Metamorphosis and Mirrors

September 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

[Please Note: This text contains minor spoilers for the 2017 television series “Twin Peaks: The Return.”]

The season finale of “Twin Peaks: The Return” earlier this month created a seismic ripple amongst David Lynch devotees of the Internet. The proliferation of detail-obsessed fan theories, wikis in at least six languages, and thoughtful analytic pieces speaks to the twisted depths of Lynch’s vision in his reboot of the cult 1990s television series. While the show’s terrain is undoubtedly multidimensional, its intricacies depend on a foundational, age-old motif: dual identity.

While doppelgängers have always been important to the “Twin Peaks” universe, Lynch takes it a step further in “The Return” with the introduction of Tulpas: manufactured alternate identities. A Tulpa takes on the exact appearance (with shifts in minute physical details) of a character, but is actually a construct unknowingly advancing evil while the “real” person is trapped somewhere—in another body or alternate dimension. This play on identity undergoes a number of interesting permutations with the show’s central character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). There is 1) the “real” Dale Cooper, known and adored from the original series, 2) his evil doppelgänger, “Bad Cooper,” 3) a manufactured Tulpa, Dougie Jones, 4) Dougie Jones’ evacuated body, which is reinhabited by the “real” Dale Cooper in a dormant, barely verbal state; and, eventually, 5) the reawakened Dale Cooper who, after entering an alternate dimension, becomes someone named Richard. In this shifting landscape, one can never know who is real and who is a Tulpa, not the real characters or the Tulpas themselves, and oftentimes not even the viewers.

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Bad Cooper, Dale Cooper, and Dougie Jones (Showtime)

Indeed, any fan of Lynch will recognize doubles as a long-standing interest of the surrealist filmmaker; Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway wholly depend on structures of duality and split existence. But this preoccupation with multiple identities seems to have particular resonance in the world of contemporary television. Jill Soloway’s award-winning series “Transparent,” for instance, revolves around the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transitioning transgender woman who, while exploring the complex (and increasingly unlikely) process of sex reassignment surgery, must make peace with her hybrid identity.

The FX original series “The Americans” offers a more politically oriented site for thinking about metamorphosis: two Soviet spies passing as Americans (as well as happily married) near the end of the Cold War. Additional examples are not hard to find: Walter White/Heisenberg (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper/Dick Whitman (“Mad Men”), and Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”), who struggles to reconcile his public role as brutal Mafioso with his inner sense of morality and humanity.

That the theme of metamorphosis is central to so many recent television shows is significant, I think. TV has emerged as a medium that not only offers easily digestible entertainment, but also produces serious art, in some conversations even rivaling film as today’s cinematic experience of choice. And perhaps it is no surprise that in an increasingly digital and fragmented culture, creatives have taken up questions of refracted identity, code-switching, and constructed worlds through a medium that is itself somewhat paradoxical: consisting of isolated parts while also sustaining a long-form narrative whole, a combination that has produced a telling term that yokes the consumptive and temporal—binge-watching.

Perhaps, though, it is not merely technology that is fueling inquiry into questions of identity and self-definition in today’s cultural mainstream. As we become an increasingly global society, boundaries separating countries and cultures are less and less defined (or else more fervently reinforced). It may be productive to consider an earlier era that blurred geographic borders through an increase in travel: the 19th Century. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species spawned a crisis of faith in the Western world, exploding people’s notions of what it means to be human. The rise of expeditions into new territories and confrontations with indigenous cultures exposed a seemingly infinite variety among human beings and the natural order.

Identity crisis may indeed be one impulse behind the contemporary revival of the 19th Century as a site for artistic inquiry. A particularly inspired example of such bridging of periods can be found in A. S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia, which presents Victorian-era social critique and romance through a modern, hybrid form. The story’s protagonist, William Adamson, admits to being “doomed to a kind of double consciousness” after returning to England from a voyage in the Amazon (28). Throughout the novella, William is jockeyed between a host of tensions and dualities: settling into domesticated married life vs. pursuing his life’s work in the jungle; writing a book on natural science vs. editing his father-in-law’s book arguing for the existence of a divine creator; lusting for a woman who is physically alluring vs. one who is intellectually stimulating.

In his book on the behavior of ants, William lays out “some more abstract, questioning chapters” according to a series of possible headings: “Instinct or Intelligence,” “Design or Hasard,” “The Individual and the Commonwealth,” “What is an Individual?” (126). These questions have DNA in cultural artifacts from as recent as the television shows discussed above to as distant as Homer’s Odyssey (a source text that’s taken up in Morpho Eugenia and, appropriately, adapted to suit the novella’s own ends). After sketching out William’s chapters, the text shifts into the actual pages of his book, where he considers “the utility to men of other living things.” He writes, “one of the uses we make of them is to try to use them as magical mirrors to reflect back to us our own faces with a difference” (127).

In “Twin Peaks: The Return,” Lynch ends one of the final episodes with a brief, unsettling shot of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), in an unspecified location, staring aghast at her own mirror-image.

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Audrey Horne (Showtime)

Where is she? What year is it? Design or Hasard? What is an individual?

We look to science and religion and art. We look to others and, ultimately, to ourselves. But perhaps the longer and harder we look, the farther away we are from knowing, and the more we demand from the image reflected back to us.

Jennifer Gutman

Source:

Byatt, A. S. “Morpho Eugenia.” Angels & Insects. Vintage International, 1994.

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Le Guin on blogging, women in science fiction, and more

September 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Interesting article about Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog and her new book, No Time To Spare in this week’s issue of The New Republic.

Not-so-Genius of America: Adolphe Yvon’s Utopia Dismantled

September 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

One of my favorite places to spend random Saturday afternoons is the St. Louis Art Museum. I’ve spent many hours wandering the various galleries during my countless visits there, but I always stop to take a look at one painting in particular—Genius of America by French painter Adolphe Yvon. One might think that I’m in love with the work based on this fact, but, bluntly stated, I hate it. This work serves not only as a cruel reminder of where America once was, but is revelatory of the lack of progress that America has undergone since the painting was completely in 1858.GeniusofAmerica

Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon, 1870

My sentiments regarding the work are actually shared by many. The painting was replicated on a much larger scale in 1870 at the request of Alexander Stewart, was displayed in Stewart’s Grand Union Hotel, but has since been donated and is currently housed in Albany, New York’s State Education Building. The unveiling of the mural in its current home brought forth much controversy and this article delves into details about those issues, so there is no need for me to reiterate. I will, however, fill in a few gaps in an effort to uncover how Yvon’s vision of America, particularly as a perspective from the outside looking in, is grossly utopian.

It’s no secret that America has always been hopeful with regards becoming, and remaining, the best at everything. This includes having the best education system, the most powerful military force, maintaining peace amongst the nation’s citizens (a stark deviation from the previous goal), and being in the forefront of scientific advances. All of that sounds amazing, except said quest for being the best as a nation has been historically a quest to maintain “Anglo racial superiority,” as Dr. Dana Nelson articulates in her book The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Nelson notes, “Between 1800 and 1850 America witnessed a simultaneous surge in scientific professionalization and expansionist fervor which cumulatively resulted in the Anglo-American theory of Manifest Destiny” (92). The ideology of which Nelson speaks is precisely what is depicted in Yvon’s Genius of America and greatly contributes to the problematic nature of the painting that stems far beyond what first meets the eye. For the sake of time, and my sanity, I won’t fully dissect every single aspect of the painting but instead, I’ll opt to pinpoint the major figures that prove to be “not-so-genius.”

Firstly, let me take a second to expand upon the argument that has already been presented in the aforementioned article with regards to the depiction of the slave essentially being pulled up, presumably out of slavery, by the white man. Slavery was abolished in 1865 and this painting was completed in 1858. Yvon was being incredibly optimistic by presenting the slave/master relationship in this way, especially since many would argue, myself included, that slavery still exists but in the form of other manifestations of systemic oppression (please watch the film 13th directed by Ava DuVernay, if you haven’t already). Furthermore, this depiction is not wholly an issue simply because of the realities of slavery, but also because it requires one to believe that Black people in America need to be saved by their white counterparts to be truly liberated. The Black man in the painting had to be physically lifted in order to stand as if his own strength wouldn’t suffice, which alludes to the Anglo-American view of the power of “white.”

Secondly, turn your attention to the image just above the uplifting of the slave—the Native Americans admirably looking at the central figures, which represent balance, order, and truth for America. The “discovery” of America, which led to the massacre of Native peoples and the subsequent marginalization of those people to the point of psychological, financial, and physical oppression, proves to be the antithesis of what is presented in the painting. It might sound like I’m only referring to 1492, but I’m also referring to the 21st century. According to the United States Census Bureau, “26.6 percent of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives were in poverty in 2015, the highest of any race group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent.” The admiration in the eyes of the Natives in this painting thus serves as a slap in the face to those it represents. This depiction serves as an utter disregard to the cruel history of Native peoples since the practice of manifest destiny befell American and is an undeserving gesture towards optimism.

Finally (for now), the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting is said to represent the torch of war being extinguished. On the New York State Museum website, they suggest that this image is symbolic of the end of the Civil War, which couldn’t possibly be true since the war had not commenced until years after the original painting was produced. The reference to a specific war is not the issue, however. What is troublesome is the fact that not only can America not seem to stay out of wars involving other countries, but within America, the nation is always at war with its citizens. From the American Indian Wars, to the Civil War, to the less overt wars such as the War on Drugs, marginalized people in America have perpetually been targeted and oppressed for the sake of maintaining Anglo-American power and the fulfillment of the prophecy of manifest destiny. Yvon’s insistence that peace was a part of the “genius” of America completely ignores the realities of what America truly represents both then and now.

The deeming of America as being “genius” by Yvon was incredibly unrealistic and is still nowhere near a reality. While the aforementioned points are not an exhaustive list of the not-so-genius of America, consider them a point of departure for conversations about how America is viewed from the outside-in as well as from the inside-out.

– Amanda Wicks

Sources:

“FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2016.” census.gov, 2 Nov. 2016,  www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2016/cb16-ff22.html

“The Genius of America.” New York State Museum. http://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/geniusofamerica/symbolism/index.php

Nelson, Dana D. The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Yvon, Adolphe. Genius of America. 1870. New York State Education Building.

 

The Space Between

April 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

As artificial intelligence technology continues to advance and mature, we must become willing to confront the thorny questions which surround its development.

“How much access to human lives should AI entities be granted? How far intellectually and emotionally is an AI entity from a human? How will the presence of AI entities affect our relationships with each other as humans?”

How are these intricacies conveyed through art now?

For my final project, I examine the use of distance – emotional, physical, and aesthetic – in three cinematic works which explore AI/human relationships: Her, Ex Machina, and Black Mirror’s Be Right Back. My full paper can be accessed here.

Teeth in the Sand

April 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

For my final project, I designed a computer game centered around the opening scene of Cloud Atlas (the book), in which Adam Ewing happens upon Henry Goose searching for teeth in the sand. In the game the player has to click around the screen to try to find the concealed teeth. I chose this scene because I believe it can be viewed as an outline for what the rest of the novel is going to be exploring. Let me explain what I mean. Goose says that the teeth are remnants from a “cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak” (Mitchell 3). In essence then, these teeth are symbols of times in which humans preyed on other humans. In fact, Goose himself is perpetuating this symbolism because he is planning to exploit the teeth to earn money. The opening scene shows a literal sifting through the sands (of time) to find these evidences and reminders of human predacity towards other humans. I would argue that Mitchell is performing the same act in his novel.

[You might want to go play the game before reading further. Here is the link to it: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/157372073/.]

Throughout the novel, Mitchell highlights the manner in which humans are always preying on other humans, whether individually or as part of tribes, corporations, or governments. There are two reasons that seem to lead to this rampant predacity. The first is the ‘other’-ization of groups of people such that they can be treated differently. In The Orison of Sonmi~451, fabricants are viewed as sub-human and so horrible atrocities can be committed on them. In Adam Ewing’s journal, the attitude of the white people to black people, and the superior attitude of the Kona towards the Valleysman can also be described in these terms. The second reason for the overwhelming rapaciousness appears to greed, generally for wealth and/or power. Examples of this are the Swannekke corporation in Luisa’s story, John Hotchkiss’s desperate desire for his aged mother’s wealth in Cavendish’s story, and Ayrs’ exploitation of Frobisher.

I wanted to represent these two reasons for predacity in Cloud Atlas with two mini-games. The first is a card matching memory game centered around Sonmi’s story. With this game I wanted to show that the fabricants can be exploited and preyed upon because they, as clones, are treated as identical and replaceable, just as the cards have to be treated as identical.

The second mini-game is based around Luisa’s story. The player has to feed gold nuggets to Ekke the Swan to keep him from getting enraged.  With this game, I intended to draw attention to the insatiable corporate greed for power and wealth that is revealed through Luisa’s investigation.

I hope you enjoy playing the game!  Let me know in the comments if you are having trouble accessing it.

— Mihira Konda

P.S. The software is kind of basic and I’m not sure I coded in the most efficient way so please don’t try to go too fast while playing as it may get really buggy.

Topia: A 4-player strategy game

April 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

For our project, Mollie and I developed a strategy board game called “Topia” that incorporates many of the characters from books and movies we discussed this semester. Below you’ll find the rule set and examples of game cards we created.

W have a short promo video that will give you a rundown of the rules and shows a few of our friends testing out the game! Click here to check it out

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Enjoy!

— Megan & Mollie

Cloud Atlas Clue

April 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

For my final project, I did a Cloud Atlas the movie inspired Clue! game. The following is the instruction portion of my project:

Rules

Come join your favorite characters from Cloud Atlas in a game of Clue! Adam, Robert, Luisa, Timothy, Sonmi-451, and Zachry have joined forces to find out who killed their most precious people: Tilda, Sixsmith, Isaac, Ursula, Hae-Joo, and Meronym. In this alternate universe, Old Georgie, also one of the suspects, has thrust these characters into a world where all time periods are connected through doors. One of the villains- Henry Goose, Vyvyan Ayrs, Bill Smoke, Nurse Noakes, Boardman Mephi, and Old Georgie-has successfully enacted their revenge, but their killing spree ended up snuffing out all of your favorite protagonists’ loved ones. It is up to you to help them solve who, where, and how these innocent people were killed. Each colored game piece is associated with a character’s game card, so choose your player!

On the board game, you will see 8 rooms representing each of the worlds and time periods as well as 2 closets: the Pacific Islands, Scotland, San Francisco, England, Neo Seoul, and Hawaii. Move around the board the number of squares you roll on the die. Look out for hidden passageways as these might give you an advantage!

Your objective, as previously stated, is to find out who the villainous murderer is, what weapon they used to kill the innocent loved ones, and in which room these people were killed in. The six weapon choices are poison, pistol, bomb, bare hands, execution collar, and crossbow. These weapons are inspired by those found in the movie to harm the protagonists.

Begin by choosing your character, one of the 6 heroes with a colored background card. The colors are associated with the moving piece you will use for the board game. Put aside any hero cards you are not using. Then, you will now have 3 different piles of cards: room, murder weapon, and villain. Select one card from each of the piles and put inside the confidential envelope. This is what you must guess correctly in order to win!

Shuffle the remaining cards together and pass them out equally amongst yourselves. Any remaining cards can be put face up for everyone to see. DO NOT SHOW YOUR CARDS. Only YOU must look at the cards dealt to your hand. Using the check-list paper, check off the cards in your hands as these cannot give you the winning answer.

Now it is time to roll the die! The number you get is the amount of squares you are allowed to move. Your objective each turn is to get into a room. You may move up, down, side-ways, and backwards, but you may NOT move diagonally. No two players are allowed on a single square. There is a possibility that you may get stuck in a room if someone is right outside the doorway. You will then lose a turn and have to wait until the player outside the door enters the room. More than one player is allowed in a single room.

Once inside a room, you may make a suggestion as to what you think might be in the envelope. For example, you may say, “I think it was Nurse Noakes with a pistol in Hawaii.” The person to your left will then show a card to you ONLY if it is one of the cards you asked about. If a player DOES NOT have one of the cards you suggested, they DO NOT have to show you any of their cards. A player is REQUIRED to show you the card you suggested if they have it. Once a card you suggested is shown to you, you may check it off on your list.

Once you feel certain about your deduction, state it! But make sure you are 100% positive about your answer as you only have ONE chance. If you get it wrong, game over for you! Check the envelope to see whether your answer was correct. If so, CONGRADULATIONS! You have won Clue and are a detective master.

*start your game piece on one of the black squares.

*envelope goes in the center of the gameboard, above the Clue! logo.

The following is the commercial to the game: https://youtu.be/WArjpgfM9ZM

Here are a few of the cards:

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