Monday, November 30, 2009


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's Friction starts with a critique of postcolonial theory and its failure to examine the "universal", a concept that is also constructed by the colonial encounter. I am still trying to fully understand Tsing's concept of the universal. She identifies 3 universals that comprise the sections of her book - prosperity, knowledge and freedom. The universals she has chosen originate from the Englightenment, and her discussion of universalist expansion originates with the beginning of colonialism. She writes that "the universal offers us the chance to participate in the global stream of humanity", which seems to imply that it was the colonial encounter, whereby the West met the Rest, that enabled us to think in universal terms (1). The phrase "global connections" is predicated upon the understanding of what is truly "global" and it was only when the globe was properly mapped and the limits of the earth were established, that we were able to think about universals. As such, the universal, while all-encompassing, is also an inherently limited term. Tsing critiques postcolonial thinkers (and especially anthropologists) for focusing too much on the particulars, thus ignoring the power of the universal as concepts travel from the West to the Rest. At the same time, very much in the tradition of postcolonialism, Tsing frames the West as being the perpetrator of universals. Universal aspirations are seen to travel from the West to the Rest, rather than the other way around. What does this imply about the flow of global connections? What does this mean for the agency of the Rest / the Other / the Third World (or however we may term the non-West)? Is the only way they can move forward by creating friction between themselves and the universal? Drawing upon the scientific concept of friction that allows for movement on earth, Tsing locates friction at the junctures between the global and the local (the glocal!) In this, I was strongly reminded of James Scott's Weapons of the Weak, the classic ethnography about small-scale resistance. How is friction different from resistance? Tsing implies that friction is a more productive process - friction allows for the adaptation of the universal to local contexts, just as the Meratus do when they adopt the stories of environmental leaders elsewhere. The global potential of friction then, is its ability to co-opt the universal for specific means, and then through global connections, propel this instance into the global discourse. Friction enables movement, but friction also has the ability to stop movement. Is friction always productive, or can it be destructive as well?

Are universals universal?

In Friction, Anna Tsing introduces a series of elements that she claims hold much influence over the transformation of globalization in a modern society defined by its tangled web of global connections. Developing her analysis around the deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest in the 90s, Tsing introduces friction as her main point of interest. Tsing splits global study into universals and particulars (while emphasizing difference in each) and strives towards making their intersection point more productive (it is this collision of differing ideas, without a unifying theoretical force, that Tsing claims makes popular globalization theory unproductive). She finds this unifying force in what she calls friction. Friction seems to be a somewhat invisible force that drives interactions towards the productive, while simultaneously getting in the way of their smooth operation. It is because of this presence of friction that Tsing claims that capitalism can be overcome (while others, who fail to recognize the productiveness of friction, view capitalism as an all-encompassing, unbeatable globalizing machine). In her discussion of friction, Tsing emphasizes the importance of interaction in "defining movement, cultural form, and agency." She seems to attribute cultural form not to the supposedly unique identity of a country or cultural area but rather to the combined effect of multiple "particulars" and "universals". The multiplicity of particulars comes from within a country or from distant nations through interaction (such as Indonesia's interaction with Japan in the adoption of the sogo shosha trading method) and leaves distinct markings on a culture. Universals, however, seem much more complex. I have not gained a full grasp of the concept, but it is almost as though universals can function as tools that only work properly within a particular historical context (a limit that Tsing claims many cannot see when discussing their knowledge of the universal), pushing towards liberation from an oppressive force. The universal is also an aspiration/achievement that moves across distances and cultures and gains power and effectiveness through its encounters with friction via movement through (interaction with) localities and cultures (within a particular time period that gives the universal context and force). Tsing states, "Friction gives purchase to universals, allowing them to spread as frameworks for the practice of power. But engaged universals are never fully successful in being everywhere the same because of this same friction." In this statement, it seems that because of friction, engaged universals (those which move through cultures) cannot truly be "universal" because friction changes them and stops them from being "everywhere the same". So, is there such a thing as the universal in the presence of friction? When reading Tsing, it seems as though there is, but how? I'd really like to discuss universals more and how friction changes them. I think that particulars in each culture change the universal as it moves from locality to locality as it encounters friction, but I'd like to explore this more specifically.

the physics of disjuncture

Anna Tsing’s notion of “friction” across cultures in the process of global expansion immediately brought to mind Arjun Appadurai’s understanding of “global cultural flow” (Appadurai 6). Both Tsing and Appadurai discuss the site of disjuncture, a concept that becomes increasingly more visible and more applicable as globalization spreads and localities clash with global forces. However, friction and flow are somewhat opposite actions.

My question is, what leads to their different understandings of contact at the sites of disjunction? Appadurai’s analysis of the ‘scapes that constitute the global economy is structured, organized, and mostly devoid of affect, an effect that Jameson tells us is characteristic of the postmodern era. He constructs abstract forms of geography that correspond to the changing modes of contact from physical to virtual in the global economy. Tsing, on the other hand, bases her entire argument on the reinsertion of affect. As she describes in the preface, her research was incited by narratives she encountered at the local level. Affect underlies the relation between global and local for her as she constantly witnessed people getting “caught up in their emotions”. She “locates the global” at the local sites of disjunction, of “awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4). The disjunctures make visible the “frictions of encounter”, and thus occur in a very material way.

I can’t help wondering, Does the fact that Tsing writes fifteen years later than Appadurai play a major role in the differences in their understanding of movement? Tsing’s topic is very specifically embedded in geography and the social sphere. Is she able to do this because of the course which globalization has taken is more developed and more apparently applicative to local cultures than it was in 1990? Or is it irrelevant to compare the two analyses historically and in the context of temporality? Perhaps something occurs at the disjunction between the two sources, and it is the play between flow and friction that makes up the dynamics of globalization and its effect on the local?

It might also be interesting to think about the essay we read on Google Earth’s Darfur project as another oppositional approach to Tsing in terms of the localization of globalization. I always bring it up, but what fascinates me is the failure of this project compared to other potential successes of humanitarian projects. Is it possible to incite the emergence of affect, to get the reaction Tsign gets on the material, local level on a global scale? Google Earth certainly did not help in the way it meant to with the Crisis in Darfur, is that because it wasn’t touching the local in the right way? Is it because the stories came from a westernized, primarily visual and technical lens and not directly from the land and from the culture that the project failed to produce the needed affect?


I was intrigued by Jonah Brucker-Cohen work to subvert networks. In class, we often discuss the construction and sustainment of said networks but who is working within to destroy them?

In fact, how is it possible for a revolutionary to de-struct a network? It seems there is a level of disavowal and complicity in these acts. Brucker-Cohen works with the infrastructure to dis-able it. In that case, is he not using the same tools? Does he not contribute to the preponderance of the technology? Why is selling the software (for cash) on his website? He is capitalist in the techno-age.

Brucker-Cohen also uses human responses to universalize his work. By utilizing physical displays (reactions based on human action) he engenders himself to the consumer. Note his human female voice that emitted from birdhouses around NYC. He uses a woman's voice (or, obviously recognizable as some stereotypical female fem-bot fantasy voice) that glibly chirps vapid (and vaguely cinematic) cliches. We recognize the robot because she is acting the part. Our own recognizance and subsequent complicity makes us impassioned about the work. We even feel injured when it doesn't go the "right" way say, if a policeman takes the birdhouse down. Brucker-Cohen "engages" us on a human level with his technological work.

His presentation on how the kinetic becomes the real was also engrossing. The drill drilling into the wall or his "Police State" installation showed the physical interpretations of an active "online" (or "networked") world. I have to question the ideology and follow-through, all the same. His choices bely an obvious flexibility in interpretation. Why so literal? Why a drill actually hitting a building? Why toy police cars? It seems tame and even a bit quaint. I feel like there is a deeper level of operation available here. The police state that was crafted at the time of his installation had more to do with an ethnographic, xenophobic, and paranoid lens than something as cartoonish as toys zipping around. Hitting a website says more about one's culture, class, intent, and education than just a literal "hitting". Why so simple, I wonder?

I did appreciate Mr. Brucker-Cohen's work in how it brought up many questions for me concerning networks and performance art.

-Nick White

Sunday, November 29, 2009

relevant article

courtesy of the NYT, "Tree Harvester Offers to Save Indonesian Forest";
it seems to illustrate some of Tsing's claims pretty well, both in reported content and form of reporting.

Medical Information and the Outbreak Narrative

In last week's section, we discussed different forms of marking and the stigmas that accompany them in Wald's outbreak narrative. This investigation led me to consider yet another form of marking: marks created by medical record (mis)management and, more specifically, the new mark created by the online transmission of medical information. Communications between doctor and patient are generally considered to confidential, but in the digital age - an age in which information becomes less and less stable - new possibilities for an accessible and rapidly communicable mark are made possible. Take for example this Brown University Health Services agreement, composed in 2003:

"E-mail can be immediately broadcast worldwide and be received by many intended and unintended recipients. E-mail is not a “secure” means of communication.

Recipients can forward e-mail messages to other recipients without the original sender’s permission or knowledge.

Users can easily misaddress an e-mail message.

E-mail may be altered and is easier to falsify than handwritten or signed documents.

Backup copies of e-mail may exist even after the sender or the recipient has deleted his/her copy.

E-mail containing information pertaining to a patient’s diagnosis and/or treatment constitutes a part of the patient’s medical record.

All e-mail may be discoverable in litigation regardless of whether it is in a patient’s medical record. [...]

I understand the assumptions stated above and that e-mail is not a secure means of communication. I am aware that the provider may decline to communicate via e-mail based upon the nature of the medical information. I give permission for Health Services to electronically communicate with me."

The proposal is unsettling. The language used to describe electronic records mirrors Wald's language of the contagious outbreak and underscores the possibility of an informational mark with a viral nature that is easily altered and transmitted. Such language makes the patient aware that medical information circulated online could be kept alive as easily as the contagion it might address. Like a virus, the nature of email permits it to make copies of itself, and become "molecular shark, a motive without a mind' (43). The way in which the medical system communicates becomes more and more like a metaphor for the harm it seeks to curtail. Information about carriers, contagions, and the victims they touch, becomes contagious itself. Wald reminds readers that the "word contagion literally means 'to touch together', and one of its earliest uses in the fourteenth century referred to the circulation of ideas and attitudes. It frequently connoted danger or corruption. Revolutionary ideas were contagious, as were heretical beliefs and practices. […] The medical use of the term was no less metaphorical than its ideational counterpart" (12). Both metaphorical uses incite fear.

At the same time, Wald's own description of a viral web continually echoes the structure of internet communication. She explains how the "explosion of a disease outbreak into an epidemic or pandemic marks, in this formulation, the tragic consequences of human behavior amplified by the web" (23). She also says, "A Hot Virus in the rainforest lives within a twenty-four hour plane flight from every city on earth. […] All of the earth's cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day" (35). Whether one is shooting and email or a virus, the vocabulary is consistent.

In the same way that "communicable disease marks the potential destruction of the community and the consequence of its survival," the internet both creates new hope for communities of victims, as well as new possibilities for indelible marks and de-stabilized systems of confidential doctor-patient communications. Wald's condition for the containment of contagions, the "endless vigilance on the part of people we never see" (22), is the same unreasonable and perhaps unattainable condition for the curtailment of viral digital information and and the unprecedented marks that it makes possible.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Everyone Loves to Hug (Important) Trees

If a developer today attempted to come near the Sequoia National Park in northern California with plans to remove trees, extend touristic ventures, build a hotel, even erect a viewing platform, he would be stopped.

He would be stopped by locals from nor cal, he would be stopped by fellow Americans, he would be stopped by people from across both oceans.

Aside from our hypothetical people, however, what exactly is creating this thrust for conservation, this need to "save" something so relatively local to one area? Why might people from around the world care about this particular spot, a "national" treasure?

I would argue that the draw here for so many concerns that which Tsing begins to tackle on page 200 of Friction, "landscape and memory," in particular, collective memory.

Somewhere like Sequoia National Park -- perhaps for my purposes not unlike places/treasures like Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Yellowstone's geysers --- hold memories for many, a vital note for conservationists like those working with the Meratus forest. The memories built up around Redwood Trees have created myths of their beauty and size. Granted thousands if not millions of people have visited the national park itself, images of the Park and its trees proliferate through the Internet, through postcards, through history books, through family photos, and more.

The Park itself has become a site of converging memories-- now fed additionally through tourism. Collective memory that transcends state or even national lines has enveloped this site. At stake in disrupting it is now the history of place (California since its founding), the history of person (those who have visited), and maybe most importantly, the imagined history and imagined beauty of place (thriving on myths and fleeting images of the place). People are collectively, are universally bent on "saving" this place.

So why not the same with the Meratus forest? In contrast to the Sequoia National Park, the Meratus forest has not "already been claimed for the shadows of nationalist elite imaginations" (201). And surely this is good. Perhaps it is better that the many local tribes, the various communities might share in the many memories that converge in this forest... or perhaps, more accurately, there was a time when this sort of remembrance was better.

But why not also consider that what is risked here, what is lost in such partial, localized, and fragmented memory abandons the hope of a unified saviour. A unified saving of place in place of many, small and ultimately hopeless attempts to prevent the mass force of global development (ie. greed).

Local seems to be tackling global in the Meratus forest, and Tsing points out which is the losing side. But must it be so--- what if a more unified, larger sense of 'mattering' took root here? Might this save Meratus?

Or is something like memory all too reliant on the past and thus unable to transform the present?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mapping the Outbreak

Wald's book, Contagious maps the way in which the spread of disease can be used to map a community. This text made me question the way noncommunicable disease can similarly be used to imagine or map a community. One could quickly bring up statistics that show how much more prominent schizophrenia is in western (as opposed to eastern) society, or a plethora of diseases that one never sees in America or Europe.

Wald's focus on "contagions" as opposed to disorders allows her to focus on the materiality of disorders. In fact, it's this biological focus that enables her mapping. When the focus shifts from contagion to disease, we find more powerfully stratified cultural limits that don't actively illustrate these international flows which make up the majority of Wald's discussion. This breakdown of disorder and contagion, on the other hand, allows us to map something entirely different: the immateriality of these communities, and their culturally constructed differences.

The differences, unlike "thirdworldization" and "modernization" are more refined. They are differences that can't be quantified or explained. Unlike the "contagious" which can be defined--the microbes can be found--disorders don't have definable origins. While microbes can be mapped, disorders are sites where biopower takes control. The disordered is institutionalized. If there is a contagion, the institution works to contain it. Medicines work on the contagion itself, while institutions work on the individual. Why don't the disordered make neat maps? It seems to me--though this is only a tentative answer--that the disordered individual is always still an individual. One can count the number of names of people with any given disorder, but they will always still mark individuals. The site of the individual always seems to fight the totalizing and generalizing capacity of a map and the way in which it attempts to abstract these entities.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mapping and the Outbreak Narrative

Priscilla Wald’s discussion of the American carrier and general outbreak narratives as transformative powers in constructing the “spatial and social relationships of a community” (Contagious 113) brought to mind the discussion we had a couple weeks ago about mapping with respect to De Certeau and Lisa Parks. Lisa Parks, in her analysis of Google Earth’s “Crisis in Darfur” project, describes how the overloading of information through images, through visibility, results in inaction. She proposes that the image has lost its power to construct a powerful narrative and thus to incite action or play a role in putting pressure on Americans to reconstruct their identity with respect to those in Darfur. As we discussed in section, De Certeau poses that the voyeur (whether standing atop the World Trade Center or looking at pictures atop their desk chair at home) is blind compared to the walker. The voyeur sees all but constructs no subjective narrative, and thus cannot play a part in defining the spatial world in which he exists.

If mapping is just the making visible, the charting, of what already exists geographically (or socially), then it seems to me that Wald is describing the mapping and spatially defining role of outbreak narratives in a similar way that De Certeau describes the walker. Or rather, the potential that walking, that individual movement has in mapping, e.g., a city is embedded in the narrative of the carrier/the outbreak. Wald writes, “The narrative of Typhoid Mary serves in [stead of familial connections of personal motivations], charting the movements of the peripatetic cook as it ‘places’ her in social, ultimately historical terms” (95). She terms the healthy carrier a “human vector” and potently notes how,

the healthy human being turned pathogen called attention to the bodily interconnectedness of people living in and moving through the shared spaces of cities and of the nation. The story of Typhoid Mary helped to fashion the experience of those spaces. (70)

Thus it is these narratives that map out “the new models of being in the world” (70) and play a real role in constructing our perception of space in our community. I always bring in Jameson when it is perhaps not the most pertinent to our discussion, but I have to ask: is this a hint at the cognitive mapping for which he calls in understanding the networked relationships in society? Wald describes the narrative of how invisible, “foreign” pathogens, or forces, are made visible, mapped, and then subsequently used as a tool in mapping our relationships as , e.g., Americans with respect to the rest of the world.

Do the narratives do a better job in inciting action and mapping out existence because they pose a threat to us as Americans? Are we only able to help if the help we are giving is to ourselves? Or is it just that communication needs to happen through a channel of interconnectedness (unlike the far-away, almost stock images of Darfur on Google Earth) to reach to us?

Monday, November 23, 2009

another cog in an ideological mechanism

For me, the most interesting contention of Wald's book was the way in which primitivism, nature, poverty and the racial/sexual other are conflated and blurred. One example that Wald provides is a third-party description of Michael Callen:

"[He had] frequented every sex club and bathhouse between the East River and the Pacific Ocean and had gathered enough venereal and parasitical diseases to make his medical chart look like that of some sixty-five-year-old Equitorial African living in squalor." (238)

This erasure of discursive rigor + naturalized combination of otherwise discrete behaviors + identities is what paves the way for the moralizing and policing of bodies-- I'm thinking of biopolitics in Foucault's sense and formulation.

What's interesting about this to me is that while disease is the focus of this book, it is by no means the centerpiece of the ideological mechanism which is serves. Wald herself takes great pains to make clear that it is not parasites, disease, and outbreak which source such biopolitics, but the narrativization thereof. (One great dissected example is provided on pp 6-7, by photo).

While disease narrativization is Wald's focus, her analysis extends far beyond that. Her emphasis on narrative incriminates discourse, and the naturalized interweaving of discourse with physicality. It is not disease which is the enemy in this context; it is both the discursion surrounding/penetrating it, and the ability to perceive such behavior as causal/logical/natural.

Identifying disease as only a provisional/specific focus of Wald's greater observation, it seems that the true relevation is a familiar one: the unceasing entrance of the body into discourse. Wald is interested in "re-writing" such narratives on ethical grounds, but I wonder if this will only perpetuate the naturalized discursion of the body. Will new stories be enough? Or does Wald's work reiterate a need to resist discourse--if that's even possible--and imagine ourselves beyond language? Wald made clear that the body is at stake here, and it is often pitted against discourse. So, what to do?


"Since bacteriologists and their advocates worked to locate, record, and track carriers, rather than to alleviate the conditions in which diseases like typhoid flourished, [Mendlesohn] argues, the carrier state they theorized maintains, as it exemplified, the bifurcation between the scientific and the social." (78)

The story of Typhoid Mary, Wald argues, is fundimentally one of "the metamorphosis from an individual to a social being" (78). The individual is monitored for the sake of the whole (nation), and removed from 'free' individual existence so they may be placed under the careful watch of experts, who will contain the disease. The monitoring of individuals is not something that simply takes place on a higher level; it manipulates the national affect to instill each individual with a sense of duty for the greater nation, to keep themselves clean and watch for potential outbreaks.

The sort of dissonances in the figure of the 'individual' here is quite bizarre. At each level, individual bodies are threatened by the outside; the individual is both a 'responsible citizen' and a global threat requiring containment; the nation is dependent on outsiders, immigrants, for diversity and population health, but faces the danger of microbes potentially carried by these people; the individual nation's "recognizable self" is threatened: "the sovereignty, the home, and, by extension, the larger community, the nation, by which that 'self' is defined" (82).

As mentioned above, Wald attributes these dissonances to a metamorphosis from the individual to social being that takes place the moment a carrier is infected; it is in this sense that Mendlesohn's argument comes into play, as we can now see that, indeed, the existence of discreet contagions is completely ignored in the arguments above, as the actual disease can only be represented in the social being as a node within the social being, an individual. This approach misses "structural inequalities" (to borrow a term used often by students met in D.C.) that literally breed the diseases; as a sort of probabilistic sink that one enters or is born into, poverty creates a certain set of conditions around the individual that can probably not be escaped (but could certainly be appropriated), a set of conditions that generally tends to be conducive to disease. (Note: it is in this sense that Wald reveals herself as a liberal following Thomas Pogge, who sought to explore Rawls' assertion that the institutions of society should always be most beneficial to the least advantaged people, to equalize natural contingencies)

So the problem is in the way the system of global health is constructed, the various initial rules being used to describe it. So, two questions: first, how can the medical world construct a new outbreak system to deal with said structural inequalities, and second, how can one find a general set of rules to revise systems broken by their ignorance of various social forces? Yes, a perfect system is impossible, but exploring methods of revising systems to cohere with morality could have some powerful consequences.

Difference: the specter of susceptibility

Priscilla Wald's Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative offers a enlightening account of a terrifying phenomena. This phenomena is not the emergence of life-threatening disease that humanity faces but rather the complex process of narrativization of the diseases in both scientific and cultural (media) texts. These stories that emerge form for Wald the "outbreak narrative," which she states, itself like the epidemiological map and the electron microscope, a tool for making the invisible appear; it borrows, attests to, and helps construct expertise. The points on the epidemiologist's map and the organism under the researcher's microscope make little sense without the story that is told about transmission. And that story cannot acount for the spread of the disease without registering the interactions that bear witness to the connections of human communities, which ar conceived simultaneously on local, national, and global scales. The outbreak narrative manages the consequences, as it makes sense of, what the communicable disease makes visible (39).

In this way the "outbreak narratives" function in the way that narratives including myths have served humanity for centuries. These narratives, while specific, offer an an interpretative potential for those studying and tracking diseases and the cultures they threaten.

One of the interesting thing that I find is that in her study of Typhoid and HIV/AIDS, deadly disease that would seem to show susceptibility and therefore some biologizing equivalence of mankind invoke differences to label and separate the infected and "carriers" from the rest of the population. In Wald's study of Mary Mallon or "Typhoid Mary" one sees the sexuated and gendered role the disease takes in relation to potential carriers. Beyond the association of female promiscuity with infection, "all women were potential carriers" (106). Diseases cause particular individuals and identities to become embodiments of the disease and reversely gender the diseases.

In the case of HIV/AIDS this occurs in the conflation of the emerging medical mystery with the gay male population it first begins to ravish. Later this is shifted to a racialized view of the HIV virus in two ways. In the first Wald depicts how the origins of the virus cause it to become "africanized," and even "primitivized." Beyond this ontological discovery that emerges in the narrative of HIV/AIDS, the invocation of an "African AIDS," that still haunts media depictions of this health problem show how a continent comes to marks some imagined difference.

It is extremely disturbing to see how these markers of difference emerge in the outbreak narratives in ways that are both constraining on the individuals who may or may not be infected and limiting for the medical and social community which seek to eliminate these threats against humanity.

Late post for last weeks response: New Media and the problem of translation

Jonah Bucker-Cohen's lecture was an interesting perspective of a new media artist/researcher and the complexity of his body of work. This lecture though caused me to revisit some of the personal problems or questions I have regarding new media projects and their potential to open some of the discourses they propose to engage with. One problem I see is the conflicting potentials for collaborative and critical projects that are limited to those with the expendable capital and expertise that allows one to work with such complicated and specific materials. Another is the issue of translating the digital into the physical or social and vice versa.

One of Brucker-Cohen's projects directly tackled this second concern. A sort-of reverse physical computing installation in which a jackhammer would begin to destroy a physical space for every "hit" to a specific website. While the term "hit" embodies some destructive qualities I utterly confused as to how digital visits correlate to a destructive demonstration in physical space. One issue I see with this is a problem in translating the virtual space of a website too the physical space. What is the relationship between the physical space that is destroyed and the website that is visited? Are the websites inherently linked to these physical spaces (f0r example, are the "hits" that cause the jackhammer to embody this data "hits" on the gallery's website?). This project whether intentionally or not seems to connote web activity with destruction of space, yet I do not know this to be true when regarding virtual space.

As I know many of my questions and concerns stem from both a lack of knowledge regarding such an active and productive movement and issues of capital inherently linked to technological projects I look to the upcoming conference for new insights and challenges to my assumptions.

Disaster Nationalism

The narrative of disease is a nationalistic one, as Priscilla Wald shows in her book "Contagious: Cultures, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative". Her telling of the the spread of AIDs in North America highlights this, and she claims that since World War II and the emergence of the study of virology, viruses and contagions have been tied to the war narrative. This is most evident in the 1980s, when the conflation of the Cold War narrative and that of the HIV virus brought about the notion of the virus as an "intruder" and "invader", brought to America through outsiders (Wald 156-7). For America, who shares borders with relatively few countries, disease penetration into the continent signifies a breach of boundary and an invasion into American territory. Viruses, though neutral in and of themselves, have to be incubated and spread through human carriers. The "third worldification" of disease, whereby disease is characterized as emerging from Africa and Asia further creates a fear of the outsider, and of the diseases originating from the dark continents.

Through the narrative of the infectious outsider, disease has thus been used as a tool of nationalism. In May, amidst threats of a global pandemic of Swine Flu, President Mubarak ordered the slaughter of the 300,000 pigs in Cairo. Largely owned by the the Coptic Christian community, the pigs were the livelihood of the zabaleen Coptics, the trashmen who feed the organic trash they collect to the pigs, and then later sell and eat the pigs. In an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, pigs are only raised and eaten by the Coptic Christians. The cultural attitudes by the Muslim population towards pigs as dirty creatures not to be eaten are enhanced by the emergence of Swine Flu and the move for the mass slaughter of all pigs was seen as an attack on the Christian community and their way of life. By culling the pigs, Mubarak and his regime are thus imposing their set of beliefs and their lifestyle upon the people of Cairo.

Despite these measures, deemed misguided by newspapers and medical authorities, Swine Flu still founds its way into Cairo through American students studying at the American University in Cairo, prompting the closure of the university for two weeks. Consequently, the trash problem in Cairo has only worsened without the presence of pigs to consume organic waste.

Suffering from low support, and highly influenced by the previous SARS outbreak, the government of Hong Kong decided in June to take severe precautionary measures towards Swine Flu, all kindergarten and primary school for the rest of the school year, as well as any school with a student infected with Swine Flu. Perhaps the most well-known incident is the quarantine of an entire hotel and plane following the identification of Swine Flu. Given the population density in Hong Kong and the reliance on public transportation, the spread of any disease would be swift. However, as the government began contemplating the closure of all secondary schools, newspaper reports began reporting ulterior motives behind the extreme measures: The government, these reports claimed (in Chinese), was attempting to create panic and fear within the population in order to garner support for itself and to unite and rally the population. Disasters have that ability, as the US experienced following 9/11 and Katrina. Hong Kong's government, according to these newspapers, was attempting to create that atmosphere. However, the mildness of Swine Flu and its low death rate prevented real panic from taking hold.

Nonetheless, it is evident that both the Hong Kong and Egyptian governments attempted to use the Swine Flu epidemic towards their own goals, and to create a "disaster nationalism" whereby the community would be united by a common threat. Rather than a notion of patriotism, nations are then united by fear. Disease is one example, terrorism is another. Unlike the 20th century, whereby fear was directed at specific nations, the 21st century threat is defined by transnationalism and amorphism.

hermeneutics, viro-logic

"There is no practice except by and in ideology" -- Louis Althusser ("I&ISA," 244)
"It is not only possible but time to change the stories and the world they imagine" --Priscilla Wald (270)
Wald's Contagious masterfully weaves together the historical development and past instances of the "outbreak narrative," almost a genre in itself with stock characters, a well-defined story arc, and potentially dangerous effects. Wald's mode of narrative analysis precedes almost epidemiologically, locating SARS narratives as only the latest outbreak of the outbreak narrative, which has mutated from Oedipus through Typhoid Mary, Body Snatchers and Patient Zero. Yet it seems that Wald is fascinated by the virologists method, their viro-logic: "the identification of a virus generated a viral narrative" (216); narratives "inflect--and yes, infect--every aspect of . . . scientific and epidemiological processes" (262). Wald posits narrative as itself infectious, begging the question of method: that is, of hermeneutics as virology.
If, as Althusser claims, there is no practice outside ideology, is there any reason that Wald should not mobilize the power of the virus-narrative to her own ends, mobilizing a sort of critical retrovirus that insinuates itself into the narratives of epidemiology and virology, of novels, newspapers and films, in order to expose the consequences of their myth-making? Can (or must) a critique of outbreak narratives partake of those narratives' resources?
Perhaps there is no practice outside ideology, but it does seem that there are plenty of critical resources available outside discourses of infection and contagion that would be more useful in describing the mechanisms that distribute cultural narratives. Wald asks us to take her sources--scientific journals, magazines, novels, newspapers, popular films--as examples of outbreak narratives; the profusion of examples, like the profusion of a virus, attests to the narrative's endurance. Wald then couples these dispersed examples with historical effects: public health regulations that target impoverished immigrant communities; the militarization of immunological language (and vice-versa); bypassing a "critique of social and economic conditions that affect drug use as well as healthcare" (248). There seems to be a viro-logic governing the relationships between the narrative's causes (narrative as effect) and the narrative's effects (narrative as cause); narrative takes on a kind of recursivity, simultaneously drawing upon and reinforcing social stigmatization & specific models of virology. Narratives are infectious, like a virus, but they are also infected, like a host. 
So it is a question of vectors of infection; for Wald they seem to go from power to power, from mainstream journalism to government policy, from prestigious scientific research to hollywood cinema and back again. In a word, it appears to me that Wald makes a somewhat unquestioned notion of cultural dominance perform a lot of conceptual work, and in so doing reproduces the very exclusions she decries. We need to look at how U.S. policies thirdworldify the 'primitive' farms of Guangzhou, Wald says; but her analysis instead veers off into the New York Times, Scientific American and I Am Legend. Even William Burroughs' virus trilogy is mobilized to show the prevalence of "viral culture." These sources function as a kind of "Patient Zero" for Wald--perhaps they are not the undisputed origin of a certain narrative, but she assumes that they play a major role in spreading it throughout the population. 
Even if analyses of such a dominant culture hold fast for different moments in history dominated by large-circulation newspapers, magazines, and televisions, how do new media (youtube, blogs, RSS feeds, online confessions, twitter, etc.) "inf(l)ect" the outbreak narrative?Networked media are often described as viral (e.g., viral videos), spreading information through a promiscuous milieu composed of fleeting contacts, promiscuous packet switching, and hubs of distribution (superspreaders?). Terranova's analysis of media ecologies can help us here. Although Terranova allows for mass forms, nationalist / scientifically rationalist narratives that Wald highlights do not take hold in the mass as such. Althusser is again relevant: "there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects" (244). The mass is preindividual and collective; subjects, the correlates of ideologies, are the products of functions of subjectification, such as the "selfish gene", which recast genes (which, like viruses, merely replicate or don't) as egotistical actors. 
 Hermeneutics, deciphering the deep meanings of texts, must draw upon a kind of source that grounds the text's meaning; Wald's virological hermeneutics are grounded in the imagining subject who is called upon (interpellated) to maintain the integrity of the nation. Yet what if the notion of subjectivity that lends Wald's method its power is also a stumbling block to "chang[ing] the stories and the world they imagine" (Wald 270)? 
The contradiction I'm attempting to present can be stated more simply: Wald insists that viruses, contrary to their depiction in many outbreak narratives, are not evil or intentionally malicious entities; furthermore, to personify a virus as malicious is to elide from the social factors that enable or exacerbate its effects; yet Wald, claiming that the outbreak narrative itself is infectious, elides some of the social factors that enable, exacerbate or trouble its effects--namely, by taking products of mainstream media as indices of cultural attitudes that she then decries, often at the expense of developing an alternative narrative. I argue that she does this because creating an alternative narrative of epidemics may force her to go beyond a hermeneutic method grounded in the subject of an ostensibly dominant ideology. 
In a word: Wald claims a need for that which she does not deliver--a new narrative that is engaged with the specificity of the contemporary situation, a specificity that is likely more fine-grained than a study of dominant U.S., Western, or scientific ideology. Perhaps if Wald more clearly located the mechanisms of power in her analysis (instead of spending so much time on narratives that she presumes reflect/affect Americans, Westerners, or scientists based on their publication in mainstream press) resistances would emerge more clearly, beyond the confines of the subject-supposed-to-know-the-dominant-narrative. 

(Fair warning: I have not yet read Chapter 3--perhaps it will challenge my analysis; but for a large portion of the book at least, I hope my criticisms hold water. Also: HIV as metaphor (dissimulating/insinuating the improper within the proper), virus as inherently opposed to logic/reason, and language as virus á la Burroughs have made appearances in several earlier drafts of this post--would love to hear if anyone has something worked out more concretely!)

The Healthy Carrier

In the chapter, “The Healthy Carrier,” Wald provides the example of Typhoid Mary as an example of the deployment of the narrative for means of social control:

“The story had to turn theories – in this case, the discoveries of bacteriological research – into plausible explanations, and technical terms and concepts into the ‘truths’ of lived experience” (Wald 70).

For Wald, the threat that the emergence of the healthy carrier brought with it was one that provided the foundation for epidemiological efficacy. The scientific data and research was used a means of interpretation and explanation of social phenomena. Epidemiology provided the grounds for containment, social exclusion and the looming threat that the healthy carrier always already had within the realm of the social.

What the emergence of the healthy carrier also brought was yet another reason for the need to know the body, to examine, and analyze it. Although Wald makes clear the changing nature of the narrative, one thing remains consistent throughout – the intimate link of viruses to bodies. Bodies, even healthy ones, are still susceptible and therefore always suspect to disease. Bodies are inscribed with disease or a threat, an excess of signification. The focus on corporeality is most highlighted in Wald’s discussion of the healthy carrier:

“For public-health workers, the healthy carrier was ‘not merely a passive transmitter of infection’ but ‘also a breeding-ground and storehouse of these specific organisms’ that offered ‘the best explanation for the maintenance of the infection in communities’ (Wald 69).

Here, it is also important to note that one’s fundamental being becomes tied not only the corporeal body, but also to one’s place within the social body. And Wald makes very clear that it is not just narratives of every-body, but also there are layers of bodies that are more susceptible, diseases that become gendered or racialized.

One final thought: Although this thought is not clearly thought out, I could not help but think of the subversive element of the virus. Viruses are seen as posing a threat to ‘humanity’, the role of the virus or disease seen as something fundamentally non-human. The study of disease and viruses, however, is inherently linked with the study of bodies. But we must also ask ourselves what is at stake in this? This is what I think Wald points to over and over again and questions.

It is the desire to know that drives knowledge-production, both sociologically and biologically. So perhaps we need to look into the potential danger of placing subjects fully into realm of representation, where everything can be found out or discovered. However, the presence and potential of a virus points to an incalculability of the individual, the inability to ever fully know the subject. Perhaps the impossibility of ever being able to fully represent subjects offers a potential and the role of the virus in the social order also subverts power, even as it might help perpetuate it. The question I am left with after this thought is, “What is left over in this exchange and what is its potential?”


I found Wald's exploration of Typhoid Mary absolutely fascinating. By discussing how Mary was portrayed in the media around the time of the massive typhoid epidemic, Wald seems to uncover a sticky trail of gender-related residue left behind the media in their unforgiving attack on Mary as the healthy carrier of a national threat. In following Mary across the country by uncovering her contagion "footprints", Soper uncovers a slew of social faux pas committed by the previously unknown Mary Mallon and reveals them to the public, (inadvertently?) attaching all sorts of gender-related issues to the topic of typhoid fever. Of utmost importance, and fairly removed from Mary's femininity was the issue of food regulations and sanitation, for Mary was a cook, and her position got all of her employers sick. Before Mary and other healthy carriers in Europe and Asia were discovered, typhoid was believed to have been caused purely by contaminated fluids, dirtied in the national sewage system. However, with the discovery of Mary's ability to pass the disease through contact, a transition occurred from fear of invisible microbes to fear of filthy (and overpopulated) environments and contact. Also, Mary's status as an irish immigrant created a certain xenophobia that revealed itself in the known immigrant districts of industrial areas. As Mary continued to avoid Soper, he uncovered more and more of her life and began to attach gender-related issues to her status as healthy carrier.
Wald states, "Fallen-women narratives accompanied these outbursts. They encompassed a variety of stories and genres unified by their condemnation of female sexuality that was not sanctioned by the state through marriage." In this, she [Wald] refers to Soper's propensity to link Mary's filth (in referring to her disease and in describing her home) to her sexual promiscuity. Soper's accounts also linked nicely to a progression in the view of venereal diseases at the time and aided in identifying females as "weak receptors" of venereal disease. Also, Mary's constant movement (and multiple sexual partners) called attention to a recent cultural "move toward greater female agency and mobility, [which] prompted renewed attention to the problem of female sexuality and its consequences."Important in this, is a shift from the conception of woman as the bearer of life to woman as the carrier of disease (both venereal and other). There are many more parts of Wald's discussion of Typhoid Mary that I would love to discuss in section, but what I found of significant importance was the societal movement in the understanding of woman-as-victim to woman-as-threat caused by Soper's attack of Mary in the press and medical journals.


“[outbreak stories] conspicuously turn the threat of disease emergence into an apocalyptic battle between heroic scientists and the hybrids who embody the threat (257)”

I was very interested in the passage above and how this opposition to hybridity serves to illustrate broader authoritative, univocal hegemony over consciousness. Especially since the discovery that viruses are not simply parasites but actually shape the life which they infect. In the lecture Wald spoke of biologization of life, what are the consequences of this process if it seen as a dialectical one, in which a foreboding hybrid, such as "Typhoid Mary," posits her identity as the result of a synthesis of host and parasite. How does this hybred induced anxiety translate in how other types of hybreds, such as those of a racial and cultural, as well as sexual base.

Re. Wald

Of particular interest in Wald's book, Contagious, are the areas where she references public health problems of the past to validate her claims of the outbreak narrative and potential of disease to create such a narrative, yet oddly seems to avoid the present.

Granted, I have not read the entire book, I find this problematic and would like to discuss wherein lie the problems. For one, when she writes about Chicago doctor Albert H. Burr that "[his] nation was distinctly white and at least middle class" (86), I wonder to what degree this exclusivity of medical attention remains. Certainly more than Wald addresses here....


On the next page, Wald delves into another very relevant and more complex, interesting topic -- the representational power of venereal disease "derived from its confounding of the distinction between the social and the medical." Wald's jargon here leans towards the negative, with words such as "perpetrators," "victims," "disrupts," and phrases like "dangerously physical. " And surely Wald is making a valid indictment about the polarizing, contentious, more-often-than-not ill-willed media -- something that media seems to have always and surely continues to be. Yet my question then is how might this bending of the medical towards the social, the convergence of the two, be seen positively? What might we risk in solely analyzing the medical and ignoring the social or vice versa? Can the two be separated and still affect public to act?

Perhaps we might look at the H1N1 pandemic and discuss how it is conflating the social with the medical?

Or am I overlooking something in Wald's text, confusing her argument with another...

up for discussion.


A final point of potential discussion is within a specific point in the text, on pg. 241. Wald writes, " The epidemic turns an emblem of national pride, the consequence of new global formations that rhetorically culminate in U.S. nationalism, into a national threat: out of many, one. AIDS is the disease of (too much) democracy; epidemiology exposes the danger of the political ideal as a desire that results in a racialized microbiotic hybridity."

My questions here concern both the actual ideas that Wald is quoting and further, her own support of them (or, what seems like her support of them). Firstly, I'd like to discuss the notion of AIDS as an "emblem of national pride," and debate whether this is a valid claim to be making... how does this national pride, this source of nationalism differ from others that we have looked at (say, Anderson's definition/ historicization of nationalism)? Isn't AIDS perhaps just the opposite, a divisive national issue. Though Wald acknowledges this morphing of the emblem into a "threat," I'm not sure that she's even starting with a valid point.

Further, if AIDS originally stemmed from Africa, how can it be the disease of "too much democracy" -- simply because Americans didn't "catch" this "threat" at the border, or because they hesitate to acknowledge their own error, one says that AIDS represents "democracy"??? Not sure about that either... perhaps a jumping-off point might be Wald's discussion of democracy, another important term for our course.


-aaron wee

Why has the global response to Swine Flu been so politically charged? Talk about bad timing - Contagious would have loved to have been written just a year later and soak in the network culture's response to probably the mildest flu epidemic in generations.

I remember that horribly cynical, snarky, and just plain mean period of media coverage in early 2009 when the mainstream media was crying out about "Mexican Swine Flu". Popular conceptions within the developed world were more than willing to buy into this narrative - that the poor conditions within Mexican farms generated the right biological conditions for this new H1N1 strain. Oh no, it could in no way have come from those paradigms of modern hygiene across the border in American factory farms where the pigs get inoculated with thousands of vaccines... oh wait. Immediately after these and subsequent reports casting doubt on the flu's origins, MSM's use of the term "Mexican Swine Flu" dropped : this is Google News' aggregate of all news stories using the term "Mexican Swine Flu" - notice the sharp sudden rise after March and the precipitous decline after May.

Strangely, the term "North American Swine Flu" never caught on. Instead, we now use "Swine Flu" and pretend that little bit of "biological racism" never happened. (although agencies like TopNews, the Worcester Telegram, and the (Australian) Daily Telegraph didn't get the memo from the 90s that political correctness was mandatory). Admittedly, this research is flawed in that it is no doubt an English-centric worldview of disease naming...

Because the world just gets crazier.

Serious questions were asked: like, is Swine Flu kosher? Or Halal? Mind you, those were official arguments made by the Israeli Legislature, as reported in Haaretz, and a fatwa issued by an Iman. Not, TopNews. Then, we've got Slovakia closing its borders with Ukraine, the catastrophic failure of Cairo's refuse system, and Poland's vaccine epic-fail. These are serious problems, dealt with ostensibly serious peoples and governments.

And yet, we're all still caught up in a deceitful political narrative decades, or even centuries, in the making. There are strong geo-political biases that have been infected with the outbreak narrative and that persist to this day with its labels and imagined fictions about what a disease can and cannot do, and to whom. Which is why we still have the French Disease and the Spanish Flu - which, surprise, may have been an American strain (see a pattern in deadly flus emerging? or not...).

Wald made a good point by setting up the firsts of her episodes involving the narratives of disease with Outbreak's "African Mercenary Camp" opening. It feeds directly into the popular mythos of wartorn, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden Africa that the Western media is so apt to portray. Even though it was eventually America's networked-flight-connected world that would threaten the survival of the species, even if it was America's lax shipping standards and internal controls, even though it was the American military's absent-minded bio-warfare department's lack of safety and foresight, it was still nice to imagine a foreign cause.

These inherent biases that color and infect our narratives come from deeper political intrigue that have lasted and subsisted on the popular imagination for a very long time. Guangzhou, Wald mentions (35-38), makes the perfect  backdrop as exotic China, dirty China, chaotic China, authoritarian China, for the entrance of the Asian Bird Flu.

But why not American Swine Flu? Why not indeed?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Mapping the Affect

The relationship between mapping and actualizing in de Certeau is a confused one. Yes, the spatial acting-out of the place must be performed for one to move through the city, obtain action, but before this may happen, there is a "process of appropriation" that must take place. In other words, how does one actualize a map without having the map to begin with? Things quickly turn into a sort of Beckett-esq dream where the individual constantly stumbles through (a world? a map? a location? their own mind?) trying to escape any sort of representation, to purely actualize, to even escape the limits of their own material body, to remove the virtual from the world. This is (very generally) the dream of both Barthes and Badrillard; to escape the "myth," the "simulacrum" (neither of which describe the same thing exactly, but do occupy a similar position in both theorist's most famous work). The two use similar methods for their attempt; Barthes subjects his myths to pure critical dissection, tearing apart its language to reveal the sort of psychic, real forces lying underneath (the sort of Freudian theory used in essays such as "Striptease" is clearly pre-Lacan in this respect); Badrillard, observing that the simulacrum destroys what it means to represent, attempts to construct a simulacrum of the simulacrum, so that the recursive implosion allows the real to again shine through. (All of these statements are controversial, I'm sure, but I only mean to make them here as provisional observations to contrast against later observations))
These two stand in stark contrast to Chris Csikszentmihályi and the MIT media lab, who clearly look at a lot of maps and know how to use them. Their projects often involve at least two forms of mapping; either engineering (the mapping of physical structures and forces) or geography (as with his project mapping natural gas wells in Colorado). We can take the comparison to de Certeau even further when we note the use of Google Earth in these projects; the map has been appropriated and (in a sort of feedback loop) can be fed back into the community to inspire collective action; his robots are counter-actualizations of military technology, using military techniques to send a robot out to some mapped blank space (mapped because these blank spaces used to maintain military secrecy are indeed missing spots on the map; even they cannot fully escape cartography). Collecting data on the personal damages caused by these drilling industries can serve as a rallying cry, a way for those suffering to "feel as if they are not alone" (a bit of language borrowed from the queer rights movement); the military counter-actualizations seek to testify for those whose voices have been robbed. The various projects all make powerful use of affects, exploring, connecting, and expanding the reach of social groups through the appropriation and actualization of mapped spaces, returning them to (political) representation. Or, at least a limited power; for as much as the MIT Media Lab's projects energize some, it enrages others: as Chris notes, he feels as if he should have been fired from MIT a while back; old war hawks find nothing challenging in protest-bots, they only see something to oppose.
But there's still one last question that needs to be dug out: what is the relationship of affects to mapping? Clearly, affects are not something that can be used by just leftists, radicals, etc. In fact, one could trace the earliest contemporary use of affects to the GOP's southern strategy, playing off of affects of racism, social conservatism, and general fear of the Other (why else would people like Rudy Giullani go out of his way as much as possible to mention 9/11?) to add the voting block that (in conjunction with traditional fiscal conservatives) would win them several elections. The assumption that liberals don't know how to phrase their message correctly to "connect with the affects of the people" is not a new one, nor is it unique to Terranova (despite the uniqueness of her argument); Chomsky's rival George Lakoff wrote a book around 2003 that, after providing a 'rational' argument for why the 'liberal' state was clearly better than other states, argued that the left just needs to know how to "frame" their arguments in order to sway the votes of the people/public. What seems troubling here is the intensity of the 'rational' argument (Lakoff's starts in bizarre form, arguing that the central difference between conservatives and liberals is the view of the ideal nuclear family), especially as it becomes warped in media-space/scape (Glenn Beck?); different rationalities produce different results, and all of them believe themselves correct to various degrees. With this, I can potentially map the affect as existing around common spaces shared by certain groups (fixed in space; two unions in two states will possibly have different languages for their actions) that are fixed and connected by common axes of logic and rationality. The problem is that, if taken to an extreme (Karl Rove, manipulating emotions of fear to achieve power?), the affect can be very dangerous. There is perhaps a way to get around this; namely, not looking to oppose affects, but expanding them through differing levels of synthesis. Yes, we can't synthesize to the level where certain humans lose identity and humanity, but simple opposition, ressentiment is not going to get us anywhere; in the words of Terranova, "We need a commonly shared affect." This is not just a process of strengthening currently existing affects or opposition to currently existing affects; it's continually creating new ones altogether. But then the question is: how does one synthesize affects (or create new ones) without endangering their own identity, their ability to defend their rights as human?

(note: I don't mean to criticize Chris' work here, the natural gas project in particular (which I can't remember the name of, unfortunately) is wonderful and doesn't really attract the sort of issues developed here, and the sorts of responses garnered by other compcult projects are more complex than is given room to here. I'm just trying to use the work to help me bring things together in my thoughts.)

"Social" Technology

During Priscilla Wald's lecture, when the idea of "biopolitics" and "biopower" came up, I had flashbacks to Marx's idea of the reduction of the industrial wage laborer to a set of basic requirements for life- that a laborer is worth, fundamentally, only the bare minimum to keep him alive and able to produce more. And while Wald's arguments did not veer into Marxist territory, I began to wonder about the idea that "biopolitics" is a reduction of man to his most basic, physical self, giving the physical a strong advantage (and power) over social and cultural forces, and then how this in turn shapes the lives of nations and cultures. For example, restaurants that list nutritional information (or at least calorie counts) for each item on the menu are giving prevalence to quantifiability- that is, when one sees options, they are also shown a collection of objective numbers meant to affect their decision. While I do not mean to imply that this is a bad thing, per se, I am curious as to the intersection between Wald's discussion of scientifically objective models and their place in wider circumstances. For me, this all also related to the Csikszentmihályi lecture when he was discussing the importance of taking into account the social and cultural aspects of technology rather than looking at it purely in terms of the science behind it. I guess my question would be about the possible connections and consequences of certain instances of the "objectification" of information (knowledge), and how it plays into a larger socio-cultural sphere.

Idological Partisanship v. Totalizing Logic

Priscilla Wald's answer to my question about her language connecting narrative diversity + development with evolution reflected a larger tension I've been thinking about lately. To recap, my question was whether Wald believed that discussing narrative in evolutionary terms gives it a "naturalness" which helps obfuscate the role of active power structures in producing dominant narratives. Wald responded by saying that her definition of "natural" encompasses not just the incidental, passive world (the common view of nature) but also the intentional, active, and technological (the common view of culture/technology)-- Wald stated that things such as biotechnology are, in her mind, a continuation of natural selection and that these forces can be understood as continuous rather than oppositional.

This was interesting to me because:

1) I usually hear arguments that there is no such thing as "natural," that naturalization is a methodological tool used to create ideology (in the Althusserian sense)-- (that the "natural" is the way in which power masquerades as something other than active). This logic/fear is from where my question arose. Wald, however, seemed to reverse this analysis in her response, folding culture into nature rather than vice-versa.

2) I question how productive her definition of "natural" is because of how totalizing it is.

3) I raised my inquiry because I felt that her paper/speech demanded an ethics of narrative management (ie. her statement that nothing is more fluid than narrative, and that nothing is more foundational [in people's lives].) and I fear that her approach to culture/tech as natural, while deliberately allowing room for autonomy/activism, nevertheless creates a causal trope and produces an observational, almost anthropological role for us, through which a critical interaction with narrative production becomes more difficult. If narrative demands an ethics of activism, is Wald's naturalization of its production the most compelling formuation to use towards that end?

Late Post- Week of 11/9/09: Dividuals, Masses, or Masses of Dividuals?

Tiziana Terranova's Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age shakes the foundations on which “networks,” “information,” and “culture” at-large sit, opening up new potentials for the political. One interesting point she brings up is the fragmentation of information and even the “receivers” of cultural “messages.” To fully demonstrate this Terranova suggests that regarding “the emergence of information as a concept, then should also be related to the development of a set os techniques, including marketing strategies and techniques of communication management – as they attempt to capture the increasing randomness and volatility of culture...messages were not simply directed at groups but tailored to individuals and even sub-individual units (or as Gilles Delueze called them, 'dividuals', what results from the decomposition of individuals into data clouds subject to automated integration and disintegration)” (34).

My question regards the dividual and its relation to the important group or body of the “mass” or “masses.” Terranova suggests the “masses ('you, me and everybody else') are thus not definite sociological categories like classes. The masses are everywhere and in everybody in as much as meaning no longer takes hold. The masses are the place where meanings and ideas lose their power of penetration, the place of fascination and dismediation where all statements, opinions and ideas flow through without leaving a mark. The masses 'disperse' and 'diffuse' meaning, and this is their political power” (138). In what ways is the “mass” as used here similar or different from the “dividual?” What are the problems in conceiving of masses that are inherently not restricted to the sigulars of “you,” “me” and “everybody else,” but to the “data clouds” we are rendered into as “dividuals”?

Late Post- Week of 11/2/09: The Problem of Representing Movements

Perhaps it is the culture of the United States but I believe the cell phone for a majority does not carry connotations of a political tool or power. Vincent L. Rafael seems to shed light on a historical group and event that in fact did view the cell phone and the communication form of “texting” in such a light. His essay “The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines,” “explores,” what he calls “a set of telecommunicative fantasies among middle class Filipinos” (399). These fantasies emerged out of the movement that “overthrew President Joseph Estrada in January 2001,” fantasies that belonged to those who “ the power communication technologies to transmit messages at a distance and in their own ability to posses that power...[to] utilize the power of crowds to speak to the state...they imagined themselves able to communicate beyond the crowd, but also with it, transcending the sheer physical density of the masses through technology” (399). While Rafael is clear that this is a “fantasy” one that engages with the “fetish of communication” for “middle-class demands,” in his descriptions Rafael's text seems to loose its critical edge. Especially in the narrative of one of the “People Power II” crowd's member “Flor C.” These passages while remaining a certain engagement seem to glorify these movements for their potential if nothing else.

This seems especially problematic in that the following crowd the Filipino urban poor is given as an ending anecdote. While it is not simply a question of glorifying the proletariate mass gathering for its own sake (it too as Rafael points out contains many eerie connections to Estrada's party) but that it is given nearly no representation. Put against the middle-class (who seem to be the only subjects who give a narrative in this text) call this mass a “'mob, 'rabble,' or 'horde,'” one must question what it means to represent different and conflicting mass demonstrations (424). What role did the mediation of People Power II both doubling as a historical archive and a political tool play in casting these representative problems?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wald's discussion of Octavia Butler's works were very interesting to me because it brought into conflict the theory of evolution, which is a key symbol of modern post-Enlightenment securlarism in society, with another concept associated with secular modern liberalism, the ever elusive 'human rights.'

The strange narrative authority the alien beings exercise on the human race in the name of the 'greater good' certainly seems like an excellent argument against the 'biolization" of human life; however, whats a stake when we remove biology as a fundamental marker of human(s) as both subject and mass. Have we reached full circle in that we should refocus on individual rights as opposed to those of the group? Or has this play between two polar concepts in defining 'human rights' served to undermine the superstructure which each concept (of individual, group, life) is based on?


Jordan Carter

Professor Wald presented an interesting method for perceiving the race narrative. She conveyed it not as one continuous struggle, but rather as a series of evolving narratives—contingent, but incongruous. I had never considered the abolition movement, the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown vs. The Board of Education, and the contemporary Civil Rights Movement as evolutionary punctuations in the evolution of the race narrative in the US. But after encoding Priscilla Wald's precise rhetoric, hoisted by legitimate examples, even the word's scientific connotations seem applicable. There's always a struggle, but it is never the same struggle—rather, an off-breed. The abolition moment was a narrative of its own, characterized by political campaigns and subversive acts. The Emancipation Proclamation derived from this narrative, but from it another was birthed. Blacks were free, but they were once again constrained by novel adversity in the form of perpetual racism and dwarfed political rights and representation. They may have been off the chain physically, but they were—as Frantz Fanon might put it—"crawl[ing] along. The white gaze, the only valid one...[was] dissecting them" (Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, pg. 95). It's actually quite chilling to reread Fanon after Wald's lecture, and catch some of the scientific connotations. His discussion of the "racial epidermal schema," in its use of 'epidermal'—a word more frequently used in a scientific dialectic than 'skin' or 'flesh.'

Perhaps the skin of the black man has changed via natural selection, constantly forming thicker skin. Those whose epidermal capacities are the strongest can elude the gaze, stand up against the nasty connotations of "blackness" and the "nausea" induced by carrying the "unusual weight" of color prejudice. Indeed, fragments of the hatred of the slave narrative polluted that of he narrative of freedom and equality. Throughout the 20th century, blacks have progressed not in a fluid manner, but in sort of a punctuated equilibrium. Blacks gained the right to go to school with whites, gain equivalent salaries, and today, a black man, Barrack Obama, is the president of the United States—the very country his African American counterparts were enslaved in a priori narrative.

Well it's not like Obama himself was ever enslaved...And his father was a voluntary emigrate, it wasn't like he was brought over here on a slave ship or something....I mean, he is half-white after all.

Woah! The narrative has once again evolved in my opinion. The White Man has historically been theorized to have an affinity for 'The Other,' relegated by repulsion and a desire for consumption—but lately this infamous discourse is being articulated in a new manner. The White Man actually wants a claim in the heritage of the black man, a claim in the very "blackness" he reviled. As Fanon notes in Black Skin White Masks, "For some years now, certain laboratories have been researching for a 'denegrification' serum. In all seriousness they have been rinsing out their test tubes and adjusting their scales and have begun research on how the wretched black man could white himself and thus rid himself of the burden of his bodily curse" During slave times, mulattoes were raped and persecuted as if they were black: even though many, if not most, were the children of their masters. And even today, our "perceptual unconscious" would categorize a dark-skinned mulatto as black. One drop used to be enough to dilute the whole batch. But today the White Man is scrambling to inject himself into the once 'dark abyss' turned golden cell line that is the Obama's heritage. I guess black isn't just black anymore. I guess black is no longer a "bodily [or biological] curse."

"Bloodless Genocide"

I found Wald's lecture to be very interesting. I've always thought on the role of race within the world, and understanding the biological and social association with race.

However, it appears, society still has not developed a consistent relationship with the word, 'human being'. Wald mentioned that idea of a "bloodless genocide", which occurs through the process of dehumanization. The very society that is the US, was built upon the dehumanization of one population. Firstly, there was a 'social death' amongst the natives, who were colonized and culturally stripped. Then slavery, of course, involved the process of dehumanization.

Now that we can identify the kind of problematic views on words such as 'race' and 'human', what can be done about it? Will we be able to rid society of the idea of 'race' when it is so built into the foundation of our society. While race is not biological, it is so socially involved with society. And laws that we establish to define the term 'human' within the legal system, thus generating an association between socially invented term and biology. This inhibits society from moving away from the idea of race, and completely changing it, because it is so accepted as a biological construct.

Hopefully we will be able to diffuse the actual word 'race' and actually understand the word has no significance without the social construct that we built around it. There is a racial hierarchy only because we, 'humans', created one.


The success of civic media projects like the ExtrAct project, according to Chris Csikszentmihályi, relies on the ability to provide information through a navigable visual representation.

“In a contested space, the map is ammunition.”

It is clear that Csikszentmihályi believes in the power of the visual as a means or catalyst for collective action. And to a point, one can say that the ExtrAct project does begin to provide a means for a user to realize their position within a larger schema, offering a new mode of interaction with the conflict.

How does ExtrAct as well as Landman Report Card begin to address its users, both locally and by means of inter/intrastate collective action groups? For as much as the project and the use of Googlemap, address the user as individual, the mapping of natural gas development sites, coupled with the Landman Report Card, users are linked to a network of ‘victims’ or those who have possibly shared similar experiences.

It becomes a means of empowerment, as users/consumers/landowners are no longer isolated in their experience, but are given information and advice from other people who have gone through the same thing.

However, although the mapping of natural gas development creates a network of similar experience, the structure of Landman Report Card only makes possible activism through the local. The Landman Report Card functions as a citizen/consumer watchdog group rather than as a means of collective network. So there are two things that are going on within the project. One, the map, where it begins to create a collectivity around a shared experience or placement of natural gas sites and the other, the Landman Report Card, that address users as empowered through their right to choose. They are produced as both landowner and consumer. What tension is created in their ability to function simultaneously and what does each program with the project open up or inhibit the other’s functions?

Perhaps we can begin to think of Csikszentmihályi’s project as pening up a space that facilitates trajectory through the navigation of the interface, opening up possibilities and new flows and providing new modes of participation. If ExtrAct is seen as merely a tool, and not as a means of solving the conflict, then project begins function as a beginning point of analysis, rather than as an end.

What are the potentialities of interacting with ExtrAct’s interface? Does ExtrAct become a sort of “
interface as intervention,” functioning in a different way than something like Google Earth’s treatment of the crisis in Darfur?