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Warning: Major spoilers for Mr. Robot (through s02e06) follow.

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In the season 2 premier of Mr. Robot on USA Network, we learn that our protagonist, Elliot, has been keeping a journal. The explanation he gives his therapist, Krista, is that “It’s the only way to keep my program running like it’s supposed to.” That is, Elliot’s journal is one element of a strict regimen meant to keep his life in order and his demons at bay—in particular, the chimeric vision of his late father, a representation of Elliot’s anarchic side, responsible for triggering the cataclysmic “5/9 hack”. The practice is a noted technique in controlling schizophrenic episodes, though, ultimately for Elliot, it proves unsuccessful and Mr. Robot makes regular visits.

Self-tracking as a means to “healing” oneself is by no means relegated to the clinically diagnosed and, despite its often-qualitative output, is a popular tool used by the quantified-self movement. Characterized today by a plethora of commercial devices—from the step-counting FitBit to the calorie estimating SmartPlate and well beyond (in features, price, and absurdity)—the quantified-self movement is built upon the ethos that the neoliberal self-governed body will find “self knowledge through numbers”. As has been documented many times on Cyborgology, the self knowledge advertised by QS members and their celebrated gadgetry comes at the risk of one’s personal data being exploited for commercial motives. As for our hero, while on an Adderall-fused fit of rage against the church and all its promises, Elliot drops his journal in the trash, where it is picked up and given to Ray, Elliot’s neighbor who is looking for some tech help.

When Ray reads Elliot’s journal, he finds the hook with which to relate to Elliot by sharing tales of his own demons. He effectively uses Elliot’s own self-tracking data to sell Elliot on helping him. Of course, Ray’s motives are far more nefarious than just help with “computers”; his Tor-based market deals in all sorts of contraband. Of this, Elliot is unaware, but he begins to trust Ray and helps. When he steps too far into Ray’s business, however, Ray’s henchmen pummel Elliot into a near-death unconsciousness. This, then, is where we finally see Elliot ready to come to terms with his demon: Mr. Robot provides Elliot with a sitcom-world fantasy during which he can recover and avoid feeling the physical pain of wounds handed to him by Ray’s crew.

This is the Deleuzian Body Without Organs—an extreme state wherein rhythms and intensities not available in the anatomical body provide access to a plane of immanence. From A Thousand Plateaus: “The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them…The schizo body, waging its own active internal struggle against the organs, at the price of catatonia” (150). In the beginning of the season, as Elliot describes his regimen, he emphasizes his wish to control his life and keep Mr. Robot out of it. But his efforts backfire and his own body gives way to catatonic state—a performance, choreographed by Mr. Robot himself, one that saves his life.

Are we, then, to see the quantified-self as inhibiting any chance for Deleuzian immanence or seeking those rhythms and intensities? Well, yes. But before continuing, I’d like to suggest that the individuals building the quantifed-self world—the designers, developers, marketers, investors, and others making commonplace the dreams of self-trackers everywhere—might be likened to the philosopher Elaine Scarry’s “torturers” as they turn a feeling or condition into something seen or heard, make it real, and take advantage of its apparent state. In her 1985 The Body in Pain, she writes:

If the felt-attributes of pain are (through one means of verbal objectification or another) lifted into the visible world, and if the referent for these now objectified attributes is understood to be the human body, then the sentient fact of the person’s suffering will become knowable to the second person (13).

These torturers translate the intangible into the tangible, forcing its reconstruction in a purely visible form, giving us reason to doubt when a visualization may not adequately represent, to treat when a threshold is misplaced. But both the act of tracking and the output of the devices comfort us and so we are willing to share our data and open ourselves to the kind of pain our torturers wish to inflict. Per Scarry, just like the quantified-self, “Torture systematically prevents the prisoner from being the agent of anything and simultaneously pretends that he is the agent of some things” (47).

I do not wish to erase the struggles of those with pathologized mental conditions. Instead, I hope to use Elliot’s story as a means to recognize the quantified-self’s dangers, beyond privacy or accuracy issues. In The Body in Pain, Scarry offers that we might move beyond the destructive forces of war and torture through acts of creation. That is, imagination—her counter-force to pain—will help us find meaning in experiences and objects. This imagination, it seems, once activated, will be simultaneously utilized and served by the Body Without Organs as we sense the disorganized and intense realities which may end up protecting us.

Gabi Schaffzin is pursuing his PhD in Art History with an Art Practice concentration at the University of California San Diego. His art and research consider the visual representation of pain and illness in a technologically mediated world dominated by a privileging of data over all else. You can see the emerging dialog between his research and artistic practice—much of which draws on the imagery and rhetoric of advertising and product design—at utopia-dystopia.com. He’s on Twitter as @GabiSchaffzin.

PowellThe hack and leak of Colin Powell’s emails have brought with them a national conversation about journalistic ethics. At stake are the competing responsibilities for journalists to respect privacy on the one hand, and to inform the public of relevant ongoings on the other.

Powell’s emails, ostensibly hacked and leaked by Russian government forces, revealed incendiary comments about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Known for maintaining a reserved and diplomatic approach, the indiscreet tone of Powell’s emails had the appeal of an unearthed and long suspected truth.

The news media responded to the leaked emails by plastering their content on talk shows and websites, accompanied by expert commentary and in depth political analyses. Line by line, readers, viewers, and listeners learned, with a sense of excitement and validation, what Colin Powell “really thinks.”

The leak itself exemplifies a privacy violation that Helen Nissenbaum calls a breach of contextual integrity. Powell wrote the emails in the context of informal communication between he and trusted individuals. The leak ripped the emails from that personal context and displaced them into public view. Powell’s emails were an expression of political opinion, the leak turned them into political commentary.

As the initial flurry over the leak began to settle, a telling meta-conversation emerged and continues to get play in the news cycle—a conversation by journalists, about journalistic ethics. At the center of the conversation is a question of the degree to which journalists exacerbated the breach of contextual integrity by publishing the emails and centralizing their content. This conversation was spearheaded by political commentator Dan Abrams, who apologized to Powell in a post on his political news site, Mediaite. Spreading the emails was unconscionable, Abrams acknowledged, and a generally unethical response to the initial privacy breach. Abrams’ public apology initiated a collective journalistic blush, in which the commentators who had pored over each line during their nightly newscasts and weekly op-eds offered a retrospective pause to consider if reporting on the emails was in fact an ethical decision. In these (late) moments of reflection, journalists articulated the grey area of their email reports, noted that sharing the email content did not meet the ethical ideal, but concluded that the emails were out there anyway, and so they may as well they had little choice but to report. Abrams, the original apologist, writes in his apologia post that his team ultimately reported on the emails first, because they were newsworthy and second, because not reporting would put them at a “competitive disadvantage.” Later, in an interview on CNN, Abrams and CNN’s Smerconish agreed that in the end, their journalistic duty required that they report on the emails due to the email’s status as “news,” and their jobs as journalists to report the news.

With rapid changes to the media landscape, this moment is indeed ripe for public ponderings about privacy and journalistic ethics. But let’s be clear, news organizations’ ongoing reflections about their reporting on the Powell emails are not an earnest exercise in ethical consideration. The emails presented an ethical quandary that the journalism community simply got wrong. The way they explain it away—under the guise of a journalistic responsibility to report—fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of news and provides a weak and indefensible justification for unethical reporting practices that, I’m certain, journalists knew to be unethical from the beginning.

Journalists have the difficult job of reporting The News. This is more art than science.  News is not a concrete object, but a cultivated subject. News is not some extraneous thing out there in the ether waiting for capture. News is not objective. Rather, news is whatever journalists, broadly conceived, decide to report on, coupled with the frame and style with which they choose to report. News is a delicate process of curation and cultivation, imbued with politics and editorial negotiations. Powell’s emails were news because the journalism community treated them as such.

This is not to say that journalists select and report stories based entirely on personal whim. On the contrary, there are significant events with relevance to local, national, and international audiences. The fact that Powell’s emails were hacked is an example of a relevant event—General Powell is a prominent political figure whose personal communications were infiltrated, quite possibly by a foreign government, potentially to influence the U.S. presidential elections. This is news. But the email hack itself is a qualitatively different story than that told through the content of the emails. While Powell’s hacked email is a newsworthy story of relevance, the content of his hacked emails is gossip to which the public was not meant to have access.

The hack was a serious privacy violation. The moment any news organization reported on the content of the emails, they became complicit, acting in accord with the nefarious actor(s) who instigated the breach.

The key motivation for reporting on the email content, as Abrams points out, is the competitive edge lost by not doing so. “Everyone else is doing it” justifies sharing Powell’s private communications only in the context of news-as-business, an idea antithetical to the journalistic ideal of public information and dialogue. If we generously accept that reporting on the content of Powell’s emails is a responsibility, then it is a corporate responsibility, not a journalistic one. The push to unethically violate Powell’s privacy is born of a responsibility to share-holders, advertisers, and executives who stand to lose revenue by reporting the story but omitting the gossip. It is not, as billed by the defensive journalism community, a service to the news consuming public.

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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snackwells

Doctor’s don’t want you to self-diagnose and would prefer you got rid of the internet entirely—a sentiment that is quite understandable. Medical professionals have gone through extensive training, continue to keep up with recent research findings, and are there to help the patients who come under their practice. Moreover, doctors have to maintain these laudable goals under tight time constraints and competing pressures. When a patient comes in with a self-diagnosis and treatment plan acquired through WebMD and responses to their Facebook blast, it not only dismisses the physician’s professional expertise, but also requires time and energy in which the physician has to consider—and often debunk—patients’ firm sense of knowledge based on incredibly partial and unreliable information. I get it.  But with an article released this week that traces the direct influence of the sugar industry upon heart health research, seeking crowdsourced medical advice that originates outside of the established medical canon emerges as both appealing and entirely reasonable.

The past several decades have seen what sociologists call the shifting engines of medicalization. While physicians once held full authority over body knowledge, the rise of internet technologies, in combination with huge advertising campaigns from pharmaceutical companies, has fostered the rise of patient-consumers. Patient-consumers understand medical professionals as service workers upon whom demands can be placed. Patients are no longer wholly reliant upon the medical establishment, but enter into medical encounters armed with information and often, an agenda. Patients’ information comes from pharmaceutical advertising (e.g., restless leg syndrome commercials) and also, web forums, medical blogs, and informal information sharing through personal and anonymous social networks (e.g., Facebook and Yahoo Answers). The debate over patient empowerment through the shifting engines of medicalization is complex, made even more so by role of big pharma. But based on my own interactions with medical professionals and family members who work in the medical field, it is clear that the medical establishment would largely prefer the engines shifted back in their favor.

Even in common parlance, the shared wisdom is for those who feel ill to steer clear of the internet. Googling will make you certain of imminent death. If you dive into the swarm of medical information online, you will leave both misinformed and terrified. Instead, listen to the medical authorities. They went to school for this. They know the research. You can trust them.  Only, you can’t trust them, even if they are individually trustworthy. It’s not that individual doctors are ill-informed or malicious, but the research on which medical professionals rely has as much (if not more) to do with market economies as it has to do the health and wellbeing of patients.

This week, the Journal of the American Medical Associate (JAMA) published an article revealing how, 50 years ago, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to write a literature review that downplayed the negative effects of sugar on heart disease and instead, cast fat as the prime culprit. This informed years of nutritional advice and affected American’s everyday food lives (and likely had a global affect, due to the general Westernization of global diets).

Research findings begin in the abstract world of ivory tower scientists and then, find their way to regular people. In the case of medical and nutrition research, the findings make their way into our bodies.  It’s not a direct path, but a mediated one that fosters a feeling of remoteness between those scientists in their lab coats and you, packing lunches and dropping by the pharmacy. The official chain looks something like this:

laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer. However, the actual chain looks more like this:

INDUSTRY –> laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer.

Research isn’t cheap and industries invest in research findings that serve their interests.

Although the sugar industry case happened 50 years ago, the practice it represents is far from a past-ill upon which we can look back with the disapproval afforded by wisdom that comes with time and progress. Rather, the sugar industry’s influence on heart research is an early example of a corrupt relationship between food industry and science that continues today. As nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in her commentary on the JAMA article, industry funded research is a continued norm, not an exception, citing ties between Coca-Cola, the candy trade association, and obesity researchers. Just last year, the meat industry successfully lobbied away USDA recommendations for Americans to consume less red and processed meat, despite studies linking these foods to higher rates of cancer and heart disease.

What happened 50 years ago has staying power and affects the lives and bodies of people today, just as ongoing science-industry relationships will stay with us far after the researchers and business tycoons have retired. The outcomes of the laboratory work their way into everyday practices, into folk wisdom passed from parents to children, between colleagues and friends, and indeed, work their way into consumer’s physical bodies. Nutritional research findings inform consumption practices which shape physiology. Those researchers in coats, and the industries that fund them, become inscribed in the bodies of those who—often unwittingly—heed their advice. As a child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest to the place of fatphobia vis-à-vis sugar’s acceptability. My “nutritious” lunches in high school often consisted of a white bagel, grape jelly, and juice. This supplemented breakfasts of large bowls of cereal—usually Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Cocoa Krispies.  I basically mainlined sugar all day and felt good about myself (at least I felt good about myself for the 20 seconds I stayed awake after consuming these meals) because their contents had green “fat free” and “low fat” labels plastered upon them.  I followed health guidelines, as did many in my generation, and they were entirely wrong. In this way, the candy industry and meat industry, who invest in research that renders animal protein and white sugar acceptable in the public imagination today, implicate themselves in our bodies for generations to come.

Medical and health information online is not just a product of the ability to create, share, and find content, but can be read as a response to the vacuum created by an untrustworthy medical establishment. Googling your way through food and medical forums may leave those who aspire to good health partially or even entirely mis-informed. But, as long as industry ties itself to science (and as long as scientists allow that relationship to persist), consumers are already misinformed. At least when your fumbling through the internet, you can be sure that the researcher—i.e., you—has your best interests at heart.

 

Jenny Davis, who still loves a good bagel and wouldn’t say no to a bowl of Cocoa-Krispies, is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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Via https://blog.nextdoor.com
Via https://blog.nextdoor.com

Nextdoor is a local social network site that connects people who live in the same neighborhood. Neighbors use it to exchange information and keep up with the ongoings of a geographically bounded community. Nextdoor seems like a relatively innocuous site for block party advertisements and zoning debates, and it is. It is also a site on which racial profiling has emerged as a problem and in response, a site on which important debates are currently playing out.

In short, people on Nextdoor have been reporting crimes in which race is the primary descriptor of the subject, casting suspicion upon entire groups of people and instigating/exacerbating racial tensions among neighbors.

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia does not want his site to be a space for racial profiling, and recently instated a policy to ameliorate the problem. The policy is simple: Do not racially profile. What is contentious, however, is how this policy is enacted.

In contrast to Facebook (and more recently, Twitter), whose terms of service warn users that they can be censured or removed for discriminatory language, Tolia instructed his employees to build anti-profiling conduct into the site’s architecture. Specifically, the site provides a crime reporting form in which racial designations can only post if they are accompanied by two additional descriptors (e.g., clothing and hair style). In addition, reports that include race have to be of sufficient length. Otherwise they will be tagged by an algorithm and potentially removed.

Nextdoor’s tactic is exemplary of the politics inherent in codes and algorithms, and it is thus unsurprising that their anti-profiling codes and algorithms have been the subject of political debate. While the CEO makes a strong case for the move away from race-based criminalization, those opposed find the new requirement an impingement upon free speech, as well as a potential threat—if race is the only identifier a witness perceives, that witness is prevented from posting about potential dangers. As quoted on NRP, one person wrote the site administrators and complained: “Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe?”

The debates—and potential outcomes—of Nextdoor’s anti-profiling code can be well explained using a gradated theory of affordance.

Broadly, an affordance is what a technological object enables and constrains, given a particular user. While historically, “affordance” is tied in a blanket way to each object—the object either affords or it does not afford a particular action—a gradated theory of affordance recognizes that a technological object affords in degrees.

In a gradated theory of affordance, technological objects request, demand, allow, encourage, and refuse[1]. Requests and demands are how an object influences the user, while allowances, encouragements, and refusals are how an object responds to a user’s desired actions. In the case of Nextdoor, the written policy—like Facebook’s and Twitter’s—requests that participants refrain from racial profiling. The new form, which requires multiple non-racial identifiers, demands it. In turn, the written instruction allows racial profiling, while the form refuses to let profiling persist.

Thus, the debate surrounding Nextdoor is not whether racial profiling is acceptable or not, but about whether antiprofiling policy should come as a request or a demand; whether its response to racist acts should be an allowance or a refusal.

 The pilot program, which rolls out nationally in a few weeks, comes down on the side of demand and refuse.

The demand that users include multiple identifiers for the alleged perpetrator and provide a description of sufficient length does two important things, one practical and the other ideological. First, it makes content itself more precise, reducing broad accusations against entire local populations and aiding law enforcement who, certainly, benefit from greater levels of detail. Second, and this is admittedly aspirational, it could teach people to perceive differently.

Communication technologies don’t just inform how we write and share, but how we frame the world and our place within it; social media doesn’t just shape how we communicate, but how we are. As bloggers, we at Cyborgology craft key points into 140 character tweetable lines. In this way, Instagrammers make their way to sunlit mountains and ask their friends to wait a moment before eating so they can capture interesting content with a particular aesthetic, while Facebookers show up to the party, even if perhaps they feel tired, partly because they want to be included in the document of the event–they want to be part of the archive.

Social psychologists have found that along with gender, race is the first thing people notice about someone else. By demanding a new practice of documenting, Nextdoor may, at the same time, shepherd in a new practice of looking.To be sure, and as noted by Tolia himself, forms are not the solution to racism. Certainly, users can (and likely will) revert to coded language and more granular ways of signifying race. But, users will be encouraged to look more holistically, and I hope, if too optimistically, that they will unlink race and criminality–at least to some degree.

 

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] “refuse” is an addition to the original formulation linked her. An extended version is under review in manuscript form.

 

worry piece

I’m the first to admit that coming up with new material to write on a regular basis can be really tough. I also think that important arguments bear repeating. So I’m not mad when I see multiple versions of essentially the same story pop up in op-eds and essays. But I do feel the need to step in when stories that repeat themselves, repeatedly get something wrong. Such is the case with what I call the worry piece.

The worry piece is a particular brand of techno-skeptism. It addresses technology as an overwhelming force that on balance, changes people and relationships for the worse. It is concerned with the very nature of humanity and saturated with visceral anxiety. It is personal, and meant to shame you, but in a collective-we-should-all-be-ashamed kind of way. One can (and should) be skeptical and critical of technology for a host of reasons—mostly with regard to patterns of exploitation from its production, distribution, and use. The worry piece is less concerned with these structural issues and instead, occupied by the loss of dinnertime conversation and the influx of content to which readers can presumably pay only fleeting attention.  

The worry piece has a standard formula and predictable conclusion. It begins with a personal anecdote, cites Sherry Turkle, metaphorizes media consumption as food consumption with a tie to health and morality (McDonalds often ends up on the losing side of the metaphor, despite their nugget makeover), the author confesses hir own “unhealthy” technological practices, nods to technologies’ benefits, and ends reflexively with some comment on the likelihood that the article itself is probably too long to keep readers’ attention. Columbia Journal Review recently published a worry piece that is conveniently meta, citing many of the existing worry pieces that have been popularized over the last several years.

The point of the worry piece is twofold: to discern the etiology of technology overload and provide practical advice for managing its effects. It places blame in some interrelated combination of technology companies, the media industry, and individual users. It tells  us that technology companies are invested in keeping people tethered to screens, which we regularly need to upgrade to keep up with new advancements. Media industries fight for eyeballs in a crowded attention economy and prioritize content quantity over quality. And individuals are weak and insatiable, addicted to the constant stream of information and attention. The advice is almost exclusively aimed at individual practice—log off, be intentional, detox, read a book. The worry piece fear mongers for several thousand words before placing the onus on the reader to push back against what the author has depicted as an unstoppable machine.

Clearly, the worry piece speaks to some experience that resonates with readers. Big outlets keep publishing them and people keep sharing them. But from my own recent slate of interviews with social media users, I think the worry piece resonates more with an ingrained, abstract, and habitual idea of technology, and less with people’s actual experiences with technology in their everyday lives. In this way, the worry piece contrasts markedly with what people tell me when they talk about their own relationships with platforms and devices.

I have been studying new and social media for almost 10 years. I collect data every few years, which lets me identify trends as they develop, and practices as they evolve. I am currently collecting new data. What stands out about this round of data collection is a general decrease in passion among participants. Their opinions are more fully formed but also less adamantly held. Things annoy them but don’t infuriate them. They laugh about the potential for distraction, but then elaborate on how they manage this for themselves. They know how to use privacy settings, they know how to navigate large content pools, they know how to hide, seek, tune out, turn on, and generally curate information and notifications.

In 2011, a woman I interviewed slammed her hand on a table and swore prolifically when describing a Facebook Friend who posted too frequently. It ate at her. Today, people mostly roll their eyes and laugh, then say that they hide those Friends who clog their feeds, generally qualifying their decision with a “you do you” kind of statement.  In previous iterations of data collection, people agonized over the ways the internet only showed people what they wanted to see. They feared the filter bubble and its effects on democratic discourse. Today, participants acknowledge the echo chamber and embrace their role in maintaining it. “Facebook isn’t where I go to learn things about ‘the other side,’” said one participant. “I can find what I want on my own.” In 2008, people talked about “going online,” as though it were something separate, something distracting. Today, people talk about how being online is part of their workday, social engagements, news consumption, and entertainment. Platforms and devices are how they communicate, as a matter of course and convenience.

Some participants still worry that people don’t talk as much or don’t connect as well, but the vast majority think we are both more widely connected and also maintain the deep connections we have always had. Even those who are concerned about the loss of social connection also feel generally confident in the strength of their own relationships—isolation is something that happens to other people, mostly teenagers who haven’t learned the skills that these participants have presumably mastered. Some people talk about the struggle to keep up with news and content, but most have systems that they imperfectly employ—lots of open tabs, RSS feeds, apps, dropbox folders— which they are generally comfortable neglecting.

This round of interviews is bearing out a relationship to technology that is decidedly settled. New platforms emerge, but this too is ordinary. A frequently changing technological landscape is expected and does not elicit panic. The older participants sometimes ask about “that Snapchat thing”, and a smattering of participants from varied age groups admit that they “don’t get” Twitter, but they also report that they don’t feel like they are missing out. The participants in this round of interviews engage with social media, but don’t feel compelled to engage on all social media, nor do they fear that the world is passing them by. Participants’ responses—both about themselves and about the place of new technologies in society—are tempered, nuanced, and quiet.

It’s not that worry pieces aren’t tapping into anything, it’s just that they are tapping into an affective sensibility that’s on its way out.

Ironically, the continued prevalence of the worry piece is most certainly a product of some of the very patterns that the articles worry over—a 24hour news cycle, a competitive attention economy, and the need to produce new content, regardless of whether an outlet and its writers have something meaningful to say.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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This is part two of an essay on René Girard’s influence on Peter Thiel. Part one ran last week and you can read it here

In my previous post, I examined social theorist René Girard’s influence on tech investor Peter Thiel. Previous observers have picked up on Thiel’s remark that Girard’s mimetic theory helped him identify the promise of social media, but they have left out a crucial dimension of Girard’s thought: mimetic violence, also a central preoccupation for Thiel. In what follows, I will make the case that Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability of the company, but because he saw social media as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then, was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other well-known actions, from founding the national security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing Gawker and supporting Trump.

According to Girard’s mimetic theory, humans choose objects of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things because others desire them, and we model our desires on others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire community becomes mired in reciprocal aggression. The ancient solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. While these cathartic acts of mob violence initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms. Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out of this violent purgation of violence from the community. However, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence.

For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled, and expelled. Girard’s politics, as mentioned above, are ambiguous: he criticizes conservatism for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving religion it can eradicate the potential for violence. However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat heterodox Christianity is clear, and controversial: he regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA of all human cultures, and an antidote to mimetic conflict. It is unclear to what degree Girard regards this conviction as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on violence. Peter Thiel, for his part, has stated that he is a Christian, but his large contributions to hawkish politicians suggest he does not share Girard’s pacifist interpretation of the Bible. His sympathetic account, in “The Straussian Moment,” of the ideas of Carl Schmitt offers further evidence of his ambivalence about Girard’s pacifism. For Schmitt, a society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an “enemy” to define itself against. Schmitt and Girard both see violence as fundamental to the social order, but they draw opposite conclusions from that finding: Schmitt wants to resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s cohesion, while Girard wants (somehow) to put a final end to scapegoating and sacrifice. In his 2004 essay, Thiel seems torn between Girard’s pacifism and Schmitt’s bellicosity.

The tensions between Girard’s and Thiel’s worldviews run deeper, as a brief overview of Thiel’s politics reveals. As a libertarian, he has donated to both Ron and Rand Paul, and he has also supported Tea Party stalwarts including Ted Cruz. George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his chief influence in his youth was Ayn Rand, and that in political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” As George Packer notes in his New Yorker profile of Thiel, few claims could be more alien to his mentor, Girard, who insists on the primacy of the collective over the individual and dedicated several books to debunking modern myths of individualism. Indeed, Thiel’s libertarian vision of the heroic entrepreneur standing apart from society closely resembles what Girard derided in his work as “the romantic lie”: the fantasy of the autonomous, self-directed individual that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard went so far as to suggest replacing the term “individual” with the neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that identity is always constructed in relation to others.

In a seemingly Ayn-Randian vein, Thiel likes to call tech entrepreneurs “founders,” and in lectures and seminars has compared startups to monarchies. He envisions “founders” in mythical terms, citing Romulus, Remus, Oedipus, and Cain, figures discussed at length in Girard’s analyses of myth. Thiel’s pro-monarchist statements have been parsed in the media (and linked to his support for the would-be autocrat Trump), but without noting that for a self-proclaimed devotee of René Girard to advocate for monarchy carries striking ambiguities. According to Girard’s counterintuitive analysis, monarchical power is the obverse side of scapegoating. Monarchy, he hypothesizes, has its origins in the role of the sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has been deified, and can become a scapegoat again, as Girard illustrates in his reading of the myth of Oedipus (Oedipus begins as an outsider, goes on to become king, and is ultimately punished for the community’s ills, channeling collective violence toward himself, and returned to his outsider status).

If Thiel, as he reveals in a 2012 seminar, views the “founder” as both potentially a “God” and a “victim,” then he regards the broad societal influence wielded by the tech élite as a source of risk: a king can always become a scapegoat. On these grounds, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thiel’s animus against Gawker, which he has repeatedly accused of “bullying” him and other Silicon Valley power players, is closely connected to his core concern with scapegoating, derived from his longstanding engagement with Girard’s ideas. Thiel’s preoccupation with the risks faced by the “founder” also has a close connection to his hostility toward democratic politics, which he regards as placing power in the hands of a mob that will victimize those it chooses to play the role of scapegoat. Or as he states: “the 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of [the] classic scapegoating mechanism: it is all minus one versus the one.”

No serious reader of Girard can regard a simple return to monarchical rule – which Thiel has sometimes seemed to favor – as plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been irreversibly demystified. Perhaps on the basis of this recognition, and even while hedging his bets through his involvement in Republican politics, Thiel has focused instead on the new possibilities offered by network technologies for the exercise of power. A Thiel text published on the website of the libertarian Cato Institute is suggestive in this context: “In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create . . . new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.” Although Thiel does not say so here, from a Girardian point of view, a “founder” of a community does so by bringing mimetic violence under institutional control – precisely what the application of mimetic theory to Facebook would suggest that it does.

As we saw previously, Thiel was ruminating on Strauss, Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, but also on the future of social media platforms, which he found himself in a position to help shape. It is worth adding that around the same time, Thiel was involved in the founding of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company whose main clients are the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense – a company explicitly founded, according to Thiel, to forestall acts of destabilizing violence like 9/11. One may speculate that Thiel understood Facebook to serve a parallel function. According to his own account, he identified the new platform as a powerful conduit of mimetic desire. In Girard’s account, the original conduits of mimetic desire were religions, which channeled socially destructive, “profane” violence into sanctioned forms of socially consolidating violence. If the sacrificial and juridical superstructures designed to contain violence had reached their limits, Thiel seemed to understand social media as a new, technological means to achieving comparable ends.

If we take Girard’s mimetic theory seriously, the consequences for the way we think about social media are potentially profound. For one, it would lead us to conclude that social media platforms, by channeling mimetic desire, also serve as conduits of the violence that goes along with it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. From Thiel’s perspective, we may speculate, this means that those who operate those platforms are in the position to harness and manipulate the most powerful and potentially destabilizing forces in human social life – and most remarkably, to derive profits from them. For someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine conflict with other users.

Girard’s mimetic theory can help illuminate what social media does, and why it has become so central to our lives so quickly – yet it can lead to insights at odds with those drawn by Thiel. From Thiel’s perspective, it would seem, mimetic theory provides him and those of his class with an account of how and to what ends power can be exercised through technology. Thiel has made this clear enough: mimetic violence threatens the powerful; it needs to be contained for their – his – protection; as quasi-monarchs, “founders” run the risk of becoming scapegoats; the solution is to use technologies to control violence – this is explicit in the case of Palantir, implicit in the case of Facebook. But there is another way of reading social media through Girard. By revealing that the management of desire confers power, mimetic theory can help us make sense of how platforms administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard, modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates through social media can continue that process.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.

Headline Pic Via: Source

Thiel - Girard

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues.

Thiel’s connection to the late René Girard, his former teacher at Stanford, is well known but poorly understood. Most accounts of the Girard-Thiel connection have described the common ground between them as “conservatism,” but this oversimplifies the matter. Girard, a French Catholic pacifist, would have likely found little common ground with most Trump delegates. While aspects of his thinking could be described as conservative, he also described himself as an advocate of “a more reasonable, renewed ideology of liberalism and progress.” Nevertheless, as the Politics and Apocalypse symposium reveals, Thiel and Girard both believe that “Western political philosophy can no longer cope with our world of global violence.” “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel’s contribution to the conference, seeks common ground between Girard’s mimetic theory of human social life – to which I will return shortly – and the work of two right-wing, anti-democratic political philosophers who were in vogue in the years following 9/11: Leo Strauss, a cult figure in some conservative circles, and a guru to some members of the Bush administration; and Carl Schmitt, a onetime Nazi who has nevertheless been influential among academics of both the right and the left. Thiel notes that Girard, Strauss, and Schmitt, despite various differences, share a conviction that “the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment.” His dense and wide-ranging essay draws from their writings an analysis of the failure of modern secular politics to contend with the foundational role of violence in the social order.

Thiel’s intellectual debt to Girard’s theories has a surprising relevance to some of his most prominent investments. For anyone who has followed Thiel’s career, the summer of 2004 – the summer when the “Politics and Apocalypse” symposium at Stanford took place – should be a familiar period. About a month afterward, in August, Thiel made his crucial $500,000 angel investment in Facebook, the first outside funding for what was then a little-known startup. In most accounts of Facebook’s breakthrough from dormroom project to social media empire (including that offered by the film The Social Network), Thiel plays a decisive role: a well-connected tech industry figure, he provided Zuckerberg et al, then Silicon Valley newcomers, with credibility as well as cash at a key juncture. What made Thiel see the potential of Facebook before anyone else? We find his answer in an obituary for René Girard (who died in November 2015), which reports that Thiel “credits Girard with inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and well-rewarded, investor in Facebook.” It was the French academic’s mimetic theory, he claims, that allowed him to foresee the company’s success: “[Thiel] gave Facebook its first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ he said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.'” On the basis of such statements, business analyst and Thiel admirer Arnaud Auger has gone so far as to call Girard “the godfather of the ‘like’ button.”

In order to make sense of how Girard informed Thiel’s investment in Facebook, but also how he has shaped Thiel’s ideas about violence, we need to examine the basic tenets of Girard’s thought. Mimetic theory has not been widely applied in social analyses of the internet, perhaps in part because Girard himself had essentially nothing to say about technology in his published oeuvre. Yet the omission is surprising given mimetic theory’s superficial resemblance to the more often discussed “meme theory,” which similarly posits imitation as the basis of culture. Meme theory began with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, was codified in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, and has been applied broadly, in popular and scholarly contexts, to varied internet phenomena. Indeed, the traction achieved by the term “meme” has made most of us witting or unwitting adopters of meme theory. Yet as Matthew Taylor has argued, Girard’s account of mimeticism has significant theoretical advantages over Dawkins-derived meme theory, at least for anyone interested in making sense of the socio-political dimensions of technology. Meme theory tends to reify memes, separating them from the social contexts in which their circulation is embedded. Girard, in contrast, situates imitative behaviors within a general social theory of desire.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is simple in its basic framework but has permitted complex, detailed analyses of a wide range of cultural and social phenomena. For Girard, what distinguishes desire from instinct is its mediated form: put simply, we desire things because others desire them. There is some continuity with familiar strands of psychoanalytic theory here. I quote, for example, from Slavoj Žižek: “The problem is, how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.” Compare this with Girard’s statement: “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” For Girard (and here he differs from psychoanalysis), mimesis is the process by which we learn how and what to desire. Any subject’s desire, he argues, is based on that of another subject who functions as a model, or “mediator.” Hence, as he first asserted in his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the structure of desire is triangular, incorporating not only a subject and an object, but also, and more crucially, another subject who models any subject’s desire. Moreover, for Girard, the relation to the object of desire is secondary to the relation between the two desiring subjects – which can eclipse the object, reducing it to the status of a prop or pretext.

The possible applications of this thinking to social media in particular should be relatively obvious. The structures of social platforms mediate the presentation of objects: that is, all “objects” appear embedded in, and placed in relation to, visible signals of the other’s desire (likes, up-votes, reblogs, retweets, comments, etc.). The accumulation of such signals, in turn, renders objects more visible: the more mediated through the other’s desire (that is, the more liked, retweeted, reblogged, etc.), the more prominent a post or tweet becomes on one’s feed, and hence the more desirable. Desire begets desire, much in the manner that Girard describes. Moreover, social media platforms perpetually enjoin users, through various means, to enter the iterative chain of mimesis: to signal their desires to other users, eliciting further desires in the process. The algorithms driving social media, as it turns out, are programmed on mimetic principles.

Yet it is not simply that the signaling of desire (for example, by liking a post) happens to produce relations with others, but that the true aim of the signaling of desire through posting, liking, commenting, etc. is to produce relations with others. This is what meme theory obscures and mimetic theory makes clear: memes, far from being autonomous replicators, as meme theory would have it, function entirely as mediators of social relations; their replication relies entirely on those relations. Recall that for Girard, the desire for any object is always enmeshed in social linkages, insofar as the desire only comes about in the first place through the mediation of the other. A reading of Girard’s analyses of nineteenth-century fiction or of ancient myth suggests that none of this is at all new. Social media have not, as the popular hype sometimes implies, altered the structures that underlie social relations. They merely render certain aspects of them more obvious. According to Girard, what stands in the way of the discovery of mimetic desire is not its obscurity or complexity, but the seeming triviality of the behaviors that reveal it: envy, jealousy, snobbery, copycat behavior. All are too embarrassing to seem socially, much less politically, significant. For similar reasons, to revisit Thiel’s remark, “social media proved to be more important than it looked.”

But so far, I have been expanding on what Thiel himself has said, which others have echoed. However, what accounts of Girard’s role in Thiel’s Facebook investment never mention is the other half of Girard’s theory, the half that Thiel was at Stanford to discuss in 2004: mimetic violence, which, for Girard, is the necessary corollary of mimetic desire. A follow-up post will explore this dimension of Girard’s thought, and reveal its relevance to Thiel’s agenda as an investor and “influencer.”

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.  

Headline Pics: Girard;Thiel

The 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team

Every 2 years, Olympic trials provide the rare opportunity to watch people’s huge and impossible dreams coming true. I love the Olympic trials. All of them. I love them so much. If shoe-tying were an Olympic sport, I would be entirely rapt with the selection process.  However, I am especially enamored by women’s gymnastics (in trials and in The Games)—I trace this back to my own budding gymnastics career cut short at the fragile age of 8 when, upon receiving an invitation to join my gym’s competition team, my mom said Hell-No-Competitive-Gymnastics-Is-Too-Intense and signed me up for basketball.

So imagine my delight when I discovered and immediately dove gleefully into the podcasts, blogs, and Twitter feeds that make up the gymternet—a network of gymnastics enthusiasts who nerd out about the sport and its athletes.  I had (and still have) so much to learn.  Jessica O’Beirne’s  GymCastic podcast is like the mother of the gymternet. The podcast goes in depth with gymnasts, coaches, and experts, and is a must-do for many of the big names in the sport (see: McKayla Maroney’s interview after deciding to retire).  In the blogosphere, Lauren Hopkins’ Gymternet blog has shot into popularity, and includes gymnastics history lessons, commentary, FAQs and funny memes. Linking around through the contributors at both GymCastic and Gymternet leads to an array of additional fantastic content.

The gymternet is great because it celebrates the sport and the women who compete,  but it does more than this. The gymternet is to its roots, political. It insists upon the sport’s relevance and loudly critiques the way popular press ignores, objectifies, and/or infanticizes women gymnasts. O’Bierne’s bio at GymCastic cites gaining legitimacy for women’s gymnastics as her life’s mission. The collective gymternet project is at once promotional, enthusiastic, political, and feminist.

The gymternet is also quite efficacious. The social media world of gymnastics fandom and commentary has indeed found its way into the public narrative. This year, NBC hired Hopkins as a researcher for the 2016 Rio Games, and mainstream media outlets reportedly follow her Gymternet blog during live competitions. In this vein, athletes themselves frequently drop news at GymCastic before ESPN or NBC Sports.

The effect of gymternet networks upon the media landscape is far from novel—one of the key ways social media has changed public life is through a proliferation of counter discourses that, when reaching a critical mass, refuse to be ignored (see: “ending systemic racism” as part of mainstream political platforms). For a technology theorist/writer, it’s no longer interesting to point out that social media content informs traditional media content and public conversation. The flow of social media content into newspapers, newscasts, and popular culture products is a well-established truism that arguably, doesn’t need to be written about as much as it still is.

Instead, it’s surprising when, in today’s media environment, talking heads go along like nothing has changed, ignoring content and conversations on the web. Apparent dismissal of prominent web content is strange, confusing, and was egregiously present among the NBC commentators during the Women’s Gymnastics Rio trials that ended on Sunday night.

Over the course of the trials, NBC commentators used words like adorable and fun to describe both the gymnasts and their routines. They debated who was more “hyper,” Laurie Hernandez or Simone Biles. One broadcaster asserted that Madison Kocian would be perfect as the lead in a gymnastics movie. Apparently, the athletes’ short statures also required frequent comment, usually accompanied by a warmly paternal chuckle (I’m pretty sure Ragan Smith’s first name isn’t really “Little,” but one might make that mistake by listening to the NBC broadcast team). I also watched the Men’s trials, in which commentators noted strength, precision, and focus among the athletes–things of relevance in an Olympic competition–while managing to avoid the cutesy adjectives. Remember, these commentators work at the network that hired the Gymternet blogger as a researcher!!

The NBC sportscaster’s language and sensibility during the 2016 trials would have made  sense during the 2012 trials for London—they weren’t okay, but they made sense—because four years ago, the gymternet was still budding (GymCastic launched just after the 2012 Games). Today, they are distractingly baffling. How do professional commentators proceed without regard for, or even seeming awareness of, an entire opposition rising up against their commentary? Given the contributions of the gymternet, how can commentators refer to athletes as tiny while ignoring the reason for gymnasts’ short stature: they have overdeveloped their muscles to the effect of stunted growth. That’s not cute, that’s tough as hell.

It’s not that commentators don’t “get” social media. On the contrary, the programming was peppered with content from the athletes’ Twitter and Instagram feeds. For instance, Aly Raisman’s tweet about water proof makeup served as a running joke throughout Sunday night’s broadcast.

The NBC commentators also didn’t seem to be actively opposing the gymternet agenda. There was nothing aggressive about the paternalism aimed at the “adorable” and “tiny” athletes, nor anything antagonistic in pondering, along with the Twitterverse, over the conspicuous absence of Gabby Douglas’s smile. Instead, the commentators feminized the sport and the athletes as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They went along as they have gone along, perhaps vaguely aware of some chatterings, but from somewhere far away, from a place that they needn’t really go, with a message they needn’t really address.

It was a good reminder that although social media do push society in a political direction, counter discourses, on the web and otherwise, always have to push against. A counter discourse is, by definition, an alternate perspective, one that challenges the status quo. In the case of gymnastics commentary, that status quo is sexism that surrounds women in sport.  To be sure, the gymternet argument has made strides. While previously the gymternet argument lived through isolated tirades and passionate screen yelling, it is now on NPR and in The New Republic.  But the status quo is big and the internet is a lot of smalls. The gymternet has changed the conversation, a little. Perhaps by 2020, the broadcast sportscasters will be wise enough to speak the gymternet language.

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

Headline pic via: USAGymnastics

Williams Response

Before the first word was written, Orange is the New Black was already fucked.

In an essay we posted earlier this week, guest author Apryl Williams refers to the 4th season of Orange is the New Black as a spectacle, comparable to the lynch mobs that used the destruction of black bodies as a form of entertainment. In her excellent post, Williams especially laments the lack of a trigger warning accompanying the graphic death of a key black character, one which unapologetically mirrored the 2014 suffocation of Eric Garner. Had there been black writers, Williams contends, things would have been different—she would have been warned instead of just “entertained.”

Williams and others critique the writing decisions that played out in Season 4 and attribute the season’s missteps to a very white writing crew. Indeed, by Isha Aran’s careful calculation, exactly zero black people have been involved in writing Orange is the New Black across its 4 seasons.

Undoubtedly, Williams is right that the series, and the 4th  season in particular,  would have been generally better, and also more carefully written and produced, with a racially diverse staff. The issue of racial representation in the writing room is one that pervades the popular media industry, and Orange, a show about prisons that tells stories about race, is a cautionary tale. Rather than reimagine how much better the season could have been with the inclusion of writers of color, however, I think the critique of a whitewashed profession and industry stands strongest when we table the quality of the writing altogether. Because even if Orange is the New Black Season 4 had been the greatest story of our time, it would remain, unacceptably, told by the wrong people.

Season 4 of Orange is a useful case for the explication of the racial homogeneity problem because, unlike other seasons, it wasn’t terrible and in some cases, did things exceptionally well.  Although expositional writing, heavy handed character arcs, and a little shark-jumping certainly seeped through, the 4th was by far the most sophisticated and politically astute season, throwing the dearth of black writers and what that means, into stark relief.

The first season of Orange began from a literal white perspective and asked viewers to giggle along as the pretty blonde navigated her way through Trader Joe’s withdrawal, the indignities of public bathing, and of course, the black people, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and the impoverished who disproportionately populate her new home. Piper Chapman was very much at the center of the story and the rest of the inmates played the foil for Piper’s misadventures. Seasons 2 and 3 followed a similar formula.

But then there was season 4. Piper’s role was minimized (Thank. Goodness.) while impoverished, drug addicted, mentally unstable, and racially marked characters drove the story[1]. From a political commentary perspective, the season hit the prison system hard and demonstrated its disproportionate effect on people of color, people in poverty, people with mental illness, and people at all of those intersections. More than any other season, the 4th season addresses how the prison industrial complex traps people in a corrupt and backwards system out of which escape is all but impossible. The system is bigger than those imprisoned by it (inmates), those who work in it (guards), and even bigger than those who run it (administrators). The corrupt and callous operate alongside the well intentioned, all equal cogs in the juggernaut of (in)justice, wittingly or not. The writers’ decision to parallel real life events—namely the killing of unarmed black people by those charged with protection—was a bold move that refused to write or film around an issue, but tackled it head on, unflinchingly, and I might add, heart wrenchingly.

In short, the writers did a good job writing a story and demonstrated that they could articulate the systemic connections between race, poverty, and police states well enough to capture it in fictional form. This is not deserving of praise. It is instead appalling that people can “get” the argument so well, and yet so seamlessly reproduce the very system that they spend a season (and arguably, a series) deconstructing. What could have been meaningful political commentary was instead exploitative.When white people  make money off of black people’s pain, the best possible outcome is an empty signifier of compassion that entirely misses the point.

The relatively decent product of the show itself made clear that under no conditions, whatsoever, should white ladies get to profit by creatively portraying black deaths. It’s smug, disingenuous, self-serving, and entirely typical.

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] Can we please all pause for a moment and applaud the phenomenal performance by Danielle Brooks AKA Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson!?

Williams

 

*****************************Mild Spoilers**************************************

Orange is the New Black’s newest season demands to be binge watched with its notorious twists at every episode style. When it came out on June 17th, I began my annual binge session and had completed it by Saturday, June 18th.

If you haven’t heard, the series delivered “The mother of all finales” at the end of this season. As I mourned the death of a major black character, I found myself simultaneously mourning the real deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and the list unfortunately goes on. The stylized portrayal of a death in prison custody at the hands – or knee rather – of a white correctional officer was unmistakably close to Garner’s “I can’t breath.” Though those words were never uttered, anyone who has kept up with news in the last year would find haunting familiarity in the fictional inmate’s all-too-real gasps for air.

With her small frame and spine gradually being crushed by the full weight of the white correctional officer as she tried to breathe but failed, the imagery was almost too painful to watch. But I had come this far, I had to continue. At the end of the season, instead of falling into my usual “showhole” syndrome, I was angry and emotionally distraught. This had a visceral, personal effect and nobody warned me it was coming. As the other inmates grieved the death of their friend and urged those in charge to move her body, I wondered who was responsible for writing these scenes and this episode. Surely, a person of color would have cautioned against such tactics without ample viewer preparation. It appears as though the perspective of black viewers was not taken into consideration; a likely result of the limited representation we have in media production. Then I realized that to a white audience, a warning would not have the same meaning or importance.

Black presence in the writing room would have not only shaped the outcome of the episode (more on that later), it would have also pointed out the obvious misstep of writing a sympathetic baby-faced, murdering correctional officer into the role befitting of “#bluelivesmatter”.  The end result, with the head warden supporting the actions of a “good kid” who simply made a mistake does more to highlight the privileged space in which Netflix and the writers of OITNB exist. They are free to portray injustices such as transphobia or privatized prisons when it is convenient for them. And they do so in a manner that is comfortable and palatable for a mainstream audience.

Instead of drawing attention to the all-encompassing police state in which people of color live, white writers of OITNB portrayed the death of a black prison inmate in a manner that is similar to the carnivalesque spectacle associated with lynchings of the past. Lynchings were a leisure time activity that served dual purpose: to show the superiority over the physical corpus of blacks while simultaneously reinforcing the status quo, demonstrating to black Americans that they had little agency. Without influence from Black Lives Matter activists or black writers, the season 4 finale of Orange is the New Black operates in a similar fashion. Let me be clear, Netflix and the OITNB writers do not occupy the same space as a lynch mob, however, the effect of white dominated narrative coupled with the portrayal of black death on television have a similar result: black deaths and pain are harnessed for entertainment purposes. If Netflix is our town square, then we have all gathered to watch the spectacle.

As a black viewer, I watched and re-lived the shared pain that black people have experienced for centuries but in recent memory, over the course of the past two years with what seems like continuous news coverage of yet another death of an unarmed black person. To make matters worse, after the death, theatrics did nothing to ease the pain of remembrance.

The body was left on the floor of the prison cafeteria for days, drawing obvious parallels to Michael Brown’s death as his body lay in the summer sun for hours after police had shot him. The public relations officials warned Caputo, the warden, not to call the victim’s parents, the police, or the coroner until they had the right angle. The crass humor with which these two men tried to dig up “thuggish” pictures and dirty laundry were intended to serve as comic relief. However for me, and probably for a lot of other black viewers, this was just another reminder of the victim blaming that is typically spread by media coverage.

Netflix and the writers of Orange is the New Black are telling our stories but from a white perspective. In the scenes and in the writing room, white writers control the narrative.

Perhaps input from a black writer (or better yet, multiple black writers) would have resulted in a story line that honored the deaths of black people at the hands of police instead of one that reiterates and upholds the dominant framing. Black Lives Matter activists may have recommended that the writers highlight the complicated web of systematic and militaristic policing of black and brown bodies that lands them in prison where they are rendered almost powerless. I recognize that Netflix and the writers of OITNB may have tried to reveal injustice by portraying it in a raw and brutal way, as is typical of the show, but as it stands, watching the narrative play out feels as though white writers are exploiting black pain for the intrigue of white viewers without regard for those of us who actually live this experience.

This is not the first time the writers have betrayed the moral emptiness of their good intentions. A show that prides itself on shedding light on social issues like prison reform films at a prison where the actors can’t even drink the water because of a leaking sewage problem. The true conditions with which prisoners live in the actual prison where the show is filmed are too graphic for television. Former inmates talk about rivers of feces that flow into their rooms at night. Real people live in this prison that the actors and producers leave at the end of filming. Piper Kerman considers herself a prison reform activist and yet, as a producer of the show, continues to allow filming rather than demanding that the people living there receive better living conditions. My point here is that we watch the fictive stories of women living in similar conditions from the comfort of our homes at times being lulled into a false sense of ease concerning the quality of life of the real people represented by the story lines. Similarly, the season 4 finale makes a spectacle of death at the hands of correctional officers without paying homage and respect to many that have lost and will continue to lose their lives. Watching these narratives on screen for many black Americans serves to reinstate the fear that we live with on a daily basis; knowing that at times, we cannot protect those we love.

Apryl Williams (@AprylW) is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at Texas A&M University and series co-editor of Emerald Studies in Media and Communications. Her current research explores black resistance through social media.

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