Social Death in “Station Eleven”

The Queen’s Premature Social Media Death via Mirror

In reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, I found myself drawn back to the earlier parts of the novel in St. Deborah by the Water, specifically those concerning the sinister prophet and the bizarre burial customs he seemed to impose on the town. While the prophet’s grasp over the town is clearly implied to have some fairly disturbing results (his request of Alexandra as a peace offering!), what I find myself particularly interested in and perturbed by is this premature funeral habit of his.

It certainly says something about his attitude and behavior towards death. From what little we have seen of him, this small-town prophet seems to exercise an almost godlike power over the people of St. Deborah by the Water, rattling on about his purity and as he wields unquestioned power. With the burial’s for those that are not actually dead (rather are “dead” to him), the prophet extends his godlike control to death itself.

Though the prophet’s power over death at first seems all too human–it becomes a tool of dominance and oppression rather than a universal process to respect the dead–I find myself unusually disturbed by his near-deific redefiniton of the concept of death.

We have certainly spent time discussing literal and figurative death before, touching on the latter with instances where a person would often be mistakenly declared “dead” by social media. With the practices of St. Deborah by the Water, we see a chilling analog to this premature Twitter or Facebook death. While it seems easy for a premature post or obituary about someone to become viral, it seems distinctly more complicated to convince an entire settlement to change their own conceptions of death–which only hints at the terrible stranglehold the prophet has on the town to be able to redefine death.

Repair: digital versus analog

There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes with repairing a broken object. As a kid, I used to take apart disposable cameras and try and put them back together so that they would work again (I was rarely successful). There’s a feeling that comes with knowing the mechanism behind the gadget, knowing the combination of intricate moving parts. Repairing an object has similar appeal. By restoring function, or by assigning a new one, you kind of triumph over the broken nature of the object, and cement the fact that you know how it works.

I googled “disassembled disposable camera” to see if this was a thing that other people had done. Of course it was.

Today’s reading suggests that repair of digital objects is a little different, and I have to agree. While I’ve always thought that the distinction between digital and analog has been somewhat artificial, there is a clear difference in repairing an analog device versus a digital one. We repair digital objects all the time. BUT, the aspects we repair are more often than not, analog. When a phone or tablet screen cracks, we replace it. When a keyboard loses function in some keys, we could solder. But rarely does the average consumer repair an aspect of their gadgets that is truly digital.

When my iPhone is noticeably glitch, there’s really no other discourse for me other than prayers and googling the problem for a quick patch. This trend exists because the digital is so immensely complex. While the physical assembly of a smart phone may be accomplished relatively trivially, the core of what makes the smartphone smart, is very much not. No one single person knows all of the code that goes in iPhone firmware, as it would be an insane task. Instead, a team of specialized workers each have their own area. This makes it very unlikely that the user will know what to do if their smartphone suddenly has its software completely bricked. A similar trend exists in other, more specialized trades today. Whereas in the past,  a car mechanic could construct an entire automobile from scratch, that would be absurd today with all the different models and the immense complexity of modern cars. As the collective knowledge of information increases, the individual becomes increasingly powerless in repair.

Can You be Dead While Still Alive? Exploring the Limitations of Humanity in “Station Eleven”

Despite his death as early as the first chapter, Arthur Leander remains a continual presence in Station Eleven, a common link between otherwise very different characters as both an abstracted celebrity icon and a flawed husband and friend. It’s significant that one of the most central characters in the novel is a celebrity, and Emily St. John Mandel emphasizes the role of his fame repeatedly. For example, even in Arthur’s personal off-camera relationships, the line between acting and real-life remains gray, and he wonders at one point: “Did he actually date those women because he liked them, or was his career in the back of his mind the whole time? The question is unexpectedly haunting” (79). Arthur’s inability to distinguish between the construction of himself as a character and his original self is haunting because truth and illusion are no longer differentiated. And in a world increasingly dominated by social media, self-interest, competition, and materiality, Arthur is merely the extreme of a reality we are already living—we perform in our daily lives and construct a better version of ourselves to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fabricated. We are not so different from Arthur after all.

Arthur’s ex-wife, Miranda, observes this tension between illusion and reality while hiding from dinner guests in her backyard. She admires a lamp in the shape of a crescent moon, noting that “The fake moon, which has the advantage of being closer and not obscured by smog, is almost always brighter than the real one” (100). This observation highlights an important theme: a lie can often seem truer than truth itself. Truth is no more than a game of smoke (in this case smog) and mirrors (in this case the reflection on the water).

Miranda observes the real moon and the fake moon, truth and illusion. Source: Ocilunam. Ex.Moon Outdoor Lamp. N.d. Lumens Light and Living. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

Both Arthur and Miranda demonstrate this loss of humanity through their depiction of reality as a performative construction. This made me think: where has the real death occurred in this novel? Obviously, the easiest response is that the death occurs during the flu outbreak and the loss of civilization as we know it. And yet, these earlier moments pre-destruction suggest something different.

Has mankind already died? Are the loneliness and emptiness felt by the characters prior to the end of civilization simply mourning by a different name?

Reframing the text in this manner allows us to better understand the fear foregrounding this book: if an apocalypse seems a fictive, impossible, or slightly less threatening reality, perhaps the horror lies instead in the metaphorical death of Miranda and Arthur that occurs long before—a far more relatable and imaginable demise.

The real tragedy here is that this death goes unnoticed. The thought that you could die without even realizing it is the scariest concept of all. So yes, this novel is technically about an apocalyptic event, but really, it’s about all the other ways in which we can die. Don’t get distracted by wild-west shootings and end-of-the-world survival; Arthur Leander died long before the first chapter.

References:

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. New York: Vintage , a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2014. Print.

Ocilunam. Ex.Moon Outdoor Lamp. N.d. Lumens Light and Living. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

Are Humans Broken?

I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Jackson’s Rethinking Repair as it brought to light a non-conventional method of thinking that is not often discussed. As a millennial in our modern-day society I am constantly targeted with words such as “new”, “innovative”, “high-tech”, and “groundbreaking” at least a few times a day. These words bring to mind a Back To the Future 2  mindset, one that has flying skateboards and futuristic technology.  They never make me think of innovations as something done to “fix” an issue or existing problem.

 

An example of the ads we are exposed to.

 

Taking Jackson’s mindset into account, I would like to pose the question: are humans broken? Jackson believes that constant changing world “is a world of pain and possibility, creativity and destruction, innovation, and the worst excess of leftover habit and power” (pg 222). Are humans a part of this besides being physically involved. One of the newest innovations that has hit the market is the self-driving Tesla that we covered in class recently. It has been marketed as a huge advancement into the robot-controlled universe where humans don’t have to do as much. There are already car manufacturers that have an assembly line of machines doing the work that humans could be doing.

Machines are taking over human jobs.

It is possible that we could see similar developments occur in other service fields(dining, mail, garbage collection) with the passing of time and the expansion of technology. These thoughts bring to light one question:

If we are making machines do the work for us, does that mean that the human species are broken?

Even then, what would the definition of broken mean when relating to a human. Furthermore, if we assume that humans are broken, then wouldn’t the machines made by them be broken as well? Or would we eventually get to a point in society where we build these machines and they begin to build themselves better? These are questions that we should keep in mind when discussing broken world thinking. It seems intuitive that humans would not want to think of themselves as ultimately obsolete, but  it is a good way to begin pondering the direction that broken world thinking can us.

 

The Shock of School

I found the perfect word for the eerie feeling of Chapter 20 of Station Eleven, when Kirsten and a few others are exploring the abandoned school: kenopsia.

Kenopsia: (n) the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.

While it may or may not be a real word (was on several “Obscure Words” websites but not in the OED), the word does encapsulate the aura surrounding an empty school. Even if the school isn’t abandoned, wandering around school after hours or during the summer leaves one feeling unsettled.*

Easington Colliery Primary School in the UK

The desolate environment is eerie, and everyone in the raiding party feels a little uneasy as they approach the school. Viola is really agitated: “Schools give me the creeps” and “Creepy as hell.” The group sees abandoned classrooms, remains of a fire, and no instruments but Jackson finds a skeleton in the men’s room. He’s troubled by this but Kirsten is unperturbed and August simply says a prayer over the remains, as per usual. As they walk out, Jackson asks Kirsten and August “how you two can stand going into these places” (130). August replies that they don’t go into public bathrooms because “someone always got executed in the bathroom” (130). My question is why. Why is there always a dead body in a public bathroom? The drains would make it easy to clean up spilled blood and since it’s a confined space, a person would be an easy target. But is there some other significance? The reasoning for this type of death could be linked to the symptoms of the Georgia Flu, which may be further revealed later in the book.

*unless you’re a teacher

“Broken world” thinking and “The World Without Us”

While reading Jackson’s Rethinking Repair, the book The World Without Us kept coming to mind. Alan Weisman, the book’s author, describes it as a thought experiment: What if all humans disappeared? No catastrophic global disaster or epidemic, just the simple, nonviolent evaporation of humankind.

Almost immediately, the world would begin to rapidly decay. This is where Jackson comes in–it isn’t the threat of a violent end to society that would damage or end the existence of technology, it’s the possibility that humans would stop constantly repairing literally everything that keeps our lives invisibly in motion.

An effective example that Weisman gives is New York City’s subway system. Within days without humans, all of the tunneling would be flooded. Each day, those who work in for New York City Transit fight to keep 13 million gallons of water from flowing in, even without considering out of the ordinary rainfall.

As Jackson phrases it, this is the “extent to which such work is rendered invisible under our normal modes of picturing and theorizing technology.” I hadn’t thought of the maintenance of the subway system as an uphill battle, just a sort of neutral existence. What Jackson and Weisman seem to be circling around has to do with the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Jackson seems to think such a thing as “broken” only exists if people have stopped fixing it for too long entirely.

What Jackson calls “Broken world thinking” is interesting to consider as the ultimate postmodernism–the idea that these technologies we make and the systems around them can not only be recategorized or redistributed, but disappear altogether.

 

Technology Doesn’t Die; Humans Do.

The combination of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and “Rethinking Repair” by Steven J. Jackson shifted the way in which I am thinking about the death of technology. Ultimately, technology can’t really die. Sure, iPhone screens can crack and circuits can short, but technology is more than any given individual artifact; it is the sum of its many, many parts and the system that maintains them.

Jackson asks us to consider “broken world thinking,” which is the concept of innovation that begins after everything has already crumbled. In this way, technological innovation still exists. The difference is that where we used to innovate from raw materials — we would be working with the remnants of broken, crumbled technology. Take, for instance, the trucks that were repurposed in Station Eleven to serve as the horse-drawn carriages in the caravan.

 

Abandoned truck; What I imagine the repurposed caravan trucks may have looked like in Station Eleven; Source: Deviant Art

Jackson defines repair as “the subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished” (222). In this way, repair and innovation go hand in hand, as the repairs we make transform the world in which we live.

As we continue to study the “death of technology,” I’m inclined to argue that technology never really dies, as it is simply a product of humankind. Station Eleven could be painted as a story in which we witness the death of technology, but what we really see is the death of humankind (for the most part) and with that the systems and manpower that technology requires to be sustained.

Chernobyl and the aura that surrounds disaster sites

A quick look into my post history reveals that I am a massive nerd, with a bizarre affection for nuclear power/radiation (see: Half Life, haunted media project, etc). Chernobyl is one of the topics that both inspired my haunted media project and serves as what I think to be one of the most entrancing disasters in human history.

While today’s article discusses ‘dark tourism’ as a relatively modern phenomena, I can’t help but think that it is as old as any other human tendency. We are fascinated with death. Our natural morbid curiosity gets the better of us most of the time, which is why places like /r/watchpeopledie (warning!!! vivid pictures of death) exist, and even thrive.

Image result for dark tourism
we seem to be fascinated with death, and even more so when the death happens to be unnatural.

I do think however that it became only recently that humankind developed the means for mass death on this scale. But I wanted to focus on what makes Chernobyl such an attractive tourism site for what the article describes as “between 18 and 28 […] more interested in ‘fear, fun, and thrill.'”

There have been quite a few disasters that have happened on a relatively recent scale, but these events do not occur such an ‘enchanted’ site as the Chernobyl exclusion area. Things such as the Mt. St. Helen eruption, the Southeast Asian tsunami, Rape of Nanking (and so on) don’t attract the same type of visitors to their commemorative sites. For one, they are not considered to be still dangerous. But I do think that another significant factor is the cause of the incident. In this case, it’s nuclear radiation. Because the forces at hand in Chernobyl were invisible to the naked eye, it leaves a sort of mysterious, almost sinister atmosphere on the incident.

Nuclear fallout’s association with horrific mutations and scarring of all animals, regardless of veracity, is what contributes to this perception, which is what attracts dark tourism. As humankind progresses in technology, more opportunities to ‘mess up’ will arise. Imagine not a nuclear fission plant meltdown, but a fusion plant meltdown. A software bug that single handedly wipes out digital currency. Or a genetic experiment unleashes a horribly invasive species, destroying entire ecosystems. Wait… these sound like they’re not even that crazy.

Fantasy or Reality? The Gray Line Between the Truth and the Story

In their article “Dark and Toxic Tourism in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” Ganna Yankovska and Kevin Hannam describe the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a site of both dark and toxic tourism. Through interviews with tour guides and agents, Yankovska and Hannam explore the various motivations of tourists depending on nationality and age. The researchers highlight how the exclusion zone lies at the tricky crossroads between entertainment and education and as such, tour guides must interpret and alter their presentations depending on the desired effect.

Tourists from around the world flock to Chernobyl for educational, research, and even entertainment value. Source: The Ghost Town of Pripyat after the Chernobyl Meltdown of 1986. N.d. KonsciousKloud.

In reading this article, I was reminded of one of the first articles we read this year by Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin explores the notion of storytelling in a contemporary context in which information, press, and technological inventions threaten “…the art of storytelling…” (Benjamin 362). The role of the storyteller—as described by Benjamin through the language of “advice,” “instruction,” “useful,” and “wisdom”— seems a particularly accurate account of the role of the Chernobyl tour guides who often cited in interviews their educational function and the wisdom they hope to imbue on tourists (Benjamin 364).

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist, and critic. Source: Untitled Photo of Walter Benjamin. N.d. RHYSTRANTER.COM.

And yet, while storytelling by tour guides often falls under this category of ‘useful wisdom,’ in the case of Chernobyl, there is an additional expectation of entertainment value and adventure that complicates the traditional role outlined by Benjamin. For example, in an interview with Yankovska and Hannam, Tour Guide C notes, “Interpretation is the main part of my work” (Ganna 935). Similarly, Tour Guide B says that “People believe in these games and horror movies too much. Consequently, they are not interested in real history and valid information anymore” (Ganna 936). These two accounts introduce certain questions: At what point are tour guides embellishing or altering history in order to appeal to demand? Is a “true” account possible within the commercial context of a museum or memorial? What is the difference (if any) between stories and history? As we get generationally further from historical events, their retelling can easily become skewed, either by simple mistake or to satiate consumer demand. We’ve talked in class about truth and its limitations and I think this article is relevant within that discussion – particularly within today’s context in which fake news and alternative facts are normalized.

This conflict between information and stories is a central theme in Yankovska and Hannam’s article. The article notes that interactions with local residents carry greater interest to tourists than the factual information itself (Ganna 935). The personal and even physical interactions thus trump the appeal of information, perhaps because they tap into “…the psychological connection of the events…” which allows “…an amplitude that information lacks” (Benjamin 366). Does this emotional, psychological component of these real-life interactions make the stories more real or truthful, or does it relegate them to a fantasy world of imagination and adventure, thereby removing them from practical application and real-world relevance? Are the local residents people or characters?

Physical interaction is a valuable tool in understanding and conceptualizing trauma, especially when that trauma is so large and geographically distant that it feels too abstract to engage with. Benjamin reminds us of the quote “‘an attic fire in the Latin Quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid’” (Benjamin 365). Proximity is an important factor in determining how we relate to events and news. Dark tourism and toxic tourism may have a dark side (no pun intended), but they also speak to a human need to experience on a physical, intimate level a reality too hard to otherwise grasp. Sometimes, fantasy and imagination are the only way to comprehend the incomprehensible.

References:

Virtual Dark Tourism

Fallout via GOG

In their article about dark and toxic tourism, Yankovska and Hannam mention the video game franchise S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which centers around an alternate history take on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For them, the games stand as representative of the popular mass-media distortion of the disastrous events at Chernobyl.

But although it certainly does misrepresent the event, I don’t think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. intends to exploit the victims of the accident. Rather, I think the game series acts as a manifestation of our fascination with disaster and devastation (particularly the kind that involve nuclear causes) as mentioned in our earlier reading by Susan Sontag (“The Imagination of Disaster”). Other game series deal with similar kinds of devastation, perhaps most notably the Fallout franchise.The game series themselves are quite dissimilar in tone and subject matter–S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses a pseudo-horror lens to show an alternate take on a real event, whereas Fallout gives an action/adventure-RPG look at a fictional nuclear apocalypse.

However, they do overlap in their portrayal of fictional nuclear destruction on the real world. Both game series incorporate real world locations to revel in the horrifying destruction that comes with nuclear apocalypse–S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with its semi-realistic depictions of Chernobyl and Pripyat, Fallout with its imagined ruins of Washington, D.C. and Boston (among others). In this manner, the games tap into the dark and toxic tourism discussed in the article. They capitalize on the same fascination that the tours do, acting as virtual dark and toxic tours while also engaging a wider than the tours ever could.