Sunday, August 17, 2014

Strippers, Cops, and a War with Drugs

I have known more prostitutes than police, more police than strippers. I have had conversations with strippers when they were off the clock, but I'm not an expert on what they do or why they do it. By the way, the number for the first two professions I mentioned is two and one. The difference is that I knew the detective was a detective the entire time I was an acquaintance of his, but I only knew one of the prostitutes had been a prostitute. The other was working, and I didn't know about it.

There are many, many documentaries by and about strippers. The most interesting facet of their profession is the labor exploitation. The psychological exploitation isn't something the women seem to cite very often, but the labor conditions would have Samuel Gompers calling out his guys. Watch any documentary on the job, and you'll come to the conclusion that the women are stolen from, subjected to poor conditions, and encouraged to spend all of the money they make on dangerous surgeries.

As for prostitutes, the subject is endlessly complicated from a labor point of view. Even the issue of trafficking turns out to be complex, as the numbers of women enacting a "Lilya 4-Ever" scenario are probably low. (Even one is too high a number.) However, again, the women face economic exploitation that leaves them constantly having to work more to obtain the big payday they can see just over the horizon.

For a while, was a cutting edge left wing political site. Then it became a click-bait site, where every article was written by Tracy Clark-Flory. "Ten Things about 'Divergent' that Related to My Lesbianism" and "Sex Toys and Me" and "Gender Equality and My Girlfriend" and on and on and on -- every piece was, "And how this totes relates to me! I'm amazingly hip! I like sex. With girls!" Now, Salon is trying to be a left wing political site with writers again, although designed as if every person on the Internet were either blind or color blind and viewing things on a 3" screen. (Don't get me wrong, "Miracle Pasta Recipe as a Hipster Lesbian" articles still run every day.)

All along, Salon has had a "sex positive" feminism. (That means, for people who like to reduce long arguments to clickable bylines, that it is a feminism that embraces sexual pleasure as a right and believes that it is good to discuss desire and set out sexual norms that avoid shame.) They ran, back in 2003 or so, a series from a Washington call girl. They also ran a story from a woman who was a prostitute in Cuba for a while. Both women attested to the same thing: the body takes over, and there is a bit of pleasure that's simply due to wiring, and they lost intimacy. "Intimacy," according to biochemists, is oxytocin. According to everyone else, it is a bond and closeness that follows a sexual encounter that is often the best part. Sex workers stop having that, and they report difficulties in achieving it with their mates, if they are married.

Sex work is not supposed to leave women an emotional wreck. I beg to disagree, but my sample size was small, and I do not wish it larger. It is enough, as far as I am concerned, to think that, at best, the women can count on "not awful" and then pay the price of a divorce from emotional connections.

There is a movie available on Netflix that I cannot hiss enough. It's called "Whore's Glory" in English, and it's only accidentally good. The German film maker gets credited for sympathy for the women, but I saw none. I saw, instead, a voyeuristic impulse that controlled the film so that the narrative simply had to lead to some on-campus intercourse. While the documentarian was chasing down the most degraded red light districts in the world, he let the prostitutes themselves talk about whatever they talked about, and the extremely young girls in India made a case against their dehumanization that is utterly shattering. For the most part, though, the women talk about how little money they're making, gossip about each other, and talk about Johns. Their attitudes toward men is as commercial, affectionless, and dry as it could possibly be.

A stripper in a documentary talked about how she came to see her breasts as an ATM. She would shake them around, and pull money out. Every man she saw on the street, she said, she thought of in terms of whether he would tip well or not. She had stopped dating, because she was convinced that every man she met went to strip clubs and was as bad as the customers who gave her tips, and whom she despised, every night. The prostitutes in "Whore's Glory" spoke of men either in idealistic terms -- the man who would be different, who would protect her, who would give her money -- or in terms of a cully.

Strippers can get tax deductions for their breast augmentation surgery. Silicone is the real drug of choice for the industry. Sex workers, despite what apologists say, have a correlative link with narcotic use.

To sex workers, people look like Johns or unicorns. To strippers, men look like suckers to be played. To cops. . . .

The NYCPD detective I knew was a great guy. However, he told me himself that he had had to learn to look at the world a new way. The world inside the force looked like a war against scumbags -- that's you and me -- and victims -- also you and me -- and people trying to keep them from doing their job -- also you and me. When you see bad people and hear lies all day, you expect every stranger to be a liar. When you live and die by the idea that, like the military, you're not "fighting for" an abstraction, but for the guy next to you, the loyalty you build means that of course the witness is lying about the other cop doing something bad.

I find it rather easy to believe that a policeman shot an unarmed Black man to death in the middle of Ferguson, MO. I would believe he did it for the young man failing to obey. I know that the grounds for shooting for police have shifted since 2006, that police can now shoot if they believe they are in danger. No longer do they actually have to have their lives actually in danger; they only need to think so. Since Ferguson PD beat another Black man and then charged him for destruction of police property for bleeding on their stuff, I absolutely believe that these cops -- whose county superiors later arrested an alderman for "failing to obey" -- would kill because they weren't being obeyed.

The police have a natural psychological bias. See crummy people all day, and you'll start thinking all people are crummy. See violent people all day, and you'll assume everyone's violent.

The problem is that the police only get to enforce laws, and they have to tolerate annoying citizens. If they can't do their jobs without releasing information, without being protested, without freedom of assembly, then they can't do their jobs at all. Police who "must" get MRAPP's and Strykers and automatic weapons and LDAP's aren't police: they're paramilitaries.

The recruiting for police makes it seem like a W A R on crime. The SWAT gear and military surplus allows all of the police to go out with JSOC styled garb and point rifles at empty-handed protestors. It allows the police to say that the crowd are "f*cking animals." It seals the assumption (that the public is criminal -- an entire prison population waiting for booking) with the rituals of conquest (not occupation).

The old "war on drugs" gave us the legal abuses that glaze these affronts. The "no-knock warrant," which is now served by SWAT teams, comes from the drug war. The roving wire tap comes from the drug war. The invention of SWAT itself comes from the drug war. However, all the heavy weaponry in local cops' hands comes from the 9/11 freakout. Someone thought that it was a great idea to put military junk in Wayback, Arkansas so that it could deter the Islamic invaders. Marry the "no knock" warrant and the SWAT with that stuff, and you've got Ferguson, almost.

If strippers need breast augmentations ad infinitum and sex workers look for central nervous system depressants, then what of the Valiant Watchmen on the Wall? It's possible to see the behaviors that we've seen across America in the last five years without a widespread drug problem among the police, but, as long as we're making SNAP recipients pee in a cup, making school teachers pee in a cup, making parolees pee in a cup, why not ask the local police to be screened for anabolic steroids and testosterone supplements? It's only fair. We do, after all, want to arrest any law breakers.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Miss Elainey

To clarify what is below, the point is really simple. I refer to McLuhan a lot, but that's because he asks us to ignore the novelty of a piece of technology and to focus instead on what it does. What it does, he says, is inevitably a replacement for something already being done, an extension of one of the human senses or capabilities, the recall of a forgotten technology, and the reversal of its initial extension and replacement. I grok that two of these are hard to buy.

Just focus on the first thing: every piece of technology replaces something already underway. Humans come to a piece of technology with the same brain they've always had. What's more, technologies create their own social norms. Remember CB radio, good buddy? Hashtag memory. The individual technology creates a fetish in both the "neutral" anthropological sense and the more potent Marxist sense. McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride talks about how a new technology presents anesthesia ("New!" "Labor saving miracle" "Lose Weight without Trying!") and seduction by borrowing from art. He had in mind the yearly parade of automobiles and dishwashers. Imagine if he had seen the explosion of articles praising the "revolutionary design" and "aesthetic" of the Apple iFad.

If we can ignore the borrowed clothes of technology and suspend the anesthetic claims, we can ask, "What does this do by other means?" In other words, if you want design, go to 90th and Park Ave. in New York. The labor saving claim is true, but it's a compensation for changing the way we do things, the way we organize labor, and the expectations we have. Allowing it to be more than that is to be seduced.

From Shorpy

With me so far?

Ok, the fetish of a piece of technology grows more and more essential as that technology is social. Therefore, a single user piece of technology such as the hoe will hardly have any fetish to it. There won't be "a right way to hoe," and there most especially won't be a "right way to get ready to hoe." On the other hand, driving a buggy or a car has an enormous fetish: adjust the music, fasten the seat belt, adjust the seat, set rules for "calling shotgun," and then going out to engage in heavily codified driving behavior.

A great deal of money and advertising effort has gone into making YouTube ubiquitous. Many dollar bills are betting that the future consists of every citizen of the planet watching and computing on a telephone. The new Windows 8.1 looks like a Kindergarten cut-out board book with its big icons (perfect for a phone screen) and reduction of text to a series of enigmatic gestures of hostility (e.g. "The Store").

"Video," as understood by persons born after 1995, is a free audio/visual experience found "on the web." It is anti-artistic, in that it is a product intended for consumption and repetition, but not consideration. Video requires response -- an up or down thumb or a forwarding to a friend -- but, if you understand the dichotomy of pornography and art, it is on the pornographic side. (Briefly: pornography is taken, devoured, and used up by its viewer, and it is good to the degree that it is useful in producing an effect. The pornographic is consumed in the viewing and therefore cannot teach lessons or provoke thought, because those are inimical to the pure sensationalism of pornography. The artistic refuses to be understood. It cannot be contained by the viewer and elicits mood rather than provokes it.) Video is flash paper.

If a teacher uses a video presentation or a video presence in a remote class, then the medium's fetish works against the purpose of the class. The medium (video) eliminates a set of uses and imposes a set of interpretive mandates.

All online teaching runs head-on into the fetish and unintended reiterations of the technologies we use. What I call "the big text box" runs into a problem, too. Again, forget the claims of saving labor for the time being and bracket any questions of "ease of use" or "design," because those are all claims astride or beside the critical questions of, "What is this, outside of the classroom" and "What is the fetish already in place?"

The Professor gets a big window. In the left pane is a list of the names with online/off status indicators, and below that is a dialog box for the students to "speak." The professor's right pane splits into one box for slides and another for web pages or documents brought up on the fly. The professor then types:
The Licensing Act of 1736 indirectly led to the success
of the English novel and the creation of Shakespeare as
"the greatest playwright in English." After Walpole's Commons
passed the Licensing Act, London audiences distrusted
any plays that did get to the stage, because such plays
felt like propaganda. Furthermore, playwrights couldn't
get plays passed by the censors. However, they could make
some money by publishing their play ideas as novels.That's
just what Henry Fielding did.
There is a slide up there saying, "*John Gay's  Polly *Henry Fielding **Haymarket Theatre **Pasquin *Repertoire theaters with Shakespeare *Puppets!" However, to the shock of the true believer in online classes, student Chad interrupts with "When was Shakespeare born?" Addison takes advantage of a pause while the professor waits for students to catch up to type, "The syllabus didn't say that the first test was going to be part of our final grade. I don't think it's far."

What's happening is that the fetish of the Big Text Box is the online forum or the web comment thread. It's different from "watching a video," but it has a primitive social structure that repeats itself with depressing regularity. The rules lawyer, the "but you haven't done your job because you haven't convinced me that Jane Austen wasn't a lesbian" writer, the "you have to be nice to me; it's in the rules" special sunbeam, and, of course, the troll (the individual who goes to a place he (or she, I suppose) most hates to try to 'tell them off' or just make 'them' unhappy) -- each is standard issue in comments threads. 

In an online class, students have every reason to avoid "web comment" behavior, but they have every reason to avoid classroom disruption in in-person classes, too. For students feeling frustrated or afraid, or for students who are just plain unhappy, "exposing this BS for what it is" seems worthwhile. When an online class uses the BTB, students know the personae they must adopt.

An Hoff Othat

Illinois Republican Bobby Schilling was formerly in the House of Representatives, and he wants his old job back. For one thing, he needs the money. He's only making $100,000.00 a year, and he made $174,000.00 while in Congress. He can't manage on his current salary
". . .the folks that are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is most Americans, including myself, is that, you know, this [an imaginary tax to fund the ACA] is not something that you want to be putting out when you've got a kid that wants to play sports or you want to take a trip for vacation. Instead, you've got to funnel your money over to Obamacare, which is something you might never have to use."
Let us bask in the glow of the 5 watt light bulb glowing before his lenses
So, health insurance is terrible, because it might mean not taking a trip for vacation -- which is a decision we paycheck-to-paycheck people often grapple with -- just where we want to go for our vacations, whether we should fly or drive, and whether we should try the Virgin Islands this year or stick to Martha's Vineyard. Why, health insurance could even cost as much as. . . as a kid playing soccer. Well! In that case, the choice is easy: little Maradona needs spikes. (It's possible that Bob there could be thinking of a daughter and an actually expensive sport, like gymnastics or tennis, but we've got to remember that he's living paycheck to paycheck, so he has to be thinking of an inexpensive sport.)

I want to point out something in Bob's favor, here. I believe him when he says he's broke. This is because of my lesser known law ("Geogre's Law" is on the Internets, but I've got more than one of 'em): Debt rises to income. Also, all people live on $18,000 a year.

Bob has no money. Bob makes a lot of money. Bob probably has nice stuff, including a nice car payment and a nice mortgage payment to make. Given his party affiliation, he probably has a tuition payment or two to make as well. He no doubt has dues and greens fees that he has to pay. He spends more per mile with his vehicle than I do, for example, because he would have a "nice" car, which means a heavy car, which means fewer miles to gallon. If he makes more money, he will likely get a private plane. No matter what, until he runs out of desires, the debts will chase his income, leaving him with a set amount with which to buy food, drinks, golfing magazines, pay-per-view sports, and Toblerones in hotels. That figure used to be $15,000, but I'm sure that it is now at least $18,000.

There! Two posts in one. Some pretty pictures, though.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Valley of the Uncan

This pun is available for adaptation, by the way ("The ICANNy Valley," e.g.).

The time is drawing near when I will be asked to consider technology and instruction again. I have never stopped thinking about it, of course, but once upon a time I was payed to be aware of the issues, even if no one actually wanted to hear what I had to say. (I blame myself. I probably didn't say it very clearly.) Now, though, I'm going to be caught between the cruising speed icebergs of capital and capitalized tech purchases and will need to explain why education, instruction, and the latest purchase aren't always aligned.

I got a new laptop, and for once, I'm current in software. I'm indistinguishable from consumer class, and it only took thirty years to get there. This means that there is a video camera built into the lid of the laptop, and both the NSA and Microsoft can turn it on at any time without my knowledge. Fortunately, there is a high tech defense against this. For a fee, I can relate the specs to you on the wireless network enabled BLACKTAAPE (TM) (Pat pending). By getting the properly designed, wholly chemical free and Y2K compliant BLACKTAAPE, you can place this device in front of the lens of the camera and be certain that no one is seeing anything you don't want to show.

Anyway, even if you don't keep up with college education, you know that the trend is for online classes. This trend is driven by consumer impulses and a flood of G.I. benefits, an exponential growth of for-profit colleges, and, most of all, colleges and universities seeking ways of gaining revenues by reducing labor costs and facilities expenditures. Sometimes, schools try to own the online classes teachers create, claiming that the professors surrendered their intellectual property and copyrights by using college/university computers. Even when that's not the case, the colleges frequently pay less for online classes and demand more.

In general, they are exceptionally unpopular among faculty. (Yes, commenter: you love them. That's great. I don't hate them. I'm talking about the general feeling.) Faculty generally figure out that exploitation is in the offing.

I want to talk about one small subsection of the phenomenon, though, and that's the technology of the online classroom.

Assume a class size of 15. Assume the class will involve laying out background information and process instruction. In fact, let's go ahead and stipulate a mid-point class, like "Survey of British Literature 2: 1750 - 1945." To teach a class like that, there will be
  • Historical background, genre background, biographical background, thematic background for major authors; construction of either a thematic narrative or an historical narrative to unite the material selected into an arc that will allow the students to frame the things they read.
  • Discussion with students of individual works to encourage close reading and strengthen student close reading skills; class investigations of longer works so that the students get to pioneer the exploration and discover when a reading has and lacks support.
  • Explanation of "how to write on literature." A survey class is structured as a first step in a major, so one needs to teach students how to write about literature with an awareness of critical perspectives; students need to know how to read criticism without being adversarial or slavish.
Now, ignore for a moment what technology you must use. What technology would you choose to use for these tasks -- provided that "in seat class time" is not allowed?

No very good teacher is ever one-way about teaching. Giving background is close to one-way information flow, as the information in the background goes in one direction. However, the delivery, in person, is two-way. In a physical classroom, lecturers watch students, listen to whispers and groans, make personal asides to punctuate the depth of the information, slow down when students get behind, etc. However, this, and only this, can be replaced with a set of web pages or a video. Students can "watch a You Tube" of the professor and get an 80% experience, perhaps.

The third thing -- "how to write the paper" and "how to take the test" -- seems as if it is just as susceptible to one-way, static replication, but it is not. Even in highly selective schools, where students have relatively uniform backgrounds, a class of fifteen students will have ten different misapprehensions about how to approach writing about literature. This is inevitable, because the task is at the heart of the college major. In other words, students will be uniformly heterogeneous because they're not college majors. A single talk or web page on "how to write a literature paper" that addresses the misapprehensions of students will either be a work of inexplicable genius or unreproducible luck.

It's the second bullet point that's the hell.

Should I be on video, with fifteen small thumbnails of the students, to "meet" with my class? Is that better than a large chat window?

There is an irony here, because video contact is worse at reproducing the classroom than a flat text window. It is worse for my students, and much worse for me, to have video and video to recreate the in-person classroom than to have no pictorial representation at all in favor of text windows.

Think about what happens when you speak to a conference room. Think about what the people around the table are doing. The non-verbal communication is much greater than the verbal communication, and people will inaudibly negotiate a mood and behavior. This is why one class can be "mean" and another "sweet" -- with the same material presented by the same teacher, the students themselves will negotiate a mood among themselves without even knowing it, and this collective voice will hold until disturbed. This social harmonizing prevents the most egregious behaviors. (It also intimidates some students and prevents their asking for help.)

When fifteen students are fifteen picture-in-pictures, they are fifteen individuals -- fifteen television sets. They don't negotiate with one another, and each is engaged in the social behavior of "watching video."

You may think "video connection is allowing me to connect to my students," but each student has a history of viewing "video" on a laptop or desktop computer. There are conventions for YouTube and the others that overwrites the actual use made of the video link.  "Watching video" is a fundamentally solitary behavior that is subject to the egoism of consumerism. "Watching video" comes with a "like" or "dislike" button, has a comments field, and invites "snark" or forwarding to Facebook. These conventions are everywhere except the online class, so the students, at best, experience contradictory signals from the media. More likely, each of the fifteen students conceives of herself as a solo entity and the professor as disembodied, if not a commodity, and the commodity experience (i.e. monetized routine found in advertising and placed in journalism) of "watching video" acts as interference against the perception of the professor as a teacher.

The instructor for his or her part, will see fifteen separate, distracting behaviors across the screen. There will not be the corporate behavior one gets in person.

On the other hand, if students engage a large text box, the experience pre-dating the activity is "writing a text" or "reading." This is an individual experience as well, but it is what McLuhan called a "cool medium." The cool medium of reading/writing allows or forces analytical thinking. While the video presentation should replicate "conversation," the technology by which it is arriving has already etched out a set of expectation that instead dominate the intended effect.

Thus, it seems, just as it becomes more possible to have a video link with a class, it is less and less useful -- more and more counterproductive, in fact -- to do so, because the ubiquity of YouTube, Vine, Vimeo, and the rest automatically carry methods of interpretation in the very act of appearing by video.