Like raising kids, there is no handbook that tells you how to make the thousands of decisions and judgment calls that shape what a conference grows into. Seven year into organizing the Theorizing the Web conference, we’re still learning and adapting. In years past, we’ve responded to feedback from our community, making significant changes to our review process (e.g., diversifying our committee and creating a better system to keep the process blind) as well as adopting and enforcing an anti-harassment policy.

This year, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to ensure that presentations respect the privacy of the populations they are analyzing and respect the context integrity of text, images, video, and other media that presenters include in their presentations. I want to offer my take—and, hopefully, spark a conversation—on this important notion of “context integrity” in presenting research.

In “Privacy as Contextual Integrity,” Helen Nissenbaum observes that each of the various roles and situations that comprise our lives has “a distinct set of norms, which governs its various aspects such as roles, expectations, actions, and practices” and that “appropriating information from one situation and inserting it in another can constitute a violation.” It’s often social scientists’ job to take some things out of context and bring understanding to a broader audience. But, how we do that matters.

The ethical challenge for social scientists who use methods that remove information from its context (such as observation or content analysis) is figuring out how to still respect the norms of that context as well as the dignity of the people who are a part of it. We have not always done this well. Early anthropologists and sociologists were complicit in racism and colonialism. In my field of sex work research, previous generations of social scientists distorted or ignored sex workers’ own narratives to such a degree that sex work community, as a whole, remains skeptical of researchers.

Let’s consider a concrete example of how taking information out of context for research purposes can prove problematic: Laud Humphreys’ “Tearoom Trade” study. Humphreys described the sex habits of a community of gay men who met in certain public bathrooms. In the process of observing the men, he took down their license plate numbers and later visited their homes to conduct a health survey (which he posed as unrelated). Most of the criticism aimed at the study concerned how Humphreys used deception and risked outing individual men by collecting and storing identifiable data. This latter issue is often framed as a violation of privacy. However, I think this only gets at some of what was wrong with the Humphreys study, and I’d like to suggest that this case actually points to the limits of privacy as foundation for ethical decision-making in research.

Notably, the most sensitive information was obtained in public spaces, while the primary risk was exposure to the private (i.e., home/family) sphere. Already, this troubles conventional privacy discourses that tend to frame exposure as a uni-directional flow of information from private to public. Rather than seeing privacy and publicity as a simple dichotomy in which only that which is private is at risk of being exposed to that which is public, we might take Nissenbaum’s suggestion and frame our lives as consisting of numerous, sometimes overlapping social spheres with different norms of disclosure. From this perspective, the problem with the Humprey’s study is that it collapsed these contexts in potentially harmful ways. For example, though he altered his appearance, Humprey’s subjects would likely have been distressed to have him in their homes if they to recognized him from the tearooms. Worse yet, by taking information and observations out of the specific context of the tearooms (where he was assumed to be just another participant), Humprey’s research posed an existential threat to the community, making the men more susceptible to public moralizing and police actions.

It’s a staple of qualitative method courses to discuss how observation changes behavior. Part of the reason is that research, itself, is a context in which norms of disclosure may be different than other social situations. In the Humphreys study, subjects’ behavior and responses may have been completely different had they known they were participating in a research study—in fact, many men likely would have opted out altogether. This is something we should ask ourselves when presenting any data: “If the research subjects knew the manner in which I am presenting their information, would it change what they share?” To share data in a way that ignores the implicit norms and expectations of the context in which the information was shared is, at best, negligent and, at worse, exploitative (i.e., using someone else in pursuit of one’s own goals).

Data collection via the Web, further highlights why the concept of context integrity is a desirable alternative to the conventional public/private dichotomy. Researchers are sometimes tempted to believe that, because something is public (i.e., searchable on the Web), it is fair game for them to use as they wish (regardless of a site’s norms or the user’s original intent); but, such thinking is often rooted in a slippage between what information can be collected and held as a matter property rights and what is useable as a matter of ethics. Part of the problem is that discourse around public/private information has been incorporated into the market logic of copyright law. According to this logic anything done in public (legally defined as that which lacks “a reasonable expectation of privacy”) can be captured and become the property of whomever recorded it.* However, establishing ownership of data does not intrinsically imply that it’s ethical to share that data. In fact, IRB’s regularly compel researchers to destroy identifiable data that they rightfully own. Simply saying “well, it was public” and, therefore, legally obtained, in no way excuses harm done by placing information in another context.

To think about what context integrity means for Web-related research, it may be useful to consider a second case (one with parallels to the tearooms Humphreys observed): namely, hookup/dating sites like Grindr, Tindr, Fetlife, SwingLifeStyle, Craigslist. These sites are publicly accessible, and it is extraordinarily easy to capture screenshots from them (or even to systematically scrape data). Such research activities may violate terms of service, but they certainly aren’t violations of criminal law. So, assuming for a moment that a scenario exists where it is both legal and ethical to attain information about a hookup/dating site’s users, the question is then: How do we determine what aspects of this “public” information can ethically be shared by researchers?

Nissenbaum’s theory of context integrity suggests that we should look to the norms of disclosure on sites and try to remain consistent with them. Specifically, we might infer that users only intended for the personal information on their profiles to be seen by potential dates. These profiles may contain information about their sex life or relationship status (e.g., non-monogamy) that they would not want to share with family or co-workers. In fact, some may obscure their faces or certain other personal details as an additional precaution against their information leaking into another context.

The obvious conclusion in this case, then, is that sharing any potentially identifiable information (images, location, unique stories, etc.) would fail to respect the implicit assumptions made by users in posting their data. But, even if personal information can’t easily be linked back to the user, it may still be unsettling to see intimate things taken out of context. Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that de-identified aggregate level data is intrinsically benign; it can still, potentially, violate context integrity (as the “Tearoom Trade” study demonstrated). Increasing general attention to a site can have negative consequences, outing communities writ large. We saw this just last week with FetLife as increased attention (much resulting from the Fifty Shade of Grey craze) led to the banning of many sorts of content from the site after credit card companies threatened to stop processing payments unless things they objected to were removed.

This isn’t to say that all research into hookup/dating sites is ethically dubious, just that, in such sensitive cases, no disclosure should go without careful consideration and scrutiny. It’s the researcher’s job to anticipate the consequences of bringing information into another context and to mitigate whatever risks this transfer entails.

Finally, we need to pay special to the most sensitive cases: namely, those where the subject matter involves victims (e.g., research into police violence, sexual assault, revenge porn, etc.). When the context in which the information originates is an instance of violation, humiliation, and/or violence, circulation of certain pieces of this information (e.g., names, images, specific acts, etc.) may amplify this harm, re-victimizing the target. If there is any reason to believe that a research subject (or subjects) might be embarrassed to have a piece of information shared in conference setting and the connection to the subject cannot be anonymized, pseudonymized, or otherwise obscured, then I think that obtaining explicit consent is the way to go. This is doubly important for vulnerable populations.

In reflecting on “Tearoom Trade” study and considering how the lessons learned from it might apply to current research on hookup/dating site, I’ve suggested that both privacy and ownership are weak ethical frameworks for information sharing practices; much harm could be avoided by, instead, centering ethical consideration on context integrity and consent. In particular, I think it’s important to recognize research as its own context and that the basic purpose of methods such as observation and content analysis is to pull information out of their original context. While one-size-fits-all rules are difficult to establishe (given the wide variety of contexts explored by social scientific research), I’ve suggested that sharing sensitive information disclosed in other contexts (including images and audio) merits careful consideration and usually requires protections (such as de-identification) and/or explicit consent.

*Criminals laws regulating public recording vary by state and local municipality.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate writing about the experiences of sex cam models.

A review of Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt.

Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a New Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered San Francisco. The book is based both in interviews and personal experiences, stringing vignettes together into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In this review, I highlight her chapter on sex camming.

But first, I will start with a broad overview. A major theme in the book is the kind of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the limitless range of sexual partners and practices—first made possible by the sexual revolution, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) explains:

What if love failed us? Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.

Witt spent her early adult life wanting to find enduring love—and possibly even marriage—viewing this as an escape from the cycle of causal sexual arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her romantic life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in relationships. She (pp.11-2) describes why security remains desirable, even as the Internet opens ever more possibilities:

The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny. My sense of rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstructions of a baroque national monument that was destroyed by a bomb [but] another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.

In questioning these new romantic configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what social theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively describe as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the ideal of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of mutual benefit. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.

Lacking a secure, committed relationship in the old mold, Witt sets out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less conventional situations. As turns out, it is in the chapter on “Live Webcams” that Witt does the most theoretical work to explain why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the book—might aid in her quest for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points to an essay in the book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American author Samuel D. Delany about the time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:

[Delany] describe[d] the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrum of his sexual desire… His observations about sexual attraction consistently disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for Burly Irish-American men, including two who had hairlips.)

She quotes Delany who suggests we must “learn to find our own way of having sex sexy” and concludes:

I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process…

Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back where she started, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of commitment as temporary:

I hope that married partnership would cease to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for shared endeavors such as raising children or making art.

But this return to a somewhat conventional notion of romance proves to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and diversity of experience available to the present generation seems to evolve. Rather than seeing the nearly infinite range of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt ends up seeing it as an opportunity to experiment until one finds confidence and feels affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:

I found that… mostly I wanted to live in a world with a wider range of sexual identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single sexual model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, in the past fifty years.

Though she does not state it so explicitly, I would argue that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in discovering what we find sexually desirable, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less satisfying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.

And, while final chapter wonders off a bit, I think the desirability of embracing this tension between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) conclusion of the book.

***

Following this theme of sexual exploration as a mechanism of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming teaches Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) describes her experiences with the popular camsite Chaturbate:

I first saw Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technological evolution of peep show booths and phone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer and they had a voyeur… Then I spent more time on the site.

As she dives deeper into the site, Witt determines that the resemblances she observed between cam sites and other forms of sex work/performance were only superficial. The diversity and interactivity of cam sites set them apart.

Chaturbate was full of serendipity… the feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer into the opening matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of the day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in time, it recalled the earlier days of the Internet—the Internet of strangers rather than “friends.”

Witt’s decision to approach her subject matter through the lens of her own desire—as described in the first section of this review—proves both interesting and problematic in this chapter.

What makes Witt’s approach interesting is that, in bypassing the popular rooms that she largely finds uninteresting, she takes us to the margins of the sites, searching for the unexpected. This includes an Icelandic woman who strips wearing a rubber horse mask and fedora. In a passage representative of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt describes (pp. 112-3):

maybe it was the house that she was in or her high definition camera or a general characteristic of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of fish oils is high and citizens benefit from socialized health care.

Witt also describes a college-age women who talked about literature and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, some nudity, and no sex. A third woman suspended herself from a hook made of ice. And another woman held nude sex ed discussions.

Taking a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt describes the intended use of site—one or two performers broadcasting to many viewers in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the chapter was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to facilitate unpaid, anonymous, 1-on-1 sex.

Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with one another while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Together, logged on to browse the countless pages of men streaming but being watched by no one. She describes (pp. 124-5):

not even the most popular men, instead clicking through to the second and third pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk chairs… It turned out that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them…

Witt (and her guides) come across a man she finds somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can see her. While Witt does not seem to find the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight into the value others find in the experience:

here, where hopes resided in the chance of an electronic encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a couple pages in, the numbers changed to one or two people using Chaturbate to interact privately with another person.

Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being used against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional intimate or sexual encounters on sites whose profits come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity and do not prohibit it, they do not intend or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, due to this lack control that sites likes Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier Web.

While Witt’s examination of the margins of camming sites is revealing, she also, arguably, fails to represent most of what is going on these sites and is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she focuses on her desires as a thirty-something NYC writer, Witt sometimes displays a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it’s not seen as deserving attention.

Witt is also not a joiner. Her desire to experiment as part her own quest for sexual self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt does identify or feel a sense of belonging with the people she meets. She seems to participate only at a distance, viewing others as subjects as much as relationships. Witt (p. 172) describes her own relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I was still thinking of myself as just a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone undertaking an abstract inquiry but not yet with true intention.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a degree of objectivity (most other things written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing copy); however, it also means she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.

What’s missing in the chapter on camming—due to some combination of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—is an examination of the many dimensions of creative labor that goes into producing evening the most normative-appearing shows. Had Witt tried modeling herself, this would be readily apparent. The seeming ease with which models embody normative desires is part of the work—part of the performance of authenticity.

A most troubling moment is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the top performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the weird in porn feeds a kind of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a way of validating others.

Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the previous chapter, in fact, she offers a great deal of praise for the artistry women porn directors and producers, and she spends a significant time questioning her own beliefs shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues that much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos set up by anti-porn feminists.

Nevertheless, Witt does not seem to extend the interest and regard she has for women-directed studio porn to the women-directed performances of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and fascinating stories to tell.

***

Regardless of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The future of sex cannot be reduced to a story of technological development but must be understood in terms of changing patterns of human relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America had a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” For that reason alone, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist writing a dissertation on sex camming.

I need to start this essay by making one thing clear: I will not in any way suggest that cam girls or the work that they do is problematic. On the contrary, this essay is aimed at appreciating some of the complexity involved in this form of sex work. In particular, it examines how the culturally ubiquitous trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) shapes the expectations an audience might place on cammers (especially young cis-women cammers) and how cammers anticipate and capitalize on such expectations.

Sex work is a performance that requires anticipating and reflecting the desires of customers. Many sex workers have a specific role or act that they regularly return to whenever they are on the clock. In some cases, this may even involve what Arlie Hochschild (The Managed Heart, 1983) called “deep acting” (i.e., working to feel the desires or emotions required by a performance or to achieve a real connection with clients). However, the identities of sex workers are not reducible to these performances anymore than the personalities of flight attendants or waitresses are reducible to their interactions with customers. In Playing the Whore (2014, p. 86) Melissa Gira Grant explains:

Acting as if we share our customers’ desires is the work of sex work. But that’s not the same as allowing our customers to define our sexuality… [we need] to see off-the-clock sex workers as whole, as people who aren’t just here to fuck.

For many sex workers, performing at work involves manipulating the sexist assumptions they encounter throughout their lives so that they can actually benefit from them. For example, cammers often adopt the feminized role of dutiful listener because it gratifies customers who stick around and pay just to talk. In this way, sex workers present themselves as fantasy objects for men (at least temporarily). Grant observes (p. 90):

Sex workers know they are objectified; they move in the world as women too, and through their work they have to become fluent in the narrow and kaleidoscopic visions through which men would like to relate to them as sexual fantasies embodied.

Which fantasies women are expected to embody will, of course, vary based on the cultural assumptions of a particular time and place. And, given the increasing prominence of the MPDG in Hollywood films and other media, it seems likely that this trope is also becoming more commonplace in men’s individual fantasies. As such, it is something that sex workers will increasingly have projected on them and will increasingly respond to. But before I discuss how I think the MPDG trope is affecting sex work—and camming in particular—I need to review the characteristics that define the MPDG.

In his 2007 essay coining the term, Nathan Rabin explains:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

Rabin later elaborates that the MPDG

seem[s] to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie”… a… carefree nymphet who is the accessory to [a male protaganist’s] character development. It’s an archetype… that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done… a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy.

He concludes that:

The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.

In other words, the chief feature of the MPDG trope is the reduction of women to nothing more than props in a man’s quest for self-actualization.

Particularly relevant to sex workers encountering the MPDG trope is David Strohecker’s observation that what makes an MPDG so inspiring to the man at the center of a story is her propensity for breaking rules and norms. The rebellious nature of the MPDG appeals to men who are unsatisfied with their lives but unable to break out of their own habits and narrow view of the world. Strohecker explains:

Hollywood fetishizes the progressive, non-conformist type; the type of woman that has visible tattoos and body piercings, yet exudes a childlike glee and excitement about life. Why? Because such women serve as muses for young men, men in power, or soon-to-be heirs of privilege. They are accessible as cultural objects, things to be gazed at and amazed by. They may even be listened to, but only when seeking emotional support, inspiration, or hope.

While MPDG characters are portrayed as outsiders, sex workers occupy prominent outsider role in society: the role of whore. Whores defy the compulsory virtue society prescribes for women, choosing how and when to express their own sexuality. In Sex at the Margins (2007, p. 101), Laura Agustín explains that, when the term originated, the emphasis was on rule-breaking not just monetary exchange:

‘Whoring’ referred to sexual relations out of marriage and connoted immorality or promiscuity without the involvement of money, and the word whore was used to brand any women who stepped outside current boundaries of respectability… there was no word or concept which signified exclusively the sale of sexual services

Though the whore is stigmatized by society, she is also liberated—free to embrace other possible ways of being. Through the male gaze, women perceived as whores appear to be avenues of sexual possibility not open to men in the conventional relationships that they have reserved for “good girls.” And, in this sense, whores’ non-conformity—like that of the MPDG—may “inspire” or be “fetishized” by men who would treat them as a muse for their own (sexual) self-actualization. Of course, whores are not merely props for men’s self-actualization. In fact, it is women’s expression of their own sexual agency that, ironically, gets them branded as a whore.

The reason that the role of the whore is relevant to the MPDG is that the intrinsic non-conformity of the women who occupy this role makes them attractive to men looking to play out an MPDG fantasy. This tendency is further encouraged when women exhibit other visible markers of non-conformity: dyed hair, tattoos, uncommon piercings, symbols of non-mainstream tastes (bands, movies, books, etc.). And, it is encouraged even more when other traits of the MPDG (e.g., youth, bubbly personality, quirkiness) are present.

