In the past Douglas Cowan, professor at Renison University College – University of Waterloo, has been a guest of TheoFantastique as he discussed his previous book Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Baylor University Press, 2008). Now he returns to discuss his forthcoming book Sacred Space on science fiction and transcendence, also through Baylor. Below is part 1 of this interview:
TheoFantastique: I thoroughly enjoyed your first book that explored religion and horror, Sacred Terror, and your next volume, that looks at science fiction, Sacred Space, makes yet another valuable contribution to the exploration of this type of subject matter. Do you have any plans to turn your analysis to fantasy to complete a trilogy of books given that fantasy films are often neglected as sources of serious cultural analysis?
Doug Cowan: Thanks for inviting me back to talk about the book. I do, in fact, have a third book underway, which will also be published by Baylor University Press. Its working title is Sacred Visions: Fantasy, Film, and the Mythic Imagination, though, like Sacred Space, it’s not just about cinema. In it, I also explore the mythic dimensions of television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Kung Fu, and Xena, Warrior Princess, as well as what I call “the ordinary fantastic,” the dimensions of fantasy that suffuse everyday life apart from witches, demons, swords-and-sorcery. I even begin discussion in the book on Gilligan’s Island, because, essentially, all cinema and television products are fantasies. We seem to forget that, though, when we relegate “fantasy” only to such films as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Contrary to the implication of shows such as Mythbusters, which is one of my favourites, but which renders “myth” as “falsehood” or “fiction,” mythic stories are those that tell us significant things about ourselves—what we value, what we are willing to sacrifice for what we value, and how those two things change as we grow, learn, and evolve. It’s not dissimilar, in many ways, to both horror and science fiction. Indeed, the hybrid versions of each—fantasy-horror; sci fi-horror; sci fantasy—demonstrate clearly that these are not discrete categories. They interpenetrate and inform one another, but we separate them artificially because it makes it easier for us to talk about them.
TheoFantastique: You had an early love for science fiction. Given this why did you start your exploration of the fantastic with a book on horror rather than science fiction?
Doug Cowan: That’s a good question. I hadn’t planned on writing three books on religion and film—though you have to understand “religion” in its broadest sense, as a relationship with what William James called “the unseen order,” however that is conceptualized—indeed, I hadn’t really planned on writing any. I’m trained as a sociologist of religion and my area of specialty is new religious movements. Sacred Terror began almost by accident. I was watching a Hellraiser marathon and realized how much religious significance there was in the series (at least the first four installments) and began to wonder about the larger religious dimensions of cinema horror—and what they could tell us sociologically. That is, what could they tell us about the way different groups of people construct, confront, and resolve (or not) their fears? When I got into researching and writing Sacred Terror and saw how much there was there, how little serious attention had been paid to it, and, I’ll admit, how much fun I was having (after all, I watch movies and call it work), I thought about bringing the same kind of analysis to science fiction and, as it turns out, to fantasy.
TheoFantastique: In Sacred Space you suggest that science fiction provides examples of the human quest for transcendence. How are you defining transcendence, and can you provide a few examples of various conceptions of transcendence in science fiction to illustrate?
Doug Cowan: Let me set the scene for that a bit. Sacred Terror was organised around the principal of sociophobics, the idea that what we fear, how we fear, and how we resolve fear are culturally contingent—that is, not everyone fears the same thing or for the same reasons. Zombie films, for example, do not do well in India, if for no other reason than the preferred method of corpse disposal there precludes the notion of reanimated bodies wandering the countryside muttering, “Brains… brains…” In Haiti, on the other hand, where the concept of zombiism is a minor, though important part of an indigenous religious tradition, there is a significantly different sociophobic resonance. There is a fear factor in one place that simply doesn’t exist in the other.
Sacred Space, on the other hand, is oriented around the notion of sociospera—culturally constructed and reinforced understandings of hope, hope that is often manifest in the concept of transcendence. Now, for many people, transcendence is limited to (and by) their understanding of deity: God is transcendent, we are immanent, that sort of thing. I say “limited” here because, like the lack of attention paid to cinema horror, much of the writing about religion and science fiction is limited to finding this or that example of one’s own tradition in a particular film or television series, or to dismissing those films or tv shows because one doesn’t find those examples. It becomes a rather uninteresting, and ultimately fruitless, exercise in “Find the Christ figure,” for example. I say “fruitless” because Christ figures become almost ubiquitous when that’s what people want to find, not necessarily because that’s what’s there. In order to address some of the different dimensions of this problem, throughout the book and in various ways I return to one of Carl Sagan’s comments. I’m paraphrasing here, but his basic point is: “Your god is too small, your theological horizons too provincial.”
Put simply, the quest for transcendence is the search for something beyond ourselves, the belief that outside the boundaries of everyday living something greater exists. For some, the quest for transcendence is our trust in a purpose larger than the faint echo registered by a single life, the possibility of transcendence is a conviction that invests our lives with meaning and value. For others, it is something else: the beyond that hovers on the other side of the horizon, the edge of the map marked hic sunt draconis (here be dragons), the “second star to the right” that guides our imaginations into the unknown.
If we set aside the limited theological binary of transcendent God/immanent human, three different domains tend to shape our understanding of transcendence. First, there is the quest for transcendence of human limitations. From 1974 to 1978, for example, millions of viewers tuned in weekly to ABC and heard Richard Anderson’s famous opening narration for The Six Million Dollar Man: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Together with its spin-off, The Bionic Woman, in 2004 the two main characters in these series, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) and Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), were named to TV Guide’s “25 Greatest Sci-fi Legends.” Whenever a boundary has presented itself—there is a depth below which our submarines cannot descend, a height our aircraft cannot reach, a speed our powered machines cannot exceed and a distance they cannot cross—human ingenuity, tenacity, avarice, courage, foolhardiness, and dumb luck have combined in various measures to transcend what some regard as fixed limits, others merely as challenges.
The second domain is marked by the transcendence of social, cultural, or racial/species boundaries. When do we consider something a being worthy of the same rights as humans, for example? Can there be such a thing as a society of robots, of clones, of genetically engineered humans—and what are the hopes and fears these questions engender?
Rituals and rites of passage, for example, structure both the transcendence and the reinforcement of social boundaries, connecting the participants to all who have preceded them and presaging all who will proceed in generations to come. That it, they immanentize the framework of transcendence within which meaning is located. Both science fiction cinema and television have explored these areas extensively. During “Amok Time,” for example, one of the most famous episodes in the original Star Trek series, Mr. Spock is overtaken by pon farr, a traumatic regress from the dictates of logic into the unpredictability of emotion, a change that determines when a Vulcan is ready to mate. In the postapocalyptic society portrayed in Logan’s Run, the ecological limits of a population condemned to live in domed cities demands that those who reach the age of thirty participate in the rite of “Carousel”—suicide in the service of population control. In The Empire Strikes Back, while training under the impish Jedi master, Yoda, Luke Skywalker must face rites of passage drawn almost directly from the archetypal hero’s quest; he must transcend the limits of who he thinks he is in order to realize the possibilities of who he will become.
Finally, there is the notion of transcendence as a supernatural category. In one kind of theological understanding, God is transcendent; we are immanent. God is the Creator; we are the creation. God is radically absolute; we are radically contingent. For others, though, transcendence remains a function of moving past or beyond the perception of boundaries that keep us limited. For some, transcendence is the potential that what Stanislav Grof calls “transpersonal consciousness,” the belief that we can breach the boundaries of time and space as these have been established by material existence and reinforced through social and cultural frameworks that don’t allow for the possibility of a world (or worlds) beyond those boundaries. Calling on Jung’s seminal work on the “collective unconscious,” Grof argues that we participate in a much wider and deeper universe than most of us imagine and that we have the ability to participate with far greater intentionality and far keener awareness of our place in that universe.
On the other hand, if transpersonalism is predicated on the existence of non-ordinary states of consciousness to which we have access and which we can use to transcend the limitations of the physical brain, the concept of transhumanism posits that we can do the same for the physical body. We can transcend the limitations of the meat-bot, as it were. Of course, we have been doing this for some time, though at relatively primitive levels by transhumanist standards: iron lungs, pacemakers and artificial hearts, portable oxygen systems, dialysis, and cosmetic surgery. In all these cases, when the organic components deteriorate or fail, technology allows for life to continue. Even the ubiquity of corrective eyewear focuses attention on our willingness to address our disabilities technologically. In broad terms, for there are a number of varieties, transhumanism proposes to take this process out of the reactive realm of medical intervention and into the proactive domain of life enhancement and progressive immortality through cybernetics and other forms of organo-technological hybridity, nanotechnology, and “uploading”—releasing dependence on the physical body entirely and transferring the entirety of one’s consciousness into a computer.
TheoFantastique: How does your training as a sociologist provide the reader with a helpful perspective for considering transcendence in science fiction?
Doug Cowan: First and foremost, I think, by recognizing that transcendence means more to us, both individually and socially, than the difference between our contingent reality and some non-empirical reality we call “God.” It means I am neither bound by nor beholden to a particular theological perspective, which is something I think is a problem with much of the writing about so-called “religion and film.” It’s not really “religion and film” that people are writing about, but theology and film. They are bootlegging particular ontological understandings into interpretations of cultural products, often without acknowledging that that’s what they’re doing. Or they are suggesting that “religion” equals “theology,” most often Christian theology. What they are saying— sometimes subtly, other times not so much—is that “religion” equals their tradition and that the beliefs of others are somehow less. This is a significant problem in the field that I hope my own perspective as a sociologist can address.
The 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a good example of this theological bootlegging or the way in which H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was so drastically changed when George Pal produced the first film version of the story in 1953. In the first case, the interpretive tradition apparently ignored the putative religious dimensions of the film for nearly a generation, then all of a sudden, in the early 1980s, people started talking about Klaatu as an alien messiah and the story as a gospel allegory. Now, it’s virtually impossible to read anything about this film without encountering this kind of thing. People are entitled to see in films what they want, but you have to ignore pretty significant portions of the film and go through some serious theological gymnastics to turn it into a gospel story. I’ve written about these shifts in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, in an article called “Seeing the Saviour in the Stars.”
I treat transcendence as a social fact and try not to make moral or ethical (which are often products of a particular theology) evaluations on the worth or value of different visions of transcendence. This helps me avoid what I have called elsewhere the “good, moral, and decent fallacy,” the mistaken belief that religion as a human and social phenomenon is about making people good, moral, and decent. Certainly there are examples in which this is the case, but that is not (or should not be) a defining characteristic of human religious belief and practice.
Now, all this is not to say that I do not have my own biases or blind spots. That would be absurd, though I am certain that I will be accused of precisely that. We all have these blind spots, they’re just different for each of us.
TheoFantastique: There are many aspects of your discussion that I found fascinating in your book draft, but one in particular was the exploration of The War of the Worlds. How has the portrayal of religion shifted as the story moved from its initial literary expression to various film treatments?
Doug Cowan: The first thing to note is that Wells’ novel is anti-religious to the core. His commentary on religion is incarnated in the Weybridge cleric, who is shown throughout the book as a venal coward when compared with the more enlightenened narrator, a writer of “philosophical articles.” There is nothing redeemable in either the cleric or the religion he purports to represent. George Pal’s 1953 production, on the other hand, completely reverses the role of religion in the story and places the minister at its heart. Indeed, the Rev. Dr. Collins, the pastor of the local church, is the heart and soul of the film. He is the one who occupies the moral center, questioning the military option when communication with the aliens has not even been attempted, sacrificing himself in an unmistakably Gandhian moment prior to the attack on the Martian machines.
Unlike many 1950s science fiction films, though, there is a parity of religion and science throughout, though it is clear that by the end, science has demonstrated itself incapable of dealing with the Martians, the military has exhausted its options, and religion—particularly 1950s Protestantism—is the only bulwark left against the chaos of the Martian attack. It so completely reverses Wells’ novel that had he been alive to see it (he died in 1946), I am certain that he would have been absolutely furious.
What is even more interesting is that this tremendous difference has been all but entirely missed in the commentary on the film. Most commentators actually dismiss Collins as a minor, indeed deluded character—which, to my mind, means they have utterly misunderstood the film. Like so many films that find their origins in literature—something I take up in much more depth in Sacred Space—one cannot simply look at the screen. As I pointed out in Sacred Terror, what happens onscreen only makes sense in the context of what is happening offscreen—which makes this a sociological issue, as much as anything else. Since alien invasion is scary enough on its own, why would a producer in the 1950s so drastically change a piece of literary fiction—especially one that was so popular and prominent in the genre—and invoke a theme that is in diametric opposition to the original novel? That question can only be answered by looking at the people who lined up around the block to see it when it was released.
TheoFantastique: At one point in your discussion you draw attention to human beings as homo narrans, the story-tellers who draw upon myths, legends, fairytales, and sacred stories as a tool of meaning-making. Do you see science fiction as a contemporary expression of this process, and if so, in your view, why don’t more scholars take science fiction myth-making as seriously as other forms of the process?
Doug Cowan: I do see it as a major part of that meaning-making process—to me that just seems so obvious. Aside from everything else about science fiction—its popularity, its breadth and depth—think for a moment about the emulative aspect: people want to be (or at least be like) their heros on these programs. There is something with which they identify—Spock’s Vulcan stoicism, Worf’s dedication to honor, Delenn’s ambiguous pacifism, Starbuck’s manic enthusiasm, whatever. These are parts of our experience that, though reflected on the screen and refracted through often alien presentation, resonate with us at very deep levels. And, once again, for me that’s a significant and fascinating sociological issue, one that goes far beyond what’s going on onscreen.
Unfortunately, the problem with many scholars is that because these are entertainment products, they are not taken seriously; they’re not considered “worthy” of scholarly attention. Archeologists can argue for hours over the provenance of pottery shard that was likely the place where some guy spat his olive pits a couple of thousand years ago and that’s scholarship. Asking what meaning a television show that’s watched by tens of millions of people each week—that’s fluff. It’s nonsense, really, nothing more or less than narrow-minded academic elitism. It’s part of the problem of popular culture studies in general, something against which we have to push at every opportunity.