PC-zus 2.0

Link: alechemy.org/pczus

For my final project, I’ve chosen to revise my “unpaper” project, a stop-motion video critique of lyrics from Kanye West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo. Though I was happy with the visual and satirical aspects of my original short film, I felt the project demanded both a higher degree of user interactivity and a deeper investigation of the themes we’ve explored in this course.

In my revision, I’ve attempted to address both of these issues. Drawing on and developing my previously held skills in HTML and CSS while also gaining new proficiency in Javascript, I created a website that lets users hover over certain words from two of Kanye’s more troubling songs to reveal a text box with information on the background of the lyric. By contextualizing these lyrics both within Kanye’s discography and within the genre of hip-hop as a whole, I provide users with a better understanding of the trends and tropes that these lyrics figure into. Hovering over the word “bitch” on the first page, for example, shows both a picture of Kanye’s tweet defending his use of the term and a link to an essay tracing the history of the word and its entrance into nineties gangsta rap.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve implemented an interface that allows users to “re-write” Kanye’s these two lyrics by rearranging and editing the original contents. My intent here was to create an interactive playground where users can revise the lyrics to better reflect the values they hope the genre will someday uphold (while scrubbing away the ones it should have ditched a long time ago), thus presenting an idealized future for hip-hop. The overall effect, I’d like to think, is something akin to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which similarly invites readers to imagine a future where the boundaries between human and machine, and between male and female, have dissolved to form the cyborg, “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (149). In the same vein, my project harnesses the power of imaginative fictions in the hope that they might eventually develop into fact.

Of course, any project that deals with censorship necessarily invites discussion of authorship, and of the author’s power over his/her own creations. By making new meanings of already-written works, users take on the new model of authorship – that of the consumer-producer or ‘prosumer’ – that Bruce Sterling proposes in his essay “The Death of the Author 2.0.” (Sterling). The “2.0” in Sterling’s title refers to Roland Barthe’s own seminal work (you can probably guess the title), wherein he argues that typical celebrations of the author as a cloistered genius free of societal influence ought to be abandoned in favor of a newly empowered reader; in other words, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the author.” (Barthes 147.) I’d argue that a feminist reading of Barthes’ and Sterling’s essays is hardly out-of-reach here, considering that a dismantling of the idea of authorship simultaneously invites a deconstruction of (Western) ideals of the author – namely, that of the educated and powerful white man. This site thus displaces Kanye West’s authority – and more generally, male authority – over depictions of women in media, returning that power to its rightful spot in the hands of readers and consumers.

This project has been a unique challenge for my own feelings toward Kanye’s music (and the many, many hip-hop songs with similar content), since it can be difficult to reconcile my love for rap with my support for feminism. I’ve learned, though, that it is certainly possible to enjoy a work while also remaining intensely critical of it. In fact, I’d argue that the real danger of songs like Kanye’s are not simply that they exist, but that we so often accept them at face value as party anthems and background music. Though this route is undoubtedly the easier one, Londa Schiebinger’s chapter on the use of gendered metaphors and narratives in scientific research and their influence over subsequent work reminds us that the words we use have tremendous sway over the world they appear in (147-149). Lyrics – just like literature, art, and other media – deserve a critical eye, and this project is an effort to facilitate that very criticism.

 

Cited:

Barthes Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image / Music / Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-7. Web. 11 May 2016.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181. Print.

Schiebinger, Londa L. Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Sterling, Bruce. “The Death of the Author 2.0.” Wired. Wired Magazine, 26 September 2007. Web. 11 May 2016.

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Next Steps

In preparing to write my lit review last week, I had the chance to re-read Mary Poovey’s article about the multiple public identities of Florence Nightingale. I was particularly taken with her argument that Nightingale’s agency over public perception of her identity quickly slipped from her grasp, as other people and groups appropriated and molded her image to their own benefit (198). With Poovey’s reading of Nightingale fresh in my mind, as I consider future scholarship in histories of gender and technology I’m drawn to the fertile ground that the Internet provides for discussions of agency over gender identity. As we learned through studying Gamergate and Reddit, online communities have proven their alarming ability to seize and manipulate control of an individual’s public perception, turning him/her from a hero to a villain (and maybe back again) within a few hours. I’m curious, though, how this issue is complicated by the fact that online personae are rarely an accurate perception of a person’s “true” identity to begin with. So in a sense, we surrender some control over our identities as soon as we “go online.” I’d love to see scholars (maybe one of DIG340’s very own!) grapple with these issues in the future.

Cited

Poovey, Mary. “A Housewifely Woman: The Social Construction of Florence Nightingale.” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Web. 14 April 2016.

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ALL the Committees!

I thought the long list of caucuses formed by women in the early 70s on page 212 was fascinating, both because of their quantity and specificity (though Women’s Caucus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science really needs an anagram… WCotAAftAoS?) and also because their formation strikes me as a move to fight against the existing power structures by creating new ones, as if to say, “okay, if you won’t let us into your clubs, we’ll make our own!”

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Lit Review: “Refitting Misfits”

Alec Custer

DIG 340 Shrout

4/15/16

 

Refitting Misfits

 

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels. The trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” – Steve Jobs

 

If we are to believe Steve Job’s mantra that misfits make the world go round, then perhaps the once-popular, now-spurned “Great Man” theory of history ought to be replaced by a “Great Deviant” one. A number of feminist historians have already taken up this mantle, choosing to pen what gender theorist Barbara Caine calls “heroic accounts of great and unusual women” (259). Caine is critical of such works for their privileging of a narrow set of perspectives, and calls for a new approach that, in the case of women’s history, might illuminate how “the life-histories of individual women can provide insight into the general situation of women” (250). Whether in response to Caine’s own entreaty or to other mounting pressures within the field, historians of gender and sexuality have indeed begun to re-evaluate their approach to documenting the lives of individuals whose behaviors or identity were considered in some way atypical for the standards of gender and sexuality of their time. In this analysis, I will review a selection of works that move beyond merely championing their subjects’ achievements or fetishizing their oddness, and instead consider how and why these individuals’ deviancies affect not just the subject him/herself, but those who witnessed their behaviors.

A suitable starting point for such an investigation, however, might be a work that embodies many of Caine’s complaints. At the opposite pole from Caine’s proposal that historians position exceptional or unusual individuals within larger systems of gender and society are those works that instead focus on and in many cases exaggerate their subject’s idiosyncrasies. An excellent, if somewhat unconventional example of this pattern is the 1996 biopic of Alan Turing titled Breaking the Code. The film places Turing’s awkwardness and homosexuality at its narrative center, with nearly every scene focusing on how his deviancies from social norms limited him both from reaching his greatest potential and, for many years, from garnering much public recognition, as the final shot of the small memorial sign at Alan Turing Way seems to suggest (1:29:40). Meanwhile, the film largely ignores Turing’s actual work on the Enigma code and its significance on the outcome of World War II, as well as the contributions made by his male and female teammates at Bletchley Park. The overall effect is one that perhaps should be expected of a film designed for popular consumption: by the end of the movie, the viewer is expected to both sympathize deeply with Turing’s inner struggles and to buy into the film’s premise that Turing was the most peculiar, if not also the most important scientist working at Bletchley Park in the 1940s. However, it is precisely because of its explicit focus on Turing’s sexual and societal deviancy that Breaking the Code is worth including in an examination of scholarly writings, for the film highlights a narrative trope that exists across multiple media forms: that of invoking the viewer’s or reader’s sympathy and interest in individuals who could not receive the same during their own time.

To be sure, historians’ tendency to focus on deviant individuals is not solely the product of an affection for an underdog narrative. As Barbara Caine keenly points out, historians write about prominent individuals because they are often the easiest to write about: they leave behind “collections of letters, diaries, and even autobiographies” (251). Still, in studying socially deviant individuals, even primary source documents can prove problematic for scholarly use. In her essay “Theorizing Deviant Historiography,” Jennifer Terry explains the difficulty of writing on those people she dubs “deviant subjects”:

“A practical problem of having little ‘raw material’ or authentic ‘experience’ that is not already configured in pejorative medical, psychiatric, penal, or religious discourses leads to a theoretical problem highlighted in queer history which Foucault summed up in a question: ‘How can the truth of the sick subject be told?’” (281)

Clearly, there is no obvious answer to Foucault’s query, but historians have since adopted a number of strategies for writing on the “sick subject,” a term I will expand to match Terry’s more inclusive and less pejorative category, the “deviant subject.” One such approach can be found in Alison Winter’s essay on the social context and implications of Victorian mathematician and scientist Ada Lovelace’s near-constant physical ailments. Winter establishes early on in her piece that while perpetual sickliness was common amongst Victorian women, Lovelace nonetheless differed wildly from her contemporaries, in that her incredible intellect and high social standing afforded her opportunities that most women in her time lacked (202-203). But rather than treat Lovelace like Breaking the Code treated Turing and argue that her oddness is interesting for its own sake, Winter posits that Lovelace’s differences from her peers can be used to illuminate larger questions regarding Victorian expectations of masculinity and femininity, and their relation to scientific work (204). Lovelace’s indefatigable passion for learning and scientific research, for example, directly challenged Victorian conceptions of womanhood and placed her within a small group of “intellectual women [who] became the focus of cultural debate.” (204) Winter further interprets Lovelace’s physical frailty and confinement to her home – considered abnormal by modern standards even if not by her own – as granting her not only ample time to pursue her research, but also the impetus for her eventual decision to turn her scientific focus inward, toward her own body (229-230).

Alison Winter thus approaches Ada Lovelace’s exceptional and abnormal privileges and characteristics in a way that opens inquiry far beyond the scope of the “deviant subject” herself. Winter’s argument thus falls in line with Jennifer Terry’s theorization of a so-called “history of difference,” which she defines as:

“[a broadening of] the critical scope of history … to look, not at women or gay people or African Americans per se, but at the analytic categories and social systems of race, gender, class, and sexuality, which, through dividing practices, construct these subjects as well as their heretofore unmarked opposites.” (277)

This shift from writing solely about deviant subjects to studying the very systems that create and define their deviancy, clearly present in Winter’s study of Lovelace, has already been adopted by a number of other historians of gender and sexuality. John Kasson, for example, argues that famed magician Harry Houdini’s public exhibitions of his nearly-nude body were particularly alluring to an audience for whom such displays of male physique – especially ones involving bondage – were considered taboo and un-masculine (116). Houdini’s implorations that his audience members come forward and search his imprisoned body (Kasson 116) were thus just as much an invitation for the public to question the constraints placed on their own bodies as they were an invitation to inspect the literal constraints on his. Read in this way, Kasson’s study of Houdini’s deviancy is less a biography of Houdini and more an ethnography of the populations he performed for, and an investigation of the systems that defined the modesty of the masses as “normal” and Houdini’s exhibitions as “abnormal.”

Valuable as they are in pushing biographies of deviant subjects toward histories of differences, Winter’s and Kasson’s works are still somewhat limited by their monolithic treatment of their subjects’ social and cultural importance. Shortly after defining “histories of difference,” Jennifer Terry warns against those studies that treat identity as a constant trait that historians can discover and restore from invisibility (277). Though I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Winter and Kasson merely play the role of loudspeaker for these individuals, I am slightly leery of their fairly unilateral treatment of their respective subjects’ identities. Specifically, Winter spends the bulk of her essay considering what Lovelace’s treatment of her abnormalities meant to her own identity, while Kasson takes a near-opposite approach, focusing instead on what Houdini’s meant to those who observed him. In both cases, discrepancies between the individual’s public and private identities are largely ignored.

