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Tucson Weekly Archetype Of Madness

David J. Skal Dissects Pop Culture And Techno Fears In 'Screams Of Reason.'

By Jeff Yanc

JUNE 28, 1999: 

Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, by David J. Skal (Norton) cloth, $30

A STIFFLY STARCHED white lab coat. A physically disfigured assistant. A serious God-complex. The propensity to rub one's hands together while laughing maniacally. A striking resemblance to Béla Lugosi. All are dead giveaways that one may be a mad scientist, at least as envisioned by Hollywood. In Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, cultural historian David J. Skal traces the literary and cinematic archetype of the mad-scientist character throughout history, in the process revealing how this often kitschy character has been used (both consciously and unconsciously) by the creators of pop culture artifacts to articulate society's deeply rooted fears of science and technology.

Although the mad scientist is most often seen lurking in the shadows of cheap B-movies and pulp novels, Skal contends that the arena of "lowbrow" pop culture is precisely where the often invisible bridges between cultural ideology and profit-driven entertainment are constructed for the majority of audiences, and that it is from this seemingly incongruous mixture of consumer product and hidden philosophy that our mainstream cultural identity is created. In Screams of Reason, he skillfully balances an insightful and wide-ranging survey of science-based dystopian pop texts with a light tone that stays on the entertaining side of pretentiousness--and always in service of his efforts to elucidate our collective unease over the perils of living under the menacing behemoth of mad science.

The granddaddy of all modern-day mad science parables is, of course, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818 to public outrage and scandal. Using this pivotal text as ground zero for his journey into the dark recesses of mass culture, Skal examines how the prototypical mad-scientist elements introduced in Shelley's cautionary tale of technology run amuck (e.g., the psychotic desire to transcend the boundaries of death through technology; humankind's futile attempts to bridge the gap between science and religion; the notion that the natural order will triumph over our attempts at reconfiguration, etc.) continue to resonate for today's audiences in such contemporary entertainment as the Jurassic Park films, the medical-thriller novels of Robin Cook, and in real-life horror stories like the Heaven's Gate suicide cult.

Like all effective social historians, Skal avoids the trap of simply over-reading cultural texts for hidden meanings to fit his thesis by historicizing various social movements and then drawing connections to their expression in the arts. A prime example of this careful construction can be seen in his rich delineation of the controversy surrounding the introduction of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection into the public domain in the late-1800s. Skal then conjoins the subsequent social furor over science vs. religion with a slew of attendant sci-fi literature, such as H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), which distilled this cultural hubris into wild stories of mad scientists attempting to "devolve" humans into animals through genetic engineering.

Finally, he illuminates how in the 1930s and '40s, as Social Darwinism was taken to horrific extremes by the Nazi-fueled Eugenics movement, Hollywood responded to social ideology by releasing an avalanche of horror films that graphically displayed the folly of our attempts to play God, all using the reassuringly "insane" mad scientist character as a cultural scapegoat. While such topical debate was rarely presented directly in the arts for fear of political and legal reprisal, the eccentric world of sci-fi and horror "junk" was often used by writers and filmmakers to disguise serious social commentary as harmless entertainment, thereby slipping it under the radar of cultural watchdogs.

That silly 1950s drive-in flick about the giant, radioactive lizard that enjoyed terrorizing big-busted starlets wasn't really reflecting Cold War paranoia over atomic bomb testing, was it?

At the core of society's highly ambivalent relationship with science and technology, according to Skal, is a collective and subconscious fear of losing our humanity amidst the escalation of "mad science" ostensibly directed toward making our lives "better," as well as a deeply ingrained suspicion of the intellectualism which concocts such advances (cue Vincent Price's signature laugh track).

As a society, we display a Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde-like relationship with science: as we become increasingly reliant on new technologies to connect us to one another, we simultaneously fear the loss of natural human cohesion--a fear displaced onto the mad scientist of pop culture iconography, who acts as the crazed, cackling, bug-eyed embodiment of all that is monstrous and misguided in our dehumanizing attempts to merge with the machinery of modern society.

Although Skal's oddball insights into modern culture occasionally stretch credibility (such as his claim that women's bodies are over-scrutinized in our society because they represent "the technological teat" which both attracts and repulses the patriarchal order), he more often uses his off-kilter perspective to construct thought-provoking and plausible links between science and pop culture. For example, his examination of the parallels between modern-day alien abduction stories (which invariably focus on the painful sexual probing and genetic reconstruction of humans by faceless, large-brained aliens) and contemporary cultural fears of HMOs, doctors and hospitals (where faceless, alien-like scientists probe and dissect our bodies for profit, without regard for our humanity) is fascinating, and reveals the extent to which our fear of science is rooted in the helplessness we feel at being subordinated to the whims of the "mad scientists" who create and control technology.

Screams of Reason offers informative, entertaining and sometimes important insights into our highly ambivalent relationship with the technologies that have shaped our society, and the zeitgeist-tapping catharsis offered by its pop-culture representations. The current explosion of virtual reality-themed films, including The Matrix, eXistenZ and The 13th Floor, stands as an interesting appendix to Skal's study. All three films depict horrific, techno-dystopian views of a society obsessed with allowing human consciousness to be replaced with computer-generated realities; a tradeoff that inevitably leads to disastrous, rather than liberating, results. The irony of this pop trend is that such darkly science-paranoid entertainment is being readily consumed by a techno-obsessed public that's increasingly willing to experience reality through the cold glare of the computer screen.

After reading Screams of Reason, pop culture junkies may never again be able to laugh and reassure themselves, "It's only a movie."


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