Friday, December 7, 2018

The Most Dangerous Book in the World

Georgetown University

One book, written by a computer, could have killed us all.

What do you do when you’re the only country in the world with atomic bombs? You make them much, much bigger. That was the US strategy right after World War II. The Cold War was beginning, and by 1952 the US would have a weapon 690 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. To make such a gigantic explosion, the scientists at Los Alamos first needed to create a very strange book, one that proved an important component in the history of computing.

The book is called A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates (1947), and it contains precisely that: a huge table of random digits. It’s about the size of a phonebook. Los Alamos scientists used it to do the calculations necessary for designing thermonuclear weapons. As you might have learned in high school, the motion of subatomic particles is chaotic, so the bomb’s designers had to account for randomness in their calculations. They soon discovered that their random numbers were—well, not random enough. Apparently, picking numbers out of a hat just wasn’t scientific enough. So in 1947 they asked the RAND Corporation, a military think-tank, to produce a very large table of very random digits.

The so-called RAND book illustrates a familiar theme: many of today’s electronics emerged from military research. For example, Norbert Weiner formalized cybernetics based on his efforts to automate antiaircraft guns. Alan Turing developed key principles for computer science, including the Turing test of artificial intelligence, after breaking Nazi codes for the British intelligence service. One scientist involved with A Million Random Digits, John von Neumann, also invented the Von Neumann Architecture, an influential blueprint for computer hardware. The Internet itself began as ARPANET, a project by the Department of Defense group now known as DARPA. (In 1977 the entire Internet looked like this; note the names of universities, corporations, and military bases.) This group also claims to have developed the computer mouse—only partly true—and they’re responsible for those creepy walking robots you might have seen online.

By 1945, academic and corporate research had become integrated with the war effort. The University of California managed Los Alamos, but until the end of the war only one UC official knew its purpose or even which state it was in. The RAND Corporation, short for Research ANd Development, started as a collaboration between the Douglas Aircraft company and the US Air Force; its first publication was the prescient Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (1946). Similar groups included the Institute for Advanced Study, home of Albert Einstein, and AT&T’s Bell Labs, which developed the solid-state transistor during the same year work on the RAND book began. Decades before Google became known for its casual work environments, these groups recognized that a little disorder in the workplace fosters innovation. Researchers were rarely held to specific performance standards and were encouraged to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. If your company has a foosball table or free beer on Fridays, you might have the military-industrial complex to thank.

A big supply of random digits made it possible to do a new kind of math, called the Monte Carlo method, which simulates the movements of particles in a nuclear reaction. Monte Carlo math uses random sampling to make calculations. Here’s an example to illustrate how it works: if I draw two squiggly shapes on the ground, I can compare their areas by sprinkling grains of rice over them and counting how many grains fall inside each shape. Sprinkling more rice yields more accurate results but requires more tedious calculations, more counting. The scientist Stanislaw Ulam supposedly came up with the Monte Carlo method while sick in bed, playing solitaire. He realized he could figure out the probability of winning a solitaire game by dealing lots of sample games and checking how many were winnable. He purportedly named the method after his uncle, who liked to gamble. Ulam shared his ideas with his Los Alamos colleagues, including John von Neumann and Nicholas Metropolis. Together they formalized the technique. Like von Neumann, Metropolis made other contributions to computer science too, designing and naming the MANIAC computers in the 1950s. The task of computing randomness helped bring them together.

To generate random digits is surprisingly difficult. Computers cannot produce randomness on their own because their design is based on strict logic. Asking a deterministic machine to pick a random number is like asking your microwave to have a favorite color: it just doesn’t compute. Meanwhile any manual process, like flipping a coin or drawing numbers from a hat, would take too long and might not produce truly random results. To solve this problem, scientists designed an electronic “roulette wheel,” which was basically a virtual model of a wheel with a slot for each digit from 0 to 9. They set this wheel to “spin” at 3,000 times per second and then connected it to a random-frequency pulse. With each pulse, the machine would record the position of the wheel at that moment, and they’d have one randomly selected digit.

But where did this random-frequency pulse come from? No one is certain. Given that people at Los Alamos were fiddling with radioactive elements, some have speculated the random pulse came from a Geiger counter pointed at a piece of uranium. Such elements have a steady rate of decay (the half-life), but they emit particles at random intervals, hence the Geiger counter’s weird clicking. It would be quite elegant if a Geiger counter were used for the random pulse. This would mean that the unpredictable subatomic motion the scientists needed random digits to simulate was the very same unpredictable motion scientists used to generate the random digits.

Unfortunately, it probably isn’t true. Because of the bomb, radioactive elements had become precious and would not just be laying around for odd jobs. More likely a kind of vacuum tube provided the random pulses that told the machine when to stop the wheel. The whole apparatus was hooked up to an IBM punch card device and left running. Ironically, the machine had to be reset at least once because it was breaking down. But in this case, “breaking down” means it was becoming too systematic, not random enough. Likewise, the tables were printed directly from the computer printouts because it was feared a human transcriber would introduce errors into this untainted sea of randomness. A newsletter at Los Alamos joked that librarians would shelve the book under “abnormal psychology.” Today the book’s Amazon page offers other hilarious reviews, one of which calls the randomization “sloppy” because “at the lower left and lower right of alternate pages, the number is found to increment directly.”

These days when a computer needs a random number, there are two common possible sources. It can select from a limited table of random digits stored in its memory—a table sometimes copied from A Million Random Digits, which is available gratis online. Or else the computer uses a formula to generate a “pseudorandom” number, one that’s close enough to random for most reasonable purposes but not random enough for advanced applications like designing thermonuclear weapons. New techniques for generating random numbers continue to emerge, some of which look to the natural world for a source of randomness, as the RAND scientists seem to have done. One recent project, called Lavarand, trained digital cameras on a bank of lava lamps and derived random numbers according to the random shapes they make. The tech firm Cloudflare apparently still uses this technique to encrypt a significant portion of internet traffic.

The RAND book represents one big step in a long history of doing math with randomness. The book of digits and the Monte Carlo method have found uses in a range of fields, from thermodynamics and environmental engineering to statistics and finance. A related method, known as the “random walk,” lent its name to a popular book about investing, Burton Malkiel’s 1973 bestseller A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Randomness remains important in a variety of computer applications too. Weather models use randomness to simulate turbulence in the atmosphere. Video games use random numbers to make computerized enemies behave more naturally, less predictably. In fact, that’s how I first heard of A Million Random Digits, in a footnote about randomization in Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s excellent Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System.

The RAND book has also interested at least one experimental poet, Jackson Mac Low, who used it to randomize his writing process. Like many other experimental writers, Mac Low employed procedures known as “chance operations,” strategies to make writing a bit more chaotic. Through chance operations, writers hope to minimize the role of personal choice in their work. When the words in a poem appear by chance, not by choice, then perhaps the poem reflects something other than the author’s personal biases. Writers doing chance operations typically use household equipment like dice, a deck of cards, or even words pulled out of a hat. So it’s strange that Mac Low often drew numbers from A Million Random Digits to perform his chance operations. If the point is to disrupt the influence of social and historical contexts, then why choose a piece of equipment with such a grim origin story? Mac Low used the RAND book for a variety of projects during his long career, but it was especially important for his rewritings of texts by the modernist writer Gertrude Stein. As I argue in the second chapter of The Poem Electric, there are surprising resonances between the RAND book and Stein’s work. By using A Million Random Digits to make poetry, however, Mac Low also hoped to redeem the creative energies of the talented scientists who first made this book for such dark purposes.


Seth Perlow is assistant teaching professor of English at Georgetown University. He is author of The Poem Electric: Technology and the American Lyric and edited Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, which earned a Seal of Approval from the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions.

"The Poem Electric is a highly original investigation of how ‘electronics enable poets and their readers to animate and rework, rather than reject and surpass, familiar lyric norms.’"
—Marjorie Perloff, author of Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius

"Seth Perlow presents a magnificent challenge to the current fashion of ‘big data’ and mathematized literary analysis. The Poem Electric shows how qualitative, lyric intensities embody dispositions that are of indispensable value to us, and which are in productive tension with the world of screens and memes that we inhabit. It represents a wonderful challenge to so many of our assumptions about the value of technology to the humanities and the place of the lyric in our technologized lifeworlds."
—Joel Nickels, author of World Literature and the Geographies of Resistance

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Can apps care for healthcare?

Drexel University

When Cheryl Lansing discovered her asthma care app had disappeared from her smartphone, she was unsettled to say the least. Recommended by her health insurance company, Cheryl had used the care app several times a week for about three months before it faded into the sea of apps that had accumulated on her phone. Cheryl had not missed the app, not until I asked her for a follow-up interview to talk about its features. Part of my research for Breathtaking focused on the rise of mobile health apps, and Cheryl was the one and only person I had interviewed who mentioned using a health app. When she realized it was gone, however, a whole new set of questions emerged: Who had access to Cheryl’s data? What was the data being used for? And how could she recover her records?

Together, our quick and cursory search – coordinated over the course of thirty minutes via email – revealed that Cheryl’s asthma care app was not (as she believed) owned by her insurance company, but rather by a third party company. In the time since Cheryl began using the app, the insurance and health technology companies had parted ways. As a result, the app was no longer available online and there was no further information about the relationship between the two organizations. Cheryl was especially concerned because she had used her insurance ID to create an account in the app, and she had provided information about her pharmaceutical prescriptions and medication regimes. The feature that Cheryl used the most, however, was the daily “How are you breathing?” logbook, which allowed Cheryl to index her asthma based on her sense of breathing. There were other features that Cheryl could use, too – she could enter her peak flow reading and track when she used her rescue inhaler, for example. But Cheryl did not measure peak flow readings at home and she avoided using her inhaler unless she was having a full-blown asthma attack. In fact, Cheryl was pretty healthy during the period when she used the asthma care app.

The daily breathing prompt was most useful for Cheryl because it helped her to gauge, from day to day, what her breathing felt like. Otherwise she only noticed if her breathing was restricted on a particular day, or for a sequence of days; this was quite common among asthma sufferers I interviewed. The asthma care app, however, got Cheryl to check in with her breath intentionally, and track how her airways felt from morning to morning. The ritual of daily tracking, of course, is exactly what app designers want to encourage in users. Yet study after study has shown that health apps don’t stick long-term: After initial, enthusiastic adoption – often fueled by a desire to change behaviors – most health and wellness apps go unused. This was the case for Cheryl, who after using the asthma care app for a few months, went back to only noticing her breathing when something was wrong.

Like many people living with asthma, Cheryl’s symptoms were intermittent and seasonal. Her asthma always spiked in the springtime because of her pollen allergies, and in the summer on bad air quality days. She also had to be careful in the winter months, when cold air triggered her asthma, too. Because Cheryl had lived with asthma for most of her life – since elementary school – she felt that she knew how to care for her disease; she could sense symptoms emerging, and she knew when environmental conditions would make it difficult for her to breathe. This meant that, much like her asthma, Cheryl’s care practices had become normalized so that she rarely even thought of herself as having a disease. This is precisely what many asthma care apps want to change about asthma care: They want to remind app users of their asthma (which may be intermittent and seasonal) in order to regiment care and keep medical costs down. The problem is, as my study showed, many asthma care apps are just as fleeting and uncertain as the disease itself.

In recent years, health organizations including insurance companies, hospitals, general practitioners, university research centers, and pharmaceutical companies have rushed to the mobile app marketplace, anxious to launch platforms that will help patients, research subjects, and customers maximize preventative healthcare. It is a fine move. Many asthma care apps, for example, ask users to track peak flow readings (which gauge airflow restriction, and can be taken as an indicator of uncontrolled asthma), daily medication use, symptoms, and exposure to asthma triggers. Tracking, it is believed, can increase medical adherence and reduce the costs of emergency care. And having a record of symptom events and care practices that spans years may help app users see trends that they otherwise might only intuit. There is great potential for asthma care apps to document a chronic, often lifelong condition that may be fleeting and varied from year to year.

What I puzzle through in chapter four of Breathtaking is the relationship that emerging apps have to existing healthcare infrastructure. More specifically, I ask how these apps are situated in a system that does not always give patients enough information, where medication is prohibitively expensive, and care needs to be a continued conversation beyond a fifteen-minute clinical appointment. Does existing healthcare infrastructure have the ability to care for emerging asthma care apps? If not, what would it take to make it so? To ensure that apps with our health data do not just disappear on us; that we understand relationships between healthcare organizations and how they use our data; that apps are offered to us with robust explanations of how they can support and enhance our existing care practices?

Healthcare apps have great potential to fill existing gaps in infrastructure, but they cannot be expected to fix a broken system.


Alison Kenner is author of Breathtaking: Asthma Care in a Time of Climate Change. Kenner is assistant professor in the department of politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University.

"Breathtaking is social science at its best: experiential, explanatory, critical, and providing ways forward. Alison Kenner herself is an active participant as community social-scientist and as partner to someone who suffers disordered breathing. She guides us vividly across scales and registers."
—Michael M.J. Fischer, author of Anthropology in the Meantime

"Breathtaking is a sweeping ethnographic account of asthma and its treatments that expertly traverses questions of lived experience, medical technology, and critical ecology as they bear on the epidemic of disordered breathing. Beautifully written and poignant, this book makes a robust contribution to our understanding of the health effects of environmental degradation and climate change, deepens the critiques of biomedicalization, and heralds the promise of complementary and alternative medicine."
—Anthony Ryan Hatch, author of Blood Sugar

Monday, November 19, 2018

Migration and global justice: North American economic migrants in Latin America

St. Thomas University, New Brunswick

What happens when North American retirement ideals of adventure and personal growth collide with the material realities of a Latin American city, going through a process of rapid urban growth spurred by rural-to-urban migration?

This is a question I tried to answer in Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism. North American retirees are not only developing new ways of aging and experiencing retirement, they are doing so in conditions of economic uncertainty and financial precarity unlike those of recent generations. The financial crisis of 2008 left many without the savings for the retirement they hoped for.

But thanks to a sharply unequal global economy, thousands of self-proclaimed ‘economic refugees’ have managed to rescue the retirement they dreamed of by offshoring it to Cuenca, Ecuador. Cuenca is a city of about 400,000 people located at 2,500m in the Andean Sierra, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. Since the 2008 crisis, perhaps as many as 10,000 US Americans and Canadians have relocated there, drawn by rosy-tinted depictions of its colonial-style charms in online marketing. American-run companies speculating in transnational real estate have been using internet algorithms to promote offshore retirement destinations to later-life workers unable to afford a middle-class North American retirement.

Not all those who retire to Cuenca are poor—though certainly a few would fall below the low-income cut-off in the US or Canada. They simply could not afford to age in place without a working income, especially in desirable but rapidly gentrifying urban spaces in cities like Houston, San Francisco, Portland and Toronto. In Cuenca, they can live easily in a city where the average income is about $700 per month, but where many live on much less.