Meanwhile, Mary Poovey’s study of the conflicting narratives and identities of Florence Nightingale addresses these discrepancies directly. Poovey corroborates Jennifer Terry’s claim that identities are multifaceted and often in disagreement, for she theorizes that Nightingale’s public image differed wildly from her own, private self and that the gap between the two only grew over time (198). In fact, Nightingale’s own social deviancy was in many ways entirely constructed by the public, as a wave of contradictory media coverage ultimately coalesced to form an unheard of portrait of womanhood that fused “a domestic narrative of maternal nurturing and self-sacrifice and a military narrative of individual assertion and will.”  (169) Though Poovey’s articulation of the complex construction of Nightingale’s deviancy from norms of femininity is incredibly valuable on its own, I’d argue that her most important contribution comes at the end of her essay. Here, Poovey emphasizes that Nightingale’s agency over her public image quickly escaped her, and that narratives of her identity were “produced, marketed and consumed” (198) by groups that saw ways to use her image for their own benefit. Poovey pays greatest attention to feminists who used Nightingale’s work as testament to women’s rightful place within the public sphere, ironically (and depressingly) appropriating her name for “the feminist cause the woman herself refused to support.” (198) In explaining how feminists used Nightingale’s unorthodox work as a tool to close the gap between typical and atypical behaviors for women, Poovey’s analysis moves beyond just highlighting the importance of Nightingale’s deviancies and into a more nuanced investigation of how the categories of normal and abnormal are re-defined.

If Breaking the Code is held back by its nearly obsessive fascination with Turing’s idiosyncrasies and sexual deviance, then is the better alternative to minimize their abnormality, and to thus “normalize” the deviant subject? Some works do, in fact, take this approach: namely, the Associated Press’ obituary for astronaut Sally Ride limits any mention of her personal life to an implicit reference to her homosexuality in the final sentence – “she is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years” (Borenstein). Yet as this analysis of studies of three other “deviants” has shown, Ride’s sexuality – much like Houdini’s exhibitionism, Lovelace’s frailty, and Nightingale’s contradictory, media-dictated gender identities – differences deserve ample investigation. Ride’s homosexuality matters not just to our understanding of her, but to our evolving understandings of women’s role in science, women’s sexuality’s role in science, and to a stereotype of heroinism that will hopefully soon make room for non-heterosexual women. Perhaps Steve Job’s appraisal of misfits was a bit narrow, then, for not only do misfits change the world, but they also change how we see and understand it.

 

 

Works Cited

Borenstein, Seth. “Sally Ride Obituary.” The Associated Press, 2012. Web. 14 April 2016.

Breaking the Code. Dir. Herbert Wise. Perf. Derek Jacobi. YouTube. YouTube, 27 October 2011. Web. 14 April 2016.

Caine, Barbara. “Feminist Biography and Feminist History.” Women’s History Review 3.2 (1994): 247-261. Web. 14 April 2016.

Kasson, John F. “The Manly Art of Escape.” Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Print.

Poovey, Mary. “A Housewifely Woman: The Social Construction of Florence Nightingale.” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Web. 14 April 2016.

Terry, Jennifer. “Theorizing Deviant Historiography.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): 55-74. Web. 14 April 2016.

Winter, Alison. “A Calculus of Suffering: Ada Lovelace and the Bodily Constraints on Women’s Knowledge in Early Victorian England.” Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (1998) 202-239. Web. 14 April 2016.

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Lit Review Topic

In a similar vein as our observation that scholars tend to focus on and idolize “exceptional” women in science, I want to explore academic fascination not just with the particularly talented, but the particularly odd: deviant, rule-breaking, or otherwise “abnormal” individuals. I will not limit my investigation to just women; rather, I aim to examine how and why the scholars we’ve read position atypical men and women alike as significant actors in the history of gender and science. I further hope to question the legitimacy and value of this focus, and its implications for the field. I will focus on our readings on Turing, Houdini, Ada Lovelace, and Sally Ride.

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The Language We Use => The Questions We Ask

Joining in on the chorus of responses to Julia’s post, I would add that I felt Schiebinger’s most compelling argument was that the language we use to talk about topics in science tends to direct future lines of questioning and research around that topic. She points, for example, to scientists’ tendency to invoke “narratives of courtship and marriage” (149) when discussing biological reproduction as a causal factor in the decision to “understand reproduction in bacteria, such as E. coli, through the lens of sex rather than other possible optics.” (149). In this case, as in the case of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope being applied to the roles of the sperm and egg in fertilization, and in countless other examples, the propagation of a particular narrative played a huge role in deciding the path of future scientific research.

