October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Adrian Johns, “A General History of the Pirates,” Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2009)
Piracy isn’t just about piracy, that is, intellectual property, that is, the law. It’s also about knowledge and authority and creativity and commerce, both above and below ground. Unsurprisingly, the term is difficult to define — the EU once described the practice as “whatever the knowledge industries said they needed protecting from,” thus framing the nominative “pirate” as a thing you call a guy who you don’t want to touch your shit. There are limitations to these sorts of half-facetious non-defintions, but they do help situate “piracy” as an embedded and highly contingent cultural phenomenon. Take Don Quixote, which is all about piracy, at least what would have been considered piratical back then. Or the idea that piracy emerges alongside (not just in reaction to) conceptions of “official” culture, and legal jurisdiction generally. In conclusion, this is a very cool and smart book that certain editors don’t have time to read all of (at least not right now), which is both a shame and the nature of the exam beast.
Adrian Johns’ book is like 7 million (read: 519) pages long, and if I had more than one day for each batch of selections, I’d never leave my chair till I was finished the whole thing. He had me at “not just about piracy” — normally this discussion does the same thing to my brain as the alleged “ZOMG IS IT A MEMMAY OR IS IT A VIRAL VIDEO” debate, which is to say it makes it go to hopping monkey land. Not that the stakes aren’t high, not that definitions don’t matter, not that it’s not a Thing to Deal With Basically in Today’s Society. But that doesn’t mean I have to get excited about it, except to the extent questions of legality sometimes dovetail into questions of online authorship and ownership generally.
Johns takes that to the fifteenth power by suggesting that anxiety surrounding “piracy” — whatever that even means — is actually anxiety surrounding something bigger and badder, with much wider cultural implications. Namely information, and the reliability of similar. Given that we’re cresting the wave of the techno-info revolution, as my coke-addled high school civics teacher used to call it, this is about as crippling an anxiety as you can imagine. What do we know (and more abstractly, what do we have) if we can’t always or easily be sure that what we’re looking at is the actual, or an actual, thing?
This isn’t even a philosophical question, though you could easily spin it in that direction. Because think about it — at any point pre-Web 2.0 can you ever remember someone chuckling at a statistical or anecdotal reference and saying “oh, you read that in a book? Then it must be true,” which is a something I either hear or catch myself saying at least five hundred times a week. This isn’t “piracy” per se, but what piracy does, and which Johns brilliantly highlights, is call into question the authenticity of our data. Questions of piracy can therefore be understood –at least in part– as questions of subjectivity (the relationship between who we are and what we do with what we have), questions of control and authority (quite literally, who gets to say whose thing this thing is) as well as questions of cultural literacy (our ability to distinguish the “real” from the “fake,” in themselves historically contingent).
And yet piracy is most frequently framed as “just” an economic and legal (and if you’re Jack Valenti and insane, a life-or-death moral) issue. Of course, it is those things (and there’s nothing “just” about them, although they mostly bore me personally which is neither here nor there), but the fact that piracy exists in the way it does, across the political and economic and social sectors it does, suggests that “piracy” as we currently understand it tugs, however indirectly, at what it means to live in a world dependent on the containment, yet subject to the fundamental intractability, of data.
Also, I’ve apparently been infected by some undergraduate murder-plague and am not sure I’ll be finishing today’s selections due to I’m feverish and not thinking straight. I was pissed a bit earlier but now am too tired. So………I guess I’ll just lie here, until Jesus cures me.
Three for the Price of One: The Worlds That Took Us There, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub and Figures of Fantasy
August 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
(I started this GD post like six thousand years ago and am only now filing my dumb report because I kept forgetting to order the Paasonen)
My Folklore list is a bit of a hodgepodge, in part because I didn’t fully know what I was doing when I put together my exam materials. Also because I HAVE DIVERGENT INTERESTS OK. If I could do it all over, I would have chosen texts that were in direct dialogue with each other. But I can’t so I can’t; consequently my lists are sort of like………oh hey penises, oh hey humor, oh hey tener relationes de sexual. Some selections –obviously the ones dealing with humor– work well together, but mostly it’s just random books and essays that seemed like a good idea at the time. Which is basically an apology for these three internet-related selections, none of which show up on the Digital Culture list. So instead of doing my normal breadth exam thing I’ll briefly summarize the most important points from each book despite the fact that none of this will end up in my exam response, oh well.
Frank Shaap, The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality (2002)
Asks who’s talking in online RPGs, the person playing the game (literally typing the commands) or the character that person is playing (28). Emphasizes the always-already collapsed and continuously collapsing boundary between the virtual and terrestrial worlds (90, 101), which ties into claim that existing power relations and dynamics –especially in regards to gender expectations– are embedded in the code itself, precluding the possibility of ever escaping the so-called real world (105, 109). Research Rundown: was undercover in New Carthage for nearly three years before “outing” himself. Inserts this same self into his own academic narrative pretty much at every turn & through every orifice. Argues for a more postmodern ethnography which apparently includes self-aggrandizing novelistic sections and detailed accounts of his various online sexploits. FRIEND WE DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.
Lori Kendall, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online (2002)
Like Shaap, Kendall explores a particular MUD, this one called Blue Sky. Also like Shaap, she emphasizes the interpenetration of online and “real” life, with focus on emotional continuity; her particular group of mudders knew each other irl and therefore expected “authentic” presentations of the virtual self (i.e. not your average control group). Kendall is quick to reject the idea that the virtual world is some sort of “clean slate” not effected by racism, classism and sexism — she argues that, as a reflection of the so-called real world, virtual worlds necessarily contain a trace of the cultures out of which they emerge. Unlike Shaap, she revealed herself as a researcher right away, and had relationships with her informants that extended beyond Blue Sky. Prolly boned that henri guy LOL.
Susanna Paasonen, Figures of Fantasy: Internet, Women and Cyberdiscourse (2005)
The legacy of cyberdiscourse — emphasis on individuality, freedom, disembodiment. Cyberspace (a state-less mindset) is not the Internet (a state-owned something), so sayith John Perry Barlow (sort of?). Both the Internet itself and gender on the Internet are performative. Online figurations of femininity raise questions of (and relationships between) representation, embodiment, and technology; they reproduce conventional gender and behavioral binaries as well as engender new/tweaked versions of existing dialectics. Lightning round: Textualities. T-Shirts. Play. Boobies. Resistence. Cyberdildonics. Home. HTML. THROUGH THE RABBIT HOLE YOU GO, might as well genderfuck while you’re down there rite. Effacement of questions of privilege. It’s only “natural.” “Female experience.” http://www.period.blood. Ideological hailings. You’ve got male. Men are from cyberspace, women are from…I don’t know, earth? Weaving and unweaving. Feminist techno-utopias. Zeroes and ones. The problem with difference and bitches, amen.
Speaking of figures of fantasy, it’s COURTNEY STODDEN’S TWITTER ACCOUNTeverybody! She’s a wordsmith, and looks great doing it!
July 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
First of all, Mary Douglas is kind of a badass, and Purity and Danger is kind of a badass book. Well it was in 1966. Unfortunately it isn’t that century anymore, and you know how it sometimes goes with things from different centuries. Therefore I shall keep the snark to a minimum. After all, P&D (that’s what all the cool kids call it) was written for a particular audience, in response to a particular set of assumptions about “primitive” cultures. So while there’s plenty to mock, it’s the sort of post-hoc mocking that doesn’t do much but rattle your kidneys. Because people were gross back then, what can you do. Douglas, to her credit, was somewhat less gross; she argues that the “primitives” aren’t all that different from “us,” which, again, by today’s standards would be thirteen layers of facepalm but for the time was pretty progressive. Indeed most of the book is a sendup of –even for the time– offensive approaches to comparative religion, from James Frazer’s…well, everything…to William James’ take on medical materialism (the idea that “primitive” rituals actually accomplish some objective practical end, making them some backwards intermediary step to science).
But that, friends, is not why I’m here. I’m here because Douglas is interested in the concept of taboo, particularly what exactly counts as “dirt” and how a given society mitigates its (real or perceived, though I suppose the distinction is negligible) threat. Although she is mostly focused on the ways in which taboo(s) operate(s) in “primitive” cultures, she insists that how “they” do things isn’t all that different than how “we” do things — even if we are killing germs (as opposed to warding off spirits) “we” are just as reliant on purification rituals as “they” are. After all, what is dirt but “matter out of place” (44). And what is matter out of place without a coherent system in which to inhere. The concept of “dirty,” in other words, exists in relationship to concepts of cleanliness, making “our” expulsion of dirt –anomalies and ambiguity, in Douglas’ parlance– as ritualistic as anything “they” might do. Furthermore, there are but so many ways to expel that which is dirty; “we” approach dirt as would any “primitive” culture: by placing the anomaly in a different linguistic or ontological category, destroying/attempting to control or contain the anomaly, avoiding the anomaly, branding the anomaly as dangerous, casting the anomaly as symbolic, and if you’re feeling really ambitious, by creating an entirely new paradigm which accounts for the anomaly. But who would bother doing all that, condemnation is way more efficient LOL.
There is much more to say about Douglas’ argument — but again, I’m thinking about all this in terms of my exam. I suspect that the above schema might be useful in talking about how we (yeah yeah “we,” I don’t know what it means either, contemporary American culture I guess) deal with taboo language and behavior — trolling being the obvious example. Doesn’t have to be trolling, though, it could be anything that falls outside the norm. The basic idea is that taboo helps identify where the borders are. Of what the borders consist and exactly what they’re designed to keep out is the question, and is where things get interesting…
July 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
Last spring I enrolled in an American Folklore class, an all-undergrad all the time 4/5 split (ugh) that mostly presented information I already knew by virtue of being American and nearly a thousand years old. The whole term was mostly meh, but one day we got to watch pretty much the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen — the film version of Talking Trauma. Not that much actually happens over the hour-long doc, it’s basically a bunch of guys with early 90s Jerry Seinfeld mullets giggling their balls off whilst telling the most fucked-up medical horror stories you could imagine. Still, it’s some funny (and seriously nasty) shit; 95% of the class would go into vom.com mode every time a medic would liken an accident victim’s brain to a pile of chewed-up bubble gum, or when someone would talk about humming their favorite tune and spinning some dead guy’s eyeball –still attached to the optic nerve– around their finger like a yo-yo. In almost every case, the women in the class were the most sensitive, at least, were the most vested in appearing sensitive. I, along with a handful of guys (not the dudebros — the guys I knew to be internet people/trolls) couldn’t stop laughing. Because it was just so wrong, and anyway, the medics were seriously giddy. And right or wrong, usually irregardless of what is being mocked, other people’s laughter makes me laugh. Hence my interest in placing this selection on my Folklore list. It was a pretty trollish film, after all.
Surprisingly, the book is even more interesting than the movie — though you do miss out on the contagious (in my case) giggles of the medics whose stories these are. The difference of course is the analysis, which Tangherlini handles adeptly and with (seemingly) genuine interest. The basic idea is that these stories perform a series of important social functions: they provide an outlet for narrative one-upsmanship, create and maintain social hierarchies (both within and without the medic community), subvert authority and, perhaps most importantly, allow medics –whose jobs otherwise are never finished– to create for themselves discrete endings (and therefore closure) for particularly difficult or otherwise jarring experiences.
Unsurprisingly, a significant percentage of medics’ stories are infused with a kind of gristly, dark humor. As Tangherlini argues, such humor allows medics to work through a whole slew of anxieties by creating performative distance between the observer and that which has been observed, thus allowing the medic to do his or her job with a minimum of psychic trauma — placing Tangherlini’s analysis squarely in the “transgressive humor as coping strategy” camp. Not exactly the world’s most groundbreaking conclusion, but one which allows the reader/audience to place this sort of gallows humor in a context other than sociopathy. Plus it’s fun to read and made me laugh. Also squirm. And then laugh harder. Humor! How does it work…
July 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
Oh dear god, this constant reading riting and rithmitic (ok, mostly posting questionable content onto Google+ augmented by bursts of studying and/or dissertation planning) is really making my heads hurt. Today I read a book called The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality which I’ll be summarizing in another post along with several other somewhat annoying digital ethnographies that somehow ended up in my Folklore list. I also read a thing on cemetery statues (“Vengeful Virgins, Naked Mourners and Dead White Guys”) which was actually pretty interesting, though not at all relevant to my project or anything having anything to do with my exams. In it, Jeannie Thomas examines the gender discrepancies in cemetery statuary of yore and argues that representations of cemetery figures are reflective of changing cultural attitudes towards death and embody existing attitudes towards gender as well as –and this was particularly intriguing– the concept of individuality. Por ejamplo female cemetery statues are usually pretty sexy and typically represent stock symbolic figures while male cemetery statues almost always depict the individual dead guy and almost never flash any junk, due in part to the heterosexual male gaze (cemetery statues are created in honor of specific men for the enjoyment/reflection of other men) but also because in post-industrial America the size of a guy’s dick actually has more to do with the size of his bank account, which is flashed by the existence of the statue itself and not so much by his literal shriveled penis.
Anyway I simply cannot bring myself to write much more about today’s research.
July 5, 2011 § 3 Comments
A brief scheduling note: I have a bit of new information about my exam questions, and will be adjusting my studies accordingly. From here on out, I’ll just be focusing on the stand-alone potential for each entry. I am confident that no one cares, whee!
And now on to Tok Thompson’s article about sex-sex-sex. He opens by waxing poetic about the kinds of external and self-imposed censorship that emerges before and while and after working on subjects deemed taboo, especially those within one’s native culture. After all, banging heads with dominant ideologies can be tricky, and is not always appreciated by those whose ideologies they are (11). In this case, Thompson is referring to GAMES II C69 M3, a folder containing all kinds of naughty archived content. Intent on presenting his findings in memorium of the recently deceased and super-duper sex pervert Gershon Legman, Thompson reluctantly accepted the consequences of his research. And boy am I glad he did. But oh my god what a cocktease! Because WHO CARES about any of this prefatory business about cultural taboos, all anyone wants to know is what gross shit he’s talking about. Namely, SEX GAMES, which he finally gets to on the 3rd page of his 8-page article.
A: Ejaculatory (16 examples, framed either as game or prank)
B. Urination contests (3 examples)
C. Expository contest (1 example, at first was unclear if meant writing or poop — (un?)fortunately tis the former)
D. Actual circle sexual behavior (3 examples)
HAR HAR this whole article is about “swordfights,” Thompson’s main area of interest. No really, he’s most interested in talking about fighting games between human penors, which Thompson argues subverts societal expectations regarding cleanliness. And oh man! There are SO many ways to play circle-jerk. Like, sometimes you just want to see who’s fastest, and other times you’re trying to trick your friend into thinking that everyone’s doing it, while really he’s the only one so when you flip on the lights and his dick is hanging out, everyone can lol together, at his shame! Sounds fun (13).
The question –per the article– is, is this GAY? According to Thompson, maybe. Or not, since it’s also about asserting dominance — so, if the behaviors don’t outright queer the participants (represent release of homosocial/sexual desire) they point to a social hierarchy intent on degrading (i.e. feminizing) the “losers” (14). Which is way more sexist (in this case synonymous with homophobic) than Thompson acknowledges — he claims that these are liminal behaviors which teach boys how to be boys, and in this sense serve an important socializing function (15). Because apparently an essential part of being a boy is degrading anyone deemed less manly? Oh and DOUBLE-AWESOME, he justifies this by presenting a cross-cultural example, which totally makes it ok! Phew, I was worried there for a second. Keep on gay (“women”)-bashing, virile youth of America! Let’s prove Dan Savage wrong, once and for all! In conclusion, facepalm.
Connection to exam question: Oh jesus, maybe something about how play –often minimized as “just” play– has the potential to re-inscribe dominant social paradigms. This could be a really good counter-example, actually, about how anything could/should be explained away as “just” anything, and whether or not this kind of behavior is better or worse (more or less damaging) than explicit joking…