Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections on Jacques Derrida, born on this day in 1930.



BY CARY WOLFE
Founding editor, Posthumanities Series at University of Minnesota Press


On this occasion of what would have been Jacques Derrida’s 84th birthday, it is worth reflecting once more on the resonance of his work for our own moment—a resonance that depends not only on his own remarkable body of writings, of course, but also on the continually changing contexts in which his work is read and reread. As Derrida himself often reminded us, the relationship between text and context is forever shifting, and it confronts us with the qualitative asymmetries and amplitudes of difference that obtain between the individual reader or writer and the manifold complexity of the text itself—its material, political, ethical, and affective dimensions, the historicity of its being written and (re)read.

Nowhere is this dynamic on display more intricately and suggestively than in the occasion of the republication of Derrida’s text Cinders in the Posthumanities series some twenty-seven years after its original appearance in French—a fact that relies in no small part on the unusual nature of the text itself, which has been characterized as a kind of prose poem, by turns beguiling and inviting: here a wisp of smoke, there a burnt fragment, leading the reader to an end that is also a beginning. That beginning, for Derrida, was his experience of being haunted, as he put it, by the phrase il ya a lá cendre (which translates, already a little beguilingly, as “cinders there are”)—a phrase that Derrida circles back to time and again in this text, tracing its first appearance in the front matter of La Dissémination in 1972, and apparitions of the phrase earlier and later (and in different guises) in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968), Glas (1974), and The Postcard (1980), among others. Here, Derrida reveals that the cinder is “the best paradigm for the trace,” and “not, as some have believed, and he as well, perhaps, the trail of the hunt, the fraying, the furrow in the sand, the wake in the sea, the love of the step for its imprint.” The attentive reader will already hear in this declaration an anticipation of Derrida’s conjugation of “trace” and “track” in one his last texts, The Animal That Therefore I Am. And after the publication of Cinders, it wouldn’t be long before another important figural and conceptual topos in Derrida’s work—of flame, fire, ashes, and spectrality—would be explored on a much larger canvas, first in Of Sprit: Heidegger and the Question, and a bit later in Specters of Marx.

The weave of ashes, flame, fire, and ghosts that we find in is bound to have an even more profound resonance for us than its original appearance in 1987, not least of all because of the fact of Derrida’s own untimely death nearly ten years ago. In that light, these words (taken from roughly the mid-point of the text) are haunting indeed, as they bear upon and, as it were, personify Derrida’s complex investigations of archive, voice, the technology of writing and inscription, and the living: “He will of course die someday,” Derrida writes; “and, for however brief a time, the little phrase has some chance of surviving him, more a cinder than ever, there, and less than ever without anyone to say `I.’”

But the largest and most far-reaching change of all—one that makes this most writerly and gestural of Derrida’s texts take on a gravitas heretofore unknown—is the accumulation of an increasingly influential body of writings in the intervening decades under the rubric of what has come to be called “biopolitics.” That body of work by Foucault, Agamben, Haraway, Esposito, Sloterdijk, Butler, and many others—to which Derrida would later make his own contribution, of course, in texts such as “Faith and Knowledge” and Rogues—forms a kind of vast echo chamber for Derrida’s mediations on voice, testimony, flame, holocaust, and spectrality in Cinders, which now emerges (as I attempt to elucidate in in my introduction to the text) as a quite unique contribution to the biopolitical literature, even within Derrida’s own corpus.

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Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. In addition to having written the Introduction to Cinders, his books include Zoontologies and What Is Posthumanism?, both from Minnesota.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of the U.S. interstate highway program and its cities.

A Los Angeles freeway in 2009. In his new book, Eric Avila digs into the
cultural history of the U.S. interstate highway program.
Image via Creative Commons.


BY ERIC AVILA
Professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA

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Avila is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, which takes a hard look at the ways in which America's interstate highway program divided cities at the same time as it connected them, cutting through and destroying countless communities. Avila chronicles a wide range of urban experiences, including Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, Baltimore, Miami, Boston, and St. Paul.

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Contrary to what one might expect after reading this book, I actually like freeways—when they work, that is. Yes, I am mindful of how the glut of cars can degrade the urban experience and of how it exploits the planet and its resources, but as a native southern Californian, I still crave those rare moments when L.A.’s freeways aren’t jammed to capacity, when you can actually move through the city with awesome speed and convenience. Such moments behind the wheel, even if they don’t come that often, remind me why freeways were built in the first place: to enable drivers to bypass the city’s bustle with amazing speed and efficiency. The freeway and the automobile, after all, were built upon a uniquely American premise of freedom—a twentieth century freedom of the individual to move, to accelerate, and to maximize the technological potential for unfettered, autonomous mobility.

The pursuit of this very modern freedom is shared across the lines of race, class, and gender. Women, workers, and people of color use freeways just like everyone else, for the demands of work and the need for pleasure. Freeways, after all, were not built just for the rich and powerful. In theory, interstates were built for everyone, but the consequences of their construction were dealt unevenly and The Folklore of the Freeway emphasizes the disparate impact of highway construction upon diverse urban neighborhoods. Thus one of the most surprising discoveries of my research for this book is that postwar highway construction was not an innocent enterprise—that like other forms of state policy and practice, it actually contributed to the racial fracturing of American society during the 1960s and beyond.

