Monday, 2 December 2013

What Next?

I want to tie this off with a bow and deliver it for Christmas. I want this to have a neat conclusion like a good college essay, like a good story, like a goodbye. What next, what next, what next? I have some senses of where to go, but those senses are inarticulate, they still feel untrained by even a constructed truth. The further I go, the more my conclusions become trailing pauses, and maybe that's not a mark of semester fatigue but a growing sense of the vast gulf that stretches upon all sides, the gulf of complexity and confusion in which shouted conclusions are lost acoustically, sent back in fragments.

I wanted, in short, to round out the semester with a kind of overview of sorts--an attempt, I suppose, to figure out what I can do to bring what I've learned in the course into my own life. Clearly, if that introduction is anything to go by, it hasn't been the easiest of projects. Hence the overwrought poetics there.

See, the thing is, I think I've got a sense now of how to apply the theory side of things to my own work. I have a sense of what it means to be a cyborg scholar.

For example:

At long last, in part due to my attempts to apply his ideas in the essay on Forbidden Voices, I think I have a solid sense of how to begin working with Latour's ideas about propositions and articulation. I can see applications of the ideas in particular to queer subjectivity--by shifting the discourse to one of propositions rather than absolute truths about queer nature, it might be possible to embrace ever more complex articulations of what it means to be queer.

This, in turn, potentially sheds some light on the idea of queerness in the animal kingdom. There's a real danger in applying broad human categories of behavior to animals, particularly ones as socially affected as categories of sexual behavior, but this drive to articulate while, to some extent, withholding conclusions can maybe allow for a greater understanding of nonhuman queerness that doesn't translate easily into simple metaphor.

And, of course, the move towards articulation mirrors the moves by Haraway and Sandoval toward a fragmentation of identities that is mirrored, as far as queer performativity is concerned, with the ever widening proliferation of queer identities, including, increasingly, categories such as "heteroflexible" that blur the lines between straight and queer. These seem to me like propositions rather than truth statements; ways of expressing a particular kind of existence that doesn't easily fit under a wide politically mobilizeable category.

So, I'm getting a sense of how the pieces fit together. The different scholars are talking to each other not just in real life but in the virtual space created by my knowledge of them, if that makes any sort of sense.

But where I'm falling short, I think, is the application of this theory not to my academic life but to my civilian life (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not I have a life outside of academia. Wow, that's a grim thought).

In other words, what next?

What do I do to bring these ideas into my lived experience, both in the realm of the material and the realm of the digital?

I have found this to be a deeply affirming experience in some ways. I love junk culture--pop and schlock and overblown nonsense. Seeing science fiction show up again and again in the writings of Haraway and others makes me feel so strongly that I'm not crazy for finding so much of value, so much that resonates, in these works. One way forward for me, then, is to treat my unseriousness a bit more seriously. I'm missing some pretty horrifyingly huge chunks from the Canon of junk culture, and it's time those holes were filled. (I've got a new Octavia Butler novel and a book of Ursula Le Guin's short stories sitting on my desk right now, waiting for when I need a break from writing essays.)

So that's one thing.

I've pondered M'Charek's discussion of the shifting nature of identity and its construction quite a bit these past few weeks, and in previous posts I've mentioned how difficult it is to escape that constructive process in the digital, but to some extent I do still believe that I can wrest some control of my identity in the digital world... or maybe wrest control is the wrong term. Rather, I can metamorphose into something different on the 'Net, I can slip and slide and play with my form. The practical limits of time and money and energy that restrain me in the material world from expressing myself as fluidly gendered do not weigh quite so heavy here in the realm of light. What's next for my persona here? I'm not really sure, but I'm excited to let go a little and see where my own mind takes me.

So that's another thing.

But these are just a couple of small things, and they're maybe not enough to lead me into the future. It feels like a grasping attempt at meaning more than a fully fleshed out plan for where to head with this new knowledge.

Maybe, however, that's simply the questing state that feminist--or broadly theoretical--discourse demands: a kind of continual process of becoming.

It surprises me in some ways that this semester we have talked very little about adolescence, another state of in-betweenness, an uncomfortable cyborg state. This feels like an adolescence in some ways, or maybe a first poking forth from the chrysalis, the emergence of a new insect into a vast world of moving colors. It's frustrating and disorienting to be in such a vast field, but it's also exhilarating, I think.

I sometimes hear that in a transhuman world of vastly increased lifespans and cyberization, transformation and continuous evolution will be impossible. I can't quite understand this mentality. Technology is a continuously disruptive force, as is biology, and externalities--the queering forces of nature--seem to always find their way back in.If I can't find a conclusion, it's because as a cyborg I'm in this state of perpetual becoming. My future identity is flexible plastics.

I am Cyborg Maria.

And we started with Janelle Monae so it's only fitting if she sings us out.

Mechanical Animals

I'm having a hell of a time remembering what animals appear in the science fiction stories I've read. Particularly cyberpunk stories, which seem to me the most relevant sci fi to our current society (I might've remarked before on the fact that many of the major cyberpunk authors now set their stories in the present day).

There's Fido, in Snow Crash. It plays a fairly pivotal part in the plot, but on the whole appears for only a handful of pages.

There's the giant bird in "I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream," created by AM, but it's just an incidental obstacle, one of many horrors the last humans encounter.

I can't think of a single animal in any William Gibson novel.

Nor any animals in The Matrix.

This isn't to say that there are none, but what I'm trying to get at here is that animals seem to play such an incidental role in these narratives that they're barely memorable at best. When they do appear, they are incidental and simple in their natures. Fido, for example, is more an archetypal idea of loyal dogness than an animal in his own right (although, in fairness, ALL the characters in Snow Crash are fairly archetypal--the book consciously plays with that fact. See: "Hiro Protagonist." I just can't get over that name).

The introduction of animals as another intelligent force worthy of political consideration in cyberfeminist theory caught me off guard for this reason, I think. The basic idea of looking at animals hasn't been completely off my radar, of course, but I've always previously, in discussions with other transhumanists, discussed animals in terms of which ones were closest to us in human intelligence, and which would be the next to join us as fully evolved species.

Christ, even typing this I feel like going back in time and smacking myself.

I can't totally blame myself, though--with an absence of different models for human-animal interactions to work from, and a society built upon a clear hierarchical understanding of human-animal power dynamics, it's not surprising that I'd end up formulating a way of talking about these relationships that places me at the top of a paternalistic pyramid of education and elevation directed towards my inferiors.

It's also, I think, not surprising that even forward-thinking scholarship sometimes struggles to break from these structures as well. I think particularly of Beatriz DaCosta's pigeon project, which involved the application of sensor devices to pigeons to measure urban air quality. She refers repeatedly to the pigeons as "collaborators," but it's never quite clear to me what role as collaborators the pigeons were able to have. How much control, for example, did they have over their flight routes? How much understanding of what their purpose was? 

There's material here, I think, that we could engage with more deeply, but I'm not quite sure where to start. I'm reminded, too, of discussions of animal painters. I think it's in Dutton's The Art Instinct (a book with some serious problems but that does offer some interesting potential insights) that I read recently about the way chimpanzee painters depend, for their art practice, upon a handler taking their canvas from them at a certain point. Without this removal, they will continue splattering paint long after the canvas becomes a muddy wreck. Is this collaboration? I'm not sure. I look at it askance the same way I look at three year old "prodigy" abstract painters askance--there's clearly a facilitation of one sort or another going on here, a curation of images. I worry that in performance art, more so even than in painting, it's easy to disguise the use of living beings as "randomly programmed automatic paintbrush[es]" as the Guardian described Aelita Andre.

