“If you know what’s good…”: Justin Timberlake’s warning in “Filthy”

I’ve been wanting to do close readings of things other than books and film for a while and when I spied Justin Timberlake’s video for his new single, “Filthy,” I thought, “yes, let’s do this.” The song itself is catchy and, while there are only about six or seven different lines in the whole song, the video packs a whole lot of meaning into those lyrics. Let’s try to unpack it.

“Haters gonna say it’s fake…so real.”

Timberlake appears in a Steve-Jobs-like fashion on stage at a technology conference ten years in the future. He seems to be premiering his latest creation. The robot walks down the stairs in a stilted fashion, non-threatening and mechanical. It is easily pushed around by the female dancers, but shows it is willing to do manual labor and service to its human masters. It can even bend it like Beckham. “What you gonna do with all that meat…” The robot is skeletal, determinedly not meat-like. “What are you going to do with all that meat” is a good question for the human audience because even removing the phallic nature of the statement, here is a robot who can do everything we can do, without all that meat.

The robot is literally tied to the creators mainframe and supposedly receiving orders from the original program. It is a creation, an animate object but one without what, sentience? Free will? A soul? What part of the animated being moving and thrusting about on stage is signaling that it can be handled, fondled, manipulated, molested without impunity? The fact that it is a machine, not an organic being? Can it express its own desire to be handled or is that desire merely programmed into it? The robot moves human-like (well, Timberlake-like) across the stage for the audience’s pleasure and amusement while Timberlake grunts “put your filthy hands all over me.” The creator is giving consent; does the robot have a say?

“No questions…”

The puppet’s strings detach during this line, symbolizing the disconnect between the robot and the mainframe. Now, appearing autonomous, the robot has to heed its last orders, “no questions” as it proceeds. Without the visual representation of guidance by the mainframe cables, the robot may delude itself with the notion of free will. Yet, Timberlake is the puppet master in the beginning of the video, the robot mimicking all his moves as the creator dances from the sideline. This is the hands-on creator idea, all the moves and machinations guided by a superior being. However, is Timberlake the benevolent creator, or the stage-mom on the sidelines motivating her performer. Is this how Timberlake wants us to see god? The more difficult moves, spinning and tumbling, are taken up by the robot itself, breaking away from the direction of Timberlake backstage, while everyone, even the stage crew become slowly entranced by Timberlake’s sick beats. (Note: I genuinely like most of Timberlake’s music).

The breakdown moves into strange territory. The robot lights up, red turning the white lights pulse from its chest (heart) area and flow in a pattern across its body. Is it the heat of simulated desire that is represented or merely an illuminated choreography of that desire that is being induced in the audience? The swell of music, the breakdown and insistent chord-mashing of this section, along with the dimming house lights, all point to a moment of becoming. The robot at this moment, is leveling up, infused with Timberlake’s funkiness, the glowing display of LEDs not unlike the Quickening in Highlander. Or, for a more [hysical analogy: foreplay. The crowd cheers and the cordless puppetmastery of Timberlake ceases as the robot appears to achieve a new sentience.

“Come on, break it down”

After the breakdown, the robot spins and then, in the most obvious evidence of a new sentience, mimics breathing, heavy breathing. The house lights are still low, the female dancers are returning, losing their fetishized, young-girl dresses, preferring a black, strappy, bondage look. Timberlake still sings, but his dancing has stopped and he gives the robot what can only be described as “the side-eye.”

The robot, arms and legs glowing orange, now proceeds to dance more sexually, interacting more physically with the female dancers, becoming more suggestive with each cut. The music skips in the background, similar to a scratched CD or a well-worn cassette tape that has been recorded over time and again. There are two transformations taking place at this point in the video: 1) the severing of the robot from the mainframe, controlling its (should we start calling him “he” now, as he presents, even basically as hetero-male), and 2) the disturbing of the audience as it tries to tie together its obvious arousal by the display. Flickering lights and music, scantily clad women strapped in black and glowing skeletal robot thrusting all create a cacophony of stimuli representative of our current and future relationships with technology. One can only Google “flesh light” to see we are closer to this than we want to admit.

The end result of our aforementioned foreplay appears at the 4:25 mark, when the robot, fulfilled with its/his simulated sexual encounter, stands center stage, arms splayed like the Vitruvian Man and releases laser light from its/his hands and chest. Not from its/his head, no sex ray emanates from the robot’s head. Why? Is it perhaps that this robot’s becoming (or cumming) is related to its emergence as a physical being and not an intellectual one? Like Data’s Emotion Chip, has this robot traded logarithms for libido?

Even Timberlake has to wipe off the metaphysical semen off his nice sweater.

This is also the time when we start to see the video artifacts surrounding Timberlake, as if he is the older version about to be replaced. Of course, this is the upper level narrative of the video, as the artifacts become more apparent and Timberlake ultimately disappears while the crowd cheers the light-spraying robot. The connection between creator and creation goes both ways.

Technology and humanity are no longer closed systems; in fact, they never were. As we became more reliant upon the processing power of computers and the transmission of data through those connections, we have created a vast neural network that exists outside of each individual person. While Timberlake’s video suggests his robot could ultimately replace him, it begs the question of why would we want it to? Do we each desire our own personal Timberlake to move boxes, serve tea, and gyrate around the house? (I refuse to answer this question publicly.) Or is the video suggesting that we have yet to come to terms with our actual technological wants, poised somewhere between needing technology and desiring it. Our desires have always been the drivers of technology. When 2028 actually rolls around, the world will be a direct reflection of our desires of 2018. What does that world look like?

At least it’ll still be a bit funky.

Post-Ac-Life: Sleeplessness and Productivity

Last night a friend and I texted back and forth about the “waiting game.” All of our PhD applications are in and now it’s just a matter of sitting by while committees of people decide our fate. While texting, I was also checking out thegradcafe.com for information about wait times, acceptance/rejection ratios and general conversations about applying to graduate schools for Literature, Composition, and Rhetoric.

I had made the conscious decision not to check these forums before getting my applications together. That was both a wise and unwise decision.

Had I known that one of my schools only accepts one student with an outside M.A. I would have saved the money on the application. (A similar realization for my friend was what spurred our conversation in the first place.) Also, had I known about the terribly low stipend from another school (information not easily found on their website) I may have skipped that one as well. Foreknowledge is forewarned, I suppose, but at the time I was adamant to keep outside influence out of my decision process. Sometimes I forget that some influence is helpful. Lesson learned.

I’m not sure if that realization led to my sleeplessness last night. I can’t remember anything other than the general self-loathing and self-doubt that normally invades the bookends of my nightly unconsciousness, but dang if I didn’t have a heck of a time getting to sleepytown. I woke up at the usual “stupid-early” o’clock to the smell of coffee being brewed by the programmable coffee machine (my life, my love) and am strangely lacking in the normal exhaustion that would accompany a short bout of sleeplessness. I’m sure this will catch up with me later today.

In the meantime, I will be productive. I have freelance work to do, thankfully, and I’ve decided to create a bibliography of my own work over the last four years. Time and again I will come across a paper I wrote and think, “when did I do this?” Moving forward with other research interests is my priority, but I think it will be beneficial to take a look back on what interested me in the past. Perhaps I’m hoping to rekindle an old flame. Perhaps I’m just procrastinating.

Either way, I need to get words on the page today; different words on different pages. Let’s hope the coffee holds out.

Algorithms are not editors

A friend shared this Huff Post article about a photographer using Disney princesses to highlight some of humanity’s ills. What the article fails to do is think about the automatic “related story” link that comes after:

 

Disney Princesses: the epitome of femininity and so easily molded into anything. Purchase yours today!

The State of English Studies: Scatalogical Addendum

I occasionally wonder if I take my work seriously. Sometimes, when I’m researching or writing, I find the thread of a theme and I grab on for dear life, pulling, stretching, and, ultimately, tying myself up in knots. Then (and it always happens) I get a big “shit-eating” grin on my face and slice through everything like I’m Alexander the Great and my paper idea is the whole fucking world.

I never wonder if I take myself seriously. I do not, and sometimes, that comes through in my academic work. I worry that eventually someone will ask me, “are you making fun of what we do?”

Not really, but I can’t deny, that occasionally, I like to, as the French say, take a piss.

See, what we do in English studies is terribly important. The critical thinking necessary to navigate the sheer volume of rhetoric attacking our faces every day is mind numbing. From Twitter feeds to car commercials, the ability to evaluate intent and disregard manipulation has never been more important that it is today. Our current political environment is the result of two generations of voters ignorant of the psychological projection of half of our governing body.

I blame Freud, because fuck that guy.

But our job isn’t just deconstructing the morning news. Our job runs the breadth of human history. It is the job of telling a story, the entire story. We read, write, evaluate, deconstruct, disassemble, disrupt the full volume of narratives; from the first cave painting and the epic of Gilgamesh (the sexiest bromance ever told) to the latest fanfiction on Tumblr. And if we do our job, if we collect and combine and coalesce all the words, from all the worlds, and compress them into one knowable text, we must come to only one conclusion:

Humanity is ridiculous.

We expend huge amounts of labor in order to tell a story, to amuse each other, to fall in love, to gain something from another human being and those efforts pile up in papyrus and prints and still we haven’t learned how so silly we are. Innovation and invention have brought us to the brink of total destruction (and for many cultures, complete annihilation) and yet our greatest accomplishments accumulated over time add up to little more than a babbling of slightly intelligent monkeys shitslinging with words instead of actual shit.

Most of us.

So yes, what we do in English studies is important, and while we carry that responsibility let’s not forget we are a subset of those smart, shitty monkeys. We should not take ourselves so seriously we forget to turn our critical eye self-ward. We need to take a piss occasionally. Otherwise we will be standing on the edge of discourse, hopping like a juice-filled toddler, our intellectual filters slowly filling with poison before failing altogether.

Maybe that’s my role. Maybe I am the designated English Studies Piss Taker. I gladly wear that golden crown while I peruse the stacks for some great story to completely destroy with my mishandling of theory. Let it be me, monkeys, cause I’m good at it. And perhaps what I write will be a good story, and maybe it will entertain you.

Perhaps you’ll even fall in love.

Enyaraya!

While I was in Seattle, I got a chance to do a little research at the University of Washington. Their library is huge and intimidating, yet everyone was wonderfully accommodating. In their Special Collection area I was able to go through two volumes of Japanese school readers from 1908 and 1903. Near the end of my browsing, with unlimited enthusiasm but limited Japanese, I came across this scene (pictured above) from “Momotaro” in one of the katakana readers:

 

I reads (if I translated correctly):

The cart had treasure.
The dog pulled enyaraya.
The monkey pushed from behind enyaraya.
The pheasant pulled the rope enyaraya.

It’s a simple stanza that uses a familiar scene from a popular story to help children learn katakana (the syllabary used for foreign words or emphasis, as opposed to hiragana). And while I am a definite neophyte in translating, I came up against the phrase “enyaraya” and had no idea what to do with it. Was it an onomatopoeia? Was it an exclamation? What the heck (一体!)

Quick searching showed that it appears to be part of the Momotaro folk song, sort of a repetitive phrase at the end of the sentence. I liken it, in this instance, to a “heave ho” or “Let’s go.” Yet there’s still more research to do. Even in this four-sentence grade-school lesson, there is so much to learn. This story uses “enyaraya” in a way that I imagine is being depicted above in the illustration: “Upon the signal shout of “Enyaraya” by the float leader, the Naginata-hoko float, which is traditionally exempted from the ticket-drawing and fixed to the lead position of the parade, started from Shijo-dori Karasuma.

A good part of my thesis talks about this story, how it parallels events in history, how it was packaged specifically as children’s literature during the Meiji Restoration and how easily it was used as propaganda in an up-and-coming empire. I also discovered how “Momotaro” was one of the stories children had to rip out of their school readers during the Allied occupation after World War II.

As with many versions of the story, Momotaro, himself, doesn’t do much of the work here. With the help of his faithful dog, monkey, and pheasant pals, he is able to conquer the Island of Demons and return with all of their treasure. In some version the inhabitants are all killed, in others they merely promise to remain lawful. Sometimes the demons (oni) are cannibals, sometimes merely pillagers. Like all folk and fairy tales, their innocuous nature and proliferation allows for a myriad of reboots, each generation adding or subtracting what elements suit their current society. The details of Momotaro’s quest may change, but the Peach Boy persists.

 

 

I have never watched Buffy

Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t at some indefinite time in the future. The only reason for not having watched it thus far is that it came out at the same time I was edging into my thirties and felt the need to distance myself from my own teen angst. The reason I bring this up is to establish that I’m no Joss Whedon hater, I loved Firefly, but there has yet to be a compelling reason to launch into binge watching another show. (Have you seen my To-Be-Watched list on My Anime List? NO? It’s secret!)

Anyway, scrolling through Twitter I came across a thread describing the early Wonder Woman script that Whedon wrote. Another disclaimer, I have not see the new Wonder Woman movie yet either (next week) but I have heard good things from friends. Yet these excerpts that were posted describe a Wonder Woman that could have been vastly different from what was eventually made.

The whole thread is worth a read. I had no idea–or, more likely, don’t remember– that there had been a huge backlash against Whedon a while back. Perhaps I brushed against this while reading something on Jezebel, or skimming through my news feeds, but apparently this was something I’d missed.

The whole thread is worth a read. Seriously, I’ll be right here when you get back.

But the reason I’m posting this isn’t to rehash an argument that I was never part of, but to highlight a paragraph from a post that was linked in the above thread. The post is from laureljupiter.tumblr.com and is two years old, yet I absolutely had to highlight the following paragraph. The context is discussing Wash from Firefly in relation to the rest of the Whedonverse:

A big outlier here is Wash, from Firefly and Serenity, who almost fit the pattern, but not quite, and that “not quite” was enough of a problem that, like the similar character Oz, he had to be written out of the story.  Alan Tudyk had the same general physical resemblance to Joss and the same dress sense as Andrew, Topher, and Billy Horrible.  His dinosaur theater sessions looked and sounded like the action figure games the Trio played, and the blurb for Joss’s media company, Mutant Enemy.   But unlike all the other nerdy blond men of the Whedonverse, Wash was in a equal and loving relationship with the strong soldier woman he adored.  Other characters in the series were preoccupied with the traditional gender role imbalance in Wash and Zoe’s marriage and questioned whether Wash felt emasculated by his wife being stronger than he was, but both Wash and Zoe were completely above and untouched by it.  She was a warrior woman and she was married to a dorky guy who told stories and who wasn’t the most physically powerful man on her crew.  She could have broken him in half with her pinky and they loved and respected each other and had a happy, healthy marriage. This was, somehow, too much for Joss to handle, and so Wash had to die.

Not only is this a great observation, but it’s gets at the reason why “War Stories” will always be my favorite Firefly episode.

 

A Playground Metaphor for Jumping In

Slides are scary.

Sometimes, it’s hard just to stand at the bottom of the ladder, looking up at your friend’s backside as it disappears into the summer sky. Then, there’s a hop, a bump and a screech as their ass hits the hot metal and they shed three layers of skin on their way down.

And then this crazy person comes back around to climb up and do it again.

You let them pass.

Here you are, at the bottom of the ladder, not even the fun part of the slide, looking up at the fun part. Never mind the hard macadam that surrounds the base of the slide, never mind the stench of burnt flesh as friend after friend has millimeters of their epidermis sizzled off like layers of Aqua Net on a curling iron.

They’re having fun and you’re too chickenshit to move.

See, the thing about slides is, you have to climb up. You have to put one foot above the other on the wrought steel, possibly stamped with your municipality name, more probably not. You have to haul your cowardly ass up and up and up until you’re standing atop a blazing tower of metal, buffed by the butts of heroes of the past.

You HAVE to do it, because right now, at the base of the ladder, you’re in everyone else’s way.

But the scariest part, the most terrifying, gut churning, knuckles to the knees, “Elizabeth I’m coming” moment is before you. It’s before you. It’s horrendous, it’s gob-smacking, it’s one thin parallel universe away from your first adult orgasm and it smells like fear.

It’s also brief.

Because as you sit there, butt squeezed in between the “safety” handles, sun baking down on your Mork and Mindy t-shirt, the weird ovals of worn chrome on the slide base laughing at you from below, you know that once you start, you won’t be able to stop.

Technically you could. You could thrust out your hands and feet and grip the edges of the slide and stop yourself mid-descent. You’ll shift hard with a squeak and a squawk and you’ll hike up your underwear so far into your “dark neighborhood” that you’ll never wear those Underoos again.

Sure, you could stop, but you’ll be in everyone’s way. Again. Worse this time.

See at the base of the ladder, you could just take a step back out of the way and play it off as consideration, courtesy, too-cool-for-the-kiddie-slide.

But, in the middle of the slide, you’ve got two choices. Do the long, embarrassing, butt-shift scoot back the top to the jeers of your friends and local wildlife?

Or slide.

Go.

Lies I Tell Myself: Week $$%#$@#

I had started with good intentions, truly. But like all things that crash and burn, the flame of inspiration is the start. As I’m nearing the end of my time in the Masters program, I am beginning to look forward: to a PhD program, to the GREs, to the continued deferral of my undergrad student loans.

I have also decided to aggregate my class posts under this one blog. From Introduction to English Studies, Indigenous Rhetoric and Postcolonial Studies, these three classes were outside the core of what I want to specialize in–late Victorian, non-traditional literature and fairy tales. Yet they provided me with a breadth of experience and stories that inform all of my work.

They are sometimes rough and rushed, blogging as an assignment not necessarily high on my list of desirable activities, in the end I realized I was underestimating the medium. The only difference between the handed-in response paper and the response blog post is access to readers, and there is where I found my weakness. I am the type of writer that usually writes with one reader in mind–what Stephen King calls his “ideal reader”–and had to rework my thinking for a larger audience.

It’s an important lesson, one that I learned early on for social media, that the medium you pick determines the shape of the message. It took a couple of semesters to transfer that worldview to my academic writing, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now.

More or less.

I’ll promise to blog more, but I’ll be separating them by interest. I plan to aggregate them in this blog, so if you’re so inclined, you won’t have to follow all of them. Or feel free to ignore this completely. You may be better off that way.

 

Jam Tomorrow

In Dirlek’s attempt to pinpoint the era of postcolonialism in his essay “The Postcolonial Aura”, he suggests three definitions: “literal description of conditions in formerly colonial societies […] “global condition after the period of colonialism” and lastly, “a discourse on the above-named conditions” (563-64).  Over the last weeks, we have focused on the last, learning about the discipline of postcolonialism as it pertains to literature—which, as we all know, means how it pertains to society. We have read narratives that attempt to convey life before, during, and after colonization and in them we can begin to piece together a sense of where postcolonialism fits into the other narratives of the world. (Note: I originally wrote “larger narratives of the world” as if I was suggesting that postcolonial narratives are somehow smaller than others. Perhaps in exposure, but not in meaning. My only caveat is that “larger” is the usual word to place in that type of expression, and now I’m questioning every time I’ve used it in the past.)

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Who decides what shape a “nation” takes? Image courtesy of  (http://io9.gizmodo.com/a-map-of-colonial-africa-just-before-the-outbreak-of-wo-1704165344)

 

Yet postcolonialism can also be expressed as a state of uncertainty, caught between the legacy of colonialism and global pressures to pass through nationalism straight into capitalism. The so-called First World countries went through a gradual progression from feudal state, to nation-state, to global capitalism. For the colonies, there has been an insistence to eliminate that second phase, the phase—though violent—that solidifies a nationalistic identity for a group of people before entering into the global realm. I am not arguing that this phase is necessary, but we are denying nations—a term and state of being that has been insisted upon by Europeans–the same societal evolution that we have had.

As a discipline, postcolonialism should have a number of targets, both inward and outward. Looking at the impact of colonialism upon a people, how those people then have to redefine themselves—through political action, art, violence—and, also, how the colonizers have to acknowledge their part in the process. Colonization is not a single direction vector; the impact of subjugating a people creates an ideology of superiority that has no justification in the real world outside of force. And when that force lessens, the justification for the First World’s sense of place disappears. Unfortunately, being on top means not working too hard to stay on top, so millions of willfully ignorant people do not understand why they are no longer “number #1.” Clinging to religion and guns, indeed.

Yet focusing on the colonizer as victim should only be a tiny, miniscule part of the discipline. Their suffering is pale in comparison to the millions of people oppressed, displaced, and killed through the process of colonization and settlement. We can look at this one section of the colonial mind and take notice, and understand, and somehow, prepare for the ultra-right-wing discourse that fills the void where global superiority once lived; and we should look long enough to remain vigilant against those forces gaining power. But in the end, the postcolonial discipline is about raising voices, voices in the present and past, and creating a tapestry that reflects those who have never had a voice in the global discourse.

The two stories I chose, at random, were “The Free Radio” and “At the Auction for the Ruby Slippers” from Salman Rushdie’s collection East, West. The true success of an anthology is if you can recurring themes across a sample of stories taken from anywhere within the text. Both “Radio” and “Ruby Slippers” deal with unfulfilled dreams, but they are dreams sold as lies. Ramani and the narrator of “Ruby Slippers” are both trying to obtain something just out of their reach. They have made sacrifices—some big and unimportant, some small and life-changing—and in the end their dreams are unsatisfied. Ramani is easy seduced by the thief’s widow and the promise of a free radio, an old compensation for vasectomy in order to curb the population in India. The reward was still rumored, still part of the fabric of society, even though the radio rewards had dried up generations before. Yet, for Ramani, this small token means access to the world, to All-India Radio, and the land beyond his small town. The dream of the radio unrealized, he leaves to take on another dream of becoming a movie star, and, with wife and her children in tow, takes leave. Another disappointment awaits Ramani, most likely, though he keeps up appearances in letters home. He is not smart enough to be nihilistic.

The narrator of “Ruby Slippers” sits at an action in some post-postmodern future, where commerce and cruelty are as commonplace as bombings in the streets. The magic aura surrounding Dorothy’s slippers has reached religious levels, as the fictional and the real collide. They hold a promise of “home” a place that, in the time of the story, holds no real meaning outside of a nostaligic place of perfection—in the same way that some people view 1950s America. For the narrator, the promise of home is a direct representation of the sexual relationship with his cousin Gale, and his desire to return to her. Yet in the frenzy of bidding, the excitement of the rising price actually frees our narrator from that desire. He is whisked away—like a tornado, as it were—from her hold on him and as he comes to his senses, he realized he is free. The dream unfulfilled is much smaller than Ramani’s, but the scene of crass commercialization and debasement of individuality is the true prison our narrator is in. The only person in “Ruby Slippers” that has a true sense of home is the astronaut stranded on Mars. Everyone else is pretending.

We see how often part of colonization is selling a dream; a dream/lie of modernity, education, progress, etc. Selling a dream/lie of a better life, but that is a life defined by someone else. Generation after generation the dream is postponed, and “soon, be patient, work harder” are the only consistent messages the colonized hear. Eventually, the magic of the dream/lie fades and perhaps that is where the postcolonial truly begins.