FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
Corporate "Pride" (2021-05-17)
Having written the previous thoughtpiece, this one should be no surprise to anyone who is still reading. I was sorely tempted to borrow Robert Graves' autobiography title "Good-Bye to All That" for this thoughtpiece, but really, that would imply a deeper engagement and relationship with the edifice of "pride" as developed by the gay men's rights movement than I ever had. Practically speaking, I had always gotten the message that the earlier pride marches, and certainly the later pride parades and then the more recent corporate pride ™ parades were not for the likes of me. That was no surprise, but if nothing else my friends and I had fun along the edges, spotting gay-friendly businesses and services that might even be lesbian-friendly too. Even if we found ourselves unable to participate much directly in the marches and parades, they helped make for a fun time in the summer, and many lesbian and gay organizations of all types took the opportunity to set out tables and refresh their signage.
Things got a bit strange to begin with when "pride" stopped being a march. That meant it was now permissioned with the cops, and now had a whole apparatus of parade wardens, demands that people sign up for positions in the parade train, plus rules about what symbols and types of clothing were permissible. Individuals couldn't just join in anymore, and funny enough, the graphic depictions of male genitalia kept finding their way in even after the crack downs started against women's symbols and representations of lesbians. At first the crackdowns were pretty uneven on the lesbian groups and imagery, and if women were determined they could ignore them anyway. But the shift from political statement to tourist spectacle was more than a little strange, and it was already well underway in the early 1990s, at least in western canada. Probably it was way earlier in the united states, and probably earlier still the further east a person travelled in canada. Still, it all seemed to have a strong Ven diagram overlap with gay rights politics, and lesbians kept managing to pirate some of overlap of their own, as we generally have to do to get anything.
I could no longer deny something terrible was happening the first time I saw cops joining in with a float at the "gay pride" event. I had tried to keep giving the benefit of the doubt when banks began joining in, because they are among the most conservative institutions on the planet, often in the worst ways. Yes, silly, I know. At that time, I didn't have as much understanding about corporations and how they work to co-opt what is originally a challenge in order to remake it into a chance to make a buck. The cops are a bit too obvious. Cops, the same people who regularly attacked anyone who didn't perform gender stereotypes, and especially lesbians and gay men. The same people who used to lead bath house raids and enforce laws about how many "feminine" or "masculine" pieces of clothing a woman or man had to be wearing or else get slapped with a huge fine and potential jail time if they had been caught before. The same people already well known for not taking rape seriously in any of its forms, and treating prostituted people as less than human. What the hell were they doing in anything claiming to be about gay or lesbian "pride," let alone anybody else's but their own?
Still, even if I was disinclined to take part in a parade, there was the dyke march, and plenty of possible nice evenings out with friends with a focus on what had somehow grown into "pride week." I am living in a tourist town, so avoiding heterosexual gawkers was simply impossible anyway. People from out of town can't help but be drawn to something unusual where they are visiting of course, heterosexual or not. It's part of being a tourist. My friends and I knew better than to try to have our own pride events in the hot tourist spots anyway. There are always workarounds. Except that we started finding that it was almost impossible not to be stuck dodging and weaving between drag shows, themselves often heavy with corporate presence to further light up the misogyny. Then we began to have trouble with harassment from what straight people liked to tell us was "our" community. The accusations of "being exclusive" began to come thick and fast, and suddenly not only were our symbols, arts, and chants banned at the parade, all of a sudden we couldn't even wear our gear to go to the pub without being thrown out if we didn't put on something else or turn our shirts inside out, as if we should be ashamed to be out lesbians in sight of others. Then the dyke march was hijacked by women and men who were and are at least transactivist-adjacent.
What we're seeing now, "pride ™" is not pride at all. It is selling out. It is the attempt by a significant portion of gay men to complete the trade they have long been trying to make, a certain level of conformity with gender stereotypes and late stage capitalism in the form of so-called "gay marriage" and corporate-funded and affiliated "gay and trans-friendly" businesses, for being allowed to access their male privilege without question. The rest of us, any and all of us who refuse to accept or conform to gender stereotypes, including yes, many trans-identified women and men, have not merely been thrown but kicked and then held down under the bus. "Pride" used to be about refusing to agree that we should be ashamed for challenging destructive gender stereotypes. Now it is about being proud to conform to them.
This wouldn't make a good title, but it does make a good close. Good-bye to all that. (Top)
Out? Out? We've Never Been In (2021-05-10)
I remember the first meeting of the local campus "lesbian gay bisexual group" on campus very well. I remember heading into the meeting, after finally managing to find where it was, and reminding myself to take it easy. I didn't know how many people were going to be there, it was the first month of classes, and so on. Still, I was excited. After a long, unhappy sojourn in a small town in almost complete social isolation, finally I was going to be in a sort of crowd where I would not be the complete oddball out. I was working hard to have moderate and reasonable expectations. I was disappointed anyway. The group was utterly dominated by gay men and between two and four bisexual women who made it clear within two meetings that they would never seriously date a woman, just screw around because it was "sexy." The misogyny and cynicism levels were shocking, beyond what I would ever have expected of any group of people at that time, and this having gone up to university straight after high school where my class spent most of our time trying to figure out how to get away with the most while not getting booted out of school. None of us wanted to be expelled regardless of our sexual orientation or anything else, because we knew to have any chance of a decent life at all, we needed that piece of paper. We also knew that the piece of paper was no guarantee, but we were more likely to be sunk without than with it, so we hedged our bets, each of us in our own way. It's tough to beat naive cynicism. The people in this "lesbian gay bisexual group" mostly did. It started with the gay men, who took care to note to the other lesbian besides myself at the first meeting that "lesbian" was listed first as a sop. They were really in charge, and we had best keep any Feminist leanings or information about women-only gatherings let alone lesbian bars and similar to ourselves if we had any, and we had better not expect to get any in this group if we wanted any. The other lesbian stopped attending before I did, but then I only attended one more of the irregular meetings after that. This was in the early 1990s, when supposedly, lesbians were "included."
Over ten years later, I had heard of a women-only ceremony down in the states in the course of my archaeological research. The juxtaposition was strange then too, but anthropology classes have a lot of those. By remarkable chance, I found myself with the opportunity to go. I decided to take the chance. Whether or not it was genuinely woman-only, my friend who attended regularly insisted that it welcomed lesbians, lesbians of all kinds, butch lesbians, femme lesbians, stubbornly sex-based stereotype defying lesbians and their straight sisters. That sounded pretty awesome. Still, I told myself, settle down, don't build up unfair expectations. It's a patriarchal world. The ceremony has been around for over twenty years, that's a great sign, but still, deep breath. Camping on the land didn't trouble me much, I have experience with minimal equipment camping for work, and by then had experience working on field equipment outdoors in the deep of winter. This was going to be summer camping, and the toughest part would probably be the rain. I was disappointed anyway. The big discussion was when and how to let more men in, with a side of sniping at nearby women's land that held to "no men on the land" principles. Within the first day, one women told me that it was always good to see butch lesbians, but they never lasted long. I soon learned why. We were too sex-based stereotype defying, too uninterested in men. At that time, the pressure on butch lesbians to "trans" was just starting. I attended that ceremony for several years, until the lesbians were so outnumbered by bisexual and straight women and the pressure to provide babysitting services for the rapidly expanding number of children got to be too much. This was now in the early 2000s, and I was reassured by everyone that hey, lesbians were "included."
Well news-fucking-flash, lesbians have never been included in these various "gay rights" and "queer friendly" initiatives. Not once. The point behind claiming that lesbians were "included" and "on board" had to do with a determined effort to co-opt and gut Feminism, especially in its most effective forms, lesbian Feminism and Radical Feminism. If enough of us lesbians, especially butch lesbians, could be fooled into thinking that we could let our guards down with the supposedly "gay" organizations that had always been hostile to us, a key source of critique and effective action for winning and keeping women's inborn rights would be shut down. Like it or not, a majority of gay men and bisexual people really wanted this. They didn't want the misogyny of drag shows called out anymore, they didn't want anyone asking hard questions about the ways their sexuality had been redirected into dependence upon domination and abuse to feel anything. They especially didn't want the hard questions that started from the premise that they were neither doomed to practising BDSM or consuming porn nor necessarily at fault for having gotten into them. The pressure to accept these things is systemic, not individual, and yes, it feels lousy when we run into proof that libertarian claims that the individual makes all choices freely are nonsense. Nope, none of that. Supposedly we were killing their joy and refusing to be "inclusive" enough, because the price for our inclusion was supposed to be centring men by having sex with them. To which my response is, obviously, NO.
The tell came in two parts. First, the repeated sneering claims that lesbians, especially sex-based stereotype defying ones, "really want to be men." This accusation shows up in any patriarchy where women resist being oppressed because they are women, adult human females, and girls are oppressed for being girls, child human females. Second, the repeated attempt to conflate refusing to centre men or give them energy with hating them. This one has always struck me as especially bizarre, because hate requires energy and centring. It strikes me as bizarre, but then again, it shouldn't. Probably it accidentally reveals how afraid the accusers are that actually, the women who do centre men and give all their energy to them could actually hate them. That is obviously a scary thought, especially for those who are men who insist that it is the natural order of the universe that they should be at the centre of it and have the right to take everyone else's energy and attention, especially of women, especially of women least interested in them.
Happily, despite all the bullshit going on from the clever wokerati who think they have found the perfect cover for their woman-hating in the form of so-called "transactivism," and despite the disappointing experiences I have already mentioned, I have had lots of good experiences too. Wonderful experiences in the company of lesbians only, sometimes women only including women who are not lesbians, and sometimes in mixed groups that have even included trans-identified people of either sex. We didn't all agree with one another about everything, as is natural, and we did not expect to be included in every possible gathering or action we could possibly take part in regardless of its nature. Those experiences don't make up for the ongoing and far from new attempts to gaslight me and other lesbians as to the nature of our sexual orientations, our experiences, and the fact that misogyny is considered widely acceptable against any woman who does not centre men in every possible aspect of her life, whether or not she conforms to sex-based stereotypes. They do not somehow counter stupid demands to "trans" because supposedly me and women like me are not sex-based stereotype conforming enough when our whole point is nobody should be forced to conform to any sex-based stereotype at all. Sex-based stereotypes are about misogyny, and misogyny is the problem. It is never acceptable. They do not counter attempts to bully everyone into adding "their pronouns" to their online signatures. Those demands are not about "respect" or "inclusion," they are about demanding compliance and then using lack of compliance as permission to harass and bully.
So don't give me any of that shit about how supposedly "lesbians are included." No adult human females whose sexual orientation is towards other adult human females, and guess what, and that is the only type of lesbian there is, have ever been included in male-centred organizations and political movements. We lesbians know good and damned well that we've never been in. (Top)
In the course of my wanderings, I have worked at various times in the world of government regulation, that area of government activity that libertarians and corporate shills scream is destroying our freedom. They go conveniently silent and unable to reason when faced with evidence that lack of regulation leads to ruthless destruction and exploitation that ultimately ricochets back even on those who thought they were the inevitably successful destroyers and exploiters. Precedent is a big deal in regulation, because logically enough, we expect to adjust regulations based on the outcomes from having them in place. If they don't have the intended end result, then the regulations get changed. Of course, there is plenty of unfortunate wiggle there, because we have to be clear on whose desired outcome is to be taken as the measure of a regulation, as well as which precedent is taken seriously. A few different quotes I happened upon made me sit down and think very hard about "precedent" and its practical meanings beyond mere government regulation. My trusty OED defines the noun precedent as "an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances." Now, here is the first quote. It is from supposed "friend of the Indian" J. Lee Humfreville, on page 56 of his book Twenty Years Among Our Hostile Indians (1899 edition). Feel free to check a scan of the original at the Internet Archive. I have added emphasis to one word.
Coupled with his barbarous instincts, or rather with a part of them, was his natural inclination to cruelty. It has been said that all savage races are like children, in that they have no adequate conception of suffering or pain endured by others. They were entirely devoid of sympathy. The controlling instinct of the Indian was to kill.