Schiebinger’s argument was something of an eye-opener for me, because I’ll admit that I’ve tended to fall into the camp of people who would argue that the words, analogies, and metaphors we invoke bear little impact beyond the text they appear in. I think my skepticism stemmed from the fact that most writings I’ve encountered on the topic simply insist that language does indeed matter, then fail to provide any concrete evidence. Meanwhile, Schiebinger’s concrete anecdotes greatly strengthened her rhetoric, and clearly demonstrated that tropes and narratives within texts can seriously impact the future works of their readers. Her argument reminded me of Michelle Ellsworth presentation last Friday on her project “Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome,” which was borne several years ago out of Ellsworth’s interest in new research that seemed to suggest the gradual degradation of the male chromosome. That hypothesis, from what I gathered during the Q&A, has since been debunked. Still, the veracity of the research is irrelevant to Ellsworth’s project, which has since matured into a thoughtful, experimental exploration of gender, technology, and the future of both. What matters was that the research was published at all, that it made its way in front of Ellsworth’s attention, and that it inspired a line of questioning and introspection that she might otherwise never have considered.

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A few major themes

  1. Notions and expectations of “real” or “authentic” gender(ed) identities, e.g. “real” men, “real” women, “real” gamers, etc.
  2. Cycles that perpetuate gender biases, and the efforts we might make to interrupt these cycles. For example: Wikipedia’s silence on female artists is (partly) due to a small body of research on female artists, and this hole in Wikipedia also creates the illusion that there just aren’t that many female artists, continuing the cycle. People have fought to disrupt this system via edit-a-thons.
  3. The positioning of masculinity and femininity as adversarial and mutually exclusive, and the ways that this conflict manifests in technologies (for example: the creation and marketing of boys’ toys and girls’ toys but relatively few “gender-neutral” toys)
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Glass Ceilings Above Closed Doors

My head was swimming with statistics by the end of the Schiebinger reading, but her section on workplaces divisions between the sexes rung true to me. This is probably because I’ve seen these divides play out firsthand, when I worked for an auto dealership in Nashville last summer.

The auto industry is male-dominated, and men hold the monopoly over the stereotype of the sleazy car salesman. The only women at the dealership were in customer service or other secretary-type positions. My boss and I, who worked in web/graphic design, rarely interacted with the female employees.

Thus it was kind of a special occasion when a few times a month, a female employee at one of our business partners came into the dealership to meet with my boss. And here’s where things got sticky.

My boss’s office was directly next to the call center, where 8-10 phone conversations were always in progress at a given time. To hear someone talk in his office (or even just to hear yourself think), closing my boss’s door was a must. 95% of the time, this was a non-issue: my boss met almost exclusively with male employees. But as I mentioned earlier, every once in a while a female rep would come in to the dealership for a meeting.

He’s complained to me countless times about the difficulty of the situation. In this work environment it would be considered inappropriate for him to close his office door while a woman is in the room. Doing so would surely earn him a number of suspicious glances and suggestive comments from his co-workers. But leaving the door open to the clamor outside makes it incredibly difficult to have a productive meeting.

Not to mention, of course, that leaving the door open suggests to both parties and all onlookers that this businesswoman needs the protection being extended to her. It’s obviously tempting to say someone, either my boss or his female colleague, should just “make a stand” and close the door anyway, but it’s both difficult and risky to break the status quo when the stakes involve your source of income.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Though they may seem trivial or surface-level, these biases and divisions do a great deal to determine how men and women interact in the workplace. I get the feeling that closing these gaps will require a deeper systemic shift, unless a number of bold individuals prove willing to break the mold and withstand the heat.

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“Kanye clean up this track?” “Yes, yes I kan.”

Two bits of context:

  1. All music clips come from Kanye West’s newest album, The Life of Pablo. Since its digital-only release a few weeks ago, Kanye has repeatedly “fixed” and updated several tracks on the album, raising questions about the [im]permanence of texts published online. As such, this project is a critique not just of misogyny in hip-hop, but of Kanye’s constant revisions to Pablo.
  2. The video title, “PC-zus” = PC (Politically Correct) + Yeezus (Kanye’s nickname)

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