“I Laughed, I Cried:” Gada Mahrouse’s Keynote Address for the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium
Guest Writer: Martha Webber

Monday, April 30, 2012

Poster for the Symposium
[On April 19-20, 2012, the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium was held as part of the Graduate College’s Focal Point project. The following account of the event’s second day was written by Martha Webber, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit and one of the project’s participants.]

“I Laughed, I Cried… I Changed the World: The Racialized Politics of Emotion in the Making of Global Citizens” – Gada Mahrouse’s Keynote Address for the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium

Written By Martha Webber (English/Center for Writing Studies)

On Friday, April 20, Dr. Gada Mahrouse of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University opened up the second day of the Nongovernmental Impulse Symposium, a two-day event dedicated to “negotiating theory and practice in the global governance of care.” As the culmination of a year-long Graduate College Focal Point project, the symposium brought three keynote speakers together with Illinois faculty and graduate students working across disciplines in the field of critical nonprofit studies: an area of inquiry that researches the rapid expansion of the global nonprofit sector and its impact on cultures, communities, environments, and development as state funding recedes.

In their most recent report on the nonprofit sector, the National Center for Charitable Statistics of the Urban Institute shows that while the number of registered nonprofits increased by 19% from 1999 to 2009 in the United States, the number of “reporting nonprofits” (IRS-filing organizations with greater than $25,000 in gross receipts) grew 48% in the same period. In 2009, these nonprofits reported $1.87 trillion dollars in revenue alone – over $600 billion dollars more than the gross output of the entire retail industry in the United States for the same year. Clearly, this is an industry with the potential to impact the lives of average people,in the United States and elsewhere, including access to health care, engagement with art, or participation in religion.

Mahrouse opened her keynote address by explaining her research within the larger field of nonprofit studies: she currently researches how Canadian-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) create programs that produce and promote ideas of global citizenship for Canadian youth and undergraduate students. She questions whether the constructions of global citizenship she has encountered in these programs can accomplish the social justice goals they claim to. Her lecture provided a sketch of the analytical framework she applies to understanding how “first world” subjects are constituted through these programs: the first program, a two-year university “North-South” educational concentration that includes two short study abroad stays with host families in “developing” areas and the second program, the “international charity and youth movement” Free the Children.

The first two elements of her analytic – framing the programs historically and pedagogically – were obvious areas of inquiry for her research, but the third element – emotion – came as a surprise. In her early interviews with study abroad students who had returned from a two-week stay with host families in Nicaragua, participants revealed that their experience affected them most significantly emotionally, rather than the educational gain she had expected them to identify. For example, one participant responded to an open-ended question asking her to characterize the study abroad experience by wistfully speaking of her host family and saying, “I will probably never be one of them in this way again.” This response was far more typical than she expected: indeed, nearly half of the students used the word “love” to describe the experience they shared with their host families. Although she did not doubt the veracity of the emotion these participants claimed, she wanted to know: Why familial love? Why with such intensity after a short duration? And why in an environment where the participants also identified the language barrier as a significant challenge? This prompted her to turn to theorists of affect and emotion like Sara Ahmed to consider “how the person who feels orients herself toward the object of her feeling”; she began questioning what emotions are displayed, by whom, and to what end during these encounters produced by NGOs.

Stage Shot of a We Day Event - featuring unidentified speakers and Free the Children founder, Craig Kielburger
Her second case study, a recent “We Day” event sponsored by the NGO Free the Children, demonstrates this emotional response on a large scale. These events gather Canadian youth in arenas across the country and offer a dizzying panoply of contrasts: in a matter of hours, an audience in the tens of thousands may hear a song performed by Justin Bieber, then view a video flashing visceral images of human rights violations, followed by listening to a speech from a former child soldier and then viewing a magic performance. Again Mahrouse encountered intense displays of emotion, in this case a sharp contrast – from cheering to crying – within a matter of minutes. At the center of these events are We Day’s young founders, brothers Craig and Mark Kielburger. Typically, audiences emotionally erupt in response to their presence on stage, Mahrouse claims, not unlike Beatlemania.

