Horror Feminism

So, the other say, I made the claim that American Horror Story is a feminist series. Let me explain, based on the two seasons we have so far. As a disclaimer, I should add that AHS is one of my favorite shows on TV right now and I am a big fan of the concept of keeping most of the same cast from one season to the other while completely changing the narrative so that each season is a self-contained mini-series.

When I started watching AHS, I was instantly reminded of the original title of the Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series: Men Who Hate Women.  Both seasons have that theme, along with the theme of women who fight back, not always appropriately, but that is patriarchal distortion for you.

The first season revolves around men’s transgressions (mostly sexual through infidelities) and how women related to them cope with that. Almost every woman in that season was subject to masculine degradation and reacted – not always well, and not always against the right target – within the constraints of a patriarchal system. See how Ben Harmon pretty much decides on his own to transplant his family across the country after his infidelity and constantly hectors his wife about trying to get over his transgression.

This theme of men who get to hate on women with abandon because the patriarchal system makes it easy and brings to bear no consequences for them is even clearer in the second season, whether it is former Nazi doctor Arden, Father Timothy Howard, or serial killer Dr Oliver Thredson. In response, women try to fight back with the weapons they have or make for themselves, as do Sister Jude and journalist Lana Winters. Again, sometimes they strike wrong (against each other as the patriarchal context distorts relationships and prevents solidarity), but they do strike. And not unlike Lisbeth Salander, they do end up punishing the men who hate women.

I do hope this theme continues in the upcoming seasons.

The Walking Dead – Feral Season

I did not watch the new half season of the Walking Dead at the time it aired because (1) I can’t stand commercial breaks, and (2) I was saving it for the Holiday season and an 8-hour transatlantic flight. I have now watched the whole eight episodes back to back and I am pleased (and by pleased, I mean, disgusted) to report that this season is that of the feral misogyny. The same misogyny as the previous seasons, except without any of the social restraints (such as they were) from the previous seasons.

The unfaithful slut gets her comeuppance

… By dying in a bloody and painful childbirth, butchered by Maggie and with a coup de grâce administered by her son. I guess it was worth it not having this first-term abortion after all. The baby, of course, is fine (except infected, like everybody else).

Carl and his stupid hat. 

The young actor has obviously considerably grown up over season break (supposedly a Summer season in the show timeline), but somehow the ridiculous hat still looks way too big on him and somehow, this new found maturity (as materialized by his full ownership of a gun as well as protective attitude towards the females in the herd) has not made him realize the ridiculousness of the hat. Oh well. I’ll leave it up to you to get all Freudian on the mercy-killing one’s mother.

One old patriarch out, one old patriarch in

Out with Dale, in with Hershel. Since Andrea was left behind, there was no need for Dale to lecture and patronize her all the time. Hershel is still around although now that everybody has submitted to Rick’s alpha male status, he is relegated to subordinate patriarch. However, patriarchs still have their special relationships. After his amputation and near-death experience (saved by Lori), the first hand he squeezes his Rick’s (not his daughters’). The alpha male gets first recognition in the clan.

WTF did the writers do to Andrea? 

Good grief, Laurie Holden does not deserve this. Seems to me the writers have had it in for Andrea since the beginning, what with the character being constantly shown as the uppity woman, who wants to be like the guys, only she can’t because she’s got girl cooties, and everybody has to remind her of her lowly status (Dale, Lori, etc.).

So I initially had some hope when she was separated from – and left behind by – Grimes’s group. I even had higher hopes when she partnered with Michonne! Tough broads together! Ugh. No, as soon as they find the Potemkin village, Andrea falls under the spell of the other alpha male, The Governor. Her character goes all lame. Of course, he puts her in her place at the slightest trace of uppitiness.

Also, kudos for reducing Michonne to the stereotype of the angry black woman, barely socialized and fit for human company. Ugh.

Feral patriarchs

As I mentioned in the title, this season is the season where survivors go feral. Grimes is more advanced down that path than the Governor but he’s getting there. This first half season was especially bloody. Under the guise of saving ammunition, we get treated to a lot of hand-to-head bludgeoning, blood splattered all over people’s faces.

That is especially the case when Grimes (who had been a brooding dick to his wife) goes apes*it when he realizes she has died in childbirth. So, he disappears for a while and goes on a rampage, because, never mind the newborn that needs taken care of, that’s a woman’s job. And he’s gotta do a guy thing.

The killing thing, of course, extends to other survivors (same for the Governor who massacres a bunch of soldiers for supplies). It is actually uncanny how the two groups resemble each other: one alpha male with BIG dominance issue, a black guy (interchangeable, in Grimes’s group… so long T-Dog, we hardly knew ya), one Asian guy, one lame female, one neo-nazi brother (from the same family), one creepy doctor experimenting / keeping walkers.

The Governor does not go on rampages as savagely as Grimes, but he does some pretty creepy stuff, like the zombie head collection he keeps in his man cave, along with his now-turned daughter (VERY creepy stuff there).

Where Grimes has crossed the line into savagery and feral clan protectiveness, even if it means killing other survivors, the Governor is not quite there yet, but I suspect he will in the second half of the season. We can expect a Big Confrontation with the Grimes group. I’m guessing it’s too much to hope for for both Grimes and The Governor to die.

This progressive turn to savagery for the whole Grimes group is materialized with their physical degradation. They’re all filthy, with dirty and torn clothes. There is not much left civilized in them and their solidarity does not extend past their limited (and dwindling) group.

Oh, and there’s another group showing up at the end of the last episode of the half season, and within five minutes of showing up, a woman is told to shut up as a grown man thinks a boy with a stupid hat has higher status.

But they’re black, so, don’t you all get too attached here because black people are disposable on this show.

The only saving grace: Glenn and Maggie, apparently, the only characters who care about diapers and baby formula.


Modernization Theory – A Steady Record of Failure

Greece being the latest casualty, as demonstrated by sociologist Costas Panayotakis in the New York Times Examiner:

“Writing this column has heightened my awareness of how often and how quickly the representation of social reality by The New York Times is contradicted by the facts.  In such cases, the journalist whose past reporting has proven to be widely off base continues reporting like nothing had happened.  Now s/he presents a completely different picture of reality, one that completely contradicts the picture s/he had given just a few weeks and months earlier.  The optimistic explanation of such phenomena is that the reporters become chastened by the failings of their previous reporting and change their story to more closely fit the facts.  The less optimistic explanation is that they understand journalism not as an effort to capture reality as accurately as they can but rather as a form of entertainment, where self-contradiction is not a problem as long as one can keep churning out colorful stories that will kill readers some time as they commute to and from work.  Given how frequently I find myself having to debunk articles by The New York Times that cover Greece, I have to admit that it is the latter, less optimistic explanation that seems more plausible to me.

The trigger for these thoughts was a recent article reporting on Greek protesters pelting a German diplomat with coffee. (i)  The article rightly links this incident to a statement by German “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel” who said that “1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.”  The article then points out that, at a time of high unemployment in Greece, “Mr. Fuchtel’s comments were seen as tone deaf.”  It also quotes Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for a conservative Greek newspaper, who suggests that Mr. Fuchtel seems to have no understanding of the suffering Greek people are currently undergoing and to “[lack] ‘the flexibility and the diplomatic skills’ to speak more carefully”.


It should be added here that both articles by The NYT are informed by a ‘modernization’ theory of development.  This theory, developed after World War II by American academics who were often members of the Cold War anti-communist establishment, blamed the great inequalities in the global capitalist economy on the failure of poor countries to follow the good example of those countries that purportedly became rich through the adoption of modern institutions, such as market capitalism and liberal democracy.  In this model, poor countries that emulated the institutions of rich countries would catch up with them, leaving behind problems, such as intense poverty and deprivation.  Needless to say, development strategies based on this model did not lead to a closing of the gap between the global North and the global South, leading to alternative understandings of the origins of global inequalities, which point out the ways in which the technological advances and wealth of the rich countries is to some extent the product of the intense exploitation of people in the less affluent countries.

By focusing on the “[m]entoring and … know-how” that Mr. Fuchtel brings to Greece and by identifying his mission as one of making Greece “a bit more efficient and perhaps a little more German,” Mr. Kulish in effect adopts the modernization narrative.  The problem, however, is that Greece’s present state was the product of a period in which the country had converged more closely to the institutional realities of advanced capitalist countries than it had ever done in its past.  Hence, Greece is only the latest example of the failures of modernization theory and the latest example of the ways in which great global inequalities, with all the human suffering they entail, cannot simply be blamed on domestic institutions and cultural attitudes.  Instead, they have to be seen as a regular and predictable product of global capitalism’s exploitative nature.”

