The Postmodern Condition and New Age Cinema

In recent years, postmodernism has dominated the cultural industry. With respect to cinema, the impact has effected most modern film genres. Postmodernism is an ideology based on critiques of its predecessors, including questioning of authorship and restructuring of generic conventions. Challenges to the film space and the framing of shots were popularized by this movement. A popular postmodern convention would be that of “breaking the fourth wall,” although more currently it seems to be played out—hinting towards further areas of critique. Nevertheless, it is practices such as this, involving deconstructions of the medium and its generic conventions in the name of self-reflexivity, that more or less define postmodernism. Officially, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, postmodernism is defined as “a style and concept in the arts characterized by a distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions.” The last part of this definition—“the drawing of attention to conventions”—is crucial in the understanding of postmodern aesthetics. It’s the empirical action taken in the name mistrusting what has already been established; it’s a rejection of the “grand narrative”. Postmodernism has become a broad term, aspects of which can be found in most disciplines and areas of study. In general, it encompasses the need to break away from traditions; a film can be postmodern if does just that. A postmodern film will draw attention to either its medium, genre, or both and will attempt to break or play with its already established rules which eventually alters the cannon. In Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s R-rated animation film Anomalisa (2015) both the medium of animated cinema and the genre of the animation film are brought to the attention of the spectator. Another example is that of Wes Craven’s self-reflexive “neo-slasher” flick Scream (1996), in which the established conventions of the slasher genre are explicitly woven into the narrative.

In the latter example, the “Ghostface” killer and his victims knowingly play out the clichéd plots of classic horror films. The unfolding of the serial killer’s actions becomes a game that the soon-to-be-victims play, and just like any game, there are rules. At the end of the film, when Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is shown to have survived a gunshot after he was thought to be dead, Sydney (Neve Campbell) expresses her shock in seeing him alive to which he responds: “I probably should be. I never thought I’b be so happy to be a virgin.” Kennedy’s Randy is a postmodern creation just in himself. His character would never exist in earlier slasher films because the rules for them had not yet been established. His comments, and others in the film similar to it, are in reference to classic horror movie tropes. In the opening scenes of both iconic slasher films Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the film begins with teens being slain for what would be perceived as punishment for engaging in premarital sex. Scream engages in postmodernism by acknowledging this already established convention of the genre and addressing it within the narrative. Steffen Hantke writes: “Scream’s recycling of ‘classic’ precursors transformed the more politically attuned horror of the previous generation into self-indulgent postmodern play,” (191-192). While the act of Michael Myers killing his own sister may have been an allusion to a cultural norm, Casey’s death by the Ghostface killer is  just a self-reflexive revamping of this prototypical scene. Over the phone, Casey and the killer literally discuss horror movies and directly reference both Halloween and Friday the 13th. This is done directly to let the spectator in on the game.


This aspect of postmodernism represented in Scream draws from the urge to reject the canon and grow from it. When ideas of postmodernism were birthed in the 60s, the studying of such a theory “systemically reduced the entire complex of cinema to its basic processes,” (Andrew 343). Jean-Louis Baudry’s “cinematic apparatus” focused on the ideological effects of cinema as being produced through the filmic instruments, not the actual image being shown. Thus the goal of film studies became not to analyze “the structure of masterpieces but the vicissitudes of their reception,” (Andrew 347). By the time of the 90s, the reception of the slasher film had changed; everybody knew the rules. So what was the next move? In the name of postmodernism the only move was to add something new by drawing from within. Nico Wilterdink quotes a pioneer of postmodern thought in Lyotard in defining “the ‘post-modern condition’ as ‘the end of the grand narratives’, or ‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’” (196-197). The next move was, essentially, to tell stories about storytelling. This allowed for the new wave of slasher films to draw attention to their conventions and adhere not just to classical elements of the narrative but to the audience’s new altered reception of these elements as well. As previously stated, the audience knew the rules, so they’re expectations must be subverted by letting them in on the game. The “cheesiness” behind the repeated slasher tropes eases up a bit because the film is aware of it. It’s as if the audience was expecting to see a classic slasher film that they could easily make fun of, only to find out that film beat them to the punch by making fun of itself. It emits  “dynamism with a rejection of the idea of progress,” (Wilterdink). The story is the same as it was before, there is no progress in terms of the narrative structure. The “dynamism” of the film comes from its postmodern elements, from it’s self-reflexivity and it’s adherence of the the relationship of the spectator to the film.