The use of race and ethnicity as a means of segmenting and distinguishing the people of a nation or a continent was invented in Europe some five centuries ago, upon the first contact between European and non-European peoples. In the four centuries of American history, race and ethnicity became indispensable tools to distinguish citizens from non-citizens and to justify the conquest of indigenous lands. Only in the twentieth century did we learn that race is not this fixed, quantifiable thing that can be measured within individuals and societies, but rather that it’s an intellectual invention, a conceptual tool designed to enforce difference and establish hierarchy. This concept has been used in pernicious ways throughout American history—to justify slavery, usurp western lands, restrict immigration, and as this book shows, to shape the landscape of our cities.

So in today’s cultural climate, when ethnic studies programs and scholarship are accused of fueling differences and divisions in American society, or when scholars and pundits plead for a “post-racial” society, we need to remember the enduring legacy of racial thinking and practice, especially within the concrete context of the urban built environment. Today’s cities were built upon yesterday’s assumptions and though it sometimes seems like we are moving towards a more just and equal future, racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of our cities.

I wrote The Folklore of the Freeway to help us see the American city—and its history—from the bottom up, from the very communities that bore the burnt of urban highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s. I believe we need to understand what freeways did to people within these communities, through their unique perspectives. This form of organic wisdom is absent from the dominant discourse of planning and public policy. I see the blunt expressions of racial pride and solidarity that have amassed in diverse communities around the invasive presence of the freeway as responses in kind to the racial assumptions that shaped highway policy and practice throughout the interstate era. As a professor of Chicano studies, I confess that I sometimes get frustrated with the scholarly practice of singling out this group’s history from that group’s, or the staunch insistence upon the unique singularity of one group’s history and identity. Several years ago, the great George Lipsitz taught me that race can only be understood relationally and that in the context of American history, it’s impossible to isolate the experiences of a particular social group from those of other social groups. Thus the history of interstate highway construction provided the perfect opportunity to escape the familiar conundrum of ethnic studies scholarship. By showing how the experience of urban highway construction in postwar America cut across the lines of race, class, gender and ethnicity, The Folklore of the Freeway, I hope, provides a model for future scholarship in ethnic studies, one that recognizes the centrality of racial identity and ideology as an active force in American history, while at the same time synthesizing the disparate experiences of diverse social groups and recognizing their fundamentally intertwined histories.

Note to reader: of course not every instance of the freeway and its folklore is accounted for. Readers might find their neighborhoods or their cities missing from the analysis; others might recognize overlooked aspects of freeway folklore from their particular communities. In a study of this scale and scope, I couldn’t capture everything, so there are some necessary omissions. But my hope is that this book can provide an entry point for comprehending the hidden linkages between structure and culture, between the concrete fact of the urban built environment and its interpretation through the subjective prisms of identity, language, and place.

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Eric Avila is professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA. He is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.

"Eric Avila’s in-depth research and his sheer passionate commitment to the subject should make this one of the rare books that succeeds in replacing a widely-accepted narrative."
Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

"A must-read cultural history of the ‘invisible freeway revolts’ through which city people of color have demanded social justice in the midst of aggressive urban reforms. Avila provides timely lessons for scholars and urban planners, pointing us to pay closer attention to the aesthetic and expressive forms of these protests, so necessary to achieve spatial justice in American cities."
Arlene Davila, New York University

Friday, June 27, 2014

"No money, no water" for Detroit—and possible punitive actions from the UN.

In addition to the water news out of Detroit, the UN has declared the U.S.
to be in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean
water to the poor.


BY KAREN PIPER
Author and professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri



Flushing a toilet in Detroit has become a sign of white privilege. There, residents are facing what people in poor countries have experienced for decades: massive water cut-offs. Thousands of connections are being shut off per week as the city attempts to pay down its debt and attract a private contractor to lease its bankrupt water utility. 

This is what water privatization looks like. 

It looks like Johannesburg, South Africa, where a multinational water corporation moved in and began installing pre-paid water meters in black neighborhoods. “No money, no water,” the head of Aquafed, a coalition of private water corporations, stated. Cholera broke out. Riots ensued. 

Is this what is next for Detroit?

In one of the most segregated cities in America, the predominantly black urban center is suffering, while those in the mostly white suburbs continue taking showers, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. This is an environmental justice issue, a human rights issue, and a national sovereignty issue. Detroit’s water customers may well receive cut-off notices from France in near the future, where the world’s largest water multinationals are based. These companies, Suez and Veolia, are currently in the market for bankrupt American utilities. But the U.S. government says we cannot afford to supply our citizens with clean water anymore. We will try to make the poor pay instead, and possibly pay France. Water rates in Detroit have gone up 119 percent in preparations for privatization.

Finally, the UN has taken notice, stating the U.S. is in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean water to the poor. “Sick people have been left without running water and working toilets,” a panel of three experts from the UN Human Rights Office said in a statement issued on June 25. “People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.” UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha said that if the water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, “they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified.”

It is yet to be seen if the U.S. will pay attention to the UN’s scathing review of its water policies. At the very least, the UN has provided an embarrassing commentary on our dwindling status in the world. We have been gutting our water infrastructure budget since the days of Ronald Reagan and now need around one trillion dollars to keep it up and running. Instead, Republicans have consistently pushed for privatization of our water utilities, opposing what the Cato Institute calls “water socialism.” They want water capitalism, it seems.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan claims there has been “significant misinformation” about the water cut-offs. Things are not so bad, he said. There were only 46,000 water cut-off notices in May, and only 4,531 cut-offs—only 4,531 new toilets that will not flush, babies’ bottoms that cannot be wiped, wounds that cannot be cleaned. He thinks that is not too much. Water and Sewage Department Director Sue McCormick has also tried to allay residents’ fears, stating, “Unpaid Detroit water bills affect only Detroit customers. No suburban customers pay any extra on their bills to make up for unpaid bills on Detroit addresses.” People in the suburbs will be fine, she assures us; they will not be asked to pay more to keep the water running downtown. As for the U.S. government, it may be forced to pay more by the UN. If the U.S. does not correct this violation of human rights law by providing financial assistance to those who cannot pay for water, it faces UN punitive actions and a further lessening of status abroad.

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Karen Piper is the author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos (Minnesota, October 2014), Cartographic Fictions, and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri.

"A wonderful book—full of commitment, deeply moving, with stories of real people affected by corporate water grabs. I highly recommend The Price of Thirst."
—Maude Barlow, chair of the board of Food & Water Watch

"Will conflicts over water define the 21st century as the battle to control oil did the 20th? Karen Piper gives us a vivid, inside view of the bizarre world of the water privatizers and their friends in the World Bank. She also offers inspiring account of their opponents: the emerging global movement to make clean water a universal human right."
—Mike Davis, author of
Planet of Slums

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let's have a conversation about U.S. schools that is, ideally, not nice.

What can educators learn from comedians?


BY ANGELINA E. CASTAGNO
Associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University

Comedian Louis C.K. has recently made critical comments of Common Core and standardized testing that have lit up the Internet. He did not parse words, nor did he attempt to avoid offending. Comedians are incredibly adept at saying things most of us wouldn’t dare say. Toward the end of the school year, he tweeted to his 3.3 million followers: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” And later: “I trust a teacher over Pearson or bill hates [i.e. Bill Gates] any day of the week.” In an often-heard comment about C.K., an Internet responder notes that although his work can be considered sad or mean, it is refreshing. The debate around Common Core and standardized testing is the subject of many other blogs, articles, and books, and it is not one I wish to engage here. Instead, I want to suggest that educators take a cue from comedians regarding the value of throwing niceness out the window.

To be nice is to be pleasing and agreeable, pleasant and kind. A nice person is not someone who creates a lot of disturbance, conflict, controversy, or discomfort. Nice people avoid potentially uncomfortable or upsetting experiences, knowledge, and interactions. They do not point out failures or shortcomings in others but rather emphasize the good, the promise, and the improvement we see. Niceness compels us to reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing, pleasant, and comfortable. This avoidance and reframing are done with the best intentions, and having good intentions is a critical component of niceness.

Within schools, niceness often defines appropriate—and even good—behaviors, interactions, norms, and policies. Most educators are nice people with the best of intentions regarding the schooling they provide to students every day. Despite their good intentions, we continue to produce structures that harm children. Those being harmed most often and most significantly are children of color.

Prior research [1] has meticulously explained the multiple ways in which race and institutional racism influence schooling, but whiteness is a foundational component missing from most studies of difference and power in schools. My recent book, Educated in Whiteness, centers the notion of whiteness and illustrates how whiteness works and what it means for youth, teachers, educational leaders, and efforts to achieve equity. By whiteness, I mean structural arrangements and ideologies of race dominance. Whiteness maintains power and privilege by perpetuating and legitimating the status quo while simultaneously maintaining a veneer of neutrality, equality, and compassion. A strategic element of whiteness is the notion of niceness. Although niceness operates in many places, schooling is a particularly illustrative context in which to explore the role of niceness in the perpetuation of inequity. A central claim of my book is that whiteness works through nice people. This is especially the case when one examines common approaches and discourses around diversity in schools.

Not unlike many other places across the nation, in the “Zion School District” (an anonymous district in Utah), diversity-related policies and practices were always engaged in nice ways that would not upset the status quo. Powerblindness came to life in educators’ attempts to ignore, silence, or explain away any power-related hierarchies, inequities, or injustices. Specifically, educators operationalized powerblindness through appeals to learning styles and varied teaching techniques, human relations, and character education, and by politely erasing heterosexism and homophobia. They engaged colorblindness when they silenced race talk and racialized issues. When students tried talking about race, they were schooled in—and through—politeness. When confronted with racialized achievement gaps or race-based inequalities at school that could not be silenced, educators turned them into issues related to language, social class, or refugee status. Deficit ideologies were another mechanism at work when explanations for student failure were located in student and family characteristics. In each of these instances, patterned and pervasive racial inequity was left unnamed, unexamined, and unchallenged. At the same time, educators operationalized equality, meritocracy, and individualism in their efforts to build particular school cultures, create conditions for certain students to succeed, and compete in the current school-reform race. All these mechanisms work in service to whiteness. They are so common and prevalent that they allow whiteness to thrive without much effort.

This is why it’s so important to remember Derrick Bell’s call (in 1992's Faces at the Bottom of the Well) to be strategic and outmaneuver policies, practices, and systems that appear neutral but actually result in persistent inequity. In fact, the stories in Educated in Whiteness suggest that this outmaneuvering may require difficult ideological and structural work. If our allegiance to equality, meritocracy, colorblindness, and powerblindness results in patterned inequity and the reification of whiteness, perhaps we need to let go of (or at least question) those ideologies. If our schools are built on assumptions that equal opportunity exists and meritocracy is fair, perhaps we need to restructure our schools for the obviously unequal society in which they operate.

As just one possibility the “student need index” and “equity framework” developed through a project called the Advancement Project appear to be important contributions to local conversations about whiteness, race, and racism in schools in the southern California region. Its “student need index” compiles various data points to highlight which schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have the greatest need for additional resources. In other words, it doesn’t rely on ideological commitments to equality or maintain a false illusion of meritocracy. Instead, it is attempting to frame a conversation that says the playing field is not equal, and kids in particular neighborhoods and particular schools must have additional resources if we are serious about closing achievement gaps, paying down our educational debts, and truly aspiring to “equality and justice for all.” This is not a feel-good-conversation to have.

Perhaps educators need to engage more of the rude, and yet refreshing, dialogue that comedians model.

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Angelina E. Castagno is author of Educated in Whiteness: Good Intentions and Diversity in Schools. She is associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University.
  
"Angelina E. Castagno's up-close look at how whiteness operates in actual schools, and within one school district, offers a rare, ethnographic portrait of how policies ostensibly aimed at effecting educational equity actually end up reinforcing the status quo. We still have much to learn about how whiteness and racism function in everyday life, and Educated in Whiteness is unusual in the field, offering an important way of seeing how whiteness operates across the system."
—Thea Abu El-Haj, Rutgers University


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[1] References:
Abu El-Haj, T. (2006). Elusive justice: Wrestling with different and educational equity in everyday practice. New York: Routledge.

Gillborn, D. (2008). Racism and education: Coincidence or conspiracy? New York: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1).

Vaught, S. (2011). Racism, public schooling, and the entrenchment of white supremacy: A critical race ethnography. Albany: SUNY Press.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Diane C. Fujino on getting to know Yuri Kochiyama (1921–2014)

While on a book tour for Heartbeat of Struggle, Yuri Kochiyama and Diane Fujino
speak on April 24, 2005, at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.


BY DIANE C. FUJINO
Professor of Asian American studies and director of the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara



Appearing in Life magazine’s coverage of Malcolm X’s assassination is a photo of an Asian woman holding the head of the slain human rights leader. In that March 5, 1965, issue, there is no mention of the woman’s race and she is not named. This is symbolic of distortions in history. Asian American activism is rendered nameless and invisible. Black nationalism is misrepresented as separatist. After Yuri Kochiyama passed away on June 1, 2014, Life magazine republished that same photo, now naming her in the headline. But now I fear another distortion, of Yuri being remembered for two moments frozen in time: this photo and her time in the concentration camps. These were important influences in Yuri’s life, but the wartime incarceration and Malcolm X each have complex histories. And Yuri’s life and activism extend well beyond this narrow framing.

The work of researching and writing Yuri’s biography, Heartbeat of Struggle, changed me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Beginning with our first interview in December 1995, I got an entrée into the political world encircling Yuri in Harlem. When I first entered her four-bedroom housing project apartment, I encountered walls completely covered with political posters of Malcolm X, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and numerous political prisoners; flyers announcing the latest activist events; and shrines to her children Billy and Aichi and her husband, Bill, as well as to those who had passed in her life. The kitchen table was covered with the work of writing to political prisoners; responding to the many requests for information, archival documents, or interviews; maintaining her color-coded address book; and with numerous newspapers and books. I later discovered that that table was a major source of tension. Her family struggled to find a place to sit and eat, while Yuri insistently worked there, making her artistically styled picket signs, writing for movement publications, and corresponding with political prisoners through the wee hours of the night. Her home was alive with the buzz of visitors, phone calls, and a sense of urgency to get out the latest on the campaigns to free Mumia, David Wong, Yu Kikumura, Mutulu Shakur, and Puerto Rican political prisoners.

As I stayed with Yuri during multiple week-long interview sessions, hosted her in my home, and accompanied her to events during what would become a 20-year friendship, I got to meet many of her political associates, and to go on several visits to see Marilyn Buck imprisoned at Dublin, California. I remember accompanying her from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1998 for the historic Jericho March and rally to defend political prisoners. There I met Muhammad Ahmad (formerly Max Stanford), who was a major leader in the Revolutionary Action Movement, who had worked with Malcolm X, and whose intellectual and political prowess inspired Yuri—who in turn pushed for a wider audience for his book, Toward Black Liberation. I remember Yuri being inundated with a near non-stop flow of old friends wanting to say hello and young people wanting to meet one of their activist heroes. Another time, Yuri and I went to attend an event on Puerto Rican political prisoners at Hostos Community College. We were already on the subway before I discovered that Yuri, a New Yorker of more than 35 years, was expecting me, a Californian, to navigate our trip. Somehow we made it, and I got to hear the most inspiring stories by Jose Lopez about his brother, Oscar Lopez Rivera, behind bars since 1983 for his struggles for Puerto Rican independence. Yuri was particularly thrilled to get to see the children of Carmen Valentin and Dylcia Pagan, women incarcerated since 1980. If Yuri were alive she’d urge you to watch the powerful documentary The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, on the reunion of Dylcia and her son, sent into exile when Dylcia and her husband went underground to join the clandestine wing of the Puerto Rican struggle.

Yuri was widely known for her generosity and her humility. She and Bill opened their home to strangers who had no place to stay, for social gatherings every Friday and Saturday night, and for a multitude of political meetings. Yuri was attentive and nurturing. While young people wanted hear to Yuri’s stories, she was more interested in learning about their lives and astounded me by remembering details years later.

The representations surrounding Yuri in death of that photo with Malcolm and of her wartime incarceration signal her social justice work. But they miss the greater meaning of her activism, her interpersonal practices, and ultimately, the ways she saw the promotion of human dignity as inextricably linked to the struggles for decolonization. Yuri’s critiques of imperialism in the US, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and her six decades of radical activism deserve deeper study so that we can locate Yuri in her rightful place in history.

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Diane C. Fujino is professor of Asian American studies and director of the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies Asian American radicalism and Afro-Asian solidarities, and is the author of Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama and Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life and editor of Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader. Inspired by Yuri Kochiyama, she is a longtime activist in political prisoner, anti-war, public education, and Asian American movements.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From corsets to commerce: A two-part look at European and American fashion in the nineteenth century.

The extraordinary color and variety of textiles in this afternoon
dress, ca. 1872, attest of the refinement of the French textile
industry. Creator: Charles Frederick Worth. This image is posted
under terms of ARTstor.

Fashion, clothes, and culture

BY CRISTINA GIORCELLI
Professor of American Literature at the University of Rome Three



Habits of Being I dealt with the significance of clothing accessories on the construction of the modern body and Habits of Being II was concerned with the (literal and metaphorical) circulation of clothes in the modern system of fashion. Fashioning the Nineteenth Century: Habits of Being III concentrates on the significance of fashion and clothes in the nineteenth century, both in Europe and in the United States. Because with industrialization, fashion, the city, and the flaneur were born at that time, the authors of these thirteen essays—by scholars, artists and fashion designers—considered it crucial to analyze why and what this triad meant for Western society at large.

For the first time in the West, fashion and clothes were considered indexes of culture, not only of history (as Louis XIV had declared), by both great writers (such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé) and early sociologists (such as Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel). Various epoch-breaking social changes characterized the long nineteenth century, and each of them can be traced through the styles of clothes that accompanied it: for women, from the neo-classical to the knickerbocker suit, passing through the bell-body, the bustle, and the hour-glass shape; for men, the three-piece suit was created, signalling bourgeois thriftiness, austerity, and self-control. The century ended, however, with the effeminacy of the dandy and the spectacularization of clothes and pose. And it is precisely the dandy who affords the link to the twentieth century, when women (thanks to Coco Chanel) started wearing white flannels as men had done till then. By dressing like them, women started challenging men’s social supremacy not by contrasting but by assimilating. Revealingly, an acute observer of fashion and manners like F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender Is the Night muses: “They [the women] were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them.” But if much occurred in a century, so much more has happened through the course of the past one and into our days.

It is thus evident that anyone studying the nineteenth century would profit from reflecting on apparel, in all its social and cultural implications and from a wide variety of disciplines: history, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, pedagogy, fashion history, etc. Far from being trivial, the subject of clothes affords a unique (and pleasant, but not “light”) angle from which to look at the characteristics of a whole period.

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An example of the beauty of printed and dyed fabrics
that were used in the 1840s. Image posted under
terms of ARTstor.

On industrialization and the fashion industry


BY PAULA RABINOWITZ
Professor of English at the University of Minnesota



In 2012, we put the finishing touches on Fashioning the Nineteenth Century just as the blockbuster exhibition “Impressionism and Fashion” was on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It traveled to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chicago’s Art Institute the following year, acquiring an additional noun to its name, becoming “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” in the process of presenting 79 paintings and 14 elaborate dresses (some seen in the paintings by Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt and many others on the walls behind the vitrines) to a constant flood of spectators, most dressed down in streetwear of sneakers, jeans, and jackets.

With rooms devoted to corsets and fans, shoes and gloves, and a few men’s hats, as well as huge wall texts by Émile Zola, Mallarmé, and Baudelaire, this paean to the nineteenth-century European body armored in finery offered its viewers entry into a world of fashion that was then emerging into public spaces, even as its very presence on boulevards and on canvases hung in parlors hinted at its eventual demise. Once fashion hit the streets, it became fair game for all. Before dresses were worn and became visions for painters and poets, they were made, fabricated by skilled hands who worked materials that had been made by still others—usually far from Europe’s shores.

Fabric swatches that appear in The Repository of arts, literature,
commerce, manufacturing, fashion, and politics (1809),
Rudolph Ackermann.

While the dresses by Charles Frederick Worth on view in this exhibition (or in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum) were couture, styled and sewn for individual buyers, fashion was also a commercial venture. This woodcut from the 1840s by Utagawa Hiroshige, titled “Narumi Station: Shop Selling the Famous Product Tie-dyed Arimatsu Fabrics,” gives a view into the local commerce of silk in Japan as it was industrializing and opening to trade with the West.



Narumi Station: Shop Selling the Famous Product Tie-dyed
Arimatsu Fabrics, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1840s. Posted under
conditions of ARTstor.

Everyone wears clothes. And with industrialization, clothing, too, became an industry, as a number of the essays in this volume describe. Jacob Riis’s photographs of sweatshops in New York’s Lower East Side presented a dark contrast to the bright images of family picnics taken en pleine depicted by Renoir. Here the family is also together, but joined by scissors and threads and scraps from the dozens of trousers churned out daily by father, mother, and children. The brutal conditions Riis found among New York’s immigrants have been outsourced off shore.


"Knee-Pants" at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen—A Ludlow Street
Sweater's Shop. By Jacob Riis.

Catastrophes like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that killed more than one hundred young women when they jumped to their deaths because exits were locked are now occurring in factories throughout Asia, mostly horrifically in last year’s collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. This contradiction emerged in the nineteenth century: On the one hand, a world of elegance and finery, this month captured by the newest Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute exhibition of another Charles (1950s designer Charles James), whose highly constructed gowns both look back to the nineteenth century and look forward with “an undeniable modernity,” according to Roberta Smith. And on the other, an industry mired in exploitation as most of us seek out cheap jeans and t-shirts for our daily wear.

Entranced by the past, as so many of us were as we marveled at the bustles and top hats which appear so distant from our lives, we are still its captives.

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Cristina Giorcelli is professor of American literature at the University of Rome Three. Paula Rabinowitz is professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz are co-editors of Fashioning the Nineteenth Century: Habits of Being 3, the third installment in the Press's Habits of Being series.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Case study #5 (and final) from the Media Archaeology Lab: On OTHER NETWORKS and "the internet."



BY LORI EMERSON
Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder

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#MALcasestudies is a weekly blog series featuring treasures that exist in the University of Colorado at Boulder's Media Archaeology Lab. See links to previous posts below.

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It's been a privilege to blog here over the past month about artifacts in the Media Archaeology Lab. And while most of my posts have been related to how I used the Media Archaeology Lab to write Reading Writing Interfaces—using the MAL to experiment with dead-ends in interface design as well as interface designs that embodied certain ideological notions of what constitutes "user-friendly"—this last post dips slightly into my next project, which is a network archaeology called OTHER NETWORKS. In short, I've gone from looking at the hardware and software affordances of interface design in personal computers to looking at the hardware and software affordances of both defunct and dominant networks before or even outside of the reign of "the internet."

One of the first books I read after I finished Reading Writing Interfaces was Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community (published in 1993), and this was where I noticed his strange use of "internet," without the article "the." Over the coming months, as I worked through manuals on internet protocols, especially TCP/IP (which was created in 1983 as the standard language for networks to communicate to each other) I could see how, despite all the shoulder-shrugs in the literature about where exactly the term "the internet" came from, referring to the singular, monolithic network that defines most of our waking lives now, "the internet" had emerged from decades of heterogeneity. From "the internet" (introduced as far as I've been able to find in the bible for TCP/IP called Internetworking with TCP/IP from 1988), to "internet," to "internetwork" (with the emphasis on being a go-between among networks), to "internetworking" as a verb, to "internetworking" as an adjective to describe the process of transferring packets of information to and from any kind of telecommunications network. So then the question became this: what were all these different networks that directly or indirectly caused the creation of TCP/IP and later "the internet"? What are the affordances of these networks? What sorts of communication spaces did they make possible or impossible? In other words, how do these networks work and for whom do they work? And, more difficult to pin down, why do histories of the internet almost always move directly from the ARPANet of the late 1960s, to the creation of the personal computer in the late 1970s, to the creation and eventual widespread adoption of TCP/IP in the 1980s, and then right to Tim Berners-Lee's "invention" of the World Wide Web in the early 90s? What's gained and what's lost from this astonishingly inaccurate, lopsided narrative?

The first part of the OTHER NETWORKS project I've been focusing most on is titled "50 Years of Other Networks, 2015-1965" and is in the lineage of a few critical-creative hybrid media studies books. "50 Years of Other Networks," then, will be a catalogue of networks existing outside of or pre-dating the Internet. Consisting of a stack of unbound, loose sheets of paper packaged in a box, each sheet—beginning with the present and moving back into the past—will provide metadata of a sort, a description, and short analysis of an "other" network so that the material form of the project allows readers to actively dig through a network archaeology.

Even though the project is in its early stages, it's clear to me already that a significant part of it will have to be dedicated to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). In short, the first BBS system, called a Computerized Bulletin Board System, was created in 1978 and was originally conceived as a computerized version of an analog bulletin board for exchanging information. CBBS soon gave way to BBS, each of which had a dedicated phone number, which generally meant that only one person could dial in at a time. Also, most BBSes were communities of local users because of how prohibitively expensive it was to make long-distance phone calls; these local users could use it to share files, read news, exchange messages publicly or privately, play games, and even create art.

A BBS I'm particularly interested in is The Thing—a BBS that New York artist Wolfgang Staehle started in 1991, just one month after Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. It was used as a kind of online community center for artists and writers, a virtual exhibition space, and later a node in a network of international The Thing BBSes. But what particularly fascinates me about The Thing is the way in which the network itself was conceived as an artwork rather than any individual pieces of content that were uploaded to it. As Staehle writes, "The whole meaning of it would come out of the relationships between the people and not the modernist ideal of the single hero artist that the market loves..."

An advertising card for The Thing network.

The MAL is particularly fortunate to now house a good portion of the The Thing hardware, which Staehle donated to us earlier this year. While all the machines are password-protected and all passwords long forgotten by Staehle, the material traces of one of the most important digital art networks are still, I think, meaningful—from the filth of the keyboard on the SGI Indy from heavy use by its system administrators, to the BBS number affixed to the front of the machine, to the oddity of The Thing's eSoft IPAD machine which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Apple iPad but instead stands for Internet Protocol Adapter. ESOFT is actually a Colorado-based company that was still in existence until December 2013 just a few miles down the highway from Boulder, and one of their accomplishments was their creation of the IPAD—a wonderful kind of liminal, technological object in that it tried to straddle pre-internet networks and the internet itself. eSoft started out making a BBS system called the TBBS for the RadioShack TRS-80 computer and later for IBM PCs; in fact, before the Internet, Microsoft used TBBS to provide technical support for their customers. In 1993, ESOFT created the Internet Protocol Adapter as a means to provide access to TBBS using Internet protocols. The IPAD soon turned into what eSoft called an "internet in a box" appliance that gave companies a way to have a presence on the Internet with just one piece of equipment. So while The Thing network is itself profoundly important to the history of social media networks, The Thing hardware also makes "radically present," once again, that crucial transitional moment in time when "the internet" was not yet dominant and when one could still choose from competing networks with profoundly different affordances.

In short, my hope is that OTHER NETWORKS will help uncover and even reconstruct all those "internetworks" that existed throughout that crucial fifteen to twenty year period before the launch of the World Wide Web—a period which is on the verge of being lost, if it hasn't already been lost, and which reminds us of a time before "the" internet.

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Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This concludes the #MALcasestudies series. Thank you for following.

Previous posts:
1: Introducing the Media Archaeology Lab.
2: The Altair 8800b from 1976.
3: The Vectrex Gaming Console from 1982.
4: George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Case Study #4 | "It Is Known": George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media

From #MALcasestudies series author Lori Emerson: This week's post features Matthew Kirschenbaum, a scholar whose work in digital forensics and media archaeology as well as his role in running the collection of vintage computers at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has long been a model for my own work. Kirschenbaum's post below on George R.R. Martin and WordStar not only echoes perhaps even more pointedly my assertions in previous posts about how narratives of technological progress are largely works of fiction; but it is also a powerful testament to how the media archaeology approach is relevant far beyond the confines of academia and media studies.

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This is the fourth post in the #MALcasestudies weekly blog series. Catch previous posts #1, #2, and #3.

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WordStar runs on a Kaypro 4 at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
Author George R. R. Martin uses WordStar to write his Game of Thrones novels.


BY MATTHEW KIRSCHENBAUM
University of Maryland



Following fast upon a week of digital archaeology extravaganzas that included the Atari E.T. dig in New Mexico, the recovery of Andy Warhol’s computer art from his early Amiga floppies, and even NASA’s restoration of high-resolution lunar imagery consigned to backup tapes since 1966, came the news: George R. R. Martin writes the Game of Thrones novels on a DOS-based machine disconnected from the Internet and lovingly maintained solely to run . . . WordStar. In conversation with Conan O’Brien, Martin dubbed this his “secret weapon” and suggested the lack of distraction (and isolation from the threat of computer viruses, which he apparently regards as more rapacious than any dragon’s fire) accounts for his long-running productivity.

And thus, as they say, “It is known.” But the truth is this was no particular revelation, as Martin’s devotion to WordStar had been documented elsewhere before. In fact it still enjoys something of a cult following among science fiction and fantasy authors, including also the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Robert J. Sawyer. The brainchild of programmer Rob Barnaby and MicroPro’s Seymour Rubinstein, for the first half of the 1980s WordStar dominated the home computer market before losing out to WordPerfect, itself to be eclipsed by Microsoft Word. Originally a CP/M application that was later ported to DOS, WordStar was the software of choice for owners of the early “luggables” like the Kaypro computer and the Osborne 1. Writers who cut their teeth on it include names as diverse as Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, William F. Buckley, and Anne Rice (who also equipped her vampire Lestat with the software when it came time for him to write his own eldritch memoirs).

But the viral media reaction to Martin’s remarks was fascinating as a moment of media archaeology writ large. Many commenters immediately if indulgently branded him a “Luddite” (itself a term whose meaning we have abused, as Steven E. Jones has shown), while others opined it was no wonder it was taking him so long to finish the whole Song of Fire and Ice saga (or less charitably, no wonder that it all seemed so interminable). But WordStar is no toy or half-baked bit of code: on the contrary, it was a triumph of both software engineering and what we would nowadays call user-centered design. With features ranging from automatic word-wrap and full margin justification to mail merge and context-sensitive help, it was justifiably advertised as early as 1978 as a What You See Is What You Get word processor, a marketing claim that would be echoed by Microsoft when Word was launched in 1983. WordStar’s real virtues, though, are not captured by its feature list alone. As Ralph Ellison scholar Adam Bradley observes in his work on Ellison’s use of the program, “WordStar’s interface is modelled on the longhand method of composition rather than on the typewriter.” Bradley points to a detailed exposition from the aforementioned Sawyer, but the upshot is that users need never lift hands from keyboard to navigate their document, thus permitting a freedom and facility of movement that is an order of magnitude more efficient than the pointing and clicking and scrolling and dragging we associate with running a mouse around a GUI. (You may counter that Word and other applications allow for keyboard commands too, but the difference remains that WordStar was designed from the ground up with this model of interaction in mind—the power user like Martin who has internalized the keyboard commands to the point that navigating and editing the document was as seamless and second nature as picking up a pen to mark any part of the page.)




The Osborne 1, which lives at the University of Colorado at Boulder's
Media Archaeology Lab, also runs WordStar.

Technological time is a curious thing: after all, WordStar runs no less efficiently and behaves no differently in 2014 than it did in 1983, yet we have been conditioned to assume that the intervening years must somehow entail a corresponding dilution of performance and experience. Jonathan Sterne documents this phenomenon when he notes the radically compressed chronology of a “new” computer’s transition to the purgatory of the merely “useful” thence to the threshold of obsolescence, beyond which it is a candidate for replacement. Computers, he argues, are thus “new” media only with respect to themselves: the next generation of must-have hardware upgrades and feature bloat is what preserves the aura of novelty the industry demands for its self-perpetuation. You’re running WordStar in 2014? You must be a Luddite, or at the very least a curmudgeonly author of high fantasy whose success allows you to indulge your eccentricities! Such is the extent to which what Lori Emerson deftly terms reading writing interfaces have been commodified, and that very commodification assimilated as normative—a trajectory her book documents in the most compelling terms.

