Me: “There came a point in the conversation when the only thing I could do was just shut up.”
My Partner: “That’s probably what you were supposed to do.”
My partner was right–in a previous conversation, it had been time for me to shut up. The conversation was not with my partner, but with three other women on Twitter. These three women are incredibly smart and I’m proud to consider them friends, insofar as people one meets on Twitter are friends in the traditional sense of the word. But that hadn’t stopped me from getting into some sort of 140 character argument, and getting to that point of needing to shut up. I didn’t like it at all. The entire experience has been gnawing at me all afternoon and I can’t stop thinking about it. But that didn’t change the need for the shutting up.
The reason why I had to shut up was that I’d fallen into that situation which I take to be generally referred to as “mansplaining”. I didn’t think that I was. I thought I was having a conversation with friends, albeit about a contentious topic. But then I suddenly realized that there was nothing that I could say, and no way to make my point be heard, without falling back into the trope of blindered, internet troll, telling women how women should be. Maybe it was simply the short medium of Twitter, or maybe it was just my poorly chosen words, but I had gotten into a place where the only thing I could say was the wrong thing, and therefore the only right thing to say was nothing at all.
This is an incredibly uncomfortable place to be. Certainly it is hard for an opinionated (accepted as) male blogger to realize that he should shut up. But for whomever it is that I am in real life, it was difficult as well.
It would be easy to deny that I’m an opinionated (accepted as) male blogger. Because I’m a feminist, and a gender theorist, and a couple other merit badges besides. I could say simply, “well that’s just how I come across, but really, I’m a _____”. Then I could argue that I fell into the mansplaining trap by accident, or circumstance, or by any other act of collective unpleasantness other than my own mansplaining fault. And I wanted to do this. Because I didn’t want to feel that it was me that blundered into this trap. I wanted to feel like it wasn’t me that had to shut up. It was everything else that was making me have to shut up.
But this is the third mistake of mansplaining that I made–to assume that it can’t be happening, because it’s not your fault that you’re a man. It feels unfair this way. As if your opinion would be totally valid if only you weren’t a man, or white, or whatever position of privilege you happen to be speaking from, and so what the hell?
This is untrue because you’re not a man. Not really. I’m not either. Sure, I pass as a heterosexual man. I don’t know what I really am, because I never really had a use for performative identification in my daily life, and so I take the easy road. Lucky me. But even if I made it more difficult for myself by being truthful with everyone I met on a daily basis about my real relationship with my prostate, my other less directly queer body parts, or the genders and sexual proclivities of each and every one of my former sexual partners, I wouldn’t be above the capacity for mansplaining. Mansplaining doesn’t occur on the level of body parts, it occurs in words. You are mansplaining when you are telling yourself that you couldn’t possibly be doing so, because you never wanted to be doing such a thing. It’s not about what you are or what you want, it’s about what you are saying.
And that was the second mistake of mansplaining that I made–I thought that as long as my argument was logical, there was no way that I could be wrong. The argument itself (which I still feel I was logically right about) was not the point. It doesn’t matter how right you are. Whether one is wrong or right, if you are not reaching the people you are talking to, the whole thing is moot. I even stooped so low as to mention my academic credentials on the subject, because I had lost sight of the problem. And I do know a lot about the subject! I have a shelf full of books on the subject that I have actually read. But what I didn’t know was that regardless of what you think of book learnin’, we were long past knowledge of the subject or rhetorical skill.
No matter how rational we like to think that we are, this is really not the core of communication. This is not to say that hugging and warm fuzzies (what is the opposite of rationality? I have no idea) are the core of communication either. These are all just tools we use to communicate. Most likely, the best way to communicate involves a little bit of a lot of things from a big tool box. But I certainly haven’t figured it out, as this case would prove. I pride myself on being a pretty decent communicator, and yet I still totally fucked up in this case, so fuck what I know.
And what do I know? The first mistake of mansplaining that I made, was losing my communicative compass entirely. I presented these mistakes backwards, because I actually can identify the smaller, secondary mistakes better than I can the primary one (and more, which I’m sure I committed and still haven’t realized). I suppose if I still had a good idea of what I was trying to communicate and why, then I wouldn’t have gotten to this place at all. I suppose what I wanted to do was to talk about an idea with some friends on Twitter, but I soon lost all that in the “but I’m not wrong” and the “why me why me” of mansplaining. That the disagreement was something complicated regarding sex, gender, and language just made the knots more difficult to unravel at the time, but that wasn’t where the mansplaining happened. It was where I forgot what it was I was trying to do, and just kept talking/typing.
The shitty part of all this is, that despite this analysis and apology (it is an apology, by the way, to those three women who know who they are) I still feel like an asshole, and frankly, I’m still being an asshole, because I’m writing a blogpost about shutting up, rather than simply shutting up. As if mansplaining my way out of mansplaining was any way to fix the problem.
To a certain extent, I feel like I should just say, “fuck it, I am an asshole”, because I am, and coming out as that probably would get me out of privilege guilt much faster than coming out as queer or deviant in any particular way. Except that it doesn’t get me out of guilt, because I like my Twitter friends, whom seem to like me even though I’m an asshole. Acknowledging that I was mansplaining doesn’t really seem to undo the fact that it was done and I made my friends feel shitty by doing so. Especially not if by admitting that I did this, it is foreseeable that I will do so again.
But this is what being a man is about, insofar as I am any such thing, and there is any such thing to be. I don’t know that I have ever actively “been a man”, except that I don’t correct people when they use masculine gendered pronouns to refer to me, and I do sometimes use parts of my body in ways described by those who care about defining really important definitions and flow charts for body parts, and don’t use parts of my body in other ways often enough. But, among other things, to me, being a feminist man means acknowledging and apologizing when one realizes that one is mansplaining–whether on purpose, by accident, or by the unfortunately happenstance of Twitter and the vast social and biological constructions of language, bodies, and society.
So, after manning up to that, I think I’ll just shut up now.
Posted: September 5th, 2012
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I’m unsure of exactly how to say this, so I’m going to just say it.
I’ve noticed more than a couple instances recently, in which a blog post decrying rape culture was beset by comments in the comment thread, supporting rape culture. That’s putting it mildly, of course. And unsurprisingly, indignation followed as people saw how horrible their fellow humans really can be.
While people have every reason to be angry about people supporting rape and rape culture in blog comment threads, I sincerely wish that the “shock” that people express about this would stop. This surprise, to me, is akin to surprise that one would be unable to have a productive discussion about rape culture on the wall of a bathroom stall at a rest area. This is the internet. There is child porn on the internet. Prostitution. If not physical rape, certainly sexual harassment, and the precursors to rape. A blog comment thread is an uncontrollable, pseudo-anonymous, short-text medium. To think that the internet would respond to the awfulness of rape culture with uniform sensitivity, courage, and understanding is naive.
The fact of rape culture is that one in four college age women have survived rape or attempted rape. 8% of men admit to committing rape. (These and other statistics here.) Do we believe that these 8% of men don’t use the internet? Where do we think these men are? That they live in dark alleys, or in some “backward, ignorant” place far away from us?
I don’t bring this up just to feel pleased with myself by calling bullshit on people claiming to be “shocked, just shocked” at verbal abuse in comment threads. I’m actively concerned by this, because it perpetuates a belief that the world is a reasonable, generally kind place. We should never “expect” to see examples of rape culture, or dismiss it as “normal”. Nor should we be “surprised” that rape culture exists. Holding up blog comment threads as if they were anything less than the detritus of the internet skews the way which we confront rape culture, and keeps us off balance. It’s already generally agreed by both blog authors and readers that the comment threads are often devoid of most critical value. Why, suddenly, are we shocked?
This is not the equivalent of suggesting that “if people don’t like rape culture, they should not bring it up on blogs”, or otherwise avoid the internet, or stop wearing short skirts. Far from it. There should be many, many more posts pointing out egregious instances of rape culture. Anyone who, even as a joke, decides it is okay to tolerate rape culture or others who do should be called out, and forced to recant. But as for pseudo-anonymous blog comment threads? Maybe if we had DHS’ resources we could track down every asshole with a keyboard, half a brain, and 15 seconds of free time (if only the surveillance state were on our side, no?). But as we don’t, we should close the comment thread, or be prepared to be confronted with a direct example of what we are up against. Consider it simply prudent, like putting up storm shutters.
I’m reminded of people who would attend various Occupy meetings, and make the, apparently, sincere suggestion that we get bankers, police officers, and government officials to attend the GA. Similarly, people would voice the idea that the 1% might be alienated by the slogan 99%, and this was bad, since we wanted everyone to be on the same side. In fact, any time an idea was proposed that might just be unpopular with a measurable amount of people, the 99% slogan was rolled out again, in some sort of dogmatic and extreme notion of populism. Not only did I find these positions idiotic, I found the incredibly insulting to people who had been fighting the banks, war, and the government for years, often receiving blows from the police for their trouble.
It is an extreme form of class privilege to believe that people will do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing. This is a fight against late capitalism. One of the main reasons we are against this capitalism, is because it will go to nearly any length in order to defend itself and increase its profit. There are literally trillions of dollars being made via this system. To think that it will give up and die, that it will give up these profits, and that it will do so without committing extreme violence in the effort to defend itself is not just naive, but reflects a vulnerable misunderstanding of what the enemy is. Don’t think for a second that the CEOs of investment banks misunderstand this. Don’t think for one second that surprisingly low levels of police authority know exactly when they will fire a gun into the face of an unarmed protester to protect bank property. This is not an apocalyptic eventuality, this unfolds every day. If you have not seen the violence already occurring against non-violent people, with the aim of simply making more money for someone with already a large amount of money, then you are willfully ignoring it.
The worst part of this was not having to sit through asinine comments at Occupy meetings, but it was in the street, when suddenly the police would turn on people, and the crowd would either flee, or panic. It was inconceivable to the majority that someone would actually try to stop them from protesting with force, and when this inconceivability actually happened, they crumbled.
Not that it is my role to tell anyone what to do, or when to stand up to blows, or when to run away. And I don’t want to argue that we all must become scarred, jaded people who think the worst of the world, in order to do any good.
But all the same, obsessing that a blog comment thread, which is really only an IP log away from being equivalent to 4chan, is showing signs of the same rape culture that leaves one out of four college-aged women raped, is probably not. While getting angry about it is natural, spending all our time trying to purify the comment thread of signs of rape culture is like trying to fix a stalled car by washing the windows. Fighting capitalism or rape culture is not easy. It is long, hard, filled with minor defeats, and horrible mental wounds (if not physical). Burning out on washing the windows doesn’t help anyone.
If there was no other way to fight rape culture than in comment threads, that would be one thing. But it is just as easy to close the comment thread. That is what BoingBoing eventually did on the post at the top of this essay. No sense not to start out that way. (Comments on this post are closed. If you want to discuss this, I’d be happy to, but reach me through another means.)
On a more positive note, you know who is awesome? This woman, who punched a guy in the face after hearing him make “rape jokes” (rape threats) in the street. She didn’t waste any time with dickheads in the comment thread. In the link above, even the Jezebel writer is forced to backpedal from violence (actually, self-defense to legitimate threats) because violence is never the best answer, goodness knows, and rationality ought to prevail. No, as a matter of fact–rationality does not often prevail. That is what the writer’s “irrepressible little voice in my head” knows, and why it is telling her to thank this woman for doing what needed to be done.
Posted: July 11th, 2012
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Further explorations into what a “political module” of the New Aesthetic might be.
There have been a couple of posts by Madeline Ashby and Rahel Aima that indict “the gaze” as being a primary political problem in the New Aesthetic. As Rahel said in her piece:
Ashby alludes to something seemingly basic but as-yet unacknowledged. The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Is it crude (not to mention awkward) to suggest that the attraction of the New Aesthetic lies in the chance to briefly inhabit a feminised subjectivity? Possibly, probably. Still, it’s worth returning to Laura Mulvey, and her seminal—!—essay on the gaze, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. Here, she discusses the three gazes present in cinema: the directorial or camera’s gaze, the audience’s gaze and the gaze “of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” Employing psychoanalytic theory, she goes on to illustrate how the conventions of the medium deny the first two categories and subordinate them into the third, diegetic gaze.
But, while there are certain strong aspects of the gaze present in what is largely a visual aesthetic, it is important to remember that much of the watching here is not done by humans, but done by machines. As Jonathan Minard reminds us in his response to Bruce Sterling’s essay:
By attributing superhuman intelligence to machines, we forget that they are still dumb tools invented by people for people—this is Sterling’s most basic point.
As Nietzsche declared “God is Dead,” Sterling will be one the first voices of our era to refute the existence of A.I.: “Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence… They lack aesthetic judgment.” He urges us to abandon our atavistic worship of false robot idols.
This is not to reject the idea that there is large quantities of inherent power in machine-based surveillance. But much of the discourse on the Male Gaze has been about the inherent power in an Other’s subjective ability to objectify the target of the Gaze. Perhaps an object can objectify as well… but this is not a sexual dynamic. At least not in the way that a person can objectify a person. There is certainly a lot to be said for the way that sexual dynamics apply their constructions of gender relations to technological scopophilia. But, camgirls’ cameras still seem different than CCTV.
This is not to bracket or minimize the way that sexual dynamics crop up again and again in surveillance culture. But there is something set apart in a surveilling machine that is different than the person watching the monitor. While standard scopophilic subjectivities sit in front of many surveillance terminals, there are also the machines themselves.
Me and my partner Rosalynn have been working on a concept called ‘Drone Ethnography’ for a few months now. We don’t have anything written yet (if you had a venue that would inspire us to sit down and get to work, let us know) but the basic idea is that drones symbolize an ethnography that has become an all-encompassing epistemology in a way it never has before.
Once, the ethnographer had to keep in mind the inherent power relations in the observing relationship. There is a lot of power in being an observer, and this can negatively affect the information that is being collected by observation, even if the purpose of collecting the information is intended to empower those who are being observed.
This is still the case, of course. But it is vastly more complicated. We first realized this when Rosalynn was doing a folklore study of comments and response-videos on Youtube. When we were talking about the like/dislike function of the site, we realized that it was impossible for Rosalynn to watch a video without clicking the “Views” counter up. This, in and of itself is not such a big deal. She was watching videos with thousands if not millions of views, and even the 20-30 times she would watch a particular video, plus showing the video when she presented her research, was really an analytic drop in the ocean. Her research would end up publicizing the video regardless simply by picking it out of the billions of minutes of video on all of Youtube, so the rating boost that a video might receive through her Heisenbergian observations wasn’t a threat to her ethnographic objectivity.
But we then extended the concept. What if her research was about Facebook? Come to think of it, neither of us could do research about Facebook, because neither of us has an account. We would have to become part of Facebook, in order to study Facebook. Joining the long tradition of emic field research would not necessarily be a problem for us (our abhorrence of Facebook aside). But in joining Facebook, we would not just join the social network that is Facebook. We would join the massive, historically unprecedented, ethically-questionable ethnographic project that is Facebook.
It is no surprise that large corporations like Google and Facebook hire anthropologists to help them study their customers/products (these two things being interchangeable). Advertising agencies have hired anthropologists for years. The military hires anthropologists. These organizations don’t hire anthropologists to further the study of anthropology, but to use anthropology to do what they do better, be it extracting profit, waging war, or both.
But because of the nature of the product in the case of social media (you), there is no differentiating the work of the anthropologists from the entire endeavor. By engaging in the activity, you are studied. You are basically being given a bit of cheese to run through a maze, day after day, from your desk at work, from your mobile phone, from your bedside tablet device.
This puts those of us that are not corporations or militaries at a distinct disadvantage. We don’t have access to the data, and yet we are still trying to figure out what we make of all this. We are attempt to do ethnography of our rapidly evolving culture, and suddenly this culture is not just owned by someone else, but it is invisible to us. And it is recording us, while we struggle with this new state of affairs.
Sure, with Facebook, who cares? If someone wants to Click a Cow, who cares? We folklorists and public intellectuals can go back to studying the less commercialized aspects of culture that we probably prefer, and if everyone in Farmville gets a barcode tattooed on their neck, we could just ignore it, or say “we told you so”.
This would be true. Except, as Rosalynn and I realized, for the case of drones. And this is why we are calling this concept “Drone Ethnography”.
When you are being observed by drones, it is not because you didn’t read the EULA carefully. It is not because you signed up for a “Taliban Login” that there is a drone aircraft orbiting 10,000 feet above your head twenty-four hours a day, with a few laser guided missiles under its wings. It’s watching you, and waiting. Waiting for what? How should you know? For whatever the particular mission parameters of whatever agency of whatever country has decided makes you an enemy combatant or not. And until then, it is going to observe.
Sure it’s creepy, but the missile that will come and kill you if you dig a hole near the wrong road or watch the wrong wall or make a cell phone call to the wrong person is not creepy. It’s simply death. A Hellfire missile is not the masculine gaze. (To be clear, I’m not making the assessment of “which is worse” as if there was a way to assess that. I am simply stating that they are not the same thing.)
This must change our most deeply held hermeneutical assumptions about the way we observe the world. Rosalynn and I aren’t attempting to say that there can be no ethnographies in the age of drones. We are saying that all ethnographies must acknowledge the facts of drones, and what that means for ethnography as a concept.
Every observation we make about ourselves or others, must be held in relation to the massive databases that exist, holding vast quantities of data about ourselves and others already. There is a new discursive regime being built in these Drone Ethnographies, and any attempt to speak for ourselves is being held in relationship to that regime, whether we know it or not. We don’t have the ability to dive into an alternate reality and escape this regime, like certain SF characters. We are forced to live underneath a sky swarming with drones, because there is no other landscape.
This landscape is not just a plane on which we stand, but more and more, everything we know. It is the phones in our pocket that can be rooted by the NSA, it is the roads we walk on, surveilled by the DOT. Everything we are doing is being recorded somewhere, even if we are doing nothing. What does it mean to describe your own behavior, if the act of you doing so is being recorded and logged into a database somewhere? This is not simply a confusing meta-issue, a “what are we talking about when we talk about talking?” sort of question. It renders observation marginal, but not necessarily to an objectifying power structure, but to structure itself.
So how does Drone Ethnography play into the New Aesthetic? I’m not sure yet. “Drone Ethnography” is just another name for a weird thing that we started seeing and thinking about. Just like the New Aesthetic, and the New Politic, if that is indeed a thing. Is any of this a thing? Not sure really, and I’m not sure what it “being a thing” would prove. But the drones are real. As I’m getting more and more fond of saying, you can’t debunk a drone.
Posted: April 9th, 2012
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Continuing the conversation.
Madeline Ashby noted my post about politics and the New Aesthetic, and had some interesting comments:
Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.
Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.
I’m thinking that a lot of what the political aspects of NA might be about, have to do with converting 20th Century political subjectivities to the new technology that is shifting the environment around us. And the problem is that 20th Cent. political subjectivities don’t respond to 21st Cent. problems. That’s not to say that they are useless. We still have plenty of 20th Cent. problems around, like opposition to feminism, which is quickly figuring out how to become a 21st Cent. problem. (Scan your email, scan your uterus. If you’re not hiding anything, why would you say no?)
But we also have 21st Cent. problems that bear very little resemblance to 20th Cen. problems. Or at least through the lens of 20th Cent. politics, look like “The Future”, and hence get labeled with things like “dystopia”. Calling something “dystopia” is really fucking useless, if you live in that dystopia, rather than just imagining what it would be like.
More particular to Madeline’s comments, perhaps this would be a great time to re-mention feminism (when isn’t?) regardless of epochs. More to the point: sexual subjectivities. Which, unlike political subjectivities, are much more difficult to epochalize.
Here’s the comment I left over there, which I’m copy here just to make sure I don’t lose it:
For me anyway, it was Luce Irigaray that introduced me to the preponderance of the gaze, not CCTV. But the arrays of surveillance cameras in the world are indeed, just more of the same in a certain respect. Without reverting to gender essentialism, I would agree that there is something to the experience of femininity, in that subaltern position you describe “as watched”, that does theoretically open up the notion of subjectivity-as-technologically/semiotically-controlled.
But what I wonder is, what are the techniques from the experience of femininity, so described, that might combat, say, a surveillance state? My experience in feminism is that most of the real work is not done in the streets, so to speak (though feminist marches and organized protests are important). Instead, I find that the work is done in the bed room, the living room, and the kitchen. In other words, it is as much about negotiating a re-evaluation of sexual subjectivity with our friends, family, and sexual partners, as it is about politics, in the standard “get out and fight” sense. Countering mental patterns so insipid as sexual privilege and rape culture take a lot of hard, personal work to overcome (speaking “as a man”, who would personally identify as continuing to combat his own mental patterns).
The reason I bring this up, is because it doesn’t seem like the surveillance state is something to be talked out in the bed room (though the idea has some intrigue). In the effort of trying to figure out what the New Politics aspects of the New Aesthetic are, I tend to think that they are not reducible to feminist criticisms of the gaze–though clearly they would not be cause for an interrupt of the continuation of that critique. The radical new interventions that the surveillance state is making in our personal lives, while not separate from gender politics, would not necessarily be symmetric, either.
So I guess this is an open question: what new technological components does the NA bring to our subjective sense of politics? It could indeed stimulate use to recall previous and ongoing re-evaluations of political subjectivity, but is there anything new here? I wonder as a person, looking for new, potent tools.
Posted: April 5th, 2012
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Smashwords is trying to fight Paypal on the censorship issue. Good for them! What follows is clipped without internal edits from an email from Smashwords (I’m a Smashwords author, though none of my books are threatened by Paypal’s attempt at censorship.)
PAYPAL CENSORSHIP UPDATE
In case you haven’t heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and
gave us a surprise ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape
or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account. We engaged
them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue
to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.
PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in
compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely
Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn’t mention them
Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers:
https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/27 Then on Monday, I issued an update,
and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal’s guidelines so we and PayPal
could continue our discussions: https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/28
PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction. Regardless of how one views topics
of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction.
We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers. This is unfair,
and it marks a slippery slope. We don’t want credit card companies or financial
institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read.
Fiction is fantasy. It’s not real. It’s legal.
There’s no easy solution. Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably
have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they’re
the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce.
Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor.
That’s not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind
this, they’ll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us.
In addition to running all credit card processing at the Smashwords.com store,
PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with
PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the
road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.
BUILDING A COALITION OF SUPPORT:
Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case.
I’m supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups
who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow
the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics I’m working with
them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship. Earlier
today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National
Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal
situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our
authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal
in a positive manner to move the discussion forward.
The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/legal-censorship-paypal-makes-habit-deciding-what-users-can-read
Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release: http://www.scribd.com/doc/83549049/NCAC-ABFFE-Letter-To-PayPal-eBay-re-Ebook-Refusal-2012
I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal’s head, but
I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece. This
is where you come in…
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern
all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the
ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing
without the (fading) protective patina of a “traditional publisher” to lend them
legitimacy. We indies only have each other.
Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects
women disproportionately. Women write a lot of the erotica, and they’re also
the primary consumers of erotica. They’re also the primary consumers of mainstream
romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies
were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think
this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in
mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your
were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality? The insanity
needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor
of legal fiction should have to answer.).
All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial
services companies censoring books. Authors should have the freedom to publish
legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want.
These corporations need to hear from you. Pick up the phone and call them.
Email them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Blog your opposition to censorship.
Encourage your readers to do the same. Pass the word among your social networks.
Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story. Contact
your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local
author’s perspective on this story of international significance. If you have
connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story. Encourage
them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, “PayPal
says they’re trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies. Why are
you censoring legal fiction?”
Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and
you’ll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses.
Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers
to do the same. Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring
Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell
your ebooks without censorship or discrimination. Let them know that PayPal’s
policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept
your books as they are. Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email)
and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives. Post open letters to them
on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters. Force the
credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship. And yes, express
your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well. Don’t scream at them. Ask them
to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship. Tell
them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers.
Ebay (owns PayPal):
Starting Sunday, if our email systems can handle it, we will send out an email
to several hundred thousand registered Smashwords members who are opted in to
receive occasional Smashwords service updates. The email will combine Read an
Ebook Week with the censorship call to action. Let’s start a little fire, shall
Thank you for your continuing support of Smashwords. With your help, we can
Posted: March 2nd, 2012
Comments: No Comments
I received this email because one of my ebooks has “explicit content”, though it doesn’t need to be censored. Still, this is very concerning that a financial transactions company is telling a publisher what they may offer.
Email is published in full.
Re: Your Smashwords account at
Dear Smashwords Authors, Publishers and Literary Agents,
This email is being sent to all authors, publishers and agents who have published
erotica at Smashwords. We will also post this message to Site Updates and the
According to our records, you pubish 1 erotica-categorized title(s) out of 2
title(s) now live in the Smashwords system. This message may or may not pertain
Today we are modifying our Terms of Service to clarify our policies regarding
erotic fiction that contains bestiality, rape and incest. If you write in any
of these categories, please carefully read the instructions below and remove
such content from Smashwords. If you don’t write in these categories, you can
disregard this message.
PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned
categories of books. Please review your title(s) and proactively remove and
archive such works if you are affected.
I apologize for the short notice, and I’m especially sorry for any financial
or emotional hardship this may cause the authors and publishers affected by this
As you may have heard, in the last couple weeks PayPal began aggressively enforcing
a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of “obscene” content.
For good background on the issue, see this Selena Kitt post here – http://selenakitt.com/blog/index.php/2012/02/19/slippery-slope-erotica-censorship/
or here – http://theselfpublishingrevolution.blogspot.com/2012/02/slippery-slope-erotica-censorship.html#comment-form
or this Kindleboards thread here – http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,104604.0.html
On Saturday, February 18, PayPal’s enforcement division contacted Smashwords
with an ultimatum. As with the other ebook retailers affected by this enforcement,
PayPal gave us only a few days to achieve compliance otherwise they threatened
to deactivate our PayPal services. I’ve had multiple conversations with PayPal
over the last several days to better understand their requirements. Their team
has been helpful, forthcoming and supportive of the Smashwords mission. I appreciate
their willingness to engage in dialogue. Although they have tried their best
to delineate their policies, gray areas remain.
Their hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica.
The underage erotica is not a problem for us. We already have some of the industry’s
strictest policies prohibiting underage characters (we don’t even allow non-participating
minors to appear in erotica), and our vetting team is always on the lookout for
“barely legal” content where supposed adults are placed in underage situations.
The other three areas of bestiality, rape and incest were less well-defined in
our Terms of Service (https://www.smashwords.com/about/tos) before today. I’ll
tackle these one-by-one below, and I’ll provide you a summary of the changes
that will go into effect immediately.
*Incest:* Until now, we didn’t have a policy prohibiting incest between consenting
adults, or its non-biological variation commonly known as “Pseudo-incest.” Neither
did our retailer partners. We’ve noticed a surge of PI books over the last few
months, and many of them have “Daddy” in the title. I wouldn’t be surprised
if the surge in “Daddy” titles prompted PayPal to pursue this purge (I don’t
know). PI usually explores sexual relations between consenting adult stepchildren
with their step parents, or between step-siblings. Effectively immediately,
we no longer allow incest of any variety in erotica.
Like many writers, censorship of any form greatly concerns me. It is with some
reluctance that I have made the decision to prohibit incest-themed erotica at
Smashwords. Regardless of your opinion on incest, it’s a slippery slope when
we allow others to control what we think and write. Fiction is fantasy. It’s
not real. It unfolds in our imagination. I’ve always believed fiction writers
and readers should have the freedom to explore diverse topics and situations
in the privacy of their own mind. From an imagination perspective, erotica is
little different from a literary novel that puts us inside the mind of farm animals
(1984), or a thriller novel that puts us inside the mind of a terrorist, or a
horror novel that puts us inside the mind of an axe-murderer or their victim.
All fiction takes us somewhere. We read fiction to be moved, and to feel.
Sometimes we want to feel touched, moved, or disturbed. A reader should have
the right to feel moved however they desire to be moved.
Incest, however, carries thorny baggage. The legality of incest is murky. It
creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books
become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens
Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all
Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers and customers who rely upon us as the
world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. The business considerations compel
me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision.
The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in
the best interest of the community we serve.
*Bestiality:* Until now, we didn’t have a stated policy regarding bestiality.
I like animals. Call me old fashioned or hypocritical (I’m not a vegetarian),
but I don’t want to be a party to anyone enjoying animals for sexual gratification,
for the same reason we’ve never allowed pedophilia books. I don’t want to publish
it, sell it, or distribute it. The TOS is now modified to reflect this. Note
this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the
were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form. Sorry I need
to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading
as paranormal romance.
*Rape:* Although our Terms of Service prohibits books that advocate violence
against others, we did not specifically identify rape. This was an oversight
on our part. Now we have clarified the policy. We do not want books that contain
rape for the purpose of titillation. At Smashwords, rape has no longer has a
place in erotica. It has no place anywhere else if the purpose is to titillate.
Non-consensual BDSM – or any other form of non-consensual violence against another
person – is prohibited.
*NEXT STEPS:* If you have titles at Smashwords that are now expressly forbidden,
by the end of day Monday (Feb 27), please click to your Dashboard at https://www.smashwords.com/dashboard
and click UNPUBLISH then click ARCHIVE. This will also cause our automated systems
to remove the titles from retail distribution.
DO NOT try to hide or obfuscate violating content by changing book titles, book
descriptions and tags. If we discover such shenanigans, said authors/publishers
will risk account deletion and forfeiture of any accrued earnings, per our Terms
We take violations of the TOS seriously, because such violations jeopardize the
opportunities for your fellow authors.
We do not want to see PayPal clamp down further against erotica. We think our
authors should be allowed to publish erotica. Erotica, despite the attacks it
faces from moralists, is a category worthy of protection. Erotica allows readers
to safely explore aspects of sexuality that they might never want to explore
in the real world.
The moralists forget that we humans are all sexual creatures, and the biggest
sex organ is the brain. If it were not the case, none of us would be here.
Erotica authors are facing discrimination, plain and simple. Topics that are
perfectly acceptable in mainstream fiction are verboten in erotica. That’s not
fair. Our decisions today are imperfect. Please, act responsibly, don’t try
to game the system or publish content that pushes the limits of legality. Help
us continue to help indie authors around the world to continue to publish and
distribute with freedom.
*THINGS TO AVOID:* Avoid using words such as ‘bestiality,’ ‘rape,’ ‘incest,’
‘underage,’ or ‘barely legal’ in book titles, book descriptions or keyword tags,
otherwise Smashwords may conclude you’re violating the Terms of Service, or trying
to push the limits. If you’re writing non-erotic works, and any of these words
are necessary, then you’re okay.
On Tuesday (Feb 28) we will begin removing content that we deem in violation.
When we remove a title, you will receive an email notifying you of such, and
that email will append this letter along with instructions on how to notify us
if we made an error. I promise you, we will make mistakes, so please work with
us, take a deep breath and honor us with your patience.
If you believe we removed something in error, please click “Comments/questions,”
mention the title we removed, provide the hyperlink to said title, and provide
your *calm* reasoning for why we should reconsider.
Our support team is backlogged, so it may take several days for them to respond.
As we mention in the Terms of Service, we reserve the right to remove anything
for any reason. That said, we will also try to make our decisions with care
You might wonder if Smashwords should simply switch to a different payment provider.
It’s not so easy. PayPal is designed into the wiring of the Smashwords platform.
They run the credit card processing for our retail store, and they’re how we
pay our authors and publishers. PayPal is also an extremely popular, trusted
payment option for our customers. It is not feasible for us to simply switch
to another provider, should such a suitable provider even exist, especially with
so few days notice.
Please note our Terms of Service is subject to additional modifications as we
work to bring Smashwords into compliance with PayPal requirements. Let’s hope
today’s actions mark the limit of the slippery slope.
Significant gray area remain. Erotica is still permitted, though if authors
try to push the limits of what’s permitted, we risk further clamping down. Please
be responsible. Don’t go there. If you’re going to push the limits, push the
limits of great writing, not the limits of legality.
Thank you for assisting our compliance efforts on such short notice. We know
these decisions will be upsetting to some of our authors and publishers, and
for that we apologize. We do believe, however, that these decisions will place
us on a stronger footing to represent the best interests all indie authors and
publishers from here forward.
P.S. Please contact our support team for inquiries regarding this change in
our Terms of Service by clicking the “comments/questions” link at the top of
any page at Smashwords. If your inquiry regards a specific title, please include
the hyperlink to the book page of that specific title.
Posted: February 24th, 2012
Comments: 1 Comment
You must be of a particular age to view this exhibit, because of its profane, sexual content. A restriction that is ironic, because the content of the exhibit is often below that age. You could set that age to whatever value you like, and it really doesn’t matter. Those who are old enough to view will never be quite as young as what is being viewed, because it is about the division between minor and… what is it—major? It never loses its perversity. It is the difference between one and the other that is in some way desired, and so therefore specifically not allowed. Between the internal youth within our sexual selves, and…
Okay—let’s stop for a moment. Let’s back up, and let’s try this again. The problem is that there are so many ways to start, and so many of them are wrong. And even those that begin by seeming right so quickly turn in the wrong direction, often times ending up worse than the complete wrong direction at outset. And as for those that in the end seem right—well, its a prize that hardly seems worth winning, by the time we’ve gotten there. And for what? What is the victory we’ve achieved?
And… but wait, I haven’t even explained to you what we’re talking about. I began with a slight warning and perhaps a briefly titillating advertisement about the sexual nature of this subject matter, and then immediately began backtracking into the territory of meta-apologia, through which I ended up ruining this essay through the discussion of the possibility of ruining it. And here we are now. You’re confused, I’m embarrassed, this essay has three useless paragraphs, and we’re all standing around wondering what we are supposed to do. We are beset by literary impotence, or perhaps it is premature literary ejactulation, or perhaps it is just a confused, incestuous tumble into the province of a critical essay on sexuality, myself a weak anti-hero at best, caught in the eternal archetype of sexual theory hubris, thinking that I could thwart the gods will, leaving my readership wishing it could stab its own eyes out.
So I’m cutting this, right now. Enough with the evasion. We’re beginning again. Now.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, folks of all ages—because this is the Internet, so any and all may feel free to read and think anything they wish.
I know you thought you were here to see a museum exhibit, but in fact, you are here to witness a play. Tonight’s performance will be experimental, and therefore necessarily flawed. However, we hope that the experiment has been so designed that we might all learn something in the process. And even if it is not, there will be sex, and hopefully you’ll all stick around at least until that point.
Let’s introduce the characters, in the order of their introduction.
My name is the Master of Ceremonies. Don’t worry who I might be, because I am not important. I am no more than some recognizable name, who was hired to show up here with his name on the cover of the program, and to say a few meaningless words. My statement is prepared, and my role is exchangeable. I will get us started, and then let the performers take it away.
Next, we have the Narrator. He is a man not very different than myself, but he will be saying the important things about our scene, so you’ll want to listen to him, rather than flipping through your program to see how long this thing goes on, as you are doing now when I am speaking.
Then, I am honored to introduce the Subject. He is a white male, twenty-eight years of age. He has some difficulties, of a sexual nature. His is a very sad story, tragic, I would even suggest; though many scholars of such tales might beg to disagree. He is mostly heterosexual, and although I should have mentioned this a few sentences earlier so that you might make use of it to categorize and better understand his motivations, the truth is that he might also be bisexual. Calling him heterosexual is a problematic statement in and of itself. However, I would caution against thinking of him as bisexual; to do so would begin to set up certain assumptions about his thoughts regarding a choice of sexual partners, just as it would if you had considered him heterosexual. I only wish to make this distinction about the difficulty of distinction clear, so that when you think of him as “perhaps bisexual”, you do not let this discount any purely heterosexual motives he might have behind his choices. I’m happy to have made this clear.
Lastly, and unfortunately, also least, we have The Woman. The Woman will be played by many different women in tonight’s performance, so many that we need not stop to mention their names, occupations, ages, hobbies, sexual preferences, or anything else. As I said, she is the last to be introduced, and therefore the least important in our little narrative. Do not throw things, ladies and gentlemen; I am only the Master of Ceremonies, and I am happy to say that I have no writing credits in the program. Perhaps, rather than you all shouting and getting out of your seats, I ought to hand this over to the Narrator, so that we might quickly get underway and distract you from your objections.
Thank you, Master of Ceremonies. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome once again. I am the Narrator. Our story begins in a museum. The Subject is attending this museum, doing whatever it is that people do in museums. And then, enters The Woman.
The Woman enters, wearing a short dress, covered in sewn sequins, arranged in a large star burst pattern, beginning where her attractive blond hair touches the front of her shoulder, descending over her perfectly shaped breasts, down the seductive length of her torso to the widening of her hips, and stopping only just short of the hem of the dress, which itself stops short above mid thigh, leaving the eyes with plenty of room to admire her legs, twitching in a beckoning manner back and forth as she walks on her high heels, each step an opening of a deadly scissor, threatening to maim and cut the eyes as they question what exactly may lie in the crux of this blade, tight and awfully sharp, shrouded in mystery just under the short edge of the dress, which all too easily could be flipped upward to reveal….
…And thank you, Subject, but that is my role, and I will narrate the entrance, if you please. You ought to be enjoying this museum exhibit, and not sharing every lurid detail of your disgusting imagination with our guests.
But, Narrator, this is a story about me, is it not? Why shouldn’t I be the one to describe what I am seeing, in all of its detail, whatever form that might take?
Yes, it is a story about you, Subject. But this is precisely why. The audience would naturally like me to mediate between the… details… you have come up with, and themselves. For propriety’s sake, of course.
You Narrators are always the same. Dumbing things down for the people, circling around it with your euphemism and “interpretations”. Look at her! She’s so fucking sexy! I mean, we should just show the people what I want. What they want. I’m going to go over there right now, and…
Ahem, uh, Subject—thank you. That will be quite enough. And will you keep your voice down! The Woman can hear everything you are saying! Look at her, she’s looking uncomfortably at you, and getting ready to leave the room.
The Woman isn’t going to leave the room, Narrator. Where would she go? This performance only has one scene. And besides, clearly she’s looking for that sort of attention, otherwise should wouldn’t have worn a dress like that.
Ladies and gentlemen: I would like to apologize on behalf of all the performers here today. The Subject does not speak for all of us, and we would never wish to offend any of our audience members by implying, officially, that any woman, let alone The Woman, would be seeking such disgusting attentions from any man, simply by wearing what it is that she is wearing.
Narrator, I haven’t touched her! I haven’t even said anything. How is it disgusting to just think those sorts of things? What is one supposed to think about a dress that is so short, on such a body? Should I think about sequins? Sequins are boring! Unlike what’s she’s got underneath that dress…
She can hear what you are saying, Subject! You are assaulting her with your words.
If you were doing your job, Narrator, I wouldn’t be forced to make my stream of consciousness audible.
I was trying to narrate your thoughts, Subject. Until you decided to change the subject of the Subject unilaterally.
Come on, Narrator. Let me just go talk to The Woman for a moment. I’m sure I can make her understand. Maybe we can go have a drink and discuss it. Then afterwards, we can…
That is quite enough! As Narrator, I am taking control of this scene back immediately. Under no circumstances, are you to think any perverted thought about The Woman, or any woman, unless specifically narrated by me.
But isn’t that the point of The Subject? That I’m supposed to be thinking dirty thoughts about The Woman in that she is the sort of woman about which one might have dirty thoughts?
You don’t know what sort of woman The Woman is, Subject. You don’t know anything about this scene. You are merely at a museum, and The Woman has entered.
She’s going to leave unless I can go talk to her.
You’ve talked quite enough. I think the audience would agree with me here.
The audience? They want to see what The Woman is like too! Or at least half of them do. Let them in, Narrator. Let’s all talk to The Woman.
The Audience cannot see you, Subject. I’m not letting them anywhere near you. I am the Narrator, and I am going to control this situation, and implement some narrative discipline here, so that we might get to the point, which is diagnosing exactly what is wrong with you. What is so horribly wrong with you, in that you are such a pervert and a threat to women everywhere.
I’m not the one wearing the dress, Narrator!
No one is wearing any dress. Audience, your attention here please: The Woman has left the museum.
No she hasn’t!
Yes she has. She was so disgusted by The Subject’s thoughts that she ran away from him to go see her boyfriend, who cares for her character, and would never be sexually interested in her costume. Or if he did, only with her permission.
She didn’t even get to have any lines!
You had more than enough for both of you. Are you happy now, Subject? Oh, and look who is here! The Woman enters.
You said she left!
This is a different The Woman. This The Woman is your wife, Subject! How are you going to explain those nasty comments to your wife, whom you are supposed to love with all your heart? Look at how she is looking at you, you ingrate! She loathes you.
I’m married? She’s the same The Woman, anyway! She’s wearing the same dress!
No she is not! The new The Woman, who we will call Mrs. Subject just to keep it straight, even though she kept her own name when she married The Subject because frankly, The Woman wasn’t sure it would work in the long term, though she didn’t tell The Subject this…
She kept her name for professional reasons. Not that it really matters, but…
She thinks you are a mental child. A sexual teenager, who can’t keep his mind out of the gutter long enough to make his name in anything. She’s wearing a floor length ball gown, and a turtleneck sweater…
Her dress is even shorter than the other The Woman.
It is not. The turtleneck sweater is black, and thick, and goes all the way up her neck, covering all of that soft skin which you find so sexy and love to kiss while she sleeps.
Her sweater is really tight around the breasts.
It is not tight around the breasts, and you have never been less attracted to your wife, because you are a philanderer, and a disgusting human being, and would not know love. You are a sex pervert.
I walk over to my wife, and I whisper in her ear with breathy words, blowing air against the soft hairs just behind her ear in that way that drives her wild. She pushes her hip against me involuntarily, and I whisper all the things that I’m going to do to her in the family bathroom of this museum.
You do not!
And she responds back with what she will do to me, in that tone of voice that makes me crazy, pushing herself against me, rubbing her hand gently up and down…
In the bathroom I lift up my wife’s dress, to reveal that she had once again left the house without underwear on, because that is the sort of woman she is when she wants to be…
This museum is closed! Everyone please leave the galleries immediately, especially the couple who is engaging in far too much bodily contact for a public performance, with children present, for god’s sake! No, no… not you, Audience! Not that museum. The museum within the performance is closed. You stay, so that I might get this narration back on track once The Subject has stopped having his way with The Woman, and… oh my goodness! Please avert your eyes for a moment, Audience. I’ll let you know when The Subject has put it away.
Look at this, you bunch of voyeurs! You perverts! You want to see what a real Subject looks like? You want to see what it looks like when he touches The Woman! This is what I think about, you sluts, when you lay in your beds at night, fearing the approach of any slightly kinky thought!
Curtain! Curtain! Curtain!
You want to see what perversion is? Show them, baby! This is perversion! This is what your children will do when they grow up! This is what men think about young girls, and would do to them if they were only a few years older!
You like that, Narrator? You do! You like it more than any of them, you old slag! Get over here and touch it; touch it, I said! We’ll all do it together, here on stage, for all to see!
Get him away from me!
Okay—hold it! The two of you separate. Now! Sorry folks, it’s the Master of Ceremonies here. This isn’t part of my prepared remarks, but propriety is forcing me to step in here, and cancel this performance. We tried, we really did. We only wanted to role play what happens out there, what is going on in the real world when it comes to sex. We wanted to cut through the politeness, and the theory, and the hype, and the marketing. We were going to show you how a real Subject thinks about sex, but then this happened. I mean, I wasn’t going to show you, because I’m not in any way involved in this production. But I am the Master of Ceremonies, and my name is attached to this thing, so I can tell when to say when, and pull the plug on the whole deal. Perhaps this experiment only goes to show that you really can’t have a public conversation about sex without the participants ending up chasing each other around with their sex organs flopping around on stage. Without succumbing to the urge to turn everything into pornography. If I might speak freely—I’ve seen this happening for some time now. Every year there’s more nudity on television, less clothes on the people on the street. Where is it all leading? What is to become of us? Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached that end, tonight. I… and I’m not even going to describe what they are doing now, because you can all see, all too well. So just please, please leave, and let us try and forget this. I’m cutting this again…
Go home! Go home and touch someone’s crotch!
Shut up you! I said I’m cutting this, right here. Now. It’s over.
I said, it’s over.
Curation fixation. How to cut it at the right point, before it goes too far. How to know how to cut. How to talk about enough things without talking about too much. Deciding what you should leave out, and ignore, even though it’s absence might be blatant and obvious. How to look at a young girl in a short dress and look straight through her without seeing her. How she might look back, right into your glassy eyed stare which she thinks is creepy. How to at least know that your thought process is pure and innocent, even if your body is not. How to be attracted to the right things. Not only attracted to them the most, but only and always. How to not worry about what makes you fear for our human condition in the future. Going only to the right museums. How to find what satiates and fulfills.
There is another museum that is similar to this, and it’s the next stop. It’s troubling. It’s called the Museum of Fire. It needs no further introduction.
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There’s a museum purporting to present evidence of a bizarre, marginal theory on the origins of life. No, not the Museum of Creationism. And not the Little League Hall of Fame, either; though their ideas of creation are curious. I’m talking about the Museum of Cultural Speciation, which as it happens, does not as yet benefit from having a building dedicated towards housing its expanding collection of evidence.
Let me fill you in on some of the details of mainstream evolutionary theory, with which I have only just now become acquainted. (For more info and sources, type a few phrases into Wikipedia. It’s easy!) You already know about evolutionary selection, if you are not from a Texas school system. (Virginia school system? Colorado school system? It is becoming hard to track this sort of thing.) Selection describes the process by which the benefit given to the reproductive “fitness” by certain inherited traits will serve to increase the instance of this trait in a sexually reproducing population. You may also know about genetic drift, a somewhat more difficult concept, and the less teleological cousin of selection. This is the aspect of randomness in genetics, whether it be the metaphorical mutational tree that may fall on a particular individual or the other random aspects to a species overall genetic makeup that no less effect how a species may evolve, causing the expression of traits to leap in bounds rather than trickle. If selection is the slow, plodding work of a species’ R&D department, genetic drift is the sudden flash of insight from an inventor, or junior-level programmer. In a way.
Now, these two mechanisms control the evolution of a single species, but where do new species come from? It turns out there are several different models for how we reach speciation: a “branch of the tree”, so to speak. Primarily, these splits first manifest across geographic pattern. Let’s start with allopatric speciation. Some sort of geographic isolation occurs to split a population, like a river changing its course to split a species of rodents into to isolated groups. These two groups evolve on their own, and when they are somehow reintroduced into the same territory, they have become two different species.
(The easy distinction of species is an inability to interbreed, either because of genetics, sexual choice, or physiology. This is, interestingly, an “agonistic” definition, in that it is difference from others that creates a unifiable sameness. One might try and re-phrase, saying that the ability to breed positively defines a species, but this is not exactly true, and not every member of a species can or will successfully breed with every other member. Whereas, absolutely no member of a species can breed with any member of another species, definitively. Each species can only be defined by its difference from other species, and therein lies its unity. But then, hybrid species create a problem for this definition—and we begin to see the difficulty of discussing species taxonomies.)
Then there is peripatric speciation, a subset of allopatric. In this instance a smaller subset of the population is somehow separated from the majority of the species. This is notable, because genetic drift plays a larger factor in small populations, where a sudden individual change can more quickly resonate through the entire population. Speciation then occurs relatively rapidly. A cool example is the London Underground mosquito, whose provenance is self-explanatory.
Next, and more interesting, is parapatric speciation. Check this out–there can be a continuum of related, interbreeding populations in a linked geographic area. Several species, spread across a long, lateral terrain. But, the species on one end of the continuum cannot breed with the other end, because over the course of the habitat zone, insurmountable changes in the species occur. Some of these are called “ring species”, like the Larus gulls; their range extends around the Arctic Circle Eastward from Scandinavia, across Russia, across the Bering Straight to Canada, and then to the United Kingdom. Each neighboring species differentiation (there are seven) can interbreed with its neighbor except between the UK and Scandinavia! The differences become too great as those minor variances add up. (Note: there are other unclear species with different levels of interbreeding ability in the same domain, which complicates matters. But the Larus gull is a well-known proof of concept.)
Lastly, there is sympatric speciation: in which two species develop from one species in a single habitat. There are many theories of why this may occur, and disputes about what constitutes clear and distinct sympatric speciation. One theory is that sympatric speciation might actually be heteropatric speciation: a case of micro-allopatric speciation. In other words, although the general habitat of the entire species might be intact, there could be small-scale geographic differentiation that allows the speciation to occur. The distinction of difference in geography is as hard to make as the distinction between separate species, so it seems. What constitutes a difference in geography that is strong enough to attribute speciation to its presence? What other factors might be involved? Geography, as it turns out, may mean many different things, and may only be the easiest ways for humans to measure and define speciation. Take a good example of sympatric speciation: there are two species of Orca whale in the Northeast Pacific. There are the resident population, that have a particular territory that they stick to, and the transient population, that migrates. Though their habitats overlap and are contiguous, these two species stay away from each other, and do not interbreed. What sort of geography might these whales be seeing that we cannot? Something to do with continental shelves? Average ocean temperature? Salinity? They have different whale songs. Is this a language barrier? What sort of lessons do parental whales teach their offspring about the opposite species? Do they somehow teach the message, “don’t hang out with those filthy transient whales,” or is it in a more implicit sense that they make the distinction? What sort of consciousness to whales have, that they might be able to conceptualize these identities, or even, the concept of difference itself? Come to think of it, how does any animal that is not human think of different “species”, whether the competitors for habitat sites, or those that they eat? Do they think in rigid taxonomies the way we do, or is “nature’s” view of nature more fluid? Can we even conceptualize how a non-spatially linguistic consciousness would think?
Perhaps you see what I’m getting to here, other than animal psychology. In case my rambling discourse and marginal, Wikipedia-synthesized theory isn’t clear, I’ll lay it out, and in doing so take a sharp turn from established evolutionary theory. My question: is it possible that the human species could undergo sympatric speciation, and we wouldn’t even know it?
This is dangerous ground, because speciation theories about humans has had a bad history. From the postulated difference between the Caucasian races and the mongoloids, to the more para-science ideas of phrenology and other so-assumed inheritable behavioral characteristics (as it turns out, skull shape is nothing like the shape of a finch’s beak), to even horrifyingly recent case law regarding inter-race marriages, there has been many efforts to draw distinctions between groups of humans based on superficial differences, and they have proved false. The American Anthropological Association Statement on Race says that 94% of noticeable differences in physical characteristics widely construed as “race” occur within commonly defined races. So in other words, when we identify someone as being of a particular race, we are basing these distinctions on a set of physical assumptions that are not statistically significant in any way. Blond hair, blue eyes, nose size, eye shape, skin tone: none of these actually define a categorical difference, because their varietal distribution and common co-occurrences only exist in our mind, not in the actual human species. These false categorizations of humanity are construed and perpetuated for nefarious reasons, not for any real insight into our species. I don’t think I need to go into reptilian-focused conspiracy theories to drive the point home.
Even the most geographically isolated of human cultures are easily part of our species. But no group has been completely geographically isolated for more than a few hundred years at most. Geographic isolation, as we might think of it within our own lifespans is not necessarily firm over the history of population groups. Just because a group of humans lives on an island or in the middle of the jungle, doesn’t mean they have no contact with other humans on the next island or on the edge of the jungle. Humans are notoriously migrant, especially for the purposes of sexual contact. Physical isolation is another misaligned condition of a colonialist mindset; just because a place is hard for a European to reach or does not have roads does not mean it is isolated.
But what if there were traits of categorical difference that were not immediately identifiable by eye? The misnomers of race and physical distance are both visually construed. What if there were subtle human cultural geographies, within the contiguous species habitat of humanity?
What is the extent of genetics’ effect upon our behavior? I’m hardly a genetic determinist, but there seem to be a number of, well, let’s not call them behaviors, but instead call them patterns of thinking. A young man is of the sort who enjoys a messy household, where everything is visible. A young lady likes a fastidiously clean home, for no reason except a sense of comfort. This is not a trait that will improve genetic selection for this trait (at least not with a modern general level of hygiene to the “messiness”). But it might direct the course of genetic drift. Those who prefer a messy household will have more chances of swapping genes with others of a similar predilection, and vice versa. As mutations and other selection occurs, this population within the population will have a greater chance of evolving separately from the rest of the population because of its preference to a certain sort of mate: a potential for speciation by sympatric speciation. Their levels of cleanliness becomes a geography, separating a population within a population. IF, and I stress, only if, cleanliness is a trait that is genetically inheritable, and so the child of a neat parent will also be neat, and this geography can persist in separating a population for long enough for speciation to occur. If this geography collapses after one generation, then the effect of separating out part of the gene pool is negligible. So this is clearly a long shot. But there are many things we find attractive or abhorrent in potential mates.
What inheritable traits could serve as a “ridge” of cultural geography? Or, what traits, through one mechanism or another, find themselves echoed strongly enough from one generation to the next, that they could be considered to be a feature of cultural geography? In the case of sympatric speciation, sexual choice plays a large role. Certain birds may select mates based on their call, which in turn is informed by their beak shape. A small physiological different then transforms into a bigger difference from the perspective of the harshly competitive world of bird song American Idol. Certainly a taste in food will inform which individuals are more likely to mate, in that they will be close to each other, eating in the same places. So a taste for salt could lead to a romantic encounter in the snack aisle. Or would the competition drive them apart, because your mate keeps raiding your snack stash? What about appearance? What sorts of appearance that is found attractive is based upon gene selection, and what sorts are just pure aesthetics? At what point do aesthetics begin to reflect inheritable traits, and not just good old-fashioned sexiness? Is there really a difference between the two?
We know certain otherwise un-genetic patterns are extensible through generations in humans. A pleasure in reading is something that is often passed from parents to children, by nurture if not by nature. What about taste in music? An appreciation for genres of art? How about family card games? Sure, you could teach your significant other to play trump games. But if his/her family didn’t play trump games, maybe it isn’t because they simply never learned. Maybe they dislike them, instead preferring word puzzles. And so their children prefer word puzzles. Are your other forms of genetic attraction powerful enough to never want to play cards at home again, and to never pass them to your children? Will you adopt these puzzles to please your spouse? It’s not just about items of small preference—it’s about small preferences adding up to define our lives, and accordingly, defining who we spend our lives with. Is it just deciding what to do with the family on a Saturday night, or is this cultural-genetic selection at work? What features of cultural geography are mere rivers, and what are oceans?
Clearly, a great number of rhetorical questions may be applied, but I am over-running my question mark quota. Let me just say this to you: I can foresee several… let me say “traits”, at work in human culture that put the possibility of me breeding with particular individuals completely off the table. In fact, I perceive such strong “cultural geography” separating me from certain females in the population, that there would never even be the least inkling of the likelihood that we would accidentally, drunkenly, completely blacked out, marooned on a deserted island, be in any sort of position to swap gametes. Never. Under no circumstances. I’ll leave the exact topology of this geography for another time, but let me say there is no crossing those mountains, and no swimming that sea. Granted, I’m an hot-blooded American male. We all have… traveled to new territory to see what’s going on across the river. As a fellow once said, “you always say to yourself, ‘I will never sleep with a girl who wears Uggs.’ And then one day you wake up, and there is a pair of fuzzy boots next to the bed.” (That being a river I have never personally crossed, thankfully. But everyone has a story they are not proud of.) We all have our standards. And then we have our standards that end up broken underneath a bottle that was kicked off the arm rest of the futon of someone whose name you didn’t quite get by a leg stuck in a pair of pants in the dark.
America is a big place. There are a lot of young people out there, and they all are looking to breed. So many potential mates to choose from—they must be pairing up based on something. The same sort of music. They grew up in the same sort of town. Maybe they do the same drugs, which are the same drugs their parents did. The fact is, there are so many different ways of separating ourselves culturally, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a combination of cultural behaviors that separated us beyond all possibility of willful interbreeding. Maybe a human ring species will develop, leading from punk rock to vegetarianism to pacificism to Christianity to mysticism to cult member to masochist to soldier to engineer to teacher to soft rock fan. We love the notion of star-crossed lovers, but let’s admit it. Each of us has that category of “no way, absolutely not”, and while we may have mutual friends with mutual friends, between some people, it just ain’t going to happen. I could probably construct thousands of these potential cultural continuum chains if I sat and thought about it. This is a different sort of geography. It doesn’t matter than these links aren’t always assured, or that people aren’t always so cut and dry, or that the linkage doesn’t always stay the same. Is it inconceivable that my next thousand engenderings will never exchange genetic information with gene lines from rural Alabama? Or from urban Novosibirsk? Or from suburban Chicago, even? How big must our population become, and how diverse much our cultural geography grow, before these sorts of rifts are not just possible, but assured? And we’d never notice as these difference develop, because which each neighboring cultural territory keeps making babies with its neighbors, the ends never interbreed, and genetic drift is meanwhile allowed to make the difference actually genetically real. Until one day, when a Boy Scout leader from Saskatchewan just happens to settle down with a post-punk singer from Curitiba, they decide to have a child, and then their fertility counselor sits them down to discover something very interesting the doctors discovered in their genetic profile.
One more thing. A common, every day way of deciding the difference between our species and another species, at least for the non-biologist humans in our population, is basically no different that how we choose what to eat. What sort of life form, culturally, can we kill as indiscriminately as if it were a food source? What is different enough from us, that our widespread murder of its kind is more akin to farming than genocide? We kill other species, and it may be cruel, but it is never murder. Our cultural violence reifies the difference between our species and others. We kill chimpanzees for research purposes. And yet, genetically, we could potentially interbreed with chimps.
Chimps often eat each other. Humans have eaten each other throughout history, for mostly cultural-symbolic reasons. But this is interesting: all documented forms of human cannibalism either choose to eat humans within the cultural group, or from without of the cultural group: but never both. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms cultural identity. What we allow ourselves to kill affirms species identity. What we would eat / what we would kill / who we would fuck. Cultural geography–don’t say I didn’t warn you. Cultural geography is potentially dangerous to our species: both, potentially to our shared genotype, and to us as individuals. Who knows, once these differences become established, what it might justify in our minds. The war of all against all might be a myth. As chaotic as the vastness of the human species and its culture might be, the simplistic duality of us against them might be our natural state. The agonism of us versus them, among the human species, is spread out over a geography so complicated, we haven’t even begun to comprehensively map it.
Next week we’ll look up something much more sexy than evolutionary theory, though not quite as alluring as cannibalism. Step right this way gentlemen (and ladies with a strong constitution and a purely scientific interest), for a naughty peek at the Museum of Short Sequined Dresses.
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Posted: February 10th, 2011
, Museum of Small American Museums
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[I recommend that women unionize now, to preemptively seize the means of production. Of course, this has been a problem for a long time now. But perhaps the introduction of foreign competition will be the stimulus to making this a worker's issue? Unless racial tensions are manipulated by men looking off-shore to propagate their genes, and directing properly proletarian gender outrage at these "foreign scabs". Naturally, we've seen it before.]
“So much of America’s economic activity takes place on faraway shores, from call centers in Mumbai to sweatshops in Shanghai. Still, you’d think that making a baby would be one job that’s hard to offshore. But today, for a fee, a woman in another country can serve as a “gestational surrogate,” carrying a fertilized egg to term and then delivering the baby straight to your door, halfway around the world. We’re not used to talking about that kind of labor as an outsourced job. But farmed-out childbirth has become a full-fledged industry in India, turning the rural poor into wombs for hire.”
Related: ROI in Medically Assisted Fertilization, or, The Animal Factory
Posted: June 16th, 2010
Categories: Feedback Loops
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Most people into urban infomatics are male. For the same reason that going out in NYC isn’t a lot of fun, in my opinion.
Something to do with how the sexes find their roles in an urban landscape.
In the sexual urban landscape, men throw the party, women go to the party.
There’s something about Delirious New York that reads like a “Men’s Magazine Guide to Sex”…
…and Cosmopolitan reads like Time Out: The Female Body.
Posted: June 15th, 2010
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via Stare Hard.
Posted: June 10th, 2010
Categories: Feedback Loops
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[cf. Brave New World, R.U.R., Investment Bubbles viz Overpopulation]
“Children conceived by medically assisted reproduction (MAR) have fiscal implications for government both in terms of future government spending and tax revenue. Based on public funding to conceive a MAR child — after factoring in education, future health and pension costs, and future tax contributions of this child – the discounted net tax revenue (the difference between future government spending and tax revenue) of a child born in 2005 is roughly €127,000 in today’s value.
Considering an average treatment cost of approximately €15,000 to conceive an IVF-child, this represents an 8-fold return on investment (ROI) for governments.”
via Is IVF good value for money? Why funding of assisted reproduction is sound fiscal policy.
Posted: June 9th, 2010
Categories: Feedback Loops
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At the park there is a bit of a hill, one side quite steep. This is where they sit, just over the lip, legs hanging down the hill in the long grass. They can’t mow there, on account of the steepness. There’s four of them, two guys, two girls. They’re high school, maybe college age, but dressed different. The two guys are in suits, a bit ratty, cheap. Girls wearing bright dresses in an old style, quite short. Maybe it’s a fashion I’m not away of; maybe they’re in a band.
They’ve got a bottle and are passing it around. They’re paired up. It’s very clear. Body language is everything for kids that age. Girl in the red is with the guy in the light, and the girl in the yellow with the guy in blue. Girls are sitting next to each other, shoes off on the hillside. The guys are flanking them, like bookends. The bottle keeps going around.
Guy in the light suit keeps getting to his feet, pacing back and forth on the steepness, performing a bit for his friends—for the girls, mostly. His friend keeps trying to jump in on the lines, but not succeeding. Light suit’s red tie matches his girl’s red dress, and its waving in the breeze, as he gestures with his arms. His friend’s blue tie matches his girl’s blue dress. Maybe it is a fashion of some kind.
“But to have one’s voice given a certain respect! How does one attain this respect? To begin with, there are the things one can do, to further the process. Practice a certain craft of speech, of course—to ensure the dignity of the words are not compromised by error or awkwardness of phrase. And to keep a definitive form to one’s speech as well, not only free from error, but maintaining a style, a hallmark, and a trait that is not necessarily aping the tendencies of the most eloquent, revered, and respected talkers, but distinct in and of itself so when one opens the mouth, there is no possibility of rhetorical trademark infringement.”
He seems to have given this a bit of thought. It’s not the first time he have given the speech, even if only to himself. He pauses to take the bottle from the girl in red. He stands in front of her now, looking at her, maybe at the dress. The girls giggle, a nervous, bouncing intensity. The kid reacts in the way one would expect, tightening, and accelerating down on his course.
“It is easy to mock those who speak with such deep inhales, as if to gain further gravity from an inflated weight of the lungs. The Shakespearean actor’s overplay into paradigmatic seriousness is now a trope, and just as it is always expected that couplets are delivered with a heavy iambic stomp, it is contrarily a sign of overbearing pretension to add the same to any common, or off the cuff address.
“But I believe the times are changing! We are young, no doubt, and have plenty of time on our hands. We can pursue of frivolous things because we have time to waste. Capriciousness is not only our adjective, but our motto, which we accept with the same vigor as everything else we do. But why need it be simply so? Why should we not take advantage of the loose stance others take when confronting us, and step forward immediately, to knock them off balance? Are we necessarily as clumsy as we are light and fleet of foot? We have time on our side, and therefore have no time to waste! Our voices are bold, and this is an important feature. We have the ability to gain weight…”
He takes a swig as he says it, providing the girls another opportunity for laughter. His buddy makes a comment about the inopportune pause as well. He widens his hands, palm down and gesturing with the bottle.
“Tell me honestly, fine fellow and fellowesses: do you enjoy being treated as minor characters in the narratives of the day?”
His eyebrows raised, he waits for response. The girls pay rapt attention, shaking heads, and his friend does as well.
“Then why not claim the terrain of respect, which should rightfully be ours? Are our elders less erroneous than we? Is their experience ever utilized efficaciously? Or is it merely excuse for a preponderance of pontification? A pithy opportunity for pretense! A pestilence of petulance! They are given all the respect, and what do they do with it but waste it, cashing it in, via their oligarchical opportunism. They care little for the power behind the respect given to the spoken word, and more for what it can get them. Well, friends, I submit to you that it is time for a change. I say it is time we speak up, by talking down to our elders and so-called betters, to put them in their linguistic place by partaking in the craft of speech, of which we are quite capable.”
And now with a flourish of the bottle, and a little bow.
“For it is only when we have stood upon our own two feet to speak our minds that we can be said to have made up our minds for ourselves.”
They applaud him madly, and gesture for the bottle. He gives it gladly, and sits next to his girl. There’s more talk. It’s more of the same. His friend, the girls each take a turn, gesturing and repeating, echoing and clapping. Other conversation as well, carried out with heads bobbing close together. Hands on hands, on shoulders, on thighs. The boy in the light suit leans in, and whispers into his girl’s ear. I see her smile from where I sit. She tugs a bit on the edge of her dress. He kisses her, on the ear. They lie back and look at the sky. They are still talking, all of them all at once. The sky is brilliantly blue, lit incandescent by the sun. Three lines of contrails curve, crossing across the azure dome, seemingly just out of reach. Boy in the blue suit kisses yellow dress on the lips, and light suit has his hand on red dress’ leg, underneath it maybe.
I hear the sound of a cell phone ringing, across the hillside. Boy in the light suit pops to his feet, putting the hand in his pocket. Putting it to his ear, his other hand covers the other ear, blocking out the loud speech of his fellows. He walks quickly a few paces away, to cause a distance, and then slows, walking in aimless direction as he speaks. He says nothing for some time, staring into the grass, phone to his ear. His face grows darker. Much darker. His mouth closes.
His friend in the blue suit is paying attention to the girl in the yellow, but looking at the girl in the red. Red ignores them, looking at the back of the light suit. The suit is a bit small for his frame, though he is not a large person.
He has taken the phone away from his ear. It rests in his hand, on his thigh, by his waist. He is still looking at the grass. I cannot tell, but his head might be shaking back and forth, just slightly. The phone falls from his hand, and he bend at the waist, slowly, over. Both hands are on his knees. His head is definitely shaking now, his eyes wide and gray. His elbows bend, saplings in the wind.
With a roll to his spine he lifts his head and lurches it forward. Out of his mouth comes a stream of vomit, pale brown, solids and liquids. He leans past his shoes instinctively, into the roll of his stomach. He stops, and saliva drips from his lips, wide and quivering. His eyes are closed, watering. Another lurch, and again.
His friends have stopped talking and look, but do not get up.
He bends lower and lower, to let it all out. There isn’t any more. Still, one more time he lurches. Nothing comes out but sound—low, guttural. A bit more saliva. His eyes open, red, weary. His breath is ragged, in fits and starts.
The cell phone lies, uncaring, on the long grass, propped up by chance upon his motionless, brown leather shoe.
Posted: September 9th, 2009
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