Furthermore, while Scream focuses more on the subversion of its genre, Anomalisa focuses more on the subversion of its medium as an animation film. The animation film is a genre in itself as well, but its unique conventions are in accordance with the possibilities of its medium. Within the canon of animated cinema is the idea that the characters can act in ways physically and humanly impossible, and that certain characters can exist from outside of our physical world; Mickey Mouse is a talking mouse that acts like a person, for example. Anomalisa was created through stop-motion animation similar to the classic tales of Wallace & Gromit (2008-). The latter, however, executed its narrative by taking advantage of the fantastical nature of animation. Gromit, for example, is a dog that is given humanlike characteristics, although he cannot speak. They commit a series of antics only possible within the animated realm—similar to Peter Griffin’s shenanigans in Family Guy (1999-). The former in Anomalisa, critiques this practice by creating an animated world surprisingly familiar and mundane. It almost directly portrays our physical world and the characters act, speak, and behave in general as humans do. They seem to be subject to the same laws of physics that we deal with in our universe. In typical animation conventions, the “visual language is more aligned to the graphic than to the photographic,” (Manovich 1063). The animated, graphic world regulates what is and isn’t possible. It’s not supposed to be an exact simulation of real life. Anomalisa flips the script and challenges the canon by aligning its visual language to that of the photographic as opposed to the graphic. The protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is an author specializing in customer service who is on a business trip to Cincinnati to speak at a conference about customer service—if that’s not mundane, I don’t know what is. The plot of the film is subversive of the medium of animation cinema in itself. Animation is supposed to be exciting and out of the ordinary, whereas the premise of this film seems boring and fully within the ordinary.


There is a purpose to this revisionist style, however, that further serves the film in the name of postmodernism. Whereas previous works in the field of animation cinema focused on escape from the real world to showcase its limitless ability in opposition to what humans couldn’t physically do, Johnson and Kaufman in Anomalisa chose to focus on the human condition. Within the scope of postmodern cinema is the practice of “establish[ing] not the constitution of films but the constitution of audiences,” (Andrew 347). As previously, stated this meant a focus on the spectator and a questioning of the subjectivity of a film. Commentaries on the ways in which people think and feel aren’t typically present within animated films. By doing so Anomalisa becomes a postmodern work. The beauty behind the film is that it achieves this effect in such a way that is only possible through the specifically chosen medium. Within the diegesis, except for Michael and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), every character has the exact same voice. I don’t mean they sound similar, they are literally all the same, except for some slight adjustments in tone (woman and children having higher tones). Michael and Lisa are individually voiced and Tom Noonan voices everyone else. This stylistic choice is intended to highlight Michael’s social disillusionment and the isolation he feels in most social settings. Even his wife and son are voiced by Noonan, displaying how Michael’s internal struggles persist even at home. The response of the spectator, after hearing the same voice from multiple characters, is to pay attention to the medium. They are no longer transported to an animated fantasy world, but are forced to think about the film’s conventions in relation to others like it. The story could just as well be told through real human bodies in a real world setting, but that takes away from the polarizing effect of realizing why all the characters have the same voice. In a real world, people have different voices—that just is. The effect wouldn’t take hold. Again, by being self-reflexive and focusing on “the constitution of audiences”, Johnson and Kaufman’s stop-motion spectacle can be classified as postmodern.

Since the 1960s, the presence of postmodernism has gained more and more influence within many diverse fields and disciplines. A majority of films from recent years can be classified as postmodern. It is one of the current dominant theories within cinema. As suggested by its name, postmodernism is a creation in direct response to modernism or modernity. Wilterdink outlines modernity as “associated with restrictive rules, uniformity, authoritarianism and cultural hierarchization and the belief in progress, rationality and objective truth,” (199). In contrast, postmodernism rejects these notions in favor of uncovering something new. In the film industry, modern genres were getting played out and the “grand narratives” they represented became mundane to the audience. A restructuring of what really was possible with the medium of cinema was what flourished from this “boredom”. The two films I’ve discussed in Scream and Anomalisa can fall under this classification of postmodern because they reject the elements of their predecessors. They deconstruct their generic conventions in an effort to highlight them within the narrative. Essentially, they are self-reflexive and the narrative created or the diegeses constructed is in direct response to previous works of the same genre and medium. They are also both conscious of the relationship of the spectator to the film. In their own way, they each draw the spectator’s attention to the genre they inhabit. In Scream it’s an explication of classic slasher tropes that draws attention to the homogeneity of the genre that was responsible for its initial decline in the first place. In Anomalisa, its the mundanity and familiarity of the animated diegesis as well as the literal homogeneity of the characters’ voices that draw attention to the human condition. Towards the end of the film, when Michael is giving his speech at the customer service conference, he begins to lose his train of thought in a fit of existentialism and says: “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” In quite literally referencing the human condition the work offers something new to the canon of animation cinema and, just as well, becomes eligible to be classified as postmodern.


Works Cited

  • Andrew, Dudley. “The ‘Three Stages’ of Cinema Studies and the Age to Come.” PMLA, vol. 115, no. 3, 2000, pp. 341-351.
  • Anomalisa. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Snoot Entertainment and Starburns Industries, 2015.
  • Hantke, Steffen. “Academic Film Criticism, the Rhetoric of Crisis, and the Current State of American Horror Cinema: Thoughts on Canonicity and Academic Anxiety.” College Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, 2007, pp. 191-202.
  • Manovich, Lev. “What is Digital Cinema?” Critical Visions in Film Theory, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, 2011, pp. 1058-1070.
  • Scream. Directed by Wes Craven, Dimension Films and Woods Entertainment, 1996.
  • Wilterdink, Nico A. “The sociogenesis of postmodernism.” European Journal of Sociology, vol. 43, no. 2, 2002, pp. 190-216.

