Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Internet And The Problem Of Context-Free Communication

Have you noticed the way modern communication is becoming weirdly context-free? I mean, have you noticed how on the internet every thought can be regarded as simply expressing something in itself, regardless of how and where it appears? And how weird and bad that can be?

I guess one more obvious manifestation would be the cases involving internet shaming for people who were plausibly trying to share something with a few friends. You know that story about the women who had a running gag with each other doing the opposite of what signs say to do? They took a photo of themselves pretending to be loud and disrespectful in front of a sign saying to do the opposite at Arlington Cemetery (for veterans) and put it on Facebook. Then, basically, their lives were over.

There's a lot to say about that story obviously, but I think part of it has to do with context. If you imagine sharing that photo before the internet existed, it seems to me there are huge differences in various sharings. Imagine sharing it just with your friend then putting it away. Now imagine sharing it at a large party. Now imagine you use it as your yearbook photo because you think it says something important about who you are. Now imagine it on a flyer for a pacifist organization, critical of the military.

These sharings are completely different. But on the internet, there's no context. There's just the photo, sitting there, being interpreted by the viewer however they want.

It's not news that being offended on the internet has something to do with expressions taken out of context. But I think the context problem is very broad. Suppose you're trying to say something serious about an important and complicated topic. In the real world, the first think you'd do is think about your audience.

I know when I am teaching this is a huge part of what I do. In selecting readings, in framing a topic, in deciding what to emphasize, in figuring out what examples to use, and in thinking up questions for discussion -- in all of these things, I have to think first about what the context is -- about where the students are coming from, what they already know, what their experiences are likely to have been, and most importantly, what is on their minds.

For example, in my Intro to Ethics and Values class last year, we spent a week discussing sexism. I selected two contemporary readings that focused mostly on two things: 1) whether you can define sexism in terms of individual irrelevant appeals to sex distinctions, or whether a definition has to appeal to the idea of a gendered hierarchical system, and 2) the gender wage gap, rational decision-making, and preference formation. We talked about examples having to do with sexy dress requirements for female restaurant employees and about gendered child care expectations.

Everything about this is contextual -- relevant to life in a 21st-century liberal capitalist democracy. Imagine that instead, with no explanation, I had spent the whole time talking about whether it is OK that women work, earn money, and play on sports teams. Wouldn't that have been weird?  But obviously there are contexts in which that wouldn't be weird: contexts where those things are thought to be inappropriate -- not that far in the past in some parts of Western history, BTW.

Conversely, if you were going to give a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of domestic abuse survivors, and you spent the whole time talking about that time Larry Summers implied that women aren't as good at math as men, and then got deeply into the evidence, wouldn't that be peculiar and even offensive? But for a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of science students, it might be just the thing.

On the internet, you never know who your audience is, or what they think is important, or what they're experiences are, or what they are trying to learn. And maybe it's just the sites I tend to look at, but I feel like there's this ongoing thing of criticizing ideas because why are we talking about this thing instead of this other thing, or framing things in this particular way? Often it's legit, but other times I think it's just context: not everything has to be the Encyclopedia Britannica, trying for that impossible universal context, inevitably failing.

You can try to create context. You can make a site or a blog with a specific purpose, and put up a ton of stuff to show who you are and what audience you are trying to reach and how the background is meant to help people interpret what you are saying. But you can't really control it, because on the internet anyone can come along at any time, and just look at the thing you wrote, and be like, "WTF is that person talking about and why are they talking about it that way?"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Life-Affirming Moment By The Side Of The Chicago River

A sailboat waits patiently.

Last week I was visiting Chicago, and I was walking around with my friend, and just as we got to crossing the Chicago River over a bridge, alarms started going off. Lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and guys in reflective outerwear started shouting and telling everyone to get off the bridge.

We soon understood that the bridge was going to open. That is, the two sides of the bridge were going to go up, so that something could pass underneath. After the obligatory selfie-takers were finally shooed away, we all stood waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing. The alarms stopped; the cars were allowed back on the road.

As we crossed -- a bit nervously -- we chatted with our fellow citizens, and learned the basic fact that that the bridge goes up and down to allow for sailboats to cross from one side to the other. In fact, as we learned on the internet, this bridge opens twice a week during the fall and spring, so sailboats can move between their winter resting places and their summer sailing places.

But why didn't it go up? A reflective outerwear person told us that something had malfunctioned and that they were going to try again. We decided to wait and watch. A few minutes later, the alarms started going off, lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and so on. A larger crowd buzzed around, all of us waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing.

My friend was tired and decided to go in, but something about the scene transfixed me. I talked to the guys, and they said they were going to try one more time. So I decided to wait.

It was a pretty awesome spot, actually. It was May, and cool and windy, but the sun was shining down. On the corner, some street musicians including a saxophonist were playing incredible music, including classics from The Jackson Five. I looked down, and saw the people in their sailboats, waiting for the bridge, and hoping it would work. Soon they tried again, the whole rigamarole with stopped traffic and get the selfie-takers off, and -- nothing.

It was so nice, standing there, I decided to stick around to see what would happen. Would they give up? Eventually I saw a repair truck down in the lower level of the bridge, and I figured they must be trying to fix something. Down below, about half a dozen sailboats were meandering around, just drifting, waiting for the bridge.

I figured I'd hang out and wait. Something about the whole scene was so pleasant and satisfying. Part of it had to do with the bridge and the problem themselves. I don't know how to else to phrase this, but it was so refreshing to be encountering such a straightforward situation. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge. It all seemed so ... real, so non-virtual, so embedded in the world of things.

I got to thinking about how many of the things I deal with -- in life, and in academia, and in philosophy -- have none of these qualities. My things are complicated, and nuanced, and mixed. When there are problems, it's often not obvious what a "solution" would be, or even if there is one. Things that are better from one point of view seem worse from another. There are a lot of perspectives to take into account.

This bridge situation had none of that. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge.

As I waited, I thought about how amazing the engineering of a bridge like that is. This bridge -- the "DuSable Bridge," as I learned -- opened in 1920, and back in the day it would open around 3,000 times a year. I thought about how amazing cities are, and how so many people had to cooperate on a massive scale to get the bridge made but also to organize the opening and closing and making sure the sailboat people were ready when the bridge was going to open.

Around me, the city was bouncing with life. A street performer dressed all in silver with a bright silver hat wandered over to where one the sailboats was lolling on the side of the river, so he could talk to the sailboat people. A woman with a baby in a stroller stood beside me and listened to the musicians and watched the water. Eventually, a gang of high school students came by, and two of them started dancing together -- like, real partner dancing, with dips and swinging around and the whole nine yards. The reflective outerwear people and everyone else whooped their appreciation.

Finally, the alarms went off. I was surprised how invested I'd become in this bridge going up. I wanted the sailboat people to be happy, but more than that I wanted to experience this miracle of this huge and heavy bridge from 1920 just lifting up into the air, like it was nothing, like we do this all the time.

Cars off, selfie-takers whisked away, a pause... and up it went! Only on the right hand side. I don't know if that was intentional or what, but it didn't matter, it was plenty of space. Sailboats used their motors to zoom on through. Boats I hadn't seen that were lingering behind a curve came into view, and they too zoomed on under the bridge.

Merriment and happiness. People clapping and hollering. Total life-affirmingness. As I sauntered away, the musicians shifted gears into Guns 'n' Roses, and much as I love GnR in their own weird way, this wasn't the moment. I picked up the pace and scampered off into the city.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Two Faces Of Branding

A couple of months ago I read Eddie Huang's book Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir. If you haven't read it, it's about his life growing up as an Asian-American in the US and doing all kinds of different high-intensity activities like getting into fights, going to law school, and opening a restaurant. The book was the origin of the TV sitcom with the same name, though as I understand it the book and the show are quite different.

Of the many interesting and funny things in the book, one topic that really got me thinking had to do with brands. Brands are a big deal in this book. As a kid, Huang discovers that hip-hop culture, and the clothing associated with it, give him a way to challenge Asian-American stereotyping and racism.

Huang grows up in Florida, where his social experiences are constantly reminding him of the fact that he is seen as Asian and thus seen as being a certain kind of person with certain kinds of qualities -- many of them qualities he does not have or want. He talks about how in American movies Asian men never get the girl, and how Asians are stereotyped as deferential and non-assertive.

The racial stereotyping take many different forms, many of them social and peer-oriented, some of them professional. When he expresses his dream to become a sportscaster on ESPN, his father says, "They'll never let someone with a face like you on television." Huang thinks his father doesn't know what he's talking about. But later he has an interview with a newspaper, to do sports journalism, and the "big white guy" doing the hiring takes one look at him and says, "Oh, wow, that face ..." which turns out to mean that no athletes are going to talk to him with "that face" because he looks "... so young." He doesn't get the job.

Huang is a wound-up aggressive guy who likes to scrap with other guys, get into people's faces, and get into all kinds of trouble, and at one point he realizes that his being that way is a big problem for people. He says, "I was a loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian how had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn't Asian either." 

Early on, Huang gravitates toward hip-hop music, style and culture, and as he grows up and learns things, he comes to realize that connecting with black American culture allows him a way into a mode that is both embracing genuine identity -- not trying to be white -- and also outspoken and non-apologetic.

And wearing clothing brands associated with hip hop culture is a big part of that: it allows him to connect with people he wants to connect with and also show people he's not the stereotype they are putting on him.

That, of course, is part of what branding is all about. I mean, if you ever read the business section of the paper and you get a glimpse in to what companies are doing when they talk about "creating and and maintaining brands," that is exactly the kind of concepts they use. The  idea is to create a set of feelings and ideas around your brand so that consumers will connect with it and see the brand as representing who they are.

Somehow, when I read about branding strategy from the corporate perspective, it usually seems so dumb. I mean, the idea that some company is going to use fashion models and ad guys to link up their brand of car or vodka or shirt or whatever with some set of impressions and feelings, and the idea that you would then use those brands to express yourself -- it all seems so cynical and ridiculous, like one of those debased aspects of consumer culture that is too stupid to enter into and yet in some ways unavoidable.

But then when I read Huang's book, using brands to express yourself didn't seem stupid -- it seemed clever and interesting. Of course, part of that is because what he's using brands to do is clever and interesting, and isn't your run-of-the-mill I-have-more-money-than-you. Still, the basic concept is the same.

I guess in a way it's not surprising that you can use the tools of capitalism to sometimes do cool things. After all, sometimes the tools of capitalism are the only tools we have.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

French Islamophobia, Fashion, And Freedom

From Tommy Hilfiger's Ramadan Collection
Here at TKIN we usually avoid the low-hanging fruit. I figure, if something is just really obviously stupid and wrong, you don't really need a whole blog post about it. But we're making an exception today -- because I can't help myself from saying something about this article that appeared in the New York Times in April, describing French reactions to the introduction of modest clothing from various clothing lines.

What started it all is that big name fashion brands, like Dolce and Gabana, H&M, and DKNY put out modest clothing lines -- long skirts, long sleeved tops, a swimming outfit that covers up -- with the implicit suggestion that they were hoping to attract Muslim consumers. Tommy Hilfiger had a "Ramadan collection," and Dolce and Gabana offered abayas and hijabs. Marks and Spencer offered a "burkini."

Some people in France are very upset. The minister for women's rights said the clothing represented "social control over women's bodies" and should not exist. The co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent said the designers were exploiting a misogynist system and should "have some principles." Philosopher and influential feminist scholar Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of the brands that sell "Islamic fashion."

I'm sorry but -- has everyone gone completely insane?  I mean, we are talking about modest clothing. Has it really come to this? That the mere existence of modest clothing for women is some kind of radical problem?

Just a few decades ago, women were shamed and assaulted for not wearing modest clothing that was not modest enough. And today, even though the lines are drawn differently, women are still shamed and assaulted for wearing clothing that is not modest enough. You're telling me a world in which people say "she asked for it" because a woman wore a miniskirt to a party is also a world in which long skirts and covering clothing are banned? FFS.

In the most "reader recommended" comments at the Times, there are two ideas floating around, both of which seem to me ridiculous. One is that the clothing in question is misogynistic because it reflects a cultural double-standard -- in which women have to cover and men do not. The other is that the clothing in question is misogynistic on grounds that women wear it because they're "forced" to.

The commenters at the Times like to think they're very clever, but both of these are a logic fail. The clothing itself isn't anything. Selling modest clothing just gives people the option of modest clothing -- an option anyone I would think anyone has a right to.

To deny this entails saying that the world would be a better place if women didn't have the option of long skirts and covering clothing. So, what -- now we all have to show some tits and ass to save the United Federation of Planets?

From a philosophical point of view, the whole thing recapitulates the essential problem that Francophone culture has with the idea of banning clothing as religious symbols. Because things -- and especially clothing things -- are symbols only in virtue of how they are interpreted. As articles of clothing, they are also just articles of clothing.

As a million people have said before me, how can you say something is wrong when some people do it but "fashion" when Jackie O. does it?

More abstractly, I think there's a tendency to think about cases like this in terms that pit one absolute against another. Like: either you're for radical freedom of the individual in all cases because that's Truth, Justice, and the American Way, OR, you think society and social reality impact on people in complicated ways so that "individual freedom" is just a code for "we'll leave you alone to sort out your own damn problems."

But these things are highly contextual. At this point in my life, I believe that clothing, like food, has entered the category of appropriate radical individualism. That is: let people wear what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions and judgments about other people. Let people eat what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions or judgments about other people.

For me, it's not that these things follow from some abstract universal truth about things always go best when you leave people alone to do what they want and never judge. I don't think that's true. Instead, it has to do with the contextual space that food and clothing now occupy. They're both intensely personal, uncomfortably politicized, domains where someone always thinks they know better than someone else. As, indeed, all of these French fashion people seem to think they know what's best for a whole bunch of other people.

But above all, modest and covering clothing for women should always be an option. How is that not obvious? And I say all of this as someone who loves to wear sexy, revealing, and flashy outfits. Because in addition to all the reasons already mentioned, there's this: how can I freely choose to wear the clothing I love, when there's no option to choose otherwise? Without any other options, I'd be essentially forced into it! Talk about "social control over women's bodies."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portrait Of An Artist As A Woman: Saint Phalle, Subversiveness, and Sex

Lifesaver fountain by Niki de Saint Phalle in Duisburg, Germany. Photo by JuergeunG, reproduced here under Creative Commons License.

I don't know if you happened to read Ariel Levy's recent New Yorker profile of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who built gigantic sculptures in the hills of Tuscany in the 1970s.

Personally, I read the piece with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the gigantic sculptures really speak to me. They look so cool, looming out of the countryside. Plus, during the twenty years she worked on them, she lived in the sphinx sculpture, with her bedroom inside one breast and her kitchen inside the other. How cool is that?

On the other hand, as I read more about the artist herself, I felt ... annoyed. Saint Phalle lived a life full of self-created drama. She had a lot of "personal charisma," which helped to get people to pay attention to her art. She did a lot of pieces involving shooting a gun at stuff. About those pieces, she said, "I mean, it isn’t as beautiful as war, it isn’t as beautiful as seeing someone killed or the atom bomb, but it’s the most that I can do!" She had children, whom she then completely ignored.

But even these things, which are annoying to me, are complex and multifaceted. The shooting paintings, which she started in the early 60s, began as an attack on domesticity and the suffocating lives women were expected to live. Properly irritated that the way male artists could go around doing whatever they want while women were expected to cook dinner, she decided she would, herself, just start doing whatever she wanted. Part of that, obviously, was prioritizing her art over her children -- as so many men have done before her.

Levy puts it this way: "If American radical feminism of the time was about rewriting the rules of society, Saint Phalle had a different notion: she felt that the rules simply did not apply to her." I can really resonate with this. Because while it's important to change the rules, it's also important to have people just going off and doing something completely different. That's what art -- and artists -- are all about.

So the fact that she made a point of living, and doing art, in ways that challenge gender norms -- well, that's cool and kind of heroic.

And yet. The art historian Catherine Dossi is quoted here as saying that the more successful Saint Phalle got, the more her "challenge" to the establishment shifted away from "blowing up" domesticity, and more toward being a "femme fatale. "Always an extraordinary beauty, she starting doing more than making paintings -- she started putting on tight white jumpsuits and inviting people to watch her look amazing making them.

Frankly, on one level this is just depressing. Because making yourself hot and then inviting people to watch you do what you're doing? Not so much in the "challenging gender norms" category. Watching a sexy and beautiful woman do something is stereotypical.

And to me, even the mere fact of her beauty itself is frustrating. Do you realize how often when you read a story like this about a woman that it turns out her beauty and sex appeal is an important part of the story? Um -- always? Do you know how reading these stories over and over makes young girls classify themselves from the get-go -- the beauties, who can do the things they want, and the non-beauties, who have to play nice, find their way through, make people like them in other ways?

So I admit that when I learned about the white jumpsuits, my first reaction was disappointment and frustration. Really?

And yet -- however. The truth is that the link between beauty and subversiveness for women is real -- and even if it's a link they don't want it, it is put on them by the rest of the world. Saint Phalle says it herself:

"Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly, they would have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), screaming against men in my interviews and shooting."

She's right. And it's the same thing Courtney Love said -- correctly -- about getting cosmetic surgery (including a nose job) in her youth:

"I have to be pretty if I’m going to get over. And I have to get over if I’m gonna fuck [the system] up. And I’m gonna fuck it up."

And really, on top of everything, there's just the girls who want to have fun aspect. As women who have sex with men and men who have sex with men and everyone who has sex with men knows: if you want to have sex with men, and you want them to find you attractive, it's usually going to matter whether you look the part.

In this interview, Courtney Love lays it out with characteristic bluntness:

"When you’re fat like I was ... you do not get to fuck the boys you want to fuck. Right? Right? ... I swear to God, Lisa. I was a fat girl my whole life. No one would fuck, and when they did they’d do things like fart in front of me ... The minute I got skinny and got a nose job and became photogenic, and all of a sudden I had a bidding war, and every boy I ever wanted, wanted me."

Thinking about the matter this way, if you think it's important for women to get to enjoy life's pleasures, and if it's true that in our world a lot of those pleasures are more easily accessed the cuter you get -- well, I can't blame anyone for wanting to be as cute as possible.

So I guess all in all, if Saint Phalle wanted to wear white jumpsuits, and sleep around, and pal around with Jean Tinguely, and make giant Nanas -- big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts -- well, more power to her.