An Elegy to Mortality

“Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art.” (15)

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” (15)

As bleak as it sounds, we are always getting older, stepping closer towards death. And whether you like it or not, there is no pill, diet, or exercise in the world that will stave off the eventual decay of our organic bodies. Time continues to steadily move forward no matter if we are ready or not. That being said, we as a species have always found methods to record and archive our lives for future generations.

Photography presents an opportunity for us to immortalize a brief second in our own history and freeze that moment full of emotion and narrative. Early photography provided people a tangible representation of a memory or moment. But like memory itself, the physicality of the photo paralleled the body- aging and eventually decaying, mortal. Even the best methods of preservation cannot stave off eventual decay of old film. However, with the prominence of digital photography and online media, we are immortalizing the mortal and giving eternal life to the memories these photos contain.

I titled this post “An Elegy to Mortality” because photographs, specifically ones that have been digitized and posted online or saved to the cloud, allow these captured stills to live on seemingly forever. Nothing is mortal anymore because it can be archived online as long as “online” exists. Though we can never truly relive a moment in our lives, digital photography, more so digital media as a whole, is the closest we can come to immortalizing events in our lives. This reading, and through writing my blog post, has made me question how I choose to remember significant life events. I know that photography, especially digital photography, allows me to never forget. But is that how I want to live? Always “remembering the good old days”? Always fondly looking back at “the hey day”? While I will still continue to take photos, I believe this article has made me realize that it is better to let time take you with it than fight against it. Being mortal means living in the moment and not letting the past keep you from moving forward.

taken from life…but in denial

I’m interested in how the dead are presented in preservations. The most obvious form of presentation would be in photographs like in ‘Taken from Life.’ That’s where I saw the most variance among the photographs. There is a general effort to beautify the dead that likely comes from our persuasion to deny death, however, its forms are many. In some photos, there is little effort to conceal the fact that the person is dead, they are simply made to look beautiful and the photographs are taken to preserve their likenesses. Other photos go to greater lengths, seeking to fool the viewer into believing the dead one is alive. In the article, all but one of this kind are group photos. It is as if the picture is aimed at preserving a past state of the group; a state where the deceased was a part of it. Even here, there are various approaches, as the young are presented as having fallen asleep while a kind of voyeuristic beauty is bestowed unto reclining young women. This isn’t to suggest that the Victorian era upper classes were full of necrophiles, but rather to postulate that the deceased were often presented in idealized states in these photographs, often going so far as to glow in crisper color than the others by nature of their stillness. This idealism is so contrary to death that it might ease the grieving process. Nowadays, there’s no need for it as most of us are photographed daily, and this has made us averse to the process, but I’d have a hard time believing that these photographs were taken because the people were more comfortable with death.

Why Dead Photography?

After reading “Plato’s Cave” from On Photography, I could not help but think about the ways in which photography has revolutionized the way people interact with media today. With technology developing at a quick pace, society has become more dependent on the media in which some people live through the use of media. For instance, people have been able to create careers and full-time jobs using media such as posting simple posts on Instagram or having plain instructional videos on YouTube. Regardless of the media, all of them have a heavy reliance on photography.

One of the main elements that photography is able to do is that it “furnishes evidence (pg.5).” People engage with photographs and publicize them to gain some satisfaction that you are able to show proof of your life adventures. It is as if you need to have photographic evidence to make yourself a more credible individual. Plus, people can use these images to add to their status online by boasting about how “fit” or “fortunate” their lives are. This is one of the many ways how photography has changed the media. It enforces this online culture of rising above one to another in which you gain this elite status. Therefore, you find many individuals investing their time when taking a photo ensuring they have the perfect lighting, pose, colors, contrast, and etc. The culture of photography has become less about capturing moments but rather capturing quality.

However, not all individuals care about the quality, others just care about content. In the article, “Taken From Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography” by BBC News, the idea of taking photographs of the dead seems a bit odd. The Victorians were concerned about getting photographs of their lost ones in order to respect the dead. However, the mourning method does seem unusual in which they preserve the bad part about life which is death. Although in contemporary society we mimic a similar style of mourning by dressing up those who have passed away in their coffin, the idea of preserving a photograph of a lost one when they were not alive seems unnecessary. Why not take a photo of the individual when they were alive and preserving moments of happiness?

It does make sense that this is so odd to me because, in those times, death was a natural reoccurring event that happened in their homes. Therefore, my separation and uneasiness of death allow me to feel this way. However, that does not convince me that taking photographs of the dead is still reasonable. You could say that all the photographs of the dead are just another photograph of something that is absent. Nevertheless, if I were to find myself taking photos of the dead, I would probably be concerned with much of the many things that photography has turned into such as lighting, scenery, etc. I would be concerned with getting quality to create a story from the photograph.

Can someone who looks like they were in the Brady Bunch haunt you?

On a run with my friend Maura a few days ago, we passed the abandoned cabin collapsed into the mossy thrush that lines Davidson’s cross country trails.

I commented in passing that the sloping log edifice disintegrating into damp soil was a perfect representation of Mark Fisher’s definition of “the eerie”: a family had been once present here, we could see their turned over sink and ice-box. Ostensibly they were now absent, for reasons we were sure were fraught and nefarious.

“I want to take a photo of this but I feel like some spirit would possess my phone or something,” I commented jokingly.

“I found like a 1950’s saddle shoe here once,” Maura said, and then added “empty of course.”

Which provoked a strange thought, “ghosts like are never from like a decade after the 40s though.”

In the media, rarely do you see a ghost that isn’t a small victorian child in white-ish night gown with long stringy hair and empty eyes.

Enter Bethan Bell’s “Taken from life,” in which dead victorian folks are propped up with what I can only imagine are coat hangers and photographed. I was struck by the fact that the images were the crystallization of what my brain thought of when it thought of “ghost.” A ghost had to be someone distant from me in sense of dress and in decade. The more antiquated the more likely to come back haunting.

“Yeah like you wouldn’t see a ghost from the 1970’s. What would they do shake their bell bottoms at you and boo?” I said.

“But you also wouldn’t see like the ghost of a caveman or something” Maura decides.

 

So evidently one’s perception of “ghosthood” is highly temporal. It has a scopic element that refracts our categorization of who can who can’t be a ghost.

Why particularly are Victorian people so much more likely to be ghosts? Were they sadder, more melancholic, more ashen faced, more hysterical, more generally creepy?

Well, honestly, probably, but also we might find the answer in Jeffrey Cohen’s theses on monsters. Just as monsters are a “cultural body” so too seemingly is our perception of the ghost inflected with cultural anxiety (Cohen 4). 

I’m no historian on the late industrial period, nor am I exactly sure why the people of this time are the recycled fodder of many a haunting T.V. show, novel, or film.

Maybe some of this may connect to the insurgence of gothicism that began in the mid to late 18th century, maybe some of this was related to the increase in population, which meant a proportional increase in death, maybe victorian people were really just that more creepy than the rest of us. I can’t particularly point  to one reason. But it’s worth interrogating why I can’t fathom someone from the 80s rocking shoulder pads and a bad haircut haunting me.

 

Memento Mori

Memento Mori: remember you must die. Pretty bleak, right? But what makes us think this way?

Death in our society is a complex enigma, considered taboo and accompanied by variety of competing emotions. We rarely speak about death, unless prompted to do so. Death has been dressed up as many other characters, using words such as “passing” and religious justification to make us feel better about it. What’s strange, however, is that while we shield ourselves from the concept of death, our own mortality, and the societal baggage it carries, we love to surround ourselves with the morbid through media.

If you have ever watched Criminal Minds, you know what I mean. Popular TV and film often incorporate and even fixate on the topic of death in their productions, as the audience seems to be fascinated and intrigued by the concept of the death of others. We “enjoy” watching horror movies, where characters drop like flies, or documentaries about serial killers, in which each killing is grotesquely described. The irony, then, appears in our inability to face our own mortality, yet we love to observe the death and dying of estranged others.

While it may seem a far fletched comparison, this pop culture trend of “death in media” is not all that different from the death photography of Victorian England. The use of photography to capture the last image of the deceased, and to immortalize what once was, is just another way in which media exposes human mortality. In Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” she speaks about how the invent of the photo changed the way in which we view the world, as “taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag, 11). In the case of death photography, the picture “confers on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed” (Sontag, 11). This paradox of death photography emerges in the way in which a photo of the deceased both immortalizes those in the picture, while also provided a permanent reminder of our own inevitable death.

Death in popular TV and media has come to serve a very similar purpose as death photography, in that while in viewing the death of fictional characters (or distanced, real people in the case of non-fiction) we may have a little comfort in the reminder that we are still living, but also that these images of death also serve as a memento mori in their own way. There is something inherent in human nature that drives us to fixate on death, despite our society’s backwards inclination to deny and bury death as it comes to actually affect us. The use of media, and the protection of a “lens” gives us a vehicle by which we can safely view death and remember our mortality, while being distanced enough that we still feel comfortable.

violence sucks so let’s stop doing it

I’m not a fan of violence. It’s basically what we resort to when we have differences and decide communication is hopeless. We’ve gotten really good at that second part, looking for excuses to create the other, to ignore commonalities and kill whoever appears to threaten the status-quo, because it’s also efficient, and if they’re dead, they can’t threaten us again. But, when we resort to violence, we risk getting killed, too, we rob others of lives they’re just as entitled to as we are to our own, and we kill any chance at partnership. In a capitalistic society, that seems counterintuitive even if you ignore the significant humanitarian concerns. And yet, we’re conditioning our children to destroy the other, removing emotion from the picture and teaching them to kill this other simply because it is the other. That’s potentially helpful if we get invaded by aliens who want to destroy us, but chances are, if we do make contact with aliens, it won’t devolve into violence because they’ll be tiny organisms or plants or something of the kind. So, what are we doing, then? We’re teaching our children to destroy their fellow humans, breeding a lack of empathy and promoting blind slaughter of the other, whether these are people who don’t look like us, don’t sound like us, don’t share our views, or don’t come from the same place as us. Of course, this targets marginalized groups. It makes us worse. It magnifies our differences and drives us apart. I’m not sure who that helps. Let’s pay attention to humanitarian, economic, etc. concerns instead of finding the best ways to have fun and reduce video game violence, cut out the monsters, and move towards a healthier society. Our indulgence doesn’t need to cross every line.

A Violent Aesthetic: Walter Benjamin, Shopping for Weapons, and Videogames

I want to focus on the particularities and aestheticization of violence in video games because as many video game conventions showcase, the industry cultivates an aesthetic of violence with the intent of commercialization. Just as with T.V shows there’s a level to which video games are created to be merchandised, to exit the virtual reality into the material reality. And in this aestheticization, there is something perhaps violent involved. It almost reminds me of the end of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which maybe one could use as a theoretical foreground through which to understand the aesthetic of violence in video games as a form of purveying or making consumable. This is essentially at the core of violence as Carly Kocureck arguement in Who Harkens To The Monster’s Scream? (But to get into nitty gritty theory will have to wait for a longer paper.)

In response to Kocurek, I might push further and say that part of the violent outgrowth in video games becomes more so an aesthetic violence. How many Fortnite swords to children wield now across the globe? How many faux daggers were sold following the peak popularity of Assassin’s Creed? This aesthetic specifically is one which is done under the illusion that the gamer inhabits a free will inside the video game (Just as the consumer to an extent can decide what to buy while in the push pull tide of manipulative capitalism).

(Check out this interesting Amazon purchase for example):

 

https://www.amazon.com/McFarlane-Toys-Assassins-Creed-IV/dp/B00EGMXTI8/ref=asc_df_B00EGMXTI8/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=309806158787&hvpos=1o3&hvnetw=g&hvrand=4703914352291134160&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9009905&hvtargid=pla-342540788852&psc=1

One of the oppressive aspects of graphic video games is the illusion of choice that they create as they inscribe this aesthetic violence. This often begins when users generate an avatar, and as in the several iterations of Halo along with multiple other first-shooter games, players initially decide on their armor, and even the type and color of their weaponry. We are given the choice of color, but we have no choice as to whether or not we can choose to have a weapon. The act of choosing one’s avatar feels like an intensified trip to the mall for new clothes, however, with these clothes violence is sublimated, made quotidian, routine.

As games like this precede the ease at which multiple rounds are fired becomes a repetitive, almost addicting visualization of success. By ascending to the next level or in some cases receiving better weapons for attaining certain checkpoints, etc, we begin to create a false sense of self-determinism within an environment that actually has been pre-set before us. We are choosing to shoot the gun in our hands, but we can never rid ourselves of the gun itself. We can replace the AK 47 for the shotgun, but it’s glued to our virtual palms.

Thus we are never given the choice between non-violence and violence, we are only given the choice of this costume of violence or that.

 

 

Work Cited:

Benjamin, Andrew E. Walter Benjamin and Art. Continuum, 2005. WorldCat.org. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.

In Response to Kocurek

To quickly summarize “Who hearkens to the monster’s scream? Death, violence and the veil of the monstrous in video games”, Carly Kocurek argues that we as a society moralize death and violence in video games by dehumanizing the enemy, by turning them into monsters. She calls for further research into the issue stating that it may be causing intergroup bias (87) or illustrate those we commit violence against as inherently monstrous (88). After sitting on the reading for some time, I am still hesitant to say that I fully agree with the basis of her argument. I understand, and agree, with the point she brings up about we as consumers justifying violence through dehumanization of the victim. In fact, we are complicit with the violence the second we purchase the game to play because we are telling the developers that we are okay with their practices of normalizing violence. However, I just can’t fully buy into her argument because I think she disregards the purpose of video games and entertainment in general.

To me, a video game is a chance to experience something that is not available in reality. It is a chance to fantasize and escape your life in favor of a digital creation of a controlled environment. That being said, games serve to give us control that we lack in real life. I think that violence in video games is just another instance of giving us dominance or control that every human craves, as morbid as it sounds. We as people enjoy having some sense of control in our lives because it gives us a sense of stability and contentment. I think that unless we are feeling the literal sensations of killing a monster/zombie/alien/human, we are physically and mentally disconnected from the violence via the game interface. It is obvious then, that the violence on screen is not meant to represent real life. Even in cases of realistic portrayals of violence, see Grand Theft Auto or Postal, you have to remember that these are games, imaginary environments that have imaginary rules. If we were to take all entertainment, games, movies, books, music, as reality, I think we would be creating unnecessary metalepsis. I argue that we need to step back and take entertainment at face value.

If Kocurek was to reevaluate her argument, I would suggest that she argue that we as a society moralize violence in video games because we understand that video games are meant to be controlled, imaginary experiences separate from our reality. To reiterate, I agree with the points she makes, I just think that she went overlooked the purpose that entertainment in general serves us. I agree that we dehumanize victims in order to justify digital violence. But I want to ask Kocurek, why does the violence exist in the first place?

Zombies: not human enough

In the Netflix series “Dead Set,” ordinary people are tragically transformed into flesh-eating zombies faster than the camera can follow. These zombies, which are quick on their feet and unrelenting in their search for a human meal, have bright blue eyes and emit unearthly, snarling and screeching noises as they chase and attack their prey.

While some may say that the noises emitted by these zombies add to the terror which they elicit, I argue that it would be much scarier if the zombies did not make these unearthly sounds and instead maintained their human characteristics. In the reading for today’s class, the author speaks about how simple, almost negligible changes to the “enemy” are used to justify the violent killing which takes place in many horror films or video games (Kocurek, 87). These changes can take the form of different colored blood, alien-like behaviors, or in the case of Deadset, the eyes and noises which characterize the zombies. This change makes the killing more palatable, and creates a distance between the human protagonists and the monstrous enemy. In this way, the horror of the of the zombies stems from the fear of being eaten, and a certain degree of relief is felt by brutally killing them with a head wound.

I argue that while the concept of being eaten by a zombie is indeed horrifying, the snarling dehumanizes the zombies to a point where it actually detracts from the horror. If the zombies were to lose the unearthly sounds, but rather maintain their recognizable human qualities, there would be an added, and more psychological layer of horror to the plot. In the episode, “Her Name Was Claire,” the main protagonist watches someone she knew ravenously munch on a corpse below. This past-tense implies a termination of identity– that this zombie is not longer the human Claire, but rather is a monstrous other who must be killed. But what if Claire maintained the characteristics of Claire, just with the added zombie characteristics of mania and an appetite for human flesh? This would make the hapless killing of zombie enemies much more psychologically complex, with fear stemming from not only the threat of being eaten, but also of having to smash in the head of someone who you actively know. This idea takes the concept of “dead kindred” to an extreme, such that the antagonists of the story are not some distinct, dehumanized other, but rather are still included as part of the human community. The psychological horror which stems from the thought of killing someone you know tends to strike a deeper part of the conscious, and maybe even subconscious, than the gore and violence of conventional horror (unless you are a psychopath). Further, the maintenance of human characteristics without the additive growling and animal like-behavior adds a more realistic feel to the story-line.

The reading for Wednesday’s class discusses the use of zombie gothic genre to both appease and target the real anxieties of society. In Deadset, this is achieved by having a zombie monster which is not quite human, but just human enough to make us think. However, if this is taken a step further, edging on more targeting of real anxiety than appeasing it, the series would be much more effective in instilling fear in the audience. That being said, I am not sure this degree of horror would appeal much to the public, and would probably never actually be enacted in film, as the main point of movies and shows is to appeal to and be consumed by the masses.

Let Your Kids Play Video Games!

When I was a young boy, I remember being limited to the time I could play video games. It was not as fun as you would expect. Every time I wanted to play, I had to ask my parents for  permission. It was ridiculous, in my opinion, to know that my parents bought me a video game console to just sit there and build dust overtime. Despite not being able to play as much as I wanted, there was always this feeling that my parents did not approve of my satisfaction of getting killstreaks on the latest Call of Duty at the time. Today, it can be said that same perspectives remain with parents. Video games, specifically violent ones that include killing, have gained a bad reputation due to all the school shootings over the past years. However, what many parents overlook is that these games actually maintain this border between reality by modifying the game and demonstrated productivity to mental health, academics, and socialization.

In Carly Kocurek’s article, “Who hearkens to the monster’s scream? Death, violence and the veil of the monstrous in video games” she argues that the form in which many video games have been able to get away with killings in games is because the creators of the game have been able to shift the perspective of killings. The creators have indicated that the players are not killing humans but rather evil villains that monsters. Though this might be true for some games, for other games like Call of Duty, it did not apply. However, creator of the games were able to make sense of human killing games because of the modified blood or because the people being killed were just plain evil. I agree with Kocurek’s claim because it does help understand why violent video games have been able to sorrow in the industry. Therefore, the idea that violent video games are “bad” is thrown out the window. Plus, many of the people who play these games are also focused on different objectives than just merely killing.

One of the most popular games of today with people of all ages, especially children, is Fortnite. One of the main characteristics of the game is this style of Battle Royal where you have to be the last standing individual in a combat setting. The game has been able to be take off as one of the most successful game franchises of all time because it is not only free but all ages are able to play. The thing about this game is that it has been able to open opportunities for a lot of players to gain income and scholarships. This is one of the many reasons why Fortnite and other games like Call of Duty have been able to help those gamers stay on their consoles all day and night because they are reaching the goal of becoming the best to get recognized by certain scholarships and brands. Along with this, the games have served ways in which large communities of players create networks to employment opportunities based on their in-game communication and style of play. These games have become such an importance to many gamers that there are professional competitions that are streamed through large networks such as ESPN.

In addition to the opportunity for income, scholarships, and professional employments, the games have also served ways in which individuals can benefit physically and mentally. In a YouTube video by Alltime10s explains 10 ways that games are good for your health. Some of those benefits are that many films, games, and visual media that demonstrate violent and horror games actually lead to weight loss. Although it is minor, it can help those gamers who need to increase their metabolism. Plus, the games help certain hospital procedures become less painful as patients are focused on playing video games and that especially works if your goal is to kill a monster that is running away or to you. There are many more benefits to playing video games and if YouTube is not credible enough for you, the Huffington Post news website has given nine more ways video games are good for humans that come from multiple studies. Nevertheless, the goal of killing in games is much less of a problem when it is benefiting the player to a better health and opens opportunities to further excel in life with skills that they can actually apply in their jobs. So the next time you are playing a video game that is violent or not and someone tells you that you are wasting your time, direct them to these links and it might change their mind.

Links:
Alltime10s. “10 Ways Video Games Are Good For Your Health.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQtMwgVT1mo.

Guarini, Drew. “9 Ways Video Games Can Actually Be Good For You.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/07/video-games-good-for-us_n_4164723.html.