This is just a quick post to say I’ll be presenting at MiT8 on Sunday – I’ve been retooling my work and gearing up for my second conference and I’m excited to talk about the theory side of my work! Here’s my latest abstract:

When we think about identity, the medium through which we express, articulate and define that concept plays heavily into how it is understood. As society uses new mediums, that mediation becomes remediation, and consequently redefinition. As the public sphere has become more ” identity research has shifted focus to collective issues. This is due to concerns regarding group agency and politics, the means by which those definitions are created and maintained, and the freedom from physical proxemics due to new communications technologies. Those developments foreshadowed the mainstream embrace of new media and social networks. The condition of virtual identity and community is now experience by a large public, interacting and existing through digital media. But how does that change the way we shape the community, and how it shapes us? Issues of the individual and the collective provide challenges to internet users and scholars alike. This work explores those issues, namely the question of how we resolve the online public sphere (or spheres) with our personal identities, and how we collaboratively construct recursive publics. 

Apparently the latest draft is also already up on the website. I’ll be presenting Sunday morning as part of a panel on “Media Spheres” – the invitation was an honor because there are a lot of really great and interesting scholars I hope to meet! Obviously I’ll be tweeting from @mrliterati, feel free to reach out if you’re there as well!

Naturalization and Questioning the Codes We Live By

Paul Bass and Shafiq Abdussabur

Last Wednesday night the Youth Rights Media staff and I took a group of students from my Media Literacy class to a talk by Shafiq R. F. Abdussabur. The author of “A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America,” Abdussabur is a police officer also runs workshops for other police departments in Connecticut. The purpose of this talk was “Race, Politics, and Police,” mostly focussed around racial profiling and police/community relations, always timely topics in New Haven but moreso given the way East Haven’s dirty laundry has gone national.

Because I am a terribly cynical person*, I would characterize Abdussabur’s comments as “the best PR the NHPD has going for it.” While well intentioned, there are uncomfortable overtones that even the youth in our program picked up on. His book, as the literature describes,

gives tough love instructions for those who think they have been victims of racial ethnic profiling, but only to realize that they where [sic] poor communicators.

Abdussabur did raise an important point where he talked about the dificulty of addressing racial profiling and moving forward in solving the problem because of a lack of data. While CT passed the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 1999, this was never properly enforced and East Haven was one of several cities that didn’t regularly file reports which would provide evidential records of profiling.

The troublesome bit was all the qualifiers that Abdussabur has for the public. On one hand, they are pretty common-sense – be polite to police, watch your tone, respect their authority, etc. During Q&A, he explained that this is something police belief the public already knows, yet chooses to ignore. The answer is evidently to train the public to meet the police’s expectations. That flies in the face of the seemingly obvious need to train police in cultural competency and overall better people skills.

Also worrisome was his lack of clarity on whether or not it’s ok to record police (which Paul Bass, asking the questions, undoubted wished he could have explored), something an audience member took objection to. It’s really at the heart of these current issues.

AbdussaburThere’s a bit of good and bad here – Abdussabur is clearly aware of what he calls the need for “multidimensional thinking” – where we see each other beyond the roles we play, a degree of personalization where an enemy becomes someone’s parent, sibling, child, etc. The enemy in need of this multidimensional representation is not a “thug,” but the police themselves. He dismisses hip-hop fashion and youth culture as fads and trends, that “everyone looks like a gangster,” and the talk seemed to gloss over the way that media portrayals can make certain demographics into a stereotype, leading to the problem of racial profiling. On a beat, police rely on what he refers to “officer discretion,” or their hunches – which can be motivated by racial preconceptions brought on by those faulty representations.

These preconceptions are promoted and internalized as a value within a culture, as self-perpetuating ego defenses against out-groups (“blacks are so violent, no wonder so many of them are in prison!”) Anecdotal evidence such as the NYPD’s repeated screening of an Islamophobic film for recruits should still be infuriating, but not surprising, in a society where Muslims have been vilified by the media for over twenty five years. The same would go for African-Americans and Latinos, who (as with any non-white minority) have continuously struggled for fair media representations which weren’t ridiculous or offensive caricatures or contrived and pandering token cutouts of real people.

These representations really not only determine the nature “officer discretion,” but the way people see themselves (identity) and the world (ideology).

Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30). – from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

Abdussabur said, “Policing is politics through the use of force.” I think that’s a great quote. I think it’s probably the most unintentionally accurate quote about humanity in general – we police others, we police ourselves, according to some measure of politics, which isn’t always decided by a legislature somewhere (as he presumably meant it to be). His outlook on policing is a decidedly parental one, in the decision to educate the public on how to better conform to the police’s expectations of them. But although the absurdity of that thought is lost on some, we have to understand that each of us go through that process of naturalization, whether it’s through induction into the culture of policing or just “normal life.” We should all have that multidimensional thinking Abdussabur mentions, which lets us challenge codes and dominant connotations – but that training should certainly be applied as part of the institutional naturalization police go through.

For more on the “evil arab/muslim” orientalist stereotype, see Steuter, Erin, and Deborah Wills. At War with Metaphor. Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

On representation of the black community, try Herman Gray, “The Politics of Representation In Network Television,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 439-462. There’s a terrific takedown of the Cosby show in it, in case you ever wanted to be disappointed by one more thing.

*It should go without saying that comments are my own and do not reflect the views of Youth Rights Media. Just because I was there with them does not mean I am not an independent thinker with my own opinions.

Are You Your Stuff?

IfIWereAHoarder on tumbr brought the following advertisement for Norton to my attention:

Norton actually has a pretty interesting concept here: we are defined by our “stuff,” or our digital information. This isn’t really stuff as we might first understand it: objectifying it emphasizes the materiality of such texts, but at the same time, the video demonstrates the phenomenology of those texts by saying it’s “the stuff that connects you to people you love.” Hansen writes that the division of those concepts applied to media creates a theoretical oscillation between the two perspectives. But in the video, while the notion of “stuff” seems divorced from the individuality of the characters (which hearkens back to Tyler Durden’s axiom, “the things you own end up owning you “) it fails to incorporate the concept of that media as an extension of the user, in the McLuhan tradition. Hansen even goes a step further in championing that idea, writing that “digital code compromises the most recent and most complex stage of the ongoing evolution of technics.” It is, again in his words,  “an expansion of the very exteriorization that is constructive of the human”

Norton says, “you are your stuff,” and they’re right, but not exactly clear. The railroad didn’t change what people are essentially, but it “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions” (McLuhan, 1964). Likewise, our stuff  changes the scale of our behavior, adding onto what already exists. In the thought of Regis Debray, new media doesn’t replace existing forms, but it augments them, changing “the whole social and economic system of media” in the process.

Our “stuff,” in Norton’s terms, is merely ourselves – but broken into pieces that can be lost or stolen. This raises questions about control over our identity – not just in a practical sense, but in a more abstract way. Do we own our information after we share it with others? If we lose our “stuff,” presumably it’s still ours, but when it’t stolen, do we still retain ownership? In the examples of cultural appropriation, the misuse of items and images traditional associated with one society raises concern for colonialist abuse. MyCultureIsNotATrend is one blogger who follows the unfortunate tendency of white and non-native peoples to use the “war bonnet” as a fashion statement. In other cases, we see where cultural commodification makes capitalist gains off of otherwise authentic artifacts. Industrial society constantly recycles the relevant artifacts of past societies in a desperate attempt to find authenticity in the now – even when it only travels a short distance into the past to do so. Douglas Haddow wrote about this three years ago in a lament about “hipster culture” where he said

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

We can also see this in Marianna Torgovnick’s writings about how “the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with it’s own crises in identity.” This is nothing new. Whether one remember’s James Cameron’s Avatar or any example of the “noble savage” literary device, there is a little acknowledged tendency of modern society to acknowledge its flaws through the wistful cloying desperation for authenticity in a “magical negro” and other forms of romantic racism, stealing the identity and the image of other peoples while turning them into media products to be marketed and sold. I hesitate to mention the most ubiquitous example of this – Che Guevara.

This is not a critique of primitivism, but rather the clumsy and awkward way that people have manhandled the identities and cultural artifacts of other societies – whether it’s katanas (The Last Samurai), celtic imagery (by white supremacists), native african tribal fashions (this ad campaign), aboriginal dress (Russian ice skaters), Maori tribal tattoos (frat guys everywhere), and so on… the point being, that if our “stuff” really is us, then why are we so careless with other people’s stuff? Prior to digital information, physical artifacts functioned as a form of media. We can even understand cultural artifacts that functioned with significant social influence and meaningfulness as ancient technology – the type of technology that Joeseph Campbell explained the function of during various native social/spiritual rituals. Members of a tribe adopt a role and are transformed though the use of masks or other apparel. Their entire identity changes in such functions, until the ritual is resolved. Today, we non-primitives who rely on much more sophisticated methods (thanks to the evolution of technics) hang that older technology on the walls of our poorly decorated living spaces and buy them cheap from craft stores.

Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New American Library, 1964.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago, (1990): 157-158
Joseph Campbell: Mythos I (Acacia, 2007).