Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘gender’ Category

Aly Raisman and Jewish Women’s Sweat

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by David

Aly Raisman

To follow up on Afrah’s excellent post on Gabby Douglas, I thought I would reflect a little bit on another American gymnast who won gold in London, Aly Raisman. The 18-year-old Raisman, an American Jew, proudly celebrated her heritage by performing her gold-medal winning floor routine to “Hava Nagilah.”

In winning the gold medal, Raisman also did her part in undermining certain stereotypes about Jewish women. Particularly in the post-WW2 period, two comic images of Jewish women emerged, both with a decidedly negative edge. The first was the overbearing Jewish mother, the second the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, personified in either the nagging wife or the spoiled daughter. These images were on display in American Jewish fiction, but they also caused real harm in gender relations between American Jewish men and women.

Ali MacGraw as Brenda Patimkin

In her 1996 essay “Why Jewish Princesses Don’t Sweat,” anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell argues that the archetypical JAP is allergic to work. As an example, she points Brenda Patimkin, the leading lady of the 1959 Philip Roth novella Goodbye, ColumbusIn both the book and the 1969 movie, Patimkin (as portrayed by Ali MacGraw) is seen playing tennis. To Prell, the message is that JAPs can sweat, provided that the sweat is not productive, i.e. that it comes from exercise or a leisurely activity like tennis. The Jewish woman is thereby denigrated as unproductive, lazy, and spoiled.

Of course, this stereotype is far from true: Jewish women work, and certainly sweat while working. This is where Raisman comes in. Here we have a wonderful real-life example of a Jewish woman whose work is athletic, sweat-producing, and medal-winning. Mazel tov Aly!

Written by David Weinfeld

August 8, 2012 at 19:31

Posted in gender, Jews, sports

Black Girls Rock! Considering Gabby Douglas, Cultural Phenom

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Gabby Douglass on balance beam, August 2, 2012

by Afrah

Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl.  The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.

Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family.  She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world.  She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.”  The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

August 6, 2012 at 16:44

The Agony & Ecstasy: A Review of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta

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The Ladies of Love and Hip Hop Atlanta

by Afrah

Watching reality tv shows such as Vh1′s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta leads to existential questioning such as: Why do we watch? Do shows like this fuel the poor representation of black people in popular culture writ large? And can 3.6 million people who watched the show’s debut possibly be misguided?

I am of two minds. I am shocked, shocked to see black folks embodying the racial stereotype that predicts loud and uncouth behavior.  As of this posting, over two thousand people have dutifully signed the change.org petition to boycott the show. Yet the conventions of reality tv rewards bad behavior and highlights extreme personalities. Given the platform, their actions are unsurprising.

The clear anti-heroes of the show are Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez. The audience can easily root against them and are riveted by the pure unabashedness of their characters. Stevie J is a former Bad Boy producer of classic 90s  hits with Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy who has won three Grammy awards. He is the resident cad who is juggling a relationship with Joseline and Mimi, who is the mother of his young daughter. Joseline is a stripper turned recording artist for Stevie J who unironically states that her purpose on the show is to inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps.

Their motives are clear: to get paid and get into as much drama as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

June 26, 2012 at 11:57

Posted in gender, pop culture, race

X-Men: First Class – a Fun Movie for Historians

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by Weiner

 

I saw X-Men: First Class last night. Really good movie. It was especially fun for historians, and not only because it fictionally ties in to real events like the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. It also deals with the modern academic trifecta of race, class, and gender in relatively interesting ways, of course using the notion of mutants to complicate these matters (oh, no I used the term complicate! the next thing you know I’ll be trying to problematize something!).

I’m not sure I have anything to add that hasn’t already been said better by Matt Yglesias or by Susan Polo or by Neo-Prodigy at The Chronicle. So check those posts out, but BEWARE OF SPOILERS.

What I will say is that January Jones must be the world’s worst actress. Unless she was supposed to play a mutant super-villain in the same way she does Betty Draper. Still, it was an awesome movie, and you should see it.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 8, 2011 at 19:21

Posted in class, film, gender, pop culture, race

There’s a Tooth in my Vagina: Horror, Sci-Fi, and Feminism

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by Weiner

A few nights ago, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Teeth, the 2007 comedy/horror by writer, director, and co-producer Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, Teeth was in fact a brilliant political satire. And it was totally awesome.

The plot is simple enough: protagonist Dawn O’Keefe suffers from the mythological condition of vagina dentata: she has razor sharp teeth in her vagina. What gives the film its gravitas, and its humour, is the broader context. Dawn is the leader of an abstinence group in her high school, she dons a promise ring vowing to wait until marriage, and embraces traditional gender roles prizing women’s purity, all in a clearly over-the-top satirical manner. It seems as if nearly all the male characters are potential rapists, and several appendages meet their untimely demise beneath the sharp, interlocking teeth at Dawn’s crotch, and no, I’m not talking about her zipper.

Though I know many are turned off by gruesome horror (I’m thinking of you, Luce), this movie is really the ultimate in feminist schadenfreude. It’s a little scary, a little gory, but mostly funny, and with brilliant parodies of the Religious Right and the latent sexism and fear of women that lurks in the hearts of heterosexual men. This movie is truly great.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 27, 2011 at 21:05

The Subaltern of Your Dreams, and Mine: Egyptian Women in Tahrir Square

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I’m very pleased to introduce a guest post from Mircea, a history grad studying South Asia, first published at his blog, Just Speculations. I’m particularly glad that he’s coined the phrase “subaltern of my dreams.” I can only hope this will be the title of his first book. – Luce

by Mircea

Over on facebook, Leil Zahra-Mortada has collected an album of photographs of women protesting in Cairo over the past weeks. Here are a few particularly striking ones:

My first impulse, after I broke out in tears, was to think about theories of subjectivity and the challenge of Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood to feminist notions of agency in her book Politics of Piety. Mahmood had studied women who participated in the Islamic revivalist mosque movement in Egypt and focused on how they ethically “trained” their bodies and sensibilities to meet the demands of Islamic norms. In so doing, and building on the work of Talal Asad, she questioned the understanding of “agency” as a reflection of a subject’s conscious will and desire. Instead, it was possible for women to express agency even in the very act of following norms that Western feminism would deem oppressive and patriarchal. This, of course, set her on a collision path with those feminists who allied themselves with neo-conservative imperialism in order to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan, Iran and the wider Middle East. In a 2008 essay entitled “Feminism, Democracy and Empire,” Mahmood refuses to allow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi and Irshad Manji to serve as spokeswomen for all Muslim women. Why not listen, instead, to the myriad women’s movements and organisations, across the political and religious spectrum, in the Muslim world?

The Revolution in Egypt, and especially the photographs above, have shown to whoever cared to listen that Muslim women can make their voices heard alongside with men, demand those same political and social rights that supposedly belong to the Western “liberal” tradition, and scream, cry, bleed and die for them. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t care to listen. In a recent op-ed, written while Mubarak’s security apparatus was still beating people to a pulp in the streets of Cairo, she worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypothetical takeover. Bemoaning the supposed weakness of the “secular democratic forces,” she paints a dark scenario based, it appears, on some turgid autobiographical stories from when she was 15. It is assumed throughout, based on her previous books, that one of the bad things about the coming reign of Sharia will be women’s oppression.

And then it hit me: what all these critics, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Glenn Beck to French legislators banning the veil, have done is to effectively de-humanise the majority of Muslim women. Any woman who wears a scarf and/or niqab, who bears the outward signs of the patriarchal oppression that lies beneath, cannot be heard in her own voice. Look again at those photos. Those women, caught in a snapshot of anger or passion, are not calculating their own future status under the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does for them while safely ensconced in the US. They are not theorizing how conservative or liberal they are, or how much agency they get. They stand side by side with women in jeans, T-shirts and fashionable scarves. Because what they’re wearing doesn’t matter, even their being women qua women ceases to matter for the moment. They are demanding Mubarak leave and the country see free elections. Subalterns do speak, and when they do they may not be the subaltern of your dreams, or mine. They don’t say, “Freedom, but as long as what comes next isn’t too Islamic, in which case we should just stay put.” They say, “Freedom. Now.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 14, 2011 at 06:50

How Octomom Became a Contagious Cyborg: A Reflection

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by Luce

In January 2009 the media midwifed a new hybrid species and dubbed it Octomom. Octomom was 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, a California woman who had an unknown number of eggs implanted using IVF and gave birth to octuplets on January 26, 2009, bringing her total brood to 14. Since then Octomom has never quite left us. Just last week she appeared on Oprah to talk financial difficulties.

Once it became known that Suleman’s octuplets, only the second set to be born alive in the United Sates, were no miracle but the result of an assisted reproductive technology [ART], that all her other children had also been born through IVF, and that Suleman herself was single and unemployed, a media storm blitzed its way through the nation. The public spiritedly lambasted Suleman as a selfish woman who had irresponsibly used ARTs to bring 14 children into a world in which she and 11.6 million other Americans were unemployed.

Yet just a decade earlier in December 1998 Nkem Chukwu became the first American woman to successfully give birth to octuplets. Chukwu also used IVF to achieve this feat, but the American public did not gnash its teeth at the announcement. Chukwu was portrayed as a tired woman in a wheelchair next to her husband, a woman who discussed how her faith in God had brought her through a hard pregnancy, and who explained that she had refused a selective reduction operation during her pregnancy because she “could not find such words in [her] Bible.” No one pointed out that neither could she have found “IVF” there. Chukwu sacralized the births: “I wanted to have as many babies as God would give me,” and in turn the media portrayed the pregnancy as miracle rather than monstrosity.

In contrast no mention was initially made of Suleman’s refusal to undergo the same selective reduction procedure. A bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania called the scandal an “ethical failure” and there were invocations only of Suleman’s obsessions, not God’s gifts. Of course Suleman embodied one of the media’s favorite objects of fascination and reproach: young, female, desirous, and with a body that performed feats unknown to natural woman. Like other media favorites, Suleman even got her own hybridized nickname, Octomom, but unlike Brangelina, the hybridity was maternal rather than romantic, interspecies rather than intra-; Octomom was part-mom, part-(marine)-beast, and implicitly part-machine.

Though at first the nickname Octomom seems to reduce Suleman to the sum of her eight kids, the focus on Suleman’s desire or “obsession” instead reduced her eight newborns to herself. The scorn heaped on Suleman’s actions carried the implication that the children should never have been born in the first place, a curious stance for a society obsessed with abortion, celebrity children, and big families like the conservative Christian Duggars and John & Kate Plus 8. But Suleman made no attempt to explain her extraordinary pregnancy outside her own personal desires, and she lacked the trappings—husband, comfortable income, religious belief—that might have normalized it socially.

As a result, Octomom became a symbol of selfish enhancement, artificial excess, and irresponsible motherhood, and a reproductive technology that has been used to conceive over 250,000 pregnancies in the United States since the early 1980s suddenly became the focus of intense public discussion, giving bioethicists a platform to point out that while IVF is widely regulated throughout Europe, the US federal government only demands that ART clinics track their success rates.

Was the reaction to Octomom merely symptomatic of society’s anxiety about the impact of new technologies on society, or was something deeper at work concerning our contemporary understanding of maternal agency? I think Carl Elliott’s Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream [2003] is an interesting place to start thinking about the relationship between society, agency, treatment, and enhancement. Elliott theorizes that Americans’ obsession with identity and authenticity helps explain why Americans appear uneasy with enhancement technologies yet seek them in droves:

We need to understand the complex relationship between self-fulfillment and authenticity, and the paradoxical way in which a person can see an enhancement technology as a way to achieve a more authentic self, even as the technology dramatically alters his or her identity.

This authenticity often depends on the assertion of deficiency. By turning a characteristic into a deficit, such as the lack of social ease in those prescribed Paxil, an enhancement becomes a treatment.

Of course this construction of deficient or disabling conditions is an ever-evolving social process with consequences for a person’s understanding of his or her authentic self. Today social phobia is the third most common mental disorder in the US, but 15 years ago it was a rare problem. Diseases are not just culturally symptomatic, they are causal and therein lies the risk. Ian Hacking’s looping effect suggests that the identification of a disease creates the conditions for the manifestation of that disease in others. For instance the emergence of the idea of gender identity disorder gave people a means to conceptualize and reinterpret their experiences around a single idea, in this case a disorder with a surgical solution.

Elliott calls this semantic contagion, and while it is a more complex idea than the gloss I give it here, its relation to the idea of copycatting may help explain the suspicion and fear with which certain diseases or disabilities are approached.

In general, Elliott is sympathetic to those who make use of the possibilities of biomedicine like pharmaceuticals or sex-reassignment surgery to achieve self-fulfillment because he sees bodies, technology, and identity as co-constructive entities. He is even sympathetic to voluntary amputees, who want to cut off their limbs as surgical treatment for what they claim is a psychological condition, asking which is worse: to amputate your leg or to live with an obsession that controls your life. Elliott provocatively suggests that voluntary amputation is fair game in a world where you can “pay a surgeon to suck fat from your thighs, lengthen your penis, augment your breasts, redesign your labia, implant silicone horns in your forehead or split your tongue like a lizard’s.” Thirty years after the first test-tube baby, is Octomom just what society should come to expect?

In an America that takes its individual responsibility seriously and its babies very seriously, how a gestating mother behaves and what she ingests has become increasingly socially and medically monitored. Authors who have explored the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome or tracked the impact of obstetric tools like ultrasound have argued that this has resulted in the objectification and erasure of the mother, and her individual needs, as she comes to embody the potential life within her.

In The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery [1998] Monica Casper traces the implications of what in the 1990s was the relatively new medical field of fetal surgery. In fetal surgery a woman’s fetus is partially taken out of the uterus, operated on, and, if it survives, placed back into her womb for further gestation. In 1998, fewer than 100 fetuses, all of which would otherwise have died in the womb, had been operated on. Only 35% of the fetuses survived the surgery.

Though the numbers suggest that most women will miscarry or choose to abort a fetus that is likely to die in the womb, Casper sees fetal surgery as contributing to the materialization of the fetal patient at the expense of the mother. The mother and fetus are first separated as subjects, and then one is given preference over the other. Pathologization in this case doesn’t result in the reorientation of an identity but instead in the creation of one subject and the erasure of another.

Casper obviously sees her book as a warning signal to women; they should be aware that in being made invisible, their agency risks obliteration. In becoming patients, fetuses problematically become persons. Casper surely uncovers a discursive realm, with very material consequences, that represents a serious threat to maternal agency. But does she overstate the extent to which the creation of a fetal patient necessarily erases the pregnant woman, or the extent to which such erasure necessarily threatens the woman’s agency?

If we take Carl Elliott’s biomedical world as our own, then bodies are frequently objectified and technologized for one’s own interests. Does the materialization of another subject through this technologization necessarily threaten those interests? I am not doing Casper, who recognizes that both fetal and maternal interests could be valued in fetal surgery and argues that the field is a ripe area for a women’s health intervention, full justice. But I do want to challenge the idea that invisibility, in the face of social and bioethical surveillance, is necessarily a handicap to a pregnant woman’s agency. In a world where increased biomedical capabilities has engendered a field of bioethicists, of which a substrata warn the public to value mystery in the face of mastery, do efforts to regulate maternal behavior in fact intensify when a pregnant woman’s own subjective desires and agency become visible? In other words, are pregnant women in fact more free because the gestating woman is absent from the sonogram?

The case of Octomom would seem to confirm the idea that unmediated maternal agency provokes surveillance and can even reverse a typically pro-life discourse (though not necessarily its anti-choice iteration). Obviously the media’s issue with Octomom was partly the abnormality of giving birth to eight children at once, combined with the perceived social disadvantage of the children as members of a 14-child family led by an unemployed, unmarried mother. I want to argue, however, that the intense media circus surrounding Octomom suggests that we, benefactors of the biomedical era, owners of our own bodies, who need merely pop a pill each day to prevent pregnancy and who can pull out a fetus and put it back in, whose obsession with identity grants us leave to do most of what we want with our bodies, have centered many of our anxieties surrounding the blurry divide between perfection and freakishness, human mastery and mystery, on the bugaboo of maternal hubris.

Yet how to explain the fact that most women who undergo IVF are not seen as hubristic cyborgs? In Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies [2005] Charis Thompson details the small everyday negotiations that are made to normalize ARTs in fertility clinics. She argues that not just babies but parenthood is constructed in the reproductive clinic, and that we exist in a new biomedical era which requires us to reconceptualize objectification, agency, and naturalness. Rather than seeing a sharp division between personhood and non-personhood, for either the fetus or mother, Thompson sees many forms of fetal personhood that operate in direct relation to the mother’s own expressions of agency:

The clinics deal on a daily basis with human gametes and embryos, which function in this clinical setting as questionable persons, potential persons, or elements in the creation of persons. Embryos, for example, can go from being a potential person (when they are part of the treatment process), to being in suspended animation (when they are frozen), to not being a potential person (when it has been decided that they will be discarded or donated to research), and even back again to being a potential person (when a couple has a change of heart and frozen embryos are defrosted for their own use or for embryo donation.

As in Casper’s narrative, the pregnant woman still comes to embody the potential life attributed to the embryos, but Thompson asserts that this ontological change contains not just objectification but agency and subject-formation—a dense choreography on whose merits Thompson makes no explicit judgments, though she herself used IVF to give birth to her daughter. Just as Elliott’s voluntary amputees objectify their own bodies to achieve a more authentic conception of themselves, women using ARTs allow the medical objectification of their bodies in order to assume the identity of motherhood.

Thompson traces how the work done in reproductive clinics naturalizes kinship and procreative intent, smokescreening patients’ exceptional agency in selecting gametes with certain characteristics or constructing non-normative, and previously impossible, bio-social family structures. Significantly, of course, IVF actually has a high failure rate, and many women often require three or four rounds before an embryo implants, though this fact doesn’t necessarily obscure the appearance of extraordinary control, as the ambivalent reactions to the NY Times story of the Twiblings recently demonstrated.

Because of the costs involved, many of those who use ARTs embody a certain socially desirable profile: white, heterosexual, partnered, middle to upper class. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a shift in focus from childrens’ to parents’ reproductive rights, corresponding to a legal trend protecting privacy in the bedroom. Infertility has become pathologized so that some states now mandate that insurance companies cover a certain number of treatment cycles. What were once called artificial reproductive technologies, denoting enhancement, are now called assisted reproductive technologies, denoting aid and treatment. Finally, the language of genes has helped reconstruct kinship ties whose traditional linearity can sometimes be disrupted by ARTs. A mother who uses a daughter’s egg to give birth to her daughter’s sister can focus on genetic kinship rather than processual kinship. An Italian-American woman can invoke the idea that genes code for race and ethnicity to seek gametes that appear to represent a specific group identity.

All these factors contribute to the strategic naturalization of ARTs. When the biological facts of parenthood are underdetermined—for instance when a woman gestates a different woman’s egg—legal, medical, and familial conventions step in to naturalize kinship. In turn, biological entities, like genetics, are used to substantiate the social. In this biomedical process neither the natural nor the social is essentialized—elements of each work together and contribute to a recognizable process of “family building.”

The irony then is that a woman can achieve a great deal of agency by putting herself at the mercy of medicine so long as the desire and control that technology grants her to achieve an exceptional, nontraditional pregnancy in form or substance, is mediated, normalized, and  made invisible. And when other forces fail to naturalize an IVF procedure, abortion politics and its close companion, contemporary American religion, have a significant role to play in shaping public perception, as demonstrated by the Nkem Chukwu narrative.

