Self Objectification in Black Box

Image result for black box eganJennifer Egan’s black-box is a short story told in sections comprised of 140 characters or less via Twitter. It is told from a 2nd person point of view with a semi-didactic style. The events take place in an overly patriarchal, suggestibly dystopian society. The society at hand is characterized by an exaggerated version of the self-obsession that exists in the neoliberal individualist world that we live in. Our female protagonist, which I will refer to as Lulu, is a spy that belongs to a government directly opposing the hitherto mentioned individualism. She tells us:

In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with being seen and recognized. In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona… The power of individual magnetism is nothing against the power of combined selfless effort. You may accomplish astonishing personal feats, but citizen agents rarely seek individual credit. They liken the need for personal glory to cigarette addiction: a habit that feels life-sustaining even as it kills you. (Black Box, 21)

Nevertheless, Lulu’s organization of ‘citizen agent’ -i.e. spies, differs significantly from a traditional espionage unit in two main ways: a) To share the information she has acquired, she need not be alive. Like the black box of a plane, there exists a technology in her that allows the organization to retract the information from her corpse. b) She not only thinks of herself as a pawn in a larger chess game against image obsessed individualism but tells us the story as if she’s utterly detached from her own identity. She acts as if she has no individual identity, i.e. she is fully depersonalized.Image result for espionage archer lana kane hot

Image result for black box plane

From an operational standpoint, there seems to be three strategies she actively deploys in relevant situations. She abuses the expectations that come from gender roles to play a non-threatening, attractive and sympathetic woman. She gives the illusion of verisimilitude by executing planned displays of vulnerability and physical affection. Lastly, she uses basic psychology to get the information she needs, e.g. “An angry subject will guard his words less carefully.” (Black Box, 13)

Now that we’ve covered the basics, I want to engage in what I consider to be the central theme of this story: self-objectification.  At the first layer of interpretation, Lulu lives her life in a depersonalized state. Then at section 31 and 32, there takes a place a violent rape scene. Her usual didactic tone starts to become more self-soothing and her instructions aim to make her feel numb as opposed to reach a patriotic objective. For the first time, we truly encounter ‘real’ self in Lulu, and her characteristically sociopathic detachment from her body functions as a defense against trauma.

In psychiatry, depersonalization disorder (DPD) is a syndrome characterized by a recurrent feeling of detachment from one’s self. DPD is usually secondary, arising from interpersonal trauma. (For more check out Simeon’s 2004 paper on depersonalization: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15089102) Now, almost from the get go, we can tell that Lulu comes from a severely troubled background. Thus, it’s more than plausible that Lulu’s transcended point of view is not just style nor an instrumental mechanism for a controlled display of her image, but also a direct result of the nature of her work and horrible events she bears.

Image result for dpd syndromeShe had decided or had been convinced that the point of her existence was to gather information for her government, and to perform adequately she had to sacrifice her private self. However, a total sacrifice of the private self is impossible, and she broke from character in face of extreme trauma. Conjoining this interpretation with the patriarchal dystopia at hand, we’re left with the following suggestion from Black Box: Playing into gender roles for the sake of establishing a task can be empowering in a certain context but can never be “truly” self-empowering; because playing into gender roles is by definition a sacrifice of self. But since an utter sacrifice of self is impossible, then an utter evasion from such sexual trauma remains impossible as well.

At 2016, Zara Dinnen has conducted an interview with Jennifer Egan in which she asked the author to elaborate on Lulu’s skepticism about the “veracity of an essential self.” Egan answered:

… a source of poignancy is in that struggle between the private self and mediated self, which in some sense is communal property. With Lulu in “Black Box” her thoughts are not even her own: they are, in some sense, owned by the state, the record of her work for them, and equally valuable whether she is alive or dead. All they need is her body. She is literally a media outlet. (“This is All Artificial” by Zara Dinnen and Jennifer Egan)

At the second layer of interpretation, I want to focus on the self-objectification that exists in our everyday ordinary life. Not only I enjoyed Lulu as a smart and mysterious character, but I felt a sense of familiarity and empathy too. I thought of the social situations in which I had to make decision between acting to be perceived in a certain way/or fit in vs. acting as my authentic self. It seemed that Lulu was hyper-cognizant of these choices except she always chose to act out the former out of patriotic duty.

Now I’m not disputing the role gender plays in the story, but the role of self-obsessed individualism can’t be dismissed either. Egan does not just criticize patriarchy, she criticizes a particular form of it. In the end. I believe that Black Box as a critique of self-objectification in our culture and gender roles is but a vital host to this phenomenon and not the source of it.