So to run WordStar in 2014 you’d have to be a Luddite or an eccentric . . . or else just a visitor to the Internet Archive. Using an emulator known as JSMESS, the Historical Software Collection there allows any user to run WordStar in their browser. You can create your own file (with old-school 8 x 3 naming convention of course) and type and edit to your heart’s content (but not as of now save your work). While the emulation is a remarkable resource, particularly for the ease with which it is accessed through basic browser technology, it perhaps doesn’t fully capture the experience of a Michael Chabon or an Anne Rice (or Lestat) running the software on one of the systems for which it was originally designed. This, though, is the wonder of places like Emerson’s Media Archaeology Lab or our own vintage computer collections at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Both venues maintain working Osbornes and Kaypros (among many other systems) capable of summoning back the intangibles of those early interactions: the grinding of the drive and the swapping of the disks, the monochrome letters emblazoned on an inconceivably small screen, even the tactile resistances of the keyboards—all of these constituting the raw materiality of computation, rendering these putatively vanished technologies once again “radically present” in the words of Wolfgang Ernst. Or as one of Emerson’s students writes, “As a user of Microsoft Word in 2014, when using WordStar, I was astounded by the constant presence of the program, which never reaches the degree of seamlessness to which I am accustomed. I was constantly aware of the black space and the various shades of green that constituted my digital writing.”

Writers’ responses to writing technologies have always been equal parts intimate and uncompromising, and word processing is no different in this regard. Media archaeology in particular teaches us that the profound sense of disconnect or dissonance articulated by the student above is no more or less normative than WordStar’s continuing appeal is to George R. R. Martin. Both WordStar and Microsoft Word are material technologies against which we manufacture an ongoing array of haptic, affective, and cognitive engagements. My own work on my book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (manuscript to be delivered to my publisher later this year) reconstructs and recovers the histories of such engagements with respect to a number of authors and their computers—in the context of which, George R. R. Martin’s now widely known affinity for WordStar is merely one good story among many.

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More posts in the #MALcasestudies series:
Case Study 1: Introducing the Media Archaeology Lab.
Case Study 2: The Altair 8800b from 1976.
Case Study 3: The Vectrex gaming console from 1982.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Case study #3 from the Media Archaeology Lab: The Vectrex Gaming Console from 1982

The Vectrex gaming console of 1982, which is housed in the Media Archaeology
Lab and was produced for only two years, was remarkable for its lightpen
and its portability, among other features.


BY LORI EMERSON
Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder

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#MALcasestudies is a weekly blog series featuring treasures that exist in the University of Colorado at Boulder's Media Archaeology Lab. Check out parts #1 and #2.

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This week I'd like to use the Vectrex gaming console, housed in the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), as an opportunity to return to a point I made in last week's post: that 'technological progress' is a fiction we find next to impossible to see as fiction rather than reality.

And more, it just so happens that even those who understand the former is a fiction often recite in the same breath urgent warnings against technological determinism—we don't want to advocate for the metanarrative of progress and neither do we want to give too much (or any) agency to our machines, or so the logic goes.

That is, in media studies it's fairly common to decry 'technological progress' and 'technological determinism' in the same breath, usually allowing both to stand in as facts that require no further explanation. (It's not too difficult to think of my career in media studies as one punctuated with bi-annual warnings or accusations of technological determinism by reviewers, colleagues, and audience members.) But while we all agree so easily and so quickly that narratives of progress are 'bad' and 'wrong', why exactly is this the case? Don't we all prefer our small, sleek, smartphones to the mobile phones of the 80s that meant you had to carry around a heft briefcase to make a call? Who in their right mind would want to use a Commodore 64 with a cassette drive instead of any number of the ultra powerful, reliable contemporary devices we have to choose from? More, at the same time as technological progress seems to be a given, bizarrely, it seems it's equally important to make sure we constantly assert that culture is in control of these machines at all times—to say that we are not responsible for these smart, small, sleek machines, and that these machines actually "determine our situation," is heresy. In other words, inside academia the two concepts are all too often loci for the unthought while outside of academia, the widespread belief in technological progress and the concomitant fear of technological determinism are equally unthought. Somehow life inside and outside the academy have come to mirror each other.

The MAL, however, has been tremendously useful to me, in both my teaching and my research, as a means by which to escape this mirroring that leaves us flip-flopping between two equally fictional extremes. Particular machines in the lab such as the Vectrex clearly demonstrate not only that there are certain affordances to this gaming console from 1982 that we no longer have access to but also that this machine does in fact affect, even determine, what and how we think and create.


While it was only produced for two years—first by General Consumer Electronics and then by Milton Bradley, leaving the market shortly after the video game crash of 1983—the Vectrex is remarkable for its lightpen (packaged in a felt marker casing), its portability (it weighs less than ten pounds—a fraction of the weight of other luggables coming on the market at the same time), its refusal to build on to the television set and the keyboard as a way to make users feel more comfortable with its newness, and also for the way it was a miniature version of a vector-based arcade machine. As I explain to visitors to the MAL, vector graphics basically means that images appear on screen as lines between point. Among many other capabilities, this means that with the lightpen and a cartridge such as Animaction, one can create (and save!) fairly complex animations in a matter of minutes. Think of the months it can take to master creating animations using ActionScript or HTML5—by comparison, why wouldn't we see the Vectrex as better? Or as a profound disruption to the narrative of technological progress? Or, given the way the machine demands a predominantly vertical engagement from its users in contrast with the horizontal interactions demanded by tablets with styluses that attempt to masquerade as paper and pen, or the vertical and horizontal engagement demanded by the keyboard/screen/mouse, why wouldn't we say that the Vectrex deeply affects what and how we create?

In short, the Vectrex is a machine we can use to clearly explain the unreality of technological progress while pointing to the inanity of warnings against technological determinism.

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Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, soon forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"This is the first book to bridge the fields of media archaeology and literary studies, specifically poetry and poetics. It offers new readings—and sometimes a first reading—of important texts, it performs historical spadework that adds to the existing narratives of how the personal computer has evolved, and it contributes to current critical conversations by making the category of interface central to its explorations of textual materiality."—Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination