Escape From Manhattan: Tech, Tragedy and Storytelling in Sandy’s Wake

Two weeks ago, I attended the New York Comic Con, braving the crowds of thousands to get a taste of what drives so many to invest so much in costume construction, role-play, and fan devotion to popular media franchises. And, because the convention ended not long before Halloween, I decided to compose a retrospective on America’s two favorite modes of imagination-driven investment in other worlds. Then Hurricane Sandy arrived, blew New York away, and as the convention center where Comic Con had been held drained of water from the Hudson River; and as the lower half of Manhattan met Halloween in utter darkness, I found myself shuttered in without electricity in southern Connecticut, watching the world fall apart in New York City, where even today people are scrambling for gasoline to power their generators, where some have gone almost a week without fresh water or unspoiled food, and where people have lost their homes, their cars, and some even their loved ones.

In recent years, I have become deeply fascinated by our cultural commitment to mediated worlds: what scholars increasingly label “transmedia franchises.” In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins explains that these constructed story spaces are stretched across numerous kinds of media, with each new element contributing something new to the story world. To nurture devotion in such a world is to encourage consumers to buy every element of delivery of that world’s story.

So, for example, fully invested fans of Star Wars would want to own every toy, see every film, read every related book, and become familiar with all the emerging media affiliated with it, such as video games, Facebook fan pages, and regional gatherings. I saw some of these fans at Comic Con, dressed up as Han Solos, Princess Leahs, and Storm Troopers. A middle-aged man dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi told me about the 501st Legion, a year-round group of people who dress as Storm Troopers to support the “expansion of the Star Wars universe worldwide” and to perform local charity work in full costume as “the bad guys who do good.”

Similar transmedia worlds that garner enthusiastic fan devotion include Harry Potter, Halo, Marvel Comics superheroes, The Hunger Games, and the emerging mass fandom of The Walking Dead. The more effective the world-building of a transmedia franchise is, the more people will crave entry into it, and the more willing they will be to pay money to experience that sense of entry and habitation.

Religion, the Supernatural, Other Worlds

This is all material that has intrigued me for some time as a theorist of religion and culture. Such transmedia worlds seem to me to be doing powerful “religious work” as persuasive “authentic fakes,” to borrow the terms of cultural theorist David Chidester.

But with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, I find myself looking at these worlds with a new eye, realizing just how dependent we have become upon technology for our own sense of human imagination. Storytelling now relies upon video games, social media, films, fan events, and mobile devices, in ways that mark our current time as quite different from a hundred years ago. It is true, as others have pointed out, that in some ways humans have always been telling stories, and we have always imagined ourselves in other spaces. We have always imagined mythic escape from the drudgery of our everyday lives. Whereas religion used to be sufficient for most people in their contemplation of supernatural other-spaces, today more and more people rely upon mediated worlds for this sense of voluntary displacement.

So to see Manhattan itself go belly-up after the storm, to watch how carnal we become when met with loss of power, has been a sobering and a saddening experience. All of this has made me think more squarely about how inured we have become to screens as the mediator of our imaginative lives. Without electricity, we have no escape. Without Playstations and Xboxes, we have no other-worlds. Without fully-charged mobile devices, we have no social media. Without our screens, we have lost our spaces of order, our promised places of reliable rules, our escape from reality. Whereas some New Yorkers contented themselves with flashlights and novels during Sandy’s aftermath, others felt compelled to trudge up to the gaudy power-lit mega-screens of Times Square, where at least you could see commercials and fight for seats at Starbucks.

Of course, I am not grieving the temporary loss of media access, though I find it embarrassingly disorienting myself. How strange it is that even in an emergency, the only reliable mode of information dissemination is email or website announcement, requiring us all to be dependent on power when we don’t have access to it.

This, however, is inconvenience and not mourning. The proper anguish during the aftermath of the hurricane is the real destruction around us, in the still-flooded homes in Brooklyn, in the dozens of homes burnt to the ground in Breezy Point, Queens, and in the incomprehensible sorrow of the Staten Island mother who had her two young sons ripped from her arms by the rising floodwaters. It is too easy to see these real tragedies as media events alone: to click, “like,” share, comment, and post uninformed opinions about another’s real grief.

Is there any sense in which our intense fascination with media other-worlds is handicapping us to our real lives, making it hard for us to understand real death, real loss, real suffering?

This question has been rehearsed in exhausting tedium in recent years by scholars concerned about how our physical bodies relate to our selves on screen. MIT media theorist Sherry Turkle, for example, registers growing concern in her latest book Alone Together (2012), but her primary worry is that a reliance upon technology blinds us to what real connection asks of us, and what it can offer.

But what of the additional invisible ways that technology shapes everything we do, feel, or imagine possible? This is more than a question of being offline and online, but rather requires a reconsideration of the ways that we now perceive reality, and what we take for granted in how we live our daily lives. Corporate producers of transmedia are not inclined to ask whether or not we should rely upon media as much as we do for contemporary storytelling. Why should they? The more we rely upon it, the more they can sell it to us. And nobody can deny the convenience of ready access to information, maps, phone numbers, calendars, and social satisfaction that our reliance on technology provides.

Technology is a tool, right? It doesn’t change who we are, right? It doesn’t blind us—it reveals reality by connecting us and showing us the world via our screens… right?

Look, I know that our new imaginative, mediated work is doing good. I know people can feel a real sense of empowerment and belonging as a result of gaming environments, online worlds, discussion boards, and real-life fandom events. Jane McGonigal’s argument in Reality Is Broken (2011), that games can give us a sense of accomplishment and confidence that spills over into our real lives, is not wrong. And fandom, of the kind that brings people together in joyful imaginative play, as I saw at Comic Con, represents the best of Victor Turner’s argument for what communities can provide in shared ritual celebration.

Fake Heroes, Real Tears

Upon entering the Javits Center for Comic Con Manhattan, the energy was palpable. Over half of the attendees were in full costume, and I was immediately struck by the care that obviously went into their production. Most of the costumes were not pre-fabricated, but had obviously been lovingly constructed over months. I saw numerous iterations of Spiderman, Captain America, and Batman.

I saw Finn, Fionna, and Marceline “the Scream Queen” from the television show Adventure Time. DC animated comic characters roamed the halls in clumps, posing for impromptu action photos taken by grateful fans of the series. Countless versions of characters from Dr. Who mingled with a surprising number of large-mustached men in overalls and red caps in homage to Mario, the beloved video game character from the 1980s and 1990s. Star Wars characters waited in line to meet Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leah.

In the large autograph arena at Comic Con, a long line stretched across the conference floor for autographs from Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. The fans I spoke to didn’t care that Draco was a “bad guy,” since as an actor he served as a star-studded portal of imaginative entry into the transmedia world of the films and books. It was Tom they wanted to see, not Draco, because Tom lived behind the screen, and thus could immediately generate the desire for fans’ escape to Hogwarts from their mediocre lives.

Donning Hogwarts scarves and black robes, clutching forty-dollar scraps of paper just signed by Tom, the fans that I spoke to could not clearly articulate reasons for their emotional responses. They wiped real tears from their cheeks and in muddled language expressed simply their full devotion, their untainted desire to be in the Harry Potter world, and Tom somehow offered a hint of that imagined sense of entry.

Perhaps it was this same drive for imaginative entry into other-worlds that drove many Manhattanites, even when power was lost and showers were scarce, to celebrate Halloween anyway and resolutely take their children trick-or-treating. Even without the lights on, even without instant access to our media-powered story-worlds, we still need to imagine the supernatural. We need our stories, our other-worlds, our costumes, our role-play. We need our dreams.

In On Stories (2001), Richard Kearney argues that stories can soothe us because they transport us to different times and places, where we can experience the world in ways that are unfamiliar, where things are “otherwise.” Stories give us ordering principles for making sense of who we are, a mode of escape that can be the only source of comfort when ordinary life seems chaotic and unpredictable. As Kearney says:

From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? Are we animal, human, or divine? Strangers, gods or monsters?… In seeking to provide responses to such unfathomable conundrums—both physical and metaphysical—the great tales and legends gave not only relief from everyday darkness but also pleasure and enchantment.

The juxtaposition of Halloween and Comic Con with Hurricane Sandy should give us contemplative pause, as we note just how frail our new modes of storytelling really are.

Far from being purely secularized, we are deeply invested in spaces that comfort us because they are “other,” but which depend heavily upon a thin and fragile web of power, at a time when the earth is groaning under the weight of our energy demands.

Do we still have meaningful shared stories that are not deeply dependent upon corporatized shaping, that don’t rely upon technology for delivery and consumption? Or is today’s mediated storytelling just another transformation of the timeless human activity of imaginative investment, a story-generated means of coping with the ever-present vicissitudes of human life? What price are we paying for investing so thoroughly in mediated other-worlds, while closing our eyes to the heaving Earth, to the sick and homeless, to the lonely and the invisible?

These are the questions that press wearily upon me, as I sit in a generator-driven office space, only a few miles away from where hundreds of tired, hungry, and desperate people wait for hours in lines that stretch for blocks, to collect gasoline to run the generators that will allow them to go back online, to pretend with the rest of the fully-powered world that everything is normal, that everything is going to be just fine.

rwagner@ithaca.edu'

Rachel Wagner is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Ithaca College. Her book Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2012) explores how our fascination with all things virtual reveals our desire for new rituals and new modes of world building.