North American migrants’ higher incomes are a major source of economic demand in a city now undergoing a makeover. The Ecuadorian government is promoting a One for One tourism campaign, designed to draw one tourist for each resident in a bid to make the sector the most important source of foreign revenue outside the oil sector. In 2018, tourism receipts are expected to rise to almost $1.8 billion US. Many of these tourism arrivals are lifestyle migrants settling permanently in a country whose constitution recognizes universal citizenship rights for resident foreigners. Many others visit on tours operated by international lifestyle marketers, trying on different destinations to see if they feel they can live in a Latin American setting.

Latin American Heritage Urbanism

Since the 2000s, foreign development agencies, the Inter-American Development Bank, and UNESCO have sought to promote Cuenca’s “Heritage Urban Landscape” and have facilitated access to loans for urban upgrading, in particular through the IADB’s “Emerging Sustainable Cities Program.” Their interventions position the city within the tourist gaze and appeal to North American settlers, and aim to increase land values and ground rents. While there are jobs for some, lower-income uses of El Centro are marginalized, and low-skilled workers and informal vendors are increasingly removed or prevented from accessing El Centro.

In the leisure space that is being built in El Centro, later-life North American migrants take advantage of opportunities to get outside their comfort zone and experience a new culture, broadening horizons that many say they felt collapsing around them as they aged into poverty at home.

They participate in new activities in their new home, where they can afford to go out frequently and have social lives that remind them sometimes of their college days. Their higher incomes enable them to occupy positions as patrons and benefactors of neighbours and young people that they could not afford at home. They set up charities aimed at deserving poor—especially women and orphans—and position themselves as helpers in ways shape their experience of aging successfully in Ecuador.

The colonial-style built environment that houses their new lifestyle experiments reflects unequal and unjust colonial social relations. Cuenca was built by a landowning elite, whose wealth came from the exploitation of a landless and often racialized peasantry—a significant part of which worked in conditions of indenture until the late 1960s. Cuenca, the seat of urban, European power, presided for centuries over a mestizo and indigenous countryside of small tenant farmers and indentured servants, who would come into the city to sell small agricultural or manufacturing surpluses to commercial and landowning elites. These latter recouped their money by selling manufactured items to their rural workers.

El Centro was abandoned in the 1950s and 1960s, as wealthier Cuencanos relocated to American-style suburbs. Its population dropped, but was sustained by an influx of rural-to-urban migrants from a countryside going through a rapid process of social transformation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Ecuador initiated a series of land reforms designed to redistribute land to indentured labourers, elites in the region around Cuenca sought to avoid redistribution by forcing previously indentured workers to accept title of small properties while retaining the most productive agricultural lands for themselves.

To the Victors, the Spoils

The preservation of El Centro now reproduces the injustices of the past. El Centro’s UNESCO “Heritage Urban Landscape” enshrines the tastes and property of European-oriented landowning elites, but marginalizes popular and rural traditions, particularly the informal vending practices and uses of public space in El Centro.

Restoration projects prioritize the tourism uses of public space, and rising rents push lower-income households toward self-built suburbs on the city’s edges. A new tram project is set to open later this year or early next, but its cost will be recouped in part through fare increases, and the lack of bus transportation across El Centro from East to West leave many Cuencanos wondering if the hundreds of millions of dollars were well spent.

The successes of Cuenca as a lifestyle migrant destination are not shared equally. The Ecuadorians who benefit most from the building boom that has accompanied the North American migration are the landowning elites, self-described as ‘nobles’ and Spanish-descendant. One wealthy family that has diversified into construction owns large tracts of the neighbourhood now called Gringolandia—the North American ethnic-ghetto which serves as a gateway for many prospective lifestyle migrants to the rest of the city and region.

Some middle-class Cuencanos with experience studying or working in the United States benefit from new business opportunities and a wider range of restaurants. But a third of the Cuencano workforce is dependent on informal labour, such as street vending. While some no doubt benefit, urban interventions create higher-income spaces and marginalize lower-income people. While informal vendors and lower-income workers struggle to remain in place, the city around them is changing under forces that are not within their control, and that draw in financial interests quite far removed from the Andean Sierra.

Migration and Global Inequality

The ease with which North Americans can relocate their lives to Cuenca and displace lower-income workers smacks of a sort of colonialism most lifestyle migrants eschew and seek to mitigate, escape, or resist. Despite attempts to make amends for their whiteness (almost all are white) and their privilege, they identify with all the advantages of having higher incomes and higher status in a lower-cost and lower-income community.

Their experiences as migrants differ completely from those of lower-income workers trying to find work in the United States or Canada. As these latter are met with an increasingly restrictive and militarized border regime, lifestyle migrants fill out paper work, and are welcomed with full citizenship rights denied to Latin American migrants moving north. Among the benefits they enjoy are access to Ecuador’s public medical system for operations and check-ups, a service Ecuadorians spend a lifetime paying into, but that foreign residents access for only a small fee (about $70 per month at time of writing).

Cuenca and similar heritage cities in Latin America offer a picture of the world we are entering, one where inherited inequalities are multiplied in perverse forms, and the benefits of transnational mobility and facility of telecommunications are shared unequally and unjustly. For some, Cuenca has become a safe haven from precarity. For others, it is a home that is being taken away and transformed.


Matthew Hayes is author of Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism. Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

"Matthew Hayes provides a vivid sociological portrayal of North Americans living in Ecuador alongside a theoretically sophisticated analysis of the global inequalities that shape growing north-south migration. Gringolandia is a must-read for students and scholars interested in a complex understanding of transnational migration in the context of 21st century globalization."
—Sheila Croucher, author of The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico

"Gringolandia offers a refreshing and powerful new perspective on lifestyle migration that demonstrates how it is caught up in the production of global inequalities informed by colonial legacies, the structures and practice of planetary gentrification, and the local class struggles this portends. Through his up-close ethnographic observations of the lives and motivations of North Americans living in Ecuador, Matthew Hayes presents a timely and sorely needed intervention that straddles the sociology of migration and urban studies, woven together through a deep concern with decoloniality."
—Michaela Benson, Goldsmiths, University of London

Monday, November 12, 2018

#UPWeek | #ReadUP | University Press Week: Adrienne Kennedy inducted into the 2018 Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement

People will be reading
Adrienne Kennedy's works
for centuries to come.

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Adrienne Kennedy has been a force in American theatre since the early 1960s, influencing generations of playwrights with her hauntingly fragmentary lyrical dramas. Kennedy is a three-time Obie-award winning American playwright whose works have been widely anthologized and performed around the world. Among her many honors are the Guggenheim fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. In 2018, The New York Times called her "one of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists." In 1995, critic Michael Feingold of the Village Voice wrote, "with [Samuel] Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater." On this day, Adrienne Kennedy will be inducted into the 2018 Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City.

To mark this tremendous honor, we are posting here an excerpt from The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (2001), the first comprehensive collection of her most important works, including the Obie-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964).


On the Writing of Funnyhouse of a Negro

Funnyhouse of a Negro was completed in Rome, Italy, the week before our second son Adam was born in Salvator Mundi hospital. I was twenty-nine. And I believed if I didn't complete this play before my child's birth and before my thirtieth birthday I would never finish it.

My son Joe Jr. and I lived in a beautiful tranquil apartment about fifteen minutes from Piazza di Spagna. Hall steps led to a miniature living room that opened onto a terrace that overlooked Rome. I sat at the dark desk in the cool miniature room with pages I had started in Ghana on the campus of Legon (Achimota Guest House). They seemed a disjointed raging mass of paragraphs typed on thin transparent typing paper I had bought at the campus of Legon's bookstore. The entire month of July each morning when my son Joe went to Fregene with a play group of children run by an American couple, I tried to put the pages in order. 

Ten months earlier at the end of September 1960 my husband Joe and I left New York on the Queen Elizabeth. It was my first sight of Europe and Africa. We stopped in London, Paris, Madrid, Casablanca and lived in Monrovia, Liberia before we settled in Accra, Ghana.

The imagery in Funnyhouse of a Negro was born by seeing those places: Queen Victoria, the statue in front of Buckingham Palace, Patrice Lumumba on posters and small cards all over Ghana, murdered just after we arrived in Ghana, fall 1960; the savannahs in Ghana, the white frankopenny trees; the birth of Ghana newly freed from England, scenes of Nkrumah on cloth murals and posters. And this was the first time in my life that it was impossible to keep my hair straightened. In Ghana and for the rest of the thirteen-month trip I stopped straightening my hair.

After Ghana in February 1961 I had chosen Rome to wait for my husband to finish his work in Nigeria. Rome was the land my high school Latin teacher had sung of: the Forum, the Tiber, the Palatine, Caesar. When my son Joe was at the Parioli Day School I walked in the Forum for hours that spring of 1961. I rode the bus on the Appian Way, the rhythms of my teacher speaking out loud in my mind. Wandering through Rome while Joe was at school I was more alone than I had ever been. At noon I returned to the Pensioni Sabrina for lunch, often a pasta soup made of star-shaped pasta, then went into our room while waiting for my son to return on the bus at the American Embassy and stared at the pages. There were paragraphs about Patrice Lumumba and Queen Victoria. I had always liked the Duchess of Hapsburg since I'd seen the Chapultapec Palace in Mexico. There were lines about her. But the main character talked in monologues about her hair and savannahs in Africa. At that moment Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers were all a part of one work. It wasn't until late July and the impetus of my son's impending birth tha tthe two works split apart and my character Sarah (with her selves Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, Duchess of Hapsburg and Jesus) was born. 

In May, two months earlier, my mother had written me that my father had left Cleveland and returned to Georgia to live after thirty-five years. I cried when I read the letter, walking from American Express up the Piazza di Spagna steps. So Jesus (who I had always mixed with my social worker father) and the landscape and memories of Georgia and my grandparents became intertwined with the paragraphs on the Ghanian savannahs and Lumumba and his murder.

So trying (for the first time in my life) to comb my unstraightened hair, trying to out race the birth of my child, rereading the divorce news letters from my mother . . . in the July Italian summer mornings, alone in the miniature room, near the Roman Forum, I finished Funnyhouse of a Negro the last week of July 1961. Our son Adam was born August 1.


Also published by University of Minnesota Press:
In One Act by Adrienne Kennedy
Deadly Triplets by Adrienne Kennedy


The University Press Week blog tour begins today and continues throughout the week. Today, Duke University Press writes about its partnerships with museums. Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to Junctures in Women's Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, check out a post by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country's art and architecture. Please enjoy all of these great #TurnItUP posts!

Happy #UPWeek and remember to #ReadUP.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sonic Science Fiction: Programming the Thought Synthesizer

University of Denver

One of the challenges I faced while researching and writing The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film concerned the terminology of the “new” and the role of “futurity.” Early drafts of the project emphasized thematic clusters that brought together films from very different eras in order to emphasize several tonal centers. I have been working now with these in more performative contexts to explore the ways in which individual films might constitute the components of a larger modular thought synthesizer. Could the disruptive cuts of Godard’s Alphaville (1965), for instance, function as a step-sequencing module to control the theremin-drenched soundscapes of Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950) in order to produce an acoustic ecology in which cosmic situations resonate with Cold War dread by offering a scalar attunement to an atomized post-linguistic? Or, can the cosmic engine of Sun Ra’s Moog outbursts in John Coney’s Space Is the Place (1974) introduce the blackness of the AfroStrange as a frequency modulator to attenuate the Wagnerian whiteness of Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? These are still open questions and experiments-in-progress as I regard my book less as the documentation of concluded research than a composition handbook, a score or schemata for new directions and, yes, sounds of things to come.

Conceiving of science fiction (SF) film history not as a timeline of works by composers, musicians, and technicians who build on each other’s work but rather as a proliferation of strategies for “making different,” this project has led me to reject the terminology of innovation and instead promote estrangements at once technical, material, narrative, cognitive, and speculative. The “audible history” that I have ended up with presents a chronology, with each chapter covering about a decade of SF film history from the early 1920s to the end of the 1980s. But I hope this chronology modulates itself over time by activating three compositional modes—the ambient glide, the shimmering fringe, and the xenomorphic—which repeatedly push time out of joint and liquefy historical reference points into a flux state. Not components of the book as modular thought synthesizer but rather techniques for assembling and methods of playing it, these three modes share a propensity toward sonic destabilization. That is, they both work against time and attenuate space while never disavowing the apparent inescapability, if not absolute necessity, of time and space as constituents of what we call sound. I will briefly consider each and how readers might expect them to resound with their experience of The Sound of Things to Come.

Ambient glide

SF sounds are ontologically unstable, neither here nor there but always shifting and drifting across categories of place. The ambient glide of sonic science fiction is initiated by the push-pull of the theremin’s siren call in Rocketship X-M. As the sound of Martian psychogeography, the destabilized tonalities of the theremin call the American expedition to Mars. The instrument is barely audible during liftoff but becomes increasingly loud in the score as the rocket is knocked off its original course to the Moon and tugged with increasing volume and volatility of wavering sound toward Mars. The theremin is recorded in an orchestral context, as part of the film’s non-diegetic score, but its unfixed and wobbling wolf tone not only unsettles the sounds of the strings with which it mixes, it contaminates them with its radiant waves. It also suggests diegetic sound. The theremin sonifies the Martian landscape in the same way that the film stock switches from black-and-white to sepia tints during the Mars sequences.

Gliding sonorous events like those of the theremin, Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet (1956), or years later the long descending tones of Vangelis’s synthesizers and siren wails heard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), won’t stay in their place and open up strange new domains of diegetic experience. Much of my film sound analysis maps out a sub-diegetic dimension that plays out along an alien psychological substrata of cinematic phenomena that is also at the same time a techno-diegetic realm. Here, the technological apparatus of film sound carries on an almost independent transaction among machinic, electric and otherwise material speculations. These come together in the form of sonic psychotechnologies through which the SF film imbricates and entangles psychic and cosmic indices. In its gliding mode, this sonic psytech emphasizes mobility that makes thought travel but never arrives fully formed and is perpetually seeking its place.

Shimmering fringe

The shimmering fringe is first heard in Leith Steven’s score to George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950). A series of sustained overtones and polytonal harmonics orchestrally suspend time to lend depth to a brilliant star field. These sounds recede from audition, implying depth through a physiognomic imperceptibility. Likewise, in the same film, the use of an early effects processor known as the Sonovox technologically attenuates orchestral sounds as we observe a lunar panorama, a matte painting by the so-called father of modern space art, Chesley Bonestell. We can never hear the moon, but we can hear our devices hearing the moon, as it were. Sounds that blur or play around the edges of other sounds make peripheral spaces key to our experience of the SF film and are the basis for any understanding of sonic pyschotechnologies. Sonic psytech filters the sonorous event, objectifies it within discrete modular devices, but also gives the audible a withdrawn materiality that eludes comprehension and creates tonal apprehension (in both senses of the word).

In Blade Runner, the pitched shimmer of the ventilation units in Deckard (Harrison Ford)’s apartment or the steady buzz of the hovering police vehicles, spinners, above crowded street scenes, attain a fractal density that seeps away from the ear if we try to concentrate on it, like a star that is seen more brightly at the edges of perception but fades if we turn to view it directly. At the same time, such sounds reveal themselves as artificial sonic props for a manufactured reality and are meant to reinforce the programming of implanted memories. As an auditory fringe beyond the flat affective encounter with the SF landscape, the warbling destabilization of the Sonovox or synthesizer suggests that our encounters with the alien diegetic ambience are experiences with and at the very limits of our perceptual apparatuses and the technologies of sense. The fuzzy edges of synthetic tonalities, then, provide access points for an ambient attunement to an affective nonplace.

The xenomorphic

The xenomorphic mode is first encountered in electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet. The Barrons would program sonic patch boards, burn them out by overdriving them as they recorded the sounds on magnetic tape, and then reanimate through a form of tape music that resembles nothing so much as an alien autopsy. This is not hyperbole. Consistently, the Barrons characterize their work as the torture of living sound circuits, a form of biomedia. In the film, these sound beings morph across diegetic layers to express the film’s narrative concern with alien psychotechnological events, an invisible but audible creature manifested from the Id of Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). The xenomorph invariably points to an extracinematic location, a zone of machinic materiality that is also transformed in the service of the speculative imagination in which an ethicoaesthetic dilemma transpires. In Forbidden Planet, this is initiated by the Barron’s abdication of any responsibility they might have to communicate with and nurture the alien biocomputers engineered in their little kitchen laboratory in Greenwich Village.

In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the sonic xenomorph thrives on an expanded auditory terrain made possible by Dolby Surround Sound, manipulating the vast sonic field to amplify tensions around the unpredictability of emerging alien threats to the listening body. In these films, the unseen becomes emblematic of the sonic xenomorph and stages alien encounter as a form of sensory deficit paradoxically dependent on existential high fidelity. The Dolby System in fact always thrived on aggression toward the listener, originating in theaters with the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). As Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center has pointed out, most innovations in sound technology happen “while our backs are turned” (2016). As embodied experience of the non-local, these films map the primary body sounds of pumping blood, breathing, the high pitched whine of the nervous system, and even tinnitus. The xenomorphic sonorous hyperobject cannot be perceived as more than the traces of a thing, not the thing itself, that manifest as a byproduct of high fidelity auditory hallucination and uncanny precognitive paranoia.

The title of this project is not meant ironically even as it works around and against notions of newness and futurism to embrace instead estrangement and alterity. As I write in my introduction, I hope that readers will accept that by the book’s conclusion they know less than they did when starting out. This is not to empty out the book of meaning nor to make ineffectual the strategies, techniques and modalities that it encourages readers to adopt as ways of listening to the science fiction film as a sonic art form in its own right. Rather, this is because the work aims for an incommensurable “next thing,” an unavoidable other estrangement. This is the strangeness, for instance, of the widespread digitization of SF film sound in the 1990s, and the pursuit of broader frequency ranges and greater volumes of sound in the 21st century cinema. It also resonates toward different forms as sonic science fiction escapes film and ends up in the music videos of Björk, Grace Jones, and Janelle Monáe, for example, or in the live cinema projects of Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, Android Jones, and NoiseFold. Whenever it may come from, the future of sonic science fiction is elsewhere, making the new strange again.


Trace Reddell is author of The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film and associate professor of emergent digital practices at the University of Denver.

"A lively, endlessly inventive exploration of the sonic worlds of science fiction cinema (beginning even before the advent of synchronized sound). The breadth and subtlety of Trace Reddell’s interdisciplinary scholarship is impressive, and his book is an ongoing homage to the valuable conceptual and cognitive challenges upon which effective science fiction depends."
—Scott Bukatman, Stanford University

"Building on the highly original concept of the sonic novum, Trace Reddell has written the first comprehensive theoretical approach to musical science fiction. The Sound of Things to Come is an alternative history of science fiction cinema, a handbook of sophisticated close analyses of many important films, and a re-envisioning of the role of sound technology in modernist aesthetics."
—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, author of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction Studies

Friday, November 2, 2018

On Jeff VanderMeer and material monsters: Did we ever know anything about the world at all?

University of Colorado Boulder

In None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, I focus on the fantastic materialities VanderMeer creates in his major fiction: the Veniss milieu, in which a good portion of his early fiction takes place; the city of Ambergris, which takes shape in City of Saints and Madmen (2001 – 04), Shriek: An Afterword (2006), and Finch (2009); Area X, the motivating force behind the Southern Reach trilogy (2014); and the Earth of Borne (2017) and The Strange Bird (2017). These materialities are impossible according to the norms we take for granted in our own world. In other words, they are fantastic, created, fictional. VanderMeer’s materialities can, of course, help us understand our own. They are products of a writer working in a specific place (the United States) at a specific moment (the early twenty-first century). Close attention to the historical situation in which these materialities emerge no doubt reveals something about that historical situation and the manner in which it determines what we think and how we act. For example, Area X can be productively read in the context of climate change and the Anthropocene. In such a reading, this alien place suggests a return of the repressed, the revenge of nature upon a humanity that has ignored and exploited it for far too long.

However, I find that these materialities can do more than represent our world. They can intervene in it when we understand that they have a force of their own, a force particular to fiction. In my reading, Area X cannot stand in for climate change or the Anthropocene because these human terms suggest an attempt to draw a boundary around an object that cannot be delimited by human knowledge practices. Such practices seek to create an other opposed to the self, each bound to its opposite by way of a universalizing liberalism that guarantees that the unknown can be known, that the different can become the same. However, Area X escapes every attempt to draw it into human knowledge practices because it exists at scales that cannot be indexed to such practices. It is, in my terms, abdifferent—not a thing whose difference could give way to sameness, but a thing that flees from all difference and the knowledge practices that produce it. Area X suggests a reading practice appropriate for VanderMeer’s fantastic materialities. This reading practice does not require that every fiction reference our own world. It allows fictions to be fictions, the fantastic to be fantastic. To engage with such a practice, we do not need to stop caring about our own world. Rather we must understand how fictions participate in our world, that they can do more than simply reflect it back to us. As I write, this reading practice “involves imagining conditions that afford new ways of thinking and that do not assume a stable, grounding reality. To fantasize, or fictionalize, materiality does not mean to abandon oneself to fantasy but to abandon the fantasy that we always already are able to know and are able to question such knowing.”

VanderMeer's short story “This World is Full of Monsters” exhibits many of the concerns that VanderMeer’s readers will recognize from his previous fiction: the necessity of transformation, the relationship of writer to world, the end of human civilization, the failure of human knowledge techniques, and so on. However, more so than any of VanderMeer’s fiction to date, “This World is Full of Monsters” offers a materiality in which stories are more than stories, more than representations: they are living things, they are forces of transformation, they are monsters. Horror reveals to us how our knowledge of the world and the stories we tell ourselves about our places in the world will always fail because the world is not a story, because materiality is not amenable to our knowledge or narratives. To this end, horror deploys monsters that demonstrate (these two terms are etymologically related to one another). The monsters of traditional horror reveal to us what we don’t know despite all of our science, what we cannot know precisely because our science has limited the scope of knowing itself. Thus when the werewolf returns from our animal past, or the vampire appears as a reminder of a dead aristocracy that continues to threaten the bourgeois order, or zombies manifest out of the remnants of a failing consumer society no story about what they are or what they mean will save us. If our knowledge could not account for them before they (re)appeared, what chance does it have now?

Here we discover the limitations of such monstrosity. These monsters, despite their impossibility, each represent some aspect of the world as we know it. We know there are no werewolves, but we accept the presence of the werewolf in horror insofar as it might represent something about our own world to us, insofar as it suggests our relationship to a pre-modern past we might otherwise wish to forget. Is such a fiction the best vehicle for such a suggestion? Is such a fiction an adequate representation of this relationship? Is this relationship even real, or is it a function of the fiction itself? When we ask horror fictions, or any fictions, to refer to the world in a meaningful way, or when we ask monsters to show us how our world works, we quickly and invariably run into questions about whether we ever knew anything about the world at all, whether we ever knew it in and of itself or whether what we know of it only comes to us through our representations of it. This issue becomes all the more urgent in a moment when the greatest crisis facing humanity’s continued existence on this planet, the forces unleashed by the Anthropocene, escape our every effort to represent them to a human-scaled subject that takes itself as the measure of all things.

In contrast to the traditional monsters of horror, the story-creature at the center of “This World is Full of Monsters” does not represent anything. It is not “about” anything. Rather, it is an active force that drives the transformation of the narrator-writer and creates for him a position in a world where he no longer fits. “Monsters” begins when the story-creature appears on the doorstep of the narrator-writer: “The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.” If we understand that the story-creature does not represent anything, we can immediately grasp the strangeness of the first sentence. The rest of this passage makes clear that “story,” in this context, does not refer to a fictional representation of the real or even to the creation of a narrative. However, the first sentence is even more revealing when we understand that “meant” does not involve any latent content, any hidden message that must be interpreted to be revealed. “Meant” does not refer to the possibility of knowing something outside of what has been written here. Instead, it refers to what the story will cause, what the story will do.

The story invades the body and mind of the narrator-writer, eventually causing him to sleep for one hundred years. When he wakes up, he does so to a transformed world in which he no longer has a place. Without a place, without a meaning, he seeks to end his existence. “This World is Full of Monsters” becomes a meditation on the problem of memory, but not in any conventional sense. The problem of memory here has little to do with the adequacy of memory to actual events. Rather, it has to do with how memory prevents us from adjusting to new situations, how memory creates meanings at odds with material facts. Late in “Monsters,” the narrator-writer confronts a strange being in this transformed world: “He communicated to me that the world had been remade against my image and that my form, even much reduced, was the rebellion of the old world against the new, and that this made no sense because the new world embraced the old; that my very presence made the old world manifest, no matter the form, so why was the form important? Why did I hold onto the form?” In one sense, the narrator-writer clings to his embodied form and thus refuses a physical transformation that would better afford his continued existence in the new world, a world no longer amenable to human being or meaning. In another sense, however, the narrator-writer clings to the form known as story, the form through which human beings make meaning out of materiality by representing it this or that way—sometimes in ways that obscure the very materiality they seek to understand. If it appears that VanderMeer himself still clings to this form, to the story, such is only the case because we insist on reading “This World is Full of Monsters,” or any of his fictions, as attempts to adequately capture some aspect of our own materiality. Such is only the case because we fail to understand how these stories might instead have some material effect on the world itself.


Benjamin J. Robertson is assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. Robertson is author of None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer and coeditor of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

"None of This Is Normal is the first book-length study of the weird fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Benjamin J. Robertson not only highlights the beauty and power of VanderMeer's fiction, but also shows how this writing is central to any attempt to think through the plight of humanity in what has come to be called the Anthropocene."
—Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism

"This spirited book disturbs the new normal of the Anthropocene by way of the ‘New Weird’ in Jeff VanderMeer's fiction. At once a meditation on fantastic materiality and a step toward life after aftermath, this first dedicated study of VanderMeer tells a new story about humans and nonhumans both."
—Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Quitting the environmental shame game.

California State University, Fullerton

Many of us have had that particular social media experience: we read a post railing against a behavior or taking a self-righteous stand on an issue and feel “called out.” Do I do that? Am I part of the problem? Are they talking about me?! I had this experience recently, when a colleague in my field of environmental humanities sent out a Tweet chastising academics who flaunt their conference jet-setting on social media, thereby stoking the desire for a fossil-fuel intensive lifestyle. I felt particularly shamed by this commentary since, at that very moment, I was headed from L.A. to the International Conference on Environmental Humanities in Alacalá, Spain. And, yes, I had also Tweeted about it.

I could have sputtered back defensively or picked apart my colleague’s logic, but I ultimately chose not to engage in an old and tired circuit of eliciting and shouldering shame—a circuit that, as I show in my new book from the University of Minnesota Press, a recent wave of environmental artists and activists are also rejecting. This book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, demonstrates how said artists and activists avoid, and even mock, the palette of affects historically associated with environmentalism: not only shame and guilt but also sanctimony, self-righteousness, “gloom and doom,” reverence, and sentimentality. Recognizing that these affective modes are limited and limiting, they instead embrace modes such as irony, irreverence, glee, absurdity, perversity, and playfulness.

As I establish in the book, many environmentalists are familiar with shame. We both feel it and inflict it. And our enemies attempt to stoke it as well. Recall, for example, how conservative critiques of the 2017 People’s Climate March seized upon the minimal trash produced by marchers, deploying it as evidence of their hypocrisy. And when I call this circuit of shame old and tired, I really do mean it: while my book focuses mainly on contemporary Anglophone media, we can trace the shaming of environmentalists back to at least the early 1800s, when a critic of Joseph Ritson, the British author of An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, snarked that Ritson was a hypocrite because he “murder[ed] whole ecologies of microscopic organisms every time he washed his armpits” (as paraphrased in Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodness Revolution, 368).

Most of us (I hope) are guilty of washing our armpits. But do we need to feel guilty? As I argue in Bad Environmentalism, affects such as shame and guilt are stultifying, especially for budding activists. They feed into so-called “purity politics,” or the view of art and activism as zero-sum games in which any imperfection renders all other efforts moot. Since we can assume that anti-environmental forces will always manage to find problems with environmental movements, perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, I prefer the mindset that nature writer David Gessner, drawing on his friend Dan Driscoll, has proposed: “‘We are all hypocrites…But we need more hypocrites who fight’” (All the Wild That Remains, 165).

In my book’s fourth chapter, titled “Gas-Guzzling, Beer-Chugging Tree Huggers: Toward Trashy Environmentalisms,” I examine the works of some exemplary “hypocrites,” from Edward Abbey’s cult-classic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) to David Silverman’s animated The Simpsons Movie (2007) to Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ mountaintop removal documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2013). I show how these works deflect shame and accusations of hypocrisy, developing in the process a kind of “trashy environmentalism.” That term, of course, invokes lower-class designations such as “white trash” and “trailer trash”—which is no coincidence, as the texts in my chapter feature lower-class perspectives that have historically been shamed, and shunned, by mainstream culture at large: those of white populations known variously as “rednecks,” “bogans,” “crackers,” and “hillbillies.” As I discuss, mainstream environmentalism is associated primarily with the middle classes; the performance of voluntary restraint and refined consumerism defines both mainstream environmentalism and middle-class lifestyles. These artists and activists, instead, make “vulgar” excess—material, aesthetic, as well as affective—the very basis of their environmentalism.

For example, I highlight how Abbey’s radical, anticapitalist environmentalists, when they’re not busy
sabotaging development in the U.S. desert, spend their free time painting penises on Smokey Bear signs and making impulse purchases of beer coozies and harmonicas. These characters consistently refuse to get bogged down in guilt or otherwise relent in their activism, even when they do grasp their own shortcomings—which often makes for hilarious interludes. At one point, for instance, The Monkey Wrench Gang’s narrator focalizes through protagonist George Hayduke’s consciousness as he steers his Jeep, intoning, “Gotta remove that bridge. Soon. Them bridges. Soon. All of them. Soon. They’re driving their tin cars into the holy land. . . . There’s a law against it. A higher law. Well you’re doing it too, he reminded himself. Yeah, but I’m on important business. . . . Anyway, the road’s here now, might as well use it” (27).

Sprinkle and Stephens, the creators and protagonists of Goodbye Gauley Mountain, offer a queer, feminist twist on the masculinist hijinks of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Self-described “ecosexuals” who think of Earth as “our lover, not our Mother,” Sprinkle and Stephens spend a fair portion of their screen time writhing naked in creeks and rubbing themselves with mud, their ample, imperfect, middle-aged bodies on full display. The pair thereby enacts the kind of shamelessness and pleasure that, as I argue throughout Bad Environmentalism, has been so glaringly absent from mainstream environmentalist movements. Perhaps most importantly, as the pair clowns around at mountaintop removal protests and stages mock weddings to the mountains in Stephens’ native West Virginia, they enact a reversal of the classic dynamic in which the environmentalist is rigid, inflexible, and, therefore, the butt of the joke. Sprinkle and Stephens deliver the jokes, and they bring the joy rather than killing it.

I think we have much to learn from these fictional and real-life figures. As they pursue their environmentalist agendas, they eschew any attempt to be perfect, refined, tasteful, or classy, and instead revel gleefully in hypocrisy, impropriety, indecorum, vulgarity, excess, bawdiness, and the body itself. “Trashiness,” they suggest, is not just a class designation or a material description but a sensibility, a political attitude. We might take an even larger view here: ideals of perfection often function as a way of policing vulnerable bodies in a rigged system—as Black Lives Matter activists who critique “respectability politics” have shown us, and as many of us realized during the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, when a theoretically “perfect victim” (white, educated, well-spoken, upper-middle-class, heterosexual) was cynically and cruelly ignored. As a political attitude, “trashiness” combats myths of meritocracy such as purity politics, respectability politics, and perfectionism.

This is not to say that we should, for instance, jet off every other week in the name of “trashy environmentalism.” But we might spend less time worrying what others think about us as we march, teach, write, think, connect, donate, and otherwise pursue change. We might also shift our targets. If, as a new report indicates, just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions —and if, as the most recent IPCC report shows, the climate change forecast is quite dire, then perhaps we could spend more time confronting the root causes of and the big contributors to environmental crisis. And less time Tweet-shaming each other.


Nicole Seymour is associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. She is author of Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age and Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination.

"As it turns out, climate change and the environment can be a laughing matter—at least, at an absurd or satirical level."
—Foreword Reviews

"Bad Environmentalism confronts serious environmental problems by way of ‘unserious’ texts. Nicole Seymour takes on complex ideas with lucidity, economy, and a witty sense of humor. Against the familiar affects that tend to characterize both environmentalism and environmental studies—such as awe, love, guilt, reverence, and earnestness—Bad Environmentalism pits less solemn alternatives, including playfulness, impropriety, irreverence, irony, frivolity, and glee. I am a convert. Bad environmentalists, unite!"
—Jennifer K. Ladino, author of Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature*

Thursday, October 18, 2018

#DeleteFacebook: Users always have the option of disconnecting—right?

Assistant professor, University of Toronto

Want to #DeleteFacebook? You can try.

Deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

These are examples of headlines written after the news about Cambridge Analytica harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook profiles. These suggestions do not speak of getting rid of Facebook, Inc. – the company and its business models – but rather they question the possibility for an individual decision to stop using Facebook’s services.

Yet at least implicitly, campaigns such as #DeleteFacebook also threaten the company. Regardless of users actually leaving the site, privacy scandals and threats like #DeleteFacebook reflect on the company’s stock price. In the aftermath of the news, Facebook was said to lose $60 billion in market capitalization and its stock faced the worst week since 2012. Mark Zuckerberg took actions posting an ad in several British and American newspapers explaining the reasons for the data breach and explaining how they would respond and change their practices. “I promise to do better for you,” Zuckerberg said.

In Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds I argue that the threat of users leaving the site gives us a needed opening to re-think how our relationships with Facebook are being designed. The current discussion of what would be better for Facebook users circulates around regulation of data and controlling the access to one’s data. But if we start from the difficulty to #DeleteFacebook, instead of the problems of data and privacy, we quickly see that our data is not Facebook’s product—our engagement is.

#DeleteFacebook as an expression of revolt against Facebook is not the first of its kind. Facebook has often received criticism when the users have felt they are no longer in control of their social media engagements and what takes place on the site. In 2010, a group of dissatisfied Facebook users organized a Quit Facebook Day. Out of 450 million Facebook users, thirty-one thousand users decided to leave the site that day.

The users potentially abandoning Facebook also became the target for other social media sites. Diaspora in 2011 and Ello in 2014 started marketing their services as an alternative to Facebook. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold,” Ello said, positioning its service against Facebook.

The suggestions to download one’s Facebook data in order to see what the site knows about you were also happening before the most recent data leak. In 2015 artist Liam Scully produced over 1,000 drawings on top of his downloaded Facebook data. The name of the exhibition: Digital Suicide.

For a decade, different artists and tactical media groups have been playing with the ideas of detox, digital suicide, and making the act of leaving Facebook a performance. gamified digital suicide giving users points based on how many of their friends followed their lead and deleted their Facebook account. Web 2.0 SuicideMachine removed users’ Facebook friends one by one, transformed her profile picture into a noose logo and changed the password making a return impossible.

If Facebook abstention demands measures comparable to taking one’s life, it is no wonder that its use has been described as an addiction. In 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, suggested that users should take a break from the site. Facebook is built to engage users in dopamine-driven feedback loops, he argued. “Quitting Facebook isn't easy. Facebook is engaging, enjoyable and quite frankly, addictive. Quitting something like Facebook is like quitting smoking,” the organizers of Quit Facebook Day had already declared.

But #DeleteFacebook does not only let us consider our relations with the platform. Quite on the contrary, the moments when users plan to leave Facebook are not only feared by the company but also anticipated in the designs of the platform. #DeleteFacebook as a threat, as a potential, shapes how the platform changes and evolves. If you try to deactivate your Facebook profile you see images of your friends “who will miss you.” At every moment, the platform pulls you back and engages you more.

If you want to know what user engagement really looks like you do not measure how many times people log in to their Facebook accounts, how many links they click, or what is the number of videos they create. User engagement is what you get at when "Nothing" is an answer to questions like what did you do when you heard that Facebook accounts of approximately 30 million users were hacked in September? or What did you do when you heard that sensitive personal information including a phone number, recent Facebook searches, and location history was leaked?

This notion of user engagement does not explain but needs to be explained. It is at the heart of Facebook’s business and it is shaped against projects like #DeleteFacebook. As illustrated in its Annual Report of 2015: “If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.” #DeleteFacebook for Facebook, then, is a known problem of how to keep users engaged, and its proposed solutions are intensification and expansion of relationships and services.

Digital suicide as a concept speaks volumes of how integrated Facebook has become to users' lives beyond data and its regulation. Research in the North American and European contexts show that to quit, one needs strong social networks outside social media; otherwise, one may become the outsider in their social circles and events. But it is also said that for the citizens in many other countries, Facebook is the main access point to the internet and the only means to communicate with friends from a distance. Facebook has become a lifeline.

“There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future,” Mark Zuckerberg noted in 2012. In 2012, the company was becoming publicly traded, and in 2017 it exceeded the $500 billion mark, becoming the fourth most-valued company in the tech business. The world disconnected from Facebook is and was a world not yet connected. Hence, Facebook is developing drones, satellites, and technologies that would help to anchor their services around the world not only as a website people use but also as an infrastructure used to access those sites. More engagement.

Expansion of user engagement, one of the mechanisms that both stops existing users from leaving and engages more users, has made Facebook a global player; it operates across and beyond national borders and so must the attempts to regulate it. Because not everyone can quit. And this is the new feature in the #DeleteFacebook discussion, a viewpoint that was lacking from the earlier critiques. Fear of missing out is no longer the reason that prevents digital suicides; Facebook has a much deeper role in how our societies are organized.

Being on Facebook is no longer only a lifestyle choice but also a question of politics. The Cambridge Analytica revelations imply that mundane actions such as Facebook Likes can be turned into politicized mechanisms used to influence decision making. But there is a political level at stake here that exceeds national elections and individual decisions. With 2 billion users, Facebook has become the medium of the masses and its users are no longer a community but a population without geographical limitations. How population remains under its control is the key question for Facebook’s survival. And to ask that question we need to move the focus from individual engagements and personal privacy to the biopolitical and geopolitical engagements of the 2 billion.


Tero Karppi is author of Disconnect: Facebook's Affective Bonds. Karppi is assistant professor at the University of Toronto and teaches in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology and in the Faculty of Information.

"Through its clever structure, Disconnect affectively lures the reader as Tero Karppi tells a convincing story of how social media sets the tone, mood, and modality of our everyday existence. Compellingly written, this is a must-read modern tale of engagement and disconnection."
—Zizi Papacharissi, author of Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics

"Disconnect is a timely, theoretically rich assessment of Facebook as platform and assemblage."
—Amit Ray, Rochester Institute of Technology

"Disconnect could not have come at a more important time. Tero Karppi’s nuanced writing brings out the rich complexities of social media life and disconnection. This must-read book shows that walking away may not remove Facebook’s presence in our lives, but it reveals the limits of social media in our world and the business models that are built to keep us connected."
—Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Monday, October 8, 2018

Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world

University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

In the 1957 lectures he delivered in Freiburg under the title “Basic Principles of Thinking,” Martin Heidegger speculated that “dialectics today is, perhaps … the actuality of the world [Weltwirklichkeit]” (GA 79: 88). For all its hyperbolic thrust, one should not take his statement lightly, dismissing it as a dated intellectual artefact from the Cold War era, when antithetical political camps were locked in a life-and-death struggle on a world scale. Speaking against such an easy historicizing explanation is the fact that the insight cropped up as Heidegger reflected on nothing less than the very foundational principles of thinking. Another piece of evidence corroborating its seriousness is that the notion of the world, presumably actualized by dialectics in a “today” that is more than sixty years old now, is itself a cornerstone of Heidegger’s philosophy. So, what is going on here?

Heidegger’s point is that dialectics, whether of the Hegelian variety or the Marxist iteration of dialectical materialism, has long ceased being either an abstract idea or an applied political ideology intended to explain reality in the simplest terms imaginable. Dialectics actively determines, commands, and steers the course of the world, split into camps sharing the same general goal: to master, subdue, and appropriate the earth. Fractured and conflictual, the world’s dialectical actuality is rooted in a silent consensus of overtly opposing parties, namely that the true purpose of world domination is the seizure of the earth. Far from an opportunistic aberration, this goal inheres at the heart of Western thinking. The ideal capture and appropriation of the object are the means for, and the end of, the real imposition of the thinking will upon whatever and whomever it captures. Dialectics thus accomplishes the mission of thinking with unprecedented success.

Despite simmering new tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and the European Union and the United States, on the other, the Cold War is over. Heidegger’s “today” is no longer ours… And yet, it is utterly relevant. Dialectical actuality makes sense within the broader project of constructing a world (frameworks of meaning, extending all the way down to the meaning of meaning) deployed with the view to appropriating and dominating the earth (the ultimately meaningless source of meaning, that upon which life unfolds) in the shape of territories to conquer or natural resources to extract. The triple knot of phenomenology, ecology, and politics is as tight as ever: a network of lived meanings is subject to behind-the-scenes political integration, or disintegration, such that its elemental substratum is, at the same time, controlled and threatened, secured and rendered fragile, appropriated and pushed to the brink of non-being.

With that said, I would like to update (and so, in some sense, to actualize) Heidegger’s assertion for our “today” in the following way: Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world. Immediately, readers will retort that I am indulging in a hyperbole more blatant still than Heidegger’s take on Hegel. How can a one-time card-carrying member of the National Socialist party not only gain admission into the philosophical canon but also become pivotal in contemporary thought, not to mention in contemporary world?

As I argue in my book on the German philosopher, with reference to the contributions of his Russian translator Vladimir Bibikhin, it is a gross mistake to consider Heidegger’s thinking a piece of intellectual private property. In its enduring relevance, generativity, and receptivity, Heidegger’s thinking is not his own; it is the thinking of the world. Its lacunae and pernicious blind spots are, of course, the thinker’s responsibility, chief among them the unquestioned persistence of anti-Semitic prejudices in reflections on the agency and figures of uprooting, displacement, and what we now call globalization. But they are just that—lacunae of the unthought in the midst of the world thinking itself on the hither side of the modern distinction between subjects and objects, theory and practice.

Even then, I raise the stakes in my claim that Heidegger’s thinking is, perhaps, the possibility of the world today. In light of his fresh phenomenological approach to the possible disentangled from its deficient position in a strictly teleological order, existence understood existentially retains inexhaustible possibilities. For the finite world as the domain of existence to be, it must still be possible up to its demise. And, indeed, the possibility of the world as world is exposed the moment it is overshadowed by a grave danger, the moment its time is almost up and it may no longer be possible—say, after a nuclear Armageddon or as a result of catastrophic global climate change. By emphasizing the priority of possibility over actuality, Heidegger enables the creation of a living archive of what has not been, nor can ever be, accomplished in keeping with the domineering mission of thinking, an archive of another world not superimposed onto the tamed earth.

The essentially belated disclosure of possibilities at the end of “today’s” day is patently Hegelian. What is not at all dialectical is the mechanism that makes it happen: instead of relying on the retrospective standpoint of a mature concept, Heidegger urges thinking to unclench its grasp, reverting from the capture to the release of the world and of the earth alike. If there is still any hope left, it has to do with the world letting itself go and freeing the earth. Only in letting go of itself does the world remain possible.

Heidegger’s thinking release will not save us. Without it, however, we are more lost, more devastated and devastating than we are with it. This is the take-home message of my book.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He is author of twelve monographs, including Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics (Minnesota, 2018); Grafts: Writings on Plants, a Univocal book (Minnesota, 2016); and Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (2017).

"For many years, Michael Marder has been one of the most interesting philosophical interpreters of Heidegger. What he gives us to think here is really remarkable. The readers of his book on Heidegger will be inspired."
—Peter Trawny, editor of the collected works of Martin Heidegger

"Often indefensible, always indispensable: Heidegger, for all his errors, continues to provoke us as modernity draws nearer to a reckoning. In this thoughtful book, Michael Marder sifts through Heidegger’s texts in a search for an open yet finite dwelling, a home beyond parochialism and globalism."
—Richard Polt, Xavier University

"Deploying an exceptional familiarity with Heidegger scholarship, Michael Marder highlights how Heidegger’s thinking of the Thing offers a rich opening for ecological resistance to consumerist politics and economics."
—David Wood, author of Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human