week 10

This week’s readings were very helpful and relevant (particularly James Morris’ Simulacra in the Age of Social Media, having been published just last year). I was familiar with Foucault’s panopticon concept from my undergraduate classes on media, but once again it was really useful to revisit it with fresh eyes and new experiences under my belt — most relevantly in the working/corporate world, I think. Whether from my own work environments or from hearing my friends’ stories, I could relate to the idea of constant surveillance creating immense pressure. I thought of my internships in open office spaces, where my laptop screen was visible by everyone around me; or my first “alcove” office, which didn’t have a door, so people could always look at what I was doing as they walked down the hallway. In less literal senses, this of course extends to productivity tracking software (which I thankfully have had no experience with), or online presence and activity in general — seeing who is active on Gchat or Slack, and how quickly they reply to messages. Maybe the sneakiest way I’ve felt this was when I heard a friend comment that they thought some of their colleagues sent emails in the late hours of the night or during weekends on purpose, to show that they are working around the clock and thus be seen as very busy and devoted to the company. 

Morris’s essay shed a light on the issue of fake news or news as entertainment; of course most of us are extremely familiar with the concepts by now, but the way he outlined the evolution of these practices and the commercial motives that have brought them on felt new to me. In particular the quote, “This is the only way human beings have found that they can cope with the deluge of information they are met with every day—by focusing on what fits with how they imagine the world to be, or how they want it to be” seems like an empathetic look at the psychology of our media landscape — not blaming people for being “stupid” for not knowing the truth, but acknowledging the extreme challenge of absorbing all the information we are flooded with each day (let alone being able to parse truth out of it). Naturally, the end of the essay struck a chord with me as a Brazilian — in mentioning the state of the pandemic in “those states led by right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro,” who “have found that simply Tweeting a macho message or making a bold statement on TV can’t contradict the truth of tens of thousands of people dying from an incurable virus.” It would be a silver lining to have this extreme level of simulacra denounced after the pandemic, but seeing the number of people still supporting these politicians even as their own family members die because of the virus is hardly encouraging.

An Introduction to Baudrillard‘s brief mention of the paradox of reality TV also struck a chord given my midterm project — “Contestants on reality TV are already hyperreal choices: averages, ideals, chosen with expectations, designed to provoke by their likeliness to entertain in the “correct” way. Big Brother contestants chosen by how well they’ll fit into a hyperreal narrative, contestants and stars pressured to act and talk how they think they should act and talk, under the all-pervasive eye of the camera and the audience.” The tension between reality and fiction is always present in reality television, and to some extent most audiences familiar with the genre realize this. The most engaged and savvy audiences even incorporate this into their engagement with the show — you will find in Bachelor forums plenty of viewers dissecting the meta-narrative of the show, acknowledging the tropes and constructs, even giving them specific titles: TPTB for “the powers that be” (meaning the producers; particularly when their powers are felt in the show’s narrative), or mentioning a contestant getting a “Bachelorette cut” (meaning a favorable edit in the show because she’s already been chosen as next season’s Bachelorette; therefore she must be likable to the audience). While most viewers aren’t posting on or even reading forums, they are often aware that true reality can’t be captured in the sensational editing of these shows; the problem is that if you aren’t very savvy (if you haven’t watched many seasons, noticed repeating patterns, or followed participants who denounced the show off-camera), it can be hard to notice exactly where the editing is distorting reality the most.

week 9

Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was a dense reading, sometimes hard to parse through but full of interesting observations. This was my first time engaging with a more formal or academic piece on feminist or gender theory since my undergraduate class on gender and communication — which exposed me to a ton of concepts but left me maybe more confused than when I had first started. It seems really difficult to nail down exactly what gender is — it means different things, and is used/performed/present in different ways, depending on who you ask. When I was younger, I remember feeling like the idea that my gender expression was “performative” was condescending, borderline offensive (thinking “I don’t do XYZ for other people, I do it for myself” in the way teenagers are prone to reject any notion that they might be influenced or manipulated in any way). In a somewhat similar way in terms of defensiveness, I have heard certain groups criticizing trans women, for example, for “cosplaying womanhood” in the sense that being a woman does not boil down to wearing lipstick (and it doesn’t; but of course that’s not all there is to trans women’s womanhood). I left that class basically deciding that gender is just something you feel, and the more you think about it, the more complicated it’s going to get. The idea of a gender spectrum is useful here, and it reminds me of a color spectrum — you can’t exactly define where yellow ends and green begins; you could try to poll every person in the world and find the exact hue that matches the average answer, but how useful would that be? In this vein, Haraway’s quote that “Cyborg feminists have to argue that “we” do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.” really resonated with me. There’s no universal woman, whether in appearance, tastes, perspectives, ideologies, desires, and so on — trying to encompass all women with a single, succinct definition is basically impossible. This is a challenge in taxonomy in general; I was randomly reminded of this while listening to a Dear Hank and John episode this week, where the two podcast hosts get into a conversation about eels and fish (starting at around 25min): 

Hank: “Electric eels are electric but not eels, it turns out.”

Katherine: “Are they fish?” 

Hank: “They’re a kind of fish, they’re just not related to eels. They look like eels, they’re long skinny fish. But yes they are fish. And eels are also fish. There’s a lot of kinds of fish.” 

Katherine: “I thought there was no such thing as a fish.” 

Hank: “[Pauses] This is the thing.”

Katherine: “Okay. [laughs] Yeah, yeah, saying something is something but not something else, or is that thing, but — yeah — like, who cares” 

Hank: “Taxonomy is a big ol’ mess. There are many things that are not actually in a box that makes sense.”

Katherine: “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say fish? That’s what I mean. That’s what matters.”

Looking back at it now, I can’t help but think the conversation could easily translate into a discussion about gender (“There are many people who are not actually in a box that makes sense” in particular, since the “box” metaphor is so common). I guess the crucial point is the last — “Do you know what I’m talking about when I say X?” With gender, this can easily be harmful if people’s expectations or desires regarding the same concept don’t align: if someone communicates their belief that being a woman requires a specific set of body parts, they’ll alienate any woman who doesn’t have all of them (whether they are trans, intersex, or cis women who have gone through procedures like histerectomies or mastectomies). In an even more concrete example, if a husband believes that his wife, as a woman, owes him her full sexual availability regardless of her own desires, that woman is at risk of marital rape and abuse. I feel like Haraway’s “no construction is whole” helps in these situations too — we can stop assuming that the category of “woman” comes along with these bodies and behaviors, and instead look at each specific characteristic when it becomes relevant (for example, when discussing menstruation, referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women”, since a) not all people who menstruate are women and b) not all women menstruate, for a variety of reasons). Obviously, we have a long way to go until everyone can agree to do away with rigid taxonomies of gender, but I’m glad to see the discussion has been around and hopefully will continue to evolve.

week 8

Finishing my readings and sitting down to actually write my midterm essay this week was both challenging and fulfilling. It didn’t help that my first shot of the vaccine knocked me out for a day and a half the Friday before our due date, but I was still able to refine my outline and think about the topics I wanted to cover in between naps (I did end up dreaming about 90 Day Fiancé on Saturday). I had a lot I wanted to say about this show, and not enough time or space within the wordcount to do it. It’s been rewarding, now that I’m finished with the first step of the project at least, to have some deeper conversations about this show, reality television, immigration, and so on, with some people in my life this past week (friends and family in Brazil who aren’t as familiar with US immigration, and American friends, both born and naturalized, with varying levels of exposure to the topic). I find it really interesting to analyze topics or media that may seem mundane or ordinary, I think because it can be so digestible to people without a formal background in the field. Being able to hear thoughts from friends and family who have never studied media, but who of course have absorbed it and can identify trends whether or not I point them out through theory, is both enriching to my own understanding of the topic and also a lot of fun

Happy Objects was a very interesting and relatable reading. I have definitely experienced being called, or implied to be, a killjoy over the years just for pointing out or questioning certain things. While tone can affect how defensive people feel about your comments, it doesn’t always guarantee you’ll be safe from the accusation — even when trying to phrase a comment like, “I’m not judging, just trying to help you because I can see how people may perceive this [sexist joke]” I have still felt an angry backlash just for implying the joke was not okay. As Ahmed mentions, “The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence.” This rings true to me even beyond a social justice sphere — for example, pointing out potential flaws in a project can be perceived as a criticism of the project itself, as if you want it to fail, instead of being seen as a commitment to problem-solve so that the project can succeed. I can see how this ties to our discussion of happiness being over-emphasized in Western societies, to the point of becoming toxic positivity. Plenty of projects can be full of yes-men who refuse to acknowledge issues so that they “look like team players” and “don’t damage morale” — only for the whole thing to fail because no one thought it through. This doesn’t happen on its own or by coincidence; it’s encouraged and even enforced in the work culture, usually subconsciously (it’s not very rational to chastise problem-finders, since the practice can lead to improvements, and yet it still happens). 

The idea of happiness being intrinsically superior to other emotions was definitely a core belief for me. Our discussion about it reminded me of the feeling of falling in love — something I also feel like is over-emphasized as a completely, solely positive thing. When I first started dating my now husband, I remember having felt absolutely overwhelmed with the feeling, to the point where it wasn’t just positive. I was constantly distracted by it, sometimes unable to focus on work or classes — things that objectively mattered more than, for example, whether I should check my phone every five minutes for notifications from him. I felt anxious, doubtful, even insecure (does he like me as much as I like him?). This part of the feeling was not pleasant, and so it led to a lot of confusion for me — wasn’t this supposed to be the best feeling in the world? Is something wrong with me if I don’t feel so great about it all the time? Since I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t know how to handle myself. In that way, it also reminds me of Ahmed’s comment about happiness receding or becoming anxious once we are aware of it. You worry about something going wrong — “this is too good to be true” — and the feeling going away. The anxiety makes sense when we believe the feeling is superior to others, and it only gets worse when we then become aware of the anxiety itself (“I should be enjoying this; this is as good as it gets; I can’t ruin it by worrying”).

week 7

I really appreciated the articulations of cultural capital, habitus, and practices in this week’s readings and lectures — these are all concepts that I had felt in some way or another in my life, though I didn’t always know exactly how to articulate them. The timing seemed perfect too: while finishing the readings I selected for the midterm essay, I found two different ones that mentioned concepts from Bordieusian theory. 

One of the books I found on reality television as a genre mentioned cultural capital as interpreted by reality show audiences, who might judge reality show participants if they’re perceived to not have good taste; or who might negotiate their own viewing and enjoyment of the show as a “guilty pleasure,” indicating they know the show is culturally “bad,” to avoid being judged as having bad taste themselves. This also reminded me of a comment from Cameron’s lecture that resonated with me: the idea that “taste has a cruelty to it,” which I think is particularly visible in reality shows with a voyeuristic streak. Taking Hoarders as an example, there are ways to watch it solely based on neutral curiosity and empathy; maybe if you are a psychologist who might encounter people with hoarding disorders and want to learn how to best handle their needs. But in my own experience, I can’t help but think that the show is framed to elicit disgust and even a grotesque sense of relief (“thank god I’m not like that“), which in the end is cruel and demeaning to the people suffering from these conditions. There are other ways to portray these disorders without making the subjects so vulnerable to scorn — but maybe then the show would not be so entertaining, falling more towards a “proper” documentary than a “guilty pleasure” reality show and potentially losing both viewers and money in the process. On a similar note, the mention of habitus I found was in a book discussing a totally unrelated topic: immigration. It touched on the journalistic habitus in order to make a point about how media narratives about immigrants can be constructed through certain practices. From camera angles and color grading in photojournalism to the language used in headlines or laws (“alien” and “illegal” used as nouns particularly jump to mind), it’s easy to see how efficiently human beings can be dehumanized simply because they are not where they are supposed, or allowed, to be. As with the reality shows, these are deliberate choices — there are other words to describe people than “alien” — that are made for specific reasons (economic, political, and so on).

The idea of user personas as Bordieusian profiles was also interesting to me as a starting point of discussion on the practice. I understand the criticism of personas, but I find it hard to characterize them as inherently good or inherently bad. It’s definitely possible — and very easy — to create badly thought-out personas that serve little use other than shallow stereotypes retrofitted to your product. But to me, adding nuance and quirks that still let you recognize this person as part of larger groups (not just one single group, most importantly; people have dimensions to them, and what might appeal to them as part of one group might turn them off as part of another) can be a really important exercise in empathy. Of course, they’ll never be a universal, foolproof method; just one of many tools that have their time and place. 

Finally, the parts of Cameron’s lecture that focused on concepts like the teleo-affective quality of practice, as well as the felt sense of words, also spoke to me in their power to describe things that feel so hard to articulate. It’s impressive to think of our ability to sense what is a “good lunch” or to recognize a poster is “too blocky” without necessarily thinking about the details and characteristics that make up those definitions, and which ones are present in those specific lunch/poster instances. These are things that do come with practice, by seeing people use those words in certain context, by trying to apply them ourselves, and also by seeing how others react to our use of those words (I can definitely think of many times I’ve used jargon or slang wrong, and the embarrassment that followed helped me learn when and how to use them properly). Thinking about these concepts makes me more cognizant of jargon, and how I can communicate more effectively with audiences who may not have that specific background knowledge.

week 6

Out of this week’s readings, Oudshoorn’s chapters on the archeology of sex hormones and the development of the birth control pill were particularly fascinating. As with Ramanathan’s From Vishnu to Vegas look into the hair-selling industry, it is eye-opening to realize how many social, cultural, religious/spiritual, political, economical — and so on — processes factor into something that may seem like a simple activity now, like taking your daily Yazmin or going into Richie’s to buy a wig. 

Growing up in the 2000s in a socially liberal environment, and having started taking birth control at the age of 16, I absolutely took for granted all that went into this one pill. The first time I thought about the pill more deeply wasn’t until I was doing my undergraduate thesis research, some of which involved the history of sex in television. I came across Rodger Streitmatter’s Sex Sells!, the first chapter of which is entirely devoted to the relationship between the pill and the media — how quickly the former was embraced by the latter, and how deeply the latter changed because of the former. Streitmatter discussed the sexual revolution that followed the pill, which allowed the media to portray, for example, married couples sharing a bed on screen, or acknowledgements of pregnancies — things that would have scandalized audiences just years previously. I had not realized how repressed these mid-century audiences were, and was fascinated by the thought of how quickly they witnessed such drastic changes in media portrayals. 

It’s now very interesting to come back to this analysis of the birth control pill from an earlier perspective — not the changes that it brought on, but the changes and processes that were required for the sake of its development, let alone acceptance. The framing of the pill as family planning rather than contraception, and the use of woman-years or menstrual cycles in reporting data rather than simply women or participants really called attention to the power of persuasive communication. They may be subtle changes, but they can convey very different messages: contraception is about the full prevention of pregnancy, while family planning both highlights the family unit and can easily assume that pregnancies may still happen, just in the future. Showing data by menstrual cycles rather than by number of participants helps make it more impressive, obscuring issues of sample sizes or drop-out rates — but also has the effect of detaching the human subjects out of the data in some level; making it feel more clinical, rational, objective. Another extremely entertaining example of this was the mention that “The Spanish Pharmacopoeia described estrogen-progesterone combinations as effective in regulating menstrual cycles, but as having the serious side effects of preventing pregnancy.” I could immediately picture this as a scene in Mad Men or any period drama/comedy — a doctor almost winking at a young woman while telling her that her medication will unfortunately prevent pregnancy, while she solemnly nods, pretending this will be a grave sacrifice.

Other than the readings, this week I devoted a lot of time to preparing for the midterm paper. I solidified my reading list — including some books on the medium of reality television; some on immigration politics and media representation; one on the psychology of marriage; and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I narrowed down the couples whose 90 Day Fiancé content I felt warranted a rewatch, and eventually settled on just two to focus on (practicing a lot of self-restraint; my original list was eight couples, and I truly wanted to talk about them all). Following that rewatch, which resulted in some pretty extensive notes, I revised my outline to think about what specific topics I wanted to cover, and what artifacts could be generated from each. I settled on “otherness” as a general subject, looking at how the non-American partners in both couples are otherized through different ways: first, the way “risk” is only discussed when an American partner is the one risking themselves; second, how non-American ways of living are shown as strange or unacceptable; third, how non-American partners are questioned on their truthfulness or “real motives” regardless of their level of commitment; and finally, how the relationship or marriage priorities of non-American partners are overlooked or deemphasized in comparison to their American counterparts. This may have been heavily influenced by the fact that my first reading from my list was Orientalism, which I was very excited to get to, since I’d read the introduction during my undergrad. My original ideas for the project were a lot more focused on the different ethnic stereotypes portrayed on the show, but I felt like that could be said of many other shows — whereas these ideas of validity and transactionality in relationships, and how deeply immigration and “otherness” can factor in, feel a lot more unique to the 90 Day Fiancé universe. I feel really excited to delve deeper into the reading list and get the ball rolling on this project.

week 5

The two documentaries we watched this week were incredibly compelling, providing a look into these complex academic topics with digestible case studies and analogies. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace expertly captured the tension between two views of ecologies — one that promotes equilibrium, which can be seen as embracing the status quo, and another that advocates for (or at least more deeply acknowledges) dynamism and constant change. Watching it, and having our class discussion, I kept feeling paralyzed or defeated by the challenge of changing any complex system, almost regardless of scale. Someone in the class discussion articulated my feelings really well — it seems that the difficulty in changing a system comes precisely from the interconnected nature of our current systems. Usually, there’s no way to isolate one element in order to try something new; every small change can feel monumental because different sections of the whole system are dependent on each other and therefore will be affected. The geodesic dome metaphor for ecology, mentioned in Curtis’s documentary, feels very relevant here: each stick that makes up the dome is individually weak, but together they make an incredibly strong structure. But the sticks have to stay together to achieve that — so what happens if you want to change a section for whatever reason? Can you replace one stick at a time, or in chunks, without the dome falling apart? Even if you can, is that the best or most efficient way to do it? Or should you just tear it down and start over? And what happens when the dome is your family’s relationships, or your company’s culture, or your country’s politics, or your world’s economic system — what does tearing it down to start over even mean?

The discussion of craft as it related to humans and machines was the most interesting aspect of Being in the World to me. As we talked about in class, it seems that machines can’t craft because they lack that human expertise; using the recipe example again, a robot cannot just perform steps from a written recipe — regardless of how well-written or detailed it is — and come away with a perfectly delicious meal every time. There is infinite variability, from environmental conditions (altitude, humidity, or temperature), technical factors (any of the kitchenware used, from ovens to pans to spatulas), down to the organic matter (the ripeness of produce, age of condiments, and so on generating different tastes). An experienced cook will account for this infinite variability and compensate for it: adding oil to balance out the acid, for example. Because a machine can’t taste or feel — because it lacks instinct and judgment —, it can’t craft in this sense that humans can. All the examples of craft and “masters” (the restaurant chef, the carpenter, the flamenco artist, and the jazz player) in the documentary really helped connect these ideas, grounding them in our lives and experiences. The flamenco artist’s argument in favor of a handmade guitar in particular, saying that it feels different from a mass-manufactured instrument  — even saying it makes the music sound better —, because you can feel the devotion of the maker in it, really stuck with me. It made me think of my own handmade-ish objects: some pieces of pottery (a bowl and two plates) I’ve painted with my husband at a studio called The Painted Pot. Technically, these pieces aren’t any different from my other dishware (if anything, they’re a little bit worse because they aren’t microwave-safe), but the joy I find in using them is very real, and any time I find a new chip or crack in them I get way more upset than I would if they weren’t handpainted. Of course, I feel that way because these objects are unique, one-of-a-kind, and imbued with the memories of the time we spent together while painting them. But there are other unique objects that we could have made together — maybe personalized and ordered online, manufactured far away from us. I have to think that I would still be upset if I found a chip in a personalized yet machine-printed bowl, but not quite as upset as I get about our Painted Pot bowl; the effort that we spent in picking out colors, coating it multiple times, thinking about a pattern and then trying to execute it (with dubious, but heartfelt results) — it all adds up to produce a much more meaningful piece, almost with a human character of its own.

week 4

All of the content this past week was extremely useful both in analyzing the information we consume — from sitcom tropes to journalistic practices — and in crafting our own stories and designs. You need to think critically about the elements that shape narrative in order to be able to use them effectively. It’s a vital skill regardless of your specific line of work or what media you like to consume in your leisure time: you want to communicate clearly, and you want to not be manipulated by anyone willy nilly. 

As a big fan of YouTube deep dives, the Parasite videos were really interesting to me; I would’ve gladly watched much longer in-depth analyses of the movie, since it does seem to be so intentional with its visual language and symbolism. For their short length, they were extremely effective at focusing on a few symbols, motifs, and techniques in the movie and discussing what these choices add to the overall theme — what they communicate to the audience and how. I also really appreciated how Philosophize This! discussed mythology, both explaining how it differentiates itself from simple stories, and also addressing how it’s very much alive. We do tend to think of the word “mythology” as relating to something antiquated and quaint, as if our society is beyond that now, and we’re too savvy to need or want mythology. Of course mythos and symbols are around us all the time, just in different (maybe more sophisticated, if we want to be generous) forms. Using WWE and nightly news as examples really helps situate the concepts in our everyday lives. This tied very nicely into Žižek’s documentary, in which he describes ideology’s capacity or power to create a clear narrative by framing the murky problems in our society as the fault of one single symbol (whether it’s Jewish people, “welfare queens,” caravans of immigrants, and so on). At any given time, the particular symbols may change, adapt, evolve, but the structure is always there; we’re never immune from it. These symbols can be so entrenched in our culture that we might replicate them without even realizing their maliciousness — perpetuating stereotypes whether or not you actively believe in them yourself. 

At the same time, it’s always important to remember that these symbols, and their meaning, are never fully universal. This week I was reminded of that in a very specific way. Every now and then, someone outside of Brazil will stumble upon a picture of Zé Gotinha (“Droplet Joe”), a mascot created decades ago to promote oral vaccinations, and remark on how some of the lower budget costumes look like a KKK hood. The suggestion that the Brazilian designer who came up with the mascot in the 1980s was too stupid to realize the similarity always bothers me: the KKK symbols are simply not relevant in the context of Zé Gotinha. The mascot’s initial aim was to raise awareness about polio — the Brazilian populations more likely to be vulnerable to polio are those who are underserved, without as much access to quality education and healthcare. These groups have no reason to concern themselves with American mythology. Yes, in a purely visual way, Zé Gotinha’s head might resemble a KKK hood — but as soon as you know his name is Droplet Joe, you’ll immediately understand why he is shaped that way: it’s a reference to a physical droplet, completely disconnected from the Klan. You can’t redesign a droplet; you can accentuate the rounded bottom and draw the friendliest smiley face possible in order to differentiate it from the KKK hood, as seen in the more “official” designs. But even a Brazilian audience who is familiar with the KKK will not see Zé Gotinha and think of the Klan — in Brazil, they are completely distinct symbols, and he is the stronger one. I don’t blame American (or Americanized) audiences for being initially shocked at the similarity, especially when the mascot’s name and context isn’t provided; this behavior just exemplifies the terrible, visceral strength of the KKK hood as a symbol in American contexts. But I do get bothered by people who continue to diss Zé Gotinha or demand him to be changed even after learning about his background and the impact he’s had on public health efforts in a developing nation; to me, it communicates the idea that only American symbols matter (or that they matter more than the rest, at least). This whole discussion resurfaced again on Twitter this week, and though I’d seen it many times before, I was able to look at it in a different light given our class materials and lecture.

week 3

Among this week’s readings, Verbeek and Ong stood out to me. Verbeek’s framework of human-technology relations was really interesting — splitting them into embodiment (“technologies form[ing] a unity with a human being, and this unity is directed at the world: We speak with other people through the phone, rather than speaking to the phone itself”), hermeneutic (“in which human beings read how technologies represent the world […]  Here, technologies form a unity with the world, rather than with the human being using them.”), alterity (“human beings interact with technologies with the world in the background of this interaction. Examples are human-robot interactions, getting money from an ATM, and operating a machine.”), and background (“The sounds of air conditioners and fridges, the warm air from heating installations […] — in all of these examples, technologies are a context for human existence, rather than being experienced themselves”) relations. These are simple enough definitions but extremely helpful in analyzing a technology — the design that works well for one type of relation may not be so useful for another. A background technology should probably be as invisible and unfelt as possible, whereas in alterity relations it may be beneficial to point out the technological process underneath (“This machine dispenses X and Y bills,” for example). One confusion that I had in this reading was in understanding the schematics of these relations: “(human – technology) —> world” vs “human (technology/world)”. Maybe these would’ve been clearer as full diagrams — I couldn’t immediately tell if “-” symbolized subtraction or connection, or what the difference between “-” and “/” were, and so on. 

Ong’s chapters interested me in particular because of my interest in linguistics: the subject of oral languages was unfamiliar to me, but still fascinating (if not moreso). Being bilingual, I experience the shift in mental patterns and grammatical structure in switching from one language to the other — even verbal or prepositional changes can make a deep impact. Portuguese doesn’t differentiate between make and do, for example: they’re combined into one verb, fazer. This of course has psychological implications — maybe Portuguese speakers think of creating or manufacturing things as more closely related to actions or performances than English speakers do (imagine using the same verb for both “I bake cakes” and “I perform theater,” which are, in some way, both creative activities). On the other hand, English doesn’t differentiate the verb to be between temporary and permanent states of being, which Portuguese does (estar and ser, respectively). Does this blur the line between current and eternal for English speakers? Is the default “to be” perceived as closer to temporary, or closer to permanent? 

All of this is just to say I have felt these mental shifts myself, but this reading put into perspective how easy I have it, since my two languages are so similar to each other in the grand scheme of things, and since I’ve been fully immersed in their written versions from a very young age. Trying to grasp how I’d view the world through an oral lens was both challenging and very intriguing. One of the aspects of orality that stood out to me was that “oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” This makes perfect sense in those cultures, under those circumstances — and to some extent, written languages do similar things (how many stories have been lost to time? Which ones have remained and why?). At the same time, though, it seems almost unthinkable: an equilibrium means your society is not changing, not moving forward. Is that good, or are there aspects of it that should be rethought?

It is extremely difficult to take yourself off the mindset of written language. I’ve felt and seen how this affects language learners. I used to pronounce minute (MIN-it) as “min-oot” because I kept seeing the written word in my head, so similar to the Portuguese minuto (mee-NOO-too) — until one day something just clicked, and my brain internalized the word in a different way. Similarly, English speakers have an awfully hard time pronouncing a Portuguese word like pão, since the nasal ã is not present in English. But instead of hearing the sound, which would be closer to puh-ng (a combination of sounds that, although strange, certainly exists in English), most early learners just visualize the a and o, and say pow (which in Portuguese sounds like a totally different word: pau, meaning stick and slang for penis). In my experience, it doesn’t matter how many times I say the word out loud for a friend who’s trying to learn it — I have to give them an explicitly visual cue (“think of it as ending in -ng”) for it to click. In that way, it seems to me like the more fluent you are in a language, the less visually you need to think about it: you’ll start internalizing pronunciations as oral learners would.

week 2

This week’s readings were fairly hard to digest — not because their language was incredibly convoluted, I think, but because ontology is a hard topic to wrap your head around. It can so difficult to articulate and comprehend the essence of things when it’s not something you think about often — even when an author uses plain words like “things thinging”, the concept is convoluted. The lecture clarified a lot of that opaqueness in the readings; hearing these concepts in a different light, with some background and historical context, is extremely helpful as we’ve already discussed in class. Interestingly, Arendt’s definitions of labor, work, and action, felt maybe more clear to me in the reading and lecture than they did during the in-class exercise; as if I could absorb them just fine, but once I had to use or assign them myself, they suddenly felt blurred. Later I realized I’d been imagining these definitions in their non-industrialized, dated conceptions: labor as a 19th century farmer harvesting crops by hand; work as a Renaissance sculptor chipping away at the marble block; action as men in powdered wigs discussing the French Revolution. Trying to place these concepts into our time and space — into my own life, or the apps I use — was a lot trickier. I don’t gather my food, but I do prepare it; is it labor when I cut a carrot to cook it into soup? Can anything I do constitute labor if I have the capital to acquire it ready-made (even if I choose not to)? It feels harder to draw the line when our world is so fragmented, when money is so entrenched in our lives, when comfort and necessity are hard to distinguish.

Some of the other concepts that stood out to me in the readings were self-domestication (in Sloterdijk) and the invasion/pervasion of our designed environments (in Willis). Willis’ quote, “”If we pervade buildings, they also pervade us – entrances, corridors, stairs, lifts, large rooms, small rooms – all design our modes of spatial occupation and our movements through spaces, allowing some, not allowing others” took me back to an incident I had that made me feel this so deeply, before I could even have articulated it as a concept. When I was 16, I studied abroad in England for two months before the start of my last year in high school. It was the first time I was alone for prolonged periods of time; I had a close friend from home also studying in the city, but at a different school and not living particularly close to me. Even though I was fluent enough in English by that point, I still had the challenges of navigating the world by myself. One time while shopping alone at a Marks & Spencer, I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and looked for the exit — the first one I found turned out to be the fire exit, which I didn’t realize until I’d closed the door behind me, and couldn’t open it again. I had no choice but to go down the emergency stairs, eventually hitting the ground floor and opening the only door available, which sounded a horribly loud alarm. This door led to a parking lot behind the store, and once I was able to close it (it jammed on the pavement for a couple of excruciating minutes) I found myself trapped. The parking lot was fenced and gated, and the “In case of emergency” signs pointed me around an alley towards another door — which was also locked. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the containment of human spaces, fences and doors, designed to enclose and direct us. I felt so transgressive, worrying people would think I was there because I was shoplifting, and worst of all fearing that I’d be forced to transgress any further (“I’ll probably have to climb the fence to get out of here”).

Looking back, I realize I felt guilty for appearing to break my own domestication by being in the wrong place, even though it was a simple and honest mistake. I was also blaming my physical body more than the environment around me — “if only I were taller and stronger so I could climb this fence quick before anyone saw me.” But of course the fence wasn’t always there: it was put there, designed to be there, part of this human process of taming nature, creating confined spaces and private property. Similarly, the concept of “being in the wrong place” is entirely artificial: if I got there, and was able to get there, and didn’t hurt anyone in getting there, how could it be wrong? In the end, I found a technological rather than physical escape route: I spotted an intercom by an office building that shared the parking lot with the Marks & Spencer, and embarrassingly explained the situation to someone who then opened the gate for me. I felt a rush of relief being back on the street, a regular space, where I was allowed to be. It’s been almost ten years now, but I still remember the shock of the whole thing so vividly — and though I’d been able to articulate some of what was going through my mind in the years since, this seems like the first time I can really tell what distressed me so much about it.