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!?



*****************************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.

Headline Pic via: Source

Big-data-largeContemporary political campaigns are highly data-driven. Large datasets let campaign staffers learn about, access, and ultimately persuade potential voters through hyper-local messaging or micro-targeting. The digitization of society means that people leave traces of themselves in the course of everyday life—how they consume, who they love, when their next menstrual cycle is likely to begin and most relevant here, how they have engaged politically. These traces and advanced analysis of them, have been instrumental in political campaign strategies, guiding staffers in numbers-based decisions about how to best reach and  acquire, voters. Many partially attribute Obama’s 2008 and 2012 successful Whitehouse bids to his team’s skillful use of voter data and micro-targeting, and an uproar ensued with Bernie Sanders temporarily lost access to a DNC voter database.

In contemporary politics, big data is a big deal.  So of course, Donald Trump is not down with big data. The Associated Press is circulating a story about the discrepancy between Trump and Clinton with regard to data usage. Clinton’s campaign has embraced voter-data as a central tool of success, while in contrast, Trump has dismissed big data as “overrated” and expressed his intention to use big data in a “limited” capacity (although in the story linked above, a Trump advisor assures that the campaign will be “state of the art,” presumably including some degree of data analytics).

Much of the commentary on Trump’s data decentralization center around the question of whether or not rejecting data will be harmful for the candidate and/or for the Republican party. This angle is usually coupled with a reminder that Trump is the candidate who “breaks the rules,” and therefore may beat all odds and in fact, succeed without heavy reliance on data science. Getting beyond Trump the candidate, though, brings us to investigate the rule from which Trump deviates—data driven campaigning—and what it means in the democratic process.

Far more interesting than renderings of Trump-as-Cavalier, is the harsh light Trump’s data rejection pours over the role of big data in politics. Data lets candidates target audiences at the micro level, crafting messages that suit the needs, tastes, and sensibilities of diverse voters. Data facilitates campaigns in which candidates can communicate in unique ways with a hipster in Brooklyn and a teacher in Minnesota, compelling them not only to vote, but vote for the same candidate. This micro-targeting, though exciting from a political strategy perspective, is troubling from the perspective of democracy. The reason commentators are concerned about Trump’s prospects is because his data eschewal precludes the micro-targeting on which political persuasion now so strongly rests. While political persuasion may help candidates win, real democracy is driven by fully informed voters.

Targeted messaging contrasts with the macro form of governance that defines a president’s job. Presidents are elected to oversee the nation as a whole—not particularistic subsets. Presidential policy is far reaching and broad, not local or particular. So what a president does is in direct opposition to how a president, in a data age, gets elected.

Implied in data-informed curated messaging is an assumption that a candidate is telling voters what the voters wish to hear. This places voter-acquisition strategy, rather than making sure that voters are informed, at the center of the political process. One can assume that when different messages distribute to different audiences, no one gets the full story. Although the campaign has not yet framed it this way, Trump’s data rejection does well in serving his larger narrative of “authenticity.” His platform may be racist, sexist, classist, and generally ill-informed, but it is all of these things for all voters, not just those who live in the heart of a red state and own several firearms.

Big data in politics serve the interests of power. Not only is the collection and analysis of data prohibitively expensive and thereby only available to those already well connected, but also play to an end game of obscuring the information with which voters make voting decisions. Donald Trump seems to reject data out of pure hubris, but that is irrelevant. The effect of Trump decentralizing big data is, decidedly, democratic.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis


Headline Pic Via: Source


Redlining refers to the racist policy and/or practice of denying services to people of color. The term was coined in the 1960s by sociologist John McKnight and referred to literal red lines overlaid on city maps that designated “secure” versus “insecure” investment regions, distributed largely along racial faults such that banks became disproportionately unwilling to invest in minority communities. In turn, realtors showed different, more desirable properties to White clients than those they showed to clients of color, thereby reinforcing segregation and doing so in a way that perpetuated White advantage. Redlining was outlawed in the 1970s but its direct effects were intergenerational and versions of redlining continue to persist.

Versions of it like this:


Over the last few weeks, the story of Gregory Selden went viral. Selden attempted to book an Airbnb and was rejected. Noticing that the space was still available, he created two fake profiles using images of White men. Both fake guests were accepted. He confronted the host and the company, to little actionable effect.