Most notable example of self-objectification is social media where a snippet of our thoughts or image that we have recorded is presented for everyone else to see and share or comment or re-appropriate. Personally, I saw the rise of social media while growing up. I was already a teenager when social media became popular, so I never felt as if I’m totally obligated to be a part of the trend -despite the social pressure.Image result for instagram kylie jenner

These days, social media – most relevantly Instagram, is not just a synthetic reality but in many cases the de facto reality with which young people learn to socialize. The old ‘different person online’ worry was that you meet someone online and they are different in real life. Now, I’m afraid of the Instagram profiles of the people I meet and get to know in real life because it might show me how they think they should be under the gaze of the perceived other.  Naturally, I wondered if Egan had similar ideas in mind whilst writing Black Box and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t present this as proof for how Black Box exemplifies my manic worries regarding the role technology plays in self-objectification; but, it’s some good food for thought:

… Instagram could just as well be titled ‘Self objectification’. Obviously when you use social media to display your experience for the benefit of others, you’re pretty close to thinking of yourself in a natural state, in terms of ‘here I am’: as an object to be perceived. The imagined viewer is always there, in other words. That’s pretty horrifying!  (“This is All Artificial” by Zara Dinnen and Jennifer Egan) 

Full interview at: http://post45.research.yale.edu/2016/05/this-is-all-artificial-an-interview-with-jennifer-egan/

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Is it really an allegory?

To be honest, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t think that it could be allegorical of anything at all. It was a highly fictional world with Elves and Dwarves and Magical Rings that are just too imaginative to be part of the real world. To me, Lord of the Rings was nothing more than the product of Tolkien’s fantastic imagination and dedication towards creating such a detailed world. All I saw was a writers’ great enthusiasm towards the concept of this imaginary world in which all the creatures from the fairy tales we all have read live together.

To be fair, I was 15 at the time so I’m not surprised to see how my recent readings of this series has completely changed its meaning – not going to lie, I enjoyed my first reading far more than my recent ones, just because I was able to immerse myself into this fantastical world and almost become a part of the story. In recent readings, however, I have been much more aware of what is actually happening in the story and have often connected aspects of it to the real world. By doing so, I did cut out on some of the fun of reading it, but my recent readings of the series have been far more memorable, just because they now feel a little more realistic.

In the foreword, Tolkien bluntly states that “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” In short, THIS BOOK IS NOT ALLEGORICAL OF ANYTHING – And my first reading of this book is representative of exactly this. As the story progressed, I went along with Frodo and Sam on their quest and felt the same things as they would have felt – the book most definitely held the attention of its readers. What really strengthens this idea that Lord of the Rings is purely fictional is that Tolkien just didn’t stop at this book, but wrote almost 12 more books on the history and lore of Middle Earth. He was just trying his best to make a complete fictional world.

However, at this point it’s just difficult for me to think that this book (and all the books preceding or following it) does not pull from the events around Tolkien in his time. The overlaying themes of good versus evil is something that was (and is) highly prominent at the time given that this book was written shortly after the first World War and was followed by the second World War. The number of parallels that can be drawn between the book and the state of the world at that time make it very difficult to agree with the fact that this book was written as pure fiction. Sure, the book is not a direct allegory of real events such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it is clear that each character represents a person in the real world, but it is most definitely not pure fiction.

Looking at the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s comments about how the book was not intended to be allegorical of the war, one question that came to my mind was that can anything be pure fiction? Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during a time of great social and political turmoil and it is hard to think that those ideas were not part of his subconscious while writing the book. It is extremely difficult not to include aspects of the real world in writing and almost impossible to not be influenced by what is going on around you. In my public speaking course, we have been talking about informative speeches and how it is necessary to be unbiased in such speeches. During our discussions, I realized that it is really difficult not to include any of your own opinions to be part of your speech in one way or another. In the same way, I’m certain that Tolkien definitely had some opinions on the state of the world at that time, and at some point some of these ideas were bound to bleed into his writing. Perhaps, this is why he states that the book was not intended to be an allegory, but the ideas presented in the book are highly applicable to the real world and this is just a result of some of his own opinions being reflected in his writing. Taking a look at another ‘fictional’ series, Harry Potter once again deals with highly imaginative topics such as wizards and fantastic beasts. However, it is quite often debated that this series too has some allegorical aspects with respect to religion. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, themes that are shared with christianity are seen throughout the book, and I think it’s very possible that his interactions with C.S. Lewis could have been a contributing factor to that. After all, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is full of references to the Bible.

In the end, I agree with Tolkien on the statement that The Lord of the Rings was not written as an Allegory to the second World War, Christianity, or any of the many other ideas and themes that this book parallels. It was written as an attempt to entertain and excite readers and it does exactly that. However it is nearly impossible to write any work without being influenced by the culture and society around you and The Lord of the Rings is a result of the events happening around the time it was written, blending into it. However, this actually doesn’t take away from the book but in fact, adds to it. By adding aspects to it that are representative of the real world, readers are able to connect with the book at a deeper level as they are familiar with the concepts being dealt with. It allows the readers to relate to the events taking place in the book and in some ways enhances their experience as the delve deeper into the world that the author has created for them.

If We Could Go Back In Time…

Text by A.A. BENJAMIN, Game Demo by JO KIM, Characters by SPARLING

Our fictional Once Upon A Time Machine video game proposal (<–see our powerpoint presentation here) had one obvious blunder. We had a cool game demo but treated our presentation as separate from the demo.