A painting by the artist Aelita Andre

I think Donna Haraway does a somewhat better job in this talk on DaCosta's work of delving into some of these problems. You can jump to about the 15:45 minute mark to go straight to her part of the talk.

Feminism, Technology, and Transformation from FemTechNet on Vimeo.

The interesting thing about Haraway's conceptualization of DaCosta's relationship with the Lucinha, Bringer of Light is that for Haraway (as with just about everything else, which is part of why I love her) the relationship is not an innocent one. It's a complex relationship where the animal's existence is shaped by and contingent on human need. It's a genetically designed entity created, effectively, to fulfill a human need. Haraway doesn't shy away from how much the dog is a function of human agency.

But she also flips that around and discusses the way in which DaCosta's life, already shaped by cancer, is shaped further by the bringing of this Bringer of Light into her life. And that has me wondering: how much agency does DaCosta ultimately have in Lucinha's creation and entrance into her life and her world? DaCosta is not responsible for Lucinha's breeding, her genetic structure, her temperament (Haraway contrasts Lucinha with her sibling, notably), and does seem, in Haraway's reading, to participate as a collaborator in Lucinha's training, in that Lucinha makes it necessary to go to a training camp, to work with her constantly, and so on.

Haraway is therefore making clear the animal agency, even if that agency isn't necessarily a result of multi-stage planning like we'd expect from humans. But neither is DaCosta's agency fully a product of that kind of prior planning or obvious, closed-ended collaborative goals.

I'm not sure how to untangle all of this, honestly. I'm a novice here, and it's hard to write a conclusion when I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw from this continuously problematized set of relationships.

I think it's time for me to seek out some science fiction where animals play more than a bit part, though.

Cyborg Maria will never be good to you, bad to you.

Friday, 15 November 2013

"Forbidden Voices" and Invisible Affinities: A Review and Critique

 It is difficult to critique a documentary like Forbidden Voices without falling into alliance with the repressive regimes that the film denounces. The danger in that critique of the film's simple binaries (juxtaposing a free West and North and an oppressed and authoritarian East and South), however, is the danger of discourse in a world where the tools and agents of resistance the illegitimate children of the military-industrial complex.i There are no easy or innocent statements in this context, and no easy answers. Forbidden Voices unfortunately largely ignores these complexities in favor of the elevation of its three subjects—Yoani Sanchez of Cuba, Zeng Jinyan of China, and Farnaz Seifi of Iran—as uncomplicated protagonists of political struggle. This can be seen with particular clarity in the case of Seifi, whose case highlights the film's strengths, its failings, and ways in which changing the medium might undo some of these problems.
Seifi's section focuses at the outset upon state misogyny, with interviews from Seifi describing the devaluing of women in her home country of Iran. Her interviews are thus among the most valuable in the film, providing excellent insights into the political and historical context in which Seifi works. It is a context of feminist struggle that dovetailed in 2009 with the wider Green Movement, which emerged in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before being brutally repressed. Much has been written already about the role of women in this revolution and the way in which the Green Movement offered hopes of feminist reform.ii In highlighting Seifi's first hand account of the way in which the Internet facilitated a strong feminist movement, the film makes good on the promise of its tagline (“How to start a revolution with a laptop”) and adds a valuable perspective to the Green Movement, suggesting that it is a coalition of different interests that are, by necessity, “stepp[ing] in unison with one another.”iii There are echoes here of the critiques of Haraway and Sandoval, which assert a need for a politics of affinity rather than a collapsing of individuals into identity experiences.iv
This history, however, is used in a frustratingly uncomplicated and unexamined way by the film. The statement by Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Green Movement leader Hossein Mousavi, that, simply, she “is no Michelle Obama,”v with all the political complexity such a statement implies, is particularly ironic when considered alongside film's use of Obama in the early framing narrative. Michelle Obama's statements of support for female bloggers, despite her specific references to Yoani Sanchez, are framed in such a way that they appear to encompass the experiences of all the bloggers (and perhaps all bloggers in general, although this speech occurred before Chelsea Manning emerged as an embarrassing and inconvenient counterexample). It is juxtaposed with an image of lines of information radiating out—the World Wide Web realized in glowing light—across the globe, originating with the film's three subjects and their geographic locations. The three bloggers and their experiences are thus equated in the same way that a global, international feminism has sought in the past to discover an essential female
Another striking quote comes from Seifi herself, in a segment where she discusses tactical organization. She states that “When you are an activist who is outside of Iran, the really helpful thing you can do is to support those inside Iran and try to be their voice.” She goes on to discuss the way in which she and Reporters Without Borders have facilitated connections between activists in exile and activists still within the country. This section is quite useful in the way it explores the affinities and material strategies for cyberfeminist resistance.
However, there are two key issues with this presentation. First, while the message of this section seems to be one of facilitation, the voice is still Seifi's, and one other expatriate whose interview Seifi and Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders watch on a computer screen. The film thus shies away from actualizing the presumable result of facilitation: the presentation of a wider range of voices. This highlights the second issue with the film as a whole and Seifi's activism: the film draws simple binaries in which it is not just desirable but actually possible for one voice to speak for millions of men and women within a country. And yet, a very cursory glance around the Internet shows a far more diverse coalition of voices than the film's construction of an easily cross-mappable experience suggests. Consider, for example, the contrast between the aforementioned Dr Rahnavard's apparent support of traditionalist religious modesty with expatriate blogger Leila Mouri's vehement condemnation of the compulsory Hijab.vii Or consider the reported alliances between Iranian expatriates and neoconservative think tanks, which other expatriate journalists decry as a betrayal of the spirit of reform that drove the Green Movement.viii In a world where state-sanctioned extremism in Iran occurs alongside Western assassinations of politicians and civilians within Iran, the simple binaries of the film between authoritarian actors and liberating actors become highly contested. An interpretation of these actors as members in various coalitions, as per Sandoval and Haraway, and the material realities as propositions in a multiverse of articulate possibilities, as per Bruno Latour, is not a postmodern slide into relativism but an honest assessment of complex affinities and alliances of convenience.
It is possible—even likely—that the film's ability to grapple with these nuances was hampered by the limitations inherent in conducting interviews in a powerful state dedicated to forbidding Farnaz Seifi's voice, as the title suggests. However, any conjectured problems are certainly compounded by a series of strange and counterproductive directorial decisions. While it is possible, for example, that no other participants in the Green Movement were available for commentary on the impact of Seifi's writing and the writing and activism of other women, that context could have been provided by interviews with a wide range of expatriates that, like Seifi, have left Iran and found refuge for their ideas with Western and occasionally even Middle Eastern media sources. Furthermore, a greater presence of the director herself and her overt choices and perspectives would have been welcome. While the absence of a singular authoritative voice-over that, in outdated modes of documentary production, asserted absolute objectivity is welcome and fitting, it has been replaced by three voices reduced to a singular experience. The words of the film's subjects are literally inscribed in the sky, transforming into an even more elevated collective figure than the outmoded voice over could have been. With a total absence of the director's hand, and a dearth of other voices, the film falls into a trap of oversimplification and an excessive veneer of objectivity.
The film as part of a wider institution, however, is more successful, and the way in which the Internet has been used to expand upon the documentary points towards a new, far improved mode of production and information distribution. The Forbidden Voices website includes a Flash-based map of thedifferent bloggers and, in a welcome expansion of the available voices, the blogger Ory Okolloh of Kenya and the Reporters Without Borders agent Lucie Morillon. This suggests that the film could be expanded incrementally to include a far wider range of voices and experiences that could even potentially be juxtaposed or counterbalanced with one another. There is great potential here if it was harnessed properly. Even more impressive are the interviews with the bloggers and the additional information on their political context. In Farnaz Seifi's interview reaction to the documentary, she describes the fear of a military strike against Iran, and dismisses sanctions against the country as ineffectual. This shows an element of political complexity not present in the film itself, where the West and East are placed into a simple binary. Her statements are accompanied by a fascinating Reporters Without Borders brief on the rise of draconian censorship policies in Iran. Fascinatingly, they point out that private contractors in the West are largely responsible for the technology that Iran uses to censor and monitor its citizens. Most stunning of all is an account of the production of monitoring technology in Israel, Iran's purported enemy, which is then shipped to a Dutch firm, which sells this technology to the Iranian government.
These strange affinities and disaffinities represent the world as it is: complex, tangled, devoid of innocent positions. The Forbidden Voices extended hyperdocumentary, seen specifically through the lens of Farnaz Seifi and her political context, is thus far more successful than its traditional core product. It is, more than the documentary itself, an interested entity that is capable of producing articulate propositions. This reaffirms the fundamental value of the Internet as the medium of choice for a complicated and politically fraught 21st century, and it suggests that an individual like Seifi—who is, after all, a profoundly brave figure worthy of our respect—need not be championed in a simplistic context to be championed at all.


iDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 193.⁠

ii“What we are witnessing in Iran is a natural consequence of years of feminist presence and the active participation of powerful women in the public sphere which has taught little girls that being a woman does not mean just being a mother or a wife and that women must be present and fighting in order to achieve their rights and demands.”
Women have been undoubtedly a great part of the so called "Green Movement." Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, became a key part of the campaign. Her presence meant a promise of a more open arena for women in the political scene and maybe some relaxation of the rigid social laws. Young women appreciated the attention that Mousavi gave his wife, treating her as his equal and a friend. They envisioned that such relationships would become more widespread in Iran if he became the next president.”
iiiGolbarg Bashi, “Feminist Waves in the Iranian Green Tsunami?,”
The PBS article links to a series of quotes from individual writers, which in turn lead to a series of blogs that, alarmingly, have gone offline since the article was published four years ago. The original quote, which reads: “we--as members of the women's movement in Iran and as civil rights activists from diverse areas such as NGOs, political parties, campaigns, press and trade unions--have realized that there are many ways in which to achieve women's demands. When it is necessary, we have stepped in unison with one another” presumably came from one of the lost articles.

ivC Sandoval, “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The,” in Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, ed. Jenny Wolmark (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 247–263. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”⁠⁠

v“Dr Rahnavard has been careful to present herself as a firm believer in the Islamic revolutions with books such as The Beauty of the Veil. She stressed recently: 'I am a follower of the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, who has the same name as I do. I am no Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard.'" Can I take a moment to step outside my academic neutrality voice to say that this woman is truly badass?
viDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”⁠

viii“Meanwhile, thousands of Iranian dissidents fled Iran and opted for the indignity of exile in the region, or in Europe or North America. Some of these dissidents joined intellectual US neocon operations and/or the pro-Israeli think-tanks to call for regime change in Iran. But the overwhelming majority of them opted for a full recognition of the dignified limits of what they could say or do from abroad and never joined the bandwagon of "regime changers", or the treasonous path of plotting against their own homeland.

The outdated monarchists and the discredited Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) tried to jump on the bandwagon of the Green Movement but failed. The main body of expatriate Iranians remained committed to the democratic aspirations of their homeland but equally adamant and vocal in opposition to the crippling economic sanctions that Washington neocons, their Zionist contingency, in collaboration with their Iranian allies, were seeking to impose on Iranians - or even talk of military strike - as a kind of 'humanitarian intervention'.” Hamid Dabashi, “What Happened to the Green Movement in Iran?,” Al Jazeera America, June 12, 2013.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs": A Facilitated Discussion Response

(Apologies to readers of this blog that aren't participants in my particular spacial grouping of Dialogues in Feminism and Technology, but I'll be talking pretty particularly about class this week, so while I think it should be somewhat comprehensible, I can't guarantee that  you'll be able to suss out all the context, particularly when I quote specific participants. Sorry!)

I found leading a discussion on Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" to be something of a daunting task, considering the sheer breadth of the text, its nigh omnipresence in feminist technology criticism, and the often somewhat complex and even confusing layers of meaning and irony that Haraway makes use of. It is, after all, a text particularly interested in a group of beings Haraway characterizes as "partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity."1 It is difficult to limit the reading to just the broad overview of the text, as so many interesting elements are contained within brief sentence-long digressions or metaphorical extrapolations.

In an effort to narrow the scope of the conversation, my summary largely focused upon the way Haraway positions herself in opposition to Feminist Socialism--a theoretical camp she belongs to but critiques quite forcefully over the course of her manifesto. I wanted to emphasize, in particular, how the deconstructive work she does over the course of her essay is not simply an academic exercise but a reflection of the way in which technological society is in the process of deconstructing itself. Feminists and socialists alike must adapt to these postmodern conditions in order to survive in a diaspora of identity.2

This context framed one of my two major questions: in this deconstructive theoretical background, is there room for real political action, or by critiquing Marxist Feminism is Haraway reducing the field to a kind of postmodern slurry?

This seems like an important question, as some academics have read Haraway that way in the past.3 This question elicited some interesting responses about the ethics of forming or disavowing particular alliances. In particular, Alex's mention of the Men's Rights movement (to audible sympathetic groans) made for an interesting, if unresolved, discussion of how much we should critique ourselves for shying away from alliances that we find particularly disquieting, and for failing to make room for alternate worldviews.

Of course, Haraway isn't interested in forming affinities between her outright opponents, necessarily. She does, after all, describe teaching Christian Creationism as "a form of child abuse," among other similarly strident declarations.4 Her manifesto seems to be interested primarily in forming affinities between oppressed groups, as well as between groups (like male silicone valley workers) teetering on the brink of being devalued and downgraded in the social hierarchy. Finding useful alliances, for Haraway, does not mean accepting the entirety of another's ideology or subsuming identities into a coherent whole.

The primary question I posed revolved around the last portion of Haraway's essay where she discusses cyborgs in fiction.5 I wanted to grapple with the notion of cyborgs as an artistic construct and potentially a form of art practice. Coming from a science fiction-influenced background, the question of how literally we/I should express this concept (or, as Professor Ordonez suggested, the concept of other monsters) is of major importance. This conversation was productive, I felt, in that we collectively generated some new ideas of what a cyborg art practice might look like (Shauna's suggestion of glitch art as a literal expression of transgressed boundaries was interesting, for example, as was Alex's suggestion of a fusion of the Cyborg and Goddess figures into some strange whole), but I wonder if the conversation might not have run more smoothly if we collectively had a stronger grounding in the fiction Haraway draws from. Were I facilitating a conversation like this again, I would want to spend more time discussing these stories and their major elements, and perhaps even have a fiction reading component to the dialogue. In particular, for the future I want to become better acquainted with these authors and what they have to offer.

On the whole, however, I think the conversation was productive in its irresolution. It seems like one of the characteristics of cyborg thought is a lack of a need to fully resolve these questions in a permanent way. This might make it a particularly valuable form of contemporary art practice, which elevates the ongoing process of production and increasingly questions the possibility of a completed and resolved work of art. The discussion was able to be vital precisely because it was, by necessity, ongoing.

1.  Haraway, Donna. 1990. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson, 192. New York: Routledge.
2.  Ibid. 212.
3.  Sandoval, C. 1999. “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The.” In Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, edited by Jenny Wolmark, 247–263. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Sandoval provides a useful summary of these misreadings and effectively reclaims Haraway's position from this kind of postmodern confusion.
4.  Haraway, "A Manifesto," 193.
5.  Ibid. 215-223.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


I love science fiction and fantasy and weird, weird porn, in part because these genres tend to toss turpentine across the sharply delineated De Stijl canvas of the world. The boundary between reality and metaphor in these genres is slippery at best, and that's seductive in the extreme.

