Working it at Fashion Week

—Elizabeth Wissinger

It’s New York Fashion week and the Kardashian sisters have been here in force. Yesterday, after juggling interviews, runway walks, and Uber filled traffic jams, all five managed to descend upon the Apple store to promote their new apps, which, according to The Cut blog of New York Magazine, featured “videos, photos, and musings from the girls about their lives and projects.” A reporter taking in the scene was struck when Kim, in full audience view, checked her hair in her iPhone camera, carefully smoothing a wayward strand. “Did she forget that we can see her?” Not hardly. In a brilliant moment of “casual authenticity,” Kim reminded us that she does exactly what so many of us would do, to ensure we are perfect for our close-up. No matter that, for the rest of us, a close up of that caliber rarely occurs. The KKs are brilliant at popularizing a way of being in the world that prior to the Instagram age was reserved for a rare breed of insiders engaged in specialized practices that were not for you and me.

There was a time when only fashion models had to “put on that show, 24 hours a day,” as one model I talked to in the pre-dawn of social media put it. Now it seems that every young girl who considers herself somewhat in the know about fashion and style feels the urge to constantly document her grooming, outfits, and exploits. During this fashion week more than ever before, the streets have become runways in the world of Insta-girls populating our feeds. While everyone has always tried to stand out from the scrum of fashionistas milling about between shows, it is striking how many were named by name in the various news outlets’ now obligatory ‘street fashion’ slide shows. Editors, bloggers, and models all were carefully documented, with only the occasional anonymous shot of a fantastic peacock, a courageous unknown in a sea of bold facers. It seems the adorable fashion students who used to hang around the tents, hoping to soak it all up by osmosis, are now jockeying for position with the self branding fashion bloggers, already, or about to be, well known. Being always ready to be photographed has become a profession of sorts, and it didn’t start with the Kardashians.

Historically, models worked for the camera in the studio, at the fashion show, or on the runway. They carefully protected their image; a 1950s Ford model who had sashayed about in crinolines, carrying her model-signature hatbox, recalled ducking into movie theaters to make herself scarce between calls. Superstar model of that time Jean Patchett similarly didn’t want to overexpose herself, believing that “the more you are seen, the less you are wanted.”

Careful management to avoid over exposure now seems quaint, but the mid century titan of model makers, John Robert Powers, would have had no truck with the I-just-woke-up-this-way, #nofilter, mentality. He managed his ‘girls’ within an inch of their lives, carefully staging photo ops for the press, where his carefully coiffed models went about their anything but normal lives. He observed:

“If Mrs. Smith cooks and keeps house for her husband it is of interest to no-one but Mrs. Smith. But when a model has domestic tastes, she is photographed buying groceries, basting a roast, taking her baby out in his carriage.”

Socality-BarbieSounds a lot like everyone’s Instagram or Facebook feed, but before the image onslaught of the digital age, regular people weren’t staging their lives as if they were on a movie set. It was a model’s job to “epitomize romance for the average person, to represent the story-book heroine in real life, to live more colorfully than other people.” Fast forward to the Instagram age, and it seems that everyone feels the pressure to live more colorfully, beautifully, to be the hero of their own show, engaging in what I call “glamour labor,” the work to look like your tightly edited, highly filtered image in the flesh. In a perfect send up of these kinds of pressures, a fictitious Instagram account depicts a hipster Barbie doll’s golden idyll of sunny hikes, coffee dates, and rugged boyfriends. While completely contrived, it nonetheless rang true with thousands, going viral in a matter of days. “Socality Barbie” shows quite literally how “plastic” Instagram, and those of us who feel the need to feed it, have become. In the endless chase for the perfect image, Hipster Barbie might just have us beat.

Elizabeth Wissinger is an Associate Professor of Sociology at BMCC/City University of New York and Associate Professor of Fashion Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (NYU Press, 2015).

Chubby Guy Swag

—Jason Whitesel

There appears to be endless chatter among bloggers about fat women’s fashion, though less so when it comes to fat men. It seems that the fashion industry has continued to overlook big men in this regard. I must say, however, that as a scholar of queer and fat studies in a thin-privileged (white) body, who has written about middle-aged big gay men, I am encouraged to see the emergence of a couple of sites that are attempting to provide fashion inspiration for bigger guys, garnering visibility for them. One of these sites, Chubstr, slates itself as a style destination for men of size. It directs people to resources for them to find clothes they might love. It also alerts users to deals on clothing in extended sizes. I spent some time perusing another blogging community, Chubby Guy Swag (a.k.a. “CGS”), cofounded in 2010 by Zach Eser and Abigail Spooner in response to the lack of body-positive “fatshion” for plus-size males. From my rudimentary content analysis, I gather that this community has international reach providing a safe space for big men who don’t fit the mass media’s image of the “ideal” body type, but aspire toward becoming fashionable, and who therefore appreciate the information and wisdom users share on this site. In fact, several users submit selfies in their favorite outfit. I looked through many posts and photos by men of size who are queer, disabled, people of color, and/or “just plain broke,” most of whom are young adults who are underrepresented in the main.

The CGS website provides a judgement-free zone, as reflected by the compliments made to people who post pictures. Its message is clear: everyone is entitled to fashion, regardless of size. I am most impressed by the queer-positive, anti-racist, and anti-ableist environment that this fat-positive community has engendered. For example, one trans person wrote, “this blog is such a relief to find, since I am fat and trans [non-binary] and looking for fashion inspiration.” For another fat trans person, the blog is a fantastic resource – “nice to see some people shaped like me (even though I’m much shorter than many of the guys on here).” Yet a third gender-queer person says: “I wear almost exclusively women’s bottoms. (Gendered freedom!)” This comment implies the comfortable inclusion of gender nonconformists on the CGS site. It is also interesting that this loosely male-identified space allows for female inclusion, such as women who admire fat men. One of them says she loves everything about the blog, because “it fuels [her] love for men’s fashion AND [her] damn near obsession with cubby men.” Another woman, who is engaged to a big man, apparently follows the blog to look for ways to impart some body-positivity to her fiancé who “hates looking in the mirror.” Many women visit the site on behalf of their ample male partners who feel defeated by the exclusionary fashion industry and need to get their chubby-guy swag back. In fact, even a mother came to the site on behalf of her self-conscious “chubby boy.” Last, but not least, the CGS site is inclusive of persons with disabilities. For example, one person posts about how people with Down’s are built differently and “often lack access to well-fitting clothes, furthering negative perceptions of [DS] people . . . and increasing the condition’s social stigma.” To this post, one of the co-moderators has responded sensitively saying how it is indeed a “struggle to find clothing that fits in a society with misconstrued body standards. Everyone deserves to be happy and comfortable in their body!”

The CGS site offers its users a great confidence boost. To give just one example among many, one visitor to the site describes the big men as the “hottest, cutest, classiest, and the swaggiest guys.” This writer and others give us a sense of the more positive self-image some users celebrate. They check in to the site to see guys of a similar size to themselves pull off “awesome” styles. One recent urban fashion trend appears to be male jumpsuits. As one user reports, the site gives him confidence to pull off the sexy plumber look. Another user displays the catchphrase of the D-list celebrity, Latrice Royale, the plus-sized African-American drag performer: “Chunky yet Funky,” which resonates with the esprit de corps of this online community. Interestingly, even a big man who works with modeling agencies and designers reports on the site that he is constantly confronted by the reality that he does not “fit in” within his own industry.

Users also give and take advice on where to go for affordable, custom-tailored clothes in extended sizes. Such advice ranges from a biker – who shares contact info of a tailor on eBay who sews leather jackets without charging “an arm and a leg” – to users – who warn others of stores that size down (so that an XL is really L). Occasionally, a fashion industry specialist, who is well versed in the small field of fat men’s fashion, will post an editorial where he styled plus-sized menswear. In addition, one big man reported on having met with a free personal stylist he came across at a particular store, who was fat-friendly, had plus-sizing expertise, and was eager to work with him.

Bigger guys, just like everybody else, certainly deserve to have access to style references if they so choose. Given our society’s hyperconsciousness about appearance (which is another story in itself), when big men are denied the latest clothing trends, they miss out on yet another opportunity to be like their peers and differentiate themselves through fashion. Sites like Chubstr and Chubby Guy Swag allow fat men to resist the belief that others can deny them full citizenship because of their weight and size. As one user exclaims, “For big men right now—it’s truly a case of trial and error – we’re kind of on our own.” Voices like his, however, find reassurance: “It’s out there; we just have to look a little harder!” As one user suggests, the democratization of fashion may mean going retro or DIY: “Men’s fashion is evolving… shifting back to our vintage roots and creating, from our lack of options, our own styles and looks.” Users are further reassured that they can find both low-end and high-end options. One user who is operating on a budget posts about his outfit-of-the-day: “I’m a big guy, and I definitely think I have some sense of fashion. I also am a huge bargain shopper, so I’ll be posting what I’m wearing, where I got it, and how much it costs!” On the flip, some people post ensembles worn by fat male actors with the full breakdown of brands, prices, and where to get the same great styles big guys in the media are wearing. The majority of users sound comfortable with their bodies and fashion sense to declare feeling “glamourous,” “chubby,” and “proud.”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014).

The Right to Be Forgotten

—Meg Leta Jones

“Worse than Orwell” is a pretty serious insult in the privacy policy arena, but that is the way the new United Nations rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, expressed his dismay with British (not American) surveillance practices and weak data protection. As reported in the Guardian, Cannataci is particularly upset about the use of CCTV systems, which may be because he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter.

His dig brings the UN into a conversation it has not been relevant to for some time. In 1968, on the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Conference on Human Rights in Teheran addressed the tyranny of computers. UN General Assembly Resolution 2450 (XXIII) specifically directs study into the problem of “the uses of electronics which may affect the rights of the person and the limits which should be placed on such uses in a democratic society” two years before the German state of Hesse passed the first data protection law. Even still the UN has not been considered a major player in data protection or privacy issues.

The UN Human Rights Council’s mandate to nominate a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy touches on two of the most pressing technology policy issues of this decade: who should be in charge and whose rules should apply? As platforms like Google and Facebook make internal policies to address hate speech and revenge porn, questions about the role of law in digital content disputes have introduced another layer of complexity. Should users, platforms, local authorities, national government, or global entities make these rules? How should rulemaking on technology issues occur in each? Do we even need new rules?

The answer to the first question, regarding who should be in charge, dictates a level of homogeneity for the second. If we all need to have the same rules in a global information system, how can radically different governments and legal systems get on the same page when democracies as similar as those in America and Europe can’t seem to agree? If you think that national legal systems should make their own rules, when do users and companies outside those nations have to adhere to those rules and why?

These are the challenges currently plaguing with the development and refinement of the right to be forgotten. Not only do we have to determine whether and under what circumstances individuals should be able to edit their digital pasts, we must also decide whether and how to enforce other determinations on the same subject. In 1988, a General Comment from the Human Rights Committee on Article 17 (the right to privacy) in the 1966 Covenant on Civil & Political Rights explains that when “files contain incorrect personal data or have been collected or processed contrary to the provisions of the law, every individual should have the right to request rectification or elimination.”

It will be interesting to see how the UN enters this global debate and navigates issues of human rights and pluralism in the Digital Age, particularly with Cannataci’s candor and apparent distaste for heavily relied upon American technologies.

Meg Leta Jones is an assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology department where she researches and teaches in the area of technology law and policy. Her book, Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten, will be published in the spring of 2016 by NYU Press.

Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


Comment forums reveal GOP dissatisfaction

—Karen S. Hoffman

[This post is part of the 2016 election series, curated by Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn, co-editors of Controlling the Message.]

Since the 2012 election cycle the role of digital politics continues to evolve. Now the story is all about social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are all venues for candidates to communicate with voters. (All declared, and soon to be declared, candidates have Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Hillary Clinton leads on Twitter with over 3.7 million followers. Donald Trump is not far behind with just over 3 million. Rand Paul has the most “likes” on Facebook with over 2 million. There is good reason for the candidates to use social media tools. Pew reports that in 2014, 71% of adults online use Facebook. Sixty-five percent of those share, post, and comment at least sometimes on Facebook. And almost one-third of those post and comment about the news on Facebook. Data on Millennials is even more striking. According to Pew, Facebook is their main source for news about government and politics.

Social media has also impacted the way that citizens participate in political debate. At the time of my analysis of the 2012 presidential election, the main space for people to join an online debate about political issues was the comment forum that sits below individual articles on many news sites. While the democratizing effect of this type of public debate was celebrated, the substance of the discourse was also criticized as rude and vulgar. Some believed that the language on such forums represented only the most extreme and polemic views, undermining public discourse altogether. I disputed this position in my analysis of 2012 comment forum speech leading up to the presidential election, demonstrating that the substance of most comment forum speech was, in fact, fairly similar to elite discourse about the presidential election. If there was a problem with incivility during the 2012 election cycle, the problem existed far beyond citizen comment forums.

Heading into the 2016 presidential cycle, social media has also changed the nature of comment forums. Due to the tremendous increase in social media users, as well as a desire to improve the civility of comments, many news sources either require contributors to sign in through an existing social media account, or have moved public discussion to social media sites altogether. For instance, in 2014, Huffington Post banned anonymous comments and required contributors to sign in through a social media account to ensure that their comments were attached to a real name (no more “sukonthis,” “libs_r_trouble,” or “mancreatedgod”). CNN removed its comment forums altogether at the end of 2014, opting to host discussion via its Facebook and Twitter platforms. Fox News is an interesting exception. During the months leading up to the 2012 election, Fox News disabled its comment function completely, but since the election, has brought back the comment forum for some articles. In general, all news sites now have Facebook accounts, whether or not they have retained the comment forum function on their official news sites.

So, has the move to Facebook altered the substance of online public discourse? At this stage, it is difficult to compare current Facebook discussions with my original analysis. The 2012 data came from comments generated in the final months of the general election cycle, while we are barely into the primary season for 2016. Discussion during a primary season is likely qualitatively different from discussion during a general election, when internal party disagreement decreases. Keeping in mind that this is the primary stage, with most of the cycle still ahead us, two things stand out in comment forums. First, the changes in comment forums rules and venues have not changed the discourse. Second, conservative commenters are really angry at the Republican establishment.

First, language has not changed much as it moves to social media. Comments are still very polarized, routinely rude, and often tied to policy issues, very loosely defined, which is what I found in my first analysis. The one difference is not the speech, but the more polarized discussion spaces. As people rely on social media for their news, they are exposed to fewer perspectives, because even more than before, people see the news they want to see. It is also still true that social media comments on the 2016 presidential race still track fairly closely with elite discourse, which is similar to my findings in 2012. Because the rules now make it harder (although not impossible) to post anonymously, it is increasingly difficult to dismiss comment forums as the ravings of extremists and trolls who do not represent real citizens’ views. Further, as Pew reports, “For most politically active SNS users, social networking sites are not a separate realm of political activity. They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life.” While we might want to ignore this discourse, the people posting on comment forums are likely to be a factor in the presidential election.

Second, it is abundantly clear that there is discontent amongst the conservatives represented on comment forums. Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives are polarized, but the division within the Republican Party is extremely evident online, as well. Conservatives who post on these forums are very upset with the Republican establishment. They believe that their causes have faced nothing but losses – losses that are the fault of Republicans, such as a majority Republican Congress that has not delivered results (in their minds) and two significant defeats from a presumably conservative Supreme Court (on healthcare and gay marriage.) Typical posts on the subject are as follows:

“Why [have] the Republicans…done NOTHING since they won a landslide victory in both houses???????????????”

“I have not missed a presidential vote since Reagan in 1980. I’m so very close to sitting this next one out. The candidate better be an uncompromised Constitutionalist or I’m out.”

“…Thus far, none of the elected Republicans have shown any backbone at all or done what they promised they would do. We still have Obamacare, it’s not defunded, or removed. We still have a budget that only serves special interests. We have the rights of Christians, gun owners, and the constitution under attack. Can ANY of YOU remember that you are elected to protect the Constitution?…”

The fury fairly leaps off the page on these forums and it is clear that at this point in the election cycle they are not at all interested in candidates who can build coalitions and consensus. They want a fighter who will defeat the opposition, not work with them.

Enter Donald Trump. Many elites scoff at Trump’s bombastic language, fairly criticizing its flaws in fact and tone. They are also surprised (and sometimes worried) at the support he has received thus far. Based on comment forum discourse, however, it is not surprising at all. The attraction of Trump is not his mastery of policy issues – it is his uncompromising, “take no prisoners” approach to our political problems. For conservatives who feel the establishment wing achieves nothing by bargaining and negotiating in the political process, his rhetoric is music to their ears. In the words of commenters,

“These main stream Republicans are running scared. The are basically no different than the democrats. Spineless. Crank it up Mr. Trump!”

“The republicans bashing trump are weak. And jealous of him. These republicans are the same ones meander [sic] with the dems behind close [sic] doors.”

“I want Ted Cruz, Carly Fiornia and other candidates – including Donald Trump included in the upcoming debates. No more shoving some weak kneed GOP candidate who will lose (again) to the Liberal Progressives who have taken over the Democrat party. If FOX can’t accomplish this simple task, why should we TRUST FOX NEWS anymore?”

There is currently great support for Trump’s candidacy. Of the first 100 comments on a Fox News Facebook post about Trump, 92 expressed support. This is typical for conservative forums where support for Trump currently in the majority, if not a supermajority. A tally of the comments on a CNN Facebook post about Anderson Cooper’s interview with Trump showed less support, only 24 of the first 100 comments were supportive (which is not insignificant, given CNN’s position in the media’s mainstream). Based on a reading of the first 100 comments of four CNN Facebook pieces about presidential candidates, approximately 20% support Trump. Of course, today’s frontrunners may be forgotten in a few months (or even weeks), but the anger at establishment Republicans is the force driving support for Trump and will likely continue to be a factor in the race. Trump may not be the ultimate vehicle for this element of the Republican Party, but they want a candidate who is a fighter and not interested in bargaining and compromise.

Viewed individually, comment forum posts do not provide much insight on public opinion and they mostly serve to alarm everyone about the decline of civilized discourse. If you read enough of this speech, however, overall trends emerge. In the aggregate, comment forums are particularly useful in identifying more visceral aspects of opinion. The substance of this language is similar to elite discourse, but public comments tap into an overall mood.

Every week is a lifetime in a political campaign and it is not likely that Trump’s appeal can survive the entire primary cycle. The details of his various policy pronouncements are conveniently vague, and his bold statements will not be as impressive when subjected to close scrutiny. The anger and division within the Republican Party will remain, however, and Republican candidates will have the unenviable task of placating a very active wing of the Republican Party that is not in the mood for compromise and wants nothing to do with Establishment Republicans. I would not be surprised if many Republican candidates are currently hearing this message loud and clear (which is why many of them are hesitant to simply denounce Trump) and will continue to incorporate plenty of “fighting” words in their discourse. It is telling that Scott Walker’s speech declaring his candidacy did not tout a record of building consensus and getting things done, but rather that he could fight and win.

By the time the general election rolls around, this rebellion could subside as Republicans close ranks against the Democratic candidate, but the gist of the current comment forum language is that they erred in “settling” for Mitt Romney in 2012 and are not going to make that mistake again.

Karen S. Hoffman is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. She is the author of Popular Leadership in the Presidency: Origins and Practice. She has also published articles on the presidency, presidential rhetoric, and political communication in Rhetoric & Public Affairs and Congress and the Presidency. Her essay on comment forum speech appears in Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (NYU Press, 2015).

How email ruined my life

—Catherine Zimmer

I got my first email account the fall I started graduate school, in 1995. Even then I had an inkling of the pressures that would come to be associated with this miracle of communication. My entry into grad school coincided with a relationship transitioning into a long-distance one, and what at first was a welcome mode of remaining tethered soon enough became a source, and an outlet, of demand, anxiety, guilt, and recrimination.

This early experience of the pressure and affective weight of email faded into memory alongside that relationship, and certainly at the time it did not occur to me to hold the medium responsible for the messages. But over the past couple of years, now that I am lucky enough to be firmly cemented in an academic job and stupid enough to have taken on an administrative role, that experience has reemerged for me as something of a retroactive portent of the place email would come to hold in my life. Because as anyone in an even remotely bureaucratic environment will tell you, “email” is no longer simply a way of communicating with others, though periodically a message gets through that is significant enough that the medium becomes momentarily transparent. Email is now an entity in and of itself—a gargantuan, self-perpetuating and purely self-referential monstrosity that I do not “use” but barely “manage,” a time-sucking and soul-crushing mass that I can only chip away at in an attempt to climb over or around to get to an actual task.

From epidemic-level ADHD and eye fatigue to degenerative spinal conditions at younger and younger ages—not to mention my self-diagnosed early-onset thumb arthritis—constant interaction with digital devices has arguably had widespread health consequences. It is also fraught with an expansion, intensification, and perversion of the emotions associated with that first email account. But while then I attached those affective elements to a romantic relationship, they are now purely indicative of my relationship to email “itself”: the phenomenon that makes constant and growing demands on my time, attention, and energy, requiring that I devote at least a modicum of substantive thought to each individual expression of its enormous, garbage-filled maw. Time spent on email has grown to hours every day. This is not a measure of increased “productivity.” In fact it is just the opposite, as answering email has become the forest I have to machete my way through just to get to the things that actually constitute my job. And while I do get angry at the jaw-dropping idiocy of certain student emails (Hi Mrs. Zimmer can u send me the syllabus because the final is tomorrow and i missed the last eleven weeks of class) and irritated at the endlessly accumulating details of academic work (Dear Dr. Zimmer, this is a friendly reminder that the due date for the Learning Outcomes Rubrics Departmental Self-Assessment Model is March 23rd) ultimately each one of these individually maddening iterations is just a sign of the incomprehensible sprawl of the medium. And when factored in with texting, messaging, social media, streaming television, and any number of other incoming and outgoing information flows, the sense of being “overwhelmed” seems unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

Email is of course inseparable from the character of any digital labor and the economy of which it is a part: it thus becomes a useful metonymic device to understand how convenience has become so profoundly debilitating. Though no one explicitly states it (because it would sound insane), the demand that we keep up with and process this level of information, and communicate coherently in return, is a demand that the human brain function closer to the speed of digital communications. Needless to say, it does not. Thus the unparalleled levels of prescription of amphetamines and pain medications are not merely the triumph of the pharmaceutical industry, but an attempt to make the human brain and body function alongside and through digital mediation. The relative ease of communications, the instantaneity of information exchange, does not make our lives simpler: it means that we are asked to attend to every goddamn thing that occurs to the countless people we know, institutions we are a part of, and every other organization whose mailing list you have been automatically placed on simply by having a single interaction with them. It’s like being able to hear the internal mutterings of both individual people and cultural constructs: a litany of the needs of others and the expectations of the social sphere (not to mention my own neurotic meanderings when I have to construct a careful response to someone, or an email I have sent goes unanswered). Finding it increasingly impossible to recognize and affectively react only to the articulations of each missive, I respond instead to the cacophonous noise of the whole damn thing. That noise is now constant, while its volume ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the work year. As the only constant, email becomes an end in itself. Email never goes away. Email is an asshole.

It is not surprising that this self-perpetuating mode of interaction comes alongside a proliferation of (self-)assessment and (self-)documentation—talking about what you will, have, or are doing instead of just doing it. Thus the ability to communicate about everything, at all times, seems to have come with the attendant requirements that we accompany every action with a qualitative and quantitative discourse about that action. Inside and in addition to this vast circularity are all those things that one’s job actually entails on a practical, daily basis: all the small questions, all the little tasks that need to be accomplished to make sure a class gets scheduled, a course description is revised, or a grade gets changed. Given how few academic organizations have well-functioning automatic systems that might allow these elements to be managed simply, and that my own university seems especially committed to individually hand-cranking every single gear involved in its operation on an ad hoc basis, most elements of my job mean that emails need to be sent to other people.

Once I send an email, I can do nothing further until someone sends an email back, and thus in a sense, sending that email became a task in itself, a task now completed. More and more it is just a game of hot potato with everyone supposedly moving the task forward by getting it off their desk and onto someone else’s, via email. Every node in this network are themselves fighting to keep up with all their emails, in the back and forth required before anything can actually be done. The irony of the incredible speed of digital mediation is thus that it often results in an intractable slowness in accomplishing simple tasks. (My solution has been to return to the telephone, which easily reduces any 10-email exchange into a 2-minute conversation. Sidenote: I never answer my own phone.)

In case it isn’t already clear, such an onslaught of emails, and the pressure of immediacy exerted sometimes explicitly but mostly by the character of the media, means that we no longer get to leave work (or school, or our friends or our partners). We are always at work, even during time off. The joy of turning on our vacation auto-reply messages is cursory, for even as we cite the “limited access” we will have to email (in, like, Vancouver), we know that we can and will check it. And of course we know that everyone else knows that it’s a lie. Even if we really do take time away from email, making ourselves unavailable (not looking at email, not answering our texts) does not mean email has not been sent to us and is not waiting for us. And we know it, with virtually every fiber of our being. Our practical unavailability does not mitigate our affective understanding that if we ignore email too long, not only will work pile up, but there will be emotional consequences. I can feel the brewing hostility of the email senders: irritated, anxious, angry, disappointed.

Even if I start to relax on one level, on another my own anxiety, irritation, and guilt begin to grow. Email doesn’t go away. It’s never over. It’s the fucking digital Babadook, a relentless, reflexive reminder of the unfathomable mass underlying every small transaction of information.

The nonstop stream of communication and its affective vortex are in part what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and now many others) have described as “societies of control,” distinguished not by discipline but by the constant modulation and management of the flow of information. Ultimately we are exhausted by the endless negotiation of this unmappable terrain, and our personal and professional labors increasingly have the character of merely keeping ourselves afloat. Which is not to say that discipline no longer functions: those excluded from the privilege of control will often find themselves subject to the sharper baton of policing and incarceration.

There does appear to be increasingly widespread recognition that email is having a significant effect on both the amount of work one does and the increasing threat of that work to health and well-being. A widely and enthusiastically misreported news story that France had instituted a ban on sending work email after 6:00pm provided a much-needed salve for the idea that there is no outside to the onslaught. Never mind that this was a wishful, apocryphal version of a French labor agreement that in reality didn’t cut off email at any hour—the story still allowed France to perform its ongoing service as the English-speaking world’s fetish of a superior, butter-drenched, bicycle-riding quality of life, a life in which steak frites is now accompanied by possible escape from a particularly maddening incarnation of digital labor. That life is apparently now the stuff of internet rumor and media fancy.

The range of feelings I associate with the era of my first email account roll on through now and then as I check my inbox, and I could probably name them, though perhaps they were never discrete. And I understand that it is my job as a participant in digital culture to respond to email, and text, and instant messaging—in writing and in sentiment. But the truth is that I am just really tired. Perhaps the vacuum in affect attested to by the accumulation of emoticons and emojis has little to do with the flattening effect of digital communication. Maybe feelings are simply exhausted.

Catherine Zimmer is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies and English at Pace University in New York City. She is the author of Surveillance Cinema (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted on Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books channel.]

‘Fun Home’ and Pride

—Amber Jamilla Musser

MotheralOn June 7th, 2015, the musical Fun Home emerged triumphant. It won 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lead Actor in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The significance of these wins cannot be overstated. A musical based on a graphic memoir featuring a lesbian, her gay father, and the rest of the family has been thrust into the purview of mainstream America—and really, who can resist having ALL of the feelings when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys?” Moreover, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron have made history as the first women to win a Tony for best songwriting team.

It is clear that Fun Home gives people many reasons to be proud, especially in a month when we traditionally celebrate LGBT pride. One of the things that I find most moving about the musical (and the original graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) is the way it actually subverts traditional narratives of pride and shame based on particular understandings of identity and masochism.

One of the conventional understandings of Pride is that it exists to celebrate triumph over homophobia and prejudice against LGBT people. That this narrative privileges a particular form of progress and has been easier for particular segments of the LGBT population is something that has been written about extensively by other queer studies scholars. In this post, I’m more interested in mentioning the ways that this conventional version of identity politics shores up a particular vision of masochism. One of the main arguments in my book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is that the framework that we’ve been using to understand the relationship between individuals and power is masochism. In the book that means various things, but in the context of Pride, it has meant reveling in the wounds that produce LGBT identity—triumph would not be possible if there were no obstacle to overcome and the more wounds that are available, the more visible the triumph and the more celebrated the identity/person.

While I am not the first to describe this relationship between identity, woundedness, and masochism, I argue that this narrative frames our understanding of what it is to be an individual so that those with the privilege of appearing wounded are able to do because they are already part of an assumed arc of redemption and celebration while those whose wounds are less affective and more structural in terms of access to resources cannot access this arc in the same way (see last year’s post on Kara Walker as an example).

On the surface, it would appear as though Fun Home could fall easily into this particular trope, but it smartly sidesteps the arc of progress. In her retrospective gaze at her family life and its relationship to her father’s gayness, Alison (the oldest version of the character that we see) doesn’t pity her father or frame his suicide as the effect of a bygone prejudice that she has been fortunate to avoid. The question is not what would have happened to Bruce Bechdel had he lived in an era when he could live freely as a gay man. Neither is the focus on Alison’s ability to come out as a college student and live as a butch because things are better now. The universe of the musical understands these characters as inhabiting different modes of queerness, but it doesn’t ask us to do a comparison (despite the fact that Bruce commits suicide, which would seem to be the ultimate masochistic act).

Instead, the character whose life we imagine might have been different is Bechdel’s mother, Helen, played achingly by Judy Kuhn, whose song near the end of the show, “Days and Days” is a tearjerker —not because she is self-pitying but because she is resigned. This is structural difference at work. She knows that her suffering does not connect to later progress or triumph, but it does not diminish her work or her pain.

Where does this lacuna of feeling lie in a world structured by suffering or triumph, a world where the individual is a masochist in order to receive redemption through pity? Throughout the musical, we see so many moments when the semi-closeted world that Bruce inhabits that his daughter so desperately wants to remember and connect to, is not uniformly sad; there is fun—a dance with a casket, a furtive sighting of a kindred spirit (the butch that Lucas sings so movingly about). In all, it is not a play about moving through masochism to find identity, but about recognizing the many different notes being played at the same time. The arc of identity need not be neat or masochistic (so as to end in triumph), but it makes one feel, and gives reason for finding different narratives of individuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014).

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.


The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).