Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Research, Sabbaticals, and the Reality of Higher Ed

It has been quite a while since I've posted, and -- for once -- it's for a good reason. I've been working on some new research which is very timely and somewhat sensitive, in that I am hoping that it is the start to a new larger, hopefully book-length, piece. I was recently granted a sabbatical for the Spring semester of 2019. While a year's sabbatical would be more conducive to research, my university only grants year-long sabbaticals at half-pay, which wasn't feasible financially.

I won't get into the details of my current project work here, but I hope to be posting more often, writing what I envision to be "parallel" pieces that indirectly relate to what I'm working on. Apologies for the intrigue, but sometimes when you've got a really good project that you think has legs, you want to keep it under wraps for fear of being distracted or getting "scooped." It's an aspect of posthumanism that hasn't really been explored in any meaningful way, and I'm hoping to be one of the first to do so.

It's an interesting feeling now, post-promotion to full professor, to establish a research agenda that -- while tempered by demands of my own field -- is my own. As academics, we often find ourselves driven by the desire to land positions that offer some kind of security amid various market pressures and political attacks. And even when we do find those positions, we're faced with internal pressures to engage in research that will ensure tenure and promotion. In most cases, academic freedom allows us to research what we'd like, but we also know that it has to be something publishable. And even then, as economic pressures on higher ed tempt universities to re-create themselves according to certain "identities" (i.e. we are a "destination" or "technical" or "public service" university etc), we find that rushed and panicked marketing campaigns begin to trickle down into discussions of liberal arts and general education: "perhaps if we taught more of [insert fundraising magnet field here], then we'd get more money."

It's especially frustrating for me when the perspective and knowledge I've gained from posthuman studies shows that competing and popular fields pushing these discussions forward are doomed given the demands of the coming decades. You can see the paths ahead to create curricula and programs that could make an institution a real force, but you're told -- directly -- that there have to be donors to support those changes. "Show us a donor with eight million dollars and we can talk about it." When those words can be spoken aloud -- to faculty --  at a university, it's hard to engage in research agenda not affected by those forces (whether it's to try to attract money or to purposely entrench in one's own research agenda out of classic academic spite).

Both extremes are destructive.

I'm not going to stand on the perspective of tenure or promotion to justify my position, because tenure and promotion mean nothing when your program is eliminated. But I can and will speak from the perspective of two decades' worth of experience. I know that to be an effective instructor and researcher, I need to engage in the research that speaks to my own passions and interests. I also know professionally that I have to adapt and shape those results into something that is marketable. And if it doesn't fit into the newest identity one's university is trying on for size, it has to be marketable enough to be published, and perhaps get a little attention. Even if a professor isn't publishing in the most popular majors, universities will still plaster their pictures up on website splash pages to tout their faculty's achievements.

My own research has taken a turn into something that is both meaningful and important to me but could also be timely and popular (well, as popular as academic writing can get). And my upcoming sabbatical is a chance for me to lose myself in it without dealing with the institutional noise and growing list of tasks that are being heaped upon faculty on a daily basis: write the copy for your program for our marketing materials for the 6th time in five years because we've fired the last five marketing people and have no idea where any of that information is; come to this campus discussion about how we're going to revolutionize our curriculum to the point where we're "encouraging" you to add certain content into your own classes; call prospective students to convince them to come.

At a teaching university, all of those are things that take me out of the classroom and interfere with my primary duties as in instructor. All of those are things that directly interfere with my face-time with students. All of those are things that contribute to the fatigue that makes me pass on sitting on committees that could actually make a difference. Some instructors make the transition from professor to fundraiser, although the titles they are given mask that fact: "Director" or "Dean" of something seems much more palatable than "chief fundraiser." The one token course they might teach a year become pegs upon which whatever pedagogical integrity they had is precariously hung.

I do, however, understand the need for people who can chase millionaires and billionaires for funds which are desperately needed to keep universities afloat. It's become a sad reality. And I have no problem speaking to parents and prospective students when they visit campus; I do see that as an aspect of what I need to do in order to actually remain employed. But my old mantra which I've said to the multiple marketing people who have come and gone has been "you get them into the classroom and I'll keep them here." That, sadly, is no longer enough.

It's ironic that sabbatical will take me out of the classroom which I so enjoy -- and have always enjoyed. It's not the classroom or the students from which I need a break, it's literally everything else. I am, in fact, very nervous to be without that classroom energy for a semester, because my students have always sustained and inspired me. But, in the bigger picture, losing myself in research will be a way for me to re-charge my classes and give the students the experience they all deserve.

"Your sabbatical isn't a break," I was told by an administrator at my university, who weeks before had told me that despite my "excellent proposal" I had "about a 50/50 shot" at getting sabbatical due to budget cuts.

But it is a break. A break from the things that distract me from what I do best. When the burdens of non-teaching duties and increased pressure to do the jobs of others encroaches on my class preps and time with students, then stepping away from that for even a semester IS a break. And during that time, I'll tap into the excitement of research that was the core of what allowed me to become a professor in the first place. As I said to a student recently, I knew early on that I wanted to be a professor, but my initial problem was that I saw research and the dissertation as a hurdle or impediment to that goal rather than the path to it. That research was a foundation upon which to build a career; a springboard for my passion to teach.

So, after twenty years, it's time to revisit my foundation, inspect it, and shore it up where necessary. I know I'll be a better professor for it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Alas, Poor Jibo

I recently did a little check on Jibo to see how things were going with the launch of this "revolutionary" robot. I've been interested in Jibo since I first heard about it a few years ago, but then when Google and Amazon soon after came forward with a less-humanoid voice interface, I immediately knew that Jibo was in trouble.

