Wednesday 2 July 2014

“Iris” a film by Richard Eyre based on the book Iris. A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1998) by John Bayley.

The following is an essay written by Professor Joanna Latimer and relates to the Cardiff sciSCREEN event after the screening of the film Iris.

I was very interested to see this film for two reasons.  First, because it was about a powerful woman, Iris Murdoch, who has been an important figure in my own life, one of my heroes.  Not only did she succeed as a philosopher at Oxford, a pre-eminently man’s world, she also wrote some extraordinary novels about the class and kind of people that I grew up amongst in 1950/60s London: cosmopolitan intellectuals, the thinking (upper middle) classes, ‘bo-bo’ (bohemian bourgeois) and blue stocking.   Her complex, carefully observed stories uncover how such people can be incarcerated by their egos as well as the sacred cows of the British, middle class society that some of them, at least, are attempting to be free of.  She shows us just how hard goodness is, the difficulties that a specific time and place in history make for being not just true to self, but also to a sense of a greater good.  Whilst Iris Murdoch is associated with the libratory movement of the ‘60s, she is very cautious of how a revolution in attitudes and mores can be attained to the good, and she preserves a sense of the importance of duty, and a particular kind of moral freedom, which is not centered on the self but on relations.  Most of all, then, Iris Murdoch was for me brave – not just because she represented the special relation between language and the mind, a relation that enables truth and freedom, but because she was so direct and true in her pursuit of goodness: at a time when all around were advocating a bonfire of institutions she was thinking through their worth, and how we need institutions, such as duty, to be able to be good even when we are at a loss, incarcerated by our own false gods, such as the need to keep up appearances.  I loved her wit but also the grace that comes from a passion for finding truth, rather than mere correctness[1], a grace that shone from her eyes. 

Secondly, I wanted to see Iris, because I have an academic interest in dementia.  I am interested in understanding the affects and effects dementia has.  Here rather than just thinking of dementia in terms of a diseased brain, I see dementia in terms of how it disorders identities and relations.  In particular how it disorders the complex social processes that produce the appearance at least of cooperation, what sociologists such as Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel observe as a person’s capacity to fit in, get along and ‘do’ member.  Thus I am also interested in offering a complementary discourse to the medical and policy discourse of waging a war on dementia.  I want to help find a way of understanding dementia and explore how dementia, in its many different forms, is disordering of more than cognition.  Dementia disorders forms of social organization, and challenges deeply held cultural preoccupations with particular forms of identity, especially the relation between personhood and the capacity to be social - fit in, conform, know how to get along.  Dementia makes difference visible.  So I am interested in finding ways to ‘dwell’ with dementia’s forms of difference.

The film represented what it is like to live with dementia, but not from inside dementia, from outside it.  By giving us the perspective of the person who ended up as the ‘carer’ – John Bayley - it was a poignant portrayal of what it is like for others who are close, even dependent, to live alongside and attempt to cope with the degeneration, and seeming loss, of their loved one.  And I think on this score the film will have spoken to many who have been in similar predicaments. 

Through the use of flashback, we are also able to see how the marriage between John Bayley and Iris Murdoch was rooted in Iris’ strength.  We are shown just how dependent John Bayley is on Iris – she animates his life, from the very beginning: she, in Johnny Cash’s words, ‘carries’ him.  He is portrayed as a repressed, stuttering, absent-minded and very sweet young man, one who is good at making him self a figure of fun.  And we see how he is carried along, sometimes in ways he cannot understand, or even at moments participate in (I am thinking here of the scene where he watches Iris with another man through the crack in the door, or when he is standing below her window and sees here embracing and kissing a woman).  Not only is their relationship portrayed as highly intellectual and eccentric, but also as contributing to an experimental and liberating force in British history.  The flashbacks to scenes of them riding their bikes at speed, of swimming naked in the river, and of Iris' commitment to the politics of sexual freedom, all help convey the entanglement of their relationship in the liberating politics of post war England that challenged what had gone before.  Crucially, we are shown how Iris leads here, pulling John along with her: he is always behind, riding in her slipstream. We also learn that it is Iris who is central to the, albeit rather minimal, order in their lives.  

We see how the dementia gradually excludes Iris, and therefore John, from the intimacy of a life lived in the relationship between the mind, language and a particular kind of freedom. Here, the metaphor that underpins the film is one of being gradually excluded from the clear light that comes from the relation of language and mind, the relation at the heart of Iris’ world.

The film shows how Bayley and Murdoch begin by trying to give dementia room.  On the one hand as leading academics and intellectuals they attempt to contribute to knowledge and understanding, and participate in the clinical work of studying dementia, including the new technologies that enable the representation of the diseased brain.  On the other, portrayed as deeply eccentric, they seem perfectly suited to adapting to dementia's disordering power.  But because it is words, not as mere referents, but as metonymic for worlds of ideas, the stuff of Iris' life, that are most affected, they find that as the disease progresses, any room for them, for a free life inside language and thought, becomes obliterated. We see dementia's disordering power here vividly represented not just by Iris’ retreat from writing, her writer’s block, or her blankness and anxiety, but by the increasing disorganization of the household: as her mind deteriorates their is literally less and less space for thinking and living as the clutter and the filth gradually take over.

As the scanning machines and the doctors abandon all hope, predicting that the lights are going out, Bayley tries to find his (and the world’s) Iris again, convinced that she is there somewhere.  He encourages her with paper and pen, and tries to get her to retrieve her former self by writing, and discoursing.  But we see scenes in which a very different person is becoming present – one who watches Teletubbies, and pees on the carpet, one who repeats things and makes no sense any more, one who escapes and gets lost, on the streets of Oxford, and found, in a supermarket by an old flame.  She is not just in a state of disorder but is disordering, and as Derrida put it, ‘elsewhere’.  She is no longer competent in her and John’s former world, and Bayley becomes less and less competent in hers – to the point of exasperation and abusiveness: ‘I hate every bit of you’ he screams at her in bed.  She turns over to him and utters the truth, with her old directness, ‘I love you.’

The scene at the seaside for me is a profound one.  After the greetings, in which Iris does not seem to make any sense of who anyone is, we see her running down the shingle to the sea, childlike, clutching her rather tatty notebook in her hand.  We then see Iris sitting on the shingle, tearing pages from her reporter’s pad, laying them out carefully in rows, and placing her beloved stones on them, beautifully, and in perfect symmetry.  She is creating a new kind of writing, a new kind of ordering, perhaps even a new kind of book.  But what happens next reveals the profound distance between her reality and that of the world she once helped create. At this critical moment on the beach, the old order intrudes with Janet and John, who walk down to her and ask her to sign her ‘real’ book, her last novel, holding out the page of the book to be signed together with a biro pen.  Iris can't (or wont?) do it, she refuses, she is like someone for whom the world that the book, and the signing of it, no longer mean anything.  Janet and John don’t see the sense in her new pebble book, and Iris destroys it, freeing the blank pages from the weight of the rounded stones, so that they are caught by the wind and taken out towards the sea. 

Eventually, then, dementia becomes an adversary for John, one that obliterates the Iris he once had, and it seems not to give their old ways of being together any room.  But nor does that old world, those old forms of ordering, have room for the new Iris.  And we see her taken to a home, reasonably happily, a space that seems to have room for her.  We see Iris dancing and singing alone, along a corridor, with huge windows down one side, filled with billowing, translucent curtains.  The corridor and Iris seem light and mysterious and calm, yet quietly joyous.  In the home, then, she seems to have regained the light, before she dies there, as John says, peacefully.

Finding ways to make room for dementia, and the reality and personhood of the one with dementia is hard, because it disorders the very foundations of our living together in the world: it can undermine a person’s capacity to be social, conform (more or less!), negotiate, or even resist, but intelligently, accountably, with reason.   Perhaps we can think then how dwelling with dementia is about seeing the sense in the reality and world of the person with dementia, becoming more competent in that world and letting the person who they once were, ‘go’, at the same time as letting the person they are becoming dwell with us, cherishing their difference.

[1] I am alluding to one of Martin Heidegger’s distinctions here. 

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Lars and the Real Girl: Mental Health, Communities and Stigma

The following essay is written by Dr. Martin O Neill from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences and relates to a showing of Lars and the Real Girl at last month's sciSCREEN.

I was recently asked to give a talk on mental health and community as part of the Cardiff sciSCREEN initiative.  following a showing of the film “Lars and the Real Girl”. This is a charming little film which recounts the tale of a social misfit in small town North American town who appears to compensate for his loneliness and social ineptitude by forming the delusion that he is in a “Girlfriend Experience” with a life like sex doll, which he names Bianca. As a story and as a modern morality tale this is a film that will take you through the whole gamut of emotions, and purely for its entertainment value I would thoroughly recommend you give it a watch.

I had been asked to give this talk after the screening in light of the fact that I have quite a long history of working in poor communities in the South Wales valleys that suffer severe health issues both of the physical and psychological nature.  I started the talk by recounting a recent conversation I had had with a physician who had worked with the late great Archie Cochrane. One of Archie’s most famous pieces of work consisted of a study of the Rhondda Fach conducted in the 1950s. During this conversation the physician recounted how, at that time, the main health problems communities faced concerned pneumoconiosis, TB  and other respiratory diseases related to the mining industry and smoking. “Of course” he said “I am sure if we were doing the study today we would find mental health issues would be the main problem”. I had to agree whole heartedly.  The experience gained from working in the area for over 10 years has meant I know only too well that following the demise of the heavy industries, that had once been not only the raison d’etre of these communities but also the cause of the respiratory illnesses that blighted them, has left an emptiness and anomie where mental health issues have impacted on the lives of many.

Although in many ways this film is certainly a feel good one, the way that Lars’ family respond to his delusion is typical of the way many families react when one of their relatives is affected by mental health issues. Denial, blame, guilt, trying to talk “sense” to the individual, a sense of powerlessness are all common responses to something that understandably people find very distressing when it impacts on a loved one. Often the treatment or care that is available in such areas, particularly for people suffering quite low level psychological problems such as mild depression, is poor and may even appear to exacerbate the situation. The high levels of medication prescribed in the community does little to address the underlying problems and provides no real solution and can be seen as contributing to developing a population dependent on such “happy pills”. 

Mental health, unlike many other health conditions is often associated with stigma. If you recount to friends you are unable to attend a function or go to work because you have a migraine it does not have anywhere near the same connotations as if you say it is because you have depression for which you are receiving treatment. One of the central features of the plot of Lars and the Real Girl is how the community react to and, ultimately, accept Lars and his delusion. Here I think is a very useful message in relation to how we view mental illness and its treatment.  Early on when Lars’ family take him to the local doctor to be “cured” of his delusion, the doctor asks the family “Is he functional, can he wash himself, dress himself and get himself to work?” To which the family reply that he can.  “Well then” the doctor replies “let’s just go with it”. As the doctor also points out Lars is not in any distress nor is he a danger to himself or others. As was explored in the discussion that followed the screening this would probably not be considered acceptable practice by a healthcare professional under the current models of treatment.

Mental health issues are a reality for many people and many communities.  A statistic often quoted in the media is that one in three of us will experience some sort of mental health issue in our lifetime. Although the veracity of that statistic is somewhat questionable there is no doubt that mental health is a very real concern for many individuals and society in general. How should society and community deal with such an issue? Should we stigmatise it, pathologise it and medicate it as we currently appear to do with little affect? Mental illness can and does lead to great distress and pain, not just for those who experience it but also for their families and the wider community, and at times like that people certainly do need help.  It is also probably true however we all, in one way or another, delude ourselves at times to make life more tolerable. It could be, as we see in the conclusion to the film, that accepting a certain amount of oddness or delusion, particularly if it is harming no one, is no bad thing for both the individual and the wider community.   

Monday 9 June 2014

Iris (cert. 15) Tuesday June 24th at the Hadyn Ellis Building

Iris (cert. 15) from 6pm on Tuesday June 24th at the Hadyn Ellis Building

Iris, based on the life of British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, is a story of unlikely yet enduring love. As a young academic, Murdoch meets and eventually falls in love with fellow professor John Bayley, a man whose awkwardness seems in stark opposition to the self-confidence of his future wife. The story unfolds through Bayley's eyes.
He recalls their first encounter over 40 years earlier. These images portray Murdoch as a vibrant young woman with great intellect and are contrasted with the novelist's later life, after the effects of Alzheimer's Disease have ravaged her. Murdoch's great mind deteriorates until she is reduced to a mere vestige of her former self, unable to perform simple tasks and completely reliant on her husband.

Join us for a FREE screening of the film Iris, followed by a FREE panel discussion centering on  themes brought up in the film including dementia, social care, medical ethics and ageing. 

Confirmed speakers include Profs Kim Graham, John Gallacher, Joanna Latimer and Andrew Edgar

Free food and drinks will be provided and everyone attending is welcome to take part in the debate.

Date: Tuesday June 24th.
Time: 6pm start (please arrive 10-15 beforehand)
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff University.
Book at: Iris

Lingering on Pink and the Suspension of Disbelief

The following essay is written by the Artist - Julia Thomas - and relates to the Cardiff sciSCREEN discussing  the film Lars and the Real Girl.

I'm going to draw on some significant visual aspects within the film Lars andthe Real Girl and also relate the film to an art project and gallery space that I've been running in Roath, Cardiff. ATTIC involved art residencies, exhibitions, discussions and events exploring how we understand the mind personally, culturally and scientifically.

‘Lars and the Real Girl’ is a film about loss, attachment and abandonment, loneliness, compassion, acceptance and connecting but principally it’s about community and a collective compassion by that community towards an individual. Our understanding and experience of life comes about through our own personal encounters with the world but also with how we communicate with others and how we share those encounters with others through language, both verbal and visual. When I use the word language, I mean words, sounds, marks or signs that hold meaning.

Although there are other examples in the film, I’m going to draw on a particular visual reference - the colour pink, which I found interesting both in its use as a signifier and as a means of composition to guide us through the narrative of what Lars is experiencing. Early on in the film Lars’ lack of a girlfriend is highlighted by his church friend Mrs. Gruner when she gives him a pink carnation and tells him to give it to someone nice.  However, when Margo awkwardly steps forward as someone who could potentially fulfill that role, there is that very comical moment as Lars hurriedly throws the carnation to the floor and runs away as fast as he can. This instantly sets up the framework of the film to be about connecting (or not) with others and within the backdrop of community life.

Most likely triggered by Karin’s impending childbirth, Lars’ delusion of Bianca develops with humour and sensitivity throughout the film; he treats her as a real person with whom he can share his anxieties and use as a tool to enable him to confidently share his concerns with others. The pink bedroom features heavily and this, of course, was his mother’s bedroom who died whilst giving birth to Lars. Thus the pink comes to represent his mother’s lingering presence in the family home but also her absence in Lars’ life. Many of the conversations between Lars and Bianca, the anatomically correct sex doll that becomes his girlfriend, take place within this pink bedroom.

 When Lars’ relationship with Bianca begins to falter he goes bowling with Margo and again we see the significance of the colour pink when the filmmakers linger on a moment in which Lars is reluctant to let go of the bowling ball, the pink bowling ball. This can be read as the letting go of the disconnected life he has constructed to protect himself or is simply familiar with, possibly as a result of his upbringing by a father saddened and incapacitated by grief and loss. Finally, towards the end of the film, Lars prominently wears a pink carnation in his lapel at Bianca’s funeral.

Within artworks there is often less of an obvious narrative than within films but the use of colour, media, composition, signifiers and different modes of presentation or experiencing the work make up a visual language that may confer intended meaning or, more interestingly, open up the opportunity for the viewer to develop their own reading and meaning of the work through what they bring of themselves and their own experiences.

There are other aspects of the film I picked up on, many of which are particularly relevant to the ethos and concept of ATTIC and to the activities that have taken place there. The anatomically correct sex-doll, although perfectly acceptable to Lars, is not initially considered to be acceptable behaviour in the eyes of the community, especially the church members or parents of young children. Contrast that with the act of a socially acceptable form of greeting, the handshake. The handshake is highlighted in the film by the difficulties Lars has with physical contact and his obvious discomfort and pain of that process. Mores is a word used to define the accepted (moral) conventions of a group or society so it is interesting how the film plays with those perspectives and, indeed, plays with us as viewers of the film by presenting us with a seemingly unrealistic scenario of a community that later accepts Bianca as a ‘real girl’. Perhaps such ‘obvious’ unrealism simply echoes the schism that exists between real life and fantasy within Lars’ delusion and allows us to consider what we might achieve if we suspend our disbeliefs and conventions and open up to another perspective?
A comical moment in the film is when the pregnant Karin wrestles Lars to the ground in her frustration at being unable to connect with him and to cope with his increasingly evasive behavior. This takes place in the space between the family home and the garage where Lars has been displaced. Such negotiation of ‘the private and the public’ raises issues of safe territory and of how difficult it can be for a person to deal with other’s lack of understanding and distress.

Another trope in the film is ‘conversation through the act of making’; the church ladies ‘sit’ with Lars whilst Bianca is ill and they tackle the sensitive conversation of what her illness represents, all whilst in the act of knitting or embroidery. A creative/visual framework, conversation through creating/making, the bringing together of different perspectives, questioning the accepted conventions of different groups in society and the negotiation of the private and the public are all features of ATTIC and what it has been exploring. There is soon to be a short documentary film about the project but you can see some of the activity that took place by searching on

Thursday 8 May 2014

Lars and the Real Girl - May 29th

Dear sciSCREENer,

Please note that the Lars and the Real Girl sciSCREEN has been re-scheduled to Thursday 29th May.

Date: Thursday 29th May
Time: 6pm
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff
Book at: Lars and the Real Girl

Tickets are free but must be booked in advance

This event is sponsored by the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute as part of a series of events exploring mental health and neuroscience issues.

Please also note that our website - - is currently experiencing a few glitches. Apologies for any inconvenience.

Thursday 1 May 2014

District 9: Prawns, Pests and Matter out of Place

The following is an essay written by Jamie Lewis and relates to the District 9 sciSCREEN. 

District 9 (2009) is a science fiction film that in many ways is less about an imagined future and is more a social commentary on the here and now. There is no doubt that the film is an allegory for racism, ethnicity, South African Apartheid and, perhaps more widely, xenophobia. To this end, District 9 has some connections to the film Planet of the Apes (1968) which has also been described as an allegory for racism and arms-warfare (although this has been criticised in other quarters).  Weapons, along with social and class politics, as well as other worlds are also central themes in Blomkamp’s most recent film Elysium (2013). In Elysium, humans have built and colonised an artificial ‘planet’ in space, which can be seen from Earth.  In District 9, however, the aliens, colloquially known by the derogatory name ‘prawns’, have presumably come from space to Earth. It is this concept of the ‘alien’ in District 9 that I discuss in this short essay.

First let us compare the alien in this film with another film around the same time – Avatar (2009).  In both District 9 (Wikus van der Merwe) and Avatar (Jake Sully) the central character in the film is a human who becomes an ‘alien’. It is, however, arguably easier to empathise with those blue, sentient creatures from Avatar, as they were beautiful, idealised, moral beings. District 9 makes the audience worker harder to sympathise. The aliens are far from beautiful. In fact, they are meant to disgust, and for the most part, unlike Avatar, we don’t see them as morally superior. Indeed, in large parts of the film, they are presented as grotesque savages and scavengers. All the same, we do have to empathise with them as victims. Accordingly, District 9 is much more politically powerful than Avatar – as what keeps us treating other people humanely isn’t tested by treating people that we admire with dignity (Na’vi), but treating people we don’t understand with the same level dignity (Prawns). Thus, despite the film’s central characters being from a faraway world, its central concept is about something very human – the film is a commentary on humanity and inhumanity.

The setting for District 9 is Johannesburg, a place not only home to the prawns of District 9 but also in real life the ‘parktown prawn’ – a six-legged, cold-blooded insect with feelers on top of its head and underneath its jaw. These creatures can grow up to 10 cm masticating their way through a diet of snails, slugs and vegetation. Indeed, the parktown prawn is the inspiration behind the look of the District 9 prawn explaining their grotesque insect like features. Other resemblances between District 9’s prawn and the parktown prawn include the parktown prawn’s tendency to discharge a blob of noxious black sludge, and a penchant for cat and dog food as well as garden pests.

“Give them one hundred cans. – Hundred, One Hundred!”
“Yes, yes, but we take them all now”.
“Alright, boys! Get them the catfood – hurry up”
                          District 9 (2009)

Unfortunately for the residents of Johannesberg, the parktown prawn’s eating habits don’t end there. Parktown prawns also feed on floor boards, furniture and rugs. Thus, they may be a friend for the gardener but they are certainly a pest for the household dweller. Mary Douglas is important here if we are to unpack the symbolism behind the District 9 prawn. Douglas was a British social anthropologist best known for her work on human culture, rituals and symbolism. The ‘home’ for Mary Douglas was less a particular space and more a place brought under control (Fudge, 2011). For the most part, parktown prawns become a ‘pest’ when they are out of place. In the garden, they can be conceived as a friend of the South African greenkeeper, ridding the garden of unwanted gastropoda. In the house they are deemed a pest; invading the home, munching their way through furnishings, damaging property and ultimately making the place untidy or ‘dirty’.

Douglas’ seminal work first published in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) traces the word and meaning of ‘dirt’. Pollution or dirt, she argues is the consequence of ‘matter being out of place’. An example would be bodily fluids, important to the internal workings of one's body, but which on leaving the body become seen as filthy and dangerous. In a similar vein, the prawns of District 9 are also out of place. The following extract is part of a conversation between Christopher Johnson – one of the alien ship’s officers – and his young son.

Christopher Johnson's Son: How many moons does our planet have?
Christopher Johnson: Seven.
Christopher Johnson's Son: This planet only has one. I can't wait to see our planet again... it's bigger than this one, isn't it?
Christopher Johnson: [switches off holographic atlas of presumably the Alien home planet] Enough.
Christopher Johnson's Son: We go home now?
Christopher Johnson: Not home, no. This is where we must go.
[shows his son an MNU brochure outlining "Sanctuary Park Alien Relocation Camp" aka District 10]
Christopher Johnson: See that tent there? That might be ours.
Christopher Johnson's Son: I want to go home!
Christopher Johnson: We can't go home. Not anymore.
                                      District 9 (2009)

As much as the film’s message is about difference and tolerance, it is also about the aliens’ attempts – as E.T. (1982) might put it – 'to go home'.  At best, the prawns are viewed as ‘pests’ by the humans as they have inhabited their world. This, of course, is why Wikus’ is tasked with overseeing the mass eviction of the alien prawns from the town to a huge camp out-of-town. Unlike the parktown prawn though they do more than infest the home, they overrun the structures of social order and social categorisation as well. It is only when Wikus begins metamorphosing into a prawn himself does he begin to understand these beings and begin to understand that social categories of place, space, home and alien are malleable, constantly shifting and, most importantly, socially generated. During his metamorphosis, and of possible interest to Douglas, Wikus also begins to see the humans with their powerful weaponry and interest in acquiring the alien weaponry as more dangerous than the prawns. Just as the parktown prawn is mischaracterised as a prawn (they are actually king crickets), Wikus, realises he has mischaracterised the District 9 aliens. They are more than bottomfeeders- they too have a society, and they too have families. Most importantly, they too have homes, and the slums they are forced to inhabit on earth are not brought under control enough for the prawns' liking so as to  appropriately function as a new 'home'. 

The Hunger Games and Roman History

 The following essay is written by Guy Bradley and relates to the sciSCREEN centering on The Hunger Games.

The Roman allusions in the Hunger Games are myriad and clearly intentional. Suzanne Collins has stated in interviews that the ancient world, and in particular gladiatorial games, was the inspiration for the idea of an autocratic government forcing people to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses.

The link is made explict throughout the series. To give some examples. The name for the fictional state of Panem, Latin for bread, is a direct lifting from Juvenal’s (and Fronto’s) famous phrase that the plebs are only interested in panem et circenses, bread and circuses. Juvenal is referring to chariot racing in the circus, circenses, but Collins draws more heavily on the gladiatorial games. The term ‘Games’ comes from the Latin ‘Ludi’, originally meaning festivals with a variety of different entertainments (gladiatorial combats became popular only towards the end of the Roman Republic, and never surpassed chariot racing).

The idea of a Capitol dominating and exploiting its outlying districts echoes the primary place of Rome within an empire made up of provinces. The names of the privileged elite in the Capitol are predominantly Roman, creating overtones of a Rome-like decadence. For instance, the autocratic president Coriolanus echoes the arrogant patrician of the same name from early Rome; the gamesmaker Seneca, like his namesake who was an advisor the emperor Nero, is forced to commit suicide by an all-powerful leader. Other names are Roman in origin, but less directly mirror their ancient counterparts: the talkshow host Caesar alluding to the dictator Julius Caesar, and Plutarch, a Greek biographer in the Roman empire whose work inspired many of Shakespeare’s ancient characters

It is not just Rome that provides the source material here. The 'Reaping' of tributes consciously reworks the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Crete demanded a regular annual tribute of youths from Athens, who would be sacrificed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Collins says that Katniss is a ‘futuristic Theseus’, the hero who volunteers to face the Minotaur and by killing him overturns this cruel system. Spartacus is another acknowledged allusion, a slave forced to fight in the arena, who then leads a rebellion against Rome – luckily Katniss meets a better end than his followers, who were crucified along the Appian Way.

The Games themselves echo many Roman themes. Just as in Rome, the staging of the Games is as important as the event itself. The tributes are paraded before the adoring crowds in chariots, just as gladiators paraded in their colourful armour before fighting. Gladiators were typically slaves, condemned to fight; yet they could win considerable prestige through success in the games, and the lure of the arena was such that even free Romans volunteered on occasion to fight.

Training and skill mattered as much to Roman gladiators as in the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games the tributes from some districts, career tributes or ‘Careers’ for short, are trained for the Games from an early age. All tributes get some rudimentary training in weaponry and survival skills, in the equivalent of Roman gladiator barracks, with help from winners of the Games (just as gladiator trainers, lanistae, were often retired gladiators). Like gladiators, some tributes have specialised training in various weaponry, though archer gladiators were rare: presumably the risk to the audience was too high, though predictably the ‘bad’ emperor Commodus had a go on regular occasions. In the Hunger Games, comparative amateurs come up against more highly trained adversaries. Untrained tributes are expected to have little chance and in Rome, highly trained or veteran gladiators seemed to have much better chances of winning. However, one of the most notable contrasts with Rome is that the imagined scenario is more bloodthirsty than most gladiatorial games. One of the surprises that has emerged from modern study is that gladiators were relatively infrequently killed. They spent much time training, didn’t fight very often, and it’s estimated that only 10% or so were executed by their opponent when they lost in the 1st c. AD. The editor, the provider of the Games, has a financial incentive not to allow too many gladiators to be killed off: they represented a substantial investment of his time and expense that it would be better to reuse later. The Darwinian scenario of the Hunger Games is closer to the execution of prisoners by sword and by condemnation to the beasts that accompanied the more ritualised and carefully staged pairings of gladiator types.

There are some interesting parallels between the behaviour of the audience of the arena and of the Hunger Games, though the televising of the spectacle leaves the audience more detached from the action. The whims of both, and their thirst for blood, ultimately drives the spectacle and influences the outcome. The gamesmakers manipulate the situation to favour particular outcomes, and play the audience. In Rome the emperor is the primary patron of the plebs, and losing them would make his position precarious. Appealing to the crowd and to the verdict of the gamesmaker/editor is critical in both scenarios, and more realistic than films like Gladiator, which probably underplay the gladiators’ subjection to the whims of the crowd.

Clearly then this is not a positive conception of ancient Rome: contrast, for instance, the way that the founders of the US constitution drew on Rome for its Republican political models. Roman history has always been a source of negative as well as positive examples, from which you may, as Livy says, ‘select what to emulate and what to avoid’. Inevitably it is difficult to escape the influence of our sources: the Hunger Games draws on the moralising perspective of ancient authors like Juvenal to emphasise the complicity and shallowness of the audience. There’s also something of Gibbon’s outlook from the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the decadence of the Capitol’s corrupt elite. But some elements are rather perceptive and plausible, particularly the reflections on power and popularity, and the emphasis on the nexus of elite power and the whims of the audience. Just as the gladiatorial games were ultimately a manifestation of the powerlessness of slaves in Roman society, so the Hunger Games provides a powerful warning about the consequences of autocracy, wrapped up in some surprisingly traditional clothing.

Monday 14 April 2014

Lars and the Real Girl - May 29th at HEB

Lars and the Real Girl (cert. 12) from 6pm on May 29th at the Hadyn Ellis Building 

Sometimes you find love where you’d least expect it. Just ask Lars, a sweet but quirky guy who thinks he’s found the girl of his dreams in a life-sized doll named Bianca. Lars is completely content with his artificial girlfriend, helped along by a supportive community of colleagues, friends and family, but when he develops feelings for Margo, an attractive co-worker, Lars finds himself lost in a unique love triangle, hoping to somehow discover the real meaning of true love. Offbeat and endearing, this romantic comedy takes a fresh look at dating and relationships and dares to ask the question: What’s so wrong with being happy?

Join us for a FREE screening of the film followed by a sciSCREEN discussion touching on issues of mental health, healthcare, community, religion and relationships from a panel of academic experts.

Refreshments will be provided.

Date: Thursday 29th May
Time: 6pm
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff
Book at:  Lars and the Real Girl

Tickets are free but must be booked in advance.

Sponsored by the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute as part of a series of events exploring mental health and neuroscience issues.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Surveillance and the Search in The Hunger Games

The following essay is written by Dr. Jamie Lewis and relates to The Hunger Games sciSCREEN.

Disclaimer: I approach this essay as someone who has not read the books and who has only watched the Hunger Games Part 1.

The central premise of The Hunger Games, that of kids killing each other for public spectacle, is extremely chilling and disturbing. To this end, The Hunger Games revokes memories of William Golding’s dystopian novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, which itself was adapted for film in 1963, and again in 1990. It also has a nod, well more of a bow actually, to the 1975 classic RollerBall in which Jonathan, like Katniss, defeats the purpose of the game by deciding not to kill their opponent; an act which not only changes the rules of the game but an act which presumably sets in motion a challenge to the ruling elite – a spark to ignite the uprising. The film is therefore far more than a killing spree. For me, the film is a commentary on the inequality of society, presented in the increasingly popular young adult action-romance genre that includes films such as the Twilight Saga and the Harry Potter series. However, it is the underpinning social commentary that the film provides which, in my opinion, elevates The Hunger Games above similar contemporary pictures. The film takes us on ride from the past (with references to Roman gladiatorial events and circuses underpinned by a David and Goliath narrative) to the present (of TV screens, trains, and an ever expanding celebrity gaze) and into a future (of forcefields, trackerjackers and genetically engineered animals). To attempt to unpack all of the central threads in the film would therefore be a foolhardy endeavour.  There are far too many. For the purposes of this essay I will therefore focus on a couple motifs that interest me as a sociologist.

‘A journey of expedition, for hunting, exploration or investigation, especially in East Africa.’

In The Hunger Games we are privy to two aspects of the concept of ‘safari’ – ‘the hunt or the search’ and ‘the journey’

The Hunt/ The Search
In one of the first scenes in the film, we find Katniss resisting the State by illegally foraging for food in the forests of District 12. She is hunting food presumably to take home to feed her family.  It is the hunting skills she develops growing up in the forests along with other essential survival skills which providers her with the necessary attributes to survive being hunted by a group of contestants during The Hunger Games.  To hunt in packs (a nod to our primitive pasts) is a tactic some of the contestants deploy during the games as they target Katniss who they perceive to be a significant threat to them winning the contest.

Whilst we see the concept of hunting in its literal form figure prominently in the film, we also see ‘the hunt’ in a more metaphorical presence.  The title of the film mirrors its main event – The Hunger Games - where the hunt is on discover the last ‘tribute’ standing who will be crowned the victor. Such a search is presumably a chilling commentary on the explosion of talent shows such as X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent that attempt to find the next new star and survival reality shows such as Castaway and 71 Degrees North, which also catapults its contestants into the public domain.  Dressed up in more grotesque form, The Hunger Games does far more than create the next star though. The sadistic annual games serves the purpose of distracting those based in the districts from the realities of their life – from poverty, from inequality and from every day hunger. A Marxist might speak of the games as the ‘opium to the masses’ – distracting the unprivileged from the reality of their shared situations. This might explain why the districts have not routinely come together in revolt against the Capitol – an apathy that, in part, borders on voluntary servitude. Of course, Rue’s death watched together by inhabitants of District 11 on one of the large telescreens does cause a communal emotional response – what Durkheim might have called ‘collective effervescence’-  that sets in motion a mini riot instigated by Rue’s father. However, that the technology screening the events is seemingly one way, with little opportunity for the citizens of District 11 to communicate with one another other than through communally watching events unfold in controlled areas, meant that a spontaneous mob-like reaction was quashed relatively abruptly. Nevertheless, the tantalising tagline for the next film Catching Fire that ‘every revolution begins with a spark’ suggests that a more significant, organised uprising is not too far away.

The Journey
The film’s central character is Katniss Everdeen and it is through her eyes with which we see most of the world. Katniss’ personal journey is one of adaptation. Ironically, despite its obvious dangers, in many ways she is more comfortable in the virtual forests of The Hunger Games that remind her of the forests she grew up in, than she is in front of the gaze of the TV cameras and during some of the lavish spectacles in the build-up to the main event. In the spotlight, Katniss feels out of place, and much of her training is tailored towards being seen to be more approachable, lucid and confident on camera.  Developments in such personal characteristics are a feature of many people’s teenage years (although it may not extend to television appearances). Katniss’ personal development is not the only journey we are taken on in The Hunger Games though. Although situated in a static present, the film juxtaposes ideas of the past, the near past, the near future and a possible dystopian future. The symbolic scene of the train moving from the impoverished boroughs of District 12 whose primary industry is coal, passing through some of the other under-privileged districts predicated on agriculture and livestock through to the wealthy districts that manufacture electronics and weapons is especially poignant.  Such a journey reflects some significant human developments – the move from pre-industrial society, to industrial society and into a new technological age of virtual reality and xenotransplantation. Of course, such ‘progression’ is also compartmentalised in today’s world. The districts of Panem could be seen to represent different areas of the world at present. Today, we have societies built on industrialization, others on agriculture, whilst others still have entered a new technological age. These are often conceptualised as stages in a progression in which countries, communities and individuals endeavor to own the products of their own labour.


Inequality between the Capitol and the Districts is perhaps best illustrated by the divide between the technological haves and the technological have nots. In the Capitol, there have been significant developments in science and technology that include advancements in technologies of inspection and surveillance, developments in genetics, and significant augmentation in virtual reality. These enhancements are countered by the scenes in the poorer districts where there is a conspicuous absence of technologies – mobile phones, televisions, the internet etc. Like many dystopias, it is difficult to discuss the film without considering George Orwell’s 1949 book 1984. Like 1984, the citizens of Panem are subjected to omnipresent governmental surveillance and control. The Hunger Games itself, acts as an intense microcosm of what actually happens out in the real world. The tributes playing the game have to fight to stay alive, they have little in the way of resources and they are controlled, managed – even stage-managed – by the puppeteers in the Capitol. Both those playing the game and those living in the district have a carrot too. The carrot for those in the games, is raw and fundamental – the reward for winning the event is their life. The cult and celebratory status that comes with winning is presumably a further bonus. For those in the real-world, The Hunger Games is a type of annual entertainment. From the relief of not being selected or having a child selected to participate in The Games to the sense of district pride, identity and outright passion in supporting your tribute as you would support your local football, rugby, hockey, netball team, The Games act as a source of escapism for those watching back in the districts. Citizens of the districts back their tributes, willing them to win. As President Snow declares:  ‘Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained’. Too much hope then can move an issue from an inconvenience to a serious situation very quickly. This is especially true if one of the winners, in this case Katniss, becomes bigger than The Games itself.

In the same way that technology is the privilege of the Party in Orwell’s Big Brother, technology is the privilege of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Technology is used to control, manipulate (sometimes genetically), strike fear (for example, through the release of Wolf Mutts), and for entertainment. As such, the concept of Big Brother in The Hunger Games is a mix of Orwell’s Big Brother in which the state is watching and surveilling its citizens and the UK television programme which places strangers together in a house, locked away from the outside world for around 3 months as a form of voyeuristic entertainment.  When speculating as to the reasons the citizens of Panem continue to watch the games year in year out: we might propose tradition, utter fear of the repercussions of resistance, sadistic enjoyment or morbid fascination – in the way we sometimes can’t take our eyes off a road accident. Ironically, though, the extremely violent concept of The Games serves the purpose of pacifying the masses.  The tributes are not the only ones surveilled and controlled, so too are the citizen of the districts who watch The Games on the large telescreens.

When scholars write about surveillance, their starting point is often Jeremey Bentham and the panoptican. The panoptican describes the architecture of a prison, where prisoners in a cell may occupy the circumference, whilst the officer is positioned in a watchtower in the centre. From their vantage point, the single watchman or woman can observe all the prisoners, but cannot be seen. This places them in the position of being able to surveill all the prisoners without them knowing they are being watched.  Of course, the same systems of surveillance that are built to protect, may be feared for their power to keep track of personal lives, and groups. The control room of the virtual reality games reminds us of this design.  But where once surveillance was relatively static focussing on a single space (such as the panoptican), authors such as David Lyon comment on how the means of communication is increasingly mobile and people cannot hope to evade surveillance. In The Hunger Games this is achieved through remote spies such as Tracker Jackers and JabberJays. Even when Katniss moves towards the far-flung boundaries of the virtual forest, she is tracked and chased back towards the centre by a fire ball. This move from the outskirts of the forests back towards its heart also mirrors a central theme in the film. Katniss shuns the limelight, her move to the borders may not have just been a survival technique, it may have also been her yearning for the familiar. Indeed, the comparative privacy of District 12’s forests (the most remote area of the most remote district), which we see at the beginning of the film contrasts with the end of the movie in which Katniss is positioned centre stage in one of a number of celebratory public appearances.

Monday 24 March 2014

District 9 on April 10th

District 9 (certificate 15), Thursday April 10th from 6pm 

The next Cardiff sciSCREEN will follow a screening of District 9 in the Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University from 6pm.

The panel will include Howard Barrell (apartheid and South African politics), Gordon Hughes (policing and urban security), Nick Johns (race and racism), Richard Gale (residential segregation) and Martha Triantafilou (infection and immunity).

Tickets: are FREE but must be booked in advance. Book tickets here. Please be aware this film is a certificate 15. It contains strong language and violence
Showing: 6 pm. Please arrive 10-15 minutes before the showing starts so we can check tickets and get you to your seat.
Venue: Hadyn Ellis Building, Cardiff University, Maindy Road, CF24 4HQ: Location information.

The event is sponsored by Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences.