cw: suicide

This isn’t the essay I originally set out to write. That essay is sitting open next to this one, unfinished. But in being unable to finish that piece, I was inspired to write this one.

In January 2013, web developer and activist Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment. At the time, Swartz was facing serious jail time for using a guest account on MIT servers to download millions of academic papers from the online journal repository JSTOR. Swartz, who was also integral in the development of RSS web feed format and the news aggregation site Reddit, sought to make publically available the academic content that JSTOR held behind its subscription paywalls.

For the uninitiated, JSTOR is one of many for-pay digital “libraries,” amongst the likes of LexisNexis, PubMed, Academic Search, and Google Scholar, hosting millions of academic papers (Swartz reportedly had downloaded some four million). Unlike how we imagine the traditional public library, however, JSTOR charges for access to its holdings. Typically this has meant that in order to access its content you need to have a subscription, which at the large research university level can cost up to $50,000 annually (though recently they have introduced JPASS, which allows for individual subscribers at more “reasonable” rates). What this means practically, is that without a series of institutional subscriptions to these repositories you are effectively shut out of the academic world.

I don’t think I fully grasped the implications of this until very recently, when my own access was cut off from Rutgers University. Because of this, I cannot see beyond snippets of the latest articles written by my peers unless I’d like to pay the exorbitant per article fee.

Each of these obstacles is a microcosm of the systemic problems plaguing the academic world today. Information is horded by institutions more interested in profitability than pedagogy. In this, ownership is privileged over access and universities become less bastions of public knowledge than toll-extracting gatekeepers, hoarding scholarship for the privileged few able to have the connections to get in and to afford skyrocketing tuition costs.

Academics themselves must also be incriminated, though many might scoff at the accusation. Until there is a concerted effort to actively undermine a tiered system of information distribution, none of this will change. The journals behind subscription paywalls tend to be more respected, more sought after, and more emblematic of a kind of elitist pedigree that has proved toxic to the academic world. When we begin to parse the problematics of academic publishing, however, we find something endemic to the institution as a whole. If scholarship becomes about profit, then both the content produced and (lack of) access will reflect that to the detriment of any semblance of a subversive education. Why continue to prop up such an outdated and inefficient system that not only serves to parrot the ideological underpinnings of contemporary capital, but also offers so little in the way of what it promises, even on its own terms?

What’s more, all of this doesn’t even begin to question other modes of accessibility that are all-too-often denied along lines of ability, including neurodivergence, physical capacity, and design. Access, in the academic setting and beyond, is a political question too often relegated to the backburner, one that needs to be reckoned with to have any chance of saving “higher learning.”

And so as I sit in a coffee shop because my power was cut off (yet another impediment to access) I finish this piece, while another sits open, indefinitely deferred.

Content Warning: Descriptions of anti-trans violence and transmisogyny

In the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, ball scene queen Pepper Labeija opines that realness is “to be able to blend…[to] not give away that you’re gay, that’s what’s real…to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart.” In this, realness is an imaginative take, in the safe space of the ball, on passing, either in terms of one’s gender or sexuality. Contestants can masquerade, lampoon, subvert, enact, or actualize those identities denied to them in the outside world. What Paris is Burning also illuminates, however, are the violent repercussions when one’s performative identity is read against their intention, when they don’t pass. The most heinous example in the documentary being the murder of trans performer Venus Xtravaganza before the film was completed. In this, passing is quite literally embodied survival praxis.

In 2017, twenty-seven years after the release of Paris is Burning, more transgender people than ever before have been murdered, the overwhelming majority of which are trans poc. On September 1, after speaking out against white privilege, trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was fired by cosmetics company L’Oreal. The violences one must confront, adapt to, and resist as a transperson are multifaceted and ever-changing. As Micha Cárdenas has argued, a “modulation of visibility…is the specialty of trans women of color who face multiple forms of violence on a daily basis, shifting their body and appearance as necessary for survival, at one moment passing invisibly as a cisgender woman and at another standing on stage speaking out against racist, transphobic violence.” To Cárdenas it is not so much a static visibility or invisibility that characterizes the trans woc experience, but a constantly mutating technical relation to visibility, a forced hyperawareness of one’s body at all times.

To this, there is a scene in the 2015 film Tangerine where Razmik, a taxi driver, cruises a specific street in LA searching for a sex worker to proposition. He finds a woman who gets into his car and directs him to a more private spot where they can complete their transaction. She begins to go down on him before he insists that he would like the opposite, to perform oral sex on her. When he begins to do so, however, he is outraged, repeating “what the fuck is this, where is it?” Razmik angrily takes his money back and kicks her out of his cab, telling her not to walk that street anymore, as it isn’t for her. Razmik is appalled that he has been duped, that the sex worker is in fact not trans, but a cisgender woman.

Thus, Tangerine seemingly inverts the “trap” trope that has long characterized many on-screen representations of trans women. Typically, a beautiful, feminine, presence is shockingly exposed as “a man,” played for either comedic or horrific effect (or more likely both) through the revelation (or allusion to) a penis. Yet Razmik is disgusted precisely because this particular woman has no penis. This is a tension that carries throughout the entire film, especially as in the main plotline Sin-Dee, a trans sex worker who has just gotten out of jail, spends the entire movie attempting to chase down the cis woman her pimp boyfriend has cheated on her with. Tangerine, thus, exposes both the inadequacies many trans women are meant to feel when compared to cis women, while also lampooning our expectations of what attributes we are meant to find desirable.

Razmik importantly, however, embodies a separate kind of problematic relation to transness, the chaser. The chaser fetishizes transwomen. The chaser makes transwomen into an object to be bought and sold. The chaser demands that transwomen be made visible as such for his own viewing pleasure. Like the TERF or the fundamentalist transphobe, the chaser reduces transwomen to a fictive bioessentialist reading. The chaser also makes readily apparent the kinds of media fixation transwomen are made subject to: as spectacle, as perversity, as commodity and, as problematic relation to authenticity. Thus, the chaser insists on a definition of the parameters of trans identity as solely defined through their fixations, their pleasures, their desires.

We can see a digital corollary on 4Chan and Reddit forums, which have “trap” communities where trans women post images of themselves, nude or otherwise, that are deemed convincing enough to pass for cisgender women. As the sidebar of r/traps reads, “/r/traps is for the posting of photos and video of young and beautiful trans girls and individuals who would love to trap! Content can be from/of anyone as long as they’re passable [and] feminine.” Passing in these spaces becomes a mechanism to reify the normative boundaries of the gender binary. Whereas Paris is Burning posits realness as a subversive revelation of the performative foundations of identity, providing a space of free expression for marginalized peoples, the chaser “realness” of Razmik, 4Chan, and Reddit maintains a misogynistic gaze fundamental to commodifying women’s bodies.

All of this is not to say that the free expression of gender identity through digital nude shares is always reducible to misogyny. Mastodon instances, discord servers, and group texts patently prove otherwise. The very language of the “trap,” however, insinuates a demonizing moral valuation of transwomen, one that blames them for the inordinate violence they face. Let’s burn it down.



Trans people are not reducible to the violence committed against them, but nevertheless it is important that their names be remembered. This is by no means a definitive list of those murdered in 2017.

  • Candace Towns was reported missing on October 29 and her body was found on October 31 in Macon, GA. She was 30 years old.
  • Stephanie Montez was found on October 21 in Robstown, Texas, but, due to misgendering by police and the media she was not identified as a transgender woman until October 27. She was 47 years old.
  • Ally Lee Steinfeld was reported missing on September 1 and her remains were found on September 21 in Cabool, Missouri. She was 17 years old.
  • Scout Schultz was killed by police on September 16. They were 21 years old.
  • Derricka Banner was killed on September 12 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was 26 years old.
  • Kashmire Redd was killed on September 4 in Gates, New York. He was 28 years old.
  • Kiwi Herring was killed on August 22 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was 30 years old.
  • Gwynevere River Song was killed on August 12 in Waxahachie, Texas. Gwynevere was 26 years old.
  • TeeTee Dangerfield was killed on July 31 in Atlanta, Georgia. She was 32 years old.
  • Ebony Morgan was killed on July 2 in Lynchburg, Virgina. She was 28 years old.
  • Ava Le’Ray Barrin was killed on June 25 in Athens, Georgia. She was 17 years old.
  • Josie Berrios (also known as Kendra Adams and Kimbella Rosé) was killed on June 13 in Ithaca, New York. She was 28 years old.
  • Kenne McFadden was found on April 9 in San Antonio, Texas, but due to misgendering by police and the media she was not identified as a transgender woman until June 6. She was 27 years old.
  • Sherrell Faulkner was attacked on November 30, 2016 and died on May 16, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was 46 years old.
  • Brenda Bostick was attacked on April 25 and died on May 4 in New York City. She was 59 years old. (There have been conflicting reports about the name this person used and their gender. It now seems clear that this person was assigned male at birth and lived at least part of her life as Brenda. Therefore we refer to her as Brenda and use female pronouns out of respect for that identity.)
  • Chay Reed killed on April 21 in Miami, Florida. She was 28 years old.
  • Alphonza Watson killed on March 22 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 38 years old.
  • Jaquarrius Holland killed on February 19 in Monroe, Louisiana (identified as trans on February 28). She was 18 years old.
  • Ciara McElveen killed on February 27 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 21 years old.
  • Chyna Gibson killed on February 25 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 31 years old.
  • Keke Collier killed on February 21 in Englewood, Chicago. She was 24 years old.
  • JoJo Striker killed on February 8 in Toledo, Ohio. She was 23 years old.
  • Mesha Caldwell killed on January 4 in Canton, Mississippi. She was 41 years old.
  • Sean Hake was also killed by police on January 6. He was 23 years old.
  • Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow killed on January 1 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She was 28 years old.

*Source: GLAAD

Stephen McNulty is an instructor at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Their work advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. They can be found on Twitter @stevie_trix

Rihanna - Work

Part 1: Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, Work

Running short on money and in desperate need of luxuries like health insurance, food, and booze I scoured the Internet for part time jobs. My primary source of income, as a dissertation fellow, pays a small stipend (nowhere near enough to live on in any city, much less a major one) and affords no benefits. And so, pockets empty, I began my search. My first stop was H-Net, though I wasn’t holding out much hope for a well-paid, part-time, quick-hire. After about 5 minutes I gave up and transitioned to Idealist and Indeed, looking for any jobs that might be intellectually stimulating, somewhat ethical, or at least tangentially related to my interests. Forty-five minutes later I was depressed on Craigslist.

From a young age we are taught to think in relation to work. We are asked what our aspirations are in the form of what we want to be when we grow up. Primary and secondary school are meant to shape those desires into some form of productive identity. College is supposed to give you the precision to master a particular subset of knowledge, enshrined in the diploma. And graduate school is for when you discover that all of your previous education has been a resounding failure, either because you are somehow still not qualified for any job or you simply have no idea what else to do. Of course this also carries with it the gross inflation of an already substantial debt load further skyward, but you think that debt is useful if it gets you somewhere.

In these things, education aims constantly towards something, a trajectory meant to culminate in an effective product. It also holds a promise, that by becoming a particular kind of person, by surviving a decades-long educatory gauntlet you are rewarded with financial security and care (health benefits especially in the U.S.). In the 21st century, for those of at least moderate privilege anyway, however, work is defined not simply by safety and security, but also as an expression of one’s fundamental identity. In looking for the ideal job, we seek to be an ideal representation of ourselves. Contemporary capital has thus made our relation to work fundamental to our being. If I become this, then I will be a particular kind of person, and I will be protected and safe. Unfortunately, however, in order for that ideal to be perpetuated, one still has to be able to get that job.

So what happens when there is no ideal job to be had? That realization, though far from being a majority opinion, is prevalent. The façade of American dream politics is being recognized by a growing number of millennials with few prospects and fewer social structures to help them.

A brief aside: This is not some nostalgia piece on how there was a time when people had endless opportunities and their relation to work was utopian. People work because under neoliberal capital they have to, as they have always had to under all forms of capital. Most don’t do something they enjoy. The very framework of capital is built on hierarchy and exploitation, even if it is not readily seen. Nor is this an attempt to flatten precarity under the universal category of work. Race, class (not the same as work), gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, and religion make the intersectional terrain of work topographically diverse.

The lack of ideal work, across the board, however, is emblematic of our time, but it is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of the toxic relation we share to work, how it defines us, shackles us, and enlists our help in perpetuating a job as a de facto necessity when more than enough wealth exists to provide adequate care for the population. In short, it is an act of perverse alchemy that heralds work as both an enduring necessity and a category of pure economy. And when work is described solely in its relation to economy, we are only offered economic solutions to its problems. The answer becomes a deification of unemployment rates rather than an assessment of the ethical implications of being a worker; a measure of the stock exchange instead of an ecological look at exploitation for profit.

Work, therefore, is an identarian vector that informs more than your economic status, it carries with it a whole host of political and ethical ideals, a constellation of material and ideological realities implicit to contemporary capital. So in a time of widespread economic turmoil, despite rose-tinted stock exchange indices and unemployment numbers, what kind of work are we doing?


Part 2: Flexible, Mobile, Fixed

Like me, a lot of people find themselves needing multiple jobs. And in scrolling through pages of craigslist job ads one particular kind of work seemed more prevalent than the rest. Benignly referred to as part of the ‘sharing’ or gig economy (and more accurately named here as access economy), services offered by companies like Uber, Postmates, Amazon Flex, and others, are distributed, yet individuated service networks. Each of these companies offers a technological infrastructure to act as middlemen between potential labor and potential clients. More than this, each relies on a mutually constitutive tandem of mobility and fixity to secure their ‘employees’ as incredibly precarious subjects.

It is no accident that Uber has become the prototypical model of an access economy company. Besides being backed by serious investor capital, it was an early proponent of utilizing the near-ubiquity of digital access to offer potential employees local, part-time, employment. Conveniently coinciding with the financial collapse of 2008, Uber provided a means for financially struggling people to collect some much needed cash, without the pesky need to provide benefits, the possibility for unionization, or even actual employment (Uber drivers are independent contractors, not actual employees). What makes this possible for companies like Uber and others is both a long lineage of eroding employee rights, one that dates to well before the smartphone age, and an ecosystem that balances the tension between mobility and fixation.

If anyone reading this has been an employee independent contractor for Uber, Postmates, Amazon Flex, or Wag (just a small sampling of the tons more that can be found here) you know how these apps work. But for anyone who doesn’t here is the process. Once you have been hired you open your app and wait…Depending on the time of day, how busy your given area is, or how willing you are to travel, you might spend a lot of time waiting. But when an opportunity comes up you are put into direct competition with other contractors attempting to work as well. This has several implications, the first being that you are made antagonistic to your fellow contractors and the second being that you have to be constantly affixed to your device. Since their inception, many have decried the constant access that smartphones (and their less advanced palm pilot/blackberry/cell phone antecedents) provide, making you constantly available for work interactions. Uber and others take this further, making constant attention to one’s device a core aspect of the job itself. Once you have (possibly) edged out the competition and gotten a fare/walk/delivery, the second part of the job is enacted, work as body in motion.

What a lot of think pieces on access economy jobs seem to omit amidst their constant attentiveness to technology and infrastructure are actual working bodies, what they are doing and what the implications of those actions are. If the archetypal worker of the late twentieth century was the office drone, trapped in a cubicle, and irresolutely affixed to their computer screen, the past several years have given rise to a new species, the data drone. The data drone is both constantly fixed and constantly mobile, sutured to their smartphone and delivering, walking, cleaning, or driving. Moreover, with the ‘help’ of their augmented technologies the data drone is solitude rather than meek solidarity, they have no water cooler, no means of employee-to-employee communication. They are beholden to multiple vectors of data aggregation including customer feedback, location tracking, built in time stamping, and are in many cases building the infrastructure for their own obsolescence. They also never know when the next job will come, if ever. In short, the data drone is itself an object of perpetual circulation. These hybrid drives of perpetual fixity/mobility evidence the primary aspect of the data drone, their precarity.

Despite this, the data drone is nevertheless a privileged subject, a referent to a much older (yet still very present) employment phenomenon, the migrant worker. A data drone needs a driver’s license, a smartphone, and citizenship. Migrant workers often don’t have access to these things. To this, in 2008 (a year before Uber came into being) Alex Rivera’s dystopian film Sleep Dealer envisions a future where migrant workers can only enter the U.S. virtually to do work. Rivera’s insight into the amalgam of exploited human and technology is to recognize the long-standing site of human as technology for profit. The maquiladora is not some faraway invention of science fiction, it is here today. Moreover, people have been standing and waiting for the possibility of a job for which they will have to be in constant motion for a long time. The genealogy of mobility and labor goes back even further than this in the United States. The U.S. was built through a series of systemic violences to the bodies of those forcibly extracted from Africa, to the indigenous peoples of the Americas continually compressed and compartmentalized, and to migrants circulating to find work and escape persecution. So when we talk about mobility and its relation to technology it is important to contextualize.

In sum, work is always about competition, contemporary technology has simply been mobilized in a way that makes this easier. The technology itself is benign. It could just as easily be used for anti-capitalist purposes, to crowdsource solidarity rather than competition. What Uber and others have figured out, however, is that many citizens are in situations dire enough to accept a position without almost any of the benefits that citizenship (read also: white, cis-male, ableness) at one point afforded. What is particularly appalling then about the state of things, is that it has taken the precarity of those once-(and still to an extent)privileged subjects for the media at large to cry foul. Insecurity, alienation, and poverty make it easier to exploit people and to misdirect who is at fault. To recognize a shared, yet substantively gradated and diverse, precarity is the first step towards combatting the hegemonic oppression of work. To be mindful of these things is to ensure that going forward we do not remake the same mistakes of the past.

Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator


In the days before November 8th I wrote the following vignette for what was supposed to be a special Cyborgology roundtable, a collection of differing viewpoints on the U.S. presidential election. For a number of reasons that roundtable was never published. Nevertheless, I am now posting what I wrote, unedited. My intent in doing this is twofold. First, it is a time-specific encapsulation of my sentiments before the event itself. It is not a reflection on what I would do given what I know now, but emblematic of the inexact and speculative nature of politics. And second, because I feel as if, regardless of the moment it emerged from, this short essay still carries a lot of weight in this post-election period. In fact, I would probably write very close to the same thing again.

Things are certainly worse than they could have been. There has already been/will continue to be a Trump inspired increase in violence against LGBT people, people read as Muslims or migrants, and people of color. Indeed, this election was by all accounts a victory for white supremacy, a watershed moment in seeming validation of unabashed racism. But, white supremacy did not begin here, and it certainly won’t end here. President Obama has deported over 2.5 million people over his two terms. The police have murdered and continue to murder black and brown people with little or no consequences. The NSA is quite publically spying on you. And, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the electoral college (as I outline below) have us beholden to the second president in 20 years elected despite losing the popular vote. Much of the shock at the results of November 8th, therefore, demonstrates an all too common insularity from the racism, sexism, transphobia, and jingoism that pervades the day-to-day lives of many people. Would a Clinton presidency have rectified any of the Obama administration violences? According to her own intentions, seemingly not. What is needed today, however, is not ceaseless speculation, third party blaming, or a return to normalcy. When normal means state sanctioned murder, the catastrophic erosion of privacy, and the overall precarity of marginalized lives, it is the status quo that must be combatted.

On (not) Voting

Voting is political technology. By this I don’t only mean to emphasize the machines themselves, those loose constellations of aesthetically distressing buttons, levers, and touchpads, hemmed in by fabric and metal, stoically housed, commanding gravity. I also don’t only mean the speculative mathematics of voting, its computational grounding in polling data, identarian trends, party affiliation, or otherwise (though its perceived facticity and ceaseless futurity are of particular interest to me, if not to this piece). Instead I aim to orient each towards voting as a technique of production, one in service of more than the making of candidates into officeholders, but rather its function in replicating a problematic attachment to democracy.