I think I'm attracted to deconstruction and poststructuralism for the same reason, actually. I'm never totally sure, in reading Haraway, of just how literal she's getting with her cyborgs--how much the realm of science fiction is intruding into reality--or how far someone like Halberstam is prepared to take the complex layers of metaphor and myth that she weaves. If Alan Turing's bite from a cyanide apple isn't literally the inspiration for the Apple logo, and isn't literally a type of Fall, does it really matter for the way we're constructing the universe?

We've been talking a lot lately about attempting to find lines of communication across dramatically different ways of interpreting the world, and it seems like maybe there's some compatibility between this view of the world as a fluid set of signs that construct a narrative beyond the literal and the Byzantine notion of typology and prefigurement. If Hercules can be a type of Samson, or Jonah a type of Christ, Turing can be a type of Adam, and the circumstances of his Fall (without, significantly, an Eve--if the heterosexist godmachine of state Christianity denounces her lack, what does that do for the original myth itself where Eve is the initiator of the fall?) shape the course of cybernetic life just as Adam's banishment affects biological life. It's in the realms of the poetic, in the realms of science fiction and fantasy that these modern myth structures can emerge (and when did Literary Fiction become so god damn boring; when did it all turn into a reflection of a particular kind of middle class Real World?).

I'm including Weird Porn in this because I think that's a realm where, in the best cases, the boundaries between male and female can get extremely--ahahah--slippery. Roles can flip and new dynamics, new genders, new sexual biologies, even, can be developed.

Which isn't to say that in ANY of these fields such flippings and floppings DO occur. There's just as much potential for weird porn or for a fantasy novel to retain the same boundary between metaphor and reality, the boundary between human and monster, man and woman. I'm so bored with dark and gritty fantasy with "realistic" or "historically accurate" gender dynamics. I'm so bored with modes of criticism that don't try to confuse or undermine gender structures. I'm so bored with hentai that reproduces the same stereotypical porn gender dynamics with demihuman subjects.

And I'm not the only one either. Autostraddle just ran a great review of Blue Is The Warmest Color which, fascinatingly, suggested that the straight male gaze within the film was a disappointment in part because it meant that the film failed to arouse or titillate:

It didn’t look like a young woman discovering the body of her partner for the first time. It didn’t look like an experienced partner relearning passion in the arms of her new lover. The voyeuristic angles, the awkward and choreographed movements, and all of them made me feel uneasy, unable to forget the directorial eye, and, quite frankly, bored. I feel sorry for those straight individuals who thought they were about to see something scandalous. Besides Kechiche’s somewhat clunky fetish for women’s asses, there’s little here that would shock your average Crash Pad viewer.

This is so interesting to me because it suggests that the film is weak not because it includes explicit sex scenes, but because those explicit sex scenes fail to capture anything essentially queer (or anything essentially vital at all). It made me think of Ursula "Writing About Queer People Of Color Before You Were Born" LeGuin's scathing critique of the adaptation of her Wizard of Earthsea series and the whitewashing of the cast:
I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense.
It's frustrating, in a field that has such potential, to be confronted with continuous artistic laziness.

Anyway, for me these readings and their call for a loosened conception of metaphor and gender and sexuality and humanity speak to my own compulsion as an artist to explore these unfamiliar spaces. I need to catch up on my queer sci fi as well--I still haven't read any Butler, much as it shames me, my house, and my cow to admit it. And it seems to me that the boundary-breaking science fiction and fantasy and porn are in need of some serious critical analysis. Maybe I'm the right person to engage these topics a bit more closely? I suspect it's still kinda taboo in academic criticism to be anything other than critical of porn in particular, but maybe it's time for that to change.

Maybe, too, it's time to screw around with the types that we're constructing. Is Turing a type of Adam, after all, or is he a type of Eve? Or Sophia, perhaps? There's so much room here for weird recombinatorials that I think we could keep ourselves artistically amused and aroused for a long time.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm ready for my stories to take a walk on the wild side.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Toxic Affinities

One of the most fascinating recurring themes in our texts and discussions is the notion that the technologies we're marshaling for the cause of Feminism may be mobilized just as readily by those we generally see as our opposition. Sometimes those affinities and opponents might even be invisible to us.

I get the impression that some feminists see the debate on positivism and a sort of evangelical mode of science as largely in the past, for example--that no one seriously posits Western science as the sole origin of truth anymore. This is probably true in Theory circles, but I'm not sure it holds true outside of the academy. Look at someone like Christopher Hitchens, who is as much an evangel for atheistic, scientific rationality as a person could be. What an odd guy is Hitchens--supporter of the Iraq war, enemy of Zionism... it's kind of fascinating to me actually to see how a radically antitheist position led him to this strangely contested relationship with American Neoconservatives, loudly triumphing an imperialist war on the one hand while condemning the support of Israel and the return to an extremist Christian position on issues such as evolution!

I'm not sure how we interact with someone like Hitchens. Do we mark him as an opponent on postcolonialist grounds, or on the grounds of the toxic affinities he has with the racist, homophobic, chauvinist policies of the American radical right? Or is he, like everyone else, caught in a postmodern condition of sullied (or simply always absent) innocence?

The weird thing about Hitchens, too, is that he, like Dawkins, like AI advocates such as Eliezer Yudkowski, doesn't seem to see himself as not-innocent, as subject to the same errors of thought that have plagued humans for centuries and have often manifested themselves not just in religious systems of power but in scientific and medical ones as well. By ousting the Abrahamaic myth structure I think they've concluded that they're beyond Original Sin, to really run with this metaphor further than it should probably be run with...

Not that we're necessarily doing a lot better when it comes to putting our money where our mouths are. The rise of climate change deniers or anti-vaccination agitators is a hell of an unintended consequence of postmodern criticism. And I suspect there's nothing more uncomfortable than having, as a Tumblr friend of mine just did, your post about the classist implications of anti-GMO legislation favorited and retweeted by the PR division of a major chemical company. Yikes.

The fact that so many of the critiques of postmodernism from engineers and scientists are whiny, lazy, and made in transparently bad faith ends up, I think, distracting us from these problems within our own camp--the uncomfortable and toxic affinities we may have made.

It's kind of a distressing state of affairs, I guess that's the confusing state we're in--a world without innocent positions.

This is Cyborg Maria and I have no idea what to think of any of this.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Use My Body

So having spent the last class watching Forbidden Voices, a documentary about three women in three repressive regimes using blogging to challenge the political establishment, I've been brooding and chewing the insides of my mouth as I do thinking about one thing, mainly: is there gonna be a documentary like this for Chelsea Manning?

For anyone not in the loop, Chelsea Manning, while in the military in 2010, leaked a large number of classified documents to Wikileaks, including footage of the murder of civilians by US soldiers. Of course, at the time she was living under the name Bradley Manning, and in the aftermath of her trial she came out as transsexual and took the new name Chelsea. The American government, predictably, are being assholes about the question of whether or not she will be able to receive hormone treatment in prison, and she's been roundly vilified in even the ostensibly "liberal" American press (who more and more these days are revealing themselves to be, at best, a paler shade of red).

