Monday, October 16, 2017

On Being and algorithmic clouds.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

BEFORE BUDDHA INVENTED RENUNCIATION; before Christians invented martyrdom; before Mohammed invented the jihad, before the Hebrews invented monotheism, before Plato invented the dreaded cave in which we supposedly live, blind to the presence of all that is Good, people talked to each other in freer ways. They talked to dead ancestors, to rocks, to trees, to animals, to spirits.

How does the new interblending of the organic and the inorganic, of living realities and anonymous algorithms, and of the human and the corporate shape the question of Being? If we exclude techno-optimists on the one hand and techno-despairers on the other hand, where then do we begin the conversation? My book Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age argues that first we must challenge the lingering Enlightenment categories of biology, chemistry, and technology; we even have to move past the cyborgic, artificial intelligence imaginaries of the 1970s. The ultimate drift of the contemporary situation is to create not just a world of pixelated information, but a world that mobilizes information through a process akin to heat—the more heat the better. It is not data that is important in our world but data generation. Humans are the perfect data providers, they move and travel; they get sick, they commit crimes, they listen to music, they go to the gym, they eat, sleep, and walk, and drink and have friends and relatives; there are billions of them. It is the perfect algorithm-friendly environment, the world of Post-Ontology.

Its emergence was not simply the result of changes in technology, but as an unpredicted confluence of a series of historical trajectories: the civilianization of technologies like GPS, the legalization and corporatization of algorithmic know-how, the emergence of the data fabrication industry and finally the creation of a globally scaled, psycho-mediated, quasi-militarized, interdependency of human, corporations governments, and hackers in a grand multi-tiered exploitational system. This is not to say that the old ontology is dead and gone, but to argue that the old-fashioned sense of Being – as dependent on the integrity of the individual, itself a Modern construction – exists only in an ‘as if’ state. Being is now ‘produced’ only to enmesh us ever more deeply in a world of algorithmic clouds.

In the world of data excess, algorithms chop us into digestible/marketable/governable/hackable categories . . . The algorithm represents us, not as complete beings, but as slices through/across our Beings. These algorithmic slices operate on the individual to fulfill a sublimated desire for completion. They are created in our image, and thus the more, the better, as they, in their emerging cumulativeness, fulfill a range of needs from the narcissistic to the epistemological, from the masochistic to the liberational, and from the seductive to the performative.

If ontology and algorithms are no longer distinct, then the questions relating to The Human as well as to the Body and Technology all need a new foundation. Post-Ontology begins with the fusionism of today, rather than seeing some sort of future condition in the history of technology. It critiques the Onto-curmudgeons who try to hold on to the principle of an anthro-centric worldview.

The study of Being is now based on the study of a new type of science in which the human is being pushed to its corporeal / sensate / moral / physical / psychological / political / social / environmental / sexual / bacteriological / global limits. Instead of discussing capitalism as such we should see the data consuming entities to whom we are now beholden – i.e., the major corporations, governments and hackers – as all invested, along with each of us, globally, in the immanence of the new (in)human, a water-and-carbon-base surface that emits the life pulse of data. The glue that holds all this together is a finely constructed type of paranoia that is shared by humans, governments, and corporations. Unlike the modern distinction between health and paranoia, paranoia is the "new healthy."

The data security industry produces insecurity in just the right doses for its self-perpetuation. The system is calculated and legalized in the form of upgrades and contract renewals, patches and defaults, that continuously remind the (in)human—often when they least expect it—of his/her precarious standing in the social fabric. I call it onto-torture.

If there is no fixed ‘outside’ to understand where the individual is to located, how do we then understand the circulatory system that produces the sense of Self? Because the purpose of algorithms is not to produce data, but to mobilize data, we need to change the terms of our understanding from technology and mathematics to thermodynamics. I argue that life in the Post-Ontological Age is governed by three laws.

The First Law:
The physical system (of data) = natural system = human system.

The Second Law:
“Data” = Data Surplus > Data Processing.

The Third Law:
The more the data gods capitalize on order, the more disorder is purposefully/‘accidentally’ produced.

Computation—if one can even use that antiquated word—involves at its core an analytic secrecy for which no external or internal analysis can account. Computation only works if there is more computation. It is a science (to use another strange-sounding word) that revolves around the calculation of instability—the calculation of a calculated instability—leading to the incalculable (but predictably unpredictable), calculation of instability.

In the world of Post-Ontology, my “I” is irrevocably dependent on and complicit in these productive and counterproductive layers of algorithmic activities. This means that the world is now not just fallible, but designed to be fallible – to break down, to be ‘hacked,’ and to need so-called ‘upgrades’ and ever more advanced ‘security measures.’ In the Post-Ontological world, we might be more human than ever before, which makes the promise of Artificial Intelligence ever more comic. Ultimately, the new human is a data-derivative, packaged, formatted, and ‘protected’ for the global stock market of information. It is not the end-point of our speculation, but the beginning point.


Mark Jarzombek is author of Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been teaching since 1995. He specializes in the history and theory of architecture.

"A brief yet stylistically ironic and incisive interrogation into how recent iterations of post- or inhumanist theory have found a strange bedfellow in the rhetorical boosterism that accompanies the alleged affordances of digital technologies and big data." —Boundary 2

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Discovering Fairy-Tale Postcards: The Adventures of a Scholarly Scavenger

University of Minnesota

Once upon a time, when the famous scientist Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton University, a tiny old woman approached him as he was walking home after a class he had just taught. She was schlepping a skinny young boy of about six who was dragging his feet.

"Mr. Einstein," she called out in a strong Central European accent. "Mr. Einstein, stop your tracks and help me!"

Einstein was taken aback. He didn't know what to do except stop.

"How can I help you?" he responded with a smile as he took out a pipe.

"You shouldn't smoke. It will kill you," the old woman said.

Again, Einstein was taken aback, and he put away his pipe.

"Is that better?"

"Much better," the old woman said as she drew her timid grandson toward Einstein. "Jaky, stop fiddling and listen to this great man."

Now she turned her attention back to Einstein.

"Mr. Einstein, I want you should tell me what my grandson must do to become educated like you. I want he should be a great scientist."

Einstein didn't hesitate with his reply, "Fairy tales. He should read fairy tales."

"All right," the woman replied. "But what then? What should he read after that?"

"More fairy tales," Einstein stated bluntly, took out his pipe, and continued walking toward his home.

The old woman was silent for a moment, but then she grabbed hold of Jaky's hand and began dragging him through the park again. Suddenly she stopped.

"You heard, Jaky!" she pointed her finger at the frightened boy. "You heard what the great man said! Read fairy tales! Do what the man said, or God help you!"

And she whisked her grandson away.

Needless to say, this is a true story, not a fairy tale. I must confess that the boy in this anecdote was me, and I have lived under Einstein's spell ever since my momentous encounter with the great man in 1943. Or perhaps one could call the spell "my grandmother's curse." Whether spell or curse, I can't recall not imbibing fairy tales. They are in my blood. Ever since my grandmother traumatized me, I have constantly collected fairy tales, read them, written them, studied them, and even lived them. Most of all, I have collected fairy-tale postcards for more than fifty years. My wife thinks I am like the golden boy of fairy tales, that is, she thinks that Lady Fortuna watches over me and changes everything I touch into gold.

"French encounter." From the author's collection.

She also thinks that I'm a fairy-tale postcard junky. For years I have spent a good deal of my research time at library sales, auctions, flea markets, postcard shows, garbage dumps, and garage sales and in second-hand bookstores, musty libraries, book stalls, movie theaters, cellars, attics, and museums. My daughter, who has tolerated my tale-telling and fairy-tale postcard obsession ever since she was born, has offered to ship me off and pay for a fairy-tale de-toxication program run by rational, stringent, down-to-earth social workers. Lately, however, she has concluded that I’m hopeless and helpless.

To tell the truth, I may be helpless, but I’m not hopeless. I think it is hope in fairy tales that has driven me throughout my life, and perhaps it was hope that drove Einstein. There is something peculiar about fairy tales, the best of fairy tales, that propels me and, I think, most human beings absorb them as if they were vital food and vital for survival. We simply can't do without them. It is as if we were pre-disposed to lead our lives according to the spells and curses of fairy tales.

"Frog King." From the author's collection.

In my own case, I have constantly learned about the complexities of life through fairy tales and especially through buried treasures. This brings me back to talk about the importance to fairy-tale postcards that have been produced in the millions and yet have been ignored to a large extent by collectors and scholars. I don’t mean to exaggerate the neglect, but quite clearly very few collectors and scholars have written about the history of fairy-tale postcards, and most people who buy the cards are not aware of why they are drawn to fairy-tale postcards.

As a narrative metaphor or metaphorical pattern, a fairy tale, in my opinion, like other short narratives -- anecdotes, jokes, legends, myths, warning tales, and so on -- stems from historically conditioned lived experience that fosters a reaction in our brains, and this experience is articulated through symbols that endow it with significance. Fairy tales are relevant because they pass on information vital for humans to adapt to changing environments. Sometimes they do this through the images on tiny postcards. I do not want to privilege the fairy tale or, more precisely, the oral wonder tale as the only type of narrative or the best means by which we communicate our experiences and learn from each other. But it does seem to me that we are predisposed to the fairy tale whether in a book or on a postcard because it tends to offer a metaphorical means through which we can gain distance from our experiences, sort them out, and articulate or enunciate their significance for us and for other people in our environment.

"Pinocchio." From the author's collection.

Nobody -- not even I -- lives their lives by fairy tales. Over hundreds of years they have come to form a linguistic type, a genre, a means by which we seek to understand and contend with our environment, to find our place in it. There are many types, genres, and means of narration. Our predilection for certain fairy tales reveals something about ourselves and our cultures. Every family and society in the world have developed types, genres, and communicative means that produce cultural patterns and enable people to identify themselves and grasp the world around them. Sometimes these communicative means or media have contributed to the formation of spectacles and illusions that prevent us from understanding our empirical experiences.

I prefer to think that fairy-tale postcards, as startling illustrated memes, have flown and continue to fly magically through the air to enlighten us and give us pleasure. Just one look at the unique images printed on the postcards in my book will give you an idea of how much we revere and continue to revere fairy tales.

"Hansel and Gretel." From the author's collection.


Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. He is author of more than forty books, including Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards; The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World; and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Trumping transparency.

King's College London

The words “Trump” and “transparency” don’t often appear together. Administrative transparency isn’t something Trump promised during his campaign, and it hasn’t been on the agenda in the last eight months. Yet the term has turned up in communications from the Trump camp.

In July, referring to the Commission on Election Integrity, Trump claimed that the “voter fraud panel,” as he called it, would be a “very transparent process . . . very open for everybody to see.” The American Civil Liberties Union begs to differ. It has lodged a legal complaint stating that the commission has violated “the non-discretionary transparency and public access requirements” of the Federal Advisory Committee Act by holding “its first meeting without public notice; without making that meeting open to the public; and without timely notice in the Federal Register.” Trump also used the word “transparent” to describe his eldest son’s response to accusations that he had failed to disclose meetings with Russians during the presidential campaign.

These examples suggest that Trump hasn’t fully understood—or has wilfully misunderstood—the meaning of transparency and what it would take, in practice, to achieve it. However, Trump’s attitude toward “transparency” is, as with other elements of his post-truth presidential style, better understood as a particularly brazen and exaggerated version of rhetorics and techniques deployed by his predecessors rather than as a complete aberration.

Barack Obama, for example, campaigned on the issue of transparency, extolling the virtues of open government. And while it is true that the Obama administration implemented a number of government transparency initiatives such as the provision of open government data and White House visitor logs, its triumphal talk of transparency sat uneasily alongside its overzealous invocation of the State Secret Privilege and punitive approach to whistleblowing.

It’s easy to forget now that the Obama administration was often called out for its attachment to secrecy. According to the findings of the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) in 2013, reporters from many major media outlets felt that “the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” and that the “aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.” According to Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times, the Obama administration was “turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”

As a transparency skeptic (that is, as a scholar who looks closely at the less-than-transparent practices supposedly intended to promote “transparency,” not as someone opposed to openness as an ideal), I spent a lot of time during Obama’s term in office pointing out the limitations, and sometimes the hypocrisy, of his administration’s evangelism about transparency. In the face of Trump’s continual tactical use of misdirection, obfuscation, and opacity, I can understand the temptation to feel nostalgic for Obama’s (compromised, circumscribed, tarnished) version of transparency. I wonder if the journalists cited in the CPJ report feel nostalgia themselves now that their role has been so suddenly and thoroughly undermined. A tainted transparency is surely better than no transparency at all.

In a sense, that’s obviously right. Trump’s disdain for facts and expertise, and for the role of administrative transparency and the fourth estate in the democratic process, leaves us feeling disorientated and disempowered. But Trump’s contempt for administrative transparency could offer an opportunity to those who seek a relationship between citizens and the state that isn’t determined and delimited by covert data surveillance on the one hand, and open government data initiatives on the other.

At a time when government seems unseen and unchecked, is it possible that if we can hold our nerve, we too could operate in the shadows to conceive a form of data transparency that is fit for purpose: that elicits political subjectivity rather than disavows or curtails it? Such a version of open government data, for example, would have to not only acknowledge that data is never raw by making clear the circumstances of its collection, but also ensure that citizens are equipped to analyze data without reliance on third party mediators. Even more ambitious, could we use this moment to re-imagine both secrecy and openness in ways that might allow for a more progressive, redistributive political settlement? If the current regime teaches us anything, it is surely that securitizing systems like data surveillance seem even more troubling with an unstable, authoritarian leader walking the viewing station at the panopticon; and that open government data needs to be empowering and meaningful.


Clare Birchall is author of Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (Minnesota 2017); Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip; and coeditor of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory. She is senior lecturer at King's College London.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What's the deal with Elon Musk? A transhumanist's perspective.

Assistant professor of English, Texas A&M University

In my timeline on Twitter, I get a lot of updates about Elon Musk. Maybe you do too, especially if you follow as many data scientists, technologist, and futurists as I do. Seemingly every week, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, Solar City, and Tesla is making headlines with a new technology that promises to revolutionize the way humans live (such as the Hyperloop project, a high speed public transit project, or Neuralink, a company developing technologies to connect the human mind to a computer) or with predictions that these same technological changes will lead to our extinction as a species, such his recent prediction that artificial intelligence will likely cause World War III.

At any given moment, Musk appears in the media as either a Tom-Swift-esque boy inventor of miracles or the closest thing we will ever see to a real-life Bond villain. There is a subgenre of tweets that riff on this tension using the "me, also me" meme form. The basic version of the tweet goes something like this:

Elon Musk: weaponized AI will kill us all
Also Elon Musk: the new AI I made is smart enough to beat humans at war games

These tweets capture one of the key aspects of Musk's public persona: he appears both fascinated by the potential of radical technological change and well aware that these changes will probably lead to our extinction.

Musk's work on radical technology—including human-computer neural links, high-speed travel, and space exploration—aligns him with the group of technologists and philosophers who call themselves "transhumanists," though he is not officially associated with this movement. Transhumanism is a broad and loose coalition that includes Oxford university philosopher Nick Bostrom, life-extension researcher Aubrey De Grey, and inventor and popular author Raymond Kurzweil. In a 1990 essay, philosopher Max More offers this definition:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural "afterlife". Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.

For More and other transhumanists, the radical technologies promised by genetic engineering, robotics, and computation in general demand that we rethink what it means to be human.

Though Elon Musk does not specifically identify as a transhumanist, a TED Talk he gave outlines his belief that the sustainable, futuristic technologies his companies build can fundamentally alter what it means to be human. Transhumanists often argue that new technologies are radically changing human nature, even causing us to evolve into different beings, the kind of cyborgs that Musk says we must become if we are to survive the future. This specific position was first articulated in computer scientist Hans Moravec's 1990 book Mind Children and the idea of human-computer co-evolution continues to be a core belief amongst many transhumanists.

Perhaps most clearly marking the similarity in his thinking with transhumanism is Musk's association with The Simulation Hypothesis. First proposed by Nick Bostrom in a 2003 issue of Philosophical Quarterly, Bostrom analytically proves that it is likely that our reality is a computer simulation created by future cyborg ultraintelligences as a means of experimenting on different possible outcomes to human evolution. Speaking at a 2016 conference, Musk declared "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality," an argument taken from Bostrom. An October 2016 New Yorker profile of Sam Altman, the billionaire founder of Y Combinator, generated another round of headlines for Musk when Altman claimed that "two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation," generating speculation that Musk (or PayPal founder and noted transhumanist Peter Thiel) was likely one of the two Altman mentioned.

While Musk's technological innovations and possible funding of research into the simulation hypothesis align him with transhumanism, his pessimism about these same technologies’ abilities to deliver a just, sustainable, and even survivable future places him at odds with the movement. FM-2030, the futurist whose work was key in inaugurating modern transhumanism, called his philosophy of a future of material plenty "optimism one." Max More claims that transhumanism is a philosophy of "dynamic optimism." Raymond Kurzweil exhorts his readers to "live long enough to live forever." Musk's gloomy concerns that AI will kill us all or that the first of SpaceX's Martian colonists must be prepared to die is not in-line with this spirit of optimism. Musk, though considering science-fictional technological undertakings with the same seriousness as transhumanists, appears more pessimistic about their outcome.

So, given all of this, what's the deal with Elon Musk? For me, Musk's interest in making fabulous technology a reality while simultaneously being extremely pessimistic about the outcomes of these technological advances signals that transhuman topoi—the commonplace arguments of life extension, superintelligence, genetic engineering, and space travel that make up transhumanism's rhetorical tool chest—are becoming ubiquitous. Though not himself a transhumanist, Musk's identity, work, and claims about the future of humanity all suggest that transhumanism is increasingly the rhetorical terrain in which arguments about the future have to be made and against which technological change will be judged. While we may remain suspicious of transhumanism—its creepy optimism, its blindness to racial and gender-based inequality, its indifference to the body—and are probably right to do so, the kinds of radical technological changes that transhumanism has been promising for the last half century are increasingly here and it is up to us to figure out how to live in this new future we are discovering for ourselves.


Andrew Pilsch, author of Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia, is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University.

"I know of no other work that provides such a detailed and penetrating analysis of a cultural trend—transhumanism—that promises, like it or not, to be of increasing importance in the near future."
—Jeff Pruchnic, author of Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Coming Storm

BY CEDRIC JOHNSON (The Neoliberal Deluge and Revolutionaries to Race Leaders) AND THOMAS JESSEN ADAMS

Excerpt from article published in Jacobin:

The rains over Corpus Christi and Houston have finally stopped, and floodwaters are beginning to recede. Some residents are still stranded, while others — tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands — won’t be able to return to their homes for weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the race to capitalize on the disaster, to redistribute wealth upward, and to transform the region has already begun.

While rain was still falling over much of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, Patrick Gleason took to the editorial section of Forbes to propose the now-expected Republican (and increasingly Democratic) response to natural disasters: suspend the Davis-Bacon Act and cut wages in order to spur reconstruction efforts.

For many who survived the Katrina crisis twelve years ago, Gleason’s words will sound disturbingly familiar. He advances the same flawed recovery approach that the Bush White House and local politicians took in Louisiana. They rolled back labor and environmental protections, guaranteeing wide profit margins for corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel while creating a deeply uneven and unjust recovery process.

New Orleans has seen an entrepreneurship boon since Katrina, with individual start-ups outpacing the national average by 68 percent in 2013. And yet the city’s child poverty rate still sits higher than the dismal numbers for the state of Louisiana overall, not to mention the nation. Three out of five renters spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing.

American liberals find themselves in uncharted waters with a social disaster on the scale and complexity of the south Texas floods. As the popular outrage over Charlottesville showed, liberal antiracism retains powerful currency in many corners, but, when confronted with ruling-class power and less social-media friendly subjects — like wages, collective bargaining, workplace safety, and other issues that have direct material effects on the lives of millions of working people— many of those same voices fall silent.

Read the full article at Jacobin.

Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans. See more on the blog by Cedric: Hurricane Katrine, ten years later: When the investor class goes marching in.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Our New Sovereign

Syracuse University

In the light of the recent violence and sovereign personages, I have been reflecting on the conclusion of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which should be read as an introduction to our century, and not as a summary judgment on the past one. As Arendt forecast, “it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form . . . only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” What does Arendt mean by this conditional statement except that with the deaths of Stalin and Hitler, the fall of National Socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full phenomena of both fascism and totalitarianism is not behind us, since its causes still remain on our contemporary horizon. Here, Arendt is probably employing the understanding of the “origin” from the German word Wurzel, meaning “root”; as with any weed in the garden, if you cut off the head without digging out the root, it will flower again.

But will this plant assume the same form in the future as it did in the past? No, and this is where Arendt’s definition of an “authentic origin” of the causes of the historical phenomenon is so prescient for approaching our current predicament, since her own definition vacillates between a makeshift arrangement that emerges as the symptom of the crisis of a historical arrangement of the body politic (such as socialism, or democracy), or as a completely unprecedented and novel form of government. In fact, the question is whether there is, strictly speaking, something like a single nature of a totalitarian governmentality—in many respects, already prefiguring Foucault’s question regarding the nature of sovereignty—that could be defined like other forms of government recognized by Western political traditions. As she writes: “It is in the line of such reflections to raise the question whether totalitarian government, born of this crisis and at the same time its clearest and only unequivocal symptom, is merely a makeshift arrangement, which borrows its methods of intimidation, its means of organization and its instruments of violence from the well-known political arsenal of tyranny, despotism and dictatorships, and owes its existence only to the deplorable, but perhaps accidental failure of the traditional political forces-liberal or conservative, national or socialist, republican or monarchist, authoritarian or democratic” (Arendt 461).

If we examine some of the features of the historical arrangement in order to apply them to our current situation, first we can find a social and political form that emerged from a one-party system, which today might also characterize the social and political movements that have emerged from radical fundamentalism and historical racism. Secondly, we find in all cases a sovereign defiance of positive law—especially those positive laws that determine the natural rights belonging to all individuals without regard to custom, tradition, nationality, race, or sex—often in the claim of a higher form of legitimacy, if not, as Arendt says, direct access to the source of the law itself to establish its “rule of justice” across the earth. Third, as a consequence of the above claim, we find a notion of right that can only be predicated on the right of war, as if war was an absolute necessity to guarantee the perpetuation of its biopolitical existence. In other words, its own future is guaranteed less by the birth of new subjects who become natural citizens than by the magnitude of death, quantitatively speaking, of its political and ideological enemies.

In short, what Arendt constantly underlines as a novelty is a “monstrous” form of sovereign right (i.e., “justice”) without the need of either politics or legality, both of which this sovereign believes he can do without, since he certainly does not need to concern itself with the consensus of his own subjects, nor with the positive laws that determine the rights of other national subjects, especially given the justification of war. “If it is true,” Arendt wrote concerning the last century, “that the link between totalitarian countries and the civilized world was broken through the monstrous crimes of totalitarian regimes, it is also true that this criminality was not due to simple aggressiveness, ruthlessness, warfare and treachery, but to a conscious break of that consensus juris which, according to Cicero, constitutes a ‘people,' and which, as international law, in modern times has constituted the civilized world insofar as it remains the foundation-stone of international relations even under the conditions of war.” Moreover, today it is important to see that the monstrous crimes of the current century are not only committed by new totalitarian regimes, as in the case of Syria; by so-called “non-state actors” in international territories where, as in the case of a civil war, there can be neither right or wrong committed on either side without the reciprocal recognition of a common principle of civility (consensus juris) but; finally, by the democratic states themselves in their relentless global pursuit of an “unknown and indeterminate enemy.”

What we find among all three contemporary parties, in different respects and according to different measures, is the evidence of this conscious break which has extended from the last century and has only widened in the present one to engulf the entire planet. Thus, today the sovereign can still murder his own people, or the populations who dwell within the boundaries his territory; the terrorist networks can send their human drones into the crowded streets of London, Paris, and Barcelona; the states themselves can target “individuals” in other territories without this act producing too strenuous a contraction in the principle of international law. Nevertheless, this still constitutes a contradiction within the idea of "right," which is founded upon nothing less than a permanent threat of violence (and which in our century continues to inform the permanent threat of nuclear war). As Kant already foresaw the nature of this contradiction at the end of the 18th century when he wrote that the notion of a Right to go to war cannot be properly conceived as an element in the Right of Nations, adding that for such a Right to be conceivable at all, it would amount to this: “that in the case of men who are so disposed it is quite right for them to destroy and devour each other, and thus to find Perpetual Peace only in the wide grave.”

Returning now to our century, let’s recall again the second and third features of our new sovereign outlined above—first, the claim to have direct access to the moral source of the law, bypassing any authority of positive or empirical law (which is often scorned as “legalism”); second, the permanent necessity of war to establish its rule of justice. Both of these features can be understood to express in extremis a form of moral exceptionalism—although one might also use the term “supremacy”—one that is also clearly evident in the grotesque figure of our popular sovereign who today struts upon the world stage threatening to sling his bolts of “fire and fury”; our contemporary Ahab, who asks his “people” each day (on Twitter) to touch the burning lance and swear hatred of an enemy, both foreign and domestic. Is it simply by accident that two days after his “fire and fury” speech against the leader of a “rogue nation,” in Charlottesville, a young white nationalist plowed through a crowd of protesters? Did he not take up the burning lance out of his own hatred, shocked by the fiery emotion expressed of our insane Captain, to become the very harpoon launched into his own whale?

On the day following the violence in Charlottesville, the comedian Jimmy Kimmel suggested that one way to correct the mistake of the last election is to elect Trump as King of America! After laughing, I stopped for a moment to consider this joke exactly as a pronouncement of an unconscious truth. As Rousseau once said concerning the Right of the Strongest, “the strongest is never strongest to be master all of the time, unless he transforms force into right.” But as Kant added later, the very principle of right is contained in the possibility of a reciprocal constraint or coercion (wechselseitigen Zwanges) which is the principal of law in the concept of Right. Without this reciprocity and legal accord, the sovereign often appears as a man without a state, a captain without a crew (a people), adrift and alone on his ship like a brigand or a Rogue.

Perhaps it is just that after these events Trump appears more and more each day as a sovereign in search of “a people,” even though this is not necessarily “the American people,” but rather a mob, a gang, a ship of fools (even though, we are told, “they are very fine people!”). Recalling the allusion to Melville—which is not insignificant as a prophecy of our “Sick America”!—we can only take comfort in the hope that this crew is doomed to perish along with their insane captain. However, Melville chooses to explain this inevitable fate using the scientific theory of magnetism according to which filaments of lead can hold together only so long as an electric current is passed through them, binding them together. Remove the electric current, and the splinters fall apart; remove the magnetism of hatred, and the crew disappears into a thousand tiny fascists who are powerless, even though a single rogue is still capable of doing horrible violence.

Therefore, in response to our century of violence and war, one can only pray--Fiat justitia, pereat mundus. According to Kant’s 18th century translation: “Let justice reign even if all the rogues in the world should perish from it.”


Gregg Lambert is Dean’s Professor of Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. His numerous books include Philosophy after Friendship: Deleuze's Conceptual Personae and In Search of a New Image of Thought: Gilles Deleuze and Philosophical Expressionism (Minnesota, 2012).

"This is a timely, relevant book. By drawing from Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy, especially their concept of friendship, Gregg Lambert offers an important reconceptualization of Kant's essay on perpetual peace, and in doing so he sets the stage for a post-war philosophy that remains true to Kant's ideal."
—Jeffrey Bell, Southeastern Louisiana University

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sexlexia: Reading Sex Work and Genre


I have just returned from a lovely experience filming an interview segment for Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film (forthcoming 2018), which she has conceived as The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995) for sex workers: primarily sex workers discussing tropes in representations of sex workers in Hollywood movies, independent cinema, television, and documentary. Although I made a deliberate choice to exclude purely fictional films from my book on sex workers as documentary subjects, Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary, and to mostly exclude the now vast number of international “sex trafficking” films that wrongly conflate sex work with trafficking and violence, I still feel it is urgent to address the effect of genre filmmaking on perceptions of sex workers. I am especially supportive of a sex worker-produced film with sex worker perspectives on the effects of cinematic representation.

It was also an important learning experience for me, as someone who has researched the interview as a genre for over a decade—specifically the negotiation of the interview situation by queer and other sexually marginalized subjects—to experience an on-camera interview, that artificial but significant form of discourse. Luckily, Juliana and I share distaste for confessional discourse around sex work, resulting in conversational rapport rather than interrogation. But I am inspired to continue the necessary task of interrogating fiction films: Why do audiences, both non-sex workers and sex workers, remain fascinated by sex workers as figures of both identification and desire?

Here, I will address three recent films that deploy visual elements of documentary film modes (like the fly-on-the-wall surveillance camera approach) but hybridize those techniques with conventions from other genres. First, I will discuss a potential reading of Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) as a science fiction allegory about a major contemporary discursive shift in the U.K. from criminalizing “the prostitute” to viewing her (always female) as a victim of “human trafficking.” Next I will address two films that celebrate the resilient sisterhood of trans women sex workers using both documentary techniques and the conventions of the Hollywood comedy and the music video: Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, 2015) and Mala Mala: A TransFormative Documentary (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2014). I argue that the latter two help us reappraise debates over documentary ethics in Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), the first film discussed in Sexography.

I taught Under the Skin recently in a course on our tendency to read science fiction films allegorically for the way in which they reflect political and social anxieties. We examined the recent Jump Cut dossier on Under the Skin which offers a brilliant range of readings of the horror/science fiction/surveillance footage film, specifically Amy Herzog’s article, “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin” where she wonders about the oddly familiar yet strange labor of the main “alien” character (played by Scarlett Johansson) hunting for unattached men: Is she a sex worker? A commodity? A predator? (None seem to fit.) “Is this affective labor? The alien learns quickly how to survey her marks … but she lacks, at least at the beginning of the film, the faintest traces of empathy.” The contemporary discourse around “sex trafficking” is implicit in Herzog’s title and theoretical reading, but I think the real world political and legal context deserves to be made more legible.

Herzog is right to focus on empathy: the film’s plot takes a sharp turn once the predatory alien apparently starts to feel empathy, and once we feel empathy for her as we realize that she is apparently herself being controlled by a mysterious motorcycle-riding “pimp” alien. The major turning point is where we see the once-predatory Johansson character after she has temporarily “escaped” the city of Glasgow to the countryside and is asked by a kindly (but also sexually attracted) male bystander who sees her shivering alone on a public bus, “Do you need help?” Here I see an allegorical connection between the film’s dramatic shift and a major discursive shift from viewing the prostitute as a criminal to viewing her as a victim of human trafficking in need of rescue. I attribute this international shift, in part, to diplomatically powerful organizations pushing for the “Nordic model” like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women [CATW] and Polaris.

Thankfully, like all good science fiction, the film’s symbolism exceeds this reductive reading. But we can follow Herzog in examining the fraught symbolic connections between the body of the prostitute, the body of the actress, and money. The anxiety such connections provoke might help illuminate a recent event where a number of wealthy Hollywood actresses—some of whom have played sex worker parts in movies but also participate in antitrafficking missionary/charity campaigns—signed on to a letter advanced by the CATW condemning Amnesty International’s call for the decriminalization of adult consensual sex work (as the best, evidence-based means of protecting the human rights of sex workers). What if we were to read the Hollywood celebrities’ vehement objection as a means of distancing the long historical linkage between actresses and sex workers?

Similar ethical concerns about differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, and sexual stigma between filmmakers and subjects can be seen in the independent films Tangerine and Mala Mala addressing the real experiences of transgender women of color engaged in street-based sex work (in Los Angeles, California, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, respectively). The films were also made by cisgender men from outside of the subcultures they depict, a matter sometimes addressed in press for the films.

In a story titled “In Tangerine, Trans Cinema Takes a Major Leap Forward with Nothing But an iPhone,” Matt Barone investigates “how a New Yorker managed to shoot a wild comedy about transgender prostitutes in Hollywood with a cell phone.” The story’s framework echoes the long history of white “discovery” of urban underworlds (aka “slumming”): Donut Time on Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is framed as “cinematically uncharted territory.” Sean Baker explains “I don’t know what it is about me, but I’m always drawn to the edgier parts of town … It was basically an unofficial Red Light District. I couldn’t understand why I’d never seen a story take place there. I knew we could find one there.” Barone explains how,

Acting on that hunch, Baker and frequent co-writer Chris Bergoch visited a nearby LGBT center and met an aspiring transgender actress named Mya Taylor, who quickly introduced them to her friend/roommate/fellow transgender woman Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Soon after, Taylor and Rodriguez told Baker and Bergoch a story they’d heard about a trans woman who found out her boyfriend had cheated on her with a biological woman and went on a warpath through Los Angeles to find both her heartbreaking lover and his “actual fish,” their term for a biological female. And with that anecdote, Baker and Bergoch had the central plot for what would become Tangerine. Eight months’ worth of research and interviews with Taylor and Rodriguez later, they were ready to rock.

Here we can see a common mixture of “knowingness” and “research” regarding sex worker and trans subcultures that speak to differences between insiders and outsiders. By knowingness I mean using terms like “hookers” and “pimps” already known to the worldly reader (knowingness, Eve Sedgwick reminds us, is about privilege, open secrets, and not necessarily the opposite of ignorance). Here stereotypical images get activated, what David Halperin calls “a message … waiting at the receiver’s end.” Research means understanding the language and world of the LGBT center’s inhabitants and the side of Los Angeles unrepresented in Hollywood films. But note that the LGBT center remains conspicuously off-camera in Tangerine as well, thus the conditions of researching the film are occluded in the final product. Taylor and Rodriguez are framed as native informants, clarifying specialized vocabulary (like “actual fish”).

Barone’s article underlines the significance of the film being a comedy rather than a documentary. Baker explains how Mya Taylor said, “I’ll make this film with you only if you promise me two things: one, that you’ll make this as realistic as possible and show the brutal reality of what these women have to go through on the street, and two, I want this to be a laugh riot.” He eventually agrees with Mya that a different approach—one that was more traditionally anthropological, observational, or tragic—might be more condescending, whereas, “if we’re laughing with our characters and participating in the chaos of that day, and not laughing at them, we’d make a film that the women who actually work in that area could enjoy.”

While I am critical of the “discovery” framework of the article, these last points actually align with the findings of Susan Dewey and Tiantian Zheng’s collection Ethical Research with Sex Workers: problematizing insider/outsider distinctions and centering the needs, interests, and desires of those being “researched.” Baker suggests that not everyone will like their feature film comedy—rather than documentary—approach to the subject, but “in the end the only people I’ve have to answer to are Mya and Kiki.”

Mindful of being both an insider and outsider as a cisgender female sex worker, Tits and Sass reviewer Lolo de Sucre incorporates quotes from transgender reviewer Mey in Autostraddle and another trans woman, the sex worker rights activist Morgan M. Page. She considers both transgender and sex worker versions of the “Bechdel test,” and contextualizes the film in relationship to Hollywood and “mainstream audiences” (usually presumed to be white and cisgender, and not sex workers). I am interested in how such reviews reckon with these questions of identification and sympathy, and the fact that Tangerine is a fictional comedy, not a documentary, although the plot was drawn from real stories and the film was promoted for its unique approach to on-the-fly realism shot with an iPhone camera. Tangerine also gained attention for being one of the few fiction films about transgender women to star transgender actresses (Mya Taylor was nominated for a best supporting actress role, a historical first with the exception of a write-in campaign for Holly Woodlawn in Trash [1970]).

In contrast with the Hollywood comedy genre aspirations of Tangerine, Mala Mala is a crowd-funded documentary about drag queens, trans women, and sex workers (as overlapping communities) in Puerto Rico, but it aspires to a more “glossy” music video-inspired aesthetic standard to “glorify” the women it documents. Comparing Mala Mala and Tangerine can help us further probe questions of cinematic realism, indie distribution and press coverage, and the ethical quandaries raised by “outsiders” documenting the complicated place of sex work within the transgender community and the movement for trans equality and representation.

These films also provide a new vantage point from which to revisit debates concerning similar issues in Jennie Livingston’s now iconic drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning, which featured the testimony of a young trans woman Venus Xtravaganza about her experience with sex work, but framed in terms of the tragic story of her murder. We must consider the considerably high stakes involved in Mala Mala and Tangerine’s deliberate departures from “tragic” narratives in favor of musical spectacle and comedy, even as they recognize the extreme level of violence directed toward transgender women of color and sex workers. Clearly, these are fictions and fantasies that matter, as Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film intends to demonstrate.


Nicholas de Villiers is associate professor of English and film at the University of North Florida. He is the author of Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary (Minnesota, 2017) and Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (Minnesota, 2012).

"de Villiers has sought to be, as he says, “a queer ally” to sex workers — meaning that he seeks to assist in the process of destigmatization and to problematize the discourse of sex worker as victim. In a world that is dominated by anti-sex work bias, such an analysis is sorely needed."
—Los Angeles Review of Books

Friday, August 4, 2017

Fun with Your Modern Head

Fritz Kahn, "Der Mensch als Industriepalast" (2d ed, ca. 1929).
Artist: Fritz Shüler. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart. National Library of Medicine.

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala

In recent decades, scholars have begun to reckon with the visual turn in the popular science of the 18th and 19th centuries — the plates of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the lantern-slide lectures and theatrical electricity and magnetism shows of the Victorian era — a reckoning that nowadays is sometimes paired with desperate calls for a renewed “public engagement with science” as a response to the displacement of the industrial economy by the information economy, and by the political rise of climate denial, intelligent design creationism, and alternative facts.

Less well-attended is the visual turn in popular science of the early 20th century, and the key role of the German-Jewish physician-author, Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Kahn commanded a mass readership in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Even so, his enormous oeuvre of printed illustrations — several thousand — has been mostly overlooked. The small amount of scholarship on Kahn focuses on his most famous work, the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (“Man as Industrial Palace” or “Man as Industrial Factory”, with art by uncredited illustrator Fritz Shüler). That scholarship treats “Der Mensch” as a peculiarly Weimar cultural production. But “Der Mensch” had, in translation, a global impact. And more obscurely, direct American antecedents.

This blog (loosely based on the longer account in
Body Modern) tells the back story: the antecedents and origins of “Der Mensch”:

In the early decades of the twentieth century a modernizing imperative took hold. Suddenly it seemed that a new age was dawning — an era of new technologies, fashions, and political philosophies — modern times. In the aftermath of the mass carnage of the Great War (1914–18), and the overthrow of the German, Russian, and Hapsburg empires, it seemed especially important to rethink things — to strip off old-fashioned ideas and decorative motifs that choked the preceding era. The new era needed new designs and inventions, with design elements that emphasized industrial production, machine power, strong practical lines, bold colors, and smooth surfaces of metal, glass, concrete, and rubber.

"The headquarters," Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate XIII, part of a series of plates,
with fancy translucent overlay pages, that served as the inspiration for Fritz Kahn's
1926 poster "Der Mensch als Industriepalast." Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.

Hanns Günther, Wunder in Uns (2nd ed., 1923).
Cover design: Walter Thamm. National Library of Medicine.

Wunder in Uns (The Wonder in Us) bears the marks of that moment. In 1921 Hanns Günther (pseudonym of the German popular science writer Walter de Haas, 1886–1969) compiled a book of twenty-eight essays on the human body “for everyone.” Furnished with a cover illustration that showed a boldly minimalist outline of a human heart, Wunder in Uns presented illustrated lessons on “recent developments” in medicine and “modern physiology” — and a chapter that compared the human body to an industrial machine. Central Europe was then greatly afflicted by political and economic turmoil. Everything was unsettled by the terrible destruction wrought by industrial warfare in the Great War. But even in troubled times Wunder in Uns attracted a wide readership and quickly sold out its first edition.

Part of the book’s appeal lay in its unusual color plates, which featured stylized cutaway diagrams of the interior of the human body. Although anatomical illustrations had long been a staple of popular medical books, they typically presented a view of static structures. In contrast, the striking illustrations in Wunder in Uns deployed images of industrial technology and process inside the human body as a way of visually explaining the body’s functions.

The head was depicted as the most technologically modern part of the body, the “Headquarters”. The brain was figured as bundles of wires connected to telecommunication offices staffed by little switchboard operators, file clerks, and messengers, who sort and redirect sensory electrical messages received from the eyes, nose, mouth, and lower body. In contrast, Plate III’s lesson on the physiology of digestion shows foods tumbling off a conveyor belt down the esophageal chute into the stomach and intestines, a sweaty corporeal furnace room or mine, tended by manual laborers. The body then had a class production system, an industrial organizational structure — the “head office” directed the body factory.

Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate III, another plate redrawn from illustrations
that appeared in a 1917 edition of the encyclopedia Pictured Knowledge.
Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.

And all of that was modern. In both form and content, the illustrations of Wunder in Uns signified their modernness, their adherence to new ways of thinking and doing. The mixture of text, drawings, and photographs was in the graphic style that had only recently been developed in American newspapers and magazines. The application of that style to visually explain the workings of the human body through industrial metaphor was a particularly clever innovation. And the way it was done was also new: each colored plate was dressed up with a tissue-paper overlay printed with captions, a slick modern packaging concept. The modern was a kind of performance that could be almost anything, so long as it was new, a novelty, the latest thing.

America was another signifier. Wunder in Uns tried to do things the modern industrialized American way. Its illustrations of the industrial body were borrowed from an article, “The Body We Live In,” written by Northwestern University physiologist-educator Winfield Scott Hall (perhaps in collaboration with his wife Jeannette Winter Hall), that first appeared in an American encyclopedia, Pictured Knowledge (Chicago, 1917).

"A look into headquarters," Pictured Knowledge, vol. I (2nd ed.: Chicago, 1917).
This version has one less worker than the redrawn colorized plate in Wunder in Uns.
Artist: Uncredited.

Fritz Kahn, Life Magazine 19 April 1943.
Photograph: James L. Hussey.

Later in the 1920s and 30s, Wunder in Uns essayist Fritz Kahn, then a very minor popular science writer, took the idea of visual explanation and built a career out of it. His most esteemed work was the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast.” But, in a succession of popular illustrated books and articles, and in collaboration with a cadre of commercial artists, Kahn developed many different strategies and genres of visual explanation. They amped up the modernness of the pictorial content and style every step of the way, and revolutionized — to a large degree invented — the entire genre of conceptual illustration.

And in the 1940s, in exile in New York as a refugee from the Nazis, Kahn returned conceptual illustration to America.

Kahn’s commitment to visual explanation was based on an underlying premise: the modern way to communicate and instruct, the modern way to move readers (“the masses”), is through pictures that entertain while they instruct and persuade. Words alone are inadequate. “The picture is worth a thousand words.” An advertisement for Kahn’s Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man) boasted that the five-volume set on the science of the human body had 1,200 images.

"Twelve of twelve hundred . . . illustrations from 'Das Leben des Menschen'" (ca. 1931).
Two-color promotional insert. Artist: Roman Rechn. Leo Baeck Institute,
New York. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart.

Pictures had powerful emotional and cognitive effects. They still do. The public thirsted for novel images, was addicted. It still is. And, using an array of media technologies, powerful industrial media machines churn them out. Today, in that proliferating picture and design environment, Kahn’s tropes and genres of visual explanation are our tropes and genres of visual explanation. Not just body factories, but body architectures, fantastic voyages inside the human body, aestheticized flow charts, dramatized statistics, mixed-media bodies, body dynamism, body abstraction, visual synopsis, and so forth. We see these visual tactics deployed so frequently in animated cartoons, instruction manuals, videos, websites, comic books, and magazine illustration, that they are nearly invisible to us, like the air we breathe. And we don’t imagine that they have a history, a history that lives on in us, in the present. Kahn’s prime directive — don’t just say it, show it — is the prime directive of civilization, our common sense, reproduced in every creative writing class and television show and video game and website. Kahn’s pictures showed the modern world in the human body and the human body in the modern world, using modernist aesthetics like surrealism, Jugendstil and Bauhaus functionalism. They were a striking part of the visual rhetoric of modernity. But his reliance on pictures in bulk also performed the modern, was part of a modern rhetoric of visuality that has only accelerated in 21st-century post-modernity. And that history is what Body Modern is all about.


Michael Sappol is fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. He is the author of Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.

"The book is nicely illustrated and the history of our relationship between biology and mythology is brilliantly addressed." —The Daily Heller

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Remember Soup, Poop, and Climate Change: Veering with Game of Thrones

Image: HBO


Like the plot of Game of Thrones, memory resists standing still. And Game of Thrones is all about memory. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based major cultural, political, and scientific strides on the memory of an imagined, idyllic Middle Ages. One that moderns at times resisted as primitive and at others vaunted as desirable.

Memory persists.

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medieval revival remains with us, and it has found a new and extremely popular form in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Like any popular medievalist narrative, GoT reflects the modern concerns of its writers and readers such as race, which I have written about here, and Helen Young has written about here. But in this post I want to take up another of the show’s major concerns: memory and how the show uses it to explore the idea that we live in an epoch characterized by human impact on the earth and its climate, otherwise known as the Anthropocene.

Image: HBO

Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos (the West and the East) are populated by characters who are motivated by memories—hazy memories of their families’ former rule and all-too-vivid memories of more recent injury, murder, and exile. Characters seek rule and revenge. They are also locked in a larger battle for control of the world between humans and the non-human White Walkers. The characters strive to perpetuate—or at least continue—the Anthropocene by keeping the White Walkers at bay. Clearer in A Song of Ice and Fire than in Game of Thrones is that remembering a loved one who has been killed by a White Walker is a deadly mistake. Their human victims are reanimated—literally re-membered—as wights, undead who attack and kill the living. Several characters make the mistake of bringing home the bodies of fallen fellow defenders of humanity only to have them rise and kill more fellow defenders. Memory is a dangerous game.

In “Remember,” my chapter in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s forthcoming Veer Ecology (Minnesota 2017), I have written about remembering and wanting to return home. It is a common theme in medieval romance, modern novels, and even popular music, and it is usually motivated by love. Love is a dual-edged sword: “cancerous love consumes its subject until nothing remains. But love also gives life.” The vivifying and destructive natures of remembering and loving are inextricable: “love leads to grief and mourning only when it has been lost and is fondly remembered.” Major settings and characters in Chaucer’s works—the classical city of Thebes and Anelida, the jilted lover and queen of Armenia, for instance—live out the internal contradiction of intergenerational memory. They are “always dying but never dead.” Thebes is known in classical and medieval literature as a city founded on a cycle of death and rebirth. Anelida is known for a mourning so profound that she calls it “deadly adversity” and exclaims “I am so distraught that I die.” Each figure, and similarly fraught settings and characters, are deployed over and over again in literature. But what do these actual medieval stories teach us about how to understand the pseudo-medieval story in Game of Thrones?

Let’s take the Soup-Poop montage. It has quickly become one of the most discussed scenes in GoT’s Season 7, episode 1. Samwell “Sam” Tarly, a rather bumbling but sweet character who has a fascination with manuscripts befitting a scholar of medieval literature, has come to the Citadel in order to become the maester (think doctor, philosopher, and head librarian all rolled into one) at Castle Black. As with all scholarly orders, a trainee must start at the bottom. And so Sam does. He pours the soup into dining pots, and he empties the shit from chamberpots. Over and over, and over again. The scene’s tempo is out of step with the show’s usual pace. It speeds up to at least quadruple time as Samwell’s monotonous days of soup and poop are shown in time-lapse fashion. As Aaron Bady points out, if the maesters are going to do the slow scholarly work of inquiry, investigation, and book production then “someone has to live life in the sequence of increasingly short and fast cuts in which soup after soup becomes poop after poop.” Sam has to work in real-time, and against the background of the Citadel’s scholarly pace, real-time is fast-forward.

Sam lives out memory’s veering path: the same hands that bring life (soup) also take away death (poop). Even the soup-pots and the poop-pots look the same. (Let’s hope the Citadel has some system for keeping them separate.) The contrasting-yet-bound pair of Remember’s vivifying and destructive powers are on display in the scene.

Image: HBO

The life-and-death pairing are not confined to episode 1. In episode 2, the show offers it the other way around. While soup came before poop in the first installment, now deadly infection comes before soup. George R.R. Martin is obsessed with soup. Jorah Mormont, the Mother-of-Dragons Daenerys Targaryen’s loyal on-again off-again knight, suffers from a deadly disease known as greyscale. Once infected, stony grey scales spread across the sufferer’s skin, slowly turning the victim into stone. Jorah has come to the Citadel on his journey to find a cure. When Samwell confirms that a previous Archmaester had found a potential cure (before dying of the disease himself), he defies the current Archmaester and secretly begins to perform surgery on Jorah—reading the manual as he goes! First things first, he must cut off all the infected skin, which covers at least half of Jorah’s body. If the flaying is hard to watch—and it is—imagine how much harder it must be for Jorah, who has only a bottle of rum for anesthetic. Samwell cuts deep into the stony flesh until he reaches a layer of yellow-green pus that screams deadly infection. He digs his surgical instrument down into the gooey pathogen stew until what comes up is a spoon of creamy soup that goes directly into the mouth of one of the barons of King’s Landing.

We are reminded that one man’s death is another’s life, and that one man’s life is another’s death. It is a lesson the show offers, relentlessly. It is also a lesson that should be central to climate change. Well-to-do dwellers of wealthy nations that consume most of the world’s resources in order to maintain a high standard of living regularly thrust less wealthy humans into the throes of immediate climate disaster. One man’s rich soup, filled with processed dairy products and unsustainably farmed meat and delivered to the door of his highly air-conditioned home by a driver who was called by means of an app, is another man’s loss of home and livelihood by unexpected torrential rains or by war for control of the rare earth minerals that power smartphones. How is one to short-circuit the death-and-life, life-and-death cycle? By consuming less? By developing newer, greener technologies?

Maybe all it takes is a little remembering. Remembering bygone ways of doing things. Remembering how to use resources that have fallen out of fashion but remain plentiful. Remembering that overuse of anything: soup, chivalry, experimental surgeries, power—and even love—can become cancerous and lead to disastrous results.

In fact, remembering seems to be Season 7’s organizing ethos. Daenerys’s dragons have helped her conquer much of the world, as they did for her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, but by the end of episode 2 it appears that using the dragons to take King’s Landing would be overuse. At the same time, we have also learned that Daenerys’s home-castle Dragonstone sits atop a mountain of Dragonglass, the only known way to kill White Walkers. Remembering this forgotten resource will surely be beneficial in slowing or stopping the advance of the White Walkers and, with them, the wintry death that thinly veils our impending climate disaster.

Cord J. Whitaker teaches and researches on medieval literature and the development of racial ideology at Wellesley College. Whitaker’s work has appeared in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the Yearbook of Langland Studies, and postmedieval, where his special issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages” has achieved critical acclaim. He blogs at,, and The Spoke: the blog of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley.

Whitaker is a contributor to Veer Ecology, coming in November 2017.