Participants leave these events feeling that they have “done” something, what Mahrouse described at one point as experiencing the “redeeming powers of vicarious action.” After purchasing Free the Children merchandise and cheering the Kielburger brothers, who are seen to embody the global reach of the organization’s humanitarian projects, We Day participants feel a sense of civic virtue--not from taking direct part in a humanitarian effort, but from witnessing those who do. These youth are invited to care about global humanitarian issues through “domestic empowerment programs” like We Day, but not invited to feel complicit in the processes and conditions that create the humanitarian problems the organization aims to address. Instead these organizations foster audience identification with suffering through an uncomplicated “there but for fortune” narrative that suggests sheer luck in the location of one’s birth provides life advantages, negating completely complex histories of forced removals, colonialism, and neo-imperialism that continue to shape the global political landscape. Providing a quick reading of Free the Children’s primary mission to “empower children in North America to take action to improve the lives of fellow children overseas,” Mahrouse asked the audience, how can this model – of “empowered” North American youth acting “to improve” fellow children – claim to make transformative social change?

Race is “both everywhere and nowhere” in such programs, Mahrouse reported. The study abroad program invites its predominately white, female participants to forge a connection to their host families by introducing the language of kinship prior to their departure, a move that does not open up space to consider ethnic difference productively. The We Day events never mention race to their predominantly white Canadian youth, even as they flash images of tortured and emaciated young people from Africa and Asia. The contrast in appearance of the event’s performers (a Zimbabwean wearing “traditional” dress may stand next to a Kielburger brother in jeans and a t-shirt) visually reinforces a vast divide between “authentic victims” and “modernized white activists.” Mahrouse thus concludes that the global citizenship she encounters is highly racialized and mobilized through first world power and collective displays of emotion.

Arena Shot of a We Day 2010 Event
In the question and answer period, Mahrouse asked if “moving” emotionality is a good thing. Audience members engaged with this concern, thinking through the possibility of fostering an ethic of care that goes beyond “creating self-centered emotional identification” and questioning the use of emotional manipulation in rights campaigns. I raised parallels between Free the Children and Invisible Children, the US nonprofit whose recent video, Kony 2012, sparked both intense identification and outrage – in part because the video’s format asks viewers to identify with the organization founder’s tow-headed son, suggesting that to be able to recognize the value of Ugandan life, one must extend the valuation we already possess for the lives of white Americans. Close to the end, fellow keynote speaker Jai Sen, Director of the India Institute for Critical Action, urged the audience not to reject the emotional aspects of activist experiences outright, acknowledging value in the affective experiences of activism and the moments of transformation they may bring.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Nongovernmental Impulse project organizers in making the symposium possible: faculty members Soo Ah Kwon and Mimi Nguyen> and graduate students Sarah Casinelli and Fay Hodza. The seminars and public events they organized over the year created a productive space that asked participants to examine our own positionality as we operate as academics and activists within and outside of the academy.
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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.6
"A Study in Orange"
Guest Writer: Lauren Goodlad

Monday, April 23, 2012

[The fifth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"A Study in Orange"

Written by Lauren M. E. Goodlad (English/Unit for Criticism)

The title of Mad Men’s sixth episode this season, “Far Away Places,” echoes the 1948 Bing Crosby classic. But insofar as it leads viewers to anticipate the kind of glamorous business trip Don took with Betty in “Souvenir” (Season 3, Episode 8), the song’s yearning for real-life encounters with foreign lands is a feint. Although the episode explores far-off places of sorts, the journeys it takes in this rather complicated segment of Mad Men are more psychic and cultural than geographic. “Far Away Places” does not embark on real trips to Rome, or China, or Spain--though it does take us tripping. And in what has become a veritable leitmotif for Season 5, its most memorable tableaux are illusions.

Last week the show put us squarely in male fantasy terrain when Pete, hard at work with an obliging call girl, chose “You’re my king” over other equally tawdry clichés. Episode 6 opens with Abe’s suggesting that Peggy, nervous about her presentation for Heinz, join him at a showing of The Naked Prey. “You're gonna resist the chance to see Cornel Wilde naked?” he asks. Reviewing the movie in 1967, Roger Ebert called The Naked Prey the kind of “pure fantasy” in which an urbane white man, “set loose naked in the jungle,” discovers to his delight that he can “outrun half a dozen hand-picked African warriors.” Poor Abe. He has taken up Kinsey’s mantle of a white man engaged by the aspirations of the 60s with more humility than the often pompous Paul. Abe is clearly frustrated by Peggy’s distracted focus on work. But does he really want to see this movie?
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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.5
“Furtive Realism and a Sock in the Jaw”
Guest Writer: Eleanor Courtemanche

Monday, April 16, 2012

[The fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men,  posted prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

“Furtive Realism and a Sock in the Jaw”

Written by Eleanor Courtemanche (English)

From a writerly point of view, Mad Men Season 5 Episode 5 (“Signal 30”) ends with a pleasing moment of self-referentiality. We see account executive Ken Cosgrove in bed engaged in an illicit nighttime activity—not whoremongering, like his colleagues, but writing stories. It turns out that Ken, who seems so bland on the surface, has a secret life as the science fiction and fantasy writer Ben Hargrove, specializing in robots and distant planets. After he’s confronted by Roger Sterling, who’d prefer his employees to spend all their imaginative energies on their day job, Ken promises to quit. In the dark of night, though, he starts scribbling in a new genre—suburban realism—with the tougher new pen name of Dave Algonquin. And what he’s writing is a recap of the episode we’ve just seen, with a thinly-disguised Pete Campbell spiraling into bourgeois despair in a series of self-destructive acts that, in this episode, culminate in his being literally flattened by the poncey Brit Lane Pryce. After admiring Ken’s speed at being the first to blog this episode, the viewer must ask: is there any part of Mad Men that we couldn’t imagine as being written by Ken Cosgrove?

Mad Men was famously inspired by both Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and Richard Yates’s 1962 Revolutionary Road, as well as the heroic adman George Lois, who has a new book out with the crusty-sounding title Damn Good Advice. When Ken narrativizes Pete’s “soul-sick” anomie, the episode recalls not just Yates but other chroniclers of suburban male adultery like John Updike. This episode marginalizes the women’s perspective, leaving them to guess the men’s intentions (Is Ken trying to get a new job? thinks Peggy when she spots him at lunch. What phrase of clichéd submission will turn Pete on? wonders the call girl at Roger's friend's "party") or literally expelling them from the boardroom so the men can fight. Peggy and Joan have to eavesdrop outside the window, though they miss none of the gory details. (The one female triumph is Trudy’s: she finally gets Don and Megan to come for dinner – though she doesn’t notice that they’ve forgotten Cynthia’s name, and doesn’t find out -- or not yet -- that Pete has visited a prostitute.)
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"On Hybrid Irelands: At Culture’s Edge — A Critique of Hybridity"
Guest Writer: Julie McCormick Weng

Thursday, April 12, 2012

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Poster for "Hybrid Irelands: At Culture's Edge"
[Below Julie McCormick Weng, a graduate student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant, writes about her experience at a conference hosted by Notre Dame University that explored the relationship between hybridity and Irish Studies.]

On Hybrid Irelands: At Culture's Edge--A Critique of Hybridity

Written by Julie McCormick Weng (English)

I had never attended a graduate student conference before, but my recent experience at Notre Dame University’s “Hybrid Irelands: At Culture’s Edge” conference may have me addicted to them. This three-day conference, held March 29-31, featured keynote lectures from three notable scholars: Terry Eagleton, Claire Wills, and David Lloyd.

The conference theme of hybridity first originated in biological studies, referring to mixtures in the body, but became popular in linguistics and postcolonial theory in the 1980s and 1990s. Postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have used the term to expand notions of race and culture, noting ways these concepts affect identity formation and power relations—particularly imperial power structures. Mikhail Bakhtin also appropriated the idea to relate to his theory of polyphony (or many voices) in texts. In current critical developments, hybridity often describes reciprocal and mingling cultural exchanges as an effect of globalism.

This turn in theories of hybridity/ies constituted Eagleton’s opening keynote remarks. His broadly-themed lecture, sensationally titled “Against Hybridity,” opened with a claim that current criticism largely looks to the term “hybrid” as an affirmation. Hybridity carries a positive charge. It signals inclusivity, bringing what is marginal into the center and into a place of fuller meaning. Hybridity also functions as a goal for many practicing scholars. Literary scholars, for example, aim to enact hybridity through interdisciplinary practices in research and learning.

Papers at the conference represented hybrid disciplinary practices and/or revealed hybrid connections in content. My own paper, “John Eglinton: An Irish Futurist,” studied Eglinton’s 1898 essays, which detail his hope for technological objects to inspire literature in the forthcoming Irish Revival. I showed how his writings anticipate practices in Italian futurism. These practices form cosmopolitan material connections or “cosmo-material connections” as I call them, with inventions representing the materiality of modernity through the common user’s experience of them. A paper on another panel, Flicka Small’s “The Multiple Facets of Leopold Bloom,” exposed James Joyce’s inventive use of food to metaphorize deviancy through the subversion of food practices. On another panel, Jeremy Magnan’s paper, “‘Representations of the Irish Traveler in Horror,’ or Travelers, Miscegeny, and Cows, Oh My!” treated the doomed fate of the Irish traveler figure in contemporary Irish horror films. All of these papers pursued a productive way to integrate practices of hybridity into our scholarship.

Terry Eagleton at "Hybrid Irelands"
Eagleton, however, challenged our instincts to affirm all things hybrid. Not everyone and every group should be included, he argued. Neo-Nazis, for example, should remain on the margins along with pedophiles and a few other extreme preferences and values. Hybridity, in this light, is not always good or always an affirmative—or even ethical—practice. This challenge affected the way I considered my own project, highlighting specific questions my research project overlooked and yet begged. What limitations and problems might Eglinton’s form of cosmomaterialism pose? What are the stakes of representing international connections in the Irish Literary Revival as opposed to national connections? Eagleton’s argument reminded the audience that we must approach hybridity as scholars approach any text or new concept—critically.

David Lloyd opened his lecture, “‘To Live Surrounded by a White Song’ or The Sublimation of Race in Experiment: On the Margins of Susan Howe,” with another challenge to hybridity. He commended the conference organizers’ decision to pluralize “Irelands” in the conference theme but recommended additional pluralization. Instead of “At Culture’s Edge,” Lloyd argued for a shift in the apostrophe so that the subtitle would read, “At Cultures’ Edges.” In pluralizing both “cultures” and “edges,” Lloyd pointed out our need to be aware of the many kinds and forms of plurality. In doing so he opened up the discussion of Irish texts and histories for new layers of meaning and modes of representations.

Poet Paula Meehan
Unusual for a graduate student conference, the list of events included creative writing workshops, poetry readings from Paula Meehan and Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and a well-attended professor round-table titled “On the Future of Irish Studies.” Led by Spurgeon “Skip” Thompson, this panel included Nathan Wallace, Katie Kane Skyping in from Montana, Katie Conrad, Heather Edwards, and Michael Malouf. The discussion included Thompson’s argument that modern and contemporary studies dominate Irish scholarship. He analyzed this trend statistically by comparing three Irish studies conferences:  Notre Dame University’s 1995 graduate conference (which he attended), its 2012 conference, and this year’s American Conference for Irish Studies. Thompson broke down the paper topics under subject headings such as “James Joyce,” “modern literature,” “cultural studies,” “film,” and “nineteenth-century literature” and tallied the number of papers given in each subject. For example, 60 papers in 2012 concerned modern and contemporary literature compared to ten nineteenth-century and five eighteenth-century presentations. This exercise traced shifting trends in scholarship and brought to light the dominance of twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) studies. Notably, Thompson excluded subject headings such as gender and women’s studies as well as genre focal points such as poetry, drama, and prose. Would the addition of these categories change the picture of the represented topics? Also, my own personal observation noted that not a single paper was given on the work of Samuel Beckett.What does this say about his current place in twentieth-century literature and Irish studies?

In this round-table, Katie Conrad shared her frank beliefs on the job market for students working in Irish studies and other fields considered “marginal.” While some universities might deem Irish studies to be marginal, or perhaps unnecessary expertise, Conrad boasted that a strength for Irish studies candidates lies in the fact that their work is already “hybrid.” Universities look to maximize their investments by hiring faculty able to work in more than one field. As an Irish studies scholar, Conrad was able to “market” herself as a British modernist who also works in women’s and gender studies and queer theory. Unsurprisingly, Conrad’s discussion of job prospects sparked many questions and comments from graduate students.

Clair Wills’s provocative keynote lecture, “‘Turning a shade darker’: Hybridity, Race, and Population” noted, among many claims, the surprising language in 1950s Ireland surrounding Irish emigration. Her primary documents presented a negative mode of Irish self-representation, namely, the widespread belief that Ireland had lost the “robust” and vital part of the population to emigration, leaving behind a weaker and less skilled population. Her presentation sought connections between the dialogue about Ireland’s lack and loss, emigration, and constructions of Irish identity.

On the final day of the conference during a panel of closing remarks by keynote speakers and poets, she offered a final challenge toward the term “hybrid,” suggesting that we might look for a new term. In an off-the-cuff manner, she recommended “fusion” as a possible replacement though noted its complicated connection to nuclear weapons. Fusion, she argued, allows for creative forces to come together in a new way. This was demonstrated on a music panel she attended on the final day of the conference where Deirdre Ní Chonghaile’s paper, “‘Gabh’ Tí Phlunkett más maith leat country’: Tradition and Hybridization in Contemporary Conamara Music,” explored the influence of American country music on Western Irish folk music from the Gaeltacht. The fusion of musical styles and methods of storytelling illuminated new ways Irish music continues to evolve.

