سه‌شنبه، تیر ۲۶، ۱۳۹۷

“The Upside Down”: Neo-liberalism Without Makeup

A Political Review on First Season of Stranger Things

Don't Read Until You've Watched First Season Of "Stranger Things" 

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
- William Shakespeare -

The Netflix TV show Stranger Things has been making by 1980s pop culture grammar. The characters, the tone of dialogues, scenography, soundtracks and even mise-en-scenes and cinematography are following the rules of the culture industry in that decade. The kings of 80s’ pop culture are roaming over the TV show like ghosts. The technologies that were new in the 1980s – including cassette tapes, VHS films, the third generation of video games, Walkie-Talkies and also DOS – are part of Stranger Things’ scenography. Every moment of the series is fraught by cinematic referencing to the successful Hollywood’s sci-fi and horror movies in the 1980s. In November 2017, Time magazine made a list of those movies that Stranger Things has been referring to. Nonetheless, the creators of the TV show mentioned this point before everyone else. Indeed, Stranger Things is a summary of all those elements that American pop culture had had during the 1980s. Somebodies have written the show has the aroma of Stephen King’s novels and Steven Spielberg’s movies. Anyway, the gist is this: The Duffer Brothers have made a low-defect maquette of American’s pop culture in the 1980s.

Stranger Things is an ocean of details – the details that motivate the nostalgic sense of several generations of Americans. According to The Guardian, 8.2 million individuals attracted to this TV series just within first 17 days of the first season released. When the second season of Stranger Things released in the late October 2017, Business Insider reported 361 thousand of Americans watched the whole latest season on the first day. According to the same article, each episode of Stranger Things2 had had 4 million viewers between October 27 to November 2, 2017.

Nostalgia is the primary foundation of Stranger Things, for sure. Most of the critics – the sympathizers or the opponents – are unanimous about this point. They argue nostalgia is a more important element for Stranger Things’ success. The sympathizers claim that this accurate rebuilding of the 80s pop culture is a masterpiece. The opponents believe this is nothing, but a “Nostalgia Porn.” The sympathizers say we cannot name nostalgia as a negative thing. The opponents respond nostalgia is a driver to irrational gloom for the gone days more than a good motive to critical review on the negative side of old days. They, the opponents, explain Stranger Things is a part of the newest Hollywood’s strategy that its purpose is selling unrealistic pictures of the gone days to the people: The Nostalgia Strategy.  

However, has Stranger Things just stopped at this level? Is this TV show only one of those new Hollywood’s nostalgic productions? Or, as some leftist observers have claimed, the Duffer Brothers – besides of nostalgia business – have could be trafficking a robust political message within their sci-fi story?

The Beginning of the Horror

The first season of Stranger Things’ story is happening at a small town of Indiana name Hawkins: William Byers, 12 years old boy, vanishes by a ghastly ghost on the night of November 6, 1983, and this is the beginning of an adventure.  William’s family, his close friends and also the Hawkins chief police department are trying to find Willi. The chief, Jim Hooper, finds some evidence that shows Willi can be at the Hawkins’ Lab – a place that a top-secret government project is running there. The lab’s security guards make Hooper sure that they have not seen any stranger everywhere close by the lab’s territory. Hooper does not convince but left them alone. Nevertheless, the police department discovers Willi’s corpse somewhere around Hawkins later. Everybody, except Willi’s mother who believes she has had a conversation with Willi’s soul, convinces Willi has gone. Joyce, Willi’s mother, believes her son is still alive and he has tried to talk to her. Hooper gives up to Joyce obstinacy. He goes to the morgue a night before Willi’s funeral. At the morgue, he figures out the thing, which everybody accepts as Willi’s corpse, is nothing but a doll.

The searching group of William Byers is going to be active again after Hooper’s discovery, and they are going to face the stranger things. They discover the ghastly ghost has taken away Willi to a parallel universe as known as the Upside Down. “[A] dark reflection, or echo, of our world,” Willi’s friend, Dustin Henderson, defines the Upside Down by this words. “It’s a place of decay and death, a plane out of phase … It is right next to you, and you don’t even see it.” According to Dustin’s dialogue, the Upside Down looks like our world exactly, but “dark,” “empty” and, under monsters’ control.

By drawing the Upside Down’s coordinates up, the political message of Stranger Things has begun to show itself as well. This is the moment that viewers can see a world full of terror behind those entire nostalgic scenes that exist in Stranger Things. David Cicilline, a Democrat congressman from Rhode Island, was one of those potential viewers who got the Netflix show’s political message. On February 16, 2017, he brought a large size poster with himself to the Congress with these words on it: “Trump Things.” Cicilline had given an anti-Trump speech that day and also used an analogy to explain the United States of America’s political condition: “Like the main characters in Stranger Things, we are now stuck in the Upside Down.”

By the way, what does the Upside Down in a political context mean? How does the Gate open up between the Upside Down and human’s world? Who is the first season’s monster? How does it choose its victims? And what is the final political message in the first season of Stranger Things about?  

An Onslaught to Working-Class

Stranger Things is classic sci-fi, but there is a little – and also significant – the difference between its storyline and most of the other sci-fi stories’ formula. Sci-fi stories narrate the future often. These stories, based on some scientific theories that we have already known, imagine the duration and the progress of status quo in the future. By this point of view – especially in Social Science Fiction sub-genre – the creators of sci-fi stories warn to their readers, or their viewers, about the tragic outcomes that could happen in the future if the status quo will going to extend itself. So from this perspective, most sci-fi stories have had no political identity. This is true that the main panics inside the stories of science-fiction have created by a kind of political panics at the beginning, but mostly all those fears have become something like a philosophical dilemma or existential fears at the end[1]. Though the story of Stranger Things is happening in the past and its viewers can recognize a political context and a historical background on this basis: the 1980s, the victory of right wing’s revolution of Ronald Reagan, the first years of emerging of Neo-liberalism and this evil ideology’s effort to conquering the world.

Davis Smith-Brecheisen, a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Illinois, analyzes Stranger Things’ story from its political context and its historical background. He writes Hawkins is an analogy for entire of the United States in Reagan’s era. He believes whatever the show’s creators portrait of the Upside Down, as a “reflection or echo” of Hawkins, is an image of the destructive policies against American working-class in Reagan’s era. “The science-fiction elements of Stranger Things only heighten the menace of this lived-in precarity,” he wrote. “This echo allegorizes the working-class desolation of Reagan’s America.”

Smith’s assertion is correct. Reagan’s name had been tied with all American capitalism’s anti-working-class policies. He, as the current president of the Screen Actors Guild, stood before the HUAC and testified against Hollywood’s intellectual workers in October 1947. In the 1960s and the 1970s, as the current California Governor, led a class war against immigrant workers who were working on the American agriculture industry. In 1981, this time as the 40th president of the United States, Reagan suppressed the air traffic controllers’ strike with an iron fist: he fired near 13 thousand of those protesting workers and also put the strike’s leaders in the jail.

A political perceive of Stranger Things can be possible just from this point of view: all the victims of the first season’s monster – who named Demogorgon by the kids – belong to the working-class. In the show’s opening scene Demogorgon is chasing one of the lab’s workers. Then the monster is going after William Byers who is coming from a working-class family. The third victim of the ghastly ghost is a teen girl name Barbara Holland; a chubby-tall girl that, as we can see in the second season, her family’s asset make this point clear that she belongs to the working-class as well.  And finally is the turn of Eleven; a pre-teenage girl with super power abilities who is a refugee in Hawkins. Indeed, Eleven is a symbol for American skilled workers in Stranger Things. So, if the skilled workers have been exploited in the industrial societies because of their unique skills, Hawkins’ lab – as an official institution – had exploited Eleven for a long time because she’s had a unique skill too. “Stranger Things shows us a young girl whose life has been torn apart by her unique skill as a laborer,” Davis Smith-Brecheisen writes these phrases to analyze Eleven’s character. “Her plight becomes the plight of the entire town of Hawkins, and every town like it.” Hence, it cannot be a wrong approach if the onslaught of Demogorgon to the town of Hawkins has been compared with Reagan’s invasion of American working-class: a full-scale class war against the toilers.   

“The Torture Lab”

In Stranger Things, Demogorgon steps into Hawkins from the gate opens between the Upside Down and Hawkins because of side effects of the lab’s top-secret project. The Lab’s manager, Dr. Brenner, forces Eleven to go to somewhere in the parallel world and spying on a Soviet Union’s agent. Eleven goes there and, during her spying, sees Demogorgon in that cold-dark dimension for the first time. The monster chases Eleven, she scares and, influenced by this fear, she releases her super power’s energy, and the gate opens due to this potent energy.

This part of the TV show’s story has been based on a scientific theory about existent’s possibility of the parallel world and also the chance of human beings entry to this unknown dimension. Nonetheless, if someone wants to watch Stranger Things in a political way he/she has to understand this part of the story as well as the other show’s political analogies. Indeed, the images that have been created by The Duffer Brothers about Hawkins’ lab and its project are smeary to the sci-fi exaggerations for sure, but, under all those fictional exaggerations, the fact is the Duffer Brothers have could making an image of one of the black CIA’s projects: MKUltra Project.

CIA has started the MKUltra project in the 1950s. One of the original branches of this project had been running at the McGill University. The executive of McGill University’s project was a British psychiatrist name, Donald Ewen Cameron. Dr. Cameron, who has been called the monster by some of his patients, was among of specialists who were against Sigmund Freud’s approach. In Freud’s method, as known as “Talk Therapy,” the psychoanalyst has to make the unconscious mind of the patient ready to talk during an ongoing conversation between the therapist and the patient. Hence, the therapist can get close to the root of the patient’s disorder, and the recovery process has been begun in this way. For an instant, a part of Susan Howatch’s novel “Penmarric” shows a successful Talk Therapy process very well. Philip, one of the main novel’s characters, has been married to an attractive woman, but he cannot make love with her even on the first night. He explains to his therapist that whenever makes himself ready for having sex with his wife a memory of his father’s violent act against his mother comes through his mind, and then the memory makes him impotence. During Philip’s Talk Therapy, his therapist discovers the bitter memory is not the main reason of Philip’s refusal of having sex with his wife, but the main reason is this: Philip likes to have sexual relationships with men not women. The therapist explains Philip’s unconscious mind has chosen a powerful memoir from his childhood and sends it to his conscious mind, so that prevents Philip from doing any kind of sexual activity which is against his unconscious mind’s desire. So, the therapist’s discovery could help Philip to reshape his sexual and emotional life, and he’s had a more peaceful life than he’d had before. By the way, Dr. Cameron believed this approach is wrong. Instead, he supposed that psychiatrists have to put their patients in a particular condition, and with the assistance of some various physical shocks, destroy patients’ ego entirely and then will going to make a new normal ego for them.

Dr. Cameron’s theory was interesting to CIA. From 1957 to 1964, CIA had sent $69 thousand (equal to $700 thousand in 2018) to Dr. Cameron to test his theory in a laboratory environment. But the outcomes of Cameron’s approach were a disaster at the end of the day. “Her back pain is just one reminder of the sixty-three times that 150 to 200 volts of electricity penetrated the frontal lobes of her brain,” this is Naomi Klein’s testimony in her great book, “The Shock Doctrine,” about the physical suffering of Gail Kastner who had been one of Dr. Cameron’s victims for a long time. “While her body convulsed violently on the table, causing fractures, sprains, bloody lips, broken teeth.” The chain of Ms. Kastner’s memory had been disintegrated affected by those tortures. She could not only remember her gone days and also even her short time life-events at all. “Over the course of the day we spend talking, Gail often leans over to write something on a scrap of paper or a cigarette box,” Klein writes. “The tickets of paper and cigarette boxes are, for Gail, something more than an unconventional filing system. They are her memory.” According to Gail’s twin sister, Zella, when she’d just been freed from Cameron’s lab, she’d acted like a child for a long time. She’d talked like children. She’d lost her urine control. She’d wanted to have a baby milk glass bottle often. She’d cried like a baby, and sucked her thumb. We can see all these disorders in the two characters of Stranger Things: Eleven and Mama. Both of these characters are freezing in their pre-puberty’s days; in their childhood. On the other hand, Dr. Brenner represents Dr. Cameron’s role in the show as well: a brutal scientist who has sold his soul to the evil. In real life, Dr. Cameron could bring Gail Kastner back to her childhood, instead to treat her mental problem and, as he promised, give her a rational ego. By the way, the question is this: why CIA had to be interested in such a theory that could damage the people’s memory and bring them back to their childhood?   

The Poisonous Sperm of Neo-liberalism      

The torture labs, in a sense, were neo-liberalism’s political sperms. Neo-liberalism, just like Demogorgon in Stranger Things, stepped into the civilized world from the torture labs. Since the mid-1960s, when Indonesian militant neo-liberals were butchering Indonesian’s leftists with CIA’s accompaniment and shocked the society by a massive massacre, the results of torture labs have been used for the internationalists’ neo-liberals. From that time until now, they have been trying to bring all the labor forces of any single country, that they could be occupied them, back to their childhood age by “Shock Therapy” as well as Dr. Cameron did with his patients.

According to Eric Hobsbawm’s book “The Age of Revolution,” the political birth of the working-class of industrial societies did happen in the 1830s. This credible historian believed, in 1848 – when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto – the political battle of this social class has been naming. So, from this perspective, all the historical evolutions of the labor forces’ class struggle in the 180 past years show the various phases of the universal grown of the labor forces from childhood to puberty. If Dickensian shocking images of industrial workers’ life in the mid-nineteen century were assumed as the childhood age of labor forces life-time, so we can assume every single of the working-class social achievements as a step toward its self-awareness or, in the other word, its puberty. However, the internationalist neo-liberals have been planning for destruction all those social achievements. They want to recapture all those achievements by “Shock Therapy” and throw the civilized world to “the old good days” with incredible speed: on September 2016, a huge population of the “Workers-Prisoners” organized a national strike in protest to slavery in the U.S prisons. So from this perspective, if Dr. Cameron had could damage his victims’ memory by electroconvulsive therapy and brought them back to their childhood, Ronald Reagan did the same thing with American working-class by led an unprecedented war against the unions. Indeed, he and his billionaire friends wanted to bring the American working-class to the time that this social class had had no idea about Socialism.

In Stranger Things, Eleven, as the primary victim of Hawkins’ lab, acts like children too. She is strange with all forms of the languages, but sign language. She has no sense about the society and social roles. She pursues her instincts and has no memory and no individuality. She is just a shocked refugee. She, as a portrait of an exploited skilled worker, has been locked in the world of “fascination and aggression” as well as newborns. But in the other hand, Eleven is revealing the coming horror to Hawkins. Her violate body and her traumatic spirit, like the U.S cities that they have become Ghost Towns since forty last years, are testifying against a lousy element and a public threat over Hawkins: a specter is haunting Hawkins – the ghostly specter of neo-liberalism.                                                

[1] George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” can be a good example for this assertion. Orwell’s masterpiece has no time and region. So maybe because of this situation, many of criticists had mentioned the novel to explaining dictatorship of the Communist regimes on Eastern Europe in mid-decades of the 20th century. But in the 21st century, when no communist regimes even exist, some observers are referring to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” often when they want to explain latest capitalism systems’ approach; especially the capitalism of the United States.        

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