Affective Reciprocity in the Cinematic Experience

Affect and emotion are often times misconstrued as synonymous. While affect can be vaguely described as our initial response to some form of stimulus, the emotion or feeling displayed is “the presentation of our response,” (Fuery). An affect can represent an ideology so long as it is universal to a certain extent. Not that everyone has to believe in it, but they must be aware of its existence. The affect of love, for example, can be linked to the dominant ideology of “finding the one”. Depending on the subject, different emotions, either positive or negative, can be prompted by the affect. Some may believe that “the one” doesn’t exist while others desperately search for it; either way they both recognize the ideology’s existence. Cinema is the most effective way to display affect with the goal of evoking a certain emotion or response. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), certain stylistic choices and aesthetics convey the affect of love. They support the dominant ideology in our society of “finding the one”, and specifically what Laine describes as “authentic love”. The spectator can relate due to their knowledge of what love is, whether it’s been personally experienced or not. Every one of Michel Gondry’s aesthetic choices in directing the film are purposeful and meant to evoke the spectator’s personal perception of love. From Clementine’s changing hair to the reverse chronology of the narrative, the affect of love is at play as well as the spectator’s involvement through their own experiences with love.

“Do these instruments (technical base) produce specific ideological effects, and are these effects themselves determined by the dominant ideology?” This question, posed by Baudry, is in reference to the cinematic apparatus. Cinema by its very nature is ideological and one’s participation as a viewer in the cinematic apparatus can effect him/her with regard to the dominant ideology displayed within the film. In Eternal Sunshine, this dominant ideology of love—being that of something we all crave and experience as humans—is conveyed through the cinematic apparatus, which focuses on filmic instruments and the specific ideological effects they produce. One specific aspect of the cinematic apparatus of Gondry’s film is the editing style. Save for the opening and ending scenes, the bulk of the film is told in reverse chronological order. As Joel (Jim Carrey) gets Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased from his memory, the process starts from the most recent memory and works its way back in time, allowing for the reverse chronology of the narrative. Sharing memories is a part of being in love with someone, and as each memory unfolds Joel begins to reminisce as one would flipping through an old photo album. Joel becomes relatable here because, although he is an active part of the world of each memory, he is also experiencing the events in real time as a passive observer. As much as he desires, he cannot alter the outcome of each memory. The spectator can instantly relate. As Laine explains: “the film requires the spectators to reflect actively, both on the film itself and on how they are positioned in the midst of the unfolding of events,” (141). The viewer must “reflect actively” as Joel is forced to do. Joel’s pain in realizing he is still in love with Clementine and realizing he will soon forget her altogether transcends to the audience. It’s the same reason why the audience can find such joy in finding out that they will get back together in the end; because they, along with Joel, have experienced the memory-erasure process in real time through the editing of the film. It’s the ultimate love story about the power of “finding the one”; it proves “that no amount of tech support will silence, sweep, or optimize the drive of the human heart,” (Norris 21).

Furthermore, as Joel traverses through his journey of voluntary memory loss, each time a memory is erased the frame is swallowed in darkness. Life with Clementine is all that Joel knows and he very specifically states this at one point: “I can’t remember anything without you.” One of the more iconic scenes where this is blatantly portrayed is the Barnes & Noble scene where he attempts to make amends by bringing Clementine a gift. This is very early in the memory-erasing process to the point that Joel isn’t aware of it yet. She “acts” as though she doesn’t recognize him and when he storms away in anger “the lights in each section of the store go dark sequentially behind him—like one massive closing, a stepwise collapsing of time and space,” (Norris 21). This isn’t just an erasure of Clementine, it’s an erasure of a whole part of Joel’s life. Laine describes their relationship as displaying “authentic love”; she outlines this type of love as “[avoiding] the mutual desire for shared identity in favor of affective reciprocity,” (139). He does not want to share a life with Clementine, but rather live autonomously alongside her. However, this can only work as a reciprocal relationship. Essentially, he doesn’t know who he is without her. “Lovers who love authentically… see love as something to be actively brought into existence, rather than as a destiny to which one can passively submit,” (Laine 140). Their love is an action, not an experience. Each of these memories exist as an act of love. So when Joel and Clementine are laying on frozen Lake Charles and Clementine gets pulled away into the darkness, it’s because their love has ceased to exist. This is also why when Joel attempts to trick the system and finds himself back in an already erased memory—getting interviewed by Dr. Mierzwiack (Tom Wilkinson)—the scene is enveloped in darkness. The memories, created by love, are now nothing, just darkness.

