THE MEDIUM Volume V * Winter 2017
C o n c o r d i a U n i v e r s i t y â€™ s U n d e r g r a d uat e J o u r na l o f C o m m u n i c at i o n a n d C u lt u r a l S t u d i e s
THE MEDIUM Concordia Universityâ€™s Undergraduate Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies
VOL. V WINTER 2017
Editor-in-Chief Catherine DubĂŠ Editorial board Amanda Macri Kelann Currie-Williams (Editorial Designer)
Steffi Matheos Christopher Czich Marisa Sollazzo Cover Photo
A WORD FROM THE EDITOR
Dear reader, Your COMS Guild (Communication Studies Student Association) is proud to present a collection of exceptional academic endeavors undertaken by students in our undergraduate Communication Studies department in the fifth edition of our very own academic journal, The Medium. As you may already know, The Medium’s creation stems from an effort to showcase and publish the academic work of students from our department, offering an outlet to students to have their efforts recognized by peers and professors. As an association, we believe that highlighting these academic pursuits is indispensable. This year’s scholars adopt a critical perspective on a multitude of issues, ranging from queer cinema to Twitter bots, and we hope you enjoy their work. Sincerely, COMS Guild Steffi Matheos - President Catherine Dubé - VP Cultural Studies, Councillor Kelann Currie-Williams - VP Academic Affairs Amanda Macri - VP Internal/External Affairs Christopher Czich - VP Social Marisa Sollazzo - VP Finance Jamie White - First year representative Julia Crawford - First year representative Matthieu Marin - First year representative
TABLE OF CONTENTS SASKIA KOWALCHUK man, medium, and the world about 4 EMMA FLAVIAN “Our Lives, a Perpetual Sunrise”: The Queer and Ecstatic Times in Carol’s Horizon 8 HARRIS FROST the transhumans of degrassi
14 CATHERINE DUBÉ Emerging News Forms: The Candidate, a Newsgame Analysis 18 DARIO D’ONOFRIO The Trouble with Candid Documentaries: Aesthetics and Exploitation 22 JIHAN MOURAD Phantasmagorical Cult Movies: A Rocky Horror Case Study 26 LARA SIOUI Young Thug, Black Masculinity and the Commodification of Queerness 31 AUDREY NILSSEN A Critique of Craig Thompson’s Habibi 35 KELANN CURRIE-WILLIAMS Liminal spaces as sites for political resistance 38
MAN, MEDIUM, AND THE WORLD ABOUT Saskia Kowalchuk
n September 14th 2011, an unassuming Twitter account sent out a missive that read “You will undoubtedly look back on this moment with shock and”. Although the message appeared fractured and cryptic it was not out of the ordinary for the account in question, known as @Horse_ebooks. The account had a small but dedicated following that enjoyed the frenetic messages the account produced, presumably by way of a spambot. In 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek estimated that bots, providing links for content farm websites and thirdrate e-commerce sites, produce a quarter of all posts on Twitter (Orlean “Man and Machine”). In order to avoid detection from the host site, proprietors ensure the links are accompanied by short messages that attempt to give the account some authenticity. While several Horse_ebooks tweets linked the reader to a site called e-library.net that sells e-books on a variety of topics (including horse training), the fanbase was far more interested in the existential musings of the account. The popular tweets from the account’s early life included such messages as “How to Teach a Horse to Sit, Give a Kiss and Give a Hug” (@Horse_ ebooks) and “Ride the adrenaline surge of being the the man in the thick of the action” (@Horse_ebooks). However, the tweet on September 14th marked a shift in the account’s trajectory that would ultimately see the work of its author displayed in a Manhattan art gallery just two years later. Unlike other Twitter bots that @Horse_ebooks had been presumed to be, this account was actually the work of two comedians - Jacob Bakkila and his creative partner Thomas Bender. The two had been producing absurdist content since they were teens, however the @Horse_ebooks exploit represents a host of questions and anxieties that plague contemporary media producers and critics in the 21st century. By exploring the writings of Norbert Weiner, Alan Turing, Marshall McLuhan and Stuart Hall, I will synthesize an examination of the nature of net-art on Twitter and the relationship between man and machine in creating meaningfully encoded messages on this platform.
In her 2014 article “Man and Machine” for The New Yorker, Susan Orlean followed the slow burn of Bakilla and Bender’s creative career, beginning with the student play Cowboy in high school and terminating in their Bear Stearns Bravo project of 2013; an interactive video series designed to critique modern capitalism. Throughout their history working together, the two friends strove to create bizarre and unsettling work that questioned the form of popular media. For example, in 2008 they created a film entitled “This is My Milwaukee” that, shot in the style of a tourism video, implies that the entire Milwaukee area had previously been contaminated by a chemical spill although the city on screen is quite obviously Manhattan. In playing with the nuances of the medium, Bakilla came to the idea of taking on the role of a Twitter bot as an extended piece of experimental performance art. The difficulty was that Bakilla wanted an existing bot account with a following that he would use to affirm his ability to convince Twitterusers of his authentic bot status. He set his sights on the @Horse_ebooks account after stumbling upon it and delighting in its fragmented tone. He was eventually able to track down the owner of both the Twitter and account and the e-library.net domain. The Russian web developer agreed to let Bakilla have the account if he bought $250,000 worth of e-books from the site. Bakilla agreed to the transaction and began his experiment on September 14th 2011, using scraps and snippets of text from the e-books he had bought to recreate the unique tone the account possessed. While Twitter’s antispam software may not always be able to identify a bot when it sees one, any ordinary human user will most likely spot one instantly. The chopped phrasing, bizarre syntax, and unexpected capitalization combine with an attempt at an urgent and enticing tone to render a mystifying and sometimes hilarious result. This underwhelming reality is slightly less problematic than some of the visions espoused by Norbert Weiner in his seminal work on cybernetics “Men, Machines, and the World About,” however
they are no less symptomatic. Weiner asserts, The new industrial revolution which is taking place right now consists primarily in replacing human judgement and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine. The machine appears now, not as a source of power, but as a source of control and communication. We communicate with the machine, and the machine communicates with us. Machines communicate with one another. Energy and power are not the proper concepts to describe this new phenomenon. (71)
As such, we understand that a Twitter bot is a machine that tries to reproduce the behaviour of a human writer by replacing them. Weiner goes on to outline his anxiety surrounding human subservience to the machine, and begins to identify the danger of thinking machines or artificial intelligence. He urges the reader not to forget that there is no reasoning with the machine, that “when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle” (Weiner 72). Though Weiner is concerned primarily with the capacity of both man and machine to carry out certain tasks, he does not outline a methodology for evaluating the machine’s accuracy in recreating the behaviour at hand. However, considering the work of Alan Turing provides a compelling evaluative strategy. In his paper “Computing, Machinery and Intelligence” Turing introduces The Imitation Game. The game is a challenge designed to be carried out in order to answer the question ‘can machines think?’ A questioner and a digital computing machine are placed in separate rooms; the questioner poses a series of questions that the computer must answer. At the end of the game the computer will have passed if the questioner is convinced that the respondent is, in fact, human. While this guarantees with no certainty that the computer can truly think, it does provide a useful framework for evaluating the authenticity of a Twitter bot. Instead of a questioner in need of convincing, the bot encounters the entirety of Twitter’s user-ship. Instead of a line of questions designed to expose artificial intelligence, the bot repeatedly answers the question posed by Twitter’s new post bar: ‘What’s happening?’ If a reader was then to evaluate the authenticity of the @Horse_ ebooks bot’s human behaviour and ask herself ‘Am I reading the tweets of a human being?’ the answer would almost certainly be no, with the uncanny
phrasing and suspicious hyperlinks undoubtedly giving it away. However when Bakilla began tweeting in the style of the @Horse_ebooks bot, he intentionally aroused an irresistible question in his audience; ‘Am I reading the tweets of a machine?’ Turing himself maintains that a man cannot convince someone he is a machine, “If the man were to try and pretend to be the machine he would make a very poor showing. He would be given away at once by slowness and inaccuracy in arithmetic” (Turing 435). However, one might suggest that Turing had never envisioned a paradigm in which a human would take over for a flawed artificial intelligence in hopes of recreating its imperfection. Furthermore, with missives as faulty and entertaining as a tweet reading “Everything happens so much” (@Horse_ebooks), Bakilla managed to convince thousands that the account was authentic spam. While Turing’s work is a useful touchstone in understanding the veracity of Bakilla’s performance as a spambot, it has no specific bearing on why the performance was successful. While Turing is concerned with the production and reception of messages between two parties as a means of deception, Marshall McLuhan is concerned with the messages themselves. For McLuhan the unity of form and function is paramount, and therefore his work “The Medium is the Message” provides an illuminating vantage point from which to examine @ Horse_ebooks as performance art. McLuhan asserts that in mediating an environment of communication, a point of articulation is created to understand the alteration of social conditions and human behaviour associated with the medium’s use. In other words, a community such as Twitter that is mediated through the exchange of written directives of 140 characters or less and accessed through an aggregated digital feed will create patterns of behaviour, interaction and expectation unique to the medium. Understanding media as a point of articulation is ultimately an acknowledgement of the evolution of practices in communication that sublimated in the moment of a medium’s emergence. McLuhan declares, “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” (McLuhan 18). Essentially, readers of the @Horse_ ebooks account (before Bakilla took it over) were conditioned to expect a series of fragmented and nonsensical missives with the occasional, randomly insightful exception. In adhering to the established
form of a spambot, Bakilla was then able to insert purposefully crafted messages and manipulate his followers’ reception. Readers of the account knew to look for meaning in the randomness, therefore tweets like “Demand Furniture” (@Horse_ebooks) appear deeply meaningful. Furthermore, the significance of his choice to mimic a bot becomes apparent when one considers what the possible reception of the tweets would have been had Bakilla provided transparency in their production. In order to understand the phenomenon surrounding the reception of the Horse_ebooks tweets it is crucial to consult the work of Stuart Hall in his paper “Encoding, Decoding.” Hall sets out a method to interpret the assigned meanings with which producers and consumers imbue a given text. He states, “the moments of ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’ though only ‘relatively autonomous’ in relation to the communicative process as a whole, are determinate moments.” (Hall 129). Hall goes on to identify encoding procedures as present in production and circulation, while decoding is presen in reception and reproduction of cultural texts. Traditionally Hall’s framework can be applied to examine the ideologies present in mass broadcasting of media from both encoding and decoding positions. In the case of @Horse_ebooks however, it is more useful to examine the relations of production of the messages and the dissonance between the audience and producer’s understanding of it. For many @Horse_ebooks readers the joy of the account came from assuming it was artificially generated. Susan Orlean herself remarks, “I assumed that it was machine-made, since it sounded both brash and illogical, like a self-help book that had been run through a shredder.” (“Man and Machine”). Meanwhile Bakilla was painstakingly crafting each missive, searching for hours through the ebooks he had bought to find the perfect excerpt. While his audience viewed messages like “Unfortunately, as your probably already know, people” (@Horse_ ebooks) as moments of serendipity and delicious happenstance, in reality they represented the genius and intuitiveness of Bakilla’s imitation. It is the lack of transparency that then created meaning because, as Hall states, “before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a need, or be put to a ‘use’, it must first be appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded. It is the set of decoded meanings which ‘have an effect’” (Hall 130). It is therefore the audience that produces a meaningful interpretation
of the work. Without them, Bakilla’s carefully structured nonsense would echo through the void without significance. Furthermore, the means of production give the work meaning by virtue of its technological reproducibility. @Horse_ebooks succeeded because readers could become producers when they retweeted, replied, or re-appropriated the work for their own means. As with Dada-ism before it, net-art defies the classical valuations of art to create an ephemeral and decidedly kitsch product. As Walter Benjamin remarked of Marcel Duchamp and his contemporaries, “what they achieved by such means was a ruthless annihilation of the aura in every object they produced, which they branded as a reproduction through the very means of its production” (Benjamin 39). The meaning of @Horse_ebooks as art is therefore predicated on the interplay between audience and means of production. The reader is apprehended by outrage and disbelief upon encountering a tweet; the virtual meaninglessness and ease of interaction subsequently delight and inspire their imagination. For a little over two years (742 days) Jacob Bakilla tirelessly tweeted messages to a global following. To end the project, however, he and his creative partner Thomas Bender wanted a spectacle. Several months out from their end date Bender began dropping hints on his sister project “Pronunciation Manual” on YouTube. The culmination of the years of work was to be a choose-your-own-adventure style video project called Bear Stearns Bravo, which acted as a critique of Wall Street’s culture and its role in the 2008 financial crisis. The two rented gallery space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side where they would set up phones that readers could call to hear them read a spam-thought, while looping video from Bravo would play on the walls. On September 24th 2013 @Horse_ebooks sent two final messages; the first was the phone number of the gallery they had rented, the second simply read “Bear Stearns Bravo.” (@Horse_ebooks) As news of the reveal began to spread across the Internet, reactions varied. While some felt betrayed, calling the entire experience a ‘hoax’, others felt inspired by the performative fiction they had witnessed. Ultimately, as Orlean points out, both reactions were intended; “Net art often makes use of ambiguous identity and deliberate misdirection. By definition, it examines the nature of our relationship to machines, and the notion that machines or computer systems might be closer to sentience than we realize” (“Man and Machine”).
The @Horse_ebooks account remains on Twitter even now, and though it hasn’t produced a new tweet in over three years still retains almost 200,000 followers. Its brief moment in the spotlight was much more than cheap entertainment. It was a deeply deliberate and meaningful experiment into the nature of the rapidly changing digital landscape of online communications. For those individuals who occupy themselves with questions of authorship, ownership, and art in the 21st century it was a flawless critique. Perhaps Bakilla summed it up best saying, “As you might know, I am a full time Internet” (@Horse_ebooks).
Orlean, Susan. “Man and Machine.” The New Yorker, 10 Feb. 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/10/manand-machine-2. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016. Turing, Alan. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950, pp. 433-460. Wiener, Norbert. “Men, Machines, and the World About.” The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Nick Montfort, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 65-72.
WORKS CITED Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings et al., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 19-55. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding-Decoding.” Culture, Media, Language, edited by Stuart Hall et al., Hutchison, 1980, pp. 128-138. @Horse_ebooks “How to Teach a Horse to Sit, Give a Kiss and Give a Hug” Twitter, 6 Feb. 2011, 10:20 a.m. https://twitter.com/ Horse_ebooks/status/34270162060312577?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw @Horse_ebooks “Ride the adrenaline surge of being the the man in the thick of the action.” Twitter, 30 Aug. 2011, 9:03 a.m. https:// twitter.com/Horse_ebooks/status/108540288489881600?lang=en @Horse_ebooks “You will undoubtedly look at this moment with shock and” Twitter, 14 Sept. 2011, 9:05 a.m. https://twitter.com/ Horse_ebooks/status/113976583752134656?ref_ src=twsrc%5Etfw @Horse_ebooks “As you might know, I am a full time Internet” Twitter, 24 Feb. 2012, 1:20 p.m. https://twitter.com/horse_ ebooks/status/173125168422588417?lang=en @Horse_ebooks “Everything happens so much” Twitter, 28 Jun. 2012, 3:23 p.m., https://twitter.com/horse_ebooks/ status/218439593240956928?lang=en @Horse_ebooks “Unfortunately, as you probably already know, people” Twitter, 25 Jul. 2012, 2:41 a.m. https://twitter.com/ horse_ebooks/status/228032106859749377?lang=en @Horse_ebooks “Demand Furniture” Twitter, 15 Sept. 2013, 11:56 a.m. https://twitter.com/horse_ebooks/status/3792876512 55205890 @Horse_ebooks “Bear Stearns Bravo” Twitter, 24 Sept. 2013, 9:01 a.m. https://twitter.com/Horse_ebooks/status/382505058962644993 ?lang=en McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message.” Understanding Media, edited by Marshall McLuhan, McGraw-Hill, 1964, pp. 7-21.
