In Search of Bigfoot:
The Use and Obsolescence of Bionics

1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

I vaguely recall a trip to a county fair in Connecticut with my grandparents in the mid-1970s; what caught my attention was a display in the science exhibit. One in a series of shadow boxes hung underneath a tent at the furthest reaches of the fairground contained a prototype for a bionic arm, and was contextualized by a didactic panel that suggested the arm would likely be a part of everyday life in the not too distant future. As this is indeed such a vague memory, I can’t testify as to the authenticity of the artifact, but I do recall some mention that the arm had already been field tested on an amputee. Regardless of the truthfulness of the claim or the arm itself, science was clearly capitalizing on the popularity of broadcasting’s dual odes to bionics; and I was hooked. Like many boys in my peer group, I didn’t simply watch The Six Million Dollar Man; I indulged in the fantasy of being bionic. Though I was equally enamored with The Bionic Woman, I did not make that fixation public.

NBC’s resurrection of (The) Bionic Woman has prompted me to think through the contemporary relevance of bionics, and map its reintroduction against the popular imaginary of the mid-1970s. The seventies is a decade marked by a resurgence of science fiction and fantasy programming, developed by ABC but replicated across all three major networks, exemplified by programs such as The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, The Invisible Man, The Man from Atlantis, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Amazing Spiderman, and The New, Original Wonder Woman. The television landscape of the 1970s reflects a general turn in programming away from the documentary boom of the 1960s. Yet there is a specific turn toward relevance manifest even across those fictional series developed during the decade. A number of televisual and extra-televisual factors inform this shift, including the refinement of demographic measures (with the development of A.C. Nielsen’s people meters), the changing face of the industry (with the rise of independent production companies), and the specific dynamics of the social and political climate. For advertisers, these trends were captured by new demographic categories, which also took into consideration a recessionary cycle that forced more women to seek employment outside the home. In the mid-1970s, socio-economic shifts pressured advertisers and networks to further narrow their notion of the audience and to modify programming practices during prime time. CBS capitalized on the many anxieties of the period by turning to urban realism (with such sitcoms as All in the Family and M*A*S*H), developing interests across the generation gap, while ABC engaged in counter-programming for the youth market by resurrecting the science fiction and fantasy genres, a cyclical return to proven terrain. Yet this industrial history does not account for the success of such industry trends, nor does it answer the more ideologically inflected questions about television’s relevance as a cultural forum.

Title Sequence from the original Bionic Woman

The cultural climate of the 1970s was one that reflected a growing disillusionment with government (and the television industry was a window to the world, made quite apparent by Nixon’s televised resignation in August 1974), while significant technological advances reshaped domestic entertainment and revitalized scientific exploration, yet also threatened national security and redefined the very sense of self. Against this socio-cultural backdrop, the programming trends in the 1970s recount the fantastic elements of the quotidian and the surreal horrors of everyday life. Watergate, Love Canal and Three Mile Island were undeniable signs of institutional failure and neglect within national borders, while the Vietnam War and the siege at the Munich Olympics were just two of several events on the international stage that signified more significant failures in foreign policy.

It is not surprising that science fiction and fantasy found a renewed place on television in the 1970s, as these particular genres are often the site at which cultural and technological anxieties seem to intersect. These anxieties seem to be a principle part of the formative dynamic and subsequent function of the superhuman as a stalwart signifier across network television throughout the decade; primetime television featured superheroes employed by a wide array of clandestine research corporations and government intelligence agencies (Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) at the IADC, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) and Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) at the OSI), all invested in protecting truth, justice, and the American way either through active defense or informed scientific inquiry.

Alongside these fantastic indulgences, on a weekly basis during the second half of the decade, Leonard Nimoy helped explain away a broad range of mysterious phenomena on In Search of…. Merging fantasy with reality, the investigative program adopted a loose journalistic approach as it tackled both historic events (e.g. the sinking of the Titanic and Lincoln’s assassination) and real persons (such as Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Jack the Ripper) that had become subjects of folklore, and scrutinized timeless paranormal and pseudoscientific matters (such as ghosts, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster). The Watergate probe had its legacy written across the face of television; inquiry had no bounds.

Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

It is on the matter of inquiry that I turn my attention to more recent incarnations of bionics. My goal is to consider the tenuous nature of fantasy. My investment in the childhood episode that introduces this essay is part of an ongoing struggle about the assignment of meaning, perhaps symptomatic of a perpetual engagement with the old academic hat trick of reading media “through” a decade. Jane Feuer’s Seeing Through the Eighties (Duke University Press, 1995) is a prime example of an effort to solidify meaning; yet the most satisfying part of her enterprise is the foundation that is sketched out, the traces of the landscape, industrial or otherwise. The difficulty I have with such projects is in the close analysis; and this not a critique of her project but rather a consideration of a problem endemic to such analyses, including my own. I am suspect of any enterprise that tries to succinctly connect the dots, to neatly map form and content onto context. But these exercises form an important part of any developmental trajectory in scholarly inquiry.

Perhaps the difficulty I am having is a reaction to the all-too prevalent push toward fixity in popular television criticism. NBC’s launch of Bionic Woman was preceded by a pre-air pilot that circulated on the Internet as a torrent after being screened at the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2007, while more than one blog was launched (or at least reserved) prior to the episode’s Comic-Con debut. Several months later, in September 2007, a reworked pilot (the series premiere) was made available at no cost through both Amazon Unbox (and its joint venture with TiVo) and various cable on-demand services. The attempt to fix meaning was set into action even before the series began its broadcast run.

Program blogs such as The Bionic Woman Blog and Watching Bionic Woman weave a complex intertext about fandom, stardom, and industrial discourse. As I pour over the efforts of a few bloggerati to claim the cultural relevance of a text that has not even aired, I’m struck by a gesture that simultaneously seems antithetical to the “populace” embedded in popular culture (as site authors sift through cultural detritus to construct an overly narrated and overly saturated meta-text) but also part of the very fabric of popular culture, endlessly decentering the text at hand and making it ever more porous. The problem of locating the text is part of contemporary television discourse, reflecting the fragmented nature of the broadcast landscape, scattered across multiple media platforms and viewing practices.

Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

At the same time, however, Bionic Woman wears its cultural relevancy on its sleeve. The series premiere is quite self-aware, littered with observations about the laws of science and nature, and the physical and psychical tolls of warfare. A slide lecture on bioethics includes images of a victim of a Baghdad car bombing, and ends with a question about the threshold of intervention. Contemporary bionics is positioned as an aspect of military research and more pointedly as a tool to benefit casualties of the Gulf War, in line with the goals of real-world research undertaken by DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program.[1] Within this framework, the show’s central characters give voice to the narrative’s ethical musings, and shape science into melodrama. Sarah Corvus (Katee Sackhoff), the first bionic woman, voices a desire to cut away all of the parts of her that are weak; and Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) learns that her relationship is built on a foundation of difference (brought to fruition by her technological makeover). All has not materialized as predicted in Donna Haraway’s manifesto on the cyborg. While a certain number of crossings are made manifest, and the cyborg myth of “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” is given form, why is the payoff in the series premiere one big chick fight?[2] Why are women situated as visible evidence to the dictum that science fiction is no longer purely fiction? And why are claims of difference temporarily overcome by hetero-normative coupling?

The relative success or failure of the program, not in ratings, but in the critical field, is partly about the answers to these questions. The problem at hand, as one begins to consider the role of bionics in the current popular imagination, is the degree to which speculation is already leading to certain foregone conclusions about the activities of the television text, while it still has yet to confront the uncertain resonances of any collision between fantasy and reality. The smell of desperation lingers in the fall air, as a number of industry players attempt to attach meaning to their products prior to their formal seasonal debut and far ahead of their first run denouement.

Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

In his book, Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, author John Napier comments on the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967: “One can hardly quarrel with a movie taken at a range of approximately 100 feet.”[3] Convinced that Bigfoot does exist, but never making a firm conclusion about the film shot by Roger Patterson on an expedition with partner Bob Gimlin, Napier muses instead about the status and claims of evidence. While I doubt very much that Bigfoot will stage a return in this season’s Bionic Woman, I am still intrigued by his very absence, a specter from the seventies that for me, at least, will linger over the reincarnated series. Fantasy programming in the seventies had a cultural value that was oftentimes overlooked, obscured by the overt presence of the absurd. Understandably, one can draw distinctions between products in the same genre that are aimed at decidedly different audiences; while Bigfoot’s appearance on both bionic shows of the seventies was a crossover bonanza, it was hardly a scenario constructed for adults. Yet as the signifiers become ever clearer, the metaphors less metaphoric, and the fantasy more proximal to reality (as the Gulf War gets written into the text), does the program become necessarily more useful as a climatological measure or simply more diffuse? What happens to reality as it gets embedded in a fantastic enterprise without play or irony? What statements are there to be made about our times, and what statements are still unspoken, signaled by the chatter of the bloggerati but never fully articulated? Napier asserts the value of proximity, which begs the question: How close should we be to our subject? At what point does it go out of focus again?

“Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

“Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

Notes:
[1]http://www.darpa.mil/dso/thrusts/bio/restbio_tech/revprost/index.htm
[2]http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html
[3]http://home.clara.net/rfthomas/bf_pgfilm.html

Image Credits:

1. 1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

2. Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

3. Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

4. Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

5. Patterson-Gimlin frame

6. “Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

Please feel free to comment.




Notes from Economy Class

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

Virgin Atlantic’s V:Port remote and interface

Virgin Atlantic’s V:Port remote and interface

On a recent flight to London, rather than sleeping, I spent most of the trip watching television, my eyes fixed to the back of the seat in front of me. This was my first excursion on Virgin Atlantic and my introduction to V:Port, one of three different types of inflight entertainment systems found across their fleet. The V:Port system is featured on the airline’s 747-400s and A340-600s and offers video on demand; much like an at-home on demand system, passengers can watch or listen to what they want, from a selection of films, television shows, games, audio programs and interactive elements (most notably IMap, an application that allows passengers to track their flight and explore different destinations and points of interest around the world) stored on the system server, and can start, pause or rewind their selected downloads. The onboard systems host 300 hours of on demand content, accessed through a searchable database that also allows users to bookmark their favorite programs, in effect creating a multimedia play list.

An Aeromarine inflight screening of “Howdy Chicago!”

An Aeromarine inflight screening of “Howdy Chicago!”

As a digital system, V:Port provides a notably different experience than traditional single-channel systems that subject every passenger to the same content on the same schedule; older analog delivery systems are also prone to a host of mechanical issues. V:Port is only one evolutionary touchstone in the history of inflight entertainment. The World Airline Entertainment Association lists 1921 as the year of the first inflight movie when Aeromarine Airways screened Howdy Chicago!, a tourism film, to its passengers during the city’s “Pageant of Progress”. A screen was hung in the front cabin of the 11-passenger hydroplane and a suitcase projector was secured to a table in the aisle. As sightseers flew above the city, highlights of the area appeared on screen. In 1961, David Flexer formed Inflight Motion Pictures and engineered an aircraft projection system that adapted the Kodak projection mechanism to fit into a shallow ceiling area of an aircraft interior; TWA is often touted as the first real exhibitor of inflight movies, deploying Flexer’s system. Competing airlines Pan Am and American opted to pursue video systems, and installed black and white TV monitors on their airplanes; passengers viewed movies on these closed circuit systems, which consisted of approximately twenty cabin monitors. In the early seventies, Trans Com developed an 8mm film cassette system; whereas airline mechanics were employed to operate earlier inflight entertainment systems, the compact cassette interface allowed flight attendants to change movies in flight and add short subject programming. By the end of the same decade, video projection systems were developed by several competing companies, including Avicom (which emerged from Bell & Howell in Chicago) and Matsushita. Video revolutionized the inflight entertaiment industry, boosting the number of operable systems across the airline industry fleet and diversifying content to include a broader range of information and entertainment programming.

But the point in this chronology that is most relevant to this essay is the introduction of the in-seat video system in 1988; Airvision produced the system, which used 2.7 inch LCD displays, and Northwest began trials on its B747 aircraft. These systems are now an industry standard, though cabin mounted monitors are still common on older aircraft. As a cost saving measure, most airlines upgrade their seats once every five to ten years, and many planes have not yet been retrofitted with small screen seat technology. Two basic small screen systems exist—the distributed system that uses personal screens and a tuning mechanism that allows passengers to choose from scheduled programming broadcast from a central playback system, and the on demand system that features a personal playback unit that permits passengers to cue up programming at their discretion.

