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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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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“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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“Siri, Be a Bro.”: A Close Reading of BroApp

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One of the less expected gifts delivered by the advent of the internet and artificial intelligence has been the ability to outsource work to strangers – both human and AI. “Work” in this case deserves a broad definition, since vendors on outsourcing sites like Fiverr.com offer services with tangibledigital, and entirely indescribable products. Meanwhile, BreakupShop.com divides its work between machine and human employees: the cheapest breakup is simply an automated text message, while a deluxe version promises a one-minute phone conversation with a professional. A common thread amongst these and other outsourcing services is that the work tends to be both brief and straightforward. After all, trusting unknown people or programs with complex tasks – especially tasks that involve communicating with other people – can be a risky endeavor.

BroApp bucks this trend entirely. Rather than end your relationship, like its breakup-outsourcing brethren, BroApp promises the impossible: to maintain it. The Android-only mobile app uses some basic information supplied by the user, like his schedule, favorite WiFi networks, and of course, his girlfriend’s digits to intelligently send said girlfriend loving text messages throughout the day. In the developer’s own words, the app is the culmination of “many man years perfecting the recipe of love communication.” Despite its humorous (and arguably satirical) presentation, BroApp says a great deal about modern masculinity, and accordingly there is a great deal to say about BroApp. I will begin my reading of BroApp with a discussion of its intended audience, followed by an investigation into its place within histories of gender, technology, and masculinity. Finally, I will attempt a deeper analysis of the processes at work within the app, in order to draw out some of its less-visible meanings.

An instructive starting point in analyzing any piece of technology is to consider its target audience, as well as its intended use by that audience. From its initial set-up screens, BroApp makes abundantly clear that it is an app designed and tailored for heterosexual men. Every prompt in the tutorial addresses the user as “Bro,” and the app consistently refers to the messages’ target as “your girlfriend.” The app’s obsession with the term “bro” – a word freighted with connotations of heteronormative masculinity – further limits its user-base from all straight males to specifically masculine ones. This is reinforced by nods to typical pillars of masculinity, from an icon of a pint of beer to symbolize the weekend, to a scale that ranks users based on how many automated messages they select: 0 or 1 is “Weak”, while 5 is “Strong” and anything higher is “BRO POWERED.”

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Clearly, BroApp has a highly specific audience in mind. But why this particular audience, and why should this app appeal to them? The answer lies, at least partly, in the Western social expectation that young men prioritize their time and attention to favor male companions (‘bros’) while simultaneously distancing themselves from female companions (‘hos’). This expectation, popularly summarized as ‘bros before hos’, sets the scene for an app that alleviates the demands of maintaining a romantic relationship, thus freeing up time that would be better spent strengthening fraternal bonds. Gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel argues in his book Guyland that the ‘bros before hos’ dynamic fosters a “culture of silence” wherein “one remains steadfastly loyal to your guy friends, your bros … to whom your primary allegiance must always be offered, and for many that may even extend to abetting a crime.” (67).  I would extend Kimmel’s “culture of silence” theory to accommodate the exhibitions of masculinity that often occur in all-male spaces and, consequently, the incredible value that men place on maintaining the integrity of these spaces.

Exclusively male spaces have long been magical ones, as John F. Kasson points out in “The Manly Art of Escape”, an exploration of Harry Houdini’s public performance of masculinity. Kasson notes that Houdini’s exhibition of his own nude figure was in no way hampered by an all-male audience, such as the Harvard men who “readily accepted” his offer to perform nude at the university in 1908 (115). And while Kasson comments only briefly on the gendered implications of Houdini’s performances for and with the police, a historically male-dominated force, I would argue that their frustration at Houdini’s subversion of their “manly prowess” (104) and typical “mastery over the criminal’s body” (104) demonstrates the contestations of masculinity that often occur in predominantly- or all-male spaces. Certainly an investigation of the factors that construct and perpetuate this formative arena is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ‘bros before hos’ mantra that BroApp promotes and sustains is one especially valuable to social performances of masculinity.

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Though this context of masculinity offers a useful portrait of BroApp’s intended audience and usage, a close reading also necessitates a background for the app itself as a gendered piece of technology. In the first chapter of her book Technofeminism, Judy Wajcman establishes the existence of a male monopoly over technology (11-12). The nature of this monopoly, however, remains a source of contention for feminists, and Wajcman identifies two main lines of argument in this debate. The first, espoused by liberal feminists, holds that “the problem [is] one of equality of access and opportunity,” (12) while socialist and radical feminists argue that “technology itself is inherently patriarchal.” (12). Wajcman aligns herself nearer the former, positing that technology is “socially shaped, but shaped by men to the exclusion of women.” (30). Clearly, BroApp fits easily under this umbrella: the app is intended for use by (straight) men and (straight) men only. Yet a nuanced analysis of the app must look beyond the surface-level presentation and into the processes at work underneath.

Wajcman, at least in her first chapter, treats technology as a monolithic and single-layered entity, able to be neatly labelled as either masculine or feminine. Such an approach may prove adequate for some technologies, but it fails to encompass the intricacies of computer programs and other digital creations, which typically contain both front-end (visible to the user) and back-end (hidden from the user) data. Contrary to the popular narrative of computers as objective and ungendered things, the underlying processes and algorithms in digital technologies often bubble up and manifest themselves as gendered characteristics. Adrienne Massanari underscores this very fact in her article on social news site Reddit’s involvement in #GamerGate and The Fappening, two online controversies with anti-feminist and misogynist undercurrents. Massanari points to Reddit’s algorithmic bias toward new and popular content as a procedural structure that “can implicitly suppress certain types of content and highlight others and also serves as an unintentional barrier to participation.” (9). This bias, she argues, works alongside a number of other policies and mechanisms to “encourage the continued presence of toxic technocultures” (11) such as #GamerGate and The Fappening, thus underscoring the ways that processes can create meaning. A reading of BroApp would do well to investigate the processes at work within this particular technology, too.

Perhaps the best way to highlight BroApp’s processes is through comparison with the processes of another, similar artifact: namely, Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator. Strachey, a twentieth century British computer scientist and colleague of Alan Turing, built a program for the Manchester Mark I computer in 1952 that is now considered “the first known experiment in digital literature and perhaps … the first digital art of any kind.” (Wardrip-Fruin 302-303). Strachey’s program used a simple sentence structure algorithm to pick out and arrange words from a limited bank, producing awkwardly-worded declarations of love with lines like “you are my avid fellow feeling” and “you are my wistful sympathy” (Wardrip-Fruin 306). Computational media scholar Noah Wardrip-Fruin, whose own process-centric analysis of Strachey’s generator serves as the inspiration for my approach to BroApp, writes that it was “a process designed to fail.” The significance of the generator, he continues, is “not as a process for producing parodies, but as itself of a parody of a process.” (316). In other words, we ought not look to the generator’s letters as parodies of love letters, but instead to its procedures as parody of how people write love letters.

Whether or not BroApp is intended to function as parody or satire is less clear. However, much like Strachey’s love letter generator, BroApp is almost certainly set up for failure. A series of automated text messages, especially including ones as hokey and inhuman as “Hi darl, how did you go today?” and “I love you more than Jimmy Fallon”, probably won’t support any real relationship for long. No, BroApp’s real significance comes from not from the shortcomings of an AI-powered “relationship wingman” but from its necessity. As I have already discussed, men experience tremendous pressure to keep time with the ‘bros’ strictly separate from and prioritized above time with ‘hos.’ So, for a man to spend ‘bro time’ texting and attending to his girlfriend would be read as an outright betrayal of a core tenet of masculine culture. Likewise, for a man to ask a human companion for help managing his romantic life would be an astonishing admission of incompetence in an area over which men are expected to have complete mastery. The solution, then, is a non-judgmental, non-human assistant. The solution is BroApp.

Works Cited

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.

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.

Massanari, Adrienne. “#Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society (2015). Web. 18 February, 2016.

Wajcman, Judy. “Male Designs on Technology.” Technofeminism. Cambridge, UK; Oxford: Polity Press, 2004. Print.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2011. Print.

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