The conference concluded, as do all Irish studies conferences, with dinner and a visit to the pub, accompanied by Irish music and song. To everyone’s surprise, Terry Eagleton sang renditions of traditional Irish tunes to his own original and humorous lyrics—songs about dear “Willie Yeats” and “Jimmy Joyce.” Following Eagleton, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill gifted us with an Irish language folk song. Attendee Aisling Cormack impressed the group by singing and fiddling. For a weekend themed after hybridity, it was, indeed, a hybrid and memorable way to end the conference.
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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.4
"Eight Million Stories in the Naked City"
Guest Writer: Dana Polan

Monday, April 9, 2012

posted under , , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The third in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC's Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (forthcoming Duke University Press, March 2013), Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Eight Million Stories in the Naked City"
Written by Dana Polan (Cinema Studies, New York University)

For the committed Mad Men viewer, it's easy to have become caught up in the series' production of narrative suspense -- what's going to happen?  Certainly, this has seemed all the more the case with the start of the current season given the extent to which the previous one had ended with a big cliffhanger, Don's plan to marry Megan.  For many viewers, I would bet, the money was on Megan being "history" by the beginning of the new season, relegated to the past and perhaps not even mentioned again so impulsive and even wrong-headed did these marriage plans appear.  Obviously, that's one prediction some of us fortune-tellers (readers of "Tea Leaves," to quote the title of last week's episode?) got wrong.
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"Downton Abbey’s Sinking Ship"
Guest Writer: Tania Lown-Hecht

Friday, April 6, 2012

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[Below, Tania Lown-Hecht, a grad student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant last fall, writes about the representation of the estate house in Downton Abbey.]

Downton Abbey’s Sinking Ship

Written by Tania Lown-Hecht (English)

Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theater/PBS’s dishy new drama about an early twentieth-century English estate, presents a sanitized view of England’s country house despite its engagement with scandal, gossip, and politics. Of course, the show’s rose-colored depiction of a “great house,” and the inter-class relations that entails, is partly what makes it such a hit with audiences. Stripped of the complexities of history, Downton Abbey’s country house is sunny and spacious, and viewers are more worried about who will kiss whom than they are about the class inequalities upon which the show and the aristocracy were built.

The show’s worshipful perspective on the country house should be no surprise to anyone who has heard Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, speak about the program. In an interview about Highclere Castle (the estate where the fictional Downton is filmed), Fellowes marvels that the house’s size and style shows “the confidence of the late Victorians! The confidence of high empire!” This fascination with England’s landed estates seems to lack utterly any historical awareness that these houses were built and maintained by an oppressive class hierarchy and an expanding empire. The show’s representation of Downton’s interior space aligns with Fellowes’ historic amnesia and fantasies about life in an English country home. Fellowes, a self-described former “outsider,” now owns a manor house in Dorset and is a member of the House of Lords.

Title shot for Downton Abbey
The show’s representation of interior life takes liberties with historical reality: Downton’s basement has windows that let light stream in; the servants’ quarters in the attics, as Cecily Garber pointed out in an earlier post, are spacious and bright; the servants happily mend clothes and shine shoes at a scrubbed table in the basement during their time off; and the back-breaking work of washing sheets and hauling boiling water to the bath is notably absent from the diegesis. Long-shots of the house cater to historical fantasies about English country houses: the Earl of Grantham strides purposefully across the grounds with an obedient dog at his side. Back-lit at night, Downton appears to be a gothic castle; filmed from a low angle on a sunny day, it is an imposing fortress. In the title shot for the program, Downton Abbey rises powerfully over what seems to be a body of water, which reflects a darkened mirror image of the house below it. The double image of the house suggests two intertwined possibilities: the mirrored second house we see is both the basement and the reflection of the house above ground.

The relationships we view between the underclasses and the English aristocracy seem to take their cue from the title shot, presenting the two worlds as mirror images of one another. Episodes frequently alternate between scenes of the upstairs dining room, where the family gossips about the servants, and the basement kitchens, where the servants gossip about the family. The show juxtaposes the Earl’s daughters waking up in their sunny bedrooms with scenes of the servants waking up under crisp white covers (albeit several hours before the leisured family). As viewers, we are equally interested in the romance between the Earl’s daughter and the new heir to the house, as we are in the romance between the new valet and the head housemaid—creating a narrative equality that overtakes the material inequalities so seldom explored.

In the world of Downton, boundaries between the servants and the family are rarely contentious. The few scenes that show potential violations of the boundaries between servant-space and family-space are expurgated of political potential. When the Countess of Grantham steps into the servants’ quarters unannounced and overhears O’Brien (the lady’s maid) maligning the new heir to Downton, she chastises the servants. After she leaves, Thomas (the footman) complains, “this is our space, we can say what we like down here.” The scene opens up the possibility for the viewer to consider the experience of servants who live in a household that affords them almost no privacy or ownership over their personal space. However, the show blunts the potential political force of Thomas’s objection. Although modern viewers are likely to recognize the Countess’s intrusion as a violation of today’s norms of privacy, they are also likely to sympathize with her rather than O’Brien and Thomas--characters frequently portrayed as deceitful and manipulative.

To an attentive audience, Fellowes’s fantasy house unwittingly has something in common with the Titanic, which sinks on the day of the show’s premiere episode. When the Earl of Grantham reads the news of the Titanic, he laments the deaths of the third class passengers aboard— “the poor fellows below deck.” Yet neither he nor some other aspect of the show acknowledges the suffering of those “below deck” at Downton. Nor—so far—does the show give much indication of how tenuous the future of the English country house really is at this point in history. I have yet to watch the second season, but I can’t help wondering if Downton Abbey, like the English country house, is another sinking ship.
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Technology in Theory and Practice: "Technology and Critique"
Response by Ted Underwood

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The alien is already in here with us"
[On April 2, 2012 the Unit for Criticism held its annual Graduate Student event. This year it was a panel of three graduate students on the topic of Technology in Theory and Practice. Below is the text of a response given by Ted Underwood (English), the first of two posts on the event.]

"Technology and Critique"

Written by Ted Underwood (English)

I’d like to thank the organizers of this event, Mike Black and MC Anderson; also, of course, Lauren Goodlad and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. It is a pleasure to be here to respond to these great papers, and this is an exciting moment to be discussing technology in relation to critical theory.

The papers we heard tonight were extremely diverse. They come from different disciplines, and even from different colleges. Some of them consider technology primarily as an object of study — Mark Keitges looked, for instance, at “designed learning environments” like those designed by Vilém Flusser in order to assess their educational potential. Others considered technology primarily as a means of study: Mel Stanfill was interested in software as a tool that facilitates scholarly inquiry into other topics. Safiya Noble combined both approaches; she is studying the way search technology represents black women and girls, but she also critiqued the tools that are available to carry out that study.

I’m dwelling on the diversity of the papers because diversity of this sort can’t be taken for granted. The very existence of this panel suggests that we collectively believe technology is an emergent theme in the humanities and social sciences; in other words, something is happening now in relation to the topic. But the papers made clear that there is no single thing happening. In fact, our disciplinary home bases may still define what it even means to engage technology as a topic.

For some disciplines, like literary studies or history, this is a relatively new phenomenon and one that has not been easily assimilated. As a result, scholars from those disciplines who engage deeply with digital technology have tended to constitute themselves as an extradisciplinary community that goes by the name “digital humanities.” An extradisciplinary community is much less necessary for scholars in disciplines like communications, where electronic technology has long been a central object of study. I’m drawing attention to these contrasts mainly to emphasize that we’re talking about pragmatic responses to a problem that presents itself differently depending on your social location. There are not, in my opinion, very clear methodological boundaries between media studies, critical code studies, and digital humanities. Intellectually, these are overlapping projects: all of them consider technology at times as an object of study and at times as a means.

Now, in way this is a dull conclusion to reach, because it means that I’m not going to be able to construct a clear taxonomy of different “methodologies” or “schools of thought.” There are real divisions out there: not everyone is enthusiastic about the term “digital humanities,” for instance. But I believe those divisions are at bottom social rather than methodological. If you try to define “digital humanities,” you rapidly discover that it’s a tactical coalition lacking a single methodological center — perhaps best defined by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum as scholarship transmitted by a particular, very lively Twitter network.

Of course there is something self-reflexive about that, because Twitter is itself a technology. So perhaps it is not dull after all to say that these scholarly projects are divided socially rather than by conflicting methodologies. That also means that they are divided in large part by different technologies of scholarly communication. Journals, blogs, Twitter, conferences, unconferences, discipline-specific indexes of secondary literature — are precisely the things that define scholarly communities. So this is a third aspect of technology that needs to be factored into our discussion: technology as an object of study, and as a method of study, but also as a mode of communication that organizes study by defining scholarly institutions. And this third category interestingly complicates what it means to reflect critically on technology.

“Theory” is a slippery word that I hesitate to define. But Alex Reid has usefully observed that when humanists talk about the intersection of “theory” and “technology,” they are often concerned more specifically with “critique,” and especially with a kind of critique that has at its core a monitory or gatekeeping function. In this model, we need critique to decide how much and what kind of technology we should allow into our disciplines. The goal is to distinguish useful kinds of technology from kinds that would coarsen our discourse, making it reductive and positivistic. Imagined in these terms, the value of critique springs from the fact that it can preserve a necessary reflective distance on technology. Possibly other social institutions have already been corrupted by intrumental rationality, but we can still count on critique to watch technology skeptically, and close that gate when necessary.

I imagine that you can see where I’m heading with this. If, as I suggested, our scholarly institutions are already defined by particular technologies of communication, then this model of reflective distance may entail a bit of wishful thinking. Our institutions of critique are already pervaded and shaped by specific technologies — like say, Kritik, the blog on which you're reading this response. The depressing way to put this would be to say: it’s too late to close the gate. The alien is already in here with us, and if you seal that airlock, you’re merely sealing us in with him.

But actually I don’t see this reflection as depressing at all; I see it as opening up an alternative and rather useful model of critique. We might say, I’m here, technology is over there, let me critique it before it gets any closer. But there is also a model of critique closer to hacktivism. I am — we are — already embedded in technological systems, so how might we edit those systems? What tempting points of reflective leverage are opened up by the the technological constitution of our own discourse? How might we tweak the infrastructure to make the game itself more interesting? In this model, the technology pervading scholarly life becomes a handle that gives us a grip on otherwise tricky reflexive problems of self-remaking.

I don’t think we have to make a final choice between these models of critique. All of the papers we heard tonight expressed some concern that technology could be used in reductive or deterministic ways. But all of them were also engaged in a critical project that resembled hacktivism. Mark’s emphasis on reflective design made the hacking dimension of his project very explicit, but I would say that Safiya was also, implicitly, proposing to redesign search technology. Mel is arguably using data analysis software to hack scholarship itself. I would add that scholarly communication is yet another thing we can hack: in reflecting on technology we are opening up a possibility of reshaping our own institutions to become livelier, more innovative, or more equitable. I’m encouraged, for instance, by the scholars who recently organized a boycott of the academic publisher Elsevier to protest its extortionate pricing, and by the scholars at PressForward, who are redesigning peer review to foster a more open and more interactive kind of scholarship.

Of course, imagining critique on the model of hacktivism raises some puzzling questions. As presently constituted, critical theory involves knowledge of a particular intellectual tradition. How would we graft new technological practices onto that tradition? Is it possible to link Michel Foucault to software design — and if we try to do that, won’t contact with the sciences inevitably put us at a disadvantage? Obviously, I can’t offer a full answer to that question in the paragraph that remains. But tonight we heard Mel Stanfill link queer theory to data analysis, and I doubt that roping in The Archaeology of Knowledge would prove any more difficult.

Personally, I suspect that academic humanists have been too diffident in relation to science and technology. We should go ahead and plunge in when necessary, just as we would plunge into a field like sociology if we needed to understand a particular problem. Humanists are smart people; I don’t think we’ll be at any disadvantage. In the domain of text mining, at any rate, my experience has been that the math is not especially difficult. The difficulty comes in interpreting the results. For instance, computer scientists have designed a set of algorithms that do what they call “topic modeling,” but I suspect that these algorithms often identify patterns that are closer to “discourses” than to “topics” in our ordinary sense of the word. In cases like this, the sciences need what we can contribute intellectually. And we, in turn, need them politically. To make critique matter, we are increasingly going to have to crack open some black boxes, figure out how they work or could work, and rebuild them appropriately. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but an exciting challenge, and one that our panelists tonight are already engaging.
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Technology in Theory and Practice: "Hack This! Contesting Technological Neutrality at Technology in Theory and Practice”
Guest Writer: Mel Stanfill

[On April 2, 2012 the Unit for Criticism held its annual Graduate Student event. This year it was a panel of three graduate students on the topic of Technology in Theory and Practice. Below guest writer Mel Stanfill, one of the panelists, writes the second of two posts on the event.

"Hack This! Contesting Technological Neutrality" 

Written by Mel Stanfill (Institute of Communications Research)

The consensus was clear at the Technology in Theory and Practice graduate student panel: across the various disciplinary homes, theoretical frameworks, and methodological approaches of the participants, technology is not a neutral tool that can magically solve our problems without any input from us.

Mark Keitges (Education Policy, Organization, & Leadership) critiqued the idea that education can be optimized through carefully controlled design. In particular, he used Hans-Georg Gadamer's idea of “being pulled up short” to highlight the role of uncertainty and surprise in education. Because being jolted out of our complacency and worldview is a productive experience, “improving” designs to make the learning process  smooth isn't an improvement at all. Instead of “distributed cognition," in which some of the work of thinking is relocated into the technology, Keitges seeks recognition that the capacity for learning doesn't reside in the technology but in the interaction. He called for an “ill-structured design” that affords such moments of disjuncture.

Safiya Umoja Noble, (Graduate School of Library & Information Science) was similarly interested in disrupting narratives that claim that technology cures what ails society. Noble was concerned with the ways “black girls” appear when these search terms are “Googled,” finding that the results that appear first, far from ushering in a new era under Stewart Brand's slogan “information wants to be free,” operate entirely within the orbit of old stereotypes that reduce African-American women and girls to their sexuality. She was particularly concerned because Google search is typically presented as not only neutral but also a “public good” that improves life by making information available to the masses.

Noble was critical of the ways Google has at times specifically disclaimed responsibility and identified objectionable results as “the algorithm's fault”--even when such results are produced by gaming their system, as in neo-Nazis Googlebombing the word “Jew” or, to add a lighter example, Dan Savage's campaign against Rick Santorum.

My own presentation for the panel, which derives from my work in communications research may seem to diverge from these perspectives by arguing for the usefulness of data analysis software to critical research. However, my work nevertheless resonates with that of my co-panelists: like them, I believe that the software is only as good as what the user puts into it. With insightful interpretation on the part of the researcher, software can turn micro-level analysis into macro-level insight by showing patterns in how social categories are understood—in my case, sports and science fiction fans, but the principle is portable—across disparate cultural locations.

Within these three papers, despite their great variance with respect to topic and discipline, then, a number of commonalities emerged. Keitges and Noble are both interested in the ways that technology's design renders certain uses more or less possible in ways that then affect the world (as, in other work, is Stanfill). Noble and I want to expose and contest the ways in which certain ideas get produced as the reality of the categories in our research and how this helps perpetuate unequal power relationships. And, while Noble and I disagreed about the usefulness of data analysis software, ultimately our points are similar: analytical software is helpful when (and only when) researchers need to keep track of large bodies of things.

This combination of commonality—in seeing technology as an important site of interrogation—and divergence—in how the presenters approached it—formed the heart of the faculty response, provided by Ted Underwood, who identified the panelists as participating in a form of critique that he compared to “hacktivism”: Keitges was hacking design, Noble was hacking search, and I was hacking research.

In place of the disciplinary silo effect, or even inderdisciplinary silos such as the contemporary movement for Digital Humanities Underwood called on his listeners to hack scholarly communication itself. This starts, of course, with bringing such a panel and audience together in the first place.

However, Underwood also called for hacking scholarship by recognizing that the technologies that organize us as scholars are no more neutral and independent of human action than Google or educational interfaces or data analysis software. The academic publishing system, for example, is a technology, and recent activism to contest scientific publisher Elsevier's pricing practices, resistance on the part of academics to the Research Works Act, and broader initiatives for open-access publishing (and for recognition of open-access publications as legitimate) are also modes of hacking scholarly communication.

And indeed, Kritik itself is part of the hacking all of the panel's participants ultimately find necessary—in providing a public forum, this blog works to contest the common sense about what technology is for, how to use it, and what will be seen as a legitimate way to get knowledge about the world.

If, as the panelists argued, technology is only as good as what we do with it, let's do something with it. Hack this post. Remix it. Transform it.

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.3
"Blindness and Insight"
Guest Writer: Robert A. Rushing

Monday, April 2, 2012

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC'sMad Men,prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Blindness and Insight"

Written by Robert A. Rushing (Comparative Literature, Italian, Cinema and Media Studies)

“Tea Leaves,” the follow-up to last week's Season 5 premiere, is a curious episode for Mad Men: it is less tightly organized thematically than most episodes of the series are. There is some suggestion, however that the episode is more tightly structured than might first appear—it begins and ends (or more precisely, almost begins and almost ends) with two sequences of people speaking in a foreign language, left untranslated for the viewer. The second sequence and the second to last sequence feature Megan speaking French, and Michael’s father speaking Hebrew. Megan’s conversation is banal, about the July heat and how she misses her mother; Michael’s father is performing a blessing, of course—but one could hardly say that the episode is about the transformation of the everyday into the sacred. In between these near bookends, we follow Peggy hiring a new copy writer; Don and Harry on a wild-goose chase to get the Rolling Stones to sing about Heinz beans; the continuing humiliation of Roger Sterling by Pete Campbell; and of course, the show’s primary plotline, the one that really bookends the episode, Betty’s weight gain and subsequent cancer scare.

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