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.