Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Exhilaration and Fear of Changing PhD Topics

This is Post One (and my feet). If you visit the Ontario Legislature in Queen’s Park and walk around to the east side of the building, you will find Post One and a commemorative plaque explaining its significance. Unveiled as part of centennial celebrations in 1967, it is the symbolic first survey post in Ontario and a very fitting place to begin this reflection on the decision to change PhD research topics. A symbolic first post would be special enough, but it is actually related to my historical interests as well.

Choosing to embark on doctoral study is a decision that should not be taken lightly. After all, it begins with the hurdle of actually being accepted into a program, but then comes years of hard work, little money and introspective malaise. Nevertheless, this was a decision I began making in 2016 and ultimately found myself beginning my PhD study in the history department at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2017. I had received my MA from U of T two years earlier, but my interests had changed and so had my proposed project. On paper and in spirit I was embarking on a study of American plastic toys from the 1960s. Everything was going well as I readjusted to academic life: I had an excellent supervisor, excellent seminars to attend and friendly colleagues to work with. As the year progressed, all seemed well, even if I couldn’t really pin down exactly what my project would be or what I would actually study (I mean, how do you study toys from 60 years ago? Material culture analysis, advertising, participant observation?). I completed my first year and buried myself in books to learn the canon of American history along with petroculture (after all, plastic toys come from oil). After two months of reading, things began to get very real and I realized that this was not going to work. Something had to give.

It wasn’t so much an abrupt shift as a lot of thoughts coming to a head at once. Could I see a project? No. Could I see an audience for it? No. Could I see a source base for it? No. Did I want to spend months at a time in the U.S.? No. Perhaps more than anything else, did it have meaning? No.

It is easy when surrounded by academics to assume that everyone has a whole arsenal of degrees on their resume, but that simply isn’t the case. Even in Canada, a country with an exceptionally high rate of post-secondary education, only 24% of working-age adults have completed a university degree. Less than 8% have a graduate degree. It really is a very small group. Statistics like this show the privilege of graduate study – the chance to study a topic you love on somebody else’s dime. When you put it like that, it becomes real very quickly and the quest for meaning becomes acute. It is a gift to study, and I wanted to make it count.

American toys just didn’t do it for me. But what did? Anyone who has looked at my previous writing would see that I have a lifelong fascination with railways, but that I have struggled to reconcile it with academic work. My MA looked at model trains, but I couldn’t see the project getting bigger (thus my shift to toys). However, railways had been slowly creeping into my work through an unlikely avenue: treaties.

As part of my coursework, I took Prof. Heidi Bohaker’s Canada By Treaty, which examined the history of treaty-making between Indigenous groups and the Canadian government. I took it because I thought that it was important for a Canadian to know about the Indigenous issues that continue to be important today. Quickly, I realized that Treaty 9, signed in 1905-06 with additions in 1929-30, covered much of the land I had studied for my book on Ontario Northland. Even more interesting, the railway’s development coincided perfectly with the treaty. Coincidence? I think not. This turned into a paper, which became a conference paper, which became an article draft. Stuck facing an American future I didn’t want, the choice was clear: I was working on railways and Treaty 9 when I should have been looking at toys. On paper, I was studying toys. In spirit, I was studying treaties and railways. Most importantly, this meant something. The implications of Treaty 9 continue to affect thousands of lives every day. Transportation in Northern Ontario is a pressing issue. Perhaps most urgent, the Ring of Fire mining development in the region echoes the situation that led to the signing of Treaty 9 over a century ago.

The process of deciding to change topics took many weeks, but the final decision took only a matter of hours. The hardest part was breaking the news to my supervisor who, as a good supervisor should, was compassionate, understanding and excited that I had found a motivation to sustain my study. Within an hour, (sort-of) ceremonial handover complete, I was studying Canadian and Indigenous history. Yes, it was a nerve-wracking experience, but the relief more than made up for the trepidation.

How will this story end? I don’t know, but I am academically driven in a way that I haven’t been for quite some time. Remember Post One? It’s a symbol of government dominion over the land. So is the railway and I intend to explore what that means. If this story has a moral, it’s that doctoral study is an incredible privilege. For me, this privilege comes with the obligation to produce meaningful work in the hopes of making Canada a better place. I don’t know if my work will do this, but I have to try.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Thinking About the Pope Lick Monster

On the whole, my television tastes are decidedly more low-brow than you might expect from a graduate student. Then again, by the end of a day of thinking, maybe junky TV is just what the doctor ordered. My biggest weakness is paranormal documentaries – bigfoot, UFOs, hauntings – I just love them. They are dramatic, often over-the-top and just plain fun. I’m pretty sure that many of these documentaries are simply fake. Their stories are simply too bizarre and improbable, but I just can’t stop watching them.

Recently, I was watching Monsters and Mysteries in America, a 3-season series that appeared on Destination America and is now all over the internet (especially on DailyMotion). Each episode is made up of three different stories of real-life encounters with monsters and unexplained phenomena in the United States. People retell their stories, while actors re-enact the events. Plenty of glowing red eyes, smoke machines and shadows make this very addictive viewing.

During the first season, one of the episodes depicted the Pope Lick Monster. This axe-wielding half-man, half-goat haunts the Norfolk Southern trestle bridge in Fisherville, Kentucky. Legend has is that this creature entices teenagers to climb up on the bridge, where they are sure to meet their death when faced with an oncoming train and nowhere to run. According to the show, the first stories of the monster appeared in the 1940s and 1950s and since then a number of teens have indeed died on the bridge, most recently in 2016. The origin of the monster is, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. Some say it escaped from a circus train crossing the trestle. Others say it is the result of bestiality. Some even say it’s Satan himself. It’s a local tradition for teenagers to climb the bridge in the hopes of encountering this creature.

If the show is to be believed, the brother of their featured witness was out with friends one night in 1988 and suddenly had the urge to climb up on the trestle and walk across it. Sure enough, when he was about half-way across, he encountered an oncoming train and was killed. Grieving the loss of her brother, the witness went to the bridge herself a few days later and became convinced that her brother had been enticed by the Pope Lick Monster. While filming for the show, she breaks down on camera as a train rumbles by overhead, apparently signifying the creature's return.

Let’s step away from the entertainment value for a moment and think about this story and how it was presented. The United States was founded by Protestants and its early folklore is full of satanic encounters. Associating this beast with satanic imagery is carrying on a long tradition of American narratives. The appearance of the creature in the 1940s and 1950s isn’t a coincidence. After all, this was when the modern teenager we know and love became a distinct part of American culture. Post-war suburban affluence increased the amount of leisure time and disposable income available to white middle-class Americans. For their teenage children, the relentless consumer culture and proliferation of automobiles encouraged greater autonomy. Media culture at the time was also important. That late 1950s saw a wave of interest in monsters as Universal’s classic monster movies were dusted off and shown at drive-ins and on syndicated late-night television. Throw in a good dose of Cold War paranoia and you have the perfect conditions for stories of a monster terrorizing the next generation of Americans.

But let’s say that the stories were older. Where might they have come from then? The Pope Lick Monster shares all the common characteristics of any parent’s cautionary story. How better to keep young children away from danger than to invent some sort of monstrous entity to scare them away? Who among us hasn’t been told Little Red Riding Hood or Sleeping Beauty in the hopes that we will grow up to be cautious and wary of strangers? Of course, for teenagers, such stories only heighten the appeal of dangerous locations. Throw in hormones and an appetite to impress their peers and you’re basically inviting them to get into trouble.

What are we to make of the idea that her brother suddenly had the urge to cross the bridge? Enter the teenage brain, one of the hottest topics in behavioural science. What scientists have come to realize is that, while society defines most teenagers as being fully-fledged adults somewhere between the ages of 18-21, they really aren’t and still make poor decisions. The current thinking is that the decision-making centres in the human brain do not reach what we would consider to be sober, mature, adult capabilities until around the age of 25. When a teenager is asked to explain a stupid decision and claims “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” they are probably telling the truth. The decision processes that keep us adults alive are still under construction. So, why did her brother go up on that bridge? It might have been because he was entranced by a goat-thing, but it’s more likely that the mixture of thrill-seeking teenager with an immature decision-making ability pushed him to try something dangerous and his luck ran out.

And what of her conviction that a monster is responsible for the loss of her brother? If we take the story presented in the documentary as her sincere belief, and these shows do not seem all that credible, then it strikes me as a case of our primal desire to understand what we cannot comprehend. When something happens that we cannot explain, we search for explanations that bring us some form of closure or comfort. For many, this is where religion comes in. Unable to process the loss of a loved one, attributing it to a local legend would help a distraught relative to answer that really difficult question: why?

Is there a Pope Lick Monster? Probably not. But it’s that “probably” that makes these shows so entertaining and keep viewers hooked.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Understanding Horror with Margee Kerr and Mathias Clasen

Margee Kerr, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015). Details here.

Mathias Clasen, Why Horror Seduces (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Details here.

Up until last year, the number of horror films that I had seen could have been counted on one hand. As part of my early research into toys for my doctoral work, I have become drawn to toys depicting horror motifs and wondering what the big deal is, and whether these toys were something children should really be playing with. With this in mind, I decided that I should probably figure out more about horror.

As with anything I want to figure out, I tend to approach it academically. Several years ago, just as I was finishing up my MA and trying to decide what to do, I came across a Psychology Today article profiling Margee Kerr's sociological work on fear and how she was now a consultant for haunts in Pennsylvania. I was immediately impressed by her decision to bring real-world relevance to academic work. Intrigued, I put her 2015 book on my reading list. I came across Mathias Clasen's work by accident while browsing through the publishers' stalls at the 2018 SCMS conference in Toronto. I had decided to attend some of the horror panels to try and figure out what the big deal was and I came across his book, entitled Why Horror Seduces. Well, that sounded like it would answer my question, so I bought it. (I was really good, it was the only book I bought).

Kerr is a sociologist by training and chose to write for a popular audience, allowing her a platform  outside of the academic sphere. Scream is a confessional work of sorts which tries to link common fears, her experiences with them, and the latest scientific theories surrounding them together in a very readable and accessible book. Through eight chapters, Kerr documents her own experiences with a variety of common fears: heights, the sensations of a roller coaster or other thrill ride, the dark, the occult (especially hauntings and ghosts), death, and violence. Her final chapter shows how her work has been put to good use through the scientifically-driven development of the Basement, a new attraction in the popular ScareHouse haunt outside Pittsburgh. As a consultant on the project, Kerr combined the latest scientific research with audience surveys to create a more immersive experience than the usual haunt offers. As Kerr explained, the team at ScareHouse "decided to try an experiment inspired by the interactive or 'immersive' theatrical productions that put the customer in the performance, where actors can touch you." (Kerr, 197) What Kerr is getting at here is why humans like scary things: evolution. Fear responses are ingrained in evolutionary and cultural conditioning. Things that can harm us, or worse kill us, provoke extremely powerful emotions. Thrill rides, haunted houses, and horror media are designed to provoke these emotions, but at the same time we remember that we are safe: the roller coaster has safety barriers even as we drop to our simulated death; the haunted house is full of actors who may frighten us, but will not actually harm us; the scary movie is just make-believe on a screen and we can leave or turn it off. These survival emotions are followed by the dopamine hit - we feel good and want more. Kerr and ScareHouse go further by pushing that reassurance out of the conscious mind. It involves a great deal of paperwork, pre-experience interviews and vetting of potential customers, but the Basement at ScareHouse is designed with the feeling of safety in conventional horror attractions pushed to the limits. Here, the scary actors don't seem like actors, they reach out, touch you, control you (sort of like breaking the fourth wall). The idea is to provoke actual fear, a more authentic feeling because, while you are in fact perfectly safe, your brain might not think so.

Kerr recounts her own experiences with fear and relates them to science, creating a very accessible way to understand what it going on. (Notes at the back of the book are provided for those who want to take their knowledge to the next level). Kerr's choices for experiences are interesting. She uses the Edge Walk at the CN Tower to explain the primal fear of heights and the limbic system taking over from executive processing. Through more globetrotting, she uses the Daiba Strange School in Japan to explain how culture also plays a part in determining our expectations from experiences. As she explains, "Japanese culture is traditionally more future oriented and values the investment of time and energy into telling a story," so a haunt based around a plot becomes more rewarding. (Kerr, 130) Further, a more collectively-minded culture would appreciate a scenario where visitors are invited into the narrative. While I would not recommend wandering the backstreets of Bogota to test your reflexes (which she does as well), it does make for a good read. Adding the human element to academic writing makes it much more accessible, and Scream does this admirably.

Clasen's Why Horror Seduces is an academic book through and through, but is just as readable as Kerr's work. Broken into three parts, Clasen, a Literature and Media professor at Aarhus University, breaks down the latest evolutionary theories surrounding our attraction to horror and debunks a great deal of prior scholarship by analyzing some of the most influential American horror works of the 20th century through an evolutionary lens. He chooses a mix of literary and cinematic classics ranging from Night of the Living Dead and Jaws to the Blair Witch Project and Rosemary's Baby to offer a refreshingly simple interpretation of what makes them scary and why we are drawn to them. He concludes by attempting to predict where horror media will go next, through virtual reality and more immersive haunts. This is where the two books really connect. In fact, Clasen is a consultant for a Danish haunt very similar to the one Kerr works with.

Clasen is highly critical of media studies' fixation on Freudian interpretations. As he explains, audiences "thrill at the sight of a limb chopped off by a chainsaw-wielding maniac." A classical media studies interpretation would see this fascination as a manifestation of "the infantile fear of castration" with all sorts of buried symbolism. (Clasen, 3) But, especially as Freud's pioneering theories are increasingly replaced with more empirically robust ones, isn't basing media interpretations on debunked theory like "building a house on sand"? (Clasen, 3) Clasen doesn't pull punches here: evolutionary biology offers much neater and compelling explanations. "Horror stories are particularly efficient in targeting evolved danger-management circuits when those stories reflect or respond to salient sociocultural anxieties." (Clasen, 4) Basically, humans are not normally keen on getting hurt or dying. We see the chainsaw guy as a potential risk (there are deranged people and there are chainsaws), therefore we should probably pay attention to the scene because it might offer clues for how we might avoid or survive a similar situation (however remote the chances).

Similarly, Clasen attacks media criticism's fixation with the "liberationist paradigm" - using scholarly means for activist and political ends. (Clasen, 16) He charges that "humanists have been busy ignoring biology or actively denying it any shaping role in human lives." (Clasen, 16) As an historian, I am a humanist, but I also recognize that biology offers much more sensible (although probably not as colourful or fun) explanations for why horror is so darn seductive. I enjoyed my time at the SCMS conference, but there were moments that echoed Clasen's contention that Freudian-based interpretations are "like a Rube Goldberg contraption with a receptacle for texts at one end and an interpretative spout at the other, churning out thrillingly arcane and counterintuitive explanations." (Clasen, 18) Why not give evolutionary biology a try? It might be easier. Put simply: "Humans are fearful creatures." (Clasen, 24) Things in horror scare us and we want to learn as much as we can about them lest we might one day find ourselves in a zombie apocalypse (OK, zombies do need some deconstruction, but pathogens and unpredictable human behaviour are things we might encounter).

After several chapters outlining the latest scientific thinking on fear and why we fixate on horror, Clasen gets into his case studies, which are excellent summaries of each work followed by an explanation of why an evolutionary biology lens makes more sense than the deep (and fun!) Freudian explanations. Consider his deconstruction of John Carpenter's Halloween:
"Myers became a horror icon not because he is a symbolic embodiment of sexual guilt or a castrating, phallus-wielding agent of conservatism, but because he is a supercharged representation of an ancient danger - a murderous conspecific outside rational reach, an individual perfectly capable of, and willing to, take lives using whatever implement is at hand." (Clasen, 133) 
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best. While the deep layers of textual interpretation make for robust academic writing, the average audience is unlikely to see what the scholar sees. If we instead interpret Myers as a homicidal maniac, then his appeal is more broad as it taps into a universal fear. Why Horror Seduces is full of equally amusing and damning discussions. Is the Blair Witch Project "a collection of signifiers bopping around in a textual funhouse," or just a group of teenagers doing normal, innocent, teenage things when something goes horribly wrong? (137)

Taken together, these two works provide highly accessible and entertaining explanations and explorations of how recent scientific research is helping to explains something that is far more primal and conscious than some media  scholars would have us believe. As I try to figure out what the big deal is with horror toys, I am drawn to the idea that it is all about tapping into something much more primal and basic: things that scare us deserve our attention, because the things that scare us can be detrimental to our evolutionary standing. It's not complicated, or that fun, but sometimes life isn't as hard as we might think.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Conference fatigue is real #SCMS18

This past week was the 59th annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. I'm an historian, not a media scholar, but my interests often gravitate towards the quirky and pop culture, so it made sense to be surrounded by the quirky and pop culture for a while. Since it was happening in Toronto, I went along. After all, when you have a chance to attend a global conference without incurring hotel bills, you might as well go.

This was by far the largest conference I have ever seen. Spread over five days, there were a total of 445 panels, which roughly equates to 1,700 papers! More than once, I had to pick one panel over another (who knows what I missed!). In short, conference fatigue is REAL. This was especially apparent on Sunday, when panelists outnumbered the barely conscious audience.

As a scholar-in-training, you will eventually encounter the monster conference of your discipline, so having dry-runs without presentation anxiety is really valuable. You quickly pick up conference etiquette, learn how to plan which papers to attend, and (very important!) how to eat lunch in the middle of six hours of papers. It is also a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests from all over the world. Networking doesn't have to be Machiavellian; simply asking a question after a paper you found really interesting counts just as much - and is probably more sincere.

As one of the few historians in attendance, I probably stuck out like a sore thumb. My eyes would glaze over as people excitedly debated the inner workings of many, many isms I have never heard of. Instead, I would get really frantic about dates and context, so it all evened out in the end. This is not meant to say that one discipline is better than another. In fact, I came away with many interesting ideas, including a few theoretical ones which might help me understand my own work. It never hurts to see what other scholars are doing - especially when you are approaching the same material from completely different angles. I chose panels based on what looked interesting, from petroculture to horror, toys to fan studies. These are a few of the papers I thought really stood out:

Ila Tyagi, "Extending the Eye: Vision and Technology in Midcentury American Petroculture"

Looking at the promotional material of the American Petroleum Institute, this paper made me think about all the lobbying that corporate America did (and still does). Petroculture is a very hot field right now as scholars realize that, although oil is ubiquitous, we don't pay much attention to it.

Jonathan Rey Lee, "Deconstructing Construction Toys"

Other than the fact that Lego is amazing, this paper questioned our assumption that construction toys are somehow neutral. Rather, they are embedded in complex frameworks of gender and social structures.

Kartik Nair, "Grotesque Surfaces: Tracking Bombay Horror's Unfinished Special Effects"

I had never thought of makeup and film prosthetics as being material culture, but they are and what a fascinating topic to study. In particular, I was intrigued by how makeup and latex extend the boundaries of the body.

The Entirety of Panel Q12, "Materiality and Merchandising in Screen Consumption Cultures"

This was by far my favourite panel as Matt Hills, Ross Garner, Paul Booth, and Rebecca Williams took my mind on a delightful journey through Doctor Who auctions, Funko, the Rickmobile, and theme parks. Fan studies, and the material culture associated with fans, it a really interesting field of study and very much linked to my interests in toys. Now if I could only figure out what paratexts are, they sound really useful...

Heather Davis, "Plastic Media"

Plastic is oil, oil is petroculture, and petroculture is so hot right now. Davis, who is writing a book about the theory of plastic, explored how plastic has redefined our world. Plastic never really goes away, it just gets smaller. In short, we are all plastic now.

Kenneth Rogers, "Pathways Diversions: Plastic Media and Neuro-ecologies"

Tupperware parties: plastic meets the social. A domestic (ie. safe) way to be introduced to the exciting new world of oil-based plasticity. Speaking of which, need to figure out plasticity too...

Media studies and critical theory are very different disciplines from history. History remains one of the most theory-averse subjects and I generally agree with this. Theory is dense, often full of overly complicated language and becomes a sort of fence to keep out the uninitiated. That said, when applied by someone who can explain it well, there are moments when theory jumps out as being just what is needed to explain something. Having said that, for the sake of us backwards historians, please use it sparingly!

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the world of cinema and media. If you happen to be in Seattle next March, I suggest you check out the 60th SCMS conference. It will be worth it.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Revisiting Canada 150

And so the 150th anniversary of Confederation has come and gone. I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointment. Or was it? Growing up with the popular memory of 1967, Canadian exceptionalism compared to the United States, and the echoes of Pierre Trudeau, I couldn’t wait to experience the next chapter: 2017, a chance to renew Canada, break free of Stephen Harper’s legacy and be the coolest place on the planet once again.

Given Brexit, Donald Trump, economic uncertainty and continued global unrest, a big Canadian party seemed to be the easiest thing to imagine. The traditional feeling of superiority over the United States had returned, the federal/provincial system looked stable compared to European strife, and we had the world’s hippest leader in the form of – who else? – the son of Pierre Trudeau, superstar of Canadian popular memory (the Anglophone/Eastern part at least).

Yes, there were big celebrations on July 1; yes the Canada 150 logo was plastered on trains, buildings, advertising and a few front lawns; and yes, there was even a memorable political gaffe when Justin Trudeau forgot to list Alberta as a province during his Parliament Hill address on Canada Day. But the tone was far from festive. People didn’t seem in the mood to celebrate. The CBC’s special Canada 150 programming didn’t generate much discussion (even two new episodes of the wildly popular Canada: A People’s History felt rushed and feeble) and much of the coverage focused on those who felt that the party was not a celebration, but a betrayal.

If 1967 was a chance for Canada to come of age and show the world a new model for a diverse (ish) and inclusive (ish) society at a time of ideological conflict, then 2017 was a moment to advertise to the world just how awful a place Canada was: Indigenous people living without clean drinking water, scarred from decades of cultural (and, at times, literal) genocide; police brutality directed disproportionately at urban black communities; and an economy still firmly rooted in the destruction of the planet for the purpose of selling off natural resources. Within the academic sphere, this mood was especially pronounced.

At this year’s Congress, the annual meeting of over 100 academic associations, the conclusion was that Canada in its 150th year deserved a universally failing grade. The country had never done a good thing for the world. Instead, it has secretly practised genocide and was continuing to oppress all who were not what a census might consider ‘average’. I personally beg to differ: Canada is not currently facing a crisis of its existence; our Prime Minister actually believes that science is real and that facts cannot have alternate equivalents; and, in almost every imaginable circumstance, one can walk down the street with a reasonable expectation of still being alive once you have reached your destination. None of these points were made. Academic discussion was not a debate, but a relearning of an alternate reality, free of critical reflection.

Of course, both Canadas are real and need to be acknowledged and confronted. There are lots of truly wonderful things about Canada, from the wide expanse of land to the world-class and affordable health care (which is at risk of being eroded). But there are many, many things which Canada has done wrong (and continue to do wrong) that need to be rectified as soon as possible. History feeds off nuance. Public debate should too.

And this is why I found Canada 150 to be such a disappointment. I for one actually wanted a party. There was a great deal to celebrate. Instead, the year became one long telling off from every possible angle. But it was a telling off without a remedy. Yes, we should feel bad, but to what end?

But maybe that was the whole point. From the disappointment came a renewed understanding of all the things that needed to be improved. All the things that Canada had ignored for too long. Fireworks would fade; feelings of guilt in the face of injustice might not. Maybe then, the true meaning of Canada 150 was to highlight a country that was willing to give up its birthday party to consider those who didn’t feel much like celebrating.

To salvage some optimism, we can see Canada 150 not so much as a commemoration, but as a new beginning. Many Indigenous leaders chose to focus on the next 150, an opportunity to try again, to make Canada (Turtle Island even) a place of fairness, inclusivity (not just tolerance) and genuine custodianship of this country and those who live here. History cannot really show us the way forward, but a nuanced understanding of it can show us what has worked and what hasn’t. Let us hope that for Canada 200 (maybe even 175), everyone can truly have a reason to celebrate.