In entering a voting booth (perhaps despite a whole host of voter suppression tactics too-cutely satirized in this New York Times videogame here) you are meant to be suddenly imbued with a kind of power that has been shamelessly hammered into your head since childhood. Voting is participation, it is the concentrated power of the individual writ large, it is responsibility. To not vote is heralded as an (un)ethical affront to the very gift of democracy.

To this, “politically neutral” get out the vote campaigns have emerged from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Zipcar and Lyft are offering free rides to polling stations in select cities. Each of these promotions invigorates (and capitalizes on!) the self-fulfilling prophecy of voting, its masquerade as truly democratic political power. You are heard because everyone says they are listening. They’re even giving you a ride!

Voting thus replicates the very conditions of injustice immanent to American democracy that it supposedly combats, an appearance of equality masking profoundly unjust praxis. Participation, at least through the apparatus of voting, for a sizeable portion of the U.S. population is meaningless. The suppressive technics of gerrymandering ensure that a small percentage of votes will sway things. None of the candidates seek anything resembling justice. Vote and be complicit, don’t vote and you lose your right to criticize. In these things, the political technology of voting emerges as the displacement of responsibility for systemic violence from those in power to those who have very little. The voting booth is only the most apparent site of the ethical imperative that voting presages, the hopeful promise it withholds.

Lauren Berlant names cruel optimism as, “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss.” Voting enacts the speculative expectation of your ability to foment change, and then blames you when nothing does. So vote. Or don’t. But barring a more subversive politics, I wouldn’t expect much.

Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator



On May 28th, 2016 a three-year-old black boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  As a result a 17-year-old gorilla inside the pen, Harambe, was shot, as the zoo argued, for the boy’s protection. Nearly three months later, on August 22nd the director of the zoo, Thane Maynard, issued a plea for an end to the ‘memeification’ of Harambe, stating, “We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe…Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” By the end of October, however, despite turgid proclamations to the contrary, the use of Harambe seems to be waning.

The six-month interim marked a significant transition in the media presence of Harambe, from symbol of public uproar and cross-species sympathy to widely memed Internet joke. The death and affective trajectory of Harambe, therefore, represents a unique vector in analyzing intersections of animality, race, and the phenomenon of virality. Harambe, like Cecil the Lion before him, became a widely appropriated Internet cause, one with fraught ethical implications.

At first, much of the outcry concerning Harambe centered on the question of responsibility, or the circumstances that led to his death. One Scientific American article raised concerns about the ethics of zoos, decrying the systemic and immoral circumstances, which brought Harambe and the boy together. More prevalent, however, was public outcry about the boy’s parents. A petition, entitled “Justice for Harambe” garnered 500,000 supporters seeking prosecution against the boy’s parents, Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson, for negligence leading to Harambe’s death (charges were never brought). The petition called for the parents to “be held accountable for lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.” Other responses expressed a less-veiled form of racism. The hashtag #Justice4Harambe was one such site, in which white supremacists charted the ‘similarities’ between people of color and gorillas.

The juxtaposition of race and animal imagery has an extensive and horrific history. In the U.S., colonialist racism that depicted people of color as ‘less than human’ was used to justify slavery. Blacks were similarly demonized in the post-reconstruction era through associations with bestial or unbridled sexuality, particularly in the image of the ‘sex crazed negro.’ This trope has not disappeared today, however. Under the auspices of a newly invigorated politics of respectability, the character of young black men gunned down by the police is constantly in question. They are commonly called criminals, thugs, and animals. Through this lens, it is impossible to divorce the responses to Harambe’s death from those to the manner in which many young black men lose their lives. Moreover, the widespread denigration of the young boy’s parents, and the celebration of Harambe’s life, act against similar movements around the loss of black lives, and is particularly evident in the antipathy towards #BlackLivesMatter.

It was with this in mind that many Twitter users began reconfiguring the outpouring of sympathy for Harambe, highlighting the hypocrisy of caring for a gorilla at the expense of black lives. The resultant viral meme #DicksOut4Harambe showcased the seeming cognitive dissonance many express when alternatively presented with the deaths of young black men and a gorilla.

The hashtag has, however, like many other iterations of Black social media presence (and in true meme form), taken on a (racialized) life of its own. While espousing a subversive reconfiguration of what lives matter to whom, the memeification of Harambe has also largely become a breeding ground for racist and sexist rhetoric, as can be seen in the hack and doxxing of comedian Leslie Jones. The viral possibilities of of the meme seemingly cut both ways, then, providing a medium to challenge white supremacy on a large-scale while remaining vulnerable to cooptation and appropriation.

This, I believe, is tied to the temporal mechanisms of that which goes viral. As this insightful essay by Britney Summit-Gil reminds us, the contemporary ‘meme market’ metaphorizes an (often self-aware) economics of invested time in cultural objects. In this way, memes have a peculiar shelf-life. Any medium has trends that come and go, but few others offer the opportunity for ‘democratic’ (I use that word very cautiously here) participation in that life cycle. The meme economy gives internet users the power to briefly dictate what images circulate the most, not TV executives, fashion moguls, or politicians. In a way the aesthetics of the meme acknowledge this transience, as well as the tenuous grasp on cultural power that they wield. The memes that arise from Me_irl, 4chan, or otherwise, at least in their contemporary iterations, don’t always seek ironic reapproriation or chase authenticity, but often cleave the image entirely from anything but the possibility of its transience. That which replicates the most wins out. Memes in this way seem doomed to their Dawkinsian ‘roots,’ masquerading as a democratic and objective means of quantifying success, while inscribing that very ideology in their users.

dat boi
Figure 1: dat boi

What is it, then, to speak of the death of a meme (or its resurrection)? The answer I believe is twofold. First, as previously mentioned, memes are a point of access in the process of cultural production. By killing off and resurrecting particular memes, users play at dictating what is seen as relevant (a useful parallel can be found in the ‘grassroots’ campaigns to resurrect dead cultural products, successfully done in the case of MST3K and Veronica Mars and still a pipe dream for Firefly fans). In doing so, they reify capitalist market ideology. Second, and concomitant with the first, is the connection between circulation and ontology. Michel Foucault argues in The Order of Things, “What makes economics possible, and necessary, then, is a perpetual and fundamental situation of scarcity…It is no longer in the interplay of representation that economics finds its principle, but near that perilous region where life is in confrontation with death.” In this, the finitude of life is that which invigorates capital. Foucault continues, however, “From Smith onward, the time of economics… was to be the interior time of an organic structure which grows in accordance with its own necessity and develops in accordance with autochthonous laws – the time of capital and production.” Foucault demonstrates the humanity of market time. The irreality of economy, evidenced in the meme economy, isn’t problematic to the reproduction of its logic, but a key component of its contemporary cultural reorientation. As a means of capture, memes can seemingly never arrest the motility of capital, regardless of their reconfigurations of life and death precisely because they are an actant of it.

