Sunday, November 8, 2009

Camp and Torture-Porn

Several years ago, one of my colleagues asked if I'd heard of the term "torture porn." I hadn't. But it felt familiar, like I knew what it meant without needing explanation—and thought it an apt moniker for the type of film it describes. I'd watched bits of Hostel. I'd seen The Passion of the Christ. Watching James Caviezel get whipped— ripped open by a cat-o-nine-tails, front and center in the film frame— was tough. Even before searching out an actual definition, I contemplated what a juxtaposition of "torture" with "porn" would yield semantically: films that revel, maybe even erotically so, in the spectacle of torture. Such films would need to be more than horror, would need to be horrific in a way that crossed stylistic lines into, dare I say, a shockingly sublime place.

Later, I read David Edelstein's article (where he coined the term: here) and found myself agreeing with his take on films where "torture… cut deeper than mere gory spectacle." Surely— leaving aside nostalgia— the horror of Psycho was of a different breed than the horror of Saw. As Edelstein suggests, the difference is more than a matter of degree. He cuts to the heart of the matter with a probing question: "Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it?" This question resonates with Stephen King's own take on horror movies (Edelstein references King's essay, too) as a release valve for our instinctual human craziness. We're all mental, King writes; it is only through social structure and entertainment-as-release that we can cope with the base human desires that rumble below the surface of civility. If we take these thoughts (fear, empathy and apathy, desire) and run them into the logical progression of modern horror cinema, then we find ourselves in an interesting place.

But, apparently—and not surprisingly—the term 'torture porn' hasn't exactly become a rallying point for horror enthusiasts. In fact, when I started writing what follows, I discovered the rather divisive nature of the term: Film critics misuse it; horror enthusiasts blame said critics for its misuse and would rather see the term jump the shark (or simply disappear) than have it muck up and censor works that might just be misunderstood art.

On the strictly fan side (evidence of why I put little-to-no faith in such sites), the first-ranking Urban Dictionary definition claims torture porn to be "an ignorant, degrading, condescending, judgmental and hypocritical phrase asserted by fuckwit Bible-thumpers and conservative critics." Clearly, this 'definition' is less descriptive than it is proscriptive. As such, it isn't much help in defining the term, but it does show the extent to which the term is not embraced by those who defend the types of films it has been used to define.

Brian Matus over at Fangoria bemoans, "the way “torture porn” has come to be used the last few years is (ironically) a perversion of its original usage." Matus claims the term "simply doesn't make sense when describing horror films that feature graphic depictions of torture. To the uninitiated, it sounds more like a subgenre of porn than a horror subgenre." With this in mind, it becomes pretty clear that the term is more troubling than insightful. Not surprising at all, true, but I hope below to recover it for a bit longer (at least to follow through on a few ideas).

Before I get to the rotting meat of my post, however, maybe we need to spend some time setting up the idea that these films (or, at least, their artistic objectives) are worth discussing. Unlike Don Kaye over on MSN Movies, I choose not to so quickly judge this subgenre: "From the spate of horror movies that have flooded the market over the past couple of years, it's obvious that many of the filmmakers behind them aren't too proud either." The implication here is twofold: Kaye delimits extreme horror films as shock for shock's sake; the invocation of pride is film critic double-speak for box office commensurability. No self-respecting (proud) filmmaker would ever cow to fan tastes for weekend bank.

While I confess I don't much care for these films-- and will likely never again see one on the big screen (The Passion of the Christ and Sin City having sated my appetite)-- that doesn't mean they have no value. And it's value that I'm searching out in this post.

What's notable is Kaye does more than Edelstein to link the two parts of the term together in a useful definition: Kaye admits that "'torture porn' has little to do with real pornography. There is virtually no sexual activity involved, although the victims are usually nude or partially nude." But, he continues, the juxtaposition that Edelstein invokes without deeply exploring "expresses the idea that its viewers are intensely, pruriently aroused by the sight of human bodies -- usually young, nubile ones, and quite often female -- getting torn into bloody chunks in the most awful ways imaginable." This is worth highlighting because it begins to unpack the connection-— however disturbing or useful—- between arousal and bodily mutilation, between desire and affect.

Kaye also lights upon another point that will help me draw connections between torture porn and camp: narrative. For Kaye, the problem with modern, extreme horror is that it seeks "disgust… rather than the hair-raising shiver of true fear." This is partly a confession of an old school horror fan who privileges narrative affectation over aesthetic value, suspense and story over spectacle. The unwitting dichotomy Kaye establishes here is one that places "true fear" hierarchically over "disgust." In the work of a narrative frame, the genesis of true fear is not in spectacle, but in something that builds from linear progression and climaxes. It's no wonder that Kaye resorts to focus on the lack of a sexualized, nubile female body instead of transgressive discourse prompted by non-narrative disgust. A naked body is only useful in horror if it's properly coded to adolescent sexual awakening (a la Friday the 13th); as a site of disruptive disgust it is simply shocking and puerile.

What is betrayed here, at a basic level, is a classic move: Within the machinery of Hollywood (of which the film critic is a willing laborer), narrative is an essential focal point. That is, much of what does not work in Hollywood is a result of narrative failure. A good story always trumps deep aesthetic. A simple test of this is the most recent Harry Potter offering. The initial cut of the film offered up by the director was considered too challenging aesthetically; it was subsequently re-colored before being distributed. The complaint was that the style interfered with the story.

Kaye alludes to a similar transgression in regards to extreme horror, though he takes pains to chide a lack of story (character development) rather than an excess of style: "In just about all the movies described above, the characters are never developed enough to make us even feel much for them; they're simply straw men and women, set up to be sliced apart." The argument here is clear. Spectacle in torture porn supersedes story.

Here is an intersection with camp.

Matthew Tinkcom, in discussing the camp aesthetic of director Vincente Minnelli, notes that "early in his career Minnelli had already achieved a highly consolidated aesthetic vision in which the emphasis in his filmmaking was on a mis-en-scene that not only competed with the narrative but in fact could become the narrative." Counter to Kaye's valuation of narrative, Minnelli's films sought to transcend their narratives for something else. "The seriousness of the labor that Minnelli expended," Tinkcom insists, "suggests that camp manifests itself in what has more commonly been described as the high degree of visual stylistic integration" produced in these films. Camp labors clearly privileged "visual style over and above their narrative" (54).

The connection here is cemented by Kaye's notice that "most [torture porn films] shoot torture in a very visually exciting way." While he uses this phrase to set up a punch line ("helping the audience 'get off' on the pain"), it betrays what Kaye himself cannot deny: These films, despite their motive and seeming lack of value, are expertly crafted (labor). It is this craft—- or the critic's debasement of it—- that prompted Hostel director Eli Roth to fire back. Roth responded to Kaye's post with a letter that reads as mostly defensive posturing, but it does beg artistic integrity and intent: "I made the film I wanted the way I wanted, with risky subject matter and a superb cast." This, in conjunction with Kaye's reluctant admittance to a certain level of artistry, makes a potential case for my reading of torture porn as valuing style "over and above" narrative.

It remains, now, to figure out what we should do with this match up


The opening bank robbery of F. Gary Gray's Set It Off made me think of torture-porn. A stretch, a random juxtaposition. A camp move, maybe. But here's what I'm thinking. Tinkcom writes, "one way of locating camp in the sphere of production is by finding the repeated incidents of narrative filmmaking that seem to depart from the more usual expectations of visual and acoustic form." It is these "incidents," moments of excess (work-as-play) within a larger sphere of film production (labor), that lead Tinkcom to proffer that "camp reveals itself as a luxuriance in the inefficiencies of capital's modes of production" (28).

Now much of Tinkcom's argument stems from a crucial moment that I am somewhat willfully disregarding here (the queer camp intellectual; I would like to spend some time talking about "crises of heterosexuality," but not here, not now). However, the culmination of these bits quoted here led to my reading of Set It Off's opening bank robbery as a camp moment.

The point at which violence explodes—- when the robbery goes wrong and the lead assailant shoots, point blank, his white female hostage—- is shocking. This shock is a result of our misled sympathy. The leading dialogue between teller and robber, at least by Hollywood convention, serves to attach our sympathies to both characters. This is a clever sleight of hand with opening sequence exposition—- and is rather affectively melodramatic. First, we're shocked. Second, we're pulled to an ironic distance by instances of slow motion, a move meant to invoke a certain pleasure in the violence (pleasure as a result of delay). It was this moment, where delay creates a moment of departure, that made me think of torture porn. This moment "cut deeper than mere gory spectacle." Edelstein notes, that torture porn is "so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether." The scene in Set It Off is nowhere near the visceral horror of a Rob Zombie sequence, but there is something out of place in the melodramatic labor of the sequence; this something resonates in the juxtaposition of torture porn and camp. Trade "suspend moral judgments" with "[departure] from the more usual expectations of visual and acoustic form" and these moments share delight in spectacle. This delight in spectacle, through the production of camp (t-p), reveals "the crises of value coding under capital" (30).

What I'm trying to do here is trouble the value of film violence because it is, at its core, affective. Reading Tinkcom, I found myself juggling "labor" and "work-as-play" and how they connect to film violence production (and performance). At a very surface level, shooting a violence sequence is difficult, labor-intensive, and expensive. Why go through the trouble? Verisimilitude? In the case of torture-porn, verisimilitude isn't even a consideration—the sheer mise-en-viscera is too spectacular to be "real." No. So what gives? The guess I'd venture: Where queer camp intellectuals "find the opportunities to press the cinematic commodity into a new form of service that expresses their presence within the domain of production," straight horror intellectuals create frisson in violent spaces for the same reason (29

Taking up "spectacle" again, I'll end with moving from production to viewing. Tinkcom writes, "Camp, as theorized in the present account as a knowledge about capital's changeable and volatile attributes of value, can and does migrate to recipients outside the sphere of its production. This helps to explain the intense affiliation between camp and the notion of cult-viewing formations, to the degree that when recipients of the camp film discover its alternative visions of the modern world, they attach themselves to it with a devotion not typical of the usual cinematic fair."

This is worth mentioning because the function of camp as cult is productive of value. A cult audience revalues a work into camp. That is, the mutability of capital and value allows for audiences to make their own value through camp viewing. A critical and financial failure like Mariah Carey's Glitter becomes valuable through cult-viewing camp. This is also interesting in regards to labor and production. Tinkcom interprets Marx (a la Grundrisse): "Marx asserts that the political economy of capitalism is most forcefully conceived through the category of production; he then distinguishes each feature of economy… as a moment of production in order to illuminate how humans under capital are producing themselves and commodities" (6). Interesting.

Still further and finally, is that while camp and cult function on a much smaller scale (small groups working either within the larger framework of Hollywood or in subgenres separate and outside Hollywood), torture-porn functions primarily because it is large scale. Paranormal Activity and Saw VI were in the top ten box office earners this past weekend. What does this say about the value of spectacle? Hmm…


Kaye, Don. "Torture Porn: The Right Snuff?" MSN Movies. 9 November 2009

Edelstein, David. "Now Playing At Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn." New York. 28 Jan. 2006. New York Magazine Online. 4 Nov. 2009

Matus, Brian. "The Problem with Torture Porn." Fangoria. 27 October 2009. 8 November 2009

Tinkcom, Matthew. Working Like A Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002.

"Torture Porn." Urban Dictionary. 8 November 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

How to Make a Chinese Dumpling

I've been fortunate. That's a simple but honest statement. It's also a good place to start: This past fall, I was introduced to a Chinese Anthropologist on loan from Beijing, courtesy of a Fulbright Scholarship. Yongjia came to North Carolina to teach for a year and while his grasp of English is better than some of my students, he was new to the U.S., and certainly new to rural North Carolina. My colleagues, my wife, and I have been doing our best to provide Yongjia with quintessentially American experiences. I've even tried to teach him how to drive a car.

This past weekend, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, Yongjia gave back. He taught us how to make dumplings.

The Thing About Food

Ingredients for dumpling wrappers:



Ingredients for dumpling filling:

Ground pork



Green Onion


Soy Sauce

Chinese 13 Spice


Much of that "quintessentially American experiences" thing revolves around food. Food is the great barometer of culture. Sure, you can spot the usual cultural markers of a foreign locale—clothing, social custom, speech—but food is always the best way to immerse, to understand. And yeah, I spent six months living (and eating) in Naples, Italy, sampled local cuisine from Amalfi to Venice, but one of the first things I did after getting hired to teach in Lexington, North Carolina was tour the best of the Lexington-style barbeque joints. I’m still amazed that a mere 35 miles can translate to fundamentally different notions of cuisine. And damn that barbecue is good.

My dear friend Gerald (from Virtual Bourgeois) gave Yongjia—fresh (or not so fresh) off the plane—his first experience with drive-thru fast food. We later took him to a Chinese Buffet restaurant where I expected to uncover a dastardly plot—one where Americans were being fed inauthentic food under the cheap, flashy guise of "Chinese" food. Fortune cookies, after all, are nothing but a sweet lie!

Turns out, our little buffet place hits not that far from the mark, according to Yongjia.

But I needed more than that. As a self-professed foodie/chef, I wanted to learn how to make something authentic. When Yongjia mentioned that he was going to make dumplings for the New Year celebration, I jumped at the opportunity to assist.

As you might suspect, much of what I learned was really about process. Yongjia even mentioned that making dumplings doesn't involve much skill—or ancient Chinese secrets (har har)—but is mostly just a labor intensive undertaking. This was the same, fundamental lesson I learned working in a restaurant kitchen: It's all about prep and process.

A Late Start

First, make dough for dumpling wrappers (see below).

Finely chop equal cabbage and celery.

Finely chop green onions.

Combine vegetables with ground pork and seasonings.

The wife and I arrived at our host's after Yongjia had already started. What we found was this: Gerald was camped out by the sink hacking away at some celery with a cleaver. Yongjia was beginning to season some of the ground pork. In another bowl was a large mass of dough.

Spying Gerald's less than enthusiastic chopping, I took over and proceeded to chop the celery down to a fine (if not precise) mince. Half of this was tossed into another bowl. Yongjia then asked me to make short work of a small bunch of green onions. When these were done, half went into the bowl with the celery. The rest was reserved for later.

(My wife was spirited away by a spirited child and didn't rejoin the process until later.)

I should probably give a little more background about our host: One of our dear colleagues, a psychology instructor (doctor, animal psychology specialist), hosted our New Year celebration. This was the first time that my wife, Mandy, and I had been to Julie's house, and helping to make a big mess in her kitchen seemed like the most appropriate way to "make ourselves at home"!

Now, cooking in someone else's kitchen always presents problems for me (no offense to the hosts, of course, but I find it's like competing in the Tour De France on someone else's bike!), but since I wasn't running the show—and there was beer—we had no problems. Also, Julie's large kitchen island was a great work space for the dumpling assembly line that was about to be created.

Back to the cooking: It was after my chopping that I spied the cabbage. The cabbage, minced in the same fashion as the celery and green onion, had been soaking in water. Yongjia strained this, dumped it in with the pork and mixed it up. He added the celery and green onion and did the same.

In with the pork, cabbage, celery, and green onion went some oil, salt, and soy sauce. Yongjia commented that he liked more soy sauce—so I encouraged him "More! More!" The object (the hard part in a non-measured cooking experience) was to add the malty flavor of soy sauce while balancing the sodium/salt. We might have added a little more soy sauce and the dumplings would have been even better for it.

Let's talk about that phrase "non-measured cooking experience." I asked about recipe, about measurements, and Yongjia only offered rough proportions. That is, the recipe depends on the quantity—and the quantity depends on the intended outcome. We were making dumplings for a medium sized party (25-30 people). That translated, in Yongjia's chef-mind, to making roughly 200 dumplings. I'm used to cooking this way, so I think I've got the proportions down (though I will double check with Yongjia to be sure!).

For this size of a batch, Yongjia whipped up about 4 lbs of dough (we used most of a 5 lb bag of all-purpose flour; roughly 3 ½ lbs for initial dough and ½ lb to a 1 lb to mix in and roll out). He bought two packages of ground pork that I would weigh at about 2 ½ lbs. Vegetable-wise, we cut through a full head each of celery and cabbage, as well as a typical bunching of green onions.

The ratio of pork to vegetable mixture (cabbage, celery, green onion) was probably about 1:1. The ratio of cabbage to celery was also 1:1. Finally, green onion to celery was about 1:4. To get a better sense of the proportions, I'll add that I later learned that the separating of bowls (when first chopping) was to create two batches of filling. What we were looking at, in the end, was a mixture ratio that started with about 1 ¼ lbs of ground pork (one packet) to roughly 1 cup each of minced celery and cabbage, and about a quarter cup of green onion. If you were to start with half the amount of dough (roughly a 2 lb ball), then you'd get a nice sized batch of dumplings (100) for home use.

Okay, seasoning was done by sight and smell. Because you can't really taste a raw pork mixture, it's best to take a good whiff. Mandy and I smell everything when we cook. I tend to rely more on my smell than taste as I'm cooking. Like the soy sauce that I mentioned earlier, we could have used a pinch or two more of everything—and we would have ended up with a bit more aggressively spiced dumplings.

The "secret" ingredient is not so much a secret as it is a "no idea what the 13 different spices" are that comprise Chinese 13 spice. In the past, I've used Chinese 5 spice; Yongjia says that it will work as a substitute. The little purple package that Yongjia brought with him (from China) was marked only with Chinese characters and a picture of all the spices. I could spot the ginger, star anise, and a few others, but couldn't guess the rest! Suffice to say, the finished product had a pronounced anise flavor that was nice if a bit unexpected (given the dumplings I've had at Chinese restaurants). Yongjia also mentioned that there are some 500 different dumpling varieties available throughout China (and probably just as many more given the variety of region, personal and family taste).

