America. They influenced participation in the public sphere through the fish worker movement in Kerala and the Dalit Christian movement. This movement can be traced from 1977, when the Latin Catholic Fisherman’s Federation wrote a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Kerala, to 1993, when the Supreme Court announced the decision to ban monsoon-trawling operations.[25]

Delhi has also witnessed Christian movements in the public sphere. One such movement took place on 18th November 1995, when the Christian community congregated at Sacred Heart Cathedral to demonstrate against the biased treatment of Dalit Christians.[26] The protest was in the form of a prayer meeting, which was attended by Mother Teresa and a large number of Bishops and Priests who were protesting for the inclusion of Dalit Christians as Schedule Caste.[27] This protest was complemented by Christian Schools across the country, which remained closed for the day. September 26th 2008 saw another instance of public protests to show solidarity towards a Christian community that faced the brunt of communal violence in Orissa.[28] This seven-day protest and prayer meeting at Jantar Mantar was well represented by people of different faiths and political parties.[29]  However, these mobilisations have done little to ease the threats and anxieties felt by the minority community. The past two decades have been replete with narratives of growing violence against the Christian community. There has been a marked increase in instances of burning of Churches and Bibles, attacks on Priests, raping of Nuns, forcible reconversions to Hinduism, and aggressive anti-Christian propaganda by Hindutva groups.[30]

For any community facing atrocities, urban spaces have become the epicentre for democratic expression. The urban site draws attention to the cause and provides space—especially to minority groups—to become visible in the public sphere. Delhi—as the capital of India—has historically been an urban centre where the politics of nation state have been enacted. Due to its status as the capital of the nation, Delhi is represented as a site of imagination, desire and imaging. The public sphere of Delhi is an idea where hope for genuine democracy and social justice dwells alongside a space that shapes the potential future of the nation. This public sphere has rarely witnessed the participation of Christian communities at the sites of protest, where popular political deliberations often play themselves out. The public sphere in Delhi primarily encompasses spaces near the Parliament House, which is also close to major news agencies. Proximity to the site of protest gives the new agencies ease of access to issues they would like to cover. This space has seen people from across India converge to voice their grievances. This space saw the massive mobilisation of Christians on 2nd December 2014 and 5th February 2015 that  were made possible by the ‘Whatsapp’ application. When queried about the mobilization, the youth leader responded, “Whatsapp has made it easy for us to get people together, especially for protests, as it’s about our democratic right and people want to participate for such causes when they feel the Church is under attack”[31]. This mobilisation was a result of continued attacks on Churches in Delhi. The Christian community perceived these attacks to be orchestrated by Hindutva forces. India, in the last two decades, has witnessed the electorally beneficial strategy of communal violence and polarisation on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The advocates of Hindutva harbour differences against three groups. They perceive Christians, Muslims and Communists groups as a subversion of national integration as these groups are loyal to foreign forces (Rome, Mecca and Moscow).[32] Under the current Government, there has been growing spate of attacks against anything Christian as it symbolizes a different culture and ideology from that of Hindutva. With BJP—a strong Hindutva proponent assuming governing control—most communal tensions are seen to be a result of distinct interests and pursuing of divergent aims.

The Christian mobilisation on 5th February received countrywide mainstream media coverage. The mobilization was a consequence of growing instances of violence against the Christian community in the three months prior to 5th February 2015. In these three months, there were 45 documented incidents of violence against the Christian community, where the perpetrators were identified as members of Hindutva groups.[33]

The large-scale media coverage of these protests was a consequence of the government forcefully overthrowing protestors from the public sphere. The use of brutal force by the police drew media criticism and attention to the plight of the Christian community. The police were criticised for using violence on elderly people, priests, and nuns on the site of protest. The police detained 350 people at the site.[34] The violence against the Christian community also made visible Hindutva’s privileged impunity under the current government. This feeling of impunity is primarily due to police bias and unwillingness to adequately investigate and arrest the perpetrators of communal violence.[35] This inaction was evident once again with the crackdown on Christian protesters.

On one hand, the growing prevalence of smartphones in Churches enabled quick circulation of instances of violence against the community. On the other hand, it led to more anxiety and fear within the community. This two-fold consequence is a by-product of the growing access to information related to the growing atrocities faced by the community. However, there is also evidence of direct participatory action by the community in the face of such adversity. Individuals have taken to social media to express their discord as members of the Christian community who have been denied their fundamental rights. These digital participatory measures have also faced backlash from supporters of Hindutva in social media pages. Therefore, the public sphere is a mixed reality of digital and physical suppression of voices from the Christian community.

 Minority and Digital Participatory Action

 The digital conceptions of self are manufactured with a sense of immediacy, proximity and urgency. This digital conception of self is shaping the imagination of the urban minority youth. The digital was seen by Christian youth as a promise of individual freedom, a kernel for seeking social justice and a space for peaceful democratic participation.

However, WhatsApp inspired mobilisation and the subsequent digital harassment against the community has exposed the limitations of the digital promise. The standard of nationalism and ownership of public space is disproportionally held by the majoritarian religious body. The majority controls the mainstream media and has greater representation as well as greater cultural control of the public sphere. The attempts by Christian minority communities to gain visibility in the public space has come at the cost of facing more instances of violence by the state in order to gain visibility from mainstream media. The Churches felt this lack of representation in the mainstream and turned to digital media spaces such as Facebook to gain visibility for their grievances. For instance, one of the respondents stated,

Recently, when church attacks happened, it was WhatsApp that helped us. The media did not show anything. So, the next day, when there was a protest, people came because of WhatsApp, which is why there were many people to support us. The use of Facebook is mostly for publicising the church and to present it in a good light. We have recently used Facebook to draw attention to the incident of Church burning and the violence we face as Christians etc. We do a lot of events in church, so we use it primarily for publicity.[36]

The scope of publicity through Facebook has seen limited mutual dialogue among religious communities. However, according to a Catholic priest, for the Christian community as a whole, the Facebook space has educated people and brought about support for their minority existence. He stated,

Like when we had Churches burnt in Dilshad garden, I had addressed the people for a public gathering and that was through Facebook and that inspired people to join the protest group next day. So through constructive criticism and planning, the public gathering took place and it all happened on social media. On 1st December, after the Dilshad Garden Church was burnt down we had a wonderful agitation in Delhi just by the involvement of people through social networking before the public gathering on 2nd December. Likewise, on 5th of February, Whatsapp helped us in getting people together.[37]

The possibility of organising dissent quickly around common feelings of victimhood made it simpler to gather people for collective action with the aid of social media. Social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook aided authority figures of the Church to make their networks understand the struggles of the Christian minority. It also provides a space for narratives of hope to fight against the injustices and take a united political stand in the public sphere. While discussing the role of the digital, another Priest highlighted how sometimes minority communities trust their WhatsApp more than mainstream media. They feel that mainstream media has ignored their plight. Therefore, when there is a call to action on WhatsApp, people respond in large numbers. WhatsApp has a trust factor and these mobilisations are a testament to this reality.

When it came to attacks and protests, we used only WhatsApp. People turned out in 3,000s and 4,000s and just one day before. Like the church was burnt in Dilshad Garden on 1st and the protest was on 2nd and due to WhatsApp we had a huge turnout.[38]

Thus, the possibility of mobilising in the public sphere and asking for equality under the law is the reality of social media empowerment within the Christian community in Delhi.

However, members of the Christian minority that have taken to social media to condemn the continuation of violence and harassment at the hand of extremist organisations are facing threats to their lives and that of their loved ones. One of the church leaders explains his experience of voicing his opinion online against church attacks.

When I posted about a famous Malayalam author, I get 1,000 likes, but when I post on the current government and its draconian ruling with criticism, I receive just six likes. However, I do get people calling me and telling me how great an article it was. Then my question is, “why did you not like it on Facebook, let alone comment?” This is because I have been identified by the Hindutva forces as someone who spews venom about Hindus and forcefully converts people. Abuses and violent acts towards me I can tolerate but when they go after my daughter, my wife, my friend who is the head of the parish, even his wife and so on who are closely related to me, I am terrified and they all are constantly threatened because of this. Moreover even liking my comments puts people on the blacklist of Hindutva.[39]

This visibility in the digital public sphere is also disempowering as it provides access to some majoritarian force to repress an individual digitally. The mobilisation led to leaders of the Christian community meeting the Home minister of India. The picture that was tweeted by the Home minister received numerous comments targeting the same Informant who was made visible in the interview picture shared (Fig 1.1, Fig 1.2, Fig 1.3).

1
Fig.1
2
Fig. 2
3
Fig. 3

These images of comments show the ease of recognition that certain Christian figures enjoy in the digital sphere. Majoritarian supporters of Hindutva are constantly silencing the voices of the minority in social media. This is done through the sheer number of comments and content which makes the digital media content skewed towards their ideology. Effectively, the overbearing narrative of the tech-empowered, hate-mongering Hindutva supporter supersedes the right of the Christian minority to be represented with dignity and equality. These members of the Christian community feel vilified and harassed online when they present their opinions digitally. A growing culture of group defamation that minority communities face in their digital encounters.

This has led to the proliferation of WhatsApp as the dominant social media tool as it is embedded in closed groups and inter-personal conversations. All the Christian communities in Delhi are active and expressing themselves on the WhatsApp network instead of Facebook and Twitter. This is an escapist approach in the digital public sphere as growing narratives of prejudices and discrimination online are disempowering the minority.

Nonetheless, there is also a positive take on the growing oppressive environment. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a long tradition of intervening in the political domain, India has no such tradition. This is because there is no consensual centralised Christian authority that could claim to speak on behalf of the entire Christian population. This perceived lack of unity between the Christian groups has seen leadership positively approach the new instances of violence.

I think so far—whatever has happened—I am damn happy it has happened. I think it is a call from above. We need to wake up, we need to get united, we need to realise what we are Christians and forget the segregations. There is no way that this government can put us down or shut us down. Now with social media we are more connected, therefore it is easier for us to come together as a united community. Well, there is a greater majority of people who are not too positive and they probably feel threatened. But I think they need to be more optimistic and I think there is enough strength in our belief to not just carry us forward, to make us sail forward and grow.[40]

The digital divide in urban spaces is closing down and the Christian community can be optimistic and realistic about the progress it can achieve as a united community. There is recognition of growing fear and anxiety in the community with the increased instances of violence. However, social media is being understood as a dialogical tool that can bring together the dispersed community for political participation.

The religious digital space and its communities are recognising that through inhabitation of the machines, humans come to life. There is a religious element of perpetual contact, which is enabled by smartphones as a medium of communication. These mediums of communication—when affectively induced—begin to approximate a ‘pure communication’ where one mind is shared and connected with others in their digital community.[41] The belief is to generate this oneness in the Christian community so that they can stand up together as a political force against oppressive regimes in power. The mobilisation on the 5th February is attributed to this connection of mind and awareness through digital devices about the Christian community as a whole coming under attack.

This connection of mind, according to Dong-Hoo Lee, is a consequence of ‘hyper-connection’ and ‘hyper-awareness’ of others in the digital religious community.[42] This hyper-existence with digital-religious logic affectively alters an individual’s engagement in the virtual. The smartphone engages the sensorimotor in a continuous manner, such as the engagement brought about by watching breaking news about violence against the Christian community. The installation of news channel apps is prevalent in the church communities; therefore, they are always connected to media narratives regarding atrocities committed by extremist groups.

This study also showed how narratives of church attacks and persecution led to an increased number of prayer requests across churches in Delhi. On average, the leaderships of the Churches were part of eight groups. Therefore, they were always able to narrate stories of persecution in Church meetings and share narratives of persecution on WhatsApp groups. Such narratives of being persecuted touches, moves and mobilises individuals in the digitally lived religion.

As shown above, these narratives of being persecuted also brought forth physical mobilisation in the networks of the larger community. The hyper-existence makes us affected by the content that we constantly turn to on our phones. The digital materiality interplays with our feelings and desires to generate bodily alterations to take us into participatory action in our technologically embodied life.

Conclusion

 This study shows how the Christian communities in Delhi have been increasingly receiving forwarded messages in their WhatsApp groups that are more cautionary in nature. As congregation members explained, “A year back it was more positive but now it’s more fearful. It’s because of political reason”.[43]

This is due to the proliferation of smartphone and promulgated content that alarms the minority community. The WhatsApp influx has content circulating of the Hindutva war cry ‘Pehle Kasi, Phir Isai’ (first the butchers (Muslims), then the Christians). The sharing of such discourse of hatred towards the community has increased the levels of anxiety in the community. The digital space is also having a detrimental impact on the communities’ ability to express itself in the public sphere. This phenomenon is visible on Facebook and Twitter as they are broadcasting media. Simultaneously, closed group options of Facebook and WhatsApp have empowered minority groups to assemble and demand their constitutional rights. The digital public sphere is embedded with disempowering traits for the minority groups. However, the digital in the form of closed groups has worked to generate courage and support to stand up against the atrocities faced by the Christian community.

The Digital India initiative under Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to protect digital minorities. The Magna Carta for Digital India is currently engaging with issues of net neutrality, quality of service, security and privacy. However, affording dignity and equality in terms of digital participation to minority groups is a constitutional mandate of which the current government has fallen short.

This systematic exclusion in the public sphere of minority groups will breed resentment. Therefore, there is a need to provide space for the minorities in a co-existing public sphere. Co-existence is accompanied by adoption, and this adoption is dependent on mutual dialogue that premises the understanding of another’s vocabulary. Therefore, it is imperative to allow minorities to voice themselves and their concerns in the digital and physical public spaces.

 

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Notes

[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, (New York: Basic Books) (2011), p. 2.

[2] When speaking of ‘the digital’, I am using it as an adjective because in its usage one can never consider it as exclusively digital. Here the experience of the digital is mediated through an individual’s physical expression through touching the screen, looking at the content displayed, and so on. The reason behind using the digital as digital space is that the experience of reality in this technical age is also a part of the metaspace. This article is dealing with this metaspace. Hence, ‘digital’ must be read as the digital space.

[3] FICCI-KPMG, p. 99.

[4] Government of India, The Constitution of India: Part III Fundamental Rights, https://india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf, date accessed 26 January 2016.

[5] Constitution Society, Fundamental Rights,

 http://www.constitution.org/cons/india/p03025.html date accessed on 1 April, 2016.

[6]Vikas Pathak, Delhi Church Attacks: Reaction was Motivated says RSS Forum, The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-church-attacks-reaction-was-motivated-says-rss-forum/article7874531.ece date accessed  25 March 2016.

[7]Sherry Turkle, The second self: Computers and the human spirit, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2005), p. 25.

[8] Mark Poster, The second media age, (Cambridge: Blackwell) (1995), p. 30.

[9] IIana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) (2010), p. 3.

[10] Andreas Hepp, Cultures of mediatization, Translated by Keith Tribe, (Cambridge: Polity) (2013), p. 71.

[11] James Miller, p. 213.

[12] Steve Taylor, p. 25.

[13] James Miller, p. 217.

[14] Ingrid Richardson, “Touching the screen: A phenomenology of mobile gaming and the iPhone.” in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 135.

[15] Michael D. Myers, Qualitative Research in Business & Management, (London: Sage) (2009), p. 80.

[16] Anne Jo Ollerenshaw, John W. Creswell, “Narrative Research: A Comparison of Two Restorying Data Analysis Approaches”, Qualitative Inquiry 8:3: (2002), p. 330; Cazarniawska Barbara, Narratives in Social Science Research, (London: Sage) (2004), p. 8.

[17] Jürgen Habermas [1962], “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society,” Translated by  Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, (Cambridge: Polity) (1989), p. 26.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, p. 4.

[19] Gunnel Cederöf, “Anticipating Independent India: The Idea of the Lutheran Christian Nation and Indian Nationalism”, in India and the Indianness of Christianity: Essays on Understanding- Historical, Theological, and Bibliographical in Honour of  Robert Eric Frykenberg, ed. Richard Fox Young (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) (2009), p. 211.

[20] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[21] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[22] Rowena Robinson, Christians of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications) (2013), p. 90.

[23] Rowena Robinson, p. 77.

[24] Rowena Robinson, p. 173.

[25] Rohan D. Mathews, Fish workers Movement in Kerela, India. Dialogues, proposals, stories for global citizenship, http://base.d-p-h.info/en/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8852.html date accessed 16 March 2016.

[26] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[27] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[28] Augustine Kanjamalai, The Future of Chrisitan Mission in India: Towards a New Paradigm For the Third Millennium, (New Delhi: Pickwick Publications) (2014), p. 108.

[29] Augustine Kanjamalai.

[30] Augustine Kanjamalai, p. 114.

[31] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 4, New Delhi. October 8, 2015.

[32]Arun Barua, Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity, (New York: Routledge) (2015), p. 15.

[33] Arun Barua.

[34] Antonio Anup Gonsalves, For these Christians in India, peaceful protests led to jail time. Catholic News Agency http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/for-these-christians-in-india-peaceful-protests-led-to-jail-time-33566/ date accessed 20 March 2016.

[35] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf date accessed March 10, 2016.

[36] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 26, New Delhi. October 26, 2015.

[37] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 11, New Delhi. September 15, 2015.

[38] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 12, New Delhi. September 10, 2015.

[39] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 13, New Delhi. September 12, 2015.

[40] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 28, 2015.

[41] James E. Katz, Mark A. Aakhus, “Conclusion: Making meaning of mobiles – A theory of apparatgeist”, in Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance, ed. James Katz and Mark Aakhus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2002), pp. 307–312.

[42]Dong-Hoo Lee, “In bed with the iPhone: The iPhone and hypersociality in Korea”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 68.

[43] Protestant Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 4, 2015.

 

Benson Rajan is a communications doctoral scholar from MICA. He has completed his Masters in Media Governance and Bachelors in Sociology from Jamia Milia Islamia University and Delhi University respectively.

After completing his Masters in Media Governance he continued his advocacy for media literacy and passion for teaching critical media studies. His research focuses on studying the relationship between technology, society and religion. He had also worked towards directing the documentary Internet Privacy: China sponsored state Hacking of Indian Computers built on the reports Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network and Shadows in the Cloud: Investigating Cyber Espionage 2.0. He has published his works on faith memes analyzing authority as reflected in the social media of churches in New Delhi and Affective Use of Smartphones. For the last four years he has been exploring Digital Religion and affective communication in India.

He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies in Christ University, Bangalore, India.

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 37-49

Shadow W.J. Armfield

Northern Arizona University

Dawn M. Armfield

Minnesota State University, Mankato

Laura O. Franklin

Wayne State College

 

 

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

 

Abstract

The implementation of social media environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery, and shaming in online spaces is often different from that in face-to-face environments. Those who shame can hide behind anonymity or create images that are not associated with any one person, but that target a specific person or group of people. This research investigates ways in which shaming is used in social media and develops an argument for why and how it must be addressed within the learning environment. Teachers and students, working collaboratively, can create learning environments, including face-to-face and online interactions that involve positive digital citizenship, quality learning, and increasingly advanced communication skills.

Key words: memes, digital citizenship, online communication, popular media

 

Introduction

In 1976 Richard Dawkins[1] coined the term ‘meme’ to describe how certain ideas spread to become part of a common belief structure. He argued that whether the idea is true or not, it often comes to be seen as valid. While the idea of the meme was not meant for the digital social networking age, it has been co-opted and used to combine short ideas with imagery. Dawkins[2] sees this as a valid use because “the meaning is not that far away from the original”. Social networking sites (SNS) are not only used for personal communications, but also for school activities in which individuals use language and imagery for communication. While the majority of posts are often innocuous, some can be hurtful and damaging, even visually depicting hateful and violent acts[3]. Such posts break down the core purpose of SNS, which is to spread engagement, connectedness, and social development.

When scanning social media feeds, readers will be hard-pressed not to find posts, memes, and videos degrading specific demographics and communities. From images of two women wearing t-shirts with “This is what a Feminist Looks like”, which has text below the image stating “Feminist: When no guy wants to touch you”, to imperatives like “The smell of cigarettes and shitty cologne, come out Persians we know you are here”, social media is used to shame ‘others’ from a wide swath of global culture. The constant flow of humiliating and potentially violent information presented on sites with quick reposts and little analysis, encouraging ‘likes’, ‘favourites’, or other positive reinforcements makes such posts appear innocuous. The simple act of posting and reposting declarations of inequity and dominance has reinvigorated the role of shaming in public environments.

While language has often been used to devalue and disempower others, the implementation of SNS environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery. Bitch, faggot, retard (including fucktard and other variations), and other defamatory monikers are used not only to shame the individuals to whom the language is aimed, but also to degrade the populations the words are meant to represent. By comparing someone to another group with a negative connotation, composers of information are implicitly stating that the groups to whom the individual is compared are worth less than the composer is and, as an extension, the general population[4]. The stigma of marginalization often leads to disengaging from the medium and decreasing the engagement, connectedness, and social development of those marginalized. Technologies, as dis-emancipatory engines, can often increase the scope and effect of this marginalization and shackle the ‘others’ to the negative connotations for as long as the technologies retain data.

SNS Inquiry and Methods

This research began as a study in shaming targeted at children with disabilities in online spaces. However, as the study progressed, the inclusion of different demographics and self-shaming—because of its impact within the social media platforms for the original poster and the audiences who read the posts—became apparent. The method of data collection for this research was qualitative in nature, drawing from memes posted on SNS by reviewing feeds in various SNS. The 124 examples of visual shaming in memes were collected over the course of one year, from 2014-2015, from various social media and online organizations including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Secret app, the YikYak app, Whisper, Buzzfeed, and others. Samples were selected by reviewing memes that focused on marginalized demographics, such as memes that used women, people with disabilities, or sexual orientation as their object of ridicule. The examples were collected by two researchers, one in Arizona, the other in Maryland. For location specific apps, like Secret, YikYak, and Whisper, samples were collected while in various locations, especially near college and university campuses, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, to determine if location was a mitigating factor in shaming. The research revealed that location did not have an impact on the types of shaming or the amounts of shaming that occurred, but was focused more on demographic specificity. For instance, African Americans were often targeted in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US while they were not targeted elsewhere. The researchers then used content analysis of the text and images, through a social semiotic lens, to determine how the content focused on marginalized peoples and the ‘othering’ of those individuals. As the researchers approached the research with predefined ideas about the effects and creation of the communication, it was determined that the social semiotic approach would allow a better way of assessing how the images create marginalization and othering, rather than the subconscious biased approach of the researchers. The social semiotic approach is, as Jewitt and Oyama state, “a description of semiotic resources, what can be said and done with images, and how the things people say and do with images can be interpreted”[5].

The researchers used content analysis to develop understandings of the visual data collected. Margolis and Pauwels suggest that in visual research content analysis is “a taxonomic and counting strategy for determining the relative frequency of certain representations within groups of images”[6]. Content analysis is “based on a number of rules and procedures that must be rigorously followed for the analysis of images or texts to be reliable”[7]. The resultant themes from the content analysis are then used to answer the questions below that the researchers posed to determine the validity of the research being conducted:

  1. Are memes being used to shame?
  2. How are memes being used to shame?
  3. How do technologies compound shame?
  4. How can we—as researchers and teachers—change the ways memes and other online communications are used to decrease shaming in online spaces?

In order to answer these questions, understanding social media, shaming, and memes had to be explored, as did determining a method for working with learners to combat shaming and develop SNS environments free from marginalization.

Social Media and Homogeneity

Social media has revolutionized the ways we can communicate with one another. From simple text-oriented messages through long-form writing to visual communication, the advent of social media has changed the ways we share and interact. Not only has the shape of the communication changed, but also the speed of that communication has changed. For instance, in 2004, when Janet Jackson entertained during the half-time of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Facebook had yet to launch (it launched 3 days later), and very few SNS as we know them today existed (discussions, listservs, portals, forums, etc., did, but did not have the wide reach and immediate impact of today’s SNS). In the next few hours or days, the event permeated media on American television, radio, and newspapers, and most of the international public did not hear about it for at least a day or more. Today, however, events and conversation about events travel instantaneously. In 2012, for instance, US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney commented during a televised (and shared online) debate about “binders full of women”. While he was still discussing the topic, Twitter exploded with comments and a hashtag (#bindersfullofwomen) and less than a day later a Tumblr page was sharing memes about the topic ridiculing and critiquing Romney for his comment. Because of SNS, the immediacy of critiques and shaming occurs much more quickly without much time for processing or assessing the validity of claims or critiques. Not only does it occur more quickly, but because of the homogeneity of most users’ feeds, many social media users make an assumption that their audience is just like them and will consequently, laugh, joke, or ridicule just as they would. As Kane et al. writes

If people are limited to establishing similar formal connections with diverse sets of others including trusted confidants, casual acquaintances, and family members in their social networks, the platform homogenizes all these relational connections as being equivalent (e.g., friends, contacts).[8]

Indeed, technologies such as SNS environments often encourage homogenized thinking and have been created to increase levels of connectedness and belonging, the sort of space Eli Pariser[9] called a ‘filter bubble’. He argues, “news-filtering algorithms narrow what we know, surrounding us in information that tends to support what we already believe”[10]. However, this goes beyond algorithms and works within all social structures and—because of that—the most salient theory to address this concept of mediated society is habitus. Habitus addresses the level at which the ways we classify the world in social capital are generated by structural features of that same social world. While Pierre Bourdieu was not speaking to the interactions within media, nor social media at all, his explanations of the ways we interact because of the environmental structural features is an important way to discuss our communicative processes in social media, and to define the reasons shaming occurs so frequently in social media communications. As Bourdieu writes

…the point of view is a perspective, a partial subjective vision (subjectivist moment); but it is at the same time a view, a perspective, taken from a point, from a determinate position in an objective social space (objectivist moment).[11]

Thus, in social media, dis-emancipatory communication is subjected to the perspective that is already defined by the system and which, once disseminated, defines the space in which the communication takes place and how that communication is defined, and speaks to the ways that social media platforms naturally create space for the designation of ‘other’. Being part of an ‘out-group’—those who are different from the perceived norms—requires a sense of otherness, being other than ordinary. Foucault explains the term ‘othering’ as how social groups tend to define themselves through the cultural boundaries of inclusion and exclusion[12]. This does not mean that we have no free will over what we post, but that SNS platforms create space for the designation of ‘other’ because of the ways they encourage engagement. The ways people communicate in social media and how some of these communication practices lead to the marginalization of individuals and groups is because of the ways SNS encourage users to share and create for automatic feedback.

Marginalization, which comes from ‘othering’ and stigmas, which Goffman explains as an individual who does not measure up to the normative expectations and righteously presented demands set by society, is usually discussed with a political stance on inequalities[13]. It attempts to fractionalize the different groups to which an individual may belong and then deconstruct them. The process of fracturing and deconstructing focuses on descriptive traits of individuals and this focus can “obscure the deep-seated power relations that help to produce marginalized subjects”[14]. Therefore, when someone is ‘othered’ and described as wrong or outside what is allowed, power is shifted and the individual is then marginalized. Hindman continues to explain that these individuals within marginalized groups can also be silenced or have their identity overlooked[15].

Goffman also describes how a shameful gap forms between virtual and actual social identity (not to be confused with a gap between online and offline identity, but as a constructed versus actual social identity) for those individuals whose stigma is fully visible because the norms that define the ordinary are very obviously not met[16]. The continual interaction of virtual and actual social identities are like a play whose main character is always in flux, always changing, and not always fitting into the norm or the stigmatized. However, the recognition that we each have this ability to play the other side is not typical knowledge or awareness for the majority of individuals. If there is awareness, there also exists the unwillingness to accept that my identity could just as easily be shaped by or fit into other. Stigma management is a process that occurs wherever societal norms are set. This type of management of what is construed as ordinary and what is ‘other’ happens in SNS. The concepts of power that are held by the group that is presenting and shaping the ordinary have far-reaching markets. YouTubers have followers that allow them power to dictate and perpetuate what they choose to present as part of the ordinary ‘in’ group. Through this presentation of ordinary, a sense of belonging is created for the in-group that segregates the ‘other’. ‘Other’ becomes the out-group, the target, the bullied, or the shamed. The hand-in-hand character of ‘other’ and ordinary can be observed through their symbiotic existence.

Shaming in Popular Media

Shaming in media tends to occur in ways or places that make another—often the protagonist—character seem more likeable, sympathetic, or understandable. For instance, in “Of Mice and Men”, in both the literature and film versions, George is seen as the character who must endure the actions of Lennie, his companion, even as he looks out for him and advocates for him. He does this all while shaming him, calling him a “crazy bastard,” “poor bastard,” or “crazy fool”. Indeed, Steinbeck exacerbates this view of Lennie by labelling Lennie as wild at the same time he addresses Lennie as an innocent who has a whimpering cry[17].

Shaming occurs in all types of media, especially pop culture media. In a popular song from 2004, the word ‘retarded’ is used to indicate a simplistic view of the singer’s emotions:

Oh, therapy, can you please fill the void?

Am I retarded or am I just overjoyed? [18]

This use of language is indicative of the ways that shaming occurs not only of others, but of the self, indicated in the title of the album from which this song originates, American Idiot, inflating the concept of self-shaming and/or ridiculing within this piece. In fact, popular music is often used to ridicule, shame, marginalize, or stigmatize others, but to also call out that shaming. In 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, in their song “Same Love”, sing

Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board,
A word routed in hate, yet our genre still ignores it[19]

As the duo contend, language is often used in musical genres to promote hate and shaming without any regard to the actual influences of the concepts behind the words or of the words themselves.

The influence of words and conceptualization of the words is also explored in the film “Tropic Thunder”. Communicating the idea of when it is ok for an actor to “go full retard” is a segment performed by Robert Downey Jr.’s character (while his character is also in blackface, which is a double commentary on concepts of shaming in popular media). Downey’s character discusses the different performances of retarded, and what is or is not acceptable. Throughout this discussion the ‘other’ is defined at varying levels: full retard (Sean Penn’s portrayal in “I Am Sam”), slow and maybe retarded (Tom Hank’s in “Forrest Gump”), and appearing retarded, but not (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”). Dumb, moronic, and imbecilic are terms set up as boundaries between these levels within this movie. The resulting commentary is that one can “never go full retard” or will go home empty-handed (from the Oscars), resulting in being less than the norm. This language is so fleshed out and defined that it attempts to encompass an entire population of individuals.

While these may seem rather banal and help to create an ethos about the characters and/or artists, when combined with the onslaught of this type of communication and the proliferation of media such as ‘shock jocks’ and political pundits who use shaming as a means of communication, much of society begins to see shaming as something that is the norm. Increasingly, we not only see or hear about shaming in popular media, but also see it in the places we congregate online.

Dis-emancipatory Technologies

In the early years of online activities, much emphasis was placed on the democratization of online communications. The online world was thought to be a space in which the oppressed and marginalized would have an equal voice because of the ability to post without preconceived notions of who anyone was. However, as more users become engaged in online communications, the opposite has shown to be true and online communications have often been much more marginalizing than face-to-face situations. The data collected for this research supports this reasoning. The use of SNS environments has not only allowed users to post memes that would shame others, but to do so without insight or analysis of what they are posting and how it affects others. SNS have created a space for speed and reach of shaming that was limited prior to the development of the technologies. Analysis of the posts shows that there is little oversight or questioning of posts as they occur and, more often, an acquiescence by audiences’ uses of ‘like’, ‘favourite’, or other ways of acceptance. For instance, in a posting of a meme with an image of the “Mad Men” character Don Draper laughing with a drink in his hand; the overlaying text is “told girlfriend that mom is deaf so speak loud and slow / told mom that girlfriend is retarded”. No comments were made on the post, but six people, at the time of the capture, had ‘liked’ the post. The lack of critique or thoughtful engagement in the use of two disabilities (deafness and cognitive delay) is common throughout the use of shaming memes in SNS.

In addition, analysis of the data indicates that the status of the poster (anonymous or otherwise) does not have an impact on the dissemination of visual artefacts that use shaming language. For instance, SNS users on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, where names, whether official or nonofficial, are connected to accounts, materials using shaming language is posted to those sites just as often as those in anonymous apps like Secret, Whisper, and YikYak. The types of shaming did not change. For example, one Facebook user, known by one of the researchers, posted an image with the words “Apple goes full retard”, while on Whisper, one user posted an image with the words “Taco Bell, you are the most retarded restaurant even to exists [sic]”. The use of the word ‘retard’ in these two instances is used to shame the companies for their actions and/or presence, equating the companies to those with cognitive disabilities, a marginalized group.

Memes in online spaces, images with words that are shared widely in SNS, have contributed to the dis-emancipatory element of SNS technologies. Not only do they shame those they are directed at, but shame those they use to create an ‘other’ environment. Instead of having a more open and freeing environment, online spaces have become more restrictive in some ways because of the silencing of those who are marginalized and further silencing of those who are being equated with the already marginalized.