Octomom incurred scathing public scorn and initiated a debate on the regulation of a reproductive technology that has been around for nearly three decades because Suleman made visible—literally embodied—the potential abnormality of ARTs and did nothing to mediate this abnormality through socio-naturalization or by deploying a supernatural discourse of God and miracles. Instead, Suleman’s story was told through the language of human “obsession,” “desire,” and “fixation.” As a result tabloids painted her as selfish and irresponsible, a drain on society’s resources, and the pregnancy as regrettable, the work of human hubris and misappropriated technology.

Ten years ago when Nkem Chukwu had her eight children there was no media storm; in fact the Chukwu octuplets were largely forgotten until Octomom. Nearly two years later, Octomom is still with us. An image of her very pregnant stomach photographed eight days before giving birth saturates the internet—in this photo both Suleman’s stomach and her face, which looks directly into the camera with a half-smile, are distinct and memorable. In October 2010 news sources began to report on the California trial of Suleman’s doctor for negligence. Paparazzi follow Suleman around and blogs speculate about post-pregnancy plastic surgery, the great symbol of American artificiality.

Childbearing in the US is tightly bound to narratives of self-sacrifice—whether it’s the mother who gives up drinking during pregnancy, her career to stay home, or her body to fetal surgery. And while we have reached a point where we endorse a normalized agency and right to parent that supports such sacrifices and naturalizes ARTs as treatments rather than enhancements, maternal self-interest must be mediated and muted, better off obscured than exposed.

Suleman was unusual in her use of reproductive technology to achieve an extraordinary birth, but she was also unusual because she made no effort to portray her pregnancy as natural, therapeutic, miraculous, or self-sacrificial. As a result she became an object of fascination, a much-photographed freakish symbol of hubristic enhancement. Yet the sudden public attention on the question of legal regulation of IVF thirty years after its American birth suggests that Suleman and her pathologized self-interest were also seen as potentially contagious. The border between extraordinary reproductive enhancement and typical treatment was a little too blurry. A fence had to be built, and the media have always been excellent fence-builders. They drew up plans and the easiest way to build it was to turn a woman into a cyborg.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 25, 2011 at 11:06

Internets and Identities

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by Luce

We’ve pretty much gotten past the point where cultural commentators decry the internet for dumbing down ideas and have entered an era of where we ask more complex questions about what sort of cultural, political, and social work the Internet, particularly its intellectual and literary production [blogs, onlines mags, newspapers] and social networking features, does. Note that the two actually overlap quite a bit: fodder for thought is exchanged via facebook walls (the undoubtedly apocryphal story of the founding of this blog claims such exchanges as inspiration) while blogs foment social connections (I can count a number of friendships that have directly or indirectly resulted from my writing here).

Weiner’s recent post on Facebook and Tunisia and the discussion that ensued is an example of how we’ve begun to conceive of the Internet as at least Janus-faced. The attempt to historicize the internet by claiming forebears, such as Robert Darnton’s 18th century French scandal sheets, what he calls “pre-modern blogs,” signals that historians are ready to look at the internet as a text, a point of power exchange, a site of identity construction, and so on.

It’s been interesting reading through some historical literature on recent technologies and social movements to see how historians have conceptualized a technology that is still very much in the making. Then again, so is the book. The question is not when should you write a history of something that appears “new,” but how you can write it so that its newness doesn’t drive your narrative. One way to remain cautious yet still attentive to the significance of the technology might be to think of it in terms of Foucauldian beginnings, which imply historical difference, rather than of origins, which presume causation.

A failed attempt to think about the historical significance of new communications technologies, like the cell phone or the internet, in a nuanced way is found in the otherwise good book by Mikael Hard and Andrew Jamison Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science [2005]. I won’t even get into the problem of the authors’ underlying premise that modern technology has engendered cyborg hybridity [it might be interesting to think about why we think about it like that, but not to actually appropriate the concept as your own analytical tool. After all, wasn't the first time a human picked up a hammer an instance of techno-human hybridity?]

The following description of cell phones from Hubris and Hybridity rehearses simplistic themes of technological alienation and superficiality completely detached from concurrent phenomena:

The irony seems to be that as we communicate more with more people, the content of this communication becomes ever more superficial. Cell phones definitely allow greater flexibility and the appropriation of new spaces, but do they really guarantee closer contacts and more intimate relations?

These seem silly questions, and my use of Skype this summer to stay connected with family and friends is an easy anecdotal counter.Which perhaps points to a another thing to be aware of when writing histories of things that your readers will consider contemporary to them: everyone has a countering anecdote.

The other, and for me more interesting, example of a historian looking at the effect of the internet was in Ilse Lenz’s Die Neue Frauenbewegung in Deutschland [The New Women's Movement in Germany] where she briefly discusses how the internet in the late 1990s helped to demonstrate the constructiveness of gender, as men and women were able to moonlight as various, multiple sexual and gender identities online in ways they were typically unable to in their public lives.

If we follow Judith Butler and see gender as a performance, an identity that is constituted through repetitive stylized acts, a repetition that both fortifies and undercuts identity as small but potentially significant changes are introduced in the performance, then what has the internet contributed to our conceptualization of gender identities? Some might say that the internet’s wide distribution of hard core porn has re-awoken a primal violent male sexuality [I'll get to that in a different post]. Carl Elliott’s Better than Well describes how the internet allows marginalized queer (in a broad sense) identities to form biosocial communities, thus strengthening such identities against a normalizing world.

I think though that Lenz is describing something different. Elliott’s queer communities conceive of themselves as embodying stabilized, if socially unacceptable, identities. The internet is a tool that allows these identities to be more easily expressed and supported, though it may also help construct such identities as individuals reinterpret their experiences into ossified identities as a result of the “semantic contagion” facilitated by the internet. Still there is no theorizing on how the internet contributes to the subtle shifting of such identities.

So what role does the internet play in the performance of gender? Does an individual’s gender identity change as a result of one’s internet performance in line with Butler’s miniscule but potentially consequential shifts? And is it only those who take on extravagantly different online identities that contribute to these shifts, or do we all?

Let’s take me for an example. Though only briefly. Both because I haven’t actually  self-analyzed my gendered blogging experience too much and because I lack a certain desire to publicly plumb my gender identity online — undoubtedly this has something to do with the way I was socialized as a heterosexual female within the cultural milieu in which I was raised. I give you all leave to totally over-analyze the ambivalence, skittishness, and swift ducking behind theory all contained in this last paragraph at will.

When I began to blog over at my old, short-lived personal blog this summer, Something Pending, I made a deliberate effort that lasted perhaps a week, to obscure my gender. Though perhaps I was wrong, I thought the pseudonym Luce could go either way on the binary: perhaps it was short for Lucy (it’s not), perhaps it referred to Henry Luce, the American publisher (it didn’t). My blog design was chosen for its grayness, its ugliness, and what I thought was a sort of gender-neutral tech-iness. I described myself as doing “Criss-crossed thinking on reproduction, technology, and the law. With some historian speak. And maybe a few stray thoughts about my research and travels…” Was “reproduction” a dead give-away? Maybe, depending on my readers’ biases. But as someone who is quite aware of her audience, the lack of obvious gender added another layer of anonymity. I’ve wondered whether it was this gender neutrality or the general anonymity that allowed me to take on what felt like an atypically aggressive tone early on. Of course, that tone has now just become part of my identity as a blogger.

So here are some questions: was I erasing myself or was I passing? In being ‘gender neutral’ was I by default perceived, or did I perceive myself as, masculine? That is, on the internet: if not feminine, then masculine?

Secondly, does the internet mean the death of the subject, and relatedly, the author? Given the cloak of anonymity, do we take the opportunity to masquerade through a number of guises, or do we assume a stabilized one? Do we even construct an even more strongly subjective identity than we do in other spheres of life because we have more control over whom we interact with, more time to consider our written responses, more agency in determining which topics we will and will not engage with?

Robert Darnton made a passing “death of the author” argument about contemporary blogs at a talk I went to recently. But I’m unconvinced that this is the case. Blogs are most often about pseudonymity rather than anonymity after all. And those pseudonyms develop their own voices, often tied to their “real” world identity. My gender neutrality didn’t last that long because I really wanted to talk about abortion and reproduction from an obviously gendered (female) perspective. Maybe I could have challenged notions of femininity and masculinity if I had engaged passionately with these topics while “passing” as male. But at the end of the day, I’ve never been a very good actor.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 20, 2011 at 00:53

Posted in abortion, blog, gender

Strongly Recommended

with 5 comments

By Wiz

Nancy Cott’s essay in the Boston Review on the history of American marriage.

The history of marriage laws tells a more complex story. The ability of married partners to procreate has never been required to make a marriage legal or valid, nor have unwillingness or inability to have children been grounds for divorce.

And marriage, as I have argued, has not been one unchanging institution over time. Features of marriage that once seemed essential and indispensable proved otherwise. The ending of coverture, the elimination of racial barriers to choice of partner, the expansion of grounds for divorce—though fiercely resisted by many when first introduced—have strengthened marriage rather than undermining it. The adaptability of marriage has preserved it.

I always wondered if people who are opposed to gay marriage think about this history. Do they say to themselves “yes, in the past, it was wrong for conservatives to prevent interracial couples from marrying, and immoral for conservatives to try to keep women in abusive marriages, and it was terrible that women had no property rights in marriage, etc… But this time… this time we conservatives have really hit on the perfect unchangeable form of marriage and history will prove us correct! Every other conservative was wrong on this issue, yes, but we’re right!”

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 12, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in gender, marriage, sexuality

Editing Ross Douthat

with 14 comments

by Luce

What is it about the New Year, or 2011, that reproduction is suddenly becoming the focus of such media scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the coming into power of a militantly anti-choice Speaker?

Cultural sniffer Ross Douthat has also noticed this trend and decided to add his two cents in a recent Times column. Mostly it’s a yawn-fest whose point of view can be most quickly summed up by the fact that he refuses to call embryos and fetuses anything except the “unborn.” But he’s really doing his best to do a nuanced analysis of recent all the media representations of abortion ever and the adoption vs. surrogacy debate. I’ll hold back from line edits, but I thought I’d helpfully provide Douthat with some feedback on larger ideas that I think could use reworking.

1. The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.

Ross, the recent, sanitized, and mainstream American entertainment industry is not comfortable with abortion. But watch a Paul Mazursky film from the late ’70s, say the really wonderful An Unmarried Woman, and you’ll find the  15-year-old daughter casually talking to her mother about helping to pay for a classmate’s abortion while they set the dinner table together. Note that this is the only mention of abortion in the entire movie. There’s no hand-wringing, abortion just happens to be embedded in the everyday.

2. MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective.

Is any media representation in the era of reality TV going to be anything but a “heartbreaking spectacle”? On the Real Housewives of New York being late for opening night at the Met is a “heartbreaking spectacle.” What network is going to air a woman self-assuredly and quietly going in for an abortion? In this case, and since you yourself say the American media is uncomfortable with abortion, should you really use a reality show as your only case study to show “how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution”?

3. Last month there was Vanessa Grigoriadis’s provocative New York Magazine story “Waking Up From the Pill“…

Hang on, just a quick word choice suggestion even though I know I said I wouldn’t line edit, but “provocative” doesn’t seem to quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable.

4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.

Though you don’t cross all your t’s, I get your underlying contention that it’s a tragedy that all these young, poor, unmarried girls now have the option to terminate their pregnancies rather than gestate for 9 months so that a wealthier, older, better-positioned, married woman can take their baby off their hands, and that now these wealthier women are forced to actually pay those women who now have a legal choice to act as surrogates or supply eggs for their (re)productive labor. I don’t have any real suggestions on this one, I just thought you could make that more clear.

5. This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

Wait, I’m confused. For something you want to find so concrete (“unborn life,” not “a mass of cells”), I’m surprised that you’re abstracting here so much. Which life? Whose life? Is this the unborn life of someone who desires a child, or the unborn life of someone who doesn’t? I think differentiating between the two might help resolve this paradox.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 4, 2011 at 10:40

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