About That Dough

Create a stiff dough with flour and water.

Let rest in warm, humid location.

Knead in more flour.

Because I missed the initial mixing, I have to rely on what I first saw and Yongjia's recounting of the process. When I first spied the dough, it looked like, well, dough. And a lot of it. The dough itself is just a simple, stiff mixture of water and flour. The initial mix involves creating a pretty stiff dough that then gets to rest in a warm and humid environment. Yongjia mentioned leaving the dough to rest in a warm place with a wet cloth over the bowl. The idea, I gather, is to give the dough time to relax a bit before working more flour into it.

This is all done by hand, of course. Yongjia told us that when dumplings are being made for an event (such as the New Year celebration), the women of the house turn the strenuous kneading task over to the men.

This is to make the men feel strong—and needed.

It might also bear mentioning now that this process of dumpling creation, in China, is very assembly line oriented. A task of making 200 dumplings becomes short work when the whole family is assigned a position in the line of making. Yongjia told us that when he was young, his assigned task was squashing out the dough with his palm. More about that later.

For now, I'll add that Yongjia's kneading technique was different from mine. I learned how to knead from my mother, who I’m sure learned from her mother. I think it's safe to say my technique is a traditionally western technique that goes something like this: Rest dough ball on work surface. Press into it with both hands, palms together. Use one hand to fold outside edge into the center and press in. Turn dough around to fold other end into the center and press in. Flip over dough and start again. And again. And again. I usually work myself into a nice syncopated rhythm.

Yongjia's technique was a little less "whole" dough oriented. That is, he would work small outside edges of the dough with both hands in a very rapid motion. It looked almost like he was tearing small pieces off of the outside edge—but that's not what he was doing. Using both hands, he would kind of hold the bulk of the dough in one hand and work the outside edge in one place, pressing, squeezing and pulling almost all at once—occasionally working in bits of flour as he moved around the edge, in a counter-clockwise motion.

In the end, it really doesn't matter which way one kneads. The object is to work in as much flour as you can to make a very dry, stiff dough. Because we were on a schedule, Yongjia felt like we rushed this part a bit and the dough could have used even more working (especially as we got closer to the end—and closer to the start of the party).

One final thing: We worked in batches. When we first broke out the dough for its finishing knead, Yongjia lifted the dough into the air and twisted it in half. This is a typical dough technique (if with a bit more of a flourish!): Work with only a portion of the dough at a time to make sure it doesn't dry out—and so you don't mis-judge the moisture content.

From Stiff Dough to Dumpling Discs

With hands, roll dough into long snake(s).

Portion and shape dough pieces into flat discs.

Roll discs with pin until thin at edges and slightly thicker in the middle.

Once the dough was to a good firmness and texture, Yongjia selected a portion and rolled it out into a long snake. The dough snake was about 1 inch thick when Yongjia grabbed the end of the snake, measured out a portion with his thumb, pointer and middle fingers and tore it off in a quick, horizontal motion. He then took the piece of dough and stood it up on the work surface (like a squat tower of dough). He repeated this motion, with lightening speed until the snake was gone.

To mimic this motion: Get a thick permanent marker. Hold it in one hand (not dominant). Take your other hand (dominant) and press the tip of the pen to the side of your middle finger, rest your pointer over the pen, and stick the tip of your thumb to the side of the pen. Slide your other hand up to meet the thumb. This is the general position for tearing off the dough pieces. Imagine that the pen is the dough and you're going to rip its head off!

Then, like Godzilla, Yongjia rampaged through the village of dough towers, squashing them all into flat discs.

There's a test here: If the dough is too sticky, then the dough pieces won't squash nicely and the breaking-off motion noted above doesn't happen as smoothly. The squashing process, though, still requires a lightly floured hand.

After the squashing comes the rolling.

Before the party, at work, Yongjia mentioned that he hadn't been able to find the right rolling tool. His description of what he was looking for amounted to a kind of dowel rod—not quite as thick as a traditional rolling pin. I called up an image on Google of a French rolling pin. He said that might work, so I brought him mine.

Yongjia rolled the squashed dough discs into thin, mostly round dumpling wrappers. Now, this is a point where I wasn't (initially) sure of the reason, but I'll write what I was told: The discs should be rolled out with a slight tapering, where the center of the disc is thicker than the edges. My inclination was to roll them out evenly, but this wasn't right by Yongjia's directions.

I guess it has to do with the sturdiness and evenness of the finished product. That is, the dough wrapper is closed around the filling, edges pressed together to form the final shape of the dumpling. When this happens, the edges get doubled up, leaving the overall thickness of the dumpling wrapper even. Also, the thicker middle ensures that the filling doesn't push its way through the bottom in assembly and cooking.

Further Down the Assembly Line

Place small amount of filling into center of disc.

Pinch ends together to form dumpling.

Okay, all parts at this point have been explained. Now comes assembly. At first, it wasn't an efficient line. My wife rejoined us while all of the above was happening, and she even did a bit of kneading of the dough. Her expertise, however, truly shined at the assembly phase. Here again, I'll tip a hat to our kitchen working. I usually do the grunt prep work (the chopping and kneading). She does the finishing. In that respect, she is the executive and I am the sous!

Anyway, when Yongjia began to assemble the dumplings, a few other party guests arrived, two of whom were the young girls of a colleague—both of whom are ardent followers of my wife. The eldest wanted to help. It was sweet, surely, but her presence slowed down the production line!

The basic assembly involved using chopsticks to grab a bit of the filling and dab it into the center of a waiting wrapper. Then the wrapper is pinched across the center, and then… this is where the magic fingers come into play. A certain technique, involving folding, pinching, turning, then more folding and pinching until… voila! A dumpling!

I am writing this with the expectation that my wife will chime in to comment on her technique. She was at the end of the line, closely watching Yongjia, and mastered the art of creating a perfect dumpling. I was at the front of the line, kneading the rest of the dough, rolling it out, creating the dough towers, squashing and then rolling them out. I did manage to make a few of the dumplings (mine turned out more like pierogi!)—and one of them, under the tutelage of my wife, I managed to make perfectly! I then promptly forgot how I'd done it and, well… Let's just say that, in the future, I will rely on my wife to assemble the dumplings!

To The Stove!

Set water to boil.

Boil large batches of dumplings for ten minutes.

Drain and serve.

So, we didn't quite finish the dumplings before the party started. Because guests were arriving (right into the center of our production) and wanted to assist, I stayed at the front of the line, my wife stayed at the end of the line, and Yongjia floated in the middle, managing those who joined and left, learning bits and pieces of the process as we brought it to a close.

Because there were so many dumplings, we had a hard time finding a place to store them before cooking. The finished dumplings need to be kept separated—otherwise, in the humid air of the kitchen, they might fuse together. We wound up with cookie sheets and serving platters of various shapes and sizes, loaded down with a hodge-podge of dumplings ranging from perfect to horrifying. Luckily, they all tasted good.

Now, when it came time to cook them, I think maybe Yongjia mis-stepped. It was certainly not his fault. Rather, I don't think he was used to cooking with a glass-top stove in a typical-American-kitchen-stock-pot. Our host's stockpot was certainly a good, 8-qt pot. But Yongjia's inclination was to dump as many as he could possibly fit into 8 quarts of boiling water—all to be cooked for about 10 minutes.

This didn't work so well for several reasons. Primary of them is the fact that glass-top stoves struggle to heat (and maintain a boil) when so loaded down. The results were fine, but I might have instead chosen to boil the dumplings in smaller batches. I am also tempted to try steaming them in small batches to keep the wrappers from soaking in too much water.

When the dumplings were fully cooked, Yongjia fished them out of the pot with a slotted spoon and dumped them onto waiting platters to be devoured. Again, if we'd not been under the gun to feed, I might have preferred to get them first into a colander and then onto a platter so that we wouldn't end up with soggy dumplings!

Maybe even toss them with a touch of oil to keep them separated…

To Dip Or Not To Dip

Mix soy sauce and vinegar to taste for dipping.

The finished products were most excellent. As is the case when I make dumplings for my version of chicken paprikash, or when I make pierogi or gnocchi, I can eat handfuls right out of the colander (or in this case right off the platter). But, dipping sauces are also part of the experience. Yongjia told us that the most basic, the most traditional dipping sauce is just a simple mixture (to taste) of soy sauce and vinegar. I'm reminded of the big (and often annoying) show of sauce-making at P.F. Chang's China Bistro. The combination of soy, vinegar, pepper oil, hot mustard, and chili paste would have been most scrumptious with our dumplings.

The wife and I took home a Ziploc bag full (after more beer, lots of fireworks, and a few pictures).

Mandy experimented with sauces, and we fried up the last of them (in a skillet with a bit of oil). I love them fried. The extra little crispy is my favorite!

The whole experience was great. Mandy and I will make another attempt on our own soon. I've already been thinking of how to streamline production!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rite of Passage Subverted (Part Two)

Back in July, I posted Rite of Passage Subverted (Part One). In it, I professed my deep admiration for Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The point of the first post was to explain why I love the show. Part two, however, is a critical analysis of a specific episode. At the time of the first post, I’d fully intended to post part two within days or weeks. Here we are, close to the close of 2008 and I’m just now getting around to posting this second part…

Buffy’s Bout with “Helpless” –ness

Peter Barry, in Beginning Theory, writes, “culture… can be ‘read’ like a language… since culture is made up of many structural networks which carry significance and can be shown to operate in a systematic way. These networks operate through ‘codes’ as a system of signs; they can make statements, just as language does, and they can be read or decoded by the structuralist.”[1] Buffy’s life-threatening rite of passage in season three’s episode “Helpless,” then, can be read within the larger framework of postmodern American cultural rites of passage.

Let’s first look at the big picture: What is a rite of passage?

Simply put, "rites of passage are a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, from one role or social position to another." The purpose of these rites—aside from the variety with which they are enacted—is also pretty basic: "It is through rites of passage that people are able to contemplate, to formulate and reformulate, their ambivalent condition of animal and human."[2] From this we can conclude that, generally speaking, any rite of passage serves to mark a stage of psychological, sociological, and/or spiritual development—anything outside the basic biological fact of existence.

Taking this general context of human rites, we can drill down further into the meat of rites by turning to Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, “rites of passage, which occupy such a prominent place in the life of a primitive society (ceremonials of birth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.), are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, where-by the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.”[3]

When Campbell denotes “primitive society” and “very severe... exercises of severance” he is, of course, referring to cultures or societies that practiced or still practice severe (sacred) rites of passage—ones that don’t fit within the framework of our modern world.[4] As Jeremy Northcote notes, “such formal initiation ceremonies are not seen to be prevalent in advanced industrial societies.” If, as Northcote continues, current “status-marking events” neglect to truly serve passage for modern youth, leaving them “uncertain of their precise [social] status” and “lacking a clear transitional path,” then we are left questioning the very existence and continuance of modern rites.[5]

However, from a structuralist standpoint, any time we invoke the notion of a “rite of passage,” we are pulling from a pre-existing structure that has its foundation in exactly what Campbell tells us: rites serve as symbolic severance from a past condition or state of being.

In our postmodern world, we’ve kept the phrase but have watered down its meaning. We have swapped rites for events (to borrow Northcote’s choice of phrasing). For us, rites of passage are not necessarily sacred, and involve much less ritual and severity. When I’ve asked my students to describe their “rites of passage,” I’ve been met with either a generalized account of maturation, or a specific event, such as the obtaining of a driver’s license. These, by Campbell’s definition, aren’t very severe. They occur in a “transitional period,” but aren’t anchored by a community and/or religious structure, aren’t “definitive in marking a person’s assumption of adult status.[6] They allude to the essence of change but there is no sacred rite or ritual, so to speak.

The sense of the sacred also bears mentioning because most of what we continue to call rites of passage are attached to a liminal notion of the sacred. Take for instance baptism, which is necessarily sacred. This is a ritual most modern American Christians practice; it is a sacred rite. Yet, the sense of the sacred is questionable given the age of the child and the circumstances surrounding the baptism. The rite is observed primarily for the parents’ sake and merely involves a kind of sacred solemnity.[7] The symbolic severance is minimal.

What we’re left with, then are rites of passage that are divorced from severity and the sacred—in a sense their locus of meaning has been displaced. So, let’s call this a watering down of rites of passage, or playing dress-up. We have a structure of passage in place, but that structure functions much like dressing up on Halloween. When Americans observe Halloween, we dress in costumes and assume personae comparable with our outward appearances. The result is most entertaining and, from a visual standpoint, the effect is somewhat (anachronistically) convincing. But the reality of such exercises is far from the reality invoked. This is analogous to our modern rites of passage. A driver’s road test is certainly no match for a teenage ritual circumcision.

Here’s the problem: Our “dress-up” is more myth and nostalgia than reverence for and understanding of the past. Our invocation of rites of passage in dress-up fashion are ritual without significance. History and common sense should both tell us this is a bad combination.[8]

I raise all of these points as a precursor to discussing Buffy’s rite of passage in “Helpless” because I need to invoke the underlying structure of postmodern American rites in order to illustrate the significance of Buffy’s subversion: She, ultimately, refuses to play dress-up and dispels the charade. As a contemporary feminist hero, she not only completes the rite but breaks the tradition in the process.[9]

First, we must identify Buffy’s rite of passage. Though it is referred to as such in the episode, I’ll match it to Campbell’s definition: “rites of passage… are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, where-by the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.”[10]


Buffy’s trial comes on her 18th birthday and stems from a longstanding tradition for slayers. Each slayer, we are told, must be put to a test on her 18th birthday—both to test her abilities and to mark her transition into adulthood. The test involves Buffy first being stripped of her “superpowers,” and second, being trapped in a house with a particularly virile vampire. Buffy passes her test if she successfully defeats the vampire. If she’s successful, her powers are restored and she officially comes of age as a slayer.

If she doesn’t succeed, she dies.

The formality of the ritual is witnessed as the episode unfolds. For the first time in the series history, we are introduced to the “Watcher’s Council,” the governing body of the slayer’s own watcher, Rupert Giles. Until now, the audience hasn’t been aware of the Council’s existence. The show has made passing reference to a “Slayer’s Handbook,” and we’ve been privy to a peek at Giles’s own training and history, but much of the watcher/slayer relationship has merely been alluded to. There’s a slayer; she has a watcher. That’s it.

With “Helpless,” we get more. In fact, a delegation from the Watcher’s Council is sent to Sunnydale to oversee the events. The delegation brings with them the vampire who will be the focus of Buffy’s test, and Quentin Travers (Harris Yulin), director of the Council, monitors the events. Travers is a stodgy, by-the-books talking head who quickly asserts his power over Giles, reminding Buffy’s watcher that his loyalty is to the Council.[11] In season two of the show, we learn that Giles is not as prim and proper as we’ve been led to believe—or at least, his own stodgy-ness is balanced by a dark past and a deep, fatherly love for Buffy. In “Helpless,” however, we see what we’ve come to know and feel about Giles usurped by Travers’s.

I mention this because the formal operation of Buffy’s ritual is established by this filling out of the origins and workings of the slayer/watcher relationship. By inserting this hierarchical order into the Buffyverse the writer of the episode, David Fury, alludes to what Joseph Campbell notes regarding the societal function of ritual: “All participate in the ceremonial according to rank and function. The whole society becomes visible to itself as an imperishable living unit. Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains.”[12] Prior to the arrival of Travers and his gang of Council cronies, Buffy and Giles seem to be operating outside the societal framework of Sunnydale. Actually, we are continually reminded that Buffy is ostensibly alone. Travers’s entrance signifies a reversion of this assumption. Buffy is not alone. In fact, the long line of slayers—though singular in their existence—is accompanied by an elaborate structural framework.

We see that—through Travers—the traditional relationship between slayer and watcher is modeled as a working relationship, of employee and supervisor (community elders to neophytes).[13] Travers even scolds Giles: “Your affection for your charge has rendered you incapable of clear and impartial judgment. You have a father's love for the child, and that is useless to the cause.” The “cause” is code for guiding principle. Much as a ritual might indicate a need to order (indoctrinate) a community, the “cause” of the Watcher’s Council is its reason for existence and, as such, motivates its actions. Buffy, then, is the initiate to the cause and her transition through this rite is crucial to the structure of the Buffyverse.

This is indicative of the main function of rites of passage: “In the extreme expression of the interdependence between the individual and his or her social group, the initiate is construed as a microcosm of society, and what is enacted by or upon the individual is thought to transform the collectivity.”[14] Buffy’s rite, then, is clearly enacted as a microcosmic experience that reinforces the general conceit of the show.


The ritual itself is particularly cruel—and, for my purposes here, wildly fitting to the definition of a traditional rite of passage. Buffy’s severance comes in the form of an injection which renders her Slayer powers ineffective. This gives the rite of passage a physical reality to match its need to “radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.” The purpose of the rite is to signal Buffy’s transition into adulthood (slayerhood). By stripping her of her powers, she is physically cut away from the attitudes and attachments that she might be inclined to rely upon.

The physicality, when it comes to Buffy, is also representative of the necessary psychological severance. Buffy’s powers, we are led to believe, are at the core of what makes her the slayer. She is the slayer because she’s the one with the powers, the chosen one. Remove those powers (physical severance) and she ceases to be the slayer (psychological severance).

This clearly serves the purpose of the rite: “[Rites of passage] foster the arousal of self-conscious questioning… Individuals (as well as the society itself) may be moved to the edge of profound self-investigation and exploration.” In fact, the episode offers us plenty of evidence to reinforce this questioning of self. Buffy is, at first, somewhat relieved by the notion that she has become “normal” again. She has struggled for two years now to come to terms with her role in life—being denied a comfortable teenage existence—and now, stripped of her powers, she gets what she’s wanted.

This quickly changes, however. In a most revelatory respect, losing her powers shows Buffy just how much she has grown as a slayer—despite her protestations to the contrary. Faced with not being the slayer, she comes to appreciate her lot in life much more. Surely, and this is true of life in general, she wrestles with her identity throughout the course of her existence (a la the show), but this rite serves to mark her first major life transition.

It’s not that simple, though. The severity of Buffy’s rite goes beyond simply invoking self-reflection and passing a road test. We must keep in mind that the slayer’s superpowers even the playing field in regards to vampire and demon slaying. Buffy is not necessarily stronger than her victims; she has simply been vested with a power like theirs. Removing this power puts her on the level of regular humans—humans who are, nine times out of ten, easy prey.

Add to this that Buffy’s “test” involves a criminally insane vampire with mommy issues. The Watcher’s Council keeps said test subject, Kralik, heavily sedated, boxed up, and strapped down. Fighting a “regular” vampire without her powers might serve as test enough, but the Council takes the rite a step further, making this a most severe exercise in passage.

Now, it also bears mentioning that proof of this severity comes with the Council’s inability to contain its test subject.[15] Kralik’s ability to break free of his controlled environment proves regular humans are no match for his strength and cunning. In classic television fashion, though, Kralik chooses to play along with the test—even though he has killed and turned his captors.

One more point about severance: I’ve made much of the physicality of Buffy’s severance. It is, after all, the centerpiece of the ritual. A true slayer, if the rite be proved, should come out victorious even without her powers—because a “true” slayer is more than just her superpowers. I’ll return to that notion later, but for now, let me mention the additional psychological goodies: If the ritual was conducted without assistance from Giles, then my analysis might not be complete. Luckily for me, Whedon and Fury have made this rite about more than just empty, formal ritual.

Giles is the key facilitator. He is the one who injects Buffy, thereby disabling her.

This serves the ritual best because Giles is not just Buffy’s Watcher. Buffy is the slayer, the one with the powers, but her reliance on Giles assistance goes beyond that of employer and employee. Giles has become Buffy’s requisite father. As such, his role in the ritual multiplies the stakes: Buffy’s rite is ultimately invoked by her father. By injecting his daughter, Giles “radically” cuts Buffy “away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.” Furthermore, by stepping aside to let the ritual commence, he is clearly detaching himself to let Buffy succeed or fail on her own.

I’ll add that Giles-as-father is reinforced by the pairing of his father-ness with Buffy’s biological father’s lack of father-ness. Prior to this episode, we’ve had evidence that Buffy’s real father, Hank Summers, is a deadbeat; this is substantiated in “Helpless” by a broken promise to take Buffy to an ice show for her birthday.[16] Here again, Buffy’s rite is doubled: She is separated from both of her fathers.

Since I’m talking about fathers, I might as well talk about mothers: Kralik’s “mommy issues” are an interesting addition to this episode. I’m not sure there is much more to talk about here, but it is curious that Kralik’s subversion of the initial plan winds up incorporating Buffy’s mother into the fray. Buffy is betrayed by her father(s) and must save her mother. Interesting.

Turnabout Is Fair Play

Buffy passes the test.

I’ve been intentionally cagey; All is not as I’ve made it seem.

In fact, what I find most brilliant about this episode is that it manages to take models of traditional rites of passage and turn them on their head: Giles breaks the integrity of the rite; Buffy rejects the resultant incorporation that is her reward for completing the ritual.

The quote from Travers that I used above is a key to breakdown: Giles spills the beans to Buffy. Because he is fatherly to her, he can’t bear to see the torment that his role in the ritual has caused her. Her self-reflection (most important to the rite) is what leads Giles to explain his role in stripping Buffy of her powers.

The integrity of the test is thus compromised.

But, as with Kralik’s deviation from—but continuance of—the test, Buffy still must perform. The stakes are heightened when we learn that Joyce Summers has been folded into the situation.

Now, where does this leave us? Buffy passes the test. Through her own cunning and sense of purpose, she is able to defeat Kralik. In the parting sequence of the episode, Travers smugly notes that Buffy has passed the test—but Giles has not. Giles is relieved of his duties as Watcher because he was unable to fulfill his role in the test.

But what about Buffy? Yes, she’s passed, but what does it mean?

Traditional rites of passage have a “fundamental tripartite form[…]: separation, transition, and incorporation.” The point is for the person “to be separated from one role” so that he/she can “be incorporated into a new one.”[17] The ritual, as outlined by the Council, is meant to transition a slayer from apprentice (or neophyte) to tradesman—employed and loyal to the Council. Buffy is separated from her childhood reliance on her Watcher so that she can be incorporated into the hierarchy of the Watcher’s Council.

Buffy’s response, of course is “Bite me.”

But where does this leave us? What has really changed? Has Buffy really become something different? Did the rite of passage succeed in transitioning Buffy from one stage to the next?

Let’s try to answer some of these questions.

True, Giles gets fired, and Buffy passes her test (regaining her powers and, later in the season, a new Watcher), but as Buffy herself tells Willow at the end of the episode: “You know, nothing is really going to change.” Giles will continue to serve as Buffy’s watcher, if not in an official capacity (he is later reinstated in season five), and the season will progress much like it began—much like any other season. Buffy is still a high school student, and she still relies on her friends and Watcher. So what has changed?

We could ask this of any rite of passage. Think about the tradition of Bar Mitzvah. In a completely empirical, reasonable way, very little real change occurs. Twelve and thirteen are the ages of Bar/Bat Mitzvah transition, and are meant to coincide with puberty. But, as we well know, puberty is not something that can truly be defined by age—and it certainly does not happen overnight. Not all children “come of age” biologically at the same time. As such, the arbitrariness of age is highlighted. We could easily say the same about Buffy’s rite of passage at eighteen.

On a purely practical level, then, we have to admit that while major events provoke change, those changes are not sudden or complete. In the case of a ritual, like a Bar Mitzvah, we have to concede that prior to and shortly after the ritual occurs little really changes. In the end, we go through the motions, have the party, and then continue on as before but slightly different.

In Buffy’s case, not much really changes in regards to her physical reality.

However, “physical” is the key.

Real change occurs not in grand dramatic moments but in successive, small events. In the case of Buffy’s ritual, the changes set in motion by her ritual are not immediately apparent—to her, or those around her—but something has indeed changed.

Let’s go back to the point of ritual. Surely the Council enacts this ritual not out of a sense of obligation or spiritual need. Tradition is a source, definitely, but that tradition springs from a very important place: Power. For the Council, this ritual represents an important turning point, a point at which indoctrination/initiation solidifies the relationship between Watcher and Slayer. Buffy’s ritual represents the point at which she becomes a company man. From the Council’s point of view, the ritual represents the point at which Buffy declares her allegiance to—and thereby submission to—the Council’s authority.

All of this leads to a rather enlightening notion (one that has already been touched upon above): “Whether or not rites of passage, or any ritual activity, is necessary to human existence is a debatable matter, yet rites of passage do provide for and fulfill at least one crucial task: that of inculcating a society’s rules and values to those who are to become its full-fledged members.”[18] When Travers and the boys waltz into town, their sole purpose is to inculcate Buffy. Their formality, the ritual’s severity, and even Giles’s firing, all serve to reinforce Buffy’s place in the world. Yes, she is the chosen one—but she must take orders from the council. And now, as an adult, she needn’t question her place in the food chain.

Buffy’s response (again): “Bite me.”

And that’s where the “rites subverted” really culminates. Buffy, as I’ve illustrated here, partakes in a very traditional, severe, ritual of severance, one designed to incorporate her into the power structure of the Watcher’s Council. Her teacher and father figure, Giles, partakes in the ritual, thereby validating it. She successfully completes the tasks set before her.

But she is not incorporated.

The tripartite formula of ritual is not fulfilled. The Council is successful in initiating Buffy’s separation; the process of the ritual—including Giles transgression of it—secures Buffy’s transition; the result is not incorporation but rather further separation.

Check. Rite subverted.

The Problem of Now

All of this leads me to a somewhat depressing conclusion: Advanced industrial societies are incapable of fulfilling the tripartite ritual of passage because the individual cannot be revered if incorporation is the goal. That is, modern status-marking events—such as obtaining drivers’ licenses and voting—have little to do with community establishment and reinforcement. By privileging the individual, we’ve lost the society.

Now, in the case of Buffy, we see the complications of this: Clearly, the establishment that she debunks is worth debunking. Travers’s masculine, even misogynistic, authority is not about establishing community (though he professes the value of the cause), but about order driven by a short-sighted patriarchal power structure. Buffy’s separation instead of incorporation is representative of the modern dilemma: How does one become an enlightened individual while remaining part of a community?

In “Helpless,” Buffy does the right thing by dismantling unnecessary tradition. This very notion is ultimately fulfilled by the conclusion of the series: Buffy not only debunks tradition but saves the world by establishing a new order out of the ruins of the old. As such, “Helpless” illustrates the transformative power of ritual while at the same time exposes the faults inherent in traditional power and social structures.

And that’s why I love this show.

[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory. Manchester Univ. Press, 1995. p. 47. Barry’s text is an excellent introduction to literary and cultural theory. Much of my analysis is a synthesis of structuralism, post-structuralism, and feminism.

[2] "Rites of Passage." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 11. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 7795-7796.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Princeton Univ. Press, 1973. p. 10.

[4] I use this phrase to encompass, in a general way, American culture as we experience it at the moment.

[5] Jeremy Northcote, “Nightclubbing and the Search for Identity: Making the Transition from Childhood to Adulthood in an Urban Milieu,” Journal of Youth Studies, February 2006, p. 1.

[6] Northcote, p. 1.

[7] Solemnity seems to have replaced our traditional sense of the sacred. Think about “moments of silence.” Silence now stands in for the sacred, and in a ritual baptism there is much ritual but little substance. I speak, of course, from personal experience…

[8] Take for instance the use of “nigger.” In discussion of diversity and tolerance in the classroom, I’ve talked about the danger of phrases like “My grandfather was a good guy, but he was a racist.” True, we are often confronted with such cultural paradoxes (anachronisms, even), but the danger lies in the subtle grafting: The good “racist,” and by extension the acceptable use of the word “nigger,” is a person (or word) without significance—or racist (nigger) under erasure. By invoking the phrase “rite of passage” in regards to a modern “rite” like a driver’s license test, we create a sociological misnomer: The severity of ritual circumcision is put in contrast to a silly driving test and now we have a misunderstanding that leads to colonization.

[9] Turning and turning again: Buffy’s rite, as I will discuss later, actually functions more like a traditional rite than those we’ve come to see as normal.

[10] Emphasis mine.

[11] It might bear mentioning that Travers represents a classic notion of masculine power. As the head of the council, he assumes a position above Buffy—even though she is clearly the one with the power. This relationship plays out, to some extent, in this episode, but is further explored later in the series.

[12] Campbell, Hero, p. 383.

[13] I seem to be drawn to a “work” model here. In drafting, I originally wrote “corporate” instead of “hierarchical.” Bears footnoting: Harkening back to Campbell, I’m reminded of his comments in The Power of Myth regarding societal power moves from church led to government led to economy led structures. If we take this as a viable concept, then my predilection to equate work with community (or church) seems like a reasonable thought.

[14] "Rites of Passage," p. 7796.

[15] I can’t help but note my desire to end “subject” with an “s” because both Kralik and Buffy don’t play by the rules!

[16] There’s even a sad note when Buffy receives only the gift of tickets from her father—and not his actual presence. Buffy heartbreakingly dances around the prospect of Giles taking her to the show, but his guilt clouds him from the offer.

[17] "Rites of Passage," p. 7797. This is analogous, too, with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey cycle: departure—fulfillment—return.

[18] "Rites of Passage," p. 7798.