Thursday, 16 December 2010

Starting an essay

It was good to hear that all of you had ideas as to what you could write about. Not just because it means that I can expect a range of interesting essays but also as course development.
Communication theory implies learning from the receiver by using feedback mechanisms. Your feedback is that the content of the lectures and seminars so far doesn’t yet match up with your particular interests. In some cases there are overlaps, but in others the content is still outside of the theories so far introduced. There is nothing wrong with this and it partly reflects our age differences and backgrounds. As a way of addressing the issue what I’m therefore going to do is develop the next series of blog posts as responses to the issues and areas of interest that students as a group are interested in.
Please prompt me to reflect on your own interests, in the meantime I shall start with the themes discussed as I remember them.

The Superhero
The classic text on Superman is that written by Umberto Eco.
Eco points to Superman’s mythic status as being something that relates back to the need we have to relate to beings like gods, and he sees the split personality of Superman/Clark Kent in particular as being important as this signifies something new. It is a way of illustrating how humans can be ‘normal’ but at the same time they can internally mythologize their lives, the drama of the Greek Gods being played out with a very human dimension.
The comic format also fascinates Eco. In particular he is interested in "retroactive continuity" This is the ability of comic book stories to keep going back and adding aspects of the story. For instance, every time a new Superman film comes out his birth story will be re-visited and on each re-telling something new will emerge that wasn’t there before.
The suggestions below could be used to start a literature search, see the handout on essay writing that explains how to do this.

The in-depth critical theory text is:
Eco, U (1972) The Myth of Superman Diacritics. Vol. 2, No. 1. (Spring), 14-22.
Find an on-line copy of Eco’s text here:
Find a commentary on the text here:
The Eco text is the one that you ought to read as it links different theories together and could be the text that in particular connects with what we have been looking at during seminars.
An easy to read short history is Superman: A Mythical American by Michael A Rizzotti
Available at:
The name Superman comes from Frederich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
For initial thoughts on psychology of superheroes:
The classic texts are:

Rosenburg, R (2008) Psychology of Superheroes, The: An Unauthorized Exploration London: Ben Bella

Morris, M & Morris, T (2006) Superheroes and Philosophy New York: Open Court
Kaveney, R (2007) Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films London: Tauris
White, M. D. (2008) Batman and the Philosophy of the Dark Knight London: Wiley
Irwin, W & Housel, R (2009) X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse London: Wiley

Also see:

So how would you start the essay?
Something like this:
The superhero has been part of popular culture since the mid 1930s. However the last decade has seen a proliferation of film/comic crossovers that suggests that their interest stems from something much deeper rooted than that of children’s entertainment. This essay seeks to explore the ways in which the role of superheroes within contemporary culture can be understood. It will use sociological, psychological and philosophical methodologies in order to develop a holistic understanding of the issues uncovered.

John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3

The Sublime, the Liminal and moments of Epiphany.

These subjects came up as a consequence of a conversation around why certain images hold our attention in such a powerful way that they seem to take us beyond our everyday experience and provide an entry into higher states of consciousness.
In order to understand how this might be theorised and how an understanding of this could lead to a method for elevating everyday experiences or images towards this state, three separate areas of theory can be combined. The sublime, liminality and the concept of a moment of epiphany.
In aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublīmis "sloping up to the lintel, uplifted, high, lofty, elevated, exalted") is the quality of greatness or vast magnitude, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic.
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes.
An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.
There are several definitions of the sublime but the writings of Burke in particular point to the fact that the sublime can be discussed in terms of its effects upon the perceiver. This was an important change in how aesthetics were thought of since the reactions of the perceiver became, for the first time, more important than the formal qualities of the object. However the ability to stand back from this was perhaps more clearly developed by Kant in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime who termed the phrase, “disinterested interest”. Ruskin, who discusses the sublime within the context of his own 19th century culture, proposed that nature worship, delight in the picturesque etc. all derive from urbanization. I. e. when people find themselves living in cities and cut off from nature they began to romanticise it. However the main pictorial thread for the sublime was developed by John Martin, his paintings were and still are powerful indicators of what we regard as sublime visions.
The concept of liminality can be used to explore the state between things. For instance the 'trickster (a type of shaman), stands in the liminality between the sacred realm and the profane. In religion it is when the individual experiences the revelation of sacred knowledge where God imparts his knowledge to ordinary humans.
James Joyce coined the term ‘epiphany’ to describe a moment of intense insight, which briefly illuminates the whole of existence. His novel Ulysses which is set in one day in Dublin, is meant to evoke the levels of myth within Homer's Odyssey.
Turner, V (1967) Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage, in The Forest of Symbols New York: Cornell University
Turner, V (1975) Dramas, Fields and Metaphors London: Cornell University
Homas, P (1995) Jung in Context London: University of Chicago Press
Douglas, M (1984) Implicit Meanings London: Routledge
Joyce, J (1922) Ulysses London: Penguin
Shaw, P (2006) The Sublime London: Routledge
The Bible (Acts 9:1-31)

