FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
The Joys of Rereading (2017-08-06)
There are many books out there in the world, some electronic, many not, some published by recognized publishers, an impressive number not. There are a quite a few good ones, many astonishingly good. There are plenty of forgettable ones unlikely to be read again, and not a few of those are formula fiction that actually isn't intended to be read again in the first place. I can't help but think that some of those formula fiction books must transcend their origins, though I also have to admit to being unable to rattle off good examples. A search engine rabbit hole for another day, my optimism on the subject being based on the law of averages. I suspect that for the loudest boosters of getting rid of the book as an object, and often not so subtly as a form of entertainment that we take active part in, many of them have little genuine experience with books in either form. Formula fiction for instance rests right on the line between active and passive reading, because once you know the formula, the words can just slip in and out of your mind with little real impact. Most "mass market fiction" is in fact formula fiction, and unexpected hits that become at minimum trilogy fodder often fall into the same category in the later members of the series. An excellent example I can vouch for is Anne Rice's Tale of the Body Thief, versus its three preceding novels. Yet there is significant joy in rereading, where the text allows it.
For instance, although I have little sympathy with the fans of Charles Dickens in terms of his work specifically, nevertheless I can see many avenues for rereadability apart from the things we are expected to analyse to death in english classes. His novels don't come from a time we know, the english dialects of many of his readers are now just far enough diverged from his that he has intriguing puzzles to sort out just on the score of idiom alone. It isn't necessary to track these things down, or look up the weirdities of victorian and edwardian london for that matter. But many diehard fans do, and even I have enjoyed the thick tomes written up on aspects of "Dickens' london." This sort of rereadability need not reside only in books for adults of varying levels of ponderousness. I still reread Lewis Carroll's Alice books on occasion for the puns and the mathematical oddities that jump out on reacquaintance. They are an unusual window on Carroll's time in their own right, and a great companion book that uses them for that purpose is David Day's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Decoded.
And that's just fiction. Then there are the non-fiction books with especially wonderful bits, which for my part I still collect in commonplace books and use for essay fuel. There are also the frustrating bits that I worry at until they finally make some sort of sense. In fact, here are a couple of examples from page 105 of John Romer's The Great Pyramid, in the 2007 awkwardly sized edition by cambridge university press. These bits are especially wonderful examples, as opposed to frustrating bits.
[The limestone of the Great Pyramid is]... a bright white limestone prettily banded on occasion with 50 million year old fossils from a vanished ocean. Like all Egyptian limestones, when it is first split from its matrix it has a texture like human skin, is warm to the touch and so soft that you may mark it with your fingernail as if it were schoolroom chalk. But this freshly opened stone soon dries a little in the desert air and shrinks and hardens, making it sharper-edged, lighter and less creamy, and more brittle and far more resistant to scratches.
Until quite recently, Egyptian quarrymen worked and used this limestone in similar if more modest ways to their ancient ancestors. They know the earthy, slightly salty smell that it obtains when it is first cleaved from the living rock, and they understood the grain within the stone, that horizontal stratification obtained when it had been laid down at the bottom of a prehistoric sea, and they exploited the stone's tendency to cleave with that grain or at right angles to it, so that they could quarry quickly and conveniently into seemingly impenetrable cliffs.
In this case, the rereadable nature of the quotes is vested in their aesthetic quality, their invocation of nearly all the senses, and the way they invoke the skilled work of ordinary people. Your mileage may vary on this sort of thing of course, de gustibus non est disputandum – tastes are not to be argued over. Still, I suspect a person who reads a variety of books, let alone articles and short stories, would be hard-pressed not to find something they would read again. After all, video game players are known to replay well-written games, the modern-day incarnation of "choose your own adventure books." Since reading is difficult to render into a passive activity, it is also difficult to render the thing read into something a person is unable to care about, even if only just enough to declare how disgusted they are with it and determine never to reread the miscreant item or its closely relations. (Top)
No, We'll Take Care of Our Culture, Thanks (2017-08-03)
Several months ago I was one among many people in a training session on "Indigenous issues" – not my choice, but sometimes it is necessary to suffer through these things, and do your best to stay awake when things are okay, and stay calm when things are anything but okay. Sessions on "Indigenous issues" run by people who think they are white tend to run between these extremes, and in the worst ones I've been in, the bounce between the two states is so severe that a person can get seasick. This specific session was drifting uneasily between the two, which was awful but at least somewhat bearable. And then, somehow, the class discussion began to centre on Indigenous cultural survival. One of the other students squirmed, looked very worried, and pushed the remains of his afternoon snack back and forth.
"Maybe, if Indigenous people could help us document their cultures in museums, so we could preserve them there, that would help."
Even typing that out, my brain lights up all over again with the sheer rage I felt sitting in that room, hearing bullshit that should have been unutterable. It should have been fucking unutterable. I couldn't stay quiet, so I butted in. And what I said, is basically this.
"Listen up asshole, the only way to preserve Indigenous cultures is to live them, and the people who live them are Indigenous peoples."
No, I didn't literally call him an asshole, nor the group more widely. However, he is not a stupid man, and he got the message about my opinion of him at that moment. Whether he got the greater point about Indigenous cultural survival, well, that can certainly be debated. As can easily be anticipated, I would not join that debate because there is no reason to expect somebody who could say something like that in public would get the point.
That my fellow student referenced museums as a potential place for preservation made it all the worse, because it was such a clear indicator of his ignorance, and not his alone, of the unpleasant history of Indigenous-museum interaction. We could start with the stripmining of artifacts, ancestors, and the majority of canoes and carved poles to fill up various "anthropological" sections that was so effective white people mourned that Natives were not reproducing their own culture anymore. Because everybody supposedly knows and accepts that culture is only about things. Or, we could start with the all too numerous cases of Indigenous individuals being incarcerated in museums as "living exhibits." Feel free to look up Ishi, or Minik, and get ready to have your hair raised. Or watch Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii, and if your heart is good, you'll weep.
Culture is not preserved in museums, no matter whose culture it is. At least not yet. Culture is put on display, made into the audio-visual equivalent of a dead and stuffed animal, or splayed as an empty preserved skin. This is a horrible legacy that many museum professionals are struggling mightily to reject and resist. When they succeed, they are not attempting to preserve anything. Instead, they are working in a good way with Indigenous communities to appropriately share what is safe and reasonable to share, and to return the many stolen artifacts and imprisoned ancestors. Those are the people working in museums who have also come to understand that in many cases, it is just fine for artifacts to wear out. They are supposed to, and that's okay, because Indigenous peoples continue to live and breathe their own cultures, and they will make more. And if a particular sort of object or practice has gone out of use or remaking because it no longer fits present circumstances, maybe Indigenous peoples will agree that they can be or even should be recorded in museums. Maybe. That's a discussion to be had, and one that would be incredibly positive because it would reflect an all too tardy acceptance that Indigenous peoples have histories, and had them before any white people showed up.
In any case, Indigenous peoples are surviving, and preserving their cultures with the grit and determination they have had to have just to make it to the present. Indeed, if they hadn't kept their cultures, which includes adapting new ideas and practices and resisting the sort of "dime store indian" image that is so often presented by people who think they are white as supposedly "authentic," they wouldn't have survived in the first place. Among those adaptations by the way, are all the media you can think of. Such as documentary film, including Ryan McMahon's most recent major project, the documentary Colonization Road, and the amazing sculptures built up out of what I think are dismembered sports equipment among other things by Brian Jungen. And the awesome podcasts and talks and writing by Chelsea Vowel. Oh yes, we Indigenous folks will take care of our culture, thanks. (Top)
The Revelations of White Complaint (2017-07-19)
As Indigenous peoples worldwide insist on reclaiming their lands, respect for ancestors and sacred sites, and the integration of newer neighbours rather than the acceptance of domination by violent invaders, an unmistakable sound gets ever louder in response. I used to think it was tinnitus, because I have trouble with it in one ear, but over the past several weeks of repulsive behaviour in response to the most recent anniversary of the "founding of canada" (it was neither of those things) it has become clear that this is an external sound that is drowning out my personal tinnitus. It is the obnoxious sound of the colossal whine of people who think they are white, most of them affluent white men, who are beside themselves with outrage at the idea of renaming anything, unless said renaming is after one of themselves. The further manifestation of this in the form of a fascistic men's club in the canadian navy that has recently engaged in a series of coordinated disruptions of Indigenous ceremonies is unfortunately, deeply unsurprising. This is a place where the so-called "settler" population, which never actually stays "settled," imported at least three types of violent religious intolerance and now tries to pretend interdenominational christian warfare is not a key reason the wider canadian public began demanding that the political and social power lent the churches by the state be removed.
The thing about this sort of unpleasant noise however, is that awful as it is, it is as thoroughly revealing as the rantings and legal viciousness of the extremists in the united states. If anyone had any doubt that the political elites in that country are made up primarily of men who firmly believe that women and racialized people are not human beings, there can't be any but desperate shreds left now. In the case of canada and the "elites" crying about what they like to call "renaming" and which is properly called reclaiming, with many thanks to Elliot Worsfold at activehistory.ca for making this key point, what the "elites" say they think "renaming" means tells us what they really want and believe about it. And what they want to believe and be the outcome of "renaming" is no less cruel and antithetical to human life and well-being than extremist insistence that women and racialized people are not human. Remember, to deny the designation "human" is itself an act of "renaming."
According to the self-racialized "elites" who think they are white, "renaming" is something very special, by means of which they take part in action analogous to what they read about in their bibles. Perhaps it would be better labelled "naming" from their perspective, because it starts from the notion that nothing has a name until they give it one, or maybe several, and after that it is for them to compete among themselves for who will establish the final name. Either way, any earlier names must be defined as absolutely non-existent, or else "not counting" because the names were not provided by people like them. Furthermore, if their "renaming" practice was taken as seriously as it should be, then the result would utterly erase anything that may have been there before. So relabelling Hochelaga as Montréal becomes a pretext for not only pretending that the latter was the first place of long term human occupation, it allows for pretending that Indigenous people were simply never there. Then it is so easy to turn around and insist that Kanienke'haka people can't possibly be "real indians." "Real indians" of course are also defined entirely by these self-designated "elites" and the criteria for winning the label must always include being dead.
I have always found the invocations of the tabula rasa in the context of these white complaints at best sloppy, at worst outright dishonest. A careful speaker would use this snippet of latin with much greater care, because what it means is an "erased tablet" or if we want to try avoiding latin derived words, a "scraped slate." That means there remains persistent and unavoidable evidence that other words, pictures or whatever, had been on the slate. They are never truly removed, because even if we don't know their specifics, the observation of the signs of something earlier forces us to remember there was something else there. If there were no signs, if everybody just went along with the deletion, then "renaming" would do just what the racist peanut gallery claims it fears reclaiming will do, completely destroy all knowledge of the past that the earlier name had represented. What in fact they are complaining about is that their renaming did not succeed in annihilating Indigenous people or history, because Indigenous people haven't gone anywhere, and non-Indigenous people have not generally been inclined to go along with what a bunch of self-proclaimed "elite" types tell them. They have their own reasons for skepticism.
The last gasp pseudo-argument for opposing reclaiming actions, particularly where they involve correcting names, is the cry that, "men back then can't be held to present-day standards!" I was originally a bit stymied by this claim, because it struck me as woolly and dishonest, but sorting out what was amiss with it proved a bit tricky. Now, on one hand, yes, we should not expect that a man like John A. MacDonald to have been anything but a sexist, racist, and elitist individual. That was standard socialization for a man of his time. But on the other, men can resist their socialization now, and they certainly did then. It is no more than accurate to acknowledge then that MacDonald was socialized in a particular way, that socialization was not unquestioned in his time, and it was possible for him to resist it even if it was highly unlikely because he gained great social reward for going along and internalizing it. And in this he was of course not unique. This is all good and clarifying, yet doesn't quite draw out the troubling thread, because the wrong people are at the centre in this formulation. My good friend Will made this next point, and it not only blew my mind, it vastly improved my understanding of how accusations of "presentism" are thrown around. What he said is very simple.
"Okay, so back then those men didn't have a problem with what they were doing. The people at that time suffering the oppression those men implemented sure did." (Top)
Censorship Is A Lot of Things, But Not This (2017-07-18)
I have written before about the grave misuse of the verb "to censor" and its derivatives. So often I have been told that this is all nothing to worry about, because it is "just words," but it seems to only be "just words" when I'm the one who has a concern. As soon as those interlocutors have a concern of their own, or wish to impart a whole range of information and/or opinions on me, all of a sudden it is by no means "just words." No indeed, if I object to and fend off their attempts to explain to me why I should convert to a particular religion yesterday, or refuse to allow them to pollute my airspace with the most recent lies being propagated by hyper-partisan media outlets, then it is "censorship" and I am oppressing them. Frankly, that is ridiculous. Oppression involves coercion, and limitations that affect not just interactions with one person, but practically anyone the oppressed person could possibly meet. For better or worse, the folks I am thinking of are still free to share the material I refused to accept from them with anyone else they choose to who will listen.
When a bookstore does not stock a particular book, or even refuses to stock a particular book, that in itself is not censorship. Mindbending to read, I know, but this is true. It would only be censorship if said bookstore held a monopoly and there was additional apparatus preventing people from accessing the book in any other way. Last time I checked, nobody was accusing borders/indigo/chapters of censorship for refusing to stock hitler's book mein kampf. It is completely fair and well worth discussing whether that is the right corporate position for borders/indigo/chapters to take. But the fact remains that there are many other real life bookstores let alone amazon available to acquire the book from, if for whatever reason we insist. The public library often has one or more copies too, since anything to do with world war two and the nazis garners perennial interest.
A short while ago I briefly noted the publication circumstances of Anton Chekhov's book, The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. He really was living under conditions of censorship. Every book and pamphlet had to be passed under the eyes of a censorship office, to be deep-sixed or cut up or let go depending on whether the writing was considered "insulting to the czar" or somehow dangerous to the government. Getting material published that would otherwise have been censored could well get a person sentenced to more or less time in siberia, or on sakhalin island for that matter.
The more difficult puzzle today, is whether the mainstream media has itself become a de facto censorship system, which for the moment at least is most overtly harmful to artists and journalists who are not parroting the current capitalist fundamentalist with a side of libertarianism stuff. Those folks tend to find themselves making at best a precarious living, and if they are working on politically sensitive topics, may easily find themselves in prison on trumped up charges or in exile. Frankly, all the pieces are there, and it seems to me that the only thing preventing the mainstream media from becoming a full on censorship regime is that there are other sources of news, and at least for now, improved means of researching difficult questions and controversial stories. Please bear in mind that an editorial position that guides what a given newspaper or news programme deems fit to cover is not necessarily censorship either, so long as the information can be acquired without difficulty somewhere else, and for my druthers, as long as the editorial position is honestly set out. I find it quite refreshing to read folks who lay their cards out on the table including when they disagree with me, because it often corresponds to a respectful mode of writing and discussion. We can learn a lot from people we disagree with if those folks are willing to disagree agreeably, and by that means constructively approach difficult questions. Which admittedly, is hard to do, because what we say on such matters is never "just words." (Top)
Maybe A Different Sort of Web (2017-07-17)
As massive corporations continue their ongoing efforts to end democratic oversight and decision-making one issue at a time, and daft australian prime ministers claim they can overrule mathematics, it is well worth thinking a bit more about what the web and the internet more widely should be and indeed could be, rather than the dangerously centralized system we have now. For those whose immediate response is that there are more serious issues to worry about, I agree. I also happen to think that sometimes the best way to approach more serious issues bravely is to work your way out of thought grooves on the ones that are not quite as serious. However, I am not certain that the ongoing effort to render the internet at large into little more than a massive surveillance system that will inevitably become a major tool in the arsenal of those who wish to deny human rights to most of the planet if left unopposed doesn't rank among serious matters to consider, though it may not count as the most acute emergency for a given person or community.
The trouble with the internet and the web as they stand right now is that their infrastructure is centralized, and the creation and distribution methods for data on them are wholly keyed to that. This has always struck me as a curious weakness to allow in what is quite a significant amount of infrastructure now that phone calls are being massively routed through it whether anybody wants that to happen or not. Single point of failure systems are problematic for the very feature that defines them. As such, the internet is replicating the problematic and wasteful infrastructure approach all over again of centralized electricity generation, water treatment, and so on. A degree of centralization can come in handy, but we always have to ask, who benefits by extensive centralization, and does increased centralization detract from democratic control and management of the system, let alone ability to respond to change?
The basic parts and software for breaking centralization and making a more effective internet are already available, I suspect. For decentralized mesh nets, we can buy or build Library Boxen or the various related digital file distribution tools based on free software and low powered, easily acquired parts. For file sharing and web publishing on a secure peer-to-peer basis, there is the beaker browser project, which already sounds intriguing. There are already several decentralized search engines, with the one that again is based on free software being YaCy.net. I think that there is also plenty of opportunity to break the mental hegemony of blog platforms and similar "services" that imply writing web pages is so hard you can't possibly do it yourself. My hope is that this would be an approach to the internet that would militate against ad pollution and spyware of all kinds, let alone the ransomware and other problems at large right now. This needn't and probably wouldn't end the centralized parts of the internet at least right away, because there are too many massive ad companies propping it up. For that part of the internet, it should not be difficult to find or compile the equivalent to the stripped down version of firefox, icecat. Boycotting inappropriate, insecure, and ignorant bandwidth eating ads – or at least making sure a person may always do so if they choose – on any version of the internet and web is essential.
I think it would be quite intriguing to see how a more decentralized approach to the web and the internet more widely will turn out, and how they will be different from and similar to their centralized counterparts. In the decentralized version, will some of the problems related to it being too easy to vandalize and be an asshole be mitigated by the fact that so many people would be more directly involved as participants? After all, peer-to-peer sharing has already been around long enough that issues such as poisoned file distribution and the like have workable solutions. Could an email client that applies many of the underlying principles in beaker's security model finally end the reign of centralized, insecure email servers for individuals? Let alone no longer losing the internet altogether simply because somebody managed to cut a single critical cable or the power went out, since a network of Library Boxen for example can be run using small-scale energy sources from batteries to solar panels, and that would allow basic service provision that uses the internet to continue with almost no interruption. This one is close to my heart, living in an area prone to windstorms and earthquakes, where you're supposed to get updates specific to your neighbourhood when the power goes out by – you guessed it – looking it up on the internet. (Top)
Having already indulged in one off-beat somewhat literary short thoughtpiece, since they seem to be falling out of my notebooks and various web searches lately, here is another one. It is tempting to simply put the thing down to procrastination, but I think that there is likely also an element of automatic pattern-seeking going on, since that is part of what the examinations I'm presently preparing to write demand. Or at least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Some years ago I found myself in a grade four classroom along with some twenty-odd variously bored and fidgety kids being dragged through one of the most horrible writing exercises ever inflicted upon people with no means of defence. It is my abiding belief that this exercise and its evil siblings are a major contributor to the contemptuous attitude so many people have not merely to "language arts" and "english" as classes – which I have abiding sympathy with – but to writing as practice and art form in itself. That is an unjust result, to put it mildly. If you are wondering what I could possibly be ranting about, I admire your good fortune in never having suffered it. The way it works is quite similar to madlibs, but without actually being madlibs, which would have been fun. Instead, the way it works is that the teacher would slowly read aloud a series of questions with usually two minutes or so in between, so that students would have a chance to write out their answers in model paragraphs on the standard issue sheets of foolscap. "Standard issue" is not sarcasm here – the terrible harbinger of this exercise was the teacher handing out one sheet of foolscap to each student. Here are a few sample questions that I remember.
I kid you not. No girls allowed. There were minimal variations, so I got very good at finding ways to dash off, "The black haired, green eyed pirate lived in a place called..." my memory fails on the place. Which probably means I wrote something cheerfully obnoxious, like the Moon, or at the bottom of the ocean. This wouldn't be memorable in such specifics (such as they are), except that eventually I did dare to write, "The black haired, green eyed, girl pirate lived on the Moon." Well, let's pretend about the place, since I've already admitted I can't remember my frustrated and bored answer to that part. To this day it is a mystery to me what this exercise was supposed to be for. Maybe just to settle us down since this class was usually after lunch. The human mind and memory being fabulously perverse instruments, I never forgot the black haired, green eyed woman – she had to grow up, of course. Yet I would undoubtedly forgotten her vague image utterly, if it hadn't been for the fact that she kept, and keeps showing up, especially in works written by people who also grew up in canada, and in at least one british case.
The british case is probably obscure to most readers. Before Doctor Who became trendy again and after the show had been off the air for some time, a series of original novels were published under the Virgin imprint. The imprint/press is long gone, and the books quite rare and expensive on the used book market. A major companion character in the novels was an avatar of the black haired, green eyed woman. I was still finishing high school when I encountered this particular version, so grumpy memories of elementary school weren't buried too deep. Pondering the next few times I bumped into the template, it dawns on me how much sci-fi and fantasy I have managed to read over the years, because that is where a dark-haired, green-eyed woman regularly turns up. If she isn't a main character, she's an influential one for whatever reason, usually because she's a troublemaker by accident or design. My most recent perambulations in the groves of Star Trek fanfic that doesn't involve Kirk or Spock turned her up in two of three roles. There is actually at least one sci-fi programme that included an actor who is indeed a dark haired, green eyed woman.
Leaving aside that this is a wholly unscientific and narrow selection dictated by the arbitrary lines of my reading habits and the curious hooks that keep things in my memory, I can't help but wonder what makes this image at least somewhat ready to hand. Considering that the dark haired, green-eyed woman's close cousin is the dark-haired, blue eyed woman (three easy examples from pop television are the original Wonder Woman, Helen Magnus, and Xena), it's probably just that in real life the combination is rare. After all, the majority eye colour in the world is brown, and in an impressive number of places accordingly a light-eyed person is viewed with some alarm and great curiosity. A marker of the fearsomeness of deities in homeric epic is their blue eyes, and all around the mediterranean the premiere protection against the evil eye is an eye amulet, with an inset representation of a blue eye.
No doubt in a class of elementary school students writing down sentences in a boring mirror image of madlibs, I was far from the only person to combine pale eyes with dark hair in the character, and probably putting their house on the Moon. (Top)
It's Too Bad There's No Connection (2017-07-11)
There are times when it seems like certain works should be connected somehow, simply because they seem to provide an uncanny perspective on at least some of the same things, albeit from different directions. In this case, while reading my latest comprehensive exam list, I came on one book that included a lengthy discussion of Anton Chekhov's only non-fiction book, titled in the translation I can find by Luba and Michael Terpak The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. The discussion turned out to be the most wonderful procrastination fodder, because I couldn't help but wonder if there could be any connection to Franz Kafka's short story "In The Penal Colony." I did appreciate that the likelihood of this was practically speaking zero. The book and the short story each take a different look at the question of crime, punishment, and the obsessive workings of bureaucratic rationalization that will be so thoroughly explored later by Hannah Arendt. Prague, czech republic and taganrog, russia may seem like they could have some sort of fullbore artistic back and forth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but I suspect that has less to do with any real possibility and more to do with the loose connections created between what was then czechoslovakia and the ussr. Still, no good rabbit hole should be left unfallen in, especially one involving two writers perhaps best known for their short stories, although in Chekhov's case, his plays are at least as important in his oeuvre.
The earlier work is Chekhov's, a product of his 1890 trip to Sakhalin Island, which at that time was being used as penal colony after being being seized from the japanese. Today it is apparently better known as the latest place in the gimlet eye of the oil and gas industry. Busy writer as he was, Chekhov was also a doctor, and the difficult trip to and from the island was part of a project to produce a work that would honour his medical education and practice. It took him three years to work through his notes, which included copious statistics, and was finally published in 1895. This was no small achievement on multiple levels. At that time russia was still ruled by the czars, and all potential publications had to run a censorship gauntlet, since criticizing the government, which then would have been considered equivalent to the czar, was treated as a serious crime. Discussion of conditions at a penal colony likely ran close to the edge of trouble.
Now, what led from this to Kafka's short story is that "In the Penal Colony" is set on an island, which a european dignitary is visiting in the course of his travels. So off to the search engine I went to see what I could learn about the publication history of Kafka's eery short story. According to the Kafka Project, Kafka completed the story in 1914, but it was not published until 1919. Unlike Chekhov's account of Sakhalin Island, the story has never been out of print since, and has been frequently adapted as well as serving as inspiration for a range of cognate short stories and films. (Top)
What Is It About Authenticity Anyway? (2017-07-10)
Of all the things I have observed being stressed over in pop culture, "authenticity" strikes me as among the strangest. People in relatively affluent circumstances in particular seem to be especially worried about it. This is not a prelude to virtually beating up hipsters and the stereotype that they will pay a happy fortune for mass produced goods that have the features used as shorthand for "somebody made this by hand" even though that is exactly what they are not. Part of the strangeness of the anxiety about authenticity is that what it means to be authentic is not clearly defined, unless it is in the negative. For instance, live Indigenous people are never authentic according to the mainstream, because they are alive today and do not embody the caricatures most favoured by early european invaders. On the other hand, the incessant worry about having "authentic experience" is a consistent current at varying levels of strength, and it seems to have a relatively smaller number of meanings that apply to people who think they are white.
For examples I always enjoy popping back to that strange mishmash of philosophy, violence, and sexism in a completely incoherent storyline, the 1999 movie, The Matrix. It was a mishmash, and an unexpected breakout hit, because the Wachowskis managed to neatly encapsulate so many pop culture tropes while appropriating japanese action film making styles for the north american market. Of course, being a mishmash doesn't make a movie unwatchable or unable to provoke interesting thoughts, and that certainly didn't hurt the film's success either. In light of the Wachowskis' later decisions concerning which movies they would make and the way in which they present themselves and alter their physical bodies, I have no doubt they were wrestling with real and uncomfortable questions about authenticity of person and personal experience. The two specific examples I have in mind may be more or less familiar nearly twenty years later.
In the first, Neo, revisiting the matrix for the first time after being unplugged, comments that none of the experiences he had before that time were real. It was all "just a dream." In the second, Cypher bemoans his unplugged life, because all he does is what the leader of the ship's crew, Morpheus, tells him, and everything is monotonous and bland. If that's all reality is, then he wants back into the matrix. Neither of these examples in the context of the film is supposed to do anything but impress us with Neo's extraordinary enlightenment and Cypher's countering foolishness. Except, wait a second.
Yes, Neo was in the matrix, and no he wasn't eating great food or going to his job every day, or selling contraband computer programs that are implied to be somehow like drugs. But he wasn't interacting only with computer programs either. Morpheus tells him that he in fact was connected to a giant simulation with a vast number of other people, whom, he must then have been interacting with. So even if say, he met up with buddies from work for noodles but they never actually went out to dinner, they still interacted with one another by means of the simulation. Since the real life analogy to this is the internet, I can't see how Neo's personal relationships and interactions with other people in the matrix aren't real. Of course, we are not supposed to think about that at all, otherwise we'll get distracted by the flaming ethical issues in declaring practically anybody who is not unplugged expendable. On the other hand, what if part of what Cypher is saying is, he wants to see new people? It doesn't sound like he ever got to visit the fabled city where the unplugged and never plugged humans hide out. Boredom and a need for more fulfilling human relationships and day to day work is actually not such a bad thing. Of course, Cypher's solution to his woes are ridiculous. Wiping out humanity is not the right answer to "I'm miserable," even if it is the preferred solution of spoiled men with an overgrown sense of entitlement everywhere.
Still, this is actually rather instructive when it comes to trying to understand what "authenticity" means in a pop culture context, and perhaps even more so in a consumer culture context. At one point Neo denies the validity of prophecy because he doesn't like the idea of not being in control of his own life. This is exactly Cypher's complaint, that he is not in control of his own life and he knows it, and the freedom he wanted was that control. This should be sounding familiar, because lack of control, lack of meaningful work, and boredom are the common complaints tied to concerns about lack of authenticity. People feeling this way, if they tell a bit more about their unhappiness on this point, may add that they don't feel very much, apart from boredom. Nothing like the crazed emotions and mental states any of us can view just by watching ads. To my ear, this combination of features sounds far less like "inauthenticity" than it sounds like real or incipient depression. In which case, as I already noted, the worry about authenticity is rather more than a spoiled hipster's lament. (Top)
Evidence of a Zombie Genre: Space Westerns (2017-06-26)
Of course, I should be more specific, because the zombie genre I have in mind is particularly characteristic of north american sci-fi television, movies, stories, and books. Quite different modes of sci-fi are in play in other parts of the world. For example, I am well aware of the strong argument for utopian and dystopian sci-fi alike being more characteristic of europe, and am inclined to accept it. My still far too small for such wonderful work experience of sci-fi by asian, south asian, and generally racialized authors to even pretend to characterize them or claim to have heard arguments about general trends, except for the clear expression in their works that they have a future in the first place. It should not be revolutionary and breathtaking to read and watch works taking that perspective. In these current hard times, it is.
No, I have in mind the north american stuff typically made up and produced by self-racialized people who think they are white, so much of it nonetheless so promising, but so frustratingly awful because they never break the loop they are in. Even though it is a loop, and the loop isn't particularly entertaining or convincing, which is why the levels of violence across media and special effects in visual media continue to rise. Well, that and the strange, caffeinated mode of jump cutting now characteristic of most so-called "action" movies, let alone sci-fi genre ones specifically.
What is the story being retold, retold, retold again, with increasing loudness, increasing violence, more rapid jump cuts in hopes we won't notice it? Ah my friends, the only one that people who think they are white really want to hear: the invasion of the americas, in which their putative ancestors find a completely empty continent full of riches just waiting for their guiding hands to exploit it until it is nothing but a complete carpet of massive cities with flying cars. Or once you get into imaginaries that include space flight, a wrung out husk or burnt cinder from which "humanity" for which always read several men who think they are white and maybe a few women considered white enough for breeding purposes, which the last few worthy humans leave for the stars in a secular-technological rapture. Weary sarcasm aside, what is the evidence for the zombie quality of this awful and false story, in all its shambling grotesquerie?
Well, let's start with Star Trek, originally pitched by Gene Roddenberry as "wagon train to the stars." The "Federation" is perpetually colonizing other planets and "terraforming" them, and that fundamentally is why the various versions of Starfleet are busy sending out military expeditions. No they aren't just running around to peek at cool shit. The give away is always the dark mirror provided by whatever the worst bad alien of a given half decade of an aspect of the Star Trek franchise provides. Rip off of the Cybermen from Doctor Who as they are – which is no shame because we could argue for a rip off from K. Čapek's concept of robots from even earlier – the Borg are really the most wonderful and gruesomely revealing example. Well, they were before the introduction of the Borg queen, at which point an oldy but a goody from the racist trope bag was being applied to try to cover them up.
We could consider the Star Wars franchise, but that one always was fundamentally built along spaghetti western lines, as the three main characters give away. Josh Whedon tried to be ironic and a bit meta with Firefly, I suspect, but it sounds like he may have run aground on the unfortunate resonances with the "lost cause" narrative that still hangs around accounts of the civil war in the u.s. But having said that, these two "Star" franchises are the sci-fi juggernauts currently, because fundamentally media conglomerates want only the sure bet, and think incessant bad sequels and tasteless remakes will do the trick. Maybe they will at least in the short term, which I suspect is really all the shareholders are worried about.
In the meantime, this certainly shows that there is a non-trivial likelihood of all manner of people dying for some other storylines from their sci-fi, if they can just get hold of the alternatives. Or if reasonably successful programmes are able to escape the "syndication threshold" (that is, just enough episodes to show the programme as endless reruns and still make money). It's funny how the supposed utopia of choice and availability conglomerates like amazon claim to provide seem to have pretty well locked us in with the zombies, isn't it? (Top)
Are Museums Amusing? (2017-06-25)
As always, readers are free to disagree vigorously with me on the point, but to me this photograph I took at the provincial museum in british columbia, canada serves as a true epitome of what museums are at root. This is not say what they must continue to be or what they should be, by any means. There are ongoing efforts at many older museums to change their roots and in newer museums to found them on completely different principles to start with. The origins of museum collections, their ostensible purpose may have more or less relationship to the root I'm thinking of, which is simply the desire to pull together a bunch of stuff that is meant to indicate how impressive the owner is, and put it all on display. That urge needn't be negative, and I can't find fault with it since even though my tolerance of knickknacks is low, my book collection has finally reached large enough for me to make presumptions on the label "personal library." It's a bit absurd really, and in many cultures it is channeled into intangible things instead, such as webs of interrelated stories encoding any number of areas of knowledge.
Museums have suffered many tribulations of late, primarily due to the depredations of market fundamentalists who apparently despise anything that isn't privately owned with access restricted to as few as possible. They have apparently either lost sight of the main purpose of "publicly owned" museums when they were first put together, or else they've decided such achievements as rampant real estate speculation and undermining democracies around the world through their corporations perform the function better. The main purpose, even of the generally acknowledged first museum in what is now iraq, was to show off how rich and mighty the local ruler was. Initially there was considerable overlap between what we could call a "museum-type collection" and the various items piled up in ancient temples, since so much of what went into them was dedicated war booty. In other words, other peoples' stolen stuff, especially their sacred gear and anything else considered valuable or rare. It was a big deal to be able to claim you had carried off somebody else's deity by grabbing their statue from the main temple of a city or town, which probably contributed to the eventual vogue for invisible deities who not only couldn't be represented in art but were forbidden to be represented. Can't steal what isn't there to steal, but alas, that did not discourage rape and pillage in the course of raiding and warfare.
So to begin with, museums and their predecessors were all about showing off and holding onto stuff stolen usually by a band of armed men. Not a very pleasant purpose really, since this soon led to rivalries over collections and fighting and raiding of those, since that was the quickest and most efficient way to get hold of divisible booty. Matters got far worse as imperialism and colonialism became the preeminent purposes of european states. No artwork was safe, let alone anything that could serve as money. To this day there is a significant portion of the british population fooling itself that the Parthenon marbles should never be returned to greece, and that they are in england as an act of "generosity." Nothing at all to do with greece having been brutally occupied by the ottoman empire at the time and in no position to prevent them being stolen or anything. No Indigenous person is under any illusions about what seeing so many of their ancestors, and so much of their regalia and sacred items locked up and on display as trophies in museums all over europe and the americas is meant to say to them. Returning all of these materials is incredibly important, and no, it needn't mean that all of these museums will be emptied out. In fact, there are already encouraging examples of museums returning ancestors and sacred items and not only ending up with fewer ghosts to cope with, but developing better relationships with Indigenous communities, leading to sharing of items under better conditions for everyone concerned.
Those changes in the nature and management of museum collections is critical. I have heard and read many declarations by non-Indigenous people that these changes are important so that "the public" can continue to learn from and enjoy all the things in museums. How much "the public" gets to do so in a time of continuously rising admission fees and a mode of arranging and displaying items that encourages people to gawp briefly and move on as quickly as possible is a question for another time. But that framing implies something else about the mindset at the root of many of these collections that stretches all the way back to those booty piles in ancient mesopotamia. According to that mindset, once set within a museum collection, the item in question is frozen. It will no longer change, except for whatever the curators do to it, it represents the past, and the past is done. Hence the stubborn insistence that anybody whose regalia, sacred items, or even ancestors end up in museums must be extinct or nearly extinct. They are supposed to be over and done with, superseded by the "might makes right" faction of people who stole the ancestors and objects to begin with.
So it seems to me that when people protest about items and ancestors being returned home, they aren't all that worried about the integrity of the museum, or its relationship, if any, to the "public good." What they are upset about is the evidence that locking up the ancestors, regalia, and sacred items up didn't render them powerless or meaningless. They didn't become curios at all. This not only challenges mainstream ideas and colonial injustices. It also forces a much broader population to realize that they are complicit with theft that included grave robbing and a whole range of nastily clever legal manipulations. For the more sensitive folks, I don't doubt that they find themselves worrying about the ancestors and spiritually powerful regalia and sacred items inappropriately held in museums. It is not without reason that an alternate term for "museum" I have heard at Indigenous gatherings is "ghost house." (Top)
Visible Invisible? (2017-06-16)
Jim C. Hines is a science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction author, generally for younger readers who has a deserved reputation for challenging pretty much the gamut of "isms" we could all do without. I stumbled over his blog during one of his sci-fi cover pose challenges, where he attempted to mimic in real life without permanently injuring himself the bizarre poses given to female characters. He has a good sense of humour and no patience with crap, which is too rare on the internet these days. As part of his work each year for the past three he has welcomed guest posts on his blog that dig into issues of visibility, or rather lack thereof, for people deemed "non-mainstream" via the previously mentioned gamut of "isms." The results have been impressive, and include a wide range of perspectives, essays, and as I understand it also poetry in the most recent anthology. The importance of visibility is not really appreciated, especially because for many of us the issue is an uncanny hyper-visibility and invisibleness.
Yes, that ugly phrase that sounds like it should be impossible makes my head hurt too. Would that was all it did, instead of being a state many of us have to live in. But since it does sound paradoxical, let me draw out what it means. In my circumstances, I am a dyke, out and proud. There isn't anyway I can be interpreted as anything else, and that has been true for many years. This makes me hyper-visible, because I have no use for femininity or masculinity, and that means there is always somebody ready to try to force me to fall in line, or at least insult me in some way for not doing so. Not being someone who can "pass," I have to be ready and able to cope with harassment not just by obnoxious men, but also by other lesbians who complain that I should stop "flaunting it." They all agree, I am too visible. But in the mainstream media, I am completely invisible. The one exception I have seen was pretty horrible, definitely a case of sneering and punching down. I can well imagine that some readers are skeptical of this invisibility claim, because they can point to Ellen or Melissa Etheridge or whomever is held up as the token lesbian of the hour. Instead of going there, have a look at Catholic Schoolgirl Gone Bad Production's Gender Troubles: The Butches. (See also The Wanted Project.) That's my crowd, and we are invisibilized in the mainstream media. I have been manoeuvred into the least visible parts of the crowd for group pictures all of my life, and have two examples where I was directed to stand on the edge of the crowd which allowed for me to be neatly cropped out.
Visibility is controversial whenever it challenges mainstream prejudices, and it is all too common for an oppressed community to scapegoat it's most visible members for their oppression. That's probably a definition of "horizontal violence" right there, punching at the folks who stand out in your own community, rather than standing together against the actual oppressors. It may be easier to engage in horizontal violence, and it may seem like doing so wins goodies like safety, respect, and acceptability. Except it doesn't. It just tells the folks doing the oppressing that their divide and conquer tactics are in full working order, and therefore successful resistance to an increase in oppression is unlikely.
In a conversation where my hyper-visibility crept in because the person I was speaking to was very threatened by it, I found myself a bit puzzled as to how to keep the conversation at least civil. After all, my visibility is not a stance taken in order to critique the personal choices of those who would fit nicely into the crowd of lesbians represented by Ellen and Melissa Etheridge. It's not a stance taken as a conscious critique of anyone in particular, although it is certainly a protest and critique of misogynisms and racisms, among other issues of concern to me. But I suppose that's the thing about visibility, it doesn't necessarily challenge our personal choices about how we dress or cut our hair or whatever, but it does make those engaged in passive or active support of oppressive practices uncomfortably aware of their complicity. (Top)
Spatial Confusion (2017-06-12)
Quite apart from the question of outer space as depicted in today's illustrative photograph, the question of social spaces, who is allowed to access which social spaces and why has blown up into a remarkable non-discussion over the past two to three years. There has been a great deal of angry posturing by men attempting to ban women-only space, or rather, the potential for women to decide who will enter the spaces they use. I understand why this raises hackles for the men, who have grown up in a world where they are taught that they can go anywhere and do anything, and no boundary is there except to titillate them when they cross it. Check out some of the latest vehicle names, which now include one called the "rubicon." There is little effort being made to understand why women and girls are so determined to maintain such female-only spaces as washrooms and locker rooms, as well as the right to determine whether a male person, whatever that male's self-concept is, may enter those spaces or other female-only spaces they may wish to establish. This is not surprising in a society that despises women and girls while hyping the value of a false construct called "femininity" which is needed in a patriarchal system to define "masculinity" against.
Every now and again some clever post-modernist/queer theory type will claim that segregation a group chooses is the same thing as imposed segregation. By definition, segregation is an evil that must invariably oppress someone. I have always found this claim curious, because if you ask a few questions of the person making the claim, it soon falls apart. Somehow no male-only space is ever a problem, no matter what it represents or supports. For instance, men's washrooms are evidently all-male spaces, but I think we can agree that having such spaces to go to the bathroom and wash up are good things. The trouble with men's washrooms originally in england for instance, was that there were none for women or else the women's washrooms were only accessible on paying a fee of some sort, and there was incredible social pressure for women to uphold the false claim that no woman has biological functions. So the issue is not just a space that is denied to a particular group, it is vexedly more complicated than that. On the other hand, I have never heard or read anywhere an angry denouncing of gay men only spaces, or men-only sports rooms and clubs. Somehow, men only spaces are always okay, and they are also supposed to be male-only.
Okay, well that doesn't help at all, but many people involved in debates about control over social space do appear to at least agree that manipulation of social space can be an oppressive thing for somebody. (Others make different arguments for why social space should never be controlled by women or why certain social spaces should not be accessed by men.) I have found it more helpful to apply concepts developed by David Theo Goldberg and Timothy Stanley in their critiques and challenges to racialization and its use to implement racist action and rationalization. Racism and misogynism are not the same thing, but they do have key parallels because of how they are used to justify certain behaviours. Goldberg and Stanley point out that there are multiple racisms, and I would add multiple misogynisms. Stanley adds a key nuance by acknowledging that what might be deemed a racist exclusion by those accustomed to being the beneficiaries of racism may not in fact be oppressive at all. That gave me pause when I first read it, but then I realized that Stanley is clearly marking the fallacy of the curious claim above.
But let's start with the racisms version of the concepts I have found useful, and then reapply them to the misogynisms case. Any version of racism involves racialization, the definition of a certain group of people as a separate "race" by another group, based on some features that may not be physical at all, and cannot be chosen or deleted at will by the people so defined. The group doing the defining may or may not be a true community itself. The racializations, that is the various claims about the racialized group, are then ordered into exclusions. Here is the part that may be trickiest to accept: these exclusions must result in significant negative consequences for the people who are both racialized and excluded under that rationalization. We can all think of examples of non-trivial negative consequences, from arbitrary imprisonment to invisibility in the media.
So, if we tweak this for the misogynisms case, then, any version of mysogynism involves feminization. "Feminization" is the definition by men, that is male persons, of any female person – woman – as not merely female, but "feminine," which is an arbitrary collection of features defined as lesser than a set labelled "masculine." (If either femininity or masculinity were natural, no one would have to be taught how to be embody either state and there could be no degrees of success in that embodiment.) The purpose of feminization is to establish women as permanent subordinates who can be subjected to a range of exclusions that have significant negative consequences for them. Being excluded from a gay men's bar is not generally significant, although it could become so if somehow that became the place where significant decisions affecting women's lives were made. Notice all the parts at work here. It isn't just about exclusion, or feminization. It isn't just about ideas, it's about actions and acts, exclusions, that have significant negative consequences.
When Indigenous people exclude non-Indigenous people from their ceremonies and gatherings, the non-Indigenous people, regardless of their furious insistence otherwise, do not suffer significant negative consequences. What they experience is a genuine, constructive challenge to their insistence that they are allowed to enter any Indigenous space and impose on Indigenous people for entertainment and spiritual uplift whenever they wish just because they are bored and/or feel bereft. I have no doubt this feels unpleasant for the non-Indigenous folks who have never been challenged in this way before. Their nettled feelings may be an excellent opportunity to learn to be better people, but some sort of injury they are not. The same is true for the cases where women and girls refuse access to spaces they have fought for that are for women and girls only, when they opt to maintain that status. Sometimes that also means preventing access by men who feel that they have become "transwomen." Frustrating as that may be for them, they are not suffering significant negative consequences from women and girls excluding them from their spaces. I have certainly read and heard the claims otherwise, but the claims are always based upon examples of violence imposed on transwomen by men or the idea that they will have "nowhere to pee." Yet the public response to the needs of transwomen demanding safe bathrooms has been an efflorescence of "gender neutral" bathrooms, which usually means relabelling of women's bathrooms, and fierce attacks on women-only space of every kind. For those genuinely concerned about the health and wellbeing of women and trans-identified people, the bathroom debate, such as it is, is an example of spatial confusion at best, and cynical hijacking at worst.
The real source of danger to women and trans-identified people is misogynist violence. Since we live in a world where women are defined as feminized people, and to be feminized is to be defined as a lesser person, to be considered "feminine" whether or not that is what you look or sound like, is a source of real danger. Combined with other marginalizing factors such as poverty, or one or more racisms, as well as dangerous modes of survival such as prostitution, it is no easy thing to survive misogynistic violence into a ripe old age. This violence doesn't just happen or spread around like a virus of course, it is perpetrated the vast majority of the time by men, men whose commitment to a gender hierarchy is unwavering, a gender hierarchy in which the folks defined as lesser are also considered not allowed to set and maintain boundaries to their own bodies, let alone their own social space. (Top)
I was browsing the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles recently, an intriguing project that is struggling for lack of funding, as is true of so many. The assumption that canadians are equivalent to americans is amazingly widespread at least in northern north america, heedless of the fact that neither canadians nor americans are homogeneous groups of people. I live within the settler state of canada, and I have still managed to learn enough about the u.s. to understand that if I claimed a person from alabama was equivalent to someone from the state of new york, even if they were both descended only from english invaders, they would rightfully laugh at me. A similar reaction would be quite correct if I tried to claim something similar about an english invader-descended person from british columbia and another from saskatchewan. It's a ridiculous idea even for people whose roots on the continent barely exist. So there is actually quite a bit in this dictionary, ranging from a wild selection of Indigenous language words mangled to varying degrees to fascinatingly mutated latinate terminology. Take the word "acclamation," for example.
The term is part of the family of words for all the activities involved in elections. The earliest elections held by europeans in what would eventually be labelled canada were almost unrecognizable as such compared to the common practice today. The candidates got up on "hustings," literally platforms from which the nominated candidates shouted about how great they thought they were and why they should be made mayor, member of the local council, or whatever position was at play. The people standing around the hustings, typically men to begin with, shouted their support. The winning candidate got shouts from the most men, which was generally expected to be reflected by the noise level achieved by the candidate's supporters. Whether a group better at shouting loudly could sway things in an unfair direction is something we can only wonder, although it was probably countered practically speaking by the fact that candidates couldn't just campaign at one place. In any case, this sort of voting is exactly the type meant by the latin verb that underlies the term "acclaim" – acclamare, "to shout approval for." It is indeed a close cousin of the word "clamour," which is a confused racket from all sorts of people shouting.
So if you go back to the earlier days of europeans trying to govern themselves by some sort of voting in the americas, an "acclamation" was a candidate's win by overwhelming numbers of men all shouting support. Seems simple enough, doesn't it? Since that isn't how elections work anymore, so the word could be expected to have fallen out of any but figurative use. Except in canda at least, it hasn't. Instead, it has taken on a new meaning.
In canada, to win "by acclamation" is to win because no one else runs against you for the position, whatever it may be. It is a curious equation of silence with consent that rightfully disturbs many people. So except for less formal organizations, especially volunteer-staffed ones, where acclamation may be left as is, there are other mechanisms added to provide one more chance to challenge the single candidate who signed up. One possibility is for a meeting of eligible voters to vote on whether to ratify the acclaimed candidate into the position, with the alternative being to force a new process by calling for additional candidates from the voting members present. In the case of larger scale elections such as provincial or federal ones, the issue hardly ever comes up, although a candidate may be in a position of effective acclamation if she or he is the only plausible candidate on a slate. (Top)
White Lab Coats? (2017-05-29)
The other day a question came up about how to visually depict scientists, and then why particular images say "scientist" and not others. Practically speaking, we are all familiar with what can be called "vernacular images," a whole range of shorthand visual stereotypes that we see all the time and have often been instructed in via board and picture books from before we could talk. This is why most small children can draw a "chef" or "nurse" or any number of fairly common "occupational categories" as a particular person wearing specific clothes and holding specific things. Hence, a scientist is regularly depicted in a white lab coat, despite this being in total defiance of almost all evidence and even necessity. Very few laboratories require the use of lab coats to begin with, as odd as that may initially sound, simply because they aren't necessarily very useful except when handling certain types of chemicals. People involved in performing dissections may wear scrubs, light cotton pants and shirts that are in common use by staff and students working at medical facilities. I can say from experience that even the professors never wore white lab coats in my chemistry or physics labs. Anyone who has watched the various nasa and european space agency news conferences has likely seen astronomers, astrophysicists, and a range of engineers, all without white lab coats. One fellow ended up in particularly humiliating circumstances at one of these due to his spectacularly inappropriate for international television, and honestly, for work, shirt.
All that said, the stereotype must come from somewhere, and if you surmised from the pop up caption on the accompanying picture and your own experience that it is likely medicine, you're quite right. The white lab coat is not a symbol of science or medicine though, so much as what scientist Jenna Todd Jones concisely described in 2014 as "a sign of authority and competence." Since early european medicine could be spectacularly hit and miss at times, especially in periods when doctors disdained to wash their hands between autopsies, attending the terminally ill, and delivering babies, an irresponsible practice that held into the early twentieth century in most of the "western world." There is considerable argument about when the knowledge that washing hands between patients was important was lost, but that needn't detain us here. Instead, let's also bear in mind that it was a lot harder to provide effective medical help before the advent of antibiotics and rediscovery of the importance of clean water if people opted to live together in large numbers for extended periods. So doctors needed as many authority and competence points as they could get, since the chances they were going to be successful at helping their patients in the western world could vary even more wildly than they still do now. Before the advent of anaesthetics, those points also helped convince patients that painful procedures were worth bearing, or at least convincing others to help hold the patients down.
Yet, as Mark S. Hochberg notes in the ama journal of medical ethics explains, the original doctor's coat or authority and competence was not white at all, but black. (I have serious doubts about his assertion that "A child's earliest memory of a doctor is the person in the white coat." however.) Until the nineteenth century, men asserted the formality and importance of what they were doing, as well as their authority and competence, by wearing a black suit. For those fond of B-movies with outrageous A-movie budgets, Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula shows the character Jonathan Harker in a striking range of outfits. Whenever Harker is specifically engaged in professional tasks, his coat is always black, though he doesn't always keep it on, which was probably a faux pas. The change to a white coat corresponds with the rediscovery of such concepts as contamination and the importance of cleanliness in medical treatment, among other things. The symbolism of whiteness and its not quite opposite, a soiled white thing is both cliché and dangerous when misapplied. In the case of doctors, the new symbolism of the white coat included the implication that they had learned and were now practising the new knowledge of how to control and avoid infectious disease.
Germ theory, new medicines, basic hand washing and so on, all were associated in the western world with the development of modern science. Which brings us full circle back to the extension of the white lab coat beyond medicine to science in general. Hochberg writes that the white lab coat is seen by "many patients" as a "cloak of compassion." This makes me wonder why he did not discuss "white lab coat syndrome," in which patients may experience raised blood pressure at the doctor's office when otherwise their blood pressure is normal. (Top)
Cultural Appropriation is Theft Folks (2017-05-22)
A recent social media storm has brought up once again the issue of "cultural appropriation." While the storm is unpleasantly interesting in its own right due to the strange invocations of stereotypes of Indigenous people by non-Natives hoping to push everyone else to move along, nothing to see here but over-sensitive "Indians," things have not faded away quite as planned. The cultural appropriation problem has stuck around in a most uncomfortable manner, and it isn't even hallowe'en. But something should be made clear at the outset. Cultural appropriation is theft. It is not flattering, it is not an honour, nor is it in any way respectful. Yes, if you are not a member of a racialized group and sometimes even if you are, cultural appropriation can be hard to recognize because it goes back to something Aileen Moreton-Robinson refers to as "the white possessive." One way I like to paraphrase Moreton-Robinson's concept is that the white possessive is the belief that people who think they are white have that they own anything they think of or see. It is the weirdest thing to witness if you are at all sensitized to it, because it is completely absurd. Since cultural appropriation is one way a person or persons can attempt to assert power over others in a for them, risk-free manner, it can be hard to resist for anyone, let alone for those who think they are white.
I have always been fascinated by the immediate wails in response to these points. Immediately the cry goes up: "Then only people who are members of a specific group will be able to tell stories about that group or members of that group. That's censorship!" Except, this is manifest bullshit. I have read decent books written by people who think they are white on Indigenous issues and cultures. I have read decent books written by men about women and matters of interest to women. When done with care, honesty, and genuine respect, it is certainly possible for a person to write about someone from another culture or sex or gender, or whatever, in a way that does not involve cultural appropriation. It is possible, though not necessarily easy, and not necessarily well-appreciated by the same peanut gallery that claims it is simply impossible without being allowed to engage in cultural appropriation.
So how do you recognize if you are perhaps, slipping into an act of cultural appropriation? Well, there are some key features worth checking for. These can be considered in the case of an object, a dance, or a story.
If by chance your responses to 1, 3, and 4 are no and your answer to 2 yes, you are at risk of engaging in cultural appropriation if you don't course correct sooner rather than later.
UPDATE 2018-07-22 - In her brilliant and often uncanny book Cannibal Culture, which is all about cultural appropriation, Deborah Root writes on page 76, "Appropriation – which is to say, commodification and use that overlooks both the cultural context and the desires of the people of that culture – is generally possible only in an economic system that is more powerful than the one subject to the appropriation. This economic power does not exist in an abstract universe but rather is based on guns, armies, and dead bodies. Rome appropriated the aesthetic codes and objects of Greece only after it had established military and economic hegemony in the area. French artists took up Orientalist themes en masse only after Algeria had been subdued, and Native people began to be romanticized by white Americans after the former had ceased to be viewed as a military threat."
What makes cultural appropriation a form of theft is not merely a failure to respect the people whose culture is being raided. It is never just about a lack of respect or only a single thing or story. It is about a claim made by outsiders to elements of someone else's culture to the exclusion of that someone else. That someone else is redefined as somehow not good enough to handle their own culture, it must be taken away and done properly by the appropriator. If you read The Whiteness of Real Being, then this will already sound familiar, because it is the heart of most narratives featuring "the white man who is better at being an indian than the indians." Hence the insistence that Indigenous people don't know what they're talking about when they protest the misuse of feathered headdresses, or the stereotyped caricature of the "plains indian" favoured as "THE INDIAN" almost any time such a character appears in the mainstream media. Another sharp marker of cultural appropriation is claims such as "there is nothing particularly [insert cultural/national adjective] about [story/piece of music/picture/dance/etc.]." Neil Gaiman's declaration that there is nothing especially greek about the odyssey is a sadly recent example. It doesn't matter whether what he meant was that there is nothing especially greek about being a traveller having a wretched time getting home again, if that is even what he meant. That is not in fact what he said, and the appropriation of greek culture generally, especially ancient greek culture, is all too old. Don't take my word for it, read Athena Andreadis' blogpost Being Part of Everyone's Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!. Andreadis gives several excellent examples of the inaccuracy and context failure problems. A more recent post well worth reading on this is Adam Gaudry's reflections on the opera pretending to tell Louis Riel's story that has been mounted again because canada is pretending 150 years is somehow significant compared to time immemorial. Or how about Ryan McMahon's recent article, who is among the few writers I will read on vice.com despite the horribleness of its founder.
With all this cultural appropriation going on, the work and interpretations by the people whose culture is being pillaged is ignored, no matter how brilliant, thought-provoking, and potentially inspiring their work may be. Their work is rarely translated, or else rarely made available beyond archives at learning institutions or small presses and the like. Instead, a sort of hyper-simplified, stereotyped stuff is repeated again and again, and finds approval specifically because it repeats that stuff. The stuff is never neutral either, by the way. The stereotypes repeated, whether of the noble or ignoble savage or any other item you pick, all come down to repeating a claim that people who think they are white are real humans, superior in every way, and furthermore they have a right to stripmine other peoples and cultures of their interesting bits. The removed interesting bits being figurative diamonds in the rough until taken away, of course, preparatory to the anticipated final demise of the racialized peoples and "failed whites" whose cultures serve as the ore. (Top)
Strange Motivations (2017-05-15)
With the latest malware created and curated by the insecurity state followed by its overt release and application by people not officially working for the insecurity state, on top of the ongoing slow motion train wreck of the intel extra cpu that can take over most newer computers running intel processors, nobody seems to be seriously pondering a key question in all of this. The fact that it is possible (try it, it works) to use your microphoneless headphones to record sound through the headphone jack or the microphone jack is an accident, just something that reflects the physics of how microphones and speakers work. Deliberately refusing to help clean up software flaws and deliberately introducing others has nothing to do with accidents of physics anymore than introducing more and more smaller processing chips that are difficult, if not impossible, to audit into computers. These all demand human decision making, along with decisions to design methods of persistently monitoring people while they use the internet, or their cell phones, or the train, or the airport, and so on. Okay, but why bother? This is a lot of weird, obsessive work.
I've heard the usual rationalizations. Advertising companies pretending to be "technology" companies are desperate to persuade investors that they can deliver paying customers by intrusively advertising to them. To advertise to people regardless of whether they want to see any advertisements or are even looking to buy something, well, the best approach is to insist on following them around and intruding on their privacy, according to these ad companies. That they are driving one of the largest consumer boycotts into existence in history that we know about doesn't seem to be stopping them. Meanwhile, the insecurity state insists that this is all necessary for our safety, because otherwise the "bad guys" could do something bad to us. Never mind that most of the examples trotted out to justify these claims were either stopped by vigilant employees alerted by bizarre behaviour by people attempting to be "bad guys" or weren't stopped precisely because even with the spy tools the insecurity state already has they didn't stop anything because they didn't take their own findings seriously. Having something that looks like google to go on a fishing expedition in a huge pool of random data is not going to produce better results than actually investigating suspicions founded on genuine, specific evidence. On the other hand, simply attributing it to the malicious desire to create and maintain a totalitarian state isn't enough of a rationalization either, even though I agree that for too many of the players that is exactly where all this effort is going. No, I actually think the motivation is simpler, and in its own way, worse.
I think what we have here is an example of what capitalism taken to its furthest extremes does too well: it rewards response to perverse incentives. The perverse incentive in this case is not actually selling advertising or convincing specific middle aged white men that they can finally have the divinity and control they've always wanted by having access to all data. No, that is still the response to the perverse incentive, not the incentive itself. The perverse incentive is the venture capital/investment capital game, in which if the participant is very lucky, even when their proposed product fails miserably and most investors lose the money they invest, the participant still walks away rich. It's a different mode of rent seeking than the usual, and yet another iteration on being an ordinary crook while still staying just on the right side of the law. Remember, in each of the examples I mentioned, the people and/or corporations involved are trying to sell various vague ideas to people or organizations with access to lots of money and too much built in inertia to pull back from a major investment decision even when things begin to go horribly wrong for them. (Top)
What Is A Vacation Anyway? (2017-05-14)
The usual answer is, a vacation is when you get away from it all and go off to have a good time at something you like. The canonical examples of course are the flights off to somewhere warm and third world if you're an affluent north american, or road trips and camping if you're rather less affluent and north american. I'm not quite sure what sort of cliché answers might be provided in the case of folks with enough time and money to take such a vacation in europe. Maybe it is still the same sort of thing, but with less travel to warmer places, since the mediterranean is relatively close. It has often seemed to me that I have never been on one of these mysterious "vacations," though I have been fortunate enough to have time off. Having pondered this awhile, and in light of some of my recent reading, it occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of such an experience don't match what is available.
For example, many people characterize their vacations as a time when they can escape their day to day lives, and return to them energized. There is a non-trivial counter-chorus who sadly point out that they need a vacation to recover from their vacation, especially if any sort of travel or camping was involved. The puzzle of what "escaping from day to day life" must mean is a vexed one. Based on my experience at family vacations, my mother certainly didn't get any escape from her usual day to day chores, and in the case of day to day tasks not being there, others appeared promptly in their place. But then again, the advertised sort of vacations suggest something much more "life of the rich and famous" like. Food and drink when you want it, lots of comfort, lots of activities you like, and no need to worry about the bill or the dishes. This is not too encouraging as a definition of a vacation though, since for the most part only the rich and famous can achieve something like that. Whether it makes for a nice vacation to put other people in the position of being your servants for a day is a different question.
If we go by television depictions of idealized vacations, not only do people somehow get away from their day to day lives, whatever that may mean, they end up with a reassurance that their day to day lives are really the best possible thing for them. This sounds far too much like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, himself a pointed (and hilarious) caricature of Leibniz and the nonsense claim that however bad things are, this must be the best of all possible worlds or it wouldn't have happened. Less idealized depictions suggest that vacations are really a sort of disaster and at least normal life however bad is predictable and best to get back to. I don't know about you, but this doesn't strike me as very encouraging either, and that certainly isn't what comes to mind when I try to think about what a vacation would mean for me personally. It was at this point in my original perambulations that I realized just how vague my notions of a vacation really are, and that apparently I didn't have my own so much as a pastiche of bad 1980s advertising and television programs. Which is actually quite funny.
I do subscribe to the idea that a vacation is a time away from doing whatever my day job is, however much I may or may not like it. I expect to walk and hike many miles, cheerfully wearing out my walking shoes between finishing books and tidying away the lingering projects that just an hour or two will allow me to finish and have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. There is always time for more writing and optional thinking. It would be interesting, and a true vacation to experience a healthy break from the various systemic issues that affect my life, although that might be a bittersweet wish to ever have granted, since that would be temporary and individual, as opposed to a permanent state that would benefit all manner of people dealing with such challenges. I think it is fair to characterize this as a rather better set of ideas than an unfortunate, even if hilarious, pastiche of 1980s advertising imagery. (Top)
The Whiteness of Real Being (2017-05-13)
There's this rather famous movie that came out in 2009, one written and directed by a person so profoundly bad at his craft I had already decided not to see the thing. This wasn't even a decision based on the politics the guy espoused or anything else. Due to a rather interesting period of my life when I was prey to terrible insomnia, I had actually seen several of this director's more famous movies not quite to the end, and in an odd coincidence the year before this big movie came out, I had sat down with the DVDs to finally finish the damn things. What I had seen and could remember seemed pretty good. They were generally sci-fi romps, and they tended to eschew George Lucas' contempt for the audience, while keeping his good decision to make "the future" not look as if somebody had just polished and vacuumed it. The result was a fascinating lesson in how convincingly and well we can fill in gaps in movies with stuff that strikes us as not too bad. These movies held up on average until between the 30th and even 40th minute or so. The story was interesting in spite of rather hokey characters, things were visually engaging, the cuts weren't distracting as the current style so often is now. Then the script would collapse with a horrible sound and dust, and the movie utterly spoiled. I remember thinking in horror, "Oh my god. I recommended this thing to people – sure I caveated about not having had a chance to see the end, but..." So, I was not going to see this 2009 movie.
For reasons best known to herself and now never to be known to those of us still in this world and not the next one, a friend of mine insisted that we ought to go see James Cameron's Avatar. I really don't know why. Long movies actually don't bother me, as I grew up watching two-tape classic MGM flicks with my mother, so 3 or even 4 hours is not really a big deal since the idea was to sit and watch a movie anyway. After the first hour of Avatar, my horrified thought was, "There's still like, 2 more to go." And once again, though at further on than before because the movie was so despicably long and boring, there came the key turning point in the script. And I thought to myself, "Hey, who says he's going to do it again? Maybe Cameron finally has it figured out. Well, let's hope so anyway, there's still way more than an hour to go." In the short space of the next two minutes, all of us in that theatre who hadn't seen the thing already were about to learn whether the movie should have been called "Pocahontas."
It should have been called Pocahontas. Please listen to the hysterically funny and on point evisceration of this movie by Molly Swain and Chelsea Vowel on Métis in Space. It'll hurt your sides and just might restore your faith in humanity.
Nothing has ever stopped me from indulging in a rant here – it's my website so I can rant all I like – but I had tried to put Avatar behind me. It's just a bad movie, and really how much is there to see here? Except for a question that stuck in my head that I asked my friend. The conceit to get around pesky things like treating the Indigenous people in Avatar as you know, people, is the use of "avatars," ostensibly empty alien bodies that whites – oops, I mean humans – er, heroes(?) – can hook themselves up to analogously to people plugging into the Wachowskis' Matrix. Since this wasn't really hinted at in any of the hype I saw, this idea completely and utterly creeped me out, especially the scene where Sigourney Weaver shows John Smith's – oops, Jake whatever-his-name-was – avatar in a tank where it is being grown and where it is apparently sleeping and dreaming, hence the occasional twitches. "Wait," I asked my friend, "What about the person who was already there?" Everybody in the movie, even the Indigenous people seemed to agree that there was no person, the mind-body split was absolute, and if there was anyone, well it's not as if they really counted. And besides, John Smith – Jake Whatshisname – turns out to be a better Indigenous person than any Indigenous person ever once he gets the right body on and figures out since the male aliens don't have penises in the usual place he really can run around without any pants on.
UPDATE 2017-07-23: As it turns out, this "white man can be anyone and do it better" trope is way older than Nakamura's formulation here. Leslie Marmon Silko noted in her 1979 article "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts," (Shantih, 4:3-5):
"If you examine the notion that the writer has the 'power' to inhabit any soul, any consciousness, you will find the idea restricted to the white man: the concept of a 'universal consciousness' did not occur until sometime in the 18th century."
UPDATE 2018-07-11: For a bit more on this, read about the rightful cancellation of the massive appropriation-fest of the history and experience of enslaved Blacks in the poorly thought out show SLĀV. There is so much wrong with a show based around Black songs of sorrow and resistance, held in oral and sometimes written memory through horrors that ought to be not just unspeakable but undoable, then cast with white people. Especially appropriate to this thoughtpiece though, is Ingrid Monson's quote from near the end of the linked article. "A kind of mistake that many white americans make... is that you identify so much with the cause that you think you can represent it." In this case, "the cause" is of course, antislavery activism.
Lisa Nakamura described what was wrong with this picture in 2002, and she already had two wonderful, or awful, depending on your viewpoint – examples to work with: the television programs Fantasy Island and Quantum Leap. I'm going to stick with the second one, because it is the closer example to the creepiness of Avatar. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Quantum Leap was a Scott Bakula vehicle before he eventually landed on the attempted Star Trek television show reboot. (Star Trek is a whole wonderful, frustrating, maddening ball of its own.) As Nakamura notes, Bakula's character Sam Beckett (reuse of the name of an irish avant-garde novelist is a coincidence?) "leaps" from body to body throughout history, making historical wrongs right and apparently saving the future or something. He most often leaps into the bodies of racialized people, in which case he is better at being them than they are. Nakamura describes this character marvellously as "the embodiment of the late-twentieth-century white male consciousness" who turns out to be the only true agent in history. But, where do the actual people whose bodies Beckett possesses go? He doesn't know a damn thing but what he scrapes together ad hoc, what he may have known from his own life, and whatever his suspiciously named assistant "Al" tells him. Whatever happens to these people when he leaps away to another life, leaving behind the reality for those people, that they are either dead or left to live the ongoing struggle of their lives, now with the consequences of whatever more or less uncharacteristic behaviour Beckett has indulged in supposedly on their behalf, we never learn.
Somehow, in both this early 1990s sci-fi programme and this much later sci-fi movie, the real experience, the real life, the actions that count, can only be carried out by white males, especially late-twentieth century ones. Nothing changes, nothing happens, until white people in general and real white male agents arrive to make time move. This is the complete colonizer's view of Indigenous people and anybody else whom the colonizer opts to racialize. The colonizer knows better whom those people are than the people themselves, knows so much better that they can be more those people than the people. The colonizer will show how it's done, without any need for pesky things like committed longterm relationships to the community, and since they are always male, they always have the community relationship shortcut of having sex with the first available "Indian princess" while humiliating some Indigenous male who was supposed to be her fiancé. Plus, as long as there is one white man who decides to lay down his status as "identity tourist," a person who adopts stereotyped notions of the group he wishes to pass among, deeming "...that their travels have shown them real 'native' life, these identity tourists often took their virtual experiences as other-gendered and other-raced avatars as a lived truth," that group is itself redeemed. It is redeemed from destruction or at least everlasting sameness by the new white hope's capacity to bring history, change, and survival, to the doomed. With the white convert to racialized being, he at least can have real experience on behalf of the racialized others who may never access the status of those considered true persons by whites.
How kind of Cameron and countless early online denizens of the white male persuasion to update Rudyard Kipling's repulsive concept of "the white man's burden," itself an update of Virgil's nauseating propaganda written for the first roman emperor, for the internet age. (Top)
Reflections on "Mary Sue" (2017-05-10)
While engaging in a prolonged bout of procrastination which, to be honest, I have been enjoying enormously – I spent some time catching up with some fan fiction authors I hadn't read in awhile, in one case reading one person's work that I had completely missed on its first posting. Some of this can be tucked under the heading "research" if I work at it hard enough, since this also led me to trying to sort out the wheres and why-fors of A03 in greater detail. One author got me thinking again about the strangely infamous phenomenon of contempt for "Mary Sue," the introductory writer's wunder-character that seems to be disliked primarily for being a regular product of beginning female writers and being female herself. There's a lot of misogyny tied into the bad attitude towards "Mary Sues" versus "Gary Stus" except for the case of Wesley Crusher in the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise. (It didn't help that he replaced the far more interesting crypto-lesbian Tasha Yarr, who was of course soundly abused both in her original series time line and its alternate.) Anyway, this specific author got me thinking about the issue because she cheerfully posted her early Mary Sue pieces, which you can read alongside her more mature work.
Said author by the way, is Gina L. Dartt, and I think she deserves great credit for doing it. Not as a sort of indirect "teachable moment," which is actually almost beside the point. Her demonstration that her skill has come from hard work and her commitment to writing long fan fiction stories is far more important. If you are also a writer, it is also well worth chasing down the reappearance of her Mary Sue character, who was actually already promising in her original incarnation on-screen, as is so often the case. The reappearance of this character as one with even better expressed dimensions beyond the formulaic two all writers must start with while figuring out character as opposed to plot is intriguing and impressive in itself. The decision to rework her and put her back to work after a period of considerable growth as a writer is also damned gutsy.
I happen to love the way Dartt's decision effectively illustrates my inelegant summation of the real writer's creed: "Start writing here. You have to start somewhere." For many of us, that happened to be the internet even before "the web" was really a thing, back when stories were distributed via bulletin boards and email lists. Then there are folks like me who started a little earlier mostly on paper, in my case paper deemed not good enough for school work, so nobody minded if I used it. The key was always to start somewhere, and actually, since so much of that old scrap paper was useless printouts, I suppose that wasn't such a bad route around the terror of the empty page. beginning writers take note, it doesn't count as cheating as long as it works and you manage to write something of your own.
Now of course, my approval for all this is far from required, but after having on average more unhappy things to say about the reception of fiction writing generally on the web, it was more than time to comment on something positive – and perhaps pretend to a good reason for procrastinating merrily along rather than writing something more substantial. (Top)
Analogue Mimesis (2017-05-09)
In a footnote-aside to the essay The Age of Mimesis, I suggested that maybe the current fad for handmade goods and relearning crafts is itself another expression of the attempt to make sense of the new and difficult to represent. (I should add that in the use of the term 'fad' here I am reflecting my original off-the-cuff description. On further thought, I don't agree with my original word choice.) In this I was exploring some of the implications of Seo-Young Chu's argument that "science fictional writing" is a form of knowledge making that works precisely by making what is difficult to represent understandable. I immediately leapt from there to consider other modes of representation. In light of my recent reading of David Sax's book on the "revenge" of analogue, and running my eye over the earlier essay again, yet more questions came to mind based on the title selected for his book. What's revengeful about analogue not fading away according to the technorati hype anyway? Especially if analogue's apparent resurgence – if that's really what it is, because the ability to act as if there is no analogue is something only the very affluent can carry off – actually has more to do with sense- and knowledge-making.
One of my favoured ways of wasting time on the internet is to dig around for ideas and just plain neat stuff to look at on instructables.com, which on average is easier to navigate and less professionalized than Make. Besides finding clever ideas and approaches to solving issues with my own projects, I find myself enjoying the surprise factor of seeing design after design for things I never would have considered making. As the selected illustration for today shows, I also appreciate the efforts of the younger participants on these sites. No doubt someone out there is engaged in heavy duty arguments about the authenticity or not of the cornucopia of concepts on "maker sites" that span items CAD-designed and 3D-printed to those worked up from judiciously selected found objects with scissors and glue. I'm not sure those arguments reveal nearly as much as the idea that many of these projects in fact are evidence of people insisting on understanding how things work, since that effort to understand is required in order to realize them in the first place.
For her part, since Chu is dealing with literary tropes, her discussion is based on identifying "cognitively estranging referents," difficult to understand things, and their corresponding mimetic representations. There is a way to revise this to reflect the creation of objects instead, and they needn't be artworks necessarily. Builds for educational purposes are the easiest to map onto this framework, such as the illustration of how electric logic gates work by constructing fluidic logic gates that literally use water and pipes instead. Less obvious mappings can be found between simple 3D-printed objects and their relationship to figuring out how to design and 3D-print something.
With this in mind, considering how many "instructables" and the like are for making things that are not necessarily difficult to understand or even difficult to pick up for small cost in a store, there still may be a role for mimesis. Instead of as a means of creating new knowledge however, in such circumstances it may be serving as a means to recreate old knowledge. In which case, the "revenge" component could be seen as more of a resistance to the potential loss of autonomy and deskilling inherent in the most common applications of mass production methods. (Top)