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How are monstrous monsters monstrous?

“Monsters never have children,” Peter Sloterdijk told us.  He was suggesting that we moderns, with our obsession with novelty, are about that life, so to speak.

At the end of May, Peter Sloterdijk gave a series of talks at Irvine.  Even if you weren’t in attendance, you may be familiar with Sloterdijk’s work.  The (massive) first volume of his Bubbles was translated into English from the German recently, and it’s making the rounds.

In this particular lecture series Sloterdijk took as his topic “bastards”– the unique, the unprecedented, the uncomfortable– the monstrous, in fact.  His route in was French opulence, with Louis XV’s mistress and advisor the Marquise de Pompedeur (formerly the never-quite-ordinary Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson) and her rise from the emerging middle class to an impossibility of wealth and power.

1. Every wish granted

Madame de Pompedeur is a rhetorical figure in Sloterdijk’s talk. Mme. de P. is not the sum of historical contingence and agency.  She does not bumble along.  In Sloterdijk’s work, she is pure deus ex machina, the composed story which always already is punching its own punchline.

And this semi-fictional figure was told in prophesy, when still a child, that she’d be the King’s lover. With this information, she became the kind of person who could be. It’s not just her rise that Sloterdijk is working through.  It’s the sheer unprecedented-ness of it. Sloterdijk puts it like this:  “In all likelihood Madame de Pompadeur was at the time the only person in France, if not in Europe, whose every wish was granted.”

She is a creature of unlikely entitlement here, an excess of sexy witty sumptuousness for whom all that stuff is only a stopover on the way to what she was made up for. The unlikeliness and completely produced nature of her triumph is worth taking a moment with.

2. On the flourishing of ideals?

Sloterdijk is a great thinker on the topic of flourishing and the mutualism, or exploitation, that sustains.  Bubbles, the first volume in his Spheres,  involves thinking through what he calls placental relationships.  The placenta is the is the companion that makes the subject real, and the framing for similar subsequent relationships. “From it, energies flow to me that form me.  Nonetheless, it remains unassuming in itself, never demanding its own presence” (Bubbles: 357).  For Sloterdijk, the subject will always have a sustaining or constituting other, even if it is imaginary or inanimate.

He gives us placental relationships, sustaining others that “never demand” (or never make demand that we notice) and then he gives us Mme. de P.

What makes her flourish as a subject?  Surely, the king’s attention, and the attention of a nation.  Perhaps also the perfectness of the story: the impossibility that someone like her could emerge from her class produced, after all, the conditions that made her fascinating.  The fortune someone told her as a child was absurd, her rise was amazing, and she, herself,  a curiosity.  An absolutely integral part of the way deus was clearly in her machina is that she shouldn’t have succeeded, at least as far as she’s depicted here.

I rather think this is productive for thinking about idealized subjects.  What kinds of monsters are the impossibly lucky?  Or the rhetorically perfect? I think it’s a serious consideration for feminists watching the media space these days, especially when thinking through the superwomen trope that fabulous performer Beyoncé Knowles or corporate phenom and writer Sheryl Sandberg have been discussed in terms of lately.


where Talk is not just talk

index of Harlan Ellison Talk page on Wikipedia, June 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about an emergent aspect of my Wikipedia use that almost inverts the software’s intended design. That is: I’ve started to use Wikipedia’s Talk pages as if they were extensions of the articles themselves, especially for pages with controversial content. In some cases, I’m even finding the material on the Talk pages more informative and reliable than what ends up on the official page. The reason for this is that the public pages tend to carry only what a group of self-selected and often partisan editors can agree on; in addition, pages must meet Wikipedia’s own standards of neutrality and verifiability. Thus a lot of pages slowly morph towards the kind of pablum that public relations flacks generate. Since value judgments are frowned on, contextual analyses tend to get squeezed out in favor of a laundry list approach to any given subject: X did this, and then she did that, and then she did this other thing. What this means is that if you really want to get any kind of handle on a subject, you have to delve into the page history and the inter-editor discussions of the Talk page.

I first noticed that this had become a reflexive habit a while ago when I followed a series of links on sexual harassment, computer games, and science fiction and ended up on science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s Wikipedia page. There is a subsection on that page about controversies Ellison has been involved in, including an incident in which he groped a fellow science fiction author, Connie Willis, during the 2006 Nebula awards. (There is a YouTube video of this.) I immediately turned to the Talk page, knowing there would likely be a discussion about whether that incident should be included in his page and how it should be handled, and maybe also some indication of the larger context in which it took place. With luck, I would find out more about both the incident and Ellison himself, since he’s not a writer whose work I know well—and his Wikipedia page is an excellent example of the laundry list phenomenon mentioned above. Talk is where Wikipedia wants content discussions to happen, and the result is that Talk is where a good deal of information ends up that is not yet sourced and where the arguments over meaning and context occur.  As it happened, there wasn’t much more about the Willis incident, though there was a good deal more in support of the general view that Ellison is a petty and vindictive person with sociopathic tendencies—some of which has since been excised from the Talk page through a neutering process that parallels that of the main page. (The page on Ellison currently frames him as “abrasive and argumentative,” a phrase that hardly covers groping a colleague.)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Talk is clearly intended as notes towards a first draft of Wikipedia. But like journalism vis-a-vis history, it has the unfiltered—or at most semi-filtered—quality of all primary sources, making it equally valuable and suspect. Andrew Leonard has an interesting recent post on the editors who use Wikpedia to pursue private vendettas, and Talk is one of the places where that kind of social engineering is most visible, because Talk is as much a contest over desire and between competing agendas as it is over content. Wikipedia—unlike its predecessors such as Encyclopedia Britannica—wants to pretend that knowledge equals facts minus interpretation. The shadow encyclopedia that is Wikipedia Talk shows up the naivete of that approach.

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With Boobies

I originally thought I would title this post: “Does Anyone at the New Yorker Actually Know How to Read?” but decided that was slightly too inflammatory. But I’m still baffled at this 2009 post, which I recently stumbled on over there:


It’s not the article itself that’s the problem—that at least is a readable and informed look back at the British physician Alex Comfort and his landmark 1972 book The Joy of Sex. The pretext for this article is the release of a new edition of The Joy of Sex, and there’s a good deal of ‘then and now’ stuff in it, leading up to the predictable conclusion that The Joy of Sex has been largely supplanted both by its own success as an educational manual (“What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now”) and by the internet, our collective library of erotica and porn past and present.

Along the way, author Ariel Levy rightly criticizes The Joy of Sex for its—how do I put this without using words like heteronormative or phallocentric?—well, for what she flags as “the feel of a penis propaganda pamphlet.” She goes on to mention the “feminist alternative” to Joy of Sex, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was published a year before The Joy of Sex. Together and separately, these two books changed the terms of debate about sexuality in America by directly attacking the culture of misinformation surrounding it.

And this is why I’m still scratching my head. Here is an article written at a moment when women in America are having to refight many of the very same issues of the 1970s that prompted these two books—control over one’s own body, right to abortion, freedom from reflexive victim-blaming in rape cases, normalization of plastic surgery, to name just a few. And even as the author clearly respects The Joy of Sex as a mass education project, she also calls out Comfort for his various blind spots (homosexuality, for one). So what is the thumbnail image that accompanies this essay? In case you skipped right over it as one so often does with this kind of graphical window dressing:

Yep. In close-up. You might almost say, objectified.

I recognize the style: it’s either a Tom Wesselmann painting or a pastiche of one. I’d guess it’s the latter since reverse-image look-up doesn’t lead to any other versions of this image on the web other than those leading back to the New Yorker. And even more because the image itself is both uncredited and unlinked.

Wesselmann made his name as a Pop artist in the 1960s with a series called “The Great American Nude.” Here is a Wesselmann painting from that era that give a sense of his signature style:

Tom Wesselmann, “Bedroom Painting 2”, 1968

Feminists have long had a problem with Wesselmann’s work—the eyeless, supine naked women, the fixation on erogenous zones and detached body parts. At the very least this thumbnail is a puzzling choice to accompany an article about two books whose goals included, among other things, helping women to stop seeing themselves as a bunch of body parts intended solely for male pleasure. Way to undercut your own essay, guys. (Unless I’m missing some kind of twee irony here, which I certainly hope is not the case.)

So this is how I found myself wondering about the reading comprehension of the website’s art designer—or perhaps, this being the New Yorker, there is actually an entire Department of Thumbnail Iconography that makes these decisions at weekly closed-door meetings. Whoever it was, I suspect they may have leapt on this one sentence as the key to picking an accompanying image:

The Joy of Sex redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies.”

With boobies, indeed.

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Collaboration and Authorship

Do you collaborate? What have your experiences been like? Are you struck by the ways in which humanists cite Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and enjoy demolishing (in theory) the myth of the heroic-male-solo-author, and then proceed (in practice) to make sure that the infrastructure of academic productivity rewards only the solo author performance?
Here’s one of the many articles that have appeared on this topic in academic publication outlets:

Friends With Benefits

Written by two philosophers, this essay has a title that’s a bit annoying (for its adolescent humor – really, is collaboration like an experiment in alternative sexual practices? Does that make scientists promiscuous, and humanists traditional monogamists?), and fails to mention that Helen Keller was a socialist from the deep South (complicated political economic considerations would be required to wrap that around the “wise blind girl” image). But it’s a useful think-piece and might be a spur to generating discussion. For example, their concluding point applies nicely to both the labor of teaching and of writing:
“We have to actually care when others don’t grasp our point … We cannot do this by ourselves.”
It’s a pretty simple point. But the infrastructures of humanist academia tend to work against recognizing it. So collaboration remains in the space of invisibilized labor. The work of rendering opaque that which should be transparent might also be called the work of mystification.

What would the labor of de-mystification look like?

The Future of Difference Engines?

We here in the Difference Engine room are talking a bit about the future of this space. We’ll be meeting over dinner May 21 in Orange County to discuss. The purpose of this blog has been to provide a forum for developing feminist, critical, and transnationally oriented understandings of technology, science, and technoculture — and for doing it safely (anonymously when necessary) and in public. We never wanted to be the most famous blog in the world. We imagined perhaps that more people might step out of the woodwork to write, comment and discuss. These and other issues will be discussed.

If you have thoughts and energy to share, email or comment here.

CFP for 4th Handbook of Science and Technology Studies

Our friend deuxlits tipped us off that the editors of the upcoming Handbook of Science and Technology Studies seek chapter proposals, and in particular are interested in global technoscientific phenomona.

These handbooks get referenced a lot so this seems like a good chance to interject examinations of engines of difference from a Difference Engines point of view. See the full CFP

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Notes from The Future of the Capitalist City

Here are some comments I made at the recent meeting of the American Association of Geographers in downtown LA. The Westin Bonaventura (search Jameson, postmodernism if you don’t remember his rant about architectural anti-democratic design and downtown LA) was the site of more lefty urban theorists than you could dream of.

This panel was called “The Future of the Capitalist City,” organized by NYU PhD candidate Daniel Cohen, who invited me to do the introduction. I’m so glad he did, as it was a blast seeing so many marxists at the art-deco Biltmore.    

So we started with:  “How might we think about the future of the city, and think it in conjunction with the future of capitalism?”

more »

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UCFemTechNet conference being livestreamed now

A group of organizers across the UC are discussing new directions in feminist technology studies. Speakers include Anne Balsamo, Lisa Parks, Kelly Gates, Adele Clarke, and more!

Livestreaming here today and tomorrow

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Remote work: Creativity, innovation, unmanned bulldozers, and faculty governance

Fascinating article about Cornell-Technion partnership to build NYC tech campus. It’s going to be organized as a hub for interdisciplinary work, like the WW2 RAD labs Peter Galison and Fred Turner have written about.

Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, told The Jewish Week that Technion’s partnership with Cornell “is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation.” He added that “When Americans think of Israel, overwhelmingly the first thing that comes to mind is the association with conflict, the fact that Israel is in dispute with its neighbors.”

Technion is a top international university particularly strong in developing military technologies. Israel is a top exporter of drones. And Technion developed unmanned bulldozers.

Why would someone need an unmanned bulldozer? <pause> Hrm? Search Rachel Corrie just for a start.

Cornell faculty and students are angry that this partnership has gone through without even a debate among faculty who, by school bylaws, are to approve cross-school educational policy.

For those of us studying creativity and innovation cultures, the consul general is explicitly binding togetherinnovation economy diplomacy to Israel’s military actions and racialized exclusion of Palestinians. It’s not even entirely surprising, since a lot of the cultures of creativity we celebrate today, Fred Turner teaches us, came right out of military technology research into networks and ballistics systems.

The unmanned bulldozer also seems like another important data point in governmental policies that use science and technology to reduce citizen involvement in warmaking, taking it out of our political domain into relatively closed-door security decisions. I wonder what else moving the human out of the bulldozer and into a control center somewhere was meant to accomplish?
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When someone tells you to put innovation in a funding application



Given the association between innovation and masculine Silicon Valley cultures, I totally feel for humanistic scholars who feel like they need to invoke that language to get support for their work. We need critical inquiry into cultures of “innovation.”

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