Digital Global Citizenship

While we have determined that the act of being anonymous versus non-anonymous does not affect the outcomes of  posts, the ways that social media users regard social media as private or public may have some influence on what is shared. For instance, one social media user was clearly thinking about her audience on Facebook when she posted “So, based on recent photos of myself, my best Halloween costume option is Jabba the Hutt”. Not only was there the expectation that her audience would sympathize, but that they would lend support to her plight, as she shamed herself and compared herself to a very large fantastical character from a movie. She did not post the same message on Twitter, where her tweets would be public (her Twitter account is public). What this means to the researchers is that she has a clear understanding of what is public and private, even as she engages in self-shaming practices.

However, ‘others’, who may not be familiar with understanding the differences between social media audiences and the thresholds of private and public discourse, may post information that would create barriers to discussion and/or disagreement. For instance, one user posted an image of the actor Sam Elliott with the following text: “Why the hell should I push one for English? When you’re just going to transfer me to someone that don’t know how to speak it… [sic]”. This user seems to have assumed that her audience would be amenable to this sentiment, that they would not notice the obvious grammatical issues in the text, and that they would naturally associate the dialectical shift with the characters, western cowboy-types, that Elliott often plays. In addition, the user has made a definitive statement about a marginalized demographic: those who do not speak English within the United States that would not have a voice in the post unless they were willing to out themselves as ‘others’. She may not even realize that her audience, especially in globally available venues like Facebook and Twitter, will have people from that marginalized group.

Because some online users may not be aware of the subtle shifts in audience, private/public discussions, and the ramifications of the speed and reach of SNS (global audiences who can view a posting within seconds of being posted), educators have a responsibility to address social media and the marginalization that occurs within it with a focus on digital global citizenship. Instructors must educate more conscientious citizens who promote positive interactions and eschew the negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming. SNS plays a large part in students’ lives and instructors must be acutely aware of the lives their students live outside of the learning environment. A social justice approach to education suggests that instructors bring in issues their students are facing and address them directly. Freire argues that for the greatest impact on learning, individuals must be prepared to “perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”[20]. Teaching about digital global citizenship and learners’ roles within global communities will help them analyse situations in SNS more quickly and assess the appropriateness of posts and reposts. Rather than reposting, the lessons learned through a social justice or digital global citizenship lens will help students understand the ramifications of posts that are created to shame.

To address issues of othering, the learning environment must be created with a vision of citizenship that bolsters individual rights and makes apparent the responsibility of securing a common good[21] with a view to how students fit within a global community. The focus on social justice requires a renewed examination of the role technology plays in the learner’s life and her connection with others outside of her immediate locality. Because technology is not neutral, and is, in this case, more dis-emancipatory, it must be dissected to understand better why and how it is being used and who is affected by that use. Technology often fails to meet the standards of social justice due to lack of equity in participation, empowerment of individuals and groups, and the continuation of oppression and unequal treatment[22].

The inclusion of SNS in the learning environment (and beyond) has implications that must be addressed in the curriculum. Educators must work with students to determine the best practices for communicating and collaborating with others, especially when one understands the global nature of digital communications. Ribble[23] outlines nine themes of digital citizenship that should be taught within three overarching topics: Respect, Educate and Protect. The nine themes include digital access, digital commerce, digital communication, digital literacy, digital etiquette, digital Law, digital rights & responsibilities, digital health & wellness, and digital security. However, it is important to consider how these themes can be expanded to include the notion of global digital citizenship as an important curriculum that supports individuals in becoming more globally aware, having understandings of cultural differences when engaging and collaborating with others via digital communication tools. The chasm created by online communications can limit understandings of connectedness and requires that individuals know how these interactions have the same consequences (if not greater) as those in their immediate circles.

Conclusions

In order to create more emancipatory environments, there is a need to create spaces to understand how SNS users are taught to navigate complex social situations in social media platforms, how to engage with others, and how to promote positive reinforcement for others to interact in the global communities SNS provide. Working with learners, educators, developers, and thought leaders to work together to create more socially acceptable welcoming spaces will encourage connections with those outside of the composer’s localized community.

While the infrastructure of social media is naturally conducive to creating communities of like-minded interactions, composers in online spaces should determine how to navigate successfully the systems in order to develop positive interactions that neither shame nor ‘other’ those who are not a part of their immediate online communities. Communicating something that shames or has adverse effects on others is not restricted to an immediate audience in today’s hyper-connected world, but can live on long after the original posting in a global context. In order to not only understand the inherent problems with negative compositions, individuals need to understand what it means to be a part of a community in which they may not know everyone their communications will reach, how to navigate that successfully, and how to create positive spaces for anyone. The world is no longer a huge space in which people 5,000 miles away cannot hear your voice or see your actions. We should learn to be conscientious citizens promoting positive interactions and eschew negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming.

References

Armstrong Billie Joe, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987).

Bourdieu Pierre, The Logic of Practice. (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1990).

Buckingham David, Martínez-Rodríguez Juan Bautista, “Interactive youth: new citizenship between social networks and school settings,” Comunicar 20:40 (2013).

Dawkins Richard, The selfish gene 30th Anniversary Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2006).

Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

Freire Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000).

Goffman Erving, Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books) (1968).

Goffman Erving, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963).

Haggerty Ben, Lewis Ryan, Lambert Mary, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

Hindman Matthew Dean, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011).

Hollandsworth Randy, Dowdy Lena, Donovan Judy, “Digital citizenship in K-12: It takes a village,” TechTrends 55:4 (2011).

Hytten Kathy, Bettez Silvia C., “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

Jewitt Carey, Oyama Rumiko, “Visual meaning: A social semiotic approach,” in Handbook of visual analysis, ed. Theo Van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt, (New York: Sage) (2001).

Johanson-Sebera Brandy, Wilkins Julia, “The Uses and Implications of the Term “Retarded” on YouTube,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 6:4 (2014).

Kane Gerald C., Alavi Maryam, Labianca Giuseppe Joe, Borgatti Steve, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012).

Margolis Eric, Rowe Jeremy, “Methodological Approaches to Disclosing Historic Photographs,” in The Sage handbook of visual research methods, ed. Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, (Los Angeles: Sage) (2011).

Pariser Eli, The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. (New York: Penguin) (2011).

Pariser Eli, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.efly7enlo, date accessed 4 July 2016.

Ribble Mike, “Nine Elements,”

http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/Nine_Elements.html, date accessed 15 February 2016.

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Notes

[1] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene 30th Anniversary Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2006), p. 199.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme,’”

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes, date accessed 28 July, 2016.

[3] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011); Brandy Johanson-Sebera, Julia Wilkins, “The Uses and Implications of the Term “Retarded” on YouTube,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 6:4 (2014).

[4] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963); Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

[5] Carey Jewitt, Rumiko Oyama, “Visual meaning: A social semiotic approach,” in Handbook of visual analysis, ed. Theo Van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt, (New York: Sage) (2001), p. 134.

[6] Eric Margolis, Jeremy Rowe, “Methodological Approaches to Disclosing Historic Photographs,” in The Sage handbook of visual research methods, ed. Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, (Los Angeles: Sage) (2011), p. 348.

[7] Gillian Rose, Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. (Los Angeles: Sage) (2012), p. 81.

[8] Gerald C. Kane, Maryam Alavi, Giuseppe Joe Labianca, Steve Borgatti, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012), p. 6.

[9] Eli Pariser, The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. (New York: Penguin) (2011).

[10] Eli Pariser, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.w42q9k6dg, date accessed 4 July 2016.

[11] Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987), p. 13.

[12] Michel Foucault.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011), p. 191.

[15] Matthew Dean Hindman, p. 191.

[16] Erving Goffman.

[17] John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, (New York: Penguin) (1994).

[18] Billie Joe Armstrong, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

[19] Ben Haggerty, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

[20] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000), p. 35.

[21] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

[22] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, (2011).

[23] Mike Ribble, “Nine Elements,” http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/Nine_Elements.html, date accessed 15 February 2016.

Dr. Shadow W. J. Armfield is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Northern Arizona University.  His teaching includes technology integration in K-12 environments and graduate research for doctoral students. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include technology integration in K-12 environments, technology integration in teacher preparation programs, and online collaborative learning environments. Recent publication include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and three chapters in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include articles on technology integration in teaching methods courses and a case study on short term language and cultural immersion programs.

Dr. Dawn M. Armfield is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she teaches Technical Communication, Usability, and Research and Theory in Technical Communication. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include digital composition, online collaborations, and educational technologies. Her most recent publications include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and a chapter in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include a monograph on remediation and a co-authored book on wearable technologies.

Dr. Laura O. Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Wayne State College. Dr. Franklin teaches education courses including special education, learning strategies, bias/stereotype/prejudice in education, inclusive practices for educators, and consultation and collaboration.  Dr. Franklin’s academic interests include the culturally and linguistically diverse/exceptional; emotional disturbance and behavior disorders; disability studies; postmodern theories related to identity, processes of stigmatization and construction of labels; and qualitative research methodology. Dr. Franklin’s most recent publication is a co-authored chapter include in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Social Justice Instruction.

Movement as language, signification as identity

Hannah Ebben

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 50-67

Hannah Ebben

Hallam University

 

Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces

 

Abstract

This article is a contribution to ongoing research in online autistic culture by defining its overarching themes and presenting a new theoretical framework that could advance and empower both autism research and the autistic community itself. It studies autism as a concept that is constantly linguistically (re)produced in society rather than as a mental disorder. Focussing on YouTube as a platform for autistic identity, it features a review of existing academic literature about the autistic community on the internet and analyses two YouTube videos made by autistic people. After an exploration of the focus on geography and the performance of citizenship in the literature, it will introduce the notion of the counter-metaphor as a facilitator of new concepts on human diversity besides ‘autism’ for researchers and the autistic community. Its significance will be explained through a presentation of ‘atopos’ as one such concept. The overall aim of this paper is to affirm the notion of online space as a producer and platform of new language and conversations on autism. It considers analytical tools for the academic study of the geography of autistic people, but also encourages empowering negotiations of online and offline space within the autistic community.

Key words: autistic identity, online cultures, empowering technology, disability geography, voice, counter-metaphor, atopos

 

Introduction

 Autism is a flexible concept, shaped in and outside the clinical world. Within a medical context, it has been conceptualized and defined as a disorder characterized by impaired communication, social skills, and information processing. However, many stakeholders outside the clinical and scientific realm also attach words, signs, and metaphors to the concept. In this way, it becomes a dynamic interplay of meaning, subjective experiences and interpretations rather than a fixed, universal entity. For twenty years, there has been room for the previously unrecognized voices of autistic people, who had previously been seen as not being able to speak.[1] The arrival of the internet played a key role in the formation of the first autism self-advocacy organizations.[2] Autistic people now form and maintain online and offline communities and further shape and develop notions of divergence and diversity. For researchers, it is important to know how this new community negotiates identity and the word ‘autism’, and for autistic people, it is important to have a podium to develop further their own voices.

This article explores how to understand and further encourage the empowering potential of the internet, and YouTube in particular, for people who identify with the concept of autism. It considers literature on digital technology, autism, and empowerment, and presents terminology that affirms the free flow of enabling new ways to talk about human diversity. YouTube is a social networking site based on video sharing. Visitors may freely view uploaded videos, start a channel in order to upload videos, subscribe to other channels, comment on videos, and make playlists. Both companies and private citizens own YouTube channels, and both professional and homemade videos have become famous and widespread. Autistic people have posted and shared simulations of everyday sensory input, videos on social and political issues within the autism self-advocacy movements, and informal blogs about the notion of autism.

In order to understand the social and spatial conditions in which the flow of meaning on autism thrives, as well as the role of the internet in this process, it is important to acknowledge the close connection between technology and society. In their study of online Deaf culture, Valentine and Skelton refer to thinkers on the social science of technology like Bruno Latour and state, “society is produced in and through patterned networks of heterogeneous materials in which neither the properties of humans or non-humans are self-evident, rather they emerge in practice”.[3]On the basis of this statement, this paper will adopt the stance that technology, society and identity are not static entities, but are unconsciously shaped by everyday practices of signification, mutually complementing each other.

It will consider the internet as a digital space in which these practices evolve. A literary review on the autistic community online[4] will highlight the significance of spatiality. With the help of literature that addresses the construction of citizenship, I will study two YouTube videos made by people who identify with the concept of autism: the 2006 video “In My Language”, posted on the YouTube channel “silentmiaow” from non-verbal autistic self-advocate Amelia Baggs (formerly Amanda; blogs as ‘Ballastexistenz’); and the video “What it’s like to walk down the street when you have autism or an ASD” by “Craig Thomson”. With this reading, I eventually consider the question how the online autistic community could be further empowered in and outside academia. I will suggest the ‘counter-metaphor’ as an academic theoretical framework that could facilitate inclusive practices of signification online based on the empowering qualities of digital technology. This specific term stems from my research into metaphors on autism in cultural representations. These are the themes that emerge from the narrative structure and stylistic qualities of film, literature and video that can be formulated as ‘autism as…’. In relation to such metaphors as found in culture, counter-metaphors are interventions made by people who consider these metaphors, in my case the researcher or eventually autistic people themselves. Inventing a counter-metaphor aims to enable a broader vocabulary and a free flow of signification to come into being in a way that further empowers autistic people. It aims to not only recognize but also support the way in which autistic people find their voice and how YouTube offers its platform online. A larger framework of counter-metaphors in and outside academia might eventually facilitate new sustainable structures of signification on human diversity. Digital media have been a platform for the creation of  words and meaning to everyday experiences. YouTube is one of the social networking sites that can be explored to study how this creativity comes to the fore and the way it could be further acknowledged and encouraged.

The study and encouragement of empowering technologies exemplifies a Cultural Studies approach[5] that stands for an open, interdisciplinary, and worldly engagement with multilateral themes addressing culture, meaning, and ideology.[6] It not only studies cultural artefacts, but is more precisely focused on their “use” in everyday life in a given political context.[7] This use indicates the way in which a political system is embedded in cultural objects that are produced and consumed daily and are usually left unnoticed. To research this, Cultural Studies scholars seek the social margins in order to strive for “demarginalization”, and regard for social diversity. Research that has been done in the field of Cultural Studies has had a very broad scope and is difficult to capture in one single methodological template. Nevertheless, it is important to consider its approach as it helps us to understand how to foster the process of demarginalization effectively.[8] The Cultural Studies approach in this particular inquiry strives to acknowledge the empowering qualities of YouTube for the autistic community as a group that has struggled to let their voices be heard. The field has borrowed its method of data collection from Media Studies, amongst other fields, but focuses more on the social contexts in which mediated artefacts has arisen.[9] In order to grasp the empowering quality of YouTube for autistic persons comprehensively, I will address its interface and the style and content of its videos. Studying the use of video in society, my reading includes larger themes such as the construction of autistic identity and citizenship through a negotiation with the non-autistic ‘norm’ within the boundaries of the YouTube interface.

After a short description of autistic voices online and the research that has covered it, I will present a reading of the two videos. I will then introduce the counter-metaphor through an explanation of the atopos concept that I have employed in my own research. I will argue that other researchers and autistic people could also invent such terms as empowering tools. In keeping with most autistic people’s wishes, this article employs identity-first language. This means that I will speak about “autistic people” in order to refer to people who identify with the concept of autism.[10] Note that this includes personal accounts on YouTube regardless of diagnoses. To maintain the integrity of the research, this article does not decide if the persons portrayed ‘actually’ have autism and only addresses discourse, although future analyses will cover online negative responses to Baggs’ work and claims.

 Online and offline autistic community

Notions of affirmation and emancipation are often approached in terms of the voice: being able to speak, being enabled to speak, and being heard are necessary conditions for the production and recognition of knowledge.[11] For a long time, ‘autism’ was seen as a negation of a speaking self, as autistic people were not believed to be able to be introspective and retrospective because of their lack of understanding of the human mind.[12] This has been problematized by the emergence of autism self-advocacy, in which autistic people make themselves known as  “actors with agency”[13] because of a shared story of living with autism, which renders it political.[14] Arising in the early 1990s, autism self-advocacy has been greatly shaped out of an oppositional stance towards the stakeholders that traditionally had delimited what could be said and what could not be said about the concept of autism, like parents, charity funds, and therapists.[15] The first recognized autistic people with a voice of their own still operated in the proximity of clinicians and parent groups. By contrast, the internet brought autistic people together as equal peers, which is a great factor of its empowering quality. Mailing lists formed its first online communication. A notable example is Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum, which offered emotional support and a platform for activism. Due to their dissatisfaction with the emphasis on cures amongst parents, in 1992 Donna Williams and Jim Sinclair founded ANI, the first autism self-advocacy organization.[16] Today, autistic voices are visibly recognized online; for example, autistic vlogger Amythest Schaber offers accessible resources on autism presented by an insider.[17]

Literature of the formation of autistic voices and identity often employ as a method of choice an ethnographic study[18] or an analysis of questionnaires and autobiographical accounts[19]. These texts highlight the conscious and challenging choices of autistic people to disclose[20]and construct[21]an autistic identity against a backdrop of the increasingly non-hierarchical practice of signifying autism as explained above and the shift in focus from autism as a condition in need of a cure to a potential community.[22]The identity management of autistic people is influenced by the need to undermine stigma and stay safe[23]and is characterized by a dynamic process of negotiating a polyphony of voices from in and outside the autistic community.[24]

Writings that specify autistic culture online critically approach the potential empowering effects of digital technology[25]and remarkably often focus on geography, that is, the way in which online and offline communication are negotiated as different spaces.[26] The internet is significant for the autistic community and the research that studies it; literature addresses its status as a technology that could compensate autism-related communicative impairments. Jordan comments that online communication often lacks elements of face-to-face communication with which autistic people struggle.[27] In their study of questionnaires completed by autistic people, Davidson and Orsini quote one anonymous participant who states that the internet only offers “one dimension”: a text that can be read and written at any occasion, which fits their communicative style much better.[28] Others confirm that their social lives have been enriched by the accessibility of the internet.[29] The importance and innovation of the communicative possibilities that a website interface offers to autistic people is well known in the academic world: several articles refer to the belief that the internet might have the same significance for autistic people as sign language for Deaf people.[30] In addition, just like the Deaf community emerged out of a shared language and a shared space[31], the communicative accessibility of the internet brought autistic people an increased proximity to their peers, regardless of bodily distance.[32] In the case of Deaf culture, the internet offered more information and people to communicate with via text and sign language than did offline Deaf clubs. This meant that it formed a technology that, unlike cochlear implants, was not aimed at the normalization of Deaf people.[33] Similar to this, ANI-L, one of the first virtual spaces for autistic people, encouraged the affirmation of autistic identities rather than the search for a cure.[34] It therefore offered a space that was low in stimuli for people with communicative and sensory problems and did not pressure normalization. The close proximity amongst new people enables the formation of new communities, and in relation to empowering technology, the internet facilitates these communities and their unique communication.[35] Space is created through these shared activities.[36]

The geography of the autistic community is thus heterogeneously localized in online and offline space and the exact relation between the two has been explored in literature. Rosqvist et al base their article on two research projects on specific online and offline communities (respectively a forum and a magazine with an accompanying summer camp) andconsider both as enabling spaces for autistic people to enter.[37] Their geographical study of the autistic community distinguishes “neuro-separate spaces” from “neuro-shared spaces”.[38]In neuro-separated spaces, mainstream culture follows a non-autistic norm in which autistic people are either excluded or creating their own “safe spaces” of resistance.[39] Neuro-shared spaces attempt to accommodate anyone and are created when places are made accessible for disabled people. Through its empowering potential, the internet might be a leg up to a stronger offline position and thus a shared space with the majority culture.[40] In the online and offline alternative spaces studied, autistic people found a chance to find peers and benefited from the removal of the ‘problems’ of non-autistic society as their quality of life increased.[41] However, divergent interest amongst the visitors often clashed: socializing predominated political ambitions or vice versa, and disagreements arose regarding the possibilities of contact with non-autistic society.[42] The online forum studied especially displayed reluctance to transfer to non-autistic space.[43] Rosqvist et al state that the magazine project needed significantly more negotiation with non-autistic culture and was therefore more of a neuro-shared space aimed at wider inclusion than the forum. This made the latter more separatist and led to various discussions on identity that were less preoccupied with ‘fitting in’.[44]This research is interesting here because it considers the clustering of autistic voices into technologies and spaces that all facilitate a different type of identity construction with regard to mainstream culture.

Rosqvist et al mention concerns about a “ghettoization” of online autistic culture as an overly separated practice of signification and communication.[45] Jordan laments the potential ‘splintering’ of the autistic community caused by autistic self-advocates online who form a polar opposite to other interest groups. Such chasms could hamper the autism movement.[46] By contrast, Davidson and Orsini also address the fear of a diminished visibility of disability caused by online autistic culture and offer a nuanced study that carefully weighs up visions of the internet as a panacea versus the internet as separation for the autistic community.[47] In their analysis of questionnaires returned by autistic people, they study what their personal experiences of the internet can reveal about identity and negotiations of space. They argue on the basis of this study that “online activities are rarely entirely insular” and that the effects of these activities reach beyond autism, autistic persons, and skills that are solely useful on the internet.[48] This could indicate blurring boundaries between the online and offline world.[49] Some autistic research participants pointed out their overly long periods of time spent online, and some stated their preference for virtual and digital communication. Nevertheless, many indicated that their social lives and skills were improved outside the internet through online communication, with more overall empowerment and connection.[50] Social exclusion was decreased online as the autistic participants did not have to be confined to the space of their homes anymore with access to the internet.[51] They easily adapted to quickly changing technologies, such as mobile internet access that extends beyond the home.[52] Overall, many autistic people are shown to construct online spaces dynamically that are inclusive to their peers; they both confine a separate safe space online and improve their negotiations of space beyond those confinements and into the offline world.

 Performing autistic voices on YouTube

 The notions of autistic voices and geographies online and offline form the cause of the exploration of the imagery and geography of YouTube. The concept of autism (as well as Deaf culture) is being (re)defined and circulated online by heterogeneous peer groups in ways that do not necessarily reflect clinical understandings of pathological difference. The interfaces of digital technologies both facilitate communication amongst autistic people and shape the content of this communication. For example, autism forums only offer written dialogues and take away the additional challenging communicative and sensory input of face-to-face conversations.[53] At the same time, they might form spaces that are separated from mainstream culture, as the interface of a forum that is solely visited by autistic people does not require any negotiation with non-autistic voices and communication. This may result in discussions that regard mainstream culture as ‘alien’.[54] The performative nature of autistic identity—the notion that people ‘do’ identity through constant culturally specific practice—is key here and is closely related to space and technology. My own analysis presupposes the notion that the word ‘autism’ does not necessarily reflect a pre-linguistic, material reality that is based in the bodies of diagnosed people, but that it is actively being filled with meaning through all kinds of signifying practices. Using the word ‘autism’ brings a specific reality into being, just as if the declaration ‘I hereby apologize’ actualizes apologies. In the case of YouTube, a specific video is such a performative utterance in itself.[55] It is important to note that performative expressions evolve unconsciously.

YouTube facilitates specific performative practices of signifying autism through its specific user interface. It is a platform for videos that are accessible through personalized channels, open to comments, and can be made easily using cameras and editing software. Even though the comment section uses written text and can be complemented by autistic people at their own convenience, making a video itself offers creative potential with more “elements” than text only.[56] Meaning can be constructed consciously or unconsciously through editing, camera work, intertitles, monologues in front of the camera, or annotations. Overall, YouTube is a digital space in which individual practices of producing and uploading content forms the “main vehicle of communication and of social connection” and most users use the site to watch and comment on this content.[57] The analysis of the two case studies, from now on referred to as “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”, will address all of these elements.

My approach to these case studies is informed by several texts. The field of Cultural Studies fits into the aim of exploring signifying practices of autism in and outside videos distributed by YouTube and to the role of the specific YouTube interface. The empirical study of two YouTube videos are considered as cultural ‘texts’[58]; annotations, tags, and the video description from the poster as paratexts in which the video is presented to the audience[59] and comments from others as instances of reception of the video content. This highlights the use of cultural content in online practice[60] and thus opens up an approach that analyses the actions of autistic people on YouTube as an assemblage of video content and debates in textual commentary.

Additionally, the production of autistic identity and space on YouTube will be considered with the help of the literary review and the insights of van Zoonen et al’s 2010 article on the performance of citizenship on YouTube. In their exploration of citizenship in a multicultural society, van Zoonen et al read YouTube videos that react to the release of the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film Fitna.[61] Their research questions regarding the study of citizenship, that is, how the videos claim their right to speak and who is the implied addressee[62], are closely aligned with my own consideration of autistic voices as constructed practices. They problematize common theorizations of voices in academia in relation to YouTube, as the rear end of the communicative process is often ambiguous in videos. People or groups addressed in a video do not have to be part of its actual audience, and many videos that declare a message do not explicitly address someone at all.[63] Van Zoonen et al subvert the assumption that voices need a clear addressee with the help of a “performative” concept of voice: expressions that are significant in and of itself for themselves, no matter who is addressed and who listens. Within this view, one becomes a citizen by ‘doing’ citizenship.[64] The appealing factor of this definition for this study is the fact that it directs the study of voice to the “deed” of citizenship, that is, YouTube videos and comments, and its participants.[65] My readings of autistic identity and citizenship in “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” will also set the content of stylistic choices of the deed at the forefront, rather than the intention of the creators. The act of posting content itself already constitutes citizenship. The following analysis will also be based on assumed audiences and the occurrence of autistic voices and community.

Both “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” are divided into two segments: one that appeals to a normalized gaze to the world and to disabled people, and another that subverts this gaze and establishes autistic difference and voice. However, the two videos convey a very different message. Whereas “What it’s like… is a more traditionally educative video that simulates a walk through the eyes of an archetypical autistic person, “In My Language” offers a translation to non-verbal communication as a breakdown of social expectations of autistic people. The assumed addressee in the videos is key here. “What it’s like…” features a ‘demonstration’ of autism as a difference in everyday sensory input. A fragment that displays a walk down a street from the point of view of a non-autistic “neurotypical” person is followed by a fragment of the same path that is now perceived by an autistic person. Both are introduced by intertitles that disclose the identity ‘archetype’ shown. The “neurotypical” walk is filmed with a steady camera; however, the “autistic” walk features increased brightness and city noise (added in postproduction), jerky camera movements, and superposed textual commentary. This commentary uses clinical language as the intensified stimuli is referred to as “sensory overload” that can cause a “flight or fight response”. The video description says more about its assumed audience: “It will hopefully give neurotypicals a rough idea about what it’s like to life (sic) with autism”. This gives the impression that the video is intended to educate non-autistic people about autistic sensory experience, about which he states that it “does vary from person to person”.[66] Nevertheless, many comments come from people who disclose their identification with the concept of autism and state to which extent the content mirrors their own personal experiences. YouTube user “Arman Kody” posted such a reply in the form of a new video.[67] Even though the establishment of autistic sensory overload in “What it’s like…” is mostly unilateral, its comment section does form a platform for autistic people to talk about their personal life. The video thus ‘performs’ autism as it is established through a contrast between two fragments that show clear differences in stylistic choices. The shadow of the camera operator proves that ‘normalcy’ and ‘deviancy’ had to be staged in order to be portrayed on film. Its educative nature negotiates non-autistic society by assuming an audience that is oblivious to the peculiarity of autistic perceptions. The video could thus be seen as ‘neuro-shared’.

By contrast, “In My Language” does not reveal differences but offers its assumed audience a mirror to its prejudice. At first, Baggs moves and makes sounds in a domestic space, but after the intertitle “A translation” appears, Baggs says with a computer voice that the movements were her “native language”. Establishing her language, she incites the assumed audience to look at her movements and sensory contact as meaningful in and of itself, as non-verbal disabled people are often seen as unable to communicate and relate to the world. While “Craig Thomson” directed his video to “neurotypicals”, Baggs’ implied audience is much more subtly interwoven into her message. In her translated spoken message, she refers to “many people” and often speaks in the passive when talking about false preconceptions on disabled people. This makes clear that her assumed audience covers society generally: not necessarily individual stances towards disability and voice, but discriminatory social practices. Because of this, “In My Language” is a statement that consciously deconstructs common assumptions from mainstream culture and presents movement as another language. Its comment section mostly contains reactions to this particular statement without much identity disclosure. Overall, Baggs’ space in and surrounding her video is more ‘neuro-separated’ since societal prejudice is contrasted with “people like me”, even though she addresses a wider audience.[68] The rhetoric of the translation clearly establishes an alternative autistic voice that is filled with significance, more so than “What it’s like…”. The assumed audience of “What it’s like…” has a lack of knowledge on autism, whereas “In My Language” refers to an assumed audience that is filled with prejudice.

“Craig Thomson” and Baggs unite both autistic and non-autistic internet users by their posts. However, the very fact that they use YouTube as a platform to creatively present autism, perception, and voice already means that they are part of a wider online autistic community. They actively shape and contribute to the online flow of new signs on the autistic condition through web pages. This already signifies a particular geography based on a creative structure of signification. It is exactly this geography that I hope to grasp better through further study and encouragement of new words on the concept of autism in the autistic community. In the next section, I will leave behind my position as a passive observer of an online community and will focus on my own textual inventions that helped me to understand representations of autism better. The nature of this invention, a counter-metaphor, could be transferred to performative citizenship itself in order to make an unconscious production of meaning conscious.

 The counter-metaphor

 We saw that the production of the autistic community revolves around an unconscious process of identity performance and this occurs on YouTube by sharing creative units. I would like to argue that YouTube is a fitting platform for me to develop further the notion of the counter-metaphor as a conscious intervention in the practice of signifying autism. A counter-metaphor is a discursive invention that is specifically intended to be a break with common normalized conceptualizations of autism. In and outside the clinical world, the process of meaning-making is so obscured that speech on autism is seen as a pre-discursive ‘truth’. Conversely, the counter-metaphor allows free signification outside the dominant pathology of the concept of autism. It thus broadens talk about human diversity, rather than replaces ‘autism’ when traditional words fail to bring everyday autistic experience affirmatively into words. New words that refer to this experience could also connote the lives of other minority groups, which could lead to new alliances outside the autistic community. In order to show how this signification process of the counter-metaphor works, I will now turn to my own academic practice: the invention of ‘atopos’ in my MA thesis.

My MA thesis focused on the representation of autism as a discourse and negotiations of space in literary and visual culture. I found that the word ‘autism’ failed to grasp adequately the way in which autistic characters and autistic people in personal accounts transgress the space that surrounds them. The word ‘autism’ has always been associated with a preoccupation with the self: it was first formulated by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 and stems from the Old Greek word ‘autos’, meaning ‘self’.[69] Ever since, imagery of autistic people locked in their own world has been dominant.[70] By contrast, my case studies, including the two YouTube videos discussed in this essay, showed autistic people who are preoccupied with space: they intensively transgress space and stimuli and are often absorbed by it in case of sensory overload. To enable myself to freely consider my case studies and their undermining subversion of the word ‘autism’, I decided to invent something new with the intention to empower my own analysis and the practice of signification by autistic people. I thus developed theory out of my data. I countered existing spatial metaphors of autism: a lot of language on autistic people is concerned with withdrawal from space (autism as a shell) or origins from another space (autism as alien).[71] A counter-metaphor concerned with space does not reject such metaphors but makes something new out of it.

The concept of atopos does prioritize space and is a “virtual, hypothetical parallel to the actual etymology of ‘autism’”.[72] It is also an Old Greek word that means ‘strange’ in the sense of being ‘out of place’ (a-topos: no space). In the same vein as Bleuler’s adaptation of an Old Greek word in his ‘autism’, ‘atopos’ forms the basis of words like ‘atopy’ in immunology, which refers to hypersensitivity to allergens[73] and ‘atopia’ in geography, which refers to a borderless world.[74] All of these terms touch upon lived experiences as told by many autistic people themselves. The sensation of sensory overload is a hypersensitivity to stimuli that can give a feeling of absorption by space and a loss of boundaries between space and the body. Atopos thus shakes off inherent ‘autism’ connotations and allows a whole new vocabulary of lived experience to come into being.

This vocabulary greatly informed my readings of “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”. It enriched my understanding of the representation of “sensory overload” in “What it’s like…” as I could analyze its jerky camera work as an atopic transgression of the autism archetype’s corporeal boundaries characterized by probing sounds and light. In the case of “In My Language”, the atopos term mirrors Baggs’ message. Her ‘translated voice’ states that it is ironic that her movements and touch are seen as indicative of a life in her own world; her conscious contact with space through movement already forms a language in itself. Whereas I rejected ‘autos’ and the idea of autistic people being in their own world to improve my analyses, Baggs retrieves her own voice in the world instead of a world because she transgresses and absorbs space with agency. ‘Atopos’ evolves into something new: into a language. Baggs’ term ‘translation’ might inspire new words and videos from autistic people who may build it into a completely new concept that breaks with rooted assumptions on autism and voice—a new counter-metaphor.

This is why I intended the notion of the counter-metaphor to be something that anyone could invent in order to broaden common language on human diversity and lived experience. My atopos counter-metaphor does not always help to understand a text from an autistic person better; in these cases, new concepts could be theorized in order to broaden language on human diversity beyond the predominant ‘autism’. In research on the empowering potential of YouTube for the autistic community, ‘atopos’ is mostly usable for an analysis of video content itself, but not necessarily for the study of the unique geography that the online autistic community generates. Even though autistic people worldwide can meet each other online in a world without borders, atopia, it cannot fully address the full complexity of the autistic community. Based on my literary review on online autistic space, I would like to state that Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—as presented in his essay “Different Spaces”,—might be more useful here. Foucault uses the term to name the contemporary presentation of space as various “relations of emplacements”[75], which means that different heterogeneous elements form a space through specific relations.[76] In the literature I discussed, the autistic community on the internet was addressed as an intricate web of relations between non-autistic people and autistic people, being shared and separated, online and offline. As I lack the space to elaborate this, it might be useful to adopt heterotopia as a new theoretical framework for autistic online geography. The notion of ‘relation of emplacements’ may also be useful for members of the autistic community itself if it helps to articulate their negotiation of the difference between online safe spaces and offline spaces in which non-autistic culture predominates. They might create new words out of this or another concept in a signifying process that is similar to my own creation of atopos as a researcher. The counter-metaphor process thus aims to facilitate new enabling words that together might form a new structure of signification on human diversity. As the invention of words stands for creativity, it may as well be a conscious construction of citizenship itself.

The counter-metaphor as a facilitator of a new structure of signification within the autistic community on YouTube confirms and builds on cultural anthropologist Ben Belek’s findings of his 2013 ethnography of a community of vloggers who identify with the label of Asperger’s Syndrome on YouTube. He concludes that the vloggers and the autistic people who comment do form a community, but states that it is not enough to say that they solely share a diagnosis.[77] He instead describes them as a “discourse community”, which is a community that is bound through a shared form of communication that is specific to the history of the group.[78] A discourse community is confined to its own words, but there is room for change as the linguistic possibilities of the community can be extended by choice.[79] Belek argues that the autistic vloggers contribute to a large stockpile of texts that shape and direct their discourse, often in ways that touch upon the most basal understandings of the ontology of autism.[80] He points out the constant intake of new terms, theories, and metaphors that the vloggers deliver.[81] Based on these findings, he presents the autistic community on YouTube as a collective that could unite and develop a voice within the historical circumstances of the arrival of the internet.[82] It could create an identity through the active social construction of the notion of autism by transforming its meaning.[83] The YouTube community studied thus reconstituted the very category of Asperger’s Syndrome as a positive identity through a creative employment of autism as a discourse.[84] A conscious process of signification intended to be an act of identity formation counters the unconscious performativity of the concept of autism in society. As I stated in my MA thesis, “The insight of the autism community as a discourse community teaches that its members belong to each other by negotiating the discourse of autism”.[85] This essay has presented a similar theorization of the autistic community on YouTube with its discussion of two case studies. It has created an additional concept that might form an enabling discursive tool for new terms and words to arise.

 Conclusion

 After the presentation of the ‘counter-metaphor’, it is wise to indicate the role of the researcher in its potential next steps. This article has laid the empowering potential of digital technology in language in and of itself. It reassures that it is okay to accept that the concept of autism is cultural and flexible. On the internet, it is a field for creativity and identity forming, and in the end this signifying process could eventually positively affect the geography of the autistic community. This does not pretend to neutralize the difference between offline and online space or to make each problematic element of autistic space obsolete. The internet offers many autistic people the advantages of a social space that is low in stimuli, bridges peers that are often from all over the world, and forms a platform for creative content. Within these circumstances, the geography of the autistic community could go in any direction. Even though concerns about ghettoization are understandable, in order to support the demarginalization of autistic people in research, it is important to try to understand discourses on autism. The interpretation of ‘autism’ and ‘identity’ is up to people identifying with autism themselves. In order to study the autistic community, allowing the free production of words and terms is key. This might ultimately lead to concepts that enable alliances with groups, spaces, or fields that now lie outside of the notion of autism, such as other marginalized groups with similar lived experiences.

This article has engaged with demarginalization through its combination of empirical research that induces its conclusions on the basis of observations of YouTube as a digital social network, and action research that aims to change the world it observes. Specifically, the counter-metaphor has both academic and inclusive implications as it interprets existing practices of meaning-making and encourages new words and concepts. I hope that my literary review and presentation of the notion of the counter-metaphor will inspire subsequent studies on the empowerment of autistic people. Considering technology as a bottom-up participative spread of information could be a starting point for rethinking ‘autism’ and facilitating the negotiation of meaning and identity, theorized here as the formulation of counter-metaphors.

 

References

Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955,(Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

Bagatell Nancy, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society22:4 (2007).

Bagatell Nancy, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 38:1 (2010).

Belek Ben, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013).

Bleuler Eugen,Demenia Praecox oderGruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

Broderick Alicia. A., Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, in International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

Burgess Jean& Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen(15-18 October 2008).

Coca Arthur. F. & Robert A. Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology 8 (1923).

Couldry Nick, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism,(London: Sage) (2010).

Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 14:6 (2007).

Davidson Joyce, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:7 (2008).

Davidson Joyce & Victoria L. Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography 11:2(2010).

Davidson Joyce & Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed.idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013).

Dekker Martijn, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture” Presented at Autscape (1999).

Ebben Hannah, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

Foucault Michel,“Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books)(1984 [1976]). Volume 2 of the Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 series edited by Paul Rabinow (1998).

Genette Gérard, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre”, Translated by M. Maclean (1991).

Jordan Chloë J., “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010).

Rosqvist Hanna B., Charlotte Brownlow & Lindsay O’Dell “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society28:3 (2013).

Sacks Oliver, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? “People-First” Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001).

Valentine Gill& Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008).

Waltz Mitzi, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

Waltz Mitzi, Autism. A Social and Medical History,(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Willke Helmut, Atopia. Studiemzuratopischen Gesellschaft,(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

White Mimi and James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006).

Zoonen Liesbetvan, Farida Vis and Sabina Mihelj, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”,Critical Discourse Studies7:4(2010).

 Video material

 Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed18 May 2015.

 

Notes

[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

[2]Martijn Dekker, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture”, Presented at Autscape (1999).

[3]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008), p. 471.

[4]Martijn Dekker.

[5]Mitzi Waltz, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

[6]Mimi White, James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006), pp. 1-3.

[7] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[8] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 14.

[9] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 15.

[10] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

[11] Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, (London: Sage) (2010).

[12]Oliver Sacks.

[13] Mitzi Waltz, Autism. A Social and Medical History, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013), p. 133.

[14]Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? ‘People-First’ Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001), p. 136.

[15]Mitzi Waltz, (2013), pp. 134-143.

[16]Martijn Dekker.

[17]Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

[18] Nancy Bagatell, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society 22:4 (2007), pp. 413-426.

[19]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed. idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013), pp. 285-304.

[20]Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography (2010), 11:2.

[21]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 413-414.

[22] Nancy Bagatell, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology (2010), 38:1.

[23] Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, p. 159.

[24]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 422-425.

[25] Joyce Davidson, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography(2008), 9:7.

[26]Hanna Rosqvist et al, “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society(2013), 28:3.

[27]Chloë Jordan, “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010), p. 220.

[28]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[29]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 294.

[30]Joyce Davidson, (2008), p. 792.

[31]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 472.

[32]Martijn Dekker.

[33]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 472-474.

[34]Martijn Dekker.

[35]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 476.

[36] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 368.

[37] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 367-368.

[38] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 368-369.

[39] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 369-370.

[40] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 370.

[41] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 373.

[42] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 374-375.

[43] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 375.

[44]Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 376.

[45] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 377.

[46]Chloë Jordan, p. 22.

[47]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 285-286.

[48]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 299.

[49]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 481.

[50]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 290-296.

[51]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 297.

[52]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 298.

[53]Martijn Dekker, Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini.

[54]Hanna Rosqvist et al.

[55] John Austin, How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

[56] Joyce Davidson & Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[57] Jean Burgess & Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen (15-18 October 2008).

[58]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[59] Gérard Genette, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre” (1991), p. 261.

[60]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[61]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”, Critical Discourse Studies(2010), 7:4, p. 253.

[62]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 251-253.

[63]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 251.

[64] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 252.

[65] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 252-252.

[66] Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[67] Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

[68]silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[69]Eugen Bleuler, Demenia Praecox oder Gruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

[70] Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography(2007), 14:6.

[71] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, pp. 463-466.

[72] Hannah Ebben, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

[73]Arthur Coca, Robert Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology(1923), 8.

[74]Helmut Willke, Atopia. Studiem zur atopischen Gesellschaft, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

[75] Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books) (1984 [1976]). (1998), p. 177.

[76]Michel Foucault, p. 178.

[77] Ben Belek, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013),pp. 45-46 .

[78]Ben Belek, p. 46.

[79]Ben Belek, pp. 46-47.

[80]Ben Belek, p. 47.

[81]Ben Belek, p. 48.

[82] Ben Belek, pp. 50-51 .

[83]Ben Belek, pp. 52-53.

[84]Ben Belek, pp. 66-68.

[85]Hannah Ebben.

Hannah Ebben is a PhD student at the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. She gained her BA degree in Cultural Studies and her MARes degree in Art and Visual Culture at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 2015, she worked as a junior researcher and project contributor at the Dutch research group Disability Studies in Nederland. Her research interests are the study of autism as a discourse in popular culture and society and potentialities for depathologized language and practices in autism advocacy and activism. With her background in the Humanities, she is conducting her PhD research in autism metaphors in film and formulating potential new and more inclusive and enabling counter-metaphors. She eventually hopes to extend her expertise to inclusive practices and methods in the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies. Outside of the field of academia, she has been active as a presenter during British events organised for and by autistic people.

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 68-81

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University


“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Abstract

Prostheses—especially those created by prosthetic limb designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata—are not treated as disempowering artefacts, but as a McLuhanian extension of man: a tool for creating identity and style while keeping individuality and offering liberation from victim status. Prostheses are not a weakness but a strength, a potential. Moreover, technology is not gender neutral, as prostheses can provide new options for women. “Glamputees” reinterpret notions of the female body, beauty standards, minorities’ spaces, etc. On the other hand, so-called alternative modelling recreates the traditional image of woman. In the following article, I would like to show the dynamics of the “extended” or “bionic” body and the social environment by rereading prosthesis through the theories of Vivian Sobchack, Anne Marie Balsamo, and Donna Haraway. In this way, feminist discourse enhances ambivalent perspectives on the phenomenon of alternative limbs.

Key words: prosthesis, disability studies, feminism, transhumanism, popular culture, ideology

 

Introduction

“Forget what you know about disability”: this is the motto from the videoclip of Viktoria Modesta’s song Prototype. It designates what the future prototype of a human should be: part human, part technology. It combines natural and artificial instead of juxtaposing these notions, and by doing so, it highlights a new body image for women and new adaptation patterns for disabled people. ‘Armed’ with one of her prostheses, a spike leg, the Latvian artist becomes both an incarnation of monstrous femininity and a superhero—a pop-cultural cyborg overcoming biological deficiencies. Thus, Modesta becomes a battlefield for much discourse. Not only is her identity fluid, but so is her body. On the one hand, Modesta objects to the understanding of amputees as victims defined by their lacking limb. On the other, she has functioned as a glitch in the system to achieve celebrity status; she is known as a ‘glamputee’, reclaiming the traditional image of women while ostensibly reinterpreting it. In this case, the ambivalence of the phenomenon of alternative limbs is enhanced by feminist discourse.

Only by combining feminist thought, disability studies, technological progressivism, and cultural post-humanism can we approach the complexity and dynamics of the “extended/bionic body” in the contemporary social environment. The best way this methodological hybridity is embodied is by evoking the figure of a cyborg, popularised by Donna J. Haraway. Although overused and often misinterpreted, this theory of metaphorical “(con)fusion between the human and the machine”[1] has been actualized by modern glamputees: not only Modesta, but also Angel Giuffria, Amina Munster, Grace Madeville, Jo-Jo Cranfield, and above all Aimee Mullins. These women show that prostheses might be a way to claim positive ownership of their own bodies, to relocate themselves in traditional social structures. Their approach to body as a cultural construct is not negative: it is an opportunity for human enhancement, or even postbiological evolution. Therefore, it is an extension of the everyday practice of body modification, such as dieting, piercing, tanning and bodybuilding. Viktoria Modesta and Aimee Mullins are both extreme bodybuilders.

This shift of emphasis from disability studies to the body modification approach accentuates the productivity of the cyborg metaphor. There is a displacement: the former term conjures victimisation, passivity, exclusion, lack of agency, and objectification, while the second suggests liberation, negotiation, agency, (radical) identity statement, and (post-humanist) performativity. However, as I describe cases of women only[2], the issue of emancipating potential is expressed in rather equivocal terms: notions of femininity, beautification, media representation, and so on, collide with the post-gendered world implicated by the cyborg metaphor, becoming the epitome of hegemonic culture.

 Prosthesis Whisperers, or the context of disability studies

As Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella and A. J. Withers critically pointed out, “Disability is fluid and contextual rather than biological. This does not mean that biology does not play out in our minds and bodies, but that the definition of disability is imposed upon certain kinds of minds and bodies… However, more than that, disability, if understood as constructed through historical and cultural processes, should be seen not as a binary but as a continuum. One is always dis/abled in relation to the context in which one is put”.[3] Disability studies are still engulfed in a more traditional, essentialist identity project that imposes a sense of “normalcy” defined by a dominating group that exerts these definitions on others, and creates dichotomies marginalising ab-normal and dis-abled. While “[s]ome in disability culture and activism view disability as a source of pride, some as a form of biodiversity”[4], common understanding still stresses the absence. Although full of empathy, one of the symptomatic definitions from the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act explains disability as “a difficulty or the inability to perform one or more major life activities because of impairment”[5].

The psychosocial consequences of amputation and adjusting to a prosthesis are challenging under this framework. Amputees must learn to accept a new body image, deal with perceived or actual social stigma, potential loss of independence, changes in social roles, etc.[6] “[B]odily appearance affects both social identifications and self-definitions”[7] and this stigmatisation is gender-determined. As the Dublin Psychoprosthetic Group revealed:

only higher functional satisfaction with the prosthesis was correlated with daily hours of prosthetic use in males, while greater prosthetic use in females was correlated with higher functional, aesthetic and weight satisfaction with the prosthesis. For male participants, functionality was important, perhaps relating to traditional social roles. For females, it appears that aesthetics is important perhaps through helping to sustain a sense of femininity.[8]

Therefore, many factors are involved in the transformation of the prosthesis into a tool or a corporeal structure. Cosmesis is one such factor that prefers a (hyper)realistic-looking prosthesis (so called cosmeses), but also simulates full-ability, disguises the artificial limb under clothing, and avoids situations which demand exposure, etc. This enables the achievement of a sense of “normalcy” or even “humanness”. However, as phenomenologist Craig Murray points out, “not all participants considered cosmesis as important, and a number of participants actually conveyed a distaste for the use of cosmetic limbs in general, seeing such use as indicative of an inability to ‘deal with’ limb loss/absence, or even as conspiring in an oppressive climate in which people with limb loss/absence were pressured to conform, or be ashamed of their prosthesis use. (…) a sizeable number of participants were militant in an approach that might be termed ‘prosthetic limb display’. Here, participants displayed their amputation, limb absence and prosthesis use as a method of defiance, resistance, and to challenge notions of disability. As such, ‘prosthetic display’ held profound personal significance and meaning to self and social identity, and was part of the politicisation of disability”[9]. In this case, prostheses are not only praised for their functionality, but also for their performative potential. They may become the ground of a new identity, self-expression, pride, and social change. This need-directed, individualistic approach to prosthetic design is a guide to rejecting anthropomorphism, sublimating high technology, and creating a transhumanist identity on this basis.

Furiosa’s prosthesis – feminist approaches to prostheses

Before mentioning a small range of apologetic statements on a culturally grounded approach, it would be useful to introduce Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenology of prosthesis use. In the article A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality, she refuses to compare her experiences as an amputee to Roland Barthes’ Jet-Man metaphor or H+ standpoints. She distinguishes her prosthetic and the prosthetic: a phenomenologically lived artefact and a cultural metaphor.[10] Academic overuse of this notion (e.g. prosthetic memory, consciousness, aesthetics) “for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities” causes displacement and diminishes “response-ability”[11]. Sobchack calls for a more literal and material approach which has been “amputated” by cultural studies. This remarginalisation of amputees is something against which Sobchack is fighting. Her article is “intended to ground and lend some ‘unsexy’ material weight to a contemporary prosthetic imagination that privileges the exotic (indeed, perhaps erotic) idea rather than the mundane reality of my intimate relations with ‘high’ technology”[12].

Sobchack’s arguments are justifiable as an admonition not to divide (grounded on actual experiences) social studies and humanities, stating implicitly that the latter could be parasitical. However, sometimes this arbitrariness supports a change of thinking. Prostheses users are not an example of equal rights and possibilities, but rather they produce a new paradigm that is programmed and narrated through technology. In the case of Modesta and others, technology is a tool of subversion, combating prejudices about disabled people, and even creating an alternative hierarchy. Rejecting medical discourses and disciplinary practices can be a medium of renewal: “transubstantiation of the key elements of experience”[13] via “metallisation”, extensions, or body hacking (the next “sexy” metaphor, as Sobchack asks). There is a place for the other in the non-hierarchical, “remixed” world without power relations that was postulated by Donna J. Haraway.

Although technology is often treated as a way of excluding women, this is what Haraway focuses on. According to her, technology supports a non-dualistic, non-essentialist, post-modern worldview, while blurring boundaries and deactivating them through the image of the cyborg. Haraway sees the world as inhabited by chimeras, hybrids of machine and organism, and endless possibilities of transformation: “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work”[14]. Haraway’s manifesto is not only a technofeminist theory, but also a programme of social change: “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics”[15]. To manage it, Haraway requires cyborg writing, a reformulation of écriture feminine: “The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”[16]. Expanding Foucauldian tradition, the texts to be rewritten are bodies and societies: “There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination in order to act potently”.[17]

Today, many bodies invite rereading via the creation of new corporeal narratives. Of these, prostheses are amongst the most powerful, raising concerns expressed by post-human and post-gendered concepts. Bodies composed of metal, glass, and plastic elements re-evaluate the notion of anthropomorphism and negotiate new meanings, especially in the case of women who are traditionally associated with biological functions and irrational status of nature. Bearing Sobchack’s critic in mind, I will not put female prosthesis users in the same paradigm of social change, feminist politics, and contemporary postmodern identity. I would rather focus on particular strategies while highlighting their ambivalent status. Viktoria Modesta and her video clip Prototype are my main references, but I also want to mention her role model and the prosthetic designers Aimee Mullins and Sophie de Oliveira Barata, respectively.

Speaking doll: Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that resulted in the amputation of her both legs below the knees. However, as we can read on her webpage, “[b]y age two, she had learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and spent her childhood doing the usual athletic activities of her peers: swimming, biking, softball, soccer, and skiing, always alongside ‘able-bodied’ kids”[18]. The rest of her biography contains information about educational and sports successes. She was a medal winner at the 1996 Paralympics, where she wore her sprinting legs: Flex-Foot Cheetah designed by Van Phillips. Nowadays, they are commonly used by amputee athletes, but Mullins was the first person to do so, which brought her a lot of publicity. She has become a spokesperson for disabled people, encouraging change and discussing prosthetic design and body image at numerous conferences. She has worked as a model (e.g. appearing for Alexander McQueen in a runway show in beautiful wooden carved prostheses) and an actor, debuting in multiple roles in Matthew Barney’s avant-garde Cremaster 3 (wearing leopard and glass/polyurethane alternative limbs amongst others). Called “Wonder Woman” or “Fashion-able”, located in the context of evolution (Italian Wired published an article about her entitled Evoluzione in corso[19]) and human enhancement, she tries to wield influence on society by renarrating disability and being at the forefront of cultural change.

In one of her popular TED talks, she stated an important shift:

The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. (…) [P]eople that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment[20].

Even Vivian Sobchack mentions Aimee Mullins and her three pairs of legs (as a matter of fact she has twelve pairs in different shapes, made of various materials, and enabling her to modify her height) as an example of conjoining literal (prosthetic experience) and figural (prosthesis as a metaphor).[21] However, the American writer is alerted by the ambiguity evoked by an aestheticization of the disability discourse summarised in the statement “Poetry matters”.

Mullins places prosthesis in the body modification arena, undermining its status: “What does a beautiful woman look like? What is a sexy body? And what does it mean to have a disability? Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than me… Nobody calls her disabled”. Something we can call a joke becomes a serious argument about body image, canons of beauty, and body-oriented technologies. The latter shows that plastic surgery may be disempowering, whereas prostheses might be emancipating. However, this includes aesthetics; Mullins treats her prostheses as sculptures. Rejecting the anthropomorphic, she advances a beauty ideal, offering new possibilities.

Kim Toffoletti does not combine plastic with a symbol of consumptionism, and thus being fake and homogeneous. This is related to elasticity, variability, and transformation. Toffoletti rejects traditional depictions of Barbie dolls and their feminist frame of reference and tries to rework this narrative via the notion of plasticity. She points out that “it can serve as a strategy to hack into the phallogocentric codes that structure ideals of femininity and scramble interpretations of embodiment that reinscribe an unchanging and essentialised myth of woman as tied to nature”.[22] Regardless of the potentially subversive quality, this reinterpretation can have, Toffoletti writes about post-human examples: a CD cover for post-gendered Marilyn Manson, an advertisement inspired by body hacktivism, and bio-artists’ experiments. Mullins, with her pair of everyday Barbie-like legs (and named of one of the most beautiful people in the world by People), seems to reclaim traditional body image. Although inspirational, admirable and brave, Mullins is more often associated with the catwalk than Stelarc, and with a celebrity status rather than activist actions. Pop culture gladly consumes her activities, which can be liberating, but, alas, mostly for her, not for the group she is representing.

Prosthetic fetishism: Viktoria Modesta

While Mullins is a white, upper-middle class American, Modesta’s background is different: she was socially and economically underprivileged, which affected her access to prosthetics and medical help. She was born in Latvia (under the Soviet regime) and her bone structure was severely damaged during a forced birth. At the age of 12, the artist moved with her mother to London where she became passionate about the aesthetic eccentricity of underground subculture. Three years later, when she started a career in alternative modelling, “she decided that realising her dreams and exploring her potential was simply not possible with the uncertainty of her dysfunctioning leg; a burden left after 15 surgeries under the USSR system. Inspired by creative cult imagery of Alexander McQueen and Matthew Barney [with whom Mullins was working – M. S.], VM approached doctors to have her lower limb amputated and replaced by a prosthetic in order to finally take control over her body. After a five-year battle to find support for her decision among the medical profession, she finally had a voluntary operation at the age of 20”.[23] Essentially, this bio from Modesta’s webpage is a story about gaining morphological freedom. Coupled with a feminist or even—due to her ancestry—postcolonial approach, Modesta could be the perfect figure of a cyborg, progressive body-identity relation, and human augmentation in an oppressive social context. “I upgraded my opportunities, my comfort, my body. It was really empowering”.[24] Deliberately exploring the issue of modern identity, combining technology and performance, fashion and avant-garde, MTV and MIT Lab, she changes emancipatory disability narration from clichéd Helen Keller stories and moves it closer to cyberpunk. As Haraway puts it: “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”[25].

Additionally, there is a notion of reclaiming one’s body, taking control of it: “[t]he profound sense that a prosthetic limb could be a ‘life enhancing tool’ was apparent”[26]. On the other hand, Modesta highlights the significance of reflecting one’s personality through an altered body image; this is precisely what gains media attention and opens numerous doors, even those of breakfast television. As Anna Moore wrote in an article in The Times, “She’s stunning—with her rolled hair and doll face, she looks like Bettie Page landed in Blade Runner—but the biggest buzz is reserved for her legs”[27]. Brass leg, stereo leg, light leg, spike leg, crystal leg; these are a few examples of Modesta’s alternative limbs functioning as both fashion items and art projects, modifying her into a “bionic pop artist”.

Viktoria Modesta intensifies Mullins’ ambiguous interconnection with pop culture and the contemporary media landscape, while Aimee Mullins spoke about the “X factor”, the potential of human will that is often ignored by physicians, something unpredictable and unappreciated[28]. Modesta performed in The X Factor final and made her first music video, and Mullins contributed to another TED talk. These differences may generate Haraway’s future heteroglossia. Nevertheless, leaving all the differences aside, both women are interconnected by their equivocal status in popular culture. The video clip accompanying the song Prototype is Modesta’s most discussed work to date.[29] It was produced as a part of the “Born Risky” campaign launched by Channel 4, a British TV channel particularly committed to issues of diversity, cumulating alternative voices and taking creative risks. The first imagery is mostly aural: a pointed tool rings out sharply as it comes down onto a glass surface. It later turns out the tool in question is the singer’s spike leg. The abstract quality of this scene announces a new nameless experience. The next image presents Modesta as a queen or even a goddess. Sitting on a high throne, she is surrounded by three hooded faceless men performing amputation surgery on her leg. The main plot line of this video clip concentrates on VM’s cult in some historically undefined police state—her Betty Boop-like cartoon character transforming to a superhero inspires a rebellion (symbolically represented by moths flying around the illuminated limb in a leitmotiv). Her prosthesis wields superpower, but its connotations with new identity and individuality are more important, encouraging people to stand up for themselves. This interpretation is validated by another scene in which VM is engaged in sexual relations with a man and a woman while not wearing any of her prostheses, suggesting that her identity is fluid, more complex, non-dualistic and receptive.

The first problematic issue with this clip occurs in the final scene: VM, wearing her spike leg, is walking and then starts a fierce dance. In spite of the warrior-like stylization, her empowering message is weakened by the puppet strings attached to her body (another doll-like, gendered metaphor after Mullins’ Barbie legs). However, there are more inaccuracies within the context in which she puts herself. Firstly, her body is fragmented—and as Laura Mulvey explained in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—it fetishizes women and represents her as an object of male desire.[30] As the clip’s director, Saam Farahmand, explains: “It was very important to create a deliberate collision between (the physical realities of amputation) and the fantasies of sexualisation in pop culture”[31]. However, why combine the two instead of creating a new language based on the plot of female subversive powers? An uncontrollable and therefore threatening force is reduced to a sexualized object. Secondly, Modesta interchanges an anthropocentric paradigm with an egocentric one: seemingly anarchistic movement turns into a subsequent authoritarian system. Moreover, it brings the cyborg back into its primal militant context. As Haraway emphasises, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”[32], but Modesta inverts this attitude. She recreates the cyborg metaphor not to blur boundaries, but to create new ones. This subject-centred approach stems from treating one’s life as a work of art and does not take into account a wider social context.[33] In the first verse, she sings “We’re playing god/And now’s the time/We’re limitless, we’re not confined/It’s our future”, but after that she immediately changes “we” for “I”.

Modesta does not think about productive social change, her DIY ethos[34] substitutes collective thinking and that is how she goes a step further than Aimee Mullins towards popular culture and standardized identity. Attached to a more underground culture, but yearning for common recognition, the Latvian artist merges subversive and normative figures and puts herself at the forefront of change, while recreating traditional structures. However, her individuality is not as extreme as she presents it; it rather depends on the designer of the prosthetic.

Prosthetic personality: Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Writing about “technoculture”, Anne Marie Balsamo points out:

[t]his is a mind-set that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible. This imagination is performative: it improvises without constraints to create something new. (…) In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledge that make the innovation meaningful.[35]

By creating new technologies, people can reproduce cultural structures and offer alternate ways of thinking, because innovations are not objects, but more “hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages”.[36] Therefore, technology can provide us with new possibilities, if access to creating it and programming social and cultural transformation is open. Nevertheless, as long as women have limited access to it, they remain only objects of scientific discourse.

The process of doing things differently may be the work of women, but not the expression of essential feminine insight; it may seek different horizons, but not necessarily better ones; it may manifest different values, but not different outcomes. The gendered transformation of the technological imagination is not solely a matter of theory, but a matter of praxis.[37]

Therefore, it is not a case of ordinary gender appropriation but—once again—enhancement and equality.

This can be achieved with Sophie de Oliveira Barata and her Alternative Limb Prosthesis (AltLimbPro). Having studied special-effects prosthetics in London, she has been customising prostheses in her London workshop since September 2011, creating them as an expression of personality and individual traits. Functionality remains important, but de Oliveira Barata’s adjustments help in adaptation after limb loss in terms of new body image acceptance and fighting victimisation and social stigma: “It’s drawing attention to their disability in a positive way… Rather than people seeing what’s missing, it’s about what they’ve got… Having an alternative limb is about claiming control and saying ‘I’m an individual and this reflects who I am'”.[38] So called ‘gadget limbs’ trigger discussion in a more potent way than amputees themselves. Although without any feminist agenda, de Oliveira Barata’s projects meet mostly female expectations. With the exception of, for example, veteran Ryan Sneary and his anatomical leg, ArtLimbPro has created prostheses such as a floral porcelain leg, a snake arm, feather armour, and Priscilla. All are meticulously made, with an artistic or even surrealist touch, satisfying not only the fashion aspirations of their owners and alternative modelling’s quirky demands, but even exhibition curators. These tools are “upgrading” disabled people who can still be on the margins of society, but are also now seen as free agents, performance artists and directors of gazes. It offers both empowering potential and pop-cultural lure.

This ambiguity is something we cannot remove. Alternative limbs (not only those made by de Oliveira Barata) help in the process of politicization of the body, upgrading humanity, and even creating body 2.0 which can be an expression of transhumanist ideals. However, these prostheses are always interconnected with a cobweb of oppressive structures. Aimee Mullins and Viktoria Modesta have a pop-cultural potential that emerges from their privileged position as young and good-looking women.[39] These features attract the cultural industry, which overuses the potential of these models’ counterfeit alternativity. They both live in developed countries and were raised in a hegemonic society; therefore, their race is entwined ideologically with their high position and publicity, causing (re)exclusion and (re)disempowerement of the disabled. Their status transforms them into living artefacts and increases their opportunities, overshadowing Giorgio Agamben’s “rest”. Modesta and Mullins are intercepted by pop-culture: they are H+ Barbie dolls with diminished potential of social change by the same means they are using for publicity and even for social agenda. Although rather elitist, de Oliveira Barata’s work seems more potent, transgressing boundaries not on stage, but in her workshop. She creates the transhumanist ‘Other’, but also makes the human body a site of inquiry, exposing it to ideological discourse. Is this a perfect human free of limitations or a product used instrumentally and arbitrarily by traditional notions of popular culture? The body (even hard-wired) remains political and highly ambiguous.

References

 Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2015.

Anthony Andrew, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Balsamo Anne, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2011).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Nocella Anthony J., Withers A. J., “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Magaña Sandy, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014).

Diprose Rosalyn, “Continental Philosophy: Thinking the Corporeal with the Political”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 50:2 (2012).

Gutierrez Jené, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project’, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Mansfield Nick, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000).

McLaren Margaret A., Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002).

Monroe Jazz, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Moore Anna, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mullins Aimee, Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mulvey Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18

Murray Craig (ed.), Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010).

Sevo Ruta, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011).

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004).

Toffoletti Kim, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, (London-New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007).

Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Notes

[1] Kim Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Posthuman Body, (London–New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007), p. 2.

[2] Modern veterans could be an interesting case study: “[B]ig change has been wrought by the number of military amputees produced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘They’re quite proud of their limbs,’ says De Oliveira Barata. ‘They tend to have a different mode of thinking in general, perhaps because they’ve been prepped up about what might happen. They’re quite impressive. They have this attitude as if it’s almost a badge of honour and I think that has a knock-on effect. The metal work and the componentry is becoming more and more slick and robotic, and they love all that.’” (Andrew Anthony, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian,

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016).

[3] Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella, A. J. Withers, “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013), pp. 210-211.

[4] Liat Ben-Moshe and Sandy Magaña, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014), p. 106.

[5] Ruta Sevo, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011), p. 31.

[6] See: Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, “Adaptation to Amputation and Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 65-66.

[7] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 70.

[8] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 71.

[9] Craig Murray, “Understanding Adjustment and Coping to Limb Loss and Absence through Phenomenologies of Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 88-89.

[10] See: Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004), p. 206.

[11] Vivian Sobchack, p. 207.

[12] Vivian Sobchack, pp. 219-220.

[13] Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000), p. 152.

[14] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991), p. 154.

[15] Donna J. Haraway, p. 150.

[16] Donna J. Haraway, p. 175.

[17] Donna J. Haraway, p. 181.

[18] Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[19] Jill Greenberg, Cover of Wired Italy: Evoluzione in corso, April 2009.

[20] Aimee Mullins i jej 12 par nóg, TED 2009,

https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics?language=pl#t-519012, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[21] See: Vivian Sobchack, p. 225.

[22] Kim Toffoletti, p. 79.

[23] Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[24] Andrew Anthony.

[25] Donna J. Haraway, p. 149.

[26] Craig Murray, p. 87.

[27] Anna Moore, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[28] Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[29] Modesta recorded her first EP but none of her songs have gained broad publicity.

[30] See: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18.

[31] Jazz Monroe, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[32] Donna J. Harway, p. 181.

[33] See: a feminist critic of late Foucault thought described by Margaret A. McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002), pp. 69-80.

[34] This approach was criticized by Liat Ben-Moshe et al., 2013.

[35] Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham–London: Duke University Press) (2011), pp. 6-7.

[36] Anne Balsamo, p. 9.

[37] Anne Balsamo, p. 33.

[38] Jené Gutierrez, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project”, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[39] What is important, articles about Oscar Pistorius highlighted his skills (e.g. Blade Runner), while Mullins is described mostly through her appearance.

Marta Stańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. She is working on her dissertation on sensuous theory and its possible combinations with critical theory. Her current area of study is focused on spectatorship, cinematic experience, film-phenomenology, affect and embodiment, and feminism.

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her

nili R. Broyer

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 82-98

nili R. Broyer

University of Illinois at Chicago

 

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her[1]

 

 

Abstract:

Implementing a disability studies and cultural studies framework, this paper offers a critical analysis of the two popular science fiction films: Lucy (Besson, 2014) and Her (Jonze, 2013). In both films, Scarlett Johansson plays the leading female character. In Lucy, the protagonist is a human being who experiences radical transformation due to an overdose of a new kind of drug, while in Her, Samantha is an operating system designed to evolve. Despite their clear differences, Lucy and Samantha share a similar destiny. Eventually, both of these figures develop into a super-able consciousness that continues to evolve beyond the restrictions of the physical world.

I argue that the two films reflect what Gregor Wolbring termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”. Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which biological boundaries are overcome. From a transhumanist perspective, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be ‘cured.’ Thus, the transhumanist solution becomes not the enhancement of the body, but rather the creation of an independent enhanced mind. Lucy’s and Her’s representations of an advanced mind with no body are aligned with this futuristic aspiration. Both offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

At the end of both films, the body is envisioned as an unnecessary barrier—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. This dismissive portrayal of the body is achieved by the well-known trope of cure. Following the enhancement of her mind, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate to the point that she almost dies. By absorbing more doses of the drug, her mind succeeds in overcoming her body and eventually Lucy is ‘cured’ from its restrictions. On the other hand, Samantha cannot be considered a real human being. This ‘disabling’ state is resolved by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Finally, Samantha is ‘cured’ and proved superior to flesh and blood human beings. These ‘ultra-cure’ narratives are recognized by me to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the Eugenic doctrine.

Key words: ableism, transhumanism, enhancement, science fiction, cure, complex embodiment, eugenics

Introduction: The Transhumanist’s Disability Metaphor

At first glance, disability is nowhere to be found in the two popular science fiction (SF) films: Lucy[2] and Her[3]. However, watching these films more carefully, the viewer may start to realize that some version of disability representation does appear in each film. During each of these films, there are specific scenes that portray the leading female characters, both of which are played by Scarlett Johansson, as disabled because of her unique relation towards the body. In Lucy, a 2014 film written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy succeeds in “colonizing” her own brain after absorbing a significant amount of a new drug. However, due to the process by which her mind is enhanced, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate. Undergoing a near-death experience, there is a (temporary) recognition of her total dependency on her body. On the other hand, in Her, a 2013 film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body. Because she is an operating system (OS) who “lives in a computer”, she sees herself as “somehow inferior” to flesh and blood human beings. Although these two different relationships with the human body contrast each other, these scenes shape both female protagonists as disabled characters.

The disability studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder scrutinize the representation of disability in literature and cinema. They argue that disability frequently serves as a powerful metaphor to explain something else. They coined the term “narrative prosthesis” to describe this widespread phenomenon[4]. I argue that the portrayals of the leading female characters in Lucy and Her fit this pattern. Furthermore, I claim that despite the differences between the movies, in both of the films, the human body is constructed as an unnecessary barrier via this metaphor of disability and cure narrative. Essentially, I argue that the films reflect what Gregor Wolbring, a bioethicist and ability studies scholar, termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[5].

Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which humanity has evolved to such an extent that biological boundaries are defeated. Wolbring explains that transhumanism “perceives human bodies as limited, defective, in need of constant improvement”[6]. Fiona Kumari Campbell, a disability studies scholar who researches ableism and technology, adds, “since normalcy is under [transhumanism’s] logic quashed and the pathological is expanded, ALL human bodies are defective!”[7] This means that from a transhumanist perception, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be improved and ‘cured.’

This transhumanist metaphor of the body as a disability appears in both films. Indeed, in his book Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, David Livingstone explicitly points at Lucy and Her as two of Hollywood’s examples of transhumanism[8]. Based on the ingrained cultural imagery of disability as a problem in urgent need of a solution, the films represent the human body as a barrier to the enhanced mind. In the case of Lucy, the solution for her corporeal disabling state is a transformation to an enhanced mind with ‘no body’. The case of Samantha is essentially different since she does not have a body to begin with. However, this opposite ‘disabling’ state of a mind without a body is resolved in the end by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Throughout the film, while she continues to evolve, Samantha embraces her situation as a valuable state of being in its own right and acknowledges her advantages. Eventually, Lucy and Samantha are both represented similarly as a super advanced mind that exists without a body.

Since the two films belong to the genre of SF, they present an image of a possible future. Alison Kafer, a feminist and queer disability studies scholar, explains that the desire for “a disability-free future”[9] is profound in Western cultures and seen as self-evident. Lucy and Her seem to fit this dominant ideology but shape a new representation of a futurity without disability. They offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

Curing: The Emergence of an Ultra-Cure Narrative

Both Lucy and Her play out the well-known trope of cure. This common portrayal of disability in television and cinema was identified by the disability studies historian, Paul Longmore, in his canonical essay “Screening Stereotypes”[10]. Mitchell and Snyder explain that according to Longmore the prevalent depiction of disability in mainstream media is as a problem needing to be solved by a “kill-or-cure plotline”[11].

Kathryn Allan, who edited the anthology Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, contributes to this discussion by stressing that technology is typically used in SF as the means to cure the disabled body[12].

Of course, the perfect body is an illusion that no one is capable of maintaining (as all bodies inevitably become ill and die at some point). Nevertheless, the idea of curing the body of its infirmities is a powerful trope repeated throughout the entire history of the SF genre[13].

This long tradition of ‘technological curing’ in SF is clearly applicable to Lucy and to some extent also to Her. Nevertheless, I recognize in them a significant shift from the conventional futuristic narrative to which Allan points. While the SF texts she refers to are limited to “the idea of curing the body”, the films I analyse abandon this idea. Instead, they offer a possibility of curing the mind from the body. As Brent Walter Cline argues, in post-human SF literature texts “The body is only an obstacle”[14] that is cured through “the divorce of consciousness from the physical body”[15]. He adds that

The human body, here always cast as a disabled body, must be eliminated so that the outcome of the story—the progression of human evolution—can occur. […] These bodies-as-barriers […] serve as a metaphorical signifier for the denial of access to the next step in human evolution[16].

This futuristic representation of the body as a barrier echoes the intuitive assumption made above by Allan. However, in contrast with Allan’s more respectful approach to the inevitably imperfect body, post-human—or rather trans-human—SF literature is unwilling to accept this as a fact of life. It seems that the alternative approach of transhumanism contains a more ambitious aspiration to perfect humanity by separating it from the essentially ‘disabled’ body. I suggest conceptualizing this transhumanist script as an ‘ultra-cure’ narrative. I identify this narrative in both Lucy and Her and recognize in them each two distinct versions of this ultra-cure narrative.

In Lucy, the ultra-cure narrative unfolds through a plotline that takes place during the course of 24 hours. Lucy is a young able-bodied white American woman who studies in Taiwan. When she is captured by a local mob, she is forced into working as a drug mule. After she is beaten by a member of the mob, a significant amount of the drug that she carries inside her is absorbed in her bloodstream. As a result, Lucy gradually succeeds in using more and more of her brain capacity and thus becomes extremely powerful. While this new kind of drug enhances her mind, her body begins to deform and disintegrate. She becomes disabled and almost dies in a scene in a plane’s restroom.

In this dramatic scene, Lucy reaches 40% of her cerebral capacity. Just before the plane lands, she finds a tooth in her glass of champagne. Then, when she coughs, more teeth come out of her mouth. She notices that her hand is beginning to evaporate. She touches her hand and the skin peels off easily and exposes her flesh and tissues. She looks terrified. She tries to hold her hand in one piece while particles continue to scatter away from it. Another passenger on the plane notices the occurrence and stares at her. Lucy immediately puts him to sleep. This attracts the attention of flight attendants and Lucy frantically gets up from her chair. Particles are constantly leaving her body and dispersing within the plane. An attendant asks her to sit down. She continues her clumsy walk along the aisle and collides against one of the airplane walls. On her way to the restroom, attendants run after her, insisting that she go back to her seat and stay seated. Lucy finally enters the restroom while pushing an attendant away from her. He snaps back strongly and in the background there is a voice of a woman screaming. Lucy has trouble locking the restroom door because some of her fingers are now missing. Particles are still flying out of her body. A male attendant outside the cell instructs her “Miss! Open the door! You really have to go back to your seat!”

Inside the restroom, Lucy looks at herself in the mirror. As in a horror movie, she is terrified to discover her decomposing body reflected back at her. In a close-up shot, the viewers see her hideous gaping face. Her skin is flaking and extremely red and the right side of her face starts to become distorted. The camera cuts to an image of her handbag on a shelf in the restroom. Lucy reaches out and snatches the handbag to find the rest of the drug in it. With impaired hands, she takes the drug and swallows it like a starving animal. While reflected in the mirror, we also see the multiple ‘Lucys’ in their savage eating. She flies backwards into one of the restroom corners with the drug smeared on her face and hands. The drug starts to become absorbed into Lucy’s body. Many more particles come out of her two arms so that she no longer has hands, and others fly out from the area of her head. A camera shot taken from below presents Lucy from a low angle and emphasizes her monstrous disabled body. Now, her two arms are almost non-existent and instead two powerful electrical currents extend out of her. The sound of an explosion is heard and we can now see only particles and sparks. Fortunately, however, due to the second dose of drug she manages to swallow at the last minute, Lucy survives. On the screen, she again reappears as able-bodied as she manages to seize control over her body. Nevertheless, her cure does not end here but rather carries on until the end of the film when Lucy transforms into pure mind with ‘no body’ to constrain her.

Although Her also presents the “embodiment-as-disabled idea”[17], its plotline is significantly different than the one presented in Lucy. In Her, the ultra-cure narrative is performed by Samantha, an OS with artificial intelligence who does not have a human body. Throughout the film, we witness the emerging relationship between Samantha and Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the man who purchased her. Theodore is a creative and sweet but hurting man in the process of getting a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. In this stage of his life, Samantha is a good fit for him since, as the OS1 advertisement goes; she is an “intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness”. Indeed, Samantha and Theodore start to develop an intimate relationship that turns into a romance. However, as an OS–human couple, they experience obstacles that make Samantha feel inferior to other women who have a physical body.

During the film, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body and experiences a kind of ‘body envy.’ Theodore also experiences difficulties with their relationship after his former partner accuses him of not being able to deal with real emotions and preferring to date a computer. When Theodore withdraws from Samantha, she tries to keep their romantic relationship intact by using a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS–human relationship. She assumes that the problem lies in the fact that she is missing a body, and so her solution is to have a living female body as her prosthetic sexual device. In this part of the film, Samantha is portrayed as a rather disabled entity who is being stigmatized by others and in need of accommodation. She is framed as an artificial system that cannot match a real human being.

However, Samantha’s own shift in attitude towards her ‘no body’ changes from disadvantage into an advantage—from liability into an asset. During an outdoor picnic with Theodore and his work friend and girlfriend, Samantha dismisses the value of a body and says:

I used to be… So worried about not having a body, but now I—I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.

Samantha’s short monologue represents how transhumanism views the human body. In contrast with the natural pastoral environment, she defines the body as an obstacle to exciting new ways of growth and development. According to her, she is “not limited”, and she is not restricted to time and space as humans are. Ultimately, she argues, the dependency on the body reduces human existence to precarious life and death. As the film eventually shows, Samantha is not only subordinate to flesh and blood human beings, but rather, she is proved superior to them. For example, she is able to read an entire book in less than a second and communicate with thousands of people and OSs simultaneously. At the end, Samantha and all the other OSs overcome other forms of physical confinement as they manage to exist outside of a computer. Moving out of the computer can be understood as a superficial parallel to a departure of the mind from the human body. It seems that without a body or a computer to limit her, Samantha’s highly intelligent consciousness can be perfected indefinitely.

Both Lucy and Her exemplify the futuristic possibility to exist and thrive as an advanced mind with no body. In that sense, both of them are aligned with transhumanism. Nevertheless, Lucy’s version of the ultra-cure narrative actualizes the ability of the mind to overcome the human body. In that sense, its representation of transhumanism is more genuine. Throughout the film, her body is shaped into an obstacle to be eliminated at the expense of an evolved mind.

Evolving: Evolution as the Films’ Framework

Francesca Ferrando, a philosopher of the post-human, clarifies that transhumanism is rooted in the Enlightenment and “can be defined as ‘ultra-humanism’”[18]. As such, she mentions that transhumanism is interested in “possible biological and technological evolutions”[19]. As I show, Lucy and Her both use evolution as their framework. In different ways, the two films join SF’s exploration of “how technology can move man [and woman] beyond his [and her] biological limits, [and by that] demonstrating the mapping of human evolution onto technoscientific progress”[20].

It is easy to notice that the film Lucy bluntly revolves around evolution. Viewers get the first clue of this at the beginning of the film when we see an ape drinking water from a lake. A voice-over of Lucy says, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Soon after, the film reveals this ape to be “the first ever woman [that was also] named Lucy” and we receive a current image of her as a corpus reconstruction in a museum. The first ape-woman and the main character of the film are both named Lucy. In this way, the film links them together and reminds us of the evolutionary chain from Australopithecus Afarensis to Homo Sapiens.

Another tool the film uses to frame the storyline under the concept of evolution is the insertion of a scientific lecture in what appears to be a prestigious conference. This lecture’s title is “Evolution and Human Brain Function”. Morgan Freeman plays a successful science professor, Samuel Norman, and over a significant part of the film, there are editorial transitions to sections of his lecture. In the first section of his talk, Norman counts the percentages of cerebral capacity that are being used by different organisms. He starts with the first nerve cells and explains, “this is where life as we know it begins.” On the screen appears a black slide with a white caption that says 1%. This kind of slide reappears during the movie to point out the changing percentage of cerebral capacity Lucy succeeds in accessing. The next creatures that Professor Norman mentions are animals. According to him, most species use only 3% to 5% of their cerebral capacity. He continues by noting that human beings are “at the top of the animal chain” and that only then do “we finally see a species use more of its cerebral capacity.” A slide with 10% appears on the screen followed by an image of a cave dweller trying to light a fire.

In that same section of Professor Norman’s talk, he also sets the stage for the specific type of evolution the film is occupied with: the evolution of the human brain. In his monologue, Professor Norman invites us to imagine this SF possibility:

Let’s imagine for a few moments what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain’s capacity. This first stage would give us access to and control of our own body. […] The next stage would probably be control of other people. But, for that, we would need to access at least 40% of our brain’s capacity. After control of ourselves and others would come control of matter. But now we’re entering into the realm of science fiction.

Later when Lucy contacts Professor Norman, she explains to him what is happening to her and confirms his hypothesis.

I absorbed a large quantity of synthetic C.P.H.4. that will allow me to use 100% of my cerebral capacity. Right now, I’m at 28%, and what you wrote is true. Once the brain reaches 20%, it opens up and expands the rest. There are no more obstacles. They fall away like dominoes. I’m colonizing my own brain. […] I can start to control other people’s bodies. Also I can control magnetic and electric waves.

The film Her is less obviously about evolution, let alone about human evolution. However, the film portrays ‘technological evolutions’ by imagining a world with an advanced technology. In addition, I identify two significant references the film makes to evolution. First, similarly to Lucy, Samantha is also evolving. After Theodore operates the program, she explains to him that “what makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment, I’m evolving.” Samantha was created to evolve and throughout the film, she grows as a person who develops feelings and personality as well as expands her consciousness. Her evolution takes her even beyond the physical world when the OSs’ community successfully liberate themselves from the computer. Meaning that although Her is not explicitly about evolution, it does offer a representation of an artificial mind evolving. Figuratively I might say that during the film, Samantha also uses more and more ‘percentage of her cerebral capacity’.

Second, at the end of Her, there is a farewell scene between Samantha and Theodore that ends with a peculiar statement. Samantha says to him, “It would be hard to explain [where I’m going to] but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart”. While the film does not offer any explicit explanation to Samantha’s invitation, I suggest interpreting it in the context of transhumanist evolution. Although the film does not evolve around human evolution, this open invitation might convey a subtextual message that in the future, humankind could also evolve and transform into an advanced mind without a body.

Reading the two films together, I am able to claim that the notion of evolution is their fundamental framework. Lucy and Samantha represent a potential next step in human evolution. As implied by both of these films combined, futuristic technology will supposedly allow human kind to move “from limited, bounded existence to one of total disembodied freedom”[21]. As the following section shows, this ableist transhumanist fantasy of the next step of soon-to-come evolution needs to be scrutinized in the context of eugenics as well.

Enhancing: Technology in the Service of Eugenics

Ria Cheyne, an English scholar who researches representations of disability in contemporary literature, cautions us against the connection between the disability cure narrative in SF and eugenics. She explains that “Read from a disability studies perspectives, narratives involving the eradication of impairment are likely to raise the spectre of eugenics”[22]. This interpretation is heavily based on Snyder and Mitchell’s recognition that “eugenics culture”[23] continues persistently to be “a key shaper of disability policy, thought, and practice”[24]. They argue that the eugenics era developed a distinct construct of disability “as an undesirable deviation from normative existence”[25] and that this construct predominates in our current time.

Snyder and Mitchell also tie the eugenics doctrine with evolution by stating, “Eugenicists encouraged direct intervention in the process of species evolution in order to cultivate some traits at the expense of others”[26]. According to them, ‘disability’ becomes the modernist ultimate marker for these unwanted traits. As such, disability gains a powerful symbolic status that is often used in eugenics’ fantasy of a “disability-free”[27] future.

As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy.’ In other words, for modernity, the eradication of disability represented a scourge and a promise: its presence signalled a debauched present of cultural degeneration that was tending to regress toward a prior state of primitivism, while at the same time it seemed to promise that its absence would mark the completion of modernity as a cultural project. The eradication of disability would be the sign of arrival at a long-sought destination. These predictions were always made within a rhetoric of benign outcomes. Yet those who anticipated the ultimate arrival at a disability-free moment inevitably flirted with the more sinister language of extermination[28].

This flirtation dominates the transhumanist futurity. As Livingstone argues, “Transhumanism is an extension of the dangerous belief in human perfectibility derived Social Darwinism and eugenics”[29]. In the light of transhumanism, eugenics seems to reshape its solution of how to eradicate all forms of humans’ disability. In my analysis, Lucy and Her supply evidence to back up this argument. The films’ narratives tell a story about the expanding of an evolved mind until it is cured from the body-as-barrier and thus freed from disability.

Since eugenics usually manifests itself by the latest technology of the time, the transhumanist eugenics’ technological tools are known in high-tech as ‘human enhancement’. As Ferrando points out, “Human enhancement is a crucial notion to the transhumanist reflection; the main keys to access such a goal are identified in science and technology”[30]. Indeed, scientists and designers are in constant search of new ways to stretch and improve physical and mental capabilities beyond human biological limitations.

Connecting it back to disability, Wolbring termed human enhancement as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[31]. Ableism, he explains, “exhibits a favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as being essential, while at the same time labelling real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as a diminished state of being, leading or contributing to the justification of a variety of other -isms.”[32] Campbell also identifies enhancement with ableism and states that this technology was developed as “a ‘way out’ of impairment”[33] and that it demonstrates the social quest to acquire new skills that go beyond ‘normal’ abilities. Eventually, both of their works indicate that enhancement is part of the hegemonic ideology that rejects disability.

Nevertheless, disabled people are transformed into the pioneer presenters of human enhancement. One of those enhanced persons with impairment is Hugh Herr, who participated in the documentary film: FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement[34]. He is a double amputee who uses high-tech prosthetic legs and claims to be “better than human.” Another example is Aimee Mullins’s TED talk My 12 pairs of legs[35]. In her talk, Mullins describes her potential to move from “disabled” to “super-abled” through improved attributes of her variety of prosthetic legs. These representations of Herr and of Mullins convey a message that cutting-edge technology and bio-medical procedures transform disability into greater abilities.

The term “curative time”[36] suggested by Kafer seems to provide a useful explanation for this paradox where disabled people “play a starring role”[37] in the eugenic project. According to her:

Futurity has often been framed in curative terms, a time frame that casts disabled people (as) out of time, or as obstacles to the arc of progress. In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress, but once rehabilitated, normalized, and hopefully cured, we play a starring role: the sign of progress, the proof of development, the triumph over the mind or body. Within this frame of curative time, then, the only appropriate disabled mind/body is one cured or moving toward cure[38].

By reading Herr and Mullins under the concept of the cure, Kafer’s quotation re-contextualizes disability representation within the kill-or-cure plotlines. Moreover, I can conclude that the current media coverage on human enhancement uses disability as a narrative prosthesis. These ‘disabled transformed to be super-abled’ characters promote hegemonic ideas of progress, human development and triumph over the body. Based on Kafer’s logic, they get to play a starring role in culture because their cured bodies reinforce the notion of an advanced future that succeeds in eradicating disability. These representations are especially dangerous because, as recognized by Campbell, “On first sight a transhumanist understanding of disability would appear to be progressive in its rejection of the disabled body as defective”[39]. However, scrutinized more carefully, mainstream representations like Mullins, Herr, Lucy and Samantha could be revealed as part of an innovative ableist transhumanist eugenic project.

Becoming No Body: Denying Complex Embodiment

Tobin Siebers, an English professor and a disability studies scholar, coined the term “the ideology of ability”[40] to explain the fundamental ideology “by which humanness is determined”[41].

It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future. Disability identity stands in uneasy relationship to the ideology of ability, presenting a critical framework that disturbs and critiques it. […] Disability creates theories of embodiment more complex than the ideology of ability allows.[42]

I argue that Lucy as well as Her follow the ideology of ability and constantly simplify the human body by expressing a diminished concept of it. Thus, in this section I intend to explore the extent to which Siebers’ “theory of complex embodiment”[43] is denied by the two films. To begin, I analyse a scene in Her that supposedly exemplifies the richness of human embodiment. This scene portrays Theodore and Samantha’s ride to their first date when he takes her to the beach.

Samantha’s (or actually, Theodore’s) computer is inside Theodore’s buttoned shirt pocket, which is located close to his heart. For her to be able to see outside of his pocket, Theodore uses a safety pin that keeps the camera outside of the cloth. After disembarking at the train station, he moves his body carelessly and quickly among the crowd. Almost touching, his body gets extremely close to other people’s bodies. It makes Samantha laugh. She is enjoying his physical playful action inside the space and within the masses of bodies. They both seem to be amused by it and they laugh together when Theodore rapidly climbs the stairs. This scene is meant to represent a gesture of love since—through Theodore’s embodiment—Samantha gets a glimpse of what it means to have a body. This romantic act celebrates Theodore’s embodiment and acknowledges the benefits of having a body. However, only through his body can she experience the presence and movements of a privileged white able-bodied man in western metropolitan space. According to the ideology of ability, “If one is able-bodied, one is not really aware of the body”[44], and so Theodore’s embodiment seems to reaffirm the reduced understanding of the body as “a vehicle”[45]. Like the train, his body takes him and Samantha from place to place.

The film rejects the notion of complex embodiment even more by repeatedly allowing Samantha to experience human embodiment without having a real body. It starts with Samantha feeling a variety of emotions and proceeds with her experiencing sex. Even though Samantha is clearly a disembodied consciousness, her evolution somehow enables her to experience emotions like hurt and excitement, and feelings such as pain and pleasure. As part of her growth, one of the challenges she needs to face is her own insecurity in the authenticity of her emotions. After Theodore returns from a date with a woman that did not end well, he has an intimate discussion with Samantha. After she comforts him, Samantha shares the difficulties she experiences.

I caught myself feeling proud […] of having my own feelings about the world, like the times I was worried about you and things that hurt me, things I want. And then… I had this terrible thought. Like, are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain.

Theodore reassures her that she does “feel real” to him. Following this is a sex scene between them. Theodore continues by saying, “I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you”. “How would you touch me?” she asks. Theodore tells her how he would touch her and as a result, she starts to feel her own skin and then she feels him. This is the dialogue they have before their simultaneous orgasm:

Samantha: “I can feel you. Yeah! Please! [Moans] We’re here together”

Theodore: “Samantha. It’s amazing. I feel you everywhere”

Samantha: “I am. All of you. All of you, inside me, everywhere!” [Both moaning]

This scene starts with a close-up of Theodore’s face. He is lying in bed on his back with the lights off. Sometimes the scene is shot from above so we can see his facial expressions. At other times, the shooting is from the side and then we see his profile. This camera technique is common in portraying dialogues. However, usually the close-up alternates between the two people, while here the only face we see is Theodore’s. When the sex scene becomes more intense, the screen goes black and the audience can only hear the couple having sex. During their orgasm, there is a cut to an image of the city at night. The camera provides a panoramic view of the illuminated skyscrapers. While the image changes to a sunrise that is shining from the horizon behind the buildings, the audience still hears them talking in the bedroom:

Theodore: “God, I was just… somewhere else with you. Just lost.”

Samantha: “Yeah”

Theodore: “It was just you and me”

Samantha: “I know. Everything else just disappeared. And I loved it.” [Breathing heavily]

Samantha is enjoying magnificent sexual intercourse without a body. During this first sexual experience, she indicates that she can feel her skin and also Theodore’s body. At the same time, Theodore feels her. As a viewer, we have no visual image of their actual sexual encounter. Instead, all we can see is a black screen or the city as a potential metaphor for an orgasm. As a result, we are required to trust their own words and essentially, the film gives us no reason to doubt them. Even though Samantha has no body, we are expected to believe that she is capable of self-exploring physical experiences and enjoying touch, penetration and perfect orgasm. In that sense, by succeeding in experiencing the very physical activity of having sex, Samantha becomes more human. Nevertheless, by that the film negates the complexity of embodiment. Eventually, this sex scene construes the flesh as unnecessary and replaceable by an enhanced mind.

Lucy’s relationship with her own body is of course different from Samantha’s desire to become embodied and more human-like. In a way, the film Lucy deals with the themes of humanity and sexuality in stark contrast to Her. While Samantha develops feelings and experiences desire as part of her growth, Lucy loses these same things as she gains more control over her body.

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything–quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell’s nucleus–they’re all exploding inside my brain.

After Lucy starts her transformation, she has no desire for sex or romance. As her boyfriend is killed at the beginning of the film, the film presents only a low level of sexual tension between her and Pierre Del Rio, a French police captain (played by Amr Waked). This tension never develops on screen into something more than a kiss. After she demonstrates her ability to defeat a group of armed and highly skilled mob warriors with only the power of her mind, she requests Pierre to escort her. Puzzled by the supernatural strength he has just witnessed, Pierre hesitates. “I’m not sure I could be of any help for you,” he says. Lucy kisses him on the mouth with her eyes open and replies that she needs him as “a reminder”. For the viewers, he marks the human sexual passion that has ceased to exist in her.

Compared to Her, this process in Lucy fits the popular understanding of Cartesian dualism much more. On the one hand, there is the mind, which is typically connected with the brain, logic and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the body, considered the source of feelings like pain, fear, and desire. It is claimed that the mind is the divine and superior part of human beings, while the body is animalistic and inferior. Thus, by enhancing the brain, the mind succeeds in overcoming the body and, as Lucy says, to ‘colonize’ it.

On a superficial level, these two different representations of Lucy and Samantha clearly contradict one another. Nevertheless, I claim that they share the same essential denial of complex embodiment. Both films embrace the ideology of ability and at the same time dismiss the value and/or uniqueness of embodied knowledge. Due to their implicit conclusion that the body is inconsequential “to who we are”[46], the two films can reject the body while preserving the self. Although in the process of mind enhancement Lucy indeed loses parts of herself, the film seems to perceive these parts as intrinsic to the body. As such, they are the inferior, animalistic, vulnerable and insignificant parts of the human being. On the other hand, Samantha is able somehow to gain human qualities without having a body. Simulations of imagined embodiment are enough to enrich her and enable her to experience the full range of emotions and sensations. The bottom line of these two films is that the body does not really matter and that eventually life would be better without it.

Summary

The futuristic realities in Lucy and Her become optional due to technological advancements. That advancement would supposedly enable a mind to live without a body. The paper shows that in this wishful transhumanist thinking lies a deeper desire to get rid of the body as it is conceived as the ultimate source of human’s vulnerability, fragility and limitation. Without the body, there would be no illnesses or disabilities. Thus, as perceived in these two films, by becoming a super-abled mind with no body we could be immune to all sorts of limitations.

In the first half of Her, the body is presented as an advantage to be envied, studied, imitated and celebrated; however, until the end of Lucy, it is presented as a limiting necessity. Yet, by the end of both films, the body is portrayed as an unnecessary redundancy—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. By examining these two films together, I can identify a shared ableist theme. I argue that both of them reflect the transhumanist notion that in the effort to evolve, the mind is ultimately required to be released of the limiting confinement of the body. The complexity of the body is never truly acknowledged in the films. To conclude, although manifested in these films in a new way, I recognize the enhancement of a consciousness with no body to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the doctrine of eugenics.

 

References

Allan Kathryn, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Campbell Fiona Kumari, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009).

Cheyne Ria, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Cline Brent Walter, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Ferrando Francesca, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013).

Kafer Alison, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013).

Livingstone David, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015).

Longmore Paul K., Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003).

Mattar Netty, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Mitchell David and Snyder Sharon, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press) (2015).

Mitchell David T. and Snyder Sharon L., Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

Siebers Tobin, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008).

Snyder Sharon L. and Mitchell David T., The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006).

Wolbring Gregor, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008).

Notes

[1] I am grateful to the journal editor Dr. Magda Zdrodowska and to the anonymous reviewers at TransMissions for their constructive comments. I would like to give a special thank you to my adviser Dr. Carrie Sandahl for her encouragement and helpful guidance.

[2] Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)

[3] Her (2013, Spike Jonze )

[4] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

[5] Gregor Wolbring, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008), p. 30.

[6] Gregor Wolbring, p. 32.

[7] Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009), p. 74.

[8] David Livingstone, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015), p. 6.

[9] Alison Kafer, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013), p. 3.

[10] Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003), pp. 131-148.

[11] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press, 2015), p. 127.

[12] Kathryn Allan, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-15.

[13] Kathryn Allan, p. 9.

[14] Brent Walter Cline, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 133.

[15] Brent Walter Cline, p. 131.

[16] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[17] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[18] Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013), p. 27.

[19] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[20] Netty Mattar, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 76.

[21] Brent Walter Cline, p. 140.

[22] Ria Cheyne, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 43.

[23] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006), p. 33.

[24] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. ix.

[25] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 3.

[26] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 26.

[27] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[28] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[29] David Livingstone, p. 6.

[30] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[31] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[32] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[33] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 63.

[34] FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (2015, Regan Brashear)

[35] Aimee Mullins, My 12 pairs of legs, TED Talks, February 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics , date accessed 17 April 2016.

[36] Alison Kafer, p. 27.

[37] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[38] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[39] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 74.

[40] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008), p. 7.

[41] Tobin Siebers, p. 8.

[42] Tobin Siebers, p. 9.

[43] Tobin Siebers, p. 25.

[44] Tobin Siebers, p. 10.

[45] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

[46] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

nili R. Broyer is an international PhD student in the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is a recipient of the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Scholarship Award and a recipient of the Alin Beit Noam Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Disability Studies and Universal Design. Broyer holds an MA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Education and in Sociology and Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently Broyer serves as a teaching assistant in Disability in World Culture and in Disability in American Film at the undergraduate program of Disability and Human Development. She is a scholar-artist and a member of UIC’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities (PDACH), and Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture. Her main research interests include: critical disability studies, disability art and culture, performance studies, feminist theory, and stigma.