All posts by juncenwang19

Twelve Years Earlier

Politically, the fact that international relations in the 1950s were so polarized does not come as much of a surprise in the light that there were two competing superpowers. It is slightly interesting, however, that a containment culture emerged throughout the world as one response to this. Even more interesting is the fact that, around the year 1968, disenchanted groups in a plethora of countries (not organizationally related to each other) began both peaceful and violent demonstrations against institutions. There is one potential outlier, however. In 1956, Budapest exploded into a revolution that was ultimately put down by Soviet troops. While it would be far-fetched to claim that this was indeed the first movement of 1968, ideologically there is much in common between the two. In my research, I will attempt to demonstrate this connection.

Mind map:

Something for them to want to overcome

The topic I’ve chosen is the role of the mindset that produced consumer culture in the 50s in propagating civil unrest around the world in the 1968. I’m sure you can quite easily form a mental picture of (at least some) college students that grab pickets or gather in sit-ins, simply out of curiosity or a desire to rebel against something; I plan to evaluate why such an anti-establishment mood developed in one historical context.

You might have noticed that I’ve specifically used the word “mindset”. Studies abound that align the consumerism and conservatism of the 50s with the hippie counterculture of the 60s, but that conservatism was part of a larger worldview in the 50s that is not as often specifically linked with the 60s. This worldview was one that polarized the world to a good capitalist force facing off an evil communist force, and that recognized that stifling all communist thought and containing Russian influences and behavior to solely their own sphere was the solution. As one result, a “uniquely American” culture was developed, with a white working middle-class father and a housewife leading a suburban household filled with new appliances, consumer products, and a few children at its epitome. There is a wide enough consensus that by the end of the 50s, this produced a “one-dimensional” personality with no individuality, as social critic Herbert Marcuse puts it; the suppressed individual leaked out as the counterculture in a desire for aesthetic, as opposed to purely rational, expression of the self. But by 1968, this desire for expression found its way out in a different way – in many different countries (the US, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, and France, among a few others), college students, workers, and other groups had taken to the streets, protesting against Vietnam, imperialism, civil rights, and many other issues. However, outside of shifting some policies, little had changed, yet the movements (or at least their violent manifestations) had mostly died down in the next year or two. Jeremi Suri argues that this is because the nature of the protests was apolitical. Without a clearly relevant or clearly defined goal, the movements had little momentum: the protesters were only protesting against authority in general and against an intolerance for radicality. As both are staples of the containment mindset, I’m slightly surprised that containment is usually only briefly mentioned in studies about the 1968 movements, though it is custom for “containment” to describe a political or social phenomenon rather than a more personal dilemma. In this study, I’ll aim to connect the pieces of containment as a whole with the social circumstance that has been so widely studied.

Pop Culture as Commentary; the Author’s Intent

In Nicholas Evan Sarnatakes’ “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, the thesis is that the original Star Trek series was written as a criticism of U.S. foreign policy, in contrast to the prevailing assumption that popular culture mirrors public opinion. Instead of simply analyzing the episodes, Sarnatakes largely focuses on the intermediate scripts and the process of production, which often demonstrate the authors’ intent of writing political criticism into the story.

For example, in his analysis of “A Private Little War”, Sarnatakes waits until the very end to unveil the plot of the broadcasted episode, as the episode itself appears to offer hesitant support of American intervention in the Vietnam War. However, the origin of that plot suggests a different motivation for the episode. Don Ingalls, a friend of the show’s creator, had submitted a story outline that included a “gratuitous and fairly severe critique of the U.S. military establishment” in the form of allegory: the main characters, representatives of the Federation (symbolizing the United States), land on a jungle planet (symbolizing Vietnam) where they learn that the Klingons (symbolizing the Soviet Union) had been providing one faction of the less-developed natives with weapons. Following the script of the Vietnam War, in order to assert their power, the Federation begins supplying weapons to the opposing faction. Using this framework, Ingalls critiques the idea of the war by demonstrating the flawed logic behind it through inconsistency in the characters’ conversations, and further attacks the military establishment through Kirk’s actions, holding troops accountable for the destruction, regardless if they were acting under orders.

