Monday, March 21, 2016

A Focus on Time and Trauma in Sci-Fi Television

               In his essay "Temporality and Trauma in American Sci-Fi Television," Aris Mousoutzanis notes that the use of temporality and trauma in television functions in a threefold way to emphasize not only the work that is using the temporal play/motif but also American television in general. His first point is that "structural equivalences between trauma and new media, whose ability to challenge conventional perceptions of time and space has been seen as similar to the structure of traumatic temporality" (97). In other words, Mousoutzanis is stating that like traumatic events' effects on the human mind, temporal play and trauma affect our understanding and the wavering, somewhat scattered events and structure within contemporary american television. I feel out of all three points he makes, this one is the most rigid and understandable, one that stands out and is scientifically accurate (and studied as such) in the understanding of trauma and the role it plays in the mind of any person. Dr. Robert Stolorow says it well in his post on Psychology Today: "Time does not heal the wounds of trauma... trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary linearity and unity of our experience of time, our sense of stretching-along from the past to an open future" ("Trauma and the Hourglass of Time"). In particular, our understanding of time, especially time in relation to our own lives, is often a long, "ordinary linearity" of "same stuff, different day" routines from birth to death. This linearity, however, is broken up and marred by those out of the ordinary, unique events that change our lives in dramatic ways (trauma). The major traumas in our lives often stick out sorely among the linearity of our lives, not unlike the nature of time and temporality in television. 
               One such example of this is the television show 24, which Mousoutzanis notes. In the first season, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes caught up in a plot to assassinate the fictional senator David Palmer, with each episode representing 1-hour segments of the same day in linear order following this main plot. However, throughout the main plot, multiple subplots begin appearing, including a mole in the agency, personal conflicts among Jack's family as well as David's marriage, professional conflicts (often arising from personal conflict) with Jack and the other members of his agency, and the kidnapping of Jack's wife and daughter. Although all of these subplots revolve around the main plot, each represents some form of trauma or dramatic shift in the narrative as a whole, all of which are culminating the final twist of the first season--the biggest trauma of them all. As the season concludes, (SPOILER ALERT) Jack is searching for his wife (who was kidnapped and held captive for over half the season), only to finally find her in a locked room, passed away from a gunshot wound.
               One thing that is so important and striking about this is the use of trauma in the narrative, both for the story and for the viewer. Most television series, even dramas focused on crime, death, and trauma, keep the characters that were introduced in the first season for longer than the first season at the very minimum (although [MORE SPOILERS] House of Cards makes a close call with this). Not only that, but oftentimes even minor characters (at least the good guys) aren't killed off in the first season, either (I've noticed them more often to be replaced rather than killed, such as in CSI or Criminal Minds). The writers' choice to kill Teri Bauer was impressive, from a television standpoint, but is also questioned by the fact there is an alternate ending in which she survives (albeit never aired that way originally). Going further, it is also important as a point in episodic narrative and trauma. The show, having Bauer searching for his wife for hours and hours (episode by episode, week by week for the viewers watching the original airing), concludes its season finale only to have Jack (and the audience) find Teri does not survive. The finale ends with the clock striking midnight, the start of a new day (and end of the old), with Jack holding Teri in his arms and the screen fades to black. For the audience, narratively, this is a major turning point as they are building their anticipations and anxiety up, hoping Jack will find a way to save the day. When the screen fades to black and seeing his failure on screen, the viewer is left with the trauma of what just happened with no way to express their discomfort, their hate, or their guilt with how they've felt about the show. Because social media wasn't booming yet (the show originally began in 2001, before Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and Twitter in 2006), viewers had no recourse for that trauma other than those who also viewed the show and were just as invested in the characters as they were. Although it was a "shared trauma" among viewers, there was little way to express it yet, so viewers were left to absorbing the traumatic event not unlike the events that happen(ed) in their own lives. And lastly, this goes directly with what Stolorow notes, that "trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary linearity and unity of our experience of time." The viewer has seen Jack Bauer routinely come to the rescue and find and fight his way out of every situation, but is struck down when he cannot save his wife. Stolorow continue, "Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which we remain forever trapped." Much like what happens on an episode of a television show, the trauma the viewer experiences with characters they feel emotionally attached or invested in remains with the viewer long after the episode (or show) has ended, often associating itself with a period in one's own life where trauma of their own has occurred. Like the finale, the moment is now freeze-framed in the viewer's life in a way that cannot be removed or otherwise fixed or "made better;" the characters, episode, and show cannot change to reduce grief, much like trauma in our own life cannot be changed once it occurs.
Further in the essay, Mousoutzanis likens the use of temporality and trauma to that of Freud's essay Beyond the Pleasure Principal, noting specifically that it "[invokes] a metaphor of the human psyche as an amoeba-like organism coated with a 'protective shielding' that is pierced by an overwhelming incident" (104). He also quotes Žižek in reference to narratives that invoke a response not unlike post-9/11 trauma, stating, "We wanted to see it again and again; the same shots were repeated ad nauseam" (105). This idea, adapted to trauma in television programs, is not unlike Freud's idea of repetition compulsion. Freud describes our understanding and way of dealing with trauma in terms of repetitive exposure to trauma. Although the trauma continues to hurt or otherwise pierce our "linearity," as described previously, we continue to expose ourselves to repeated trauma in an attempt to overcome or otherwise facilitate our understanding of the trauma. This is not unlike the trauma that is involved and incorporated heavily into American television series year after year. Particularly in reference to post-9/11 narratives, Mousoutzanis notes television shows that either begin with or incorporate major traumas of plane crashes or terrorism (of varying types and degrees) such as Lost (which revolves entirely around a plane crash stranding people on an island) or the pilot to Fringe (both noted in his essay). Although not a terrorist incident, Lost particularly invokes the repetition of trauma of 9/11, having premiered in 2004, just three years after the attack (and merely 11 days after the anniversary that year). The pilot to Fringe begins with a plane flying through an electrical storm. The plane lands safely, albeit invoking memories of the attacks when all the passengers begin to spread a lethal contagion while in flight (reminiscent of bioterrorism). And Fringe isn't alone in its genre; other dramas, particularly crime dramas, focus heavily on the use and reuse of traumatic events throughout, drawing the viewer in with devastating or gripping scenarios of good and evil, life and death. Shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, NCIS, and other similar series (notice a pattern?) routinely use realistic depictions of crime in an attempt to impact the viewer with that same trauma. The viewer knows the show is real but still allows themselves to be sucked into the dangers the characters are put in and the events that occur within the shows. The events that occur are typically irrelevant between episodes but serve as that break from the linearity of the characters' storylines and development throughout. Oftentimes, the effects of trauma on the viewer may mirror the effects of trauma that happens to the characters within the show; but rather than being overwhelmed by the trauma they are watching, the viewer delves deeper and deeper, watching episode by episode week by week (or hour by hour, in the case of Netflix binging). They may be affected by the trauma, but they continue watching regardless. We tell ourselves that the show is fun or interesting, but Freud may tell us instead that we're doing so as a means to relive, understand, or overcome our trauma.

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