Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bodies in a technologized world

This week's reading provided me with at least two sources that combine several of my own interests. "Tales of an Asiatic Geek Girl: Slant from Paper to Pixels" and "Their Logic against Them: Contradictions in Sex, Race, and Class in Silicon Valley" both combined technology and gender in engaging ways. Race certainly plays a role in both of these pieces as well; in the former, the women in question are immigrants, and in the latter, Mimi Nguyen names her ethnicity in the title. Midway through her article I started to wonder ... Can we ("we" being a social/cultural collective) only work on normalizing one perceived personal anomaly at a time? Nguyen tells us that in punk rock's transformation, " the race riot I wanted was clocking in at a very very distant third" behind revolutions regarding gender and sexuality (179). While I understand while we focus on markers of difference, wrong though that may be, I wonder why we have to separate these marked characteristics. Didn't the revolution of attitudes toward sexuality in punk rock do something for perception of race as well? I cannot prove that it did or didn't, but I wish I could read more writing that lets these markers mingle and be messy. These essays reminded me of a class discussion from a week or more ago in which Dr. Haas told us that one belief among black feminist thinkers is that being a female doesn't mean that one knows anything about what it's like to be a black female. Which makes perfect sense, and which is probably something most people don't consider.

Nguyen's discussion of in/visibility was also fascinating. She tells us several times that "in/visibility is a trap" and goes so far as to suggest that the promise of the Internet for "abstract citizenship" depends on one's own narration of one's own body (182). You're only allowed the protection of that abstraction so long as you do not narrate yourself as marked in any way. Once you've done that, there is a sense that visibility becomes an obligation, as evidenced by the hate mail Nguyen received. Thus, while technology can be an equalizing factor, it can just as easily be a means to mark a person and punish them for any perceived refusal to play "by the rules."

I also want to touch just briefly on the passage in which Nguyen discusses her difficulties in finding Asian/American feminist work because every search engine turned up pornography when given her search terms. She criticizes the notion of visibilty being power, paralleling Peggy Phelan's point that "almost-naked young white women" would be running things if visibility were equivalent to power with her own point that Asian women would also be much more powerful. My answer to this is simple: Who says young white women aren't running at least a high percentage of Western culture? I'd say there are an awful lot of young white women with an awful lot of power. Maybe the larger problem is the way that young white women (and Asian women, and any women) conceptualize themselves.

Early in this class, I put forth a possible definition of race: " a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm." I knew at the time that this was a broad definition that would have to be revised, and I think now that I should add something like "a construction of particular rhetorics about a person's physical being, used ... ." And after trying out this addition, I realized that this definition would include gender as a sub-category of race. I think this is interesting, and I'm not ready to toss out that notion yet.

In "Their Logic against Them," Karen J. Hossfeld does an incredible job of showing how the integration of immigrant women's various markers works both for and against them in the factories of Silicon Valley. She also demonstrates how "managers fragment the women's multifaceted identities into falsely separated categories" as a strategy to keep the women subservient. For example, women are so conditioned to believe that being a worker and possessing femininity are mutually exclusive that they make practices to restore femininity a priority (43). Like Nguyen and others, Hossfeld also separates "gender logic" and "racial logic" in order to address the ways in which these logics are used, but she also shows that they always are connected. Just as the managers use fragmentation to employ colonizing strategies, the women use their "unified consciousness" to turn those strategies into tactics to benefit themselves.

The most shocking piece of information I read in this essay--in this whole book--was that "because employers view women's primary job as in the home, and they assume that, prototypically, every woman is connected to a man who is bringing in a larger paycheck, they claim that women do not need to earn a full living wage" (47). While I wouldn't have a problem believing that this is a subconscious motivator in the workplace today, the overt articulations of this feeling in this chapter were outrageous. Such evidence really makes me think hard about affirmative action. As I've previously said, I think affirmative action has been a good thing, but I wondered if it had outlasted its necessity. With cases like this at hand, it's safe to say that affirmative action is still very much necessary.

