Janelle Monae’s Posthumanist Liberation Pop

In the winter of 2013, something amazing happened to me: I was hit with the fan-girl itch at the age of 31, something that hadn’t happened for years. It all went down when someone posted the video for Q.U.E.E.N. on my Facebook wall. Here was this young woman, Janelle Monae, and even legendary Erykah Badu wanted to be on her record. She was singing about self-respect, and it didn’t come at the cost of putting anyone else down. Instead, she points out all this rudeness, all the ways that other people cut each other down (I can’t believe all of the things they say about me/walk in the room they throwing shade left to right), but she just doesn’t care.

I did not know it yet, but I had been falling in love with the ways that pop artists imaginatively projected blackness into the future since my early teens. I dug on Busta Rhymes and later, got sugar-high on Nicki Minaj’s crazy wigs and alter-egos. But Janelle was special. She approached the future as not a funhouse, but an ongoing struggle, and carried herself with grace and dignity. For starters, she wore a tuxedo, which as I was to come to learn, she saw as a uniform, and like a uniform, was a social signifier of labor. She doesn’t just sing, she works. Monae is conscious and she wants her music to raise the consciousness of others.

In point of contrast, consider Nicki singing about how she’s the greatest and how Lil Kim (truly, her mentor) is a “stupid hoe” (even if she does pay homage in the video to legendary Grace Jones). Janelle sings instead about how she wants to lead people towards their salvation by inspiring revolutionary love.

Janelle Monae as Cindi Mayweather

Janelle Monae sings sings of comfort being an android (as Nicki does with being a Barbie girl). These figures do not shy away at “dehumanization,” but rather appropriate tools and technologies for self-discovery. These are hallmarks of Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery. While cybertheorists have often studied the ways in which information technologies provide a challenge to liberal humanist views of subjectivity (e.g. Katherine Hayles), too often they overlook the ways in which groups of people who have historically been denied their full humanity make sense of these technologies. For example, sound studies scholar Alexander Weheliye provides a rebuttal to contemporary critiques of the degradation of the human voice in the recording industry by analyzing vocoders and autotuning as posthumanist technologies that expand rather than degrade the ability of black voices to make music. He and others included in sociologist Alondra Nelson’s special issue of Social Text illustrate how considerations of race and the goals of Afrofuturism likewise expand the analytic power of cybertheory.

Cyberfeminism and Afrofuturism have more than a few things in common. At the core of both is the idea that there is no garden to get back to, but rather that humans are deeply shaped by their technologies. Always have been, always will be. So if we want our politics to help us shape a brighter future, we had better consider what technologies might offer. For cyberfeminism, the erasure of the biology of reproduction (as in the writings of Shulamith Firestone) and the possibility of living beyond gender in online spaces (Sadie Plant) has been key. For Afrofuturists (from novelist Octavia Butler to jazz musician Sun Ra), the desired futures have been ones that do not erase race, but allow difference to not only peacefully coexist, but thrive in so doing.

In the science fiction world that Monae speculates as the scene until which her musical narrative and “emotion pictures” (her creatively apt term for music videos) unfold, humans have finally perfected androids and gynoids–human-shaped robots who serve them. This drive for robotic assistants as a replacement for uppity servants who are likely to complain about their human rights has been fundamental to American technological production. But so too have we also longed for make matter in our own image: from Pygmalion to Japanese Geminoid robots, non-reproductive humanoid creations offer a sense of godlike power—perhaps man’s freedom from women, as well as his servants. In Monae’s world, both these dreams have come true, and her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, is just such a gynoid: a woman made to serve.

I was long skeptical about the idea of humanoid robots, especially the idea that machines could be made conscious–not politically conscious, but just having a mind, a sense of self and emotion. I saw these a dreams coming from a reductionist view of humanity. Monae changed that for me. By articulating the android as the fantasy of servitude, she highlighted the gendered and racialized dimensions of this figure. Androids are the ultimate exploitable “other,” a human-like being who does not need to be afforded the rights of humanity because it was created by human hands instead of human loins. But is this really okay? Especially if we do succeed in making conscious robots, what kind of society would we create by treating them as lesser humans? Our need for dehumanized service degrades us all.

Mayweather becomes a pop star. She starts out singing at android auctions (Many Moons emotion picture) but she’s singing about freedom. Android freedom. She wants androids to respect themselves and self actualize. She sings about love and that, too is revolutionary. She was made capable of love (a little gold door opens), perhaps because that was considered an engineering feat, but it’s not merely good entertainment for a robot diva to belt her heart out. She wants to share that love. She wants robots to love themselves and each other. She wants them to respect themselves, to grant themselves enjoyment and pleasure (Electric lady, get way down). Saying these kinds of things to a people who have been placed (engineered) within a role of servitude is revolutionary. Robots are not supposed to care about self-preservation. That is antithetical to Azimov’s three rules of robotics.

But Mayweather’s revolution is not just a matter of us versus them. Instead, it is important to Monae’s narrative that Mayweather breaks the rules of her society by transcending boundaries and falling in love with a human. When Mayweather and Anthony Greendown fall in love, Monae demonstrates a symmetry, an equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed, a common core of something which may or may not be humanity in a biological sense, but which is nevertheless the deeply powerful, spiritual capacity to love.

In love is the possibility for something that is much bigger than a happy conclusion to a romantic story. In recognizing a universal capacity to love is the possibility for unity, for a better society. Love is the foundation for revolution. This is not to say that there will not be violence and struggle in the fight for a better future—after all, the narratives of both the Metropolis and the ArchAndroid albums follow Mayweather as she unsuccessfully tries to flee her dismantling, a a fate she fears.

We do not yet know what her fate will be, but we can hope that she will be saved by an uprising of those androids and human allies who she has helped make conscious through her music, those willing to fight the Cold War that will “bring wings to the weak” and “grace to the strong,” leading evil to crumble. We can hope that their cyborgian revolutionary love will come to the rescue and in so doing destroy the oppressive society so committed to exploitation of the weak that it literally builds its own slaves. These revolutionaries will Dance Apocalyptic, as Mayweather herself foretold, and will be given a chance to build a better future that celebrates the humanity and cultural contribution of diverse beings, no matter how they were made.

On Sacrificing Ants & the Scientific Spectacles

In this video from My Amazing Earth, we see a group of scientists using concrete to slowly fill a giant ant colony in order to reveal it’s 8 meter deep structure. It’s way cool to experience such wonder at the alien works of an emergently complex super-organism made of such tiny nonconscious components, but I do feel a little uncomfortable that possibly the largest ant colony on earth has to be exterminated and excavated to be known. I’m wrestling with why exactly…since we sacrifice creatures all the time for a wide variety of reasons, and this is hardly the most heinous or unjustified. Science is but one of many causes that can be justified. The question becomes: what does it mean to be known? To what extent is it creating knowledge or just a spectacle of nature and science? How much knowledge is really gained from this destruction in particular? Does a spectacle warrant sacrifice?

While I was thinking of this in terms of culture and science, when I posted this on Facebook, my friend Mitch Artman responded with Hindu story:

“In this story from the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Indra defeats Vrtrá and releases the waters. Elevated to the rank of King of the gods, Indra orders the heavenly craftsman, Vishvakarma, to build him a grand palace. Full of pride, Indra continues to demand more and more improvements for the palace. At last, exhausted, Vishvakarma asks Brahma the Creator for help. Brahma in turn appeals to Vishnu, the Supreme Being.

Vishnu visits Indra’s palace in the form of a brahmin boy; Indra welcomes him in. Vishnu praises Indra’s palace, casually adding that no former Indra had succeeded in building such a palace. At first, Indra is amused by the brahmin boy’s claim to know of former Indras. But the amusement turns to horror as the boy tells about Indra’s ancestors, about the great cycles of creation and destruction, and even about the infinite number of worlds scattered through the void, each with its own Indra. The boy claims to have seen them all. During the boy’s speech, a procession of ants had entered the hall. The boy saw the ants and laughed. Finally humbled, Indra asks the boy why he laughed. The boy reveals that the ants are all former Indras.”

As he went on to explain,

it’s a way to see that humans who are power-hungry whores are not significant, and could be humbled by their modest ant-brethren if only they would identify with them. when we destroy the ants (and everything else), we destroy ourselves.

Mitch is good at shifting perspectives towards the spiritual question at hand. But in that case, what does this story tell us about what we are doing to ourselves when we are destroying the ants? Yes, are we willing to destroy the ants, but not merely for callousness, or because they bother us, or something else that degrades their nature, our relationship to them, and ourselves. We do it because we want to know them and to wonder at them, and also to wonder at our ability to cleverly figure out ways to know and wonder at them. And for that they are sacrifice-able. It raises questions about the costs of knowledge, even knowledge we use for good, but especially knowledge for its own sake. Who do we sacrifice for knowledge? Would we sacrifice ourselves? (Shades of Agamben, I think, but I haven’t read Homo Sacer.) Destroying ourselves for the spectacle of wonder certainly seems…disconcerting.

Smile or Die (or at least continue being poor and unhealth)

James Coyne, of the PLoS Blog, argues here that positive psychology, then, is for rich white people because they have fewer constraints on their happiness–they can choose it—but even in these conditions, it’s not very good science. Coyne shows that not only is most of the research supporting positive psychology using statistical chicanery to make it’s claims, it either ignores or misunderstands the relationships between socioeconomic status and well-being in ways that blame the poor for not thinking positively.

“In its pencil and paper and online self assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter, so much as what we think about them.

Once we acknowledge the contribution of social economic circumstances, it can be readily seen that for many people, it is not personal characteristics driving responses to these items. In the case of the poor and minorities and other disadvantaged people, responses can be driven by overwhelmingly crushing characteristics of their circumstances.”

Positive psychology is not only used to blame people for their poverty, but also their health. During her battle with cancer, Boingboing’s Xeni Jardin has been critiquing positive psychology’s tyranny over cancer patients, who are relentlessly told that they need to be happy to get better. This leaves patients feeling like they are not allowed to be sad, to grieve and hurt because people around them are literally telling them that their bad attitude will kill them—despite a dearth of evidence establishing such a causal relationship.

Along the same lines, Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign includes a billboard that I’ve been passing on the 5-North that reads “Optimism=Healthy: Worry less, get less sick.” Though it is true that there is a correlation between allostatic load (physiological measures of bodily stress) and illness, we know very little about the relationship between the mental activity of worrying and getting sick.

Beware of data that blames people’s attitude for their fate.  You won’t die if you don’t smile. You aren’t poor because you’re unhappy. The science just isn’t there.

 

Virtual Reality-Mediated Psychosis

This piece from Vice Magazine titled “Experiencing Psychosis with Digital LSD” describes how one artist is using augmented reality to create empathy for the mentally ill. “In 2005, artist Jennifer Kanary’s sister-in-law committed suicide while suffering from a psychotic episode. This event led Jennifer to develop Labyrinth Psychotica, an experience designed to give people more insight into how it feels to suffer through psychosis. Users are strapped into virtual reality gear and transported into the mind of a psychotic girl named Jamie. The whole experience lasts twelve minutes, during which ‘normal’ reality gets increasingly intertwined with Jamie’s psychotic reality, making it more and more difficult to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.”

One fascinating little detail that stands out for me is when the journalist at the beginning mentions that therapists sometimes take LSD to help them better understand their psychotic patients. Definitely clear we’re not in Kansas anymore when someone can say that.

Psychotherapy in Europe is fascinating and pieces like this continually demonstrate that therapists there have a more complex view of how VR might be used in therapy than American ones do.

Go Ahead and Wait

This month’s cover story in the Atlantic (I’m loving the Atlantic right now), “How Long Can you Wait to Have a Baby?” by Jean Twenge, basically all of the fertility studies that journalists have been using for decades to scare/shame women into having babies in their earlier has been based on out-dated, if not uncorroborated data. For example:

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.

 

As Alexis Sobel Fitts points out in her own story on Twenge’s story in the Columbia Journalism Review that data comes from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility drugs…or really any of the knowledge we’ve gained about pregnancy and in the past SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS.

Sobel Fitts takes this case as yet another reminder to journalists to check the origins of the data and especially that of the statistics being used when reporting on science. Too often, science reporting is based entirely off of press release’s published by a university’s PR office summarizing a faculty member’s latest journal publication, without much or any follow up, save for perhaps getting a quote or two about the findings from the author or someone else in their field.

One of the things that really strikes me about the irresponsible, on-going publishing of this data about fertility is how it has been used to shame women into believing that they have to choose between having a family and having a career. Statistics are not innocent, but rather are always value-laden, implying norms about the right way to be in the world. It has become common wisdom that men can wait, but women cannot because their biology simply won’t allow it. This is treated as a brute fact of nature used to undermine the very idea that female humans should pursue careers–and as Twenge points out “an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings”— suggesting that if they do they will be punished with miscarriages, infertility, or babies with Down Syndrome when they finally realize that their lives cannot be complete without children.

