Sunshine Recorder

Caribou - Back Home (from Our Love)

(Source: volpestarks)

Link: How Social Media Silences Debate

The Internet might be a useful tool for activists and organizers, in episodes from the Arab Spring to the Ice Bucket Challenge. But over all, it has diminished rather than enhanced political participation, according to new data.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

The study asked participants about the revelations of government spying made by Edward Snowden, a widely discussed issue on which Americans were almost equally divided.CreditFrederick Florin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation,” said Keith N. Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers and an author of the study. “People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”

The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the Internet on the so-called spiral of silence, a theory that people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. The Internet, many people thought, would do away with that notion because it connects more heterogeneous people and gives even minority voices a bullhorn.

Instead, the researchers found, the Internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions. (There is a reason for the old rule to avoid religion or politics at the dinner table.)

And in some ways, the Internet has deepened that divide. It makes it easy for people to read only news and opinions from people they agree with. In many cases, people don’t even make that choice for themselves. Last week, Twitter said it would begin showing people tweets even from people they don’t follow if enough other people they follow favorite them. On Monday, Facebook said it would hide stories with certain types of headlines in the news feed. Meanwhile, harassment from online bullies who attack people who express opinions has become a vexing problem for social media sites and their users.

Humans are acutely attuned to the approval of others, constantly reading cues to judge whether people agree with them, the researchers said. Active social media users get many more of these cues — like status updates, news stories people choose to share and photos of how they spend their days — and so they become less likely to speak up.

For the study, researchers asked people about the revelations of National Security Agency surveillance by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a topic on which Americans were almost evenly divided.

Most people surveyed said they would be willing to discuss government surveillance at dinner with family or friends, at a community meeting or at work. The only two settings where most people said they would not discuss it were Facebook and Twitter. And people who use Facebook a few times a day were half as likely as others to say they would voice an opinion about it in a real-world conversation with friends.

Yet if Facebook users thought their Facebook friends agreed with their position on the issue, they were 1.9 times more likely to join a discussion there. And people with fervent views, either in favor of or against government spying, were 2.4 times more likely to say they would join a conversation about it on Facebook. Interestingly, those with less education were more likely to speak up on Facebook, while those with more education were more likely to be silent on Facebook yet express their opinion in a group of family or friends.

The study also found that for all the discussion of social media becoming the place where people find and discuss news, most people said they got information about the N.S.A. revelations from TV and radio, while Facebook and Twitter were the least likely to be news sources.

These findings are limited because the researchers studied a single news event. But consider another recent controversial public affairs story that people discussed online — the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Of the posts you read on Twitter and Facebook from people you know, how many were in line with your point of view and how many were divergent, and how likely were you to speak up?

I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (via sunrec)

(via sunrec)

Link: Cycling as an Eschatological Activity

I’ve been cycling a lot lately, the spandex, sunglasses and shaved-legs kind, yes, but also the get around town kind. To the coffee shop, to the store, to school—if I’m going someplace by myself I do my best to get there by bike.

One particular stretch I ride regularly has newly striped bike lanes—lanes that didn’t come without protest from a handful of residents on the busy street. Essentially, the question came down to whether streets are for cars and for bikes or just for cars.  The residents of the street thought that the street and its wide shoulder should be for the driving and parking of cars.  The many bike commuters who follow that street to get to the metro and Old Town Alexandria thought that the street should be shared by both.  The city sided with the cyclists and my rides are a little less harrowing as a result.  The conflict, however, raised a theological point.

The question of whether roads are for cars or for bikes or for both reminds me of St. Augustine’s City of God.  It’s a massive book, but at its core is the idea that there are two overlapping cities—the City of God and the City of Man.  The City of God is a city founded on peace and whose end is peace.  It is oriented toward the final coming of God’s kingdom.  The City of Man is a city that was founded on violence and is animated by pride, power, and greed—what peace it has is based on violence.  The residents of both cities interact in commerce, in space, etc., but at the end of the day they are working toward different ends.  Only one of those cities really has a future.

What is at play on the streets, with bikes and cars and buses, are essentially two cities, two different realities with differing values.  Sometimes the two overlap, but at the end of the day, the cyclists and the drivers are using the roads toward different ends.  Of course many people, like myself, use the roads in both modes.  I drive and I bike, but it wouldn’t take me long to choose if I could only have one.  In fact the only reason I keep driving my car in many instances is because of cars—if I could safely ride with my two year old on the main streets of the city I would do it.

When I drive a car I am participating in a fallen reality—the oil economy, the speed economy, the death economy.  It is the car that has made the suburb possible; it is the car that is responsible for over 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year—the cost of velocity more than anything else.  Transportation—cars, buses, trucks—contributes 30% of the total carbon emissions for the U.S. each year.  I cannot imagine a place for cars in the coming Kingdom of God.

Bikes, however, are deeply sustainable.  We could go on riding them forever.  They can go fast, yes, but fast on a bike goes barely above a school zone speed limit.  They are healthy for both our bodies and the earth.  I hope to be riding bikes now and forever, even in the coming Kingdom of God.  When I ride my bike, even on the hard days of heat or cold, even on the days when I have to pull out my rain gear—I am doing so as an eschatological act.  I am living into the City of God—its values, its ends.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has often reminded us that the reason he is a pacifist isn’t because he thinks it will work better than war to bring the world peace or relieve the suffering of innocents.  He is a pacifist because he believes the call of Christ does not allow him to be otherwise.  To be a pacifist now is to perform an eschatological act—it is a commitment to live into the kingdom that is coming rather than the kingdom that is fading away.

When I bike I am living into something more hopeful and joyful, slower and more human than the world of cars and oil and traffic.  It is a small act of embrace of the world as it should be and will be.  With each pedal stroke I am getting my legs ready for the streets of the Kingdom that is breaking into the world.

(Source: gospelofthekingdom, via itsthom)

Flying Lotus - Testament (feat. Gonjasufi)

You ask yourself: where are your dreams now? And you shake your head and say how swiftly the years fly by! And ask yourself again: what have you done with your best years, then? Where have you buried the best days of your life? Have you lived or not? Look, you tell yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. The years will pass and after them will come grim loneliness, and old age, quaking on its stick, and after them misery and despair. Your fantasy world will grow pale, your dreams will fade and die, falling away like the yellow leaves from the trees …
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights 

(Source: dubbelliefde, via dostoyevsky)

Link: Saying no! to Jack Bauer: Mainstreaming Torture

Rebecca Gordon is the bad-ass philosopher who argues that Jack Bauer is wrong to use torture. She is an applied ethicist who is engaged all the time with forging a dialectical relationship to the rest of the world, with current political realities, with torture as a government supported institution hidden in plain sight, with torture and Alisdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, with torture as a practice, about what Obama should do, about ‘enhanced interrogation’, why Jack Bauer is wrong, why Anscombe thinks certain thought experiments can erode ethical thinking, about whether her approach is universal, about rival approaches and whether there are reasons for optimism around this depressing reality. Come gather round people…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Rebecca Gordon: It was an accident. I’d spent the previous 30-odd years as an activist in a variety of political movements, supporting myself as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 2000, it seemed that many of the movements I’d worked in (for women’s liberation, for LGBT in solidarity with people in Central America, against apartheid in South Africa and for racial justice in the United States) had reached a kind of stasis. A long phase of my personal life was also drawing to a close; my partner and I had been caring for my mother for some years; now she was dying. It seemed like a good moment to do something new. Naturally, I thought, “I’ll go back to school.”

Next question: What to study? Mathematics? History? Small particle physics? I decided I might as well do something that encompasses the whole shebang and study theology. So I wandered over to the Graduate Theological Union, where I thought I’d spend a couple of years and emerge with an M.Div. from Starr King School for Religious Leadership. Once you’re enrolled at GTU, you can take classes at any of the nine schools, and U.C. Berkeley. So I did. And, against all my expectations, I fell in love with scholarship.

The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California gave me a full ride for the first two years of a doctoral program in Ethics and Social Theory. As I worked on the dissertation, I began teaching in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Now I had something entirely new to learn about: how to teach. For the last nine years I’ve had the privilege of talking with an economically, racially, and nationally diverse group of young people about their own deepest values — at the time in their lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be in the world.

The work that became Mainstreaming Torture began as my dissertation at the GTU.

3:AM: You say that the world of philosophical ethics is divided into two very distinct segments – theoretical and applied ethics and that in the academy the theoretical is more esteemed. But you are an applied ethicist – so are you out to change the world – and do you think the academy should be too?

RG: I would never presume to seek to “change the world” as an individual actor. That is a project for many people thinking, deciding, and working together in organized ways. My goal for the students in my classes is that they emerge thinking of themselves as citizens – not necessarily, or only, of a single nation, but of the world. Do I think the academy should be out to change the world? I think that much of its work inevitably does change the world, and not always for the better. I think that those of us located in the academy have a responsibility to recognize that our institutions are embedded in a larger society, and that, as is true for any institution, we exist in dialectical relationship to the rest of the world.

3:AM: You’ve recently engaged with the highly topical issue of torture. Was the motivation political awareness of what’s happening recently?

RG: Yes, and no. Yes in that I began thinking and writing about state torture within two months of the terrible attacks of 9/11. And no, in the sense that I had long known that my own government supported torture regimes in many places, including Greece, the Philippines, and large parts of Latin America.

In 1984 I spent six months in the war zones of Nicaragua. There I met survivors of torture at the hands of the counter-revolutionary force the Reagan administration was (at that time illegally) training, arming, and supporting, known as the contra. The contra had an intentional strategy of terrorizing civilians in rural areas, torturing them to death and leaving mutilated bodies to be discovered by others. I met at least one torturer as well.

A few years later, I served as interpreter for a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, just a few weeks before the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroaméricana in San Salvador. At that time, the Salvadoran government enjoyed military and political support from United States. During our two weeks in El Salvador, one of our key contacts in the labor movement there was arrested. We were able to visit him in prison, where he described how he had been tortured. Not for information, but as a matter of course.

Within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear to anyone who wanted to know that one result was that people were going to be tortured. Of course this wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has been involved with torture, but September 11 did mark a real change. Almost overnight, a question that many people believed had been resolved – whether or not torture is wrong – was reopened. In November of 2011, Jonathan Alter, a mainstream liberal columnist, wrote in Newsweek, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture.” He wondered whether it might be a good plan to deport the Muslims living in the United States whom the FBI had rounded up to “Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings.” Americans who weren’t thinking about new methods to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history” had failed to recognize that they lived in a transformed world. “Some people still argue,” wrote Alter, “that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.”

The people the FBI had rounded up turned out to have nothing to do with 9/11, but some of them were held for more than half a year in cells in Brooklyn, NY, where they were subjected to treatment that has since become very familiar: 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight.

The more I think about institutionalized torture, the more I realize that it is hidden in plain sight all around us – in U.S. jails an prisons, and even in institutions for people with disabilities. So yes, it is topical. And it has been going on for a long time.

3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?

RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.

The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on 24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.

Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.

The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.

So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits. (I’ll say more about how MacIntyre’s approach in answer to a later question.) The “cardinal” virtues have been around in “western” philosophy since Plato and Aristotle (although the latter’s catalogue of virtues was more varied and variable.) These virtues are courage, justice, temperance or moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming, I describe ways that each of these is distorted by the practice of torture. ‘

Courage becomes not the ability to withstand fear and pain, but the ability to overcome instinctive squeamishness and inflict it.

Justice is tricky to define, but one thing is clear, which is that torture subverts the usual temporal order of legal justice. Ordinarily, trial precedes punishment. In torture, the order is reversed, and in many cases, no trial ever occurs.

Temperance can be thought of as a properly measured response to the joys and pleasures of life. In torture, what is prized is moderation in enjoyment of causing suffering. That is, interviews with torturers suggest that they have little respect for peers who torture because they like doing it. Thomas Aquinas includes the subsidiary virtue of humility within the category of temperance. Torture belies the humility that allows us to recognize that no human being can know the contents of another person’s mind. We cannot identify with certainty the “really bad guys,” who may in fact turn out to be unlucky men scooped up and sold on an Afghan battlefield.

The wisdom I am concerned with is practical wisdom, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and Thomas prudence, right reason about things to be done. It is the intellectual virtue, that allows us to think properly about moral questions. In Mainstreaming, I said,

“In commenting on the perpetrators of great evil, including torturers [Hannah Arendt] observed that the one thing they appeared to have in common was “something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Elsewhere she writes, “Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what happened.” The inability to think about what is happening around one, or to make a moral judgment about it, is a dangerous habit indeed.

The practice of institutionalized state torture requires precisely this “quite authentic inability to think” both in people directly involved, and in a public that learns not to think too hard about what is being done in our name for our supposed protection. I sometimes think it’s useful to talk about “culpable ignorance,” the failure to acknowledge something we could know if we chose to. Not that we haven’t had help getting there. I’ve argued that in the case of the “war on terror” the government’s “rhetoric of denial, the theater of fear with its manipulation of threat levels and [what William Cavanaugh calls] the ‘striptease of power,’ the apologias for torture by present and former government officials: All these serve to diminish ordinary citizens’ capacity to think clearly about moral questions.

Read more.

There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.
— G.K. Chesterton

(Source: amandaonwriting, via astranemus)

Gonjasufi - Duet (from A Sufi And A Killer)

Link: The Conservatism of Emoji

Emoji offer you new possibilities for digital expression, but only if you’re speaking their language.

If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
—Nat King Cole, “Smile”

The world will soon have its first emoji-only social network: This news, announced in late June, was met with a combination of scorn and amusement from the tech press. It was seen as another entry in the gimmick-social-network category, to be filed alongside Yo. Yet emoji have a rich and complex history behind the campy shtick: From the rise of the smiley in the second half of the 20th century, emoji emerged out of corporate strategies, copyright claims, and standards disputes to become a ubiquitous digital shorthand. And in their own, highly compressed lexicon, emoji are trying to tell us something about the nature of feelings, of labor, and the new horizons of capitalism. They are the signs of our times.

Innocuous and omnipresent, emoji are the social lubricant smoothing the rough edges of our digital lives: They underscore tone, introduce humor, and give us a quick way to bring personality into otherwise monochrome spaces. All this computerized work is, according to Michael Hardt, one face of what he terms immaterial labor, or “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication.” “We increasingly think like computers,” he writes, but “the other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human conduct and interaction” — all those fast-food greetings, the casual banter with the Uber driver, the flight attendant’s smile, the nurse patting your arm as the needle goes in. Affective labor is another term for what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotional labor,” the commercialization of feelings that smooth our social interactions on a daily basis. What if we could integrate our understand of these two faces of immaterial labor through the image of yet another face?

Emoji as Historical Artifacts

The smiley face is now so endemic to American culture that it’s easy to forget it is an invented artifact. The 1963 merger of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Mass., and Ohio’s Guarantee Mutual Company would be unremembered were it not for one thing: :), or something very much like it. An advertising man named Harvey Ball doodled a smiling yellow face at the behest of State Mutual’s management, who were in need of an internal PR campaign to improve morale after the turmoil and job losses prompted by the merger. The higher-ups loved it. “The power of a smile is unlimited,” proclaimed The Mutualite, the company’s internal magazine, “a smile is contagious…vital to business associations and to society.” Employees were encouraged to smile while talking to clients on the phone and filling out insurance forms. Ball was paid $240 for the campaign, including $45 for the rights to his smiley-face image.

Gradually, the smiley became a pop-culture icon, distributed on buttons and T-shirts, beloved of acid-house record producers. Its first recognized digital instantiation came via Carnegie Mellon’s Scott E. Fahlman, who typed :-) on a university bulletin board in 1982 in the midst of talking about something else entirely.

Nabokov, Fahlman remembered, had called for such a symbol in an interview with the New York Times back in 1969:

Q: How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?

Nabokov: I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

But it took 15 years after Fahlman’s innovation for emoji to appear — and they went big in Japan. Shigetaka Kurita, a designer for Japanese telecom carrier NTT Docomo, was instructed to create contextual icons for the company as a way to define its brand and secure customer loyalty. He devised a character set intended to bring new emotional clarity to text messages. Without emoji, Kurita observed, “you don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.” When Apple introduced the iPhone to Japan in 2008, users demanded a way to use emoji on the new platform. So emoji were incorporated into Unicode, the computer industry’s standard for characters administered by the Unicode Consortium. At that moment, emoji became interoperable on devices around the world, and Ball’s smiley face had been reified at the level of code.

Emoji as Technics

By some accounts, there are now more than 880 extent emoji that have been accepted by the Consortium and consolidated in Unicode. Control over emoji has become highly centralized, yet they make up a language with considerable creative potential.

With only 144 pixels each, emoji must compress a face or object into the most schematic configuration possible. Emoji, like other skeuomorphs — linoleum that looks like wood grain, the trash bin on your desktop, the shutter click sound on a digital camera — are what anthropologist Nicholas Gessler calls “material metaphors” that “help us map the new onto an existing cognitive structure.” That skeumorphism allows for particular types of inventiveness and irony. So the emojiScreen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM might act as a pictogram (“I stepped in a pile ofScreen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM, an ideogram (“that movie was Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM, an emoticon (“I feel Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM, or a phatic expression (“I’m tired.” “Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM”). That’s some powerful contextual Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.02.52 PM.

Yet this flexibility has a broader business purpose, one that goes hand-in-hand with the symbols’ commercial roots: emoji have been proprietary whenever it was possible for companies to do so. NTT Docomo was unable to secure copyright on its original character set, and competitors J-Phone and DDI Cellular Group soon produced rival emoji character sets, which were made available exclusively on their competing software platforms. Emoji were a practical and experiential icon of brand difference; their daily use drove the uptake of a particular platform, and by extension helped establish particular technical standards across the industry. But the popularity of emoji meant they were hard to contain: user complaints about the illegibility of a competitor’s emoji on their phones meant the telcos had to give up on making money off emoji directly. It was the necessity born of linguistic practice over time that prompted these grudging steps towards a technical and business consensus.

Hardt argues that affect is perennially more powerful than the forces attempting to harness it, and it would be tempting to think of emoji in this context. But emoji remain a restricted, top-down language, controlled by the Unicode Consortium and the technical platforms that display them. Media theorist Laura Marks uses the term lame infinity to describe the phenomenon where digital technology seems infinite but is used to produce a dispiriting kind of sameness. Emoji, as “a perfectly normcore system of emotion: a taxonomy of feeling in a grid menu of ideograms” fit that description. While emoji offer creative expression within their own terms, they also may confine us to a type of communicative monoculture. What’s more, emoji also hold out the promise of emotional standardization in the service of data analysis: If a feeling can be summed up in a symbol, then theoretically that feeling can be more easily tracked, categorized, and counted.

Emoji as Data Culture

We love emoji, and emoji depict our love, while also transforming our states of feeling into new forms of big data. Many platforms and media companies are extracting and analyzing emoji as a new source of insight into their customers’ emotions and desires. In the spring of 2013, Facebook introduced the ability to choose from a variety of emoji-like moods as part of a status update. Users can register that they feel happy, sad, frustrated, or a variety of other emotions. And with the recent uproar over the Facebook emotional-contagion study, it’s increasingly clear that quantifying, tracking and manipulating emotion is an important part of the company’s business model. “By selecting your current activity instead of merely writing it out, you structure data for Facebook,” TechCrunch observed when the feature was rolled out. And sentiment-analysis firms like Lexalytics are working to incorporate emoji into their business models.

In many ways, emoji offer us a deeply restricted world. This character set is valorized for its creative uses — such as Emoji Dick, Fred Benenson’s crowdsourced, book-length rewriting of Melville’s Moby Dick as emoji, which was accepted into theLibrary of Congress. But it is also constrained at the level of social and political possibility. Emoji are terrible at depicting diversity: on Apple’s iOS platform, for example, there are many white faces, but only two seem Asian and none are black. Responding to public outcry, Apple now says it is “working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.”

Emoji raise the question: What habits of daily life do emoji promote, from the painted nails to the martini glasses? What behavior do they normalize? By giving us a visual vocabulary of the digital everyday, emoji offer an example of what Foucault termed “anatamo-politics”: the process by which “the production of collective subjectivities, sociality, and society itself” is worked through at the level of individual practices and habits. And in a broad sense, what emoji are trying to sell us, if not happiness, is a kind of quiescence. In Katy Perry’s “Roar” video from 2013, for example, we see emoji transliterations of the song’s lyrics. But is also an eerily stark commentary on the basic anatamo-political maintenance of daily life – sleeping, eating, bathing, grooming, charging our devices. The habitual maintenance depicted in the video goes hand in hand with the “basic” emoji character set.

In a similar vein, the unofficial music video for Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” has brilliant, quick-fire emoji translation using characters from Apple’s proprietary font in front of a plain white background. The genius of the emoji “Drunk in Love” lies in how it perfectly conjures Beyoncé’s celebrity persona, and the song’s sexualized glamour, out of the emoji character set. Emoji can represent cocktails, paparazzo attacks, and other trappings of Western consumer and celebrity culture with ease. More complicated matters? There’s no emoji for that.

Emoji as Soft Control

“This face is a symbol of capitalism,” declared Murray Spain to the BBC. Spain was one of the entrepreneurs who, in the early 1970s, placed a copyright on the smiley face with the phrase “Have a nice day.” “Our intent was a capitalistic intent…our only desire was to make a buck.” The historical line connecting the smiley face to emoji is crooked but revealing, featuring as it does this same sentiment repeated again and again: the road to the bottom line runs through the instrumentalization and commodification of emotion.

Now with many Silicon Valley technology corporations adding Chief Happiness Officers, the impulse to obey the smiley has become supercharged. Emoji, like the original smiley, can be a form of “cruel optimism,” which affect theorist Lauren Berlant defines as “when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain.” Emoji help us cope emotionally with the technological platforms and economic systems operating far outside of our control, but their creative potential is ultimately closed off. They are controlled from the top down, from the standards bodies to the hard-coded limits on what your phone will read.

Emoji offer us a means of communicating that we didn’t have before: they humanize the platforms we inhabit. As such, they are a rear-guard action to enable sociality in digital networks, yet are also agents in turning emotions into economic value. As a blip in the continuing evolution of platform languages, emoji may be remembered as ultimately conservative: digital companions whose bright colors and white faces had nothing much to say about our political impasses.

Link: Reading Wallace Reading

With a fellowship to study his personal library, I wanted to get as far into David Foster Wallace’s head as possible. But what I found there was more than I’d bargained for.

I have David Foster Wallace’s personal copy of Don DeLillo’s novel End Zone. It is in my hands. It used to be his, and now it’s mine, albeit temporarily and under careful supervision by credentialed professionals. It is teeth-chatteringly cold in this room and brain-fryingly hot on the street because it’s July in Austin. People are baking cookies on their dashboards, and they’re delicious. It will not rain until September. 

I am relaying this information to you from the Reading Room of The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which in addition to housing the most powerful air conditioner in North America, houses pretty much every literary archive that you could dream of having access to, including the David Foster Wallace Archive, which, along with Wallace’s manuscripts and correspondence, has about 300 books from his personal library, 250 of which contain copious annotations in Wallace’s miniscule handwriting. I am actually being paid, or, more accurately, subsidized, to read his annotations.

There’s documentation for this. The Andrew Mellon Foundation granted me a fellowship (and a private office) for a proposal entitled “Reading Wallace Reading: David Foster Wallace’s Glosses and the Aesthetic Benefits of Close Reading.” While this may threaten to sound impressive, both the proposal’s title and its contents are in reality complete and utter bullshit. There is nothing academic about my reasons for being here; I am in Austin always and only as a fan. Mere fandom, however, is not enough to convince your wife to allow you to leave her and your two toddlers behind in the mild climes of Los Angeles so that you can jaunt to the burning pit of Hell that is Austin during the drought of 2011 just to pore over the marginalia of a major American writer you’re obsessed with. Phrasing it like that makes you sound irresponsible and selfish, but when you call yourself a Ransom Center Fellow and you flash some Mellon Foundation coin, you’ve got academic immunity and are more or less free from all other obligations.

If all this sounds a bit strange, let me try to contextualize this: apart from one of his sweat-soaked bandanas or used chewing tobacco, David Foster Wallace’s annotations are probably about as sacred to his fans as a piece of the True Cross is to Christians. No Wallace fan could resist an opportunity, especially a subsidized opportunity, to touch the literary equivalent of a medieval holy relic.

If that analogy makes it sound like I consider myself a pilgrim, let me bring things back down to earth because the truth is far less lofty and noble: I am not a pilgrim, and my trip to Austin is no religious pilgrimage. I came to Austin as a stalker, the kind of person who ought to be the recipient of a restraining order, not a research fellowship. The fellowship faintly disguises the fact that I am here to invade David Foster Wallace’s privacy, and that I took advantage of the Mellon Foundation to satisfy my personal compulsion to get as close to the inside of Wallace’s literary head as I could possibly get. What I failed to anticipate during all my academic grifting was how much peering into the dark recesses of Wallace’s skull would give me the howling fantods. What I wanted, I learned, was much more than I bargained for.

This realization came fast and hard the moment I opened DFW’s copy of End Zone. I knew the DeLillo books would be juicy because DeLillo was pretty much Wallace’s favorite author, but that was no preparation for the words that greeted me when I carefully opened the book’s brittle paperback cover:


My breath tripped in my throat. I was hoping for revealing annotations, and Wallace exceeded my expectations with his first gloss. Freaky things like “SILENCE = HORROR” are not the first thing a researcher stumbles across anywhere outside of a TV show. Wallace may have been talking about End Zone, but the context was totally different now; these were words from beyond the grave, written in a dead man’s hand, and even though I’d never met him, here I was holding his treasured book, staring his mind in the face, and his first utterance to me is “SILENCE = HORROR.” Wallace, the self-described “math weenie,” had written the perfect equation, one that has come to represent his silence, the horror of his death, and, as I realized later, my silence, my horror. Equations, after all, work both ways.

And this was only the beginning.

Three books after End Zone, I opened a book whose annotations chilled me deeper than the HRC Reading Room’s cooling system could ever aspire to. This was the moment when I confronted the letters that have preoccupied me for the past three years and filled me with more creative fear and personal dread than I’ve ever felt before.

The letters appeared beside the following passage on page 87 of DeLillo’s Great Jones Street:

“There’s nothing out there but a dull sort of horror. You can’t just churn it up into your own fresh mixture. Hero, rogue and symbol that you are.”

“Maybe I don’t want to churn it up at all. Maybe I want to make it even duller and more horrible. I don’t know. One thing’s sure. I can’t go out there and sing pretty lyrics or striking lyrics and I can’t go out there and make new and louder and more controversial sounds. I’ve done all that. More of that would be just what it says — more of the same. Maybe what I want is less. To become the least of what I was.”

Wallace underlined that entire passage. Then he drew a line down the margin. Then he wrote these three letters: “DFW.” And then he underlined them. Twice.

It’s that “DFW” in the margin that haunts me.

I only thought I knew what “DFW” meant before. It was fanboy shorthand for the literary icon and hero that is David Foster Wallace, but to Wallace, “DFW” stood for the literary entity known as David Foster Wallace, his writerly persona that existed only on the page, apart from the living-and-breathing Dave Wallace. Wallace satirizes his literary moniker-cum-identity in The Pale King, where he writes “once you’re fixed with a certain nom de plume, you’re more or less stuck with it, no matter how alien or pretentious it sounds to you in your everyday life” (297), but this discomfort with his full name existed long beforeThe Pale King. In a postcard to Don DeLillo, Wallace explains that

“ ‘Foster’ is my middle name, foisted on me as part of my N.d.P. by my agent in 1985 — he said there was ‘already a David Wallace.’ I was 23 and would have called myself Seymour Butts if he’d told me to. … Seeing my full name used in print makes me feel like Lee [Harvey] O[swald] did inLibra — another reason that book is probably my favorite of yours …”

In this postcard, Wallace connects the inclusion of his middle name to his hunger for success and approval—the name represents a business decision, a means of standing out in the book market, a decision that was not his and that he has come to feel trapped by years later. It is an identity that he cannot escape — it’s been “foisted upon” him — especially on the page. And what does this have to do with Lee Harvey Oswald? It seems like an extreme comparison, but look at page 416 of DeLillo’s Libra:

“It sounded extremely strange. He didn’t recognize himself in the full intonation of the name. The only time he used his middle name was to write it on a form that had a space for that purpose. No one called him by that name. Now it was everywhere. He heard it coming from the walls. … It sounded odd and dumb and made up. They were talking about somebody else.”

But when Wallace came across a passage in someone else’s fiction that he identified with, he wrote his initials in the margin. Most of the time, he elected to use “DFW” rather than “DW,” implying that he was relating these passages to the literary persona that he felt both shackled to and alienated from.

I’m sure most of us identify with or are touched by passages in the things that we read. That is, after all, one of the reasons that we read. Some of us — diehards perhaps — may even underline them or copy them into a notebook or commit parts of them to memory. But I have never heard of anyone writing his/her initials in the margin of a book. And I’ve certainly never heard of someone doing all of the above and then some. This is obsession, capital-I Identification, the kind that seems excessive and bizarre because that’s exactly what it is.

After finding my first “DFW,” I wasn’t interested in finding anything else in his books. As a Ransom Center staffer delivered each new stack of books to me, the only question I found myself asking was “will this one have a DFW in it?” I never questioned whether seeing a “DFW” might not be a good thing to see, that the presence of one on the page might mark a painful, private moment in Wallace’s life, one that I had no business seeing, let alone being eager to encounter.

Wallace’s initials appear twenty-one times in seventeen books, books ranging from novels to memoirs to literary anthologies to writing guides to philosophy and self-help books, and nearly every “DFW” or “DW” in Wallace’s archive appears next to a passage about creating, or, more precisely, the failure to create. And the “DFW”s that don’t appear alongside gut-wrenching descriptions of arrested creativity accompany withering descriptions of imbalanced, acutely self-conscious mental states, which only adds to the overall impression one gets of Wallace’s mental image of himself as a solipsistic failure, a gifted person who has lost control of his gift and now lives as a prisoner to “DFW” and all of its demands, demands he fears he will never be able to fulfill.

“DFW” represented a classic Wallaceian double-bind to Wallace: it encapsulated his talent and his limitations, the force that blessed him with creative stardom and cursed him with aesthetic failure. His talent, the very thing that held the world in awe of him, was what Wallace viewed as his greatest antagonist, the elusive force that continually threatened to abandon him, leaving him mediocre, forgotten, silent, left with only the horror of failed genius.

Joseph Frank’s book Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation captures this double-bind rather well. Even though Wallace was reading Frank’s bio as an assignment for The New York Times Book Review (during his time aboard the cruise ship he would later christen the Nadir, no less), he still wrote “DFW” next to this passage on page 334 discussing Notes from Underground:

“The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such superiority to berecognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.”

Wallace also underlined a related sentiment on page 117 of DeLillo’s novel Ratner’s Star: “The work’s ultimate value was simply what it revealed about the nature of his intellect. What was at stake, in effect, was … his identity …”

And then there’s this one from page 55 of Apostolos K. Doxiades’ novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture: “How terrible it must have been for him, if after such a brilliant beginning he suddenly began to feel his great gift, his only strength in life, his only joy, deserting him.” In the margin, Wallace wrote “DW; Self-pity; Faint ☹.”

In his copy of R. D. Laing’s book The Divided Self, Wallace drew a parallel between himself and one of Laing’s case studies. For one individual, Laing wrote, “the loss of an argument would jeopardize his existence,” and Wallace wrote that this would be “Like DFW’s loss of ability to write fiction.” When Wallace sat down to write, this is what lay on the line for him. He had to be “DFW” or he was no one at all.

Read more.

Obviously, I believe that to pursue the American Dream is not only futile but self-destructive because ultimately it destroys everything and everyone involved with it. By definition it must, because it nurtures everything except those things that are important: integrity, ethics, truth, our very heart and soul. Why? The reason is simple: because Life/life is giving, not getting.
— Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream