Building an Archive of Our Own: The Ephemerality of the Digital Fanfiction Archive

Introduction

For decades, fanfiction has been a beloved practice among fans of just about any media fandom. Whether it is novel-length stories about members of One Direction romancing ordinary girls or short, rambling anecdotes about which character from the Harry Potter universe is most likely to order a pumpkin spice latte, fanfiction offers readers a chance to live out their fantastic and mundane fantasies in a fan community that is relatively free of judgment.

Compared to the days when paper copies of fanfiction were circulated around conventions and mailing lists, the Internet has enabled today’s fanfiction can reach a wider audience at a faster pace. In 2017, the bulk of new fanfiction online can be found on Archive of Our Own, also known as AO3. Founded in 2007 by the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), AO3 offers a noncommercial and nonprofit hosting place for fanworks, including videos, art, stories, and audio content. As of December 20, 2017, AO3 has more than 3,509,000 works from over 1,344,000 users. Though the digitization of fanfiction has dramatically increased its accessibility, it also has brought up questions about the effectiveness of the digital archive.

In this essay, I will reflect on how the relationship between fanfiction and the archive. This relationship, I argue, has shaped fanfiction creation as both a cultural practice and a form of labor that has the potential to be exploited for capital gains. I will also delve into the nature of the archive as infinitely expanding, yet still susceptible to loss, and what this potential loss could mean for digital archives like Archive of Our Own. In acknowledging the ephemerality of the fanfiction archive, we can think on the ways in which it manages to endure.

Digital Fanfiction and the Papyrus Scroll

Though one might think of printed fanfiction as the direct precursor to digital fanfiction, Lev Manovich offers an alternative perspective of the shift from print to digital. Manovich observes that text is unique among media types, in part because it “is a metalanguage of computer media, a code in which all other media are represented” (74). Text, he argues, is the primary means of communication between a user and a computer. And if text is the metalanguage of computers, then cultural interfaces are derived from the principles of text organization, such as the page. Manovich uses the term ‘cultural interface’ to describe “a human-computer-culture-interface – the ways in which computers present and allow us to interact with cultural data” (70). New media cultural objects like online museums and multimedia encyclopedias are examples of cultural interfaces.

According to Manovich, cultural interfaces stretch the definition of the page interface to include new concepts made by the computer. For instance, overlapping windows on a computer monitor function like a set of book pages that the user can scroll through. As technology has progressed, the virtual page has extended even further to include elements like HTML. In its transition from clay tablets to paper to HTML, the page, Manovich suggests, has become more unstable as it mixes together different historical forms. The scrolling feature of a web page shares more similarities with a papyrus roll than it does with the sheet pages of a book, and the integration of photographs and sound on a web page is conceptually similar to a newspaper page.

AO3 web pages operate much like the web pages that Manovich describes. Fanfictions are broken into chapters (at the author’s discretion) and each chapter can be opened in a new tab or window, allowing users to jump through chapters at their own pace. At the same time, authors who choose to write long chapters, or forego putting their stories into

A general tutorial for HTML text-formatting on AO3.

A general tutorial for HTML text-formatting on AO3. (AO3, 2015)

chapters in favor of page breaks, require their readers to scroll through a web page that can go on for thousands of words Tech-savvy users can use HTML to format their text and pages or add tables, lists, links, or images into their stories, creating a multimedia experience. Although these processes are happening online, fanfiction writers are drawing on the traditions of pre-digital books, scrolls, and periodicals, revealing the complex nature of online cultural interfaces.

On the “Archive”

The development of the fanfiction archive has had a profound impact on how fanfiction is written, read, and discovered. Abigail Derecho calls for an analysis of fanfiction not as a cultural phenomenon, but as a cultural practice. Derecho defines fanfiction as a subgenre of archontic literature. Archontic literature, Derecho explains, refers to Jacques Derrida’s definition of archives as always expanding. Looking at archontic literature from the seventeenth century to the present, Derecho evaluates how people of color and women have used archontic writing to critique social and cultural expectations. Influenced by poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze and Edouard Glissant, Derecho suggests that fanfiction, as a form of archontic literature, challenges outdated notions of hierarchy and property.

Derecho observes three arguments among fan scholars regarding fanfiction and its origins. The first argument is that fanfiction originated several millennia ago, with myth stories, and today encompasses works from authors who identify as fans and those who do not write from within fandoms. The second argument is that fanfiction should be understood as a product of fan cultures. Star Trek, Jane Austen, and Sherlock Holmes fan societies are just some examples of twentieth century fan cultures. The third argument, which Derecho declares is the most accurate line of thinking, is that fanfiction neither encompasses most of literature nor emerges out a relatively recent trend in audience response.

Derecho’s use of the term “archontic” comes from Jacques Derrida’s 1995 work Archive Fever, in which he asserts that no archive is ever complete or closed. Although Derrida imagines the archive as ever-growing, Alexis Lothian notes that Derrida also recognizes that a complete archive would be an impossible concept. Loss is an inevitable part of any archive, including the digital archive. The archontic principle, Derecho elaborates, “is the drive within an archive that seeks to always produce more archive, to enlarge itself” (64). Derecho argues that unlike the terms “derivative” or “appropriative,” which imply hierarchy and ownership, “archontic” best describes how fanfiction is archival in nature. She explains that “all texts that build on a previously existing text are not lesser than the source text, and they do not violate the boundaries of the source text; rather, they only add to that text’s archive, becoming a part of the archive and expanding it” (65). The archontic text has the potential for infinite expansion, which calls into question whether all texts can be considered archontic. Derecho asserts that for her analysis, archontic refers only to “works that generate variations that explicitly announce themselves as variations” (65). Since works on AO3 are clearly delineated as variations (listing the ‘source’ fandom(s) is mandatory), the fanfictions on the archive would fall under this classification of archontic literature.

Derecho is also interested in how archontic writing incorporates repetition. Citing Gilles Deleuze, who argues that a repeated material can in fact contain differences from the first iteration, Derecho claims that “when one reads a work of archontic writing, in other words, one is really reading two texts at once” (73). For the fanfiction reader, the source material remains in their mind while they read fanfiction, and the fanfiction subsequently impacts how they view the source material. Consequently, the fanfiction reader might come to prefer their own version of a story to what is happening in the canonical text, possibly abandoning the show altogether in favor of the online community.

Wrangling the Tags

To keep the archive organized, AO3 relies on a tagging system, but this system is not without issues. In her examination of tagging practices on AO3, Kelly Lynn Dalton argues that AO3’s hybrid of freetagging and some vocabulary control and hierarchy works well. According to Dalton, AO3 employs a free tagging system by allowing users who post their own fanworks to create their own tags. Once a user posts their tags, volunteers known as “tag wranglers” step in behind-the-scenes and link the tags to AO3’s canonical tags. These canonical tags are set up by the wranglers for the character names, relationships, and the source material. For instance, Dalton explains, the tag “Romeo and Juliet” would fall under the canonical tag “Juliet Capulet/Romeo Montague.”

Despite this creative freedom with tagging, AO3 still requires certain types of tags, mostly to prevent readers from stumbling upon inappropriate or upsetting content. According to Dalton, AO3 requires users to include a rating, such as “general audiences” or “teen and up audiences.” There are also options to put a content warning for violence, death, rape, and underage sexual content. Users can somewhat work around these required tags by labeling their works as “not rated” and choosing “author chose not to use archive warnings” in lieu of content descriptors.

Dalton notes that AO3 maintains some vocabulary control by pushing autocomplete suggestions at taggers. Once an author has assigned a story to a specific fandom, the system will start suggesting canonical names from that fandom based on the first letters the user types into the system. Autocomplete can help prevent typing errors, which streamlines the tag-wrangling process. Users are not required to use the autocomplete suggestions, but they are encouraged, suggesting that AO3 is influencing the language of fandom despite its claim that it is giving users full creative control.

AO3 is not the only fanfiction website on the Internet, but its tagging system is arguably the most complex. Dalton offers some insights into the divide between AO3 and fanfiction.net, another popular fanfiction-hosting website. Based on a quantitative and qualitative survey of AO3 users, Dalton finds that most respondents prefer AO3’s complex search system compared to fanfiction.net’s bare-bones system that limits tagging for up to four characters, two genres, and two fandoms. Although she does not address the issue in her survey, Dalton suggests that some of this preference for AO3 may stem from fanfiction.net’s refusal to allow explicit fanfiction and the automatic deletion of explicit works from the website.

While AO3’s search system seems to be preferred by fanfiction readers, Dalton reports that users are not completely satisfied by the website’s filters. Many respondents indicated that they would like to frame their searches around the exclusion of certain characters, pairings, and fandoms. Rating and warnings make it easy to filter out graphic violence and sexual content, but filtering out other tags is much more challenging unless one is intimately familiar with both AO3’s tagging system and advanced search commands like (-) and (+).

Another issue with AO3’s tagging system is the weighting, or lack thereof, of tags. Dalton observes that users struggle to determine who the “main” character or pairing is for a story because AO3 gives equal weight in the tags to each mentioned character or pairing. Dalton suggests that authors who tag every single character who appears in their

On a similar note, this AO3 tag generator generates a random AO3 tag, such as “#potentially deadly greco-roman OC’s” or “#cringeworthy breakfast love story.” The relative popularity of this generator on AO3 suggests that users are self-aware of their elaborate tagging styles.

On a similar note, this AO3 tag generator generates a random AO3 tag, such as “#potentially deadly greco-roman OC’s” or “#cringeworthy breakfast love story.” The relative popularity of this generator on AO3 suggests that users are self-aware of their elaborate tagging styles.

fanfiction can create a sort of “tag fog” for readers looking for stories focused on their favorite characters (85). Oftentimes, tag fog is the result of users practicing a sort of stream-of-consciousness style tagging. Tag fog has become such an issue in the AO3 community that there are entire blogs dedicated to showcasing some of the more colorful tags. Highlights from the “AO3 Tag of the Day” Tumblr blog include “#honestly this fic could very much be my horcrux #i poured my entire soul into it” and “#innaccurate descriptions of jobs and other things i got off google #or just made up tbh #the important stuff is accurate #i swear.”

In allowing freeform tagging, AO3 expands creative freedom at the expense of efficiency and accessibility, demonstrating one of the inadequacies of their archive model that values users over moderators. While users may find fanfiction.net’s limited tagging features to be too stifling, they also find AO3 to be at times, too relaxed.

The Digital Archive Culture

The reason for this user-centric archive model stems from the origins of the organization behind AO3, the Organization for Transformative Works. Alexis Lothian explains that the name “Organization for Transformative Works,” or OTW, comes from the provision in US copyright law that ‘transformative’ uses of copyright material qualify as ‘fair use’. From the OTW’s perspective, fanfiction and similar types of fanworks like videos and drawings, are transformative works and therefore do not infringe on intellectual property laws. As a supporter and member of the OTW (and having served on the founding editorial team of the OTW’s open-access academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures), Lothian seeks to complicate the discussion around what fannish and scholarly archivable content is and should be.

Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s 1996 work, Archive Fever, Lothian investigates how contemporary fandoms form digital archive cultures. Lothian suggests that online fandom developed an archival formation in order to share amateur art and writing. By becoming digital archive cultures, Lothian writes, “online fan communities have transformed from marginal worlds, of interest only to members and scholarly admirers, into discursive landscapes at the heart of debates about digital media and intellectual property” (544). These fan communities are larger, more exposed, and more interconnected with other fandoms than ever before. When AO3 users search for specific tags like “hurt/comfort” or “alternate universe: coffee shop” without specifying which fandom they want to read about, they are put into conversation with potentially hundreds of fandoms and thousands of users who are all talking about the same tag. These newfound relationships consequently expand into other online spaces like Twitter and Tumblr, incorporating an even larger audience. As AO3’s userbase continues to expand, so does its potential to be recognized by potential to be recognized by “official” media producers.

Fanworks and Fans Working

Lothian is concerned that fans’ archontic production has been viewed by corporations as a resource to be exploited. She elaborates that fans’ willingness to do free labor is profitable to producers because it increases the presence of copyrighted characters and narratives. However, Lothian asserts, fans are conscious of some of the ways in which media companies attempt to exploit fan labor. Back in 2007, users on FanLib.com, a fanfiction-hosting website that was sponsored by media companies, complained that the people behind FanLib were profiting off other people’s intellectual property. Calling for an archive of their own, some of these fans drafted a vision of a centralized archive that would encourage fans to participate in a subcultural and non-corporate fannish archive culture. This vision turned into the umbrella nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works, which went live in October 2008 and bought its own servers in September 2009. Running without commercial advertisements or official corporate sponsorships, the OTW continues to thrive today because of donations from its users. OTW is also supported by its staff of volunteers, who serve as tag wranglers, testers, coders, support staff, and abuse report staff.

Though the OTW says that the two ways to support the organization are donating and volunteering, creating fanworks is ultimately what keeps the archive alive, bringing in new visitors and keeping current users engaged. Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis argue that fan activities, including fanfiction writing, have been framed as participatory and voluntary, which calls into question how labor functions in fandom. According to Stanfill and Condis, industry recognition and encouragement of fan value creation is a relatively new phenomenon that can be attributed to the increased visibility of fan practices online.

Stanfill and Condis emphasize the importance of thinking of fan practices as a form of labor. They note that fandom has typically been thought of as a gift economy in which a gift is not a freely offered expression of affection but is instead obligatory. This line of thinking, Stanfill and Condis argue, overlooks how fan labor, however pleasurable it may be, is still labor. Fan labor needs to be recognized as such because it shapes online fandom in a significant way. Fan labor is what built the Organization for Transformative Works and maintains AO3. Though there are issues of exploitation to investigate, Stanfill and Condis assert that framing fan action as work provides a way to appreciate what fans are doing.

An Archive of “Our” Own?

The ‘our’ in ‘Archive of Our Own’ calls into question the relationship between the community and the archive. The OTW professes a rhetoric of community with the motto “by fans, for fans,” but Lothian, drawing on Derrida and Miranda Joseph, insists that “all communities, like all archives, are constituted through violence and erasure” (548). The conflicts and exclusions happening in the community and the archive are central to their formation.

One of these conflicts concerns the OTW’s relationship to law and capital. To protect fans from infringement accusations, the OTW claims that fans are loyal customers who will ultimately allow others (media companies) to profit from fans’ free labor. While the OTW is a nonprofit organization, Lothian explains that their drive for legal legitimacy rests on this strategic claim. Lothian emphasizes the importance of asking who and what will be left behind as the OTW evolves into a public-facing organization that represents fan cultures’ interests to academics and journalists.

Lothian addresses the concern from some fans that fan studies is invasive. She notes that these fans “would prefer not to be legitimated into a scholarly archive, not to be a source for articles like this one, perhaps not to be archived at all” (549). Lothian proposes honoring fans’ discomfort with scholarly archiving by looking at the ways that fan cultures exceed the OTW’s archival model. When the OTW was developed, LiveJournal was one of the more popular social networking services for subcultural fans. According to Lothian, LiveJournal’s ephemeral style of engagement emphasized user interactions rather than archival features. Links to past postings enabled users to store and share fanworks in the manner of an archive, but the website did not differentiate structurally between art, fiction, and photographs. Lothian presents LiveJournal as an example of how fandom’s relationship to the archive is neither static nor stable. By thinking of online participation as an ephemeral performance, she proposes that scholars can approach the digital with attention to the affective elements that exceed the recorded archive.

Remembering the Archive

Wendy Chun offers a closer examination of digital media and memory. Chun argues that “the major characteristic of digital media is memory” (154). She observes that the technological shift from calculator to computer depended on regenerative memory. If the calculator was a machine, then the computer was a human-emulator. The Internet’s content is similarly based on memory. Chun notes that many websites and digital media projects focus on preservation, suggesting that “memory allegedly makes digital media an ever-increasing archive in which no piece of data is lost” (154). This idea that no piece of data is ever lost has led some to see the Internet as threatening. Regardless of this threat of exposure, people continue to share compromising information about themselves online.

Chun refers to Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” to reflect on the conflation of the memex and the Internet. According to Chun, Bush’s memex is “linked to a mechanical, analog future that has not and arguably may not come to pass” (155). Thinking of the memex as a precursor to the Internet conceals the ephemerality of digital media. Bush envisioned the memex as a mechanical solution for researchers struggling to access scientific records. Ideally, the memex would save people from repetitive thought and repetitions in thought. Being able to pull up any piece of knowledge with a machine would allow one the privilege of forgetting.

The problem with Bush’s vision of the memex is that Bush does not differentiate between access to and understanding the record. According to Chun, Bush assumes that human records make possible the construction of an archive that has no gaps. By Bush’s logic, discontinuities in human knowledge are due to a failure to consult the human record. Unlike humans, machines are somehow accident-free and permanent.  The reality of machines, however, is that they are susceptible to failure. Microfilm fades, paper burns, and hard drives are corrupted. In the world of online fanfiction, stories can be deleted by users, erased due to a website crash, or removed by moderators for violating the website’s terms of use.

Chun argues that this belief that machines are more stable than human memory is at odds with the material transience of the Internet. She emphasizes the ephemerality of digital media, writing that “digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable” (160). Computer memory is akin to erasable writing because the computer’s memory can constantly be rewritten, and the age of a computer memory seldom corresponds with the age of the memory it holds. Because fanfiction on AO3 can be updated and edited, a user can easily rewrite a story, making the outdated version essentially “disappear” from the archive.

Chun is concerned with the conflation of storage with memory. For Chun, memory is an active process that looks backward, while storage looks toward the future. In other words, memory is an act of remembering that requires constant regeneration to keep it from fading or moving. Echoing the argument of Wolfgang Ernst, Chun asserts that digital media is a time-based medium. She elaborates that digital media “depends on a degeneration actively denied and repressed” (167). While film stock and paper are recognized as non-durable, the digital computer is still perceived as a permanent memory machine. The computer appears permanent in part because it is constantly refreshed so that its ephemerality survives.

This “enduring ephemeral,” which Chun classifies as a “battle of diligence between the passing and the repetitive,” is also applicable to content on the Internet (167). Though the Internet may be available around the clock, specific content may disappear and reappear at any time, which can prove frustrating for those trying to erase content. The Internet Wayback Machine (IWM), a webservice that makes archives of deleted or changed websites available, is one avenue for recovering lost content. The webpages that the IWM preserves are “not quite dead, but not quite alive either” because there remain gaps in the preserved pages (such as broken links or missing images) but they visualize how constant regeneration affects what is regenerated (169). A proper commemoration would require greater effort than IWM’s technology has to offer. AO3 is also available on the IWM, though the OTW advocates for users to download their favorite stories in case AO3 vanishes from the IWM, as it did in 2016 for seven months. For all that AO3 and the IWM can do to archive fanworks, it too is susceptible to the loss that afflicts all archives. If the digital archive is ephemeral, as Chun suggests, then AO3 users must accept the possibility that one day their stories could vanish.

Conclusion: Why Do We Archive Fanfiction?

Though some might argue that the loss of fanfiction would have a significantly smaller impact than say, the loss of a scientific record, digital fanfiction is vital for online fandoms because of its liberating potential. Derecho describes fanfiction as the “literature of the subordinate, because most fanfic authors are women responding to media productions that, for the most part, are characterized by an underrepresentation of women” (71). Although fanfiction, Derecho argues, tends to reinforce traditional gender roles and social norms, it still functions as a form of artistic resistance. The virtual realm plays a significant role in expanding the possibilities of fanfiction. According to Derecho, Deleuze sees the virtual as a set of potentialities that could happen at any given time. While print culture involved the exploration of only a handful of possibilities within texts, Derecho asserts that the Internet has allowed thousands of potentialities to be actualized and circulated online. Reflecting on the importance of fanfiction and archontic literature, Derecho suggests that these works open up possibilities for a different perspective on the institutional and the social.

The Archive of Our Own might be an archive of wacky Dragon Ball/Sons of Anarchy crossover fanfictions, but it is also a commemoration of fan resistance to a world that constantly undervalues women, people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, and other disadvantaged groups. That this archive somehow emerged out of the traditions of the papyrus scroll and the magazine leaflet demonstrates the interconnectedness of old and new media in a what has been thought to be an exclusively digital age. As scholars think about how such an archive can be preserved, I echo Chun’s sentiment that we must embrace the ephemerality of the Internet and appreciate how, despite its constant regenerations, the digital archive survives.


Works Cited

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Autumn, 2008, 148-171.

Dalton, Kelly L. Searching the Archive of Our Own: The Usefulness of the Tagging Strucutre. Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2012.

Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, A History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Kristina Busse, Karen Hellekson, McFarland & Company, 2006, 61-78.

Lothian, Alexis. “Archival anarchies: Online fandom, subcultural conservation, and the transformative work of digital ephemera.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Volume 16, Issue 6, 2012, 541-556.

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

Stanfill, Mel and Condis, Megan. “Editorial: Fandom and/as labor.” Transformative Works and Cultures, Volume 15, 2015. Web.

 

 

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.

Hijab as Media

Creating Context

Hijab, the Arabic word for “curtain,” takes its original meaning from the root ح-ج-ب (h-j-b) “to veil, cover, screen, shelter, seclude” (Cowan 184). The first use of the word hijab in the Qur’an is in book 33, “The Joint Forces” (“Al-Ahzab”), verse (ayah) 53, which M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translates to,

When you ask his [the Prophet Muhammad’s] wives for something, do so from behind a screen [hijab]: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. (426)

An alternative translation may be read here, alongside the Arabic text.

Understood in this historical, theological context, the form of the hijab, if analyzed as a kind of media, would have been a partition and one message it would have conveyed would be that the women behind it were the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and therefore ineligible for marriage to any other man. These women were not just married to the Prophet Muhammad, they helped establish his connections with politically influential families as Islam took root in the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

From Curtain to Covering

The shift in the meaning of the hijab from “curtain” to the tradition of veiling or its particular form as a style of headscarf, as it is popularly understood today, would most likely not have occurred until after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A timeline of Islamic history may be viewed here.

Islamic studies scholar Leila Ahmed argues in Women and Gender in Islam that the practice of Muslim women employing the hijab as a means of seclusion was unique to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad during and for a period after his lifetime (55). She writes,

It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Muhammad’s wives being taken as models probably combined to bring about their general adoption. (56)

As Islam spread outward from Saudi Arabia in the time after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it changed. So, too, did the form and message of the hijab. Although it is unclear exactly when the transition from curtain to covering occurred, one can see the ways in which the tradition of veiling that would come to be known as hijab has manifested throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Continental Shifts

MuslimGirl produced “100 Years of Hijab Fashion in One Minute (MENA/Asia)” and “100 Years of Hijab Fashion (Africa Pt. 1),” viewable below. The videos demonstrate the ways in which the hijab has taken on different forms, as well as political and non-religious meanings, from 1910 up until the present.

 

In different places, at different times, the hijab has taken into its form a multiplicity of meanings.

The hijab can be

  • imposed upon a woman’s body by her government or her family,
  • practiced by a woman as an expression of religious belief and display of modesty,
  • taken off as a political statement against oppressive institutions, or
  • worn as a fashion statement.

None of these meanings are exclusive of one another and these examples are not exhaustive.

Further, the materials constituting the hijab or any of its particular forms (such as the abaya, burqa, chador, hijab, or niqab) reflect the localities in which they are both produced and worn. In the United States, one can see the hijab in its multiplicity of forms among groups of refugees, immigrants, and citizens, such that it cannot be used to distinguish one group from the others. As a medium, it cannot convey or confer citizenship.

However, the hijab can signal change over time, as Muslim women in the United States might choose to veil or choose not to veil in response to personal, local, national, or international events. The hijab is also part of an ongoing conversation taking place within Muslim communities. For example, in the summer of 2017, model Halima Aden appeared on the cover of Allure magazine wearing a Nike brand hijab, which, while celebrated in some circles, has also encouraged intra-community discussion over the commodification of Islamic culture in the Western world.

The hijab makes Muslim women who choose to veil one of the most visible representations of their faith. The forms and meanings of the veil are as different as the women that give them form and meaning, whether or not they choose to wear the hijab, and the contexts in which they do so. As a kind of media, the hijab stores, in its form, and disseminates, through its meanings, information.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University Press, 1992.

“حجب hajaba.” The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by JM Cowan, Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994.

Haleem, M.A.S. Abdel. The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.