All of this is a big deal to me, honestly, as someone less than straight and less than completely comfortable in one gender, and it's been heartening to see, after going questing for feminist takes on Chelsea Manning's case, that there's actually quite a lot of support. I wasn't sure at first whether there would be, what with the pretty caustic transphobia in some feminist quarters. But a quick google search actually turns up a web full of feminist support for Chelsea Manning. This is, it seems, being considered a feminist issue (and rightly so). I particularly enjoyed this scathing critique of the complete systemic failure of the corporate media to show even a modicum of respect, humanity, and empathy for Manning.

Hi, yes, this isn't one of those blog posts where I pretend to be anything resembling neutral and aloof. Maybe I should've added a warning to that effect at the beginning? Too late now.

Anyway, this gives me great hope that we may, in time, get a documentary comparative to Forbidden Voices on Manning that is informed by a queer feminist perspective. It would be great, in fact, if the same folks who put together Forbidden Voices, which unfortunately focused on three women in countries that the United States isn't friends with, could broaden their scope to encompass a more diverse range of experiences and perspectives, among which Manning would fit well as a woman now subject to state persecution for acting as a whistleblower against abuses of power. Maybe not being a "blogger" strictly disqualifies her but I mean what is a blogger even, really? The sheer fluidity of modern social media makes the strict delineation of blogging a little fluid to begin with, and I'm not sure there's so much difference between, say, Farnaz Seifi blogging with the facilitative help of Reporters Without Borders and Manning making information public with the facilitative help of Wikileaks. Anyway, regardless, it seems like a potential right step forward to help balance some of the relative weaknesses of the film (which I'll be talking about in a later week).

And all of that seemed nice and neat, tidy little conclusion, tie it with a bow, hit post, and ship it out on the intertubes, but then I ran into this slightly incoherent but somehow deeply troubling post on Alternet: "Chelsea Manning gives us a Rare Opportunity to Create an Anti-War Coalition of Feminists."

Feminists of all types must widen their commitments to see how anti-militarism is part of the larger sexual, gender and racial democracy. The civil rights movement should see an ally in Manning, who has stood openly against the US military's killing and maiming of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We have a rare opportunity to create an anti-war coalition of anti-racist feminists of all sorts, no matter their biological body. This would be a coalition that embraces sexual, economic, racial, and gender rights for each and every one of us.

Something about this rubbed me the wrong way... largely, I think, because we just read Tiziana Terranova's "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy," which has a lot to say about free labor on the Internet.

The implication that I find somewhat disconcerting here is that rather than Manning actively leading the charge, as it were, her body is being used, in absentia, as a political rallying point. Or at least that's what the article's author, Zillah Eisenstein, seems to be suggesting implicitly.

Like, I'm really into this whole finding affinities across diversity lines thing right now, yeah? I'm really loving Harraway and Sandoval and that sort of camp of people. Coalition-building is a good thing.


The sort of... almost casual suggestion here that if Manning is still stuck in prison, hey, we can build a movement around that so there's an up side... that is disturbing to me, because it suggests that Manning's existence, her presence in prison, is a form of free labor that the Left can draw upon. The part of me that sees myself reflected in Manning recoils from the appropriation of her transgender body for political purposes without her consent, no matter how noble the cause.

I think this makes for a good ethics question in academia--is the use of case studies, political examples, &c. a form of exploitation, a way of using someone's free labor without even their awareness, turning them into an actor with no autonomy or will of their own? In particular, it seems highly problematic in this case since Chelsea only recently came out and there may be a level of uncertainty or fluidity to her own identity that must, by necessity, be compressed down to a static identity in order to better facilitate a clean political rallying point. God knows queerness outside the narrow confines of white middle class gay and lesbian family-building is already politically catastrophic enough! I really don't think these fools who complain about "Political Correctness" have any sense of what truly is politically correct. It's a lot easier to be their brand of "politically incorrect" than it is to be, say, a genderqueer polyamorous pansexual.

But I digress.

The point is, I worry that Manning here is being reduced to a particular kind of body that can serve as a particular kind of ideological standard, and that this reduction is happening in a way that is potentially exploitative--that Manning's "work" as an imprisoned trans woman is producing a convenient tool for the radical left. And that's a situation that I'm not comfortable with.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm really pleased with the multiple layers of meaning presented by my ending song choice this week.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Fertile Games

So, the other day (actually almost two weeks ago now--how the time staggers forward bleary-eyed, weighed down by a backpack full of theory texts) we were talking in class about the pretty dire state of science's literary tropes.

The basic idea--and this isn't new at all; Emily Martin's "The Egg and the Sperm," kinda the core text for this area of exploration, was published in 1991--is that the language scientists use to describe things are often gendered in a pretty problematic (and let's face it, often pretty offensive) way. Martin's big point is that the narrative of the mad rush of sperm against one another, where only the best sperm will claim victory and attain the female-coded egg as the prize, reinforces constructed gender stereotypes and lead to bad science. She describes how the reliance on this descriptive narrative of sperm as masculine action heroes has prevented dissemination* of more accurate, modern models where the sperm and egg have a more interactive relationship.

*Pun not intended by shamelessly embraced.

For a good example of this, paired with some really delicious racism masquerading as internationalism, check out this video, courtesy of my fellow femtechnet blogger BorgBlog:

Don't watch the whole thing though because your brain might start to ooze out your ears. In particular, I love how there are four Mexican kids while there's just one kid for every other nation. Charming, really.

Anyway, in pretty grotesque form this video lays out the basic metaphor, with the drowning sperm and so on. (Really, who thought that was a good idea?) It's written to explain the concepts with metaphors that avoid explicit discussion of sexuality but consistently reinforce the strictly gendered nature of reproduction.

So, the question was raised, though, of how you could even begin to teach these concepts differently. I mean, there's an element, even at best, of dominating instruction--the truth-telling voice of authority of the traditional documentary. The problem, and your mileage may vary as far as how great a problem you think it is, is that such an authorial voice excludes the possibility of dialogue back and forth. Furthermore, it limits the narrative to a single pathway leading from orgasm to conception. There's no time to go through a whole bunch of scenarios where things work out differently.

It was suggested in class that there might not be an alternate way of handling things. The medium is just a natural limiter in some respects.

That got me thinking though. If the medium is acting as a natural limiter for the narrative and metaphorical content, what if we think not solely about altering the narrative but about altering the medium itself? And we have, more than ever before, an unprecedented ability to create media experiences with divergent narratives.

It seems to me that video games, visual novels, hypertexts, and works of similar scope all would be ideal formats for conveying this sort of information--both on a minute biological level and on a broader sexual interaction level. A game, or a gamelike work of interactive fiction, would allow for a dialogue rather than a lecture to take place, and it would better accommodate a new narrative of sexual reproduction that recognizes the complex interactions that allow conception to take place. For example, consider playing as a sperm cell, with a group of other students in similar roles, playing with an AI representing the egg. Now, already you're introducing a potential for competition but also a potential for collaboration--the group goal is conception, but the individual goal is to be the "winning" sperm cell. There's a pull and tug between different aims there that makes for interesting gameplay and can, if accompanied by strong guidance from the game or from an instructor, help to reinforce the complexities of impregnation.

An effective AI would make it possible to simulate the interaction of gametes and make real the possibility of different outcomes that do not lead to conception--or lead to unusual conceptions resulting in twins or triplets! Would it be difficult to make nonconception feel like something other than failure? Sure! But this, I think, is a solvable problem, and games provide far more potential solutions (in particular, alternate goals, multiple types of unlockable achievements--perhaps even mutually exclusive ones for different types of non/conception!) than other media do, while not substantively increasing the number of problems with the traditional narrative. The problems, in short, already exist, and certainly will carry over into gameplay, but ultimately can be countered with a wider variety of solutions.

