Alone Together – Socializing in the Social Media Era

Sitting with friends or family, a realization dawns as you look around – the whole group is staring down at their phones, silently engrossed. It is an experience with which we are all familiar. A recent Buzzfeed article lists “18 Tiny Ways Your Phone Has Ruined Your Life,” pointing out that, among other problems, “you’re pretty damn addicted to the thing” and “nothing can come between you [and your phone], not even sleep” (Barnicoat). There’s a certain irony in a website designed around mobile use (from its coding, to its advertising, to its article titles) asserting that smart phones, and more importantly the online worlds they connect us to, might have some ‘tiny’ harmful effects. But according to the author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, these effects are not tiny at all. In fact, they are much greater than we currently imagine. In her most recent book, Alone Together, Turkle confronts the “the triumphalist narrative of” Silicon Valley, “the reassuring story that people want to hear and that technologists want to tell” (Turkle 18). She asks the “nagging question” on all of our minds as we notice that those around us are lost in their gadgets: “does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind” (12)?

The famous mid-century physician Lewis Thomas witnessed many medical miracles in his lifetime, as his profession made discovery after discovery, curing previously incurable diseases and raising life expectancy by decades. However, he once mused, even though the “new medicine works” – works beyond the wildest expectations he had as a young doctor in depression era America – “there are costs…the close-up, reassuring, warm touch of the physician…the comfort and concern…this uniquely subtle, personal relationship” that he saw disappearing behind the “immense, automated apparatus” that is the modern hospital (Lewis 58-59). Often, as miraculous as technological and scientific advancement can appear, these costs become obscured. And Turkle is interested in bringing these costs, particularly as they relate to the social dynamics of online interaction, to light. As she writes in the introduction, “if you’re spending three, four, or five hours a day in an online game or virtual world…there’s got to be someplace you’re not” (Turkle 12). The internet has ostensibly brought the entire world closer together, but she wonders whether or not it is instead driving us apart.

At one time, not too many years ago, inter-connectivity was a novelty. Online enthusiasts in the 1990s labeled themselves ‘cyborgs’, and these “cyborgs were a new kind of nomad, wandering in and out of the physical real” (152). Parents would warn their children not to put too much of themselves online, and would limit their child’s time online – the internet was the realm of ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’. But in 2017 we are all always online, parents and children, and “in simulation culture we [all] become cyborg, and it can be hard to return to anything less” (209). The question of ‘less’ is central to the book. Do we lose something by disconnecting? Do we lose something by connecting? Turkle is an anthropologist by training, and she approaches these questions through the ethnographic interviews and studies that remain central to her field. “Over 450 people have participated in my studies of connectivity,” she notes, and these people’s stories are spread throughout the text – lonely computer scientists, suicidal teenagers, and feuding siblings on opposite sides of the country (xiii). In his seminal text book on New Media, Lev Manovich worries that “analytical texts from our era…mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record…of the present” (Manovich 33). It is an understandable concern, and one that Turkle takes seriously. She is very much interested in the present, in the ways that titanic technological advancements interact with our primitive primate brains, still biologically stuck in the stone age. “I’ve never taken opiates, but I imagine it’s an electronic version of that…this is an opiate,” one interviewee muses (Turkle 228).

If the internet is an opiate, it is also a place where you can buy opiates – where you can seemingly buy, or do, or be anything. Turkle discusses the world of Second Life, where individuals ‘become’ (and intermingle with other) idealized avatars, the site PostSecret, where users can anonymously vent their innermost thoughts to the world, and the random, no strings attached personal communication of Chatroulette. But much of this interaction is superficial – “when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections…and then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy” (16). Turkle readily admits there are no “simple answers” to the questions and concerns she’s posing, and that the purpose of this book isn’t so much to provide solutions as it is to put forward “good terms with which to start a conversation” (277). And it is a conversation that many people seem to want to have. “There are days i [sic] wish cellphones had never been invented,” reads one comment below the Buzzfeed piece – likely typed out on a phone (Barnicoat). And that is the difficulty. These technologies have quickly become indispensable, and their very indispensability is frightening. “We have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects,” Turkle worries (299). And the results of that experiment are yet to be fully realized.

 

Works Cited:

Barnicoat, Becky. “18 Tiny Ways Your Phone Has Ruined Your Life.” Buzzfeed, 19 May 2017, www.buzzfeed.com/beckybarnicoat/tiny-ways-your-phone-has-ruined-your-life.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001.

Thomas, Lewis. The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher. The Viking Press, 1983.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2017.

(En)Visioning an Ethico-Politics of Loving/Looking: Kaja Silverman and the Field of the Visual

Jacques Lacan, the Mirror Stage, and Inauguration of the I

At the Sixteenth International Congress of Psychoanalysis held in Zurich in June 1949, Jacques Lacan delivered a lecture entitled “The Mirror State as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Lacan’s intervention, underscored by the lecture’s title, emphasizes the primary role of the mirror stage in the formation of the subject’s ego. Lacan characterizes the mirror stage as the moment of an infant’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image,” the imago whose fictive unity “is given to him only as a gestalt, that is, in an exteriority in which . . . this form is more constitutive than constituted” (76). The seductive unification conferred by the infant’s assumption of his specular image becomes, per Lacan, the very “threshold of the visible world” (77).

It is the provocative suggestion that the subject cannot access its enveloping world without the sense of self grounded in the imago that propels Kaja Silverman’s The Threshold of the Visible World. Silverman, currently the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, has had a profound influence on critical-theoretical discourse in media studies, cinema studies, and semiology, with an academic career spanning more than three decades and including more than nine published monographs, as well as dozens of shorter publications and presentations.

Kaja Silverman and The Threshold of the Visible World

Known for her exceptionally nuanced and unprecedented readings of canonical texts within the fields of psychoanalysis, the structuralisms, and feminist media theory, Silverman theorizes at an interdisciplinary juncture that remains profoundly inflected by her commitment to a liberatory, affirmative politics. I will take as my focus in this post the interventions Silverman proposes in her Threshold of the Visible World, the character of which she  articulates as twofold: first, “to make possible our identification at a distance with bodies which we would otherwise phobically avoid [in order] to facilitate our leap out of ‘difference’ and into bodily otherness,” and, second, to recognize the critical possibilities afforded by those “visual texts which activate in us the capacity to idealize bodies which diverge as widely as possible from both ourselves and from the cultural norm” (37).

410703fFQbL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Threshold of the Visible World derives its organizational impetus from Lacan’s suggestion, distilled by Silverman, that “it is only by moving through the mirror stage that one enters the scopic domain” (3); accordingly, the two halves of Silverman’s text track the conceptual bifurcation Lacan draws between the conclusion of the mirror stage and the subject’s inauguration into the field of vision. In the first half of the text, Silverman attends to the social and psychic constraints that foreclose alternative sites of bodily identifications and, by implication, psychic idealizations, as well as to the conditions under which the subject might resist those constraints. In the latter half, Silverman turns to the social and psychic forces that discipline the subject’s capacity to look and queries whether such forces can be counter-mobilized to found new modes of looking.

The weaving together of these theoretical strands encourages Silverman to pursue the conceptual possibility of the “good enough”—a site beyond the vicious cycle of failed idealization and self-revulsion, one marked by the radical possibility of self-love. Situating the visual at the center of her ethico-political project, Silverman contends that the lessons of Threshold may be those “we can perhaps only learn from visual texts, since they have the power to reeducate the look” (5). I think it necessary to note at the outset that Silverman’s preoccupation with vision, which mirrors media studies’ historical investment in the sensuously visual, is a limiting consequence of her engagement with specific elements of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Rather than critique what some may perceive as an omission inimical to the text’s aspirations, I would like to ask how Silverman’s analysis could be extended beyond what Lacanian psychoanalysis might (circumscriptively) imagine.

The Psychoanalytic Apparatus of Threshold of the Visible

The first half of Silverman’s text, “The Threshold,” critically engages with the Lacan’s theorization of identification and idealization and their consequences for ego constitution. “The Visible World,” the text’s latter half, works through the interrelated notions of the gaze, the look, and the screen. This organizational logic, with its preference for express demarcation between and among specific elements of psychoanalytic theory, helpfully grounds and directs the text’s dense theoretical landscape. However, as with most systems of differentiation, this one proves artificial; Silverman braids together the disparate sites of psychoanalytic inquiry undergirding her project even as she individually augments their heuristic clarity.

In the interest of highlighting Silverman’s style of engagement with mediatic texts, I will turn the attention of my post to the the second chapter of Threshold, “From the Ideal-Ego to the Active Gift of Love.” This chapter buttresses its “theoretical elaboration and textual dramatization of the perils involved in self-idealization . . . [and its] attempt to specify the conditions under which idealization might work to position the subject actively within the field of vision” with an extended discussion of the (West) German film Bildnis Einer Trinkerin (1979), or Ticket of No Return. Silverman’s meditation on the film, which extends both Lacanian and feminist theorizations of the visual, secures her conclusion that if it is through textual or visual production “that the subject is encouraged to idealize certain bodily parameters, it can only be through the creation and circulation of alternative images and words that he or she can be given access to new identificatory coordinates” (81).

Identification, Idealization, and the Fantasy of the Body in Bits and Pieces

Central to psychic subjectification and to the formation of the bodily ego are the processes of idealization and identification. Identification is the process through which an object in the external world becomes incorporated into that subject’s psychic constitution. Although the subject may privilege diverse objects of identification, the “determinative influence over the ego’s subsequent development” remains bound to the identification of the infant with her specular image at the mirror stage’s conclusion (11). Importantly, as Silverman notes, Identification can be realized in the absence of idealization; idealization, however, cannot proceed without the concomitant work of identification. How, then, are we to understand idealization?

Idealization is the process of libidinal investment in an object’s value such that it is elevated “to the level of das Ding, or the impossible nonobject of desire” (40). It is through the idealization of an object as das Ding that the effects of primal repression—also known as the entry into language—are consolidated. As a result of this idealizing elevation, the Lacanian psychoanalytic subject constituted by lack materializes: “By putting objects in the place of the unattainable nonobject of desire, one also maintains one’s distance from that nonobject, thereby becoming, in the strongest sense of the word, the subject of lack” (40). It is through idealization that the subject is able to posit “an object as capable of filling the void at the heart of his or her psyche, which puts him or her in a definitionally identificatory relation to it” (70), and it is through the imbrication of idealization and identification that the subject may approach a condition of love, the “forming [of] an imaginary alignment with bodily coordinates which cannot be assimilated to one’s own” (71).

This condition of love is only one of the two forms that identification can take in relation to the idealized object, however. In the other, the subject seeks to abolish the image because it threatens the subject’s approximation of the ideal it reflects, the consequences of which are imperiling. Under what conditions, though, could such delusory idealization through identification endanger the subject, particularly if the act of idealized identification at the mirror stage’s end is deemed a necessary, albeit violent, entry into the social order? It is here that Silverman provides one of her major rereadings of Lacan.

Silverman demands that Lacan’s elaboration of the mirror stage and its consequent impact on ego formation be reformulated in service of a more emphatically political analysis than Lacan otherwise provides. If it is indeed true that “the subject who aspires to incarnate or embody the ideal most typically his or her definition of that ideal from normative representation,” then the content of such normative ideality—produced over time in the form of dominant social fictions—will reflect “all of those many varieties of ‘difference’ through which social identity is inscribed” and of which a select few will be valorized (40, 19). “It now seems crucial to add that since everything idealizing attribution—e.g., ‘whiteness,’ masculinity,’ ‘heterosexuality’—at present implies its opposite,” Silverman continues, “and since the imposition of all of these forms of difference depends upon the imaginary alignment of certain subjects with what is negative rather than ideal, the images through which the subject is culturally apprehended do not always facilitate the production of a lovable bodily ego” (19).

The refusal to idealize and identify outside of one’s sexually, racially, or economically privileged bodily coordinates thwarts the possibility of alternative imaginary alignments open to and accepting of difference. One can only imagine identification with such “other” coordinates under circumstances when the body is no longer whole or unified, the privileging of which Silverman links to the violence of differentiation.

Bildnis einer Trinkerin and the Dangers of Self-Idealization

Silverman’s robust psychoanalytic enterprise in the second chapter of Threshold culminates in a persuasive reading of Ulrike Ottinger’s Bildnis einer Trinerin. This reading moves not only beyond the limits of Lacanian psychoanalysis; it also turns to the presumptions Silverman believes to undergird feminist film theory, the primary of which is the “collapse between woman and the image” (45). The film’s protagonist, Silverman notes, is pathologically obsessed with own mirror reflection. That reflection engrosses all of her desire, and, as the film progresses through its myriad fantasy sequences detailing the protagonist’s imagined inhabitation of other bodies and spaces, the ultimate failure of the protagonist to align with the mirrored ideal may suggest the location of resistance within “a politically enabling masquerade of femininity” (46).

Silverman seeks to displace this presumed reading, instead arguing that the protagonist’s pathological relation to her own reflection acknowledges “her inability to accept her exteriority to the idealizing image,” a condition that demands the location of the female subject not outside of lack, as psychoanalysis would often cast her, but within its discursivity (46). Close readings of scenes throughout the film, organized both in the order presented by the director and in an order Silverman proposes to better unearth its psychoanalytic implications, lend persuasive force to her claim that the subject, no matter its putative bearing of the lack, “always look from a position within the field of vision,” meaning that he or she is both subordinated by the gaze and subordinates others through the gaze (60).

If the subject is always already positioned as both the object of the gaze and the subject who looks, then the radical possibility of resistance for those persons presumed only to serve as objects within a hetero-masculinist psychoanalytic order can be realized. Silverman characterizes this possibility as “the gift of love,” an act that implies “both idealizing beyond the parameters of the ‘self,’ and doing so with a full understanding of one’s own creative participation with respect to the end result”—ultimately, then, an act that “strives to keep the cherished ‘image’ outside,” never annihilated through sublation by the self (78, 76).

On Looking with Love

As I mentioned earlier, Silverman remarks that the suggestions for an ethico-political praxis of looking contained within Threshold may be those “we can perhaps only learn from visual texts, since they have the power to reeducate the look” (5). Her conceptually elegant foray with Lacanian psychoanalysis maintain’s Lacan’s emphasis on the visual, which undergirds Silverman’s elaboration of the gift of love, itself a form of looking without taking. I would like to conclude by asking how we might extend this reading elsewhere, beyond the parameters of the visual and toward the exploding horizons of new media.

The cellphone application Grindr functions as an interface through which its users, primarily queer men, are able to facilitate interpersonal sexual and romantic encounters. Grindr is thoroughly saturated by the visual, but, as with all haptic interfaces, it also requires touch in order to fully navigate the application. The capacity to touch the cellphone screen and adjudicate another user’s sexual worth is paramount to the petty sovereignty Grindr offers. If a new ethico-politics of looking might be achieved by seeking to idealize the other without needing to fully approximate and thus absorb the other, how might such an imperative be translated into the sensuous act of touch?

The touch is certainly political, and it can be, as Grindr regularly demonstrates, undeniably violent. However, if Grindr users are able to recognize that the “others” whom they encounter are also operating within the multiple sovereignties of arbitrary touch, are also subject to the annihilating whims of sublating idealization or annihilating revulsion, it may be possible to recognize that the act of not touching—in the instance of Grindr, of not blocking a user on the basis of participation in violent economies of sexual aesthetics—may open entirely new possibilities for desire. Perhaps more importantly, the choice not to block via touch might help users recognize the very fragile, vulnerable nature of publicly desiring, particularly when desire and lack are, as Silverman demonstrates, so intimately bound.

Grindr does not do away with the visual, but it may contain the promise of an ethico-politics of the kinesthetic—one with which Silverman would very likely be in accord.

 

Kindly note that citations contained within the first paragraph reference Lacan’s essay, “The Mirror State as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” All subsequent citations are to Silverman’s The Threshold of the Visible World.


Reference List

  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink, 75-81. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
  • Silverman, Kaja. The Threshold of the Visible World. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

Silke Anderson-de Simine on the New Museum

 

When Joseph sent me the January 2012 issue of Theory, Culture & Society, I couldn’t help but notice its applicability to our class and this assignment.

This issue of Theory, Culture & Society aims to examine the modern museum (the new museum) as a locus for curating memories. In the introduction, Jens Andermann and Silke Arnold-de Simine describe major themes of the new museum including, but not limited to:

  • a shift from master narratives to practice-based memory-making
  • applied theatrics and multimediality with the purpose of evoking empathy
  • the focus on narrative and testimony
  • (counter)monumentality
  • the conflation of museum and monument
  • global aesthetics of remembrance and mourning (i.e. curating a sense of universal memory around atrocities)

Grounded in what Paul Williams describes as an era of atrocity museum expansion, curators have had to grapple with the slippage between exhibitor, spectator, and object. This collection responds to the use value of and problematics of  Marianne Hirsch’s postmemory (see The Generation of Postmemory) and Alison Landsberg’s prosthetic memory (Prosthetic Memory), concepts which have informed the creation of atrocity museums and have contributed to new modes of representation and curation.

“Memory Museum: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

In her piece, Arnold-de Simine describes how the conflation of museums and memorials transfers into other memory media (like art and literature). Based on the assumption that memory is reimagination, Arnold-de Simine challenges the assumption that memory museums are spaces of memory. Rather, she asserts that the memory museum has subgenres that are multimedial and intermedial. For Arnold-de Simine, the memory museum:

  • frames historical events to make sense of current issues
  • makes the story the object exhibited (rather than the literal objects within it)
  • uses the position of the witness to evoke an aura of authenticity
  • uses spectacle/theatrics to turn primary sources into illustrations
  • emphasizes a sense of immediacy
  • closes the gap between the living and the dead
  • aims to represent the victims and their descendants, especially through the use of memorabilia and oral testimony
  • uses autobiography to turn museum-goers into secondary witnesses
  • uses empathy to evoke engagement and a moral imperative

Regardless, Arnold-de Simine claims, the memory museum is limited.  She incorporates examples from Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum, which intended to be read as a text,  and W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, which was written as a museum, to complicate the limits of media and memory-making.

Arnold-de Simine’s attention to Libeskind’s use of literary symbolism and Sebald’s emphasis on secondary witnessing (the main character in Austerlitz literally does not witness the Holocaust) makes very clear the ways that memorializing and museum-making transfers across genres and how other media forms work within museums. I found this challenging, especially in my endeavor to understand the ways memories are curated, politicized and passed along to subsequent generations. In searching for images from the Jewish Museum, I felt haunted and disoriented. I found Libeskind’s use of analogy riveting and effective/affective. Before reading this journal I was a loyal fan of Hirsch’s theories (and furthermore, Avery Gordon’s whose were not mentioned, but I want to throw her out there because of how relevant she is), but I think that Arnold-de Simine’s commentary has broadened my analytical network. She has encouraged me to keep reading and to engage more closely with the intention of a medium.

