FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
White Lab Coats? (2017-05-29)
The other day a question came up about how to visually depict scientists, and then why particular images say "scientist" and not others. Practically speaking, we are all familiar with what can be called "vernacular images," a whole range of shorthand visual stereotypes that we see all the time and have often been instructed in via board and picture books from before we could talk. This is why most small children can draw a "chef" or "nurse" or any number of fairly common "occupational categories" as a particular person wearing specific clothes and holding specific things. Hence, a scientist is regularly depicted in a white lab coat, despite this being in total defiance of almost all evidence and even necessity. Very few laboratories require the use of lab coats to begin with, as odd as that may initially sound, simply because they aren't necessarily very useful except when handling certain types of chemicals. People involved in performing dissections may wear scrubs, light cotton pants and shirts that are in common use by staff and students working at medical facilities. I can say from experience that even the professors never wore white lab coats in my chemistry or physics labs. Anyone who has watched the various nasa and european space agency news conferences has likely seen astronomers, astrophysicists, and a range of engineers, all without white lab coats. One fellow ended up in particularly humiliating circumstances at one of these due to his spectacularly inappropriate for international television, and honestly, for work, shirt.
All that said, the stereotype must come from somewhere, and if you surmised from the pop up caption on the accompanying picture and your own experience that it is likely medicine, you;re quite right. The white lab coat is not a symbol of science or medicine though, so much as what scientist Jenna Todd Jones concisely described in 2014 as "a sign of authority and competence." Since early european medicine could be spectacularly hit and miss at times, especially in periods when doctors disdained to wash their hands between autopsies, attending the terminally ill, and delivering babies, an irresponsible practice that held into the early twentieth century in most of the "western world." There is considerable argument about when the knowledge that washing hands between patients was important was lost, but that needn't detain us here. Instead, let's also bear in mind that it was a lot harder to provide effective medical help before the advent of antibiotics and rediscovery of the importance of clean water if people opted to live together in large numbers for extended periods. So doctors needed as many authority and competence points as they could get, since the chances they were going to be successful at helping their patients in the western world could vary even more wildly than they still do now. Before the advent of anaesthetics, those points also helped convince patients that painful procedures were worth bearing, or at least convincing others to help hold the patients down.
Yet, as Mark S. Hochberg notes in the ama journal of medical ethics explains, the original doctor's coat or authority and competence was not white at all, but black. (I have serious doubts about his assertion that "A child's earliest memory of a doctor is the person in the white coat." however.) Until the nineteenth century, men asserted the formality and importance of what they were doing, as well as their authority and competence, by wearing a black suit. For those fond of B-movies with outrageous A-movie budgets, Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula shows the character Jonathan Harker in a striking range of outfits. Whenever Harker is specifically engaged in professional tasks, his coat is always black, though he doesn't always keep it on, which was probably a faux pas. The change to a white coat corresponds with the rediscovery of such concepts as contamination and the importance of cleanliness in medical treatment, among other things. The symbolism of whiteness and its not quite opposite, a soiled white thing is both cliché and dangerous when misapplied. In the case of doctors, the new symbolism of teh white coat included the implication that they had learned and were now practising the new knowledge of how to control and avoid infectious disease.
Germ theory, new medicines, basic hand washing and so on, all were associated in the western world with the development of modern science. Which brings us full circle back to the extension of the white lab coat beyond medicine to science in general. Hochberg writes that the white lab coat is seen by "many patients" as a "cloak of compassion." This makes me wonder why he did not discuss "white lab coat syndrome," in which patients may experience raised blood pressure at the doctor's office when otherwise their blood pressure is normal. (Top)
Cultural Appropriation is Theft Folks (2017-05-22)
A recent social media storm has brought up once again the issue of "cultural appropriation." While the storm is unpleasantly interesting in its own right due to the strange invocations of stereotypes of Indigenous people by non-Natives hoping to push everyone else to move along, nothing to see here but over-sensitive "Indians," things have not faded away quite as planned. The Cultural appropriation problem has stuck around in a most uncomfortable manner, and it isn't even hallowe'en. But something should be made clear at the outset. Cultural appropriation is theft. It is not flattering, it is not an honour, nor is it in any way respectful. Yes, if you are not a member of a racialized group and sometimes even if you are, cultural appropriation can be hard to recognize because it goes back to something Aileen Moreton-Robinson refers to as "the white possessive." One way I like to paraphrase Moreton-Robinson's concept is that the white possessive is the belief that people who think they are white have that they own anything they think of or see. It is the weirdest thing to witness if you are at all sensitized to it, because it is completely absurd. Since cultural appropriation is one way a person or persons can attempt to assert power over others in a for them, risk-free manner, it can be hard to resist for anyone, let alone for those who think they are white.
