Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Confusion of Popular Cliches as Revealed through Oppressive Contexts

Catherine Ramirez raises a point that has me questioning the way a particular word/idea is used in popular culture (or at least as I've heard it used). In her essay, "Afrofuturism/Chicanafuturism: Fictive Kin," she makes the point that people of color, whether they are black, Chicana/o, or Native American, are positioned in opposition to science and rationality. She states, "All too often, we are linked to savagery, carnality, intuition, and passion, and we are fixed in a primitive and racialized past." While she does a fantastic job of defending her claim, and I am inclined to agree with her, I was thrown by the use of the word "intuition," as it has never been a concept that I have considered oppressive.

Most of my experience with the idea of intuition is through popular representations of "women's intuition," the sort of sixth sense that women are supposed to have in countless sit-coms. The set-up for the concept is all too common: a male character asserts something or sets out to do something, a female character (usually a wife or mother) warns the male against it (citing her intuition as her reason for intervening), and things play out just as the female predicted when the male goes through with it anyway. Cue the laugh track. In retrospect, I can see why this concept of intuition is oppressive or negative. While the woman in such comedic situations is usually right, the idea is used to distance women from men, who despite their momentary embarrassment are still depicted as the rational being or head of the household. This separation becomes more pronounced when the intuition in question is not just women's, but that of group of people that has been racially othered.

In this sense, Ramirez's use of intuition as an othering concept makes sense. However, when juxtaposed to the popular idea of women's intuition, her proposition raises another question. She makes little to no distinctions between the groups that she identifies as being separated from science and SF. There is no discussion about how gender dynamics among black, Chicana/o, and Native American populations influence the concepts of intuition or passion or carnality. This seems like an usual omission from her essay, considering the gendered nature of Chicana/o culture -- the gendered endings of the term puts the issue right in front of the reader. How do these perceptions paint representations of men and women of color in SF when taking into account Chicano machismo or tribal gender roles?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Boundaries, Authority, Hindsight, and Neuromancer

The connections between what we know as the Internet and what William Gibson referred to as "cyberspace" in Neuromancer can lead to the illusion that his work preempted the World Wide Web. This illusion falls apart in a couple of ways. First, our Internet and Gibson's cyberspace function in completely different ways while still existing for similar purposes. Even through programs/games/interfaces that require us to create an avatar with which to explore and experience things, our online experiences cannot threaten us mortally (barring extreme negligence or carelessness) as they can in Neuromancer; Case experiences brain death three times throughout his forays into cyberspace dealing with the AI Wintermute. Second, the monitoring and regulation of our Internet is completely different than that of cyberspace, at least so far as we see in the text.

As we follow Case and the people with whom he comes to work, we follow clearly illegal online activities, but we do not see much in terms of a criminal justice system to handle these issues. Obviously there is the Turing Squad, but they are rarely ever seen throughout the course of the text and appear to have a very limited focus: the regulation and restriction of artificial intelligences. While they seem capable of addressing or punishing non-AI related cybercrime, we never see them actually do this. Case does not reference the risk of running into Turings unless he's doing something related to Wintermute. In his previous dealings as a console cowboy, the only consequences he notes are those he suffered in Memphis at the hands of his employers. Even when he does finally get picked up by Turing agents, they're swiftly taken out by Wintermute.

Part of the reason this seems so strange is that Gibson does not address how the Turings operate or how they are organized, which couple possibly be symptomatic of the unstable geopolitical state of Gibson's world. As we learn through Armitage/Corto's backstory, there was a war during which most of the technology that Case benefits from was developed, which seems to have greatly diminished superpowers like the United States. While there are still security forces, they appear to lack the authority or powers of an actually police force and struggle to suppress the actions of groups like the Moderns or the crimelords that mangled Case's nervous system in Memphis. This is one of the ways that Gibson's vision works differently than our reality. Our Internet, while largely unregulated and certainly lacking true AIs, appears to be subject to higher surveillance and scrutiny than Gibson's cyberspace. Through legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and proposed yet failed monitoring like SOPA and CISPA, the United States government has sought to regulate e-commerce and e-communications. The Turings are the only agency we see that has any direct jurisdiction in cyberspace, but it is vague and in the case of Wintermute/Marie-France's plot it is ineffective.

It is possible that this perspective on the role/lack of cyberjustice in Neuromancer is illusory, in that it is heavily skewed by Case's perspective. Practically everything Case does and everyone Case associates with operates outside of any semblance of law. They also shift locations so frequently that it is difficult to say which laws they would actually be subject to, especially in this world that has been reshaped by another war.  Case acknowledges that he has killed, but never seems to acknowledge an authority that would punish him aside from the Turings. This is perhaps indicative of the punk side of cyberpunk, the bucking of authority in favor of anarchy. Perhaps we don't hear about these things because Case really doesn't care to even think of them unless they can possibly interfere with his ability to jack in. This, in a way, actually does reflect an aspect of contemporary internet culture. While Congress continues to propose legislation to monitor and regulate the Internet and the social media therein, hackers and pirates continue to manipulate the technology for their own uses and goals.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One-Sided Progressive Projections and Pon Farr: Hierarchical Gender Role Speculation

In her essay on the culture and work of slash fiction, Constance Penley analyzes the slasher's depictions of the relationship between Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock of the orginal Star Trek series. She  suggests that this specific relationship is used so frequently because it presents readers with a radical reformation of gender roles; Kirk and Spock, as male friends and distinguished officers in the Star Fleet, experience equality that fans of the series apparently believe cannot exist in a heterosexual relationship. Penley says, "Where there is mutuality of gender there is, at least in theory, a degree of equal interchange and individuality that is often automatically negated in the conventional [heterosexual] marital union."

Penley elaborates upon this idea by suggesting that slasher fans of the series, themselves mostly heterosexual,  believe that male gender roles could feasibly change between the 1960s and the twenty-third century to the point that Kirk and Spock could be in a sexual relationship without it affecting their status as officers or friends. Indeed, there are hints toward this sort of relationship between them in episodes like "Amok Time," in which Kirk refuses to reprimand Spock for his moments of passionate insubordination brought about by his impending state of Pon Farr. At the end of the episode, Spock shouts with excitement at the realization that Kirk has not died and admits that his interest in his "wife" on Vulcan completely disappeared with the thought of losing Kirk.

This situation is particularly odd in terms of the gender dynamic that Penley describes. While Kirk and Spock take on masculine roles in the episode "Amok Time," Spock explicitly states that he is "not a man." While he means that he is not a human, that his Vulcan nature makes him essentially different than a human, the choice of the word "man" is striking. He seems to suggest, in his moment of impassioned weakness, that he is not a man compared to Kirk, as though their relationship is in that moment more hierarchical than at other times. If for only a moment, Kirk and Spock fall into a sort of heteronormative relationship with a slash twist. I feel that this highlights a logical break in the thinking of the slasher fans as posited by Penley: if masculine gender roles could shift to such a degree in 300 years, why could feminine roles and heterosexual relationships not evolve in a similar manner? This seems like a particular odd idea to ignore in this context, given that Star Trek emerged in the same decade as the feminist movement that fostered writers like Le Guin and Tiptree and that the roles of women in society and relationships was already in the midst of unprecedented changes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Crookman's Grand Scheme in George Schuyler's Black No More

Throughout my reading of Schuyler's Black No More, a satirical speculation into what would happen if black people could be made white, I could not help but notice a particular detail. Dr. Junius Crookman is an African American physician who develops a process to whiten dark skin. However, despite the fact that he has trained other doctors to perform the procedure and opened one hundred "sanitariums" throughout the United States, Dr. Crookman never elects to go through with this procedure himself. Crookman voices the opinion that the troubles of black people in American society can only be solved by means of a color change, not through cooperation or cultural assimilation, but he remains black. Every other prominent black leader in the United States, with the exception of a few "die hards" or "race patriots," becomes white with the exception of Crookman.

While this is barely mentioned throughout the entire text, Schuyler has Crookmam make a move in the final chapter that suggests more significance. Crookman, now Surgeon General of the United States, announces that artificially white people can be differentiated from naturally white people by the fact that they are actually two or three shades lighter than those born white. After all of the chaos and confusion brought about by the whitening of blacks and the realization that even the most purportedly pure whites have some black ancestry, Crookman reinstates a racial binary. The difference with this new binary is that it is unusually pale people that are marginalized instead of people with darker skin. Consequently, people who were born white (and still clinging to racial prejudice) seek methods of differentiating themselves so that they do not appear to be too white.

The result of this social shift is a new burgeoning industry of skin staining, allowing white people to darken their skin to shades of fair brown. Schuyler refers to this new mentality as being "mulatto-minded." What is fascinating about this shift is that it takes place in a socioeconomic context much different than the old racial binary. When Crookman introduces his data on levels of whiteness, the entire country has experienced an overhaul of its roads, apartment buildings and boarding houses, and sewage systems. Schuyler makes no reference to slums or lower-class neighborhoods into which the whitest-of-the-white are segregated. Through Crookman's efforts, Schuyler has managed to take a similar path to other speculative fiction authors on the issue of race. As Sheree R. Thomas establishes, authors such as Ray Bradbury and Raplh Ellison wrote stories commenting on black invisibility, but Schuyler takes it a step farther. He takes Black No More into the realm of black disappearance and pulls it further to reach a point of black preference, a social context in which having darker skin is seen as desirable or advantageous. He has made blackness visible, and he acknowledges this with Crookman's satisfied smile at the closing of the text.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Assumptions of Heteronormativity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman attempts to subvert essentialist gender binaries in Herland, a tale of three male American explorers' journey into a purely female utopia which has not seen male influence in two millenia. While the assumptions brought forth by the three men certainly clash with the reality of the Herlanders, presenting readers with a some criticism of masculinity, there are parts of Gilman's story that maintain aspects of the binaries and inequities of her time. First and foremost, Gilman fails to acknowledge the nature of sexuality in Herland before the arrival of Terry, Jeff, and Van. While she does acknowledge that some Herlanders develop a an interest in exploring sexuality, it is seen an atavistic and undesirable trait worthy of the loss of the divine privilege of motherhood. This is as far as Gilman's treatment on Herlandian sexuality goes. As Alys Eve Weinbaum establishes, there is no specification as to the nature of this sexuality; the reader has no knowledge of whether Gilman is referring to a heterosexual interest in men of the tribes outside of their country (which is ruled out because Herlanders are established to have no knowledge of these tribes), to personal exploration or masturbation, or to lesbian experimentation. Gilman makes no allusion to lesbian interests throughout the novel, not even from the perspective of the American men. The question is never raised by any of these characters, which is reflective of heteronormative assumptions help by Terry, Jeff, Van, and Gilman herself.

 As the men gain more and more access to Herland, they learn that the Herlanders see them as potential fathers, as a chance for Herland to return to a "bisexual" state. While the sexual nature of this is viewed much differently by Gilman's men as it is by the Herlanders, it reveals an interesting prejudice regarding child-rearing that is shared between the two groups: that a child stands to gain more when raised by heterosexual parents than by a parent (or parents) of one gender (or, presumably, of homosexual orientation). However, this bias is held in different ways by the American men and the Herlanders; the men believe more in the parentage of a wedded man and woman, while the Herlanders believe in community parentage augmented by the new influence of fatherhood.

Even within the realm of heterosexual relationships, there is a level of male dominance present. Terry serves as the personification of this dominance. He is seen as the most headstrong and hypermasculine of the group, persistently denying that women can organize as they have in Herland or bear/raise children without the influence of men. This comes to a head toward the end of the novel when he tries to rape his wife, Alima. Terry asserts that it is Alima's responsibility as his wife to please him and that her refusal to do so entitled him to such a drastic and violent action. The Over Mother of Herland did not agree, and demanded that Terry leave Herland and remain under strict guard until his departure. Making matters worse, Van and his wife Ellador, while holding different stances on Terry's actions, are willing to place blame on Alima. Ellador at first accuses Terry of a crime (which rape would certainly be), but then admits that she can understand his insistence because of Alima's supposed atavistic tendencies. While Weinbaum suggests that Van comes to acknowledge Terry's rape for what it is, he is actually quick to jump to Terry's defense, as though Alima had led him on. While this scenario is particularly troubling, it is not entirely surprising given the time in which Gilman wrote this story. It is important (and startling) to keep in mind that marital rape was not universally considered a crime in the United States until 1993, long after Herland was recovered, let alone published.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Oh Yeah, This is a Thing

Sometime over the past year or so, I completely forgot I had this blog. I was going to create a new one for the sake of my Sci-Fi Lit class, but just now remembered I have this. Time to start using it again! I'll be posting for more things than just Dr. Lothian's class. Hopefully that means lots of content in the weeks to come. I'm also considering branching out into video entries, but we'll see how that goes. If you're reading this, thanks and check back soon if you'd like.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Buying Your Silence: Arizona SB 1467

So, as some of you that follow me on Twitter may know (if you read the link I retweeted from Angus Johnson), Arizona lawmakers have proposed a new bill regarding the content of public school curricula.  As taken verbatim from the full bill text of Arizona State Bill 1467:

If a person who provides classroom instruction in a public school engages in speech or conduct that would violate the standards adopted by the federal communications commission concerning obscenity, indecency and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio:
1. For the first occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for one week of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension
2. For the second occurrence, the school shall suspend the person, at a minimum, for two weeks of employment, and the person shall not receive any compensation for the duration of the suspension
3. For the third occurrence, the school shall terminate the employment of the person.

Essentially, anything that could possibly be taught on a preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, or public college/university that the FCC wouldn't want on television or the radio cannot be taught if this passes.  Think the FCC episode of Family Guy, but with your schooling.

What have you read in your educational career that can't be shown on television or played on the radio?  The Glass Menagerie references opium dens.  The Red Badge of Courage describes the fallen remains of a soldier.  Catcher in the Rye depicts underage drinking.  What about history?  Are the bloody truths of war acceptable in this context?  What about racist lynchings?  That sort of thing couldn't be acceptable on TV, right?  What about law?  As Johnson points out in his blog, one of the most important student law cases involves a Vietnam protest in which a student wore a jacket with "Fuck the Draft" written across it.

This is unbridled, uncontrolled censorship.  It will prevent teachers and professors from doing their jobs.  It will severely hinder the educational experience of countless students.  And it will put a lot of money into a select few pockets.

What do I mean by this last statement?  The language of the bill explicitly mentions "public" educational institutions.  It stands to reason that teachers at PRIVATE institutions will not fall subject to these rules.  So what happens?  The robust curricula you could previously expect from public schools, colleges, and universities (and don't get snide about this.  Public institutions have more going for them than people let on, or at least they are capable having a lot going for them.  But that's for another day) will now only be available in private schools.  Schools with religious biases built into their mission.  Schools that fuction as for-profit machines.  Schools that operate on a clear rift in class standing among our population.  This is not just a method of silencing public educators.  It's a method of forcing you into the privatized, for-profit education system.  A system that does nothing to benefit students or educators.  Arizona's lawmakers are not just attempting to censor--they are trying to make you literally buy into that silence.  And for many poor families, they will either be buying their own silence, or forced into a further poverty-stricken silence.

The Family Guy clip posted above is the the expressed property of Seth Macfarlene and Fox Entertainment.  I claim no ownership over it.

I'd continue and cite more sources to back up this argument, but I'm just pissed off.