This brings us to the chief observation I want to make in this essay: Sex camming sites are full of young, bubbly, geeky, tattooed women with vividly-colored clothes, hair, and backdrops. This pattern is derivative of the MPDG trope—we might call it the “Manic Pixie Cam Girl”—and, I am suggesting that two things are happening to cause this: 1.) men have a propensity to imagine women occupying the whore role as muses who can help them in their quest for sexual self-actualization, and 2.) cammers are successfully exploiting this sexist male fantasy in their shows by selling an MPDG fantasy.

These are just broad observations, and only cammers themselves can speak to if and how much they have deliberately adopted the MPDG trope as a playbook. (In my experience, cammers are keenly aware of such trends and are creatively engaged with culture writ large.) What is certain is that cammers, along with their clients, are part of a shared cultural landscape where images of MPDGs feature prominently. Whether or not a cammer explicitly frames her performance in terms of the MPDG, this trope provides a script for interactions that both parties have been socialized to understand intuitively. And, this learned pattern of interactions is what Manic Pixie Cam Girls are very intentionally capitalizing on in their performances.

What, then, are we supposed to make of Manic Pixie Cam Girl trend?

Undoubtedly, some critics will argue that the Manic Pixie Cam Girls—like the MPDG trope—only reinforce the male fantasy that women are accessories or props that can be ignored when not immediately useful. In movies, relationships with MPDGs are almost always ephemeral—the male protagonist racing to get what he needs from an MPDG before repeated interactions force him to recognize her as something more than an object. And, perhaps, the transactional and contingent nature of cam interactions does seem to confirm the suspicions of these skeptics—after all, a viewer can just log off as soon as satisfaction is achieved.

But, unlike movies, camming is interactive, and these interactions are often ongoing, especially for regular customers. Over time, viewers see cammers’ moods vary. And, cammers often use social media to share events and life experiences with engaged audiences. Also unlike Hollywood, cammers are their own writers and directors—they control their own shows and make the ultimate decisions about when and what to perform. In all these ways, the MPDG-esque illusion of other-as-fetishized-muse may be harder to maintain on cam site. And, it is even quite possible that the audience likes it that way. After all, playing with and subverting conventional social roles is the basis of a wide range of kinks.

Beyond the question of women’s representation—whether Manic Pixie Cam Girls help or hurt the way women are perceived in general—is, perhaps, an even more important issue: How the individual women performing on cam are managing to pursue their own ambitions in a hetero-patriarchal society. And, I believe we ought to celebrate anyone who is able to turn that which is used to oppress them into an opportunity. By capitalizing on sexist male fantasies, MPCGs are doing just that.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is sociologist and cammer writing a dissertation sex camming.

Revised 1/24/17 to clarify some language.

 

With the 50th anniversary of the original series and impending debut of Star Trek: Discovery later this year, it seems like an ideal time to look back at how this franchise—which is so near and dear me and many of my fellow Cyborgologists—has imagined technology.

Those who grew up in the era of the recent J.J Abrams “reboot” series of action films, could be forgiven for thinking of the Star Trek universe is little more than a thin narrative strand binding together adrenaline hits in yet another forgettable instantiation of the timeless male fantasy of blowing shit up in space. But, in its prime, Star Trek’s cerebral nature and its relentless interrogation of moral and social values set it apart from other successful 20th Century space dramas like Star Wars or the original Battlestar Galactica series.

The original Star Trek series was notably progressive in employing women writers (primarily D.C. Fontana) and having a racially diverse cast, and it famously featured television’s first interracial kiss (which, speaking to the cerebral nature of the show, took place on a planet whose inhabitants where trying to enact the ideas of Plato’s Republic). Later series would push the envelope on media representation by featuring Black (DS9) and women (Voyager) captains. This opened the way to more explicit reflections of race and gender politics by the show’s characters.

Most significant, though, is the way that politics were baked into the setting of the Star Trek universe from the beginning. Creator Gene Roddenberry imagined that, with the elimination of material scarcity (and money along with it), 24th Century Earth would become a paradise. Having everything, humans would collectively turn away from the goal of accumulating wealth and toward the mutually intertwined goals of interplanetary exploration and self-realization. Roddenberry’s imagined future was a product of its time (i.e., the 1960s). The original series aired during the period of peak influence for Frankfurt School and other Freudo-Marxian theorists who were arguing that human potential could finally be realized now that techno-social innovations were on the cusp of providing whole of society sufficient resources to meet their basic biological needs. Once new technologies—and the unparalleled levels of productivity they promised to enable—made us all healthy and comfortable, we could turn our attention to higher order desires, such as the pursuit of knowledge and the search for meaning. This is the deep meaning of the series’ recurring introductory monologue:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, it is naïve to imagine that, even in the absence of material scarcity, humans could put aside social and cultural difference (without any group being oppressed) and unite to explore the galaxy—even given the classic sci-fi trope that, once aliens appear on Earth (in this case, friendly Vulcans), differences between humans will seem small by comparison. However, this naiveté was only ever superficial—a way of disarming knee-jerk political reactions and evading prejudices by transposing human social dynamics onto our interactions with aliens. This was a particularly effective vehicle for social commentary during the periods that the original series (1966-69) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) ran, when television was still dominated by just a few risk-adverse networks.

Star Trek’s emphasis on exploration and discovery points not to a future of moral clarity and social harmony, but rather to one where our virtues are constantly tested—where personal contradictions and social conflicts perpetually emerge. This is what I understand David Banks to mean when he writes about utopianism in Star Trek:

Utopias… don’t just let us display the final result of a certain kind of politics, they let us interrogate the very foundations of our politics. They let us bring ideas to their logical and illogical conclusions and, in so doing, gives us a crucible in which to crush them up, mix them, and come up with brand new ideas. Utopic story telling should not be blind to anything: it should meet race, class, gender, and any other social structure head on and complicate it beyond comprehension. What comes out the other side should be a little unnerving, exciting, and dangerous. Exactly what the future should be.

I accept and agree with Banks’ perspective on the potential for radical utopias as imagined futures that facilitate our questioning of the present. And, his understanding certainly fits with Karl Mannheim’s classic definition that “a state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs” and “which, when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time.” But what Banks dismisses as failing to live up to the ideal of (radical) utopic storytelling, is still, I suggest, a form of utopianism; it is just a more naïve and insidious form of utopianism that imagines that there to be scientific solutions for social and moral problems. As such, these problems can be ignored as temporary setbacks, which will inevitably be resolved by the progressive arc of history and technological advancement.

Arguably, the first two Star Trek series, tended more toward this sort of naïve utopianism. Both series are deeply and fundamentally optimistic in their orientation toward technology. Despite the future’s inherent dangers, most problems are imagined to be resolvable with persistence and inventiveness. This unwavering faith in human ingenuity was Roddenberry’s trademark, and, as Banks notes, it is also a “box” that Star Trek’s writers only escaped from after his death.

In many episodes (from the first two series in particular), technical solutions act as a deus ex machina, eliminating any need for compromise or meaningful sacrifices on the part of the crew. These instances a parodied in the Voltaire song “USS Make Shit Up” whose chorus goes:

Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
That’s the way we do things lad, we’re making shit up as we wish
The Klingons and the Romulans pose no threat to us
‘Cause if we find we’re in a bind we just make some shit up.

Technological deus ex machina may have worked as a in individual episodes as a useful mechanism, allowing writers to introduce scenarios that pose interesting questions without needing to answer those questions or connect all the dots relating them back to contemporary moral and social issues; however, it also created a broader meta-narrative of technological solutionism throughout the series. In other words, this narrative pattern encourages naïve utopian expectations that moral and social issues will be resolved by technological innovation, rather than moral or social insights and decision-making.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first of the post-Roddenberry series. What makes it unique (and, in my estimation, the most creative and theoretically interesting show in the franchise’s history) is deliberate departure from the technological and moral solutionism of its predecessors. DS9 imagined a world were failure was a real possibility and success often came at a price.

Technology in DS9 is often hostile. Unlike the Starship Enterprise which is portrayed as the pinnacle of human inventiveness, Deep Space Nine is a war trophy won from the Cardassians and was previously used to enslave members of the crew and their kin. Rather than a symbol of hope, it is a symbol of oppression—or was. Nothing in DS9 is so one-sided. Despite being uncomfortable, alien, and dangerous, the space station also becomes home; it also becomes the last bastion of hope in humanity’s struggle to preserve its freedom.

Most significant, DS9 does not take an intrinsically optimistic or pessimistic stance toward technology, nor does it adopt the facile view that technology is neutral or value free. Instead, DS9 approaches technology with profound ambivalence, understanding that our relationship to technology is always a matter of human (or alien) values. Innovation is not always bad, but more innovation is not always better.

The episode, “Armageddon Game” is an excellent example of how this ambivalent relationship to technology plays out. The crew agrees to help two alien races cement a peace deal by figuring how to destroy the advanced biological weapons that both alien species had developed during their long war. On the surface, a degree of ambivalence is apparent in this narrative: Technological innovation has produced these terrible weapons, but it is also the solution for getting rid of them. Despite this superficial ambivalence, however, the narrative, without further development, would resolve into a “yay, science” moment, where, though technological innovation did create some problems (i.e., genocide), we can rest comfortably in knowing that such problems are nothing that can’t be solved with a little more innovation.

Instead of following this kind of pat techno-solutionist narrative, the episode takes a darker, more sophisticated turn: Once the weapons are destroyed, the two alien governments jointly undertake a plot to assassinate all the scientists involved with the project (including an attempt on a pair of the show’s protagonists, who barely manage to escape). The aliens believe that any technical knowledge of the weapons is too dangerous to exist and that peace depends on undoing the technological (weapons) development that has previously occurred. In other words, the aliens believe that the solution to the problem posed by the existence of these weapons is to simultaneously advance and turn back technological development. By presenting the aliens as having such an ambivalent relationship with technology—as neither single-mindedly embracing technological solutionism or skepticism—the episode pivots toward a much deeper conversation about values: What is the worth of an individual life and how much risk should a society tolerate for the sake of one person? These are not questions that the crew–or anyone–can answer (or render irrelevant) through innovation. Technology cannot save us from ourselves.

This echoes the observations of early-20th Century sociologist Max Weber, who argued that, despite the modernist impulse to put faith in reason, science and technology can never enable us to escape the need for moral judgements. Virtues are matters of faith, a different order of knowledge than empirical data or objective reasoning. These virtues—whether received are chosen—cannot be proven but only accepted or denied. Most importantly to a show about aliens—who, inevitably, are proxies for competing aspects of our own humanity—meaning is only realized in light of what we choose not to do or be. He explains (“Objectivity in Social Science,” 1904):

The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to others as ours are to us.

Both Weber and DS9 (throughout its many episodes) demonstrate what might be described as an existentialist orientation: To affirm ourselves—both in our individuality and our humanity—we must make moral choices—choices of consequence that affirm one way of being at the expense of foreclosing other possible ways of being. The illusion of naïve techno-utopianism—whether pedaled by Silicon Valley or the earlier incarnations of the Star Trek franchise—is that technology offers an escape from morality; that we can innovate our way out of having to make choices or sacrifices that affirm our values; that technology will allow us to transcend the need for morality so that we can, somehow, live a life that is amoral without being immoral.

A second DS9 episode (my personal favorite) shatters the illusion that this sort of naïve, amoral utopia is possible, even in the imagined Star Trek universe. The episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” begins with news that humans and their allies are losing a war for their freedom against a vast interstellar empire known as the Dominion. Captain Sisko believes humanity’s only hope is to draw the Romulans (who have long been enemies) into war on their side. He recruits an exiled former spy named Garak to aid him in a plot to forge a recording that ostensibly proves that the Dominion is planning a sneak attack on the Romulans. When Sisko asks Garak to aid him in carrying out this plot, Garak responds:

It may be a very messy, very bloody business. Are you prepared for that?

The captain pulls strings to have an expert forger named Grathon Tolar released from jail so that he can assist them. He also pays bribes and deals in contraband in order to obtain the necessary technology. Once complete, Sisko arranges a secret meeting with a Romulan senator who, despite all Sisko’s efforts and moral compromises, scrutinizes the message and determines that it is, in fact, a forgery. Persistence and inventiveness have not paid off for Sisko, and these efforts only convince us that it was unrealistic to ever believe a technical solution was possible.

What makes the episode most interesting is that it turns out not to be a simplistic morality tale about crime and punishment; instead, it creates a scenario of moral ambivalence in addition to technological ambivalence. Once the forgery is discovered, the ambassador is furious and leaves the station. Shortly thereafter, his ship explodes, apparently sabotaged by the Dominion. The Romulans recover the forged message rod from the ship’s wreckage, which they fail to carefully examine because they already blame the Dominion for the assassination. It convinces them to join the war on the side of the humans. The episode ends with a revelation that Garak had in fact planted the bomb and planned to assassinate the ambassador all along, because he believed the stakes were too high to place faith in the forgery (i.e., the technical fix). He also murdered Grathon Tolar, the forger. The real revelation, however, is that Sisko picked Garak to help him because, in the back of his mind, he knew Garak would do anything necessary to ensure they succeeded in drawing the Romulans into the war. Garak calls Sisko out, saying:

That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well it worked. And you’ll get what you want: A war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And, if your conscious is bothering you, you should sooth it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.

Sisko then closes the episode reflecting to himself:

I lied, I cheated, I bribed a man to cover the crimes of other men, I am an accessory to murder. The most damning thing of all: I think I can live with it. And, if I had to do it all over again, I would… a guilty conscious is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant, so I will learn to live with it

At this pivotal moment in the story arc of the entire series, technology cannot save humanity, but lies and murder can. If technological solutionism is the naïve belief that humans can invent their way out of moral and social problems, existential entitlement is a parallel belief that all moral conflicts can be solved without sacrifice or compromise. Of course, Sisko would have preferred another option—an easy technological or moral fix—but such solutions are not guaranteed in radical utopias such as DS9 and are certainly not guaranteed in reality.

Zygmunt Bauman

Earlier this week, I posted a remembrance of the ways Zygmunt Bauman influenced us here at Cyborgology. In this post, I reflect on–and attempt to further develop–some of the aspects of Bauman’s thought that may be useful to us as we continue our work theorizing digital media.

Two things I most admired about Zygmunt Bauman were his ability to relate his theories to current events (even as he aged into his 90s) and the way he always manage to connect social theory and moral philosophy–how to achieve justice as a society and lead a good life as an individual.

To the former point, Bauman was remarkably prolific up until his final days. In a 2016 interview that sets the tone for my reflection here, he argued:

most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

This notion of social media as a pleasurable trap–and how Bauman comes to understand it this way–is the lens through which I would like to review his sizable body of work.

Medusa

Pleasurable Traps: Beyond the Panopticon

The final decade and a half of Bauman’s life was, almost obsessively, devoted to developing his concept of liquidity “as the leading metaphor for the present stage of the modern era” (Liquid Modernity, p. 2). Early modernity was largely concerned with the development of enduring structures that could control space for extended periods of time. Nation states and prisons exemplify how control was tied to spatial relations in early modernity. Late, “liquid” modernity, however, is distinguished by accelerated movement of both information and material objects. Rigid structures tied to particular spaces become less important than the movement of the flows that pass easily between them. Bauman explains (Liquid Modernity, pp. 10-11):

the long effort to accelerate the speed of movement has presently reached its ‘natural limit’. Power can move with the speed of the electronic signal – and so the time required for the movement of its essential ingredients has been reduced to instantaneity. For all practical purposes, power has become truly exterritorial, no longer bound, not even slowed down, by the resistance of space… It does not matter any more where the giver of the command is – the difference between ‘close by’ and ‘far away’… has been all but cancelled.

This being the case, Bauman argues that we need to move beyond the theoretic frameworks used to make sense of control in early modernity–most significantly, we need to move beyond the metaphor of the panopticon described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The guards of liquid modernity can watch from anywhere and the prisoners can be watched anywhere. Bauman explains (Liquid Modernity, p. 10) that panoptic control is

burdened with… handicaps… It is an expensive strategy: conquering space and holding to it as well as keeping its residents in the surveilled place… [rapid movement] gives the power-holders a truly unprecedented opportunity: the awkward and irritating aspects of the panoptical technique of power may be disposed of. Whatever else the present stage in the history of modernity is, it is… above all, post-Panoptical.

Though not without its flaws, Bauman’s 2013 collaboration with David Lyon, titled Liquid Surveillance, most forcibly made the case that we need to move beyond the metaphor of the panopticon if we truly hope to understand how the relationship between visibility and control works in the age of social media. A decade earlier in Liquid Modernity, Bauman (drawing on Thomas Mathiesen), had already suggested we examine “synoptic” power structures, where the many now watch the few but the few still maintain influence over the many by producing spectacles for the many to consume. Liquid Surveillance pushes the conversation a step further, suggesting we consider “ban-optic” power structures (a term coined by Didier Bigo), which, unlike the panopticon, are not confined to a specific institution but are applied to society– and even the global population–as a whole. The fundamental mechanism behind ban-optic structures is social sorting by way of profiling and algorithmic prediction. The ban-opticon pressures us to conform to normalized patterns of behavior or else be categorized as a potential threat and, thus, subjected to greater surveillance and diminished rights. Perhaps even more concerning, ban-optic power structures often draw boundaries of exclusion based on involuntary categories such as race, citizenship, or genetic markers. These discussions of the ban-opticon now seems prescient as we transition toward a Trump presidency.

While these were important insights, I would argue that it is not what Bauman explicitly said here about surveillance that is most significant, but the discussions that his worked helped open the door to.

First, the conversation about surveillance and social media has finally moved past the metaphor of the panopticon. Excellent books like David Savat’s Uncoding the Digital [my review] are attempting to develop entirely new frameworks for understanding more fluid forms of surveillance. Bauman stretches the concept of the synopticon almost beyond recognizability to the point that his recent work all but begs for new conceptual tools. Further development of terms like “omniopticon” (used by Nathan Jurgenson and George Ritzer to describe many-many surveillance dynamics) are still sorely needed.

Second, we we have begun to see that the model of surveillance is no longer an iron cage but a velvet one–it is now sought as much as it is imposed. Social media users, for example, are drawn to sites because they offer a certain kind of social gratifaction that comes from being heard or known. Such voluntary and extensive visibility is the basis for a seismic shift in the way social control operates–from punitive measures to predictive ones. Bauman explains (Liquid Surveillance, pp. 65-66):

With the carrot (or its promise) replacing the stick, temptation and seduction taking over the functions once performed by normative regulation, and the grooming and honing of desires substituting for costly and dissent-generating policing… I would rather abstain from using the term ‘panopticon’ in this context. The professionals in question are anything but the old-fashioned surveillors watching over the monotony of the binding routine; they are rather trackers or stalkers of the exquisitely changeable patterns of desires and of the conduct inspired by those volatile desires.

The imposing nature of the panopticon is rapidly being designed out of surveillance technologies, and Silicon Valley’s goal of “frictionless” sharing on social media exemplifies this trend. Social control, itself, has become more adaptive and individualized–more fluid–and Bauman’s work gives us a language to talk about this.

Pleasurable traps depend on this sort of fluidity; they must adjust themselves to most efficiently channel the desires and behaviors of each individual. When effective, such traps are not experienced as an imposition but as opportunity. In his most hyperbolic moments, Bauman made statements such as:

we no longer employ technology to find the appropriate means for our ends, but we instead allow our ends to be determined by the available means of technology. We don’t develop technologies to do what we want to be done. We do what is made possible by technology.

If we take this too seriously, we might conclude that Bauman believed we have all become dupes. But, he, himself, gives us tools to understand why this is not so.

Bauman suggests that–following modernity’s failure to divide the world up into definite and enduring categories–ambiguity and ambivalence define post-modern logic. It is useful to think about pleasurable traps as being ambivalent to our ends/desires. Ambivalence is necessary to achieve flexibility. There is no singular, ideal way to be ensnared. Pleasurable traps modulate themselves to be the means to many different ends; they only encourage users to adapt when they reach the limits of their own adaptability. And, they only tend to bar entry when they exhaust efforts to co-adapt with the user.

Returning to the example of social media, platforms generally attempt to maximize their user base. They may encourage happy posts but will happily accept all your uncle’s political rants. They may encourage you, time and again, to fill out your “about me” information, but will let you get away with leaving most things blank. They may encourage you to friend or follow an ex, but will also allow you to perpetually ignore these suggestions. They may even tolerate some rule-breaking (e.g., Facebook’s real name policy) in order to keep users in the system. Generally speaking, the only things that can get you barred from a platform is if you either drive other users away or if you engage in sabotage.

Part I summary: As the paradigmatic example of a pleasurable trap–the form of social control native to liquid modernity–social media is highly flexible in adapting itself to individual users and is largely ambivalent to their desires.

Hansel and Gretel

Pleasurable Traps as Post-Modern Sorcery and Enchantment

Bauman’s discussions of liquidity and surveillance were not, themselves, the primary focus of his work, but rather pieces of a much larger legacy of theorizing social control–a legacy that begins with his defining work on Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman did not view the Holocaust as an aberration in Western history or a setback in its progress; instead, he saw it as modernity’s logical conclusion. Bauman was deeply critical of modernity and its relentless pressure to rationalize and control the world; he likened it to a gardener who establishes order only by eliminating that which does not fit neatly into their prescribed categories. In Bauman’s words (Modernity and the Holocaust, p. 18):

the bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many ‘problems’ to be solved, as ‘nature’ to be ‘controlled’, ‘mastered’ and ‘improved’ or ‘remade’, as a legitimate target for ‘social engineering’, and in general a garden to be designed and kept in the planned shape by force (the gardening posture divides vegetation into ‘cultured plants’ to be taken care of, and weeds to be exterminated), was the very atmosphere in which the idea of the Holocaust could be conceived, slowly yet consistently developed, and brought to its conclusion.

Bauman contrasts the early modern logic of control embodied by the gardener with the pre-modern figure of the gamekeeper–who assumes order to be intrinsic to the nature of things according to a divine plan–and with the post-modern figure of the hunter–who tries capture as many trophies as they can without concern for the nature of the landscape, the future existence of the game, or even other hunters. Bauman suggests we now live, predominantly, in a would of hyper-individualistic hunters (“Living in Utopia,” p. 5):

we would need to try really hard to spot a gardener who contemplates a predesigned harmony beyond the fence of his private garden and then goes out to bring it about. We certainly won’t find many gamekeepers with similarly vast interests… That increasingly salient absence is called ‘deregulation’.

Returning now to the idea of a pleasurable trap, Bauman unwittingly seems to be pushing us beyond the metaphor of a hunter who cares nothing for the landscape. Liquid modernity, as exemplified by social media, does, in fact, feature figures who are deeply concerned with the landscape: these the are the engineers behind all the platforms and algorithms that allow pleasurable traps to modulate themselves to the desires of each user.

Extending Bauman’s metaphors, I suggest we add the figure of the sorcerer, who conjures up an illusory landscape tailored to the desires of each passerby. The sorcerer’s conjured landscape is fluid but ensnares that which flows through it (at least temporarily). The sorcerer also uses their power to banish enemies. The magic of the conjured landscape is that it not only lures desirable victims in, but also that acts as a barrier keeping undesirable victims out. The sorcerer does not replace the hunter; rather, sorcerer hunts the hunter, preying on their individual desires–each conjured landscape filled with attractive game likely to lure the hunter in.

The pleasurable trap is a conjured landscape–a creation of the sorcerer, a site of enchantment. Interestingly, enchantment is another concept Bauman uses to describe post-modernity (Intimations of Postmodernity, p. x) :

postmodernity can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity, presumptuously, had taken away; as a re-enchantment of… the world that modernity tried hard to dis-enchant

Bauman further explains that, in a re-enechanted world, “the mistrust of human spontaneity, of drives, impulses and inclinations resistant to prediction and rational justification, has all but been replaced by the mistrust of the unemotional, calculating reason” (Postmodern Ethics, p. 33). Using this langauge, we can say that pleasurable traps are pleasurable because they have been re-enchantmented–they allow for individual expression and meaning-making, unlike previous apparatuses of control.

But, the “re-” in “re-enchantment” is key, here, and Bauman seems to forget that at times. Enchantment cannot return us to a pre-modern state. Contrary to Bauman’s previous quote, predictibility–and rationalization, for that matter–still remain key aspects of post-modernity; they have just imploded with–or, perhaps, been concealed by–less rational, less modern ways of being. Expanding on Bauman, George Ritzer (Enchanting a Disenchanted World, p. 70) observes that “efforts at reenchantment may, themselves, be rationalized from the very beginning”; he (ibid, p. 7) describes these re-enchanted systems as “‘cathedrals of consumption’–that is, they are structured, often successfully, to have an enchanted, sometimes even sacred, religious character… to offer, or at least appear to offer increasingly magical, fantastic, and enchanted settings in which to consume.” Whether we call them “conjured landscapes,” “cathedrals of consumptions,” or “pleasurable traps,” these concepts all point our attention toward rationalized structures that have been re-enchanted.

Of particular relevance to our main case of interest–i.e., social media–Ritzer notes that “rather than having their consumption orchestrated by people like advertising executives and directors of cathedrals of consumption, it may be that it is consumers who are in control” (Enchanting a Disenchanted World, p. 75). That is not to say that users/consumers/hunters are in absolute control; but, their desires do determine the shape that these conjured landscapes take and their willingness to continually pass through such pleasurable traps incentivizes sorcerers to continue to conjurer them.

In this way, pleasurable traps implode rationality and irrationality, freedom and control. This implosion–the capacity to embody contradiction–is the true magic–the spell post-modernity hath cast.

Part II summary: Though they are still rational at their core, what differentiates pleasurable traps (such as social media) from early modern forms of social control (such as the panopticon) is that they have been re-enchanted; individual freedom for expression and meaning-making are now essential to their functioning. To Bauman’s list of metaphorical figures (i.e., the gamekeeper, gardener, and hunter), we can add the sorcerer, who represents the powers that conjure these re-enchanted apparatuses into being.

Bauman

Readers interested in social theory will likely have heard the news of Zygmunt Bauman’s death earlier this week. Bauman was influential to many of us at Cyborgology. His ideas have been cited in numerous posts throughout the past six years, particularly in the early days of the blog, when Nathan Jurgenson and I were studying his work with our advisor George Ritzer. As a small memorial to Bauman, I want to take a moment to look back at some of the ways he inspired us. (I’ve even included a couple quotes from Sociology Lens, where Nathan and I got our start as bloggers!)

Facebook, The Transumer and Liquid Capitalism

by Nathan Jurgenson

Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquidity” thesis about our late-modern world becoming more fluid seems relevant in light of the “transumer” and “virtual commodities”, both having received recent attention… “Stuff”, for many, is decreasingly allowed to solidify on our shelves and in our attics, instead flowing in a more liquid and nimble sense through consumers’ lives… the trend is towards “lighter” exchange as opposed to the solid and heavier exchange of physical goods. Microsoft was Bauman’s example of “light capitalism”, producing light products such as software, which is, opposed to heavier items such as automobiles, more changeable and disposable.

Weightless Capitalism

by Nathan Jurgenson

Almost a decade ago, Bauman viewed Microsoft as the paradigmatic example of the lighter capitalism because software was easily changeable and disposable. Today, Web 2.0 marks a further lightening. User-generated content is not largely dictated by corporate structures. Corporations on Web 2.0 do not have to dictate efficiency and worry about waste because Web 2.0 is a digital environment where content and labor is abundant. Thus, corporate entities on Web 2.0 can become more than liquid, they are gaseous; more than light, they are nearly weightless.

Liquid Charity

by PJ Rey

Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another.  He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable… Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance… In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million… The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card… Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized.

Why Journals are the Dinosaurs of Academia

by PJ Rey

In the age of the printing press, journals were, by far, the most efficient and enduring form of communication.  They enabled disciplines to have thoughtful conversations spanning decades and continents… [Today,] print media remain firmly entrenched, retaining all their symbolic significance, while lacking any of their earlier practical import… the privileging of the print over the digital, in fact, has the opposite effect than was originally intended.  Instead of facilitating the rapid dissemination of ideas, it hinders it. Print is a solid, heavy medium (as Bauman explains); it travels slowly and is expensive to reproduce. Digital information is liquid and light; it travels instantaneously and is free to reproduce.

WikiLeaks and our Liquid Modernity

by Nathan Jurgenson

Zygmunt Bauman has famously conceptualized modern society as increasingly “liquid.” Information, objects, people and even places can more easily flow around time and space. Old “solid” structures are melting away in favor of faster and more nimble fluids… WikiLeaks is a prime example of this… digitality and Internet… create information that is more liquid and leak-able and have also allowed WikiLeaks to become highly liquid itself. It is not just one website, but also flows throughout the web on its many “mirror” sites. The data is disseminated over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks making it truly “the new Napster.” And just as shutting down Napster did not end music-sharing, shutting down WikiLeaks will not end the sharing of classified information.

What are the consequences of this new politics of liquidity? …old, heavy structures need to become more porous else they will be washed away in the wave of liquidity. Assange’s strategy is exactly to make the U.S. government more secretive and therefore less porous. Thus, the government will be less effective at communicating both internally and diplomatically with others – what Assange calls the “secrecy tax.”

A New Paradigm of Leaking: Anonymous’ “Delicious Data”

by PJ Rey

Historically, leaks are the product of activism within an institution (e.g., Daniel Ellsberg‘s famous leak of the Pentagon Papers). Anonymous is demonstrating, however, that in the highly liquid world of digital information, leaks no longer need to be pushed from within, but can be pulled from without.  That is to say, institutional outsiders can target the secret documents of an organization and reveal them to the public…  The question raised by Anonymous’ activities is whether—in light of the knowledge that it is more difficult than ever to control the flows of information—institutions will be compelled to change/reform their behavior.  Is enforced transparency an effective remedy to the ills created by institutionally-consolidated power structures?

Egypt’s Liquid Modernity

by Nathan Jurgenson

“Heavy” structures need to become more porous; that is, allow for some amount of liquidity in order to withstand the torrent of contemporary fluidity… Too solid, the structure of the Egyptian government was even less prepared to withstand the rising tide of a liquid generation. Shutting down the Internet did not slow protests, but enflamed them. Unable to bend, the structure was largely washed away.

Governments across the globe are being faced with a decision: to further solidify or become more porous. On one hand, a government that cannot provide flowing digital information in today’s liquid world looks immediately repressive. On the other, allowing the free flow of information might foster dissent…

Social Media and Social Movements

by Sarah Wanenchak

The rapid spread of… strategies of protest and dissidence, discourses of political claim-making, ideas regarding what is desirable and how one might get there… is due in large part to the technologies and social networks that enable the rapid spread of everything else… the wave of protest spreading through the Middle East is the result.

The Transparent Society Won’t Happen

by Nathan Jurgenson

15 years ago, [we] lived in a world where the concern was of being watched with the fear of others seeing us. Now many fear not being seen; the concern now isn’t if people know what I’m doing, but the worry that no one cares. As Bauman states in Liquid Surveillance, “the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (23).

The All-in-One Consumption Tool Kit?

Jenny Davis

Critical theorists have long argued that we literally consume identity through the things that we buy and the media that we ingest. Indeed, Zygmunt Bauman describes a viscous cycle of consuming and trashing identities in a breathless and fruitless attempt to avoid being left behind. Digital commerce, and mobile-based purchasing in particular, holds the potential to amplify this connection. Not only do we display our identities through the products of our consumption, but announce these purchases, increasingly seamlessly (or “frictionlessly”) to our social networks… Increasingly, our purchases will integrate into the curated content of our prosumed profiled selves, which act as both projector and mirror, affecting how others see us, how we see ourselves, and how act and interact in light of this projected/reflected image.

Panopticon For whom?

by Nathan Jurgenson

The Panopticon wrongly understands everyday people as prisoners with too restricted freedom when it is precisely such freedom that is often leveraged for social control… the Frankfurt School and other critics of the consumer society – especially Bauman’s critique that also takes the prisoner’s gaze to be more important than the panoptic metaphor allows, himself positing the “Synopticon” that describes social control of the many watching the few cultural gatekeepers; the act of looking can modify behavior as deeply as being seen. As such, many have concluded that we should forget the Panopticon as a useful metaphor for understand surveillance in a digital age.

Liquid Surveillance & Social Media: Three Provocations

by Nathan Jurgenson

In Liquid Surveillance, the theorist of liquidity, Zygmunt Bauman, and the perhaps the preeminent theorist of surveillance, David Lyon, apply their unique perspectives to social media.

Bauman specifically argues that privacy, the foremost invention of modernity, had invaded and conquered public realm, and has now, as a consequence of the Web, begun to fall… [He] states that “we see no joy in having secrets” which might be exactly wrong; instead, it might also be the case that as secrets become more scare they simultaneously become more valuable.

The authors push for a post-panoptic understanding of surveillance that does not forget the Panopticon, just understands it as only part of the overall field… if the Panopticon was the few watching the many, the guards watching the prisoners, the authors also bring in the Synopticon, where the many watch the few… Applied to sites like Facebook, what this discussion begs for is an analysis of how the many watch the many on social media… what George Ritzer and I have called “omnioptic”… not only an increasingly powerful form of surveillance, but also the most liquid.

What I call “digital dualism”, indeed, a common starting point for theorists of the digital. Bauman makes this understanding of the Web most clear when he states, “our life (and to a growing degree as we move from older to younger generations) is split between two universes, ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and irreparably bicentered.” He states that “social life has already turned into an electronic life or cyberlife” (29; emphasis in the original)… he assumption made in this volume is that the offline is being traded for the on; meanwhile, research has shown that those using social media more also do more things away from the computer, precisely against the zero-sum assumption.

fb-privacy-checkup

Today, Facebook announced some significant changes in its approach to privacy: New users now start with “friends only” as their default share setting and a new “Privacy Checkup” will remind users to select audiences for their posts (if they don’t, it will also default to “friends only”).

This announcement is significant in that it is the first time that Facebook has ever stepped back its privacy settings to be less open by default. This appears to contradict a widely held assumption that Facebook is on a linear trajectory to encourage ever more sharing with ever more people. Media reports have pitched this as a victory for users, who are supposed to have forced the company to “respond to business pressures and longstanding concerns” or “bow to pressure.”

Facebook, itself, presented the changes as a reaction to user feedback:

While some people want to post to everyone, others have told us that they are more comfortable sharing with a smaller group, like just their friends. We recognize that it is much worse for someone to accidentally share with everyone when they actually meant to share just with friends, compared with the reverse.

But the narrative that Facebook is responding to consumer demands conceals what I believe is a deeper philosophical shift within the company–but one that is still fundamentally rooted in self-interested profit-seeking. Facebook’s revenue primarily derived from delivering targeted ads to users. The more information Facebook has about a user, the more effectively it can target these ads, and the more marketers will pay for this service. So, Facebook has a vested interest in maximizing how much information each user shares.

Historically, Facebook–like so much of Silicon Valley (as well as news media and researchers)–has operated with the simplistic belief that less privacy equals more sharing. Specifically, Facebook believed that when people speak to the broadest possible audience, they generate the most interaction and, therefore, maximize sharing. Facebook once sought to instigate a cultural shift that would see people come to accept speaking to and sharing with a mass audience as the new normal. They did so, in part, by making the site’s design difficult enough to navigate that many people determined that managing privacy wasn’t worth the effort.

What Facebook seems to have finally realized is that when people conceal more they also reveal more. Nathan Jurgenson observed this co-implicated relationship in an essay on this site, saying:

“Publicity” on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment.

In the absence of effective privacy controls (and the concealment they provide), Facebook has become plagued with a phenomenon known as “context collapse,” which, occurs when the various roles one performs and the audience one performs them for collide and contradict. Jenny Davis describes the cause of this phenomenon:

Social actors hold many roles throughout the life course and simultaneously at any given moment within the life course. For instance, one may be a mother, sister, athlete, student, and exotic dancer. For each role, the social actor maintains particular identity meanings guiding who s/he is, and a network of others who (typically) share these expectations. Although the expectations across roles may coincide neatly, it is most often the case that each role bears slightly different meanings, and in some cases, highly contradictory ones.

Context collapse often results in a “lowest common denominator approach” to sharing, meaning that a user shares only what they believe is appropriate for all potential audiences, which doesn’t tend to be very much–or, at least, not very much of interest.

In order to get people to start sharing more interesting and valuable information (that it can sell for more money) Facebook has had to reinvent itself so that users perceive it to be affording greater privacy and concealment of information. As Nathan suggested in the previously mentioned essay, sharing is seldom interesting when it’s obscene–the term Jean Baudrillard used to describe the drive to fully reveal and expose a thing. Instead, sharing is most often a process of seduction–“of strategically withholding in order to create magical and enchanted interest.” This process can be likened to a burlesque performer’s fan dance, which simultaneously exposes and obscures from view.

But, just because Facebook has wised up to the way that sharing involves both revelation and concealment, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s become more responsive to users or has taken users’ concerns and interests to heart. Instead, what we’re seeing is a new, more sophisticated approach to exploiting users and further transforming them profit centers. Facebook hasn’t reformed; it’s redeployed. Facebook’s principle goal remains to influence and direct users into activities that boost its bottom line, and, today, it got a little better at doing just that.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.

WePay Prohibitions

Last week I wrote about how–despite their supposed libertarian principles–Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms (most notably, Chase and Amazon) had embarked on systematic campaigns of discrimination against sex workers, seemingly intent on expelling sex workers from the financial system. I concluded that discrimination propelled by market forces is no less reprehensible and no less deleterious in its consequences than discrimination driven by personal prejudice. And, I argued that we should hold accountable those who let a commitment to profit trump their commitment to fighting discrimination.

This weekend–almost as if to make a spectacle out of how vicious the campaign against sex workers has become–WePay took the unfathomably callous action of cancelling a fundraiser for Eden Alexander, a porn performer who experienced some very serious and acute health issues and was in desperate need of financial assistance to pay medical/personal care bills. Alexander tweeted the cancellation notice that she received from WePay:edenIn pain and apparently shaken by the termination of what had seemed like her best hope to get care, Alexander made several disconcerting tweets then ceased communicating altogether. All indications are that she attempted or was close to attempting suicide and was taken away by paramedics.

Social media sites immediately flooded with outrage at WePay’s decision.whorephobiastructuralWePay’s CEO Bill Clerico took to Twitter to respond to the situation and, within a few hours, an official explanation was posted to the site (though, in a weird corporate-y way, it seems to assume that the text is being read on Monday and not the day it was posted):wepay

Note that Alexander did not, herself, tweet anything that violated WePay’s terms of service (which, in any case, discriminates against even legal sex work). This decision relies on the least generous possible interpretation of the facts, going against convention and assuming retweets to be endorsements. Moreover, the decision was, purportedly, based soley on communications external to WePay’s site.

Though they have responded to all the negative publicity* by transferring the original donations to Eden’s bank an by offering to help Eden restart her campaign (help which was, understandably, declined by Eden’s friends and supporters), WePay deflected blame for the incident to “back-end processors.” So who are these mysterious back-end boogie men who force WePay to so aggressively discriminate against sex workers. Clerico explained that these “processors” are card associations such as Visa and Mastercard [edit: Fruzsina Eördögh reported in VICE that a company called Vantiv is the processor responsible for pressuring WePay]:wepay convoClerico also equivocated a bit, saying that not all WePay’s limitations on users were demanded by card associations: “Some are because they are prone to fraud or abuse.”fraudWePay’s response, predictably, amounts to the old “don’t blame us, blame the market” strategy of denying responsibility. This is the same pattern we recently witnessed with Paypal and Chase: Rather than working to find ways to conduct business without discrimination, execs shrug their shoulders and point to the markets as supposed justification for what, in this case, is not only unjust, but downright inhumane, treatment. We, the public, are expected to just resign our democratic values when the market deems them inconvenient.

Fuck that. The discriminatory practices of a back-end processor and concerns about fraud do not and will not ever justify denying medical care to a very real human being, regardless of her occupation.

What is perhaps most shocking about this tragedy is that it illustrates how readily we dehumanize sex workers. Whether it is the doctor (who reportedly dismissed the severity Alexander’s condition, assuming it to be the product of drug abuse) or WePay shutting down her donations page because she is connected to the production pornographic content, institutional policies and practices reduced Alexander (as they do all sex workers) to being nothing more than her work. Unfortunately, this too often how stigma works. From the perspective of this institutionalized stigma, you can’t be a sex worker and a person in need of medical treatment because when you’re a sex worker, you are only a sex worker. A person’s humanity is flattened and they are seen only as their stigma. This is an observation that Kitty Stryker and Melissa Gira Grant both made pointedly:kitty melissaWhat market logic does–when we fail to intervene demanding that humanitarian values be respected–is to reduce humans to mere risks and opportunities. Risk is stigma in market terms. Both flatten a person and mark them for exclusion. When a CEO says “sex workers are a risk,” they always, implicitly, mean “a risk–and nothing more.” The purpose of such language is to depersonalize and dehumanize and, thereby, to remove the moral impediments to exclusion.

What we, collectively, need to do is present new impediments to exclusion–to create conditions where exclusion itself is risky business. I know I, for one, won’t be using WePay any time soon for any of my projects.

(A new fund has been established for Eden Alexander. Make a donation here.)

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.

* In response to Tauriq Moosa’s article in the Daily Beast, WePay states:

We did not transfer the donations to Eden’s bank in response to the negative publicity. We transferred the donations to Eden’s bank before the account was closed (and long before the negative PR).  When we closed the account, we cancelled the pending payments, but we never withheld funds.

"Most Downloaded Woman" (ft. Danni Ashe) by Faith Holland
“Most Downloaded Woman” (ft. Danni Ashe)
Art used with permission of Faith Holland*

Over the course of the past few weeks, two major US corporations—Chase Bank and Amazon—have each undertaken campaigns apparently aimed at expelling sex workers from the financial system, despite the fact that this work is completely legal and the compensation is above board.

Social media has be buzzing with reports from porn performers of vaguely worded letters from Chase stating “we recently reviewed your account and determined that we will be closing it.” At the Cybogology-sponsored Theorizing the Web conference, porn performer Stoya described her experience: “I’ve personally had issues with Chase, which is why I was giggling, because they shut down my business account but then didn’t understand why I wanted to close my personal account.” While Chase and other financial institutions (e.g., Paypal, Square, WePay, City National Bank, and J.P. Morgan) have long engaged in ad hoc discrimination against sex workers, Chase’s recent actions are unprecedented in that they appear to indicate a systematic effort to uncover and blacklist anyone involved in sex work.

Similarly, Amazon appears to have initiated a systematic purge of wish lists posted by sex workers. Wish lists allow fans to send gifts to performers (sometimes clothing or sex toys to be used in future shows/shoots and sometimes just everyday items that performers need) without performers having to divulge their home address. As with the financial services companies, Amazon has a history of ad hoc discrimination. For example, late last year, porn performer Emma Ink posted to Tumblr an email she received from Amazon, stating that

Amazon Wish Lists are intended as a shopping tool for personal use or for gifting between friends and family members. We don’t condone the usage of Wish Lists for inappropriate purposes of with inappropriate content and for this reason we’ve deleted your Wish List.

Now, many other sex workers (particularly cam performers) are reporting similar notices.

Beyond the vagueness about what is “appropriate” and who gets to set these standards is an inexplicable hypocrisy of banning users for asking for the very things that Amazon itself is choosing to sell. However, I don’t think we should be content to merely point out the hypocrisy of companies suddenly deeming inappropriate goods and services they’ve been content to cash in on for years. We need to delve deeper into the ideological stakes of these decisions.

Particularly, it’s interesting that this outright discrimination against legal sex work is coming from Wall Street and Silicon Valley—both recognized hubs of libertarian ideology. Typically, leaders from both sectors staunchly defend unfettered economic activity as fundamental to an open society. In fact, they often go so far as to equate economic activity with expressions of free speech, deserving of maximum protection and minimal interference. It is this perspective that led the US government to recognize corporations as people with the legal right to influence elections through unlimited campaign contributions. It also from this perspective that Internet content providers most often frame their case for net neutrality.

Not so long ago, in 2009, Amazon (along with most other major Silicon Valley firms) signed a letter stating:

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.

Apparently, however, this commitment to freedom from discrimination on the Web does not hold for sex workers. What makes sex work different?

One possibility we can’t fully rule out is that sex work is so thoroughly stigmatized in contemporary American society that even those who purport to champion individual freedom and open markets above all else simply make an exception when it comes to discriminatory and exclusionary practices against sex workers. While this sort of personal prejudice is probably part of the story, I also want to offer a somewhat more complex explanation–one that stems from American libertarianism’s reliance on markets as the primary mechanism of social organization.

The kind of discrimination that libertarians fear most is government regulation that might favor one person or group over another in market-based interactions. Typically, libertarians also espouse tolerance for alternative lifestyles that diverge from mainstream norms. For example, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos—who is frequently reported (here, here, and here) to be a libertarian—has actively supported gay marriage.

But what libertarians too often fail to acknowledge is that discrimination is frequently expressed through and encoded into markets themselves (housing being perhaps the most notoriously discriminatory market). When one’s commitment to markets takes precedence over one’s commitment to challenging discrimination, it’s almost inevitable that fair treatment for marginalized groups falls by the wayside. It seems that sex workers have found themselves victims of a contradiction within libertarian ideology: markets, though themselves supposedly conditional on freedom and fairness, create conditions of unfreedom and unfairness.

This contradiction is something that Jewish** economic historian Karl Polanyi observed way back in 1944. Making the case for socially-directed intervention in and regulation of markets, Polanyi argued that classic liberalism (the precursor to modern libertarian philosophy)

gave a false direction to our ideals…No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market-view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was limited by the market which “fragmentated” life into the producers… [and] consumer[s]… The one derived his income “freely” from the market, the other spent it “freely” there. Society as a whole remained invisible.

Polanyi suggested that without regulatory intervention by democratic institutions committed to maximizing freedom for all, markets inevitably result in monopoly and tyranny. He argues that we shouldn’t measure the degree of freedom in society by the lack of interference in markets; instead, freedom is a function of being able to live as one was born or chooses to be without fear of marginalization, exclusion, or persecution. He explains:

personal liberty… will exist to the degree in which we will deliberately create new safeguards for its maintenance… the right to nonconformity must be institutionally protected… The individual must be free to follow his [or her] conscience without fear of the powers that happen to be entrusted with administrative tasks in some of the fields of social life… Thus will be secured the right to nonconformity as the hallmark of a free society.

Polanyi’s vision of a free society is in stark contrast to libertarian ideology in which the freedom to pursue profit trumps all other freedoms. It’s this privileging of the freedom to pursue profit over the freedom to follow one’s conscious without fear of retaliation from social institutions that I believe has economically imperiled sex workers in this case.

While Amazon and Chase haven’t been particularly open about their motives, we can make a couple of reasonable guesses as to why these companies are trying to shut sex workers out of the market: They may fear that doing business with sex workers hurts their image and/or they may be concerned that commerce associated with the sex industry has high rates of fraud, non-payment, or other problematic activity. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter why companies like Amazon and Chase have decided that offering basic services to sex workers is bad for business. What matters is that the logic of the market has become a justification for outright discrimination against a particular class of people.

Whatever their intent or reasoning, Amazon and Chase’s actions have created further injustice for a group that is already severely marginalized. We should never allow markets to serve as an excuse for such discrimination. And, when market-based discrimination occurs, we should demand that our democratic institutions hold accountable those who control these markets. If we let mega-corporations get away with openly oppressing sex workers, who’ll be next?

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.

*Faith Holland‘s art highlights the centrality of sex and sex work to the Internet (and to the information economy associated with it), and, conversely, the manner in which digital technology is implicated in modern sexuality. She confronts the inextricability of sex and technology in her “Cyberpussy Manifesto,” saying: “Technology is restructured biology. Biology is sociotechnical structure.” She further explores these themes in “Woven Network in Lube” and “Light Petting & Heavy Petting” (nsfw).

** I mention Polanyi’s Jewish heritage only to highlight that discrimination was obviously at the forefront of his mind while writing The Great Transformation in the midst of WWII.

Halloween Appropriation

There are no more media in the literal sense of the word (I’m speaking particularly of electronic mass media) – that is, of a mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another. Neither in content, nor in form. Strictly, this is what implosion signifies. The absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuiting between poles of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions, including that of the medium and of the real… Circularity of all media effects. Hence the impossibility of meaning in the literal sense of a unilateral vector that goes from one pole to another. One must envisage this critical but original situation at its very limit: it is the only one left us… the medium and the real are now in a single nebula whose truth is indecipherable.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Halloween is said to be a secularized celebration of the traditional Christian holiday, All Hallows Eve (itself appropriated from pagan ceremonies to remember the dead). This, of course, is false. Symbols of death and of our connection to what lies beyond (e.g., pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, witches, etc.) do little more than provide a textured backdrop to masses of fantasy heroes/heroines, sexy [fill-in-the-blank], cross-dressers, and, increasingly, it seems, racial/cultural appropriators. During Halloween, we do not celebrate our traditions; we cannibalize them. And, that is what makes Halloween unique. Halloween is a celebration of the present–a reveling in the zeitgeist of our time. Halloween is the quintessence of our post-Modern cultural logic.

Post-Modernity (as Jean Baudrillard suggests in the quote that opens this piece) is, above all, defined by the implosion of boundaries between various cultures or systems of meaning. This implies, of course, that there was once a (pre-Modern) time when when systems of meaning existed separate and distinct from one another. Of course, there were occasional instances of cultural exchange that brought about (dialectical) changes in each system, but these interactions did not erode the boundaries between them. Difference remained.

As the Modern era emerged, these exchanges became less arbitrary. Modernity, with its aim of producing a single, rational, and all-encompassing system of meaning and its penchant for fitting all differences into rigid categories, sought to hierarchicalize these cultures as well as the nature and direction of transmissions across them. Cultures placed into inferior categories were repressed. So-called “progress” meant using various media to supplant certain systems of meaning with those deemed superior. Thus, for marginalized people, these externally-imposed categories often represented an existential threat to their way of life.

Post-Modernity, describes a dominant cultural reaction to Modernity–a resistance of the rigid categories it created and an affinity for blurring, blending, and exchange. Halloween has become an ecstatic indulgence in post-Modern erosion of contextualized meaning. It embodies what Baudrillard might call the free flow of signs and symbols. It is a night when everything is acknowledged and accepted as overt simulation. Costumes, as the primary medium of Halloween’s post-Modern expressivity, do not convey meaning but decontextualize and obliterate it.

The problem with Halloween–like post-Modernity writ large–is that, though it transgresses the categories constructed by Modernity, it does little to actually challenge these categories and wholly ignores the structural inequalities they sustain. (As Jacques Derrida persistently reminds us, the purpose of constructing such categories is, inevitably, to establish hierarchies.) The question of who gets to setup and tear down or ignore categories–what Pierre Bordieu called “symbolic capital”–matters. And, what Halloween demonstrates is that those with privilege not only create and benefit from the categorical boundaries that systematically oppress others, they are also free to cross these boundaries merely to entertain themselves.

In celebrating Halloween, the privileged see the world’s culture, and their histories, as a pallet to freely borrow from in pursuit of the unique and the unexpected (see: “hipster racism“). Symbols laden with meaning for the oppressed are worn for a night and then discarded as just as easily. In cases, such as the appropriation Native American clothing for costumes, symbols nearly destroyed by Modern Western culture are now trivialized and made into the exotic playthings of post-Modern culture. The post-Modern zeitgeist of Halloween never asks us to reflect on the violence done when Modernity constructed the hierachicalized categories it used to other and oppress, nor does it ask us to consider that ability to adopt and discard symbols of oppression is, itself, an expression of privilege not afforded to the oppressed. Post-Modern culture’s transgression of boundaries is no less an expression of power than Modern culture’s assertion of the right to impose them.

In asserting the power to appropriate without regard to structural inequalities and the experiences of the oppressed, Halloween illustrates that privilege often manifests as the freedom to ignore (not only imposed categorical boundaries but also the people who are affected by them). In this ignorance, Halloween becomes little more than an annual social ritual of vomiting up the worst aspects of our society–racism (as well as sexism and wasteful consumerism)–and wallowing in them.