Bonus:

I really think all of the pieces in this journal are worth reading, but I wanted to point out a special one that I couldn’t cover in this blog post.

You might want to check out Andermann’s “Returning to the Site of Horror: On the Reclaiming of Clandestine Concentration Camps in Argentina.” He asks similar questions about curating memories in his examination of the Escuela de Mechanica de la Armada (ESMA). The ESMA is known as one of the largest concentration camps used to torture, maim, and murder the Desaparecidos in Argentina. It was given to human rights organizations by the government in Buenos Aires and sectioned off for different purposes. Andermann highlights the debates around its use and offers insights on the limits of secondary witnessing, neoliberalism, globalized memory-making, and issues of temporality.

 

Works Cited:

  • Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 29, Issue 1, January 2012
    • “Introduction: Memory, Community and the New Museum” by Jans Andermann and Silke Arnold-de Simine
    • “Memory Museum: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” by Silke Arnold-de Simine
    • “Returning to the Site of Horror: On the Reclaiming of Clandestine Concentration Camps in Argentina” by Jans Andermann

Images:

-Ari

Arlene Dávila and The “Latino Media”

Media studies tends to draw from the work of white, European and American male writers, creating the illusion that women of color are not contributing to the field. As part of the ongoing movement to make women of color more visible in the field of media studies, I would like to highlight the work of Arlene Dávila.

Arlene Dávila is currently a professor of anthropology and American studies at NYU who studies contemporary U.S. Latinx and Latin American cultural politics. Though several of her monographs deal with Latino media, her introduction to Contemporary Latina/o Media best explains her view of the term “Latino media” and its place within media studies.

Contemporary Latina/o Media: Production, (nyupress.org)


The Importance of Politics

As the Latino media market grows beyond the cable channels Univision and Telemundo, communications and media scholars are struggling to keep up with the transformations happening to Latino media. Dávila asserts that works on Latino media tend to focus on textual and cultural studies analyses of representations, ignoring the larger political dynamics of Latino media. Although she sees issues of representation and stereotypes as important, Dávila worries that this approach does not provide a complete picture of what is happening with Latino media. Dávila proposes that “we need to go behind the scenes, and look at issues of production, political economy, and politics” (11). Dávila’s emphasis on the political nature of media stems from Stuart Hall’s assertion that politics embeds all stages of media production and circulation. Dávila elaborates, “Matters of circulation, distribution, and policies affect decisions about production, while production processes are decisive in what is ultimately consumed and circulated as “Latino media” (4).


Problematizing “Latino Media”

Dávila takes issue with the term “Latino media” and the ways in which it reinforces erasures and inequalities. While media scholars tend to look at Latin American and Latino media as separate industries, Dávila calls for a transnational focus to look at the connections between Latino and Latin American media in terms of production, circulation, and consumption. Dávila argues that scholars “need to escape the very category “Latino media” that has historically constrained analysis, limiting it to media that are supposedly marketed and packaged to Latin@s, in isolation from all the different media to which they are exposed and which they consume on a daily basis” (3). Despite her problems with the term “Latino media,” Dávila finds the term useful to describe Latino-specific media.


Latinx Media Ownership (or Lack Thereof)

One issue of production that Dávila is concerned about is media ownership. She notes that as of 2014 (when Contemporary Latina/o Media was published) Latinxs held less than 6.5% of all media jobs. This underrepresentation is especially severe in mainstream journalism. Given the power of the news to shape public opinion, Dávila suggests that “when Latin@s are nowhere to be found in the newsroom, the likelihood that diverse and politically sensitive perspectives are included is dramatically lessened” (10). Despite the American media industry’s perception that Latinxs are a “new hot market,” Dávila argues that that this market-driven perspective still excludes Latinxs from the media labor market (13).

The exclusion of Latinxs from the media labor market has made social media a key space for Latinx activism in recent years. Dávila writes, “These media are the one space that remains considerable more accessible to communities, even when their reach and impact remain quite limited” (13). Dávila suggests that social media function to “document alternative voices and rescue the type of differences that are consistently bypassed by mainstream representations” (13). Although Dávila expresses concerns about privacy and surveillance on social media, her assertion that social media can counter overarching narratives of Latinidad is a call for media scholars to look to the future of contemporary media analysis.


Why Latino Media Studies?

Dávila’s work can help media scholars expand their studies beyond the U.S. to include Latin America and rethink how Latinxs in the U.S. engage with media that is supposedly made for them. By thinking about Latino media in terms of more than just representation, Dávila is expanding the field of Latino media and encouraging scholars like myself to engage with the political aspects of Latino media production and reception. Ultimately, Dávila’s scholarship demonstrates the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to media that studies that considers how media studies is a political field that has a tangible impact on all its consumers.

 


Works Cited

NYU Arts & Science. “Arlene M Davila.” NYU.edu. https://as.nyu.edu/content/nyu-as/as/faculty/arlene-davila.html (accessed November 13, 2017).

Dávila, Arlene, and Yeidy M. Rivero, eds. Contemporary Latina/o Media: Production, Circulation, Politics. NYU Press, 2014.

Evelyn Alsultany’s “Simplified Complex Representations”

“Part of Everyday, Popular Culture”

“I became aware of the politics of culture at a young age… and I slowly came to realize that such assumptions about [Arab and Latinx] identity were not just the result of particular news stories being repeated but part of everyday, popular culture.” – Evelyn Alsultany, “Untapped Stereotypes”

TEDxUofM

Arab and Muslim Representation

Whereas Jack Shaheen’s landmark text Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People focuses on film, Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 focuses on television. In the text, Alsultany introduces the concept of “simplified complex representations.”

NYU-Book-Cover“This [representational mode] has meant that if an Arab/Muslim terrorist is represented in the story line of a TV drama or film, then a ‘positive’ representation of an Arab, Muslim, Arab American, or Muslim American is typically included [after 9/11], seemingly to offset the stereotype of the Arab/Muslim terrorist” (Alsultany 14).

Positive or “good” representations of Muslims, Alsultany continues, are developed around their perceived allegiance to the state (here, the United States) rather than their religion. They are presumed “bad” until proven citizen. This mode of representation operates on the assumption that the United States is post-race while simultaneously racializing Arabs and Muslims (moving them out of the category of “white” and into a category of Other). Simplified complex representations appear to complicate “bad” representations by introducing “good” ones, such that they appear to challenge stereotypes but instead introduce a binary opposition between “bad” and “good.”

BAD

  • Terrorist
  • Oil sheikh
  • Oppressed woman

GOOD

  • Citizen that forfeits their rights for the good of their country
  • Government or military employee
  • Woman that gives up her headscarf/hijab

The “good” representations look more complex, but they are still grounded in or against stereotypes and offer little room for Arabs and Muslims to operate in between. They also lend themselves to the conflation of Arab and Muslim: it can become difficult to differentiate between the two when they often appear to be the same thing in media and simplified complex representations do not perform the work of distinguishing them.

Jack Shaheen spent the better part of a lifetime advocating for more complex representations of Arabs in American media and Evelyn Alsultany’s work is, in many ways, a continuation of his. It would be almost impossible to write about the latter without writing about the former; however, Alsultany’s critical work, especially that presenting the evidence for simplified complex representations, situates critique of Arab and Muslim representations in American media in Cultural Studies and in a greater body of Media Studies.

Arabs and Muslims in the Media is limited in the kind of media (television and advertising) it critically analyzes; however, it has far reaching consequences, especially as media production moves farther in time from 9/11. Alsultany identifies simplified complex representations so that they might be made different, but different how? To complicate representations of Arabs and Muslims in media, would one have to completely remove that media from the context of 9/11? Is that even possible when creating contemporary media concerning Arabs and Muslims? What would more complex representation look like? And does it matter whether or not Arabs and Muslims play Arabs and Muslims on television and in film? What would it mean to simplify representations? What role might new media forms play in differentiating representations produced by their predecessors? One might, as I have, ask these questions after engaging with Alsultany’s work; it does not provide a conclusive answer to any of them.

If Alsultany’s work is a continuation of Shaheen’s, then it is part of a fledgling body of scholarship concerning representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media. There is more work yet to be done as representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Arab and Muslim Americans move beyond the binary of “bad” and “good” and move into more complex categories, including that of race. As Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent consider checking off a new box on the census, we might consider just how much of an impact media has on the ways we perceive ourselves and the ways we are perceived by others and we may do so, in part, through Alsultany’s work.


Professor Evelyn Alsultany currently serves as the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where she has taught since 2005. She is also the co-founder and director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program in Michigan’s Department of American Culture. An alumna of the University of Michigan, Alsultany received her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Political Science from the college before completing her Master of Arts at the New School for Social Research in New York and Doctor of Philosophy in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Alsultany’s research addresses representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media.

More about her approach to media studies may be read here on her website.

Her CV may be found here.

Works that she has written or edited may be found here.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York University Press, 2012.

“Untapped Stereotypes: Evelyn Alsultany at TEDxUofM.” Performance by Evelyn Alsultany, TEDx Talks, 3 May 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4J1Gaz3ByU.

Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology:” Rethinking Race

“Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way…”

We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 8

 

Official_portrait_of_Barack_ObamaBarack Obama is, and will forever be, the subject of much critical scholarship. His rhetoric, his multi-ethnic and multi-national heritage, and his love of hip-hop and Michelle Robinson have been inspiration for all kinds of writers, from journalists such as Ta-Nehisi Coates to academics like Beth Coleman. In fact, Beth Coleman’s article, “Race as Technology,” an essay which uses Barack Obama as a key example, explores the doors which might open if we begin to reconsider the ways in which we have always thought about race, and viewing it instead as a tool, or a technology. Coleman’s attempt to break into a new world of possibility drew me in as I thought about women and people of color’s contributions to media studies.

Dr. Coleman was an assistant professor of writing and new media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Writing and Humanities Studies and Comparative Media Studies, but currently is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her research interests include new media, aesthetics, electronic music, critical theory and literature, and race theory. She was a 2003/2004 Rockefeller New Media fellow and a 2004 Ford Fellow. In addition to her scholarly work, Coleman is also a widely regarded electronic music composer.

Her article “Race as Technology,” offers innovative ways to consider race’s relationship to technology. She argues mainly that by considering race as a technology, it can lead to greater subject agency. “Technology’s embedded function of self-extension,” she writes, “may be exploited to liberate race from an inherited position of abjection toward a greater expression of agency.” (Coleman, 177) In order to do this, Coleman posits that our first move is to denature and reframe race from its historical roots to be able to use it as a tool. We need to understand racial identity as constructed in order to maximize its potential as such.

Strengths of her argument include the compelling examples of Barack Obama’s rhetoric and an interesting scene of passing in “The Battle of Algiers.” Her essay borrows from the classic philosophy of Kant and Rousseau, as well as theory which we have been exposed to in this class, particularly Marshall McLuhan, in her assessment of technology as prosthesis. (Coleman, 184) While her argument is convincing and insightful, there are moments in the text which offer points for departure in her future work or else for another scholar to work through. One such section was Coleman’s use of Nella Larsen’s Passing. She begins a discussion, in which the reader is supposed to think of how Larsen’s characters, Irene and Clare, use race as a technology. This section struck me as fruitful but, unfortunately, underdeveloped. It would have been an excellent to theorize queer Black femininity as a technology. How do we understand the female Black body as a technology? Is it the same or different? On this note, it is worth asking another question: can you divorce race from historization as Coleman asks us to do? She herself recognizes the danger of such a suggestion but it still a question worth considering moving forward.

Moving forward, Coleman’s ideas offer me much to think about. She offers ideas about how to theorize constructions of race, but also how this could lead to theorizing other constructions of race. And while she convinces me that race as a technology is a useful tool, I question if, and how, race might be a medium. After all, Barack Obama, as she points out, uses rhetorical devices and quotations from the Founding Fathers in a rhythm belonging to a Baptist preacher. His rhetorical style communicates an allure to white citizens, without alienating Black citizens. The same set of words, spoken in the same way, are decoded differently by separate groups. As Coates aptly writes about Obama, he has “found a third way,” a way which Coleman might argue is constructed by using race as a technology.

Coleman ask us to consider that thinking of race as a technology could potentially be a trap or a trap door. I believe in the trap door. Coleman’s theory can be used as an entry way into the unknown.

 

Works Cited

 

Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1 (2009): 176-207.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, (2017)

 

Nella Larsen, Passing. New York: Norton, (1929)

 

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press (1964)

Mary Ann Doane on Spectating and Female Desire

Mary Ann Doane’s 1987 scholarly book, The Desire to Desire, examines the role of female spectator.
She begins by asking, what is a female spectator? The vehicle for her research is 1940’s women films. According to Gillian Swanson, author of “Building the Feminine: Feminist Film Theory and Female Spectatorship,” The Desire to Desire “investigates the forms of representation found in the woman’s film, its address to the female spectator and the discursive field of femininity.”
A starting or jumping off point for Doane is Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which first appeared in Screen journal in 1975. In the 1999 version of the same, Mulvey reveals two ways that Hollywood lures male spectators. By including within the diegesis (narrative) (1) female objects to gawk at, for sexual fantasy (2) male action heroes to identify with, for re-building the ego. Differences in how men fantasize and enter films compared to women are based on Freud’s and Lacan’s castration myths. When a male child sees himself in the mirror and realizes he is separate from his mother and that she does not have a penis, he develops a “castration complex.” Watching film may allow him to suspend that fear momentarily by objectifying women, thus creating distance (Freud and Lacan qtd in Doane 14 and 15). Because we are born of language, young children may compare: do you have a penis? You don’t? And according to Lacan, sexual difference is “mapped onto linguistic difference” (Lacan as qtd in Doane 10). Lacking a phallus there can be no ego mastery. The most women can hope for is passivity, submission, suffering with others, and masochism (Freud qtd in Doanne 16)

The aim of Doanne’s study is to outline how a female spectator will be conceptualized.

According to Teresa de Laurentis, spectatorship and identification are processes, not states, and women identifying with male heroes become a non-subject (lack subjectivity) and this has a negating effect (8). In Mulvey’s arguments, double identifying is a form of transvestism, and masculinity should not be requirement to have “agency” (Lauretis and Mulvey qtd in Doanne 8). Female spectatorship is overly narcissistic, resulting in the labeling of woman’s films as “weepies” and “tearjerkers” (9). What happens to passive non-subjects? Their only access to desire is to desire (9). Doane maintains, if we can understand the cinema’s current appeals to pathos, then an alternate experience might be created. `

Through a survey of 1940s “woman” films, Doane determines the outcome of stories; when women desire men, they are negated. With these examples, Doane reveals how film negates active sexual roles for women. One is through inverting the spectator gaze—women who gaze at men are scrutinized by the camera and by their male leads. A case in point is the 1946 film Humoresque directed by Jean Negulesco. According to Freud, identification allows women to express their (hysterical) symptoms but also suffer for others (masochism) (16). His psychoanalytic theory suggests that men and women’s ego identification differs vastly in the cinema. Identifying with the female leads of the 1940s films reinforces submission (with the exception of The Heiress where Joan Fontaine’s character decides to finish the “Z” on her embroidery and tells the hired help to bolt the door, rather than marry the suitor who is clearly after her father’s money). In the love story, Humoresque, “Helen (played by Joan Crawford ) upsets and reverses the opposition between spectator and spectacle” (Doane 99). She is a woman who dares to gaze at a man (Paul the violinist). Wearing glasses and being nearsighted signifies “the perversity of her scopophiliac relation” (Doane 99). The first time she sees the virtuouso she will have an affair with, there is a mirror behind her. Rather than cut to Paul, the camera focuses on Helen, so to male viewers watching the film, she remains the object of male gaze, as well as the object of Paul’s gaze, negating her role in the movie as subject. To punish her for going outside the bounds of family (she is married and Paul’s mother wants him to marry another woman Gina), in the final scene, his mother replaces her in the spectator booth at the concert. As Helen walks to her death in the ocean, the music from Paul’s violin swells. Doane points to Mulvey’s description of “the sadism of narrative” (122), and she raises concern over cinema’s appeal to women’s narcissism, while sending a message of punishment for desiring.

Art patroness Helen, played by Joan Crawford, fixes her gaze on Paul, the feminized violin virtuoso in Humoresque (1946)

 

The text further expounds that female desire is unwelcome (is impossible) in a patriarchal society. Only passive desire is acceptable. Case in point is “Waterloo Bridge” (1940) with Vivian Leigh. Myra waits for her husband gone to war until being “mistakenly informed” that he was killed in action. She resorts to prostitution for an income. Upon his surprise return, she must be punished for her “disloyalty.” The climactic scene shows closer and closer shots of her face, focusing on her eyes, as lorries approach and run over her in the dark fog of the bridge. Her gaze snuffed out, what her husband remembers is her voice (Doane 122). According to psychoanalytic theory, if women have power in a love story, it is an irrational power. The power of a hysteric. The Bette Davis character in the 1940 film The Letter spends her idle hours lacemaking and is accused by a lawyer of resorting to this hobby to avoid thinking of adultery and killing her lover. Doane reveals it was well known that Freud “tried to contain threatening aspects of female production” by insisting that any act of weaving or braiding was not unlike braiding pubic hair act to act out what it might be like to have a penis. Besides citing Freud, Doanne quotes Roland Barthes, who compares the labor of creating stories to lacemaking. However, Barthes then negates that concession by equating “text” with a fetish, a “phallic substitute” (qtd in Doane 111).

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Leslie, played by Bette Davis, in the 1940 film The Letter, crochets lace to divert her gaze from her husband.

Love stories are one of several genres Doane analyses to discuss female spectatorship. She also covers Pathos and the Maternal, Clinical Eyes and Medical Discourse, and Paranoia and the Spectacular. In the films about paranoia, a fear of being subjected to the male gaze is targeted (Doane 127). For instance, in The Spiral Staircase (1946), the antagonist stalks women with physical handicaps. The victim played by Dorothy McGuire is temporarily mute, so cannot call for help (127). In the large mansion, home of a bedridden matriarch, the stairwell from a distance resembles a menacing eye. In the stairwell, there is a mirror where Helen studies her mouth and practices moving it to speak. Besides identifying with her own image, what she glimpses is a “psychotic eye” leering at her in the darkness (127). From the male’s viewpoint lurking in dark, Helen’s face is distorted (127). Her mouth is disfigured and signifies castration: one rationalization for the male antagonist’s attempt to kill or negate her (127).

Questions for future research: To what extent has consideration of the female gaze and uncovering the presentation of sexual differences in film affected how films are made and are received today?

Works Cited

Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire : the Woman’s Film of the 1940s / Mary Ann Doane. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Swanson, Gillian. “Building the Feminine: Feminist Film Theory and Female Spectatorship.” Continuum 4.2 (1991): 206-17. Web.