Are you all feeling the Mr. Robot vibe? Maybe not, and that may be a good thing. I’ve been promising a blog post for a while now.
I have been deeply enjoying all your blog posts, and appreciating your intelligence, humor, and ability to persevere, make insightful connections back to the texts and to your own experiences, and plan for the future. This is all tremendously heartening.
In case that Hello Friend image is creepy, here is my “zoom face.”
Hopefully less creepy. That’s just me waiting for people to come in.
I wanted to draw some attention to my last tweet (my Twitter feed appears now to the side of the posts) about technical writing being everything that we’re doing right now. It’s all about purpose, rhetorical situation, your audience’s needs, and getting work done through writing (which includes multimedia, everyone–maybe now the world will start to understand why writing is more than words. Just maybe!)
That means that personally at least I would consider meme sharing, in certain situations, as a form of technical writing. That might sound like a tremendous stretch, but a meme dispersed at a particular time and place could have far-reaching implications right now. You can think about how you want to communicate to your friends, family, students, professors…do you have to adjust your usual ways of doing so now? Would it be best to send a video, a picture, a link to an article, or just a short message? These decisions have always been important but more so now. If you are a teacher of children with disabilities for example, you have multiple audiences to consider: the administrators you work with , other faculty, the parents, and the kids themselves. You have to consider the needs of the humans, the needs of your institutions, and so on.
There are multiple social media groups cropping up all over the place for teachers who are making the transition to online teaching, and it is interesting to see how differently these groups evolved. One group I had to stop following because it became populated by trolls and hysteria, and it was honestly getting to me, and I need to remain centered. I would tell any of you who are teachers to feel free to join the SUNY Council on Writing Facebook group. While it’s mainly for that particular group, the people in that group are very helpful (and I am an administrator of the group and can add you). All I can say is don’t try to let others bring you down into the “bad place.”
We have a module on Educational Applications, and I hope that if you haven’t done that module, you’ll consider giving it a gander (no need to adjust your module choices or even post a blog if you don’t want to or don’t have time). I’m also going to share an updated document with resources for online teaching in a bit (the one I shared was an early version and not well-organized).
I have lots of ideas to share about your blog posts, but am going to cut this short for now. Please review the comments on your blogs and get back to me if you have time (either on the post or on Discussion Board), and please also if you have time, respond to other students’ posts. They are the best.
There should be a trigger warning for this story because it involves a child pornographer/abuser named CarlH, who was famous on Reddit a few years ago, was arrested, and ultimately committed suicide in prison. You may or may not have heard of it. It was apparently a pretty big story around 2014.
CarlH, a once beloved Redditor and teacher who helped people with programming problems, was found to be living a double life in Huntsville, Alabama as a alleged monster who tortured his own son. You can read about it in many places, including news articles that are still posted around and this Reddit thread. Carl was ready to stand trial on federal charges when he was found hanging in his prison cell in 2014.
The reason for bringing up this case was rather opportunistic and coincidental–I stumbled on a video about The Dark Side of Reddit while eating breakfast this morning, and began to think about one of your posts in the forum Bodies, Interrupted (which is module 3 if you want to check it out and haven’t yet). As awful as this story is, it was a reminder of why theory, as regarding digital rhetoric, can be so darned rewarding–the theories seem to write themselves across the sky in the emerging realities of our time. I don’t know if that was always true; it seemed like we needed to wait out the 20th century for the postmodernist theorists to truly feel in sync with reality, for me at least. With theories of the digital, they keep slapping you in the face every time you encounter the news of the day.
CarlH was a pretty perfect example of the dilemma of information in the posthuman scenario depicted by N. Katherine Hayles. Carl left behind a large body of valuable information on the internet, and a good deal of it is still available, confusing and confounding those informed by it, some of whom do not know the context of Carl’s real life and embrace it naively. Others who do know the context are horrified and continue to slap at it, as if it were a mosquito carrying a deadly disease, with downvotes and negative comments. His horrific life never seemed to impinge upon his informative presence on the internet–until after his death, when his account was resurrected and supposedly began posting from the Great Beyond (these posts were later removed, but you can hear about them in this video by Nexpo). This post-death posting spree is an even greater monstrosity that alludes to the separation of information from flesh, literally using this idea as a trope to create unfiction. (I’m pretty sure it was a hoax, and that is the general consensus–someone hacked into Carl’s account or had access to it).
People like Carl are not news to humanity. There are countless examples of great artists, thinkers, and statesmen who were absolute dredges of human beings, and some who were merely flawed people (thinking of you, Thomas Jefferson, writing of freedom while surrounded by your slaves). But Carl’s story throws everything into relief–hypermediates it, to use the term from another set of readings, if you will. It is complicated by the immediacy that his Reddit presence had, in a sense. He wasn’t just posting or publishing articles and books on computer skills, but interacting constantly with people online; they felt that they KNEW him, imagined his person. They in a sense created a virtual body out of the teacher. That involves a degree of trust beyond what one may have for a byline on an article or book–perhaps. You might disagree, but I’m speculating here. Online interactivity seems more personalized, more intimate, than traditional authorship. Every time people stumble upon Carl’s old posts, they revisit that intimacy in a sense, and may be horrified or traumatized to find out who he actually was.
This story has inspired conversations online about whether or not the information Carl left behind has value. This is a very interesting question in light of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. I would love to hear some of your thoughts about this.
My name is Cynthia and I am not and never will be a digital expert. I think there used to be digital experts. Tim Berners-Lee is a digital god, a very shy and humble one (he invented the WWW). In the early 2000s, if you were an English or Humanities Department “tech liaison” everyone expected you to be able to fix their hardware and viruses and reset the margin settings in their word processing programs. That was about the extent of it. Well, not quite…some brill writing professors who were also computer programmers in Texas created a program in the 1990s called Daedalus that more or less introduced online collaboration and peer review into writing classrooms that were lucky enough to have an intranet and a server on location (the internet was still in infancy and very unstable and dial-up). That was more or less where I came in to the scene, as we were able to use Daedalus in graduate school. (I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where they had a computer lab called SCAILAB, lol. They still do I believe.) Daedalus introduced Interchange, which allowed students to chat with each other in real time. This was more or less bumped when the internet became a stable fixture in education and CMS programs such as Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas began to integrate similar features that were available off-campus as well as in the server classrooms.
I was born in California and grew up in Chicago, where I went to school for about a thousand years (kindergarten through Ph.D, all public schools) and landed in Stony Brook, Long Island. I began as a literature lover like many of you and a poet, and my dissertation was a book of original poetry called Athena’s Mother. Athena’s mother is Metis, or Prudence, and of course her father is Zeus; the punch line of the title, if you want to call it that, is that Athena is often said to not have a mother, having sprung whole and grown from the head of her father. Yes, it’s a commentary on patriarchy but a very surreal one. I never regretted for one moment doing a creative writing Ph.D. (English with specialization) although it was a long shot for finding gainful employment in academia. Many of the most creative academics in the digital humanities and digital rhetoric I have know that are (cough) on the older side (like me) started in creative writing or literature or both (Cynthia Selfe, the founder of DMAC, for example). Now there are many brilliant graduate programs in digital rhetoric and digital humanities and combinatory programs that prepare people for academic careers in these areas, and everything is very different.
My favorite aspect of digital culture is how it affects our sense of self and space. That isn’t housed in a distinct critical perspective, although I use whatever seems to fit (you can get a rough grasp from the reading list for this course) although like any sane female I consider myself a feminist (with a great love of the ironic–I’m currently obsessed with Lauren Berlant). I love historical approaches, and have a fondness for Freud and Jung although they are deeply problematic in certain ways. One of the reasons I love teaching this class is that I enjoy learning from all of you, and look forward to the perspectives you’ll bring here, and new work that I’m unaware of. Over the last ten years, I’ve done many new things because of the internet–started playing a video game, learned how to manage a big website and a listserve, produced videos–but what is more valuable to me is how the digital world intersects with the imaginative realms that humans have always relied on to guide their lives (ie, religion anyone?), shape communication, and provide entertainment.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a persona variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
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:
How important is it to design avatars? Is this important work for humans? Why or why not?
Is the kind of identity speculation and analysis we see in The Nines useful to consider in your academic work? Why or why not?
What is to be gained through art that breaks the “fourth wall” such as The Nines to tell a story?
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?
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.