“OUR LIVES, A PERPETUAL SUNRISE”: THE QUEER AND ECSTATIC TIMES IN CAROL’S HORIZON
lose to the ninety minute mark of Carol (2015), Todd Haynes’ sprawling, soft-spoken adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, its lovers—the soon-to-be divorcée Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the young photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara)—finally comply with the rules of the romantic genre and consummate their courtship (Krzywinska, 2006, p. 50; White, 2015, p. 13). Or, in Patricia White’s astute terminology, finally “are” lesbians (White, 2015, p. 14), after more than half the film has been spent on probing, longing looks and leaps of hope and faith hidden in mundane questions. In the scene, Carol stands behind Therese at the vanity of their (shared) motel room. Both in their robes, they toast to the New Year as, from the radio, a crackling rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” anchors the temporal scape. Carol runs her hands through Therese’s hair and shares with her the loneliness of her previous holiday seasons, defined by her duties as hostess during her husband’s parties. Meeting Carol’s historic, contextually specific mode of loneliness1 with a universally felt and historically untethered affective experience, Therese replies that her New Years were often spent “alone, in crowds.” “I’m not alone this year,” she concludes, taking Carol’s hand in hers—a comforting gesture, its meaning obvious. “I am not alone, so you are not alone either; we are together (we will not be alone any longer).” Silence passes between them and, without taking her eyes from Therese’s in the mirror, Carol pulls on the string from her robe; on the radio, the voice of the broadcaster rises above the brass melody: “And I’m looking up now, as the snow comes drifting down, and I see a pale winter moon over Times Square in Manhattan as this New Year starts its lumbering journey into eternity.” Slowly, Therese moving up to meet her, Carol bends down to her face; they kiss. The man’s voice on the radio blurs, and his last word, “eternity,” hangs over the remnant of the shot as the lovers reach for each other. Here, the meeting of a fixed, historicized time and a temporality which reaches beyond the moment, and defines itself by a historical
unboundedness and an experience of time transcending the present—Therese’s juxtaposition of her form of loneliness with Carol’s, the paradoxical link made by the broadcaster between the New Year (a singular point in time) and the unbroken and unfathomable stretch of Eternity, and even Therese’s “I’m not alone this year,” which in its comforting present implicitly reaches into hers and Carol’s future and makes a wish of companionship, an end to their lonelinesses—not only serve as temporal frame for the moment shared between Carol and Therese; it announces, and ushers in, the queerness of Carol and of its lovers. Carol and Therese’s symbolical moment of “being” lesbians (White, 2015, p. 14), which justifies and defines the entire film—as it is both waited on by the audience, and the source of conflict for the dénouement—takes shape within the particular construct of a queer time and the differed and different relationalities built upon it. Their love, embodied through the ecstasy of queer sex, lives in the pull between temporalities (past, present, and future). In this scene is the utopian and queer ethos of Carol epitomized. I aim, in this paper, to deconstruct the mechanisms which form this queer ethic and suffuse both this representative scene and the rest of the film with a forward-moving ideality of queerness (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). Focusing, through a discussion of the time of Carol and the relationalities (both inter-textual and meta-textual) on which it builds, on a reading of Haynes’ film as not only undeniably queer, but as forming a political framework for a new, perhaps less contemporarily prevailing (Muñoz, 2009, p. 4) but, as I’ll argue, rather more politically useful form of queerness—that which José Esteban Muñoz, in his final book Cruising Utopia (2009), calls to as a healing hermeneutic of hope and futurity (Muñoz, 2009, p. 12). Arguing for a queer reading of Carol may, at first brush, seem redundant, perhaps even oxymoronic; Carol is so obviously about lesbian love. But, as exhibited in Muñoz’s plentiful work and critique, we must, when discussing queerness identify it as an intensely polysemous field—as,
of course, must any field which carries its quasiunique and possibly paradoxical task of speaking in the name of a community, and arguing for the various and dissonant individualities which mark it (Muñoz, 2009, p. 31). Queerness, both in its literal signification2 and in its aims and politics, diverges according, in most cases, to the needs and positionalities of its subjects and theorists. Where, for instance, Lee Edelman and his book No Future (2004) call for a return to the present as locus of queerness, in defiance to the call to futurity which, according to him, structures heteronormativity3, Muñoz, in his own book, challenges in this presentist turn what he sees as a reliance on the pragmatism of the contemporary gay rights movement, which satisfies itself in the “minimal transports” of a “broken down present” (Muñoz, 2009, p. 11). Queerness, in his words, must not be proscribed to futurity, instead it must be given to it; imagined in it; understood as epitomized within it. Only then, through the positioning of queerness as an ideality, can the future—and queerness itself— gain back its incentive for change, its performative dimension, its political cachet (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1); only then, he writes, can we get away from both the pessimism and the pragmatism which, though diametrically opposed in ideology, dominates discourses and frameworks of an anti-relational queer theory, and a homonormative gay community (Duggan, 2003, p. 50; Muñoz, 2009, p. 10). A queer reading of Carol, thus, holds many potentialities of enunciation, and many possibilities for theorizations. On some level, a reading of Carol through the lenses of homonormativity is not outlandish; much like Brokeback mountain (2005) as preliminarily described by Heather Love (Love, 2007, p. 54), Carol finds its source in a past which renders queerness nearly impossible and most definitely unspeakable4. It focuses on the romance of a self-actualization into queer desire, and the consequences for its consummation5; it touts capitalist discourses of class mobility6, but more than anything, it is Carol’s happy ending, in which the lovers reunite and implicitly accept a life together, that carries the mark of the homonormative strain (Love, 2007, p. 54). A happy ending which, as Sara Ahmed notes, has often been taken to signify, in its single moment, the happiness of the whole— along with responsibilities of endorsement of gay lives, and questions of queer representability— in a hermeneutic of happiness which posits it as inherently desirable (Ahmed, 2010, p. 89). A
happy ending which, in homonormative thought and communities, often comes to encompass the hopes of queerness, in the romance of monogamy and conjugal life which it infers (Love, 2007, p. 53). A happy ending which, in its positioning as the end of a fight increasingly marked as unnecessary, refuses to queer happiness its political salience; and confines it, in homonormativity’s return to the assimilationist narrative of mundanity and commonality (Sullivan, 2003, p. 23), and to a dated division of the private and the public sphere (Sullivan, 2003, p. 24), to the locus of the unpolitical. And yet, I argue, Carol, though alluding to the frameworks of homonormative-compliant fiction, holds in the ethics of its queerness none of its beliefs—and may, in addition, transcend the similar de-politicization of happiness towards which, though for diametrically opposite (and oppositional) reasons, recent queer theories have turned themselves (Muñoz, 2009, p. 9). Indeed, while the commitment of queer theory to critiques of the framework constituting heteronormativity— of which, as Ahmed so masterfully points out, the orientating and naturalizing promise of happiness is an essential component (Ahmed, 2010, p. 90)— have done much for the field (and must necessarily inform, I believe, any argumentation for their potential recuperation and assimilation within queer life-worlds), I find, like Muñoz, a limit to the political capacity of pessimism (Muñoz, 2009, p. 11). Or, at least, find it of equal importance to seek optimisms which aren’t mired in the willful blindness of homonormativity, but which offer, in the Blochian terminology upon which Muñoz builds his text, an educated hope - cognizant of the needs of the community for whose end an utopia is imagined (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3).7 And though I similarly share with Muñoz his disregard of the radical as necessarily new, righteous, or extremist in formulating political injunctions for queerness (Muñoz, 2009, p. 10), I do wonder if there isn’t truly a place for happiness to be, in certain contexts, imbued and re-inscribed with radicalism, as was unhappiness and tragedy in the texts of Ahmed and Love. For if we are to consider the capacity for queer unhappiness, in a capitalist social economy which calls compulsorily and without pause for our happiness (Love, 2007, p. 54), as being radical enough to save Brokeback mountain from its denomination as a film born of homonormativity (Love, 2007, p. 55), could the opposite sentiment not hold true? Could
happiness—savage, defiant, queer happiness—in the face of an academic strain which calls for queer unhappiness (Love, 2007, p. 58)—not merely in its historical “then,” but now, through our presentist gaze to it—not be considered an affect of equal radicalism? Could it not allow for the envisioning of a queer utopia potentially as politically relevant as the recent turn towards politics of unhappy affects— and as essential as these may be? But, it is more than this—more than the spirit of the text. It is, importantly, the mode and frame of Carol’s inscribed happiness, moving so far beyond the mere scope of that of its ending, which holds its radicalism. Carol’s means and moments of conveying happiness—and the meanings which it deftly associates with this positive affect—embody a utopianism the likes of which closely resembles the “anticipatory illumination of art” described by Muñoz as elements of a surplus within texts (and most especially texts of the past), which allow for a glimpse into the not-there-yet (that is, the future) where utopian potentialities resides, where new modes of desiring and relationalities may be discovered, and where queerness, as Muñoz maintains, may be found (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3). Such a utopian vision of queerness, and of Carol, must be tied to the methodology of its look backwards, into the queer past which Love characterizes as informative specifically of queer heartbreaks, queer tragedies, and negative queer affects, and which must be honored in remembrance of the past upon which our queer present is built (Love, 2007, p. 8). This, in effect, was what I intended in my assertion that the critical attention to affects—whether good or bad—in queer theory must be taken with us as we move towards a more queerly ecstatic celebration of the queer past. As Bloch delineates, a utopia which is not founded on educated hope holds no more salience than an abstract indulgence of optimism (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3). In the case of Carol, as in much of the examples given in Muñoz’ text, the specific historical, social, and discursive moment of the queer past and relationalities they depict is of capital importance in the production and reception of the utopian feeling (Muñoz, 2009, p. 3). Much like the poems of O’Hara, which hold in Muñoz’ analysis that affect surplus which signifies the illumination of queerness (Muñoz, 2009, p. 7), it is specifically the cognizance and acknowledgement of the repressive, brokendown present of Carol which allows it to become our utopian past (Muñoz, 2009, p. 12)—one full of potentialities inscribing hopes for the future.
The moment of queerness of Carol and of its protagonists, Carol and Therese, is early postwar America—the year 1952, a moment before, as White points out, America’s “salubrious” turn to the suburban ideal (White, 2015, p. 8) which infuses and is queered by Haynes in his previous postwar work, Far from heaven. Very little ties these two films visually; where Carol is understated, and keeps its emotions below the volume to which Hollywood cinema has accustomed us, Far from heaven, whose moment White describes in one well-chosen word as “garish” (White, 2015, p. 8), builds its visuals on the melodramatic force of emotions and affects (Luciano, 2007, p. 250). And yet, one fundamental commonality may help to understand the language of Carol’s queerness; Haynes, in both these films, engages not so much with a moment of queerness, but with the discourses and representations which populated it. Far from heaven is a simple case to make, and one which Dana Luciano, in profoundly exploring the influences of Sirk’s cinematography and thematics, and the ways in which Haynes either plays them straight or queer, helpfully foregrounded (Luciano, 2007, p. 250). If the queer moment of the late 1950s and its paroxysmal puritanism demanded a glance backward which epitomized queerness as the bellowing, dramatic rupture of an unstable ideal of heterosexual, nuclear life (Luciano, 2007, p. 250), Carol’s recovering America seems to call rather to queerness as the silent spectatorship which haunted dark movie theaters, imagined queer potentialities onto the lives on screen, and spoke in their muted language of gossip and whispers (Weiss, 1991, p. 283; White, 1999, p. 9). I view this demarcation between queer lives and queer representations, in analyzing Haynes’ queer reconstructions, as essential. For as important as Carol’s silences and explorations of an attachment which cannot find anchor in norm or names are, that they should come to epitomize or historically represent 1950s lesbian modes of relationalities as a whole poses the ethical problem of a disavowal of alternative modes of queer lives and lesbianism, and of the possibilities for enunciation of desire lesbians of the 1950s may have had. To view Carol’s language of queerness, however, as commenting upon and engaging with the representational strategies of 1950s queerness, and exploring the relational possibilities of these strategies, may yield much more interesting conclusions as to both its significance and its reach into the future.
