HB = Hannah Boomershine, VH = Vivian Halloran, EC = Ed Comentale, SK = Steve Krahnke
EC: We are dealing with “others” all day long. We navigate them. We tolerate them. We sort of withstand and abide them, right? But we don’t, we don’t engage with them in equal subjects, in a way.
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VO: Welcome to Diversity, Difference, Otherness. This podcast is part of Themester 2017, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m your host, Hannah Boomershine, a senior in the Media School. In each episode, we invite faculty members to share their work and how it relates to this year’s theme.
Today, we explore “Otherness.” In the United States, how is Thanksgiving a test of assimilation for immigrants? How do monsters in pop culture reflect our deep fears and desires? Why does the Twilight Zone still resonate with viewers today? Our guests are Ed Comentale, Vivian Halloran, and Steve Krahnke. They explore these questions and more about how the other affects our food, pop culture, and collective fears. Up first, we have Vivian Halloran, a professor of English and American Studies.
VH: I moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1987 when I was 16 and a junior in high school, so I went to 12 different schools from K through 12. Then I studied my undergraduate degree in English and Spanish at Boulder, University of Colorado Boulder, and then pursued my PhD at UCLA in comparative literature.
HB: You're also an author of a book called Immigrant Kitchen, is that right?
VH: Yes, absolutely.
HB: I was wondering if we could talk about food as an important aspect of American culture, but also immigrant culture, immigrants who come to the United States, how they carry those traditions, those culinary traditions.
VH: Certainly. So, one of the things I do in the book is I look at Thanksgiving celebrations, both because it marks the way in which the settler culture and the native cultures made some peace, and sat around table and shared their resources, but also because it tends to be a time in which immigrant stories get featured. How are people acclimating to the new life as U.S. citizens? Well, let's look and see what they're doing for Thanksgiving. And there’s a lot of human interest stories in that. My project in the Immigrant Kitchen was to look at memoirs that had recipes because — that were written by immigrants, children of immigrants, and grandchildren of immigrants. That section of the population is eager to tell their stories, both about how they connect to their grandparents’ generation that came to the states, or how they would like to have their fellow compatriots recognize their claim to American identity by eating the food they serve. Oftentimes, the easiest way in which to have a conversation about immigration is through food, through a meal. So, I read these memoirs as instances of virtual hospitality. They provide us a meal if we follow the steps and make the dishes for ourselves, and then we close that loop as readers by eating the food that's on offer. I find that it's otherwise awkward. People have questions about what it's it like, how are you liking the states? Or, the children of immigrants, my children, are marked by my own journey into becoming a U.S. dweller. I was a U.S. citizen as a Puerto Rican when I was born, but really moving from the island to the United States and having to speak English all the time, and doing things the way Americans do them is a real adjustment. So even though I didn't have to apply to be able to come, I could just get on a plane and move, nonetheless the process of acculturation was long. And one of the key markers of that was my first fall in the United States. I opened the door to find that the neighborhood had given our family a turkey with all the trimmings, and that made us feel really welcome, like the U.S. officially welcomed us into its fold, and thus I look at immigration-themed Thanksgiving movies because they're a nice break from, “nobody-can-stand-their-relatives Thanksgiving movies,” and look at the way people creolize the turkey, for example. They make it according to their own spices, or they stuff it with rice like we in my family do, as opposed to the traditional trimmings, but they’re nonetheless observing this national holiday.
HB: You mentioned that food might be an easier avenue into talking about immigration. Why do you think that is?
VH: Well, I think it’s… even though it's not actually the case, people perceive food and eating together as not necessarily political, when it's absolutely political. But it is a larger, older tradition of hospitality. Of welcoming. And because it sets the tone in that regard, people feel free to ask about the ingredients, perhaps, unfamiliar things to them, when they really want to know about the lives of the immigrants, and the immigrants really want to talk about how they have it here, and so by writing about food, they have a point of entry into sharing their lives, their struggles, as well as their achievements. And it's something that people can feel good about, and we can do together, we can eat together, even if it's only virtually.
HB: Yeah, so it sounds like these recipes have functioned as proof of the story, and are stories in themselves, too.
VH: Yeah, there's great memoir called The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, and it's an effort by a woman to connect with her paternal grandmother, who has long since died, by trying to get to the bottom of the creaminess of the filling of the ravioli she just loved as a child. Well, after she goes on this journey to Italy, and tries, she learns various different techniques, and she bonds with her neighbor across the street who wants to make handmade ravioli, she ultimately concludes that it was my grandma's personal preferences -- she was using Philly cream cheese, which is not at all traditional. So, sometimes the effort to connect with original food ways turns up the fact that people had no access to ingredients when they first immigrated, if they came in the late 19th century or early part of the 20th. Or, that people's tastes are idiosyncratic. So, you know. I know the real recipe calls for X, but I'm going to substitute Y because I like it better. And so, that is enlightening, and it allows for that notion that improvisation and creativity are as much of the process of cooking and eating as is anything, any fidelity to an original way of life. And it's a great record of how culture changes.
HB: Right, absolutely. So, we’ve been talking about food as a way as an avenue to get people to interact, who might not normally but in what ways can it be a barrier, perhaps, to you know, maybe othering certain groups?
VH: Well, I have a chapter that deals exactly with this in my book, in which people remember bringing food to their lunchrooms that their parents had made for them. You open it up, and the other children's reaction is, “Ooh that’s so stinky!” So, the stigma of bringing stinky food was a bigger thing than it is currently. I think nowadays, there's so many eating restrictions and nobody really expects anybody else's food to be the same. But garlicky food, Diana Abu Jaber, in her memoir, The Language of Baklava, talks about how she and her family were having a barbecue in the front yard, and neighbors complained, “you don't do that in the front yard, that's a backyard kind of thing.” So that was a neighborhood saying, “no, this is the way we do things.” Her father was from Jordan. But then later, as a teenager, bringing garlicky food, and then having all sorts of teenagers going, “hey, can I have some of that?” So she had a positive experience in the schoolyard and negative experience at home. But other children's… there’s a great book called Bento Box in the Heartland about someone who is Japanese American growing up in Versailles, Indiana. She would bring to school rice balls in a bento box, and children looked at her like, “what is that?” And so, her reaction was to go to the bathroom and eat in one of the stalls so that nobody would see her or complain about it, and then eventually come home in tears and demand that her mother make a peanut butter and jelly. And these are coping mechanisms. I think I among adults, there's a certain kind of cachet associated with trying new cuisines, and yet there's every opportunity for people to flub that as well, like, “oh, as I can’t possibly have so much spice, or can you make this or that.” So, when you start telling the ethnic food makers to make it less what it is, and more to your taste, it’s a certain imposition of taste. Then why are you really interacting with this food? If it’s not going to please you, why?
HB: Yeah. I mean, I think that example you mentioned earlier — if you don't have that nice PB&J and crackers yeah, kids, kids notice that, but like you said adults too, and maybe in more subtle ways.
VH: Ooh, and it’s interesting, I mean, who makes your food? Anthony Bourdain is very, very outspoken about the fact that the back of the restaurant is often made up of people who are not from this country, a lot of them undocumented, and working in really kind of inhospitable conditions. So, food can make you feel guilty, food can make you feel good, but the fact of the matter is that the immigration system needs some serious thought. And people need to have conversations that are not so vitriolic, and not about the actual immigrants, but about the policies and what the nation wants, and how to move forward.
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VO: We’ve explored the intersection of food, immigration, and otherness, but otherness also appears in literature and pop culture. Our next guest, Ed Comentale, explains how monsters and zombies represent both our fascination of and repulsion toward what we deem unfamiliar and strange. Comentale is a professor of English and the Associated Vice Provost for Arts and Humanities on campus.
EC: So, I study zombies, as much as you can study zombies. I’m not particularly happy about that because I don’t like zombies, I’m not impressed by them at all. They’re sort of scary to me, and sometimes I’ll have to take a break from studying them because I get a little too depressed by the apocalyptic landscape. But in zombie theory, as we call it, there is a lot of emphasis on the uncanny, which is this idea of the familiar made strange. It’s a concept that comes from Freud. Freud often uses it in thinking about dreams. That your dreams often contain features from your everyday life that are familiar, but that there’s something slightly strange or off about them, so they appear both unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. This is why we love surrealist art, and David Lynch, and so many, so many great products of Western culture in the last 100 years trades in the uncanny. Zombie films are inherently uncanny because everything that was once familiar is now, sort of, taken out of context, and bears traces of otherness, right? So, the people that you loved, and who are familiar in your life, now appear to you in monstrous form, as a kind of short circuiting of the familiar and unfamiliar. And a really desperate attempt to kind of navigate this newly othered terrain. But the whole landscape is like that. I mean, I love watching zombie movies just for the settings. To see gas station signs, and supermarket products, and designer clothing kind of strewn about, the whole world is sort of made strange. And it creates that, that kind of shocking firing of the synapses -- this is a world that I know, but I don’t know it anymore. And that sense of othering is like really key to the logic of those zombie films. So.
HB: Yeah, do you think that making the familiar unfamiliar is more scary, for instance, in a zombie movie, than seeing a movie in another world that is not like our world at all?
EC: Right, right. Well, there’s this great concept, it’s actually a chart, called the Uncanny Valley, that was designed by a Japanese computer scientist who worked in robotics. And the Uncanny Valley is basically this theory of robotics, that the closer a robot gets to human form, the more freakish it seems. So, we can all, we can all enjoy cute toy robots that are metallic and have machinery exposed on them, but as soon as you start adding skin, or hair, right, or any kind of human expressive features, the more freakish they become to people. And we know this because, you know, kids are often really horrified by dolls, and the more realistic the doll looks, the more uncanny it seems, right? And there’s this way where recreating the human, reproducing the human, becomes almost inhuman, in a way. That there's a moment where the perfect human becomes the most inhuman thing, in a sense, in robotics, let’s say, and in the uncanny. There’s also like a concept like otherness, that I think is related, that has to do with ethics. In my field, in English studies, but also as related to philosophy and religion as well, and ethics, there’s a difference between the other, the lowercase other, who is just a person that you have to navigate around, and the capital “O” Other, as someone who elicits an ethical or humane response from you. We’re dealing with others all day long. We navigate them, tolerate them, we sort of withstand and abide them, right? But we don’t, we don’t engage with them as equal subjects, in a way. But there are shocking moments where an other becomes a capital “O” Other, and sort of makes an ethical demand on you, or forces you to recognize that you have some ethical responsibility. And there are so many philosophers, particularly in the 20th century, Levinas is one of them, who talks about the face of the Other that sort of makes an ethical demand on you, where it calls your own subjectivity and your responsibility as a subject forth. Calls it forth.
HB: Yeah, can you give an example of what a lowercase “other” would be, compared to an uppercase “Other?”
EC: I mean, just in zombie films, you have to navigate a hoard of zombies, and you might be slashing your way through it, but all the sudden, one might make eye contact with you, or whimper in a certain way, or any sort of appealing expression might give you pause, and cause you to think twice. But I think this is similar to what happens in downtown Bloomington. It’s so easy to pick your way through Kirkwood Ave, and walk past the homeless in Peoples Park, or anywhere else on that street, but there are times when there are certain interactions that draw forth something deeper in you, and really kind of force you to rethink your responses.
HB: Well, I know you said you didn’t want to talk as much about zombies, but I am curious though about monsters in pop culture and in literature as being a really interesting example of otherness, or something different, something cast away from society. And I know that Frankenstein is turning 200 in 2018, and so I was wondering if we could talk about what makes a monster, and what defines that, and, that kind of goes back to our discussion about, where do we draw the line? What is “otherness?” Who defines “otherness?” And what makes a monster?
EC: Definitely. You know, there’s a classic theory of monsters and the monstrous, that basically suggests that monsters are like the repressed side of our culture or society. That then a monster in a book, or a film, or song is something that's been buried, something that's not allowed to reveal itself. Usually it's some form of sexual repression that now emerges in monstrous form. It's something that we’re drawn to, but also afraid of. So, when a monster appears there's always this set of double reaction to it. The monster’s often doing stuff that we'd like to do, right? Because it’s often reflective of some repressed urge or id. But at the same time, we’ve been told not to do that. So, when monsters appear, they often appear both attractive and repulsive at the same time. There’s that doubling of response, and so you can do, anyone can do a kind of quick historicization of monsters, and when they appear, because they also seem to reflect the kind of repressed underside of the society in which they appear. You know, so vampires in the 19th century, you know, it's an often, it's an aristocratic beast often preying upon the working class, right? So, there’s the sense of the class struggle that emerges in the vampire. I would say that Frankenstein, you know, often expresses tensions between science and morality, right, for its time period. These monsters seem to pop out of their cultures and they seem to encapsulate all the conflicted desires, you know, of that moment in time.
HB: I was curious too... you were saying that you know monsters tend to embody, they kind of work with the time period, too. You know, vampires, and then we see Frankenstein, and I was wondering if you could talk about what you think would be an ideal monster today.
EC: I’m trying to think of what we would consider monstrous today. For me, it’s, people are scared of a lot of things today. And that are real, and it is very hard to find monsters that can compete with the stuff that we get in the news, in daily way. and I think that there's a grave sense of, like, widespread otherness. People don't feel at home anymore. They don't feel like their homes are safe. And it would be interesting to see how the kind of filmmakers and the writers of the future will ultimately translate those feelings into some kind of, like, recognizable monstrous form. I think the question is out on that. I think we're a little bit too scared to have any make-believe monsters at this point in time.
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VO: What we mark as “other” has the power to frighten, but also to entertain. Professor Steve Krahnke explains how the Twilight Zone, an iconic American TV show, used aliens and nuclear war to make social commentary in the late 50s and mid 60s. Krahnke is a senior lecturer in the Media School and also Director of National Program Development for WTIU, the public television station in town.
SK: I came to TV from the theater business, so I’ve been in theater for a long time. Got tired of that and so moved over into television, and I’ve been doing that ever since, and I’ve been here for about, I think almost 20 years, I’ve been at Indiana.
HB: So then moving onto what you’re going to be teaching in the fall. You’re going to be teaching the Twilight Zone --
HB: Can you give some background for people who are not familiar with the show, what it’s all about?
SK: Mmm. Wow, there are people who are not familiar with the show… that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s an iconic American television program that aired in the fifties and the sixties, and was really kind of a leader in scripted television, that really showed what scripted television could be… But, the show itself was a half hour show. Each one was a little teleplay -- very different from television now. Very often, one single scene that would be some complicated event taking place, and a sort of beginning, middle and the end all in the same scene. And so, the shows started, they always started the same way, with Rod Serling standing, usually in the middle of nowhere, just speaking directly to the camera, and sort of laying out what this story was going to be about. The story would unfold, usually fairly dramatic, sometimes comic, but mostly dramatic, usually about weird stuff. Aliens, and monsters, and psychological issues. Time travel, anything. So, you started to think of it as kind of science fiction. But I would say it’s probably more accurate to call it science fantasy. And then at the end of every episode, he would wrap it up with a kind of moral. That there was a reason for telling you this. And sometimes that was surprising, more often than not, it was confirming of what the audience had already figured out. “I know what this was about. And it wasn’t about aliens, and it wasn’t about monsters -- this was about us.” And all of the stories were really about us. That’s important, because this took place kind of in the aftermath of the McCarthy hearings, and the Red Scare, and the beginnings of the Cold War. So, paranoia ran deep. Not only were people afraid, they were afraid that they weren’t afraid. They thought they should be afraid of something, and so they started making up things to be afraid of. And a good metaphor for that was always aliens, and that ended up being what most people think of the Twilight Zone as being about, is alien invasion and stuff like that.
HB: What’s been your personal experience with this show? When did you start watching it and what drew, drew you it?
SK: Oh, that’s interesting. I started watching The Twilight Zone I think when I was a kid. I mean, I was in elementary school, so I probably started watching it more with reruns than I did with first runs. In fact, certainly I did. But when I was a kid, everybody knew the Twilight Zone, everybody knew the Twilight Zone theme song. And in fact, if something was weird, that's what people would do -- they would start singing The Twilight Zone theme song. And so, it had a kind of ubiquitous quality to it that, that, if you used a Twilight Zone reference, everybody knew what it was you were talking about.
HB: For viewers today who might not be relating to those issues that we're going on, say, in the fifties, how are the themes of The Twilight Zone still relevant to what's going on today?
SK: Well, one of the things that the Twilight Zone always dealt with was the difference between being human and being a subset of being human. And none of us gets to decide really who is actually human or not, and even in the series, that was pretty firmly stated: you were either human or you were not. But if you are not, you weren't from around here, you were from Mars, or you were from Venus, or someplace like that. As far as Serling's observations went, he realized that there was a lot of power in creating the other, in defining the other, and that if a person could define a person as the other, then they could control that person. Particularly if they can instill the fear in all of their, sort of, constituents or subjects that they might too be considered other. In other words, it's bad to be the other -- not just different. So, for example, if you are defined as not from here, you're almost always, in this sort of Rod Serling’s universe, you’re sort of always defined as, probably bad. Easy to do if they're from Mars. They just want to take over, right. Harder to do if it is a person who wants to impose their political point of view. So Serling decided, well, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to worry about the political point of view. People will figure that out, right? They will figure out that it's a false dichotomy, that these are all just human beings who are trying to live their lives, that somebody or some bad actor is going to try to take that away from them for their own purposes. So, is that the Soviet Union and Khrushchev? Is that the U.S. government? Who is that? Serling didn't go there. He just said, it's just a universal bad that everybody can agree on.
HB: Yeah, absolutely. How did audiences react to episodes with messages like that?
SK: That's a really good question. I think on some level, audiences were... I don't know if it's really fair to say this, but my sense is, audiences were slightly different then. In the first place, many people thought of television as being away to get news, and they thought of it as a news delivery service. Others saw it as a way to get pretty much mindless entertainment. Most people didn't really see it as a way to learn something. But, you know, people then, just as now, there’re a lot of really smart people who were really fascinated by some of these big ideas. And Rod Serling figured that, out Gene Roddenberry figured that out with Star Trek, that audiences would, would respond. You know, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t come out of nowhere. People, people have been feeling this way for a long time and then they needed a kind of a they needed social permission to move forward and to start taking political action. And so, leaders realized there were people who would follow. Well those are the same people, who, well, maybe not all of them, but a lot of them of the same people who were really interested in these messages: We can be better people, not everything has to be a duality, there are different ways to think. We need to be aware of the fact that the actions of one person can affect everybody. That we're responsible for more than just what happens to us, and jeez, you think about it, and these were some really complicated times. And right at the kind of beginning when things got really complicated, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and all the Civil Rights stuff happening in the sixties, the Vietnam War, the Cold War really getting nasty. It was an interesting time, and Rod Serling was right there at the beginning of it, and to a certain extent, was sort of pointing out what we should be paying attention to.
HB: Thank you so much for coming by.
SK: Yeah, this was fun.
VO: I’m Hannah Boomershine, and this is Diversity, Difference, Otherness from Themester at the College of Arts and Sciences.