Modernization theory is indeed the basis for the disastrous structural adjustment programs that the IMF pushed on developing countries that led to the lost decade. And that is the underlying narrative when development gets discussed in the media.

And it does not work.

The Fancy Concept Du Jour – Cascading Network Activation

Thank Manuel Castells for that one (adapted from Entman, 2004:10):

So what does this mean, exactly? This diagram was used to illustrate the way influence is exercised in society, what Castells calls a hierarchy of influence because not all players have the same ability to set the agenda, prime the public, frame issues and index them. Actually, these four processes (agenda-setting, priming, framing, and indexing) are the main mechanisms through which influence is exercised.

In the diagram, Castells was using the example of the shaping of opinion in the running up to the war in Iraq where the public opinion was fed a daily dose of untruths cascading downwards from the administration. Many people continue to this day to believe some of these lies even though they have been since thoroughly debunked. The full arrows mark the cascading hierarchy, with the administration setting the agenda. Other elites (such as other foreign governments or the UN and other such international fora) contribute to priming the agenda (something also done by the media). Priming refers to the process of creating determined associations in people’s minds between element of the agenda the administration wants to push and certain benchmarks or standards through which events or actions by leaders will be evaluated. Like priming a pump, the public has to be primed to think in certain ways about certain issues. Associated with this is the more familiar process of framing, that is, of selecting and highlighting elements of events, connecting them into a coherent narrative that supports the set agenda.  And finally, the process of indexing that is, how actors in the media rank the importance of issues based on governments statements.

The dotted arrows mark the potential for resistance against this hierarchy of influence. For instance, the public can resist the framing done by the media by either selecting other media (such as watching the BBC or Al-Jazeera in English coverage of specific events like the assassination of Osama bin Laden or the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya) or “talk back” to the media through social networking platforms such as Twitter. Other elites can also resist the agenda-setting of the administration (as a few governments did before Operation Iraqi Freedom… remember the Freedom Fries).

Nevertheless, as Castells argues, frame dominance (usually by whichever entity is at the top of the cascade) is the norm and frame parity (the successful challenge of a dominant frame by less powerful groups) is the exception.

As Castells puts it:

“Activation at each level of the cascade depends on how much information is communicated in a particular set of framings. What passes from one level to another is based on selective understanding. Motivations play a key role in effectiveness of framing at each level of the cascade. Participants in the process of communication are cognitive misers who will select information on the basis of the habits. (…) Elites select the frames that advance their political careers. Media professionals select the news that can be most appealing to audiences without risking retaliation from powerful players. People tend to avoid emotional dissonance, thus they look for media that support their views. For instance, when people try to escape the cascading process in one media system because of their disagreement with the frames, they search for online news from foreign sources. (…) The global network of news media offers the public an alternative when framing in one particular media context fails to win acceptance or subdue resistance. Indeed, media framing is not an irresistible determination of people’s perceptions and behavior.” (Communication Power, 164 – 5)

Loïc Wacquant Gets It Wrong on Digital Dualism

It is disappointing to find someone of the caliber of Loïc Wacquant getting so sloppy and lazily going with the common trope that social media platforms are debased forms of communication and interaction in the June 2012 issue of Philosophie Magazine (thanks to my Twitter colleague Enklask for a copy of the interview). The interview is in French, so, I’ll give a rough translation as it is very brief and revolves around three questions. My comments will be in blue:

1. In what ways is the short format detrimental to thought, comprehension, and argumentation?

Wacquant argues that the short format is an invitation to intellectual laziness as it promotes soundbites with no depth and whose content is simplistic and superficial. To communicate in 140 characters about everything and anything, all the time, as is now fashionable, is not the same as articulating one’s thought. To tweet is to wrap oneself into an immediate present, without reflexion, perspective or nuance, and without ever examining the complexity of an object.

Ok, frankly, this sounds a lot like your elderly next door neighbor telling kids to get off his lawn and this falls into the familiar trope of creating hierarchies of thought and interaction according to standards that are never disclosed and examined themselves (which, in the case of a Bourdieusian scholar, is quite ironic). These hierarchies, of course, privilege, and declare true and authentic, privileged modes of communication (acquired through the proper habitus and the proper education) based on dominant cultural capital.

To assume and use such hierarchies is an act of power in claiming one’s practice as the one deep, true, and authentic form of communication and interaction and thought and to dismiss others as superficial, unsophisticated, simplistic and whichever other expressions of social contempt are relevant in the context.

I am quite sure that we could easily find examples, years back, of people deploring the superficial nature of telephonic communication over the written letter and its depth and perspective, as opposed to the immediacy of the phone conversation. So now, Twitter is the new culprit, the new superficial communication mode that debases and damages true communication and interaction. This goes along with the now-common trope of treating virtual communication through a variety of platforms as debased version of the one true and authentic form of interaction: the face-to-face encounter.

This hierarchization completely fails to examine different media in themselves. Who decided Twitter should be about in-depth  philosophical examination? Why should it be? One thing that does get done on Twitter is to exchange links to a variety of other materials that do get in-depth and that might go unnoticed by a lot of people if short links did not circulate on social media platforms (like this interview, which I would not have heard of if it weren’t for Twitter… this blog post will be posted on Twitter as well, therefore giving this topic a second layer of circulation and potential discussion and maybe more). 

These social media platforms are quite diverse (blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Posterous, aggregators such as Reddit, etc.) and are used differently by a variety of users for their own purposes. One does not need to be a full-fledged cyber-utopian to recognize the multiplicity of uses for all these media.

2. Why is it that thinking requires space and time for its full deployment?

Thinking is not an individual, instantaneous and solitary, activity. It is collective. As Gaston Bachelard argues in The Formation of The Scientific Mind, thinking is the product of a community of minds in communication with each other. It is the product of a “cogitamus” (“we think”) that needs space to expand and time to mature.

Thinking then deepens by piercing the crust of appearances and questioning the doxic reasoning. Or to break with common sense specific to a specific scholastic universe (philosophical, sociological, theological, or literary, etc.) requires tenacity and effort. Wittgenstein noted in Remarques mélées that with thought, “there is a time to plow and a time to reap”. Both activities require time.

I hope I am not the only one to see a glaring irony here because I think that is one thing that tools like Twitter (and yes, it’s a tool, it does not produce content, it spreads it throughout networks) do well is to connect individual and create communities of minds organized in flexible and informal networks (rather than rigid scholastic and academic communities bound by strict rules of tenure and “publish and perish” in specific closed publications, with blind and anonymous reviews that may very well stifle rather than promote communities of minds).

More than that, social media platforms have a very low price of entry so participation is not drastically confined to academic elites. I would tend to think it’s a good thing. I am not sure how many members of the academic elite fully engage with Twitter (Saskia Sassen is intermittently on). In my limited knowledge, I can only name Barry Wellman (which is not a big surprise considering his field of expertise). Maybe there are others. But the point is academia, as a community of scholars, has a strict hierarchy (and it is in display in all its aristocratic glory at every major academic conference) that might get shaken up by social networking. And maybe that is part of where the issue is: the leveling effect of social networking platform where one’s academic titles might not receive the respect and deference holders might think they are entitled to. Hence, the trashing of the medium as superficial, simplistic, etc.

This argument have been thrown at Twitter and blogs by journalists for years. That was a weak argument then, and it is still weak now.  Nathan Jurgenson has called this argument digital dualism: the claimed (but never examined) superiority of jounalism / academic discourse / (name your preferred mode of communication, especially if it is f2f, long form, etc.) over electronic forms of communication. 

3. Is the dominance of the short format inevitable? Are we leaving the era of the grand systems, in philosophy, in sociology, and the corresponding monumental work that accompanied it?

When did the tweet proclaiming this so-called “dominance” as ephemeral as it is fictive appear? In the long term, the short format fills the empty spaces of the day and the interstices of intellectual communication. It is a means of entertainment, not thought. Who remembers a tweet three hours after it’s been sent? What is left of a chat the day after its posting? What is the worth of all the editorials of the 10 currently most fashionable philosophers compared the 800 pages of Bourdieu’s lectures at the College de France, which are the products of a multiform thinking on symbolic power over the past thirty years. The more “philosophical tweeting” spreads, the more necessary great works are as antidote to against fleeting illusions of the “thought-a-minute”.

Ok, nice example of a category mistake or comparing apples to oranges. Twitter does not produce content, it spreads it, as I mentioned above. I would argue that the rise of the network society has not abolished the need and relevance of major works, as the work of Castells and many, many others continues to show. It takes serious blinders to ignore all the work done in that field. 

The thing is it is not an either/or dualism. We need the great works of academics, produced the old-fashioned academic way, and we need to flexibility, speed and platform diversity of social networking tools to spread that work as far and wide as we can. I think academic who maintain a blase attitude towards them are fighting a losing and needless battle. What are the chances of anybody reading Bourdieu’s 800 pages of lecture beyond a small population of academic? There has to be a better way to diffuse Bourdieu’s work, no? Or are we to sneer at whoever has not read the whole body of work? And by the way, someone using Pierre Bourdieu’s handle on Twitter is doing the work of aggregating resources in all sorts of formats, creating an invaluable collection.

And no one gives fashionable media figures and pseudo-intellectuals a harder time than the Twitter crowd, thereby challenging the dominant doxa. Frankly, what Wacquant spews out in this interview is the most tired clichés about social media platforms, commonly spread in the mainstream media, by elite media figures (remember that piece on how Facebook makes us lonely in the Atlantic?). Wacquant is not challenging some dominant media form here, he is defending the status quo and the dominant doxa.


LOL Your Pathetic Attempt

Wow, progress (not)!

Don’t get your hopes up, ladies, it is still the same patriarchal institution:

“The new section will promote a keener understanding of the “under-appreciated treasure” of women in the church, according to editor Giovanni Maria Vian.

The launch coincides with the worst scandal to hit the Vatican in years as leaked letters addressed to the pope expose a world of jealous, spiteful prelates and petty rivalries.

Vian said Pope Benedict backed the supplement, which he said would hire non-Catholic contributors.

Lucetta Scaraffia, a writer at the paper who created the supplement, said: “It provides information on the female condition, without ignoring hot topics like procreation, access to culture and women’s rights.”

The pullout will compete with L’Osservatore Romano’s stories explaining the Vatican’s approach to women, from its views on abortion to condemnation of female ordination.

In 2010 the Vatican upgraded the crime of ordaining women to the priesthood, rendering it one of the most serious crimes against church law alongside paedophilia.

Under Benedict’s papacy, the views of the Holy See on abortion have not changed. In 2007 a senior cardinal demanded that Catholics stop donating to Amnesty International after it advocated abortion rights for African women gang-raped by soldiers.”

Right. But it’s going to be an all-color supplement. Catholic women deserve no less… the rest of women’s rights… not so much.

Hey, here is an idea: how about a L’Osservatore Romano per i Bambini (for the kids). I’m sure knowing more about the “children’s condition” will do wonders to mend fences about that nasty child abuse scandal.

And on that subject, check out the creepy picture that accompanies the article:

The Visual Du Jour – Objective Commentators

Everyone and their brothers have blogged / tweeted / facebooked about this (via Miss Representation):

This is, of course, part of a whole pattern of ignoring privilege and treating dominant category as the neutral default along with the institutional paucity of women in discourse-shaping organizations, such as the media and think tanks. There is the assumption individuals belonging to minority categories (women, racial and ethnic minorities but the same could be said about class) can be reduced to that identity when they express opinions on issues relevant to their category. On the other hand, whites and men are never subjected to these reductionist judgments. Their position is one assumed to be objective. Therefore, tv programmers and producers see no irony in booking a lot of men on shows to discuss women’s issues.

And then, of course, when it comes to the “serious” issues (gender issues, for instance, as often dismissed as cultural as if there were not serious socioeconomic and political implications things like reproductive rights and structural inequalities), then, naturally, panels will be full of upper-class white men opining as if they occupied a panoptical position that entitled them to a 360 degree view that no other people can have because other non-privileged categories of people have gender / class / race blinders.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

[Disclaimer: I have read the entire Hunger Games trilogy but have not (yet) seen the movie.]

First off, if you have not watched the analysis videos of the Hunger Games on Feminist Frequency, you should do that. Go ahead:

And comparing film and book:

I pretty much agree with everything in these videos, which is why I actually liked the Japanese film “Battle Royale” better than the Hunger Games even though it is extremely objectionable in terms of gender.

One of the ways in which Battle Royale has a better background story than Hunger Games is in the conflict between youth and adult cultures. In HG, it is hard to envision parents not rebelling every year at the idea of sending two of their children for the Games just like that. BR deals with that aspect much better: both stories involve economic and then social collapse. In BR, the social collapse has been marked by an explosion of deviant youth culture across the country, turning adults against the youthful mobs and their criminal behavior. It is therefore not surprising that the BR Act would be passed and that no one would raise issues with randomly picking a class of 9th graders to fight each other to death. That is seen as generational punishment and complete breakdown between adults and adolescents. In HG, picking young people makes the fights more lively and interesting for the audience. After all, it’s all a spectacle. In BR, it is punishment by proxy.

Because this is a Japanese film, there is no avoidance of violence and gore but there is also a lot more humanity in all the contestants whereas in the HG, a few contestants are humanized (mainly, Katniss, Peeta and Rue) and the rest are largely either not explored or dehumanized (like the career tributes, depicted as sadistic and murderous sociopaths, even though it is not really their fault, they were socialized to be like that). Anita Sarkeesian makes the good point that in the film, though, the female tributes are depicted as especially sociopathic whereas Cato gets some humanization towards the end.

So, yes, BR is much more gruesomely violent (audiences under 15 were not allowed, whereas the HG film limited the violence to get a PG13 rating). One could debate the issue of glamorizing the violence or emphasizing other aspects. What I thought was interesting in BR is how much of the violence is horrifying to the teenagers themselves. And that is one of the major aspects of BR: a lot of the killings are clumsy, inadvertent, and side-effects of other dynamics than just pure murderous intent, such as just being scared s!@#$less.

Many deaths occur because teenagers just plucked from their school life simply do not know how to become competent killers. Some give up right away and commit suicide (fatalistic suicide), some kill each other by mistake because they were afraid (as when Kotohiki kills Sugimura even though he was coming to get her to safety). But even the one girl who gets closed to being seen as a sociopathic killer gets humanized and we get an explanation for her behavior (her addicted, prostituting mother selling her to men).

It is also noteworthy that right away, several of the teenagers constitute themselves in teams not to kill more effectively but to figure out solutions even though that is done along traditional gender lines: two girls just shout out to the other to just not fight and meet to talk it over (before being killed by one of the two former winners still in the game) while three geek boys get to work on a computer solution, hacking into the surveillance system of the game.

Finally, the main couple, Shuya and Noriko, play the traditional role: he protects her, she falls ill and slips into a mild coma for a while while he runs around trying to find a way out, ending up locked up in the lighthouse with a bunch of girls who end up killing each other based on old grudges from schools and also based on a stupid mistake… pfft… girls.

In a way, the concept of the game in BR is worse than HG as it takes an entire class of 9th graders who know each other and may be friends and then make them kill each other, as opposed to the tributes who only know the other tribute from their own districts thanks to the absolute segregation between districts. And BR does a good job of presenting the existing relations and collective primary groups feelings between the students with flashbacks to the basketball games (although, again, highly gendered: the boys play the game, the girls cheer from the sidelines).

And as in the HG, the main couple does survive but instead of the Gamemakers bending the rules this one time and declaring them both victors, in BR, they end up wanted for murder, completely alienated from the rest of the culture and living on the run. And even though they are still teenagers, their maturing is obvious. Because the game, in BR, is a punishment for a loathed generation, there are no rewards for the victors except that they get to go home whereas in HG, the Games are one of the means through which the Capitol maintains control (the whole Panem and circenses thing) through a divide and conquer institution that provides entertainment for the Capitol and reinforced powerlessness for the districts.

Interestingly, in BR, we, the real audience, are the audience for the game as we get to see the countdown of deaths (from 42 to the end) on our screen. That is, we are made to be the adult audience watching the teenagers killing each other with no chance of escape. That is a deliberate directorial choice. Note that the same thing sorta happens inadvertently in the HG movie with the death of Foxface whose killing made real movie audience cheer. BR does not expect such cheering on any death. Every single death, in BR is truly portrayed as tragic and useless in that annual culling, which is why we are made to watch them all, with blood and gore.

In that sense, BR makes a stronger point to the audience than HG.

The Long Version

That is the rule of the game: when you get interviewed by the media, what you say / write always get reduced to a couple of points and that is very frustrating. Us academics don’t do short soundbites. So, I was interviewed for a piece in major newspaper on the subject of teens asking celebrities to be their prom dates. Here is the longer version of my contribution on the interaction of social networking platforms and celebrity culture.

1. Social networking platforms have a leveling effect and tend to make hierarchies disappear. So, whether on Twitter or Facebook, people talk back to public figures, be they politicians, public officials, journalists or celebrities. And by talk back, I mean challenge their expertise or status. No one can throw their weight around and hide behind a status to be exempt from such challenges. Twitter users enjoy arguing and discussing, so, there is no point in using one’s status as a joker card.

2. Social networking platforms also amplify what sociologist Mark Granovetter (back in the 80s) has called “the strength of weak ties”: the idea that weak ties (loose and intermittent connections) can have stronger benefits for individuals in terms of building social capital (your network of connections which you can activate at any time for a variety of purposes, such as finding a job or finding a prom date) than strong ties (deep, continuous connections, such as those you have with you parents, close relatives, etc.). So, smart users of social networking platforms do not just use them to reinforce already existing strong ties (such as befriending your siblings and already-existing friends on Facebook) but to develop broad and wide weak ties.

3. As such, social networking platforms reduce the “6 degrees of separation” story (I think it is actually between 3 and 4 degrees now); we can get connected to a lot of people, including celebrities in just one click of a “follow” (on Twitter) or “like” (on Facebook) button. So, no more playing the Kevin Bacon game, just tweet the guy or “like” him on Facebook.

4. All this also takes place in the larger context of the celebrity culture. However, the celebrity culture was always shaped by institutions and organizations that regulated relationships between celebrities and their fans. In the older studio era, Hollywood stars’ interactions with their fans were structured by groups and organizations that maintained a certain distance between the two.  Before the age of global media, if you wanted to get in touch with a celebrity, you have to write to a studio office or their agent. Your letter would land in a PO Box and an administrative assistant would send you back a signed photo or something like that. Even things like the Hollywood Canteen were carefully crafted and part of the whole “we’re in this together” that marked the WWII era celebrity culture. There was always a buffer between celebrities and fans so that celebrities were portrayed as both unattainable (the glamorous photo shoots) and “just like us” (movie stars cooking at home, just like “normal” Americans). This changed with the end of the studio era and the rise of the paparazzi-fed media.

5. The buffer has now pretty much disappeared. Put all those things together with a preexisting media culture (maintained through ‘traditional’ media such as magazine, TV channels such as TMZ or E!) and it is not surprising to see members of the general public taking the quick step of asking straight out a celebrity for a prom date. It is so quick and easy. Now, once a celebrity has a verified Twitter account, users know it is HIM or HER and they are only one link away from that celebrity. Add to that my #1 above leveling effect and they feel completely entitled to just ask (on Twitter, users are continuously asking celebrities for retweets and #FF for their causes or opinions, etc.)

6. One final thing: just asking a celebrity for a prom date is also part of the idea users share a lot (across social networking platforms), and there is also an expectations that celebrities should share more of themselves as well, on a personal level (not the carefully crafted photo shoots for magazines) but they do retain their status as celebrity. To have a verified account on Twitter is a sure sign that someone is somebody.

Again, the network society (an expression coined by sociologist Manuel Castells back in 1996 when he published a book by the same title) makes social capital and network connections a highly valued currency (something that scifi writer Cory Doctorow captured very well in his novel Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom) and so, even if the celebrity turns down the prom date request, the status of the person who asked is enhanced because the celebrity will have to also connect with the user, if only to say no. To receive retweets or mentions from celebrities on Twitter is a status marker. After all, if it is easier for users to talk back to celebrities and public figures, it is also easier for celebrities and public figures to talk back as well (as some have learned rather unfortunately… see: Anthony Weiner).

Should Every Sociologist Blog? My Take

Philip Cohen started it. No one asked me but I’ll butt in anyway.

The answer is, of course, yes. Sociologists should also be all over Twitter, Tumblr and other social networking platforms. To all the reasons Cohen mentions in his post, let me add a few.

First of all, in the context of the field of social sciences, sociology is not the most powerful discipline. It is not the one most featured by traditional media. This is a topic I have blogged about before. When the media when to discuss social issues, they tend to call on psychologists, economists or political scientists. Sociologists are the bottom the list for several reasons. One is that reporters and journalists may not be clear as to what sociologists actually do. The discipline is so diverse in coverage that it might be hard to pin down and to provide the standard definition (systematic / scientific study of human behavior…) is not really helpful.

Two: sociology has a reputation of being a discipline populated by hippies and lefties (not that there is anything wrong with that but that certainly does not do justice to the diversity of the sociological population, after all Peter Berger and Charles Murray are considered sociologists, so there.). This means, it is not considered a “serious” discipline (like economics, which has a lot of maths). And I would argue the media is more comfortable with the individualist narrative provided by psychology that fits more neatly in preexisting cultural frames of explanation for social phenomena and issues.

So, faced with a situation where media presence is sketchy at best, and caricatural at worst, why not make use of the web 2.0. to try to fulfill the promises of public sociology. It is then up to us to claim our media space on our own terms thanks to the technological tools available to us.

Blogging is a good way to start because the price of entry is low. The platforms have gotten easier and easier (think Posterous and Tumblr) for those who are reluctant to fully set up their own websites and get their hands dirty with coding. Blogging is a good way to promote the sociological perspective on current events as well as research going on in our field without the barriers of peer-reviewed publication, the jargon and overall awful academic writing.

Blogging is an easy way to showcase what is distinctive about the sociological outlook on phenomena and issues, and the toolbox that we use to analyze them. These conceptual and theoretical tools should be guiding our blogging practice.  I would also argue that sociology (thanks to the concepts and theories) is best equipped among the social sciences to deal with social change and social movements. Maude knows these are now central topics on which to point the sociological spotlight. No other discipline can fully grasp the dynamics at work in a variety of social movements from the Tea Party to Occupy to indigenous peoples struggle.

While sociology’s thematic diversity may be a problem for traditional media, it should provide for a diversity of blogging on pretty much every topic. And that is a good thing, the more the merrier. Years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich was a keynote speaker at the ASA. She mentioned that she would love to have a list of sociologists working on different topics handy so that when she would write a piece on, say, poverty and gender, she would immediately know who to contact. I don’t know if any initiative emerged out of that but one can easily see how a list of blogs could be created and curated with their corresponding specialization, if any. It is not hard to figure out what the main theme of Philip Cohen’s blog is, or mine, for that matter.

The next issue with blogging is whether or not the genre is dead (it’s not) what with Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. I think there is still space for more developed thinking and analysis that cannot really be accommodated by Twitter. On the other hand, Twitter is great for networking with other sociologists and circulate links, ideas or just hang out and have fun. There are 351 people on the sociology list I created on Twitter. I would never have found these people by just blogging, not to mention all the other people who have some more peripheral interests in sociology without being sociologists themselves. Twitter puts the strength of weak ties on steroids. That is all well and good but we still need stuff to share over that network. We still need to generate content and that is what blogging is for.

Such content can come from multiple sources, and it should. Whether we review books, report on professional papers or conferences, analyze current events or focus on illuminating sociological concepts and theories, or a mix of all that, this is all useful public sociology. We are making the discipline more relevant by showcasing its relevance (if that makes any sense). If there is one thing that public discourse needs is more rationality and analytical clarity while challenging commonsense tropes, and exposing unearned privilege.

So, to blog or not to blog… yes, a thousand times, yes. I know, I know, tenure, promotion, institutional realities (rather nasty), etc. But look, if one has something to say, and if it looks like blogging should be the right platform to say it, then why not. It is true that, at this point, there are no institutional rewards for blogging (maybe for people who blog for major publishers?). That is true. Hopefully, this might change. But the only way this can change is if there is a critical mass of good sociological blogging to justify it.

So, start socblogging.

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Yes, It’s Racist

Good grief (also, what is it with the Bruce Lee-ish / Kill Bill-ish yellow tracksuit?)…

And yes, it is most definitely racist because there are many non-racist ways to make the same point (a larger union is stronger). Meanwhile, we get this ad that basically states that only a multiplication of white people can contain and control the savage and aggressive non-white hordes. So much for this 21st century thing.