traces of humanity in popular culture

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (1944) by Francis Bacon

The artist Francis Bacon once described his own paintings as looking “as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events”.

I love that description! And if you’ve ever seen much of his work, I’m sure you’ll agree it rings true.

Although often evoking violence and feature abject ‘bodiliness’ (recalling severed limbs, excrement, etc), somehow Bacon’s art manages to testify eloquently to our humanity.

Brutal, almost forensic honesty somehow yields a celebration of what makes us human — or at least the mess left over at the end of this wild party we call being human.

That’s how the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein, works too.

Even though the monster is gruesomely assembled from bits and pieces of the dead, you find yourself sympathising with him. He’s just far more human than the other characters — especially his maker.

But it’s not just in high culture where this dynamic is in play.

I’m increasingly draw to pop-culture artefacts — especially TV shows — that foreground themes of what it means to be human by backlighting it with violent and distorted perversions of humanity.

Here are my top 3 picks for TV shows that employ ‘traces’ of humanity to explore this territory:

  • Dollhouse — another glorious monster from the creator of Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon: what appears to be a misogynistic premise (a woman who has her memory wiped and reprogrammed on the whim of an elite, mostly male clientele) turns out to be so much more!
  • The Wire — OK, so maybe it doesn’t explicitly foreground an exploration of what it means to be human; but it’s way cool, and does highlight the way institutions (whether the police force, the gangs, or the unions) enable even as they constrain and imprison.
  • Being Human — Natalie and I are only just getting into this show; I can’t decide yet whether it’s more subtle or more ham-fisted than the others in handling these themes.

Do you have any tips for other TV shows (or movies) that might do a similar job?

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