Certain stylistic choices can go unnoticed to the naïve observer. One particularly interesting choice was the casting of Jim Carrey as the protagonist, Joel. As most people surely should know, Jim Carrey is a comedic actor. Before his role in Eternal Sunshine, he starred in films such as Liar Liar (1997), The Cable Guy (1996), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). In each of these films, he is the protagonist and plays to what could be known as the “Jim Carrey persona”—he’s a wacky goofball. His casting in Eternal Sunshine is purposeful in displaying him against his general archetype. The viewer will see Carrey and expect wild and exuberant as they’ve come to know through the roles he plays. Joel, however, is quite the exact opposite, and the audience is immediately drawn to notice this casting choice. “Movie spectatorship involves two kinds of perceptual activities: sensory contact with the cinematic image and epistemic access to the image,” (Ponech 85). This means that when the audience sees Joel on the screen they not only see Joel, but they see Jim Carrey playing Joel. Their outside knowledge of the actor forcibly comes into play with regard to how they feel Joel should behave. When he doesn’t act accordingly, the spectator can presume that this is not an ordinary diegesis—Jim Carrey isn’t acting like “Jim Carrey” therefore this cannot be a representation of reality, it must exist outside of the known reality. This proves to be relatively true as it is soon noted that this is a world where memory-wiping companies, such as Lacuna Inc., exist. Such a company would never exist in the world of “Jim Carrey”. It’s the first indicator that something is off. Joel even says: “I woke up in a funk this morning,” which could arguably draw attention to the audience’s “funk” in seeing Jim Carrey in such an against-type role.

One of the more noticeable aesthetic choices of the film is that of Clementine’s hair color and how it seems to change incessantly. In a film that shifts from one time period to another so rapidly, and proceeds in reverse chronological order for a majority of the time, finding out when exactly in the relationship an event is being experienced can be a difficult task. Clementine’s hair serves as a reminder to the spectator as to what point in the relationship any given event is proceeding. Just as well, each different hair color corresponds to a different mood. This is where the spectator must draw outside knowledge on colors and their relations to emotions. Trevor Ponech, in his article about spectatorship claims that “visual experiences of photographically produced motion pictures generally give rise to perceptual knowledge of both the medium and the extra-cinematic world,” (86). Through the viewing of cinema, spectators have been conditioned to correspond certain colors to certain emotions. When Joel and Clementine first meet at the beach party, her hair is green. Green is the color of nature and, by association, life. The particular color of her hair at that time symbolizes the budding life of a new relationship. Also, the fact that she changes her hair color a lot points to her shifting personality. She even says: “I can’t tell from one moment to the next what I’m gonna like.” Whereas Joel seems to be the same all the time, and comfortable with it; where Clementine wears a bright orange hoodie with her green hair, Joel where his gray shirt and brown beanie. This disparity in their attire is in line with Laine’s “authentic love”. They are so different that it brings them together, not for hopes of “sharing an identity” because they know they are too different to do so. They seek “affective reciprocity” in each other; just the comfort of loving someone for who they are and knowing that they will do the same.

As previously stated, cinema by its very nature is ideological. Certain films produce certain affects, to which the spectator digests then responds with their own emotions. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the affect of love and the ideology of “finding the one” is at work. As Laine describes it, “authentic love” is what develops between Joel and Clementine. Most people believe in finding love and becoming one with the other person; this idea of a “shared identity”. Joel and Clementine’s love is more “authentic” than that love due to its allowance of autonomy. They both want to be themselves, but don’t know how to do it without each other. When Clementine is with Patrick, she seems to lose her mind and can’t figure out a reason why. It could be argued that the absence of Joel from both her memory and life created a void that can’t be filled by anyone else. This deep connection between the two is displayed through aspects of the cinematic apparatus such as the editing style and certain constructions of the mise-én-scene. The reverse chronology of the memory erasing process allows for reminiscence on behalf of both Joel and the viewer. Just as well, the blacking-out of the frame whenever a memory is permanently deleted points to the importance of one another in each other’s lives. The spectator’s part in the film in reflecting along with Joel allows for a strong connection to be made with him as the protagonist. At first it can be hard to realize what they see in each other, but as the process traverses on and the beginning events of the relationship are shown and (re)experienced it gets easier to relate to Joel’s pain. The erasure of Clementine from Joel’s memory finally ends with them at the beach house where they first met. The scene consists of the world surrounding Joel as literally falling apart. The house is crumbling and the sea is raging; his emotions are in chaos. This is because it’s much more than the memory of Clementine that he’s losing, it’s also the memory of him at his best self, according to himself. Their love is authentic, which is arguably the truest love of all.


Works Cited

  • Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus.” Critical Visions in Film Theory, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, pp. 35-43.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Directed by Michel Gondry, performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, Focus Features, 2004.
  • Furry, Kelli. Film Theory and Criticism. Chapman University, https:// course_id=_25556_1&content_id=_465330_1
  • Laine, Tarja. “Love.” Feeling Cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011, pp. 123-163.
  • Norris, Chris. “Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Head Trip.” Film Comment, vol. 40, no. 2, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2004, pp. 20-21.
  • Ponech, Trevor. “Visual Perception and Motion Picture Spectatorship.” Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1997, pp. 85-100.

Foucault and the Factory

Back in the Fall of 2016, my roommate had asked me if I had any interest in joining him on a trip to a local rock gym. I had been rock climbing before, but not since I was in middle school and the activity was almost foreign to me now. What compelled me to accept his invitation could be a topic for a whole other essay: to bond with my roommate, to make myself seem more interesting (“I like to go rock climbing in my spare time”), to better my physical image. In actuality, it was most likely an amalgamation of these above reasons. It’s believed by some that our individual personalities are constructed by fragments of the personalities of those with whom we interact with on a daily basis. Our individuality is formed by our awareness of this social connection we have with our fellow humans and how we internalize and perceive this knowledge. So, as I accepted this invitation I was initially hesitant because I knew what it entailed. I was entering into a new institution, a new discourse, with new rules that I would have to learn. My hesitation here helped me to realize my hesitation with doing most “new” things. To understand the rules of any new institution, I have to initially become a “docile body,” and I think this makes me uncomfortable in cases such as this, furthering me not to pursue the new activity at all.

I didn’t know what a “docile body” was at the time, but the feeling inside me felt familiar: I was anxious. I had many questions but I didn’t want to seem like a “noob”; I had to act like I’d been there before. I’ve been to your standard “LA Fitness”-type gym to work out before, but I’ve never been to a “rock gym.” Do I still wear athletic shorts? What about sweats? Tank top or T-shirt? I was undoubtedly up for this activity but my anxieties were holding me back. I realized that this anxious feeling was tied to the way I feel about being a “docile body”. Most of us have spent our whole lives adhering to the rules of a certain institution, whether that institution is your elementary school or the US Government, and those rules unconsciously construct the way in which we perceive the world around us. Growing up and going through our education system, we become conditioned to be “respectful” and “mindful” of others and other institutions of power. In the process of learning about the world as a child, we become “docile bodies.” It’s not until we have spent our time as a “cog in the machine,” then we can begin to go against the grain. One must first gain knowledge of the rules of the institution before one can subvert it and carve out their own perspective.

In her essay “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity,” Susan Bordo  credits Foucault for coining “docile body” and describes the way in which we become “docile” is by being “regulated by the norms of cultural life,” (165). She contextualizes her argument by applying it to the concepts of masculinity and femininity:

“Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity—a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attends to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion—female bodies become docile bodies—bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, ‘improvement.’” (166)

The “docile” female is one who can be controlled by perpetuating a conviction of insufficiency. Women are constantly conditioned to feel like they’re not good enough. All of us in a way are encouraged by society to chase some ever-changing “ideal” form, but with women it’s more explicit. So when I first entered The Factory bouldering gym in the Fall I was unconsciously feeling out for how I was about to be “regulated” and “subjected” within this institution. I had to rent shoes since it was my first time, and I remember looking at everyone else’s feet that day trying to see if they had rentals or not; I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to be a “docile body” initially in order to find out what that “ideal” form was for this institution, so that I could then apply my personal way of adhering to my “subjection.”

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Burke’s concept of “the nature of language” and how there are two distinctions: scientistic and dramatistic. The scientistic approach views language as definition while the dramatistic approach sees language as act (Burke). Before I could assign any dramatic rhetoric to the descriptions of my activities within the gym, I had to first learn the basic terms. My roommate was already a regular at this place and while I was getting situated with my rental shoes and stretching my arms he was conversing with other climbers. I overheard him say “Yea, that’s a hard problem.” I was confused at first because I thought we were in a rock gym not math class. I soon found out that that was the designated term for a certain climb and there are different levels ranging from V0-V10, which essentially means beginner to expert. For example, right now I’m in the V4-V5 range. The non-rock climber probably doesn’t know what that means; I certainly didn’t when I was at the gym that first day. Today, I can use dramatistic language in the description of my climbing, such as “I’ve officially conquered the V3’s,” because I’ve learned the scientistic language already; the V# symbols designate a certain skill level. Now when I refer to a “problem” in the gym to someone else, they know what I mean. Furthermore, by using this language I am adhering to the rules of the institution; I am becoming a “docile body” within the gym. However, no one specifically regulated me into using that language, I instilled it upon myself. This practice of me checking myself feeds into Foucault’s theory on the Panopticon.

Foucault describes the Panopticon as a circular jail with the cells on the outside and a guard stand in the center. The idea is that any given prisoner could be observed at any given time, whether he/she knows it or not. Foucault argues that this theory allows for the creation of “discipline”. Discipline is placed in our society by way of making people think that they’re always being watched. (i.e. surveillance cameras, photo IDs, the police). Foucault conveys his theory of discipline as being a product of panopticism: “[O]ne can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine,’ to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism.’” (207) Generally, this makes people follow the rules without anyone necessarily making them do it directly. It becomes instilled in us that that is what were supposed to do. With regard to my example, my roommate never told me to use the term “problem” or insert “V4” and “V5” into my diction when I’m at the gym; I made those adjustments myself in order to “fit in” better. I disciplined myself in order to become a part of the discourse.