Before delving into this paragraph a bit more, I suspect that many readers would have the same reaction as I did to this, wanting to know who the hell this Humfreville guy was. Well, on doing some further research, I learned that he was a veteran of the united states civil war, fighting on the union side. He stayed in military service for some years after that war, until he took command of a company of Black soldiers. As Ron Field recounts on page 9 of Buffalo Soldiers 1866-91 (Osprey Publishing 2004), punctuation and emphases as in the original text:
Occasionally, the buffalo soldiers were the victims of cruelty from their own officers. During December 1872 and January 1873, Captain J. Lee Humfreville, Company K, 9th Cavalry, inflicted a number of cruelties on the men under his command while on detached service performing escort duty. Seven troopers were handcuffed and forced to march from Fort Richardson to Fort Clark, Texas (a distance of about 400 miles) tied to the back of an army wagon. At the end of each days march, the same men remained manacled and were required to carry a log weighing about 25 pounds up and down in front of a sentinel. On another occasion, Captain Humfreville punched Private Jerry Williams, who was being restrained by two NCOs. The officer next ordered Williams to be hung from a tree, following which he hit him over the head with a club! He also ordered Private Malachi G. Pope to be thrown into a stream during very cold weather and refused to allow any of these men to light camp fires at night time. On December 4, 1873, Captain Humfreville faced a court-martial and was dismissed from the service.
We can fairly conclude that Humfreville had serious problems with respecting the humanity of people under his command or other control, especially if they were racialized in any way. He is far from a neutral or friendly witness. "Buffalo soldiers" nicknamed from the presumed (not necessarily literal) resemblance between the hair on their heads and that of bison, found themselves often ordered to assist in attacks on Indigenous communities and nations in "the west" of the expansionist united states.
I am not raising all this for the reasons that might be expected. Let's go back to the first quote, in which the default "Indian" is male, yes. But more importantly for this thoughtpiece, the attitude and actions of children are equated with a "natural inclination to cruelty," lacking an "adequate conception of pain or suffering endured by others," "entirely devoid of sympathy." We can probably assume he did not intend the last calumny against Indigenous men to be applied to children. Let me be clear, this was not shocking stuff in Humfreville's time for someone to write about Indigenous people in general, even less so about children. For people born into protestant religions of more extreme nature, those insisting that every human is born sinful and basically akin to demons until battered into christian conformity, this was not considered questionable. Plenty of other people did question this, but often only to insist that children be reformed gently by removal from the presumed evil influence of their parents, older siblings, or even peers. They were concerned about precedent, of course, about the examples set before those children's eyes.
This is ordinary stuff, and versions of it are still widespread, so widespread that more and more schools resemble prisons, including on site police officers and demands that students constantly wear and show picture identification without which they can't enter or leave the building. With these sort of messages at the turn of the twentieth century, it is a matter of sheer wonder to me that anyone is surprised by how widespread child abuse is, that it is endemic in colonialist cultures. It is not coincidental that this is tied with self-evidently toxic masculinity. The best description of toxic masculinity I have read, including how it is inculcated in boys, is provided in a long read blog post by That Wizard Guy at his blog Social Justice Wizardry, originally posted 20 october 2019. He provides important counter quotes to those above. I have italicized his quote from bell hooks, which he also clearly marked as a quote in his post.
A large part of masculine socialization is dependent on the killing of positive emotions that are deemed feminine, and the prevention of many ways of thinking and behaving that simply make a person feel wholesome, because they are simultaneously deemed to be girly.
I'm not the first to point this out. Andrea Dworkin talked about it as well if I remember correctly. (I probably picked it up from her.) The brilliant bell hooks explains the same thing the following way, as I've found just recently:
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. ~ bell hooks
To elaborate: the boy has to be loud and active, so he can't relax. He has to assert himself, which means conflict and stress. He can't be too gentle – even to the things he loves – because he's not some kind of faggot now, is he? It becomes worse when boys begin to ridicule, ostracize, bully each other based on perceived effeminacy. It becomes really soul-breaking at that point. Sure, masculine socialization means learning to be the oppressor under patriarchy, but for the individual boy, especially the one who has no natural predisposition to the characteristics expected of masculinity, who instead is soft and gentle by nature, the role he is expected to play is his doom.
For many, the result is massive repression. Repress all the positive emotions. Even if you're not very active, never just relax and enjoy the calm; sulk around with a grim face instead. If you dare to feel light-hearted joy in the first place: don't dare expressing it with a heartfelt laugh, because laughing is for when you're victorious over your rival whom you've just dominated – otherwise it's a frivolous girly expression. Gentle touches and caresses are for girls and faggots, so you don't let anyone touch you. If you can't be the glorious masculine hero, you become the emotionless robot, the gloomy depressed kid who's indifferent to pretty much anything, because then at least he's not girly.
Now, here we are, in the early twenty-first century. We know what precedent means, we know how we can use it to guide actions and the methods of regulation we set up and apply in our societies. There is now thousands of years of evidence in all of our faces that patriarchy is not working, and how it is handed down and used to deform boys and men into reproducing it anyway. It is past time to take all that precedent seriously. (Top)
Ostensibly Open Data (2021-04-26)
A few years ago now, the canadian federal government suddenly implemented an "open data" initiative. It has taken a long time to extend throughout out most of its offices and branches, and the provincial and territorial governments have pursued similar initiatives over the same time period. We have been browbeaten for at least two decades with claims that "open" invariably means "good," and if only we'd stop worrying about our privacy we would finally have the best of all goods forever. Yet in the case of governments, different messages are blasted at us. "If governments are not forced to provide data in a transparent way, they can't be held accountable." This strikes me as both true, and untrue. It is true that if we don't have an adequate understanding of what governments are doing, they can do all manner of things, both good and bad, that we could never know about. But, if we have no practical means in the form of recall mechanisms and proper application of the law to people working in and for government, right up to tossing a government out of office if need be, it hardly matters if we have every possible bit of data before our eyes at every moment. There is nothing about detailed and transparent data that somehow prevents or counters authoritarianism, all we need do is actually check the receipts of the nazi and east german regimes.
On the other hand, still, it seems like "open government" and its attendant "open data" are meant to be about making available data gathered and analyzed under the aegis of the public purse. That is, public funds are what covered the pay cheques and infrastructure costs of the work people put in to pull together and analyze the data. Okay. So it might be of some surprise to many of us to go and try reading the data ourselves, and find ourselves faced with page after page of poorly labelled xml files that require extensive processing to read or do anything else with. You can see this for yourself by taking a look at just the "open data" page of the canadian federal government's webpage on the topic. As Rebecca Kunkel notes in her article in the 2020 volume of the journal of radical librarianship, Privatization of Government: Information as Primitive Accumulation on page 9:
Despite the rhetoric of transparency and democratic values invoked by proponents of open government data, the core proposition of the open data movement is that government must prioritize the provision of data in raw machine-readable formats that are essentially unusable to individual consumers.
So for example, quite some time ago I put together a Contested Document called Reserved, which pulled together a summary of the number of reserves in the settler state of canada and how much area they constituted compared to the province or territory they are in, and then overall reserve area versus the whole country. To do this, I had to dump the data into a spreadsheet. This was before the open data initiative, so I literally had to transcribe the data by hand. In the early stages of the initiative, if I hadn't done this task yet but knew a little bit about geographic information systems, I could have downloaded the dataset providing geographic coordinates of reserves all over canada. The standard format is a giant tab or comma delimited file with fairly transparent header names, so I could have dumped that into a spreadsheet, dumped columns of data I didn't need, and gone on from there. However, I needed to know all that in the first place, which by then I did not because of the open government initiative, but because of my professional experience as a geophysicist and computer programmer. That experience meant I was familiar with the data formats, knew what terms to use when searching for the data, what software I could use to work with it and whether I could apply a data set used for a quite different purpose to my project. Then I still had to do a lot of post processing. This does not look at all "open data" or "open government" to me.
I could see making something like the spreadsheet I created available with regular updates each month, probably without the calculations since that deals with contentious ethical and legal questions that settler governments try to sidestep as much as they can. The bigger point is that an actual spreadsheet is something most of us, regardless of our work experience, are at least familiar enough with that we could find a way to look at it. If the data was going to be provided in a comma or tab delimited file instead, then it should be possible to read directions right on the page it can be downloaded from as to what the file format means and how to open it. I would even suggest that "open data" means providing some kind of basic representation of the data, be it a map or whatever, plus links to download the datasets in familiar consumer-level formats. The person downloading may be unsatisfied with the representation of want to work with the data in another way, while still being able to get a sense of the data they are trying to manage.
It makes me think of the numerous projects out there devoted to digitizing into massive databases such material as the results of turn of the twentieth century and earlier canadian censuses, or the data from thousands of scrip coupons and applications. Producing them took years, in work carried out primarily by graduate students and volunteers, funded by grants hard won via gruelling application processes. The "open data" made available over the past few years has been gathered and digitized by public servants on short or long term contracts paid from the public purse on a far broader range of topics. Now all that data is being shoved into industry-friendly formats if it isn't already in them, and effectively privatized by those formats, because day to day software can't handle those formats or more often than not the sheer size of the datasets. All of which makes the data no more open to the rest of us than before, while further shoring up the growing power of corporations to syphon away publicly funded resources and charge us or otherwise attempt to manipulate us with what they have taken. Not so democratic an initiative. (Top)
Websites For Everyone (2021-04-19)
Seriously, everyone should build a website, even if, maybe even especially if, they never post it for the world to see. It would be a wonderful exercise in demystification to learn that actually, it is possible to build a website without going online or using fancy tools, and furthermore you can browse a local site just like an external one. I honestly think that many people would be astonished how easily they could put together a basic electronic photograph album or whatever on their ancient windows machine or little netbook. Obviously if a person has some sort of electronic file project that has more items than say, a very generous 200, they might be better served by a dedicated application. But they will also be able to pick up on how much of the way those applications work is based on similar principles to website coding and layout, not least because xml and stylesheets have been adapted into so many programs due to their relative simplicity and stability. But there are even more reasons than the electronic equivalent of putting a pile of random stuff in some kind of order.
One of the neat things about webpages individually and websites more broadly is that due to their foundation in what amounts to a hack to make it easier to share scientific papers, it is easy to put something legible together, even if the code includes mistakes. No matter how often purists and the w3c inveigh against quirks modes and similar workarounds imposed by the old time browser wars, a major plus with them is that it meant it was very difficult to make a web page that didn't do something on screen when loaded. That's one of the most important encouragements to keep trying that any novice needs, seeing something happen, including enough to figure out what is going on if the result was unexpected. Another aspect that won me over even though at first my ability to do much with graphics was very low, was the ability to insert pictures and later other media files. This helped me get through my early education without spending money on expensive software licenses: while everyone else used powerpoint, I made my presentations as mini-websites. In this day and age, when more and more of us are being pushed online and onto computers but the software we are encouraged to use may be too expensive in cash or computer power for us to actually do so, web pages are a serious lifesaver. It is widely possible to run web browsers in full screen mode so that they look just like a regular presentation or what have you, and it seems to me that the old time "kiosk mode" is still around too.
UPDATE 2020-07-24 - Supposing that readers might be interested in pursuing the idea of making up a webpage at least just to see what it takes, there are multiple samples of the equivalent of writing a "Hey World!" program. On the other hand, those who are seriously thinking about working on or developing a website, which in reality is any number of interrelated webpages above 2, that is a bit trickier to find approachable introductions to. It can be fun and useful to read wonderful web design rants, but these tend to be a bit time-bound. Probably the best place to start when developing a webpage or website design is actually to start from one you like, by downloading the code for the page and sorting out how it works, or else working out how to make something that looks like it by combining a detailed html mark up source with experimenting on your own machine. You are allowed to view and study html code to see how it works, you just can't wholesale grab somebody else's design and use it. Most designs that reappear across diverse sites are wordpress templates, which are worth avoiding just because they are tragically overused, like their powerpoint counterparts.