Perhaps even have students play as sperm cells is too traditional. Fine! There is a long tradition of AIs being played alternately by other players during multiplayer, why not port that logic in here and make it possible to have players as egg, sperm, or both? Obviously, my gravitation towards sperm as PCs and eggs as NPCs demonstrates a bias, but that bias comes from the narrative, not the medium, and the medium offers readily available alternate narratives that can counter my design biases. Again, solvable problems.

I think this logic can be extended even further, in fact, to encompass much of sexual health. The wide proliferation of dating sims, h-games, and erotic moments within larger game worlds shows that players are interested in simulated sexual and romantic experiences.

To me, it seems logical to take these established game types and develop versions that present sexuality in a more nuanced and egalitarian way, with an eye toward representing more diverse experiences. I can't think of a better way of having students explore the different ways in which they can negotiate sexual experiences with partners than in a setting where their choices have an impact on the way the narrative proceeds. The idea that sex is something to be negotiated can't, I think, be expressed as effectively in static media as it can in a medium where you actually collaborate with an AI in developing the story's course.

Essential to this sort of experience, I think, would be the ability of students to discuss their experiences within the game--potentially anonymously on the web?--in order to get a more full and comprehensive picture of just how events can play out. If we're trying to express how there can be multiple experiences of sexuality, then being able to talk about the variety of possibilities within the game seems fairly important.

Similarly important would be the ability of students to anonymously craft their own characters and interactions--interactions that might span a whole range of gender expressions and sexualities, with a whole range of possible outcomes positive (and negative? The value of negative experiences in simulations would have to be carefully weighted and tested, but might be potentially useful).

Would it ever happen? Ha ha, of course not. All of this is far too corrupting and sinful to get implemented in schools, at least in the US and probably in Canada. Even European countries might balk a bit at the idea of an actual sex sim, no matter the wide proliferation of such sims in far less egalitarian contexts or the proliferation of low-grade, narratively stunted, sexist pornography.

It's a nice thought though. And I think this illustrates the power of the tools available to us now. It's worth considering how we can bend these tools to our own ends, thereby challenging the narrative.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm ready to play.

I have the most ridiculous taste in music.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Sexualities Slipping Thru the Net

What kind of sexualities are we making?

I love that line. It's my favorite line in this whole dialogue, actually, because I feel like it really sums up the conversation as a whole.

There's this great notion Wilding and Russo touch on* about the way the corporatization of the 'Net has made it more difficult for chance interactions, and discoveries, and--hey, here's this concept popping up again--identity fluidity. We can see that with the Nymwars with Google and the ongoing privacy concerns on Facebook--identity is locked into a marketable set of likes/dislikes.

This is fascinating given their earlier discussion of how technology enables sex discourses but also controls the terms of those discourses. I mean, this isn't new stuff--this is Vintage Foucault, 1976, favorite beverage of contemporary academics everywhere--but it feels fresh in this context largely because the endless dialogues back and forth about the social net work that we're all caught in and how likely we are to be hauled out of the cyber sea and sold as hors d'oeurvres alongside the aforementioned Foucault Wine have, from what I've seen, largely lacked this kind of theoretical critique, at least in the popular media.

And yet the effects of the commodification of preferences has filtered out into our understanding of sexuality within the context of these social net works. There is a strong encouragement to embrace labels and identities that can be caught in these nets--Facebook still, for example, allows you only to describe yourself as interested in Men, Women, Both, or Neither, enabled by a series of checkable boxes. There is no way to customize the descriptor for your relationship, and I know for a fact that you can only be in a relationship visibly with one person at once.

This is fascinating to me because it suggests that part of the more corporate Web** is the easy categorization of sexualities in order to create market groups. One of the possible side effects is that exploration of sexuality is deincentivized as users are encouraged to see the addition or subtraction of a preference as profound alterations of their fundamental identity. And while it is possible to change your orientation or your descriptor for your relationship, such a change is an Event, and signals the end of one era and the beginning of another rather than an arbitrary moment in a fluid progression from one state to another.

Wouldn't it be fascinating to study whether or not coming out or exploring sexuality is more stressful for people that heavily use social media? I think there's some real potential there, especially considering the predominant high school and college age demographics of Facebook*** and the drama already associated with sexuality at that age.

Even kinks are largely codified and divided into subsets. While sites like FetLife are often seen as a boon to sexual exploration, given the critique here I have to question that logic somewhat. After all, the existence of such a major, centralized platform naturally allows that platform to shape the discourse on sexuality. In the context of a web where the application of particular terms creates chunks of identity large enough to be caught and sold, even the simple act of dividing up different kinks and preferences and sex acts into separate pages within a website might be dangerous.

Now, I think Russo makes a great point here that there's some issues with the total breakdown of structure, but at the same time I think maybe there's room for the establishment of some spaces for sexual identity play--even play only in the realm of the mind--without us actually just ending up having lots of queer sex in public, as she puts it. Like, I'm thinking in particular of this interesting little tool I came across today--Yay Genderform!--which is... well, another range of selections to choose from delineated by checkboxes.

Wow, what an improvement.

There's two things that fascinate me here though. First of all, there's the sheer dizzying array of possibilities, most of which I've never even heard of before. The massive number of options is so overwhelming that the exercise immediately becomes not one of identification but exploration. There's no alternative but to explore if you want to use the tool, and by the end I suspect using the tool because quite extraneous. It's a fake tool, in a way, doing its job by adding to rather than reducing effort! The sheer deconstructive flip-flopping here is pretty delicious on its own.

On top of that, there's this absolutely wonderful little button at the very bottom.


What better way to encourage people to think of this as a tool for identity play rather than identity processing and packaging? Spin the sexy wheel of fortune, the site suggests, and see what you get. See if those identities work for you. If not, spin again! We've got all night.

That's glorious.

There's a danger, I think, in falling too deeply into a kind of assumptive, passive love with set structures. We get really comfortable with the idea that this series of tubes, not unlike the series of tubes within the human (and particularly the female) body, naturally are supposed to function a particular way, and it is paramount that we invent technologies in order to control that functionality. It's not even a question of efficacy past a certain point--it's a matter of making sure that people are using their tubes in the proper way.

Often the demands for the regulation of women are just as sensible, well thought out, and scientifically sound as the demands for bandwidth throttling, data usage caps, &c., &c.

Which isn't to say that the two conflicts are equivalent in the sense that they have equal weight and importance--that would be as ridiculous as treating the Internet like a big truck!--but maybe there's some value to this as an analogy in the way it points out some of these issues of technobiopower and how they unite very disparate fields of interest.****

There's one last thought that isn't really connected directly to the above thoughts necessarily but is still worth at least mentioning, I think. Considering the dominance of women in many (although not all, as the continued awfulness of the gamer and comics communities demonstrates) fandom spaces, it's worth considering the various purges carried out by of adult content, often without warning resulting in stunning loss of data, from a feminist perspective. If fandoms are potentially a space for the exploration of sexuality in a relatively safe and imaginative way by women, then these purges almost certainly disproportionately affect women and damage the ability of women to engage in a discourse on sexuality.

This seems like a strong intersection between the always-present and steadily-growing culture of data preservation and protection on the web and various strains of feminist and queer theoretical thought. To me, it seems that even if there's an element of perhaps overly idealistic fervor to these sexual liberation projects, making room for exploration is of paramount importance. Maybe that's my artist's bias coming through, but if we're going to talk about the kind of sexualities we're making, we should also be talking about the technological systems that make making sexualities possible.

This is Cyborg Maria, where all the lonely droids and lovers have their wildest dreams.

 *Not as long as maybe a longer session would've made possible unfortunately but nevertheless.

**Isn't it interesting that "cyberspace" with its implications of vastness and openness has given way to the "Web" and the "Net," methods of capture and control?