So how would you start the essay?
Certain images hold our attention in such a powerful way that they seem to take us beyond our everyday experience and provide an entry into higher states of consciousness. This essay will explore the possible theoretical interpretations of this situation and will in particular seek to provide an understanding of how an awareness of this could lead to a method for elevating or enlightening our experiences of everyday images. In order to research these issues three separate areas of theory will be investigated; the sublime, liminality and the concept of a moment of epiphany.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Writing about an individual film is fine as long as the writer can reference a wider set of theories or can open out comparisons with other films. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, is a film set in a world where technology exists that can enter the human mind through dream invasion. Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct in order to interrogate narrative, visual symbolic codes, and the rules and limitations of physical laws. The dreams used in the film are recreations of familiar conventions, from recognisable urban landscapes to car chases and gunfights: these could be read as documentary elements inserted into a genre (science fiction or action adventure) film. The people invading the subconscious of the target mind keep up the appearance of reality, of verisimilitude, to keep the dreamer unaware of the dream. This echoes the concept of ‘suspension of disbelief’ or "willing suspension of disbelief" which is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literature. It was first used in English by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The film also references the craft of film making itself. Ariadne the architect is set design, Arthur functions as a producer, Eames is their star (taking on other identities beyond his own) and Yusuf the projectionist, providing the venue for the dream movie to occur.
Cinema has often been compared to dreams. It is interesting to compare Inception with Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) which has a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.
The area of theory that could be used of course is psychoanalysis. Read: this review picks out the importance of Freud’s ideas on how we can read cinema. “The birth of cinema offered a collective sense of what Freud called the uncanny: the images on screen were both familiar and somehow strange, alive and yet lifeless, real but illusory.”
From Wikipedia: In a film theory context, the term oneiric ("pertaining to dream") refers to the depiction of dream-like states in films, or to the use of the metaphor of a dream or the dream-state to analyze a film. The connection between dreams and films has been long established; "The dream factory" “...has become a household expression for the film industry”. The dream metaphor for film viewing is “one of the most persistent metaphors in both classical and modern film theory”, and it is used by film theorists using Freudian, non-Freudian, and semiotic analytical frameworks.

Van Sijll, J. (2005) Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know London: Michael Wiese
Botz-Bornstein, T (2008) Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, and Wong Kar-Wai London: Lexington
Freud, S. (1997) The Interpretation of Dreams London: Wordsworth
Jung, C. G. (1995) Memories, Dreams, Reflections London: Fontana

Hobson, J. A. (1980) Film and the Physiology of Dreaming Sleep: The Brain as a Camera-Projector. Dreamworks 1(1):9–25.

So how would you start the essay?
Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) can be used to illustrate a range of approaches to thinking about the interrelationship between reality and fiction. In particular the relationship the cinema has with its own construction and the notion of the dream factory. This essay will attempt to reveal how the film Inception operates as a structure within which the very nature of the cinematic experience is conceptualised. This will include a discussion of genre, the importance of the willing suspension of disbelief and the relationship between film and psychoanalysis.