There are a great many people who would scoff at spending much time making websites, from two different and related angles, though they might be surprised to have the relationship pointed out to them. In both cases, the people are highly fluent in some other medium that allows them to quickly and easily combine text and other media, whatever that may mean. Their medium need not require us to literally read any written words, as in the case of scrapbookers who are hard core on minimizing text, graphic artists who work in physical or electronic media and so on. This is all quite apart from anyone who is quite content with an old fashioned shoe box or their expertly arranged tool bench. They could all insist that they don't need this web stuff for what they are doing and their ways of putting the objects and information they care about in order. For those who aren't so skilled at that sort of organization yet, trying to sort out a basic webpage might not be such a bad place to start, even if the main thing they do is sketch out on a sheet of scrap paper what they would – or wouldn't – put on a webpage or on a website.
In other words, I think that regardless of whether the end result is literally a webpage or website, thinking through and experimenting with how to make them are great tools to think with, and they are a great rough and ready multi-tool for the times other types of basic software for some reason can't do the job. The correlate of that I realize, is that this puts considerably more onus on the homely web browsers we are so often encouraged to stop using in favour of one more downloadable application, especially media applications with monthly subscriptions. I am willing to concede there is a place for subscriptions and specific applications to access them, but it strikes me as a mistake to let that model get too much purchase. That sounds like a great way to have what amounts to a dumb terminal instead of a computer, and a dumb terminal that spies on you incessantly on top of that.
Of course, it could be argued that I am making an argument based more in nostalgia than anything else, because web browsers are certainly not perfect stand ins for other software, nor was everyone who possibly rushing to web page design as so much as a curiosity let alone a tool to think with in the early days of the web. I am not convinced by that, and in truth I wouldn't expect in such early days anyone would see web page design as in itself a tool to think with. Then as now, we had all forgotten how the process of learning to write and draw rendered those skills into part of the tools we use to get through our lives from day to day. To begin with web pages and making them were too niche and too new for that to be a possible change into tools. Plus, an extraordinary propaganda push has been on to mystify and block general access to making things independently on the web and internet in general, let alone on the computers so many of us have to use each day, whether or not we own them. (Top)
No Don't Call the Damned Cops (2021-04-12)
Truth be told, I have never understood why people generally seem to trust the police so much, in spite of the evidence of their own senses. Maybe television propaganda is that good or something, I don't know. It's hard to believe people can be seriously convinced that real life cops are anything like their fictional counterparts, whether those fictions are exaggerated evil or exaggerated good. Leaving that aside, and all the contradictory stories we get to watch on television or on social media or read in the news however we read it, it seems to me that we don't get messages to encourage us to call on them. Who has anecdata in their own lives suggestive of police being of particular help, even as bylaw officers? Admittedly, maybe I happen to be from the wrong side of town, where people don't call the police because they will either not show up, or if they do they will presume not that you need help but that you must be the problem. I went to a school where one day the local constable demanded an assembly, or the principle called an assembly and called in the local constable, it actually doesn't matter for the practical outcome. At said assembly, the constable declared all students present members of a giant shoplifting ring whom he was going to catch and charge one way or the other. Besides being a bit daft, of course this incident did not inspire respect or confidence in the student body.
Obviously this is a minor incident, and no big deal really. After all, over the past four years we have been dubiously treated to a cavalcade of police shootings, abusive arrests, attacks on protesters, and horrifying instances of incompetence in the form of mistaking twitter for an actual public announcement system. These are not new sorts of incidents. In canada, the earliest police force was literally a locally raised army put together in order to enact a militarized take over of lands the hudson's bay company had pretended to own. Contrary to the stories of the red coat mountie stopping the whisky runners and other such wholesome acts, "the mounties" spent considerably more time harassing Indigenous people and overseeing the pillaging of their regalia and graves. There were and are lots of rationalizations from "science" as the anthropologists dug up cemeteries to "civilization" as huge effort went into suppressing ceremonies and detaining medicine people. As more than one far greater expert on african american history has written already, police in the united states started out as slave patrols and other sorts of white supremacist militias. With a fundamental basis in training to apply coercive control, including indoctrination to see certain people as criminals and dangerous, it is hard to see how police can somehow be made into "helpers." That is not the way they are trained to see the world, and this has been exacerbated by their further militarization.
This makes it difficult for other uniformed people who may in fact have no relationship to law enforcement as such, especially paramedics. When I still worked in volunteer civilian security, where the fanciest uniform we had was the same t-shirt with "security" stencilled on the back, I worked quite a few events including beer gardens. At the end of the night, when it was time to sweep out the space, the first step taken was for everyone in a blue and/or black uniform, whether or not they carried a radio, to get out of sight. That left the rest of us to do the actual sweep, with neither cops nor paramedics anywhere to be seen. I'm sure that if we had had to call down the paramedics they would have come, but let's think through the implications of the fact that it is a safety issue for paramedics that intoxicated or distressed people may perceive them as police. Police whom we generally understand to be armed and dangerous, whether or not they carry firearms.
In any case, if a police officer is a person trained to apply coercive control, I can't help but goggle at the things they have been called upon to do. At what point does it make sense to call a police officer to carry out a "wellness check" of any kind? I am genuinely baffled by this. Yes, social workers are not on call for that sort of thing, but I wouldn't call the police, I would call the ambulance. At one time postal workers customarily looked in on elders and did basic wellness checks along their routes, which unfortunately in this neoliberal moment they are forced not to do by at minimum time pressure. A person is in mental health distress, who would I call? Again, the ambulance. Kids acting up at school and difficult to manage? I don't believe for a hot second that the police have any business in schools, not even high schools. No child should have the police called on them for having a damned tantrum. No teenager should be subjected to that either. If students are supposedly so difficult to manage that police have to placed in them and they are required to have identification cards to go in and out, the issue does not lie with the students or even the teachers as such. Chances are pretty damned good that the school in question is overcrowded and underfunded, making for a terrible combination of exhausted and stressed faculty and students.
I have read many articles commenting on how so many social services and community care mechanisms have been defunded, so that numerous tasks are dropped onto the police that they are not trained to do. So mismatched training plus overload plus pressure to fund via various types of ticket leads in turn to exhausted police officers whose capacity to apply reasoned judgement is impaired. Sounds almost plausible, doesn't it? Except, the police are not underfunded. They aren't having trouble recruiting. Their pay is still considered a guarantee of middle class status. No, the issue of fundamentally being a force developed to impose coercive control is at the heart of it, with added issues of perverse incentivization to maximize arrests and stops in particular jurisdictions. And I am not even handwaving at the role of toxic masculinity at this point. On top of that, I can't help but wonder if a major factor in police being sent to everything is in fact an effect of the introduction of "911" where a phone operator has to carry out initial incident triage. Pretty much anything that sounds unpredictable seems to get tracked to police regardless of whether coercive force should have anything to do with handling the situation. But the only tool police really have at the root of their training is a hammer. Every situation is a nail.
I am willing to agree that many, maybe even most people who join police forces of various sorts are not thinking in terms of this at all. Many of them are recruited with messages about bringing justice and supporting communities. They just aren't encouraged to ask too many questions about which communities and who gets justice. Right? (Top)
First Model Blues (2021-04-05)
Sometimes the criticisms people choose to make puzzle me a great deal, because they seem to believe that in some areas of life, especially social relations, somehow the answer to whatever question will be simple obvious, and found yesterday. Meanwhile, in every other area there is room to experiment, including especially the current official golden children of capitalist education, "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." By this I don't mean that for example, Feminists who have not thought through the implications of racism and taken it into account and then continued on as if they didn't have to shouldn't be criticised for this. Nor that early efforts to improve the diversity of candidates for artistic awards or just plain air time shouldn't be challenged on grounds of being less effective than they should be. After all, the whole point of ways of thinking and learning that involve experimentation is that we try things out, hopefully in the best of good faith, and then make adjustments to improve and explain our results. Writing off earlier experiments and their developers and implementers is self-defeating. We could also refer to it somewhat grimly as the "first model blues."
One of the best examples of a first model not working out as expected is the idea that merely giving everyone the same stuff will put everyone on the same level. I suspect many of us have encountered some version of the two-panel cartoon showing three kids of different heights all standing on the same type of box to watch a game of some kind from behind a fence. Usually one person is so tall they didn't need the box, one so short one isn't enough, and one person well served by one. The second panel shows the boxes redistributed so that the shortest person has two and can see the game, and so can the other two. It's a popular illustration because it makes the point that the key issue is equality of outcome, not necessarily simply equality of distribution. This can be very hard to accept as soon as we get away from physical inequalities to social ones, because we can struggle hard to understand that if we are doing better than someone else, or worse, that we are not solely responsible. If we aren't solely responsible, then we can neither take complete credit for great success, nor can we expect that someday, someway, somehow, we will succeed because we are well behaved and work hard. That it is so hard to accept how much of our success in the world has to do with our luck in where and when we born and our luck to be able to recognize the main chance when it comes is definitely a tough pill to swallow for anyone committed to the myth of meritocracy. I imagine it is even tougher for those who are committed to a religious faith that insists whatever conditions a person ends up in correspond to divine will.
Those of us most committed to positive social change suffer from a different shade of first model blues. Instead of having real life insistently provide data that debunks our treasured myths, we are prone to getting fooled into thinking that however far we managed to get, that is far enough. Except it isn't, because systematic oppression entails systems to do the oppressing by, meaning systems of both thought and action. Thought systems are hardest, because no matter how committed we are to positive change, the old unpleasant stuff has worn grooves in our minds, and it can be hard to recognize that we have accidentally slipped back into reinforcing the groove. Behaviour that has shifted into unconscious habit is very hard to act on with first models, and even immediately succeeding models. Changing behaviour demands self-reflection, but that too is a delicate practice, all to easily hijacked to produce groupthink if somebody with less than pleasant motivations decides to try.
A better model, like a better world, a better life, or a better community, is always a work in progress. We don't get to just produce a solid and successful model, then walk away. We may need a rest after a big push to implement the model to be sure, but after that we either need to keep working on adjusting it as a matter of accountability, in a process that is not top down in nature. We're human beings, so we can't expect to get "the answer" in one go. It does not neutralize all of a person or community's previous work to find out that they made mistakes somewhere, or didn't push their principles and arguments as far as they should have. We get that Newtonian physics didn't stop being correct and relevant when Einstein came along. No, instead there is quite a broad consensus that Newtonian physics is incomplete, and inevitably so, because of the data Newton wasn't aware of, including things he couldn't have known or measured with the tools available to him. Then again, perhaps that is exactly the problem when it comes to first model blues in the context of trying to make any sort of social change happen. Supposedly we can know everything about other people and ourselves, and we shouldn't need new theories or different ways of doing the social equivalents of measuring.
Well, at this point, it seems that the real world evidence is firmly against any notion that we inherently just know everything about some other group of people, a single other person, or at times even ourselves. We can't continue to try to hold onto the myth of human simplicity when even basic physics has turned out to be both more complicated and less complicated than they seemed even five years ago. We can't hide behind our first model blues forever. (Top)
Necessary Protests (2021-03-31)
As a general rule, we can probably take as given that any person who inveighs against protesting, however mildly, considers themselves immune to any negative effects of the many troubling issues we all face day to day. That may sound paradoxical or even insulting, as if people can be opposed to protests about things big enough to present a majority if not all of us with shared experiences. Let me assure you that it is neither. Such people are quite as sensible and intelligent as any of us who may disagree with them. They are simply sure that those issues are bad but not likely to affect them, because they are not numbered by themselves or others as "one of those people," or they see no reason to expect the system as we know it to lose its hold on the population at large. Those are not necessarily foolish or uninformed perspectives, however much some of us may disagree with them. On the other hand, "protest" as performance has won a certain level of general social acceptance, the suspicious kind that indicates the protest mode in question is ineffective. It is easy to forget that different tactics are most effective at different times, and that how they are perceived by different elements in a community will vary depending on whose ox is being gored.
In preparation for this thoughtpiece, I dug into my trusty OED to see what hints it could give me about majoritarian definitions of the adjectives "peaceful," "violent," and "non-violent." The results are intriguing, as is so often the case (a good dictionary really is a treasure). From the OED I learned that what is peaceful is "free of disturbance, tranquil; not involving war or violence; inclined to avoid conflict." With violence being so key here, I turned next to "violent," and learned that it refers to "using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something; in law, involving an unlawful exercise or exhibition of force." Now things are getting more troubling, because all sorts of implied questions begin crowding in as to who makes the law, who enforces it, and what physical force is. To get something in the same range of description for "non-violent," I had to resort to looking up the noun, "non-violence." For that, the consensus definition provided says, "the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change." Scholars like Jule Goikoetxea argue that violence cannot be simply equated to a person directly striking another person or damaging property. This rings true with our intuition, because it catches the pattern formed by the use of coercion that impedes a person's ability to live safely and well. Personally, I am uncomfortable with equating property damage to violence, strange as that may sound, because I do not agree that a person's property is equivalent to them as persons. Losing property only has as much negative valence as it does because we live in societies that vaunt property and property holding above all other things. Domenico Lusurdo's history of liberalism explains this in detail, with many references.