I speak of language; and yet, Carol’s queerness is silent. By this, I mean to say that Carol’s queerness inhabits the silences between its lovers; lives not in the words they speak to each other, but the words which are not spoken—which are markedly felt as missing from their sparse, often mundane conversations. Much like in the scene first described - where the film’s climactic moment of embodied queerness is called forward in the implied within Therese and Carol’s statements, and in the heavy, expressive silence during which Carol disrobes then kisses Therese - their relationship exists in the state of non-being that is queerness’s domain (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). This of course allows for queerness’s potentialities to appear limitlessly, unrestrained by the repressive structure of naming which Michel Foucault describes in his theorization of confession and Judith Butler quotes in her discussion of the limitation of interpellation and self-representation which inhabits the enunciation of “lesbian” (Butler, 2004, p. 121; Foucault, 1978, p. 60). I do not wish, in writing these words, to imply that the words Carol and Therese do speak to each other, and the actions which they engage in, are not of primordial importance to a reading of their relationship. For if their love and desire can only express itself in the words they do not share8, it is the seeming innocuousness, the mundanity, the commonality of the spoken words and actions which surround them which gives them their power and significance. Much like O’Hara’s poem of queer relationality “Having a Coke with You,” it is specifically in the disjunct between the commonness of the experience, and the seeming depth of the affect felt, that a queer relationality and utopian potentiality is inscribed (Muñoz, 2009, p. 6). Just like, despite poetic liberty, O’Hara’s wonderment does not stray from the simple joy of drinking a coke with a loved one, Carol and Therese’s honest pleasure in each other’s company (and heightened pain during their separations) cannot be taken into account solely through the unsaid and what they may communicate through it—but must, necessarily, account for the mode of the mundane through which this affect passes (Muñoz, 2009, p. 6). This could (and, to an extent, should), be taken as commentary on the discursive restrictions which permeated and, in ways, limited actualizations of queer desires in Carol’s era (White, 1999, p. 2). As another example of the creativity which, needs must, lesbians had to (and still must) employ in order to render their desires readable in
their own languages, without being encroached by the structures of “knowingness” Sedgwick brings up in her essay on divinity, and which attach potentially unwanted meanings to the mere idea of gay, lesbian, and otherwise queer identities (Moon & Sedgwick, 1990-1991, p. 20). But, more importantly, I want to read this omnipresence of an affective surplus in the film as not merely a necessity, but as a mode of associating discursively the joyous potentiality of utopian affect and queerness (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). There is no watching Carol without identifying queerness as the underlying motivator of most, if not all, of Carol and Therese’ interaction. Or rather, there is no emotionally connected way of watching Carol without taking into account this surplus of affect; a reading of the text which remains at the surface of what Carol and Therese say to each other may well wonder at some of the women’s more intense moments of emotional expressions, or at the verbal affirmations of care and devotion which manifests themselves towards the last third of the film—possibly seeming rushed, or disingenuous, to spectators unused to infusing, or simply inferring, queerness within innocuoussounding speech acts (Weiss, 1991, p. 288). Patricia White, in her excellent essay on Carol, bypasses this problem of credulity in a reading of the film linking it to a historical fantasy of lesbian subjectivity. The immediate attraction and connection tying Therese and Carol together is subsumed to the ability of the fantasy subject (that is, Therese, a “somewhat improbable magnet for a society housewife’s attention,” whose mind we enter for the majority of the film) to gain the love of its object of desire—in her framework, Carol as fantasy of the older, beautiful woman seduced and seducing the author (or viewer, where for once she is assumed to be the young lesbian and not the heterosexual male) stand-in (White, 2015, p. 12). While I do considerably enjoy this interpretation, I find myself preferring another reading of this instantaneous, requited, and passionate connection which means to be taken as credible; one in which, in its obvious surplus of affect, it constructs queerness as that which may create relationalities, and infuse mundanity with ecstasy (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). It is granted that, beyond romances of love at first sight, Therese and Carol’s love seems improbable. Very few connects them in any meaningful way; and while they do bond over the shared (though distinct) restrictions imposed upon them by their gender, their class and age divide should, by all measure,
impinge upon their relationality (Muñoz, 2009, p. 14). And yet, it doesn’t. After one conversation, Carol leaves her gloves, consciously or unconsciously meaning for Therese to send them back; and when Therese does, it is clearly in the hope of creating another contact, fleeting as it may be, between herself and Carol. As each subsequent encounter simultaneously foregrounds their differences9 and evades conclusions of a disconnect in favor of signifying the strength of their intangible bond, it becomes clear that where Carol and Therese’s relationship and relationality draws its strength, and perhaps its entire foundation, is very specifically in their mutual desire for each other. In other words, it is their queerness, that invisible marker which they saw in each other—just as the poet can sense the potentiality of utopia in the mundane moment (Muñoz, 2009, p. 7)—which binds them together, creates the affective surplus with which their interactions are imbued, and gains its visibility in the moments where these affects are most at odds with the banality of their encounter, or their differences from each other. Insofar as it is queerness itself, then, which drives Carol and Therese’s relationality—one which serves, throughout the course of the film, to open both of them to pleasures and ecstasies never encountered before—it is thus not a stretch to read Carol’s queerness as significantly tied and involved in the creation (both affective and discursive) of happiness. Happiness not being the compulsory obligation of the “acceptable” gay (Love, 2007, p. 54), but, to come back to the novel from which Carol is based, the “salt” of life for which Carol and Therese joyously pay the price (Highsmith, 1993; White, 2015, p. 8). Or, in Muñoz’s utopian terminology, the “warm illumination of a horizon imbued with possibility,” that which is felt as missing from life and the world and which encourages us in our doing and being queer, for the sake of imagining and creating a utopia in which this queerness may live (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). We cannot talk, then, in Carol, of a strictly textual relationality, occurring solely between Carol and Therese. In our common look back at a past relationality imbued with potentiality, and our aping of modes of spectatorship necessarily calling back to those of the 1950s—albeit, in Haynes’ model, significantly queered—which permit us to read (and perhaps even recognize as our own) the queerness imbued in Carol and Therese’s interactions and orienting both their relationship and thus the film as a whole,
we affect a relationality with Carol and Therese which is not completely distinct with that they share with each other through the sole bond of queerness. Heather Love, in her essay relating the modern strain of compulsory happiness in gay communities to the film Brokeback mountain, calls upon audience reaction as proof of the necessity of the sadness portrayed therein. In the quote upon which she bases her reflection, two groups of (potential) queers are mentioned: old men, ostensibly likelier to relate to the film and the trials of its protagonist, because likelier to have experienced some such kind of unhappiness; and young, liberal teenagers and adults, affecting none of the anticipatory and knowing sadness of the old men (Love, 2007, p. 57). Love centers her discussion on the affect and relationality of the old men to the film: an understandable bias considering the scope of her topic and discussed text (Love, 2007, p. 57). It is, however, on the teenagers and young queers—or, more broadly, on the rather numerous queers alive this day who have not lived through America’s 1950s—that my interest turns to, in terms of relationality; for what, exactly, does the 2016 queer individual have in common with the 1952 lesbian? The answer, perhaps predictably, may be a common sense of the pleasure of queerness; a queerness which, much within Therese and Carol’s relationship, becomes only more apparent as a point of relationality as it, most probably, may be the only explanation for a potential surplus of affect felt when watching Carol and its lesbians fall in ecstatic, honest, and revelatory love. Carol’s queerness thus opens up, as the anticipatory illumination of queer art is wont to do, potentialities of a queerness unbounded from time; existing within the past, and thus imaginable in its utopian potentialities within the future (Muñoz, 2009, p. 6). We may thus reach, through the forwardmotion towards futurity called on by queer art (Muñoz, 2009, p. 7)—of which I hope I have proven Carol to be a salient example—and a reparative, idealistic hermeneutic which, rather than forgo the faults and inadequacies of the present, seeks to resolve them through a commitment to the future and the potentialities of queerness which lie there (Muñoz, 2009, p. 12) - a form of radical thought which need not base itself on the reactionary (though at times critically important) pessimism Muñoz finds in anti-relational and anti-utopian thought (Muñoz, 2009, p. 11). The future, through the past, is not closed to us: it is for us, and
so is happiness, and so are the ecstasies which we may only glimpse at as we find them in our brokendown present (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1). But it is always our choice to move further, as Carol and Therese have, and out of the hold of this stultifying present (Muñoz, 2009, p. 12) - not by rejecting it outright, but by imagining its alternative, embodying different ways of acting, loving, desiring. By not only being but doing queerness; by looking to the horizon (Muñoz, 2009, p. 1), to the perpetual sunrise which Carol promises Therese—that same one which she seems to look to, in her final moment. It is true that, like Carol and Therese, we may never get there. But let this never mean we should stop looking towards the sky.
WORKS CITED Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Butler, J. (2004). Imitation and Gender Insubordination. In S. Salih and J. Butler (Eds.). The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Duggan, L. (2003). The Twilight of Equality. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Edelman, L. (2004). No Future. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books. Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York City, NY: New York University.
That of the 1950s housewife, epitomized by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and translated into film by, amongst many others, Todd Haynes himself in his film Far from heaven (2002).
Highsmith, P. (1993). The Price of Salt. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press.
It has been, and remains, a call to fluidity, in addition to a signifier of the non-heteronormative and heterosexual, in further addition to a rejection of the humanist precepts inherent in the identity politics which dominated, and still do, the field of gay activism (Sullivan, 2003, p. 39). 2
An accordance to the straight time of matrimony and reproduction which casts hope in the flesh of children, away from that of adults, and unreachable for queers (Halberstam, 2005, p. 1). 3
The only moment of enunciation of lesbian desire are in Therese’s negative response to the question “Are you in love with a girl?”and the threatening codes used throughout the legal proceedings of Carol’s divorce. 4
Through the course of their affair, Carol must choose between her daughter and Therese. 5
Therese’s encounter and relationship with Carol leads her from her place behind the counter in a department store to a seat behind a typing machine at a thriving newspaper. 6
Where utopias enact a hopeful look to the future rooted in a criticism and rejection of the present which ought to curtail anti-utopian critiques of excess positivity and idealism (Muñoz, 2009, p. 12). 7
With the exception of key moments—Carol’s “I love you,” the words they speak in bed—all the more shining with honesty for their rarity. 8
Most noticeable in Therese’s youth and inexperience and Carol’s worldly - perhaps feigned- confidence during their first lunch. 9
Krzywinska, T. (2006). Sex and the Cinema. New York City, NY: Wallflower. Love, H. (2007) Compulsory Happiness and Queer Existence. New Formations 63: 52-64 Love, H. (2007) Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Luciano, D. (2007). Coming Around Again: The Queer Momentum in Far from heaven. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 13(2-3): 249-72 . Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York City, NY: New York University Press. Sedgwick, E. K., & Moon, M. (1993). Divinity: a Dossier, a Performance Piece, a Little-Understood Emotion. In E. K. Sedgwick (Ed.), Tendencies (pp. 215-252). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Sullivan, N. (2003). A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York City, New York: New York University Press. Weiss, A. (1991). “A Queer Feeling When I Look At You”: Hollywood Stars and Lesbian Spectatorship in the 1930s. In C. Gledhill (Ed.), Stardom: Industry of Desire (pp. 283-299). London, U.K.: Routledge. White, P. (1999). Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. White, P. (2015) Sketchy Lesbians: Carol as History and Fantasy. Film Quarterly 69(2): 8-18.
THE TRANSHUMANS OF DEGRASSI Harris Frost
hat is the transhuman condition? It can be argued at great lengths whether the idea that our humanity transcends our human flesh is a utopian one, a novel one, or a technophilic one, there is often a tendency to discuss it in larger-thanlife terms. While many acknowledge that the topics affect people in deeply personal ways, the very word “transhumanism” conjures up images of an entire species experiencing world-shattering technological and sociological changes. Likewise, discussions of transhumanism and information technology as depicted in fiction inevitably gravitate towards works of science-fiction - a genre known for dealing with our collective dreams, anxieties and predictions surrounding new technological developments. What is often overlooked however, are works of fiction that seek to depict our technological culture as it is today, without any metaphorical or literary embellishments. In this paper, I will discuss Haraway and Hayles’ notions of the transhuman and the cyborg in the context of the longrunning Canadian teen drama franchise Degrassi. Degrassi occupies an interesting cultural space; it is in many ways how one would imagine a popular teen drama. It features seemingly neverending love triangles, melodrama, shocking character deaths and characters that deeply polarize the fanbase. And yet, despite these elements, Degrassi has since the beginning sought to provide children and teens with a show that depicted real young people (the franchise is notable for almost exclusively casting age-appropriate actors) dealing honestly with issues that young people are likely to deal with. In practice, this aspiration has mixed results, sometimes resulting in very awkward on-the-nose handling of specific issues and other times in quite sensitive, even-handed portrayals of complex topics. Since a Degrassi show has been running for the better part of the past three decades -with 1993 to 2000 representing the gap between the show’s two main iterations- the show has portrayed teenagers growing up in very different cultural and technological landscapes. This has of course
resulted in an ongoing renegotiation of technology’s role both inside and outside the show’s diegesis. This real-time renegotiation is appropriate in light of Hayles’ main thesis outlined in the first chapter of her book How We Became Posthuman. In it, conceives of the notion of posthumanism not as a fixed thing but rather as a continuous shift away from the notion of the “liberal humanist subject” (1999, p. 5) and encompasses many factors other than our increasingly information-based society. Likewise, Haraway’s iconic “A Cyborg Manifesto” champions a similarly bold, but more overtly feminist conception of the posthuman in the form of the cyborg, which emphasizes the problematization of our notion of humanity that has no need for a “unitary identity” (1985, p. 315). Though Hayles’ posthuman and Haraway’s cyborg are not interchangeable – a topic explored by Hayles herself in a later work (2006) - this essay will synthesize the two theories as they both help further our understanding of Degrassi’s connection to the posthuman condition. The focus of our exploration of Degrassi’s portrayal of the posthuman condition will be one of the central story arcs of Degrassi: Next Class’ first season aired in early 2016. The storyline involves grade 11 student and aspiring singer-songwriter Maya Matlin being harassed online for her feminist song lyrics and activism. Though cyberbullying is far from an innovative plot point for Degrassi in 2016, this arc is notable because it deals less with the sort of cyberbullying that is conceived of as an extension of a highschooler’s social life but instead the kind perpetrated by anonymous mobs usually aimed at celebrities or people who are famous in certain circles. In typical Degrassi fashion, characters take the time to explain terms like “doxxing” or “swatting”, with the explanation of the latter even featuring a police officer sternly explaining that the practice is a dangerous waste of police resources. These elements in particular show a willingness by the show to both respond to recent high-profile cases of cyberstalking and cyberharassment, such as Gamergate and the attacks
on comedian Leslie Jones, as well as introduce the topic to audiences who might not be aware of them. Indeed, there is a certain brutishness to the way that gamergate is invoked by the storyline. The ringleader of the online brigade is a character named Hunter, an abrasive young man who is the captain and founder of the school’s competitive gaming club. He targets Maya after she and a group of other students in the Feminist Club successfully convince the principal to shut down the gaming club for their game of choice’s sexualized depiction of female characters and the overall culture of the club. The show’s use of the Gaming Club as a tidy representation of hardcore gaming culture, paired with Maya’s status as an aspiring celebrity - albeit not at all the type of public figure involved in gamergate - help to hammer home some of the more superficial aspects of the harassment campaign. Eventually though, Hunter is exposed as the ringleader and the storyline’s “issue” quickly and somewhat jarringly transitions into a look at Hunter’s current mental health, as he brings a gun to school and is only barely convinced by his brother not to start shooting. What this storyline represents though, is Degrassi’s increasing integration of its characters’ constructed technological identities into the fabric of these characters. Hayles’ description of the cyborg as possessing and (partially being comprised of) “informational pathways connecting the organic body to its prosthetic extensions” (1999, p. 7) is key to envisioning these characters’ relationship to their internet personas. Maya for instance, cannot simply “unplug” from her social media and ignore her harassers as these digital attackers are able to interfere with her physical life as well through the aforementioned doxxing and swatting. Not only that, but her ability to exert control over her social media profiles - an important thing for an up-and-coming musician is compromised by the harassment campaign. This campaign can be seen as interference preventing her from effectively using her digital prostheses. Tied to this envisioning of social media as a sort of social prosthesis is Hayles’ description of the posthuman as “a collectivity, an ‘I’ transformed into a ‘we’ of autonomous agents operating together to make a self” (1999, p. 6). This conception is of course evident in this storyline through Hunter and his allies’ various anonymous online accounts, through Maya’s conflicting desire for both privacy and fame, and perhaps most obviously through social media’s role as a prosthesis that is simultaneously being used
in conflicting ways by Degrassi’s entire student body. Social media websites in Degrassi are not considered discrete objects or spaces with easily defined characteristics. They are instead paradoxically shown both as benign extensions of teens’ lives and as fickle and unpredictable spaces that often prove dangerous. Nowhere is this duality more apparent than the storyline paired with Next Class’ opening sequence, which shows a montage of various Snapchat and Instagram-style photos and videos looking extremely happy and at ease set to the show’s energetic theme song. In Degrassi - both the school and the show - technology is presented as an extension of its students’ lives, as well as a form with its own degree of autonomy. However, much like Haraway’s view that cyborgs do not have a specific moment of creation and instead are continuously and actively being rewritten and/or rewriting themselves (1985), Degrassi’s cyborgs came about gradually. Perhaps the most obvious move towards cyborg identities as they are described by Haraway, which occurs between the show’s two main eras, is the increased emphasis on intersectional identities. In the Degrassi Junior High/Degrassi High era, characters were attached to one identity at a time. While by no means a onedimensional character, Lucy Fernandez for instance only dealt with one issue of her identity per episode. She was a teenage girl, mixed-race, a high-achiever and upper-class. Episodes which were centered on her addressed every element of her identity, but they virtually never intersected - as if each trait existed in its own bubble. Race, for instance, was not treated as a relevant part of character’s life unless that episode dealt with race. While this can in part be attributed to the format of television, we often see characters negotiating different, even conflicting aspects of their identities in the Degrassi: The Next Generation and its continuations. Such characters include Shay Powers, whose sheltered upbringing, Blackness, socio-economic class and extensive body concerns, all contribute to her situation and decisions within her overarching storyline. While Haraway’s rather bold use of the term cyborg to seemingly signify any multidimensional aspect of womanhood, particularly conceptions that acknowledge the role race plays in notions of womanhood (1985, p313), it doesn’t completely disassociate the term from its more traditional meaning. Indeed, both Hayles’ and Haraway’s conceptions of the posthuman state are so widely read and discussed (even decades later in
the case of Haraway) precisely because they “offer a more rigorous, politically and socially rooted body of work from which the difficult task to imagining the future may begin” (Thacker, 2003, p. 80). And in order to imagine this future, we must first understand the way we view and interact with information technology today. Applying Haraway’s emphasis on intersectionality (to use an anachronistic but applicable term) and Hayles’ similar notion of the transhuman self as a collectivity to our main topic of this story arc is constructive for this reason. Hunter, our most blatant example of a cyborg in the show interacts with his beloved technology according to his identities as a boy, as a likely sufferer of mental illness, as a gamer and as a member of the upper-class (his father is the mayor of Toronto). Perhaps most cyborgian of this collectivity of identities is the notion of a gamer, a term that is entirely contextualized by one’s relationship with technology. But the more enlightening way of looking at this character’s transhumanism is not simply by looking at his psychology, but at the cultural, ideological, and technological factors that inform the audience’s understanding of these characters and situations. When Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered in 2001, the central storyline in its first episode was rather predictably centered around the new dangers posed by children being on the internet. In it, the main character, twelve year-old Emma is infatuated with her online pen-pal whom she decides to meet in-person despite her friends’ insistence that it could be dangerous. The pen-pal, surely enough, ends up being a grown man who is prevented from molesting her by her friends’ decision to tell her mother about the meeting. In addition to the classic catfishing horror tale, the episode shows Emma constantly anxious about being away from her computer for too long, fearing that her pen-pal will lose interest or that she’ll miss out on something. Yet despite this hamfisted cautionary tale about unsupervised IM’ing, the internet is also shown as a source of wonder and limitless possibility. The opening scene shows Emma’s mother looking nostalgically at the site Emma has built for the former’s high school reunion. And Degrassi’s staff proudly boasts about the school’s new computer lab as an exciting teaching tool. In many ways, Degrassi joins the information age already in progress, with the mythology of the internet as a worthwhile yet potentially overwhelming and sinister space to explore.
Yet the true arrival of the posthuman in Degrassi occurs when the internet is no longer viewed as a space that only people like Emma or media immersions teacher Mr. Simpson can navigate, nor one that is tied to specific physical places like people’s homes or the school’s computer lab. Building on Hayles’ description of digital and cybernetic technology as a prosthesis, Willim describes the process by which we adapt to and internalize new technologies. He writes, “Artefacts that feel strange when we first meet them are sucked into the concurrent messyness and inconspicuousness of everyday practices” (Willim, 2007, p.675), and as such, he very appropriately describes the show’s evolving portrayal of communications technology in the years following Next Generation’s first appearance. Indeed, by the time of Next Class, there are no physical spaces free from the internet and there is no distinction between internet users and nonusers. Social media and smartphones are ubiquitous and rather mundane, only occasionally put into the viewers’ crosshairs. This is not to say that the show has fully embraced the posthuman or the cyborg. This portrayal of transhumanist teens is by no means entirely complete, as there are certainly storylines and characters in the show that have yet to reveal themselves as truly post- or transhuman. However, it is still admirable that a show like Degrassi, for all its melodramatic indulgences, at least makes an earnest attempt to understand how young people construct their identities in relation to information technology, even if this understanding challenges notions of the Self that were taken for granted by previous generations. It seems extremely unlikely that the showrunners of Degrassi would describe their characters as cyborgs or as posthumans, but that is part of why it is so interesting to look at them through that lens. Degrassi’s depictions have always been imperfect, and their depiction of the posthuman condition is no exception. It is however a valuable media artifact that is not afraid to continually reconstruct its identity.
Brogen, S., Walker, C. J., & Williams, S. (Producers). (2016, January). Degrassi: Next Class [Television series]. Family. Brogen, S. & Lowe, D. (Producers). (2001). Degrassi: The Next Generation [Television series]. CTV. Haraway, D. J. (1985). Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s. Socialist Review, (80), 65â€“108. Hayles, N. K. (1999). Toward an Embodied Virtuality. In How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (pp. 1-24). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Hayles, N. K. (2006). Unfinished Work From Cyborg to Cognisphere. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(7-8), 159-166. Thacker, E. (2003). Data Made Flesh: Biotechnology and the Discourse of the Posthuman. Cultural Critique, (53), 72-97. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354625 Willim, R. (2007). Walking The Cognisphere: Navigation and Digital Media on The Go. In Inter: A European Cultural Studies: Conference in Sweden 11-13 June 2007 (No. 025, pp. 667-676). LinkĂśping University Electronic Press.
EMERGING NEWS FORMS: THE CANDIDATE, A NEWSGAME ANALYSIS Catherine Dubé
ewsgames have emerged as a promising new form of digital storytelling, according to Chris O’Brien in his exploration of newsgames and their place in newsrooms (para. 2). They offer a new way for journalism to contribute to democracy by simulating how the world works rather than merely describing the four “w”s (Bogost para. 4). Created in response to current events, newsgames could become an important component of how people come to understand news (Treanor & Mateas 1). In order to delve deeper into the environment of newsgames as a new form of journalistic storytelling, I have chosen to analyze the game The Candidate. The Candidate is part of the newsgame genre because it uses a game experience in order to convey news content (O’Brien para. 1). John Osborn D’Agostino states he created The Candidate as a way to combine journalistic storytelling and gaming elements in order to better inform people about “systems” such as the congressional elections – specifically, the 2014 off-year elections in the United-States (Osborn D’Agostino para. 3-4). According to O’Brien, “at their highest end, … newsgames are particularly optimal for exploring and explaining topics and stories that involve complex systems” (para. 13). Indeed, The Candidate attempts to simulate the complex system surrounding the congressional elections in 2014 in order for the player to understand and be better informed about these elections and American politics in general. In order to analyze the newsgame The Candidate, I will first deconstruct and explore its formal qualities, by elucidating how the procedural rhetoric of the game works to present the issues involved in the congressional elections. The second half of this analysis will focus on the journalistic value of the game, to determine and evaluate the extent to which The Candidate as a newsgame helps participants to understand issues within congressional elections, in comparison to a traditional news story. According to Treanor and Mateas, newsgames have the potential to persuade and inform players through procedural rhetoric (3).
Procedural rhetoric, as described by Bogost, signifies “persuading through process”, or persuading through rules and player goals (cited in Treanor & Mateas 3). Indeed, procedural rhetoric refers to the way in which ideology is built into a game’s structure, or a game’s rules, in order to persuade the player of a particular point of view (Bogost cited in Mateas 3). In other words, values are encoded into the game’s rules, and the player understands the editorial “point” of the game, or the meaning of the game, by enacting this rule system (Treanor & Mateas 3). In order to analyze the procedural rhetoric of The Candidate, I will first give an overview of its rules. The Candidate is a choose-your-own adventure game. Osborn D’Agostino describes the goal of The Candidate as successfully negotiating “the various obstacles that candidates face when running for office, while also seeking to gain support and encourage (or discourage) the turnout of different voter groups” (para. 2). In order to do this, the player must first fill out the “candidate registration form” by giving a name and a gender (male or female) to their character. Once this is done, the player must pick a political party (republican or democrat) and select only one primary issue from a list of nine issues. For example, if the character is democrat, they can choose climate action or the right to choose, and a republican character can choose climate denial or foetal rights. The player is repeatedly presented with binaries, the most significant one being the republican vs. democrat binary because this choice will affect the rest of the game. The beginning of The Candidate simulates the choices a congressional candidate must make when registering. The point or meaning of this simulation is to show to which extent the choices available to you as a congressional candidate are limited, as they must chose between being male or female, republican or democrat. The game also argues the choices become even more limited once you pick a side, because if you are republican, the primary issues available to you are the exact opposite of the primary issues
available to the democratic candidates. Once the player makes these preliminary choices, they can continue to the next step. The game informs the player that they are beginning their campaign in June 2014. The player is then asked to pick four of the six challenges presented to them in order to move on to the next month. They must make a decision on each challenge even if they do not want to (in other words, it is impossible to optout of a challenge the player has already picked). Each decision the player makes during a challenge can affect their character’s campaign money, their voter support, the voter turnout, and the character’s issue stances. For example, arrows will show how the voter support has changed based on the decision made during a challenge. Some of the challenges are, for example, an “Issue Challenge”, where the player is asked to adopt a stance on a random issue, or a “Fundraising Challenge”, where the game proposes different ways to raise funds or meet with lobbyists. Once the player has moved on to the next month, they must continue to pick challenges until election day arrives, and they can find out if their character got elected to congress. Each time the player clicks on a challenge, a box pops up with an illustration of a person that represents a voter group, a special interest group, or someone who works on the character’s campaign. Next to the illustration is a text bubble stating what the person is asking from the candidate or recommending they do. Another text bubble in a different, smaller font appears under the first, giving more details about the issue at hand, or the voter group the candidate is dealing with. The player must then pick a response from a list of two or three choices. The text bubbles in the challenge boxes present the player with a narrative or story, contextualizing the decisions they must make. In turn, each challenge box explains what issues or groups are at stake and it details the things the player needs to take into consideration when making a decision. The narratives the game provides in the challenge boxes help the player understand the issues involved in the congressional elections and how these issues could affect their decisions. The decisions the player must then make in the game attempts to simulate the strategies congressional candidates choose to adopt during the real elections. The player must not only read the informational text bubbles mentioned before, but also act upon them and make choices in order to win. In other words, the game simulates how the congressional election
campaigns work rather than merely describing it (Bogost para. 4). The procedural rhetoric of the game thus emphasizes how complicated (and sometimes difficult) it is to negotiate between different voter groups, interest groups, and funding groups while remaining loyal to the candidate’s voter base and to the values their political party typically aligns with. Specifically, the procedural rhetoric of the game brings forth the complexity of the system as a whole. It works to present the issues embedded within this system (such as the obligatory binary of republican vs. democrat, or the need for funding from lobbyists) by simulating the choices that need to be made by congressional candidates during their campaigns This brings us to the structure of the game as a whole and how it works to allow the player to understand the issues involved in the congressional elections. Specifically, the characters and the narratives in the game help provide a particular experience. For example, the illustrations of the different voter groups as well as the text bubbles representing their positions help to personify the voter groups, rendering them less obscure to the player. The portraits of the voter groups reflect what the groups think of the candidate (for example, when they are neutral towards the candidate their portraits are gray). Detailed explanations of each voter group’s typical position and stance on different issues (such as guns or government intervention in the economy) are provided when clicking on the voter group icon. They are also available outside of gameplay as paratextual information on the website. These explanations coupled with the situations and narratives they are placed in during the game challenges help the player get to know the different positions certain groups of people align with, and how the complex system that is the congressional elections in the United-States comes to negotiate between these voter groups. It also helps the player categorize these groups of people, reflecting “what could happen in reality”, as the group categorizations are derived from the Pew Research Center for the People and Press 2011 Political Typology report (Osborn D’Agostino para. 3). The idea that Osborn D’Agostino decided to cite a specific research report in the game and use it to build most of the characters and narratives points to the journalistic value of the newsgame The Candidate. Osborn D’Agostino states the reason why he wanted to make a game about the congressional elections is because he “wanted to test out how effective a game coule be in helping
to better inform people about systems” (para. 4). He insists there is value in making a game in order to explain the issues implicated in the 2014 off-year congressional elections rather than just writing an article based on his research. Indeed, as mentioned before, newsgames simulate how the congressional elections work, rather than describing them. They convey the implications of a piece of news (Sicart 29). The Candidate requires the player to hone knowledge of the different issues they can take stances on as a candidate. It also requires they gain background knowledge on each voter group by exploring the information provided in game and meta-game. The Candidate then requires the player to use that knowledge in order to win. It simulates the obstacles candidates face when running for office, thus providing a specific representation of the system it seeks to inform players about. I contend that the procedural rhetoric of The Candidate thus provides a more comprehensive way for the player to understand the issues at hand than a traditional news story. There is journalistic value to the newsgame The Candidate because, as mentioned by Treanor and Mateas, newsgames are created in response to a specific current event, and they are released while the story is still relevant in people’s minds (4). Indeed, timeliness is an important news value that The Candidate seems to adhere to given that it emerged as an attempt to explain the off-year congressional elections in 2014. Timeliness, however, sometimes comes with ephemerality, as a news story will only stay “relevant” for a certain period of time. As mentioned by Sicart, news does not have the intention of surviving in the collective memory for a long time, and it is inherently perishable (28). According to Treanor and Mateas, however, the “ephemerality of a newsgame is a matter of content and not a matter of form” (5). The Candidate simulates a political event that takes place every time there is an open seat during the off-year elections in a particular district. The political parties (republican and democrat) and the main issues the candidates must take stances on, will remain relatively the same for years to come. However, most of the content in the game is already not newsworthy. For example, the game states climate change has become a hot topic because of the Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Therefore, the idea that the newsworthiness of news stories is inherently ephemeral does not necessarily apply to The Candidate, as the form of the game as a whole and most of the information is still “relevant”
because it seeks to explain a system that has existed in the United-States for years, and will continue to. However, certain aspects of the content become less “relevant” as different newsworthy events happen and take centre stage. Therefore, there is value to using the form of a game in order to explain the system behind the congressional elections. We could then ask ourselves if The Candidate follows conventional journalistic news values, and evaluate the importance of these news values in the context of the newsgame. John Hartley states that “opinion and information become journalism only when they are circulated among a public” (16). Therefore, media technologies and a ‘reading public’ are necessary conditions for journalism to exist, and journalism in turn helps to constitute publics (Hall 55). In the case of newsgames, however, we are no longer talking about a ‘reading public’, but a ‘playing public’. If a news story always imagines a public to which it speaks, the public imagined by newsgames is slightly different from the public imagined by traditional journalism. The idea of participation and engagement is thus an even more key condition to the constitution of a ‘playing public’ for newsgames, as the ‘playing public’ understands the information and editorial “point” of the game through its procedural rhetoric. There is always an “assumed” audience when constructing a news story, including news in game form. Therefore, “the process of signification – giving social meanings to events - both assumes and helps to construct society as a consensus” (Hall 55). This means that, in order for a news story or a newsgame such as The Candidate to resonate with the ‘playing public’ (or for the procedural rhetoric to work), the “process of signification” must take place within the frameworks of understanding “which typifies the culture of the potential audience” (Palmer 26). While The Candidate attempts to reveal major conflicts of interest between classes or groups, it does carry the assumption that we all have “roughly the same interests in the society, and that we all roughly have an equal share of power in the society” (Hall 55). Indeed, The Candidate emerged from a sense of responsibility on the part of Osborn D’Agostino to inform people about a complex system and reveal conflicts of interest, and thus help the ‘playing public’ make more informed decisions when comes time to exercise their American democratic right to vote. Therefore, The Candidate is the result of a complex process structured by “news values” and socially constructed sets of
categories (Hall 53). In other words, The Candidate still emerges from the social production of news. As a new emerging form of journalism, The Candidate still operates according to some traditional news values. Indeed, it offers a consensual view of the audience as a ‘playing public’ with the right to vote. While it has the opportunity to frame and transmit news differently due to the use of procedural rhetoric and the overall form of the game, it continues to adhere to certain traditional principles of journalism, such as those outlined by Kovach and Rosenstiel (2014). For example, the game’s first obligation is to the truth, as it is based on research about the complex system that is the congressional elections. Furthermore, the game’s first loyalty is to American citizens (the imagined ‘playing public’), as it seeks to lead them towards informed decisions as well as help them understand the complexity of the congressional system. Although such an adherence to time-honoured principles continues to persist, Newsgames are an emerging form of journalism offering new opportunities for story telling and editorial arguments.
WORKS CITED Bogost, Ian. “Storytelling 2.0: Exploring the news game” CultureLab, 18 Nov. 2010. Hartley, John. “Journalism as a Human Right: A Cultural Approach to Journalism.” Global Journalism Research:Theories, Methods, Findings, Futures. Ed., M. Löffelholz & D. Weaver. New York: Peter Lang, 2007, 39-57. Hall, Stuart et al. “The Social Production of News.” Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan Press, 1978, 53-77. Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. Three Rivers Press, 2014. O’Brien, Chris. “Why are Newsrooms resistant to creating newsgames?” IdeaLab, PBS, April 8, 2011. Palmer, Jerry. Spinning Into Control: News Values and Source Strategies. London and NewYork: Leicester University Press, 2000. Sicart, Miguel. “Newsgames: Theory and Design” Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2009,Vol. 5309: 27-33. Treanas, Mike & Michael Mateas. “Newsgames: Procedural Rhetoric meets Political Cartoons” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory: Proceedings of DiGRA, 2009. The newsgame The Candidate can be played here: http://bayreporta. com/files/candidate/index.html
THE TROUBLE WITH CANDID DOCUMENTARIES: AESTHETICS AND EXPLOITATION Dario D’Onofrio
he documentary form has evolved countless times over the 90 years since its conception. From Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to Alan Zweig’s Hurt, the art of documentary has its roots deeply imbedded in the Canadian landscape and has been repeatedly reinvented by creative Canadian filmmakers. An important point in the history of Canadian documentary was the introduction of the observational documentary in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. This mode focused on the filmmaker(s) being unobtrusive, and capturing their subjects when they were not addressing the camera. Emerging from the observational mode of documentary aesthetics, the pioneering of a new approach to the candid style of documentary arose from the National Film Board’s pilot film for the Challenge for Change program. The documentary I am referring to is The Things I Cannot Change (Tanya Tree, 1967) - a project that delved into the impoverished life of Kenneth and Gertrude Bailey and their nine children (soon to be ten). This documentary showcases the struggles of the Bailey family, as filmed by Tanya Tree and her camera crew, who lodge with the Bailey’s for three weeks. The candid aesthetic made a return in The Trouble With Evan (1994) produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) The Fifth Estate. The Trouble With Evan is a hybrid documentary that operates in the candid and investigative style of documentary filmmaking. It is an investigative look into the effects of child abuse through the family life of an 11-year old boy named Evan and his abusive mother and step-father. The aesthetic style and approach to both these documentaries debatably created a sense of exploitation, which lead to controversial representations- raising many ethical questions about the candid style of documentary and its effects on the families and people they portray. In this paper, I will be exploring the connection between the observational mode and the candid aesthetic of documentary filmmaking and its effects on their subjects by analysing The Things I Cannot Change and The Trouble With Evan. The candid aesthetic developed from the
NFB’s Unit B in the 1950’s, as the “the improvements in synch sound recording, lighter cameras, and high speed film” (Feldman 36) became an “alternative technology for the production of documentary” (Feldman 36). The Days Before Christmas (Wolf Koenig, Terrence Macartney-Filgate and Stanley Jackson 1958) was a pioneering film by Unit B which experimented with a shooting style that demonstrated their “newly arrived free and ubiquitous nature of the camera” (Feldman 39). The Days Before Christmas makes use of the hidden camera aesthetic, providing a voyeuristic look into children’s choirs, Christmas pageants and the streets of Montreal during the holiday season. The photography became candid and the cameras became invisible “by the subject’s being too busy to notice it” (Feldman 40). This aesthetic was seemingly harmless when used in The Days Before Christmas or in Lonely Boy (Roman Kroitor & Wolf Koenig 1962) or in Les Raquetteurs (Michel Brault & Gilles Groulx 1958) and it actually made these films iconic within this new style. However, when the candid style was used in connection with a movement for social change in the late 1960’s, the effects became very visible. The Things I Cannot Change is known for raising ethical questions in relation to “the filmmaker’s presence-as-absence” (Nichols 92) and Tree’s reluctance to get involved in any of the events she was filming- including a fight between Mr. Bailey and a man, which was heavily influenced by the camera’s presence as Kenneth gestured “to the camera crew, as if these witnesses would help force a payout” (Hays). In Alan Zweig’s Hurt, a very encroaching and obtrusive documentary, we see Steven Fonyo get into a fist fight with a local goon, and just like the fight with Mr. Bailey, the camera operator does not get involved either. Which demonstrates that despite the observational mode or style of a documentary, the filmmakers pick and choose when to step in. As Matthew Hays expressed in his article “The Original Reality Show”, the Bailey family sufferred humiliation and torment after the documentary’s release and they were
forced to move. The objective was that the Bailey family would grow accustomed to the camera’s presence and this would reveal a truth to their personalities that could not be captured in an interview. This was true to a certain extent, as even when we see Kenneth or Gertrude talking to the camera we see an angry, tired or oppressed quality arise from them. The presence of Tanya Tree and the camera crew obviously affected how the Baileys acted - as Kenneth frequently addresses Tanya directly. Neither do we know how the Baileys acted when the cameras were not running. However, addressing the camera provided a therapeutic avenue for the Bailey family to vent and express how they were feeling, the injustices they had faced in the past and were still forced to endure in the present. It would not be fair to only look at The Things I Cannot Change with an eye for exploitation, as I believe it gave agency to an impoverished family, and it allowed the Bailey’s to tell their stories to a certain extent, to contribute to the discourse of systematic oppression. The candid style of documentary filmmaking can achieve a certain realism as it allows for the potential to explore a particular subject and/or topic with more gravity. Bill Nichols asks in Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, “what authority legitimates the appropriation of the images of others in the absence of an acknowledged human relation? (Nichols 92). Some would say that if the subjects grant the filmmakers with permission, the filmmakers have obtained their authority and what they produce cannot be immoral. However, the “method of obtaining consent is stacked in the filmmaker’s favor” (Pryluck 256) which is absolutely true in the case of The Things I Cannot Change, given that a impoverished family such as the Bailey’s would not, presumably, turn down an opportunity to earn $500 dollars. Herein lies the dilemma. Tanya Tree obtained permission to shoot a documentary with honourable intentions of bringing light to the Bailey family’s struggle, while simultaneously harming the reputation of the Baileys and debatably worsening said struggle. Would these ethical dilemmas be present in an expository or an interactive documentary? The candid style of documentary filmmaking highlights Calvin Pryluck’s point, as “more than morality is involved; ethical assumptions have aesthetic consequences, and aesthetic assumptions have ethical consequences” (256). Is the candid style of documentary inherently tied to the exploitation
of its subjects? As Nichols has said, “what greater good justifies exposing the survival strategies of an impoverished family in The Things I Cannot Change” (92). Tanya Tree never directly addresses the viewers about what they are watching, a convention of the observational mode, and this can be seen as unethical. However, it created a unique experience where the viewer takes on voyeuristic role, perhaps from the perspective of one of the Bailey children. However, despite a filmmaker’s best intentions, they can “only guess how the scenes they use will affect the lives of the people they have photographed” (Pryluck 258). The candid style of documentary spawned with ties to enacting social change, yet The Things I Cannot Change “failed to offer solutions” (Hays 1). However, contributing to the invisibility of the discourse of impoverished families and their struggles is more problematic than producing a documentary that brings their struggle to the surface but unfortunately harms them in the process. In either scenario, the subjects become victimized. Above all, The Things I Cannot Change sensitizes viewers to extreme poverty, which unfortunately has not changed. It should be noted however, that The Things I Cannot Change provides long term benefit in the form of didacticism, as it is used within social workers’ studies as well as to teach documentarians to understand the impact a documentary can have on a family. CBC’s The Fifth Estate’s, The Trouble With Evan (known as the “saddest story ever told”) focuses on ‘troubled’ Evan, his abusive parents and home life, and a group of young offenders in a correctional institution called Portage - a glimpse to where Evan might end up living. This documentary takes a quick turn from portraying Evan as the problem, as he is causing mischief at school and at home. It becomes quite apparent that Evan’s mother Karin and his step-father Mike are the problematic ones – as we watch them physically, verbally and mentally abusive Evan. Unfortunately, there has been nothing written about The Trouble With Evan, which this documentary undoubtedly deserves - whether it be a follow up to see where Evan is now or a piece written about its ethical dilemmas. The Trouble With Evan commences from where The Thing I Cannot Change left off, in terms of portraying a family (related to a larger social issue) through a candid style documentary. The Trouble With Evan went beyond a camera crew, utilizing three motion detecting surveillance cameras that would
capture footage whenever someone in Evan’s home was present and one personal camera that Evan used to film himself. The lack of a camera crew allowed for truly candid footage, yet its raises some interesting questions about ethical space in documentary. Was filming Evan’s life ethical because there was no camera operator to stop the abuse from happening? Would all the same events have happened if the cameras were not there? Or if there was a camera crew present? A camera crew seems to inhibit the subject’s behaviour or helps them contain themselves in a way that hidden cameras cannot. Again, therein lies the major problem. In a moment of anger or frustration, Evan’s parents either forgot that the cameras were there or just ignored them. This speaks volumes about the quality of their parenting, even when they gave consent to be filmed they could not stop themselves from threatening Evan with his life. The result is presumed to be more authentic due to the lack of a camera crew. However, this authenticity is problematic as The Trouble With Evan, being an interesting film in terms of how they obtained their footage, is a far worse breach of ethical space than The Things I Cannot Change. As viewing The Trouble With Evan, is practically watching child abuse and it made watching the documentary very difficult. However, it did present the very important and rarely discussed issue, which is child abuse and its emotional and psychological effects on children. Moreover, did The Trouble With Evan provide solutions to parental abuse? The documentary did present a probable cause to Mike’s abusive attitude, he was raised by his father to be treated like a man, with no affection, and that is how he raised Evan. The Trouble With Evan did suggest some attitude changes that Mike and Karin could use to better themselves and how they could better communicate with Evan, but they did not work. This documentary suggested more causes and solutions that The Things I Cannot Change, however I cannot visualize that it benefitted Evan or his parents in any capacity. The subjects in documentaries are left behind after the films end, and both the filmmakers and the viewers carry on - as Calvin Pryluck emphasizes “we are all outsiders in the lives of others” (Pryluck 258). In Bill Nichols’ “The Voice of Documentary”, he explains that interviewees pose problems and “it is most obviously a problem when the interviewees display conceptual inadequacies on the issue but remain unchallenged
by the film” (Nichols 55). In The Trouble With Evan, Evan’s parents are interviewed quite often about their behaviour and they present themselves as if they understand their mistakes and how they must change. In an interview with Linden McIntyre, Mike even says: “If I was Evan’s shoes, and watched everything that progressed from that day [Karin and Mike’s wedding] to today, I might be the same way he is”. Mike seems to understand the potential causes of the dysfunction in the family, yet he cannot empathize with Evan – as the hidden camera footage clearly challenges Mike’s attitude and outlook from his interviews and it clearly displays that he cannot practice what he preaches. At one point in the documentary, Evan’s parents visit the group of young offenders at Portage to hear their stories of abuse and neglect, in order to get a sense of what Evan might be feeling. Yet, it inspired no change in Mike and Karin’s behaviour. Nearing the end of the threemonth camera monitoring period, Mike abandons, or even disowns Evan by saying: “you’re not my son” and “there are three people in this family as far as I’m concerned, Me, Mommy and Kimberly [Evan’s sister]”. After seeing this difficult footage, one has to ask if Mike and Karin considered the potential effects that the documentary could have had on Evan. Pryluck discusses the obscurity of ethical consent in documentary - as a child cannot give consent to be filmed, only the parent or guardian can do so. The adult will “consider the child’s best interest in making important decisions” (Pryluck 262) although if “a child’s integrity is infringed when a parent or guardian makes these decisions” (Pryluck 262) it is difficult to hold the parents accountable for infringing on their child’s rights. The benefit of being an unethical documentary, is that The Trouble With Evan is bringing awareness to the issue of child abuse through the use of disturbing footage. Ultimately, the impact of seeing the reality of child abuse as opposed to an interview about the issue, sensitizes the viewer to the seriousness of abuse and its effects. Finally, the candid aesthetic of the observational mode of documentary filmmaking, coupled with a societal issue or topic, may result in the exploitation of the documentary’s subjects. The candid aesthetic also raises ethical questions about the filmmaker’s level of involvement, as they could unknowingly influence
the subjects through their presence. By the same token however, the lack of a filmmaker may not influence the subjects and this can pose its own level of issues. By looking at both The Things I Cannot Change and The Trouble With Evan, it is evident that despite the filmmakers’ intentions, it is impossible to predict how a documentary may affect its subjects, whether it be positively or negatively. An exploitive documentary may be beneficial to the discourse of a societal issue or the viewer’s knowledge of said issue, but the chance of exploitation is always a possibility. Both of these documentaries present their subjects and their contextual issues with a candid, disturbing realism that not only makes these documentaries hard to watch, but also provides viewers to chance to recognize poverty and/or child abuse as a serious problem in Canadian society.
WORKS CITED Feldman, Seth. “The Days before Christmas and the Day before That,” Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries. Jim Leach & Jeanette Sloniowski. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 31-47. Hays, Matthew. “The Original Reality Show,” The Walrus, December 2015. Web. April17th, 2016. Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1991. Nichols, Bill. “The Voice Of Documentary,” New Challenges for Documentary. Alan Rosenthal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 48-63. Pryluck, Calvin. “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking,” New Challenges for Documentary. Alan Rosenthal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 255-268.
PHANTASMAGORICAL CULT MOVIES: A ROCKY HORROR CASE STUDY Jihan Mourad
ong before there were cinemas, audiences would attend shows in order to be mystified, amazed, and shocked. The shows were illusion-based and relied on lanterns to project images in front of audiences in order to make it appear that the images were truly there in front of them. Tom Gunning, in his chapter entitled “Phantasmagoria and the Manufacturing of Illusions and Wonder”, explains these types of shows as an adapted phantasmagoria, a term first introduced as a metaphor by Walter Benjamin in his “Arcades” project (34). Gunning explains cinematic phantasmagoric experience in regards to techniques such as lighting and sound that immerse the audience member. He claims that “rather than delivering a mimesis of a familiar experience, a simulacrum that interpellates and positions a unified spectator in a predictable and seemingly coherent scenario, the Phantasmagoria created… a new experience…whose very contradictory novelty attracted and fascinated the viewer (Gunning 36)”. In relation to Gunning’s idea, I believe that the term can be further adapted to incorporate events that are not just technologically immersive, but provide an immersive embodied experience. These experiences, in terms of cinema, can occur in cult films, as they provide audiences with their own unique experience different than regular films. One of the most popular cult films is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I believe Rocky Horror to be a type of phantasmagoric event as it immerses the audience member in a completely different experience, in a manner they are probably unaccustomed to. Essentially, through my research, I will demonstrate how the cult film genre and audience participation work together to solidify a particular aura to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that in turn, makes it a phantasmagorical live event. Rocky Horror as a Midnight Movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show (also commonly referred to as Rocky Horror, The Rocky Horror Show, and RHPS) is an extremely popular
film and live event that has lasted decades. The plot of the film centers around a newly engaged conservative couple, Janet and Brad. When their car breaks down in the middle of the night due to a storm, they are forced to seek shelter at a nearby castle. Unbeknownst to them, this castle is home to a bunch of hypersexual aliens, the Transylvanians, and their leader, the cross-dressing Dr. FrankN-Furter. Throughout the film, Brad and Janet explore the weird and sexually liberating ways of the Transylvanians, ultimately changing their lives forever (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975). It is important to note that, under the context of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as we know it today, not only is the film projected in front of an audience, but also that a live cast simultaneously acts out the entirety of the movie in front of the screen. Although legendary in its own right, Rocky Horror comes from rocky beginnings. The documentary film entitled Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream explains how six cult films rose exponentially in popularity, the most explosive being Rocky Horror. The film explains that the RHPS was first created in 1973 as a musical by Richard O’Brien (Samuels). The live show was up and running in England in just under 6 months and due to positive word of mouth, it was a success. The show was eventually brought over to Los Angeles where it continued to live up to its success. Its success was probably due to word of mouth and the widespread rock era phenomenon that it was pandering to. In light of this continuous success, the creators wanted to make it into a feature length film. Keeping almost all the original cast from the live show, the film was created and finally released in 1975 (Samuels). Unfortunately, the film was marketed as a common sci-fi film and as such the atmosphere was just not right and the movie, for lack of better word, flopped. Not to be deterred, one of the producers of the film thought to try the release again, but this time as a “midnight movie”. The documentary goes on to explain that a midnight movie, or B-list film, is a title applied to movies
that are low budget and are released at midnight. During the 70s, it was less common to partake in a show at this time of night. Thus, the people who did attend these types of films were labeled as outcasts, rebels, or non-traditional (Samuels). It was under this atmosphere that the film was brought new life. The release was an instant success which would go on to take on a life of its own throughout the years. The film, which had been pronounced dead in the water, would go on to become arguably the most popular cult film to date. Rocky Horror as a Cult Film We must ask, then, what exactly is a cult film? Many have attempted to provide a specific definition of the genre. In his research, “Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, Bruce Austin explains that “the cult film may be defined as a motion picture which is exhibited on a continuing basis, usually at midnight, and gathers a sizeable repeat audience (45). That being said, cult films are not just defined “according to some single, unifying feature shared by all cult movies, but rather also through a subcultural ideology in filmmakers, films or audiences … seen as existing in opposition to the mainstream” (Jancovich 2). These working definitions demonstrate the layers of which cult movies are defined by. Let us elaborate on the repeated audience, as this is indeed crucial not only to cult films in general, but also to Rocky Horror itself. Put simply, cult films not only garner attention from fans, but also repeated participation and affiliation. The formal, normative way to think of fans interacting with a show is sitting quietly, experiencing the event as a passive member of a larger body. Fan culture, especially in the fandom of Rocky Horror, evades the standardized model of communication, as explained in Media Studies Key Issues and Debates, because “thinking of fans as performers means displacing an emphasis on the textreader interaction, and focusing instead on the myriad ways that fans can engage with the textual structures and moments of their favoured cult shows” (de Kloet et al. 330). The film itself plays into the themes from both horror and science fiction genres. It does so, however, while parodying the two as well. The characters and lines in the film draw on older films in the respective genres, which requires an intertextual reading of the film. Austin describes it best when he writes, “the film presents a clever synthesis of thematic, visual, and verbal elements,
with a good deal of panache, parody and satirize accepted cinematic and societal conventions” (46). On top of the intertextuality of the film, the experience itself adds a variety of other layers onto the experience. As aforementioned, not only is the film projected, but the entire film is acted out live by a cast in front of the screen. The cast goes through the actions of the film but only mouths along to the film’s sound instead of reciting the words themselves. Furthermore, there is not only a narrator in the film itself, but also a commentator seated in the audience. The commentator interacts with the film on a metalevel. He asks funny or sexual questions which the characters in the film then respond to, providing a layer of mockery to the experience. For example, the commentator will, in a perfectly timed manner, ask “Hey Frank! What’s your favourite colour?”, to which the character Dr. Frank-N-Furter will answer “Magenta” as he calls to another character with the name Magenta. Due to the timing of the question itself it seems as though the characters in the film are participating in the conversation with the audience. Another example is demonstrated when the names of the main characters, Brad or Janet, are said in the film, the audience yells out “asshole” and “slut”, respectively. The majority of the comments are inappropriate and explicit, which play into the atmosphere of the cult movie itself. During my research, I spoke to Zynor Majeed, an unofficial expert on the topic of Rocky Horror. Not only has Majeed published an academic paper on the subject (Majeed, 2016), he also played as Rocky during one of the nights in this year’s production of Rocky Horror. With all his personal and academic experience in the realm of Rocky Horror, I asked him what he thought separated it from other live events. He responded, “The audience. While most live events have very active audiences, as they are invited to cheer, sing, dance, and generally be merry, the audience of The Rocky Horror Picture Show knows that they can do much more. They can throw around props pertaining to inside jokes about the film, they can yell at the stage in unison with the narrator who mocks the movie and characters, and they can also choose to quietly sit and enjoy the spectacle. The cult following of the show is rooted in mockery. We make fun of the movie, we make fun of sex, we make fun of each other. We make our own entertainment as we go along, so it is more than just enjoying a movie, and more than a proper live show of any kind. it is difficult to explain the ways in which it distinguishes itself from other shows without experiencing it first hand, because no two shows are ever the same”.
It is true, not only are there multiple shows, but each show is slightly tweaked so that it is never exactly the same experience. Specifically, the Montreal based shows, which runs for four nights at the very end of October, have different cast members playing the roles each night. The switch in cast members allows for a different spin on the characters. For example, when I saw the show, the character of Rocky was played by a Caucasian woman. The next night, the same role was played by Majeed himself, an Arab man. Although the character in the film remains the same, and the actors do not address the change in actors or gender, the slight differences alone change the atmosphere and chemistry, giving yet another incentive for fans to view the show repeatedly. Based on my own experience in attending and participating with the show, I will attempt to give an overview on the experience itself. Although audience members are free to choose whether or not they wish to participate in the show, the overwhelming majority of audience members do. One particular key to the participation is the attire. As the film is about sexual liberation, the expected attire for everyone is lingerie or revealing clothing. Many choose to take it one step further and dress up as the characters from the film. Men are encouraged to dress up in corsets and fishnet stockings to mimic the main character’s, Dr. Frank- N-Furter’s, outfit in the film. When one enters the theatre, if it is their first time at the live show, they are marked by the cast of the show as “virgins” by drawing a large “V” on their faces in red lipstick. Furthermore, before the show starts, all the “virgins” are asked to stand up and present themselves to the veterans (those who have experienced the show before) in the audience, in order identify which audience members should be hazed a little more during the participatory events. For example, one part of the film requires two props, a water pistol and a newspaper. These props pertain to the scene when Janet is walking through the rain, holding a newspaper over her head to avoid the storm she is walking through. When this scene occurs, the audience takes their newspapers and mimics Janet’s actions, while simultaneously spraying water out of the water pistols. The act bonds the audience members in lighthearted fun. Keeping with the theme of sexual exploration, all the virgins, through participating and experiencing the event with the veterans, ultimately “lose their virginity” and become veterans themselves. The activities included are not difficult
to keep up with, as an overwhelming number of audience members are veterans and thus it is easy to follow along with what one are supposed to be doing. Furthermore, there are songs and dance numbers throughout the film that the audience is encouraged to participate in. Undoubtedly, the most important one is the “Time Warp”. This dance number occurs towards the middle of the film and includes almost all the characters in the cast. When the music begins, the audience gets on their feet and sings and dances along with the live cast as well as the actors in the film. The song lyrics explain how to do the specific dance thus the “virgins” are never lost or ostracized in the experience. Participation is the key differentiator that makes Rocky Horror so unique, in that it gives power to the audience not to just indulge and enjoy the film, but to experience a shared mockery of the entire thing. Audience members are not only invited to participate in the dance numbers, they are embedded further in the experience through the use of props that mimic the movie scenes and through mocking the film itself. This unity creates a community for fans who most likely do not always feel apart of a community in their day to day lives. The power of community forming ultimately drives them to return, as it is amongst this community that the audience members can take a break from their normal lives, which may not be as happy or as exciting as the lives they can pretend to have during the Rocky Horror Show. Interestingly enough, as explained in the documentary, it was not the original creators nor the cast who thought to shift the film into a participatory event. Rather, it was the fans. One fan in particular, Sal Pirro, who currently runs The Rocky Horror Picture Show fan club and is commonly referred to as Rocky Horror’s number one fan, recalls how he used to watch the film every Friday night, a common occurrence with midnight movies, and then go out with friends after the film to have early breakfast. Through the shared conversations, more fans began to feel comfortable enough to dress up for their weekly occasion. Later, props would become commonplace as well (Samuels). As the years passed, although the fans would change, the traditions they had begun would continue to live on until this day. The whole Rocky Horror Show experience as we know it today was created entirely by the fans, for the fans. Audience participation is of course key to cult films, but another crucial component, especially in relation to Rocky Horror, is that the film’s content
and ideological message subvert the hegemonic societal view. Majeed describes it well in his essay “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Community Formation Through Ritual Viewing” when he states, “through the audience’s participation and engagement, and through the sexually liberal ideology that pervades the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is known to its fans as an outlet for expressive freedom through which one learns they ought to embrace nonconformity and feel free to act as they are, however it may deviate from preconceived norms” (27). Furthermore, “it is by presenting themselves as oppositional that cult audiences are able to confer value upon both themselves and the film around which they congregate” (Jancovich 2). The Rocky Horror Picture Show provides more than just an embodied experience; it provides a sanctuary to those who feel as though their societies do not accept them. Although it has been decades since the film’s original release and some societal issues have indeed progressed, others have not. Regardless of what is now commonplace, North American society remains largely heteronormative. Through The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans are shown that there is liberation in being different, and that there can be an entire community created on the criteria of “difference”. Rocky Horror as Popular Culture As aforementioned, Rocky Horror allows for a cornucopia of people to gather and engage cohesively. Although inclusive to all, those who want to partake in the Rocky Horror event must be open to acquiring the kind of cultural capital required to fully immerse oneself in the experience. This capital is not gained through institutions nor is it purchasable. Rather, one obtains the capital required through shared tastes, attitudes, and preferences by living one’s life. This knowledge is what Pierre Bourdieu would call “embodied capital” and it plays right into RHPS’s idea of community. Fans do not have to rely on what they own or what they know, like they would in other occurrences, rather “the possessors of embodied capital only have to be what they are” (Stevens 63). Simon Frith, in his chapter entitled “The Problem of Value in Cultural Studies”, explains that “popular culture . . . has as much to do with sociability, and how we talk about texts, as with interpretation, and how we read them” (108). This type of reading and discussion firmly relates to the way Rocky Horror
fans communicate with the experience. He also goes to to explain that there does not seem to be a solid set of rules dictating what is “good” or “bad” when evaluating popular culture. If one person believes an art piece to be spectacular and another person believes the same art piece to be disgusting, it cannot be concluded that one is right and one is wrong. Cultural value is subjective. Rather, for Frith, if we wish to evaluate cultural production, it should depend on the framework under which we are analyzing it. In this case, the framework we are evaluating Rocky Horror under is not that of standard film nor that of regular live action performance. The framework being used to explore this particular case study is that of a phantasmagorical event. Under this framework, I would argue that Rocky Horror is a good example of a phantasmagorical event in that it creates a full embodied experience for its fans. Furthermore, it is through this continuous fan participation, that the fans use their experience to create an aura that is tethered to the show, even 40 years later. Walter Benjamin defines the aura as the essence of the piece, that is ultimately connected to its context. If we look at the history of Rocky Horror, we see some interesting findings in relation to this contextual idea of aura. The original musical did extremely well, flopped as a regular film, and then was reborn as a live event with the help of fan participation. The logical notion, at the time prior to the film’s release, was that Rocky Horror was gaining constant attention, thus it made sense to make it into a film that could then be shared amongst a wider array of people. This logic seems relatively sound, and yet the events did not turn out that way. One has to assume there is a particular reason, if not one of many, as to why this is. The film not only used the original cast from the musical, but the same writers as well. If the storyline and the acting were the same, perhaps we can conclude that it was the essence, or in this case the aura, of the show that had been erased, as Benjamin explains can happen, as a consequence of the ease of reproducibility, especially with film (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). This downfall at the box-office could have easily been the end of the already legendary Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, through giving the film a new type of audience and letting them create amongst themselves their own community with rules and participatory events, a new aura was formed and the show lived on Throughout this case study, I have attempted
to demonstrate the different characteristics that make Rocky Horror a unique experience. Its popularity and longevity outranks much of its fellow cult films and live shows. The Rocky Horror Picture Show provides a community in which fans are allowed to freely engage within. It gives them a medium in which to explore as well as question themselves. It gives those who are not adequately comfortable with their sexuality, gender, or place in society a safe space free of judgement; a break from hegemonic heteronormative societal rules. The audience participation, adoration, and ritualization solidifies Rocky Horror’s aura. This aura is situated wholeheartedly in the context garnered by the fans themselves. The experience is none like any other; it is freeing, unifying, mystifying. It is an embodied experience that truly deserves the term phantasmagorical.
WORKS CITED Austin, Bruce A. “Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Communication Journal of Communication 31.2 (1981): 43-54. Web. 4 Nov. 2016. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry Zohn. UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 2005. Web. 6 Dec. 2016. De Kloet, Jeroen, and Liesbet Van Zoonen. “Fan Culture – Performing Difference.” Media Studies: Key Issues and Debates. Ed. Eion Devereux. N.p.: Sage, 2007. 322-41. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. Frith, Simon. “The Problem of Value in Cultural Studies.” Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. 3-20. Web. 7 Dec. 2016. Gunning, Tom. “Phantasmagoria and the Manufacturing of Illusions and Wonder.” The Cinema: A New Technology for the 20th Century. By Andre Gaudreault. 2004. 31-44. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. Jancovich, Mark. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes. N.p.: Manchester UP, 2003. Web. 6 Dec. 2016. Majeed, Zynor. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Community Formation Through Ritual Viewing.” The Medium: Concordia University’s Undergraduate Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies 4.1 (2016): 27-32. Web. Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. Dir. Stuart Samuels. 2005. DVD. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. Stevens, Garry. “The Sociological Toolkit of Pierre Bourdieu.” The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. Cambridge, MA: MIT 1998. 36-67. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.
YOUNG THUG, BLACK MASCULINITY AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF QUEERNESS Lara Sioui
istorically, art has served as a medium in which populations have both expressed and studied the state of the public sphere. Upon consideration of the history of sexual and gender role liberation, it is therefore logical to turn to art as the catalyst for progression in Western culture. It is artists who have consistently pushed the social boundaries of gender, accomplishing practical breakdowns of the gender binary. Accordingly, it is essential to examine media within a broader cultural landscape in order to recognize how the Western world currently approaches the notion of gender. As a social issue, gender theory has gained popularity in contemporary media which has increasingly incorporated elements of queerness into television, advertising, movies and music. In considering the significance of media influences on hegemonic discourses surrounding gender, hip hop music does not stand out as particularly revolutionary. Rap music is among genres commonly targeted as advocating regressive views of gender, namely due to its “reinforcement of restrictive patriarchal values [and] the expression of traditional notions of heterosexual masculinity” (Forman 13). While the disproportionate vilification of rap music is arguably racialized, it is admittedly rare for rap artists to achieve mainstream success while touting progressive views on gender fluidity For this reason, hip hop artist Young Thug is a rarity and should not be overlooked within the broader context of queerness slowly being integrated into normative Western society. Young Thug is one of very few black, male rap artists who have managed to achieve mainstream success while embodying a genderqueer image. He has millions of followers on social media and has collaborated with many mainstream rap artists while unashamedly wearing women’s clothing, nail polish, and referring to fellow rappers as ‘baby’ and ‘lover’. His success is one of great interest. Indeed, it raises the following question: how has Young Thug seemingly escaped the typically restrictive frameworks of masculinity, black masculinity and the hyper-masculinity of the
hip hop industry? Is his subversion solely aesthetic? While Young Thug’s gender fluid aesthetic may promote elements of queerness, his lyrics diverge as they fail to indicate any progressive notions of gender, reflecting instead the misogyny and homophobia stereotypically found in hip hop music. His use of anti-gay slurs such as ‘fag’ along with his constant sexual objectification of women serve not only to reinforce traditional gender roles, but to demean marginalized communities. The contradiction between Young Thug’s art and his aesthetic therefore calls into question whether his appearance is enough of a concession to normative black masculinity to truly challenge regressive gender norms, or whether he is commodifying queerness for personal gain. As a white woman, I am both curious about and wary of the hyper-masculine strategies employed by Young Thug to balance his social presence in light of his aesthetic departure from normative black masculinity. Through analysis of a ‘safe’ performance of blackness as defined by Sarah Gilligan, an examination of the implicit heteronormativity in Young Thug’s lyrics within the frameworks of Sara Ahmed and the conclusions made by Mia McKenzie on the topic of commodifying social justice movements, I will analyze Young Thug as a problematic figure to the hip hop community, the queer community and to the social position of women. While Young Thug challenges standards set by normative black masculinity through the embodiment of a queer aesthetic, the lyrics in his music serve to reify gendered and racialized expectations and ultimately harm both women and the queer community. First, it is essential to examine Young Thug’s unconventional gender expression for the magnitude of its defiance to truly understand the significance and impact of his image on both the hip hop community and on frameworks of black masculinity in their entirety. Encapsulating the controversy of his gender fluid image is his 2016 release Jeffery, its cover art features the artist modelling a periwinkle,
floor-length ruffled dress and matching hat. The image went viral on social media, prompting discussion from critics and fans alike over whether the hip hop community was ready for such a drastically anti-normative artist to reach the mainstream (Holmes). Undoubtedly, Young Thug’s aesthetic does in fact present a radical challenge to normative black expression of masculinity and is indicative of a larger change within the broader scope of gender representation in the media. Once contextualized within black masculine culture, the nuances of Young Thug’s queer aesthetic become clear and he is easily labeled as a radical figure. To frame Young Thug as a true challenge to normative black masculinity, it is essential to examine his aesthetic through Sarah Gilligan’s theories on standard performances of blackness. She focuses on Will Smith as a safe representation of male blackness, detailing that much of his appeal to white audiences relies on the absence of physical sexuality in his performances by noting that “Smith’s characters…are actually constructed as almost asexual” (174;183). This apparent asexuality is appealing to white audiences, who hold a mythical, awed view of the black male phallus and hold it as an object which could not only breed potentially homophobic sentiments, but threaten white male dominance by inspiring desire in a white, female audience (Gilligan 180). By ignoring the black male phallus, actors like Will Smith maintain its mystery and can therefore be safely presented to white audiences as normative, non-threatening black men. This is of course in direct opposition to the characterization of Young Thug, who has rocketed to fame by relentlessly exploiting his own gender and sexuality. By unapologetically wearing women’s clothing, he presents a direct challenge to the conscience of the general public, forcing them to form conclusions on his gender— and ultimately his sex and his sexuality— which go on to be explicitly referenced in his art itself. Contrary to Will Smith’s performance of blackness and masculinity, Young Thug is therefore a markedly sexual figure and not one who can fulfil, in Gilligan’s words, “the institutional need to calm white ‘fears’”(174). By embodying a gender fluid image, Young Thug imposes himself upon his audience in a radical fashion which is in no way suited to traditional forms of consumerism, making his aesthetic as decidedly ‘unsafe’, particularly when compared to the presence of a revered “African-American hero” like Smith (Doeden et al. quoted in Gilligan 173).
Thus, the question of how such a controversial and potentially threatening character like Young Thug has achieved mainstream exposure becomes both complicated and intriguing. The conditions of his success within the hip hop industry garners additional curiosity, given the genre’s noted adherence to strict codes of masculinity and black masculinity in particular (Nichols 7). In response, it can be argued under the theories of CJ Pascoe that as a black male, Young Thug has the ability to participate in feminized— or anti-normative— behaviour while maintaining a heteronormative status that his white counterparts would lose (340). After studying the matter in the context of high school, Pascoe concluded that African-American students were granted social leniency in their behaviour in light of to their adherence in hip hop culture, which allows interest in specific types of dance and fashion (340). While this may superficially serve as an explanation for Young Thug’s mainstream success in a rigidly heteronormative space, Young Thug does not focus his image on the “clean, oversized, carefully put together clothing” (340) that Pascoe noted was popular amongst high-school aged black men. Young Thug’s expression of gender is therefore an exception even to the somewhat lenient code of black masculine fashion, solidifying his challenge to Gilligan’s frameworks of black masculinity and to hip hop culture as decidedly radical. While Young Thug’s challenge to normative black masculinity has been established as legitimate, his rap lyrics serve to contradict his progressive image by reinforcing heteronormative standards. Jeffery, the mixtape famous for its radical cover image of a black man wearing a dress, contains lyrics such as “lil mama she ready for war, she ready for dick in her ass and her throat” (Thug). Women are constantly given the misogynistic treatment typical of the male gaze in Young Thug’s lyrics, consistently being framed as receptacles for his sexuality and nothing more. As articulated by scholar Anthony Jason Nichols, “commercial hip hop can be an example of U.S. arrogance and masculine bravado; it can also be seen as a microcosm of American sexism and patriarchy in its rawest form” (51). Young Thug’s hyper-masculine lyrics can therefore be placed in relation to Western culture’s broader adherence to traditional patriarchal structures of power, which ultimately dictate the misogynistic characterization of women in mainstream art and media. Young Thug’s depiction of women and the relations he has with them is startlingly
regressive in light of his own genderqueer aesthetic, which on its own would suggest a subversion of mainstream, traditional gender theory. The stark contradiction between Young Thug’s radically genderqueer image and the traditional notions of gender depicted in his lyrics can be explained through the societal intrusion of compulsory heteronormativity, as defined by Sarah Ahmed. As Ahmed explains, heteronormativity prescribes as much a normative mode of life as it does a sexual orientation (147). From traditional Western ceremonies to contemporary advertising, Ahmed highlights the presumptions of heterosexuality which dictate the general public’s everyday interactions with the world (147). Put simply, “to follow the rules of heterosexuality is to be at ease in a world that reflects back the couple form one inhabits as an ideal” (147). Within this framework, Young Thug’s heteronormative adherence to the Western patriarchy enables him to retain his position as “[inhabiting] the comforts of heterosexuality” (147). While his genderqueer image is a concession from heteronormativity and perhaps a challenge to the comfort of those around him, Young Thug’s expression of traditional masculinity ultimately exempts him from suffering the social consequences of living a ‘queer life’ (150). Particularly relevant to Ahmed’s theories is the language Young Thug employs to distance himself from the gay community. While the overt misogyny in his music has been established as allowing him to maintain the dominance traditionally afforded to men, the homophobic references in his lyrics explicitly defines his sexuality to reassure audiences that, privately, he also expresses himself in a heteronormative fashion. Both on Jeffery and on previous albums, Young Thug uses ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ in typically homophobic contexts. His song “Serious” calls explicit attention to the dichotomy presented in his gender fluid appearance, as he declares “I dress like a prince not a fag motherfucker” (Thug). By associating his fashion choices with wealth while negating homosexuality, Young Thug confirms in no uncertain terms that he is to be ultimately considered as a heteronormative figure. While Ahmed consciously avoids defining a ‘queer ideal’, she ultimately concludes that “queer lives remain shaped by which they fail to reproduce” (152). While Young Thug has never explicitly identified with the queer community, he comments in a 2016 ad campaign “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender” (Calvin Klein). In
this sense, Young Thug at the very least identifies under the label of gender fluidity, and therefore arguably inhabits a queer, black body. Without strictly regulating the social perception of his sexuality, the concessions made by his aesthetic could potentially cause Young Thug the loss of the aforementioned comfort born from living a heteronormative existence. In this sense, the compulsory heteronormativity enforced in his lyrics oppresses the queer community who have their anti-normative, ‘illegitimate’ lifestyles appropriated in Young Thug’s image but abused in his lyrics. In considering the issue of appropriation, Young Thug’s gender fluid aesthetic becomes an interesting example of the commodification of queerness, especially when placed in relation to the contemporary trend of artists associating themselves with mainstream social justice causes to gain financial and social capital. In an article on Beyonce’s album ‘Beyonce’, scholar Mia McKenzie criticizes the discourses blindly defending the singer as a feminist, as there are various instances where Beyonce makes, or at least allows, anti-female sentiments (143). McKenzie specifically focuses her criticism on the song ‘Drunk in Love’, in which Beyonce’s husband makes light of an instance of domestic violence between Ike and Tina Turner (144). Placed alongside the contradiction born from examining the intersection of Young Thug’s queer style and his starkly heteronormative lyrics, McKenzie’s framework of critically examining the art along with the artist themselves prevents media figures labeled as ‘progressive’ from escaping criticism due to their social status. The superficial social acceptance of Young Thug as a radically queer artist allows him a certain exemption from the regular critical discourses surrounding the misogyny and homophobia common in hip hop music, an immunity which in turn allows him to appropriate and ultimately negate marginalized communities (Marq). In terms of financial gain, commodifying an anti-normative identity is a practice which serves brands striving to stand out from the competition (Oyserman 277). In lay terms, commodifying an identity which questions the norm makes a brand ‘cooler’ than its competitors (277). In both contemporary and past advertising campaigns, the Calvin Klein brand has embodied this strategy in promoting “uniqueness and differentiation” (277) through anti-normative presentations of gender expression, employing androgynous models and most controversially with an alleged use of child
pornography (Anon and Irvine, quoted in Waller 74). In 2016, the brand took on Young Thug as an ambassador under the tagline “I disobey in my Calvins” (Calvin Klein). The phrase references the artist’s deviation from normative expressions of black masculinity, as he models Calvin Klein women’s wear in campaign. In the style of David Bowie, a musician who embraced an anti-normative gender expression but participated in advertisements for mainstream collaborations such as Pepsi (Lad), Young Thug capitalizes on the discourse surrounding his gender fluid image to gain financial capital from mainstream audiences. Young Thug can therefore be framed as the recipient of both financial and social gains stemming from his image as a genderqueer rapper. In light of the aforementioned misogyny and homophobia apparent in his lyrics, however, it is clear that Young Thug’s progressive performance of gender does not reflect the attitudes he encourages towards marginalized communities. To sum, although Young Thug’s embodiment of a genderqueer image presents a significant challenge to standards of black masculinity, his artistry submits to gendered and racialized expectations which oppress marginalized communities. While Gilligan’s frameworks concerning mainstream Black masculinity do frame Young Thug as a deviation from the norm, Ahmed’s conclusions on the prevalence of compulsory heteronormativity in Western society cast his artistry as indicative of broader reinforcement of heterosexual norms. McKenzie goes on to criticize disingenuously progressive celebrities, ultimately framing Young Thug as a beneficiary of social and financial capital due to the appropriation of communities which he ultimately oppresses in his music. While Young Thug’s success in mainstream hip hop is perhaps indicative of broader cultural progression, upon further examination it is clear that his music discourages a genuine embracement of sexual and gender equality. That the mainstream media landscape is ready to accept a black man in a dress is hopeful, but one must be wary in granting artists with a genderqueer aesthetic immunity from critical examinations of the art they produce and the real effects they may have on marginalized communities.
WORKS CITED Ahmed, Sara. “Queer Feelings”. The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004, pp. 144-167. Calvin Klein. “I Young Thug in #mycalvins- Calvin Klein Fall 2016 Global Campaign”. Youtube, 2016. Web. December 2016. Forman, Murray. “The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop”. Wesleyan University Press, 2002. Gilligan, Sarah. “Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Masculinity, Clothing, and Desire”. Fashion Theory, vol. 16, 2012, pp. 171-192. Holmes, Charles. “Gay or Straight, Let Young Thug be Young Thug”. DJ Booth, Complex, 2014. Web. December 2016. Lad, Mukta. “RIP, Ziggy: A Look at Five of David Bowie’s Most Memorable Ads”. Brand Equity, 2016. Web. December 2016. Marq. “Young Thug, Gender Expression and Toxic Masculinity”. Angry Black Hoemo, 2016. Web. December 2016. McKenzie, Mia. “On Defending Beyoncé: Black Feminists, White Feminists, and the Line in the Sand”. Black Girl Dangerous: On Race, Queerness, Class and Gender, 2014, pp. 142-149. Nichols, Jason. “The Realest Nigga: Constructions of Black Masculinity Within Rap Music”. MA Thesis. 2006. Web. December 2016. Oyersman, Daphna. “Identity-Based Motivation and Consumer Behaviour”. Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 19, 2009, pp. 276-279. Pascoe, C.J.. “‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse”. Sexualities, vol. 8, 2005, pp. 329-346. Thug, Young. “Future Swag”. Jeffery, 300 Entertainment/Atl, 2016. Mp3. Thug, Young. “Serious”. Soundcloud, 2016. Web. December 2016. Thug, Young. Jeffery, 300 Entertainment/Atl, 2016. Mp3. Waller, David. “Consumer Offense Towards the Advertising of Some Gender-Related Products”. Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behaviour, vol. 20, 2007, pp. 72-86.
A CRITIQUE OF CRAIG THOMPSON’S HABIBI Audrey Nilssen
abibi (2011) is a graphic novel by Craig Thompson that depicts an epic love story between child slaves, Dodola and Zam. Set in an undetermined Middle Eastern country, this graphic narrative utilizes strong Islamic parables, which aid in conveying the cultural differences between the First and Third worlds. Following Dodola and Zam on their paths through various bouts of separation and searching, the reader is invited along on the their journey from familial love to romantic love. While the literary content of this book could be critiqued through several lenses (i.e. feminist approach, cultural criticism, etc.), it is Habibi’s composition and rich marriage of text and image that calls for visual and textual analysis. Habibi effectively tells a cohesive story through the medium of a graphic novel. Thompson’s style can be understood via the analysis of composition, visual modality, semiotics and symbols. The black and white color palette of Habibi intensifies the darker mood of the plot. The choice of color in graphic narratives becomes “formulaic, thematic and naturalistic” (Hescher, 2016, p. 61). Had color been used, the grim (often haunting) tone would have been lost on the reader. For example, the evil spirits and ghostly dog portrayed (Thompson, 2011, p. 134) would be less emotionally taxing on the reader if the page was doused with color. Thompson inked the drawings on an off-white, tan page that connects the reader to the Middle Eastern setting. Color choices in comics “contribute extensively to the development of an array of sensations, evoking a sensation of the real” (Mikkonen, 2015, p. 117). The warmer, brown tone created by this off-white paper gives a much dreamier feel to the novel, situating the reader even closer to the desert setting. Habibi narrates the convoluted lives of Dodola and Zam, introducing various people met along the way, making the book character-heavy. In the early creation stages of a graphic novel, the author is faced with deciding between cartoonish or realistic drawing styles. As Harris-Fain (2015) points out, realistic art allows the reader to view the
characters “more like real people who are different from them” contributing to a “greater sense of the story’s plausibility” while cartoonish art can add to the narrative by removing the reader from reality (p. 338). Thompson effectively blends these two styles together in his character depiction. The hyperreal drawing technique is used by Thompson when alerting the reader of thematic importance. The more valuable a character is, the more convincing the illustration becomes, particularly Dodola throughout her pregnancy. While pregnant, Dodola is often seen naked, with each curve of her body and line on her belly highlighting the physical changes that occur during pregnancy (Thompson, 2011, p. 81). Her reproductive organs are drawn with incredible precision, exemplifying the various stages of fetal growth throughout the nine month pregnancy (Thompson, 2001, p. 82). This displays Thompson’s adherence to detail (Harris -Fain, 2015, p. 339). When depicting naive or evil characters, Thompson deploys a cartoonish style. This forces the reader to use more imagination than when viewing a “realistically rendered character” (Harris- Fain, 2015, p. 340). Each child drawn in this book has large, unproportionate eyes, symbolizing the wide-eyed innocence of youth. Harris-Fain (2015) argues “cartoon imagery” possesses “universality” making the characters less limited for the reader (p. 340). Thompson’s cartoonish portrayal of children gives the reader the option of substituting themselves onto the page. The evil men who take advantage of women in this novel, are intentionally drawn with animalistic features. The Sultan is a particularly greedy, misogynistic character that owns several sex slaves, Dodola being one of them. During several sexual acts, he is depicted with his tongue hanging out of his mouth as if he were a sloppy, panting dog (Thompson, 2011, p. 2589). The cartoonish portrayal allows the reader to create a demonized view of this selfish character. Whichever drawing tactic he deploys, “Thompson welds an expressive brush stroke to animate both human characters and their landscape” (Heer, 2003, p.18).
