The Virus and the Uncertainty Monster

So, it’s been a while. A long while.

I’m not sure why this blogging thing turned into such a difficult habit to adopt. Maybe I’m just bad at developing habits. Maybe it’s just hard to overcome the desire for perfectionism and producing something of value. I need to accept that the world is messy and not every single thing needs to be worthy of award and acclaim to have some value in discussion. Better to try to contribute to a conversation, than to not.

So, in the midst of a pandemic, let’s start again. I think my goals here are twofold. First, to share some of the extraordinary things we’re learning about the world, because it’s incredible, and inspiring, and I think science doesn’t always do a good job of reaching out beyond the immediate science community, and as an individual with interest and education in earth science and biology, I think my particular slice of interests doesn’t always get represented, especially in combination. Secondly, as a scientist-in-training, and a storyteller-in-training (and probably perpetually in training for both), I’m interested not only in the facts, but in how we engage with them: what narratives we build about the world, why we struggle with big issues, what biases we bring into our studies. By ignoring the very human storytelling, meaning-making impulse, be its products good or bad, I worry that we lose the ability to identify the ways we can make science/education/the world more accessible and understand how we got to where we are today.

And yes, it is messy and there are no perfect answers and I know nothing, really, but without digging in and starting conversations, I’m not sure how we can hope to grow.

And so, this pandemic! I’ve had this project in the back of my head for a long while about Frankenstein and climate change, exploring how/why we’ve employed analogy to Frankenstein to science, and the monster narratives around research and big scary issues like climate change that are full of uncertainty. But a lot of that material is applicable here, too, I think. I wanted, as a person who has spent some time in the land of viruses and vaccines, to do a sort of informational post about the situation, but honestly, there are enough voices and fact sheets on this already. Maybe I’ll do something more personal at some point, but not today.

Pandemics are confusing. We’re being accosted by something too small to see that we don’t even know is present until it’s far too late, that has effects that we don’t even quite understand. The rapid pace and openness of research right now is boosting our ability to respond, but also making it hard to keep up with information and revealing how little we know and how quickly what we do know can be overturned by a new experiment, and in general, our society isn’t fluent enough in that process to be comfortable with that uncertainty. More could be said here, but I feel like it has already been nicely summed up in other places (like here, for instance).

I keep returning to this idea of an “uncertainty monster,” which I was previously interested in through the context of climate change, but also puts useful language on the current situation. I think it’s a no-brainer that one of the worst parts of the pandemic, at least for those of us who are fortunately healthy and housed, is the uncertainty, not knowing what’s going on and what will happen in the future. But what’s really interesting is looking at how we talk about the pandemic, and which patterns of response we fall into. And I hope that by identifying these patterns we are better equipped to manage the flood of information and misinformation through awareness of the strategies used to communicate it.

To summarize (badly) the uncertainty monster (citations below if the link doesn’t work):

  • We like to be able to categorize and explain our world.
  • Things that don’t fit neatly into our cultural boxes (“monsters”) produce fascination and/or fear
  • Big issues (like climate change, new technologies with major ethical considerations, pandemics, etc) produce an “uncertainty monster” – we’re stuck in a grey space where we know enough to know there’s a problem but not enough to fix it, and have to navigate informational shortcomings, weigh our values, balance policy and research priorities, etc.
  • There are a few general strategies for transforming the unknown into something we can live with:
    • Monster exorcists try to get rid of the monster. They see the way we categorize our world, as inflexible, and thus anything that interferes with the status quo must be removed by any means. On the one hand, an exorcist might say that if we just do enough research and throw enough money at the problem, we’ll be able to fill all the gaps in our knowledge, and make the virus go away for good. On the more unfortunate side, monster exorcists might say things like “it’s time to go back to normal,” pointing to individual studies as adequate information to make a plan, ignoring the much greater complexities in play. Other monster exorcists who take issue with vaccines (categorical monsters in their own right, but that’s a side topic and please get your vaccines, dear readers) might co-opt the pandemic to further their anti-vaccination stance, using one monster to battle another. How do we make this nightmare, and everything it might imply about our weaknesses, go away?
    • Monster adaptors seek to adapt the monsters to better fit into our existing understanding of the world. On the good end of the spectrum, these include researchers and science communicators who try to put the pandemic into perspective. Another adaptation strategy is to try to transfer as much of our usual way of life to this new, distant and online format, proceeding to the greatest extent possible as normal to keep chaos from infiltrating every aspect of life. On the bad side, reframing it as “just the flu” and conspiracy theorists who concoct stories, say, about viral origins. Can we reframe the narrative to make lemonade from these viral lemons?
    • Monster embracers are eager and excited about the monster. And okay, I doubt anybody is happy about a pandemic, which is where this metaphor, originally applied to new technologies, breaks down a bit. But there’s plenty of people who are using their time at home to be more productive than they usually would be, or are finding value in the new mode of life that they hope to keep once “normal” returns. And there are a few who veer off course and rationalize the virus as due punishment for human action (i.e. the “nature is better off without us, nature defends itself” approach), accepting it as if not fantastic, justified. Monster embracing does not question why the monster is, but accepts it as it is.
    • Monster assimilators adapt the monster and our conceptions of the world. This balanced approach is best encapsulated by conversations that acknowledge both the current risk posed by the pandemic and the need for future resiliency. Monster assimilators may seek to understand the virus to minimize its impacts (through social distancing strategies, vaccines, medications, etc), but also believe there is no real return to the status quo. They may imagine ways to make society more responsive to crisis, and hope to use the current break from ordinary life as an opportunity to find solutions to the larger problems that play into the pandemic.

I think it’s also interesting that these categories can all be effective or harmful depending on the context and application. So, what monster strategies do you tend to fall back on? What narratives are you consuming, and what’s their underlying focus? How do these strategies differ in the face of different problems (linking to the uncertainty monster & climate change below).

  • Smits, M. “Taming Monsters: The Cultural Domestication of New Technology.” Technology in Society 28, no. 4 (November 1, 2006): 489–504.
  • Curry, J. A., and P. J. Webster. “Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 92, no. 12 (August 8, 2011): 1667–82.
  • J, van der Sluijs. “Uncertainty as a Monster in the Science-Policy Interface: Four Coping Strategies.” Water science and technology : a journal of the International Association on Water Pollution Research, 2005.

Stranger Things: Working with the Bones of Horror

Note: for anyone reading this from Tumblr, some of this is possibly going to be familiar – I’m more or less compiling previous commentary on Stranger Things over here and applying to the new season. And will split into probably three parts for my own sanity as much as yours.

So one of the things I’m interested in are the recipes that make a story work. Why do some fairytale adaptations feel more “real” than others? What makes an ending satisfying, and when is a seemingly-unsatisfying ending right for your story? Why do we enjoy scary stories so much, and what makes a good one?

Stranger Things, of course, draws on a wealth of pop culture and horror tropes (sometimes seeming more of a mashup than an original), which makes it really easy to take apart and explore through different lenses. Here I want to look at how the show follows the “rules” of horror to build cohesiveness and depth. A good horror story is more than a string of scary images, after all; it, like any other good story, begins a conversation about ourselves.

So. My three “rules” of horror (that are entirely up for debate, but we have to start somewhere:

1. Horror sanctions behavior
2. Horror reflects and distorts the anxieties of the real
3. Horror breaks and reforms the status quo

1. Horror Sanctions Behavior

To have a plot, you generally must have also have a problem. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Unrest in distant lands, creatures lurking in the night, a fight with friends. A bad decision is made, someone or something behaves in a way that challenges normal conduct. Something happens that should not happen, breaking the rules of that particular context.

In horror, which often builds into a theme of self-growth (seriously, have you noticed that if you’re not dead by the end, you’re often a Better Person?), it’s often the people who go through the horrifying events that transgress, but other times the error that ignites the story occurred in the past and created a threat that other people must address. In either case, the plot precipitates from this broken rule, allowing more and more frightening and inexplicable things to intrude into normal life, making visible the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions. My favorite example is the haunted house trope where a fighting couple finds their home becoming strange in response to their estrangement. Scary stories reinforce the norms that are already ingrained in the audience by conjuring up grotesquely exaggerated consequences – they remind us to be afraid of the dark. 

Which brings us to Stranger Things. In the first and second seasons (which are much more tightly thematically linked than the third season), we see both past and present bad behavior driving the plot. Sometimes there are simple causes-and-effects: when Nancy sneaks out to a party with Barb, despite this being the exact sort of thing their parents would disapprove of, Barb ends up disappearing. Dustin lies to his friends about his “discovery,” unintentionally helping another little monster to grow up (though admittedly this does pay off when said monster’s sweet tooth-derived loyalty saves the day later on). In other cases, characters must work to correct larger world problems that appeared long before the story began: the experiments that led to the opening of a gate to another world and release of the monsters happened in the past, but the fallout must still be addressed.

The third season is a little different thematically than the first two, but still puts heavy consequences on bad behavior. Billy exhibits a never-ending string of bad behavior, but it’s not until he’s out at night to meet Mrs. Wheeler, who he’s almost charmed into an affair that he is sidetracked and taken in by the Mind Flayer, becoming a literal monster in reflection of his usual predatory behavior. And it’s not usually the case that corrupt mayors allow Russian scientists to construct gates to alternate dimensions beneath your small town, but you have to admit the exaggerated consequences prove a point about authority figures that don’t look after the people they are supposed to protect.

Over all we see again and again that actions have consequences, and horror thrives where rules break down, allowing the genre to explore what scares us because…

2. Horror Reflects and Distorts the Anxieties of the Real

Everybody makes mistakes, so why do these transgressions scare us so much in horror? I believe it’s because horror amplifies each situation so that a small event becomes representative of a much larger societal concern. Horror latches onto the unspoken and unacknowledged anxieties about ourselves, our families, the world at large, etc, and asks what might happen if those concerns were made real. The best horror, I think, works like a mirror, where the anxiety and boundary-crossing is reflected in a monstrous consequence that matches what we most fear.

There are so, so many examples to point out in Stranger Things, but a common thread through all three seasons is uncertainty about science and scientific authority. In stark contrast to the close-knit small town, the laboratory is isolated behind gates and guards. Nobody knows exactly what they’re doing in there, but it can’t be good if they’re not part of the community. And the science itself is extremely boundary-crossing – literally in the creation of the gate to the Upside-Down, and figuratively in the experiments on people and apparent disregard for the lives of their subjects. Ties to the government only reinforce the untrustworthiness, especially as throughout the series we see the authorities fail again and again to reassure and protect the citizens of Hawkins. It would have been realistic to tell a story about a government agency failing to protect people from pollution (I mean, look at the story Nancy and Jonathan end up using to unveil the “truth” about the lab – toxic chemical spills are frightening enough and far more believable), but having actual inter-dimensional monsters rampaging around the town blows these quite reasonable anxieties out of proportion to asks what might happen if our most unimaginable fears became reality. As the world expands in the third season, this same thread extends to Cold War anxieties and fear not only of what our own scientists are doing, but what others, out there, who might have even less of our interest in mind, might be doing.

On a smaller scale, the characters of Stranger Things are constantly wrestling with the constraints of a fairly conservative small town where gender and societal roles are clearly demarcated and deviance not without consequence. Many of the terrible events end up feeding off of the background fear of change and breakdown of the expected codes of conduct. When Nancy tries harder than she probably should to become one of the cool kids (and physically loses a friend in a bit of horrific symmetry), she becomes more archetypal – the Rebellious Teenager, the Girl Who Just Wants to Fit In. We’ve all seen/experienced stories like this, so here individual actions become shorthand for more common experiences and concerns. Again we see social concerns – the fear of change again, intergenerational disagreements, and tension over the replacement of small local life with the flashy-but-unfamiliar generic commercialization by the new mall – in season three, where the mall that is the site of so much contention is where enemies both human and superhuman intrude, and new fads and fashions sweep the town with the same force as the Mind Flayer’s spread.

Perhaps characters and situations become more two-dimensional as a result of this extension of individual situations to broader impact, but that’s the cost of storytelling. Ultimately whatever story is being told, once the fear has been confronted…

3. Horror Breaks and Reforms the Status Quo

All together, horror stories effect catharsis. The horrific appears in the cracks of everyday life and the seams must be closed before the story can end. Anxieties must be dealt with and put back to sleep. 

No matter what Will goes through, he always ends up back at home with his family. Eleven always confronts her monster and closes the gate (more on this next time). There’s still school and work to do and family obligations to meet. Hawkins is still a (mostly) quiet little town.

All stories need a resolution, but getting to this point in horror requires confrontation of the monstrous. After all the monstrous always targets our weak spots. Only by directly facing fears can the world be rebuilt. Again, will write more about this next time when exploring how trauma is addressed in the story, but Eleven must again and again face the creatures that she released as a consequence of what has been done to her, and only can succeed by learning to use her anger and fear. Joyce in particular is a force of nature, turning her terror over losing her youngest child into the energy and creativity needed to solve any problem in her path.

But despite the sameness at the end, there is always change. Eleven becomes increasingly powerful through the series as she grows older and more aware of what has been done to her. Nancy and Steve show quite a bit of character development – as Nancy grows into herself, she becomes a truth-teller for the world at large (going so far as unveiling government conspiracy to get some kind of resolution after her friend’s death and pursuing a story she knows to be significant despite her boss’s disapproval), and Steve becomes the considerate and brave friend that everyone needs when fighting supernatural monsters and accidentally spying on a secret laboratory hidden beneath the local mall.

Horror destroys the ability to hide our fears and failures. It forces us to confront these interior darknesses, made physical, until wrong is made right and our worlds are transformed.*

*but not forever. remember, the monster always returns

Musings on Frankenstein and Climate Change

Okay, so I’ve been playing with this whole Frankenstein and climate change thing, right? Well, I might have accidentally outlined more than that:

So in lieu of a detailed post or series on the subject, maybe it’s better if I just outline some of the ideas I’m playing with and trying to coalesce:

  1. Frankenstein is a story about a creator failing to take full responsibility for his creation. Frankenstein’s creation is, well, monstrous, but not directly harmful if treated with respect. It is Frankenstein’s action of running away from his creation and its consequences that leads to misfortune, not the monster itself.
  2. Interestingly, our (Western society, note, not trying to make any claims for anything global here, don’t worry) pop culture understanding of the story is very different – the monster itself is terrifying, and the story becomes a warning against tampering with nature/meddling with forces beyond our control.
  3. This becomes especially true and interesting when looking at science and technology – wherever major changes are on the horizon, the monster looms as well. There are so many references! A whole issue of Science dedicated to the story! Frankenstein is intimately tied to scientific advancement and climate conditions (written in the aftermath of the short-term global climate consequences of Mt. Tambora’s eruption) of the time. This makes it an especially interesting and apt metaphor for these changes in our time.
  4. But why do we insist on misusing the story for literally everything we aren’t sure of and don’t understand? A few ideas:
    1. major shifts in science and technology generally require us to explore new territory – territory that often entails blurring cultural categories. Major advancements in science can be like opening Pandora’s box – the monsters come out and don’t want to go back in. For instance, vaccines (categories crossed: dead vs alive, healthy vs unhealthy), CRISPR (natural vs unnatural, nature vs nurture, also brings up issues of ethics and equality), climate change (again, natural vs unnatural, especially manmade vs out of our control, threatens to completely change environmental features we take for granted, etc).
    2. A really big common theme for the scientific category crisis – we get hung up on what is “natural.” We’ve built this huge division between ourselves and the natural world – setting up “nature” as pristine, beyond our influence, and undeserving of our presence, and “humanity” as somehow unclean, and separate from nature. This causes all kinds of issues, from making it difficult to see our impact on the natural world, discouraging placing value in each other and our own created spaces, and making it nigh impossible to discuss ways to use our influence to make our environment more resilient and better able to support us and other species in times of change. The only good human influence on the natural world, we say, is no influence.
    3. To make things even more complicated, in the case of climate change, we also have to deal with the uncertainty of what climate change actually means. It’s a really big concept and the numbers are hard to process. And there’s a great deal we just can’t and won’t know until it happens. This is monstrous in and of itself, and makes it even harder to get things done.
  5. This all boils down to: in the face of climate change, we tend to freeze up and would almost rather do nothing or attempt more than is realistically possible (either way will lead to loss and may leave many vulnerable) rather than really address our culpability and find creative, practical ways to salvage what we can and move forward. We are so afraid of the monster we could create that we’d rather run away. We’re so afraid of ourselves.
  6. So I guess the question is, how do we navigate complex issues with the ghost of Frankenstein over our shoulder? Step one, I think, is being aware of the conversations we are unwilling to have, and investigating why. Monsters serve a purpose, but you’ve got to acknowledge them, tame them, listen to what they have to say. Or else we’re all just running away.

A few of the many accumulating sources:


Monster Theory: an Introduction

I’m not sure what initially got me interested in monsters, but they’ve been a constant theme in my life for several years. I figure I should do a quick overview of the world of “monster theory” to which I’m likely to refer frequently, just for the sake of whoever hasn’t already fallen down this particular rabbit hole.

The etymology of “monster” suggests the function of monsters in stories: a monster means to warn, to demonstrate, to foretell.

Monster theory explores what monsters mean and what they do in the stories we tell. Monsters appear in all forms of media and have made their appearance as long as we’ve been telling stories. Many details change with the times, but some monsters appear again and again and again. Why is that? What are we afraid of? Some emotions are just so deeply part of the human experience and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, we’ve created whole genres around them (like horror). What do these stories tell about ourselves? Exploring the things that frighten us is illuminating – underneath a simple story may lie hidden biases and room for improvement. This is why I like horror and monster-theorizing everything: it’s all about personal growth and being able to look our mistakes in the possibly-literal eye.

One sort of framework I reference a lot is “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Just to pull out the list (though read it, it’s short):

  1. The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body: Our monsters are created from our current cultural context:  fears, anxieties, desires, etc. that we are wrestling with right now
  2. The Monster Always Escapes: Monsters appear over and over again, mutating with culture; you can trace the changes and the common threads, but must always be aware of their shifting context. 
  3. The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis: Monsters are difficult to describe because they exist in between categories – they reveal the ways binary thinking and adherence to categorization break down. Reality is messy and so are its monsters. 
  4. The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference: Monsters are the Other; they exist where we find experiences different than our own. They reveal our fears of what lies beyond our borders and norms. 
  5. The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible: Monsters demarcate the borders of what we consider acceptable; monsters are transgressive and defy expectation. 
  6. Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire:Given the above, who doesn’t want to be a little monstrous? And who are we without them?
  7. The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming:Monsters tell us something about ourselves and our assumptions. 

Beyond Cohen, some useful tools when hunting monsters:

  • Concepts of the uncanny & liminality – we all know it when we see it, but what effect does the uncanny have on a particular work of art? What do in-between spaces allow us to accomplish on a plot and personal level?
  • Personally, I really enjoyed the classes I’ve taken on theater history and monsters in drama – I think exploring how visual/performing arts are built up and why choices are made in presenting stories and characters provides valuable context for interpreting depictions of monsters in plays/films
  • History of favorite monsters and monster genres, obviously. History of horror, folktales and myths from particular regions, etc.. History in general, really. You need the context.
  • With stories in translation I really like to find multiple translations to compare and see how differently translators approach the text.

Two kind of guiding rules I try to follow:

  1. The things people do can be monstrous, but people are people. I’m wary of labeling specific individuals as monsters, as I feel it makes them Other and makes it too easy to not admit our own culpability. Note this isn’t a hard and fast rule; I by no means mean this in any way that suggests victim blaming, or that hurtful actions are somehow okay because we could all have done it, etc. Evil is evil. But the power of monster stories lies in the conceptual and personal and less in the specifics.
  2. Sometimes two monsters superficially look the same but underneath have wildly different genealogies. Sometimes two monsters look wildly different, but at the heart are telling us the same thing.

Okay enough background for now. Hopefully won’t make me sound too crazy when I inevitably end up on Frankenstein and climate change, vampire history, and modern fairy lore or whatever else I wander into.