How a Student Project on Conspiracy Theories Became a Conspiracy Theory

Great Awakening Conspiracy Map courtesy of Champ Pirinya

Maybe this post is only of local interest, but I wanted share some insight into a disturbing rumor that went viral at Davidson College after credible evidence emerged about neo-Nazi activity among a few Davidson students.

The rumors were scary. The gist was that plans for a school shooting were discovered on a whiteboard in the college library. As Carol Quillen, Davidson’s president, noted in a faculty forum last week, the whiteboard incident was investigated at the time (which was several weeks ago) and thought to be related to a course project. Nevertheless, students and faculty alike have been understandably concerned about campus safety—especially in light of the reports of neo-Nazi students, including one who had apparently attended the white supremacist Charlottesville rallies last year.

It’s difficult to convey to folks not on campus just how frightened students, staff, and faculty have been. Many students, especially Jewish students, students of color, and LGBTQ students, feel entirely unsafe. Even when assured that the whiteboard school shooting rumor was just that, a rumor. (Of course, they aren’t safe. Nobody in the U.S. is safe, thanks to a minority of American’s rabid obsession with firearms and rejection of sensible gun regulations.)

Yesterday some of my students connected the dots and realized that it was indeed a group project that caused the rumors. And not just any group project. It was their own group project. It took a while to reach this conclusion, because the rumors had so distorted reality that the students themselves didn’t recognize their own work as the basis for the rumors.

Bear with me as I explain.

The students are in DIG 101: Introduction to Digital Studies. In DIG 101 we spend several weeks learning about the spread and impact of internet conspiracy theories, including how online conspiracy theories can lead to ideological radicalization. As you can imagine, each new day provides fodder for class discussion.

The whiteboard in question contained a flowchart for a group project about conspiracy theories, specifically the tragic Parkland school shooting, which some internet conspiracy theorists claim never happened. The flowchart connected a variety of conspiracy elements (biased media, false flags, crisis actors, etc.) that sprung up in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The flowchart contained no inflammatory statements or threats. It was diagnosing a problem.

After brainstorming on the whiteboard and doing other work, the group presented their project to DIG 101 in the form of a case study on October 26. In class students considered school shooting conspiracy theories from various perspectives. These perspectives included a parent who had lost a child in the shooting and social media executives whose platforms have helped the spread of conspiracy theories. 

The students in this group designed the class study with incredible empathy toward with victims of school shootings and with enormous skepticism toward adherents of conspiracy theories. They are horrified that their own project about the dangers of internet conspiracies itself became the basis of a disturbing rumor. They never imagined their class project would contribute to a climate of fear on campus. 

As I said, this project took place several weeks ago, well before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. It simply was not on the students’ minds last week, which is why they didn’t realize at first it was their group project at the heart of these rumors. Quite literally, one of the students in the group—in a class discussion about the whiteboard and the possibility that it was trolling or part of a class project—said with all earnestness to the rest of the class, “who would be stupid enough to draw up plans for a school shooting as part of a class project?” It bears repeating: the rumors had so distorted the contents of the whiteboard that even students in the group did not recognize their work as the basis for the rumors.

It wasn’t until two days ago that one of my students made the connection, purely coincidentally. That student just happened to be in another class that just happened to have a faculty member sitting in for the day who just happened to have an accurate description of the whiteboard from the campus police report. The faculty member shared that description with the class. Once the student heard that the whiteboard contained two diagrams, with the words “a school shooting”, “4Chan,” “reporting it”, etc., and appeared to reference how information about school shootings traveled online, everything clicked in place for the student. The student then contacted the campus chief of police.

As my fellow faculty members and college administrators have readily acknowledged, my students did absolutely nothing wrong (except perhaps forgetting to wipe their whiteboard, a lesson that will forever be burned into their souls). This was a legitimate course project, tackling a real world problem. Their case study and ensuing class discussion were excellent. The way their project about conspiracy theories yielded its own toxic stream of misinformation ironically highlights the need for critical media literacy.

Davidson College still faces many difficulties in the days and weeks to come, but at least one terrible revelation from the past week we can now consider from a more contemplative perspective. I and my students are grateful for this community and its vision for a better world.

Header image: Great Awakening Conspiracy Map courtesy of Champ Pirinya

A Link Blog, Finally

For years—like ever since I started blogging in 2003 or so—I’ve wanted to include a link blog on this site. You know, one of those side bars that just has cool links. Back in the day, Andy Baio‘s link blog was my jam, something I often paid more attention to than his main blog. It looks like Andy shut down his link blog (though you can see what it looked like circa 2006 via the Wayback Machine). As usual though, I’m behind the times by a few years, so I still want a link blog, even if they may be passé.

The main reason I want the link blog, honestly, is not to share the links, but to help me dig up links later on for teaching or research. And, like Andy’s original link blog, I wanted to provide brief annotations of the links—basically to remind myself why I saved the links in the first place. Now, I already save links with Pinboard, and if you look at my Pinboard feed, it is essentially a link blog. You can even use Pinboard’s “Description” field to add annotations to your bookmarks. But there are at least three problems with Pinboard as a link blog:

  1. It’s not very pretty.
  2. It’s not integrated into my existing blog.
  3. And it shows everything I save on Pinboard. But not every link I save is worth annotating or sharing.

What finally spurred me to make a true link blog was a recent post by Tim Owens, who describes how he annotates articles in his RSS reader (TinyRSS) and posts them on a separate blog. Tim’s method got me thinking. It’s a great setup, but one drawback is that the annotations happen in TinyRSS, while I want the ability to annotate links from multiple places, not just what happens to show up in my RSS reader. For example, I’m just as likely to want to add a note to and share a link I see on Twitter as I am a link that’s among my RSS feeds.

The solution was simple: continue using Pinboard, but automate the posting  of bookmarked links to my blog. But not every link, just the ones I want to share. Pinboard makes this stupid easy, because (1) you can tag your saved bookmarks with keywords, and (2) Pinboard generates a separate RSS feed for every tag. In other words, Pinboard can generate an RSS feed of the links I want to share, and I can use a WordPress plugin to monitor that RSS feed and grab its posts.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

  1. Add a link to Pinboard. However I add a bookmark—via browser bookmarklet, the Pinner app on my phone, even via email—I have the option to add a description. This becomes my annotation.
  2. Then, if I want the link to appear on my link blog, I tag it “links.”
  3. Pinboard creates an RSS feed for bookmarks tagged with links.
  4. Next, the FeedWordPress plugin on links.samplereality.com grabs the feed and posts it.

A few notes:

  • I configured FeedWordPress so that the title of each new RSS feed item links back to the original article. The downside to this is that each new link/note is not a separate post; the upside is that links to the original source are right there, easy to find and click.
  • My link blog is technically a separate blog from my main blog (what you’re reading now). There were a few reasons for this. One, I didn’t want every new annotated bookmark crowding out my regular posts, or worse, clogging up the inboxes of people who subscribe to my posts via email. Two, I wanted the link blog to have a theme of its own. Three, when I search my link blog, I can be sure it’s only searching my bookmarks and not my blog posts.

So that’s it: my new link blog.

Bonus Content! I also set up Zapier to posts my annotated bookmarks to Twitter as they come in. Basically, the free version of Zapier (which is similar to If This Then That) checks my Pinboard links feed every 15 minutes, and when something new appears, it posts the link, title, and description to Twitter.

I once read that NPR uses a digital strategy they call COPE. Which means Create Once, Publish Everywhere.

I like to think of my Pinboard > Blog > Twitter system as DOPE. Draft Once, Post Everywhere.

WRI 101: Monsters

The mob of angry townspeople in My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Every so often I have an opportunity to teach a section of Davidson College’s first year writing course, WRI 101. It’s the only required class that all Davidson students take, but each section is shaped around a different topic. In Fall 2018 topics will range from “Writing about Modern Physics and Technology” (Section A) to “Monsters” (Section Y). In between are classes devoted to democracy, medicine, Africa, and much more. In the past I’ve taught a WRI 101 course focused on graphic novels and another on toys and games. But this fall, I’m the guy behind Section Y, i.e. Monsters.

Why monsters? Because horror is the literary genre best-suited for our scary times. And to that end, I’ve decided to teach only 21st century works. This means I could leave behind the old standards like Frankenstein and Dracula that appear on almost every monster syllabus. I also decided that each of my works would somehow be reworking the genre. Here’s the list of major texts (which will be supplemented with key theoretical readings as well as short stories, games, and films like Get Out):

  • Tananarive Due’s The Good House (2003) reworks the haunted house;
  • Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) reworks the zombie apocalypse;
  • Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels (2016) reworks werewolves;
  • Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (2017) reworks, wow, everything. This graphic novel is a powerful metatext about the role of monsters in social life, drawn from the point of view of a young girl who sees herself as a monster on the margins of society. The mob of angry townspeople in the drawing above appears early in the graphic novel.

You can see from the list that I also leave behind the usual suspects synonymous with horror. The Stephen Kings and the like. Now more than ever it is critical to read, watch, and play horror coming from perspectives that are not CIS white males. The powerful race and gender implications of monsters come into sharp focus with this approach. I’ll share the syllabus when it’s finalized, but for now, here’s the course description:

WRI 101: Monsters

Ghosts. Zombies. Vampires and werewolves. What is it about monsters? Why do they both terrify and delight us? Whether it’s the haunted house in Tananarive Due’s The Good House (2004), Kanye’s monster persona in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), the walking dead in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), Native American werewolves in Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels (2016), or even white suburbia in Get Out (2017), monsters are always about more than just spine-tingling horror. This writing class explores monstrosity in the 21st century, paying particular attention to intersections with race and gender. Through a sequence of writing projects we will explore a central question: what do monsters mean? Our first project asks students to reflect on the home as a space of monstrosity. Our second and third projects address the idea of the monstrous other. Our final project uses contemporary literary and media theory to understand how monsters expose the limits of what counts as human. Along the way, we’ll experiment with our own little Frankenstein-like compositional monsters.

What about Blogging Keeps Me from Blogging

Yesterday in Facebook Killed the Feed I highlighted the way Facebook and Twitter have contributed to the decline of scholarly blogging. In truth though, those specific platforms can’t take all the blame. There are other reasons why academic bloggers have stopped blogging. There are systemic problems, like lack of time in our ever more harried and bureaucratically-burdened jobs, or online trolling, doxxing, and harassment that make having a social media presence absolutely miserable, if not life-threatening.

There are also problems with blogging itself as it exists in 2018. I want to focus on those issues briefly now. This post is deeply subjective, based purely on an inventory of my own half-articulated concerns. What about blogging keeps me from blogging?

  1. Images. Instagram, Facebook, and the social media gurus have convinced us that every post needs to have an image to “engage” your audience. No image, no engagement. You don’t want to be that sad sack blogger writing with only words. Think of your SEO! So, we feel pressure to include images in our posts. But nothing squelches the mood to write more than hunting down an image. Images are a time suck. Honestly, just the thought of finding an appropriate image to match a post is enough to make me avoid writing altogether.
  2. Length. I have fallen into the length trap. Maybe you have too. You know what I’m talking about. You think every post needs to be a smart 2,000 word missive. Miniature scholarly essays, like the post I wrote the other week about mazes in interaction fiction. What happened to my more playful writing, where I was essentially spitballing random ideas I had, like my plagiarism allegations against Neil Gaiman. And what about throwaway posts like my posts on suburbia or concerts? To become an active blogger again, forget about length.
  3. Timing. Not the time you have or don’t have to write posts, but the time in between posts. Years ago, Dan Cohen wrote about “the tyranny of the calendar” with blogging, and it’s still true. The more time that passes in between posts, the harder it is to start up again. You feel an obligation for your comeback blog posts to have been worth the wait. What pressure! You end up waiting even longer then to write. Or worse, you write and write, dozens of mostly-done posts in your draft folder that you never publish. Like some indie band that feels the weight of the world with their sophomore effort and end up spending years in the studio. The solution is to be less like Daft Punk and more like Ryan Adams.
  4. WordPress. Writing with WordPress sucks the joy out of writing. If you blog with WordPress you know what I’m talking about. WordPress’s browser composition box is a visual nightmare. Even in full screen mode it’s a bundle of distractions. WordPress’s desktop client has promise, but mine at least frequently has problems connecting to my server. I guess I’d be prepared to accept that’s just how writing online has to be, but my experience on Medium has opened my eyes. I just want to write and see my words—and only my words—on the screen. Whatever else Medium fails at, it has a damn fine editor.

Individually, there are solutions to each of these problems. But taken together—plus other sticking points I know I’m forgetting—there’s enough accumulated friction to making blogging very much a non-trivial endeavor.

It doesn’t have to be. What are your sticking points when it comes to blogging? How have you tried to overcome them?

And if you say “markdown” you’re dead to me.

Facebook Killed the Feed

There’s a movement to reclaim blogging as a vibrant, vital space in academia. Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Alan Jacobs have written about their renewed efforts to have smart exchanges of ideas take place on blogs of their own. Rather than taking place on, say Twitter, where well-intentioned discussions are easily derailed by trolls, bots, or careless ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or on Facebook, where Good Conversations Go to Die™.

Kathleen recently put it more diplomatically:

An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

You can’t overstate this point about the isolation of blogs. I’ve installed FreshRSS on one of my domains (thanks to Reclaim Hosting’s quick work), and it’s the first RSS reader I feel good about in years—since Google killed Google Reader. I had TinyRSS running, but the interface was so painful that I actively avoided it. With FreshRSS on my domain, I imported a list of the blogs I used to follow, pruned them (way too many have linkrotted away, proving Kathleen’s point), and added a precious few new blogs. FreshRSS is a pleasure to check a couple of times a day.

Now, if only more blogs posts showed up there. Because what people used to blog about, they now post on Facebook. I detest Facebook for a number of reasons and have gone as far as you can go without deleting your Facebook account entirely (unfriended everyone, stayed that way for six months, and then slowly built up a new friend network that is a fraction of what it used to be…but they’re all friends, family, or colleagues who I wouldn’t mind seeing a pic of my kids).

Anyway, what I want to say is, yes, Google killed off Google Reader, the most widely adopted RSS reader and the reason so many people kept up with blogs. But Facebook killed the feed.

The kind of conversations between academics that used to take place on blogs still take place, but on Facebook, where the conversations are often locked down, hard to find, and written in a distractedsocialmediamultitaskingway instead of thoughtful and deliberative. It’s the freaking worst thing ever.

You could say, Well, hey, Facebook democratized social media! Now more people than ever are posting! Setting aside the problems with Facebook that have become obvious since November 2016, I counter this with:

No. Effing. Way.

Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.

To prove my point I offer the following prediction. This post, which I admit is not exactly the smartest piece of writing out there about blogging, will be read by a few people who still use RSS. The one person who subscribes to my posts by email (Hi Mom!) might read it. Maybe a dozen or so people will like the tweet where I announce this post—though who knows if they actually read it. And then, when I drop a link to this post on Facebook, crickets. If I’m lucky, maybe someone sticks the 😡 emoji to it before liking the latest InstantPot recipe that shows up next in their “feed.”

That’s it. Junk food.

The Maze and the Other in Interactive Fiction

Albayzin from Alhambra

I’m spending July in Cádiz, Spain, with my family and a bunch of students from Davidson College. The other weekend we visited Granada, home of the Alhambra. Built by the last Arabic dynasty on the Iberian peninsula in the 13th century, the Alhambra is a stunning palace overlooking the city below. The city of Granada itself—like several other cities in Spain—is a palimpsest of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian art, culture, and architecture.

Take the streets of Granada. In the Albayzín neighborhood the cobblestone streets are winding, narrow alleys, branching off from each other at odd angles. Even though I’ve wandered Granada several times over the past decade, it’s easy to get lost in these serpentine streets. The photograph above (Flickr source) of the Albayzín, shot from the Alhambra, can barely reveal the maze that these medieval Muslim streets form. The Albayzín is a marked contrast to the layout of historically Christian cities in Spain. Influenced by Roman design, a typical Spanish city features a central square—the Plaza Mayor—from which streets extend out at right angles toward the cardinal points of the compass. Whereas the Muslim streets are winding and organic, the Christian streets are neat and angular. It’s the difference between a labyrinth and a grid.

It just so happened that on our long bus ride to Granada I finished playing Anchorhead, Michael Gentry’s monumental work of interactive fiction (IF) from 1998. Even if you’ve never played IF, you likely recognize it when you see it, thanks to the ongoing hybridization of geek culture with pop culture. Entirely text-based, these story-games present puzzles and narrative situations that you traverse through typed commands, like GO NORTH, GET LAMP, OPEN JEWELED BOX, etc. As for Anchorhead, it’s a Lovecraftian horror with cosmic entities, incestual families, and the requisite insane asylum. Anchorhead also includes a mainstay of early interactive fiction: a maze.

Two of them in fact.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of mazes in interactive fiction. Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Adventure (or Colossal Cave) was the first work of IF in the mid-seventies. It also had the first maze, a “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” Later on Zork would have a maze, and so would many other games, including Anchorhead. Mazes are so emblematic of interactive fiction that the first scholarly book on the subject references Adventure‘s maze in its title: Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (MIT Press, 2003). Mazes are also singled out in the manual for Inform 7, a high level programming language used to create many contemporary works of interactive fiction. As the official Inform 7 “recipe book” puts it, “Many old-school IF puzzles involve journeys through the map which are confused, randomised or otherwise frustrated.” Mazes are now considered passé in contemporary IF, but only because they were used for years to convey a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

And so, there I was in Granada having just played one of the most acclaimed works of interactive fiction ever. It occurred to me then, among the twisty little passages of Granada, that a relationship exists between the labyrinthine alleys of the Albayzín and the way interactive fiction has used mazes.

See, the usual way of navigating interactive fiction is to use cardinal directions. GO WEST. SOUTHEAST. OPEN THE NORTH DOOR. The eight points of the compass rose is an IF convention that, like mazes, goes all the way back to Colossal Cave. The Inform 7 manual briefly acknowledges this convention in its section on rooms:

In real life, people are seldom conscious of their compass bearing when walking around buildings, but it makes a concise and unconfusing way for the player to say where to go next, so is generally accepted as a convention of the genre.

Let’s dig into this convention a bit. Occasionally, it’s been challenged (Aaron Reed’s Blue Lacuna comes to mind), but for the most part, navigating interactive fiction with cardinal directions is simply what you expect to do. It’s essentially a grid system that helps players mentally map the game’s narrative spaces. Witness my own map of Anchorhead, literally drawn on graph paper as I played the game (okay, I drew it on OneNote on an iPad, but you get the idea):

My partial map of Anchorhead, drawn by hand
My partial map of Anchorhead, drawn by hand

And when IF wants to confuse, frustrate, or disorient players, along comes the maze. Labyrinths, the kind evoked by the streets of the Albayzín, defy the grid system of Western logic. Mazes in interactive fiction are defined by the very breakdown of the compass. Direction don’t work anymore. The maze evokes otherness by defying rationality.

When the grid/maze dichotomy of interactive fiction is mapped onto actual history—say the city of Granada—something interesting happens. You start to see the the narrative trope of the maze as an essentially Orientalist move. I’m using “Orientalist” here in the way Edward Said uses it, a name for discourse about the Middle East that mysticizes yet disempowers the culture and its people. As Said describes it, Orientalism is part of a larger project of dominating that culture and its people. Orientalist tropes of the Middle East include ahistorical images that present an exotic, irrational counterpart to the supposed logic of European modernity. In an article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies about the representation of Arabs in videogames, Vít Ŝisler provides a quick list of such tropes. They include “motifs such as headscarves, turbans, scimitars, tiles and camels, character concepts such as caliphs, Bedouins, djinns, belly dancers and Oriental topoi such as deserts, minarets, bazaars and harems.” In nearly every case, for white American and European audiences these tropes provide a shorthand for an alien other.

My argument is this:

  1. Interactive fiction relies on a Christian-influenced, Western European-centric sense of space. Grid-like, organized, navigable. Mappable. In a word, knowable.
  2. Occasionally, to evoke the irrational, the unmappable, the unknowable, interactive fiction employs mazes. The connection of these textual mazes to the labyrinthine Middle Eastern bazaar that appears in, say Raiders of the Lost Ark, is unacknowledged and usually unintentional.
  3. We cannot truly understand the role that mazes play vis-à-vis the usual Cartesian grid in interactive fiction unless we also understand the interplay between these dissimilar ways of organizing spaces in real life, which are bound up in social, cultural, and historical conflict. In particular, the West has valorized the rigid grid while looking with disdain upon organic irregularity.

Notwithstanding exceptions like Lisa Nakamura and Zeynep Tufekci, scholars of digital media in the U.S. and Europe have done a poor job looking beyond their own doorsteps for understanding digital culture. Case in point: the “Maze” chapter of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (MIT Press, 2012), where my co-authors and I address the significance of mazes, both in and outside of computing, with nary a mention of non-Western or non-Christian labyrinths. In hindsight, I see the Western-centric perspective of this chapter (and others) as a real flaw of the book.

I don’t know why I didn’t know at the time about Laura Marks’ Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010). Marks doesn’t talk about mazes per se, but you can imagine the labyrinths of Albayzín or the endless maze design generated by the 10 PRINT program as living enactments of what Marks calls “enfoldment.” Marks sees enfoldment as a dominant feature of Islamic art and describes it as the way image, information, and the infinite “enfold each other and unfold from one another.” Essentially, image gives way to information which in turn is an index (an impossible one though) to infinity itself. Marks argues that this dynamic of enfoldment is alive and well in algorithmic digital art.

With Marks, Granada, and interactive fiction on my mind, I have a series of questions. What happens when we shift our understanding of mazes from non-Cartesian spaces meant to confound players to transcendental expressions of infinity? What happens when we break the convention in interactive fiction by which grids are privileged over mazes? What happens when we recognize that even with something as non-essential to political power as a text-based game, the underlying procedural system reinscribes a model that values one valid way of seeing the world over another, equally valid way of seeing the world?

Header Image: Anh Dinh, “Albayzin from Alhambra” on Flickr (August 10, 2013). Creative Commons BY-NC license.

Throwing Shade: The Metaphysics behind Objectification in The Magicians

Promotional Image for the Magicians (SyFy)

I’ve broken up the crazy end-of-the-semester season by sneaking in episodes of The Magicians, the SyFy series based on Lev Grossman’s novels. The premise of the novels and TV adaptation blends Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Paper Chase, and a host of generic 90s shows about good-looking 20-somethings to imagine a grad school for magicians. It took a few episodes for the show to click for me (I can pinpoint the exact moment in the fourth episode of the first season), and now I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s the closest thing to Buffy in tone that I’ve seen in years.

But it’s also a critique of Buffy’s optimism (or was it Joss Whedon’s optimism?). Things in The Magicians keep breaking. Every solution to the show’s major crises spawns further crises. There is never any resolution, a vivid illustration of what philosophers call a “wicked problem”—a problem so complex and intractable that there’s no way to test for solutions or even know when you’ve stumbled upon the least bad solution of the many bad solutions.

“Why can’t anything just be fixed,” wonders Kady in the season 2 finale. And that’s pretty much the overarching theme of The Magicians: nothing can ever just be fixed.

I’ve been thinking lately about one narrative invention in The Magicians magical universe, the idea of the shade. A shade is that part of a person that imbues them with emotions and empathy. In secular terms it’s a bit like a conscience. In religious terms, a soul might be the analog. Shades can be removed—either by force or by choice—and the result is a human who resembles what we might commonly call a sociopath.

The Big Bad in season one of The Magicians removed his shade by choice, rendering him unswayable by pity, untouched by regret, and immune to shame or guilt. In season two Julia is another character who loses her shade. It’s accidental, a metaphysical mishap that occurs during the magical equivalent of an abortion after she’s been brutally raped by a god. Losing her shade makes it impossible for Julia to empathize with others on anything but an intellectual level. Unlike the Big Bad, Julia is a fundamentally good person. She knows she’s supposed to empathize with others, so she tries, without much success, to fake it. Losing her shade also makes it possible for Julia to deal with—ignore is probably a better word—her own post-traumatic stress. She can’t even empathize with herself, in other words.

Julia is about to push her best friend into a trap with an evil god.
Julia is about to use her best friend, Quentin, as bait in a trap for the evil god Reynard (The Magicians, “Lesser Evils,” Season 2, Episode 9)

I was struck by how the shadeless Julia recklessly put her friends in harms’ way as she pursues revenge on the god who raped her. She saw her friends as a means to an end and acted on that. Julia’s narrative arc in season two is an uncanny display of objectification, fitting several criteria that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum famously laid out in an 1995 essay. In “Objectification” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24.4, pp. 249-291). Nussbaum diagnoses “Seven Ways to Treat a Person as a Thing,” which I’ll quote at length here:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary­ integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into ac­count. (257)

Julia primarily exercises #1, #2, and #7. So, not a total sweep of the objectification criteria, but close to what the gods themselves exercise in The Magicians. (The gods add fungibility, violability, and ownership, at the very least.)

At some point Julia asks her frenemy Kady to act as a kind of external shade, a moral compass to tell Julia when she’s going too far. It’s an interest objectification twist, as Julia instrumentalizes Kady but in a way that acknowledges Kady possesses a subjectivity that surpasses Julia’s own experiences and feelings.

Why does all this matter?

For me at least, it matters because I’ve begun to pay close attention to the way American society—whose economic and cultural might was made by possible by enslaved people who were literally and legally considered objects—I’ve begun to pay close attention to the way American society objectifies others. Objectification—treating people like things that have no autonomy, no interiority, no subjectivity—is happening, at all levels of our government and national discourse, right now.

The Magicians offers a metaphysical explanation for why objectification happens. The objectifier has lost their shade, that “tiny beating heart” at the center of one’s being, as the Big Bad explains to Julia. A shade—or lack thereof—is the fantasy equivalent of what we often see in science fiction, where technology is the reason for someone’s increasing emotional disconnection to others. In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002), for example, there are some humans who have lived so long through cloning and the digital transfer of their consciousness into new bodies that they become “Meths”—or Methuselahs, centuries-old humans who view mortal humans as their playthings.

Looking to fantasy and science fiction for explanations of objectification might, might, give us some insight for understanding how objectification happens in the real world. I’m not saying Donald Trump lost his shade, but I’m not not saying that.

Seriously, though, fantasy and science fiction can also expand our imaginative possibilities for overcoming objectification. Call it speculative humanization. Returning the humanity of objectified people. Julie turns to her support network to help her. Science fiction offers examples too, like Lauren Olamina’s hyperempathy in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower (1993). Lauren is born with hyperempathy, a neurological side-effect of her mother’s drug addiction, which causes Lauren to experience the pain (and pleasure) of others. Hyperempathy makes it nearly impossible for Lauren to cause suffering in others, unless she wants to suffer herself.

What other theories of objectification do fantasy and science fiction offer? And what other paths toward reinstating empathy do fantasy and science fiction offer? How do we lose our humanity, how do we regain it, and how do we stop treating people as things? These are the essential questions for our times.

Colson Whitehead at Davidson College

Colson Whitehead at Davidson College

The novelist Colson Whitehead just wrapped up a visit to Davidson College as our 2019 Reynolds speaker. The annual Reynolds Lecture was established in 1959 through a gift from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Every year this endowed lecture brings a distinguished guest from the humanities, arts, or sciences to campus. Former Reynolds speakers have included Alison Bechdel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nicholas Kristof, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and many others.

I’m the chair of the Reynolds Lecture Committee this year, which means I had the honor of introducing Colson to a packed house in our main performing arts hall. After Colson’s talk (performance, really), a few people asked me about my introduction. I’m sharing it here, in hope that it does some good in this world beyond the 500 or so people who heard it tonight.


It’s tempting to say that whatever Colson Whitehead’s novels are about, they’re always about something else.

His debut novel The Intuitionist wasn’t really about a divide between two factions of elevator inspectors in an alternate reality New York City. It was about race, about passing, about postmodern blackness.

Likewise, Colson’s 2011 novel Zone One wasn’t about a zombie apocalypse in present-day Manhattan. Not really. It was about identity, the loss of identity, about the monstrous other, and the question of, as the poet Gil Scott-Heron posed it in 1970, the question of who will survive in America.

Colson is here tonight to talk about his latest novel, The Underground Railroad, which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the National Book Award. Unlike his other novels, The Underground Railroad is resolutely about what it appears to be about. It’s about slavery. The long, brutal legacy of slavery.

In the novel the underground railroad—that death-defying perilous journey out of the slave-owning South—it’s an actual railroad, an actual railroad that runs underground. It seems fantastical and it is, but it lays bare the comforting lies America has told itself about its past. Oh, the underground railroad, you just hop aboard and you’re on your way to freedom. No. The truth, as Colson insists by paradoxically using fiction, the truth was much harder to bear.

Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. In The Underground Railroad each state finds its own way to deal with the problem of slavery, a parody of the patently false notion that the Civil War was about state’s rights. In North Carolina slavery is replaced with a kind of indentured servitude just as dehumanizing as chattel slavery. Meanwhile today in North Carolina the General Assembly wages a war on democratic values with racially based gerrymandering and open attacks on the state judiciary, motivated by a goal that goes all the way back to the end of Reconstruction, which is the goal of disempowering black voters.

Colson’s visit couldn’t come at a better time. Just last week at Davidson signs cropped up all across campus, overnight. The signs read simply, “It’s okay to be white.” If you don’t know, this superficially benign affirmation originated on 4chan, an anonymous Internet message board and the spiritual home of the alt-right. The signs were essentially the materialization of white supremacist Internet trolls into our physical world. Like Colson Whitehead’s novels, the signs say one thing, but they also mean something else.

In times like these, times marked by hate, vulnerability, precariousness, we turn to literature. Cora, the fugitive slave at the heart of The Underground Railroad, faces, as Colson puts it, “travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather.” Such travesties continue apace today. And Colson Whitehead, by looking to horrors of the past, gives us light for the present. And for that, we are grateful. His visit—his novel—could not come at a better time.

Everyone, please join me in welcoming Colson Whitehead.

Hacking Facebook’s Ad Network for Justice

In September 2017, a Davidson College alumna alerted the college via a tweet that the Davidson College Alumni Association was advertising on the alt-right website Breitbart.

A September 2017 ad for the Davidson College Alumni Association on Breitbart.com
A September 2017 ad for the Davidson College Alumni Association on Breitbart.com

The display of promotional material for Davidson College next to the ultra conservative and nativist rhetoric of Breitbart was not only a jarring juxtaposition, it was also completely inadvertent, an algorithmic outcome of Facebook’s advertising platform.

Journalists have recently exposed other disturbing elements of Facebook and Google’s ad networks, such as the explosive ProPublica report that advertisers on Facebook could deliberately reach anti-Semitic audiences using targeted keywords and demographic information from Facebook’s vast data mining operations. Buzzfeed similarly showed how racist advertisers could exploit Google’s ad network.

Clearly, online advertising intersects in compelling—but usually hidden—ways with concerns about justice, equality, and community. Justice, equality, and community (JEC)—these are concepts that define a new JEC graduation requirement at Davidson College. To satisfy this requirement, students must take at least one course that addresses “the manifestations of justice and equality in various communities, locales, nations or regions, and focus on methods and theories used to analyze, spotlight, or remedy instances of injustice and inequality.”

In Spring 2018 I am teaching one such JEC-designated course, Gender and Technology (DIG 340). This course counts toward both Digital Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies major and minor requirements. Thanks to funding from Davidson’s momentous Justice, Equality, and Community grant from the Mellon Foundation, I am developing an assignment for DIG 340 that allows students to explore, critique, and undermine social media ad platforms.

Quite simply, the assignment is to subvert social media advertising by placing justice, equality, and community-oriented materials in timelines and websites whose users would normally not encounter that material. Imagine, for example, a sponsored ad about Colson Whitehead, Davidson’s 2018 Reynolds speaker, appearing on a white supremacist website. Or #metoo promoted posts showing up on the timelines of so-called Men’s Rights activists.

Working in groups of 3-4, students will manage a JEC-focused ad campaign of their own design on either Facebook, Twitter, or Google’s ad platforms. As students explore the contours, possibilities, and limits of social media advertising, each group will manage a series of campaigns with progressively larger budgets as they fine-tune their message and promotional strategy. Groups will have a budget of only $5 for their first campaigns. But as their campaigns grow more sophisticated, budgets will increase. Groups will have $100 for their final campaigns. All the while students will critically examine the advertising apparatuses themselves, analyzing overt and implicit ideological assumptions built into the platforms. Students will be aided in this process by Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s important new book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech (2017).

Our implementation of the assignment is a few months away, and I am eager to hear your ideas about it. Thoughts, comments, suggestions?

Image Analysis

Overview

[This is a duplicate post of an assignment for my Introduction to Digital Studies class at Davidson. My course site was temporarily down, so I made a back-up copy of the assignment here!]

The phrase cultural analytics generally refers to analyzing vast amounts of image, text, or other media through computational methods. Think of it as data science aimed towards arts and culture. But unlike data science, cultural analytics isn’t necessarily asking political-social-economic questions. Rather, cultural analytics seeks to help us see the world in a new way, generating more questions than answers.

In this lab we’ll attempt a special kind of cultural analytics. Instead of looking at a vast number of texts (say, the way Ben Schmidt analyzes State of the Union addresses, or how Lev Manovich analyzes Instagram selfies), we’ll break apart a single text—a film—into a vast number of discrete parts, and analyze those parts in the aggregate. Some researchers call this technique “image summation.”

Procedure

Elements of this procedure have been adapted from Dr. Brian Croxall’s similar exercise at Brigham Young University. Thanks, Brian! We’ll also be using an online image analysis tool developed by Dr. Zach Whalen at the University of Mary Washington. Thanks, Zach!

Extracting Stills

First, you’ll need to extract still images from the film that you’ve ripped or otherwise acquired.

Extract frames from your movie at the rate of one frame for every two seconds. You can do this most easily with the free VLC Media Player. Once you have downloaded VLC, you will need to make a few changes to its settings to get the images out. Set up these preferences before you open your movie in VLC.

  1. Go to preferences.
  2. Click “show all”
  3. Click on “video”
  4. Click on “filters”
  5. Find “scene video filter” and tick that box
  6. Scroll down under “filters” to find “scene video filter.” Select it to edit its preferences.
  7. Paste in a directory path for where you want the screenshots to be collected.
  8. Set the “recording ratio” to be how often you want a still to be grabbed. For our purposes, you should set this to “60,” which will provide one frame for every two seconds.
  9. Click save.
  10. Open a movie file in VLC and let it play.
  11. Watch the screenshots roll in. (Check to make sure that they’re appearing.)

This method extracts frames in real time, which means it will take several hours (as long as the film) to extract all the images. Obviously, we don’t have enough time in class to complete this process. You’ll work on your own film outside of class. For the purposes of class, I’ve extracted frames from three different works: “The Entire History of You” from Black Mirror, The Fast and the Furious, and the first episode of Game of Thrones. You can select one of these three videos to use during class.

Analysis

For analysis of our images, we’re going to use Imj, a web-based image analysis tool. As the tool’s creator, Zach Whalen says, this technique isn’t all that powerful compared to other desktop-based tools, but it does “enable some low-level visualizations that might help researchers or students determine whether an investigation with more robust tools is warranted.”

In particular, Imj supports three types of visualizations: barcodes, montages, and scatterplots. Basically, you upload your folder of extracted frames (up to 9999 frames), and let Imj do the work.

Use Imj! Subject your movie to all three visualization types. For details on how each visualization works, read Zach Whalen’s guide to Imj.

Lab Report

For the purposes of writing your lab report, you’ll use Imj on a film of your own. Follow the instructions above for using VLC to extract frames. Then subject your video to all three visualization types. Download the results (the barcode, montage, and plot) in order to include these images in your lab report.

In a 300-500 word lab report, reflect on some of the following questions:

  • What does each resulting image type tell us about the film?
  • What elements of the video stand out through these visualizations? What elements disappear?
  • If you compare the resulting image summations with each other, which one is most useful? Define what you mean by useful.
  • What did you learn from these visualizations that you couldn’t have learned by watching the film alone?
  • Many times the power of these image summations comes not from the analysis of an individual film, but from a more longitudinal of multiple videos. For instance, Dr. Kevin Ferguson has analyzed every Disney animated film with these techniques. Or imagine comparing every episode of a television series to see if the series’ visual signature changes over time. Or comparing barcodes of 30 years of horror movies. What kind of comparative analysis would you like to do if you had the time and resources? What would you hope to learn through such a comparative analysis?

Share the report with masample@davidson.edu as a Google Doc by end of the day, Monday, November 20. (Remember there is no class on Monday, November 20).

Essential File Types for Understanding Digital Culture

A few weeks ago I wrote about studying digital culture through the lens of specific file types. In the fall I’m teaching DIG 101 (Introduction to Digital Studies)—an amorphous course that is part new media studies, part digital humanities, part science and technology studies. I was imagining spending a week on, say, something like GIFs as way to understand Internet culture. My question is, what other file types could be similarly productive to explore?

That short post generated great ideas in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. To make things easier to find again (for me and others), here are just some of the file type ideas that bubbled to the surface:

PDF

As commentator Sam Popowich put it, “love it or hate it” PDFs are everywhere. Ryan Cordell pointed out that Lisa Gitelman has a chapter devoted to PDFs in Paper Knowledge. Gitelman is exactly the kind of scholar I want undergraduates to read. Clear, perceptive, uncovering seemingly archaic history and showing why it matters.

WAD

Quite a few people suggested WADs, composite files made up sounds, sprites, graphics, level information, and other digital assets for PC games. Doom popularized WADs, but PC games continue to use similar composite files. You can use tools like GCFScape to unpack these files, and they lend themselves to digital forensic lab work in the classroom. Every time I teach Gone Home, for example, students explore unpacked sound and graphic files. It’s an alternative way of experiencing the game. My own research digging to WADS to find misogynistic game developer comments could come into play here too.

JPG

At first I thought studying JPGs would be redundant if GIFs are already on the table. Allison Parrish and Jeff Thompson make a strong case for JPGs though: they organize information differently, compress differently, and of course, are glitchable. Like PDFs, their very ubiquity renders them invisible as file types, especially to students who have grown up carrying a camera with them at all times.

EXIF

Vika Zafrin and Tim Owens recommended EXIF, one of the few file types I hadn’t already considered as a possibility. Technically I guess EXIF is a metadata standard, not a file type per se, but the relationship between metadata and data is crucial to understand, and EXIF can get us there. Plus, we can talk about privacy, tracking, and my colleague Owen Mundy’s fantastic I Know Where Your Cat Lives project.

Stigmatized File Types

@TopLeftBrick mentioned NFO files and Finn Arne Jørgensen brought up .torrent files, both of which belong to the world of pirated games, software, and media. Jason Mittell similarly suggested another what I call stigmatized file type:

Before the rise of HTML5, YouTube videos were Flash files (FLV = Flash Video), and there were (and are) tricks to downloading these videos to watch offline. But it was a format you weren’t supposed to encounter; YouTube strove to make streaming seamless, hiding the actual video file. I would love to spend some time in DIG 101 studying all of these stigmatized file types, not so much to understand the technical features of the file formats themselves, but to better understand the cultural rules that influence the circulation of knowledge.

The Big Picture

The above list is certainly incomplete. And leaves off the file types that originally inspired this idea (MP3s, GIFs, HTML, and JSON). But it’s a great start. It’s also important to zoom out and see the big picture. To this end, Amelia Acker pointed me toward this surprisingly philosophical technical report from Microsoft Research: “What is a File?”

Indeed, what is a file and what do they mean is something we’ll be asking in DIG 101.

Studying Digital Culture through File Types

I am revamping “Introduction to Digital Studies,” my program’s overview of digital culture, creativity, and methodology. One approach is to partially organize the class around file types, the idea being that a close reading of certain file types can help us better understand contemporary culture, both online and off.

It’s a bit like Raymond William’s Keywords, except with file types. A few of the file types that seem especially generative to consider:

  • MP3 (Jonathan Sterne’s work on MP3s is the gold standard to follow)
  • GIF (especially the rise and fall and rise of the animated GIF)
  • HTML (a gateway to understanding the early history and ethos of the web)
  • JSON (as a way to talk about data and APIs)

This list is just an initial start, of course. What other culturally significant file types would you have students consider? And what undergrad-friendly readings about those file types would you recommend?

A Parallax Reading of Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”

Are you sick of parallax scrolling yet? You know, the way the foreground and background on a web page, iPhone screen, or Super Mario Brothers move at different speeds, giving the illusion of depth? Parallax scrolling is a gimmick. Take it away and not much changes. Your videogame might be a tad less immersive, but come on, how immersive was it in the first place? Turn off parallax scrolling on your phone and your battery life might actually improve. Parallax scrolling is ornamental, a hallmark of what will eventually be known as the Baroque Digital Age.

So it’s with hesitation that I’m attempting to recuperate the word parallax here. In my defense I’m using the word metaphorically, to describe a certain kind of hermeneutical approach to textual material.

Here it is: parallax reading, an interpretive maneuver that keeps both close and distant reading in focus at the same time.

If you’re just tuning in to the digital humanities, there’s a pretty much bogus IMHO tension between close and distant reading. Close reading is that thing we were all taught to do in high school English, paying attention to individual words and the subtle nuances of a text. Distant reading zooms out to look at a text—or even better, a massive body of texts—from a distance. In Franco Moretti’s memorable words, distance is “not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns.”[note]Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees 2: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review, vol. 26, no. March-April, 2004, p. 94.[/note]

Cool, patterns.

“Parallax reading” is a fancy way of saying why not combine close and distant reading. And to be clear, no one is saying you can’t. Again, it’s a bogus tension, a straw man. I’m not proposing anything new here. I’m just giving it a name. And in a bit, a demo.

A parallax reading is the opposite of the “lenticular logic” that, as Tara McPherson explains, separates the two images on a 3D postcard, making it impossible to see them simultaneously. Whereas lenticular vision flips between two distinct representations, parallax reading holds multiple distances in view at once. Like its visual counterpart, parallax reading conveys a sense of depth. Unlike parallax scrolling, though, this is depth that actually matters, a depth that complicates our understanding of texts.

What would a parallax reading look like?

As a case study let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz.” Written from the perspective of a young boy, the sixteen line poem captures a possibly tender, possibly terrifying moment, as his boozy father mock waltzes him “off to bed.” The whiskey on his father’s breath makes the boy “dizzy.” His mother looks on, barely tolerating the nonsense. The boy is so small he only comes up to his father’s waist; his dad’s belt buckle scrapes his ear with “every step.” As the boy goes to bed “still clinging” to his father’s shirt it’s not clear whether he’s clinging out of fear or love, or maybe both.

“My Papa’s Waltz” was published in 1942 and by the mid-50s was already widely anthologized. It’s a great poem, and I love teaching it. And so do other people. There’s a lot going on under its deceptively simple surface. In The Literature Workshop  (a book every teacher of literature should study), Sheridan Blau uses “My Papa’s Waltz” to confront two questions that often arise in literature classes: where does meaning come from, and how the hell do we know which meaning is the right one?

Blau observes that for twenty years or so he taught “My Papa’s Waltz” and students overwhelmingly read it as nostalgic, the fond recollection of a grown man of his gruff but loving father. Then, sometime in mid-80s, Blau’s students began to read the poem more darkly, a vivid childhood memory about abuse and a dysfunctional family.

What happened? How can the poem mean both things? At this point you might be thinking, ah, so a parallax reading is simply holding two opposing meanings of the poem in place at the same time. This is what sophisticated readers and writers do all the time. For example, Sherman Alexie describes “My Papa’s Waltz” as

incredibly sad and violent, and its sadness and violence is underscored by its gentle rhymes and rhythms. It’s Mother Goose on acid, maybe. I think that its gentle music is a form of denial about the terror contained in the poem, or maybe it’s the way kids think, huh?

A love poem about, as Alexie says later on, “the unpredictability of the alcoholic father.” Two seemingly incompatible interpretations—incompatible, that is, to a naive reader. Is this what I mean by parallax reading? Are two competing perspectives we keep in simultaneous focus what parallax reading is all about?

No!

Embracing ambivalent or contradictory interpretations is nothing new. Hopefully, literary scholars practice this—and teach it—all the time. (If anything, we celebrate ambiguity a little too much, when what the world needs now is some rock solid truth, right?) Anyway, a parallax reading is not about the interpretative outcomes, it’s about the methodological process. It’s about simultaneously negotiating close and distant readings.

Think about “My Papa’s Waltz” from a close reading perspective (the foreground of the parallax). An array of historical evidence might suggest which interpretation of his poem Roethke himself preferred. For example, we could look at drafts of the poem, which indicate several significant revisions. In one draft, the small boy is a girl and the “right ear” scraping a buckle is the less particular “forehead.”

Draft manuscript of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," showing that "small boy" was originally "small girl."
Roethke’s draft of “My Papa’s Waltz.” Courtesy of the Theodore Roethke Manuscripts Collection at the University of Washington in Seattle

Changing the gender of the speaker recasts the the father-son relationship as a father-daughter relationship. We might be less likely to read biographical details of Roethke’s own life into the poem: his father ran a gigantic greenhouse, worked with his hands, and died of cancer when Roethke was 14-years-old. Would any of that matter if the speaker is a girl? Would any of it matter either way?

We could also listen to Roethke’s own delivery of the poem. At least two recordings are available online. One features Roethke reading in a sing-song voice that bears no trace of fear or resentment. Another Roethke reading is somber, the accent on the words “you” in the third stanza and “beat” in the fourth stanza possibly ominous, possibly not.

Or—and this is novel—we could actually read the poem. Here’s what I did last time I taught “My Papa’s Waltz.” (I wasn’t teaching Roethke’s poem per se, I was teaching Blau’s book, in a grad class on the pedagogy of teaching literature.) I’m a fan of reading aloud in class, and that’s what we did. As we read, I asked students to point—literally, point with their index finger—to the words that were most freighted with abuse. “Scraped” and “beat” drew some attention from the students, but invariably the word with the strongest connotation of abuse for the students was “battered.” Roethke uses “battered” to describe the father’s hand—it was “battered on one knuckle”—but students couldn’t help displacing the word onto the small boy himself. It’s as if by metonymical extension the boy too was battered and bruised.

With “battered” coming into focus during our close reading as a key marker of abuse, let’s shift to a distant reading of “My Papa’s Waltz”—the background of the parallax. But how can we zoom out from a single poem? From a distance, what’s there to look at? If one poem is a drop of water, what’s the ocean of words that contains it?

One possible ocean is Google Books. Google ngrams offers a snazzy interface for tracking word frequency over time, based on Google Books’ dataset, a staggering 155 billion words in American English. Since my students found “battered” to be the center of traumatic gravity of “My Papa’s Waltz” I plugged that word into Google ngrams:

[iframe name=”ngram_chart” src=”https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=battered&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cbattered%3B%2Cc0″ width=800 height=300 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 hspace=0 vspace=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no>]

Which is honestly not that useful. Ngrams can show the rise and fall of certain terms, but they’re inadequate for more nuanced inquires. There are at least three reasons the Google ngram viewer fails here: (1) Google ngrams limits searches by collocates, that is, immediately preceding and succeeding words; (2) Google ngrams can’t search for parts of speech; and most significantly (3) Google ngrams provides no context for the words—no sentence context, no source context, nothing.

This is where the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) comes in. COHA is a dataset of 400 million words from 1810 through 2009. Established by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, COHA includes fiction (including texts from Project Gutenberg, scanned books, and scanned movie scripts) and nonfiction (including scanned newspapers and magazines). COHA is a smaller dataset than Google Books, but it holds several critical advantages over Google Books. You can search for phrases that aren’t necessarily collocated right next to each other. You can specify what part of speech you want to search for. That’s really important if you’re looking for a word like, oh, I don’t know, “trump,” which can be a verb, noun, proper noun, and a few other things. Finally, COHA provides context for its searches.

For the time period of the 1950s, when “My Papa’s Waltz” had already been widely anthologized, COHA includes nearly 12 million words from fiction sources, 5.7 millions words from popular magazines, 3.5 million words from newspapers, and just over 3 million words from nonfiction books. That’s a total of 24 million words from the 1950s, which gives us a representative view of how language was being used across a number of domains at the time. This is the ocean of words that surrounds “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Let’s check out “battered” in COHA, to see how the word was being used during Roethke’s time and afterward.

Here are our search parameters, which tell COHA to find any occurrence of “battered” followed within five words by a noun (that’s the [nn*] in the Collocates box). This search acknowledges that the frequency of “battered” isn’t as important as its context.

Search Window for COHA
Search Window for COHA

The results are immediately striking. We have the kind of patterns Moretti seeks in distant reading.

The use of "battered" in printed works, 1930-2000
“battered” with nn* 0/5

The second most common noun following “battered” is women, as in “battered women.” This frequency would appear to support the idea that “battered” in “My Papa’s Waltz” is an indicator of abuse. At the very least, its appearance is ominous.

Yet dig deeper and notice that the variants of “battered…women” do not become prevalent until 1980 (with 16 occurrences) and peak in the 1990s with 46 occurrences. Prior to 1970, “battered” is rarely used in the context of physical abuse against women.

So what does “battered” typically describe when Roethke published the poem in 1942 and in the years immediately afterward? In the 1940s the most common collocate was “hat”: “a battered black stovepipe hat,” “a battered greasy hat,” “his battered hat,” “a disreputable, battered hat”—all uses that suggest a knocked-about, down-on-one’s-luck man. Here’s the KWIC (Keyword In Context) display for “battered…hat” in the 1950s:

"hat" KWIC in COHA
“battered…hat” Keyword in Context

And look at the third most common noun associated with “battered.” It’s “face,” peaking in the 1950s. This detail might appear to support the negative interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz.” But again, look at the keyword in context.

"battered...face" in the 1950s KWIC
“battered…face” in the 1950s KWIC

The battered face here is predominantly a male face, battered by wind, hard living, and frequently, war. This is likely the kind of “battered” Roethke had in mind when he described the rough hands of the boy’s father in the poem.

Contrast this with how battered appears in the 1990s, when it is associated most frequently with “women”:

"Battered...women" in the 1990s Keyword in Context
“battered…women” in the 1990s Keyword in Context

Here we find “battered” being used the way today’s students would understand the word, associated with the physical abuse of women by men. (Grammar fun: “battered” is technically a participial adjective. It’s an adjective that started out as a participial phrase, but was shortened. Like “there were no shelters for battered women in Michigan” (the first example from the KWIC above) really means “there were no shelters for women who were battered by men in Michigan.” The agent—the men inflicting the battering—drops out of the sentence and we’re left with inexplicably battered women, and no party to take responsibility. Basically it’s passive voice in disguise, a way for abusive men to get off scott-free, linguistically speaking.)

So, a theory: “battered” is what I would call a cusp word—a word teetering on the cusp between two opposing meanings. On one side, the word suggests strength and resilience. It’s gendered masculine in this context. On the other side it suggests helplessness and victimization. It’s gendered female in this case. In other words, once associated with men at the mercy of the elements or men who have endured hardship, “battered” is now associated with women who have suffered—though this part is kept hidden by the participial adjective—at the hands of men.

We still occasionally encounter the older meaning of the word. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (1992) comes to mind:

From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Here “the battered heart of Chevrolet” is a stand-in for Rust Belt America, the industrial wasteland that left blue collar working men out of work. Or “stiffed,” as Susan Faludi put it in her eponymous diagnosis of 20th century masculinity.[note]Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Harper Perennial, 1999.[/note] I’m no sociologist, but it’s not difficult to imagine that “the battered heart of Chevrolet” contributed to a sense of helplessness in men that found expression in violence against women. Emasculated men beating their way to empowerment. Thus battered souls lead to battered bodies.

We can’t know for certain, of course, but it makes sense that Roethke’s description of the father’s hands as “battered” is a kind of tribute to the man. An acknowledgment of hard work and sacrifice. Roethke’s vocabulary was shaped by the Great Depression and World Wars, an era of stoic endurance (even if that stoicism was a myth). People reading the poem today, however, see in “battered” the ugly side of human nature. Desperation, rage, brutality.

In his explanation of his students’ changing interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz”: Blau suggests that “a change in the culture made a particular reading available that had not been culturally available before.”[note]Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Heinemann, 2003, p. 73.[/note] Blau’s exactly right. That shift in meaning began in the 1980s, concomitant with growing social awareness of domestic abuse. What Blau doesn’t say—because the tools weren’t culturally available to him at the time—is that thanks to a distant reading, we can find evidence of that shift within a single word of Roethke’s poem.

What’s important for a parallax reading is that neither foreground nor background disappear entirely. In fact, they only make sense when considered together. That’s where the sense of depth comes from. Armed with knowledge gleaned from distant reading we can go back to the poem and read it again. And maybe, recursively, find other words to track across time, or to contextualize historically. But we always return to the poem.

Will a parallax reading definitively answer the question, what’s “My Papa’s Waltz” about? No. The beauty of literature and language more generally is its ambiguity (argh, though again, maybe we tolerate a little too much ambiguity). But, I have discovered evidence that complicates our interpretation of the poem. At the very least, it should shock us out of our presentist approach to language, assuming the way we use words is the way those words have always been used. And even more importantly, it’s not that I have found answers about the poem. It’s that I found a new way to ask questions.

Notes

Unthinking Television

Digging through some old files I came across notes from a roundtable discussion I contributed to in 2009. The occasion was an “Unthinking Television” symposium held at my then-institution, George Mason University. If I remember correctly, the symposium was organized by Mason’s Cultural Studies and Art and Visual Technology programs. Amazingly, the site for the symposium is still around.

The roundtable was called “Screen Life”—all about the changing nature of screens in our lives. I’m sharing my old notes here, if for nothing else than the historical perspective they provide. What was I, as a new media scholar, thinking about screens in 2009, which was like two epochs ago in Internet time? YouTube was less than five years old. The iPhone was two years old. Avatar was the year’s highest grossing film. Maybe that was even three epochs ago.

Do my “four trends” still hold up? What would you add to this list, or take away? And how embarrassing are my dated references?

Four Trends of Screen Life

Coming from a literary studies perspective, I suppose everyone expects me to talk about the way screens are changing the stories we tell or the way we imagine ourselves. But I’m actually more interested in what we might call the infrastructure of screens. I see four trends with our screens:

(1) A proliferation of screens
I can watch episodes of “The Office” on my PDA, my cell phone, my mp3 player, my laptop, and even on occasion, my television.

(2) Bigger is better and so is smaller
We encounter a much greater range in screen sizes on a daily basis. My new high definition videocamera has a 2” screen and I can hook that up directly via HDMI cable to my 36” flat screen, and there are screen sizes everywhere in between and beyond.

(3) Screens aren’t just to look at
We now touch our screens. Tactile response is just as important as video resolution.

(4) Our screens now look at us
Distribution networks like Tivo and Dish and Comcast have long had unobtrusive ways to track what we’re watching, or at least what our televisions were tuned to. But now screens can actually look at us. I’m referring to screens that aware of us, of our movements. The most obvious is the Wii and its use IR emitters in its sensor bar to triangulate the position of the Wiimote, and hence, the player. GE’s website has been showcasing an interactive “hologram” that uses a webcam. In both cases, the screen sees us. This is potentially the biggest shift in what it means to have a “screen life.” In both this case and my previous trend concerning the new haptic nature of screens, we are completing a circuit that runs between human and machine, machine and human.