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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Earlier this week, the hashtag #middleclassbands was trending on Twitter, and in that such tags tend to please my love of clever wordplay I clicked over to see. And indeed it was the case that linguistic ingenuity abounded, but what I didn’t expect to find is wild disagreement over what constitutes middle-classness.

Granted, some of this may be contortions produced by the need to be punny, but within the general categories of things middle-class folks are imagined to do and be and buy there were what seemed to me to be downright contradictions.

Tweet-ers identified this group as consuming Applebee’s (which strikes me as lower in the class spectrum), hummus (which seems about right for bourgie foodie types), and foie gras (pretty upper class).



Middle class folks, the TT contended, drive station wagons and Range Rovers (things which are not like each other). They also shop at IKEA, which I for one know as a place folks go for cheap furniture (sometimes, cheap furniture that looks expensive).



The middle class can also be identified, according to Twitter-ers, by its correct spelling, linking this class status to education.







Except when it’s pretentious.



Or pedantic.



Indeed, the only thing that Twitter seemed to agree on about middle-class folks is that they work in office jobs, which I guess does confirm the death of union-enabled blue collar middle-classness.

What’s interesting about this is not that some of these people are “right” in identifying the middle class and some are “wrong.” It’s that “middle class” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

The hashtag was started by UK-based The Poke, seemingly a humor site. Thus, some of the tweets are likely from Brits, whereas others are from elsewhere (not least because there are no Applebee’s in the UK, according to the company’s site). Indeed, many of them “feel” American to me, though that may be ethnocentrism on my part.

Class varies rather dramatically between nations, to be sure, but also, as my parenthetical notes above were intended to suggest, it also varies within nations. Not sure why I keep using the Applebee’s example, but it may well be solidly middle-class for certain populations within the US even though it strikes me as trashy (which, let there be no mistake, is not a criticism but what I like about it).

This lack of agreement about what it means to be a member of a particular class is especially important in the contemporary moment as class is put back on the table in US politics. In the UK, it was always a term of relevance (and means your class of birth, not your contemporary income status, as I learned while using a demographic sheet designed with American sensibilities to collect data about a Brit), but—likely due to some combination of American individualist ideology and decades of anticommunist hysteria—it has not tended to be used in everyday discourse in my lifetime (though I myself see and use it a lot as a Marxist-flavor academic).

However, with the 2011 rise of Occupy Wall Street and its discourse of the 1% vs. the 99%, and with the Obama campaign’s appeals to improving the lot of the middle class rather than giving tax cuts to the wealthy, people are starting to speak the language of class again. The question is, though, which language is that?

If one’s “middle class” appeals are pitched at the foie gras and Range Rover crowd, the Applebee’s and station wagon folks will be alienated. If you call out folks making over $200,000 a year as wealthy it’ll hold for lots of parts of the country, but not places where the cost of living is sky-high, because there those folks are decidedly middle-class.

There are pitfalls to putting class back into the discussion, then, but that should not be taken to mean we shouldn’t do it. Indeed, these pitfalls are, I think, the result of the fact that class has been off the radar for so long that there has been no opportunity to form a popular consensus about what it means.

It’s this lack of knowledge that enables a state in which, to be flippant, everyone thinks they are middle class and will someday be rich if they work hard enough, and therefore are not only opposed to redistributive policies but tend to vote against their own current economic interests.

So this TT’s motley composition, far from being a sign of lazy tweeting, is actually pretty revealing about how class works in the US in the contemporary moment.

Blogs are going to be a bit patchy for a while. Though there are lots of important and interesting things happening in the world right now, not many are jumping out at me as suitable for this genre. Also I’m going to be traveling for most of July.

There’s no love lost between me and hipsterism. Frankly, anybody trying that hard to be cool is, in my book, automatically uncool. Also, we have the technology for gears; why do they insist on riding fixies? However, I’m going to attempt to bracket that annoyance in general in order to examine some particular cultural objects.

Translation: I am a conquistador. Give me your land.

A few weeks ago, I got an email advertisement from a company from which I have purchased t-shirts in the past announcing new designs. Among them was the one to the right.

And I paused on it for a while, and came back to it in my inbox a couple of times. I thought about sending it to my colleague who is a Spaniard, to tease him. Or my colleague who has written about the Myth of Discovery and colonizing the Latina body, to see what she’d make of it.  But ultimately I just deleted the email.

Then, this week, a new email with new designs, and these two:



And at that point, I knew I had to blog about it. This is not to call out Cotton Factory, who makes all three shirts, as the problem; I like (and own) some of their stuff. They’re a symptom, and I’m sure that there are many other shirts out there that operate in this same orbit. These just happen to be the shirts of which I am aware.

So, hipsters are known for their attachment to doing things ironically. They do things that are uncool on purpose in order to be cool. We can, therefore, reasonably assume that the people making these shirts and those who might purchase them know that if worn seriously these shirts would be awful, and that this is what makes them awesome in the hipster mindset.

There’s an additional layer here, which I realized after being getting this retweet: “As irritating as hipsters may be, prevalence of ‘smart in a hot way’ types in those circles is good for all” (which I’ll keep anonymous to protect the innocent).

Part of what makes these shirts work for hipster purposes, that is, is that they require a certain level of education to understand. You have to have a smattering of Spanish or know a little about the role of smallpox in the colonization of the Americas or have a smidgen of comfort with looking at the bad things white folks have done.  Some of the smug satisfaction a hipster would get from these shirts, then, is how much one has to know to understand them.

But therein lies the problem. The shirts are so troubling because they both congratulate their reader for knowing so much and rely on a fundamental lack of understanding of the severity of the events in question.

Raping and pillaging native peoples is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.

Taking native peoples’ land away is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.

Virtually eradicating the people of a continent with disease, which then facilitates the pillaging and land-taking, is not funny, not matter how “ironic” you think you’re being.

There’s something deeply wrong with reducing these incredible historical injustices and death and mayhem to t-shirt sayings. Indeed, in some sense the hipsters who make and buy these shirts are themselves engaging in a colonialist project through appropriating history as a punchline—now with bonus smug satisfaction at their own intelligence!

Or, perhaps, they’re supporting colonialism by making it a joke, because if it’s just funny we don’t have to deal with it and look hard at how we in the US (and elsewhere, but the buyers and sellers of these shirts are likely primarily United-Statesian) continue to benefit from colonialism, neocolonialism, economic imperialism, etc. down to the present. Making jokes about things imagined to be 500 years in the past seems ok, because it’s bygones and we know better now—but that misses a lot about the basis of the contemporary world.

Perhaps most damningly, the shirts can’t guarantee how they’ll be read. The makers and intended purchasers are doing it with irony, but other people may well take them seriously when they buy them or see them on the street, thus promoting the thing the shirts mean to ever-so-mildly condemn.

Ultimately, then, no matter how you slice it, it’s hipster colonialism, FTL.

On May 20, Twitter announced some “Updates to Twitter and Our Policies,” which they pushed out to all accounts—indeed, I got it three times between the two accounts I actually use and one I set up for a conference that then didn’t get used.

The announcement struck me as particularly user-friendly compared to other companies’ policies. That is, by comparison to the way these issues are discussed in the couple different pieces from Christian Fuchs on privacy policies that I’ve read in the last few months, this seemed not so bad. Not perfect, clearly, but not as awful as they might be. In light of that, I thought I’d try to work through them and tease out what it that seemed less nefarious than usual.

First, what caught my attention is that the announcement said: “We’ve provided more details about the information we collect and how we use it to deliver our services and to improve Twitter. One example: our new tailored suggestions feature, which is based on your recent visits to websites that integrate Twitter buttons or widgets, is an experiment that we’re beginning to roll out to some users in a number of countries. Learn more here. ”

Now, there are some problems here—they frame taking user information as solely making the service better rather than owning up to their self-interest, and they track you when you go elsewhere with your Twitter login, which is a little Big Brother.

However, the interesting part is that they’re providing information about what they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it. I don’t expect that there’s full disclosure on their part, of course, but they are operating from the assumption that users have a right to know these things or that they will run into PR or regulatory trouble if they don’t say they care about these things, and that feels like an advance, even if a small one.

Twitter also actively made information available about “the many ways you can set your preferences to limit, modify or remove the information we collect. For example, we now support the Do Not Track (DNT) browser setting, which stops the collection of information used for tailored suggestions. ”

In his March 1 blog post Google’s “New” Terms of Use and Privacy Policy: Old Exploitation and User Commodification in a New Ideological Skin, Fuchs critiques these sorts of moves to let people use settings and preferences to protect privacy, noting that “Opt-out options are always rather unlikely to be used because in many cases they are hidden inside of long privacy and usage terms and are therefore only really accessible to knowledgeable users. Many Internet corporations avoid opt-in advertising solutions because such mechanisms can drastically reduce the potential number of users participating in advertising. ”

He is not wrong that opt-out is to the benefit of the company and that it’s often hard to figure out how to actually do so, but this feels different. Twitter pushed this out to all users, told all of them that if they want to alter how they interact with the system they can do so. This, I think, points to a similar shift to the one discussed above—either they recognize that users have a right to a say in how their data gets used, or they feel like they’re supposed to pretend to think so, but in both cases it’s not just companies doing whatever they like with impunity.

There are, of course, some larger problems here. Twitter says, “We’ve clarified the limited circumstances in which your information may be shared with others (for example, when you’ve given us permission to do so, or when the data itself is not private or personal).” This frames the issue as being about personally identifiable information, when such an understanding in fact misses the point.

As Fuchs puts it in his recent article The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook, this kind of attitude “engages in privacy fetishism by focusing on information disclosures by users” (p. 142). That is, “the main privacy issue is not how much information users make available to the public, but rather: Which user data are used for Facebook for advertising purposes; in which sense users are exploited in this process; and how users can be protected from the negative consequences of economic surveillance on Facebook” (p. 141).

So Twitter, in assuming that everyone agrees that it’s okay to share information when it’s “not private or personal,” is working from this same framework. The set of anonymized user data is fair game to provide vital market research not only for Twitter’s own service but for any company to whom whom it sells the data, or for Twitter to use to allow it to sell advertising where it can report very specifically what kind of people are getting the ad, which makes for more valuable ads (which is how Google can make money while claiming it doesn’t sell user data; contrary to Fuchs, I don’t think they’re lying about selling but rather using their data to profit in this indirect way). That’s a fairly standard industry-wide assumption that Twitter has not broken from.

But Twitter seems not to go as far as Google did in the recent Privacy Policy update that Fuchs, among others, found so objectionable. In that update, Google said: “We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example to make it easier to share things with people you know. We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.”

Opt-in, of course, is better than opt out, but the idea that your personal information would ever get combined with data on your searching and click-through is pretty scary, and fortunately that’s one road Twitter seems not to have gone down (even if, as is likely, it’s only because their service doesn’t lend itself to collection of the same sorts of data).

Similarly, Google likely thinks of itself as taking a stand for privacy when it says that “When showing you tailored ads, we will not associate a cookie or anonymous identifier with sensitive categories, such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health,” but as Fuchs’s blog post points out, “algorithms can never perfectly analyze the semantics of data. Therefore use of sensitive data for targeted advertising cannot be avoided as long as search queries and other content are automatically analyzed. ”

Ultimately, Fuchs makes the bold claim that “the main form of privacy on Facebook is the opacity of capital’s use of personal user data based on its private appropriation” (p. 147), and I think it’s certainly suggestive or provocative. I’m willing to claim that Twitter, in pushing out information and making it easy to understand what they do with user data, is doing a better job with it than some of its contemporaries.

But that is only because the bar is so low.

I added a week on music to my Gender in the Media syllabus this past semester because I am still deciding whether or not I want my next project to be about music, and I chose the “Communities of Sound: Queering South Asian Popular Music in the Diaspora” chapter from Gayatri Gopnath‘s Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures because Cornershop‘s Brimful of Asha is one of my favorite songs ever (albeit in the Norman Cook remix).

In rereading the piece in order to teach, Gopinath’s discussion of the queer counterpublic produced through South Asian gay men’s public audiencing of Sufi devotional music—in which men could publicly dance together in a way that both participated in Sufi tradition and produced space for gay subjectivity—stood out to me.

Particularly, it was Gopinath’s reference to Michael Warner‘s definition of publics as coming into being through texts that resonated.  So, since I had Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics on the shelf waiting to be read (Amazon helpfully informs me that I bought it in January 2011, so it’s been a good long time gathering dust), I decided to check out the chapter of the same name to see what kind of leverage the production of publics by texts could give me.

And it seems to me that the production and circulation of fan texts—and therefore of fandom as a (counter)public –does work in much the way Warner describes, and that thinking through it in his terms illuminates some important aspects of fandom. In this, I’m also drawing on an exchange I had recently about fandom and authorship with fellow grad student Judith Fathallah of Cardiff University, who found me through this very blog.

Fandom, as a public, comes into being through being addressed as readers/audiences for fan texts. Like all publics, that is, this is not an address to individual readers or interlocutors, but to an imagined body. But it’s not just any body that is hailed (and yes, I know that Warner specifically distinguishes his view from Althusser’s interpellation, but I think they’re more similar than he concedes if he is less literal about the police example), but rather people with particular characteristics.

On one hand, the demarcation of not just any body is because fandom is a counterpublic—or, at least, particular kinds of fandom exist as a counterpublic, while others are subpublics. The larger public that is addressed by things like political rhetoric or the news has a pretense of being comprised of all people, though it’s not really universal but rather a particular sort of imagined rational-critical human with the predictable unmarked, imagined-as-default conditions of whiteness, heterosexuality, maleness, middle-classness, etc.

A subpublic is comprised of people not operating within those assumptions while being hailed, but not imagined  to be distinct from “the” public—Warner’s example is readers of Field and Stream magazine; in the fan context we might think of fanboys (a plug for Suzanne Scott‘s excellent work on fanboys)

A counterpublic, on the other hand, cannot make such claims to universality, and indeed does not seek to. Counterpublics are produced with a sharp division from that larger public in a context of subordination; for our purposes that’s fangirls or girl fans or fans engaging in feminized practices like fiction and vidding.

On the other hand, but relatedly, while not calling on an imagined universal population, fandom is projecting a subpopulation with particular characteristics. Fan fiction, for example, is produced for an imagined audience of people who know not only the “source” text or texts, but—more importantly—people who understand what fan fiction is as a genre. This can be seen from the ways in which people tend not to do the work of explaining how to interpret these things.

When people write, they are writing with the understanding that the group of people who ultimately read them will understand that they are reworking popular cultural texts within a set of conventions. The same assumption would be true for fan vids or meta (essays). And through addressing an imagined public with those specifications, that writing performatively calls one into being: Fandom is the group of people who understand what I am doing in this fan text. The circularity is not accidental but integral.

This is not necessarily always a true assumption, any more than the imagined perfectly rational deciding reader of political discourse ever actually exists. Any given individual or community is going to have a different place they draw the lines of what constitutes appropriate deployment of the conventions that produce fandom: How much sex and what kind? How “alternative universe” is too far removed? Real person fiction or not? Etc. But the text speaks to an audience that shares its assumptions and then actual people negotiate the extent to which this hail means them.

The public of fandom is produced through an ongoing circulation of these texts binding people together. It’s performatively constituted each time a text makes a claim to the existence of this particular counterpublic. The continualness is key, as fandom, like all publics, must be continually reconstituted through being addressed. (And, as we know from other forms of performativity like Judith Butler‘s discussion of gender, that characteristic of iteration is where change happens, for better or worse, which is why I get so concerned when industry is the one doing the hailing.)