11.02.2016 : we caged the wrong bird, again

The month of October nominated me the political theater reviewer for Fathom magazine, a new critical theater review in Providence, RI. With the election looming, everything continues to concern itself with Donald Trump, like some kind of played out reality TV nightmare.

In my final semester of school at UMass Amherst, before my brief sabbatical from formal education I took a class on Art and Politics. My midterm paper had a portion dedicated to the performance of politics.

Specifically I was interested in the way sartorial standards and expectations (the politician’s costume, if you will) was wielded like a weapon against the Greek SYRIZA government. Their lack of ties and unorthodox dress made headlines, with the EU parliament and the European media happy to police neckwear standards and expectations rather than engage with the economic demands and policy plans put forth by the party.

(Ultimately, SYRIZA has proven to be an ineffectual rookie government, their willingness and ability to affect change and effectively manage the deluge of economic and humanitarian disaster pouring into the country as absent as their predecessors’.

Nevertheless, the IMF and economists around the world have reversed their position on the responsibility and utility of austerity to restore economic solvency. A fact that perhaps should have been addressed when the open-collared politicians stated it at the beginning.)

Meanwhile, American politics has reached the apotheosis of two decades where incremental changes have been made to the accepted performance of politics. Whether it was the moment that Newt Gingrich took over as speaker of the House in the 90s, or when the public accepted a fictitious pretext for a war that has lasted a decade, when the government was shut down for the first time, or the second time, or when in response to the unexpected and inexplicable massacre of school children elected officials explicitly chose to do nothing to mitigate the possibility of another occurrence, or perhaps it was Sarah Palin taking the stage as a Vice Presidential candidate and incoherently providing non-answers to questions posed at the debate.

It could have been any or all of these things, but we now have a man who has made sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter, and whose notoriety is built on fictions spun on both reality and news television.

We have given up on avoiding explicit racism, and forced news casters to come up with synonyms for the word “pussy”–which they felt unable to say, but none the less were obligated by political saliency to address (though perhaps not at the length with which they did). Until enough people got tired of skirting around the issue and made the word an expected part of political commentary.

All we have learned is that there are an infinite number of ways to avoid having to engage with economic and political realities, that social crises of violence against people of color and women and other marginalized communities can be swept aside with the swivel of a camera and that outrage is the least of the sorrows released from Pandora’s box.

How long ago it seems that we were holding onto that last beautiful gift from that same box? What wouldn’t we give for hope to seem like enough?

2016.10.27 : mechanics of knowledge, knowledge of mechanics

We’re fast approaching the end of October––one of my favorite months––and everything still seems like a rollercoaster. Today is already better than the entirety of the week the preceded it: I am awake, exercised, showered, dressed, and breakfasted and all before 9AM. 

I worry that I’m overdoing it; I signed up for a $10/mo. subscription to the intelligence analysis company Stratfor, which I probably can’t, technically, afford. But I’m a sucker for a good media subscription deal, and even more of a sucker for that foreign policy/global intelligence analysis. 

My list of newsletters and media outlets continues to grow. As does the number of tabs open in my browser of articles I would like to read, soon. (The riff ends up being something more akin to “How now is soon?”)

Meanwhile, I’m taking a design class, and we’re moving on to 3D objects this week. Having done a certain amount of playing/learning with an object of our choice (rendered into a silhouette in Illustrator, or your prefered vector graphics program). We must now design packaging for said object––three variations. To determine our approach, we must research the object, and develop a word (ideal) or phrase (acceptable) that conveys a thematic aspect of our object.

It turns out that researching the history of the gear, while interesting, is unlikely to provide the sort of information that will genuinely help me develop a thematic understanding of the part. The history of the gear dates back to the 4th c. BCE in Asia and approximately the year 150 BCE in Europe. It is one of the most basic and fundamental parts of mechanical engineering. But I want something more nuanced that “fundamental”. 

Ultimately, having spent no small amount of time learning about gear sizing. Specifically the importance and measurement of a gear’s “module” (read an expert explanation here) I think that “precision” is the gear’s most important and engaging thematic aspect. 

Gear sizing is determined at the level of its teeth. For two gears to work together, they must fit together. Therefore, their teeth must apply and react to pressure at the same point along their height. This place where pressure is exerted on and/or transferred to an object is known as the line of action, or line of pressure. On a gear tooth, it is at a point roughly at the center of the tooth height. 

This “center” of the gear tooth falls along what is known as the pitch diameter or pitch circle. This measurement is crucial to determining whether or not two gears will fit together. 

The gear module or modulus, which is designated as m, is the ratio of the pitch diameter (d) to the number of teeth on the gear (N). Also expressed as:

m = d/N

It is usually given with implied units; in SI those are millimeters (mm) and in BG those are inches (in). 

It can also be understood as the gear’s diametrical pitch, which is literally the number of teeth per mm (or whichever unit of measurement is being used) of pitch diameter. 

That is to say: an m of 10mm, means that each gear is 10 mm across at the height of the pitch diameter. 

Ultimately, this means that the number of teeth on a gear is fixed, because it is determined by the gear’s module (and therefore its pitch diameter) and its root diameter (how big the gear is). 

All of this is carefully designed, manufactured, and tested; in clean rooms, where not even a particle of dirt can throw off the measurements of a gear’s modulus.  

Articulate in the face of Absurdity

The words are concrete and undeniable (except by the newly greased escape hatch out of concensus reality) and finding a word to respond, one that encapsulates the emotional state developed under long term absurdity, can feel impossible.

In 2011, I heard Billy Collins read a poem about the word like, it was called “What She Said”. This, at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ, was after I had heard Michael Cirelli, a Rhode Island native, read “Dead Ass” about discovering new slag. The contrast between the tones—superior and celebratory, respectively—couldn’t have been more different.

Lately, I’ve wondered about the phrase I can’t even. Which is more appropriate? Mockery or consideration?

It is fair to criticize its abrupt construction, which robs it of both specificity and substance, means that it functions through familiarity; its meaning is contextually and idiosyncratically imparted.

Having emerged from the unreliable and overwhelmingly multifaceted depths of the internet, it is met with distrust by grammarians and the other vanguards of the English language. Whatever inherent meaning might have existed within the aborted structure was further eroded by use in the regressively repetitive reblog threads on tumblr.

But we live in a world dominated by the absurd.

In the country boasting the strongest economy and largest military force on the planet, a reality TV star is running for president against a former Secretary of State and First Lady, after after the two of them beat out an avowed Democratic Socialist, and a man so fundamentally lacking in charisma that a large swath of the public is willing to believe his is the Zodiac Killer, regardless of temporal impossibility. Meanwhile, policemen with military grade equipment shoot unarmed citizens in the streets. While children and families go hungry, Congress shuts down the government out of spite, and the people drown in debt after bailing out bankers facing no new regulation despite nearly creating a financial apocalypse.

Meanwhile, globally, the field is dominated by radicalism, terror, slowing economic growth, and environmental disaster. In a new era of demagoguery, the death of nuance seems both inevitable and potentially absolute. Our political discourse is reduced to emotion rooted in personal truths and we have accepted the dissolution of a collectively structured reality. With the banishment of facts, concensus reality is abolished and events already past can be re-imagined out of existence (Vladimir Putin will not invade Crimea).

A system without rationality can hardly be called a system. It becomes difficult to rely on language, which is a system, composed of atomized concepts and consistent rules, as a means of expression. We resort to other means. Our subjectivity—the production of the self—is given over to the front-facing camera. We situate ourselves within the social, physical, and political world through selfies taken on vacations, with friends, at rallies, and in the presence of our heroes and idols. The camera lens and the portable screen eloquently communicate where we stand on issues, with which candidates, in which cities, and in front of which works of art.

Yet we cannot avoid words: you open the newspaper, or a browser window, or an app and read that the government is refusing to do their constitutionally mandated job, and that, furthermore this comes as no surprise, and that a nation produced a vote which not even the politicians who lobbied for it can support, and that we cannot get the data to know how many people are killed each year by cops, or how many firearms are sold in the country, or how much money is secreted away in off-shore accounts. The words are concrete and undeniable (except by the newly greased escape hatch out of concensus reality) and finding a word to respond, one that encapsulates the emotional state developed under long term absurdity, can feel impossible.

Perhaps one exists within those linguistic traditions which survived the Soviet empire. But even there concensus reality existed, two of them, in parallel. The reality of the state and the reality of the people, spoken and whispered. English—the language of empire, of capitalism, of finance—lacks the appropriate philosophical and linguistic tools.

Beyond its near impossibility, it feels like defeat to attempt to express the entire cycle of horror-distress-incomprehention-frustration-disappointment-anger—and ultimately—complete lack of surprise, never mind cobbling together a framework of rationalized acceptance.

Instead, I reach for the only tool developed to express the whole of our collective emotional disorder: I can’t even.

The Expendables: death and gender on TV Tropes

The gist of the entry was that, actually, the death of female characters (prominent, recurring, anonymous, or otherwise) is played for emotional effect. Male characters, especially the nameless and often faceless ones, get their tickets punched more often and to less emotional effect, therefore proving that male lives are valued less female ones.

There is nothing, superficially, wrong with this argument; with only the facts presented above, the conclusion is not unreasonable.

TV Tropes could easily place amongst the greatest contemporary tools of media criticism, especially with regards to portrayals of sex, gender, and sexuality. After all, TV Tropes is the place to go for a quick summary of ambiguously gay or hide your lesbians (or even the old favorite heterosexual life partners). But the combination of crowdsourcing, obsessive fan behavior, and the increasing prevalence and acceptance of media criticism as both academic and entertainment practice have banded together to identify any number of tropes and catalogued examples across media (literature, film and television, graphic novels, videogames, et. al.). It is the collective documentation of the nagging suspicions and memetic discoveries that plague any regular consumer of narrative media.

Generally, TV Tropes has felt like a haven of good humored, progressive commentary in a sexist, and heteronormative (as well as increasingly violent and vitriolic) media culture. At their best, discussions or critical engagement with representations of gender and sexuality in film and television (the bread and butter of TV Tropes, as one might guess from the website title) are sent into the void. At their worst, in the course of addressing these questions, women–and only women–are chased out of their jobs and their homes by threats of violence, stalking, and public smear campaigns. Meanwhile, possibly due to TV Tropes’ public and semi-anonymous set up (by no means a neutral or objective system, as shown by WIKIPEDIA), has allowed the identification and dissemination of critical tools for addressing the stilted gender representations pervasive throughout the media industries.

On a recent visit, after an unnecessary character death on Hawaii Five-0, I was searching for the article on stuffed into the fridge to send to a friend. This particular trope is close to my heart. It refers to the death or assault of a (usually female) character for the sole purpose of motivating another (usually male) character. It may seem like an unnecessary term, after all, everything in a story happens to motivate the characters so that the narrative can move forward and evolve. But, as the article explains, this particular form of plot development is so easy as to be considered “lazy writing”. Or, in a more political context, it can be considered “institutionalized sexism.” The characters being victimized are usually female and, for the trope to be applied, are not developed enough for the audience to feel pain on their behalf, instead, the audience is empathizing with the impact the event has had on a more developed, more central, usually male, character.
We do not mourn because the victims are dead or violated. We mourn because their death or violation has caused emotional distress to their husband/brother/boyfriend/uncle/male associate.

All of this sets the stage for the disappointment I felt in seeing the link to Men are the expendable gender. The gist of the entry was that, actually, the death of female characters (prominent, recurring, anonymous, or otherwise) is played for emotional effect. Male characters, especially the nameless and often faceless ones, get their tickets punched more often and to less emotional effect, therefore proving that male lives are valued less female ones.

There is nothing, superficially, wrong with this argument; with only the facts presented above, the conclusion is not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the argument is an outgrowth of the sexist logic that already governs our commercial narrative media. First, because of statistics. Second, because of the implicit sexist assumptions. Third, because of the explicitly sexist arguments put forward.
Statistically speaking, of course there would be more male deaths on television, and in film, because there are more men on television and in film.


From the New York Film Academy blog, November 2013.

It is impossible to make a value equivalency between the genders when they are not equally represented. In terms of pure visibility, male lives are valued more highly, because they are represented as existing in all capacities (as captains, doctors, engineers, plumbers, heroes, villains, extras, red shirts, science officers, Pirates, etc). Meanwhile women can only be found when the lack of diversity would be otherwise overwhelming, or when someone needs to die, so that the hero can go kick some bad guy ass. It matters more when you kill a woman, because there are so many fewer of them (about 1 to every 2.25 men, according to the New York Film Academy). It is, in fact, possible to make films that barely feature women at all (see: The Eagle, a film of which I am actually quite fond).

However, the actions of the film industry operate on an implicitly sexist logic, one unaddressed by the author(s) of the expendable gender entry. Men are the human “default”. Women are cosidered a deviation from the norm. When male extras die, the audience is seeing the death of “people”. They are undistinguished, and undifferentiated, it is true, but we are seeing large scale violence, not the interpersonal kind. The emotional impact of those deaths depends entirely on how you, as an individual, view the redshirts or the henchmen, and if the death of innumerable, anonymous people is something you find affecting.

The death of a woman, by contrast, is the death of the Other, the death of something we treat as different from the death of “people”. (See: Men are generic, women are special.) At this point, the author(s)’s argument takes an explicitly sexist turn. Furthermore, the choice of evidence–or, more accurately, assumptions–is more pernicious than willful ignorance of pure statistical probability. It concerns what the difference between the male “default” and the female “Other” is determined to be.

The author(s) argue that the value of female human existence comes from their ability to produce offspring. “In purely biological terms, men are more expendable than women because in the event of near-extinction, one male and ten females can produce ten times the offspring of one female and ten males.” This argument is part of the sexist philosophy prevalent in many internet communities, and has encouraged the violent reactions to female critics.

You may be familiar with its kissing cousin: “There are no girls on the Internet” (here on TV Tropes, or Know Your Meme). Though it hails from the early days of the internet, it was 4chan, a undisputed bastion of incivility and child pornography, that codified it for the present generation. Many would argue that any major association with 4chan so fundamentally undermines legitimacy that it neither bears repeating nor address. However, the cross pollination of 4chan with more legitimate communities, like reddit or imgur, mean that it has participated in the codification of cultural and social norms and behaviors online. “No girls on the internet” (or “Tits or GTFO”) appears without fail when a unique female perspective is articulated in an Internet forum, comment section, or message board.

At its most fundamental level “No girls on the Internet” asserts that women are accustomed to receiving preferential treatment in social and intellectual arenas because of their sex. Specifically: because people (read: men) wish to sleep with them, women are given undue respect, attention, or concurrence in social situations.

In an ironic twist, the people who say that sex appeal is a means of getting others to submit to your opinions, are often the very same ones who will threaten to come to a woman’s house and rape her for daring to express an opinion with which they disagree, or if she wins in a video game.


(a softer world: 914)

To say that female lives are more valuable because of their ability to produce offspring is to reduce the woman, as a social, political, or narrative actor, to a walking uterus, perhaps with some caregiving abilities. (Nevertheless, more sympathy or nobility is bestowed on single fathers than single mothers.) The argument attempts to naturalize the view of women as sex objects by tracing their “Otherness” and their social value to their reproductive abilities, while simultaneously, couching the assumption in biological/evolutionary, and therefore presumably “scientific” or “objective,” terminology.

The larger effect of the argument is how it undercuts the potential for women to be seen as rational, independent agents, particularly with regards to public political and/or social transformation. It supports a reductive view where “women’s issues” are limited to topics like birth control (or not), abortion (or not), child support (or not), rape, and domestic violence. This largely ignores that women also have a stake in how poverty, access to healthcare, the rising price of college tuition, the stock market, fair trade goods, the second amendment, the price of oil, and the deaths of family members and beloved family pets are addressed. (It performs a further occlusion of male investment in “women’s issues,” by implying that men have no stake in the debates about BC/abortion/child support/rape/domestic violence, et. al.)

Most disappointing is that of course we know men are the expendable gender, there was a major motion picture about it. It starred Sylvester Stalone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li,  Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture. The second one had a slightly different cast, the third another different one again. Yet, all of these men can be “expendable” and we will still know their names. But the girl who is raped or killed at the beginning of the Criminal Minds, or Law and Order (any of them), or CSI (any of them), or the death of the girlfriend or wife or sister or mother that propels the hero into action, can be nameless, and faceless, and the actress will be quickly or easily forgotten.

Which leaves the question less about who is or isn’t expendable, but who will be mourned by the audience, and who will be remembered for their participation.

(This essay is limited to a binary gender system, but there is so much more to be said on the propagation and reification of the gender binary by the media establishment.)