Of Katniss E and Jennifer L

I’m about 30% of the way through Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and something that jumped out at me in the first volume is even more apparent in the glare of publicity around the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that comes out March 23: the uncanny precision of the saga’s send-up of media culture and celebrity.

What stands out on first encounter with the story of Katniss Everdeen are, of course, other things. There’s the breathless, adrenalized competition for survival represented by the eponymous games themselves — a mashup of pop-culture nightmares familiar from other sources, primarily Battle Royale and Stephen King’s early novels (written as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk and The Running Man. Even earlier pre-texts include William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Nigel Kneale’s BBC one-off Year of the Sex Olympics (1968); but it took The Hunger Games to reconfigure the basic scenario of people-preying-on-other-people-for-a-mass-audience around the subjectivity of a young female protagonist: final girl as must-see TV.

My own attention is captured more by the trilogy’s portrait of its totalitarian state, the nation of Panem, which arises after the U.S. has been hobbled by a vaguely-defined catastrophe. As dystopian futures go, Panem’s mechanisms of tyranny merge the historical forms of domination mapped by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: there are thugs with guns enforcing martial law, but there are also elaborate, interlocked systems of surveillance and broadcast media in which Panem’s subjects live under a constant scrutiny whose public facets are the garish electronic proscenia of show biz.

Hardly surprising, given author Suzanne Collins’s explanation of the story’s origins; like Raymond Williams in the early 1970s, Collins had her brainstorm while randomly channel-surfing. She noticed a disturbing resonance between reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, influences which lent her resulting work the dual immediacies of contemporary political conflict and an entertainment culture of last-person-standing competitions.

It is the latter portions of the trilogy that fascinate me the most, as Katniss is primped, costumed, and styled into a media star and emblem of Panem’s coercive patriotism. The funniest and most biting scenes involve the team of make-up artists and hairstylists who have been assigned the task of making her over; themselves a tattooed and ornamented bunch with rainbow-hued hair, the entourage gives Collins — via Katniss — a chance to comment mordantly on the fixations of fame, often figured through torturous transformations of Katniss’s face and body, making literal John Updike’s characterization of celebrity as “a mask that eats into the face.”

It’s hard not to think of Katniss’s split between public persona and private space — a space that, in the Hunger Games, is implicitly subversive, even treasonous — when looking at this week’s coverage of the movie’s rollout. “Jennifer Lawrence steals the show at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere,” writes Access Hollywood, in gushing tones that could have come straight from the clown-crayoned mouth of Effie Trinket. “Jennifer Lawrence stuns the crowd in a golden Prabal Gurung gown at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere where she chats with Access’ Shaun Robinson about how her life has changed for better and worse since taking on the role of Katniss.”

Jason Mittell wrote recently about “inferred interiority,” that intersubjective artifact of serial storytelling in which the limitations of visual media to present a character’s inner life are compensated for by the viewer’s store of knowledge accumulated through exposure to and study of previous episodes. Reading this effect transmedially and paratextually — not, that is, along the solitary throughline of a single serialized fiction, but along the perpendicular axes of an actor’s larger intertextual existence, along with that of the characters they play — it’s hard not to infer beneath Lawrence’s smiling face the subtle signs of Katniss’s resistance to her own commodification through beautification.

The critical comparisons that unfold from this odd collision of realities range from the similarities between Panem and current political culture (not exactly a huge leap, given the frightening religiosity and hard-line social conservatism of the Republican presidential candidates) to the relentless spectacularization of young women’s bodies in both fictional and actual frameworks — the disciplinary operations of patriarchy marked in the one and unmarked in the other. The artistic merits of the Hunger Games franchise aside (and for the record, I’m enjoying the books and looking forward to the film), it has succeeded, like all good dystopian SF, in collapsing a certain distance between the reassuring rituals of our daily life and the troubling trends that lurk beneath its painted-on smiles.


It’s still Jessica Yellin and you look like Jessica Yellin and we know you are Jessica Yellin. I think a lot of people are nervous out there. All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram.

— Wolf Blitzer, CNN

I woke this morning feeling distinctly unreal — a result of staying up late to catch every second of election coverage (though the champagne and cocktails with which I and my wife celebrated Obama’s amazing win undoubtedly played a part). But even after I checked the web to assure myself that, indeed, the outcome was not a nighttime dream but a daylight reality, I couldn’t shake the odd sense of being a projection of light myself, much like the “holograms” employed by CNN as part of their news coverage (Here’s the YouTube video, for as long as it might last):

I’ve written before on the spectacular plenitude of high-definition TV cross-saturated with intensive political commentary, an almost subjectivity-annihilating information flow on the visual, auditory, and ideological registers. In the case of CNN’s new trick in the toolbox, my first reaction was to giggle; the projection of reporter Jessica Yellin into the same conversational space as Wolf Blitzer was like a weird halftime show put on by engineering students as a graduation goof. But the cable news channel seemed to mean it, by God, and I have little doubt that we’ll see more such holographic play in coverage to come, as the technology becomes cheaper and its functionality streamlined into a single switch thrown on some hidden mixing board — shades of Walter Benjamin’s observation in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about striking a match.

Leaving aside the joking references to Star Wars (whose luminously be-scanlined projection of Princess Leia served, in 1977, to fold my preadolescent crush on Carrie Fisher into parallel fetishes with science-fiction technology and the visual-effects methods used to create them), last night’s “breakthrough” transmission of Yellin from Chicago to New York contains a subtle and disturbing undertone that should not be lost on feminist critics or theorists of simulation. This 2008 version of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you” employed as its audiovisual payload a woman’s body. It was, in this sense, just the latest retelling of the sad old story in which the female form is always-already rendered a simulacrum in the visual circuits of male desire. Yellin’s hologram, positioned in compliant stasis at the twinned focus of Blitzer’s crinkly, interrogative gaze and a floating camera that constantly reframed her phantasmic form, echoed the bodies of many a CG doll before it: those poor gynoids, from SIGGRAPH’s early Marilyn Monrobot to Shrek‘s Princess Fiona and Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, whose high-rez objectification marks the triumphal convergence of representational technology and phallic hegemony.

But beyond the obvious (and necessary) Mulveyan critique exists another interesting point. The news hologram, achieved by cybernetically tying together the behavior of two sets of cameras separated by hundreds of miles, is a remarkable example of realtime visual effects: the instantaneous compositing of spaces and bodies that once would have taken weeks or months to percolate through the production pipeline of even the best FX house. That in this case we don’t call it a visual effect, but a “news graphic” or the like, speaks more to the discursive baffles that generate such distinctions than to any genuine ontological difference. (A similar principle applies to the term “hologram”; what we’re really seeing is a sophisticated variant of chroma key, that venerable greenscreen technology by which TV forecasters are pasted onto weather maps. In this case, it’s been augmented by hyperfast, on-the-fly match-moving.) Special and visual effects are only recognized as such in narrative film and television — never in news and commercials, though that is where visual-effects R&D burns most brightly.

As to my own hologrammatic status, I assume it will fade as the magic of this political moment sinks in. An ambiguous tradeoff: one kind of reality becoming wonderfully solid, while another — the continuing complicity between gendered power and communication / imaging technology — recedes from consciousness.