Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

Please feel free to comment.

Johnny Weir, Vladimir Putin, and the Sexual Politics of the Sochi Olympics
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Ladies Figure Skating

Figure Skating at Sochi

I’m an unrepentant, unapologetic figure skating fan. This fandom began during the 1988 Winter Olympics that took place in Calgary, when American television networks spent a great deal of time and energy pitting the scrappy athleticism of the U.S.’s Debi Thomas against the theatrical beauty of East Germany’s Katarina Witt. With racial overtones layered on top—Thomas is African-American while Witt is rather Aryan—the women’s figure skating competition played out a decades-long East/West rivalry in the waning days of the Cold War. Witt won and became a household name, I was crushed for Thomas but became a fan of figure skating for life, and the Iron Curtain fell just a few years later. The effect of this last event on the world of figure skating was rather profound. After decades of Soviet domination, figure skating witnessed the dismantling of the USSR’s overwhelmingly successful state-funded skating “machine.” Amidst Russia’s political upheavals and economic instability in the 1990s, former Soviet coaches relocated for more pay while their athletes suffered amidst vast decreases in governmental financing. In the time since, the Russian nation-state has battled governmental volatility and financial precarity, a scenario that precipitated the waxing and waning of its figure skaters’ fortunes on the Olympic stage even more. Yet press discourses constructed the 2014 Olympics in Sochi as Russia’s attempt to both re-assert its status as a global superpower and re-claim its title as the figure skating powerhouse.

As the Games began, news reports about state-sponsored gay violence in Russia threw a rather profound damper on what had promised to be my best television watching since the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. I thought about boycotting the Sochi Games, but the promise of sequins and feathers and jumps and spins was too much. I’m a gay man, after all. I followed with great interest as retired, openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir worked as a commentator for NBC Sports. As flamboyant as he is bitchy, Weir won raves for the articulate, intelligent commentary he provided with 1998 Olympic Figure Skating Champion Tara Lipinski. The pair posted photos of their coordinated outfits to Instagram and offered their thoughts and opinions on the Sochi competition in comical, intuitive ways. In and around the Olympic Village, Weir preened like a gay peacock, appearing here and there in pink blazers and hair accoutrements. Set against the backdrop of recent events in Russia—where the government recently banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and queer people have been subjected to new regimes of surveillance, scrutiny, and violence—Weir’s presence might be read as a profound rejoinder to the nation’s increasingly institutionalized homophobia. Of course, Weir himself denies such activist intentions, and pointedly distances himself from criticism of Russia’s current regime. But on Facebook and Twitter, many Americans articulated how proud they were of Weir. Many people, especially gay people, felt as though he was “giving the finger” to a Russian government that has been so violent and hostile to the country’s queer publics.

Johnny Weir at Sochi

Johnny Weir at the 2014 Olympics

Such feelings about Weir’s commentary and Russia’s anti-queer climate revive longstanding American narratives about Russian politics and culture. These narratives create a binary relation between notions of American liberation and ideas about Russian repression. It’s important to emphasize here: not every American loved Weir’s performance in Sochi. Yet this mode of understanding Weir’s queerness vis-à-vis Russian sexual politics—where Americans allegedly embrace him as Russians supposedly disdain him—has been a trenchant one. This discourse generates feelings of what Jasbir Puar would call “homonationalism,” which she defines as “a historical shift marked by the entrance of (some) homosexual bodies as worthy of protection by nation-states, a constitutive and fundamental reorientation of the relationship between the state, capitalism, and sexuality.” (( Puar, Jasbir. “Rethinking Homonationalism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 05/2013; 45(02). p336-339 )) Homonationalism necessitates the expulsion of other sexualities: monstrous, often foreign sexualities that get framed as being perverse against a set of sexual norms deemed as being quintessentially American. Puar calls this “U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism,” the process by which the American nation-state articulates its excellence and transcendence by way of sexual othering. (( ______. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. ))

Bound up in discourse on Russia’s human rights violations and Johnny Weir’s queer performances are many different constructions of Russian dysfunction and decline. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sexuality is often conveyed via a “tough guy” image. The many press-friendly photo shoots staged for Russian media outlets feature Putin bare-chested while he hunts and fishes. These shots have gotten lampooned on the American internet in a series of memes, where Putin’s hypermasculinity gets recoded for its comedic, queer excess. User-generated imagery co-opts the photos to paint him as a queer-ish action-movie hero, a Cold War-era badass with a twist. But the memes also depict Putin as a macho asshole in charge of an inept government in a corrupt country. Such constructions dovetail with many other American narratives about an allegedly maladjusted Russian sexuality. For instance, American imaginings of Russian female sexuality involves a double movement of hypereroticized femininity and failed womanhood. Pornography starlets from Russia feature prominently in U.S. adult entertainment, gesturing to the ways in which American fascinations with the country frequently involve an explicit fetishization. In contrast, Americans also paint Russian women as being hideously asexual—devoid of womanly curves, dressed in outdated fashions, missing the benefits of Western dentistry. Thus, American imaginings of Russian sexualities involve both a covetous desire and a repulsed dismissal. In this way, American understandings of Russia’s queer politics and the American press’ framing of Johnny Weir’s figure skating commentary in Sochi are bound to much larger frameworks of sexualized scorn and derision.

Vladimir Putin Rides a Bear

Vladimir Putin Rides a Bear

Americans also frequently picture Russia as having failed at modernity. The U.S.’s cultural imaginary has long painted Russia as being prehistoric and backward. American culture is rife with mentions and imagery of “the Russian mafia,” as well as arcane, brutal pictures and stories about Russian customs and cultural practices. During the Sochi Olympics, Twitter was abuzz with the hashtags #SochiProblems and #SochiFail. Here, non-Russian Olympic attendees shared pictures of assorted organizational gaffes and culturally-specific practices that are guilty of little more than “looking weird” to foreigners. Thus, in American culture, Russia often gets depicted as “The Land That Time Forgot.” This imagining of Russia as being both behind and in decline requires a corresponding image of the U.S. as righteous and progressive, forward-thinking and inclusive, modern and cutting-edge. Such a binary is easily dispelled when one points out how Johnny Weir’s multi-colored blazers would be grounds for anti-gay violence according to many, many Americans.

Seventeen-year-old Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova won the women’s figure skating championship in an upset, dethroning the 2010 winner, South Korea’s Yu-Na Kim. Following her victory, television and internet commentary featured much debate over whether or not Russian authorities had rigged the judging. I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t terribly wowed by Sotnikova, but I’m willing to concede that the esoteric scoring system used in figure skating competitions these days isn’t as television-friendly as the system used to crown Katarina Witt in 1988. Even so, I think it’s interesting how the most recent Olympics, especially the figure skating competitions, became a breeding ground for all kinds of narratives related to nationalism and sexuality. These narratives often took shape in veiled ways, though, occurring by way of a fixation with a shirtless Vladimir Putin and cellphone pictures of tandem toilets in the Sochi Olympic Village. Discourse on the Sochi Olympics was thus bound up in discourses on current Russian sexual politics, generating a whole series of ideas that relate to myths of American sexual liberation and short-sighted feelings of nationalist pride. These formulations occur via things like Johnny Weir’s fashion sense and American stereotypes about Russian mail-order brides. Such conceptualizations are not at all new, of course. In fact, they often seemed to do little more than revive old Cold War anxieties about Russian aggression and its sexual menace. That the Olympics and figure skating so often provide a stage on which these controversies play out is interesting in and of itself. The sports’ sequins and spins offer a rather poignant venue for the communication of nationalist anxieties and sexual fascinations.

Twin Toilets in Sochi

Twin Toilets: A Paradigm of the #SochiFail

Image Credits:

1. Ladies Figure Skating at Sochi
2. Johnny Weir at the 2014 Olympics
3. Vladimir Putin Rides a Bear
4. Twin Toilets: A Paradigm of the #SochiFail

Please feel free to comment.

‘Your Mom is So Fat…,’ or Talking Politics on the Internet
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Angry Internet User

Angry Internet User

A few months ago, in the middle of the partisan brouhaha over the Affordable Care Act—a.k.a. “Obamacare”—I got into an extended Facebook argument with an old friend’s mother. Though I’m wary of casting political identifications in stark binaries, I am a left-leaning, thirtysomething academic and my pal’s mother is a right-leaning, religious retiree. Her child/my friend posted something on Facebook about the cost of the family health insurance policy going up and, predictably, mayhem ensued. The long, heated conversation on the post’s comment thread quickly descended into finger-pointing and name-calling. Had it not been a public discussion, it almost definitely would have descended even further. “Your mom is so fat…” and “Come say that shit to my face” were not that far off.

At some point, that conversation wound down to involve just the two of us, me and my friend’s mom. I have known this person for twenty-six years, so ours wasn’t a snarky exchange between strangers. My naïve optimism had convinced me that I could change her mind about health care reform. Whereas I worry about going bankrupt from the cost of prescriptions, she is adamantly opposed to any kind of health care reform at all. I thought that with dispassionate reasoning and levelheaded conversation, I could “make her see the light.” I responded to her anxieties about “death panels,” her criticism of the undeserving poor, as well as the vitriol she feels for President Obama. I tried to be even-handed and respond with facts, telling her about the 80/20 rule, the legislation’s exemptions, and the underside of capping malpractice claims. The conversation went on for hours, fifty-seven comments in all. I kept at it because I thought that we could arrive at some common ground if I was persistent and persuasive. And, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to arrive at some sort of consensus. But nothing worked.

After a while, the conversation devolved into parody. That moment occurred when my friend’s mom posted that she was worried about community organizer Saul Alinsky’s influence on President Obama’s political philosophy. While Alinsky’s been dead for decades, he has become a villain in conservative circles because President Obama respects his views on protest. Of these views, the one I find to be rather hilarious was Alinsky’s plan to have protestors eat lots of beans, gather in a governmental building, and fart—literally fart—to express their discontent. Because I was aggravated and am more obnoxious than I should be, I asked my friend’s mom if she was worried about the President farting at her. She, in turn, wondered where I developed my political beliefs, suspecting that they were the result of brainwashing by liberal college professors. (She momentarily forgot that I am one such offender.) From there, my friend’s mother suggested that “the liberals” were planning an overthrow of the American government. I contemplated asking her if this revolution would take place by way of a well-coordinated, collective expulsion of gas from liberal rectums. Maybe it would topple the White House! Maybe it would level the Pentagon! The whole conversation had gotten so ridiculous that part of me was tempted to see what else I could egg my friend’s mom into posting. But I am not that malicious, so I let the comment thread die.

There are many conclusions one could draw here. It might follow that my friend’s mom is probably racist, definitely paranoid, and nothing if not extremely hostile toward the poor. One might conclude that I am a mean, arrogant, overeducated jackass who is so steadfast in his moral certitude that he is incapable of understanding other points of view. One could also deduce that political dialogue has become so partisan and divisive—hinging on the allegedly neat, clean binary between “liberals” and “conservatives”—that meaningful conversation on the internet is inconceivable, even laughable. Another way of seeing these events is to dismiss them out of hand. Such discussions are almost completely disconnected from the real business of politics as it is carried out in the legislative and judicial processes. (( Dean, Jodi, (2009). Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 21. )) From that vantage point, engaging in such conversations is as stupid as it is pointless.

ACA logo

Affordable Care Act Logo

In the few months since this all occurred, I have had each of these thoughts, many times over. When all is said and done, I am mostly just sad that two people who have known one another for such a long time can so pointedly, fundamentally disagree about something so important. Because it really does seem that health care is a matter of life or death. The Affordable Care Act—however limited in scope, market-friendly in nature, and bungled in its enactment—increases the number of people who might receive health care when they need it. In that sense, the ACA increases the number of people who can go on living. Surely this can’t be a bad thing. As self-interested as people can be, it feels like a different debate when health care reform is framed as a matter of life or death. One can be suspicious, wary, or frightened of other people, but it seems many steps beyond that to be indifferent to their deaths. More often than not, it seems that the evolutionary ethos of late capitalism—“eat or be eaten”—has so permeated public life that Americans imagine themselves as living in The Hunger Games. Many of us think we’re fighting each other to the death over scarcer and scarcer resources. Here, race becomes the boogeyman for economic inequality. The party line is: “I’m paying for them. And I shouldn’t have to because I can barely take care of myself.” In many ways, health care is framed as a matter of life and death. But it’s often done so in a way that prompts survivalist instincts, not generous ones.

I’ve been thinking about why people talk about politics on the internet, trying to figure out the pleasure in it. Why do people bother sniping at one another on Facebook when it isn’t likely to change anything? Because I think that most people feel that way. It seems that snide, accusatory flame wars make the most sense if considered in terms of Hunger Games-like scarcity. While not uniformly post-apocalyptic in nature, the lived, felt, experiences of the underclasses are rather profoundly characterized by lack and decay. In the face of growing income inequality, a rising cost of living, and a dramatic decrease in employment opportunities across many different sectors, shortage and decline are the fundamental experiences of the un- and underemployed, the working poor and, increasingly, many people who have long thought of themselves as being of the middle class but can do so no longer. Lauren Berlant calls the situation of such groups a “slow death,” the “physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence.” (( Berlant, Lauren, (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 95. )) In such a context, she wonders about the forms of agency such populations can enact when it seems as though—and so many feel as if—they are marked for death, both by a government in bed with corporations and corporations that are as indifferent to their well-being as they could possibly be.

Berlant uses the idea of a “lateral agency” to think about individuals’ small, day-to-day actions as potentially creating a sense of validation and comfort for them. Lateral agency is a way of making do and getting by; it isn’t transformative or revolutionary in the traditional sense. Lateral agency doesn’t change anything, per se, especially because so many of the populations characterized by slow death feel—and, too often, are—powerless to alter their circumstances all that much. Lateral agency is “a form of ballast against wearing out, …small pleasures…[that] can produce an experience of self-abeyance, of floating sideways.” (( Ibid, p.116. )) I see talking politics on the internet as one such form of agency. It’s a cathartic outlet for people who are angry about income gaps and their lack of mobility, horrified by what they see as corporate malfeasance and government indifference to the dire straits of so many Americans. In that sense, its no wonder internet political chatter frequently ends in name-calling and finger-pointing. If you feel like you’re fighting for your life and you are relatively confident that those with the power to change that aren’t listening, how could it not? At the same time, the very act of doing it, of lashing out at those who disagree and finding support from those who “like” your posts, offers some sense of comfort and belonging.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that the internet is not the site of realpolitik. Nevertheless, it is still a place where people go to vent, seek validation, and engage in debate. In that sense, weighing in on health care reform by saying “your mom is so fat” isn’t “productive,” in the conventional sense of the term. Regardless, it is a way of treading water. When people feel as though they’re drowning, I don’t know that I can begrudge them that. I just don’t know that I can participate in it, myself. I can appreciate the desire for catharsis and envy the lack of self-censor, but talking politics on the internet doesn’t make me feel better, even momentarily. I find it deflating, even as I often feel compelled to do it. And, so, the question remains: how can the affective politics of the internet better connect to the more material politics of the legislative process?

Death Panels New Yorker Cartoon

Death Panels Cartoon

Image Credits:

1. Angry Internet User
2. Affordable Care Act Logo
3. Death Panels Cartoon

Please feel free to comment.

Love Hurts: Intimacy in the Age of Pervasive Computing
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Warehouse Dating Group

The Warehouse Dating Group

Roland Barthes warns in A Lover’s Discourse ((Barthes, Roland, (2010). A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. New York; Hill and Wang.)) that we don’t forget love once it ends. Rather, we move forward hoping that our next romantic encounter unfolds differently. He writes: “All of love’s ‘failures’ resemble one another… And yet X and Y are incomparable; it is in their difference, the model of an infinitely pursued difference, that I find the energy to begin all over again” (103). As tempting as it is to interpret this passage in Gloria Gaynor fashion, such a reading results in a misleading translation. Barthes’s preoccupations in A Lover’s Discourse center on the lived, felt dimensions of devotion and infatuation. He emphasizes torment and laceration—the ways in which amorous relations with others are often characterized by deficit, disappointment, and decline. Barthes suggests that we love, lose, and love again; love is enthralling but episodic. These intermittent affinities are rapturous and engulfing but are, by their very nature, never wholly mutual or constant. As a result, love’s ability to devastate and injure is profound; its very process wounds us as it shapes us. Love makes us subjects of a discourse that operates as a fabulously seductive entreaty even as it functions as an involuntary pulsion of drive.

Love’s power to beguile paired with its instinctual nature make it a tricky business. And as more people experience love online, the intertwining of intimacy and technology comes to the fore as an especially interesting site to examine the hopes and fears we attach to technologies, as well as the optimism and despair so often coupled in matters of the heart. Online romantic entanglements span many different interfaces: mobile media applications, text messages and, for longer-form missives, email. The volitional mobility that Tara McPherson ((McPherson, Tara, (2002). “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web.” in The Visual Culture Reader. 2nd Edition, Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.) New York; Routledge.)) attributes to the navigation of digital environments allows people to connect with each other across different online settings: encounters can begin on OkCupid, migrate to Snapchat, move to Facebook, and so on. As communications traverse these platforms, conversations range from scholarly chatter to witty banter to X-rated exchange. Words and images pass between users as they become better acquainted with each other’s minds, hearts, and bodies.

That such involvements can currently take place entirely via cellphone gives online intimacy a unique shape and tone. Insofar as cellphones enable a kind of privacy-in-public, intimate connections forged via this technology can be both involving and steamy. Users can log into mobile apps at random moments during the day to see if romantic partners have left messages (though “push” notifications make users aware of messages they receive when they aren’t logged in). As romantic affairs migrate to text message—a switch of interface that, in and of itself, suggests growing intimacy (“I gave him my phone number! Gasp!”)—communiqués become even more frequent. People “check in” with paramours while standing at the photocopier, stopped in traffic, or waiting in line at the post office. Suitors laugh out loud at pictures shared from across the globe, or blush at racy text messages sent from just a few miles away. In these ways, the intimacies enabled by technology get braided into the rhythms of everyday life.

Snapchat Logo

The Official Logo of Social Media Company Snapchat

The vast diffusion of cellphones across many different populations in many different locations suggests that we exist in a historical moment of pervasive computing. Jason Farman states (( Farman, Jason. Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. Routledge: New York, 2012. )) : “the culture of pervasive computing is characterized by the ubiquity of digital technologies woven into the fabric of daily life, typically so integrated that we are often rarely aware of the extent of this integration” (6). danah boyd characterizes the (enormous, heterogeneous) group of individuals who participate in this mode of connectivity as “always on.” Those of us who subscribe to this level of technological consumption are not “always on” in the traditional sense of sitting in front of a computer, but we’re always in proximity to the interpersonal connections and information resources facilitated by the digital—often via our use of internet-enabled cellphones. Even as the inequality issues attending emerging technologies point to pervasive computing as, at best, catachresis, the smartphone is widespread enough that its connection to such prevalent experiences as love and intimacy warrants further attention.

Sherry Turkle extends ((Turkle, Sherry (2008). “Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self.” in Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies. James E. Katz (ed.) Cambridge; MIT Press.)) “always on” to “always on/always-on-you,” suggesting that our connection to smartphones in the context of pervasive computing creates a “tethered self.” She writes: “it is not exact to think of people as tethered to their devices. People are tethered to the gratifications offered by their online selves. These include the promise of affection, conversation, a sense of new beginnings” (125). Turkle worries that the tethered self enables an other-directedness that requires outside validation of our thoughts and feelings. Using psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s idea of the “self-object,” how those in fragile states turn to others to shore up their senses of self, Turkle writes: “in the role of self-object, the other is experienced as part of the self, thus in perfect tune with the fragile individual’s inner state. They are there for validation, mirroring” (128). Given how often love’s wounds and injuries are experienced via omnipresent communication technologies, it’s no wonder love hurts. Managing intimacies that evolve over digital technologies has spawned a surfeit of rhetoric related to “tuning out/turning off” and/or “loving more authentically” —as if technology itself precipitates the injury and pain of heartbreak. Yet, analog intimacy wounds too. Romeo and Juliet didn’t Snapchat, after all.

OkCupid Logo

The Official Logo of Online Dating Site OkCupid

Love’s ability to bewilder and disorient is the stuff of legend. As Barthes writes: “This is how it happens sometimes, misery or joy engulfs me, without any particular tumult ensuing: nor any pathos: I am dissolved, not dismembered; I fall, I flow, I melt,” (10). The relentless temporality of the “always on” lifestyle makes love online particularly jarring. If, when love is going well, repeated, continuous contact with a loved one makes one happy, even ecstatic—those times when love is going badly make that repeated, continuous contact harrowing and painful. Worse yet, when love ends and that contact ceases, no amount of obsessive voicemail checking can bring it back again. If Donna Haraway posits a new mode of subjectivity ((Haraway, Donna (1991.) “A Cyborg Manifesto
: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” in Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature. New York; Routledge.)) in her notion of the cyborg, one that undermines the binary between human and machine, many contemporary discourses on subjectivity and technology reify the divide between people and their gadgets. From the signs in public spaces that ask people to shut off their cellphones to the bevy of popular press reports that argue one can only truly achieve happiness by tuning out and turning off, contemporary life is full of directives that seek to draw hard, fast lines between online and offline. If such missives frequently fetishize a pre-technological past that never really existed, I want to point out how they also suggest the difficulty of managing intimacies if they are forever present, when they are “always on.” If being in love is a primary way in which people experience connection to others, the modalities by which that experience comes to pass are infinitely historical. If scholars of media and culture are (rightfully) dubious of critiques in which technologies are treated as being deterministic of a culture’s values and structures, there still needs to be some room to imagine the impact of technology on the lived, felt experiences of those who use it. All of which is to say: love hurts. It seems that experiencing it in a way that distributes that hurt so relentlessly—voicemails on top of emails on top of Facebook posts on top of Snapchats—hurts even more.

Image Credits:

1. The Warehouse Dating Group
2. The Official Logo of Social Media Company Snapchat
3. The Official Logo of Online Dating Site OkCupid

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Le Petit Mort: Toddlers and Tiaras and Economic Decline
Hollis Griffin/Colby College

pageant winner

Preparing for the Future

It’s hard not to watch Toddlers & Tiaras with a sort of sick fascination. The TLC reality program features a different “kiddie pageant” in each episode, following a handful of contestants as they prepare for competition and then “perform” for the judges. Plucked from elementary school to twirl and mug on stages at musty-looking Holiday Inns, Toddlers & Tiaras’ subjects are led through a gauntlet of training and cosmetic enhancement by their moms and a smattering of “pageant professionals”—hair and make-up people, specialized seamstresses, and voice coaches.

There are few things in the world more macabre than a nine-year-old girl with hair teased to the rafters, enough make-up to paint a house, and a “flipper” that masks her baby teeth with veneers. The mode of address on Toddlers & Tiaras positions viewers in opposition to the contestants and “pageant moms.” Interview segments reveal the hopes and dreams that parents have yoked to their children: not just success but fame, wealth, transcendence. Young contestants are routinely plied with sugar to keep their energy up, and they just as regularly fall asleep by the end of the episode. I end up feeling bad for them, even if they are frequently bratty and ill-behaved. (Wouldn’t you be angry if you had your eyebrows plucked against your will, and your skin buffed to a shade of Day-Glo orange?) But it’s the parents who often seem deluded—coaching sternly and loudly from the sidelines, expressing disappointment with their children in somber asides to the camera. In many episodes, parents refer to the pageants as “an investment,” articulating what is ostensibly an extra-curricular activity as a familial business decision that is expected to pay dividends at some later date. If children often symbolize futurity—the hopeful embodiment of “better things to come”—then Toddlers & Tiaras casts some harsh, ugly light on what’s coming next, both for American culture and maybe even capitalism, more generally.

blond contestant

Economic Anxiety Expressed as Feminine Excess

On some level, it’s too easy to point to Toddlers & Tiara’s pageant moms as embodying feminine consumerist desire gone awry. Episodes frequently mention the astronomical costs of competing in kiddie pageants, and many of the pageant moms confess that participating in them is a financial hardship. Pageant moms frequently confess to fibbing about competition-related expenses to their husbands, and many others benefit from the financial support of doting grandparents. Toddlers & Tiaras details this feminine excess alongside a more subdued dialogue on class and economics. Watching the interview segments, it becomes clear that the parents of the pageant contestants are middle and lower middle class. Pageant moms are often homemakers, and their husbands are frequently factory workers, miners, small business owners. Thus, when an episode features a thousand-dollar, bling-encrusted dress for a six-year-old, it says as much, if not more about the parents’ class aspirations than the contestant’s performance of femininity.


Parents Invest in Class Aspirations

Interview segments are introduced with a series of shots taken from the pageant contestants’ hometowns. Here, the program locates an overwhelming majority of pageants squarely in the Heartland; the settings include Sissonville, West Virginia, Salley, South Carolina, and Temple, Texas. Shots of sleepy Main Streets and grain silos lead directly to shots of the exteriors of the contestants’ homes. Many of these look forebodingly like the new “McMansions” at the center of the mortgage crisis. In Toddlers & Tiaras’ thinly veiled statement on American cultural geography, pageant frivolity is the domain of tacky flyover states, fostering viewing positions steeped in derision and scorn. By locating pageants, “flippers”, and aggressive moms in sleepy Heartland towns, Toddlers & Tiaras works like a lot of media representations of rural life—the Heartland “becomes the ‘other’ against which the ideal nation is defined by relief.” (( Victoria E. Johnson, Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and The Struggle for U.S. Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2008): 5. )) Via this logic, the hopes and dreams that pageant moms attach to kiddie pageants are as crazy as they are stupid: a downmarket pipe dream, a reckless financial gamble. With high participation costs and low prize money, “investing in” pageants seems as wise as buying a Hummer because one is worried about gas prices.

vegas girl

Chintz and Hairspray as Objects of Cathexis

I experience a perverse glee and a deep melancholy when faced with the big hair and gaudy costumes on Toddlers & Tiaras. On the program, chintz and hairspray are objects of cathexis for the downwardly mobile. Pageant parents are often blue-collar workers, the very demographic whose traditional routes to the middle class—pensions, union memberships, federally subsidized student loans—are profoundly threatened by the current economic downturn and neoliberal thought, more broadly. No longer does a factory job, a union card, or a Stafford loan carry the promise it did for lower income wage earners in decades past. I see in many episodes of Toddlers & Tiaras anxious attempts to plan for the future via the labor of children. The hopes and dreams that parents attach to the kiddie contestants demonstrate a longing for safety and security at a point in history when those feelings are increasingly difficult to come by. When parents featured on the program attest to the pageants as a kind of “planning for the future,” the snark and cynicism that Toddlers & Tiaras so frequently elicits from me comes to a grinding halt. In those moments, the future embodied by the plucked and coiffed debutantes is neither rosy nor hopeful, it’s despairing, bleak—deeply, deeply sad.

lip syncing

Girls Dolled Up as Adults

I titled this column “Le Petit Mort” in an attempt to be cheeky. A French term that associates orgasmic release with death is somewhat apropos when talking about a television program in which girls are dolled up to look many years their senior, even competing in swimwear contests and lip syncing to Madonna songs. I’m not one for moral panics, and cultural anxieties about children’s sexuality are as old as modernity itself. The “little death” I see in Toddlers & Tiaras is different; it’s something specific to this moment in history. I see it in how the child pageant contestants symbolize the class aspirations of people whose economic opportunities are increasingly limited. In Toddlers & Tiaras, the glitz and glam adorning the girls indicate a future that, for many, will never come to pass. Of course, wistful optimism can be a sustaining force. But for every pageant mom who claims that the pageants teach contestants “life skills,” I can’t help but think that the energy, time, and especially the money they use to participate in them is better spent elsewhere. Maybe even something like language lessons so that the pageant contestants grow up speaking Spanish or Chinese or Hindi—better suited for a job market that is increasingly located elsewhere. Toddlers & Tiaras is evidence of the well-oiled capitalist machine of television, forever warning its viewers about proper modes of comportment and consumerism. If the program allows viewers to revel in excessive consumption and histrionic femininity, another of the program’s viewing pleasures is poking fun at the foolhardy dreams of others. It’s hard for me to feel good about that. Circulating amidst cries to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state, Toddlers & Tiaras is drenched in death—the twilight of the U.S.’s middle class, the sunset of economic development in the American Heartland, and, most pointedly, the uncertain future embodied by the little ladies in rhinestone-covered gowns.

Image Credits:

3. Screen Grab by Author
5. Screen Grab by Author

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Sarah, Scarlett, and Norma Rae, or Unions are as American as Apple Pie!
Hollis Griffin / Colby College

Scarlett O'Hara's Cunning Self-Interest

Scarlett O’Hara’s Cunning Self-Interest

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my apartment in New York, reading a paperback copy of Gone With the Wind. After the events that transpired in the city that day, I remember thinking how bizarre it was that I was reading this hallowed, revered bit of Americana on that particular morning. In Gone With the Wind’s Civil War South, Scarlett O’Hara’s cunning and self-interest made her a plucky survivor. Her beloved Tara burned to the ground and her affluent social circle lost everything, but Scarlett—armed with little more than her feminine wiles and ferocious will—endured. One who draws upon nerve and self-centeredness in the face of adversity is a tale as old as time. But it’s also somehow thoroughly American. People respond to it as narrative, and it’s a feel-good story that is easily spun into a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” politics. Scarlett would have responded to 9-11 with her trademark self-interestedness and cutthroat industriousness. She probably would have opened a chic café in downtown New York and made a killing.

Nearly ten years later, the kinds of stories valorized in American politics—rock-hard independence, self-seeking industry—are as reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind as they’ve ever been. While political rhetoric has long tended toward a decidedly conservative romance with Americana, the events of September 11, 2001 invigorated these sentiments in a fiercely independent/Scarlett O’Hara way. It is no accident that conservatism dressed in the terminology of American historical defiance has recently so captured the political stage. The “Tea Party” draws on cultural tropes that make for attractive television: conceit, insolence, melodrama. Such tropes provide succor in historical moments like the one after 9/11—and they continue to console people in the present. Anxieties related to growing class disparities, a crumbling manufacturing sector, vitriolic cultural debate, and accelerated globalization are soothed with invocations of a triumphant American will, apple pie, porch swings, and town square parades. Americana is tremendously comforting when the whole world feels as if it’s going to pot. Conservative political rhetoric isn’t univocal, but when communicated via carefully packaged content and recycled for a multiplatform media environment, the tropes of Americana can be stunningly effective in consolidating certain points of view around issues of politics, culture, and economy.

Sarah Palin's Alaska

Sarah Palin’s Conservative Americana

For these reasons, Sarah Palin’s Alaska demonstrates current conservative political rhetoric with astounding clarity. An 8-episode reality program that packages a wistful vision of the prominent Republican’s family life, Sarah Palin’s Alaska demonstrates well-established ideas associated with traditional Americanness: family, industry, pride. In one episode, the family guts fish together. Via voiceover, Palin talks about the history of Alaskan fishing commerce and cheerfully talks about the industry passing from generation to generation. Another episode animates a thoroughly camera-ready verbal tussle between Palin father and Palin son over the family fishing business. Naturally, there’s no talk of commercialized fishing or the cost-prohibitive nature of entering that business in the first place. Production values are high throughout the series; scenes of familial interactions are cut with crystalline, soaring shots of Alaska’s shorelines and mountain ranges. That the family travels by coach bus and takes private planes to go hiking and snowshoeing aren’t mentioned. Instead, the program pours on the “we’re just a regular American family” schmaltz with gusto. If at all possible, Sarah Palin’s Alaska is cornier than Gone With the Wind. Palin jokes about her public gaffes repeatedly; the “I can see Russia from here” lines abound.

Willow's Moments of Rupture

Willow’s Moments of Rupture

While thoroughly choreographed and finger-in-dimple saccharine, Sarah Palin’s Alaska has terrific moments of rupture. Palin’s sixteen-year-old daughter Willow is a deliciously bitchy presence on the program who repeatedly lifts the curtain on the whole charade. In the episode where the family processes salmon, Willow acknowledges—via angry, sarcastic, teenaged deadpan—that they’ve never actually gutted a catch before. In another, she complains that she wants a truck for her birthday. She complains that her parents never buy her what she wants. These (wonderful, hilarious) moments notwithstanding, Sarah Palin’s Alaska endeavors to cement a set of meanings about what America is. The program’s stance on contemporary politics offers an individualist economic ethos and a nostalgic focus on the nuclear family, as well as a traditional take on gender roles. Sarah Palin’s Alaska circulates Tea Party-worthy notions of how Americans should be, what kinds of government support the Palin’s brand of “good life,” and what sorts of collectivity are best suited to generate strength, wealth, and good feeling. Or, rather, the program values above all else the “strength,” “wealth,” and “good feeling” that might follow from familial attachments in a thoroughly deregulated political context. Never mind that the kinds of family-owned businesses romanticized by the program are nearly unsustainable in consumer capitalism. Never mind that Palin takes a pre-modern stance on birth control—Who cares if you have lots of kids? Put them to work!—that’s as outdated and impractical as the scythe or the cotton gin. Even Scarlett O’Hara knew the cultural and socioeconomic realities of the U.S. were headed in a different direction.

Rosie the Riveter

“Americanness” Rooted in Worker’s Rights

Yet the true heartbreak of Sarah Palin’s Alaska is how effective it is as a narrative, and how warmly and fervently people respond to Americana during times of duress. The Tea Party feels zeitgeisty for a reason. In taking Sarah Palin’s Alaska as a distillation of a Tea Party vision of the United States, there’s a lesson for the Left. As Republican governors attempt to break up unions for the sake of splintering a traditionally Democratic voter base, the Left would do well to imagine a narrative that offers a vision of strength, collectivity, and Americanness that is rooted in worker’s rights. I don’t know what that would look like, exactly, but American history is rife with examples of unions lobbying against corporate interests and acting as checks against government power. Current political debate is too rich with tales of lazy workers and bloated unions. When schoolteachers, sanitation workers, and other public sector employees are offered up as the scapegoats of capitalist excess—and, en masse, Americans seem to buy it—I can’t help but think that the Left is failing to participate in political debate in a way that energizes people, much less foments change. As the corporatization of government and the privatization of public life in the United States continue at breakneck speed, it seems that the ideas propagated by the Left aren’t meeting the needs, or stirring the passions, of all that many American people.

I'm Staying Right Where I Am!

I’m Staying Right Where I Am!

How is it that ten years after the events that transpired at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it’s so rarely pointed out that public sector workers were called in to save lives and many ended up giving their own? How is it that Scarlett O’Hara, Sarah Palin, and “going it alone” are quintessentially American but unions and collective bargaining are the antithesis of freedom and democracy? Insofar as narratives offer a way to think about economic struggle and political collectivity, I hold out hope that there emerges a story in which shifting, fluid collectives of workers are painted as a necessary, vital force in American politics. Give me Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979)—a tough chick with a hand-written “Union!” placard. Give me Norma Rae screaming and clawing as management has her dragged off the factory floor. Calls for individualism can easily be co-opted and subverted into a shortsighted, fetishized, overly Scarlett-O’Hara-like romance with the spoils of capitalism. Sarah Palin’s vision of capitalism is even more untenable. But making her the boogeyman—now a favorite pastime among good Lefties—fails to account for, much less learn from the persuasive yarns she can spin.

Image Credits:

1. Scarlett O’Hara’s Cunning Self-Interest.
2. Sarah Palin’s Conservative Americana.
3. Willow’s Moments of Rupture.
4. “Americanness” Rooted in Worker’s Rights.
5. I’m Staying Right Where I Am! (screen grab by author)

Please feel free to comment.

Debbie Downer Has a Facebook Problem: Regulating Affect on Social Media Networks
Hollis Griffin/Colby College

When is it Okay to Reveal Personal Events on Public Social Networks?

When is it Okay to Reveal Personal Events on Public Social Networks?

A few months ago, I split with my partner of nearly twelve years. As is so typical where “matters of the heart” are concerned, it was a long time coming and, somehow, cripplingly sudden. I am primarily in touch with friends through Facebook, but it seemed tacky and nauseatingly self-important to make some public announcement about my relationship there. We’re not Brangelina, after all. Even so, how does one act? What does one tell people? When is it “okay” to reveal anything so personal, and via what means? To say that I was/am hurting about the end of the relationship is a vast understatement. The very notion that I’d be worried about managing appearances on Facebook is almost laughable. Yet telling mutual friends and working through my own feelings has been a thoroughly mediated affair, ripe with anxieties about “what people will think” and “what’s protocol.”

Friends told me that divvying up our pictures would be a difficult task. But we couldn’t split things that are so firmly in the public domain—we’d posted many of them to Facebook all along. In the last few months, I’ve scrolled through them over and over. Images of us in happier times bring on the tears, of course: snapshots of dinner parties and vacations, mushy pictures taken while kissing on the beach. Eric Freedman charts the movement of “private” portraiture across “public” networks; using trauma theory, he discusses snapshots rendered as digital images and then circulated on television and the internet. Looking at my photo albums on Facebook was akin to pouring salt in a wound. As such, I’ve thought seriously about taking the pictures down off the network. (Though who knows if they ever really disappear.) I know that I’ll be compelled to look at them again. But what am I even looking at if/when I do that? As Lacan points out, that which escapes representation “never ceases to write itself.” The connection I had with my former partner isn’t reducible to photos on the internet. In that sense, taking them down doesn’t matter much. It wouldn’t change anything—you can’t erase history. A year from now, would I even want to?

On Social Media Networks Affects are Surveilled

On Social Media Networks Affects are Surveilled

Yet, the pictures are painful precisely because they’re ostensibly private and I made them public. Now, my feelings about the photos are infinitely different than when I first posted them. People like to share happiness, but sadness that’s viewable to others isn’t necessarily knowable by others. Sharing sadness and rage is harder. Before writing this piece, I tried very hard to be private about feeling sad. On social media networks, the affects attending aloneness—sadness, grief—are surveilled; their temporality and duration are sites of considerable policing. Posting a link to Facebook in the middle of the night, whether it’s a syrupy movie clip or a depressing music video, suggests much about the user’s affective state. Repeated posts about feeling mad or gloomy frequently precipitate off-network emails and private messages. “What’s his problem?” Bad feelings are monitored differently than good ones: you can’t have them at certain times, and you certainly can’t have them all of the time.

I am grateful that the vast majority of my friends have been kind and supportive, but I am still acutely aware of how bad feelings operate. No one wants to contend with “Debbie Downer” (notice the pejorative, gendered implications). This is true even when, as it is in my case, a negative affective state is wholly justified. Writing about social media, Jodi Dean states: affect “accrues from communication for its own sake, from the endless circular movement of commenting, adding notes and links, bringing in new friends and followers, layering and interconnecting myriad communications platforms and devices.” ((Jodi Dean. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Cambridge: Polite, 2010): 95. )) I see these movements as being different for positive and negative affects. They change the ways in which people understand their connections to others. There are friends with whom one is closer, more intimate than others precisely because their affective states mesh better, more frequently. Further, the ways that “friends and followers” become attached to networks vary because “affective links are stronger than hypertextual ones… Intense feeling accompanies and reinforces code.” ((Ibid 96.)) Affective charges push and pull in different directions across networks. Even if Facebook reduces all connections to, merely, “friends,” the platform’s “hiding” and list functions provide evidence of how these connections can shift and morph with each bit posted and shared. “Debbie Downers” get hidden from their friends’ Facebook feeds, shunted off to a list where they’re always absent from view—or, worst of all, defriended entirely.

Some Feelings are too Awful to Encapsulate with a Status Update

Some Feelings are too Awful to Encapsulate with a Status Update

If the affects shared on and circulated via social media can be relatively inchoate, the social regulation of those affects is anything but. The ways that feelings accrete and are coded culturally dovetail with particular ideas about social mores, cementing into how individuals signify to others. When romantic relationships end, good feelings are typically “okay” to share. That’s less the case with bad feelings. I’ve been loathe to say/post/do anything on Facebook that would hint at the epically bad feelings I had about the end of my relationship. No matter that we’re both good people, and no matter that neither of us wants to hurt the other, we’ve had a tremendously difficult time dealing with the public/private nature of breaking up. Anybody would. Offering my conflicted feelings—anger, despair, shock—up for even the semi-public consumption of Facebook feels unspeakably terrible. He deserves better than a public airing of our dirty laundry. And while I’m suspicious of how bad feelings are judged, weighed, and discussed, any unfiltered venting would hurt more than it would help, in many different ways. It’d be a major social faux pas, but it would also probably just make me feel worse.

Lauren Berlant writes that on Facebook “people are trying there to eventalize the mood, the inclination, the thing that just happened—the episodic nature of existence… It’s not in the idiom of the great encounter or the great passion, it’s the lightness and play of the poke.” ((Lauren Berlant, “Faceless Book.” 25 December 2007, 1 June 2011. Insofar as my now defunct relationship was, actually a “great encounter,” a “great passion,” I’m far more comfortable using Facebook for “lightness and play.” I typically share and post things that I think are funny, crazy, stupid: news stories about Jersey Shore, coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour. The feelings I’ve been experiencing about my relationship are too awful to encapsulate in a link, picture, or status update. Historically, I’m an unrepentant “heart on the sleeve” guy. I have profound misgivings about being this way now. This is not just because it’s embarrassing, and is not just because I’m worried about what people will say or think. (Even though it is and I am.) It’s more that if I were to be emotionally honest and share just how bad I feel, those feelings might take over. I think affects have “states” because I hold out hope that feeling bad doesn’t have to last forever, even if it sometimes feels like it will.

Emotions Create Knowledge About the Mediated Self

Emotions Create Knowledge About the Mediated Self

In critical theory circles, there is much talk of an “affective turn,” a preponderance of research conducted on questions of feeling and emotion. Anger, regret, pain create all kinds of knowledge—about the self and the world, about political structures and oppressed minorities, about modes of critique and historical inquiry. That fine line between feeling bad as an overwhelming, disorienting phenomenon, and feeling bad as a potentially transformative, reparative force is porous and discontinuous. Above all else, it’s difficult and confusing. Needless to say, that’s my terrain these days. I’m lucky in that my friends and family have been wonderfully attentive via more private media: phone calls, text messages, e-mails. I hope that “oversharing” here (and, notably, not Facebook—this contradiction isn’t lost on me) sheds at least a little light on the felt dimensions of a “mediated self,” the self one communicates to others via various media technologies. A “mediated self” involves affective contradictions that swing between what “should” remain personal and which feelings are “okay” to be shared. Such a hinge pivots on well-established though never uncontested ideas about bodies and desires, knowledge and power. Navigating that online demarcation of public and private is especially bewildering when you just want everyone, everywhere to know: I hurt, and I wish I didn’t.

Image Credits:

1.When is it Okay to Reveal Personal Events on Public Social Networks?
2.On Social Media Networks Affects are Surveilled
3.Some Feelings are too Awful to Encapsulate with a Status Update
4.Emotions Create Knowledge About the Mediated Self

Please feel free to comment.

Lines in the Sand: Media Studies and the Neoliberal Academy
Hollis Griffin / Colby College


Scholarship in a Neoliberal Era?

At one point, Omar Little and I were Facebook friends. This is strange if only because I typically shun self-consciously “quality” television. That and it bothers me how The Wire, the program featuring this character, has become something of a fetish object in the academy. I’m suspicious of such programs, how obsessively they are watched and studied, and how often that leads to a frenzied championing. Yet Omar and The Wire spark something in me. This essay was supposed to be something longer, and was lined up for publication in an anthology. I even had a pithy title picked out: “Oh Shit, It’s Omar!” I wanted to play on the phrase uttered by background characters whenever Omar appears in the narrative. It’s also a frequent refrain on internet fanpages devoted to the character, where viewers quote Omar’s one-liners and, more generally, profess their affection for him. The title seemed catchy and apt because I wanted to think through some of the links between these phenomena.

Armed with a shotgun and a shitty attitude, Omar haunts the program. A police informant and vigilante, he weaves in and out of the narrative, appearing in episodes here and there as he strikes fear in the hearts of drug dealers. He also garners frustration and amusement from police officers as he operates in Baltimore’s narcotics trade on his own terms. The program itself details the seedy underbelly of privatization and deregulation in urban America: corrupt lawmakers and money-hungry development corporations push the already marginalized even further to the margins. The Wire gives voice to the undercurrent of desperation and neglect inherent in neoliberalism, where systemic injustices are imagined to be personal obstacles surmountable in the marketplace, and identity gets articulated as the culmination of an individual’s life choices. Many of the program’s African-American characters suffer from a profound deficit of such choices.


Omar’s Facebook page

But Omar’s different. A twenty or thirty-something black man, he is a neoliberal subject gone awry. Omar lives below the radar, takes wild chances, and profits handsomely—but the character is always cognizant that his entire world could come to an abrupt halt at any moment. Omar eschews most conventions; humdrum interpersonal relationships and a permanent residence would be suffocating and mundane for him. I think the character suggests many different things: the failures of the U.S. as a welfare state, the discursive limits of neoliberal rhetoric related to self-interestedness, as well as the depressing, all-too-common continuities between race and class in contemporary culture. Omar troubles easy connections between good and bad, empowered and subordinated. A charismatic antihero, he is mean and funny, calculating yet passionate. The fact that he has sex with men is little more than another of the innumerable ways that he defies easy categorization. It’s ironic that I’d be Facebook friends with Omar because I’d likely be terrified of him if we were ever to cross paths.

It’s not lost on me that Omar is an avatar for raced, classed fantasies of power and recklessness. He provides vicarious thrills to an affluent, taste-stratified audience. I’m not entirely proud that I find the character so fascinating. Several years after The Wire concluded its run on HBO, I felt silly receiving Facebook status updates from a fictional television character whose narrative had long since concluded. The social network’s re-design made de-friending him relatively simple. So I did.

As of this writing, Omar and I have eight Facebook friends in common. A year or two ago, he and I had something like 64 or 65 Facebook friends in common, many of whom were media academics. That’s about the time that the popular press devoted some attention to “the phenomenon” of The Wire as an object of analysis in university classrooms –as if serious interrogation of popular culture is itself a new phenomenon. It’s also when several monographs devoted to the program were published. I flipped through a lot of these books as I was starting my research. Most of the essays mentioned that Omar had sex with men, but none covered what I was most interested in: what’s at stake when viewers cathect to death a black male character who has sex with men. I wanted to interrogate how the program, the character, and his afterlife on the internet re-inscribe the future-orientation of the neoliberal project. By making Omar a martyr, it seems that The Wire allows for “safe” audience identification. When I started re-watching the series and writing, I thought again and again about de-friending Omar on Facebook. This little thing that I did without ever really thinking about it started to feel careless and malignant. It seemed to resonate with neoliberalism’s tendency to discard those at the margins. In that sense, I too rendered Omar expendable. It might sound stupid, but it was a terrible feeling.

As I continued writing, I found myself considering why media scholars tend to focus on particular television programs. I got angry about it. The devotion of whole conference panels and entire anthologies to The Wire started to seem like drinking the Kool-Aid. Reifying industry terms regarding what constitutes “quality” texts and, by extension, “quality” audiences can make for troubling pedagogy. Not that scholarship should always, in every instance be completely separate from industry concerns. But insofar as the medium’s shifting political economy has placed new emphasis on high-budget, high-concept programming, “quality” texts like The Wire have become objects of great scrutiny in university classrooms and press of all kinds. This attention frequently fails to question the terms of such object choices. When the “quality” and “narrative complexity” of The Wire are held up as reasons to study it, media studies’ imbrication in the neoliberal project comes to the fore in a pretty icky way.


One of the many academic interrogations of The Wire

Ultimately, my thinking and writing meandered too far from the anthology’s theme and I had to drop out. In other words, “the world outside the object” overwhelmed it for me. More than a throwaway anecdote, removing myself from the anthology demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in troubling the frameworks used to analyze television and media culture in the academy. Academic silos result in more research and publication opportunities for entrenched modes of analysis. They clear paths for those willing to “play the game,” tacitly encouraging scholars to work within existing models and paradigms. Innovation of this ilk follows familiar, well-worn paths: “the brilliant young man,” “the sexy theory,” “the colorful commentary.” Undergirded by the neoliberal logic of American universities, media scholarship focused on the contemporary moment, undertaken via logics used in industry practice blurs an already fuzzy line between academic and popular media criticism. Insofar as this work is often focused on commercial media texts and practices, even the most diligent media scholarship participates in consumer capitalism in some way.

When an increasingly tight job market fetishizes publication and advancement, I worry that it can come at the cost of rigor and self-reflexivity. Weighing these circumstances and what they mean for media scholarship will necessarily generate uncomfortably charged exchanges. Worse yet, the scarcity of the neoliberal academy can marginalize scholars who take up political questions by privileging research that seems “more marketable” and granting more opportunities to scholars who can claim “universality.” Cloaked in the respectability afforded to that which goes unmarked, media scholarship that claims disinterestedness—in politics, in identity, in difference—is benign only in appearance.

At a historical moment when the ivory tower is at risk of being reduced to rubble, I’m wary of academic media criticism that doubles as industry gossip, aspires to talking-head punditry, or is simply drenched in the cheerful ridicule of snark. This claim shouldn’t signify as a call for a closing of the ranks, much less some kind of blanket statement as to what academic media criticism should do or say or look like. Rather, I want to openly worry about how accelerated professionalization, choices of object and method, and a push toward more frequent publication can foreclose on insightful inquiry. Simply because topics or questions are not fashionable or au courant or (God help me) are too “gay” or too “black” seem like awful reasons to scuttle them. But when I have these conversations with other academics, I see that it happens a lot—despite even the best intentions. Recently, I told a colleague that my essay on Omar and The Wire had morphed into something else. She told me it was probably for the best, saying: “you write about gay things a lot, your CV will look better if you write about something else.” Saddest part? I worry that she’s right.


Twitter-friendly scholarship?

An academy that molds media critics who are tempted to churn out quick, dirty, market-driven analysis in the form of Twitter-friendly aphorisms is a potentially dangerous apparatus. When there’s a line drawn in the sand? I want to be on the side that thinks about media in order to interrogate knowledge and power in their many, multivalent forms. On one hand, loving the object too often brackets what that object says about the world outside of itself. Here, the act of criticism quickly becomes a monument to the critic. On the other, the conflicted feelings endemic to media scholarship can make for some snide nihilism. The romance and rhetorical convenience of blunt anti-capitalist critique gives short shrift to the vexed connections between commodities and affective life. Omar might say, “Don’t hate the player, baby, hate the game.” Alas, it’s exceedingly difficult to disidentify with one and not feel shortchanged by the other.

Image Credits:

1. Piggybank
2. Author’s screen shot
3. Book cover
4. Twitter

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Interview with Sara Leeder, Segment Producer for CNBC’s “Topic [A] with Tina Brown”

by: Hollis Griffin / FLOW Staff

Tina Brown had a successful career in print journalism and might be remembered for an earnest attempt at publishing the magazine Talk. What qualities of strength do you think Ms. Brown brings with her to broadcast journalism?

Tina brings a great sensibility to the editorial direction of the show. She plays a huge role (more so than any other “talent” I’ve worked with) in booking the show, and crafting each segment. I’ve learned from Tina how important “the mix” of the show is each week, i.e., getting the celebrity spot, the hard news spot, an offbeat topic, etc. And we’ve been working on fine-tuning that mix every week.

Can you describe how editor responsibilities are distributed in a 24-hour news environment? What is a segment producer? Who is pitching stories, choosing stories, assigning stories?

For me, the hardest thing about working in a 24-hour news environment is keeping myself constantly attuned to what “the news” is, when “the news” is always changing. At Topic [A], we have a really small staff, which is always a great opportunity to take on more responsibility. As a segment producer, I: book guests (depending on the week), pitch story ideas (we have daily meetings), prepare Tina with a research book for every segment, pre-interview each guest over the phone, write suggested questions, work with Tina to select which questions we’ll use, and – finally – edit the interview after it’s taped.

What sorts of technology do you use, if any? Can you describe how digital editing and video databases have changed the producer’s job?

We use NewsEdit and Avid editing systems. I personally have only worked with digital editing in my career in TV, so I can’t compare what it was like before. We also have amazing technological capabilities in screening video right from our desktops, which saves hours of going through tape libraries, etc.

How does Tina Brown’s show play into CNBC’s perception of its target audience? How and why do you feel the show appeals to particular viewers?

CNBC is known for its business news, which dominates the daytime lineup. It’s an interesting time to be at the network since CNBC is still in the process of defining its primetime lineup, including Topic [A], Dennis Miller, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. Right now, I think our show primarily has a metropolitan appeal – although we do get e-mail from viewers around the country. I think that’s because of that mix we strive for each week, and a lot of it comes from the buzz in big cities like New York and L.A.

How do you choose your topics and guests? Do you tailor your topics around the availability of guests? Do you invite certain guests based on the topics? In either case, what are the primary motivating factors behind these decisions?

We select our topics and guests as a reaction to the news or a pop culture event – be it the elections in Iraq or the release date of a movie. We put a lot of thought into how we can tap into an unexplored angle or voice on a particular new story. That’s a constant struggle in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. We also work to get ahead of any particular story, so that our Sunday night show is looking forward to the next week, rather than the one that’s just passed. We’re also always looking to strike the right balance between news and entertainment to put a show that people feel like watching on a Sunday night (meaning, nothing too heavy nor too fluffy). Of course, with some of the bigger name guests, a lot is tailored around when they are available, but I imagine that’s how any show works. You’ll take Tony Blair or Madonna whatever week they can.

You have worked at two of the big cable news channels. What would you say is the difference between them?

The big difference between CNN and CNBC is that CNBC is a business news channel. Just in the last year or so, CNBC has started doing news and entertainment programming in prime time. Although we don’t have the same news resources here at CNBC, we are very lucky to be able to lean on NBC and MSNBC newsgathering sources, bureaus around the world, etc.

I notice that the host, the executive producer, and many of the staff members for Topic [A] are female. Do you think this affects the work environment at Topic [A]? Has gender had an impact on your journalism career? In your opinion, is journalism becoming less of a “man’s world”?

It’s interesting that you ask this, because at CNN I had a male boss and worked with a male anchor, and I myself wondered what the difference would be working with women. I do feel lucky to be working in an era where I rarely think about how my gender affects the job I do. More often, I find that my age (or the fact that I look younger than I am) affects how people receive me. It is important, though, to have a mix of men and women on any staff/in a newsroom to reflect the different sensibilities.

Is there a typical career path for news journalists? Is J-school a prereq or do producers look more for work experience when you’re breaking into the biz? (i.e. should I go to school or go find a job if I want a position like yours?)

Great question, and a highly debated one. People seem to split into two camps on this one. I think a lot of it depends on the economy/the job market at the time. Since I graduated from J-school (May ’01), the market has been so tight, that I don’t think having the degree has necessarily helped. Meaning, I’ve paid my dues the same as if I had not gone to J-school. Although it’s certainly an enriching education, I think right now experience is valued more than a degree. But, of course, there are always the contacts made through the J-school experience (especially at a place like Columbia), which can turn out to be quite handy.

Topic [A] with Tina Brown
Columbia School of Journalism

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