On receiving the story outline, the makers of the show liked the idea, but felt that there were plot holes, missing details, and problems with the overall message that needed to be addressed. Ingalls struggled with the revision, and felt betrayed when his friend, the creator of the show – Gene Roddenberry – took over the writing of the script, molding it into a more ideologically and perhaps artistically acceptable piece that offered lukewarm praise of the U.S. military action in the war.

While I don’t disagree with Sarantakes’ conclusion that this episode was meant to critique the war, I’m slightly skeptical about this approach. Even if the creators heavily considered criticizing the war during the making of the episode, isn’t what the public sees – and what the episode is – the final work, where decisions are made to write it to support the war? Is intent any more important than the content itself?

Perhaps this method of analysis is useful for shedding light in other areas, but it’s very likely that decisions that changed the message were made in order to popularize the show, just to conform to public opinion. As Sarantakes explains, science fiction is a powerful medium for political commentary as it’s very easy to allude to current political situations, but it’s also very easy to get past the commentary-averse television networks since it can be argued that the “commentary” is just a story taking place in a fictional world. However, it can also be argued that the plot in many science fiction works easily align with public opinion, because the ideas could seem more easily acceptable to the general public, boosting the work’s popularity.

I mentioned the video game, Portal, in a previous blog post. While it’s not high science fiction, it can easily fall under the umbrella, as it occurs in a futuristic parallel world, offers a conflict very different on the surface than current political or military conflicts, and has a huge focus on technology currently not even close to being developed. In my previous post, I analyzed how the game, which came out in 2002, was an allegory to subversion of a containing body, where Chell, the player’s character, faces off against GLaDOS, a superintelligent AI in control of a research facility in which she is determined to keep Chell as a test subject. I’d also touched on how the portrayal of female characters was quite revolutionary considering their roles in other video games at the time.

Chell, in her orange jumpsuit, force-absorbing “knee replacements”, and undetailed facial features, is hardly the highly sexualized side character of many other games, and in any case, as Portal operates in first-person 3D, the player doesn’t see much of her – except through portals. Again, she uses a weapon that does not kill, unlike her chauvinistic counterparts in other first-person shooters, to defeat another woman with supreme power. At least in the first game, there are no male characters – even the turrets, robots built to automatically target and shoot humans, speak in a creepily squeaky, but obviously feminine, voice.

At the time of the game’s release, feminism wasn’t as prominent of a topic as it had been at times in the United States. While the containment culture reintroduced as a result of 9/11 did not quite have the same effect on the views of the nuclear family, Portal, just by classifying itself as a first-person shooter, intends to offer quite a bit of interesting feminist commentary. “Intends” – the commentary itself is quite subtle, since it takes some thought to recognize the importance of the genders of the characters, and much of the symbolism is hidden in elements only noticeable upon replay. However, even so, I contend that the game still definitely does comment in regards to the issue of gender roles, since these elements do appear in the final release, and are what the public (and perhaps a scholar or two) have available to do their own analysis and theorizing around.

The “White Flight” as Internal Containment

In his article, “Disaster and decentralization: American cities and the Cold War”, Matthew Farish explains the strategic actions of suburbanization and the calculative reasoning behind it. At the same time, there is an idea underlying many of his arguments:

The argument that dispersal should remain secondary to international control of atomic energy – a popular position taken by Louis Wirth and others immediately after the Second World War – faded, along with hopes for global governance, as geopolitical hostilities increased.

In other words, containment of internal forces is a greater end than containment of external forces. This is not quite Farish’s thesis, but envelopes many of his other points. As he explains through mentions of popular culture and social movements, the cities were self-segregated from the suburbs; of course, most citizens were powerless to affect the outcomes of discussions surrounding international nuclear disarmament, but what they could do was move away from the more and more “un-American” urban centers: “the American city was ‘becoming…a place for the very poor, or the very rich, or the slightly odd’”. Furthermore, in accordance with the focus on masculinity in containment culture, Farish argues that the atmosphere within societies of intellectuals was one of rationally attacking the problem of possible nuclear war, which manifested in sociopsychological studies on panic and calculated predictions of the effects of a real nuclear attack. For this group of people, containment of internal forces seemed to be the comfortable thing to do. Arms talks could not quite be rationally calculated or predicted the same way as the effects of a bomb; however, theoretically, making calculated preparations for disaster would offer the same degree of protection, and was pursued. A similar effect led to the extensive planning of suburban layouts.