I have always been fascinated by the immediate wails in response to these points. Immediately the cry goes up: "Then only people who are members of a specific group will be able to tell stories about that group or members of that group. That's censorship!" Except, this is manifest bullshit. I have read decent books written by people who think they are white on Indigenous issues and cultures. I have read decent books written by men about women and matters of interest to women. When done with care, honesty, and genuine respect, it is certainly possible for a person to write about someone from another culture or sex or gender, or whatever, in a way that does not involve cultural appropriation. It is possible, though not necessarily easy, and not necessarily well-appreciated by the same peanut gallery that claims it is simply impossible without being allowed to engage in cultural appropriation.
So how do you recognize if you are perhaps, slipping into an act of cultural appropriation? Well, there are some key features worth checking for. These can be checked for in the case of an object, a dance, or a story.
If by chance your responses to 1, 3, and 4 are no and your answer to 2 yes, you are at risk of engaging in cultural appropriation if you don't course correct sooner rather than later.
What makes cultural appropriation a form of theft is not merely a failure to respect the people whose culture is being raided. It is never just about a lack of respect or only a single thing or story. It is about a claim made by outsiders to elements of someone else's culture to the exclusion of that someone else. That someone else is redefined as somehow not good enough to handle their own culture, it must be taken away and done properly by the appropriator. If you read The Whiteness of Real Being, then this will already sound familiar, because it is the heart of most narratives featuring "the white man who is better at being an indian than the indians." Hence the insistence that Indigenous people don't know what they're talking about when they protest the misuse of feathered headdresses, or the stereotyped caricature of the "plains indian" favoured as "THE INDIAN" almost any time such a character appears in the mainstream media. Another sharp marker of cultural appropriation is claims such as "there is nothing particularly [insert cultural/national adjective] about [story/piece of music/picture/dance/etc.]." Neil Gaiman's declaration that there is nothing especially greek about the odyssey is a sadly recent example. It doesn't matter whether what he meant was that there is nothing especially greek about being a traveller having a wretched time getting home again. That is not in fact what he said, and the appropriation of greek culture generally, especially ancient greek culture, is all too old. Don't take my word for it, read Athena Andreadis' blogpost Being Part of Everyone's Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!. Andreadis gives several excellent examples of the inaccuracy and context failure problems. She also notes an even more important point. A more recent post well worth reading on this is Adam Gaudry's reflections on the opera pretending to tell Louis Riel's story that has been mounted again because canada is pretending 150 years is somehow significant compared to time immemorial. Or how about Ryan McMahon's recent article, who is among the few writers I will red on vice.com despite the horribleness of its founder.
With all this cultural appropriation going on, the work and interpretations by the people whose culture is being pillaged is ignored, no matter how brilliant, thought-provoking, and potentially inspiring their work may be. Their work is rarely translated, or else rarely made available beyond archives at learning institutions or small presses and the like. Instead, a sort of hyper-simplified, stereotyped stuff is repeated again and again, and finds approval specifically because it repeats that stuff. The stuff is never neutral either, by the way. The stereotypes repeated, whether of the noble or ignoble savage or any other item you pick, all come down to repeating a claim that people who think they are white are real humans, superior in every way, and furthermore they have a right to stripmine other peoples and cultures of their interesting bits. The removed interesting bits being figurative diamonds in the rough until taken away, of course, preparatory to the anticipated final demise of the racialized peoples and "failed whites" whose cultures serve as the ore. (Top)
Strange Motivations (2017-05-15)
With the latest malware created and curated by the insecurity state followed by its overt release and application by people not officially working for the insecurity state, on top of the ongoing slow motion train wreck of the intel extra cpu that can take over most newer computers running intel processors, nobody seems to be seriously pondering a key question in all of this. The fact that it is possible (try it, it works) to use your microphoneless headphones to record sound through the headphone jack or the microphone jack is an accident, just something that reflects the physics of how microphones and speakers work. Deliberately refusing to help clean up software flaws and deliberately introducing others has nothing to do with accidents of physics anymore than introducing more and more smaller processing chips that are difficult, if not impossible, to audit into computers. These all demand human decision making, along with decisions to design methods of persistently monitoring people while they use the internet, or their cell phones, or the train, or the airport, and so on. Okay, but why bother? This is a lot of weird, obsessive work.
I've heard the usual rationalizations. Advertising companies pretending to be "technology" companies are desperate to persuade investors that they can deliver paying customers by intrusively advertising to them. To advertise to people regardless of whether they want to see any advertisements or are even looking to buy something, well, the best approach is to insist on following them around and intruding on their privacy, according to these ad companies. That they are driving one of the largest consumer boycotts into existence in history that we know about doesn't seem to be stopping them. Meanwhile, the insecurity state insists that this is all necessary for our safety, because otherwise the "bad guys" could do something bad to us. Never mind that most of the examples trotted out to justify these claims were either stopped by vigilant employees alerted by bizarre behaviour by people attempting to be "bad guys" or weren't stopped precisely because even with the spy tools the insecurity state already has they didn't stop anything because they didn't take their own findings seriously. Having something that looks like google to go on a fishing expedition in a huge pool of random data is not going to produce better results than actually investigating suspicions founded on genuine, specific evidence. On the other hand, simply attributing it to the malicious desire to create and maintain a totalitarian state isn't enough of a rationalization either, even though I agree that for too many of the players that is exactly where all this effort is going. No, I actually thing the motivation is simpler, and in its own way, worse.
I think what we have here is an example of what capitalism taken to its furthest extremes does too well: it rewards response to perverse incentives. The perverse incentive in this case is not actually selling advertising or convincing specific middle aged white men that they can finally have the divinity and control they've always wanted by having access to all data. No, that is still the response to the perverse incentive, not the incentive itself. The perverse incentive is the venture capital/investment capital game, in which if the participant is very lucky, even when their proposed product fails miserably and most investors lose the money they invest, the participant still walks away rich. It's a different mode of rent seeking than the usual, and yet another iteration on being an ordinary crook while still staying just on the right side of the law. Remember, in each of the examples I mentioned, the people and/or corporations involved are trying to sell various vague ideas to people or organizations with access to lots of money and too much built in inertia to pull back from a major investment decision even when things begin to go horribly wrong for them. (Top)
What Is A Vacation Anyway? (2017-05-14)
The usual answer is, a vacation is when you get away from it all and go off to have a good time at something you like. The canonical examples of course are the flights off to somewhere warm and third world if you're an affluent north american, or road trips and camping if you're rather less affluent and north american. I'm not quite sure what sort of cliché answers might be provided in the case of folks with enough time and money to take such a vacation in europe. Maybe it is still the same sort of thing, but with less travel to warmer places, since the mediterranean is relatively close. It has often seemed to me that I have never been on one of these mysterious "vacations," though I have been fortunate enough to have time off. Having pondered this awhile, and in light of some of my recent reading, it occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of such an experience don't match what is available.
For example, many people characterize their vacations as a time when they can escape their day to day lives, and return to them energized. There is a non-trivial counter-chorus who sadly point out that they need a vacation to recover from their vacation, especially if any sort of travel or camping was involved. The puzzle of what "escaping from day to day life" must mean is a vexed one. Based on my experience at family vacations, my mother certainly didn't get any escape from her usual day to day chores, and in the case of day to day tasks not being there, others appeared promptly in their place. But then again, the advertised sort of vacations suggest something much more "life of the rich and famous" like. Food and drin when you want it, lots of comfort, lots of activities you like, and no need to worry about the bill. This is not too encouraging as a definition of a vacation though, since for the most part only the rich and famous can achieve something like that. Whether it makes for a nice vacation to put other people in the position of being your servants for a day is a different question.
If we go by television depictions of idealized vacations, not only do people somehow get away from their day to day lives, whatever that may mean, they end up with a reassurance that their day to day lives are really the best possible thing for them. This sounds far too much like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, himself a pointed (and hilarious) caricature of Leibniz and the nonsense claim that however bad things are, this must be the best of all possible worlds or it wouldn't have happened. Less idealized depictions suggest that vacations are really a sort of disaster and at least normal life however bad is predictable and best to get back to. I don't know about you, but this doesn't strike me as very encouraging either, and that certainly isn't what comes to mind when I try to think about what a vacation would mean for me personally. It was at this point in my original perambulations that I realized just how vague my notions of a vacation really are, and that apparently I didn't have my own so much as a pastiche of bad 1980s advertising and television programs. Which is actually quite funny.
I do subscribe to the idea that a vacation is a time away from doing whatever my day job is, however much I may or may not like it. I expect to walk and hike many miles, cheerfully wearing out my walking shoes between finishing books and tidying away the lingering projects that just an hour or two will allow me to finish and have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. There is always time for more writing and optional thinking. It would be interesting, and a true vacation to experience a healthy break from the various systemic issues that affect my life, although that might be a bittersweet wish to ever have granted, since that would be temporary and individual, as opposed to a permanent state that would benefit all manner of people dealing with such challenges. I think it is fair to characterize this as a rather better set of ideas than an unfortunate, even if hilarious, pastiche of 1980s advertising imagery. (Top)
The Whiteness of Real Being (2017-05-13)
There's this rather famous movie that came out in 2009, one written and directed by a person so profoundly bad at his craft I had already decided not to see the thing. This wasn't even a decision based on the politics the guy espoused or anything else. Due to a rather interesting period of my life when I was prey to terrible insomnia, I had actually seen several of this director's more famous movies not quite to the end, and in an odd coincidence the year before this big movie came out, I had sat down with the DVDs to finally finish the damn things. What I had seen and could remember seemed pretty good. They were generally sci-fi romps, and they tended to eschew George Lucas' contempt for the audience and decision to make "the future" look as if somebody had just polished and vacuumed it. The result was a fascinating lesson in how convincingly and well we can fill in gaps in movies with stuff that strikes us as not too bad. These movies held up on average until between the 30th and even 40th minute or so. The story was interesting in spite of rather hokey characters, things were visually interesting, the cuts weren't distracting as the current style so often is now. Then the script would collapse with a horrible sound and dust, and the movie utterly spoiled. I remember thinking in horror, "Oh my god. I recommended this thing to people – sure I caveated about not having had a chance to see the end, but..." So, I was not going to see this 2009 movie.
For reasons best known to herself and now never to be known to those of us still in this world and not the next one, a friend of mine insisted that we ought to go see James Cameron's Avatar. I really don't know why. Long movies actually don't bother me, as I grew up watching two-tape classic MGM flicks with my mother, so 3 or even 4 hours is not really a big deal since the idea was to sit and watch a move anyway. After the first hour of Avatar, my horrified thought was, "There's still like, 2 more to go." And once again, though at further on than before because the movie was so despicably long and boring, there came the key turning point in the script. And I thought to myself, "Hey, who says he's going to do it again? Maybe Cameron finally has it figured out. Well, let's hope anyway, there's still way more than an hour to go." In the short space of the next two minutes, all of us in that theatre who hadn't seen the thing already were about to learn whether the movie should have been called "Pocahontas."
It should have been called Pocahontas. Please listen to the hysterically funny and on point evisceration of this movie by Molly Swain and Chelsea Vowel on Métis in Space. It'll hurt your sides and just might restore your faith in humanity.
Nothing has ever stopped me from indulging in a rant here – it's my website so I can rant all I like – but I had tried to put Avatar behind me. It's just a bad movie, and really how much is there to see here? Except for a question that stuck in my head that I asked my friend. The conceit to get around pesky things like treating the Indigenous people in Avatar as you know, people, is the use of "avatars," ostensibly empty alien bodies that whites – oops, I mean humans – er, heroes(?) – can hook themselves up to analogously to people plugging into the Wachowskis' Matrix. Since this wasn't really hinted at in any of the hype I saw, this idea completely and utterly creeped me out, especially the scene where Sigourney Weaver shows John Smith's – oops, Jake whatever-his-name-was – avatar in a tank where it is being grown and where it is apparently sleeping and dreaming, hence the occasional twitches. "Wait," I asked my friend, "What about the person who was already there?" Everybody in the movie, even the Indigenous people seemed to agree that there was no person, the mind-body split was absolute, and if there was anyone, well it's not as if they really counted. And besides, John Smith – Jake Whatshisname – turns out to be a better Indigenous person than any Indigenous person ever once he gets the right body on and figures out since the male aliens don't have penises in the usual place he really can run around without any pants on.
Lisa Nakamura described what was wrong with this picture in 2002, and she already had two wonderful, or awful, depending on your viewpoint – examples to work with: the television programs Fantasy Island and Quantum Leap. I'm going to stick with the second one, because it is the closer example to the creepiness of Avatar. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Quantum Leap was a Scott Bakula vehicle before he eventually landed on the attempted Star Trek television show reboot. (Star Trek is a whole wonderful, frustrating, maddening ball of its own.) As Nakamura notes, Bakula's character Sam Beckett (reuse of the name of an irish avant-garde novelist is a coincidence?) "leaps" from body to body throughout history, making historical wrongs right and apparently saving the future or something. He most often leaps into he bodies of racialized people, in which case he is better at being them than they are. Nakamura describes this character marvellously as "the embodiment of the late-twentieth-century white male consciousness" who turns out to be the only true agent in history. But, where do the actual people whose bodies Beckett possesses go? He doesn't know a damn thing but what he scrapes together ad hoc, what he may have known from his own life, and whatever his suspiciously named assistant "Al" tells him. What happens to these people when he leaps away to another life, leaving behind the reality for those people, that they are either dead or left to live the ongoing struggle of their lives, now with the consequences of whatever more or less uncharacteristic behaviour Beckett has indulged in supposedly on their behalf.
Somehow, in both this early 1990s sci-fi programme and this much later sci-fi movie, the real experience, the real life, the actions that count, can only be carried out by white males, especially late-twentieth century ones. Nothing changes, nothing happens, until white people in general and real white male agents arrive to make time move. This is the complete colonizer's view of Indigenous people and anybody else whom the colonizer opts to racialize. The colonizer knows better whom those people are than the people themselves, knows so much better that they can be more those people than the people. The colonizer will show how its done, without any need for pesky things like committed longterm relationships to the community, and since they are always male, they always have the community relationship shortcut of having sex with the first available "Indian princess" while humiliating some Indigenous male who was supposed to be her fiancé. Plus, as long as there is one white man who decides to lay down his status as "identity tourist," a person who adopts stereotyped notions of the group he wishes to pass among, deeming "...that their travels have shown them real "native" life, these identity tourists often took their virtual experiences as other-gendered and other-raced avatars as a lived truth," that group is itself redeemed. It is redeemed from destruction or at least everlasting sameness by the new white hope's capacity to bring history, change, and survival, to the doomed. With the white convert to racialized being, he at least can have real experience on behalf of the racialized others who may never access to the status of those considered true persons by whites.
How kind of Cameron and countless early online denizens of the white male persuasion to update Rudyard Kipling's repulsive concept of "the white man's burden," itself an update of Virgil's nauseating propaganda written for the first roman emperor, for the internet age. (Top)
Reflections on "Mary Sue" (2017-05-10)
While engaging in a prolonged bout of procrastination which, to be honest, I have been enjoying enormously – I spent some time catching up with some fan fiction authors I hadn't read in awhile, in one case reading one person's work that I had completely missed on its first posting. Some of this can be tucked under the heading "research" if I work at it hard enough, since this also led me to trying to sort out the wheres and why-fors of A03 in greater detail. One author got me thinking again about the strangely infamous phenomenon of contempt for "Mary Sue," the introductory writer's wunder-character that seems to be disliked primarily for being a regular product of beginning female writers and being female herself. There's a lot of misogyny tied into the bad attitude towards "Mary Sues" versus "Gary Stus" except for the case of Wesley Crusher in the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise. Anyway, this specific author got me thinking about the issue because she cheerfully posted her early Mary Sue pieces, which you can read alongside her more mature work.
Said author by the way, is Gina L. Dartt, and I think she deserves great credit for doing it. Not as a sort of indirect "teachable moment," which is actually almost beside the point. Her demonstration that her skill has come from hard work and her commitment to writing long fan fiction stories is far more important. If you are also a writer, it is also well worth chasing down the reappearance of her Mary Sue character, who was actually already promising in her original incarnation on-screen, as is so often the case. The reappearance of this character as one with even better expressed dimensions beyond the formulaic two all writers must start with while figuring out character as opposed to plot is intriguing and impressive in itself. The decision to rework her and put her back to work after a period of considerable growth as a writer is also damned gutsy.
I also happen to love the way Dartt's decision effectively illustrates my inelegant summation of the real writer's creed: "Start writing here. You have to start somewhere." For many of us, that happened to be the internet even before "the web" was really a thing, back when stories were distributed via bulletin boards and email lists. Then there are folks like me who started a little earlier mostly on paper, in my case paper deemed not good enough for school work, so nobody minded if I used it. The key was always to start somewhere, and actually, since so much of that old scrap paper was useless printouts, I suppose that wasn't such a bad route around the terror of the empty page. beginning writers take note, it doesn't count as cheating as long as works and you manage to write something of your own.
Now of course, my approval for all this is far from required, but after having on average more unhappy things to say about the reception of fiction writing generally on the web, it was more than time to comment on something positive – and perhaps pretend to a good reason for procrastinating merrily along rather than writing something more substantial. (Top)
Analogue Mimesis (2017-05-09)
In a footnote-aside to the essay The Age of Mimesis, I suggested that maybe the current fad for handmade goods and relearning crafts is itself another expression of the attempt to make sense of the new and difficult to represent. (I should add that in the use of the term 'fad' here I am reflecting my original off-the-cuff description. On further thought, I don't agree with my original word choice.) In this I was exploring some of the implications of Seo-Young Chu's argument that "science fictional writing" is a form of knowledge making that works precisely by making what is difficult to represent understandable. I immediately leapt from there to consider other modes of representation. In light of my recent reading of David Sax's book on the "revenge" of analogue, and running my eye over the earlier essay again, yet more questions came to mind based on the title selected for his book. What's revengeful about analogue not fading away according to the technorati hype anyway? Especially if analogue's apparent resurgence – if that's really what it is, because the ability to act as if there is no analogue is something only the very affluent can carry off – actually has more to do with sense- and knowledge-making.
One of my favoured ways of wasting time on the internet is to dig around for ideas and just plain neat stuff to look at on instructables.com, which on average is easier to navigate and less professionalized than Make. Besides finding clever ideas and approaches to solving issues with my own projects, I find myself enjoying the surprise factor of seeing design after design for things I never would have considered making. As the selected illustration for today shows, I also appreciate the efforts of the younger participants on these sites. No doubt someone out there is engaged in heavy duty arguments about the authenticity or not of the cornucopia of concepts on "maker sites" that span items CAD-designed and 3D-printed to those worked up from judiciously selected found objects with scissors and glue. I'm not sure those arguments reveal nearly as much as the idea that many of these projects in fact are evidence of people insisting on understanding how things work, since that effort to understand is required in order to realize them in the first place.
For her part, since Chu is dealing with literary tropes, her discussion is based on identifying "cognitively estranging referents," difficult to understand things, and their corresponding mimetic representations. There is a way to revise this to reflect the creation of objects instead, and they needn't be artworks necessarily. Builds for educational purposes are the easiest to map onto this framework, such as the illustration of how electric logic gates by constructing fluidic logic gates that literally use water and pipes instead. Less obvious mappings can be found between simple 3D-printed objects and their relationship to figuring out how to design and 3D-print something.
With this in mind, considering how many "instructables" and the like are for making things that are not necessarily difficult to understand or even difficult to pick up for small cost in a store, there still may be a role for mimesis. Instead of as a means of creating new knowledge however, in such circumstances it may be serving as a means to recreate old knowledge. In which case, the "revenge" component could be seen as more of a resistance to the potential loss of autonomy and deskilling inherent in the most common applications of mass production methods. (Top)