Phil Lewis, the managing director of seat manufacturer Contour suggests that few airline seats offer an improvement to mid-century standards: “The fundamentals are the fundamentals. You go back to a seat we produced for BOAC in 1948 called the Slumberette. Okay, it had the space, it had the bed, the only thing it didn’t have was the complex electronics.” [1] Yet seat design is an ideologically inflected enterprise, a project tackled by design subcontractors. Virgin Airlines partnered with London-based design firm PearsonLloyd in 2003 to revamp its economy and premium economy seating line, spending over $25 million on a project that began by reexamining the historical constraints on airplane seating, a collaborative endeavor that not only yielded new manufacturing strategies (while holding onto traditional concerns for overall equipment weight and safety), but also considered more ephemeral notions of personal space. Describing its economy seat, put into service in 2006, the firm’s on-line catalogue details, “Alongside significant improvements in both comfort and space, the major innovation is the introduction of a back pack on the back of each seat, which draws together all the functional elements used by the aft passenger and gives them ownership of this part of the seat.” [2] When the head rest moves up, the back pack stays put; this strategy, the designers suggest, creates an illusion of more personal space, visually dividing the back of the seat ahead from its front.

Founded in 1979, the World Airline Entertainment Association represents airlines, airline suppliers and related companies committed to the development of inflight entertainment (IFE) and communications. Affirming the importance of IFE, the WAEA points to passenger satisfaction and branding, suggesting that IFE is a means to differentiate one airline’s service from another’s and goes on to relate, “To some extent, IFE is an effective way for an airline to express its own national or regional character.” [3] IFE is also big business in the technology sector, with a number of distinct patents on file for aircraft seat assemblies that include integrated electronic systems for signal decoding, signal routing, data management, and power conversion (systems that commonly include a video display unit, an audio system, and/or a telephone).

PearsonLloyd’s economy class seat design

PearsonLloyd’s economy class seat design

The airline seat is an often-overlooked signpost of convergence—a site of convergent media, convergent functionalities, convergent spaces, and convergent subjects. The seat is designed with the needs of two passengers in mind (the one seated and the one looking, an interlocking arrangement permutated throughout the cabin) and zoned accordingly; if designed correctly, neither party should be aware of the other’s presence, the two dependent on the same object yet engaged in a certain studied indifference effectuated by technologies that promise to envelop the senses as well as by the seat’s very architecture. A piece of furniture with state of the art technology, the airline seat accommodates sleeping, working, eating, and leisure (though some of these functions are more easily managed than others), and more significantly condenses these otherwise separately spatialized spheres of activity—it collapses what are commonly distinct zones of engagement on land, where they are subject to more willful (yet escapable) moments of condensation. Perhaps what I am detailing warrants a return to Guy Debord’s consideration of what he termed “psychogeography”, of the impact of the geographical environment on individual behavior. Engaged with the study of commodity fetishism, extending the work of Karl Marx and George Lukacs, Debord suggested that alienation was not just an emotive state, but a consequence of mercantile forms of social organization, with capitalism as a zenith. But my interest at the moment is not in the invasive or seductive potential of the spectacle—the degree to which an embedded screen technology lulled me to sleep. Rather, my focus is on the translation of an eight or so hour flight into a decided number of television episodes, feature films, and soundtracks—a very deliberate numerical equation, with time, geographic displacement and pleasure quantified as an objectified form of discourse, translated into a certain number of visual and aural signifiers.

Among the educational sessions of the WAEA 26th Annual Conference (held in 2005 in Hamburg, Germany) were panels on the “Specifications for Digital Content Management”, “The Impact of ‘Anywhere’ Entertainment”, and “The New Seat/IFE Architecture”. As the catalogue descriptions suggest, these sessions confirm that digital media is the future of IFE, and to this end they scrutinize both marketplace (examining synergies across markets) and audience (analyzing potential generational shifts in the airline passenger profile, and the consequent shift in content, interface, and infrastructure demand).

V:Port en route to London

V:Port en route to London

As a media scholar attentive to television and its industries, I am now presented with a series of other industries with which I need to engage. What started as a simple perceptual exercise, examining a content stream (consuming both film and television, watching Hot Fuzz, Notes on a Scandal, Extras, and Doctor Who, and immediately noting I was drawn to all things British on my flight to London—perhaps engaging with objects I had wanted to consume, but simply not had the opportunity) and considering my spectatorial engagement in the public space of an airline cabin (subjected to other people’s choices—overhead cabin lights on or off, window shades up or down) while screening work on another passenger’s back (seat back up or reclined), became a study of my fascination with Virgin Atlantic, clearly the result of their engagement with video on demand. This is not a promotional piece for the airline, but a reflection on the value of a particular investiture. The airline’s engagement with new technology was what satisfied me, and outweighed any other index of their customer service. It seems the airline seat, as the armature of IFE, is the ideal commodity fetish; it envelops the body, is designed for comfort, and at the same time, it yields a set of spectacular images. Its value is two-fold—holding up a series of signs, and yet a sign itself; a sign of a certain labor power, of both an industry engaged with an apparatus and of passengers who have enough capital to reap the rewards of this engagement, one that extends the all-too-familiar embrace of the screen.

Notes:
[1] Richard Quest and Shantelle Stein, “Airlines go flat out for comfort,” CNN.com, December 30, 2005 (http://www.cnn.com/2005/TRAVEL/12/13/airline.chair/index.html)
[2]http://www.pearsonlloyd.co.uk/upload/html/econ_01.html
[3]http://www.waea.org/faq.htm#8

Image Credits:

1. V:Port Interface

2. Aeromarine inflight screening

3. PearsonLloyd Seat Design

4. V:Port Cabin: courtesy of the author

Please feel free to comment.




8-Bit Porn: Atari After Dark

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

Custer’s Revenge box art

Custer’s Revenge box art

In the game manual for their 1982 release Custer’s Revenge, Mystique entertainment proclaims, “The world of electronic video games is a most exciting concept. It uses computer-generated images to challenge the player’s imagination; to create a fantasy situation that offers a challenge. We at Mystique feel that it’s time for video games and their adult players to come out of the closet, away from the kids, and deal with ADULT fantasies. Our own team of design engineers has developed a line of games that don’t just stop at ‘Adult’, but push the Atari console to the limit.”

I grew up with Atari, and with my nostalgia getting the better part of me, I recently purchased two 2600 systems on eBay—a 4-switch wood grain console manufactured in 1980 and a first generation 6-switch console known by collectors as the “heavy sixer”. The Atari VCS CX2600, introduced in October 1977, is an 8-bit system that uses interchangeable cartridges; this was an innovation in the 1970s, because as the cartridge replaced the dedicated console, gamers could play the latest games without purchasing a new system. As one of its strategies for marketplace dominance, Atari actively pursued licenses for successful arcade games, beginning with its home version of the popular shooter Space Invaders. Arcade conversions and top-notch third-party titles by companies such as Activision (a company formed by disgruntled Atari programmers that became a significant competitor in the cartridge market, but nonetheless furthered Atari’s temporary hardware dominance) helped Atari gross significant profits in its first five years. But Atari’s prominence came to an end with the video game crash of 1983. When the market re-stabilized in the second half of the decade, the Japanese company Nintendo took center stage. Unlike Atari, Nintendo instituted a very strict licensing system for third-party game developers and heavily controlled advertising, distribution, production, and pricing in an effort to control quality and profit.

My knowledge of the varied third-party Atari titles that I did not own in my youth is primarily gleaned from emulation and ROM sites. Programs such as Stella, a multi-platform Atari 2600 VCS emulator, allow PC users to play arcade ROMs (read only memory chips) on their personal computers. The role of the emulator is to mimic hardware functionality with software, while the ROMs themselves circulate freely on the Internet as image files, which contain the actual data and code read from the original cartridge. Scattered throughout various ROM sites are a number of adult titles designed to play on the 2600, extracted from game cartridges produced by three companies—Mystique, Playaround, and Universal Gamex. While I am not the first enthusiast to sketch out the basic lineup of adult titles designed to play on 2600 consoles, what most of the fan sites do not consider is the role these games may have played in larger industrial and cultural discourses about gaming. Most discussions focus on the rather crude graphics and underwhelming game play of these titles, many of which simply rework the basic functionality of more popular mainstream games, and replace the regular cast of characters with the grossly pixilated bodies of naked men and women; perhaps to ensure the legibility of these characters, the pixel-based construction birthed rather absurd anatomical distortions. Other discussions focus on the obvious sexism written into the gendered biases of these games; most of the rudimentary narratives climax with the requisite frenzied pushing of the joystick fire button, a gesture that produces on-screen penetration and its off-screen thumb-pulsing corollary.


Screen shot from Custer’s Revenge

Mystique produced a number of adult video games for the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s. Formed in 1982 as an offshoot of the adult film company Caballero Control Corporation, and the parent company American Multiple Industries, Mystique’s games were sold under the “Swedish Erotica” banner, capitalizing on the brand attached to an already successful adult film series. Custer’s Revenge is perhaps the most notorious Mystique title. The player guides a rather erect General Custer (wearing only a cowboy hat, boots and neckerchief) across a desert screen; dodging a hailstorm of arrows, Custer’s goal is to reach a Native American woman tied to a post on the other side. After successfully navigating the onscreen obstacles and reaching the woman, the player frantically pushes the joystick’s fire button to score points for each time Custer penetrates her. The game prompted complaints from a number of groups at the time of its release; a product demonstration at the New York Hilton in October 1982 attracted protestors from the National Organization for Women, Women Against Pornography, American Indian groups, and the Racial Justice Committee of the National YWCA; the game received scathing criticism for denigrating women and offering rape as a reward. Not surprisingly, Atari sued Mystique over the game, claiming that its releases were tarnishing the brand; Atari argued that American Multiple Industries had failed to adequately disassociate itself from Atari and was capitalizing on the name and trademark. Learning from Atari’s mistakes, when Nintendo launched the NES system in the United States at the end of 1985, the company’s “lockout” technology placed significant restraints on third-party developers.


Screen shot from Gigolo

Despite Atari’s lawsuit, Mystique produced several more titles before going out of business during the video game crash of 1983. Playaround, a spin-off company that continued the adult game line, acquired the rights to the Mystique games. In addition to manufacturing double-enders, or extra-long cartridges of Mystique titles that had a different game on each end, Playaround created re-gendered versions of several games, reversing the gender roles of the central characters, presumably in an attempt to attract male and female game players to parallel titles (while minimizing redesign costs). Philly Flasher redressed Mystique’s Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em, Bachelorette Party complemented Bachelor Party, and General Retreat tied Custer to the stake while the female character traversed the screen avoiding enemy cannonball fire. Playaround also produced its own internal pairings, releasing the dual demographic combinations of Knight on the Town and Lady in Wading as well as Burning Desire and Jungle Fever. In one of the company’s titles, Gigolo, players enter the seedy yet exciting world of prostitution. Players assume the role of a female prostitute, and wander from house to house, running from the police, as they look for clients; the goal is to find and service a paying client and then to run back to the pimp’s house to cut the earnings. In Cathouse Blues, the player’s role is altered, but the gendered dynamics remain the same; the player assumes the role of a male client, and wanders from brothel to brothel looking to get serviced.

X-Man box art

X-Man box art

A third company, Universal Gamex released only one title, X-Man, in 1983. The game’s box describes the action: “Coming at you are the ‘Crabs’ with their claws ready to tear your privates apart. Next come the ‘Scissors’ whose sharp blades can cut off your manhood. And last are the ‘Teeth’ who snap with a vise-like grip that will leave more than just marks! Get the picture?” The goal of this maze game is to reach the screen’s center, where a “’Sexy Blond’ with a body that doesn’t quit is waiting behind the door to satisfy your every fantasy.”

In a May 2006 Computerworld news column on new disc formats, Lucas Mearian suggests “Just as in the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry will likely play a big role in determining which of the two blue-laser formats—Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD—will be the winner in the battle to replace DVDs for high-definition content… The pornography industry, which generates an estimated US$57 billion in annual revenue worldwide, has always been a fast leader when it comes to the use of new technology… .”i While the case for the porn industry is undoubtedly overstated in such reports (VHS succeeded as a less costly open format, while Betamax was proprietary, owned by Sony; and in the current format wars, vertically integrated entertainment companies, movie studios, and hardware manufacturers are also major players), the analysis, picked up by Reuters, rightly acknowledges the historical foundation of such claims. In the 1980s, the advent of home video revolutionized the adult film industry, which was quick to respond to changes in the media landscape and capitalized on the move to a more intimate viewing format (it had everything to gain as titles began to circulate into the home market). And it is not surprising that adult entertainment companies began to explore gaming in the early years of the decade, as video game consoles had been installed in nearly 15 million American homes and formed part of a $7-billion-a-year gaming industry. In a 1982 report, the market research organization International Resource Development, estimated that home video games would prove a significant threat to Hollywood box office receipts by 1984.ii

Companies such as Mystique and Playaround seemed to acknowledge the interpretive powers of their adult audience. Such a gesture may have been necessary, for the gaming graphics themselves do not invoke transparency; falling far from the codes of classic realism, the games seem to consciously address hypermediacy as they attempt to recoup the only pleasure possible—one of a glaring self-reflexivity that borders on the absurd. Consider their awkward repurposing and perhaps defamiliarization of the console (used in a solitary masturbatory fantasy) and the pixel, and the pointed example supplied by the threat of castration writ large in the Gamex title X-Man. The jarring disjuncture between realistic box art and rudimentary game art was an all-too common experience in the world of 8-bit gaming. How many kids were disappointed once they got beyond the package of Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. to experience the barely recognizable icons of two-dimensional game play?


Screen shot from X-Man

Despite the warranted concern about the conflicted gender politics of most of the adult titles produced during the 1980s, the early years of the decade do illustrate the potential for gaming prior to licensing restraint, and the liberatory possibilities of such a gesture—taking gaming out of the hands of children and understanding play as a necessary component of adulthood (though still something that can be colonized by the culture industries). As a distinct axis of convergence, adult and childhood fantasies could be ritualistically played out on the same system. The adult entertainment industry responded to a decided shift in the media landscape at a time when gaming was a more open playing field. In more recent years, adult content has been relegated to the producers of more centralized industries, as hardware developers have taken back control of their platforms, perhaps acknowledging the vitality of adult players looking for both sex and violence, and sex has become one trademark offering of diversified content developers who produce titles across ratings categories. In the early eighties, the concept of the supersystem was just gaining momentum. In the face of several nascent transmedia enterprises, a new paradigm of intertextual possibilities was emerging, though it had hardly been perfected. As a case in point, despite the box office success of E.T., the Atari cartridge of the same title was a commercial and critical failure—though perhaps the result of the company’s own mismanagement of the property. My goal in revisiting the erotic games of yesteryear is to open up a dialogue about the potential of an incoherent supersystem, of a console in crisis, in search of narrative synthesis. The plot lines of most of the adult titles created for the Atari 2600 follow a simple trajectory; the player must overcome duress to achieve momentary sexual satisfaction, only to return to a state of duress. This process is acutely aligned with the Freudian master plot, the game of “fort/da”, which seems to bind the game play of both age groups and can also be applied to the meta-narrative that describes the rise and fall of competing systems.iii Loss is a powerful phenomenon that may lurk beneath even the most whimsical of pursuits. And we must be suspicious of the moments where its possibility is sealed over, where the hack or infringement is rendered obsolete. It is in this latter state, when the supersystem has successfully coalesced, that narrative openness has been delimited, and loss has given way to economic security and ideological fixity. Atari’s origin story is often written as a series of annual reports, tracing the company’s financial demise—a tale of changing ownership and managerial missteps; but the more interesting tale is found in the deceptively simple narratives that played out on its consoles in family rooms across the nation.

Image Credits
Custer’s Last Stand box art: atariage.com
X-Man box art: atariage.com
Screen shots courtesy of the author.

Notes
i. Computer World article
ii.Aljean Harmetz, “Home video games nearing profitability of the film business,” The New York Times (Late Edition, East Coast) October 4, 1982, A.1
iii. Marsha Kinder, Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 20.

Please feel free to comment.




To Watch a Predator

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

To Catch a Predator screenshot 1

Views from outside a Dateline house

This essay is not a defense of pedophilia. But on Tuesday nights I find myself pondering the plight of reality television’s latest celebrities — men who are the unsuspecting players in Dateline: To Catch a Predator, investigative journalism’s response to America’s Most Wanted and Big Brother. Their broadcast debut is always framed by a dramatic dialogic volley between co-anchors Ann Curry and Stone Phillips. On the February 13, 2007 episode their exchange opened with the remark, “Some have seen it, now they’re on it, and our hidden cameras are all over it,” before moving on to the provocative fragment, “The teacher, the oil man, the ex-cop.” NBC’s Tuesday night lineup has become the occasional home of To Catch a Predator, which periodically joins the evening’s legal drama pairing of Law & Order: CI and Law & Order: SVU. First aired in November 2004 as a Dateline segment titled “Dangerous Web,” and with an undercover operation located in New York City, To Catch a Predator has since traveled to Washington, D.C., California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, and Texas in the first ten installments of the investigative series.

My fascination with the series stems from the obvious questions associated with the network’s collaboration with law enforcement, and the common legal questions posed about this liaison. Are these participants the victims of a multilayered plan of entrapment that leads from chat room decoys, to hired actors, to correspondent Chris Hansen? Do these suspects have any right to privacy, or can they be freely featured as part of the flow of network television? In light of the serious nature of the potential offense (the victimization of children), these questions are often assumed to be irrelevant. Yet the show’s popularity, borne out by its ratings (Predator installments peak the Dateline viewership) and its entrance into popular discourse (parodied on YouTube and quite recently by Conan O’Brien at the Emmy Awards, and now in a stage of self-aggrandized historicizing with Chris Hansen’s recent book culled from his experiences on the series), makes an analysis all the more pressing. What are the cultural implications of a program that circulates information about an assumed public crisis?

To Catch a Predator screenshot 2

Views from inside a Dateline house

In his discussion of epidemics — one form of crisis situation — Michel Foucault points out that the determination that a situation is epidemic is typically a political determination, one made by those with access to statistical data and the authority to make and circulate such determinations. Such an authoritative discourse governs NBC’s investigations of Internet predators, calling forth the dispensation of resources and the justification of tactics of surveillance and regulation as part of the broadcast serialization of pedophilia. Children are indeed being victimized, but the labeling of the situation as a crisis has depended upon the collection of data—tabulated and interpreted by “experts.” As part of this evidentiary process, visibility is simultaneously a problem and a solution. The show’s visibility has focused public concern on the crisis (in a sense bringing the crisis into existence by making it visible—though the program is certainly not responsible for the incidents themselves, and is only one flashpoint for its being called out) and allowed the authoritative discourse to take hold (made manifest in the mobilization of dollars and resources and the willful embrace of the network as protector of the public interest); indeed as part of this movement, citizens willingly surveil each other, and watch others being surveilled, perhaps part of the general neoliberalist spin down that once again turns the public interest over to private industry (consider, for example, the teen lingo cheat sheet on MSNBC.com, written to help parents understand the acronyms their kids use on the Web), and the unsurprising result of a neoconservative turn that gives information technologies significant leeway as tools of surveillance and discipline in the name of national security — “no privacy, no problem!”

Perverted Justice thong

From the Perverted Justice gift shop

Concern about the online exploitation of children has created a new growth industry of its own, with a complete line of products related to helping parents monitor the activity of their children. For its part, Dateline calls on the services of Perverted Justice, an organization that exposes men who sexually target minors online. Perverted Justice works as a consultant for Dateline (and is paid a fee for its services), setting up computer profiles and populating chat rooms with volunteers pretending to be underage teens interested in sex. The dystopic and utopic discourses about new technology converge in the Dateline narrative, as we are once alerted to the dangers of cyberspace yet told a tale in which technology is deployed as a productive social instrument. The paranoia of online identity as deceptive role play is displaced by the positive yet parallel action of the Perverted Justice decoy that plays a part to lure the predator. Predator and savior use parallel tactics that have evolved in tandem, and are positioned as the yin and yang of the digital age.

Chris Hansen - To Catch a Predator book cover

Correspondent Chris Hansen as author

With such a paradigm in mind, we are asked to accept surveillance as the principle raison d’être of certain new technologies, though in this climate the technology must be read as not politically or ideologically neutral. Reflecting on Predator’s development over its ten investigative installments, Hansen recalls, “The first investigation was very slick. I mean we had five or six cameras. And they set up a mini control room in like a little back room in the house. And they’re all huddled in there with the monitors.” Tracing the show’s development, one of the volunteers with Perverted Justice adds, “… We went from Frag [Dennis Kerr, the group’s Director of Operations] and I being perched on a single desk in a hallway at the top of the staircase—to having an entire room set aside where we’ve got our Web cams up, and we’ve got our phone verifiers in position. And we’ve got all these new technologies that we’re using. And Frag has gone from having a hallway window to look out of, to having something like 7 monitors pyramided around him.” The show is a testament to visibility, both in its guiding mission (to put faces on sexual predators) and its aesthetics of technological oversaturation. The undercover house in Long Beach, California, the set of its February 6, 2007 episode, featured fifteen hidden cameras, while the program itself split the viewing screen repeatedly, at one point offering home viewers four vantage points, plus those additional screens within the televised screen of the surveillance room.

NBC and MSNBC.com have expanded the Predator franchise to Catch an ID Thief and Catch a Con Man and package safety kits for each series. The Predator safety kit includes a family contract for online safety, culled from Safekids.com, asking parents to pledge, among other things, that they “not use a PC or the Internet as an electronic babysitter” and reminding kids to “be a good online citizen and not do anything that hurts other people or is against the law.”

Brian Massumi notes in his preface to The Politics of Everyday Fear, that “fear is a staple of popular culture and politics.” American social space has been saturated by mechanisms of fear production, a process perhaps hastened by the role mass media has come to assume in this country. Fear and the public sphere are illusive (and intimately bound to one another). But what Predator rather nonchalantly points out, as it produces “the teacher, the oil man, [and] the ex-cop,” is that fear is not simply outside the home, but down the hallway. These men are quite often (though not always) identified as family men, with wives and children. What public service is the network doing for their families? It is the very (virtual) nature of fear and of the public sphere that drives us toward empiricism, toward our need to know, to see, to find the sexual predators among us; yet what we may finally discover is that what we fear most is lying beside us.

Image Credits:

1. Dateline: To Catch a Predator aired 2-6-07

2. Dateline: To Catch a Predator episode aired 2-6-07

3. Perverted Justice

4. MSNBC




In a recent installment, Chris Hansen asks one subject, “Have you seen the show before?” “And what do you think of the stories?” “Did you ever think you’d be on one?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 23.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17601568/

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11030951/

Brian Massumi, “Preface,” in The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), vii.

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The Limits of the Cellular Imaginary: iPhone and the Snuff Film

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

iPhone

iPhone

On December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq, after being sentenced to death by hanging for crimes against humanity. Just over one week later, on January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs was played on stage to the tune of James Brown's “I Feel Good,” and proceeded to unveil the iPhone as part of his keynote address at Macworld in San Francisco. Though both men were on public display for quite different purposes, and on quite different stages, they were inevitably bound together by certain cultural logics of new media.

On my most recent visit to Google Video, a 2:36 minute clip of Saddam Hussein's execution had been viewed 15,605,630 times and had received a rating of 4 out of 5 stars (ranking it “above average”). But this clip is just one of many catalogued by Google Video, each of which has a unique title. While most of the entries feature the same video, recorded by a witness to the execution using a cell phone, others take some liberties with the footage, including a 4 minute piece titled “Swinging Saddam Execution Video,” described as a “groovy” video “starring GeGe the Go Go girl and her new dance the 'Saddam Swing'!” Another, titled “Hanging Saddam” features a 1:38 minute still image montage, a chronology framed by traditional wipe, dissolve, and Ken Burns effects, shaped into essayistic form by intertitles, and underscored by Green Day's “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”

Apple's inroads into the telecommunications business with its latest device, which Jobs proudly points out is not just a mobile phone, but also a widescreen iPod and an Internet communicator, is certainly part of a larger industrial history of cellular technology, and like the developments that precede it, the result of a persistent engagement with an evolving and inherently ideologically-charged visual interface. The architecture of the mobile phone platform is, after all, a language, and the latest revolution in user interfaces marks the degree to which hardware and software are conceptualized in tandem. In his discussion of cultural transcoding, Lev Manovich suggests that the computer layer and the cultural layer push against and shape each other, to the extent that the general computerization of culture in the digital age gradually substitutes existing cultural categories and concepts with new ones that derive from the computer's ontology.[i] A recent Apple press release suggests that the iPhone “completely redefines what you can do on a mobile phone,” suggesting that Apple has thought through what consumers should do with their mobile phones and has a few ideas about what consumers will actually do with their mobile phones, but according to an on-demand delivery logic of production, purposefully leaves open other possibilities.

This latest push in the pursuit of a digital lifestyle (also evidenced in Apple's introduction of the iLife suite in 2003, which integrated its previously distinct photo, video, and audio components, allowing them to operate within each other, and merged the “i” signifier with life itself) leads me to certain questions about the relationship between two forms of integration–one accomplished and evidenced by technological convergence and the other associated with the domain of trauma therapy. The former is of a physical and mechanical nature and the latter is psychical and biological. What connects these two enterprises (of integration) is the common push toward embodiment, as well as their mutual dependence on media.

Nokia

Nokia ad

Trauma theory positions those memories associated with traumatic experience in relation to dream logic, recorded not in a linear manner assigned to verbal narrative but in a manner that exceeds words and is fundamentally comprised of vivid sensations and images. The goal of trauma therapy is integrative, to move the victim through stages of safety, mourning, and ultimately reconnection to everyday life.[ii] This developmental trajectory aims to localize sensation, delimiting what was once excessive, and to reattach the subject.

Likewise, the push toward a singular (and coincidentally, Cingular) manifestation of the digital lifestyle is also about localizing sensation, investing in one device and channeling distinct media along one conduit. As Jobs suggests, the interface itself is fluid and responsive, its malleability an assurance that the iPhone can adapt to changes in the media landscape and retain its centrality. The “buttons” themselves are virtual and can be remapped; the hardware of the iPhone is almost as fluid as the software.

The general trend toward seamless mobility heralded in the research and development of new technologies (the integration of multiple feature-rich media devices and operating platforms–in the home, in the car, and at the office) is part of a larger projection of the future of liquid media (taking media and shaping it to the various circumstances that people find themselves in) that also wants to embroil the subject in the technology. New media industries are drafting biographical practices that can be subsequently attached to individual authors. The aim is to create new media frameworks that replicate subjectivity and merge the lived context with the apparatus of production, fostering the development of “technobiographies” that write the self through the post-industrial logic of new media. Responsive technologies seem to situate end-users as unique social actors, as inscribed data (though not governing code) accumulates and becomes symptomatic of our presence. New technologies may seem to operate freely, to the extent that they act intuitively, but their intuition is by design; it is inherently the result of a script (of a coding activity brought to fruition by developers). As we become conscious of the possibilities for remapping technology, do we overlook the limits of our own subjectivity, itself the product of an unseen script?

Motorola

Motorola

Motorola, in its “motocouture” ad campaign suggests its phones are “designed for desire.” As it gives form to the buzzwords of liquid media, the company purposefully speaks in between the polarities of the inorganic and the organic. Likewise, Nokia, in the business of “connecting people” positions its phones as a bridge between “vision” and “reality,” prompting users to re-imagine their worlds–a cultural re-imagining made possible only through technology. Yet in the same moment, the world is being more forcefully re-imagined and pointedly re-imaged; the relationship between vision and reality is not simply allegorical.

An August 2006 CNN.com article on the Israel-Lebanon conflict featured an image, recorded on a cell phone, of a building struck by a Hezbollah rocket. And one year earlier, the Washington Post ran an article featuring cell-phone images shot by people in the aftermath of the London terrorist attacks, highlighting pictures of transit passengers caught in a tunnel near King's Cross Station. Framed by the popular news media as a form of citizen journalism, from a more immediate vantage point, these sites of imaging, shared both locally and across the blogosphere, create a fabric of intimate communication, allowing photographer and viewer to shape the lexicon of terror.

Kings Cross Station tunnel

King’s Cross Station tunnel

If the cellular imaginary is in part the product of venture capital, what are the stakes for any photographic act that is not simply a recording, but potentially a working through? Or is working through even possible when diachronic continuity meets an assumed zenith in seamless mobility? Is post-traumatic integration even conceivable when images of terror never serve as meditative points divorced from an original act, never function as screen memories but instead as visible, contemporaneous evidence? As the temporal gap between production and distribution is closed, so too is the lag between occurring and witnessing. The role of memory is becoming more tenuous.

Yet far from simply communicating, sending images across the Internet, the cell phone user at ground zero is both witnessing and translating trauma. Though trauma, in critical discourse, has been inherently linked to modernity and its dissociating effects, we must reconsider the role of the citizen journalist who is creating cultural memories within the framework of being a traumatized subject, forever closing off the possibility of secondary revision. I am not suggesting that an execution and a bombing are parallel traumatic events; for an execution itself is not necessarily a site of public trauma, and the clandestine recording of an execution is not necessarily a journalistic act (though the act has subsequently become part of journalistic discourse). Yet once imaged, the artifact, the record itself may become its own site of trauma–this seems to be decidedly the case with the execution, where the act of producing and distributing (of recording and circulating) has created its own cultural rift. And as phones become rich HTML web browsers, no longer are images simply circulated as free-floating artifacts, but rather they are positioned alongside parallel or divergent discursive threads that exist simultaneously on Google Video or other database interfaces. In these frameworks, meaning is anchored by a series of preordained social bookmarks that seem to alter the type of working through that is possible. Saddam Hussein and the Go Go Girl are bound together, and an execution is situated concentrically with the iTunes store. While convergence has been positioned as liberating, integration may randomly generate cultural discord.

Notes

[i] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 46.

[ii] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 155-156.

Image Credits:
1. iPhone
2. Nokia ad
3. Motorola
4. King’s Cross Station tunnel

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Intervention and the Kodak Moment

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

Intervention

A&E’s Intervention

In Camera Lucida, his seminal investigation of photography and photographic knowledge, Roland Barthes examines his fascination with a few select images in an attempt to arrive at a universal truth of the general field of photographic objecthood. Reinscribing fascination as an “internal agitation,” Barthes comes to understand his preference for particular photographs, identifying those images that give birth to certain interferences.

I am fascinated by transitory images that move between and are articulated as public and private; by studying this process, best understood as a movement, either physical or psychical, I aim to reveal the general processes of inscription by which images take on meaning or through which acquired meanings are discarded and meaning shifts. The images that have most recently caught my attention are the occasional portraits–childhood photos and home videos–that are part of the narrative arc of each episode of A&E's Intervention. Located quite early in each addict's story, it is here that family members begin the search for the addict's traumatic break. Most often it is the parent that narrates the addict's back story, recounting the moment at which the normal child veered off course, and began the downward, self-abusive spiral that birthed the current day addict. The audio track is synched with what stands in as visual evidence–a montage of still images, culled from family photo albums, and an occasional video fragment pulled from the family archive. This happenstance synchronicity prompts the viewer to scrutinize each image for signs of breakage, engaging the reader in the “where's Waldo” task of locating sign and symptom. A brief excerpt from the synopsis of “Sara” (season one, episode five) is indicative of this orientation: “At 24, Sara had everything she ever wanted in her sleepy Minnesota town. She had a fairy-tale wedding in Hawaii, a beautiful baby girl, a house, three cars, and even competed in beauty pageants. Then, it all abruptly ended in divorce.”

In “Salina and Troy” (season two, episode eighteen), the on-camera confessional of Salina's mother leads us into the familiar photomontage. Asking and recounting, her mother relates: “What made her turn at this point, I don't know. But this isn't what was supposed to happen to my daughter at 24.” As the background music opens on the second audio track, and the voice-on becomes a voice-over, the montage begins first with baby pictures, then with family photos, then with school portraits, holiday photos, and photos with friends. The Ken Burns effect (a zoom in or zoom out on a photo still) opens each image up to increasing scrutiny, changing our proximity, mobilizing an otherwise static image. And Salina's mother continues: “When she was a baby she just looked like a cute little doll, so I just started calling her dolly… When she was a small child, we were pretty strict with her. Her dad was pretty strict with her. … Salina made a poor choice and left school with her cousin. Someone was showing a gun and the gun went off and Salina's cousin was shot right in front of her. Salina was devastated.” Intertitles push causality further, relating: “By 15, Salina was purging six to seven times a day. That same year, she witnessed the death of her cousin.” The combined forces of strict parenting, peer pressure (Salina confesses her teenage years sucked; as a Hispanic minority at her school, she felt the proportions of her body did not match those of the girls around her), and death are posited as a series of sequential ground zeroes for her bulimia, and the individual tale of displacement posited as a larger morality play, urging us perhaps to re-read our own family photos, to search for signs of trauma.

Migratory Patterns
John Tagg opens The Burden of Representation by contextualizing the assertions made by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, personalizing the author's claims, grounding them in a narrative of loss (the death of Barthes's mother). It is significant that Tagg begins his investigation of the history of photography as a tool for social regulation by introducing the concept of loss. Mourning oftentimes leads to the desire for authentication, for distilling or channeling the experience of grief into a sealed referential vessel that can guarantee closure, and photography is often asked to serve such an evidentiary function. Here the mourner enacts a willing and unproblematic embrace of the indexical nature of the photograph.

Yet even the most intimate images have a habit of migrating, of moving from personal spaces to public ones. To what degree do the commercial imperatives of privately-owned publicly viewable exhibition venues constrain personal images, attaching them to new narrative threads? Though personal images may be produced independent of one another, existing as distinct bodies, as they begin to move they are often gathered up, grouped together under one structure and one unified interface. Read as a collection, their uniqueness is lost to their sameness and any studied observation of them leads to a certain inertia.

One of the leading titles in each episode of Intervention inflects the program with cultural weight, and at the same time moves from the statistical to the anecdotal: “Millions of Americans struggle with addiction. Most need help to stop. These are two of their stories.” This movement is also one from the national to the local, from a broadly public crisis to one understood as the sum total of individual, private case histories. The naming of each subject follows a similar binary. Salina is positioned as “The Nanny. The Bulimic.” Far from static poles of identity, these categories are literally morphed together in title form, mirroring the goals of the intervention–making the split subject a unified one, yet at the same time making the subject knowable to us through a series of otherwise fixed categories, of normality and its opposite.

Each episode's arc closes post-intervention, moving the subject into treatment and in some cases pushing further along the timeline to recount the subject's success or failure (read in terms of completing treatment and staying clean and sober). And the outcome can be read back temporally against the program's air date, leaving the lingering question as to the subject's more current state. While the intervention itself is the climactic moment of the narrative arc, the denouement, found in the movement to what most closely approximates the current day, yields the most dramatic punch, for it either affirms or denies not simply the process (the use-value of the intervention as a moment in an addict's life) but more significantly the degree to which the evidentiary trace found somewhere in the montage-effect of childhood is understood as not a moment of misrecognition but one that either affirms or denies the possibility of mitigation much later on in life, a possibility that returns the photo to a safer order, as it potentially detaches any lingering aura of a psychic break that might otherwise remain attached to the image. The damage has been contained, and the photo can be returned to the family album, no longer a phantom limb of a traumatic subject. In a similar fashion, the intervention at the heart of the show seems more about the needs of friends and family, which seems to be less about cure and more about closure–a terminal point for grief and mourning, yet another sealed referential vessel, with its own rituals (most notably the reading of testimonials, of first-person letters drafted specifically for the occasion).

Photographs can give us insight into the constructed nature of subjectivity, if we pause long enough to reflect on them. In her book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch considers the ideological project of the familial gaze, a culturally and historically specific projection that governs the ideal of family and, by association, the production of images of it.[i] Family photographs cannot be understood as a neutral repository of the private; these images are a contested terrain, subjected to a particular set of representational conventions that construct the individual subject inside the family and by extension construct the family inside society. The range of addictions covered by Intervention, defined both by substance (heroin, crystal meth, morphine, crack, alcohol, Vicodin) and behavior (gambling, shopping, raging, binging, purging, cutting) is as varied as the individuals profiled in the show's first two seasons; yet just as addiction itself, which suggests excess at its very core, is reduced to a formulaic narrative trajectory (which is what we expect of any episodic television drama), so too are its subjects reduced to a shared vernacular, firmly grounded in the familial and its stable of representations. The subjugated knowledges of these speaking subjects, of these addicts, even when they rise to the surface and are “vocalized,” are re-bound and submersed within a number of superseding narratives, intimately bound to both family and nation. While these may be “their stories,” each episode leaves me with the lingering question of where they are. And I don't mean this in the limited sense of their relative sobriety or their physical location, but more in the sense of fixing exactly where they are signified in the body of the story, in the episode's narrative geography. As I try to stage my own intervention with a series of representations, it seems the honorific portraits littered throughout the series are destined to take on their inverse function as repressive instruments, as tools in the assignment of typology (either criminal or pathological), always positing the individual as addict–pre-addiction or post-addiction, but always in relation to the term. This is, for the viewer at least, the only point of entry, not invested in the family album, and only able to position the addict as one in a million. This is not a liberatory gesture; it does not suggest an escape from the repressive function of the familial gaze. As the localized family (the circle of biological kinship) fades from view, the national family appears on the horizon.


[i] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 11.

Image Credits:
1. A&E’s Intervention

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