Interestingly, the fall of the Twin Towers had a comparable effect on American society to that of Hiroshima. The terrorist was an even more nebulous enemy that was, understandably, much harder to attempt to contain. Yet, similarly to the post-war era, containment did occur. American citizens self-contained themselves by seeking alternate modes of transportation than by air, in the first weeks, with the TSA later taking on this role of attempting to contain any symptoms of the terrorist disease. Because the geographical demographic was very different from that at the beginning of the post-war era, there was no comparable “white flight”, but the possibility of another 9/11 was quite widely considered in designs of new buildings. However, one factor was very different – unlike in the Cold War, where little combat took place (besides side theaters such as Suez and Vietnam), President Bush sent troops into Iraq very quickly after the disaster. At the same time, it wasn’t clear that this was exactly fighting the terrorists. By conflating the “War on Terror” with the ground combat in Iraq, he too created a sort of internal containment where it was preferred to make the population feel safe, instead of attempting to define and solve the problem – the exact strategy the suburban designers in the post-war era adopted.

Narrow Nationalism

In McDuffie’s article, “Black and Red: Black Liberation, the Cold War, and the Horne Thesis”, one of the recurring points is that the suppression of black leftists left an ideological vacuum that lead to “narrow nationalism”. I had to look this term up (it turns out to mean what it sounds like – narrow-minded, uninclusive nationalism), but what struck me is how well it fits with the pattern of containment culture. Similarly to the actions of the 1950s U.S. government, movements such as the Black Panthers emphasized an “us vs. them” mindset, along with male chauvinism and, to an extent, crowdsourcing societal problems.

Ironically, by attempting to contain communism internally, the U.S. government created a force that seemed “un-American”, but much more difficult to contain. And just as ironically, perhaps as a reaction to the essence of the time, this narrow nationalism seemed to be its own containing force.

Portal: the blue and orange scare

Portal is a video game by Valve that came out in 2007. It’s a classified as a first-person shooter, although, as primarily a puzzle game, it differs from other first-person shooters by a great deal. Even so, it’s often considered a classic.

The player plays as a character named Chell, who has been forced to be a test subject in a research facility (Aperture Science). Exactly what she is testing is never specified, but the video game focuses on the “portal gun”, which, ostensibly, is a gun-like device that creates linked portals. In the end, the player escapes a planned death and confronts (and “kills”) the computer in charge of the facility, GLaDOS.

A trailer can be found here.

At first glance, there’s no obvious connection in the plot to containment culture. However, the idea of “us vs. them” is somewhat prominent, with Chell as the “them”, and Aperture Science as a slight caricature of the containing society and government. Furthermore, Aperture Science echoes the idea of rerouting organizational (societal) flaws to become personal issues; it leaves test subjects in deadly, nearly impossible test chambers yet readily assumes that test subjects can take care of and solve their own problems. Many other themes also show up: surveillance cameras can be found throughout the game. GLaDOS has nearly godlike powers, similarly to a superpower with an atomic bomb. Aperture Science automatically assumes test subjects will follow their instructions and actually complete tests (as opposed to giving up and crying in a corner). And when test subjects don’t try their best, there is a myriad of ways they can die while testing. In the 1950s containment culture, there weren’t necessarily common lynchings of suspected Soviet sympathizers, but the societal rejection wasn’t far off.

What about Chell? In contrast to many other first-person shooters, in Portal the “hero” is female yet unsexualized; takes down the enemy in a match of wits rather than brute force; and utilizes the portal gun, a weapon that doesn’t kill, but acts as an intellectual tool – unlike ammunition guns found in many other shooter games. Especially concerning the prominent gender roles, she is the perfect example of the object of much fear in the containment culture: a dissenter that takes down society with its own weapons.

It would be implausible to say that the people living in containment culture would always be on the side of “us”, steeped in ideology and with zero dissatisfaction with the status quo. Thus, Portal might have attained such popularity not only because of the fascinating gameplay and design, but because Chell resonates with the subversive elements inside all of us.