Selden’s case, though compelling, is not exceptional. The hashtag  #AirbnbWhileBlack emerged in response to Selden’s viral experience, validating the patterned nature of discrimination through the home-sharing site. The stories shared on Twitter fall directly in line with the academic research,which shows that Black guests are 16% less likely to be accepted than their White counterparts, even at a financial cost to Airbnb hosts. In short, many Airbnb hosts do not want Black people to stay in their homes, just as White homeowners and White bankers wanted to keep Black people in separate neighborhoods.

To be sure, the stakes for Airbnb customers who struggle to find vacation accommodation are not so high as families of color who could not purchase homes and were relegated to poorly funded regions and ghettoized into poverty. In this way, discriminatory patterns on Airbnb are more fairly categorized in the hospitality sector than the housing sector and are more akin to the Whites Only lunch counters and hotel policies than mortgage lending practices.

But even the lunch counters and hotels of Jim Crow don’t quite capture what is going on here. Those were explicit forms of discrimination, announced and therefore debatable only in their righteousness, not their existence. People disagreed about whether or not people of color should be admitted to the same establishments as Whites, but all were clear about the fact that people of color were not admitted to these establishments. On Airbnb, the racism itself is an unsettled reality. Indeed, Airbnb tried to explain away Selden’s experience of racism, claiming that the initial rejection was not due to race, but due to Selden booking different dates. They claim that he booked only one night with his real account but booked 2 nights with the fake accounts, and that lots of Airbnb hosts will not rent their space for just 1 night  (Selden says Airbnb’s assessment is erroneous, and that he booked the exact same dates and number of nights).

So Maybe it’s more like trying to hail a cab while Black, in which one’s skin becomes conspicuous making services difficult to obtain, but also difficult to prove a racially motivated reason on the part of the service provider. Only with Airbnb, the judgment isn’t so snap. Hosts have time to think about why they elect one customer over another, meaning that hosts have to confront their own racial bias in a way cab drivers may be able to effectively suppress.

Ultimately, the model of Airbnb, and of the share economy in general, is qualitatively different from a hotel or restaurant or even taxi service. In a share economy, financial transactions have a distinctly personal bent.  The challenge of regulation is in monitoring lots of individual contractors, who hold little connection to the companies under which they operate, and who have an interest not just in profit, but in maintaining interactional comfort. How does one regulate who people will allow to sleep in their homes?

Racial discrimination on Airbnb is therefore not so much a parallel to historical patterns of racism, but a continuation. This is how racism manifests in today’s version of capitalism. The system looks different, but does the same thing. This is the racism of Google’s photo identification software that identified Black people as “gorillas” and Apple’s racially diverse emojis that not only came after years of White-only options, but appeared as aliens on phones that did not have the latest software running. This is the racial bias of online dating.

As long as race organizes interaction, and does so in a hierarchical way, the goods and services of market capitalism will have racism built in. A sharing economy sounds warmer than the cold tradition of corporate capitalism, but sharing implies a choice on the part of the “sharer,” one that, apparently if unsurprisingly, excludes and marginalizes the “sharees” who have long been pushed out of public and civic life.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

IMAGE1One of the most prominent theorists of the late 20th century, Michel Foucault, spent a career asking his history students to let go of the search for the beginning of an idea. “Origins” become hopelessly confused and muddled with time; they gain accretions that ultimately distort any pure search for the past on the terms of the past. Instead, his alternative was to focus on how these accretions distorted the continuity behind any idea. This method was called “genealogy,” by Nietzsche, and Foucault’s essay expanded on its use. Dawn Shepherd captured the significance of this lesson in a beautiful, single sentence: “Before we had ‘netflix and chill ;)’ we just had ‘netflix and chill.’”

The temptation with something as recent as the web is to emphasize the web’s radical newness. Genealogy asks that we resist this demand and instead carefully think about the web’s continuity with structures far older than the web itself. While genealogy is not about the origins of “chill,” genealogy emphasizes the continuity of “chill.” Genealogy must build from an idea of what “chilling” entailed to say something about what “chill” means now.

Conversations about these continuities animated many of the conversations at Theorizing the Web 2016. Both the keynote panels and regular sessions asked audiences to imagine the web as part of society, rather than outside of it. In the words of its founders, the original premise of the conference was “to understand the Web as part of this one reality, rather than as a virtual addition to the natural.”

It was in 2012 when I first encountered this premise in a course called “Critical Videogame Studies.” This course took seriously the notion that digitality did not exist outside of “real life,” but constituted it. It was an experience that invited me into spaces like Theorizing the Web, where digitality does not need to defend itself in terms of broader historical significance. Just like print culture’s assimilation into European politics, so too has digital culture become more than simply a marginal realm for hackers and geeks.

Pushing against the web as radically new demands discussion about continuity. Inequality, exploitation, and abuse are clear examples of such continuity. Katherine Cross, in #k1, brought them in focus with her description of the robot apocalypse as a guilty memory of the future; the parallels between the Marxist factory worker and the robot––Czech for “forced labor”––shifted by the persistent demand that we gender our sources of labor. TayAI was the most recent in a long history of gendered bots designed according to the historical placement of race and gender into vulnerable labor roles, usually without the ability to say “no.”

Shepherd’s invocation of “netflix and chill,” which happened on #k1, also invokes what is new for a genealogical approach to the web: the idea of “netflix” brings into our heads a deeply intimate connection with our screens, often watched in private, late at night, and alone or with a person of interest. Faith Holland emphasized this new relationship to technology, calling it the “libidinal residue on our screens.”

But even with this new element, the web reveals itself to be more reactionary than revolutionary. A central part of Alana Massey’s “Against Chill” essay is a critique of how the “chill” nature of hook-up and dating apps make building investment a deeply gendered game of chicken. To show attraction, to text frequently, to even feel infatuation itself must be regulated by appearing to be “chill.” This is the newest form of an old game: critiquing often feminine-associated affect for not performing to masculine demands.

Whether we want to fuck robots in some post-human sexual fantasy, or are drawn to the fantasy of dominating femininity in the relatively safe space of AI programming, the hybrid nature of the people-tech apparatus has changed both our relationships to technology and our relationships with each other. Thinking about hybridity animates much of our current obsession with cyborgs. But while hybridity is all about coming together in a synthesis, cyborgs can also bring about an anxiety over the prospect of machines’ ability to overtake humanity within the cyborg body. If Minka Stoyanova’s suggestion on #a2––that cyborgism is feminism––is a helpful framework, then it might be better to ask how a politics of empathy might help us develop better habits for how we treat both parts of the cyborg, rather than asking what part we can freely exploit or which part will be dominated by the other.

This demand––to own, to exploit, to command, to impose––are all exertions we’ve projected onto the sphere of AI. Darius Kazemi kicked off #k2 with a search of bots on Medium articles, whose titles reflect this demand:

“Bot is the Wrong Name and Why People Who Think They Are Silly Are Wrong.”

“Software is ‘Eating’ up the World, Part II.”

“We Should All Have Our Own Bot.”

“How to Get Money with Your Telegram Bot.”

“Bot Apps, the Invisible Interface and a 100 Billion Dollar Market.”

Each of these articles follows the disruption narrative: bots are an undervalued market, investing in apps for bot commoditization will yield profits. The “new” conception of a perfect automaton, to exploit for endless amounts of revenue, meets an old understanding of labor’s relation to the market. To paraphrase Marx, capital could not abide the physical limits to its growth. We can interpret our present historical moment as an effort on the part of Silicon Valley to supercede those barriers with digitality. Wherever a new market for apps or quantitative methods appeared underexploited, venture capital and start-ups were more than happy to commoditize even if they had zero expertise, as seen by Jessie Patel and Maggie Mayhem on the proliferation of pregnancy apps in #b3.

If bots currently embody the reactionary nature of capitalism itself, bots also embody the potential of new ways to envision connection. With enough data and the right algorithm, the re-creation of people who died becomes a serious idea, as suggested by Joanne McNeill on #k2. But this possibility is less about whether the bot can do it—it can—and more about whether society can currently take the bot seriously, on its own terms, rather than perpetually asking when it will become “human.”

Questions like “what is new about stories on the web?” are less about what is new about their mediums, and more about the relationship of these mediums to their audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than the relationship between the web and storytelling. The problems of calling something new about digital storytelling is how one judges its veracity. If the definition of “fanfiction” is anything written on, then the genre is new. If the definition of “fanfiction” is “alternate accounts set in the same universe,” then the Four Gospels of the New Testament become fanfiction. What genealogies of the web ask is “how does the centrality of sites like contribute to the normalization of this genre, and have people reacted differently to it?”

One clear difference is how quickly specific non-normative headcanons have caught fire in the fanfiction genre. From the pon farr narratives of Kirk and Spock to the plethora of stories that existed simultaneously in the same universe, fan fiction as a genre has become a productive first step for writers now exploring their own stories and a space for non-normative experiences to make their mark on the science fiction and fantasy worlds.

But’s centrality has also given space for reactionary groups to push against these narratives. While the Sad Puppy movement failed to capture the Hugo Awards for several years now, that movement has normalized its own canon, marking Sci-Fi as the genre of “men starting wars on the moon” (quote by Laurie Penny, on #k3). What’s more, The Sad Puppies, much like GamerGate, are not the irrational fragments of a few upset people; they constitute a viable political force, whose reactionary agenda has been well organized and targeted. Taking these movements seriously, genealogy shows just how deeply entwined the digital hopes for liberation are bound by the limits of social imagination.

These digital hopes for liberation had themselves come from the fetishization of a web “origins”: the word was envisioned as central power. Julian Dibbell wrote that words now had the power of action: “a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does.” Dibbell’s essay focused on making sense of a rape on an MUD—or multi-user dungeon—built on text. This emphasis on the power of words led many to believe that society could finally overcome many of the politics associated with race, gender, and other elements of identity that are difficult to change.

Dibbell’s essay was published in 1993. Over twenty years later, most people recognize that this hope was about as likely as Clifford Stoll’s predictions in Silicon Snake Oil. Writing about the same MUD as Dibbell, Lisa Nakamura emphasized that it was the people using the words who were producing identity, rather than the words themselves. Against an earlier tradition of writers who envisioned the web as something truly different from ourselves, Nakamura’s analysis centered the decisions made by people, rather than the new medium through which those decisions were communicated. By emphasizing the origins of the web as a text-only peripheral communications space, this tradition of early writing on the web could not recognize the agency of the humans whose actions were ultimately determinative in producing older social structures of society online.

By focusing on this agency, the relationships between images, virality, and “evil,” are easier to understand. As Moira Weigel’s introduction of #k4 noted, people have steadily questioned the relationship between the image as a mode for change and the image as mere spectacle since Socrates. #TtW16 dealt directly with this issue in #b6 where a talk on revenge porn freely distributed the images with no censorship of identity, or even consent. One question that came directly from the hashtag was whether or not such a redistribution of images was essential to the study of the phenomenon, or whether it was only an experience of the spectacular, thus complying the audience to re-victimize these targets.

Weigel summarized this dynamic as repetition and cessation: “We have to look at this violent, upsetting, horrible thing, if to acknowledge the horrors of history so that they don’t happen again.”

Is it so clear that looking at an image prevents it from happening again? As Ava Kofman and Jade Davis both invoked on #k4, the simple proliferation of images of violence against Black Bodies––and now the augmented experiences of those in refugee camps or in the aftermath of a police shooting––do relatively little if they are presented as an exhibit, or in a sterilized space where we set these occurrences outside of our own practices in everyday life.

In other words, experiencing these moments of violent behavior are not transformative in themselves; they are either tools we use to envision alternative structures of society that we expend energy to make real, or they are exhibitions that we click, share, or spread in order to feel good about our own levels of awareness compared to our friends. Of course, this binary between tool and exhibition is false, and it is more than likely that each image exists as some combination of both. Genealogy often helps us recognize the gradient of human action that is possible with any given image or text.

When it comes to the nature of evil, however, it is easiest to imagine evil as produced by a single entity, premeditated and clearly defined, with zero room for gradients. We’re used to conceptualizing evil as a single big bad werewolf, whose obliteration is entirely possible through some silver-bullet reform or revolution. Many early dreams of digital utopia hinged on the potential for this obliteration, whether they believed that revolution was anonymity or ease of communication. These dreams were illusions because the evil is in the details. Rather than building a giant ideological entity, traceable through the entirety of history, evil is better thought as the accretion of precise accidents that have snowballed to produce something significant. It was the snowballing of these details that social theorist Hannah Arendt famously termed “the banality of evilin her writings on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In this regard, what is new about the web is precisely its potential for the rapid aggregation of those details on a scale previously unknown. Zeynep Tufekçi, on #k4, positioned this aggregation in terms of how images online are created, and how those images are consumed. The circulation of violent images has no definitive effect in the world: it can embolden people towards more violence or encourage others to end it. Regardless of how powerful or well-intended a set of images are, an intrinsic component of the web is to steadfastly resist whatever story you’d like to tell; on #k3 Kleeman described this steadfast resistance as “the tweet that refuses the primacy of the streamlined narrative.” To borrow Laurie Penny’s phrasing, the existence of “multiple headcanons” online cannot properly translate into politics offline for all their stark oppositions. How do we merge headcanons of post-patriarchy with the headcanons of /r/RedPill?

The answer is also in the details of asking what is new and old about the web and humans on the web. The web is not an apex of hyper-rational modernity whose introduction will tame and educate those people who seem irrational to us; the web is an element of reality, intimately molded by the social and cultural expectations of all people. To theorize the web is to theorize about how we as humans derive meaning and understanding in the world. Focusing on how these precise details, accretions, and accidents produce structures far larger than ourselves is the process of genealogy, and its end result will produce a type of evil far more manageable than the werewolf we currently see.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a PhD student at Brown, where he works on religion, economics, and ideas between Spain and Latin America in the sixteenth century. He uses this experience to ask what is new and old about human beings on the web, a question that is very dear to him. He occasionally tweets.

Headline Pic Via: Source

boatySome may label this moment a crisis of democracy, a moment in which the voice of The People lay inert; a moment in which the promise of citizen driven governance, shining so brightly in the glow of digitally connected screens, reveals itself as a farce.

I am talking, of course, about Sir David Attenborough, or more to the point, I am talking about the $300 million British research vessel not called Boaty McBoatface.

The British National Environmental Research Council invited citizens to select the name for their new polar research vessel. It was an opportunity to bring science to the public and involve the public in scientific discovery. Anyone was allowed to submit a name, and everyone voted on their favorites. The name with the most votes was to moniker the craft. Radio personality James Hand proposed the name Boaty McBoatface. Hand’s suggestion was well received, and the citizenry irrefutably selected Boaty for the vessel’s name. Case closed, right? No, the vessel’s name is David… which sound nothing like Boaty and includes zero McFaces.      

Although many citizens are upset about the way government heads renegotiated the terms of agreement (see: Petition for Sir David Attenborough to change his name to Boaty McBoatface), the outcome is quite in line with what we might expect. The events surrounding the Research Council’s boat-naming poll is a microcosm for how the internet interplays with citizen publics. It is an example of the rule, not an exception.

Here’s the thing about democracy in practice—citizen voices get a platform, but always within limits. Citizen voices matter, but in a relegated way. Citizen voices push and shape, but do not precisely sculpt (see: a continued absence of real campaign finance reform). While web technologies have the capacity to include more voices in the democratic process, internet-enabled democratization is especially vulnerable to bureaucratic coups. This is because citizens don’t have voice on the internet, they are given voice, and those who give voice can, ultimately, do with that voice what they will.  (See: Facebook still has no Dislike button)

Common wisdom advises those who govern to include their subjects in decision making processes. People are more invested when they have a say. This is the logic behind teachers who let students help design homework assignments, parents who ask children what they wish to eat for dinner, and bosses who query employees about ways to improve efficiency. It is in this vein that the National Environmental Research Council invited the public to select a new name for their advanced research vessel.

Internet technologies grant expansive access to large groups of people, giving rise to the now common practice of crowdsourcing—or distributing some task among massive digitally connected networks. In the case of Sir David Attenborough, the job of naming a newly acquired ship was distributed among the British citizenry. This feels very democratic. That’s the point. But in the end, power rarely dethrones itself.

The People selected Boaty McBoatface for the vessel’s name by a margin of over 100,000 votes. But U.K. Science Minister Jo Johnson vetoed the decision, opting instead for something more “suitable.” Instead of Boaty McBoatface, Johnson named the ship Sir David Attenborough, the second place name (with 11,000 votes) and the name of a famous British naturalist.

Essentially, the Environmental Research Council was willing to let citizens participate, as long as those citizens did so in a way that was agreeable with the Research Council’s ideals. It was a democratic gesture, rather than a true effort in democratization.

But then again, Sir David Attenborough was the citizens’ second choice, and, it turns out, a yellow submarine attached to the ship will be named Boaty McBoatface. So The People were heard…kind of.

And that is democracy on the internet. It is a democracy where The People are heard…kind of. The ability for citizens to express themselves by no means upends structures of power, but it does irritate those who hold power. Invited or not, collective voices rise in volume. Even if they are rejected, they cannot be entirely ignored. Those in power—i.e., those who have the resources to make and enact consequential decisions—have to operate in an environment with permeable boundaries. They are not, and cannot be in an age of digital social technologies, insulated from those over whom they govern.

So Boaty lives, just not in the prominent place the citizenry designated. The internet cannot help but democratize, but in turn, power cannot help but dominate. In this way, Facebookers can’t Dislike and  public funding is not compulsory for political candidates, but Facebookers can “React,” and two U.S. presidential contenders maintain campaign finance as central to their platforms.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis


Outrage over the Bob Marley Snapchat filter was swift following its brief appearance on the mobile application’s platform on April 20 (The 420 pot smoking holiday). The idea of mimicking Bob Marley in appreciation of a day dedicated to smoking marijuana enabled users to don the hat, dreads, and…blackface!? News outlets that day covered the issue pretty quickly. and The Verge noted the negative reactions voiced on social media in regard to the filter. Tech publisher Wired released a brief article condemning it, calling it racially tone-deaf.

The racial implications of the Bob Marley filter are multifaceted, yet I would like to focus on the larger cultural logic occurring both above and behind the scenes at an organization like Snapchat. The creation of a filter that tapped into blackface iconography demonstrates the complexity of our relationship to various forms of technology – as well as how we choose to represent ourselves through those technologies. French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society of ‘technique’ as an encompassing train of thought or practice based on rationality that achieves its desired end. Ellul spoke of technique in relation to advances in technology and human affairs in the aftermath of World War II, yet his emphasis was not on the technology itself, but rather the social processes that informed the technology. This means that in relation to a mobile application like Snapchat we bring our social baggage with us when we use it, and so do developers when they decide to design a new filter. Jessie Daniels addresses racial technique in her current projects regarding colorblind racism and the internet – in which the default for tech insiders is a desire to not see race. This theoretically rich work pulls us out of the notion that technology is neutral within a society that has embedded racial meanings flowing through various actors and institutions, and where those who develop the technology we use on a daily basis are unprepared to acknowledge the racial disparities which persist, and the racial prejudice that can—and does—permeate their designs.

This understanding of technique, when combined with critical race theory, allows us to ask if the presence of blackface in technology is any big surprise in a presumably “post-racial” world. I am positive that any critical race scholar would, without hesitation, answer, “No, it’s not.”  And that’s because we are definitively not post-racial. The intentions behind the filter might have been innocent or playful by developers, but the use of blackface within society has a long and complex history – particularly in regard to its use as a tool to perpetuate systemic racial inequalities in the dehumanizing and “othering” of African Americans in the United States. Hollywood has traditionally been the long time perpetrator of promoting blackface, and variations of it, through utilizing stereotypes that adapt to a given historical moment in society. Yet the racial implications of blackface extend beyond the screens in which we view film. Over the past couple of years tensions brought up over racialized costumes during Halloween and college parties demonstrate the reach and continuation of blackface. With such a contemporary example that has generated conflict within the general public, it seems as if the tech innovators at Snapchat would have known better. I guess that is just wishful thinking. This movement and use of blackface from film, to parties, to the mobile app demonstrates what Ellul meant in regard to technique. The continuation of blackface in our society presently is not necessarily linked to the technologies that produce them, but through the ways in which individuals develop and utilize those technologies. The presumed innocence of using blackface to ‘celebrate’ an individual within a logic of providing ‘daily-new’ filters for consumer use reflects a gross oversight in what blackface means within the larger cultural sphere of public life.

The continued existence of racism in society is undertaken through multiple shifts and debates, in which no actor or institution stands in isolation. This case of the Bob Marley filter only highlights the ways that historical racist images are allowed to perpetuate themselves in the present – becoming not-so-historical in the process as they reincarnate through new mediums. I have no doubt that some cases might be found of individuals using the filter, or commenting on it, in overtly racist ways. Yet, as mentioned above, voices also sprang up to condemn the filter as racially insensitive in various social media and news sites. The technique of blackface is malleable in that it lingers on through practices that are uncritically carried out by tech developers, but those practices are also challenged through other means across various technologies. Unraveling this technique requires disrupting the structural racism that upholds it. Brushing off the filter as a misstep by Snapchat or condemning the developers as socially out of touch, is antithetical to the critical race project, a project that is less interested in identifying those who fail at race relations and more interested in identifying, and subverting, the social conditions that allow racism to persist.


Jason A. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University whose research centers on the areas of race and the media. His dissertation will look at the Federal Communications Commission and policy decisions regarding diversity in the media for minorities and women. Along with Bhoomi K. Thakore, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media (Routledge, May 2016). He is on twitter occasionally.


Headline pic: Source (CC licensed and edited by the author)


“Basic,” “painful,” “embarrassing,” and comparable to necrophilia: a small sampling from the reviews of Fuller House over the last couple of months. The Netflix original, a remake of the classic 1980s/90s sitcom Full House, may become a lasting icon of terrible, terrible, really quite bad moments in television history. The kindest sentiment I came across was expressed by Maureen Ryan in Variety, who generously conceded that “[t]hose who enjoyed the original…and don’t mind its patented blend of cloying sentiment, cutesy mugging and predictable humor might find enjoyment in this unspectacular retread.”

Naturally, I binge watched. Of course, it was as awful as expected. Maybe worse. The remake is identical to the original in both form and feel. The characters are unidimensional, the story is episodic and shallow, the catch-phrases are somehow even less catchy, and oh the racism. Kimmy Gibbler’s ex-husband is a cringe-worthy Latino caricature whose lustful propensities can hardly be contained and the 11th episode centers around an Indian themed party which acts as the foil for copious jokes, includes an almost entirely white cast dressed in saris and jamas, and culminates with the party attendees spontaneously breaking into a choreographed dance for which mysteriously, they each know all of the moves. That last part may or may not be racist, but as a storytelling decision, asks the audience to suspend an unfair amount of belief.

Fuller House could not have been worse if it tried. Which is why I reinterpreted the season as though it did try. And then, Fuller House was very good.

I watched the Fuller House season as though it was not just bad, but actively bad. From this angle, the decision to make a new show that is entirely unchanged from 30 years ago is a smart and creative vehicle for powerful social commentary. For the creators to leave this fact unmentioned is a piece of artistic genius.

That social commentary was the creators’ and actors’ intent is by no means a solid fact, nor even a well supported one. On the contrary, there is little reason to believe that the show is anything more than it appears at face value. But this is irrelevant. Media consumption is always participatory and audiences play a creative role. How a show is written matters, as does how the show is read. My reading of Fuller House—as a show out of time— transformed what was vapid, vacuous, and appallingly offensive, into a compelling piece of television programming.

Watching a show retrospectively is distinct from remaking the show in a new historical moment. The failings of the latter are decidedly more jarring and less forgivable. New cultural products are responsible for the advances in technology, storytelling, and identity politics of their time. For instance, Archie Bunker’s racial epithets and Ralph Kranden’s continued threats to send his wife “straight to the moon” would never fly today. Similarly, Saved by the Bell would only ever get picked up if Jessie Spanno’s caffeine-pill problem was a cocaine problem, intersected with storylines that wouldn’t pay off for several more seasons, and excluded any and all scenes that transitioned from dancing to crying.

Viewers may look back upon older media products with a combination of nostalgia and embarrassment, but also an implicit acceptance about the way things used to be. In contrast, an anachronistic production demonstrates how “the way things used to be” both reflected and informed normative logic. What was once popular was popular for a reason, and most certainly shaped how viewers understood themselves and others. That is, media products are formative, and the kind of culture that media products form becomes starkly clear when viewed from the future.

An anachronistic cultural product shows us to ourselves through our own nostalgia—and in the case of Fuller House, it is unflattering. It not only reveals the viewers’ formative past, but also pushes viewers to face the ways in which contemporary media products are of this particular time. In doing so it facilitates the uncomfortable question: will the media of  today be acceptable in the near and distant future? This  question applies to both broadcast and social media, and in many cases, the answer is no, this will not be acceptable. For instance, Facebook’s “real name” policy, Twilight’s implicit romanticization of abuse, and Snapchat’s Bob Marley filter will be recalled as emblems of antiquated values. Today, they are the subject of debate. 30 Years from now, if presented unchanged, they may well be shocking affronts–and yet these are all formative media. They reflect us, shape us, and are part of us. To re-present them out of time, in the manner of Fuller House, insists that the cultural milieu address what it made, what it enjoyed, and what that says about who they were and how they are now.

As a show out of time, Fuller House blares its inadequacy. It’s really just the worst. Luckily, media consumption is always active. So fuck it, I’m reading Fuller House as social commentary and basking in its brilliance. I highly recommend this tactic because next on deck:



Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis