Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Slash and the Phantasmatic Theater

Speaking of songtapes and VCRs, there’s a video-editing workshop in Holder 4B (a.k.a. SDA headquarters) this Saturday 1–5 p.m.… you know, if you really want to make things like the sample below. Just sayin’.

Come back to the Castle ag’in, He-Man honey.

It was Orr’s description of the phantasmatic theater in Panic Diaries that reminded me most of Penley’s “/TREK” slash segment. Slash “redistributes its [social] space” (Penley 106) in sort of the same way in which Orr describes how Wells’ phantasmatic theater generates new effects out of the existing shared social space. As Wells challenges the conventions of electronic broadcast media, slash challenges the larger heteronormative structure of production television and popular culture. But the parallels are not just with content, rather the majority of Orr’s section on War of the Worlds focus on its not-so-subtle relation to wartime propaganda and the development of market research: a “slashing” between radio and psychology institutions, if you will. “Was the Princeton Radio Research Project part of a choreographed, if not precisely conspiratorial, attempt to develop techniques for the mass manipulation of audience behavior?… [W]as early radio research itself contributing to the development of techniques of propaganda and mass persuasion that best fit a capitalist society on the brink of war and in the wake of fiscal panic and depression?” (Orr 60) In the same way, Penley suggests that NASA/TREK has already begun but lacks the maturer coherence of, e.g., radio/propaganda.

If there was nothing too conspiratorial about the social psychology research that followed Wells’ broadcast, perhaps there is in the slash fanfic-writing fanbase (not in a bad way, of course). Phantasmatic theater “redraws academic conceptions and cultural experiences of the social group… [mobilizing] social imaginations and… collective perceptions” (Orr 39). The conspiracy of slash is that in its sexual context it is phantasmatic theater for a small subgroup of the audience, among whom the interpretation of slash may vary considerably, as Brody argues about queer reading in general (101–102). The second feature of the phantasmatic theater is its suggestive power. This works on two levels: the suggestion of Kirk/Spock from television, and the suggestion that Kirk/Spock is real from the plethora of slash fanfic. To the degree by which television may be called phantasmatic theater, the appropriation of the theater of slash from TV’s normalized narratives (i.e. the queer reading) defines a new political subspace for influencing the originating narrative and its generating norms. Has it been successful in doing so?

It is important that Star Trek’s medium is television, for which subverting its social space requires a different creative act than that for radio. Orr notes that the effectiveness of Wells’ broadcast lay along class and education lines, for which twisting the truth of the narrative is an outwardly political act: military invasion, descriptions of mass panic, and governmental authority. The interpretation of television, where seeing is not believing, must then be more subtle and thus becomes inwardly political: slashing two futuristic heterosexual characters and weaving feminist ideas into a narrative without women (Penley p.?). Additionally, as far as the motivation for utilizing the future’s Kirk and Spock may lie in women’s self-alienation from their bodies, “legal, moral, and religious battlegrounds” (Penley 126), suggests the very politics of cognitive estrangement which defines SF. The thematic and visual prominence of the male heroic in television allows the written slash pairing extreme effectiveness. And although the audience proper of slash fanfic may not be large (although the Internet has certainly accelerated its reach), the subtle suggestion of Kirk/Spock from the source material is available to the entire shared social space, like Wells’ broadcast; unlike it, participation in Kirk/Spock enables a new genuine political act through having an almost exclusively female fanbase.

Orr’s well developed history of propaganda and social psychology research suggests an uncanny “becoming” of War of the Worlds in social reality. For Penley, the overt narrative of Star Trek has been slowly influencing staff and leadership at NASA, but it is the subtle subversion of slash which holds the greatest promise of transforming NASA’s male script. On the other hand, slash is still seen as exterior to accessible popular culture (for example, I learned about it through Snarry fanfics read by friends). One differentiating feature of slash as a creative body is its egality and rejection of rigid hierarchy in favor of seeming unprofessionalism (Penley 112–113). If NASA/TREK potentially has feminist political goals, has it failed to achieve them because of its sequestration from the rest of popular culture and even squarer Trek culture? While slash lacks a broad audience or venue, queer pairings have come out of the closet in popular entertainment (cue Jake Gyllenhaal from October Sky to Brokeback Mountain).


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