One of the basic properties of the graphic novel medium is panel and page layout. The organization of the page guides the reader through the narrative. Szczepaniak (2010) argues each panel has an individual duty but is also “integral to form the larger scaffolding, which draws the reader’s focus to the overarching infrastructure of the page” (p.87). Thompson constructs his pages using a myriad of blueprints, forgoing the typical panel division on several pages. Graphic novels allow a more complex structure “one that is not strictly linear, but almost weblike: a constellation” (Szczepaniak, 2010, p. 87). The structure of Habibi varies throughout. In the case of representing Islamic parables, philosophical ideas and key landscapes, Thompson (2011) forgoes the panel altogether, allowing the visual art to guide the reader across the pages (p. 6426). This tactic allows the viewer more time to mull over the spiritual and philosophical material presented to them as they sift through the order of the narrative. The analysis of the relationship between narrative and composition in graphic novels can be broken down into the “four conceptions of the page” (Baetens & Frey, 2015, p. 108). Thompson utilized the third form; the rhetorical mode. In this mode, “the panel and page are no longer autonomous elements; they are subordinated to a narrative which their primary function is to serve” (Baetens & Frey, 2015, p. 112). Thompson intricately maps the pages of Habibi, prioritizing the complex plot. Page by page, Thompson adjusts the size and allocation of images in order to support the narration. During Dodola’s contractions, the words are in the panel, while she is drawn in the gutter, quite literally leaning on the narrative panel (Thompson, 2011, p. 92). As Baetens and Frey (2015) articulate, “it is the narrative that pre exists and that informs, selects, and shapes the panel and page structure that helps best convey the narrative meaning of the work” (p.112). Thompson deviates from a systematic grid panel in order to artistically (and effectively) emphasize the plotline. An integral part of page composition is the gutter. Saraceni (2003) calls the gutter “the space containing all that happens between the panels” leaving the reader to “guess the missing elements in order to reconstruct the flow of the story” (p. 9). At distinct moments, Thompson cleverly uses the gutter to cue the reader of a new point in time. All flashbacks in Habibi are encased by a black gutter. This allows productive jumps, enabling an understanding that time is no longer linear when facing a predominantly black page. As Szczepaniak
(2010) declares, although readers are responsible for asserting connections between each frame, “the actual blank space between them is always present, leaving space for further interpretation” (p. 91). A stellar example of Thompson aiding the judgement of said space appears on page 162 of Habibi. The top row of panels are distinct and linear with white gutters, while the remaining two-thirds of the page have gutters with ornate designs. The varying gutters are used to signify the telling of Dodola’s story to Zam (in the top panel). The remainder of the page displays the actual story. The decorative gutter effectively alters the pace and flow for the reader. It also triggers visuals in the imagination that allude to the mystique of storytelling. Thompson challenges the restrictive norms of the gutter, allowing his unique creativity to blossom in the minds of readers. Throughout Habibi, Thompson (2011) rejects normal visual parameters of the genre, particularly in the eighth section of the book: “Orphan’s Prayer” (p. 595). The panel formation used on all nine pages is the conventional three-bythree grid structure. However, the unconventionality exists because not a single image is drawn in the chapter. It is entirely filled with text. Saraceni (2003) describes handwriting as “particularly good for the representation of mood and feeling, not only because it allows greater creativity in the style, but also because it is more closely associated with the characters than a mechanical typeface would be” (p. 21). This bold decision to neglect image and allow his handwriting to manifest the message is done by Thompson to emphasize the existential crisis of Zam. Zam is a main character in the book, but “Orphan’s Prayer” is the only chapter from his point-of-view. The essence of each carefully selected word becomes overwhelming in the reader’s mind. The stress, depression and confusion of Zam strikes the reader through the lack of image. Readers tend to “associate handwriting with human agency” (Saraceni, 2003, p. 21). This meta portrayal of Zam’s desire to change is fiercely compelling. The hybridity of word and image initiates the narrative aspect of graphic novels. As Baetens and Frey (2015) proclaim, the hybrid quality “introduces a split at the level of the dispatching of information, which is presented through the visual as well as the verbal channel” (p.143). Thompson adequately intertwines the verbal pathway with the visual journey through diversification of speech bubbles. When Dodola is being sexually assaulted, the visual storytelling is violent and explicit (Thompson, 2011, p. 1502).
Thompson positions the thought/speech bubbles outside of the panel, allowing the reader a choice of comprehension via textual or visual reading. A lighter example of this occurs when Zam identifies with a passage of the Qur’an (Thompson, 2011, p. 182). The text is written in a cloudlike thought bubble, adding to his ethereal realization. According to Saraceni (2003), semiotics is the “study of both human and non human communication focusing on signs and sign systems and how they generate meaning” (p. 109). Habibi is chock-full of symbols that generate denotative, connotative and culturally visualized meanings (Barthes, 1975, p. 33). Thompson uses several recurring cultural symbols in his novel, many borrowed from the Islamic faith. According to Barthes (1975), interpretation of symbols “depends on the different kinds of knowledge practical, cultural, aesthetic invested in the image” (p. 46). Arabic letters serve as a crucial aid in pushing the narrative along. As a reader having no knowledge of the Arabic language, the context provided allowed the calligraphy to grace the page as an additional artistic symbol. On page 31 of Habibi (2011), a river bed is morphed into Arabic letters. A reader of the Arabic language has a better grasp of the connection between the letters and a meandering, dried river due to their capacity to read the language. The divine, spiritual aspects of the letters is highlighted during Zam’s attempt to revive Dodola (Thompson, 2011, p. 475). While pouring a soup down her gullet, Arabic letters appear (in x-ray form) in her stomach, symbolizing their divine healing powers. In an interview with The A.V. Club (2012), Thompson states, “I also think of Arabic calligraphy as comics, because it’s the perfect fusion of picture and word”. This statement verifies the intentional, multi layered use of Arabic letters as symbols in Habibi. The dream like, Arabic fairytale Thompson created contributes to the growing popularity of “literary fantasy” in comics (Weiner, 2003, p. 46). The reader dives into the illusions of each page, carefully allowing the story to unfold. Thompson has a profound ability to depict distinct personalities through his drawing style, while simultaneously utilizing prolific symbols to cloak each page with art. His inventive play with gutter and composition fully engages the reader, provoking an interactive interpretation. Upon dissecting the narrative of Habibi through elements of composition, visual modality, symbols, and semiotics, it is clear Thompson dramatically (and effectively) guides the reader through this magical narrative.
WORKS CITED Craig Thompson [Interview by S. Adams]. (2011, November 3). In A.V. Club. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.avclub. com/article/craigthompson64496 Baetens, J. (2015). Part two forms. In H. Frey (Author), (pp. 103-187). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Barthes, R. (1975). Rhetoric of the image. In S. Heath (Trans.), Image, music, text (pp. 32-51). New York, NY: Hill and Wang. Gall, E., & Gall, P. (2015, November/December). Comics are picture books: A (graphic) novel idea. The Horn Book Magazine, 91(6), 4551. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from Literature Resource Center. Harris-Fain, D. (2015, Fall). Putting the graphic in graphic novel. Studies in the Novel, 47(3), 335345. Retrieved November 21, 2016. Heer, J. (2003, November). Where graphic novels are coming from. Books in Canada, 32(8). Retrieved November 28, 2016, from Canadian Literature Centre. Hescher, A. (2016). From prototypes to a typology of complexity. In F. Jannidis, M. Martinez, J. Pier, & W. Schmid (Eds.), Reading graphic novels (pp. 39-72). Berlin, DE: Walter de Gruyter GmbH. Mikkonen, K. (2015). Subjectivity and style in graphic narratives. In D. Stein & J. Thon (Eds.), From comic strips to graphic novels (pp. 101-126). Berlin, DE: Walter De Gruyter GmbH. Saraceni, M. (2003). The language of comics (A. Beard & A. Goddard, Eds.). New York, NY: Routledge. Szczepaniak, A., & HasslerForest, D. (2010). Brick by brick: Chris Ware’s architecture of the page. In J. Goggin (Ed.), The rise and reason of comics and graphic literature critical essays on the form (pp. 87-101). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. Thompson, C. (2011). Habibi. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. Weiner, S. (2003). Bone wars the paradigm shifts into high gears. In C. Couch (Ed.), Faster than a speeding bullet: The rise of the graphic novel (pp. 43-46). New York, NY: Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine Publishing.
LIMINAL SPACES AS SITES FOR POLITICAL RESISTANCE
t has been said that the 2011 Egyptian Revolution happened in the streets; where people emerged from their sites of shelter and domesticity to resist against the longstanding oppression exercised by the Mubarak government. And where voices gathered together in public spaces to express sentiments of exasperation towards a regime that systematically disavowed rights and freedoms. The collective assembly of people within such public sites as Tahrir Square gave will to active and demonstrable political resistance that manifested in varying degrees of expression (Tawil-Souri 162). While the narrative of street protests sees itself across many of the revolutions in Middle East and Africa during the early 2010s (and before) Egypt’s preoccupation with public space is one that extends into the spaces that lie between, that is to say, the liminal spaces of the public sphere. It is within these transitional, obscured, and marginal sites (Easton iii), which in their natural state hold no immediately apparent value to the everyday onlooker, that street artists expressed discourses of dissent that challenged political regimes while also educating the masses (Lewis 145). As documented in Marco Wilms’ 2014 film Art War, the murals and designs of Egyptian street artists which illustrate “a peaceful future, commemorate the events and martyrs of the revolution [and] offer sharp commentaries on the current political situation in Egypt” (de Ruiter 582), fall between positions of art for visual immersion and art for political engagement. These, without question, cannot be understood as mutually exclusive positions but rather as interconnected positions that inform one another. It is important to affirm that this type of liminality in the context of street art, is not one which is bound to marginality or in turn, bounds those who act upon that space to the perpetual state of being liminal. Indeed, the use of the liminal space as a site for politically engaged street art and as a medium of communication for political resistance, is one that creates or rather, re-creates a form of agency for the artists in question. When a public yet obscured
space is re-territorialized to be the prime site of assembly and empowerment, aftershocks of such an act can extend into the cultural and political realms (Lewis 147). As demonstrated in Art War, street art was utilized as a tool for political mobilization during a period where geographical mobility was contained and thwarted by police forces. Movement through cities such as Cairo though possible, was hindered by the use of tear gas, physical violence and blockades. However, despite these very real obstructions, Egyptian artists continued to seek out avenues through which they could be apart of the larger discourse of Egypt’s political future, and in turn provide critiques of the Mubarak government as means to rally action against his regime. Many of these avenues were in the form of murals containing overt commentaries on and charges against the treatment of the Egyptian people throughout Mubarak’s presidency The images that lined the liminal walls of the public sphere, were “simply unavoidable, forcing the viewer to deal with its presence” and “reflect on the situation in which the country [found] itself” (Smith 31; De Ruiter 582). As discussed in the film, many young Egyptians were inspired by early murals to in turn create their own, which contributed to the extensive dialogue of the revolution. It can be said then that art was used as a “powerful tool for social and political advocacy” (Smith 24) and one that transformed the public sphere “into a place of public discussion about politics and society” (de Ruiter 593). However, it would be cursory to assert that art alone transformed the revolution and legitimized political dynamics because these murals did not work independently of other forces. As stated by Christine Smith, “art is unable to significantly alter or transform politics, but when art uses and engages public space, it has the potential to engender interaction and debate within the public sphere” (39). In the case of the Egyptian revolution, the art needed a space to exist. It needed a platform on which to present itself to the public, and thus Mohammed Mahmoud Street became the site for art to speak.
It was the space that allowed for the art to be seen and in turn, the art brought the space out of its liminality. With street art, there is no overseer – no grand curator who organizes the space in such a way that the onlooker is given guidelines and suggestions on how to engage with the images. Each individual who interacts with an image or series of images becomes in their own right a sort a curator. That is to say that they begin to construct the determinable space around them by highlighting elements that inform, enhance and frame the text with which they are currently in contact with. It can be assumed that for many, awareness of these paratextual elements in their space has a grand effect on how they understand the image. For Egyptians interacting with the murals near Tahrir Square, noticing the place where the artwork has been painted on – whether that be the street corner or the edge of the sidewalk – it is in this geographical or liminal location that additional layers of meaning are imbedded into the image in question. Those who walk through this previously uneventful public space, notice the murals because these images changed the site in which they were located. The images affected the liminal space – it brought it out of the peripheral view of the everyday person and placed itself at the centre of revolution in the public sphere. And throughout Art War, the ways in which artists reutilize in-between spaces as sites for resistance and as sites for political dialogue are shown in considerable detail. It can be understood, then, that the political efficacy of films such as Art War lie it their ability to integrate the voices of the Egyptian people as well as their long-standing involvement in political resistance and oppositional struggles, in profoundly engaged manners. The in-the-field interviews conducted between Egyptian street artists Ganzeer, Ammar, and Kahled - which also feature footage of them painting murals as well as communicating with people in other countries through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube about their work - allow for them to explain their reasons for using art as a medium of expression during the revolution. Indeed, the film presents the tactics and strategies taken by Egyptian artists to voice their dissent, instigate dialogue about their country’s political situation and reclaim their agency and freedom to be governed humanely. And perhaps this is where the film differs from other documentaries about the revolution. Art War is not merely an assemblage of footage of violent clashes and determined artists carefully moving through Mohammed Mahmoud Street, painting in
the liminal spaces of the public sphere. Rather it is a self-aware documentation and engagement with artists providing insight into how they are trying to make sense and intervene in the political situation of Egypt amidst police brutality and fear for their own safety in the streets of Cairo. By hearing from the artists directly instead of through a secondary voice, the audience can sense immediacy in the text. Viewers are given visualization as to how many Egyptian’s repeatedly ventured to make the revolution accessible and inclusionary for all who would experience its immediate and eventual effects. For many of these artists, there were no artistic criteria that one needed to follow or operate within to be able to participate in creating street art. Indeed, the first engagements with liminal spaces in the public sphere by artists was approached as a process of democratization wherein anyone who wanted to voice their opinion could be given a platform to speak and a site to recount their struggle. This active encouragement for others to participate in critical discussions in an open space allowed many who were, or presumed themselves, unable to engage with politics in a traditional academic sphere an entry into the larger discursive realm of Egyptian politics because, as Adrienne de Ruiter suggests, “if one is perceived to be able to discuss politics, one is in fact capable of participating in politics…[and] inversely, if one is not perceived as being capable of participating in politics, one is consequently not able to do so” (594). The documentation of Egyptian street artists is especially significant when thinking about the film, given the fact it was directed by a German, rather than an Egyptian filmmaker. Seeing that Egypt was in a state of revolution, it is understood that there would be considerable difficulty in garnering funds and securing global distribution, and thus transnationality was vital to Art War’s very creation. While several scenes within the film include German dialogue by Wilms himself, as well as Egyptian-German writer Hamed, the majority of the documentary features varying Arabic dialects from artists living in every area of Egypt. The interchange of languages throughout the film assist in underscoring the role globalization played in the development of the revolution. Indeed, the participation of artists abroad that would share and retweet photos taken by Egyptian artists of their murals on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, assisted in extending the intensity of the revolution beyond Egyptian borders. In the years that followed, many MENA countries who
revolted against their national regimes following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, drew inspiration from the information sent through social media platforms across the world, solidifying Helga Tawil-Souri’s assertion that the revolution was “communicated, planned, organized, and shaped by both older and newer media technologies” (165). There is power in the liminal - in the margins - in the state of uncertainty. It is in these spaces or moments of becoming, that identity is fortified and reconstituted, narratives of political oppression are subverted, and futures of exercisable freedom become possible. It is where issues concerning the political realm are discussed and critiqued with nuance. Art War can thus be seen as a documentation of artists using art as a call for action, as platform for expression and as a demonstration of political resistance. Relying on the liminal spaces of the public sphere to exhibit their work and their opinions provided them with a vast canvas on which to create and speak. The film advocates through showing a timeline of the events, that the larger public sphere engenders unavoidable opportunities for those who walk within to explore “thoughts and ideas concerning pertinent and political issues” (Smith 26) and that liminal spaces can be acted upon for creative expression in the form of street art. Furthermore, Art War demonstrates that sidewalls and street corners can be repurposed as sites for resistance, as sites for political struggle, and as sites for revolution. Art War ultimately presents itself as a politically engaged film which questions its place and which seeks to ensure that the voices of the Egyptian people are privileged in their representation. By drawing on Hamid Naficy’s reworking of “can the subaltern speak” to “can the subaltern be heard” (11), it is clear that for many Egyptian artists in Tahrir Square, their voices were heard through their engagement with street art in the liminal spaces of the public sphere.
WORKS CITED De Ruiter, Adrienne. “Imaging Egypt’s Political Transition in (Post-) Revolutionary Street Art: on the interrelations between social media and graffiti as media of communication.” Media, Culture and Society 37.4 (2015): 581-601.Web. Eaton, Erica. “Making Liminal Spaces Visible: Art as Active Seeing.” Preface. Liminal: Spaces-in-between Visible and Invisble. Ed. Tara Smelt. Rochester, NY: Evolutionary Girls, 2007. iii. Print. Naficy, Hamid. “Situating Accented Cinema.”An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 10-36. Print. Sanders IV, Lewis. “Reclaiming the City: Street Art of the Revolution.” Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir. Ed. Samia Mehrez. Cairo, Egypt: American U in Cairo, 2012. 143-82. Print. Smith, Christine. “Art as a diagnostic: assessing social and political transformation through public art in Cairo, Egypt.” Social & Cultural Geography 16.1 (2015): 22-42. Web. Tawil-Souri, Helga. “Egypt’s Uprising and the Shifting Spatialities of Politics.” Cinema Journal 52.1 (2012): 160-166. Web.
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Published on Apr 3, 2017
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