As we talk about hyper-meditation in this English New Media course, finding ways to merge the two would have been an opportune way to express what we’ve learned in the course. However, timing issues and mishaps aside, the highlight of this project was collaboration. Our bouncing ideas transformed into a proposal that mimicked gameplay and a fun intertextual commentary that made gaming attractive to a target audience.

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The Narrator

We built a video game model off of the arcade style and well-known Mario Kart race track design. The premise of the game is that you can choose one from ten playable characters designed from H.G. Well’s novel, The Time Machine. You then race against your friends in your choice of eight vehicles derived from methods of time travel across literature and film to date, all with their pros and cons. Along the courses which follow the novel’s plot, you use items and special weapons to work your way to first place, surviving the clingy Eloi and destructive Morlocks. Our game provided some intertextual game play for intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, as well as sci-fi and steampunk fans. We also took liberties with H.G. Well’s more obscurely described characters to create gender and race-inclusive characters.

The most enjoyable part about this project, to me, was the generation of ideas together and then watching them develop through art and imagery. One thing we would have needed to do if this were a real proposal would have been to fully design our own concepts and/or cite our sources (drawing them would have been super fun). Though we wouldn’t have to consider copyright issues with the aged H.G. Wells novel, we concluded that we could keep the vehicles as direct references under the Fair Use doctrine. Also, as indicated by our classmates, we could have described the functions of more of our characters, vehicles, and levels rather than focusing on one or two, so here some drafts that didn’t make the cut:

 

Man With A Beard
Man With A Beard–Spontaneous combustion whenever using matches

 

Time_Machine__in_Engine_by_natetheartist
Time Machine Sled–Can hold endless items. The more you have slower you are. Items attract Eloi, sled itself attracts Morlocks. Enables use of mace
Tardis–Unaffected by villains. Overheats when lighting matches. Your matches don’t work on villains (because you’re in a box. Basically, just avoid matches). Disappears momentarily. Works best with Medical Man
HyperSpace
Final Stage Kill Screen: In the old arcade games, the machines had limited space and therefore when players got far enough the graphics began to devolve. The Time Machine ends with the Time Traveller disappearing without a clue of where he went, so the last stage could be a “kill screen,” racing at length until the game graphics begin to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, we are mere undergrad students incapable of rendering the game in such the intricate way that we imagine, so if we were to get a chance to build it, it’d probably be less compelling. But it was fun to dream, anyway. Isn’t that where all great games begin? Progress!

–A.A. Benjamin

Romance and The Hero’s Journey In Ready Player One

By: Sparling Wilson

In Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces, he outlines the stages of the hero’s journey. Of these elements, he does not fail to mention romance, which he calls the “Meeting With The Temptress”. Campbell explains that in traditional stories of the heroic kind, romantic encounters serve as a kind of sidetrack or distraction for the hero from his journey. In the sense of accomplishing his mission, these encounters are definitely seen as negative. Ready Player One reflects this view in its portrayal of romantic relationships within the novel.

A comical and salient parody of Campbell's model for the hero's journey.
A comical and salient parody of Campbell’s model for the hero’s journey.

In many young adult novels, one can expect to find romance to be at least a part of the story. In the age of young adult novels that center their plots on romance, but combine their genres (so they are more like YA + dystopia, YA+ paranormal activity), it is strange, but also refreshing, to see a novel take a more classical approach to romance. Ready Player One steps away from the modern notions of romance in novels (hello, Twilight) and moves back towards a more classical approach towards this topic in terms of the hero’s journey. As we talked about it class, yes this novel contains romance, but the whole plot does not center itself on pursuing a relationship or finding love in the midst of dystopia. Like more classical hero’s journeys stories, such as The Iliad or The Odyssey, Ready Player One includes romance as a part of the journey, but does not make it the purpose of the journey.

The basic plot of Twilight and other current YA literature. Also, let it be known that this photo was entitled, "Who Is The Hottest", which I think is very telling of the genre.
The basic plot of Twilight and other current YA literature. Also, let it be known that this photo was entitled, “Who Is The Hottest”, which I think is very telling of the genre.

In fact, the story really emphasizes the classical view of romance in stories of this kind by making Art3mis be the protagonist’s “femme fatale”, if you will. The author literally brings this point forward by having Wade confess his love to Art3mis at a club called the “Neo Noir”. I found that point to be very funny in a film-geek kind of way. In noir, the femme fatale was the love interest of the protagonist that lead him to ruin, and the author makes it clear that Wade’s obsession with her is doing just that (at least in terms of his standing in the competition). Anyway, this reference makes a really salient point that while there is romance, the author does not take a positive stance towards it. Perhaps things will shape up positively for Wade in the end, but so far the author is placing romance purely in a classical view. Ar3timis is the “temptress”, if you will, that puts our hero off of his course.

To me, it is refreshing to see a lovesick teen in a dystopian hero’s journey not have the girl fall right into his lap. I love that in this modern, YA novel, being a borderline stalker does not reward the character. Also, I applaud the author at realizing there are so many interesting aspects to this universe that need exploring rather than just Wade and Ar3mis’s relationship, as well as his clear understanding of the proper structure of literature. You go, Ernest Cline.