We landed in Washington D.C. yesterday, a gaggle of activist students, their queer polis-sci professor and me, afro flying my flag of blackness above my airplane seat. The airports, the streets are awash with pink pussy hats and red white and blue patriotic chic. The air contains just a hint of pep rally. The grim reality gives off a scent more like that Aztec ballgame where the losers are decapitated.
In just six hours, a few miles from here Donald J Trump and his creep squad cabinet will take over the country that I have lived in and loved my whole life. He has promised to enact policies that will hurt the people I love and care about, including each of the students with us on this trip. The pink hats are so cute (thanks, Aunt Kathie!) but make no mistake this is a fight.
Scene: Interior, day before the inauguration, hotel lobby. Beneath the altar of CNN on the big screen a bunch of liberals from Boston–identifiable by our Boston swag and the girls’ Olivia Pope outfits, and in that corner three women painted in stars and stripes. The hotel staff watch the action like tourists on safari.
Hotel manager: Ha ha, hope there’s not going to be a rumble!
Trumpette: grumbling loud enough for all to hear. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.
Me: Ha, ha…You don’t want to catch these hands.
Trumpette: Let’s be peaceful….(to her cronies.) I hope they remember to be peaceful on Saturday [for the anticipated Women’s March]
Me: (to students) Saturday you’ll get to see the amazing tradition of nonviolent protest that is such an important part of our country.
Would I have rumbled with an older lady in the hotel lobby? In the rarefied air of the inauguration, the hate and division are real and palpable as my anger hurt and fear over this election and the 4 years to come. yesterday evening I replayed the scene in my mind–how easy it was for me and a stranger to escalate to threats lightly veiled in laughter in just seconds. These past few years have required me to swallow more than a little anger and hurt. I had to admit that it is too easy to slide into the playground taunting. But in a quiet moment, I remembered that I’m not about that, no matter how much they spoil for a fight. In the land of the walking dead, its is key to remember that you are not them.
So, old lady, you may not catch these hands, but I am coming for you with the full force of resistance and that really packs a punch. And the fight is just about to start.
Since the beginning of the century, American films have explored stories of the apocalypse as commentary on our own modern challenges. Stories of the horrors science can create when man tries to play God lurk beneath the most popular zombie shows and in the cool futuristic sci-fi of super humans. These stories are equal parts inspiration and warning–a look over the cliff over science to the abyss of possibility that lies ahead of us. These stories, in turn, look into us, into our longing to be stronger, more powerful and to live forever.
In Apocalyptic America, we’ve been looking at the questions posed to us by the modern world that we live in–advances in science, new technologies and a host of problems caused by the postindustrial human condition–and the answers film gives us. Apocalyptic movies allow us to seen through a glass darkly at a world that awaits us as a consequence of our now. So it is with movies about humans tinkering with the laws of nature.
Some things that might get your sci-fi imagination going:
If you could use science to modify your body, would you? If so, how would you modify your body?
Would you diet or using science to make you super shapely or strong?
Would you choose the sex of your future baby? Or ensure their special skills?
Would you modify your body to survive a disease or environmental crisis?
Before you say you would never alter your body, think instead about modification on a continuum from small changes like piercing your ears or wearing glasses all the way to the more extreme iterations like lizard man or gene therapy. As futuristic as some modification technology is, altering the body is nothing new. How acceptable these procedures are seems to connect to how much what they provide is “needed” according to cultural conventions and norms.
Medical Augmentations: Altering or adding to the body to compensate for disease or deformity is most acceptable with widespread support for advances.
Cosmetic modification: altering the body to improve appearance according to common beauty conventions is somewhat acceptable, especially if you meet the conventions conventionally. The more extreme the augmentation, the more unacceptable it becomes.
Genetic modification: Altering genes to change the structure of the body or object is controversial whether you are a tomato or a zygote. Genetically modified fruit–sometimes called Franken fruit–is blamed for a host of problems for humans and their environment, but also ubiquitous in our grocery stores. Modifying human embryos is illegal–today.
The gene-ie (ha! I got jokes in writing!) is already out of the bottle. Like our exploration into artificial intelligence and technology, the question is really no longer would we or wouldn’t we, but to what degree should we. Sadly, ethics around biological advances in science are far behind the technology.
Films approach a few of the ways that changes in human engineering could play out in our culture, affecting power, capital, and social relationships. Many movies prior to 2000 focused on the disastrous consequences of genes gone bad. Human-made monsters because of the lack of control of genetic processes.
As we move into the era of apocalyptic dread the stories shift a bit. As humans become more skilled at making changes to nature and potentially humans, we explore—and fear—the possibilities of what we might create. Here are some examples and the questions they ask
If we make humans, what rights do they have?
Human cloning hits new levels of skill—and for new reasons in this upbeat thriller. If we could make people, would we grant them the same inalienable rights we claim are for all? Note: we do have a hard time ensuring humans rights for all humans now a days. On the plus side, so far we have no structure for identifying babies born using genetic enhancements or fertility treatments.
How would capitalism manage the availability of advances in health tech?
Repo Men is the story of a world where people can buy organs to replace failing ones. Like a new car, if you don’t pay, the corporation sends someone to retrieve your organs. Healthcare costs are already a leading cause of bankruptcy. How much would a heart cost? Probably not less than Wheelock.
What would we do with Superhumans?
A host of movies like Lucy and Limitless and, of course, Xmen find ways to hack the human brain to open up our full potential. Oddly, the movie never ends with a world peace accord. Overwhelmingly advances in humans are coopted to earn capital or fight battles. How culturally hegemonic.
The ideas about what it means to be human and how easily we can lose all that we think we know is nothing new to your COM250 experience, Apocalyptic Americans–these are the common questions that underpin lots of Apocalyptic movies, and, truth be told, they underpin humanity’s grand story as well. The questions about how to navigate the boundaries of power, class and privilege in an era of evolved humanity are also the same questions about how to restructure society in the wake of wokeness that we have seen all semester. Just as we can’t imagine an end without us, robots without us, so we can’t imagine a new breed of super-humans without us either.
So what’s new in human engineering? Is there truth hiding inside these movies or is this boogie man solely in the mind of Hollywood?
Paying a surgeon to give you the body of your dreams becomes more popular every year–the number of procedures is up in 2015. Cosmetic augmentation is common with more than 15 million cosmetic procedures performed last year. The most common procedures are botox, fillers, and chemical peels–all aimed to turn back the hand of time. Speaking of turning back, butt implants continue to be one of the fastest growing invasive procedures. Yeah, Kim!
From 3d printing new limbs to growing new organs in a lab, medical science is moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Pop star Viktoria Modesta and her fantastic light up leg shows how transformative new technology can be in redefining ability. Advances in medical technology will increase your lifespan, but many ethical questions—including who can afford it—abound.
Since the human genome was first mapped in 2003, our knowledge of the role genes play in making you you has expanded rapidly. If we can manipulate the genes of fruit to make the fruit we desire, might similar techniques be used to create the children we desire?
All of these futures before us are rife with the kind of possibilities that come with consequences we can only dream of. Far more serious than a few butt implants, the implications of all this tinkering are beyond even Hollywood’s wild mind. The challenges couldn’t be more real. Just a few months ago a US based organization, endorsed by over 150 experts int he field called for a moratorium on human genetic modification, warning that once we begin, the irreversible process can have implications beyond the boundary of any of these movies. Truth, it seems remains stranger than fiction.
I teach a course called Apocalyptic America where we explore film and TV about the end of the world and find out what they tell us about the challenges of our own world. The above is a makeup blog lecture (a blecture?) from a recent class. If you made it this far, you get an A for the day.
Have you ever noticed that you’re surrounded by zombies and invading aliens and survivalist? Stories about the end of the world are everywhere these days, from The Walking Dead to Elysium. Despite the fact that we can breathe a sign of relief with 2012 behind us, visions of the apocalypse still dance in our heads. So, to explore, I have been teaching a class at my college called Apocalyptic America, where we are trying to find out why our culture is so obsessed with the end. The answer is complicated and fascinating.
Stories of the end of the world are as old as the world itself, but if you think we have a particularly bad case of the apocalyptic blues, you’d be right. Rapid changes in society, advances in technology, and a changing geopolitical landscape gave us any number of avenues for our fears to run down. Aliens, Dawn of the Dead, and The Matrix showed us that the end was at hand by robots, or aliens or worst yet ourselves.
Even with Y2K a dud, the obsession with the end continued to snowball down the timeline from 2000, past 9/11 and straight towards 2012. Literally dozens of movies and television shows have played out the chess game of our imminent demise and the dark future that awaits us beyond the boundaries of our modern world.
This week, the class took a look at the 1983 made for TV film The Day After. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the hubbub around this film. Nearly 100 million people tuned in, and the film was followed by a televised debate on nuclear weapons, and accompanied by a toll-free hotline with counselors, school curriculum, and even a five episode series on conflict on Mr. Rogers to help children cope.
I had debated including the film. With so many films to look at, The Day After seemed a bit dated, the Cold War seems a distant memory to my students. Though conflict, obviously, has been an all too present headline throughout college students’ lives, the threat of wholesale nuclear annihilation seemed to belong to another generation.
But this past weeks events in Crimea and Ukraine made this 20-year-old movie seem as relevant as ever. At last week’s CPAC conference, keynote speaker Sarah Palin leveled criticism at Obama for choosing diplomacy over force in her usually eloquent and well thought out way.
Sadly for Momma Bear, and all of us, she is woefully wrong. As terrifyingly demonstrated in The Day After, nuclear war leaves no winners, only casualties. Stopping Putin with nukes in Crimea is a recipe for MAD–mutually assured destruction. But even with all we know about the consequences of nuclear war, I was surprised to see news headlines this morning heralding a return of the nuclear age.
The number of nuclear weapons stockpiled by countries, armed and ready has declined through consistent and concerted efforts of antiwar activists. However, the amount of plutonium available through commercial production opens and avenue for rogues to obtain material for bomb making easier than ever before.
The tension in Crimea reminds us that we still have work to do to make our world a stable safe place to live and grow in. We can’t ride in Grizzly-style and fight nukes with nukes, and we can’t think that nuclear war is a threat of the past. Instead of encouraging brute strength, use your political power to vote, advocate and petition to stop nuclear proliferation.
Ronald Reagan watched The Day After, and he wrote in his diary that it changed his idea of a winnable nuclear war. He said , “we have to do all that we can to be sure that there is never a nuclear war. ” Shortly thereafter, Reagan helped to end the Cold War. So do me a favor: send Sarah Palin a copy of The Day After, and let’s not fight nukes with nukes.