UPDATE 2020-03-29 - It is worth having a read of a series of articles at techdirt about the role and effectiveness of peaceful protest in particular. Techdirt is another of those journalistic blogs that can be intensely frustrating to read at times, but in seriously constructive ways, and that is too rare a thing right now. The articles are all by regular contributor Tim Cushing, dated 1, 3, and 9 june 2020 respectively:
There's also a problem with the way "peace" is conflated with avoiding conflict or there being no conflict. Then again, maybe the issue is not with peace, but the overextension of the notion of conflict. At root this word means "to strike together" with all the connotations of physically fighting and winners and losers that entails. We are regularly encouraged to see any disagreement with another person or group as not merely differing viewpoints, which is the case most of the time, but as a serious clash requiring a final resolution with either a clear winner or a compromise that disgusts everyone. I provide this description advisedly: "compromise" does not have good connotations. It's a bit like the term "tolerate" meaning to put up with who or what you don't like, rather than where we might hope it would land, say on the side of respecting those whom we don't agree with and mutually agreeing not to slaughter each other over our differing beliefs. The latter is more what Voltaire and many others who originally argued for religious tolerance had in mind.
Okay, so now we get back to the question of protest. More often than not, the big critique I see and hear of protest is that it is not "peaceful." That is, the protesters either have or can be construed to have engaged in some form of violence. Property destruction generally gets more press and more critique than any amount of injury inflicted on people, especially the protesters. But what about protests that are hard to construe as violent in any way, such as sit-ins, camp outs, vigils, marches and the like? Well, I regularly hear people complain about those too, because they are too noisy, cause inconvenience or otherwise distract the person complaining from their daily routine. Should the protesters skew to the young, they will be told off for skipping school and not waiting until they can vote. If they skew older, they will be told off for using their presumed copious retirement hours on pestering people who have to work for a living. If they are of "middle" age, then they will be told off for supposedly not having a job or not going to their job instead of protesting. In other words, no matter what protesters do, somebody will declare them malingerers and attention seekers or whatever whenever and if ever their protest has even the slightest effect.
Which of course is why all types of protest are necessary, and we can't simply write off every sort of protest because this one is somehow too violent or too inconveniencing or too distracting. Instead of getting distracted by what are frankly bourgeois whines, we can definitely insist that protests are never occasions that license rape, murder, or maiming. But I suppose for quite a few people that would lead to too much critique of the people they don't want to question, the cops and the military. (Top)
Wikipedia and Criticism (2021-03-29)
Huge, high profile, online hosted projects, for better or worse, are easy targets for both excessive praise and nearly unstrung criticisms. In other words, a high profile makes a great big target. On top of that, wikipedia has been excessively praised by a whole range of pundits, but the peak was probably Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams' 2008 book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. That book is not specifically about wikipedia per se, but wikipedia is held up repeatedly as a canonical example in spite of the issues with it in evidence even then. The critiques were coming in from all parts of the political spectrum too, from global warming denialists and the peculiar denizens of counter-encyclopedias whose authors are certain that wikipedia is entirely under "left wing" control to journalists expressing their concerns about wikipedia's derogation of particular sources deemed not "right wing" or "mainstream" enough, such as the team at The Grayzone or journalist-commenters like Caitlin Johnstone. Quite apart from what is usually deemed obviously political concerns about political bias, still others have sought to run wikipedia editathons to rectify biases of coverage that simply reflect the preponderance of who the editors have been so far and what their interests are. In other words, editathon participants may not intend a more severe critique of wikipedia in general, they simply wish to contribute to improving it by filling in gaps and otherwise improving extent of coverage. Crowd sourcing is an awesome technique, and its facilitation by the internet is a powerful phenomenon that has a lot of positives going for it, including supporting the compilation of basic reference works like encyclopedias and dictionaries. The trouble is, without a strong commitment to a clearly defined and upheld editorial policy, including meaningful avenues for protest that include actual investigation and action, those projects will slip into propaganda in fact or appearance, which renders all that free labour the crowd put in tainted and useless. Unfortunately, this does seem to be where things went with wikipedia, and not recently either.
UPDATE 2020-07-17 - Nina Paley has written up her thoughts and frustrations on wikipedia in a 2009 post, My Wikipedia Rant. Besides the points she considers, she also provides important links to two essays by Jason Scott, that are also worth signal boosting here, The Great Failure of Wikipedia – November 19, 2004 and Swastikipedia – May 4, 2005.
As per usual for a thoughtpiece, it is good to step back and sort out terms before going on. First, there is the question of what a wiki is, and how it is Jimmy Wales can't run around suing wikileaks for messing up the wikipedia brand, although I suspect if he could, he would. opensourcecms provides a brief overview of wikis and wiki software, which I can summarize here as: a wiki is a group of web pages that many people can edit and contribute to, and wiki software is the program that makes it possible for people to do it. That is, the wiki software manages document control, contributor registration, change tracking, and so on. My electronic OED adds that the term "wiki" was coined by Ward Cunningham, a programmer who took it from a Hawai'ian word meaning "fast." This suggests that the underlying vision at first was building up a useful source of any size in a very short time by making it possible for a large number of contributors to each contribute smaller pieces, rather than leaning on a smaller team working over a long period. This makes a lot of sense, especially in the world of free software, where wiki-software enabled documentation creation has done wonders for supporting that software. In fact, the early days of free software development might be the best conditions for a wiki project to be established and worked on in, because most potential contributors fall within a similar band of expertise. That, and many of these people knew each other in real life, so they had a set of community standards developed between them that they brought with them to the online world. Anonymity of contribution did not trouble them, because they had widely agreed on norms in place to apply, and that in time they could document and explain to newcomers. I have written in other thoughtpieces about how anonymity is not the problem online, lack of communities and a sense of obligations to others that guide a person to curb destructive and antisocial behaviour is.
At first glance, it looks like wikipedia should have had a low susceptibility to problems of this kind, and that it could overcome the potential problems of having an overarching effective owner like Jimmy Wales too. He has long been known for his libertarian proclivities, and like any charismatic leader, his potential influence over projects he leads is bound to be great. Still, wikipedia has policies including claims to impartiality, and a system to gauge whether a particular editor should be allowed to touch more sensitive things or is generally acting in good faith. What it doesn't have however, is adequate means to appeal inevitable failures in impartiality and have them fixed, let alone any means to challenge egregious acts of censorship. These have never been developed. Instead, the influence of a particular group of editors who do not all share a single politics so much as a single level of outsize influence, have a deadening effect on the quality and coverage of the project. It is possible to look up almost any obscure point in the obscure minutiae of early male hacker culture on wikipedia in the sort of detail that can make a person wonder about the sanity of the article authors. Meanwhile, wikipedia is generally a waste of time for looking up any information let alone details on almsot any woman or racialized person not picked out for holding out as a strange specimen by mainstream sources already. Over the past ten years, I have found that wikipedia is no longer good even for finding article references or better search terms to jump off from, and these used to always be available even if the article itself was a mess. The pressure on high profile internet based projects to bias themselves towards "mainstream" sources has made this worse, because the sources in all areas are now fully conflated with corporate outlets and a tiny selection of state-owned outlets.
This means then that wikipedia is no longer crowd sourced, nor is it accountable or designed to be accountable to "the crowd." Not even to write articles that present multiple viewpoints written from different sources under headers explicitly noting them as such. That is a real thing which government regulators can manage to do when not suffering political interference. For example, energy regulators often write reports documenting the reasons for a decision they have made about a particular project proposal. That report will include a summary of evidence, plus summaries of the views of the participants in the regulatory process. That means the applicant, as would be expected, each of the parties who raised concerns or expressed support for the application, and then last of all those of the regulator itself. There is still a need for serious scrutiny here, because all views and evidence must be presented as completely and fairly as possible, including references. Each view must be clearly marked as such, and the evidence separated as clearly as possible from the views. This is hard work, and can't be achieved by simply collaging together the efforts of thousands of people, it requires editing and oversight. A wiki-based approach does not abrogate this. But difficult doesn't make it impossible, and even a begrudging summary of views we oppose can be improved into a more fair summary with a commitment and enactment of care and respect.
Unfortunately, that is not the sort of place that wikipedia is in, if ever it was. It is not so much crowdsourced as itself a propaganda disseminator, and that is really too bad. But on the other hand, let's be fair. That is what encyclopedias have been from their beginnings in europe, when religious and irreligious discenters contributed to crowd sourced Encylopédie in france to the british empire apogee of the form in the earlier editions of the encyclopedia britannica. It is possible for encyclopedias to be quite different, and indeed there are many multi-volume or single volume examples out there, but it is telling that most of them lean towards terms like "handbook" or "sourcebook" rather than "encyclopedia." (Top)
Archaeological Blocks (2021-03-22)
Probably René Descartes never imagined that his method of graphing curves on an x-y axis would be one of his most enduring and influential intellectual products. After all, he published his Discours de la Methode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la verité dans les sciences anonymously. This looks to be the case for the additional works included in the edition on the internet archive linked to here, "La Dioptrique, Les Meteores, et la Gémetrie qui sont des essais de cête methode." His main point was the full Discours, not the appendices which were meant to stand as worked examples of the method. He might have been pleased to see that his coordinate system has gone on to a remarkable and proliferating life in mathematics, engineering, and cartography let alone as a metaphor riddling reams of fiction and non-fiction writing. Still even in this age of map applications on phones, sooner or later most of us have had to deal with the Cartesian coordinate system or one of its derivatives on a map. People familiar with the continental united states or the prairie provinces in canada may even have direct experience of its impact on the land in the form of the township and range system, one of the stranger impositions of abstraction on the real world a person experience directly. People who have flown over those two regions of northern north america will see a literal patchwork of squares on the land, squares that in various places are defined by fence lines that are literally run into and through lakes and ephemeral sloughs. In the very early days of cell phones, if you were in one of the provinces where the township-range line ran along an interprovincial border and your cell coverage was not national, you could literally hold your phone on the other side of the fence and watch your phone's status switch to "no service." Bring it back over the fence, and you'd have service again. So that is one grid. Canada has another abstract grid that is officially imposed on the land for other purposes than selling off Indigenous lands.
To begin with, archaeology didn't get much play in canada, because it was defined as a country with no history before europeans showed up, and even less before official "confederation" in 1867. It got rather more in Haudenosaunee and Wendat lands, because both were considered in some degree "civilised" for having larger and relatively permanent villages according to what europeans thought they saw. Then there were the various people so determined to deny that Indigenous nations every existed and the basic humanity of Indigenous peoples that they wanted to excavate older Indigenous sites in order to insist that the sites were actually built by "the lost tribes of israel" or some "aryan" group. Later still eurocanadians began to feel a bit sheepish about ignoring archaeological sites as they watched american-led crews ship away thousands of kilograms of stolen artifacts from their excavations and thieving expeditions to take regalia and basic household gear from Indigenous communities across northern north america. On top of that, more than a few eurocanadians made a point of destroying any and all archaeological sites they found, not liking the evidence that they had stolen land and taken up a complicit if not direct role in genocide.
Eventually the geological survey of canada opened an anthropology division to manage "salvage anthropology" and "salvage archaeology" work throughout the areas its agents were busy surveying for rocks and minerals. This is how it happened that the earliest anthropological publications in canada come out under that department's name from the queen's printer in canada, and such anthropologists as Horatio Hale, Marius Barbeau, and Franz Boas have connections to it. From 1930 on, the canadian federal government passed legislation to delegate authority over "natural resources" to the provinces, and that ended up including management of "archeological resources." From there, the federal anthropology division stuck to federally controlled lands, and provinces began putting together their own archaeological oversight divisions. Even so, it wasn't until the 1950s that anybody proposed a unified method for naming and recording archaeological sites across the country.
That of course is the decade when Charles Borden proposed the Borden grid illustrated here (of course it is named after him, right?). As per usual for such grids, it completely ignores such little physical complications as major rivers, mountains, or the ocean. It is technically extensible to as fine a grid as necessary for a particular site, although it can creak at times because it turned out that the density of Indigenous archaeological sites just keeps going up no matter where or how deep archeologists may end up digging. That has proved a bit awkward for people who really want Indigenous people not to have been in the americas from time immemorial, especially the ones most desperately determined that the bering strait hypothesis must be true because they say so. Funny, that. (Top)
Superhero Secret Identities (2021-03-15)
Not all topics for thoughtpieces need be serious ones, of course. Superhero comics and the like seem much lighter, even if the cognitively estranging referent for them is trying to understand the impossible to understand state of being a deity. (See the essay here on Seo-Young Chu's book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep, The Age of Mimesis for more on cognitively estranging referents.) When I worked up that description of the referent for superhero fiction, admittedly I was thinking more of Superman or the Flash than Batman and Robin, but the point still holds. The first two superheros have overwhelming strength or speed that enables them to impose their wills on others without recourse or appeal. Batman and Robin do much the same, but unlike earlier superheroes their dominance depends on technology and in some eras of the stories featuring them, a cosy relationship with the local police. In any case, there is a general consensus for the most part that superheroes must hide the use of their superpowers under a secret identity, except interestingly enough, for certain teams like the Fantastic Four. So I found myself pondering why a superhero more often than not would want to hide themselves behind a goofy costume flirting with nudity that in earlier comic book eras didn't even feature a mask. The male superheros were effectively wearing their underwear in public in those comics before female superheros were being used as a means to get around age and distribution limitations on access to pornography. Maybe it is as simple as playing on the idea that people would be so distracted by the semi-nudity they would not be able to recognize the superhero in question in their street clothes. I have my doubts about this ever working in real life because professional wrestlers give the lie to the notion, except for those who wear all-around head coverings, such as many men on the mexican pro circuit.
The explanation in a series like that built up around the X-Men is simply fear. The general population is presumed absolutely terrified of "mutants" with godlike powers, I suspect mainly because there is no means to resist those powers practically available to the general population. So if the X-Men want to live quietly most of the time and not spend all their time in an isolated bunker, they need to keep their abilities under wraps. But they feel obligated to use their powers for some purpose all the same, so the solution to the contradiction is a secret identity. That seems to be the basic outline for the Superman and Flash examples as well. The earliest version of the Fantastic Four I read in elementary school described them as scientists whose experiments accidentally gave them superpowers, but they were supposed to be experimenting so they were licensed superheros, so to speak. "Captain America" is of course, a fictional united states military experiment, so he doesn't have a secret identity so much as he has a brand. I am aware of science fiction stories that include characters who in comics would be superheros but are not that type of character as such in the story, and they are only permitted to use their powers in ways that are not spectacles. In fact, they may be almost fanatically ordinary. One of the best recent examples I am aware of for this approach is John Chu's Probabilitea.
Another thing I have noticed in comic book superhero stories is that most of the time the people the superhero is busy hiding from is not actually the general populace at all. In fact, people generally seem pretty warm to superheros as long as they are heros of course, not villains. Instead, the superheros and the supervillains alike have difficulties with being hunted by "the government" via its military forces. After all, the starting assumption of most western governments is that "the state" should have a total monopoly on all socially effective forms of coercive force. Superheros and supervillains would be challenges to that monopoly one way or the other, so a government wanting to keep that monopoly would have a strong motivation to destroy them, imprison them, or somehow absorb them into government or military service. So in that case, anybody with superpowers would have quite a strong motivation in turn to avoid calling attention to themselves and somehow curb their failures to call attention to themselves by use of costumes and other distraction techniques. Admittedly, this suggests a whole new perspective on the vogue for using "artificial intelligence" to automagically identify people's faces under diverse lighting conditions.
Having wandered all over the figurative superhero secret identity map like this, an argument could be made that I have an incorrect cognitively estranging referent for superhero fiction. After all, if these characters are supposed to be the equivalent of deities on Earth, then why is any of this stuff an issue for them? They could always counter any possible means of trying to "catch" them at any particular act of arbitrary power or prevent them from engaging in any such act. Well, of course that is where my additional description of "the impossible to understand state" of being a deity comes in. Not that the modification doesn't need some further polishing. After all, it is imaginable. It's just that the implications are too alarming to be entertaining. (Top)
Idle Worship (2021-03-08)
Among my summer readings last year, apart from a number of longish nineteenth century selections necessary for some other work, I was able to read some diverse more recent fare. Among them was Adrienne Mayor's latest book in paperback Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. This book is rather short for Mayor, since there was considerably less material for her to draw on, although far more than perhaps most of us might guess. The only quibble there arguably is with it is the lack of a primer chapter on the construction and assembly of ancient statues and which technologies were available when in the periods under discussion. That could be a wonderful complement to the visuals and Mayor's excellent explanations and explorations of specific examples. Still, that gap is wonderfully easy to cover by checking out another book that has been around for awhile by Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions. In any case, I was specially struck by Mayor's discussion of extremely lifelike statues and artificial birds in the ancient world early in the book, because it provides such wonderful perspective on specific religious movements then and now. I say this despite my personal skepticism of the notion of the "uncanny valley" she cites from Masahiro Mori.
In fact, let's start with the "uncanny valley" issue, which is obviously relevant if the objects in question are highly realistic and/or lifelike representations of living beings. I realize it may seem strange to set realistic and lifelike as other than synonymous, but having thought over the examples of artworks described by these terms, I think it is fair to consider them different although certainly intersecting qualities. A representation of a living being or live vignette can certainly look and even sound or feel realistic, yet clearly be a representation all the same. I have heard people describe lifelike artworks as being such that they are sometimes fooled by them, or at least unsure whether the representations are alive or not. It seems to me that the latter are the very examples that inspired Mori's development of the hypothesis of the uncanny valley, the idea that humans will be comfortable around very human-like robots until only subtle things give them away, which will be highly disturbing, and then with an improved comfort level again once "the bugs" are ironed out. My issue with this idea is not that people would have changing responses depending on how convincing or not a robot or representation of living beings is. That actually makes practical sense, although we need real evidence before we can take it as true. It's not even that at least the translated and paraphrased descriptions of it focus on humanized robots and not representations of animals as well, although that strikes me as something of a hiccup. It's just that I am not satisfied by his proposed explanation of what people are discomforted by, and therefore whether it can be resolved.
Mayor notes that in the ancient world there were multiple recorded instances of male paraphilias focused on for the time highly lifelike statues. What made these statues lifelike was that they were well modelled, of at least life size, and carefully painted to improve the effect. The artist's ambition was to startle the observer into wondering if the statue was real, or perhaps so impressive in the case of an attempt to represent a divinity that the divinity might pay a visit. Indeed, later some statues and temples became infamous for cynical attempts to bilk the gullible with mechanisms to allow priests to animate statues by making them seem to speak, sweat, and so on. So here we have two examples fo quite disturbing behaviours, fraud on one hand, and sexual fetishes on the other. Today the evidence is growing that individuals subject to paraphilias struggle to understand other people, especially women, as living, breathing individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires that may diverge from those of the paraphiliac. Today we have too many examples of how a significant number of paraphiliacs engage in outright physical violence and methods of coercive control on the most often women and children whom they fixate their fantasies on. This is seriously disturbing stuff now, and would certainly have been disturbing then. These are not "uncanny valley" style issues at all.
Now let's consider that in close parallel with periods of more realistic and/or lifelike art, we find evidence of serious backlash. I think it is far from coincidental that judaism and later islam and later still christian iconoclasm and the protestant reformation all took furious issue with art, and especially three and two dimensional imagery. While I do not agree with destroying artworks and slaughtering artists as a means of stopping abuses of people's credulity for profit or discouraging and helping end paraphilias, there is a genuine critique and concern that these sorts of movement have in their very early origins. On the other hand, if we consider the remarkably stylized art of ancient egypt as compared and contrasted with the works produced during the reign of Akhnaten, there again the possible explanations for why "hyperreal" art of his reign might be frowned upon. Ancient egyptian artists could certainly produce art extraordinary for its realism and lifelikeness, which the Akhnaten-era work certainly proves. Yet they generally did not, and they were part of a region of interrelated peoples and cultures where the power of the image was taken seriously, whether they approved of the creation of such imagery or not. The ancient sumerians and later the babylonians, assyrians, and other peoples of ancient mesopotamia made a point of stealing each other's religious artworks in the course of their internecine wars. The greatest triumph was to not only take the city but also to take its deities in the form of their powerfully symbolic statues and dedications. It was never just about all the expensive goodies. So we could argue there is a certain practicality in those creating new religions to insist on eschewing such images as well, because they could never be beaten if they had no images to steal. Or make fun of, for that matter, if the artists and artisans making them could not match the more realistic and/or lifelike work of somebody else.
So it turns out that like it or not, art and its intersection with technology and how people interpret what they are sensing from "artificial life" or "artificial intelligence" turns out to be even more political and practical than perhaps we have been encouraged to think. People may find "androids" disturbing if they are subtly wrong, but the disturbing point may not be about the "android" or other type of robot or representation at all. Instead they are considering the real life implications of the creation and potential proliferation of this type of representation and/or machine, and what that means for living beings, especially humans. I haven't yet read or heard much about people asking seriously whether "subtle failures" in an android should be "fixed" so that the android is all but totally convincing after all. There is already evidence that more than a few hucksters claiming the mantle of entrepreneurship are claiming to have achieved such things as amazing "artificial intelligence" algorithms for tasks they are actually vastly underpaying humans to do, contemporary iterations of temple hucksters. An evenhanded account of an encounter with such AI hucksters is included in Vi Hart's essay at The Art of Research, AI, Universal Basic Income, and the Value of Data, published may 2019. She also references Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri's book Ghost Work, which I have not yet read myself but in my experience Vi Hart's book recommendations are excellent. (Top)
Scientism in the Humanities (2021-03-01)
There is a broad consensus in the media at least, that "the humanities" are in desperate trouble, they are in absolute crisis. Enrolment is crashing, so is funding, job offers are primarily for precarious highly exploitative sessional work in post-secondary institutions for academics, or in a grab bag of diverse things outside of academia. I think it is quite clear that in much of the primarily english-speaking world, the humanities are being deliberately strangled by a longterm capitalist fundamentalist campaign against the kind of training and education that makes people harder to exploit. They insist that all education should be strictly vocational, and that the only real vocational training is in the trades or in so-called "STEM" fields, "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." Never mind that the pressure on students to go into those fields means that the number of people struggling for the jobs in those fields will inevitably skyrocket, depressing wages and making it that much harder to get and stay employed. After all, that is how it works in a capitalist system. If every effort is made to defund instruction and jobs in the humanities, and then train every possible person with influence on students' educational choices to tell them that there are no jobs in the humanities, then we can expect to see declining enrolments in the humanities over time. After all, if there is no way to train in the humanities because there are no classes, instructors, or publicly accessible libraries available, regardless of what a student may prefer, they are going to be preferentially channeled to where there are classes, instructors, and library resources available. But that is hardly the result of an "open competition" or anything remotely like it. Now, here is the interesting thing. For yet another project, I had to do some research and dig into the numbers on enrolment, costs, programs and the like in the humanities, especially in the context of post-secondary education. I went in expecting to see practical confirmation of the stories summarized above, because regardless of what I would like to believe, the wall to wall consensus was so absolute it seemed there must alas, be something real behind it.
What I learned is that on one hand, there has been a general enrolment drop in the humanities, but that it is primarily a generational cohort effect. That is, the cohort of young people of an age to enter post-secondary education in any area of study over the past 5 to 10 years is smaller than its predecessor or its successor. Logically then, we should expect enrolments in that cohort to be lower in any case. I also learnt a lot about imploding enrolments in the ethically dubious business schools, where their entire funding model is based on convincing students to pay insane tuition and work for free in order to get a guaranteed six figure salary. On the other hand, a few humanities faculties had been fooled into lowering their entrance grade averages so that weaker students who actually wanted to take more difficult programs applied to go into the humanities and then took courses in a different faculty. But it turns out academic weakness doesn't dissolve merely because a student has cleverly gamed their way into university or college. As a result those students often wind up in awful academic trouble, when it might have been better for them to leave school and work for a couple of years and sort themselves out. Their difficulties aren't about "the humanities" or "STEM" at all as such. Furthermore, statistically humanities majors may have a lower starting salary than "STEM" majors, they soon catch up and often have better long term employment numbers. That is, they get employed at least as often, stay employed, and make their way into solid longterm jobs. Yes, this is all averaged, but that is true of any field of study. The truth is, when it comes to employment, it's a crapshoot, and the best thing if we can manage it is to build a set of diversely applicable knowledge and skills, plus strong imaginations and a willingness to experiment.
In the meantime, a corrosive dynamic has set in among a sadly large number of academic administrators, including many who originally served as instructors in the humanities. First, having imbibed the demand to cut, cut, cut, they are busy competing in the most destructive way possible for the academic jobs they are helping to shrink access to and generally shrink the numbers of. Second, they are moving into the better paid "administration" jobs, which seem to consist mostly of hobnobbing with rich people to beg them for endowments that generally go into building ego projects like buildings with their names on them rather than basic infrastructure. That, or they are busy obsessing on how to spend an ever growing advertising budget disguised as "public relations" in which the desire is always to come up with another simplified logo and snappy slogan to "brand" everything with. And since "STEM" is supposed to be where it is at, everyone is under pressure in the humanities to somehow be "sciency."
The quick and easy sciency hit is to go after the brass ring of "digital humanities." Now, I wholeheartedly agree that computers are extremely useful tools that can help with an amazing number of research goals in the humanities. They make possible massive data analysis that was simply impossible before, and allow for work that would otherwise take far longer to be completed far faster by crowdsourcing. There are many positive uses for computers in the humanities, especially when we take care to bring them in thoughtfully and with consideration of the ethics of what we are doing. But "data mining" and pretending to have made a big discovery by running a statistics package over the complete digitized works of some author or other is at best putting on a show, not "science." It is sciency, an attempt to put up a veneer of science while not actually doing any science. So is the attempt to misuse science to shore up various "post-structuralist" and "post-modernist" theories and modes of analysis. Queer theory and affect theory are probably two of the biggest offenders on this score that I know of, where abusing material from science plus shoving a pile of mystifying bafflegab on top is supposed to catch that sciency ring. The great hope is that nobody tries to read or test this stuff too closely, at least, not until the tenured folks have retired. But this is ridiculous on so many levels, not least because there is a real intersection between "the sciences" and "the humanities" with no need to play up being "sciency."
We all use the basic method behind successful scientific research, and successful humanistic research every day, no bafflegab or shell games required. Every day, all of us apply this simple technique. It all starts with when we bump into a question or challenge we are not immediately able to answer or solve, but we need to for some reason. So we start out with a preliminary answer, a best guess, and see how it works. Depending how well it works, and what parts of any of it works, we revise our preliminary answer, gather some more information, and try again. We are guided by such logical expectations as cause and effect relationships, and checking whether what we are seeing is actually causation or just accidental correlation. These are the basic elements of the vaunted "scientific method." But the truth is, this is no mere scientific method. These are the elements of the general method we use to make sense of and cope with our world. We could simply cause it "the reasoning method."
The big difference between "the sciences" and "the humanities" is that for awhile, people specializing in the sciences characterized by the heavy use of mathematics, that brilliant and surreal human language, got a bit intellectually drunk. For awhile there, it seemed like mathematics had only single and unchanging answers, and if the real world could be characterized by mathematics, then it too must have a set of single and unchanging answers. Meanwhile, the people specializing in the humanities with far less to no usage of mathematics were still caught up in questions that refused to yield simplistic answers that stayed put, no matter how hard anybody tried. Of course that means most areas involving study of human thought and behaviour, other animals, biology, and politics. And then the deterministic aura of mathematics fell apart all accidentally under the pressure of David Hilbert's program for research in which he identified many excellent problems to study, and in time a young scholar named Kurt Gödel came along to show that mathematical systems – dialects, if you like – couldn't be complete and self-consistent. For a whole range of reasons unrelated to the mathematics, between that and the uncertainty principle in physics, it became impossible to continue demanding that there be only a few simple answers to what were turned out to be stubbornly complex questions. So in a great irony, "STEM" has gotten a lot more like "the humanities" in a good way, while cynics have been trying to create a self-defeating sciency veneer on the humanities that they don't need. (Top)
Check the Receipts (2021-02-22)
I have written before about "maternal Feminism" previously, as part of an exploration of the nature and history of the temperance movement in north america. There I pointed out that
Maternal Feminism gets a bad rap, and it was certainly not perfect, prone to slipping into a female form of paternalism and losing sight of the actual needs and concerns of most women, who were and are, just like today, working class. It wasn't always the best framework to even notice let alone challenge racism from, and this was deeply frustrating to many women, who argued that maternal Feminism was an attempt to play to the politics of respectability, which would inevitably leave most women behind. It was certainly not a long term strategy, but it is an understandable one. The women best equipped with time and resources to take part in social activism were also under the heaviest pressure to perform respectability, and that meant portraying themselves as perfect mothers whether literal or social, whose concerns were driven by the motivations stereotyped feminine and maternal behaviour insisted they must have. And of course, maternal Feminist or not, it is perfectly reasonable to want to help women, children, and men alike avoid and escape violence and poverty.
I have always found the level of contempt directed at maternal Feminism by people today a bit strange, including the insistent conflation of it with support for a supposed "nanny state." It is true that maternal Feminism was not a solid longterm strategy, and this blurb from my earlier thoughtpiece briefly outlines why. Indeed, few if any Feminists of any stripe use this strategy anymore, and insofar as "maternalism" is a thing, it has lodged itself among women who firmly refuse Feminism. In fact, such women today would be far more likely to fall among the ranks of right wing women, whose complex and difficult socio-political position Andrea Dworkin analyzed so well. Therefore it seems to me what we have in accusations of "maternal Feminism" and "moral panic" are not real critiques at all, but thought-stoppers. These accusations are meant to distract us into attacking the accused rather than engaging with their actual deeds or words.
In other words, the accusers are pretty desperate to keep us from checking the receipts, even if they fling a demand for those receipts at those they accuse. After all, if we checked receipts we might think for ourselves, and if we thought for ourselves we might make a serious and constructive change. Never mind that if the receipts upheld the accusers' claims, then they should be the first to provide links to actual quotes and original sources, those very receipts. Instead they fling the verbal equivalent of shit and insist that we only need to accept whatever they say. If this begins to sound a bit like the earlier thoughtpiece Hacking a Faithful Habit, it should.
A wonderful example of receipt checking is provided by Anna Fisher at Nordic Model Now in the course of her profile of Josephine Butler: Pioneering Feminist Activist, dated 1 june 2020. The source of much of the information is given right at the start, Jane Jordan's biography of Butler, and page references are provided throughout. Butler's own writings are identified by name, and most can be readily accessed through the internet archive or via a public or university library subscription to look at digitized copies of nineteenth century publications. That means we have the information needed to find the originals ourselves, or to seek help finding the originals. Fisher also references Dale Spender's Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them as part of her explanation of how Butler has been mostly lost or misrepresented into the twentieth century. She is clear that Butler was not perfect. Butler was determined, committed, and didn't let hardship stop her. She was also resistant to snobbery in herself and others, a hard won quality in someone from an upper middle class english background where indoctrination in snobbery is often hard to resist or avoid. Fisher counters attempts to smear Butler as merely a woman responding to a supposed moral panic with a clear explanation.
Josephine's critique of the system of prostitution was based on her extensive work with women and girls involved in it and a lifetime of research into the systemic disadvantages that were the reality of women and girls' lives.
The evidence for this explanation is provided throughout the lengthy article. There is no name calling or shit flinging. Nor does Fisher deny the reality that some activists were responding from a position grounded in the moral purity movement of the time. In fact, she is one of many excellent Feminist writers discussing the diversity of Feminist tactics past and present. An article that digs into this in detail by Katie Barker at uncommon ground is an excellent introduction and argument for why diversity of tactics is important. Practically speaking, if everyone working for an end to systemic oppression of any type works in lockstep using only one strategy, then we have what is colloquially called "all the eggs in one basket" situation. Under those conditions, there would be no room to actually notice when a given tactic turns out to have or develops self-defeating features that should lead to it being dropped. Some tactics are bad choices under particular conditions, we need to be able to notice and respond to that too. But if there is only "one true tactic" then the pressure will be to double down harder and harder, no matter how counterproductive the tactic may be. Any structural oppression will weather a single angle of attack, even if the attack lasts centuries. Women should be more aware of this than anyone, but we are so often fooled into not paying attention to our own history that we can be unaware in spite of ourselves.
Now, of course, I am technically a historian and inclined to see value in checking what people have done before and what the results of past action have been. However, this doesn't strike me as an inappropriate leaning to have at any time. Sometimes regardless of past results we may decide to just use whatever tactic anyway, precisely because the current conditions are so different. My own personal bias certainly is that this beats the hell out of blindly obeying. I have never heard or seen a person proud or even stolid in the realization that they did what they did for no reason they can fathom in conditions where they have motive and opportunity to gather some information to help make their decision. So let's check the receipts for ourselves. It is worth it even when we find out we made a mistake or had a mistaken idea, because the embarrassment of being wrong is temporary. Sticking to being wrong can do damage for a lifetime, and not just to ourselves. (Top)
Checking What "Puritanism" Actually Is (2021-02-15)
Probably we have all heard or read a usage of the term "puritan" as if it were a swear word, redolent of either contempt or startling and visceral hatred, depending on the period. It will definitely lean towards the latter the closer the source is to the late sixteenth to mid seventeenth centuries composed by people, primarily men, in england and its early colonies. For people who grew up in the united states, puritans are the ones associated with the salem witch trials, so they come in for considerable criticism not only for those trials, but more broadly for apparent hypocrisy. After all, the puritans were supposed to be all about moral purity while doing the exact opposite whenever they could get away with it and engaging in the most appalling physical and psychological violence to maintain social control. Well, yes, and no. Once authoritarians have successfully grabbed power and have made themselves embodiments of an ideology that helps people rationalize extremes of behaviour they previously would have found unacceptable, it doesn't matter whether they call themselves puritans or hedonists. Things are going downhill from there even faster. I am not generally impressed by any form of christianity or other patriarchal religion when it comes down to it, but that doesn't change that it isn't right to simply accept stereotypes of particular christians sects. And as it turns out, as usual when stereotypes and strong feelings get in the mix, puritans were actually more complicated politically and socially than either might suggest. (I say "were" because based on my research it looks like "puritan" is no longer a current term.)
To start with, the english people originally mocked as "puritans" were among the many branches of dissenters from a range of catholic practices better known today as protestants. Today it is not controversial to acknowledge that protestants had a serious critique, and many of them were far from being such apparent opportunists as Henry Tudor. They had serious concerns about selling indulgences, get out of free chits for sins, and selling ecclesiastical privileges, which had its own special term, "simony." Some of them developed ideas that today are lauded as democratic and a necessity, such as the right of every man (though of course no woman) to vote, because many of them were effectively nouveau riche and had no other means to win influence in the english parliament. As the united kingdom encyclopedia of law notes, the puritans emphasized the old testament, demanded simplicity of worship, and saw themselves as engaged in an immediate battle with forces of evil through their choices in worship, personal deportment, and politics. If anyone embodied the infamous "protestant work ethic" in the late sixteenth to mid seventeenth century england, well, the puritans were most likely to be it. If they didn't coin the saying that the devil finds work for idle hands, they would have happily adopted it, and many puritans felt deeply that the established monarchy and titled families were embodiments of the not merely idle but sinful rich. They were quite sure that they had the one true answer to life the universe and everything, probably one of the most dangerous states of delusion any human can suffer.
Since the puritans were so publicly against the open wastefulness and luxurious living of the titled rich, they started out with a strong critique of elaborate dress and anything else associated with conspicuous consumption. This is where the emphasis on simple, dark clothing and covered hair for women and short hair for men in an age when everyone was wearing their hair long or adding more or less elaborate wigs if they could. They took very seriously the roman proverb "vestum virum facit," "clothes make the man." This is where most of the caricatured image of puritans comes from, as the most extremist elements of the group insisted that all decoration, dancing, singing, or any other music besides hymns was sinful. They endeavoured to purify their language by using only the bible as a source of words and concepts – well, at least the bible in translation. This occasionally led to curious names, especially in the eventual united states where puritans hoping for more riches to go with religious tolerance went. Quite apart from bestowing such biblical names as Jedidiah and Deborah, they are the original sources of such remarkable combinations as Cotton Mather and Learned Hand. All such apparently small things could be deadly temptations in the view of many puritans, and they advocated for severe punishments in order to correct even what we might consider minor breaches. Their logic – and it was logical, given their starting premises – was that strong punishment for small error insured against greater error and potentially being damned to hell forever.
I suppose it should not be surprising that the puritan dress code is what people seem to write about most often online, considering how it lends itself to illustration. On the other hand, it is also an area on which puritans catch considerable criticism, because as one contributor to freethoughtblogs.com noted, admonitions against conspicuous consumption proved quite malleable to class interests. Yet this should not be a surprise, because such a significant portion of the puritan population was nouveau riche families. Plus, they had a ready rationalization for the richer puritans being allowed to have a bit of fancier lace and more expensive fabric for their clothes. After all, they had to provide an example for their inferiors to strive for, who were only inferior because they were lazy. Yes, this is self-serving nonsense to believe, but it is hardly unique to the puritans. The various titled families held to the same basic idea, they simply had a different starting claim for where their riches came from and why it was supposed to be good for them to flaunt them.
I suspect that among the things puritans who had the dubious fortune to be transported from their time to ours would find most astonishing is not the technology, clothes, or governments they would see. No, I think they might be most astonished, perhaps even appalled, at the treatment of the holiday regularly referred to in the mainstream media despite its ostensibly irreligious state as "christmas." The puritans were notorious for many things in their own time, but today when various christian groups, including many with close philosophical ties to puritanism, demand that "christ" be put back in "christmas" they seem unaware that the puritans in particular tried to ban its celebration. As far as the puritans were concerned, it had become an orgy of celebrating and enacting the seven deadly sins, not a celebration of the birth of their saviour at all. So during the english protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, the puritans seized the opportunity to try stamping it out, and that effort continued in puritan communities in the eventual united states. That is, it continued until the curious happenstance of early capitalism plus new englander male nostalgia for old england and their romanticized imaginings of what being english consisted of came together in the early to mid nineteenth century. (Top)
Wait a Minute... (2021-02-08)
Something seems to be quite awry in an article posted originally at project censored, and reposted with permission at academe blog. Zooming Past Equity in Higher Education: Technocratic Pedagogy Fails Social Justice Test by Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff takes a critical look at the rush to push all classes online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Never mind that this is yet one more way administrators with unjustified and unjustifiable salaries anywhere higher than $250 000 find ways to nickel and dime faculty and students to death. Heaven forfend they focus on decreasing class size and increasing the number of fulltime faculty and support staff to enable those classes to be safe and effective learning experiences for every student and instructor. That would oppose the capitalist logic of forcing more people closer together to use fewer fulltime instructors and ramp up exploitation of precarious sessional and graduate student labour. Remote classes look like an easy cash cow in the neoliberal gimlet eye, and that includes taking full advantage of the student data that can be plucked out of remote classes without their consent. And if a portion of students are blocked from class by the technical requirements, well they are too poor to be worth milking for their cash. Higdon and Huff focus especially on the problems of equity of access and the rampant abuse of students' privacy facilitated by the rapidity of the changes. After all, privacy agreements have not been vetted and there are always questions about where data is stored. Many students are barely adults and even if they are not in a position to give informed consent to data sharing.
Higdon and Huff have a written a powerful article that well deserves to be read, taken seriously, and its implications thoroughly unpacked. So it is worth reading carefully to notice what aspects of the current networked computer and advertising environment they seem to accept without question. A key paragraph is this one:
Indeed, the tech-industry claims that its machine intelligence capabilities can create algorithm-based tools that can both anticipate and direct human behavior. Predictive analytic products have proven so successful to the advertising industry that social media ad revenue jumped from $11 billion in 2015 to $23.5 billion in 2018. This new economic order was coined "surveillance capitalism" by scholars such as Harvard Business School's Shoshana Zuboff. Predictive analytic products can serve various functions for various industries: health insurers would like to know what ailments their patients have searched for on Google and how active they are in order to calculate their patients' health insurance fees; car insurance companies seek Global Positioning System (GPS) data to analyze their customers' driving speeds and frequency in order to calculate their customers' insurance premiums; law enforcement agencies want DNA data from genealogy websites in order to solve crimes; and advertisers need customers' data to create effective messages that yield brand loyalty and repeat business.
Let's start with the first sentence. "Machine intelligence" is insanely overrated. For a helpful and fair-handed debunking of claims about claims to algorithmic effectiveness, by which I mean where and when they work and under what conditions is set out in plain prose including examples both banal and excruciatingly funny, check Janelle Shane's website AI Weirdness, and/or her wonderful book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You. For a somewhat more technical starting point, a science blog post in may evaluated a specific type of algorithm that is expected to be the secret sauce to great machine intelligence algorithms. There is undoubtedly a certain level of statistical predictability to a group of people whose diversity and numbers hit the sweet spot to make quite good guesses about what they would be interested on buying individually. Since the algorithms developed for predicting what people will buy or could be persuaded to buy are mostly proprietary, I at least am skeptical of their utility for more than convincing big fees out of hopeful sellers. But the funny thing is, if these predictive algorithms were so great, then it would not be necessary to have any advertising. It seems to me they also would not need an invasive profile of every possible customer, just a sensible set of likely correlations between products. Even funnier, that is data stores collect by default anyway, and did so before computers and advertising companies flaunting algorithms.
For that second sentence, a skeptical reader might want to read or listen to two talks by Maciej Cegłowski, founder of pinboard, a social bookmarking service who is very concerned indeed about the unholy nexus between advertising and invading everyone's privacy. His talks on The Web Obesity Crisis and The Internet With a Human Face explains the basics and gives non-trivial arguments that part of what the online advertising market is is a speculative bubble. The third sentence doesn't need much comment, except to say that Zuboff's book is also an important and hard hitting study in many ways. Her approach still begs important questions, but they probably seem so primarily to a person who does not see capitalism as the only possible way to organize the distribution of work and goods.
Okay, now let's consider the fourth sentence, a long, semi-colon delineated one that probably should have been a bulleted list. Note that two of them are about insurance companies that have developed into perverse incentive machines to avoid pay outs to the people who hold insurance with them or else to refuse insurance to those considered high risk. By rights it makes sense for an insurance company or cooperative to endeavour to even out the general risk level its policies carry, so that a disaster or big pay out won't sink the entire outfit and do harm to other policy holders. That's just not where things land in late stage capitalism where everything is pushed into exploitation mode. But these are laid out as if it is reasonable to expect to delve deeper and deeper into people's private data for supposedly "fine-grained" fee calculations. Considering that most law enforcement bodies started out as slave patrols and vigilante militias, on top of the well documented record of prosecutorial misconduct in canada and the united states, we can but hope they could be trusted with dna data when they collect it during an investigation from people under genuine suspicion of wrongdoing. The last I heard, there is legal means in both countries to access specific records in the case of a criminal investigation. Not whole genealogy databases, but specific records for the purpose of an official criminal investigation.
However, it's the last element that I found most disturbing, enough that I am going to requote it here for emphasis, "advertisers need customers' data to create effective messages that yield brand loyalty and repeat business." The only way advertisers could need data for this sort of purpose is if the product they sell is such garbage that nobody would keep buying it after their first unfortunate encounter. The only way to win loyalty and repeat business is to meet an actual desire or need that a person has. The difficulty of course is that people don't have infinite needs, and the assumption of advertisers and capitalists more generally is that some way, somehow, it must be possible to make profit increase infinitely. This is the exploitation version of a perpetual motion machine, not an actual "need" at all.
Then again, there is something to be said for laying out these assumptions so bluntly. Hopefully more people than myself are pulled up short by this odd list that tries to get a bunch of ideas past us while properly questioning a troubling shift to online instruction that will have longterm impacts. (Top)
Hijacking a Faithful Habit (2021-02-01)
Not too long ago, a good friend of mine produced what can be fairly described as a wonderfully thought-provoking truthbomb. Having read about the latest instance of online mobbing for wrongthink, she wrote, "I find it hilariously religious almost like bias = sin but you can be saved!! Be saved by prioritizing men's feelings!" She and I are not the first to express concern about the lack of acknowledgement that humans are imperfect, and while oppressive bias is not acceptable, it is not a counter to oppressive bias to create a pile-on and declare the person who expressed a permanent outsider. Destroying the individual person's ability to participate in work and social life is not challenging oppressive behaviour. It is scapegoating someone and pretending that if they are drummed out then somehow that will end the oppression. Worse yet, it destroys the room for any person to change their mind and acknowledge that they have learned differently via study and life experience. Where individual participation is necessary to take down oppression, and of course it is, than this willingness to have an open mind and change is absolutely necessary. Otherwise people will simply double down on a fixed idea, including any and all oppressive ones that need questioning and removal. In other words, here we are back at another example of how genuine positive change is blocked.
At this time, I suspect very few of us have escaped at least attempted indoctrination in some form of organized religion predicated on the assumption that one man came to Earth and by some means ended up finding the way to salvation of some kind for everyone else. I am not trying to hide a reference to judaism, christianity, or islam here. It is quite consistent across patriarchal religious forms, including expressions of buddhism, of the many religious systems loosely referred to as hinduism, and before that in ancient greece where a deus ex machina would resolve the conflict in a play or story the author wanted humans to believe they could not solve themselves. This has been secularized more than once, in the sense that the original religious serial numbers have been filed off. These secularizations include superhero comic books, "hard-boiled" detective and police procedural novels, and most "golden age" science fiction celebrated as being "true, hard, original" examples of the genre. Attendant on the original pattern for this genre is the claim that a specific set of beliefs, and only those beliefs, are correct and necessary to reproduce and follow without question, otherwise we will fail in our presumed quest to be saved by the male figure at the centre of the particular iteration at hand. This is widely repeated pattern, familiar, comfortable, with all the beats defined for us. Yet it is also delicate, so delicate that it will pop the moment any thought or question arises that could evenly distantly suggest a doubt. The faith position can't stand up under scrutiny of any kind, as typically presented. In real life of course, many people have found ways to accept this sort of narrative despite having questions, or have found ways of revising the stories so that they stand up to a more hardboiled test.
In one of the stranger coincidences of language and culture in the world, the word "habit" began its tenure in human language as the latin word "habitus" for a person's consistent condition or appearance. It has the same root as the verb habere, which is of course also close akin to the english verb "to have." So this word refers to things a person keeps, especially what they keep close to themselves and therefore becomes an expression of themselves. Clothing is what we could call a canonical example of a person's habitus, because it can be taken in "at a glance." So a uniform is a special example of a habitus, and later it was common to refer in english to religious habits, the standardized clothing of nuns and monks. the only reference at the moment that I can find to a non-religious habit in the sense of clothing is to a "riding habit," a sort of gender stereotyped clothing rich women were expected to wear if they went horseback riding. In the end "habit" has come to refer more to consistent behaviour and/or thoughts, rather than our clothes. In that sense, a habit is an action or thought that requires no effort or even much conscious decision to act on or repeat.
All of this said to finally get to the main point, which is that it appears that the cancel and call out culture that is in effect right now is at best a hijacking of the belief in a saviour or deus ex machina as necessary to make any real change. At worst, it is the latest iteration of filing off the original serial numbers. And those most vulnerable to participating in this cancel and call out culture are young people at the age when they are still unable to accept that the world is not black and white and the answers to the most important questions are not simple or instant. It should not surprise anyone that the greatest fanatics are often the youngest followers, because that takes advantage of an accident of how our brains develop. Perhaps more of us are surprised than is ideal that even after that critical age, we are still vulnerable to being swept up into the pattern that is designed to hook into our desire for personal exoneration from responsibility for being complicit with oppression, whether or not we chose our complicity, together with our rightful desire for constructive change. (Top)
Historical Crowdfunding (2021-01-25)
Now, on one hand, it is probably true that if we try hard enough and have some training in working with archives, we can find a historical precedent for just about everything. That some particular practice is not actually new and is not made somehow substantially different because doing it now can involve computer use when it didn't before certainly doesn't detract from the cleverness or utility of the idea as such. Part of why I start from here is to make explicit that the fact I have found a rather intriguing little past example of early crowdfunding, better known as subscription-based publication, my point is not to try to call down the practice. If anything, it is further evidence that the method is old, tried, and true, meaning that when enough people are willing and able to finance a publication, then often the would be publisher is successful in completing a printing. Sales beyond the original subscribers are another question. And from the earliest days, yes, sometimes the publisher who was also often the person putting together the gadget or writing the book or whatever, sometimes collapsed after encountering one too many obstacles. Sometimes not enough people were willing to subscribe. People are willing to pony up if they can when they are convinced that their money is genuinely supporting something that will be valuable, and not necessarily merely to them on an individual level.
The particular historical example I found is embedded in the James Boswell's turgid and problematic The Life of Samuel Johnson (Collins' Clear-type Press: London and Glasgow, 1909). The difficulties of Boswell's sources and construction of the book remain topics of obscure argument in early modern english literature circles to this day. The especially interested reader may read it in full at the internet archive. Samuel Johnson is best known today for having written the first dictionary of contemporary english, which can also be read online in two of its earliest editions, from 1755 and 1785. At the time of his hopeful solicitation for subscription, he was still making his way in the world by writing for various magazines and indirectly talking other people into paying for his giant meals and allowing him to look at the contents of their libraries. Alas, his reputation for treating other people's books with less than good care grew rapidly. Here is the text of the subscription with some context, from page 46 of Boswell:
[Samuel] Johnson returned to Lichfield [his birthplace] only in 1734, and in August that year he made an attempt to procure some little subsistence by his pen; for he published proposals for printing by subscription the Latin Poems of Politian: "Angeli Polutiani Poemata Latina, quibus, Notas cum historiâ Latinae, poeseos à Petrarchae aevo ad Politiani tempora deductâ, et vitâ Politiani fusius quam antheac enarratâ, addidit SAM JOHNSON."
Taking just the subscription text in translation:
[The] Latin Poems of Angelo Poliziano, to which, with notes on Latin history, describing poetry from [the] era of Plutarch to the times of Poliziano, and [with that] a more detailed narration of [the] life of Poliziano than before now, added. Sam. Johnson
Angelo Poliziano, also referred to as Politian, was a renaissance poet and participant in the drive to translate recently rediscovered latin and greek manuscripts. As might be expected, his main focus was latin poetry, and he had a reputation for influencing latin as written and spoken in his own time, when latin had shifted considerably. Different scholars are quite interested in him for other reasons, such as his membership in Lorenzo de Medici's court, his reputation for homosexuality, and his dramatic death that is still considered an "unsolved mystery." The wikipedia article on him summarizes his life and oeuvre fairly well, and those interested in the ostensible whodunnit can start with chemistry world's article Death of a Renaissance Man.
This particular project never made it out of the conceptualization stage, as Johnson couldn't wrangle enough subscribers. Arguably he was ahead of his time in trying to float a publication of this sort, if the 1801 book successfully brought out by William R. Greswell is any indication, which brought together translations of several contemporary italian scholars including Poliziano plus annotations and essays. This is also viewable at the internet archive, and is a fine example of a nineteenth century text where the footnotes almost completely overwhelm the main text. I can't confirm whether it was a subscription-funded work itself, although that is quite likely.
Pulling this material together on the original sort of crowdfunding brought a number of different details home to me, quiet apart from the apparent longevity of this funding technique. I have commented in other thoughtpieces that if newspapers and other original subscription-based periodicals are in trouble, then they certainly have only themselves, not advertising companies, to blame. If they were useful and valuable to people, then people would indeed subscribe to them or purchase copies when available and when they could afford them. The response of these periodicals in many cases has not been to analyze how they could restore their value and utility to the people they hoped to sell copies to. No indeed, not in late capitalism. Instead, they opted to try to cover costs ever rising levels of paid advertising, in effect conceding to the potential reading audience that their product had little or no real value or utility. Or rather, they made their real audience into the advertisers, whom they deemed certain to always have money for advertising no matter what was happening. For the periodical owners and managers fully committed to this strategy, readers and viewers are a sort of by-catch because their ability to pay is not guaranteed and they can decide how much they are willing to spend. Meanwhile, those owners and managers created a positive feedback loop in which the message is that periodical publications have worthless non-advertising content, to which potential non-advertiser purchasers logically concluded then they weren't going to pay for it either. That in turn clobbers the periodicals with owners and managers who do not share this perspective, and not all of them can survive the blow. (Top)
Pessimism as Rationalization (2021-01-18)
Like many people who grew up and attended secondary school in western canada, I was subjected to the hideous reading lists of "english" and "language arts" courses that seem calculated to drive the reader away from general reading for life. We were forced to read a lot of junk, especially miserable works shoehorned into the official "canon" apparently due primarily to the social standing of the author or in order to supposedly "diversify" it by adding a single bad example of the author's work out while making sure to present them as some sort of anomaly. This meant that in my secondary school days, we were stuck reading far too much from the nineteenth century with little or no historical context, which added insult to injury. There was no way to sort out what was supposed to make these books relevant in any way, just the say so of a poorly thought out curriculum and a more or less overworked and disinterested teacher stuck with inflicting it on us. Among the unfortunate books we were forced to read was the execrable Lord of the Flies, a book for which I can't express enough contempt. I suspect that even if William Golding were alive to learn about my response to him, he would find this profoundly irrelevant to his point of view, which was fixed. He had imbibed the belief that fundamentally all humans are ignoble savages, and therefore nothing but coercion of all sorts prevented society from collapsing into violent chaos, and that is what his novel expresses. Never mind what complete nonsense this is as a matter of practicality. But he had the luxury of holding such beliefs precisely because he was wealthy and able to fool himself into thinking that he depended on no one else, and that his judgement of others must be correct. Blind faith is as dangerously self-reinforcing as it is attractive under the right conditions.
Not having much constructive to say about this novel, I have never spent much time on it apart from what I couldn't avoid. So it was via the unexpected byways of a different research rabbit hole that I stumbled upon an excerpt from Rutger Bregman's recently released book, humankind, via The Real Lord of the Flies: What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for Six Months at the guardian, the sadly broken leftish newspaper based in england. It's a wonderful excerpt for anyone to read who has on one hand agreed that humans are not perfect and quite capable of unreasonable violence, but on the other has considerable doubt that humans are fated to be unreasonably violent. Capability and action do not tie together in that way. And indeed, as Bregman explains, in this real life case the boys in question did not devolve into the caricatures of animalistic savages that people who think they are white developed to rationalize racism and racist violence only to fall victim to believing in the caricatures. As a matter of practical survival, the boys realized that the only way they could survive was to prioritize cooperation, and that meant doing their utmost not to manage interpersonal conflict by violence. It wasn't easy for them, but they came to their situation without having been thoroughly indoctrinated in pessimistic notions about their ability to survive together, so they did not live them out. I think it quite possible that in real circumstances, for most of us such indoctrination will break down, and those whose indoctrination holds up won't survive long because they are too dangerous to everyone else. A scary thought, to be sure. I have also bumped into some material on the chilean miners trapped by a cave in near Copiapó who also cooperated well under extreme circumstances, but began to struggle at this once reconnected to the outside world and mainstream media insistence that supposedly humans will revert to savagery under such conditions. They were understandably caught between their sense of how they needed to behave under their circumstances, and the pressure to be macho and mercenary as the guarantee of rescue and prospects for profiting from their ordeal became real.
One major trouble with such books as Lord of the Flies and its offspring in the programs purporting to be "reality television" like "survivor" or "big brother" is that they feed pessimism for the dishonest purpose of rationalization. If supposedly Indigenous people who do not live according to european mores are living in conditions of unremitting violence instead, then any actions taken to force them to live like europeans do become rational. Suddenly people are able to pretend that their cynical arguments for unremitting violence to force Indigenous peoples are actually about making them better and ending suffering, not lining a few european pockets with stolen riches and awarding a few europeans with despotic power. This is the sort of pessimism that led nineteenth century schoolmasters to deem physical punishment an appropriate way to "instruct" children. There is quite a lot of bad behaviour that people actually feel bad about that such pessimism as rationalization helps them stifle their pangs of conscience. We should be suspicious when we are encouraged to expect the worst of humans at any time, and ask the key question, who benefits from our accepting this idea? (Top)
A Quick Dip Into Middle English (2021-01-11)
In the course of my perambulations for another project, I ended up needing to sort out several questions about "middle english," or rather the "middle englishes." These were the dialects of english spoken in what is now called england between roughly 1150 and 1470. So these are what english developed into after the country had been invaded and taken over by the norman french, those descendants of vikings who had taken over a significant portion of what is now called france. Truth be told I am at a bit of a loss why William the Bastard decided he wanted to take over england, but that is a whole other rabbit hole for another time. After the norman french had taken over, the prestige language became theirs, and the middle stratum of english functionaries began adapting elements of norman french into their own speech and writing. Some of that adaptation was deliberate, some not. This was an uneven process impacting the established old english dialects, which had remained distinct but clearly related due to lack of continuous social mixing between most of the population in england. Middle englishes remained distinct for the most part, with the difference that all that norman french vocabulary also made it easier to absorb vast amounts of latin-derived words. Accompanying sound changes led to most of the inflections for case and number in nouns and tense and mood in verbs to sound the same. So most of them were dropped in favour of new or until then little used prepositions and auxiliary verbs. Towards the end of the period of middle englishes and the solid establishment of mechanical printing, their diversity began to drop as printers developed standardized spellings and their books became the substrate of english language instruction. So it is that we have them to thank for the rather berserk looking english spelling system. (David Crystal in his book Spell It Out provides a funny and thorough explanation of why english spelling looks berserk but is actually logical.)
As always, the web gives and the web takes away. The web gives access to lots of possibilities for pages to read and documents to download on "middle english" if not middle englishes, but some of them are questionable indeed, especially in the wake of the pressure to force all class materials online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Quite a few pages that pop up now are the very poorly referenced and labelled speaking notes as well as duly referenced and labelled course notes of graduate students, instructors, and professors all over the world. So rather suddenly there is more out there than there used to be, because middle englishes are often described as muddy not really englishes because they can't be sharply delineated from modern englishes, and so seem to have garnered less online attention. There was and is of course, plenty of attention directed on Chaucer because the version of middle english reflected in his most famous unfinished work, The Canterbury Tales is so close to most modern english dialects.
In any case, I thought it might be worth bringing together the best of the links and resources I happened on for general information on middle englishes, including well-sourced information on their consensus grammar. That was what I was trying to hunt down in the first place, and had a great deal of trouble finding much of anything beyond references to the use of multiple negatives in one sentence. That always gets commented on because there is always one smart ass in a classroom who has taken enough math to know that in arithmetic multiplying or dividing a negative number by a negative number makes a positive number. I would not be surprised to learn that english instructors now have a selection of punitive assignments ready for just that smart ass. Anyway, as always, it will never do you wrong to start out by checking the OED's blog and the articles on middle english on the british library's website. A selection or two from each is included below. Others are from the ever improving internet archive and the sites of a few college and university instructors who have written excellent brief overviews of specific aspects of usually middle english as represented in Chaucer.
All this said, if you want to try out reading any middle english book, be it something by Chaucer or maybe Gawain and the Green Knight, try reading it out loud, pronouncing every letter according to the pronunciation guide provided by Scott Kleinman before heading to the middle english dictionary. It may be necessary to do this twice, but you will likely find that the language becomes quite understandable and that even words now lost from english or used very differently will reveal their meaning by context. It can be quite a lot of fun, if you find other accents and earlier englishes generally interesting. (Top)