***Google+'s demographics are naturally higher as the social network is used exclusively by Google employees.

****Or it may just be a great excuse to post the "Series of Tubes" remix video.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Keeping of Many Names

The meat world often ends up being an interesting test case for the digital world. This should be a little worrying for techno-utopians, since part of the whole idea behind moving toward a digital future is that we should be able to transcend the errors of the existing world. The fact that we can map problems in meatspace onto problems in cyberspace suggests that we take our baggage with us.

Which, not coincidentally*, is sort of obliquely-speaking the theme of Amade M'charek's essay "Fragile differences, relational effects: Stories about the materiality of race and sex." The stories in question are two tales of identity in Holland; one is a story of M'charek's own identity and her attempts to navigate Dutch society, and the other is the story of a medieval Dutch boy whose identity was reconstructed (and fabricated) by modern scientific techniques.

Part of her argument is that identity shifts and comes into new configurations depending on setting and the other individuals being interacted with. This is fascinating stuff, and very useful for understanding the performative nature of identity--the idea that it's not so much that I'm, say, a particular gender but that I am performing genderedness. The edge that M'charek adds to this is the lack of agency that we as individual actors have over how others view our performance. She relates how, after attaining a short haircut in order to seem less overtly "Muslim" and thus avoid harassment, she was accosted by a white woman who, thinking she was a man, accused her of "pinching her buttocks." The woman, upon realizing her gendered mistake, she hastily retreated behind her "strongly built partner" and let him handle things.

She goes on to suggest that from moment to moment during that altercation her identity shifted: 
"At the beginning of this conflict, the woman with the short haircut was enacted as an Arab man. Upon her face becoming visible, she became a woman. However, within these seconds, and standing not in front of the blonde woman, but in front of the man instead, her identity changed for a third time. Confronted with the heavily built Dutch man, she became a representative of a people. A people that is often typecast as potentially dangerous and difficult to control. The woman was thus enacted as the Arab woman, the Other."
Which just goes to show that there's no pleasing some people, no matter what identity is being enacted.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that the chain of events cascaded from the decision to avoid enacting a stereotype that ultimately was reasserted in the end, anyway. This suggests to me that there's a limited ability of individuals to create their own identities. In a way, this feels almost obvious once it's said out loud. If one of the major moves in Theory over the last century was the realization that an author can't depend upon the reader to interpret zir text "correctly," it's not a large leap to consider a boy a text prone to misreadings--even deliberate misreadings.

This has some rather unsettling implications for life in cyberspace. I think many of us that have second lives on the Net tend to believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that we can transcend our identities or keep them separate. We can, we hope, escape the prison of our enacted physical bodies and take on new names. But Redditors are male, Tumblr users are female, who's ever met a queer gamer, you're just pretending to be a woman for attention, and so on and so on. In the absence of a physical persona, URLs take on the function of signifiers that allow us to typecast users just as much as appearances are used to typecast in the physical world.

I think the pain of having your identity pinned down is the pain of having your waveform collapsed, the pain of knowing that no matter how diffuse you make yourself, no matter how many names you keep, the enacted identities that others project stalk you, a constant shadowy substance ready to harden upon you if someone catches sight of it in strong enough light. The waveform collapse, to me, is one of the greatest anxieties of living in the digital age, because the utopia of fluid identity that we were promised in science fiction is tenuous. 

You can only run so far before the body catches up.

Call me Cyborg Maria.

*I mean, of course it's not coincidence. If it was, this article would just be nonsense that happened to arrange itself in a useful argle bargle glub glub cthulhu ftagn.

**Even leaving aside the supervillian's impulse to leave little hints to alternate identities. Was Tom Marvolo Riddle foolish when he anagrammed his name, or was he leaving a trail in the hopeless wish that someone else would be brilliant enough to retrace his footsteps, discover his game?

Friday, 27 September 2013

Articulated Bodies

And what if you could have genetic perfection? Would you change who you are if you could?
Figure 1. Actual footage of me at my computer.
As I sit here tapping away at my keyboard (see fig. 1) it occurs to me that I've barely ever actually done any real blogging. I run a blog, nominally, but I've always treated it like my own academic journal, the peer reviewer being myself. It's casual in content and style, but ultimately I'm plotting out what I want to say fairly carefully and composing my pieces with conclusions in mind.

I find myself freezing up now that I'm writing an actual web log. Organizing my thoughts live is an unsettling experience, in part because suddenly the certainty of purpose and argument that I've grown to depend upon is gone.

That's kinda what the reading this week is about, though, so luckily I can make this seem like a real slick, premeditated transition between my neurotic rambling and the actual content.

The main thing that's overshadowing these proceedings is Bruno Latour's essay "How to Talk About the Body? The Normative Dimension of Social Science," and unfortunately I'm finding the essay's arguments slipping through my grasp no matter how many times I creepily subdivide my cyborg fingers.

Let me try, for my sake as well as yours Dear Reader, to sum up what I think he's driving at.

For goodness sake, though, don't quote me on any of this.

Latour's big criticism of science seems to be that it's not interested research. Part of the argument, which I'm not sure I buy--it seems like a misapplication of formal logic--is that scientific research is structured in such a way as to elicit binary responses from human and nonhuman subjects of study. You either get a result that maps onto your theory (the theory statement is true), in which case all you've got is a tautology, or you get a result that doesn't, in which case your statement is false and is discarded. Latour proposes an alternate system that uses propositions determined to be articulate or inarticulate--articulate meaning that they can encompass a wider array of values and possibilities, and inarticulate meaning that an array of possible stimuli elicits the same response and results in, effectively, a dead end. He's in favor, in other words, of an embodied science that accepts a multiplicity of possible results, like the fingers splitting and branching out to achieve greater articulation of movement. (Alright, I admit it, that image isn't actual footage of me, it's from the anime Ghost in the Shell. I had you fooled for a minute there, didn't I?)

The deeper point behind all of this is actually pretty significant. Latour is trying to pull apart Science's institutional ability to claim access to the absolute truth and a right to reshape society accordingly. The problem with the Institution of Science in modern society is that it invisibly urges us to accept its definitions and methodologies. Inevitably, those definitions and methodologies result in a normalization of certain types of bodies--ways of feeling, ways of responding to stimuli, ways of taking in and processing sensation, &c. Here, he's drawing on Michael Foucault (because honestly, it was only a matter of time before he crept into the proceedings) who describes a process where Power creates discourses that, as we engage in them, result in our incorporation into the system that Power uses to support itself.

Now, the problem with Latour is that, so far as I can tell, he doesn't really explain in any sort of methodological detail how to go about setting up an "interested and interesting" experiment. In fact, he's deliberately shying away from setting up a methodology, which is all well and good for him but sort of leaves the rest of us in the lurch. He wants us to set up a methodology that will result in resistance, but I'm not sure he makes it clear just what that resistance would look like.

This meant that my post-reading conversation with my girlfriend ended up being more baffling than anything else.

Let me give some background information to make sense of what's to follow. So, I'm a big fan of cyberization. If someone told me tomorrow that they could replace my body with a cybernetic shell that had the capacity for the sensation of touch and hearing and sight (and maybe smell and taste but I can be haggled down on this count. It's not like my nose works that well to begin with), I'd gladly sign in blood and politely avoid staring much at the bargainer's goat hooves and forked tongue.

My girlfriend Sara, on the other hand, is highly suspicious of the notion of cyberization. She's a dancer, and very passionate about physicality. She would be rather upset if I suddenly became a cyborg (and not just because of the whole literal-deal-with-the-devil thing).

There's an interesting semi-complication here, though, in that she's the beneficiary of cosmetic surgery (which is the actual topic this week, although I wouldn't blame you for not realizing it considering how long it's taken to get there). Her lower jaw grew out more than normal, causing issue with chewing and swallowing that she had surgically corrected a few years back. So, one component of her experience was medical. However, they also implanted thin implants in her cheeks to bring her cheekbones to slightly higher prominence.

Now, already I think her case goes some way towards unsettling the discourse on cosmetic surgery. While it would be nice to differentiate smoothly between cosmetic and corrective surgeries, the blended nature of her surgery makes strict categorization difficult (which is part of why the insurance company waited until a few hours before the surgery took place to finally inform her that they would, in fact, be accepting her claim, the money-grubbing capitalist bastards). One of the recurring themes in the reading for this week was the idea that women (and men) receive plastic surgery in order to correct what they perceive as a deficiency with their bodies. For them, the surgery is not elective but necessary to live a full life.

So, the first way in which Sara positioned herself as resistant to my questions was simply in having this experience that I don't think easily fits into some criticisms of the beauty industry. Her surgery was corrective in the strict sense that it was necessary for her to eat in a comfortable way... but it also involved a measure of aesthetic reorganization as well. When Sara says that she loves her smile now, and feels both happy and empowered by the greater normalcy of her smile as compared to before her surgery, should we read her experience as being a product of a beauty industry that has self-generated a "problem" that demands their presence and authority to effect a solution, or should we read it as a reaction to the actual pain and discomfort she felt and no longer has to deal with? Does the fact that the place where her jaw was broken cause her pain sometimes alter our reading of her case?

I honestly don't know.

To return to my utopian cyborg nonsense, though, I think her resistance to cyberization despite her own surgery experiences sheds some interesting light on Kathy Davis's analysis of cosmetic surgery in the face (ahaha) of the artist Orlan. Her basic argument is that Orlan's utopian view of cosmetic surgery as a vehicle for self expression is out of sync with the lived reality of other women and men that receive cosmetic surgery. Sara feels largely the same way about her own surgical experience compared to my airy-fairy cyberutopianism--there's a gap between the lived-in reality of her biological and psychological needs, and the science fiction desire to augment and adapt and become something Other. Whereas I'm fascinated by people like Genesis P-orridge, and love the idea of treating my body like an impermanent, metamorphic canvas, she isn't so much. Which one of us is the more caught up in a particular system of conditioned belief, I wonder?

The final idea I want to toy with here, then, is the notion common in transhumanist circles that the body is an error-ridden system, a vast problem, that we must transcend.

I suspect Latour would say that our glorious vision is another scientific system of biopower--maybe even the most advanced and obsessive form of biopower, since we've managed to pathologize the whole of being.

Confronting my beliefs with this system is more than a little unsettling, since it suggests that rather than opening us up to a vast range of expressive possibilities, we're simply asserting a new normalized body and way of interacting the world... with us, the transhumanists, being the ones in control of the new order. And if technology continues advancing at its current rate (we are getting closer and closer to fully functional neurally-linked prosthetics) the question that Sara's case raises, of what is "elective" and what is "corrective" and who is in charge of pathologizing the body in order to make these determinations will become more and more important, which is why I'm tenuously jumping from contemporary cosmetic surgery to this sci fi nonsense.

And really, the whole thing is pretty unsettling to me. There's nothing quite like realizing that you've been potentially arguing for the political economy of Repo! The Genetic Opera.

This is Cyborg Maria, the 21st Century Cure.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Am I A Freak For Dancing 'Round? (The Politics of Touch vs Janelle Monae)

I get a little suspicious of some theory-heavy political manifestos, in part because I think it's always a temptation to get completely lost in the pleasures of theorizing while eschewing concrete plans of action. Erin Manning's Politics of Touch seems to surrender to those pleasures, at least to judge from the chapter "Engenderings." Manning seems preoccupied with a continuous state of transformation of which touch is representative, a reaching toward a solidified state that never seems to materialize. Frustratingly, the structure of her text kind of takes that metaphor and runs with it. It's hard to tell from one moment to another whether she's discussing "touch" in a literal, scientific sense, or in a metaphorical sense, or in a political sense.

This approach bugs me because it seems to dwell in a space of unbridled academic optimism (which might just be on my mind because of reading Judy Wajcman's "From Women and Technology to Gendered Technoscience," which is very critical of the tendency among cyberfeminists* to assume that the mindbending possibilities of cybertechnology would, in and of itself, act as Liberator, despite the lack of a concrete methodology for how we could carry that liberation out). It's hard to jump from her politics of reaching out toward individuations (which, if I'm understanding correctly**, is an entity in the process of transformation, as we all are, rather than a discrete individual with an assumed definite boundary and form) to politics that can be used deliberately to effect change.

*While "Feminists with Mirrorshades" is nowhere near an accurate definition of this word, it's definitely the most rad definition. Feminists with anachronistic katanas? Motoko Kusanagi? MAYBE.

**A big if indeed.

That said, she has this great metaphor (which anyone in the class knows but which I'll go over for anyone who hasn't read the text): dance. For Manning, dance (particularly tango) involves the exact kind of perpetual reaching out that she uses metaphorically elsewhere, because the forms of movement that seem extremely definite actually emerge out of the tug and pull of two people. There's a constant negotiation taking place from movement to movement, and you can't really stay still and renegotiate, you've got to constantly be reaching out and adjusting. What's more, the dominant-seeming member of a pair can, in fact, become subordinate***. This hit home for me, because I'm really into the idea of dance as something that has ascribed gender roles but, through the actual experience of dancing, can actually manage to break down and queer those roles.

***Sorta like in BDSM. Don't look at me like that, it's Foucault's idea!

It hit me particularly strongly partly because of my own experience contra dancing and seeing how complex the gender interactions can get (especially when you start switching roles, or dancing in same-sex pairs). The balance between changing masses is a huge deal in contra, at least according to the folks who taught me, just as in Manning it's the contentious, developing interaction between individuations that can potentially revolutionize society.

But this metaphor also stuck with me because of my late obsession with Janelle Monae. Wait, here, have some context:

Someday I hope to be able to rock a suit and hairstyle half as cool as Janelle Monae.

The thing I'm hitting on here, which I got tipped off to via a David Brothers article (he also does a good job of introducing the cyberpunk themes of Monae's work, so the article is worth checking out), is the notion of dance as a revolutionary act of disobedience. Which, alright, normally that would've made me raise my eyebrows a bit, since Dance isn't exactly a taboo art form... except that now, between Brothers and Manning****, I'm picking out the fact that for Monae dancing is an act of defiance against roles, even when the roles are inherent in the dance style itself. The suit, in particular, helps underscore the queer nature of this defiance, actually.

****"Brothers" and "Manning." Huh. Weird male-oriented names I'm calling on here. What an odd coincidence.

So, sorting through Manning's odd prose by way of Janelle Monae songs about dancing androids, I'm starting to see how really she's working with a pretty tried and true theme of Theory, which is that upsetting and disrupting gendered categories can help to upset rigid and inflexible political institutions as well. That's clicking for me a little bit more even now as I type it, even though I don't dare claim that's her actual point. The essay is still very dense, and very disorienting, probably by design. But regardless, I think I'm starting to see a potential way forward from the abstract bliss of Theory. Part of reaching out might involve consciously entering a dance of gender with people, where we can pull even those that think they're acting out definite roles into a mutual bargaining of power in which identities are replaced by amorphous becomings and fluid performances. We're the solvent to the chemical borders here.

And it only took watching a bunch of music videos to get me to suss that out.

Hello and welcome to Cyborg Maria.