The B Movie
The continuing interest in B Movies suggests that they hold a fascination for us beyond the fact that they are so bad they are funny. B movies can be seen as a type of kitsch and as such their reuse within popular culture could be read as a typically post-modernist gesture. Baudrillard states, "To the aesthetics of beauty and originality, kitsch opposes its aesthetics of simulation”
Wikipedia definition: Kitsch is a form of art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art that are aesthetically deficient (whether or not being sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative) and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art through repeated conventions and formulae. Excessive sentimentality often is associated with the term.
The B movie can also be examined from the point of view of the uncanny, the other, the abject and as a particular reading of the sublime.
The Uncanny is a Freudian concept where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the person who experiences the sensation due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. The ‘monster’ is not really there, this isn’t really happening to me etc. This helps rationalise why when we follow a horror film we accept the plight of the characters. We have all been there before and experienced the way logic goes out the window when we are faced with these situations.
The Abject: According to Kristeva, the abject is situated outside the symbolic order. Being forced to face the abject is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely be repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world. The body when alive can be seen as a subject, but once dead becomes an object. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot is itself the start of a new symbolic order and the B movie fascination with these areas of experience is perhaps part of the reason for their continuing popularity.
The Other has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude 'Others' whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. The concept of 'otherness' is also integral to the comprehending of a person, as people construct roles for themselves in relation to an 'other' as part of a process of reaction that is not necessarily related to stigmatization or condemnation. It often involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups so could be used to think about those large crowds of zombies B movies can be sometimes peopled with.
You could compare many B movies with ‘The Other’ a 1972 psychological horror film directed by Robert Mulligan.
The Sublime: Burke was the first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light) is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is "dark, uncertain, and confused.” While the relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is one of mutual exclusiveness, either one can produce pleasure. The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction. Therefore one aspect of the sublime is the possibility of facing death without having to actually experience it. E.g. in a horror movie.
Baudrillard, J (1998) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage
Burke, E (2010) A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful London: BiblioBazaar
Calinescu, M (1987) Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism London: Duke
Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York, Routledge.
Creed, B. (1990). "Review Article: Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie." Screen 31.2: 236-42.
Jancovich, M. (1992). Horror. London, B.T. Batsford, Ltd.
Neale, S. (1980). Genre. London, BFI.
Tudor, A. (1997). "Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Popular Genre." Cultural Studies 11.3: 443-63.
Royle, N (2003) The Uncanny: An Introduction Manchester: MUP
There are chapters on the death drive, deja-vu, "silence, solitude and darkness", the fear of being buried alive, doubles, ghosts, cannibalism, telepathy and madness.
Douglas, M (2002) Purity and Danger London: Routledge
Kristeva, J (1984) The Powers of Horror London: Columbia

So how would you start the essay?
The continuing interest in B Movies suggests that they hold a fascination for us beyond the fact that they are so bad they are funny. This essay intends to investigate the reasons why they still have this fascination for us and sets out to examine this from a psychoanalytical perspective and as an aspect of post-modernism.

Zen and film
The experience of film has often been cited as being something that equates to a religious experience and it has been argued that popular film has become a significant venue for meaning-making in modern society. (Niemi, 2003) Like religion, film provides models for understanding and behaving within the social world, it also acts to reinforce this content through emotional resonance. Film could therefore be seen as presenting an alternative mechanism for the transmission and processing of “religious” ideas and ideals.
One way of interpreting the film Fight Club (1999) is to see it as a story of a man’s spiritual journey and the need to break his cycle of suffering and achieve enlightenment. This narrative sits at the core of many religions but there are aspects of the film that indicate that it is Zen Buddhism in particular that we should examine if we are to reach an in depth understanding of the film’s interpretation. However within a Western culture, images of bleeding half naked men are hard to separate from those of Christ crucified, hence the gospel according to Fight Club.

Jones, C. B. (200) Zen and the Art of Being Jedi accessed on 16. 12. 10
Reed, C (2007) Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 11, No. 2 October
Niemi, A (2003) Film as religious experience: Myths and models in mass entertainment Critical Review, Volume 15, Issue 3 & 4 , pages 435 - 446
Yool, George R. 1992, April. “Glossary of Zen and Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen Thought.” 12 Oct. 2005. 12.
Herrigel, E (1971) Feb. Zen in the Art of Archery. New York: Vintage Books. 11.
Mccarty, Pat. 2005, Aug. “Experts explain how we are ‘One’ in film.” The Seattle Times, Religion Section, B5.

So how would you start the essay?
The experience of film has often been cited as being something that equates to a religious experience and it has been argued that popular film has become a significant venue for meaning-making in modern society. (Niemi, 2003) Like religion, film provides models for understanding and behaving within the social world, it also acts to reinforce this content through emotional resonance. Film could therefore be seen as presenting an alternative mechanism for the transmission and processing of “religious” ideas and ideals. This essay seeks to examine the interrelationship between film and religious experiences, in particular it will highlight the relationships and similarities between the venues for both (the dark interiors of temples, churches, caves and cinemas) and the potential for individual transformation through spiritual journey narratives in film.

Look out for further blog posts, but do remember to remind me of your possible essay titles/areas of interest.

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