I've written before about Cynthia Breazeal's vision in regard to home robots; her desire to create "companions" since her childhood fascination with droids from Star Wars and her incredible, prescient, and visionary work with the robot, Kismet. 

Jibo's introduction to the world needed 2 things: the ability of the company to change people's expectations of what a home robot could be; and the ability to roll press release to backers from Jibo's CEO Steve Chambers, I realized that somehow, Breazeal's vision had become obfuscated by inattention to what consumers want and need, and what probably was a disconnect in the development team between the creative people and the engineers.
out a reliable product that met those expectations. Upon reading a

In his letter to backers, Jibo CEO Steve Chambers points out a few examples of the problems experienced in beta testing. A couple, like router/Wifi configuration problems were definitely to be expected, as would be various "latency" or system lag problems. However, two of them were most telling and especially disappointing:

  • "Discoverability: Users had trouble discovering what Jibo could do. This is partially due to the fact that we have an early stage product with limited skill functionality, and partially due to some changes we need to make from a user experience standpoint."
  • "Error mitigation: When users had trouble discovering what to say, Jibo was not helping to mitigate those errors by guiding the user properly. Many times users didn’t know what to say or do and Jibo didn’t know how to help them break the cycle, creating confusion and frustration for the user."
The fact that early adopters -- those being most aware of Jibo as an innovative device and thus more likely to be more patient in the "discovery" process -- were having difficult figuring out what Jibo could do was troubling.  Jibo was purportedly designed around an evocative interface; one that would intuitively evoke or build and awareness of how Jibo could best be used simply through "getting to know" it. That is to say, out of the box, Jibo should have been able to lead users toward an understanding of what it could do and what it had to offer them. Also, the core feature of  Jibo was its ability to naturally interact with people, yet it was impeded by its inability to not only understand users, but to guide them in how to best interact. Missing the mark on the foundational elements of creating an intuitive interface makes me believe that if Jibo ever does roll out, it will be to toy stores, or perhaps next to the massage chairs at Sharper Image-type stores.

But these shortcomings led me to two possible conclusions: that Jibo's engineers and designers had an expectation that non-engineers and non-tech people would react to Jibo in a certain way; or that there was an expectations that users would intuit how Jibo should be used. The "error mitigation" issues makes me think that it was the former, because in the lab engineers and software people knew exactly what to say and do to get Jibo to be "useful."

Technicians and engineers deal with new technologies in a vacuum, surrounded by people who think as they do, who see interaction between humans and machines as a  general problem to be solved rather than as a relationship that must be forged from experience. And after reading Brazeal's work, I'm thinking that her vision of what robot interaction could be actually became too steeped in fantasies of human/robot companionship. C3PO was a person playing a role, as was Robbie the Robot, David from AI, Data from Star Trek, etc. Humans in the bodies of robots -- or at least speaking as robots. The general artificial intelligence that is being sought after here is nothing more than human companionship. In this way, Jibo was doomed to failure before it started, because the underlying goal was to make another human; not to make a new kind of robot.

I have always maintained that the most successful technologies are the ones that become part of the landscape of the human lifeworld without announcing themselves as such. email, cell phones, appliances, etc., etc. They became woven into our lifeworld without us realizing they had. Google and Amazon were aware of this. They were able to see the best uses of the cell phone and spin those uses off into the home; relying on the known quantity of speech recognition and voice identification technology to create appliances that did just enough to make them useful, and allow people to forge their own relationships with them that weren't exactly the same as relationships to humans, but more than their relationships to their cell phones. 

Where Jibo is failing is in a lack of vision: they weren't trying to create a new relationship, they were trying to re-create a human one. 

Personally, I was incredibly disappointed. As a fan of Breazeal, I saw the potential with Jibo. Sure, the animatronics were a gimmick; but I hoped that the vision of the company went beyond Jibo, and saw the little companion as a stepping stone to a truly different technology -- something that forged a new type of human/robot interaction. Clearly, this is not the case. The shortcomings outlined in the CEO's letter  reek of engineers thinking very well like engineers, with a lack of vision for how people not only would actually USE the technology, but how they might forge a different relationship with it. Jibo could have been so much. 

I can't be too hard on Brazeal or Jibo, Inc. My own fantasy scenarios that it was a company with a true vision as to creating a new kind of relationship between user and machine with Jibo as a stepping stone were just that: an optimistic fantasy. On the flip side, though, this reinforces my idea that being aware of the topologies of interface (how this artifact is woven into the spaces in which it will be used) are a key aspect in material design. Jibo was excruciatingly cute. It's movements and gestures were inviting in and of themselves. But I think the main concept-people in the company saw that design as making it more human, rather than making it more "machine." People are more apt to interact with Google Home or Amazon's Echo because they announce themselves as technology. Jibo's blurred line makes users think about how they should interact with it, rather than interacting with it. There's nothing wrong with creating a new interface, but I think the most successful artifacts (and companies that create them) will be the ones that are keenly aware that this IS a new interface, one that is different than what came before, but not human. Jibo was designed without an awareness of domain specificity. Used in the home, then its intelligence must be designed around it and all that occurs there.

It's not a question of creating more human-like robots. It's an issue of creating robots with an eye toward the environments in which they will be used -- including the home. A home robot isn't a "companion," it is a facilitator.

I also think that Google and Amazon have merely scratched the surface with their respective Home
and Echo devices; and Amazon might have a slight edge in its development of related hardware like "Dot" and "Show." I also believe that both companies have an edge in collecting data on how those devices are being used, meaning that they are tracking the evolution of users awareness, skills, and intuitive tendencies and making software changes on-the-fly to keep up -- and eventually inform the next versions of their respective hardware flagships. These companies are successfully figuring out how AIs will be woven into the fabric -- and spaces -- of our daily lives. The advances in human-AI interactions will bring about a more natural interaction, but one that isn't quite exactly how we speak to other people. And that's okay. Our language will evolve with these systems of use.

What will put each company (or any others that might arise) ahead is an awareness of how we function with these artifacts in space, topologically. Home and Echo don't use fancy animatronics. They don't coo and flash animated hearts or cartoon eyes: they function within a specific space in a certain way. And people are responding.

Alas, poor Jibo. We never knew it, Dr. Breazeal. It hath born on its back the failures of discoverability and error mitigation, and now, how non-intuitive to the imagination it is.

(Apologies to both Dr. Breazeal and Shakespeare). 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Professional Milestones and Unexplored Territories: A Past-Due Update

I was a little shocked to realize that it has been this long since I updated Posthuman Being. I do have a couple of things in the pipeline now that I'll be able to discuss when each moves out of the revision stage. I'm optimistic about one of the projects. The other is a piece liked by the editors, but the project itself is in editorial limbo. I've been lucky on other pieces and their speedy turnarounds. I was due for a slow one. These projects will be the symbolic end of a chapter, and the last before I anticipate a "turn" in my work within the field of posthumanism. There have been glimmers of where I'm headed in my previous Posthuman Being entries. But now it's time for me to actively begin the next chapter. There will be much reading to do.

Concurrently, I've hit a professional milestone which needed its own moment of reflection: my promotion from the rank of 'associate professor' to 'professor.' For those not familiar with academic rank and promotion: after achieving tenure and promotion from 'assistant' to 'associate' professor, this is basically the final step. While I can't speak for everyone, there is a kind of  academic "mid-life crisis" that one can experience during this transition. I've had some decent accomplishments for someone at a teaching university with a 4/4 load (as opposed to a research university where the full-time load is fewer classes with a higher expectation/weight placed on research and publishing). I spent eight years as an adjunct teaching a 5/5 load or greater. The rest have been in the tenure-track and as a tenured faculty member. In total, I have logged 20 years teaching full-time. So, in both my professional and personal life, I am in one of those contemplative phases.

So I'm in that space between what I have accomplished and what I still want to accomplish. And for me, many of my personal and professional goals intertwine. So there's a bit of an added dimension to this introspection.

There are topics that I've wanted to cover in my research that, prior to tenure and promotion, I thought were too "out there" to explore. But now I have the privilege (and it IS a privilege in all connotations of the word) of choice. I can choose my direction, both in terms of research and in terms of institutional service goals. In the latter, I can choose my battles and pursue the issues which I think are important. To a certain extent, those battles tend to find me, but now I can face them directly without having to hold back. That feels good.

That being said, I also know that this privilege can disintegrate with one fell swoop of a budgetary ax, or under the whim of administrative politics. This is not a situation unique to myself, but to any academic serving in academia. Tenure and promotion is not a shield from reality.  It is however, a chance to respond to issues with confidence and a clear voice. It is an opportunity to take risks, knowing full well that the opportunity can vanish at any time.

That confidence and clarity comes around full-circle. I have learned a lot. I still have much to learn. I have been shaped by academia, which -- contrary to popular opinion of those outside of it -- can be  harsh and unforgiving environment. I have witnessed people broken by it. I have watched ambition smothered by institutional folly and inescapable economic realities. Yet I have endured, and thrived, and the passion for what I do remains intact and has grown even more intense. There are unexplored territories that remain.

I think Seinabo Sey put it best in the beautiful "Hard Time"

"This time I will be
Louder than my words
Walk with lessons that
Oh, that I have learned
Show the scars I've earned
In the light of day
Shadows will be found
I will hunt them down"

Although I'm not sure it I'll be hunting shadows or dancing with them. Then again, it is my choice.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Professional news: new journal article

FYI, my article, "Posthuman Trajectories: Cartesian Logic and Ethical Technoprogressivism" is now live at Word and Text.

Here's the abstract:

This article analyses the posthuman trajectories established in René Descartes’s 1637 A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Moving beyond its references to automata and other ‘technological’ characterizations of the human body and mindedness, I locate a more forceful philosophical trajectory in the text that informs and sustains the very notion of ‘progress’ upon which cultural conceptions of subjectivity, technological development, and transhumanist positions continue to evolve. Descartes’s privileging of the ideal over the material positions the human self as the locus of enquiry and discourse from which progress originates. This may allow one to perceive a certain transhumanist, eschatological trajectory in the Cartesian text. My reading, however, shifts its focus onto Descartes’s desire to see human endeavour as a means of easing human suffering. This, I argue, opens the possibility of an ethical technoprogressivism that can inform our debates over post- and transhumanism today.  

The general ideas for this article were developed informally in my blog. I thought it would be interesting for readers to see the final product.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Artifacts of Loneliness and Connection

Students often ask me about what it takes to pursue an academic career. One specific question that comes regards research. "How do you find your subject matter?" For the students who seriously want to consider getting their Ph.D.s in a humanities-related field, my answer can sometimes sound foreboding: the process will take you apart and put you together again. It will force you to face issues that are deeply personal, and you'll find that your area of research is often entangled in psychologically loaded subjects. I believe that this is one of the reasons graduate students are prone to mental health issues as the process unfolds. I always advise students to inquire about the availability of counseling services when looking into graduate programs. The most productive research is often tangled with the personal.

These entanglements, however, can bring insights both academic and personal.

One of the first subjects in this blog was the Aokigahara forest (aka the "suicide forest") in Japan. By chance I stumbled upon a This American Life podcast, "One Last Thing Before I Go," presenting another story from Japan which brings to the forefront connections the living and the dead. But this time, the symbolic gesture emanates from the living to those who are lost, rather than the opposite as evidenced by the threads left by suicides in Aokigahara. I'm speaking here of the Japanese "wind phone," through which living relatives symbolically connect to the dead.

While depression may have specific, common symptoms, I think that the affective aspect of it -- how it feels, emotionally, is poignantly unique for each person. Listening to the wind phone podcast, especially the kind of rapid-fire examples of personal grief (and loneliness) it brought forward, made me think a great deal about my own episodes. It sometimes flares unexpectedly, and other times ebbs in slowly like the tide. Understanding it helps me recognize the signs of its arrival, and allows me to work through it and rise above it more quickly. Understanding it also keeps me functional while it's with me. My depression has always manifested itself as varying degrees of disconnection, and it made me think of certain images and subjects -- namely are relationships to artifacts -- that have defined my own research.

When a tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, the world's attention was focused on the Fukushima nuclear power plant. But as waters and time recede, like with any disaster that takes thousands of lives, the larger upheaval calms and retreats into the depths of private, individual grief. Replayed and reconstructed in memories, the ache of loss is normalized into the routine; it becomes a scar around which the body remains. Numb at its center; only announcing itself in the visual space it occupies, and at its discomfort at the edges. At best we forget about it temporarily. At worst, we examine it and remind ourselves of its presence. It speaks as silence; as numbness delineated by the tissue around its edges.

Over 19,000 people lost their lives, multitudes more were left to grieve -- especially those whose loved ones were lost. in Otsuchi, Japan, 421 people were never found. This creates a certain kind of grief. With no physical remains over which to grieve, no physical remainder to fasten ritual or resolution, grief scatters like ash, covering the lives of those left behind. It becomes a fine dust that is only moved around and never quite mitigated. Prior to the disaster, a man named Itaru Sasaki was having difficulty with his own grief. His cousin had died:

He went out and bought an old-fashioned phone booth and stuck it in his garden. It looks like an old English-style one. It's square and painted white, and has these glass window panes. Inside is a black rotary phone, resting on a wood shelf. This phone connected to nowhere. It didn't work at all. But that didn't matter to Itaru. He just needed a place where he felt like he could talk to his cousin, a place where he could air out his grief. And so putting an old phone booth in his garden, which sits on this little windy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it felt like a perfect solution.

For Sasaki, the phone's physical disconnection was not an issue, "because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind ... so I named it the wind telephone -- kaze no denwa [風の電話]"

After the tsunami, people sought out the phone as a means to connect to their loved ones, despite its presence on Sasaki's private property. Sasaki has welcomed the visitors and and estimates that over 5,000 people have visited.

As the story continues, we hear heartwrenching audio of people using the phone. Some are skeptical and say "I can't hear anything," others engage in conversation, and still others cathartically apologies and plea for their loved ones to return.  Grief is a particular, seemingly contradicting type of loss. It emphasizes the present (as the place where the loss exists) while also alienating us from it by forcing us to rely on the memories of the past. But really, I believe that the pain of loss is singularly housed in the present, because it is in the present that we reconstruct the memories of our past. The wind phone becomes an artifact which aides that reconstruction. The "connection" to the dead is open, with nothing to impede the reconstruction -- the re-writing -- of our memories of who they were. The solitary phone booth is a portal; the receiver is a conduit to something within -- which, in this case -- is projected outward, symbolically, through the phone. Dialing the number is a ritual to situate the living. As an artifact, the phone provides a focus that centers the living squarely in their loneliness.

Loneliness is an aspect of grief. When one is physically taken from us, there is both a physical and emotional space that dominates every aspect of our lives. It disorients us. The depression that often follows loss is part of a longer process of recalibrating the self to compensate for the loss.

Listening to the podcast reminded me of a concert I attended when I was in college. It was Peter Gabriel's Secret World Live tour. The opening song, "Come Talk To Me," apparently, was about the disconnection Gabriel felt after splitting with his first wife, Jill, and the struggle to connect with his daughter in the aftermath of the divorce. The song was haunting enough for me, but seeing it live affected me on a very deep level. Here's a current link, but I'm not sure how long it will remain there.

The stage is dark. Bagpipes drone. And the Gabriel's plaintive voice pleads "Ah please, talk to me / Won't you please, come talk to me / Just like it used to be / Come on, come talk to me / Come talk to me / Come talk to me." As he sings, an old-style British telephone booth appears to rise from beneath the stage. Gabriel is inside, singing into the receiver. He remains in the phone booth through the first stanza of the song as the band rises from the stage and disperses to their places. At the first chorus, Gabriel emerges from the phone booth and attempts to move toward a female singer (Paula Cole) who stands at the far end of the stage (in the studio version, Sinead O'Connor provided the other voice). His progress is impeded by the physical line connecting the receiver to the booth. He pulls and strains against it, making his way closer to Cole. They never connect, and by the latter part of the song, Gabriel is pulled backward toward the box as Cole reaches out to him.

The image has always struck me on a visceral level, just as the story about the wind phone did as I listened to the podcast. In my college days I couldn't understand why the image affected me so emotionally. During my most acute and prolonged bout with depression in grad school, the image would often come up in my counseling sessions.

We seek connection: the image of the solitary phone booth, connected to nothing, in a solitary garden; the image of a man, pulling against a cord that pulls him back into one. In the former, the phone booth is a conduit to the dead. In the latter, it symbolically stands between him and the real person from whom he feels disconnected. Gabriel advances toward Cole with great effort, only to be pulled back and closer to the box. It also brings out the point that the loneliness that often accompanies depression can act as a lense that distorts everything we experience. Chances for connection can be right in front of us, yet we can't or won't see them. People closest to us feel the furthest away, even though they may not have done anything to alienate us. If the people around us are pulling away it can spark an episode, or it can intensify one already occuring.

These seem to be two very different representations of connection, but what makes them the same is the absence that each is trying to overcome, and the means by which -- symbolically -- they are attempting to mitigate that absence.

The wind phone makes sense in a culture where -- according to Meek -- keeping up a relationship with dead loved ones is not necessarily strange. "The line between our world and their world is thin," she says. A conduit, regardless of the symbolism therein, is conceptually easier to establish. Furthermore, the dead are perpetually reconstructed in the memories of the living. Maintaining a shrine in the home, or "speaking" to them on a telephone connected to nothing becomes a mean to reinforce the reconstruction. Whether the conversations are "straightforward updates about life," or requests of the dead to look after others who have died, or the explicit desperation of loneliness, the dead receive their shape from the living.

The staging of Gabriel's "Come Talk To Me" speaks to a different -- and perhaps, more cruel -- loneliness. One in which the memory of those we lost (or, even more tragically, think we lost) must compete with the relentless intimacy of presence. I always interpreted the song as a plea to someone that was right in front of him, yet further away than anyone swept out to sea. "You lie there with your eyes half closed  like there's no one there at all / There's a tension pulling on your face / Come on, come talk to me." In that presence. the disconnection is not only emphasized, but stands in active opposition to the speaker's own memory of what the other had been to him. The Hegelian master/slave dualism comes to bear here, but the "other" withdraws itself, leaving only the phenomenal self like an outline of what was: a cold, solid shadow that deflects attempts to know it.

Both losses are predicated on the spaces between the living and the lost. Those spaces have been theorized by the likes of Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan, and several cultural theorists. Each attempts to sanitize space through theoretical and performative filters. They obfuscate loss the same way that Heidegger accuses humanity of setting-in-order loss through ritual or outsourcing it to the "them."  I've often wondered why certain philosophers take such precautions when addressing solitude, loneliness, and loss. What loss was Hegel, Heidegger, or any of the other continental philosophers or cultural theorists dealing with as they sat in their loneliness? What pushed them to let loose such waves of explanation to fill the void?  Biographers can speculate, but their loss will be as private as each of our own.

Loneliness is. We can sanitize the word into "solitude" but anyone who is swimming through the black water of loneliness knows the difference. "Solitude" is loneliness's noble cousin, bolstered and anointed by volition. A "choice" one makes to escape noise and to retreat temporarily into a private space.

Loneliness creeps forward, into one's pores. It wraps around us. Envelopes us. It slithers into our spaces quietly. It tempts. And once we engage it, it clings to us; gracefully at first. The dance is a beautiful one. Loneliness flows like a voluminous coat that catches the air and billows around us. It protects us and accompanies us into the same private spaces we occupy when in solitude. It pulls us back into ourselves as we remain distracted by its movements. And then, without any knowledge of the exact moment of its happening, it enters our senses: the space between the point of interface and the knowing of the sensation -- creating impossible, crushing paradoxes. The light that enters our eyes is too bright, yet too dim at the same time. The sound through our ears is too loud but always muffled and incomplete. Our skin, sensitive to its own presence, yet uncomfortably unfeeling to the touch of others. The subtle smells that help establish our sense of place are just out of range, but the rotten and acrid are always with us. Our taste wants what is never there, and eschews what is.

It sinks deeper. A slow leak from a seal that has deteriorated. Seeping in patterns that efface its source. Already confused by our senses, we struggle against ourselves; questioning every word, gesture, and absence. Speak up. I can't make that out. Why is it so bright? Why is it so dark? Where is the thing with the name I can't remember that maybe I brought with me to a place to which I might not have actually gone? Vertigo. What time is it? What day is it? How old am I? Why can't I ...? Why can't I ...?

Confusion turns to rage; a chemical burn just off center in the chest.  Points of origin grow unknowable. We know things before they happen, or are we remembering them?

Loneliness is a drug. It is an addiction that promises its own cure. It speaks to us and beckons us forward, calling:  Fling yourself toward me. Hurl yourself into me. Use me. Bend me. Fuck me. Deep, deep into me, into you. I promise you release.

The afterglow glistens like pitch. Drips. Then leaves us cold.

When the other is still present, the phone (interface) becomes the barrier between them which, for whatever reason, seems as if it can't be overcome. When the other is gone (dead), the phone has no barrier of presence.

The barrier of presence. In each instance, the function of the phone remains the same, yet in each, the result is different. When it comes to the dead -- especially in a culture where the line between the living and the memory of the dead is much more permeable -- there is no obstruction to the memory. Memories of the dead can be remade at will. Although, for those with debilitating grief, the memories come uninvited. Still, the connection made is not with an other as much as it with the self. The loss of the phenomenal other places the burden on the person who remains to re-create the other. The phone then becomes a reminder, a representational device, that helps those to re-form what they knew. It becomes an icon around which the memories, thoughts, prayers can coalesce for a moment of connection. Even for those who "don't hear anything" on the other end, the memory of the lost is still brought into being through desire.

The "Come Talk To Me" performance, however, represents the staggering wound of loss-in-presence. The person is there, phenomenally. He or she is relentlessly present. Yet, the memory of what they were, how they used to be, how we remember them, or how we think they are competes with what we believe to be the cold truth of the real. Regardless of whether or not they have actually changed, or if we are just perceiving and projecting that change, the dynamic plays out the same way. Although the other is always Other, the disconnection brings out the space between. Attempts to bridge that space only serve to reinforce our attention on it. The distance pleads to be overcome. The space beckons to be filled. We hurl our "selves" forward into it. Lines of connection. Performances. Words. Gestures. Anything that might have meaning. In the void, those objects and texts announce themselves in their stark phenomenality. As they fly toward the other, they are stripped of meaning. Dulled and made bright at the same time. Dull in meaning because what we know of them no longer matches what they are. Bright in ostension because that unknown has made them into someone different, more present, like a stranger in a familiar place.

This is what we used to be. And now, estranged. The real stands in the way of our reconstruction of the other. For those who converse on the wind phone, and imagine the responses of the lost, or imagine that the dead are listening, the phone becomes an artifact through which that reconstruction of the other is made manifest. It disappears in its use. Even for those who "can't hear anything," they continue to speak. In these instances, the phone-as-artifact disappears in its use.

But for those faced with the loss symbolized in the "Come Talk To Me" performance, any artifact of communication only exacerbates the loss. The medium stands as a surrogate for our own inability to articulate ourselves. The performance turns the dynamic inside-out. With the other in front of Gabriel, almost within reach, he remains tethered to the artifact. The phone booth starts as a cage, he emerges from it, reaching out, but must pull against the receiver, and becomes entangled in the cord itself. At the closest moment of contact, leaning against the weight, he is pulled back, struggling against it. He could let go of the phone. But, symbolically, he never thinks to do so. To speak to a disembodied voice, we search for cues to help us understand. Without them, we are caught between an ambiguous voice and our own reconstruction of the other. As the other recedes, the intensity of the medium becomes oppressively apparent. What should connect us has only made our separation even more real.

Artifacts extend us. I have stated repeatedly in my own work that artifacts extend our "efficacy." This is true. However, "efficacy" connotes the ability to produce a desired or intended result -- as a means to achieve an end. When that result is not brought about, we become focused in the attempt. And it's in those moments that we grasp the artifact more firmly, and feel its resistance.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Suicide Squad: The Precipice of Dominance and Submission

Note: After suffering a little burnout this summer resulting from some research and revision, I needed a slight break from my regular subject matter. This entry is a departure from my usual posthuman, technology-related posts. It contains mature content and covers topics such as BDSM (bondage, discipline, submission, and sadomasochism), and D/s (Dominance and submission) -- topics which I often discuss in my philosophy & gender courses. Links included here are not explicit but also are not necessarily safe for work. Themes may be disturbing for some. For more information in safe and responsible D/s practices, please see the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. And always play safely and responsibly!

David Ayer's Suicide Squad had a lot going on. Cutting through the critical reviews and the general noise that always surrounds DC movies (some critics said it needed to be funnier, yet others said it needed to be darker), I'd like to focus on the relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. To be clear, there are somewhat disturbing portrayals of violence and abuse in regard to their relationship. The Joker is a sadistic, psychotic sociopath. Harley is equally disturbed -- and a case could be made that her own behavior is a product of the Joker's abuse. But I believe that there are subtle cues in the film that present an alternative reading of the Harley/Joker dynamic, presenting a darkly veiled Dominant/submissive relationship.

The relationship between the two has always been an interesting one, especially since it first evolved in the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Quinn was a rare character created for a peripheral DC medium who made it into the comic canon. Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel started out as the Joker's therapist in Arkham Asylum, only to be slowly manipulated and brainwashed by the Joker until she had her own psychological break, becoming a villain in her own right. Even in the animated series, she was ruthless and chaotic, showing a penchant for oversize mallets, guns, and the occasional cartoonish bomb. As she evolved through the comics, and became a more well-rounded, complex character, it became apparent that under her ditzy facade was a calculating, sometimes terrifying persona whose only psychological and emotional loadstone was the Joker himself. She was very much her own person, but her chosen center was him. Her relationship with the Joker eventually became more complicated, and she has also been associated with other DC villainesses, most notably Poison Ivy, with whom she recently became romantically involved. 

While Harley's sexuality has evolved in the cartoons and comics, Suicide Squad explores a deeper facet of her sexuality: Harley is a submissive to the Joker's Dominant. The interesting part, however, is the complex, stylized -- and often insightful -- way in which their D/s relationship is portrayed on screen. Rather than being a stereotypical, Fifty Shades of Grey-type submissive, she is a very strong, positionally independent sub; meaning that when not in the presence of the Joker (and even when in the presence of the Joker), she is what Michael Makai would call a "Warrior Princess Submissive." Although the label is somewhat misleading given the sometimes pejorative connotation of "princess,"[1] it aptly describes Harley Quinn's role: "She is the wicked-smart, strong-willed, uber-competent, ultra-competitive, synergistic, switchy [as in, can also play the role of Dominant when needed], crusader. She's no one's doormat, never a victim."  There is very much a sense of independence to Harley Quinn, so much so that her devotion to the Joker outside of D/s circles might seem paradoxical. But, as Makai continues: "she is willing and able to fight the good fight alone, but welcomes the notion of having a worthy partner fighting by her side. And yet, when the day's fighting is done, she is perfectly at ease with considering herself entirely his -- heart mind, body, and soul. She is important because she may just be the hope and salvation of this [D/s] lifestyle."

Cultural clues to her participation in a D/s relationship are peppered throughout the film in a few recognizable bondage archetypes. When she is transported around in prison she is restrained -- at one point with a ball-gag. And when she is later tortured by the Joker, she is strapped to a gurney and gagged with a leather belt. She also wears a collar bearing "Puddin," her nickname for the Joker. For a mainstream audience, the fetish imagery is enough to either disturb or titillate in the same fashion as images of Bettie Page or Dita Von Teese -- fetish legends themselves who have been portrayed as both Dommes and subs (Mistresses holding whips or in dominant positions, or submissives who are bound/gagged or otherwise in subservient positions). 

But the relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad presents a very clear D/s relationship for those who identify as in the D/s or BDSM spectrum. Through a D/s lens, Harley's devotion to the Joker is a choice -- rather than a type of codependency.[2] This, I believe, is where most would disagree, maintaining that Harley has been manipulated by the Joker and brainwashed, especially given the lack of an explicit moment of consent. However, if we broaden our view to take into account Dr. Quinzel's qualifications as a psychiatrist and her capacity to recognize a patient's ability to manipulate others, her fascination and eventual complicity becomes a reasoned choice given her history. While this would not immunize her from codependency completely, the grey area of when and where she decides to begin to engage the Joker as a "warrior submissive" is clarified when we take into account the logos of the comic book universe of which she is a part.

In the tradition of Batman-related villains, we see that even those who are "turned" (most notably, Harvey Dent/Two Face), often do so because they have a potential or latent tendency which drives them to crime. The basic formula of the Batman canon of DC is that an emotionally seismic event of some kind (usually the death of a parent, spouse, or child; or something life-threatening to the individual him or herself), forces a choice to engage the character's darker nature. This brings out the individual's "true" morality, and allows them to tap into latent abilities (either human or metahuman) which enables them to bring justice or chaos to a world which they become convinced needs it. The same generally holds true for heroes within the Batman (and broader DC) universe: in a "moment of truth," heroes face the choice to use (or not use) their powers.  This is dangerous ground when applied to a female character who is potentially victimized by a male antagonist. But even though problematic, I do believe that the Joker/Harley relationship as presented in Suicide Squad contains enough elements to support a D/s read. As per her history in the DC universe canon, Dr. Quinzel understands the danger in engaging with the Joker. She is aware of his capacity to manipulate. She is not a patsy to a "superior" intellect or to emotional/psychological blackmail. She chooses to take the leap into the Joker's world.

In terms of D/s sexuality, dominance and submission is a spectrum -- and  those who identify themselves as a part of the spectrum tend to know where they fall at a young age, even if they have no label for it. Images of characters being tied up or otherwise restrained can often cause "strange" feelings that, as adults, a Dominant or submissive can retrospectively identify as the first clues of their sexuality. If we speculate for a moment that Harleen Quinzel falls on the submissive side of a D/s spectrum, her attraction to the Joker -- more specifically, his power -- would make sense, especially since Quinzel herself is often portrayed as a gifted psychologist. She is strong and independent, making her choice to "submit" to the Joker even more significant and -- to some -- more moving. The Joker-as-Dominant also seems obvious on first viewing, albeit briefly. The Joker is a sadist and enjoys inflicting pain. He revels in the physical, psychological, and emotional pain of others. Let's make one thing, clear, however. The Joker is psychotic (as is Harley). His desire to harm or injure others against their will is sociopathic and morally wrong. Furthermore, one need not be a sadist to be a Dominant. But in his interactions with Harley, we see a D/s dynamic pan out quite clearly.

What I really liked about Harley Quinn was that she was a powerful character in and of herself. This is the part that is often misunderstood about D/s relationships: it is not about weakness vs. strength, it is about power and how the Dominant and the submissive engage with it. The term "power exchange" is a good one, but I think that it often puts forth the idea that submissives completely "give up" their power when in the presence of  a Dominant and/or according to the "scene"[3] in which the two are engaged. "Giving up" implies that power is "taken" in a one-sided fashion. However, the satisfaction that the Dominant achieves is contingent upon the submissive. A responsible Dominant must be completely in-tune with the desires, limits, and needs of the submissive; the Dominant must be able to "read" the sub and guide the scene accordingly. Hence, there is an exchange of power, since one word or signal by the submissive can immediately end the scene. A good Dominant, while ostensibly in control, follows the submissive's lead.  Additionally, each person in a D/s relationship must be clear about his or her boundaries, expectations, and hard limits. Each much be completely honest with each other before, during, and after a scene. The often parodied "safe word" or safe signal is an absolute that all parties must honor. Dominants have boundaries as well, especially if a submissive desires a scene that involves something that is either physically dangerous for the submissive or emotionally troubling for the Dominant. The contract works both ways. The submissive may be literally bound by the Dominant, but the Dominant is figuratively bound by the submissive.

Harley does have influence over the Joker because she is very much a strong woman at every turn -- whether or not she's in the presence of the Joker. When he is absent, Harley takes initiative, never needs rescuing, and has a keen insight into the psyches of the other characters, and she effectively manipulates them and uses them to her advantage. She asserts herself at every turn, and shows almost reckless confidence. She is also physically formidable, and tends to dispatch opponents with a baseball bat over a gun; and when cornered by multiple foes she takes them down with a balance of precision and showmanship. She does not cower. She does not stammer. She does not defer.

While it may be difficult (and for some, morally questionable) to separate the Joker's psychotic, homicidal, sociopathic, and generally murderous tendencies from his role of Joker-as-Dominant, there are definite markers that show a Dominant sexuality. As a Dominant -- and like anyone who either dabbles in D/s part time or lives a full D/s lifestyle -- he is drawn to power. One could say that his obsession with Batman is very much an aspect of that. Homoerotic theories aside, the Bat is someone who also wields power in a theatrical and effective way. With Harley, however, there is a challenge. Dr. Quinzel is smart, clearly strong, and very much her own person. Joker-as-Dominant is not "turning" her as much as he is "courting" her. The fact that he is in a straight jacket during their therapy sessions is not inconsequential; it highlights the fact that his seduction is an intellectual one. He must, like any responsible Dominant, allow Dr. Quinzel to make the choice to commit to him. Again, there is clearly manipulation, but Dr. Quinzel would know when he is trying to manipulate her. Like any responsible and insightful submissive, she knows what the Joker is trying to do and understands those advances. Ultimately, she chooses to engage. And she makes the choice long before she has any physical contact with the Joker.

From a Dominant perspective, anyone who is easily manipulated is not someone with whom a Dominant would want to "play," because manipulating someone into a submissive relationship negates their power, eliminating the passion that results from authentic desire. Someone who makes a conscious choice to submit is not only strong mentally, but strong in their own identities. They know who they are, they know what they want, and they know from whom they can get it. Harley Quinn decides to shed her identity as Dr. Harleen Quinzel and commit herself to a relationship in which she gives herself fully to him. She is "collared" with her name for him ("Puddin"), and she places herself in an orbit to him which still allows her the freedom to fully express herself

I know that I'm on shaky ground here, especially for those not familiar with D/s relationships. In the film, Quinn's "transformation" would seem to be predicated on a electroconvulsive torture session with the Joker, who straps her to a gurney, holds two electrical leads, and says the film's iconic phrase "Oh, I'm not gonna kill ya. I'm just gonna hurt ya, really, really bad."

Dr. Quinzel's response: "I can take it."

By no means am I justifying non-consensual torture. But, from a D/s perspective and in a comic book film idiom, the torture session is part of Harley's extended "transformation."  It is very much their "first scene," and Harley does, indeed, take it, proving her strength to the Joker, and the fact that her opinion of him -- and her commitment -- hasn't changed. If anything, it's shed her of the "person suit" (to borrow from Hannibal), that was Dr. Quinzel and allowed her to be a 24/7, out submissive. Soon after, Harley stands, literally, at a precipice, with bubbling chemicals below. The Joker asks "Would you die for me?" to which she quickly assents and is willing to prove.  The Joker immediately amends his question:

"Would you live for me?"
"Careful. Do not say this oath thoughtlessly. Desire becomes surrender. Surrender becomes power. You want this?"
"I do."
"Say it. Say it. Say it. Pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty please."
"Oh God, you're so GOOD."

Harley then allows herself to fall backward, plunging into one of the vats. Harley's "baptism" is the final step of her transformation. For some, this would prove that Harley has been utterly "brainwashed," and is the Joker's pawn. However, from a D/s perspective, this is Harley's "test" of the Joker -- a moment in which he must make a choice to pursue her -- and thus uphold his side of a D/s contract: to be devoted to her, to commit to her, and to allow her to be the submissive she is -- in all of its strength and power.

Ironically, the only moment of hesitation comes from the Joker himself. After she falls, he starts to walk away. But he pauses -- almost begrudgingly -- turns, and then gracefully swan-dives to her rescue, cradling her in his arms as they rise from the ooze. The Joker's choice to jump in after her places Harley in a position of power and is indicative of a confirmed power exchange. She has set the parameters of their relationship, and the Joker's dive seals the contract. He will always come back for her (at least in this film), and often at great cost. In many ways it is a dark, D/s version of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship established in the current DC film universe. Where Harley is, the Joker will follow. As with a deep D/s relationship, both partners must consent to commitment, understanding their specific responsibilities. Of course, in the film, the contractual nature of a D/s relationship isn't necessarily explored explicitly. But the Joker's dive, and his very explicit devotion to his submissive show a clear sense of obligation he has to Quinn, not to mention that fact that stages a massive rescue operation to break Harley out of a heavily-fortified prison at the conclusion of the film.

Together, the Joker and Harley are a formidable partnership. Their mutual devotion allows each to express themselves fully (albeit psychotically). Harley's devotion to the Joker does not entail a mindlessness, or a deferential attitude. Harleen Frances Quinzel chooses to express her power by transforming into Harley Quinn, a willing participant and "Warrior Submissive" to the Joker's "Ineffable Dominant"[4]  Conversely, the Joker willingly gives himself over to his submissive by his implicit commitment to her, even putting his own life at risk. In one of the more poignant scenes in the film, when Harley believes the Joker has been killed in a helicopter crash, she removes her "Puddin" collar and stares forlornly through the rain. There is a sense of foreboding to the scene as well, since without the Joker as her chosen center, she no longer has a focus for her energy. The scene hints that Harley will now be more dangerous and unpredictable than she ever had been before.

I don't expect the DC film universe to pursue this relationship in its entirety, but I do think that David Ayer's portrayal of the Joker/Harley relationship is much more complex than it seems upon first viewing. Sadly, I doubt that the same executives responsible for re-cutting this film (and Batman v Superman) would take the risk of giving the Joker/Harley D/s relationship the attention it deserves.

[1] Personally, I drop the "princess" and call this type of submissive "The Warrior."
[2] For an excellent discussion of the differences between codependency and submission, see "Submission and Codependency -- A Discussion" from the His Left Side Angel blog.
[3] An encounter involving BDSM role-playing and/or specific instances of power exchange which may or may not be sexual in nature.
[4] According to Makai: "The Ineffable Dominant .... consciously explore[s] and borrow[s] traits and characteristics from other dominant categories. The synergy created with each new partner brings new facets to the Ineffable Dom's unique (and sometimes indescribable) topping style."