Thursday, September 30, 2010

Quick Hits: Tea Party Edition

  • A Matt Taibbi piece in Rolling Stone: "Vast forests have already been sacrificed to the public debate about the Tea Party: what it is, what it means, where it's going. But after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I've concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit."
  • Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece on Tea Party funding sources: "At one rally, an effigy of a Democratic congressman was hung; at another, protesters unfurled a banner depicting corpses from Dachau. The group also helped organize the 'Kill the Bill' protests outside the Capitol, in March, where Democratic supporters of health-care reform alleged that they were spat on and cursed at.
  • My Country, Tis of Me, from The Atlantic: "Some people think that what unites the Tea Party Patriots is simple racism. I doubt that. But the Tea Party movement is not the solution to what ails America. It is an illustration of what ails America."

Monday, September 27, 2010

The language of choice and the politics of justice

About a week ago, a friend of mine posted, without comment, a link to this interview on whether porn has 'hijacked' our sexuality on her Facebook page. Now, as when I first commented on the article, I'm not going to take up a position on the question in the title. Instead, I'd like to pull out a quote from the middle of the interview that gave me pause: 
"...we need to have feminism with politics. And what's happened, I think, is that politics have been bled out of feminism, so now you get this idea that we got what we wanted, or at least we can be empowered as individuals. I'm sorry, but you cannot be empowered as individuals when women as a group are systematically discriminated against."
The idea of a feminism with politics is one that I've been thinking about for a while now. I came to my feminism through two distinct routes: academia and pop culture. In academia, I read and wrestled with writers from Mary Wollstonecraft through Simone de Beauvoir, through Catherine MacKinnon and the second wave, through bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, third wave theorists of sexuality, and post-structuralists like Butler and Haraway. In pop culture, I read and enjoyed Bitch and Bust, watched Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, read novels about women knights and watched indie romantic comedies with quirky female leads.

My feminism during those years was essentially an applied version of a de Certeauian strategies/tactics model: if I was encountering oppressive ideology through the media and products I consumed, then I was going to resist that ideology through alternative readings of pop culture products, through parodic presentation of self, and through a general attempt (if poorly articulated) to be a feminist by consuming in what I felt was a feminist way. Watching sexist television was somehow a political act if I knew that it was sexist and enjoyed it ironically.

During my final year of undergraduate education, I read three books that changed my thinking. The first was Nancy Fraser's Justice Interruptus. The second was Steven Lukes' Power: A Radical View. And the third, and most important for me, was Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. All three books have a uniting factor: they talk about women's rights in the context of justice, rather than the context of choice.

Choice is the cultural keyword in contemporary Western feminism. It's also a concept easily appropriated  for the purposes of frustrating feminist concerns. While free and open choice is an admirable goal, and one that I am deeply in favor of folding into a justice-centered feminism -- after all, what is justice without choice? -- I am also wary of making it the end goal of feminist politics. This wariness stems from, and is subsequently directed towards, two sources. First, I am concerned about the supposed authenticity of choice and it's relationship to non-domination. In this case, my critique is directed towards  intellectuals, feminist or not, public or not, who valorize choice without taking into account the notion that preferences are or can be (de)formed. Second, I am concerned about the relationship between choice and consumption. This is a critique levelled more directly at myself and other women of my generation, who have often found ourselves expressing our feminism through the things we buy and the media we consume, without much visible thought about the relationship of consumption to the oppression of women.

In her work on sex and social justice, Martha Nussbaum introduces the concept of 'preference deformation'. Using a definition of preference that encompasses desires, emotions, and appetites, Nussbaum argues that liberal thought has traditionally accepted the idea that preferences can be distorted, and that these distortions can affect choice. The question for feminism, is in how we relate choice to freedom. In Power: A Radical View, Lukes argues that there are some views of freedom in which being free is defined as a lack of interference in the realization of my preferences, whatever they happen to be. On this view, says Lukes, "then how my preferences are formed, how my judgements are made and what influences them -- none of this has any bearing on the extent of my freedom". If, on the other hand, my preferences are distorted by the operation of ideology, than my freedom cannot be found simply in the exercise of choice. In the introduction to Throwing Like a Girl, Iris Marion Young questions the non-ideological nature of 'authentic' experience:
Often people seem to assume that if we express our authentic experience, we will be free of ideology and the false impressions of society that lead to conflict and irrationality. But this is clearly not so: ideology operates, or interpolates, as Althusser says, at the most immediate level of naive experience. 
This is fundamentally a critique of a liberalism that argues feminist critiques have been addressed as long as women are the ones 'choosing' what their lives look like; either abstractly, through participation in democratic politics and capitalist markets, or concretely, through the choice to have children or not, to enter the job market or not, etc.

In her book The Aftermath of Feminism, feminist cultural theorist Angela McRobbie expresses a different problem with the language of choice. She writes the following in the introduction:
Elements of feminism have been taken into account, and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like 'empowerment' and 'choice', these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse, and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism...There is a kind of exchange, and also a process of displacement and substitution going on here. The young woman is offered a notional form of equality, concretised in education and employment, and through participation in consumer culture and civil society, in place of what a reinvented feminist politics might look like.
Here the critique is leveled at a hegemonic culture that appropriates the language of choice, and substitutes consumerism for justice. But McRobbie also takes a long, hard, look at herself in the mirror. For feminists invested in pop culture or ironic expressions of femininity, the question remains as to whether or not buying the right clothes, wearing (or not wearing) the right lipstick, and reading the right books and magazines are feminist acts. Moreover, in a culture where young women are reluctant to call themselves feminists, but readily embrace the notion that purchasing is activism, where can we locate a politics of justice for women who are on the margins of the capitalist system?

Whatever wave of feminism we're currently on needs to revisit its thinking on individual choice in the context of larger structures of domination and oppression. I don't know at what point the opposite of oppression became choice, rather than justice. The thing is, "but she/I chose it" just isn't good enough for me in a world where we manage to recognize structural constraints and active ideology everywhere but in our own personal lives.

More on in a similar vein on Feministe; the author explores the language of choice vs. the language of justice in the context of reproductive politics. Particularly salient and very much worth reading is amandaw's comment: "'Choice' never bothered to look beyond the in-group and see whether their problem was even the same problem other people faced."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

CBS wants you to know that vaginas are crazy!

CBS has a lovely -- if by lovely you mean awful -- little infographic on its website entitled Vaginas: 14 Amazing Facts You Won't Believe. Despite already being warned by Shakesville that this is, in fact, a real thing in the real world, I had to go and see for myself. What wonderful, crazy things would I learn about vaginas that I didn't already know?

The opening page starts with a doozy. "Vagina," they say, "every woman has one". And that's when my alarm bells went from on alert to ringing madly. Vaginas! Every woman does not have one.

And that's just the beginning. Did you know vaginas come equipped with 'pleasure buttons'? They're called clitorises! And, fascinatingly, they are apparently on the vagina, rather than adjacent to it. But my two favourite slides in the whole show, (I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not you want to subject yourself to the rest,) are the ones entitled "Man-Eater" and "The V-Word".

Man-Eater has a picture of a Great White Shark and the following caption: "Vaginas and sharks have something in common. No it's not that both are hazardous to men." Well, thanks for clearing that up CBS. It turns out what vaginas have in common with men is not that they are hazardous to men, nor that they have teeth. No, it's that they both contain a substance called squalene, a trait they also share with olives. Unlike sharks, however, olives would not have allowed the writers to title this section "man-eater". Such is the way of the world.

The V-Word, meanwhile, takes great pleasure in informing you of the following: "The word 'vagina' comes from a Latin word meaning 'sheath for a sword.' Maybe that's why some women find the word offensive -- and why they come up with so many euphemisms." Now, I don't actually know very many women who find the word 'vagina' offensive when it's not being yelled during economics lectures, or the like, but let's presume they are out there. My spidey-senses tell me that the reason people (including, but not exclusive to women) find the word vagina offensive, isn't because of it's Latinate etymology, but rather because we live in a culture that consistently and continuously devalues and marks out women's bodies as objects of disgust, as well as of desire. This probably accounts for the reason all of those euphemisms women are supposedly coming up with are also used as some of the most degrading insults in North American culture.

So hats off to CBS, for teaching me so many fascinating things about vaginas! They're crazy, and also kind of like sharks, but if you have enough sex you'll look younger, and what's more important than that?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Quick Hits

  • An excellent round of up Abagail Nussbaum's posts on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, my favourite and, in my opinion, the best of the Treks, and one of the most thoughtful treatments of religion on a sci-fi show that I've seen (eat your heart out, Battlestar Galactica).
  • The .DOC File of Alfred J Prufock, by copperbadge. One of the many examples of why the internet is one of my favourite things. Be sure to check the comments for the William Carlos Wilson version of a thank you comment.
  • Courtesy of a friend in the department who knows me quite well, The Anthropology of Hackers in The Atlantic. Love the syllabus-as-article format, and I think the use of both Martha Nussbaum and the concept of spectacle in a class on hackers is fantastic. I wish more classes on trendy-techy subjects would reach back for help from their intellectual predecessors.
  • An excellent collection of links commenting on the most recent iteration of RaceFail/Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM. If you don't know RaceFail, the two previous links give you more information than you could get through in a month, but suffice to say it was the moment fandom confronted race head on and changed the discussion in a challenging, often infuriating and heartbreaking way. Suffice to say that this iteration starts in the same place, and that middle-to-big name professional sci-fi and fantasy writers should take a long hard look at themselves before they decide to pontificate on entire groups of people.
  • Re-imagine Music is releasing a tribute album to Dylan's Bringing it All Back Home on October 5th. It has Julie Doiron, Ane Brun, The Morning Benders, Sea Wolf, and Laura Veirs. I'm practically oozing anticipation.
  • Immanuel Kant attack ad (I know enough about Kant to know that it's funny. Which is very little indeed):

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cartography again (last time, I swear!)

I spent a large amount of time this morning watching clips of The West Wing on YouTube. When I was in high school, The West Wing was probably my favourite show -- it was smart, political, funny, and dramatic, and never got bogged down in the melodrama of the characters' personal lives at the expense of the larger political action. If I had $200 to spare, I'd lay down money for the complete series box set any day.

One of my favourite early episodes focuses on "Big Block of Cheese Day", when the White House staff members listen to the concern of members of the public who usually don't get the ear of the White House. C.J. Cregg gets stuck with Cartographers for Social Equality, resulting in one my all time favourite scenes:

Nothing is where you think it is! This reminded me of the post I made yesteday on radical cartography and the visualization of social issues. Every once in a while, a weird academic issue like map projections makes it into pop culture. Enjoy!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Radical cartography and neighbourhood segregation

Here's a fascinating post from Gawker about racial neighbourhood segregation in the top forty US cities. Using 2000 census data, photographer Eric Fischer, create the maps, where one dot represents twenty-five people. The dots are color coded based on race: pink is White, blue is Black, yellow is Hispanic, and green is Asian-American.

As a temporary Michigander, I often hear a lot about the racial divide in Detroit. Even folks who have never been to Detroit know about the infamous Eight Mile divide between the white suburbs and the black inner city. But never have I seen it so starkly illustrated as in this map:

Racial segregation in Detroit. The blank area to the right of the middle
is Dearborn. The artist clearly didn't choose a colour for Arab-Americans.
Some of the other maps created have interesting anomalies. This map of San Francisco and the Bay Area has a small circle of dense Black and White (blue and pink dots) in the upper right corner:

Racial segregation in San Francisco & the Bay Area.
That dot represents San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest prison and only death row for male inmates -- the largest in America. 

These maps provide the same information as Census date, but because of the mode they use to present it, they impact the viewer in a very different way. I'm a big proponent of information aesthetics -- I hate bad infographics more than I hate PowerPoint. Sometimes I just like graphs because they're beautiful, or because they're useful. These maps are both, but they're also something else -- political.  Projects like Radical Cartography redefine our understanding of what maps are for in a way that challenges our ideas about what demographic data (among other types) can tell us about our society at large. Maps like these challenge us to understand neighbourhood segregation that takes into account the particular histories of different cities, while still demanding that we sit up and pay attention.

David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful and The Visual Miscellaneum, recently gave a TED Talk on the possibilities of data visualization in a world where we are often threatened with 'information overload'. Check it out:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Badass Women of History: Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matidla Josyln Gage, radical feminist
One of the best things about reading the history of obscure topics is discovering historical figures who you had no idea existed, despite the fact that they were probably fairly well known (at least in some circles) in their time. My recent discovery, while reading the aforementioned Making Technology Masculine is Matilda Joslyn Gage. Radical women's rights advocate, abolitionist, Native American rights activist, and early secularist, Gage was also one of the first American women to challenge the male genealogy of inventions and to theorize female inventiveness.

Considered more radical than her suffragette peers, Gage (along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton) was an intellectual force in the women's rights movement. President of the National Women's Sufferage organization, and, later, the Women's National Liberal Union, Gage was a dedicated liberal and critic of the idea that women should get the vote because of their inherent morality, rather than because of their natural right as human beings.

More importantly (at least for the purposes of this blog), she was the author of the seminal 1870 pamphlet "Woman as Inventor". Concerned that women had been written out of the history of the mechanical arts, Gage attempted a history of women inventiveness. Rather than presenting women inventors as extraordinary or unusual, however, Gage placed women at the center of technological development from the beginning of history, particularly in relation to the textile industry:
No assertion in reference to woman is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius, even the United States census failing to enumerate her among the inventors of the country. But, while such statements are carelessly or ignorantly made, tradition, history, and experience alike prove her possession of these faculties in the highest degree. Although woman's scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.
She goes on to cite the major publications of the day on the subject of female inventiveness:
Hon. Samuel Fisher, while Commissioner of Patents, said: "Any sketch of American inventions would be imperfect which failed to do justice to the part taken by woman." The New York "Times," in an editorial upon woman's inventive genius, says: "The feminine mind is, as a rule, quicker than the masculine mind; takes hints and see defects which would escape the average man's attention. Women frequently carry the germs of patents in their heads, and cause some rude machine to be constructed which serves their purpose. If women would fix their minds on inventions, it is entirely probable that they would distinguish themselves in this line far more than they have done hitherto." The "Scientific American" testifies of the inventions of women for which they solicit patents, that "in their practical character and in their adaptation of means to effect a definite purpose, they fully equal the same number of inventions made by men".
Her pamphlet provides a history of women's role in technological innovation, from the persona of Athena as the progenitor of both agriculture and mechanics, as well as war machines and shipbuilding, to the discovery of silk by Si-ling-chi, wife of Emporer Hoang-ti, 4000 years BCE. Rather than characterizing innovations in textiles as domestic and marginal women's work, Gage puts textile innovation at the heart of the development of the Western state:
Under the forms of velvet, crape, gauze, satin, foulard, pongee, plush, and lace, silk, largely contributing to the wealth of the world, has shaped the policy of states...Silk is possessed of the qualities most sought by manufactures: delicacy, luster, strength, and capability for taking any color desired...As a source of wealth, lace, equally with silk, has largely influence state policy. The value of the finest thread lace when wrote in points is enormous, far exceeding that of previous stones. No other art, it is said, is capable of bringing about such an extraordinary increase in value from a material worth as little as flax in the unwrought state.
Cotton Gin patent drawing, 1794
Moving into American history, Gage credits the invention of the straw hat (and the genesis of the straw industry, which twelve years later produced half a million dollars' worth of straw goods, mostly hats and bonnets, in Massachusetts alone) to Betsy Metcalf. Most significantly, she attributes the invention of the cotton gin, widely credited with expanding cotton production in the United States to the point where the US was providing two-thirds of the world's cotton, to Catherine Littlefield Greene. Although the gin was  patented under the name of Eli Whitney, Gage argues that the invention, and the finances for it's production, were the product of Greene's inventiveness, and that the patent is under Whitney's name solely to avoid being the stigma that would have attended an attempt at a widow participating in outside industry. Among other innovations, Woman as Inventor atrributes the invention of the rotary loom, a number of railroad innovations, the deep-sea telescope, and an adapted sewing machine that could sew leather, invented by a woman machinist who ran a harness manufactury in New York City.

Outside of the apparent focus on rescuing women from historical obscurity, Gage had a larger project in mind. "The inventions of a nation," she wrote, "are closely connected with the freedom of its people". Despite women's ongoing and consistent participation in the realm of innovation, Gave observed, women did not possess the same amount of freedom as men. Under legal conditions that denied women the right to hold independent wealth, the right to contract, and social conditions that pushed women into seclusion and dependence, that women have not equalled men in inventiveness should be no surprise. Rather, she says, it is a wonder that women have invented anything at all in the face of such contraints. Depriving women of their political power, and subjecting them to the contempt and scorn of womanhood, hampered not only the expression of women's inventive genius, but also the advancement of society as a whole:
While every invention, however small, develops new industries, provides world for a multitude of people, increased commercial activity, adds to the revenues of the world, and renders life more desirable, great inventions broaden the boundaries of human thought, bring about social, religious, and political changes, hurrying mankind on to a new civilization. Lecky forcibly shows the loss to the world from the celibacy and martyrdom of the best human element in the past. No less is the darkness of the world kept more dense, and its civilization retarded, by all forms of thought, customs of society, or systems of law which prevent the full development and exercise of women's inventive powers.
Outside of her focus on women and technology, Gage was also a staunch advocate of:
  • Abortion rights: "Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child...But the crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or even chiefly with the woman...I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of 'child murder', 'abortion', 'infanticide', lies at the door of the male sex. Many a woman has laughed a silent, derisive laugh at the decisions of eminent medical and legal authorities, in cases of crimes committed against her as a woman. never, until she sits as a juror on such trials, will or can just decisions be rendered."
  • Native land rights: "That the Indians have been oppressed -- are now, is true, but the United States has treaties with them, recognising them as distinct political communities, and duty towards them demands not an enforced citizenship but a faithful living up to its obligations on the part of the government".
  • Abolition: Her house was a station on the underground railroad, and she was known to be the only person in her town to state for the record that she would give aid to any slave seeking to gain his liberty, and was thus under constant surveillance by the authorities. 
She was also the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum and, apocryphally, the inspiration for the Wicked Witch of the West. Badass woman indeed.

Book Review: Making Technology Masculine

Douglas Tilden's Mechanics Fountain
I'm not usually the type to go around advocating the reading of highly topic-specific historical academic books to the general reader -- I'm the type of person who reacts with completely over-the-top glee when handed books like Dorothy Smith's Conceptual Practices of Power, but unlike some academics, I look on that as a semi-bizarre and awkward character trait rather than as a normal attitude towards reading -- but I'm going to make an exception here for a book I just recently finished. 

Ruth Oldenziel's Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945 is a brilliant cultural history of technology and innovation in the industrial age and the implications of this history for contemporary understandings of technology today. While this may sound like dry stuff, Oldenziel's passion for contentious politics makes the the narrative pop. From the industrial spectacle of the World's Fairs to the institutionalization of engineering as a profession centered on white, middle-class masculinity, Making Technology Masculine uses historical materials to the best possible advantage, eschewing long-winded theoretical pontification in favour of a well developed argument and interesting historical tidbits. 

The book chronicles the rise of technology as a central cultural keyword in American life at the turn of the century. In the midst of the shift from an agricultural economy to a one based on manufacturing and industry, the concept of 'technology' eclipsed the idea of the 'useful arts' as one embodying industriousness, innovation, and technical skill. While the inventions and skills of women were encompassed by the old category, the simultaneous emergence of the idea of technology and the profession of engineering made for a cultural context where women (as well as Blacks, immigrants, and skilled and unskilled labour) were barred from participation. Oldenziel spends a significant amount of time exploring the women inventors and engineers who've been lost from this history, but the book truly shines in its lengthy examination of the relationship between masculinity, middle-classness, and technology. Rather than just being another interesting women's history, Making Technology Masculine is a history of the relationships between the men who composed labour and capital, and the building and maintenance of boundaries between these groups by a professional management class composed of men who saw themselves as technical experts driven by science, rather than ideology. Oldenziel is at her most compelling when documenting the boundary work that went into the development of the engineering profession, looking at historical artifacts from professional journals to autobiographies and travelogues, from patent office submissions to World's Fair photographs. Making Technology Masculine is a wonderful book not only for scholars interested in the intersecting histories of gender and technology, but also for the general reader who wants to better understand the contentious history of industrial management and engineering in America. 

Quick Hits: censorship and free speech online

An excellent poster from Schuhle Lewis. Currently hanging in my front hallway.
  • If you like the image above, you can pick it up from the Breadpig Store. 100% of profits go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who I would give money to any day of the week. EFF is the leading civil liberties organization defending free speech, privacy, and innovation on the net.
  • The newly updated Derailing For Dummies. One of my favourite redirects for when I'm having a conversation with someone who does Doesn't Get It on issues of privilege. Required reading for social justice conversations on the interwebs, and for commenters on social justice related posts on this blog. Hop to it!
  • And if you're wondering how I can support and organization like the EFF and require that comments this blog maintain a modicum of respect for the full humanity of folks who aren't privileged white men, I give you TigTog's It's not censorship when it's a personal decision over privately owned space. This issue comes up on feminist (and anti-racist, and Marxist, etc etc) blogs a lot. Say it with me now: it's not censorship if it's not being perpetrated by the government. And freedom of speech doesn't equal freedom from criticism. "It's just my opinion" doesn't float with me, folks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

In defense of genre (with helpful quotes)*:

Near the top of the list of things I unabashedly enjoy, genre writing/tv/film has got to be near the top. I started reading fantasy novels when I was about 10, after spending years buried in the Little House on the Prarie series and YA novels about the Holocaust. I think my parents were relieved that I was picking up stories about lady knights rather than concentration camps, but my teachers were not nearly as impressed. Historical fiction to fantasy is a downgrade, you see.

This division between 'worthwhile' fiction and genre literature has only gotten bigger as I've gotten older. When, after a two year stint of abandoning fiction in favour of theory, I returned to the world of the novel, it was with great trepidation. The books on the table were Ian McEwan's Atonement and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. The first, a literary excursion through British class anxieties and wartime horrors, the second a genre masterpiece of steampunk horror. I started with Atonement, and while both books ended up on my all-time favourites list, I wish I'd read Perdido instead. I picked up the McEwan because I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a legitimate reader -- a reader of real books. Mieville's book languished for another year, and, after much nagging from friends, I finally picked it up. And here's the thing: it was just as real as Atonement. Just as literary, just as full of meaning, just as poetic in diction and just as sharp in politics.

In his introduction to McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and noted genre-defender Michael Chabon, discusses the discourse on genre among the more serious consumers of serious literature:
Among those of use who use the term genre to label regions on a map (sf, fantasy, nurse romance) and not sections of an atlas (epic, tragedy, comedy), there is a deep and abiding confusion. To some of us, 'science fiction' is any book sold in the section of the bookstore so designated. The typeface and imagery on the cover of the very attractive Vintage International edition of Nabokov's Ada would look distinctly out of place there, with the starships and the furry-faced aliens and the electron-starred vistas of cyberspace. Ada, therefore, is not science fiction. 
He continues:
 For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers' books, with elegant serif type faces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.
Here is an excellent example of what Nick Hornby, in Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, describes as the prevailing culture of reading -- books aren't worthwhile unless they're hard work. And how can you tell if a book is hard work? Well, it certainly isn't in the science fiction section, or the horror section, or the romance section. Definitely not in the children's section. And it looks like hard work. It has a Penguin classics cover and a new preface by a shining light in the literary establishment tacked on to the original introduction.

But here's the thing: some of the best books I've read have been science fiction. Some of them were in the sci fi section -- Ursula LeGuin's The Left-Hand of Darkness, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, assorted Heinlen and Asimov and Clarke, and the aforementioned Mieville. But some of the best science fiction books I've read are ones that have graduated from the section, or had never been there in the first place. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a piece of postapocalyptic fiction the same as Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz. Speaking of which, McCarthy's entire body of work is essentially a series of westerns. 

But I don't want this entry to just be a list of good sci fi books (although all of the ones listed are excellent and you should totally read them). The larger point to be made is that genre fiction can touch on the same subjects as 'normal' fiction, and can deal with them in equally complex ways. The question is, why read genre fiction when you can read literary fiction and not have to go through the hassle of learning the specific vocabularies that each genre makes use of?

Here's why, in the words of folks a lot more eloquent than I:

  • Neil Gaiman on horror: "...Horror is very often the lie that tells the truth about our lives -- and in that sense, it's ultimately an optimistic genre."
  • Michael Chabon on genre and play: "In spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the non-literary genres are held, in particular by our finest writers of short stories, many if not most of the most-interesting writers of the past seventy-five years or so have...found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands. From Borges to Calvino...from Millhauser to Thomas Pynchon to Kurt Vonnegut, John Crowley, Robert Aickman, AS Byatt, and Cormac McCarthy, writers have plied their trade in the spaces between genres, in the no man's land. These great writers have not written science fiction or fantasy, horror or westerns -- you can tell that by the book jackets. But they have drawn immense power from and provided considerable pleasure for readers through play, through peculiar mockery and tribute, invocation and analysis, considered rejection and passionate embrace, which are the hallmarks of our Trickster literature in this time of unending crossroads."
  • Ursula LeGuin on fantasy: "Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil. In an America where our reality may seem to have been degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives. Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing right do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways. Could we assume, for a change, that it does so?"

Genre literature (and by extension, genre television, genre film and the genre visual arts -- comic books, pop art, etc) is the artistic embodiment of the sociological project I am most interested in pursuing. I like my theory, my art, and my practice to focus on imaginative alternatives to entrenched ways of being. Genre literature re-imagines our relationships with the Other, with landscapes internal and external, with technology and ecology, with violence and with love. Genre re-invents our understanding of politics and ethics, both on the grand scale of international (or inter-stellar) conflict, and on the micro-geographies of the body and the soul. And it does it all with lasers and spaceships, with the open spaces of the West or the stars, with fantastical magic and horrifying creatures. If I'm going to get social commentary in my literature, I'll take it with a side of awesome space battles any day.

And in case you'd rather have the argument made in hilarious short-story form by an author with extensive experience in the subject area, here's a link to Ursula LeGuin's short story On Serious Literature. Go. Read. Be convinced.

*All quotes in this post are from, collectively, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, Ursula LeGuin's Cheek by Jowl, and the McSweeney's collection Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. We'll attend to the fact that I clearly fangirl Dave Eggers' publishing house some other time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quick Hits

Things on the Internet that I have recently enjoyed and/or learned from:

  •  A cappella prep version Bitches Ain't Shit by Dr Dre. It's technically a version of the Ben Folds cover, but this one made me laugh so hard the first time I saw it.
  • An excellent post on Crooked Timber about hyperlinks, research, and cognition. Has me thinking about the relationship between footnotes and links as both references and content-carriers.
  • Canadian retailer Jacob announces that its ads will not longer feature retouched models. Hooray for a  semblance of body positivity! Next step: getting some body diversity in there too.
  • Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers -- particularly her short stories and poetry. This Recording reposted a 1976 essay from her on the subject of women and writing. It reminded me of Joanna Russ' brilliant and oft-cited (by me) How to Suppress Women's Writing. Both highly recommended.
  • Hipster Shrugged: The Twitter Meme. Probably the only worthwhile thing to come out of Ayn Rand.
  • From the always enjoyable Big Picture: Russia, in colour, a century ago. Beyond being utterly cool, this got me thinking about the way we relate images to time. Because they look like photos that could have been taken now, the pictures were, for me, difficult to place in their historical context.  Colour serves not only as a representation of what was, but also as a temporal marker. You can see this with the contemporary obsession with sepia tone, with black and white, and now with Polaroid-style shots and disposable cameras. The images themselves aren't nostalgic, but the colour makes them so.
  • Copyright and booze. An incongruous match, both for studying and for drinking.
  • And finally -- Take a look at the following image. You get three guesses as to what it represents:

...if you guess a high school sexual network, you were right! The link is way old, but the information is still relevant -- because teenagers use the "don't date the ex-boyfriend of the current girlfriend of your own ex" rule in choosing their partners, they end up forming chain where they're linked to almost every other sexually active member of the school. Implications for STI-transmission (and major drama) are obvious.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In which I am a bibliophile

While browsing the philosophy section at the local Borders today in search of some texts for class, I was interrupted by a gentleman who apparently wanted to congratulate me on looking at Foucault and then go on a tear about how "young people today don't read anymore". He didn't pick the best person to talk to about the subject, considering his verbal assault was mainly on how the internet constrains and restricts knowledge development, which he soon found out when I explained to him exactly what my research interests were.

I have mixed feelings about the relationship between the Internet and the book. On one hand, I am a bibliophile in the very traditional sense of the word. I hate reading books on the computer -- anything longer than 25 pages, and I start jonesing for a paper copy. I also love owning books; despite a long-standing affection for libraries, I prefer to have the books for myself. I like how books smell, I like how they feel, I like cover design and font choice and different binding options. I am a bookstore junkie. I've been known to up and out to a bookstore at all hours of the day or night because I'm bored, anxious, happy, or just came into some money I'd like to blow very quickly on something I won't get to for months. Often, all of the free space in my apartment is given over to books.

On the other hand, I'm also a giant internet junkie, and have been for more than ten years. My PhD research focuses on online fan communities, but if it's something cool and it's online, I probably like it, or at least have an opinion. I love Wikipedia and blogs, I love Facebook, I loved Usenet, I love LiveJournal and vid communities, I love memes and Twitter and online news and webcomics. I think the internet is straight up awesome.

So when this guy decided to accost me about how the internet was destroying the minds of young people, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, yeah, people probably aren't reading books as much anymore. But how many people were reading them anyways? I've been a book-person long enough to know that most people aren't, never have been, and never will be book-people. I never had the expectation that tons of people were picking up Blood Meridian just for the hell of it. Book-people are the definition of a subculture.

Earlier in the day, I'd revisited a 2008 Harper's magazine essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, called "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading". While ranging over a number of different subjects, there are two points I want to bring out. First, she shares my belief that most people probably don't, and never have, read on a regular basis. Second, she points out that during the 'Golden Age' of reading in the United States (which she puts between 1850 and 1950), reading was not simply a private activity or a method of gaining cultural capital. It was also a fundamentally social activity:
"The shared experience of books was a genuine bond. A person reading seems to be cut off from everything around the, almost as much as someone shouting banalities into a cell phone as they ram their car into your car--that's the private aspect of reading. But there is a large public element, too, which consists in which you and others have read."

This social aspect of reading is fulfilled, these days, by chat about television, movies, and yes, sometimes even books (Harry Potter being the first thing that comes to mind). But it's also fulfilled by the internet, and that's where I think the problem comes in. Many of the pop-sociology/psychology books that have come out in the last few years -- Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, or, my personal favourite, Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation -- emphasize the fundamental difference of internet-based reading from book-based reading.* This is usually understood through a good tradition/bad technology lens. But fundamentally, books are a technology. They're an information technology, a communications technology, and a social technology. And while the experience of reading a book is different than the experience of reading online, both experiences can be valuable.