In the beginning, I was just trying to be like everyone else at the gym. I wanted to slide in unnoticed and figure out the rules as quickly as I could so as to fit in with everyone else. Now that I have a more established presence—I got my own shoes too—I’m trying to separate myself within that “ideal” form of a typical attendee of The Factory bouldering gym. I think this can relate to a general concept of how people hold themselves and act on a daily basis. Everyone wants to be their own person, and generally people don’t like being told what they can and cannot do. Most people know that there’s more to a person than meets the eye. I take on the role of “docile body” in my initial interactions with one person or institution so that I can feel them out and see how they “play the game”; once I figure it out I apply my own perspective. Foucault’s concept of the “docile body” and the Panopticon can be applied to many different disciplines. He references some examples himself: “The formation of the disciplinary society is connected with a number of broad historical processes—economic, juridico-political, and lastly, scientific—of which it forms part.” (207) It’s connected to many facets of the society we know today. It’s a helpful way to understand how people interact with each other and institutions of power in our society. It’s also interesting to study the growth of someone’s relationship with a certain set of “rules” over time. I’m still a beginner in the realm of rock climbing, but I’ll be sure to take note of my behavior as I continue my tenure at this gym.


Works Cited

  • Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. 1993. Berkely, CA: UC Press, 2003.
  • Burke, Kenneth. “Terministic Screens.” Language as Symbolic Action. Berkely: UC Press, 1966. 44-62.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 206-213.

The Man You Hate/Love to Love/Hate

On March 14th 2015, Robert Alan Durst was arrested in a hotel in New Orleans. He was checked in under the name Everett Ward and was mumbling to himself as he limped through the lobby. At 71 years of age and suffering from hydrocephalus, he wasn’t in the most graceful of conditions, and yet he had been evading the authorities for years at this point. Durst was arrested in connection to the 2000 murder of his good friend Susan Berman. Although never a suspect himself, he is heavily believed to be the culpirt, especially by those investigating the case—deputy District Attorney John Lewin in his interrogation of Durst, just following his New Orleans arrest, would straightforwardly claim “I know that, when you killed Susan Berman, that was not something you wanted to do.” He’s already been presupposed as guilty; for Lewin, it’s not about whether or not Durst actually did it, it’s about figuring out how to make everyone (more specifically a judge and jury) believe that Durst did do it.

The New York Scion has been in and out of the headlines ever since the never-solved disappearance of his first wife, Kathie Durst, in 1982. With Susan’s death in 2000, Durst’s name was in the spotlight again and so Kathie’s case gained more traction. More developments would ensue over the years, including another mysterious death of someone close to him, up until the premiere of the HBO documentary series “The Jinx” (Andrew Jarecki, 2015), which is based on Durst and the controversies surrounding him. In one of the most scintillating moments of modern-day television, Durst chilled the spines of viewers across the nation with a few soft-spoken words:

“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”*

This was also prefaced with: “There it is. You’re caught.” These comments have yet to be deemed admissible for his upcoming trial but if you’re someone like Lewin, or one of the detectives from the original Kathie Durst case, this is all the evidence you need to justify it to yourself. The question I have now, after watching the show and reading what I’ve read, isn’t so much associated with whether or not he killed these 3 people, but more so along the lines of why so many people are obsessed with convicting him. Like OJ Simpson, Durst’s situation carries a significant cultural weight, but where Simpson’s was more political, Durst’s centered on morality.

The myth of “money buys happiness” or “money leads to happiness” is relevant here as a friend of Durst is quoted in “The Jinx” saying that Durst once told him: “All my life I’ve had more money than I can spend and it didn’t make me happy.” The simulacrum for happiness and success, for some reason, must involve the acquisition of money. There’s a grand assumption in our society that having money eases your personal problems, and it’s hard not to buy into it sometimes; we have become conditioned to do so. When Durst says money doesn’t make him happy, it throws us for a slight mental loop because it doesn’t right away match up with what we’ve been taught our whole lives. This ideology that Durst has adopted can also play into his favorability, as many people probably feel similarly so they relate to him through the TV screen. In a moment such as this, the grand old narrative of “money = happy” is shattered in a postmodern paradigm shift. Durst becomes a favorable anti-hero for resisting modern values.

The simulacrum for morality is noteworthy here because of how it’s defined in our culture plays a huge role into how Durst is received by the public. In 2003, Durst was on trial for the murder of Morris Black in 2001, his neighbor and friend while he was living in Galveston, TX. In a swift move by his defense, Durst was put on the stand and asked to tell his version. He admitted to shooting Black, but out of self-defense, and then cut up his body and threw him in a nearby lake;

“I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.”

Durst ended up being acquitted of the murder charge which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way (my roommate became convinced that Durst was guilty after hearing about the dismemberment, to him one obviously led to the other). I am not giving my side here but objectively asking: why is it that calling the police in that situation the “moral” choice and disposing of the body himself not? Either way Morris is still dead. What if it was proven without a doubt that he was indeed killed in self-defense? Would the dismemberment be just as polarizing? Or even more so? But what does it mean to “add up”? That justification makes us feel comfortable as the general public because we think that there’s no possible way that a man like Durst can be “real” if he cut up the body, but didn’t intentionally kill him. It doesn’t “add up”. In the former, where his self-defense plea isn’t universally believed, the assumption can still be held that he’s just pretending, however, in the latter, he is simulating.

“[P]retending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’” (3)**

The simulacra for morality that Durst is simulating is one that can’t be comprehended by the dominant ideology; therefore he comes off as mysteriously terrifying. Even in the most recent of the pre-trial hearings from this past April, a newly identified secret witness claimed she was scared of Durst, which hindered her from stepping forward initially.

During the hearing, deputy D.A. Lewin, the prosecutor, asks the witness, Lynda Obst, why she’s there, to which she replies:

“For justice.”

This similar kind of sentiment is echoed throughout most of Durst’s opposers. They want to bring “justice” to Kathie’s family by finding out the location of her body. They want to bring “justice” to Susan and Morris’s family by punishing the person responsible for their deaths. In what way is this bringing “justice” for the family if its doesn’t literally bring their loved one back? People take comfort in having certain amounts of control over any given situation and “justice” in this case is taking the power from Durst. They want to let him know that his behavior will not be tolerated by the dominant ideology that governs us.

“Power itself has for a long time produced nothing but the signs of it’s resemblance. And at the same time, another figure of power comes into play: that of a collective demand for signs of power—a holy union that is reconstructed around its disappearance.” (23)

Ideologies regarding “justice” stem from discourses of power. What is and isn’t considered “justice” has been perpetuated by those in power throughout history. Even dating back Greek mythology and the Trojan War, after Achilles refused to return Hector’s body—as was customary—Priam, King of Troy, approached the enemy to beg Achilles for the return of his dead son’s body so that he could have a proper burial, and Achilles approved. They both adhered to a dominant ideology of the era, respect for deceased loved ones. Everyone had the same understanding as to what was justifiable in that situation. In today’s postmodern society, on the other hand, the lines are drawn as clearly. What’s “justice” to Durst isn’t “justice” to Lewin; and Obst’s “justice” could differentiate from both. These simulations of “justice” have become hyperreal in they’re “translated by the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself” (23)**. The simulacra for “justice” has become so convoluted that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Durst represents a uniques case in post-colonial criticism as well. According to Said: “The relationship between the Occident and Orient is one of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony,” (5)***. Occident vs. Orient, or West vs. Other, is one of the most dominant binaries of our current milieu, and actually has been for a long time. I believe Durst is uniques in a way where he occupies both worlds at once. He’s a postmodern poster-child; a part of the rich and “ruling” class, yet at the same time as foreign to them as the primordially deemed Other. His tendency to play hop-scotch with this ideological line makes him harder to figure out—he’s a real estate tycoon, but he smokes pot everyday; he . In a way he reminds of the Joker, in that he’s a new age type of “villain” or “antihero” driven by unconventional motivations. However, he’s also not yet enough removed from the Western world to abandon it or be abandoned by it. It’s this mastery of both sides that has perpetuated Durst’s “success”. Not a big enough rallying cry can be gathered around his seizure because he’s too interesting. Even Jarecki faced anxiety when getting ready for his final interview with Durst because he knew this was going to be the point where Durst and he will no longer be friends—and that was tough for him initially, because the Other side of Durst is slightly fascinating.

Ultimately, I believe the aspect of Durst’s character that people despise the most is the seemingly nonchalant disinterest he has in his extreme wealth, not his alleged murder of three people. The one thing people hate more than murderers are those who are super rich and don’t explicitly appreciate it. Durst isn’t humble and people don’t like that. It’s looked like he hasn’t cared about any of this stuff for so long that it’s coming off as arrogant. He’s also got that Donald Trump, say-it-how-it-is way of speaking that I’m sure works in his favor for some people (he was once asked to repeat a statement he made about his brother, Douglas, and he answered: “Yeah, I said he’s a pussy”). During this same interrogation, which occurs a day after his arrest in New Orleans, Durst claims that he’s not that good at being a fugitive:

“But, when I was in prison, none of the inmates could understand that, at all. I mean you have lots of money. Why’d you get caught?

Durst is seen as a simulacrum for aristocracy by the other inmates. They see him as a white, rich, male and simply because of those basic traits he should be able to get away with murder—notice how he chooses to say ‘Why’d you get caught?’ not ‘Why’d you do it?’. When the inmates see Durst they unconsciously see all the white elites throughout history mostly associated with taking what they want and subjugating others. To them he’s not Robert Durst, he’s the spoiled rich kid who killed his hot white wife. Just as minorities and women unrightfully get labeled as subhuman, rich white males unrightfully get labeled as superhuman. Robert Durst thinks and acts in a postmodern style; he’s breaking every rule at every turn. Most people blindly despise him without looking at the society we live in. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Extras Links

*the comments on this ABC News video show the range of his differing support

**from Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

***from Orientalism by Edward Said

****Durst quotes are from 3/15/15 interrogation

Sean Penn vs Jon Krakauer

Leather-tramps travel by foot while rubber-tramps travel by car, but in the end a tramp is a tramp. In most cases, tramps aren’t living the lifestyle they are by choice—this was the case, however, with Christopher McCandless. He preferred to be called Alexander Supertramp, which garnered a slightly baffled reaction from most people he met. The character of Chris in Jon Krakauer’s novel and Sean Penn’s film is based on that of the real life 1992 graduate of Emory University who donated his grad school savings of $24,000 to charity, ditched his car, burned his remaining cash and deserted civilization to live in the wild.

I guess there is some validation in his self-proclaimed title: ‘Supertramp’. I mean he didn’t just travel by foot or just by car or even a combination of both—he had no short-term planning or daily routine. He consciously made the choice to fight for his life everyday for the pure sake of freedom and adventure. In line with displaying Chris’s character, I believe Sean Penn portrays a different protagonist in his 2007 film than that of Jon Krakauer in his original novel. They are similar on many wavelengths but I see the main distinction in the novel Chris having a much more bleaker world view than the film version played by Emile Hirsch.

“How I feed myself is none of the government’s business. Fuck their stupid rules.” This is Chris’s response in the book when asked if he even had a hunting license to hunt and fend for himself in the wilderness. These words would never be uttered in the film by Hirsch’s Chris—he has too much overall positivity. His motivation driving him to Alaska isn’t along the lines of him hating structured society but more along the assumption that he will enjoy his life better surrounded by nature—free from rules and materiality. At the end when attempting explain his chosen lifestyle to Ron Franz, played by Hal Holbrook, he says: “You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human relationships.” He says this in a way that does not diminish the value of human relationships but merely suggests that it is not the pinnacle of happiness.

The difference in the characterization of both Chris’s comes from the author of each work. In writing his novel, he only could find out about Chris through word-of-mouth and through stories and pictures. He never actually knew or met Chris so in telling his story it had to be done through the perspective of those that aided him in his journey. Chris, as I previously mentioned, is shown as mildly pessimistic in the novel. This could be directly linked to the impression he left on people; they knew he had good intentions but still couldn’t accept the reasoning for his actions and therefore retold their experiences with him in a slightly negative light—they were sad that he was gone because they thought he had so much potential and was throwing it all away. In the film, the way these people feel about Chris doesn’t change, and in fact might even be more powerful since we can visually discern the emotions in their face. However, the story is now told through the perspective of Chris himself. We see the world through his eyes rather than the eyes of someone attempting to understand him.

Why King is the King

“Injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere.” This is an extremely powerful quote. It can only have been written about a subject the writer is passionate about. Passion: it’s one of the greatest tools you can have as a writer. When you have passion and thoroughly believe in the subject you write about, you unconsciously increase your credibility and thus increase your chances of prompting change.

Let’s go back to that opening quote. It was written by Martin Lither King, Jr. in “Open Letter to Birmingham Jail” (read it here: ). King is one the best speakers of all time. His famous speech “I Have A Dream” is still greatly admired today and used influentially to this day. The main reason King was rhetorically effective in his speaking and writing efforts was because of his immense passion. “Injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere.” In this quote and much others like it you can here his voice. When I read it I can picture King standing at his podium, slamming his fist on it, echoing throughout the room, booming with passion.

Passion comes from within, from yourself. The only way to effectively create passion and enthusiasm in a subject is to put yourself in your writing. King constantly spoke and wrote from the heart. He dug deep into the caverns of his feelings and beliefs and spilled it all in the page. This above all is why I believe people listened to King.

People want to listen to others who believe what they’re saying. No one would have followed King if he didn’t put 100% of his heart and soul into his work. Even though he is extremely logical—maybe even more so than passionate—it doesn’t compete with the effect that being passionate gives. To me the most effective parts of the letter are two paragraphs: the one on page 3 that starts with “We have waited” and the one on the last page that started with “I wish you had commented”. Both of these paragraphs are dripping with pathos and emotional appeal. He becomes so passionate that he reverts to a stream-of-consciousness structure that is mostly used in speeches.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fantastic writer and even better speaker. He was a successful preacher and a passionate leader. He believed in his movement more than anything else. When he put these beliefs in to speaking and writing, you just have to listen.

Fortress of Solitude

It stands alone. Just far enough to become a sanctuary to get away, but not too far away. Enough to escape reality for just a little while when life at the house became too much. It had all the core requirements: distance from reality, no actual authority, and personal subjects who had nothing to do but just listen to you speak. I don’t know what it is about talking to animals but they seem to make problems disappear, without even making a sound. This was my home—no—this was our home. The tall walls stood stark red against the cloudy blue sky and grey fields. The door opened with a distinctive creak as if to sound a welcoming horn to let the residents know that we had arrived. And when looking back on the house it seemed as if it were a hundred miles away. Nothing could get us.

Now standing here today, the walls seem to have shrunk; the panels seem to have lost so much color they’re now more of a subtle brown; the house in reality is only a horseshoe throw away. When I step inside, the creak resembles more the sound of bagpipes at a funeral than a welcoming committee. The residents of the barn have their heads down as I enter alone—to them this was unusual. The horses long faces become longer. The walls become as grey as the fields and the silence never felt so unsettling. I came here, to this barn—my sanctuary—to get to a world that was quiet, but this… this was too quiet.