Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

"All Torment, Trouble, Wonder, and Amazement Inhabits Here": The Vicissitudes of Technology in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

"All Torment, Trouble, Wonder, and Amazement Inhabits Here": The Vicissitudes of Technology in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Article excerpt

At its best, popular culture provides our society with opportunities to impose a narrative form on our cultural presuppositions and anxieties. It allows its creators and its audience an imaginative space to explore issues central to society's self-conception by reaffirming our cultural biases or illustrating alternatives to cultural presuppositions. In the latter mode, it can propose societal critiques within a safe, that is, non-political, environment and allow its audience a chance to engage in thought experiments. As a result, the audience can come to recognize forgotten possibilities for change and action as well as develop a better understanding of the social attitudes and forces that limit our conception of what the world can be and what role the individual can play.

One pervasive set of social attitudes involves our understanding of and relation to technology. With the advent of modern technology and all of its revolutionary consequences, a philosophical critique of technology came into being. One particular theme prominent in that philosophical tradition is the notion of a technological society. On this view, technology and the social relations it requires have shaped our society in ways that are less than apparent and have restricted the scope of our imagination in ways that circumscribe the way we view our available actions. In this paper, I argue that several central themes in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be understood best against the background of philosophical discussions concerning technology and that by reflecting on the themes in the show we can understand more clearly the sources of our social relations as they are conditioned by technology. In brief, my thesis is that the "fantasy" world inhabited by Buffy Summers, the eponymous heroine of the show, is the technological world we inhabit, but one that vividly renders that world so we can better understand our own.

Two quotations should provide us with an approach to thinking about technology in this context. The first passage is from Adorno's "Theses Against Occultism." Written in 1947, it remains a very succinct and useful work that neatly expresses some main themes of his thought, but also speaks to the still current cultural obsession with the occult:

Panic breaks once again, after millennia of enlightenment, over a humanity whose control of nature as control of men far exceeds in horror anything men ever had to fear from nature. (128)

The second passage is from Donald Phillip Verene's recent work, Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge:

Instinctively, the technological person knows that the idea of the hero is anathema to the technological society. There can never be true working together, because the individual, if he is not to be nothing, must cling to his cause-which is always the particular "mineness" he can work out in relation to the particular thing. (159)

These two passages provide the parameters for the discussion below. First, the Adorno passage suggests that fear is a motif for understanding today's society. The control of nature and the control of others is so horrific that it is hard for us even to see it. Instead, we experience some vague panic that misses the underlying causes of these methods of control. If Adorno is right, it is worth considering how the horror about which he speaks is manifested in society and a consideration of a prototypical horror show should provide us with a good sample case. The Verene passage speaks to the consequences of a technological society: an exclusive sense of individual entitlement, the demand to treat others as means to an individual end, and a lack of authentic heroes. All of these consequences relate to the way in which technology and its attendant way of looking at the world have restricted the stage on which we can act.

For the purposes of this paper, then, I want to stipulate that we live in a "technological society," as Jacques Ellul and others have argued; a world in which the use of machines is paramount and in which the "one best means" is constantly sought (Verene 141-91). …

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