With the latest round of thinkpieces about Rihanna’s BBHMM video, it seems like we’ve finally reached peak “Is it feminist?” I mean, it’s been a long road up to this peak, but this question feels like it’s growing stale and exhausting its ability to generate clicks.

“Is it feminist?” has always been a disciplining and normalizing question, one that centers particular kinds of women (privileged women) as the proper subject of feminism, and so on. This is what academic feminist theory learned in the 1900s, right? Anyway, “Is it feminist?” might be a productive question when feminism is itself a minority discourse, but in the era of Branded Post-Feminism(™), “Is it feminist?” it’s more normalizing than not. To be a lot theoretical about it: “Is it feminist?” used to serve as an instance of Rancierian disagreement. The question used to disrupt and at least give a little pause to hegemonic modes of thought and practice. But it’s not disruptive anymore; its disruption has itself been normalized. (Think, for example, of how “disruption” in general is fetishized as a term for innovation.)

But “Is it feminist?” is not the only way to start a feminist analysis or to think critically about gender politics. “What is it?” or “Is X a Y?” is like the oldest question in philosophy; “ti esti…?” (“what is…?”) is Socrates’ whole M.O. Philosophers have developed a lot more types of inquiry since then. We could, for example, ask “What is gendered and how?” or “What are the gendered components of this and how do they interact?” or, as Cynthia Enloe puts it, we can ask “Where are the women?” or “Where are the gender minorities?” or “Where are the nonbinary people?”

All the way back in 1949 Simone de Beauvoir identified the problems with “what is…?” or “is it….” style questions, and offered some alternative types of questions to ask instead. She begins the introduction to The Second Sex with a critique of these questions. Modeling the first part of the introduction after a Platonic dialogue, Beauvoir repeatedly asks “What is a woman?”: Biology? Nope. Metaphysical essence? Nope. Something made up, a false belief we should just get rid of? Nope. “Woman” is, Beauvoir argues, a situation in patriarchal power relations: “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (26). The “What is/Is it…?” questions get the ontology wrong. (See the “scope of the verb ‘to be’” discussion on p.33 of TSS…from a Beauvoirian perspective “Is it…?” questions are all asking after “serious [that is, predetermined] values” and are thus all grounded in bad faith.) Woman/feminist isn’t a definite thing or feature or set of features; it’s a status in a particular type of gendered social and epistemological structure. So, as Beauvoir concludes:

But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What circumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? These are the fundamental questions we would like to elucidate. (37).

Following Beauvoir, we could say this: “feminist” is a situation or relational status. Something cannot “be” feminist. It can assist or impede our ongoing reproduction of patriarchy–it can do things. Notice the questions Beauvoir asks at the end of this quote: they’re all action-oriented: What can one do? What does the material situation allow? How might one effectively change the concrete reality of patriarchy so that nobody finds themselves in this contradictory concrete status of feminization? Beauvoir’s questions are also contextually dependent: whether or not something assists or impedes the ongoing reproduction of patriarchy depends on the concrete specifics of that particular situation, how patriarchy manifests itself there and then.

So, those are a few feminist questions you can ask instead of “Is it feminist?” Do y’all have some favorites to add to the list?

Photo taken by Dheera Venkatraman in Myanmar.
Photo taken by Dheera Venkatraman in Myanmar.

For a little over a decade, those researchers and visionaries originally involved in establishing the infrastructure for the World Wide Web have set their sights higher.  While hyperlinking Web pages has been pivotal to creating a Web of documents, the more recent goals to establish a Semantic Web involve hyperlinking data, or individual elements within a Web page.  In attaching unique identifiers (in the form of Uniform Resource Identifiers or URIs) and metadata to data points (rather than to just the documents where those data points appear) machines are able to interpret, not just what the browser should display, but also what the page is about.  The hope is that, in providing machines with the capacity to interpret what data is about, it will be possible to drastically improve Web search and to allow researchers to perform automated reasoning on the massive amounts of data contributed to the Web.  There are numerous examples where this infrastructure is already having impact (albeit largely behind-the-scenes).  For instance, the New York Times has already “semantified” all of its data and created a Semantic API where researchers can query its database.  Facebook’s Graph API, which employs Semantic Web infrastructure to structure user profile data, has been the foundation for several studies attempting to make sense of human behavior and interactions through the platform’s “big data.” more...


Reddit’s co-founder Steve Huffman, who is currently taking over CEO responsibilities in the wake of Ellen Pao’s resignation, has started doing these Fireside AMAs where he makes some sort of edict and all of the reddit users react and ask clarifying questions. Just today he made an interesting statement about the future of “free speech” in general and certain controversial subreddits in particular. The full statement is here but I want to focus on this specific line where he describes how people were banned in the beginning of reddit versus the later years when the site became popular:

Occasionally, someone would start spewing hate, and I would ban them. The community rarely questioned me. When they did, they accepted my reasoning: “because I don’t want that content on our site.”

As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing. more...

We'll never get tired of putting different words on the enter button.
We’ll never get tired of putting different words on the enter button.

In May of 1999 two people filed a lawsuit against AOL. They were volunteers in the company’s Community Leaders program which encompassed everything from chatroom moderation to teaching online classes. You had to apply to be a Community Leader and once you were selected you had a minimum amount of hours you needed to work every week, a time card to keep track of those hours, and reports that needed to be filed with administration. It had all the hallmarks of a real job which is precisely what those two people claimed in their lawsuit. Their argument was that their role constituted an “employee relationship” but I think it is more accurate to say they were creating value for a company that didn’t even feel the need to provide some kind of subsistence wage.

This story has been told countless times as a jumping off point for arguments that labor has left the factory or that even those companies like Amazon or Uber that have been leaders in the contractor / sharing / worse-than-capitalism economy are not paying enough. Some are even calling for “platform cooperativism” which sounds super cool. But there is another, very big, reason why social media companies (in particular) should be paying their moderators and other community leaders: it helps with diversity. more...

For as influential as Attali’s Noise has been, most scholars have sidestepped its central claim: “music is prophecy” (11). It feels really undersupported; Attali asserts that music anticipates or foreshadows social change, but he doesn’t seem to provide anything more solid than correlations as evidence. As Eric Drott says in his just-published article in Critical Inquiry, “the book never fully spells out the mechanisms by which music performs its prophetic function” (725). I think Attali does spell out this mechanism. Music is prophecy because its physical structure–sound waves–is isomorphic with the physical structure of economic forecasts (probability functions, which are graphed as sine curves). Attali thinks both music and statistical forecasts are made of the same stuff, so thus music is predictive in the sense that Amazon’s recommendation bot is predictive.


I’ve been revising this article on Noise, Foucault, & biopolitical neoliberalism for my next book project. My analysis focuses on the Attali’s claim that the logic of the market, as understood by 1970s macroeconomic theory, is isomorphic with the logic of sound waves. Macroeconomics and acoustics study, essentially, the same phenomena. As Attali puts it, ‘non-harmonic music’ (Noise 115) makes ‘the laws of acoustics. . . the mode of production of a new sound matter’, and in so doing, ‘displays all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive economy’ (113). The laws of acoustics are isomorphic with the  “rules” of biopolitical governmentality and financialized political economy–that is, with statistical forecasts. The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics” to understand and manage populations “include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures” (SMBD 246). Similarly, the methods economists use to understand the “repetitive” (Attali’s term for late capitalism) market include “macrostatistical and global, aleatory view, in terms of probabilities and statistical groups” (Attali, Social Text, 11). The logic of forecasting and financialization mimics the logic of auditory signals (at least as contemporary physics understands this latter logic)–for example, both probability functions and sound frequencies are visualized as sine waves. Just as harmonics emerge from dynamically interacting frequencies, predictable, reliable ‘signal’ emerges–as life, as human capital, as a data forecast, a data self–from dynamically interacting streams of data.


So, because he thinks sound and statistical forecasts are more or less identical in structure, Attali can then argue that music is predictive, that “our music fortells our future” (Noise 11). Writing in 1977, Attali lacks databases and fast, massive-scale distributed computer processing, so uses music, which, like big-data number crunching, “explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code” (Noise 11). Music, for Attali, is like an algorithm predicts where society will go next: it crunches all the variables and figures out which combination is most probable. Writing in 2014, Attali further explains that this ability to crunch variables and determine the most probable outcome is what makes music similar to finance: “We could also explore the reason why music could be seen as predictive: as an immaterial activity, it explores more rapidly than any other the realm of potentials. In that sense, it is not far from another quasi immaterial activity, finance, which is also very often an excellent predictive tool.” In 2014, Attali gave a lecture titled “Music As A Predictive Science” at Harvard. There, he talks about Noise, his intentions in writing it, and whether his claims about the future were accurate. He repeatedly refers to his project in Noise as “forecasting.” Forecasting is the same term Nate Silver uses to describe what big data analytics does. In a sense, Attali scooped Silver by more than 30 years; Noise uses music in the same way that The Signal And The Noise uses data.
This is widely (and rightly) taken to be the point where Noise jumps the shark into pseudo-rationality: music seems no better suited to predict the future than astrology is. But data forecasting is also pseudo-rational. Attali’s method seems obviously outlandish because it, unlike big data forecasting, can’t hide behind the mantle of scientific objectivity. Privileging noise, understanding music as a market that is predictable and whose future can be forecast, Attali’s analysis of the history of western art music employs some of the central principles of neoliberal economic theory.

For many Reddit users, these are dark times indeed. With the banning of r/fatpeoplehate and other subreddits that did not curtail harassment and vote brigading, followed more recently by the sudden dismissal of Reddit employees including Victoria Taylor, many users are criticizing the increase in top-down administrative decisions made under the leadership of interim CEO Ellen Pao.  Alongside these criticisms are accusations that the “PC” culture of safe spaces and “social justice warriors” has eroded the ideological foundations of Reddit culture–freedom of speech, democracy, and the right to be offensive under any circumstances. Meanwhile, Reddit’s biggest competitor voat.co is having a hard time keeping their servers functioning with the massive influx of traffic. more...


The case of sociologist Zandria Robinson, formerly of the University of Memphis and now teaching at Rhodes College, has a lot to say about the affordances of Twitter. But more than this, it says a lot about the intersection of communication technologies and relations of power.

Following the Charleston shooting, Robinson tapped out several 140 character snippets rooted in critical race theory. Critical race theory recognizes racism as interwoven into the very fabric of social life, locates racism within culture and institutions, and insists upon naming the oppressor (white people). more...

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Today seems like a good day to talk about political participation and how it can affect actual change.

Habermas’ public sphere has long been the model of ideal democracy, and the benchmark against which researchers evaluate past and current political participation. The public sphere refers to a space of open debate, through which all members of the community can express their opinions and access the opinions of others. It is in such a space that reasoned political discourse develops, and an informed citizenry prepares to enact their civic rights and duties (i.e., voting, petitioning, protesting, etc.). A successful public sphere relies upon a diversity of voices through which citizens not only express themselves, but also expose themselves to the full range of thought.

Internet researchers have long occupied themselves trying to understand how new technologies affect political processes. One key question is how the shift from broadcast media to peer-based media bring society closer to, or farther from, a public sphere. Increasing the diversity of voices indicates a closer approximation, while narrowing the range of voices indicates democratic demise. more...

Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard

David Graeber has republished his popular essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit in his new book Utopia of Rules with some small changes that go toward supporting the book’s over-all argument that the hallmark of American neoliberalism is not dynamism and a freeing up of individuals to peruse “creative class” jobs but rather a bureaucratization of every aspect of life. This total bureaucratization (almost literally) papers over the structural violence that supports capitalism. Of Flying Cars specifically argues that the utter failure to deliver on the implicit promises of Jetsons-level automation by the 21st century is not necessarily a matter of market forces (no one actually wants a flying car!) or technical impossibility (Moore’s law hasn’t delivered thinking computers yet!) but is in fact a product of both squashing the imagination through bureaucratic devices, and the immense devaluing of labor and elimination of corporate profit taxation that leads to paltry civilian research and development. In essence, capitalism in its present form, is anathema to the future it once promised.

Graeber states in the beginning of the essay that he is puzzled by the near silence from those people who saw the moon landing on their televisions but today do not, themselves, live on the moon (or can easily teleport there, or take a drug that might extend their life to the time that both of those things are available). “Instead,” he writes, “just about all the authoritative voices—both on the Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.”

Graeber relatively quickly drops the issue of how our collective expectations of the future could be so quickly and completely re-aligned (his answer is postmodernism) and goes on to explain why such an alignment has become necessary (capitalism’s secret love of bureaucracy) but I want to dwell on the “how” question a little bit longer by offering up a corollary to Of Flying Cars. The argument that follows is also a reprinting of my own work, an article published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering Social Justice in Peace, co-authored with Arizona State University’s Joseph R. Herkert. I want to argue that our expectations for the future are purposefully managed through a circulation of imagined threats to capitalism, the popularizing of narratives that flesh out that threat, and the re-articulation of those imagined threats as real ones that must be met with massive government funding. I will demonstrate this process using a beloved and uniquely American franchise: Die Hard. more...

A 1916 American Mug Shot
A 1916 American Mug Shot

Visual technologies continue to play an increasingly key role in strategies for monitoring and surveillance in modern capitalist societies in crime prevention and detection, and the apprehension, recording, documenting and classification of criminals and criminal activities. Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world. more...