I've not touched upon any of the other chapters in this text yet, and I feel that I'm not giving them the time they deserve. I thought that Logan Hill's chapter on access to technology was enlightening, although I disagreed with him in a number of places about the ways and reasons that race and technology are connected. Kumar's discussion of the plight of the H-1B worker was another point in favor of affirmative action (although I don't know if affirmative action applies to non-citizens). And the examinations of lowriding, hip-hop, and karaoke cultures were all fun ways to apply some of the ideas we learned from our reading of Michel de Certeau last week. The people within these cultures are certainly poaching products and re-producing them as tactics to gain power and reinscribe their own cultural ideals.

The book referenced above is:

Nelson, Alondra, Thuy Linh H. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines, eds. Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Print.

Other interesting reading: My Mulan, a short piece on the Disney movie by Mimi Nguyen

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Culture, technology and globalization

According to Thatcher, there are four levels of cultural and rhetorical patterns that determine how a new technology will be assimilated into a culture. These include the broader cultural context, the local/regional context, the specific organizational culture, and the personalities of those within the organization (385).

I like this framework in the sense that it can give the author of a study like Thatcher's a way to organize his or her findings. However, I also think this discrete four-category system is a little too neat to take as reality. Thatcher gives a nod to the fact that the last factor, individual personalities, are influenced by all the others. I would argue that all four categories are influenced by all four other categories. Further, I think it's very difficult to take any cultural artifact and place it in one category because, besides the fact that all are intertwined, culture is ever-changing. But, I think these four categories can still be useful so long as we recognize their limitations. (The same applies, I think, to Appadurai's scapes, which are mentioned in the Slack and Wise chapter on globalization.)

In the culture present in the Mexican maquilas, legitimization of processes was an important purpose--arguably the most important purpose--of the technical document. The technical document is not there to actually relate the process, but rather to reinscribe power. The process, then, is "taught through oral and hierarchical methods" (402). The author seems somewhat critical of this approach; I don't see an inherent problem in it. The power-establishing purpose of the technical document is somewhat more problematic; I'll discuss that in a moment.

Thatcher also discusses another characteristic of the culture of the maquilas that he seems critical of. He gets at this point by drawing on Hofstede's conception of power distance, which refers to the "ability of two people with different power and authority to influence each other" (387). A broad cross-section of Mexican culture (though, obviously, Mexican culture is not a monolith) apparently placed the country among the highest in terms of having a high power-distance socialization. "Rarely were subordinates in positions to influence training" (396). This is related to the fact that technical documents are encoded as objects of institutional power rather than as objects intended for the sharing of knowledge. Thatcher suggests that Mexico's high ranking in terms of collective values contributes to this hierarchical approach. I'd be particularly interested to hear more on the research he discusses about collectivist-type cultures being different, because it seems to me that collectivity as a value would precipitate access to information for all. This is obviously not the case.

This is the point at which Thatcher's observations become problematic for me. I resist making value judgments about a culture that is not my own. I don't want to say that the Mexican maquila workers and writers need to alter their relationship and use technical documents to help disseminate knowledge. From my perspective, this is a catch-22. By dictating that the Mexican technical communicators should be more democratic, I am assuming the same sort of dictatorial authority that they have assumed in order to create documents that reinscribe power. (Actually, I think my action would be even more colonizing, as I would be intruding into a society I do not understand.)

So far as taking action in a case like this, I suppose I ascribe to the notion of the global referred to by Slack and Wise, which demands that we "critically engage the workings of a complex global technological assemblage" (189). We need to do a lot more learning before we do anything else. It was interesting to me--and it certainly rang true--that Slack and Wise see antiglobalization movements de-emphasizing their use of and connection to technology. It seems that what we (in the Western sense) define as technology is equivalent to the forces driving "evil" globalization. Thus, a resistance to learning this new strategy allows activists to resist.

In an interesting connection to Slack and Wise's note that the global affects the local and vice versa, Sun's article on user localization shows how the local affects the global and also how personalities can move straight to the top of Thatcher's food chain to influence the broader social dimensions of how a technology is applied. I recently had my students in English 249 read parts of this article, and they keyed in on how the technology (texting) was used differently to make meaning in different locales. In the Western case study, the participant used texting as a comfort (relating it to chocolate, a "comfort food") while the Eastern case study participant used texting to convey messages with deep societal meaning. (Here is the page with responses from my students to this article. You have to scroll to the bottom to see responses from Sept. 17-18.)

I'm struggling to place these case studies over the framework de Certeau gives us in terms of production. He argues for two productions: the first being equivalent to creation and the second being consumption, a sort of re-creation. By poaching a product and re-creating it in one's own context, othered communities find a tactic (as opposed to a strategy) to gain power. "Many everyday practices are tactical in character" (xix). I suppose what we see in these case studies is grounded in the original production of the technology. Each participant then uses a different tactic in her consumption of the technology, and those tactics reinforce the power of the culture she is working within.

I also thought the juxtaposition of de Certeau's Expert and Philosopher was highly interesting. "In the Expert, competence is transmitted into social authority; in the Philosopher, ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field" (7). I think this situation really resonates within English Studies. We often find ourselves wanting to be expert (or maybe I'm speaking for myself), only to rediscover again and again that I am "walking on air ... far from the scientific ground" (8). Being a philosopher, a questioner, is an easier claim to make (like that of the generalist), if not an easier job to do. But is it as valuable? Or, as de Certeau suggests (and critiques) on page 9, is it possible to be the Philosopher as Expert? And if so, what does this mean?

Works referenced above include:
  • Michel de Certeau's "The Practice of Everyday Life"
  • "Intercultural Rhetoric, Technology Transfer, and Writing in U.S.-Mexico Border Maquilas" in TCQ by Barry Thatcher
  • Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. MacGregor Wise's "Culture+Technology"
  • "The Triumph of Users: Achieving Cultural Usability Goals with Localization" in TCQ by Huatong Sun

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Progress, technology, and culture

Slack and Wise tell us “culture is a site of struggle and has a role in both reproducing inequality and challenging it” (2). So, how do we use technology—a part of our culture—to challenge, rather than reproduce, inequality?

As evidenced by the way we have used the power of naming (such as The Stone Age, The Bronze Age), technology is central to the narratives we use to define civilizations. But Slack and Wise posit that culture should occupy a more central location in terms of conceptualizing ourselves. Technologies are inherent parts of culture; they are not separate from it. This should mean, I think, that we can use technology to alter culture and make progress toward equality.

But that rhetoric is equally problematic. Slack and Wise say that we often conflate technology and progress. Progress is conceived as a going forward, which creates the metaphor of a linear relationship between time and progress . Slack and Wise ask whether progress delineates something new or something better. Either way, the linear model remains dominant, and I’d like to complicate this issue. If history repeats itself, as we know it does, then progress must have some sort of circular movement. (Unless we state that history repeating itself means we haven’t made progress; I resist that statement. We are constantly in motion and progress is always happening, be it good, bad, or neither.)

Rather than conceiving progress as a moving forward, I wonder if we can think of it as an eternal negotiation of human cultures. Under this metaphor, we can see that progress could mean both something new and/or something better (which are both relative terms anyway). This constant renegotiation also does away with the confusion over whether increased quantity could or should denote progress.

Slack and Wise address the fallacy of seeing progress as a chronologically based rise of culture through the example of the European “discovery” of Native Americans. Based on a set of premises that were particular to European culture, they determined that the Indians were simply “behind” (20). They also give us a narrative about a woman losing her job to a computer and resignedly calling it progress. It’s a cultural truth that “to stand in the way of progress and technology is heresy” (13). But what does this mean if progress results in a “deskilling” of the work force (56)? Can we ever recover from progress?

The idealistic “machine in the garden” of Leo Marx gave way to pollution, corporatization, urbanization. People—or at least Ralph Waldo Emerson—became disillusioned and, not for the first (or last) time, saw technology and nature as antagonistic opposites (14). Different kinds of progress were—and are—assigned value based on their perceived impact on nature. Electricity, in its invisibility, seemed to be a clean, nature-driven sort of technology. This was disproved and nuclear energy took its place and ran through the same cycle. There will always be a new, progressive technology to fill this role.

Slack and Wise say progress and evolution are often conflated, mostly because natural selection is metaphorically reduced to “survival of the fittest,” when, in fact, it’s something more like “survival of the fittest in relation to a particular environment” (17). Of course, this assumes that progress refers to betterment. If it is only chronological, if it is only a renegotiation of possibilities, then I see no issue with conflating the terms.

Progress can certainly be used to sell us something, especially something technological (19). And displays of progress sell us a cultural narrative. Like the Crystal Palace and its devaluation of native cultures in order to promote other cultures, modern demonstrations of progress like county fairs sell us ideas about the young women participating in pageants. In instances like this, I understand—although I didn’t at first—why the authors say that many people harbor negative feelings toward the term “development.”

So, are they right? Is “development” or “technological progress” necessarily a good thing? It’s led to the loss of a lot of jobs and the outsourcing of even more. In this case, progress can be metonymically reduced to convenience, although the key question is convenience for whom? And do we always recognize convenience as what it is, or do we spend more and more time using technology for technology’s sake, effectively driving to the mailbox every chance we get?

How inconvenient our bodies are, always exacting limits upon us! We rely on technology to overcome physical limitations, and we do this (Slack and Wise quote Tierney here) in order to transcend the limits of space and time. Death, for example, is massively inconvenient. And, lo and behold, we spend amazing amounts of time, money, and energy developing medical technologies to push the limiting specter of death as far away from ourselves as we can.

In the meantime (while we avoid death), we’re assaulted by all manner of machines to help us make better use of our time … even though they may actually mean more work (for mother). Technology can certainly drive culture, and More Work for Mother shows that it does. For example, the advent of the washing machine meant new standards for how often clothes should be washed.

Slack and Wise ask if we’re caught between cultural and technological determinism. But don’t people have free will? Or are we really under the control of “megatechnics,” a huge, integrated, societal machine? But this metaphor is incorrect on many levels. For one, the machine is far from efficient or well integrated when African women (and men) die for want of a chemical compound that is being sold as a hair remover to women in other parts of the world (154).

It was interesting to see the authors demonstrate how something as seemingly indiscriminating as a low bridge can actually present major problems for those who rely on high-clearance public transportation vehicles, and these people are predominantly non-white. Thus, the technology affects people differently based on class. We alter our daily routines depending on how technology affects us, which is determined by factors outside our control.

So between us and technology, who, really, is the Master and who is the Slave?

-- From Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise's "Culture+Technology"

Monday, September 7, 2009

Race and Justice

“Yet we continue to use the term ‘race,’ even though many of us are very careful to set it off in quotation marks to indicate that while we do not take seriously the notion of ‘race’ as biologically grounded, neither are we able to think about racist power structures and marginalization processes without invoking the socially constructed concept of 'race.' (Janis 4)

In this excerpt, Michael Janis is quoting Angela Davis in his article “Obama, Africa, and the Post-Racial.” Although I don’t have an answer to the dilemma set up in this passage, I think it digs to the heart of the problem with talking about race. Once we’ve realized that race is socially constructed, we don’t have another way to talk about it. So long as race remains a social construction of our culture, it is real. We need to talk about this problem in order to dissolve it, but how can we talk about it while insisting that it doesn’t exist? Using the term in quotation marks is perhaps a temporary solution, but we’ll have to come up with something better if we’re ever going to really enter a … er, well … a post-“racial” world.

I enjoyed the variety of readings this week, from the Janis article to the “Introduction” to Racial Classification and History (edited by E. Nathaniel Gates) to the popular media articles on Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court. This variety was instructive on the issues surrounding race and our president, especially in terms of how people perceive his politics differently. For example, Janis hailed President Obama as reaching new heights in understanding the legacy of slavery and claims that he supported affirmative action in his first book. I can’t offer an opinion on the veracity of this statement, but Gates quotes Obama as opposing traditional affirmative action/reparations. I find it interesting that something seemingly so rooted in fact is truly a matter of opinion.

Several of these articles address affirmative action, so I feel that I should address it even though I’m not terribly comfortable taking a stand. I’ll work through my thoughts here. The truth is that, although this is likely an unpopular opinion in the university, I think affirmative action is institutionalized prejudice. It’s inherently unfair.

However, I also think it’s a tool that was—maybe is—necessary. It’s a tool intended to do the greater good, even if I’m idealistically opposed to the basic concept. Therefore, my struggle is to figure out when we’ve reached the point at which affirmative action is not necessary. Clarke, in her opinion piece, says “the evidence shows that discrimination persists and that our nation still requires strong medicine to scourge that poison from its system.” I do worry, though, that the backlash against affirmative action (and not just by white America) may mean that the policy causes greater evil than it rights.

I have grown up hearing two narratives relating to affirmative action. One is what I think of as the traditional narrative. I have seen friends of color denied the rights and privileges that I am granted. I have been a victim of sex discrimination. I’ve known people with disabilities to suffer silently. I often think affirmative action is vital and that we have a very long way to go.

But I’ve also grown up with what I think of as the backlash narrative. My father, when hiring construction laborers, will be forced to hire a black woman over a white man, despite the fact that the white man has a set of skills needed on that particular job that the black woman lacks. An African-American friend had his scholarship rescinded when it was realized that he had white skin. And at the insurance company where I once worked, our morbidly obese customers were allowed to park in handicapped spots while single working mothers going to night school had to lug their backpacks and children the length of the parking lot. If this is the face of affirmative action, I want no part of it.

There is no doubt in my mind that affirmative action does harm. The articles we read on Sotomayor’s appointment demonstrate public distrust when people suspect a person is being elevated because of race. Obama seems to believe such appointments can be a form of reparation, a subject I am also unqualified to pass judgment upon. But, thinking through the concept in this format may be instructive.

Based on the information I currently have, I would oppose reparations in the U.S. Not on the basis of idealism, as with affirmative action, but in the sense of practicality given the position we occupy in history. How are we now to put a value on the freedom of long-dead ancestors? How do we prove the genealogy of each person who either pays taxes to fund reparations or receives reparations? Will I, as a fifth-generation Irish-American whose great-great-grandfather was certainly victimized, be eligible? I certainly hope not. My family’s survival against the odds is part of my heritage, and if someone paid me for it I think I would feel less ownership of myself.

My point is not that reparations are a bad idea. Rather, I think they are an enormously good idea. For example, if the institution of slavery resulted in the color-coded economic divide now in evidence, reparations might have altered that course. But at this point, I don’t think reparations will do anything but create animosity.

But the spirit of reparations is a viable idea. It’s undeniably sad that “Western governments have had only sparse diplomatic relations with African nations in recent years; in fact, the West continues to demonstrate that reparations, for the most part, are not on the minds of those in power” (Janis 8). I agree with Obama’s statement that “the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed” (“Obama Returns”) at least as far as thinking reparations should be ways to improve lives, not to reward or punish.

I think, though, that I am purposely misreading Janis’ interpretation of Obama’s statement. This is one of the points on which Obama’s critics say he is “not black enough.” And although Janis discredits such regressively positioned racial language, he also implies and quotes Obama as saying that these critics have a valid point. (Janis 4-5)

Finally, quickly, I’d like to mention the interesting points that Gates makes in telling us that Ghanaians described Malcom X as white and in demonstrating that whiteness is not considered a race (12). Gates also suggests that white youth like Sister Souljah because she helps them “find a way out of whiteness” (15-16). These points have interesting implications for the concept of race. I’m out of room to discuss them here, but maybe they can be a point of future debate here or in the classroom.


Here are links to some of the articles referred to in this post:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On David Spurr's "The Rhetoric of Empire"

“The nomination of the visible is no idle metaphysic, no disinterested revealing of the world’s wonders. It is, on the contrary, a mode of thinking and writing wherein the world is radically transformed into an object of possession.” (Spurr 27)

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I think the working definition of race that I suggested is still making sense. (Race: a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm.) While I do think the idea of race was originally put forth with nefarious intentions, I don’t think the common usage of the term today necessarily indicates ill will. This may be a topic for more exploration later.

Having read portions of David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire before with a particular orientation in mind, I tried very hard to think of colonization and surveillance as applied to ethnicities, cultures, and/or “races.” My tendency, however, is still to think of colonization as applied to individual bodies, which is really a microcosm of those larger issues. I’ll try to address aspects of both in this post.

The first passage that caught my interest was Spurr’s reference to Derrida's anthropological war. The question of whether two cultures can communicate with each other without doing violence is a very subjective one. Spurr tells us that violence begins in the act of naming or of leaving unnamed. For example, we can examine the case of the Cherokee Indians, whose name for themselves was something closer to chilo-kee. (Obviously even my representation of their name for themselves is situated within a hegemonic culture, as I’m sure their represenation of themselves in writing did not look like those English letters above.) The white settlers heard “Cherokee,” and so that is how this particular tribe came to be known (Haas, lecture).

A big problem with theories of colonization, as shown above, is that a theoretical model for the colonial situation is necessary in order for us to examine it. However, this in itself is naming and does violence to the culture being studied. Is there a way to conduct an ethnography or to enter a communicative relationship without doing some measure of symbolic violence upon the culture studied? I don’t think there is. However, the amount of violence done may be smaller if two cultures desire to communicate peacefully as equals than if they lean toward any of the other (much more common) possible relationships. And when a relationship is inevitable, the choice of the least amount of violence is still commendable.

Having established, though, that symbolic violence is inevitable, I think I should point out that not all meetings of cultures need to end in colonization. For example, Spurr’s definition of colonization as “a form of self-inscription onto the lives of a people who are coneived of as an extension of the landscape” would not necessarily apply to all meetings of cultures (7). In the ideal such meeting, symbolic violence would still occur, but two cultures could look at (gaze upon) each other with mutual respect.

The framing of the colonized people as being natural is an interesting concept to me because it is not one I have focused on before, and yet it certainly is important and undeniable. Besides the many examples Spurr gives us, I couldn’t help reverting to thinking of my own academic explorations and the many ways in which women are colonized. Certainly, women have traditionally been thought of as the sex more in tune with nature, while men are thought of as more given to expertise in science, technology, etc. We are definitley subject to delusions about our own importance, including the idea that human history is distinct from natural history (159). Spurr demonstrates a “universal binarism that derives ethical value from an entire series of polarities: the Orient vs. the West, southern vs. northern Europe, primitive vs. modern, nature vs. civilization” (160). Thus, we can see how colonizers normalize an obligation to civilize, to “free” a (subservient) race from the grip of nature.

It is interesting, as well, that colonizing forces endow “the savage” with power that cannot be overcome by force alone; it must also be overcome by myth and symbol (and metaphor). This is the reasoning for all the visible representations of colonization, including Spurr’s noted depictions of crowds of aimless people, characterized as “children” juxtaposed with men in suits from the “First World.” As such, it is the writers/authors/scholars who possess the most powerful tools of colonization.

(This nature/human binary also fits with the problems Spurr emphasizes in the relations of a colonial situation, including the notion of technological and economic advancement as a status indicator in the dominant viewpoint that cultures exist in binary relationships (6). To address the economic advancement argument in terms of my earlier male/female example, one need only search the concept to discover that most studies show women making about 77 or 78 cents for the same work that men earn a dollar for.)

Spurr also cautions us, though, not to concieve of power as a monolithic structure. The “writer” of a colonial discourse can be any voice of institutional authority or cultural ideology (12). Very often, because of the Panopticon-like gaze that the colonized know may be resting upon them, these voices of authority come from the colonized peoples themselves in hopes of assimilating, gaining power, or being a “model minority.” Thus, everyone is always a subject of a colonizing gaze, regardless of who is aligning themselves with the dominant power structure in order to do the gazing. “For the observer, sight confers power; for the observed, visibility is a trap” (16).

We even have systems for placing inanimate landscapes under the power of the speaker because they can be gazed upon (18). The idea of a golf course as colonized wilderness makes me wonder what is safe if the earth itself is subject to this dominant discourse? Certainly people are not, as evidenced by Spurr’s telling of the colonization of the bodies of both the male and female pygmy. I think the answer is nonexistent; anything can be colonized. “The gaze is never innocent or pure, never free of mediation by motives which may be judged noble or otherwise” (27). There is always a purpose or motive to surveillance/the gaze.