Much of the writing on Book vs. Internet treat the two mediums as entirely separate, as though the internet cannot enhance book reading, and vice versa. This has not been my experience. I've found my reading, both academic and personal, to be greatly improved by easy access to the internet -- it's helped me pick out allusions that I would not otherwise have caught, learn historical facts that flesh out novels and non-fiction, and find commentary from both critics and authors on the process of reading and writing. Similarly, having a library of books has helped my online experience -- I have authorities to turn to when I suspect something isn't right, and I have beloved stories and passages to share with other bibliophiles online. My reading isn't bounded by the technology through which I do it -- it's all reading to me. And yes, it's probably not like that for everyone. But in the end, it probably never was.

*Note: This literature is very different from the literature on the importance of maintaining physical (rather than electronic) book collections. Robert Darnton's The Case For Books is an excellent, non-polemical and accessible piece in that tradition.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Virtual Space and Virtual Place

A lot of early writing about digital environments worked through the idiom of 'cyberspace'. Cyberspace -- a word coined by author of Neuromancer and all-around badass William Gibson -- is one of those slippery words you come across quite often when people talk about digitial technologies and new media. It means a lot of things to a lot of people, but generally, if you hear someone talking about cyberspace, they're talking about the sphere of activity created by communications technologies, specifically activity on the internet. Cyberspace, as a term, has fallen out of vogue, but virtual space comes up with relative frequency, and so is still worth addressing, I think.

Why do we hear so much about virtual space and not about virtual place? It seems to have something to do with the slippage in meaning between place and space. Places are not just bounded portions of space. Rather, they are spaces that are imbued with meaning. What makes a place a place is it's specificity, not only in geography but also in networks of meaning and imagination. Our homes and schools are places only insofar as they carry with them our memories and interactions. Without these associated meanings, they fall into the category of locations. Without names or meaningful structures, they become simply portions of space.

Transferring this distinction to the realm of the virtual, it is easy to understand what we mean by virtual space, and even by virtual location. Virtual space (or spaces) are bounded only by the fact that they exist within the sphere of the virtual. Virtual locations are denoted by URLs and website infrastructures. But what is a virtual place?

One of the easiest ways to think about virtual place is in the context of video games/virtual worlds, like World of Warcraft and Second Life. These environments recreate our experience of place by mimicking the aspects of place that we rely on in the real world -- landscapes, buildings, neighbourhoods, etc, are used to denote this place from that. But if our notion of place in the virtual world is restricted solely to digitally rendered environments, then it is sorely lacking in its ability to adequately describe all aspects of online experience.

A better example of what I mean when I talk about a virtual place over a virtual space is the interlocking places and sites that make up media fandom. Sites like Fandom Wank, Metafandom, and the various archives, LiveJournal communities, personal journals and message boards that see a variety of fannish activities take on the role of places, rather than simply locations. They are places that attract certain types of people, certain modes of conversation, and carry with them particular histories that embed them in networks of meaning that extend through time. But they don't have the traditional markers of place -- all of the geographical, topographical, and architectural touchstones that we use to describe or delineate one place from another. How can we represent virtual place to ourselves and to others, for whom the place may be simply a location, or an unbounded part of cyberspace? How does thinking through the difference between virtual space and virtual place allow us a more nuanced understanding of what online communities and interactions look like?

These questions point towards a need for internet-centered research that focuses on the historically-sensitive nature of virtual communities, and the places they make for themselves. We need a new vocabulary in order to talk about digital infrastructures -- what makes some online spaces more amenable to "place"-ification than others? But we also need a new language to talk about virtual communities. All too often the language of networks dislocates online communities from their spatial and temporal settings. Representations of online communities too often look like this:

These types of images tell us about connections between people, but not abut connections between people and the places they occupy and make meaningful to themselves and their communities. We need to come up with better ways of describing, studying, representing, and building virtual places if we are going to come to a fuller understanding of what virtual communities and relationships look like. We need better ethnographies of the virtual, and better anthropologies of the digital. Over the last decade we've come to understand that the virtual does not transcend or erase the body, despite the predictions of (mostly white, mostly male) digital utopians. But neither does the virtual transcend the historical or the spatial. If we are going to talk about the Internet in a way that makes sense for people who have real relationships and real attachments to online communities, we need to develop a conceptual vocabulary that acknowledges and upholds the placefulness, rather than the spaciousness, of the virtual world.