Nostalgic Interactivity and Family Records

Given the readings this week and the first responses to them, including my own, it’s clear that nostalgic interactivity (Kurlinkus) was the hit of the week. It’s interesting how much we prefer creating nostalgic spaces and building stories and spaces about them in the virtual realm to working out the details of hybrid makerspaces. In reality, that’s probably not entirely true. It’s just that the overhead (in terms of resources and effort) is so much less. There’s already a robust infrastructure in place for nostalgic interactivity. Once you open your eyes to it, it is literally everywhere.

I’ve been tinkering with my family tree for a couple of months now in various web spaces (Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geni) triggered by a DNA test that I got for Christmas. My aunt and cousin have been working on it for years, and digital tools have speeded up the process of tracking and connecting astronomically–as well as speeding up the ability to make sweeping, vast errors in a matter of seconds by clicking on a bad record. Family record keeping is interactive nostalgia, creating a sense of belonging to people long dead, and in the case of my father’s family who were actually American pioneers of a type, related to if not actual players in certain chapters of history we studied about in school (and saw glamorized on shows like Gunsmoke and the John Adams Chronicles), the potential for dramatic narrative building is pretty much a rush.  Also, I found out that I might be a cousin to George Clooney. EPIC WIN.

In “Memorial Interactivity: Scaffolding Nostalgic User Experiences,” William C. Kurlinkus considers how nostalgia, ephemera, and ritual function.  User engagement peaks with their knowing (or unknowing) inclusion. In modern genealogy infused by the new craze of DNA testing as promoted through Ancestry, 23 and Me (hyped up even more through the participation of icons like Henry Gates Jr.), and FamilyTree DNA, user inclusion becomes incredibly personal and intimate–scraped off of the inside of a cheek or spit up into a tube, the same procedure one goes through to determine paternity on Maury Povitch or prove one’s innocence at the police station. But it’s willing participation, not coerced, and therefore, it can be fun. (Fun for me, at least, because it’s entertainment-based:  I am quite sure of my parentage; not so much fun for those who are trying to ascertain their parentage, and many people are using it for serious purposes, such as finding unknown parentage or determining whether they are carriers of a deadly genetic disease. But at some point, every genealogy has its tragic overtones.  I have at least one ancestor who owned slaves and left a “Negro girl” to one of his sons in a will that you can read online. One was a poor photographer (God knows, in the 19th-century cameras must have been doggone pricey as well as difficult to tote around) who went to jail for holding up a stagecoach with his brother the town dance instructor–tragic though this is, it would make a fine Broadway musical, and Abraham Lincoln (2nd cousin sixth times removed) got shot going to the theater. You know that story.) With a bit of research, all these stories have a home on the internet.

There’s a fairly elaborate system, a hybrid of physical and digital, for sending your spit to the lab. You activate it before you spit into the little tube, and get a congratulatory message on the website, which will inform you graphically with a check or little progress bar after the spit arrives to the lab and is checked in. After being checked for “sufficient DNA,” it goes through several stages of checking and processing which are illustrated (on the Ancestry site) by a progress bar. Ancestry has the digital side of things worked out very well for commercial popularization, with encouraging messages to start your family tree while waiting for results of the DNA test, and sample ancestry reports to read. FamilyTree’s website is less slick, but boasts more sophisticated (and expensive) tests to identify one’s maternal and paternal haplogroups. The economy-level test that most people go for is autosomnal DNA, which identifies chromosomal information from both parents and can be done by either male or female participants.  The labs will upload your raw data to the website and link it to the data of other participants who allow their data to be shared with potential relations. FamilyDNA and MyHeritage have chromosome browsers, which “paint” your chromosomes online for you and show how they overlap with the chromosomes of participating matches.

All of the popular labs and their corresponding websites offer “ancestry reports,” which is perhaps the most popular feature–even more so than the prospect (somewhat scary) of finding new actual relatives to talk to online. But the ancestry reports are perhaps the sketchiest part, or the most fictionalized part, of the DNA story. Ancestry reports offer attractive graphs that attempt to break down one’s DNA into recognizable ethnicities. The translation of a human mix of ancient and modern DNA into recognizable ethnic categories is only made possible by a substantial pool of DNA from self-identified family lines to draw from and a good imagination. For example, my family is identified as German on one side and “Brit mix” on the other, but my DNA is much more heterogenous according to the FamilyTree and MyHeritage reports. If I download my raw data (an option that is given) and upload it to the professional open source website GEDMATCH, I have a whole host of alternative tools to analyze the data, including many experimental “admixture” tools that break down ancestry using older, more professional categories like European hunter/gatherer and Caucasian (which means something different than “white), South Baltic, etc. The forums for all of these sites is filled with people at different levels of study, from those who angrily demand to know why they have “unexplainable” trace “Nigerian” in their readout to those who seem to already have Ph.D.s in genetics or anthropology. But one of the most interesting aspects of the stories that arise from the “ancestry reports” are the ways in which I am able to glean a narrative of history far beyond myself that I have materialized. For example, sizable Scandinavian DNA points to Viking invasions of the British Isles, and Mediterranean “Italian” DNA to Roman colonization of the same. Every body is a battleground of history.

The piecing together of a family tree that goes back centuries is actually less personal than DNA testing, but it’s still personal enough. You start with your own family, which is very personal, but by the time you’ve been able to trace back five or six generations, chances are very good that the “room” is getting very crowded. In a month’s time, my family tree had expanded to 1800, with daily “smart matches” coming into my notification from mostly the U.S., but also from England, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. The hive mind is alive and well in family records, and people are very quick to click on smart matches, add new branches to their trees, and accept incoming information. Sometimes I’ve noticed that I made a mistake and people have already added my error to their own records, all within a matter of days. Family records online are essentially now a series of wikis, and one needs to use the same discretion that one uses consulting Wikipedia.

In a sense, this is a long warm-up for a more concrete tie-in to the week’s readings about nostalgic interactivity AND makerspaces. Here you go.  The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints opened a Family History Library Interactive Experience center last February: “a 10,139-square-foot area full of interactive discovery experiences.”

“Compare-a-Face,” “All About Me,” and “Replace-a-Face” put the user in the center of every aspect of history that may involve her or her family.  The environment is advertised as a physical center but the experience is hybrid. Although several of the features on the website are not yet active, they promise to be accessible from the web browser at home as well as on the physical site. As with most of these online sites, an account is needed (and it will be behind some kind of paywall–if you want to know about what your DNA and family records tell you, you need to pay other “experts” to provide access to that information).

The Center is equipped with technology for those who wish to make the trip:

The discovery experiences at the Family History Library include more than 100 custom iPads, 44 touch-screen monitors, and 42 computers with research and discovery-experience capability. Six recording studios create free, high-definition audio and video recordings that will preserve treasured family memories for future generations.

Youth will enjoy the life-sized, touch-screen computer monitors for some of the interactive stations. In addition, an enclosed space for parents with smaller children allows these parents to explore their family history while also being able to watch their children play. A fun green screen allows guests to choose from a variety of themed backgrounds to create a lasting photo memory of their visit to the discovery experiences.

I’m actually fairly glad that it took this long for me to discovered the “important” connections in my family tree, both nefarious and luminous (because for one thing, I know how self-important that sounds). If you have enough self-awareness to call the Ice Bucket Challenge “slacktivism,” does that make you a better person?

One more comment about aesthetics of play

Before we leave this week’s focus, here is one more YouTube about the new expansion of WoW, Battle for Azeroth, by a popular channel. You’ll notice if you watch a bit or all of it just how much focus is on the aesthetics of interface design, including an appreciation of zone scaling, feelings of immersion, and atmospheric details.

Second Life Skin Store

One version of the Avatar Dream: a skin shop in Second Life. They are accepted but definitely creepy-looking. This room was probably right next to the genitalia shop…Despite the strangeness of this to the outsider, and the uncanny associations it may have with neoliberal commodification which are definitely present, Nardi’s chapter on Dewey and aesthetics in daily life practices as a key feature in virtual worldbuilding can be useful in assessing what happens in the craft-heavy experience of Second Life, which is less a “game” where one plays to win (it is not that at all) but an environment where creators can develop their aesthetic experience in a community which rewards that experience.

Very short post: uncovering revision in game builds is a form of literacy

This is possibly a placeholder for a longer post but might be worth bringing up in class.

There is a genre of YouTube videos that explore versions of builds in World of Warcraft (and possibly other games). Using small “hacks” or the abilities of various classes to bypass the walls or impediments to exploring rejected builds (for example, from alpha or beta builds of the game) or the builds that are only available while inside of a raid or dungeon instance, YouTubers explore the possibility of revision in game composition. They explore, describe, analyze, and theorize about these builds.

Here’s an example, “Exploring a Northrend Obliterated by Deathwing” by “Hidden Azeroth.” There are hundreds of videos of this type available.

The Avatar Dream and the Emerald Nightmare

One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a movie called The Nines, a 2007 self-described “science fantasy psychological thriller” starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, Hope Davis, and Elle Fanning, and written and directed by John August.  You can get a feeling for his quirky personal style by reading his informal blog post about it here. August’s credits and accomplishments include GoBig FishCharlie’s AngelsTitan A.E.Charlie and Chocolate FactoryCorpse Bride and Frankenweenie. And here is a trailer.

G (Reynolds) is “rendered” into three characters in the three-part, three-narrative organization of the film: Gary, a mainstream popular TV actor with various addictive behaviors and anger management issues; Gavin, a successful TV writer trying to promote his latest pilot while shooting a reality TV show; and Gabriel, a highly successfully video game designer who is lost in the woods with his wife and child. These are three separate stories that “bleed” into each other as the parts of G become aware of (or haunted by, to pick up that word again) each other. This haunting is not random, but is the overarching plotline of the movie as S (Davis) and several other peripheral yet memorable characters stage an “intervention” to remind G of who he really is–the creator of the world. The world is quite real for its inhabitants, in many different forms (by the end, we are informed there are 90 iterations of it), but for G and the Nines, it is a simulator and “not real.”

Existential philosophy and religious parables aside, The Nines is useful for contemplation on what Harrell and Lim called the Avatar Dream, defined below:

The Avatar Dream has two elements. One is technical, enabling users to control a virtual surrogate for themselves in a virtual world. These computational surrogate selves are often computer generated images (CGI) but can range from text descriptions in games or social media to virtual representations that engage all the senses in futuristic virtual reality environments. The second is experiential, enabling users of these virtual surrogate selves to have experiences beyond those they encounter in the physical world, ranging from having new abilities to better understanding the experiences of others (such as of another gender or even another type of creature). (ACM 80:7, 2017, p. 52).

In their research the authors identify “box effects” of avatar creation. Box effects are related to social stereotyping, and can be related to issues such as intersectionality with a little creative thought, but in this case they are also related to the limitations of avatar construction as they frequently currently occur in video games and related digital environments. The range of avatar creation included in this study is pretty vast, transversing RPGs to Second Life to profiles in online music databases. One limiting aspect of such range, ironically, is that avatars have different purposes (obviously) and they range from an in-world stand-in for the self (as in Second Life) versus a marker for a personal archive (such as a musical website profile).

The Avatar Dream seems loosely related to some of the learning principles of “good video games” in Gee’s “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” as the premise of the Avatar Dream is based on the ability to imagine oneself differently than one may currently to achieve one’s goals or dreams, especially important for, although not limited to,  the young learners who needs to imagine  a future for themselves. Gee does not delve into the nuances of avatar production, choosing instead to focus on the positive aspects of character growth through recognition for achievement, as-needed guidance, increased competence through leveling, teamwork, deep and lateral forms of competence, and situated meaning. Gee sees this as the development of complex literacies which are more suitable models for educators than  banking models of education  with insufficient contextualization. Since Gee wrote this article, one could say that education has developed in opposing directions–while many schools have embraced innovative teaching models that allow students to learn through genuine experiential learning, other have pushed learning back into a teach-to-test mode that opposes his advice (usually because of state or federal mandates). If you teach, you will see the results of both models of education in your students, it’s quite likely. It’s rather schizoid to say the least, with some being very used to experiential and contextualized learning and others quite new to it.

Returning to The Nines, we see a twist on the box effects defined by Harrell and Lim. The premise of the Nines is that they are multidimensional beings of great power (compared to humans) and that the powers of at least one, the protagonist, includes world creation.  I’ll return to gender in a bit, but first I want to talk about how the powers of the protagonist are expressed through each of his three characters, Gary, Gavin, and Gabriel. Gary’s talent is for being an actor. He is the least “aware” or “realized” of the three forms of G in the world, although in the story, he perhaps travels the furthest from complete sleepwalker to “wokeness” of the three due to a series of catastrophic events. Gavin and Gabriel are both content creators in different fields. Gavin is a gay TV writer extremely devoted to his work (and the characters that he creates through it) and involved in several complex interpersonal relationships with powerful mediating females. Gabriel is a seemingly very happy and content husband, father, and uber-successful video game developer. In all three incarnations, G is involved with incarnations of other beings who are played by the same actresses (Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis), as well as a child who appears to him in all three stories (Elle Fanning).

Gary, Gavin, and Gabriel are G’s avatars, as is made pretty clear by the conversations that he has with M (Margaret/Melissa/Mary) and S (Sara/Susan/Sierra). (M is the only being that is represented by multiple characters but is not recognized as a “Nine,” a bit of an odd blip in the movie’s cosmology. One is left to wonder if becoming a nine is a process, a “reward” for “knowing,” and is M is in the process of becoming a Nine. Or maybe not since it’s pretty clear that M knows more than G all along; the premise seems to be that G is amnesiac about his true self, and there is a “true self” to be found. The multiple unfolding of “M” seems to indicate that there is some kind of “uberhuman” self that goes beyond a human life and identity, similar to the being of Nines. (Humans are Sevens; chimps are Sixes; koalas, in a bizarre cute and funny moment, are revealed to be Eights because they control the weather.) In moments of extreme stress and forced clarity, G is able to identify the true Self of a being by a holographic number that appears over its head or some other mark, such as a tattoo in one scene. It is interesting that this multidimensional identity can only be identified by the being itself (assuming a “woke” state is in play) or through some kind of writing on or around the avatar.

Gary, whose segment is called “The Prisoner,” is literally imprisoned by box effects. Gary is an actor, who is managed by humans (in this story, Margaret is called in to be his “handler” during the crisis). Gary is most often treated like an avatar in a video game by multiple parties and forces who are stakeholders in his story arc. He is extremely stressed by his situation and put on house arrest after setting the belongings of an ex-girlfriend on fire and finding a woman on the street to supply him with drugs  (Octavia Spencer, a Nine moonlighting as a crack dealer and all-around party girl). Drugs and fast driving seem to be one way out of the box, but they put him in direct conflict with the rules of the world, so Margaret is brought in as a celebrity handler to oversee his house arrest. She seems to really care about him, despite channeling Kathy Bates’ character in Misery in a moment of tough-love humor, and the two strike up a bond.  The house in which he is imprisoned is the actual home (in another dimension or storyline) of Gavin, one of his other character/avatars, and the bleeding through of other storylines that began during his crack party continues during the house arrest, as he hears unusual noises in the house and finds notes in his own handwriting that were written by Gavin. Gavin’s note, “Look for the Nines,” has a very different implication in Gary’s story, as Gary begins to see nines in everything he comes into contact with, and suffers from paranoia. (Note on the “crack party”–literally the party ushers in a “crack” in Gary’s reality, so nice play on words. )

If Gary were being constructed as an avatar in a role-playing video game, his character would be possibly “boxed” in from the start by his a lower level of “intellect” than the other two versions of himself. Possibly. He is an “action” star on TV (which jives with the avatar ability in some games of “agility” or possibly “stealth”)–but even then, his story about faking action-star types of abilities to get a role call this analogy into question. The Nines blends together ideas of identity from three areas that the writer John August has familiarity with (acting, writing, and gaming) so even though the overriding idea of G’s story is analogous to avatar-buliding and later dissolution, keep in mind that the video game designer Gabriel is but another one of his vehicles for experiencing his own created worlds. Therefore we need to relate the term “avatar” to its earlier mythical and religious definition. Here are the four definitions of avatar provided by Merriam-Webster:

  1. the incarnation of a Hindu deity (such as Vishnu)
  2. an incarnation in human form
  3. an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a persona variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
  4. an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user in a virtual space (as in a computer game or an online shopping site) and that interacts with other objects in the space

These definitions precede their use in video game development. In The Nines, the “player” idea is more or less absent, although it’s clear that G is both designer and player of his own game. Or is it? One name left out of the script of The Nines is Ryan Reynolds, the actor of the G roles, even though the name of the actor of M roles–Melissa McCarthy–is part of the storyline of Gavin.  Melissa McCarthy, the actress (as a character in the movie) is the best friend of Gavin, and he has been a champion of her real-life career–including her role in The Gilmore Girls, which she is supposedly leaving to head up this lead role in Gavin’s new TV show, Knowing (which is Gabriel’s storyline in part 3). Maybe Ryan is the player in this set-up but he just isn’t named? Like Gary and Gabriel vanish when their segments have run the course, Ryan the actor too disappears from view at the end of the film. (Gavin doesn’t step into ether at the end of his segment, but stands disoriented in the streets of New York–which lends me to speculate that Gavin is the closest version of G to August’s heart, but that is just a bubble in my brain. His bio in his blog, though, might lend some credence to this.)

The cosmology of the movie may also be related to hierarchies in Hollywood,  which would explain why the incredibly talented and charismatic Melissa McCarthy is a Seven while Hope Davis is a Nine. It’s not all about her being a “fat girl,” since Octavia Spencer’s portly crack dealer is a Nine–although someone makes reference to M being overweight in every segment; by the end, we’re let in on the secret that it’s not her weight that is the issue of her discreditation by S and the network moguls, but G’s addictive attachment to her that must be overcome in order for him to regain his real life. I’m not quite sure I buy it, though. However, Spencer is not a Nine in terms of screen time, either, so the movie may be making a statement about how much the viewing public will allow themselves to be invested in major screen time for a chubby leading lady.  To bring the discussion back to the Avatar Dream, there is a connection between the issue of McCarthy’s (the actual actress now, not the actress playing herself) stardom in this movie and the proposal of the Avatar Dream that stereotypical practices reinforce the “box effects” of self-identity/self-representation in virtual environments and that these impact the self-image in profound ways. M is not assigned the character traits that would allow her to present herself as an equal to G, S, and the Nines. She is not assigned “nineness.” The reason for her not being assigned “nineness “is in service of the story, which is to show, in part, why G’s “favorite” is not on his level and cannot remain with him. Gabriel is completely in love with her and his life with her in the “Knowing” segment, yet they are not “destined” to remain together. This is very sad, and only made less tragic by the fact that G doesn’t “obliterate her with a thought” when he leaves her world–instead, she awakens in another version of her life, with a new husband (one more on her “level”) and the same child, who also has the gift of “knowing” other versions of herself. Finding herself in this situation instead of obliterated, she raises her eyes upward and mutters, “Thank you.”

The game that Gabriel designs seems to be some version of World of Warcraft or one of its cousins such as League of Legends from the way Sierra describes it in “Knowing.” In 2007, when this movie came out, WoW was still in its prime. It is now a teenager. The avatar system in WoW differs from the one described by Harrell and Lim from Skyrim, as the gender of a character in WoW does not change its power. Power attributes  in WoW avatars is basically the same for gender, which is completely surface and cosmetic; however, it can be slightly different for races, and that might be worth analyzing, as some races have a buff or “passive” talent or trait that allows them to perform certain kinds of actions more skillfully or more frequently.  The major differences in abilities is determined in WoW by class, which is like the character’s life vocation: ie, mage, warrior, druid, shaman, rogue, monk, demonhunter (which is a bit more complicated as only elves can be these), death knights (also complicated by the backstory of necromancy in their training–they have to die first and have no choice in the matter), and priest. The base attributes of each member of a class are similar, but the player can customize a talent tree which creates variety of play style. The rest of the power and skill differences come directly from gear and external buffs such as potions or inscriptions, which arise directly from dedication to play: questing, raiding, killing monsters, etc. The point for sharing this is that this type of role-playing game differs slightly from the one described in the Avatar Dream article in that in general, the talents are set from the start, and not determined by the player’s whim or stereotyping. The appearance and presentation of a character, however, can be greatly affected by these.  In the picture below, I will show you my 110 shaman next to a picture of a different shaman of the same rank and general power.

 

 

 

Obviously, mine is very glowy and girly, and I further developed that effect through a process called transmorgification that allows us to essentially play dress-up doll with our characters by superimposing an “appearance” on armor. Her actual armor looks nothing like that, although the appearance reflects real armor, most of which was obtained at a much lower level of power. In any case, the avatar’s appearance is not a measure of its play power necessarily. This would seem to be more in line with the vision of The Nines as far as avatar talent goes–to a point. However, there is some confounding when it comes to M’s character since her “power” seems to have been limited to be in line with her status as “supporting character. But this again becomes complicated by the fact that in THIS movie, she did become the female lead against all odds, against the strong stereotyping that states overweight women cannot be the romantic lead in a feature film.

So why did I entitle this The Emerald Nightmare? In World of Warcraft, the Emerald Dream is a realm that can only be entered by characters which are practitioners of the druid arts and can only be entered while asleep. It was created in ancient times, supposedly by Elune, the goddess of the moon, as an image of world as it would be if kept in a pristine state unmarred by living creatures. Time and distance mean nothing in the Emerald Dream. Basically, the Dream cannot be changed by mortals nor by most beings, except the Titans who are responsible for almost all creation in the universe. (Small, temporary changes can be effected, but nothing that lasts–the Dream is unchanging, or is supposed to be.) It’s implied quite firmly in various places that the Dream is necessary for the balance of forces in the planet of the game (called Azeroth) to be sustainable and healthy. But something happens to infest the Dream and corrupt it; this is named The Emerald Nightmare, as you might expect, and this is one of the areas that must confronted by players in their questing and raiding as they help the leader of the druids restore order to this part of the world. The corruption is triggered by Lovecraftian Old Gods that are said to cause “the gift (or curse) of flesh” to the creatures of Azeroth. The Old Gods are quite hideous and often manifest as mountains of misshapen fleshly tentacles, blobs, and oozy cysts with multiple eyes or great singular eyeballs positioned in various ways to intimidate. The corruption of the Old Gods, however, can be much more subtle, and often takes the form of mind-control through whispers that drive their victim insane.

Roughly speaking, the corruption of the Dream is the “gift of flesh.” The gift of flesh is what allowed beings to die, which may not seem like a very good gift, and “gift” is used rather ironically perhaps. But not entirely. In The Nines, it’s implied that the Nines are immortal–it’s said that G has been “missing” for 4000 years from his “real” home.  While he’s away, G falls in love, multiple times, with the “fleshy” woman, M, who is as smart as an Nine but not a Nine, and therefore is not immortal, and is consigned to live in the created world in one role or another. The curse, or gift, of flesh is hers to bear.

A few questions to consider:

  1. How important is it to design avatars? Is this important work for humans? Why or why not?
  2. Is the kind of identity speculation and analysis we see in The Nines useful to consider in your academic work?  Why or why not?
  3. What is to be gained through art that breaks the “fourth wall” such as The Nines to tell a story?
  4. What other ways can you relate the “box effect” to  ways of assessing identity or unpacking oppressive or unjust social practices or creating new ways of being in the world?

Feminist Filmmaking as a Cure for Circulatory Excess

Above video from chapter 1 of Cámara Retórica A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology  for Rhetoric and Composition (Alexandra Hidalgo)

Watching Alexandra Hidalgo’s video book on feminist filmmaking , it is crucial to revisit the idea of circulation exposed in Mary Queen’s article, Transnational Feminist Rhetorics in a Digital World,” and Eyman’s Digital Rhetoric as central to the legacy of feminist writers, filmmakers, and thinkers.  For example, in chapter 2, Hidalgo presents the work of early filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. I had never heard of her due to the muting of the circulation of her work by various patriarchal forces that just didn’t feel she was important enough to mention.

Feminist work, at least the “fourth-wave” of feminism described by Hidalgo, includes attention to who is getting heard, the consideration of implicit bias and discrimination, and justice in addition to following the letter of the law when it comes to gender equality; it is also marked by confrontation with intersectionality when it comes to related issues of class, color, and sexual orientation and identity.  The rhetoric of circulation, especially in the digital realm, is  connected not so much to what and how something is presented as how it is picked up and carried to another stage or place by others. See Abrahams  and Rampton on fourth-wave feminism.

Hidalgo’s work  stresses interdependence between those working on a video project and those behind the camera, as well as those who contribute to a remix, whether it be through interview, video, or sound, or just through providing the image of their bodies. The embodiment of video seems to remind us of the importance of context and subjectivity, something that seems to slip in the fast and sometimes careless circulation of texts–both linguistic and multimodal–on the internet, such as the Miller letter in Mary Queen’s essay. Queen examines the digital representations of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, an NGO founded in 1977 to fight for social justice, democratic forms of government, and civil rights in that country. It gained international attention when it launched its first website in 1997. By that time, the members of the organization were exiled in Pakistan and articles began to appear chronicling their plight; these stories often dovetailed with the agendas of feminist organizations like the Feminist Majority that supported neoliberal savior narratives (which “conflate freedom and democracy with technological progress and capitalism” (477)) as first-world feminist groups, as well as others including conservative groups,  felt the urge to save the Afghan women from the Taliban. First-world readers of the website were instrumental in linking to and circulating the stories and photos that were posted on the RAWA website.  Queen is more interested in how the stories were circulated across disparate political fields, and how often these circulatory texts were misread and attributed to RAWA when they had nothing to do with writing them (such as a widely circulated e-mail “open letter” to Ms. Magazine written by Elizabeth Miller in 2001 that called out the Feminist Majority, who owned a large part of the magazine, in a scathing critique) (478). Conservative writer Wendy McElroy began circulating the story and attributing it to RAWA, and the Feminist Majority also blamed RAWA for the letter–on competing fields, and both sides wrongly attributed it to RAWA.  That wasn’t the end of the misattribution or the discussion. (If you decide to visit the website today, there is a marked anti-U.S. vibe.)

I wonder if perhaps work with video or film is not an inherently powerful feminist tool in careful hands. and one that is perhaps necessary– as we see here even well-meaning feminist writers working against the feminist values of interdependence, mutual recognition, and respect in their urgency to forward a political ideology they may not even be aware of having because it seeps into everything around them, such as fears for national security and the urge to save the “other” masking neoliberal values. The current fake news epidemic began some years earlier than 2016 and goes far beyond any particular social group or even level of education, as these examples show. The internet brings us a sense of immediacy (perhaps falsely) with people halfway across the globe who may in many ways be, as Queen’s article quoted, “in the 11th century” when it comes to the basics of lifestyle. We read too fast and respond quickly. While YouTube videos do not always honor the humanity that they depict, the feminist values espoused by Hidalgo in her filmmaking journey tell us to take a beat, slow down, and frame our shots with mutual respect.

Works Cited

Hidalgo, Alexandra. Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital P/Utah State UP, 2017.

Queen, Mary. “Transnational Feminist Rhetorics in a Digital World.” College English, vol. 70, no. 5, 2008, pp. 471–489. JSTOR,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghostly Matters

In “Ghostly Matters,” Lisa Blackman writes,

The focus on allure, appeal and what commands attention within a media landscape increasingly shaped through an overload of information and ubiquitous, pervasive, networked media is of interest to organisational life and concerns. How to shape and “grab attention” and the relationship of this to regimes of remembering and forgetting, which govern what can be said and not said, seen and not-seen, felt but not easily articulated, extend studies of organisation and management processes into hauntological and affective realms.

I had just seen a Poppy video on Twitter. (Sorry. I feel bad for not diversifying my examples more. But an obsession is an obsession.) It was one of her collaborations with another YouTube channel,  Good Mythical Morning. In this video, the duo Rhett (Rhett James McLaughlin) and Link (Charles Lincoln Neal III), two ordinary-looking silly guys, parody morning talk shows and “conventional vlog channels” (I feel like I owe it to you to put that in quotes somehow) such as PewPewDie. Videos bear titles such as “Temper Tantrum Yoga is a Real Thing,” “Nasty Food Spin the Bottle,” “Real Tech or ‘Black Mirror’ Fiction?”, and “We Covered Ourselves in Magnets.” The episode in question here is called “Will It Poppy?” Watching, I thought of two readings: Blackman, above, on affective and transmedial hauntings, and also Punday’s essay on narrative intrigue.

YouTube celebrity haunted by trauma is an intriguing proposition, and there is an excellent case for arguing Poppy as a prime example of this. This video in particular begs for such a reading positioned in the nexus of a web of YouTube celebrity that includes countless broadcasters such as Rhett and Link and the many thousands vying for your click time. Rhett and Link, like Poppy, mock a way of garnering attention that they simultaneously embody. This might be a hyperrealized form of Poe’s law, in which the entire affective experience of a YouTube video, or its channel in total, cannot be seen as either clearly within a genre of comedy or commentary or satirical of it–and that is the point of its appeal. This is not new with YouTube; Andy Kaufman was a master of it.

The Poppy project overall can be seen as transmedial storytelling, defined by Henry Jenkins as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Convergence Culture, p. 108).  Whether or not the unified and coordinated experience is successful,  or even desired (it’s possible that a subversion of this might be the point), the implementation of it is by nature fragmentary and patchworky. Poppy, as another example of this, is yet another Patchwork Girl–but with very different affects/effects.

This video begins with Rhett and Link sitting at a table in outlandish costumes (Rhett dressed as some kind of flamboyant courtier and Link in Graham-Chaplinesque drag), asking “the age-old question”  if “yarn will ramen.” They proceed to put what appears to be ramen noodles in bowls of soul which they slurp and put into their mouths, leaving ambiguity as to whether it is noodles or yarn.  On the instance that they use chopsticks to lead the “noodles” to their mouths, ambient music begins, the camera backs up, and Poppy appears to their right. She says “if you give the people what they want, it will make them happy. It’s good to be happy. Give them what they want. ” Moving back to frame the duo, they ask “the question on everyone’s minds: cellular phones, will it nail?” and begin hammering two smartphones on the table.  Their voice tones are flat and monotone, much like Poppy’s delivery. They say how much they are enjoying the “nailing” although their faces register no positive emotion. Poppy states that it’s important to have fun and that “they’ll have fun too…if they’re having fun they’ll give you a click,” meaning the viewers. She says “getting clicks will make you famous, it’s that easy.”  Returning the focus to Rhett and Link, they appear at the table with the Mona Lisa, and ask another burning “question”: “The Mona Lisa, will it boomerang?” The painting moves out of frame and lands back in Link’s hands, to his apparent surprise, and he declares, “It will.” Then asking “but will it antigravity?”, the painting shoots up and out of frame, and all three look up. Poppy states, “Clicks will get you noticed” over and over while the ambient music turns disturbing and more disharmonic. She then lifts the Mona Lisa painting in front of her to hide her face, and suddenly appears to be on top of the table in front of Rhett and Link, in the place where they carried out their “experiments” with the ramen and smartphones.  They announce their next question: “Poppy. Will it Poppy?” Pulling back the camera reveals two Poppies: the one on the table and the one to the right, watching herself. The watcher Poppy says, “Don’t stop doing what they love. If you don’t stop, they will give you clicks,” and then makes a series of mechanical, glitchy clicking sounds. Returning to the table, Rhett observes that Poppy’s shoe buckle isn’t fully buckled. The ambient music swells. Rhett says with apparent disappointment, “Poppy doesn’t Poppy,” and Link says, “she really doesn’t.” Cut to Poppy’ visibly crestfallen face and more ambient disharmonies.  She says, “Poppy doesn’t Poppy? That’s too bad,” and blue paint begins to drip from her nostril, evoking an earlier video, “Am I OK?,” where blood began to drip from the same nostril. Rhett and Link raise their arms in creepy unison and finger the paint in her nostril. which they then taste simultaneously. (Bizarre food tasting videos are one of their themes.) The music turns harmonic, Rhett says, “hot sauce,” and Link declares, “I got chocolate.” They affirm that they like Poppy. Poppy smiles. The video ends with a plug for the That Poppy YouTube channel.

Poppy is a host for a haunting, or perhaps a host for several or even many hauntings. First, to return to the top of this page, she is an icon of Blackman’s quote in a way. Whether or not we personally find her appealing or interesting–New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz does not, much to the rage of her fans, the Poppy Seeds–she has media allure and traction for many millions of viewers. Blackman implies that those entities with allure and attention-grabbing potential are potent hosts for haunting via the internet. Blackman defines hauntology “ a particular place in the lives of oppressed and marginalized peoples and those suffering from traumatic memories that blur the historical and the personal and the past and present.” Quoting Gordon, she elucidates: 

The ghost might be said to be a different kind of social figure, which is both ‘there and not there, past and present, force and shape’ (Gordon, 2008: 6). It takes form and crops up in places, relations and shapes, which exert agency or an affective force without obvious definition. The ghost requires a host; someone, something or perhaps a controversy, which allows it to surface and demand our attention.

On the most obvious level, Poppy is a host for her collaborator Titantic Sinclair’s former partner, Mars Argo.  Their channel grocerybagtv.com now only houses three videos where there were once dozens and a web series called “The Computer Show” featuring her and Titantic commenting on their lives, work, and society in the age of the internet. After she and Sinclair split and stopped producing videos, she created a video called “Everybody Wants It All” housed on the channel of her friend Tony Katai. It’s no longer there, but it’s been uploaded here.  (Warning: it disturbs me to watch this, and it features her holding a gun to her head and throwing up something that looks like blood.) This video has been the focus of many conspiracy theories by fans, and entire channels have created reputations discussing it (see Repzilla and Where’s Mars Argo?). Fans reversed the slowed-down speech at the end of the video, revealing a hidden message. The Poppy videos by Sinclair began to emerge shortly around or after this video posted. Over time, the Poppy videos began to apparently make thinly veiled references to “Everybody Wants It All,” including but not limited to Poppy’s ambient EP album “3:36” (apparently a reference to the length of Argo’s video), “Chewing Gum” (a song recorded by Poppy supposedly referring to Argo’s gum chewing and interactions with her “friend” in the video). a song recorded by Poppy called “Everybody Wants It All” that refers to “guns, gold, and control,” and the short “Am I OK?“, a rambling take on “rebooting” oneself that ends with a smiling, unphased Poppy dripping blood from one nostril–which is later invoked by the “Will It Poppy?” video above.  The emergence of Poppy as a YouTube celebrity seems to “pop” up in fragments hinting at, pointing toward,  the Mars Argo trauma, whatever that may have been. Since neither Poppy nor Titanic will discuss any of this, and since Mars Argo has been effaced from media except for a few artifacts (unclear how much of her own agency was involved in this), fans and critics have constructed various narratives to heal their own sense of dis-ease–only seeming to increase the popularity or at least “clickability” of all three.

There is a lot to parse here, but Blackman’s hauntology seems very fitted to these works. The “rebooting” trope in “Am I OK?” has been extended to be a major component of Poppy’s persona, to the extreme that one recent article in the NYT referred to her non-ironically as a “fembot” (Hess).  A recent interview of Sinclair by Dom’s Sketch Cast featured a discussion about machines and ghosts. This should jump to the moment.

So “ghost in the machine” is something that they think about and this seems like a clear shoutout to at least an implicit theory that internet content harbors hosts for ghosts and their traumas–and, as Poppy says, “I am the internet” and “I live in the internet.”

The Punday article speaks of digital narratives as having intrigue by design. He quotes Aarseth’s reference to authors and readers as “intriguers” and “intriguees.” While Punday did not make explicit reference to transmedial storytelling, transmedial storytelling through multiple YouTube channels, music albums and videos, and a television pilot, as well as through auxiliary channels such as multiple Twitter and Instagram accounts–not to mention the commenting, fan art contributions, and so on–and eventually, mainstream media coverage–is the hallmark of Poppy. To anyone who doesn’t understand “the rules” of the game here, which comprise knowing how YouTube celebrity generally “works,” what the conventions are, how they are commonly broken and how they evolve, how content appears and vanishes from the internet, how it can be retrieved or hacked, for a start, Poppy seems like just bad art or nonsense. It is, however, a peculiar kind of 21st-century storytelling occurring simultaneously on many levels, and it seems to be driven by a haunting, a trauma–whether real or contrived is still hard to say.

A few additional thoughts:

The song “My Style” on Poppy.Computer has the lyrics “Poppy is an object. Poppy is your best friend.” The “Will It Poppy?” video puts at least one version of Poppy on the table as an object to be experienced, experimented upon, and consumed for the pleasure of the internet in exchange for clicks. This is a “haunt” of Mars Argo, who seemed more “real” than Poppy but was also objectified on her path to internet celebrity, and it didn’t end well.

The objectification of Poppy is also a “haunt” of many media celebrities who have been objectified as desired objects, only to be discarded when they did not live up to expectations of viewers (when they “don’t Poppy”). And this is the explicit premise of the YouTube Red pilot, “It’s Poppy.”

Works Cited

Blackman, Lisa. “Haunted Data, Transmedial Storytelling, Affectivity: Attending to ‘Controversies’ as Matters of Ghostly Concern.” Ephemera: theory and politics in organisation, 2017.  (In Press) http://research.gold.ac.uk/21771/

Punday, Daniel. “Narration, Intrigue, and Reader Positioning in Electronic Narratives.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 4, 2012, pp. 25–47. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/stable/10.5250/storyworlds.4.2012.0025  

 

 

 

 

 

Memes and Training Regimes

Last year, I found a blogger named Egeiros who posted an article called “Memes Do Not Exist: Memetics as Anthropotechnics and the Zero-Entendre.” (Scroll down to the end of the page–this is archived.) They* identified as a philosopher, and I found some of their insights useful in a project I was doing on memes as global texts. Toward the start of this semester, I visited the blog and found that the entire domain had vanished. After a bit of sweating, I was able to locate the contents of the blog in the Wayback Machine; however, it seems to be missing a few chunks of texts.  I can’t help but speculate why someone who obviously spent a good deal of time and care on this blog would allow it to vanish from the internet. There could be all sorts of reasons. Illness, workload, lack of funds to keep the domain, for example, or perhaps they are publishing it somewhere with a press, a shift in interests, or…this one worries me…perhaps it was getting enough traction so that the author felt overexposed and/or harassed by the groups being discussed? There is no way of knowing.

It was this post that introduced me to Peter Sloterdjk’s You Must Change Your Life, which I read over the summer.  He is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the University of Art and Design Karlsruhe, and became president of the State Academy of Design at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in 2001. He also co-hosted the German television show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett (source). Sloterdjk’s premise is that the resurgence of religion in the 20th century is a myth, and that what we have instead is training regimes/practices that reinforce or reinscribe our definitions of ourselves as humans. Rather than a distinction between believers and non-believers, there is a distinction between practicers and the non-trained. I was immediately reminded of an incident a while back when I was involved with Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect, and was learning the rituals of chanting which are central to its practices; the leaders told us that it did not matter what we believed, only that we practiced–good things and progress would come of practice, but we did not need to believe in it. Practices are central to most religions, but few are so open about the elevation of practice over faith.  One of the most striking examples in the book is Scientology, a admittedly completely invented religion by L. Ron Hubbard which is a training regime for clearing humans of “old programs” and replacing them with new ones.

What does this have to do with memes? Egeiros proposes that it has plenty to do with them.  Explaining the title of his post:

That is not to say that there are no cultural units that spread by vaguely selective processes – far from it. But just as Sloterdijk said of religion, wherever we see a meme, or a meme complex (memeplex), we truly discover a deformed anthropotechnic structure. That is, a structure for the training of humans to act in a particular manner. What is necessary here is to shift our perspective further out to discover the set of exercises. Memes are seeds for anthropotechnic structures of exercises for transforming human activity. The way that memes are currently understood in the general consciousness leads to behavior somewhat like trying to understand trees by only focusing on the seeds. This is ignoring the fact that a discrete unit of culture cannot really be located. Wherever we find a meme, we find a memeplex, and this memeplex can be better understood as a training regime for shaping human beings. The problem with the genetic analogy is that, rather than adapting to its environment, what we typically call the culture gene, a meme, creates an environment. This is why a meme is not a meme, but an anthropotechnic mechanism: an exercise.

The references to “culture gene” hearken to Richard Dawkins’ coining of the word in The Selfish Gene (see this article for a summary of this turn).  Dawkins’ “meme” was prior to the internet and focused on cultural transmissions in a more general way–memes were units of culture passed through performance, language, ritual, and countless forms of human practices. Earworms, for example, are memes; symbols like the cross or the swastika are memes, as might be grandma’s chicken soup recipe.  Meme studies blossomed in the 70s-90s but began to fade a bit as scholars realized that there were problems with the “biologizing” of culture on this level–there was no one-to-one corollation between genes and memes, and psychologists and sociologists felt that the memetics discipline was “pseudo-scientific” (a label that has at various times been ascribed to both of those fields by “hard” sciences). In other words, memetics was very low on the “rigor” scale of academia. Dawkins speaks more about the relationship of his idea to internet memes here. Also, like any good public intellectual, he talks about playing musical instruments.

The origin of Kek is the focus of Tara Burton’s article “Apocalypse Whatever,” quoted by Egeiros. Suffice it to say that the rise of Kek in 4chan’s /pol board (a “politically incorrect” haven for racist and sexist views and, according to Poe’s

law, their indistinguishable “jokey” counterparts) fits in quite well with the profile of an invented religion, such as Scientology. “Believing in” Kek, the Eypgtian chaos deity turned Pepe the Frog variation, didn’t require so much belief as a willingness to acknowledge it with memetic variations.  Kek worship is more Kek practice than faith–if anything, it is a repudiation of sincere faith in anything. In a way, this brings to mind Sloterdjk’s first important exemplum in You Must Change Your Life–Nietzche, who is usually referred to by people who need to categorize him as a nihilist, but whom Sloterdjk sees as a paradigm shifter to the practice lifestyle. 

The paradigm of practice also fits with Ryan Milner’s study of the logic of lulz if one associates this practice with the antifeminist qualities cited in his essay. This practice, say, of saying “go make me a sammich” or “show your tits” to a self-identified female who questions the practices of a board like Reddit or 4chan does not hinge on the intent of the poster, but on the effect of the post to support default white maleness in the online environment.

Egeiros concludes their article by offering examples of counter-training memetic “regimes” such as shit4chansays. This board, they say, makes a practice of acting nice through a process they call “post-irony.” The niceness is conveyed through what they call zombie memes, memes which seem to be completely devoid of meaningful messages but are endlessly repeated by the denizens of the board.

While ironic memes can create a downward spiral of hate and loss of identity, /s4s/ embraces the diversity of meaning in its variety of memes which tell nothing. Furthermore, the lack of definite meaning or mechanism turns these into a sort of projective test. The memes here are empty; they don’t carry an exercise of their own. They are a call to apply an exercise. They are zombie memes that disembowel things that once had meaning, and instead of refilling them, they leave them filled with an emptiness that decries being filled. One merely sees a nice girl saying “this is a nice board.” How do you respond? With niceness in return, but the exact form of the exercise is always interpretative. Even on recurring threads where the same thing is posted over and over again, there is a kind of manic freedom in that there is not a single shred of irony. People legitimately fine-posting “lol” over and over again on this board to be hilarious.

For a time, I saw something like this being carried forth by the “Poppy project” of Poppy (formerly Moriah Rose Pereira) and Titanic Sinclair (formerly Corey Mixter) on a fairly grand scale outside of the boards, although Reddit at least played a substantial role in carrying out the memetic transmission of the project. However, recent developments (ie within the last six months) seem to be moving away from this dynamic a bit as they attempt to break into the mainstream.

It provides a model for a kind of counter-memetics. The post-ironic meme, when understood in the scheme of anthropotechnic structures of training, is an exercise that, rather than cynically destroying other regimes for its own agenda, presents itself innocently and crafts simulacra of other structures – ones that can overtake the originals and bring back the dead. Not for some ulterior motive, for there can be no motive without definite message, but for enjoyment.

In the Poppy project, research has dug up Sinclair’s previous project, Mars Argo. While this has its own fascinations and a host of theories as to the relations between the two projects, it may be that Mixter’s own past will come back to haunt the nice, cute zombification of Poppy  (although he tries very hard to rewrite it without the presence of Mars Argo). However, Titanic Sinclair also might be one of the greatest examples of Poe’s Law in practice that ever existed.

*I’m using “they” as a singular pronoun in instances where I do not know the gender of the author. It is not necessarily the author’s choice of pronoun.