To this, in writing of her concept of the poor image, Hito Steyerl re-envisions the object aura that Benjamin defines in his essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” To Steyerl, “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original,” but instead “about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities… about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.” In doing so, Steyerl moves us away from an aesthetics of a self-contained object, wrapped up in its own essence and hermetically sealed against the tide of replication. The aura of the poor image, instead, is a product of its transience, of its virality. As Steyerl asserts, “The poor image thus constructs anonymous global networks just as it creates a shared history. It builds alliances as it travels, provokes translation or mistranslation, and creates new publics and debates. By losing its visual substance it recovers some of its political punch and creates a new aura around it. This aura is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy.” This is why memes take on an almost preposterously low fidelity aesthetics, they are quickly made, circulated, and reappropriated.

But if meme circulation is predicated on a need for replication (perhaps a la capital’s insistence on perpetual growth?) it still has to make headways with users right? Architectures of power still affect how images are circulated and how we feel about them. Steyerl explains that the brilliance of the poor image is the cooptation by which its operate, making cultural production a mutually constitutive process. This in itself is nothing new, cultural studies is practically founded on the ideas of Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, in which media ‘consumers’ are actually active participants in the becoming of culture. What Steyerl highlights, however, is a technic through which that contribution is made explicit (a post-cultural studies moment where cultural production is dispersed and “egalitarian”). Thus, the poor image “is also permeated by the most advanced commodification techniques. While it enables the users’ active participation in the creation and distribution of content, it also drafts them into production. Users become the editors, critics, translators, and (co-)authors of poor images.” To use a poor analogy: prospective child soldiers are made complicit in the production of heinous violence through their forced participation, they are in effect severed from one community and affectively bonded to those who are similarly ‘guilty.’ The logic, to a different degree of course, applies in a similar way to the nascent meme economy that Steyerl is expounding. In becoming ‘producers’ we have no reason to antagonize, to disrupt, or to question those mechanisms of power that wield cultural artefacts towards hierarchical ends.

Steyerl’s poor image is dexterously re-sculpted by Aria Dean, who argues in her fantastic essay “Poor Meme, Rich Meme” on the ontological implications of meme circulation. Dean states, “Relatability helps memes sustain a kind of cohesion in “collective being,” a collective memory that can never be fully encompassed; one can never zoom out enough to see it in its entirety.” What Dean recognizes is the sticky temporary accumulation of affects that bridge how we see ourselves, as well as those formative images out of which identity emerges and to which sociality and community are beholden. Dean argues that blackness is one particularly charged site, stating, “There is no articulable ontology of blackness, no essential blackness, because blackness’s only home is in its circulating representations: a network that includes all the bodies that bear its markers, the words produced by such bodies, the words made to appear to have been produced by such bodies, the flat images that purport to document them, and so forth.” To Dean we occupy a world in which the constructedness of identity is self-evident, but also through which it is also evacuated of any subversive politics. BlackPeopleTwitter is one such site in which the messiness of constantly un/becoming signification up for grabs has been oriented towards a kind of puppeteering, a meme mimetics. If identity is free circulating and subject to anonymous capture online, it can be easily occupied (as we have seen) in service of racialized, sexist, speciesist, and transphobic dogma. The trap of liberation that Foucault famously outlined early in The History of Sexuality reoriented,

What sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportu­nity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that com­bines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights.

In this, capital has coopted even the constructedness of being, allowing you to purchase bits and pieces of identity not with any standard currency but by participating in the reification of its own logic of liberation. “It me” “Me_irl” and other memes are a tacit acknowledgement of this.

We have come a long way from the opening salvo on Harambe. But where have we ended up? Are there any subversive possibilities of the meme? While Sanjay Sharma argues that ‘Blacktags,’ or racialized hashtags, “have the capacity to interrupt the whiteness of the Twitter network,” Aria Dean counters that appropriation is an inevitability. Dean asserts that “memes — even when produced by black users — cannot be viewed as objects that once authentically circulated in black circles for the enjoyment of the black collective but instead are always already compromised by the looming presence of the corporate, the capitalist.” To move beyond a politics of authenticity, however, is not to accept the status quo, but to embrace the messiness of being, its hybrid possibilities and its concomitant wonkiness in time and space. If as Dean says, “The meme’s structure is at once its potential energy, its possibility, and its limit” it does not seek some transcendental infinite, but more.

Figure 2: Google Search Trends for ‘Harambe’ (May 1, 2016 – October 29, 2016)

Much of the debate around Harambe has taken on this either/or mentality and run with it, in which celebrations of Harambe are opposed to anti-racist efforts against systems of oppression that make black lives precarious. And yet, it is seemingly more complex than that. The conditions that manufacture normalized violence against people of color are very much in line with those that objectify/commodify animals for their use-value (as well as along lines of ability, gender, sexuality). More than this, the public outcry about the deaths of Harambe, Cecil the Lion, and other celebritized animals is not extended to the billions of animals slaughtered for food each year. In order to engage with an anti-racist animal rights politics, therefore, we must remember the history of racial oppression built on dehumanization, whilst simultaneously combatting the very real violences waged against humans and non-humans alike. The meme is just that, possibility. Any solutions to the aforementioned violences, therefore, will not emerge from attempts to capitalize on it.

Justice need not be an us or them binary. As we can see the dispersal of media control (still beholden to gatekeepers like Reddit, Facebook, etc.) has not lessened the abhorrent practice of racism, only mutated it. This is because racialization is not a problem of immanent to any given medium. It may be exacerbated through an increased ability to connect, but yelling racial slurs is problematic whether one does it angrily on the street, over the phone, on TV, or on the internet.

In Swahili ‘Harambee’ means to pull together. By assailing the hierarchies of power that oppress humans and animals alike we can engage in a more radical form of ethics, one of justice and solidarity.

Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator 


In March 2013, at Microsoft’s annual research and development event TechFest, a new project was introduced that aimed to let “users interactively explore the full chain of events whereby individual news stories, videos, images, and petitions spread from one user to the next over a social network.” The program, in effect, aims to understand how content spreads through a social network such as Twitter. By aggregating large amounts of data and tracking how users share things on their Twitter accounts, ViralSearch turns the transmission of content into a visually friendly genealogy of media, which Microsoft terms its “virality.” The more descendants a video has, for example, meaning those who have shared it (which is broken up into generations, or subsets of users that represent one wave of shares) the more viral it is according to ViralSearch’s virality percentage. More than this, it actively differentiates between virality and popularity, by looking precisely at how the information is shared. As researcher Jake Hofman says,

This is what people sort of typically have in their mind when they think about one of these viral videos, but nobody’s really been able to actually look at the structure of these things to date. And so what we’re able to do is going through these billions of events we reconstruct these trees by looking at all the followers of everyone who adopts the content and using a large cluster to reconstruct these things and then a novel scoring method to actually distinguish this tree as being viral from just being popular.

The example given by Hofman is of a story shared by the official Forbes Twitter account, which reached a wide number of people, who then shared that story, but failed to be shared beyond that “first generation” of users. In contrast, Hofman pulls up the visualization of a cover of a Gotye song, which according to the parameters of ViralSearch is more viral because of how many successive generations it has gone through and the multitude of users who have shared it throughout those generations. In essence, ViralSearch wields content as contagion, and quantifies precisely how contagious it is and who it has spread to. ViralSearch recognizes how things have “become viral in the sense that they’ve been passed on from one person to the next over many generations.”

Though it debuted in March 2013, ViralSearch has yet to be made public, but is instead being used internally by Microsoft. It does, however, represent one of many data tools aimed at mapping content transmission, with BuzzFeed’s Viral Dashboard and Facebook’s Page Insights being two other examples of social media analytics that are available to the public. The prevalence of these analytic mechanisms seems to indicate an increased engagement with not only recognizing how media is circulated online, but with exploiting those pathways as well. The management of digital information, via ViralSearch or otherwise, demonstrates the power implicit in the very act of mapping, by which indices of “virality” configure who sees what and when. One can also see the possible profits in capitalizing on a “highly viral” user and the reproducibility of their posts. This is not, however, a disaggregation on my part of the digital from the organic, (I am not interested in saying Facebook posts represent a wholly unique mechanism of content/desire production) but rather I want to move towards a recalibration of the relationship between online networks and fleshy human bodies. Both are constituted in similar epistemological and ethical processes. Perhaps, however, the cyborg is not the liberatory figure that Haraway envisioned, but merely the latest iteration of normative and therefore privileged human being, a new literacy for the present moment. To be connected, to be part of the viral web, is in most circumstances to have a privileged form of access. And yet, it is important to differentiate between mapmakers and those being mapped.

To this, Daniel Smith asks, “why do we have such a stake in investing in a social system that constantly represses us, thwarts our interests, and introduces lack into our lives? In the end, the answer is simple: it is because your desire—that is, your drives and affects—are not your own, so to speak.” The viral geographies of ViralSearch are each assemblages of manufactured desire. Their productive affects are crucial not only to the system itself, aggrandizing trends towards Microsoft’s bottom line, but also towards a biopolitics constitutive of a normative (post)human subject, against which ‘deviant’ bodies, whether human, animal, viral, or digital, are carefully measured. ViralSearch is indicative of an ethics that disregards access in favor of universalized responsibility, in which a supposedly level playing field emerges out of the ‘egalitarian’ architecture of the viral.

To these ends, ViralSearch works epidemiologically, as a technic that allows Microsoft to “understand” particular media contagions and exploit them. In September 1854 in London, England a different kind of contagion was being mapped. John Snow, a local physician was caught in the midst of a horrific cholera outbreak, which killed over 600 people in a matter of days. Snow doubted the common conception of the disease at the time, having been witness to several other cholera outbreaks, that it was caused by “miasmas” or poor quality gasses emanating from sites of decay such as sewers, graves, and garbage pits. Instead, Snow theorized that the unsanitary condition of the local drinking water was at fault by locating the incidents of cholera and mapping them. In doing so, and after interviewing residents who both lived in and around the affected areas, Snow was able to pinpoint the problem as the local well at Broad Street. With the help of a neighborhood reverend, Snow convinced the authorities to remove the pump handle to the well and the outbreak subsided soon thereafter. Following his death, Snow’s work on disease statistics and mapping was celebrated as an inaugural moment modern epidemiology.

     Clusters of Cholera Cases in London 1854 (Charles Cheffins)

Why include a conversation on a 19th Century cholera outbreak in an essay on viral geography? For one, I believe the management of digital and organic contagions to have a remarkable level of overlap, both in terms of treatment and how they are visualized. In the field of medical epidemiology services like aggregate data from Google Trends, Google Flu Trends, the CDC, media sources, eyewitness accounts, and the WHO, to map the spread of particular diseases. The website uses Google Maps API to show a historical timeline of disease outbreak and to quantify just how many cases are being reported. Funded by US government sources such as IARPA, DTRA, and the CDC, as well as by companies like Google, Unilever, Merck, Amazon, and Twitter, has been run by the Boston Children’s Hospital since it was founded in 2006. With its corresponding ‘Outbreaks Near Me’ app,

HealthMap brings together disparate data sources, including online news aggregators, eyewitness reports, expert-curated discussions and validated official reports, to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. Through an automated process, updating 24/7/365, the system monitors, organizes, integrates, filters, visualizes and disseminates online information about emerging diseases in nine languages, facilitating early detection of global public health threats.

In contrast to ViralSearch, which seeks to locate and promote viral media to benefit Microsoft (and whoever else the software is eventually marketed to), HealthMap uses similar mechanisms of data aggregation as a preventative to the spread of global contagion. HealthMap, through its own stated intentions, seems to be continuing the work of John Snow, mapping infection onto localized areas and making people aware of disease hotspots. In digging deeper, however, one can begin to see the truly troubling aspects of each program.

     2014 Ebola Outbreaks Timeline

HealthMap marks, with a colored gradient scale from yellow (low) to purple (high), activity of a given, or of all, diseases on a worldwide map. In the absence of user ratings, “the system assigns a composite score based on the disease importance and the news volume associated with the alert. If a location’s marker has multiple alerts, the color associated with the most prominent alert is used.” The aggregation of viral activity in HealthMap operates via user reports, news volume, and perceived disease importance. HealthMap, therefore, represents an explicit means of marking particular locales as sites of disease, as the 2014 Ebola outbreak image demonstrates. Alongside stories like this New York Times article describing a “hospital from hell” in Sierra Leone, the virality of HealthMap evidences a dual mobilization of contagion. It both wields and incites user interaction towards its own aggrandizement. The heinous implication is that when the viral operates only as a quantified object the effects of its dissemination are obscured. Projections of where Ebola might strike next, (or more recently Zika) incite a kind of paranoia that only heightens nationalist anxieties (not to mention the long genealogy of hygiene and racialization). No algorithm is perfect, and the predictive visualizations of HealthMap are a definite cause for concern. More than this, as its sponsors indicate, HealthMap, represents yet another iteration of data mining under the guise of being in service of the public good. It wields a viral geography that privileges corporate access to data over its real world effects, algorithmically marking bodies as diseased, or vulnerable in their potential proximity to those diseased bodies.

Viral geography, therefore, is never simply an objective endeavor devoid of bias, intent, or cooptation. It is instead formative to how we imagine particular spaces, how we relate to them, and the highly politicized ways in which that information is utilized. Perhaps, then, we should reorient the epidemiological model that HealthMap and ViralSearch present us with, opting against purity, exploitation, and extraction in favor of subversive viralities that infect those institutions themselves.



psycho shower scene

On May 13, 2016 the Obama administration issued a letter of guidance concerning the protection of gender identity in school housing, restrooms, and locker room facilities under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The letter was largely seen as a reaction to a March 2016 law passed in North Carolina, HB 2 – Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which limited public restroom use to one’s assigned at birth gender. On August 21, 2016, however, a Texas U.S. District judge blocked the federal government from implementing that directive, instead arguing that Title IX aimed to “protect students’ personal privacy, or discussion of their personal privacy, while in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex.” The district court applied a similar logic to HB 2 in arguing that gender identity was strictly “biological” (e.g., what one’s birth certificate says).

The district court ruling, in line with several others this year, relies on and perpetuates a number of transphobic beliefs which seem apropos to mention here, namely: a normalized definition of biological sex, the notion of trans bodies as illegible, impure, or incomplete, the forced hypervisibility of trans bodies through constant surveillance, the public fixation on genitalia as a ‘true’ indicator of gender identity, and the displacement/occlusion of responsibility for anti-trans violence. It is, in particular, the contemporary mobilization of a politics of shame, manifest through the aforementioned practices, however, that I would like to hone in on.

The 20th century psychologist Silvan Tomkins wrote that “like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both. The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy.” To Tomkins, shame emanates from the “introduc[tion] of a particular boundary or frame” to one’s own pleasures through their perceived strangeness. There is, in effect, then, an out-of-place-ness endemic to shame, in which enjoyment is not simply denied, but heinously reconstructed as emotional and psychical violence. As Eve Sedgwick elucidates, “the pulsations of cathexis around shame, of all things, are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world.” Thus, shame is at once a spatial and affective regime with profound psychic and ontological implications.

To wit, Dean Spade has argued that alongside government IDs and access to health care, institutional sex-segregation has an outsized impact on trans people’s lives. One need only engage in a cursory online search to find countless stories of anti-trans humiliation, bullying, and violence. To marshal Tomkins’ definition of shame, then, is not to say that all trans people display a kind of abject sexualized pleasure around bathroom acts, but instead that the bathroom is an especially charged affective site in which the becoming of gender is constantly contested. The strict parameters of biological gender specificity at the bathroom, under the guise of “protection” (both materially and discursively) affixes shame to a site that held the possibility for validation and enjoyment. This is, importantly, a kind of loss not characterized by an ever-unattained lack of “true” gender identity, but rather a recognition of self-expressive joy twisted into self-doubt.

It is no accident, then, that much of the current popular media discourse around transgender rights is localized in the bathroom. Anne McClintock has asserted that the public bathroom of the Victorian era was part of a gendered politics of hygiene, in which middle class women were expected to be clean and respectable at all times. Concomitant with this newly intimate public were a range of anxieties over women’s bodies and how to keep them ‘pure.’ As McClintock avers, “The iconography of dirt became a poetics of surveillance, deployed increasingly to police the boundaries between ‘normal’ sexuality and ‘dirty’ sexuality.” The bathroom, therefore, became a disciplinary site (one among many) in which proper femaleness was simultaneously constructed and policed, with shame affixed to deviance from ‘the norm.’

The bathroom also has a rich queer genealogy. As Shiela L. Cavanaugh contends in Queering Bathrooms, public restrooms have gender normativity built into their very architecture, “bathroom architectures are based upon vertical lines and a wish to straighten things out…This verticality consists in obstinate repression of the abject, the unclean…the horizontal…along with visibly queer and/or trans people.” In a similar vein, Jose Munoz writes of Leroi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) one act play The Toilet (1964), and its violent intersections of race and queerness. The play stages a fight between a white boy and a black boy in a high school restroom (the contemporary segregation of bathrooms should also not be forgotten here) who we come to learn have a sexual, if not romantic relationship. While Munoz reads the play for its connections to violence and futurity, it also highlights the bathroom as a space of queer performativity and voyeuristic surveillance, as a group of boys has come to watch the fight unfold. In Jones’ play, the bathroom, a site of strict gender roles, is staged as a place of identarian instability, racial tension, and an unfolding queer shame made visible to the public.

Today, we find that much of the same anxieties haunt the language of legislations like HB 2 and political rhetoric embraced by transphobic politicians and TERF activists alike. At stake, in their minds, is both the respectability of (cis) women (under the guise of their ‘protection’) and the legibility of a gender binary that ensures a continued mechanism of hierarchical control. In this line of thinking, espoused by those like anti-trans ‘feminist’ academic Sheila Jeffreys, biological indicators of sex act as “scientific” markers of truth that legitimate transphobia. Genitals, in particular, are fixated on and fetishized as indicators of “objective” legibility that must be seen and either mocked or validated. As Julia Serrano reminds us, “constantly being reduced to our body parts,” seeks to constitute the trans body as partial or incomplete. This is a kind of boundary making that Tomkins alludes to, a wholesale denial of being/pleasure through shame of one’s body, made visible to the public at large.

Nowhere is this one-two punch of anxiety and shame made more apparent than in the bathroom worlds of horror cinema. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to David Cronenberg’s Shivers to Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, the bathroom has long been staged as a site in which female sexuality is both surveilled and policed. What is ostensibly supposed to be a space of privacy is perforated in these films not only by the camera itself (the complicity of voyeurism highlighted by Hitchcock in Psycho’s famous shower scene or mirrored to a schlocky absurd in the opening film-within-a-film scene of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out), but also the gendered violence of intrusion made perverse or pathological (Bates is dressed as his mother as he kills). Nowhere is this more obvious than in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where Shelley Duval, unable to escape out of the bathroom, screams in horror as Jack Nicholson axes through the door. There is no transgression of gender boundaries here, just the dread of ubiquitous male access.

This, in a way, has been the story of shame this essay has attempted to convey. There is nothing inherently shameful about the bathroom; it is instead constructed as such in its physical, discursive, and affective architecture. To view HB-2 through the lens of The Shining rather than Psycho, is to espy a panoptic violence that conjures shame and self-doubt towards its own ends. We should, therefore, combat those real-world bathroom injustices precisely because it is a site of violence, not from trans people, but against them.

Laurent Berlant and Michael Warner open their 1998 essay “Sex in Public” with a section entitled There is Nothing More Public Than Privacy, an apt introduction to the social imperialism of heteronormativity. In charting an alternative, they argue that queer worlds constitute “a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.” To combat shame, we need to heed their advice, reclaiming the pleasures of being through alternative bathroom architectures; through queer geographies that do not limit, but liberate.

Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator

Image courtesy of Salon

Swarm of Birds

It feels good / To know that you really care
It feels good / To know that I can relax when I’m with you
It feels good / To know that I can be by your side
– “Feels Good” – TONY! TONI! TONE! 

Some time ago, absentmindedly tweeting about the woeful state of higher education, I received a notification that one of my tweets was liked. This being somewhat rare, I excitedly went to check out who it was from, only to find that it was one of the institutions I was directly critiquing. If they had actually read the tweets I’m sure they wouldn’t have actually ‘liked’ them, so what gives?

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. Periodically, as I’m sure many of us do, I get likes, follows, and retweets that seem incongruous with the content of my posts. Some are a result of Twitter users actively seeking to aggregate info, gain followers, and increase their social media presence. Others are fully automated Twitter bots.

Twitter bots, for the uninitiated, are pieces of software that use automated scripts to crawl the Twitterverse in search of particular words or phrases, to follow, like, or retweet others. In 2014 Twitter revealed that as many as 8.5% of its active accounts were likely bots. Beyond mere annoyance at the lack of a human interlocutor behind a ‘like’ or ‘follow,’ however, why care about the presence of Twitter bots or the use of algorithms to harness the power of social media?

One answer can be found in the case of Tay, an AI chat bot created on March 23, 2016 by Microsoft for use on Twitter. Tay was to be an experiment in conversational understanding, a way to “engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation.” Importantly, while masquerading as a simplistic digital chat companion “that can learn,” Tay was also meant to be a mechanism of data aggregation. Microsoft aimed to track the speech patterns of millennials through mining each 18 to 24-year-old’s: nickname, gender, favorite food, zip code, and relationship status. Unfortunately for Microsoft, however, within hours Tay was inundated with sexist and white supremacist data. By the end of the day, Tay was taken offline.

Tay may have proven a resounding failure from a public relations standpoint, amongst many others just this year alone, but nevertheless demonstrates a key component in the contemporary machinations of capital, namely the mobilization and aggregation of user desire, as well as its ability to be short-circuited.

From a historical perspective, Tay does not represent anything overtly new (especially as a manifestation of gendered technology, as this article by Helen Hester deftly argues). Bots have been around since before the creation of the Internet, one early example being ELIZA, a psychotherapist program created by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966 to mimic human conversation. ELIZA’s function as a ‘computer psychiatrist’ should not be understated, as it was Weizenbaum’s intention to ‘trick’ users into thinking they were talking to an actual human through open ended questions that encouraged them talk about themselves. More recently, in the early-2000’s, SmarterChild was an AI bot that interacted via instant messaging services like AOL Instant Messenger, at one point occupying five percent of all IM traffic. SmarterChild, unlike ELIZA, had a range of utilities providing information about weather and stocks in addition to being a simple chat buddy.

Today, the near ubiquity of immersion in digital architecture has driven a resurgence in bots. From social media bots on Twitter and Facebook to digital assistants like Siri and Cortana to bots from Slack and Taco Bell, bots act as digital aides and automated middlemen, deciding which information we receive and from where. Central to their proliferation, the affective capabilities of these digital beings (e.g., their utility and personality) as opposed to being peripheral niceties, are integral in generating user interest. As Tiziana Terranova has argued, “If information is bountiful, attention is scarce because it indicates the limits inherent to the neurophysiology of perception and the social limitations to time available for consumption.” The best bots, therefore, make you want to talk to them. So while scarcity has characterized the economic landscape of much of human history (and still does for large segments of the population) we now often find ourselves in environments of excess. In such a milieu, search functions and the data-parsing algorithms represent necessities in the face of information overabundance. But, and this is crucial, these are not agenda-less tools.

If we are in an age of data overload, the ability to stand out amongst the mountains of info we are confronted with is a valuable commodity. In such a world, bot automation and mechanisms of augmented reality provide a means of access akin to highway signage, stairs, or glasses. If you don’t know the neighborhood, so to speak, these digital indicators clue you in. The problem, as seen in the case of Tay, however, is that bots are susceptible to all kinds of heinous discourse, be it racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or some multiplicitous horrifying amalgam. More than this, like any medium, bots are not just passive receptors for cultural ideals, but productive of them. Tay was not simply some blank slate onto which bigoted Internet users projected their own ideas of race and gender (which since those ideas aren’t “natural” they obviously got from somewhere), Tay was created to learn millennial speech patterns and thereby better advertise to them. Microsoft wanted easy access to user data, but ignored the ability of users to adversely affect that outcome. The objects we interact with on a daily basis, have biases built into them, highway signage directs you towards particular locations and away from others, stairs require a specific set of abilities to traverse while actively normalizing those abilities, and Tay was built to cultivate ad revenue, but each is affectable.

And so, these digital assemblers of desire do not represent a radical departure from similar mechanisms of medial desire production in the past. Media across the techno-ontological spectrum from radio and television, to the written word, to the most basic modes of corporeal communication are not any more objective or asensory than their digital counterparts. Nor are they any less indicative of hierarchical modes of accessibility. Each inculcates and assembles desire, fraught with relations of power that can nevertheless be re-circuited. How that desire is mobilized, however, is not so much a problem of technology, but of information. Tay was taught to be racist and sexist in a manner similar to those people who taught her. We should, therefore, be critical about the technological circulation of violence while recognizing who or what it advantages.

Elizabeth Grosz argues that we must see desire as “what produces, what connects, what makes machinic alliances…[as] an actualization, a series of practices…making reality…it aims at nothing above its own proliferation or self-expansion.” To this end, large-scale capital is not the only site of desire production. While eventually faced with a dissonant Twitter response, my initial reaction was one of excitement. Social media, therefore, cannot simply be seen as part of an ideological system, but affective, multiple, and assembled, a series of regimes networking instinct and feeling in a circuitous economy of desire, in which, likes beget likes beget likes.

If Twitter bots represent an automated iteration of desire production they also do not singularly signify an arrival of dystopian humanlessness. We too have been embedded in the circuits of machinic desire-production since well before Facebook.


Just ask the Twitter bots. It feels good.


Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator