Social Construction in Life Serial:
d'Herblay - October 27 2001

I took only one sociology course in college ("Deviant Behavior"; there was no assigned lab-work), so perhaps I'm not the best person to talk about "social construction of reality." In fact, when I hear any variation on "social construct," I tend to want to hit someone upside the head with Alan Sokal. But Joss is not one to let a metaphor go unstated, and Willow's class at the beginning of Act One of "Life Serial" must have some greater significance to the episode, so I may be forgiven if I overreach in grasping for a connection.

What is "social construction of reality"? Let's allow a college professor to do the questioning.

MIKE Social construction of reality. Who can tell me what that is? Rachel?

RACHEL A concept involving a couple of opposing theories. One stressing the externality and independence of social reality from individuals--

In other words, there exists an objective reality that all of us participate in. Life is no solipsism; there's a world out there that is really real.

MIKE And the flip side? Steve?

STEVE That each individual participates fully in the construction of his or her own life.

That is to say, your world is what you make of it. The only way you can make judgments about the nature of objective reality is through your senses, and your perceptions are ultimately yours alone. What you learn of objective reality through your perceptions may be highly accurate or highly flawed.

The world you perceive is sometimes called the idios kosmos, from the Greek for "one's own order" or "personal universe." It is contrasted with the koinos kosmos, "shared universe," which consists of the common interpretations of our perceptions which we must establish in order to communicate our perceptions to each other. When someone's idios kosmos diverges too greatly from the koinos kosmos, we tend to treat that person as defective in some way. It is not insignificant that idios is the root of the English "idiot."

As an example, the facts of objective reality include: the shorter the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation, including what we call "visible light," the more likely that that radiation will be scattered by collision with molecules in a planet's atmosphere; the three types of color receptors in the human eye are optimized to perceive radiation with wavelengths of approximately 450, 540 and 590 nanometers. In the koinos kosmos, our perceptions consistent with these facts lead us to say that the sky is blue. But to someone with dichromatic color blindness, who can perceive only black and white, the sky is no such color. His idios kosmos is, in this case, divergent from the koinos kosmos.

But that's pouring mumbo-jumbo on top of folderol. And you might ask yourself, "What does any of this have to do with Buffy?" Well, the three "tests" the geek squad subjected Buffy to each separated her idios kosmos from the koinos kosmos. In Andrew's test we find the typical disjunction between the world of the slayer and the world of common convention. Buffy's demons are dismissed with the standard Sunnydale denial. The other tests, though, present a more personal disjunction. Time is one of the most basic shared frames of reference we have (even though the years seem to pass more quickly now that I have no interest in growing older), and both Jonathan's and Warren's tests manipulated Buffy's sense of time so that she was no longer synchronous with the rest of Sunnydale. Giles, Anya and the customers are participants in Jonathan's spell, but they do not consciously experience the looping as Buffy does. Though this test took the longest from Buffy's point of view, Andrew tells us, "from Mr. Giles's perspective, it was shortest of all."

If the perspective of the koinos kosmos is the perspective that matters, then Warren's test, his "omega pulse sequence," must be counted as the most successful of all, despite the rapidity with which Buffy found his "inhibitor." For if twenty minutes passed in the second that Buffy looked at the clock, the amount of time that passed in the minutes it took her to make her way under the table and find the inhibitor must have been hours, if not days (and I must admit that I'm confused as to why no one at UC-Sunnydale would step around the slowly moving girl).

The plate that Buffy looks at before Tara's class (and, due to the effect of the inhibitor, is apparently enraptured by) is a picture of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, the centerpiece of Gianlorenzo Bernini's installation in the Cornaro Chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Ecstasy is the masterpiece of the Roman Baroque. The statue represents Teresa's vision, in which a seraph stood above her, plunging a flaming golden arrow again and again into the depths of her heart. Her limbs hung inert, her eyes fell half-shut as she felt "pain so great that I screamed aloud; but simultaneously I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last eternally." In the statue, as she swoons, her mouth opens to let out the moans caused by the "sweetest caressing of the soul by God."

Mystical ecstasy achieved in communion with God is a melting away of the outside world, like another form of ecstasy in communion with another that some might say Bernini really portrays. Buffy certainly lost contact with the outside world, though she did not find sweetness in such a state. But there is another way that the installation illuminates "Life Serial." On either side of his centerpiece, Bernini places bas-relief loges containing the figures of the Cornaro family, his patrons. It is as though Teresa's ecstasy takes place on a stage, with the Cornaros as theatergoers, discussing the play amongst themselves. (And how Bernini ever found marble with which to mimic the oilcloth of the theater escapes me.) Buffy, too, was made to perform. The geek squad, which has its own problems integrating into the koinos kosmos, watches her every move. They experience all the loops in the Magic Box, and when Buffy finds the inhibitor, with the world zooming by her, they see her examine it in her time-scale. I noticed three clocks lined up in the van. The center one bore a plaque saying "Sunnydale"; the one on the left, "Tokyo." I assume that the one on the right would have said "New York," or some such (I didn't get a good look), but it would have been appropriate for them to have had a clock that was set to Buffy-time. After all, it was the time zone they inhabited as well.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is sometimes called The Rapture, and "rapture" has the same Latin root ( rapere) as "rape." What the troika does to Buffy puts the lie to Steve's in-class statement that "each individual participates fully in the construction of his or her own life." To have a personal perspective so divergent from the common frame of reference is a sign of insanity, and the geek squad is driving Buffy crazy. When Buffy says "I'm not playing by anyone else's rules anymore. I'm done," she is reasserting control over how she integrates her idios kosmos with the rest of the world.

That is my personal (some might now be inclined to say "idiotic") take on the "social construction" of Buffy's reality in "Life Serial." However, there is another analysis of how the episode is constructed that I wish to discuss. This analysis is based largely upon ideas Lunarchickk has expounded both in the chat room and on the board. It has less to do with any technical definition of "social constructivism" and more to do with Buffy's attempt to reconstruct her life through socialization. Each of the four acts focus on Buffy trying on the life of one of her friends. In the first act, she tries on Willow's heady academic world. But the world of ideas moves too fast for her. In the second, she tries on Xander's hard-hat. But as a woman in a male world, she is sensitive to different things than her coworkers (in this case, demons). In the third, she puts on a name-tag and enters Anya's world. But the day of a shop girl is far too repetitious and rote for a creative thinker like Buffy. In the fourth act, she tries on Spike's life of perpetual immaturity. She enjoys it at first, but when Spike suggests that she can combine such a role with her duties as a slayer, she finds herself sitting in the corner watching Spike play cards for kittens. She is frustrated with the inanity of this; she is coming to recognize that the role of the slayer is incompatible with such immaturity.

I am probably alone in this, but I am prepared to characterize Buffy's willingness to sit alone with Spike, downing shots by candlelight, as a booty call. Frustrated with her day, with her job-search, with her life, looking to lose herself in drink or in violence, she seems willing to take Spike up on any suggestion he can offer. No wonder she lashes out at him after his game, calling him "neutered." In fact, the scene looks like a B/S shipper's worst nightmare. Buffy comes home to Spike, and all he wants to do is go play poker with the boys.

But if you think I'm going to take this tack in any analysis of what Spike played for, think again.

For my understanding of social constructivism, I relied on Chapter 4 of Fashionable Nonsense, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont and "Alan Sokal's Hilarious Hoax" in Martin Gardner's Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? I suppose that I might have a greater understanding had I consulted less skeptical sources. A Humean or a Kantian might have more to say about the conflict of perception and reality, but Kant drove me out of philosophy in the first place. All quotes were gathered by me with the play-pause-rewind method of reading closed-captioning; I'm practicing the counterfeiting of shooting scripts. The quotes regarding Teresa of Avila are from her own recounting of her vision; I took them from Rudolf Wittkower's Gianlorenzo Bernini: Sculptor of the Italian Baroque. Should you ever find yourself in Rome, I highly recommend seeking out the actual statue--it's much better than that crappy old Sistine Chapel. The terms idios kosmos and koinos kosmos may or may not have legitimate usages in some field of human knowledge; I nicked them from Philip K. Dick.

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