This also kind of reminds me of a recent interview I read with radical black feminist Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. One of Walker’s major arguments was that child-rearing is a form of slavery that prevents women from reaching their true potential as humans. It’s pretty clear from the interview that Rebecca had a rough childhood and now is finding a lot of solace in her own rebellious motherhood, but in light of the Atlantic piece, I’m now pretty wary of what seemed to be her strongest argument against her mother’s work:

Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They’ve missed the opportunity and they’re bereft.

 

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

Has it really, or were the women she describes instead betrayed by the circulation of faulty statistics and bad science reporting that led them to believe that motherhood was no longer an option? Twenge’s story isn’t just a lesson about how we report science, it is a lesson about how science is used to reinforce ideas about how women should live.

Beware the Machine Zone

A couple years ago I was visiting with a friend whose roommate was working as a UX (user experience) developer for YouTube. He had recently done some work to redesign the main landing page—where you end up if you go to http://www.youtube.com as opposed to following a link to a specific video. He was boasting that his work had increased the average time that a person who landed on the main page remained on YouTube by 20%.

I asked him “What’s the end game? To get people to spend every free moment on YouTube?”

He seemed a little baffled by the question and changed the subject.

In his piece “The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook,” Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal takes up precisely this question in relationship to social networking sites in general.

Madrigal takes up the work of Natasha Schull, an MIT anthropologist of science and technology who has been studying both developers and players of digital casino games for a decade. Schull’s work is truly brilliant and deals with many issues near and dear to me, foremost the question of how interactive digital media technologies are designed to elicit particular kinds of relationships with users. She is especially interested in addiction and how casino games are designed to keep users in the “zone,” a place where they lose themselves in the cybernetic circuit of their own prescribed agency and the machine’s response. This is not winning, but rather a feeling of “flow.”

But whereas flow was defined by sociologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a psychological state where a person syncs with a rule-bound system in such a way that they can experience “simultaneous control and challenge”—like that day you won every game of ping-pong or couldn’t lose at chess—casino games engineer flow experiences to exploit that feeling, sucking users in. As Madrigal explains:

The games exploit the human desire for flow, but without the meaning or mastery attached to the state. The machine zone is where the mind goes as the body loses itself in the task. “You can erase it all at the machines,” a gambler tells Schüll. “You can even erase yourself.”

There is no meaning because the activity is outside of the social realm; there is no mastery because there is no improvement over time. You can’t get better at slot machines; outcomes are arbitrary.

Madrigal suggests that many of our social network technologies work on similar principles. We find ourselves clicking through hundreds of Facebook pictures, not because we “enjoy” it, per se, but because like digital casino games it fosters a kind of flow state which Schull calls the machine zone.

Madrigal evokes Bruno Latour–one of many STS scholars who have argued that artifacts have politics. They materialize ideas about users and ways of interacting with them. This is not, of course, 100% prescriptive. We can always try to subvert dominant programs for interacting with a technology, especially one as complex as social media. However, thinking about the YouTube UX designer and his unquestioned assumption that the longer he could keep people on the site, clicking on video after video of the content they “want,” I find myself very sympathetic to Madrigal’s call to developers to try to embed other ideas in their systems. He wants developers to code in counter-scripts that help people to “Just Say No To The Machine Zone,” say by encouraging them to engage actively with media (writing emails, reading critically, making art) or <<gasp>> even leaving the computer entirely. “[F]ighting the great nullness at the heart of these coercive loops should be one of the goals of technology design, use, and criticism,” Madrigal writes. If only people like the YouTube UX designer and casino game designers weren’t rewarded so greatly for doing precisely the opposite, exploiting the human desire for engagement in the service of collecting their “play” money and selling their eyeballs to advertisers.

GM and Threatened Fruits

Amidst recently publicized efforts in Japan and Italy to keep out GM products, orange farmers around the world are considering turning to genetic engineering to save oranges from a rapidly spreading disease. According to the NYTimes article “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering its DNA” this turn is a reluctant one and it began only after years of looking for a naturally occurring disease-resistant variety. I am generally against the creation of GMOs which may unwantedly contaminate regular crops and spur licensing penalties. But in a case where it truly seems like all varieties are threatened, contamination seems like less of an issue and radical intervention seems more warranted. And yet, such a disaster could not take place with the enormous monocultural citrus industry. If a disease-resistant orange is created, how will it be distributed? Will it be licensed? How will benefit be distributed among the world’s citrus producers?

MEC vs. STS

The literature on the military-entertainment complex (or military-industrial-entertainment network) tends to focus on the transfer of money and technologies between the military and the entertainment industry. The media produced are seen explicitly as expressions of militaristic ideology (particularly by sanitizing war and turning it into a pleasurable consumer commodity). But in science and technology studies, we are more interested in actor-networks: how does each group that comes together in this work benefit?

This is especially important to take into account when investigating the military-industrial complex because many of these media projects are also <i>research</i> projects: research into human-computer interaction and its application for military needs such as recruitment and training, primarily, but also into basic science including questions of what it is possible to build (like new virtual reality interface equipment).

STS approaches to the MEC help us to ask questions not only about ideology and imagery, but about the knowledge being produced, how it becomes legitimized, and whether it can actually impact military doctrines rather than just reflect them. Scholars only looking at, say, the development of military video games and the stories they tell cannot tell us what information is being collected, how it is being processed, and relationship to militaristic worldviews.

What next? Thinking about Therapy and Politics

As of Friday, May 17th, I possess a Ph.D. in Communication and Science Studies. I defended my dissertation War, Trauma, and Technology: The Making of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy in front of my committee: Chandra Mukerji, David Serlin, Kelly Gates, Charlie Thorpe, and Joe Dumit.

While the defense went smoothly overall, it became clear to both me and Chandra (my adviser) that I had not done enough in the dissertation to take a clear stance on the politics of therapy in situating my project. My data about the development and promotion of VRET was interesting, but the bigger picture was somehow missing.

At various points in writing, I found myself working with questions of Foucauldian ideas, such as biopolitics, governmentality, and discipline. I asked what kind of power was being created through the development of virtual reality systems promoted as doing part of the work of remembering a traumatic event for a military service member in therapy. I thought about Donna Haraway’s concept of the Informatics of Domination and Gilles Deleuze’s proposal of the Society of Control as ways of thinking about information technologies as post- (or better yet, neo-) biopolitical forms of power over populations and bodies. I thought a lot about cyborgs and their subjectivity.

But none of this made it into the thesis because every time I went down that path, I lost site of what my data really showed me. Now that the data is written up into some 280 pages, it’s apparent that these are topics I’m going to need to address again.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Many people have criticized the medicalization of PTSD because it makes a disorder out of a “natural” or “normal” experience. I’m not sure I buy this. Not everyone who experiences trauma has long-term, debilitating suffering. This is not to say that PTSD should be considered an abnormality or weakness, only that it truly represents a kind of suffering that is worthy of intervention. The question is whether therapy or other forms of medical intervention are appropriate ones.
  • We don’t have a great system, currently, for evaluating therapies. All we have is “empirical support” data based on short questionnaires that suggest that someone’s symptoms have remitted over the course of therapy, but these cannot really tell us if someone has healed–only that they have changed their answers to the questions.
  • How could we evaluate therapy, including that for PTSD, based on ethical criteria? Are medical interventions inherently problematic in their conceptualization of disorder and healing and if so, why? Is there a way to have interventions within medical/therapeutic frameworks that also adhere to particular ethical criteria? In order to answer these questions, I need to be explicit about what I believe is ethical, what is problematic in medicalization, and whether the medical and the ethical are inherently mutually exclusive. I really don’t think they are, but I need to be able to explain why this is.
  • In fact, I think therapy can be a very good thing. Unlike someone like Thomas Szasz I don’t just think it’s an instrument of the state to keep folks in line. Rather, I believe that mental illness can actually be a major source of suffering in and of itself (not just because of stigma or social exclusion) and that therapy can be an important part of a journey towards regaining well-being and even agency. People who hide away to save themselves from painful stimuli are not merely socially oppressed subjects.
  • However, I must also address the question is therapy can be ethical when administered in the service of an ethically problematic institution, such as the military. Would I really agree that all therapies are unethical when used in the service of healing combat-related PTSD? Not at all. But then, what would it mean, especially in this context, for a therapy to be ethical? Would it necessarily have to conflict with militaristic goals, or is there a way to conduct healing that is good for the individual without taking an explicit stance towards war itself?

Well, these are all questions I’m going to need to think about seriously as I move forward towards making a book manuscript. I plan to make more use of this blog as a space for thinking through these ideas in the coming months. Stay tuned for elaborations on my thinking about Foucault, cyborgs, and therapy, among other things.