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Category Archives: Hunter’s section

Not only is World of Warcraft a perfect example of Terranova’s principle of ‘Free Labor,’ but it also seemed to call into question the basic definitions of labor or work, as opposed to leisure or play. While the lab today only allowed me to ‘play’ the game for a short period of time, the tasks I did manage to complete felt so much like ‘work’ – I was given quests with checklists, which wasn’t so different from a chore list I might use in real life to categorize homework and household chores in order of importance. Once I finished a quest, I was often given another one immediately to take its place. My chore list only grew larger, rather than shrinking towards some finish line. I could ignore these tasks, of course, but my interface would not be free of quest messages until I did. In fact, writing this very blog entry exists on my list of ‘Reminders’ on my Macbook – in order to check it off, I must finish writing. As fascinated as I am by the world of Modern Culture and Media, I wouldn’t describe my homework assignments as ‘play’ with the same category as an online immersive game such as WoW. 

Once I did too much ‘play’ (or too much ‘work’ killing monsters), I had no other choice but to go to a merchant and sell my rewards to make room in my backpack. In order to do more work, I had to be a responsible player and do a little spring cleaning, so to speak. The sense of play as ongoing and infinite is further enhanced through the scope of the world itself. I was a blood elf on Sunwell, yet before I even managed to grasp the region around me, the game directed me to hit ‘M’ and open the map – I was forced to realize that before the game even begun, I would never reach a finish.

Yet the game, whether it was ‘work’ or ‘play,’ was enjoyable! But why? Why did I love doing work? Was it because it was disguised as play? I feel the answer must lie with the interface – in order to complete my labor successfully, I had to understand a new way to live as a fictional avatar, controlled with certain real-world computer strokes and fictional weapons (magic spells, in the case of my blood elf). Without the interface to conquer, the game might not feel like a game at all and reveal itself as a distant cousin of the grocery shopping list.

This notion Terranova offers of free labour from the individual (both the mass and the specific individual) needs to more clearly include the win-win aspect of certain types of free-labour. Take “liking” something on Facebook, “hearting” something on Instagram, or “favouriting” or “retweeting” on Twitter. All of these interactions and notions of labour help to construct relationship and bonds between people, primarily through positive means. “liking” something might be labourious to one person, but to the person receiving the “like” gains something and clears way for a bond to be made in the middle of numerous networks. This act of labour my the “liker” provides free labour and feedback for Facebook, Instagram, etc., but, beyond the larger company receiving this positive, qualculative end, the recipient gains pleasure. Is this the surplus that is spoken of in Terranova’s article, like Wark discusses as the prize that players can achieve together?

For the past month fashion weeks have been occurring one after another, with thousands of photos to accompany. A heard of photographers stalk editors, celebrities, models and “street style outside of these shows and within everyone is on their phone, ready to Instagram every moment.
Cathy Horyn, one of the most prominent fashion critics around, speaks to Alber Albaz of the foundational couturier house Lanvin about mobile fashion’s effect on clothing. Horyn writes about the struggle he faces between “the human touch” and the advancements of technology, as fashion is primarily digital today from marketing to shopping. The main concern modern designers must face is the flattening of garments, stripping them of their innate aura, as demonstrated through touch, locking them within the image presented through a phone or computer screen for the sake of “mobile fashion.” As a solution, Horyn quotes Karl Lagerfled stating, “There’s no history. What I like is to do – not the fact that I did,” shifting the focus from archiving to constant reinvention.
The reason why I bring Horyn’ article into the discussion is two-fold: for one, I want to focus on why the “rich” image Steyerl defines should be considered lower in the hierarchy than the “poor” image and the second is to ask why do we even chase having a “rich” image?
Steyerl speaks of the “rich image” and the want to attain something clearer and sharper, which holds more information (for example, RAW photographs are comprised of whatever information the digital camera receives during the moment of the shutter’s opening, creating a larger file), in contrast to the poor image, which possesses anonymity of the creator and quick travel due to their compression.
But, to me, the only reason why the “rich” image would be considered on the top tiers of the hierarchy would be due to the literal, data richness of the image. The fact that it tries to recreate reality automatically lessens its value, for it will never completely mimic the aura Albez and Benjamin speak about due to attempt to recreate or capture reality. The poor image deserves a higher rank because it embraces its “flaws,” like lacking authorship and being compressed. By embracing “flatness,” its multiplicity reveals its value and can almost lead to the digital version of its aura. It creates an image which cannot be pinned down and defined, gives it plurality in meaning and its specific location, which could be considered its lack of permanence. The poor image can’t really lack anything because its abstracted; its aura lies in its flexibility and the fact that, like Barthes’ starred text, there’s an openness to its meaning.
So why should we look to the rich image as something with more value? To me, it’s just a framed, flattened version of reality, which can never mimic what we understand to be real. Reality, from my understanding, doesn’t lack a sense, whereas the rich image will also lack at least one sense, predominately touch, which is ever-linked to being human. The poor image doesn’t attempt to hide this lack of senses, but embraces it.

In response to the Abu Ghraib images shown today in class, I want to reflect on the idea of poor image further and introduce Baudrillard’s essay War Porn. First, I take issue to viewing these images in general, from an ethical standpoint, due to lack of consent and subject matter. Viewing them is a violation of the subject within the images, giving the viewer illegitimate consent to a relationship between the subject within the photo and him- or her- self. The relationship, especially from these photos, is one of a victim, not human or individuals, to a perpetrator of violence. As Baudrillard states, “they are inflicted with something worse than death…Radical shamelessness, the dishonor of nudity, the tearing of any veil.” They’re stripped of their humanity by the guards due to the torture and the archiving of the events through photography. Viewing the images only draws attention to the spectacle, making the violence and humiliation relived and revived.
Second, returning back to Steyerl’s argument, the concept of the poor image also adds to my issue with looking at these images. Their quality is pixelated, from a lesser quality phone, and a bit overexposed due to flash in some instances. Although I think the poor quality image is something that should be of higher value than the “rich” image, these photos demonstrate my reasoning as to why the former is of more importance than the latter. The poor image distances itself from reality, separating the viewer further from the actual, real-life event that occurred. The Abu Ghraib photos’ quality is problematic in our understanding of the reality of the situation; their poor quality lead us to distance ourselves from the actual event. The longer we linger on these images, the more pronounced the abstraction and our connection to them becomes less and less realistic. “The degrading images of something that is the opposite of an event, a non-event of an obscene banality, the degrading, atrocious but banal, not only of the victims, but of the amateur scriptwriters of this parody of violence.” The subjects in them, both prisoner and guard, become part of a “infantile reality-show, in a desperate simulacrum of power.”

Before watching Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I had never really listened to the Carpenters, or had known Karen Carpenter distinctively at all – I just never grew up or was exposed to her music. So when I came into the classroom I was a bit taken surprised on what I was really watching. The disorienting quality of the movie, the stop-motion style of filming, the use of dolls as a depiction of the Carpenters; I originally thought that the movie was fictional. I had to google who they were, and then i knew.

Filmed in 1987, upon further research and delving into Wednesday’s readings I had learnt that the director (Todd Haynes) had in fact never obtained the licensing for the music from the Carpenters’ label A&M Records. Having sued Haynes and won, all copies of the film were thus recalled and destroyed. If you didn’t have connections to the film industry, or just wasn’t at the right place at the right time, it was hard to come by a physical copy of Superstar – until it came into the hands of the public and auctioned on eBay.

Hilderbrand, in Grainy Days wrote: “…the defocusing and paling effects of video duplication suggest the tapes’ geographic and temporal dispersion. The uncontainable and in many ways untraceable exchange of tapes produces a proliferation of meanings, responses, and personal engagements with the text.” (27)

This had very much explained the reason why the film itself was constantly distorted, with the rendering quality much lower than what it should be. The colours were also shifting back and forth, and there was also a distinct organic feel to the soundtrack used that juxtaposed the use of the dolls. The signal interference on the film created a mental distress that was all too evident in Karen’s latter years, the premise of the film. It was all a surreal experience. Through the exchange of bootlegging and duplicating, the Superstar I had seen tonight would’ve been different to the original piece. I do not know how the copy came about, but I must assume that it had been reconstituted, ‘touched’ by many others before being played before my eyes.

Inside Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, Jay David Bolter wrote in his piece Writing Space (199I): “Electronic text is the first text in which the elements of meaning, of structure, and of visual display are fundamentally unstable. . . . All information, all data in the computer would is a kind of controlled movement, and so the natural inclination of computer writing is to change, to grow, and finally to disappear.” (18)

When Superstar was released, society did not have the access to the Internet like we do today. Due to the lack of distribution around the world, the phenomenon of bootlegging leaves us with this tampered ‘electronic text’. Nowadays we can watch it whenever we want, wherever we want – unlike the past when the public had to fight over the physical copies which physically and visually deteriorated every time it was accessed via low-fidelity reproductions. It was precisely the reason that this piece of computer writing ‘regurgitation’ actually visually and aesthetically reproduced the psychological and physical trauma that Karen experienced in her life, her death by heart failure.

superstar 3Every person that had watched Superstar has since been connected through this medium of computer writing. The video itself has defiantly changed throughout the years, scarred by the low quality replication and reproduction in the 20th century. Today though, we have the chance to observe the second stage and third stage of the ‘natural inclination’ – to see this film grow and etch itself into the hearts of every additional viewer. But what will the ensuing viewers know? Because of bootlegging, the original work has been essentially destroyed, forever disappearing into the minds of yesterday. The fundamentally unstable electronic text has failed yet at the same time seemingly succeeded in bringing Karen Carpenter to life in everyone’s eyes.

To any story, there are multiple perspectives. This is why media holds so much power in portraying them, as only one version of the truth will be shown to the public. In the case of the film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, such subjectivity was what disturbed me the most. First of all, the most obvious point of interest was the use of Barbie dolls in the movie. Without live actors, the portrayal of Karen Carpenter was very one-dimensional from the beginning; only the conversations between her and her acquaintances, along with occasional text on the screen, told her story. At first, I thought the use of Barbies in telling a story about anorexia was ironic, as the dolls contribute to the unhealthy and unrealistic societal standards of beauty that often times leads to anorexia. However, on second thought, this choice of “actors” almost felt intentional in trying to portray Karen as an uncomplicated, anorexic singer obsessed with her looks.

During the screening, I was compelled to search up “Karen Carpenter” on Google. In fact, I saw others reading her Wikipedia page on their phones as well. The film, instead of giving us information that we can accept easily, had made us doubt its credibility and motivate us to find more objective form of the story. After reading articles online, I found some discrepancies between Karen’s life (and death) and the film’s version of it—they had made bold assumptions about her personal life and incidents, such as the amount of ipecac syrup she took and her motivations behind her actions, which nobody will ever be able to know the absolute truth about except for herself. Then, I started to think about the film as an archive and how Karen would feel about it. I believe she would not have been happy if she saw the film; she has the “right to be forgotten” and to be faded from people’s memory. There are plenty of people who only remember the Carpenters for their successful musical career. However, the presence of this film distorts this view in people’s minds, and the indestructibility of this form of media is only highlighted by Karen’s death and absence.

As Michael pointed out in lecture, both of Monday’s readings deal with what miss when we focus only on screens in new media studies. Similar to Galloway’s earlier call for “software studies,” (and corresponding analysis of TCP/IP), Kirschenbaum is asking us to move even further down the stack to “hardware studies.” By making sure to see our media as “more than screen-deep” (thanks Professor Chun!), we can begin to see how actual people are affected in the production of new media (a la Nakamura’s analysis of the semiconductor industry’s racialized and gendered labor exploitation), as well as illuminate some of the mischaracterizations of new media that screen-focused analyses often put forth.

My major reaction to Kirschenbaum’s was a feeling that I had been lied to — by every computer I’ve ever used. It is clear, of course, that computer interfaces are almost always in some sense lying to us, offering a simplified view of what is immensely complex. But when we begin to consider the disk itself — the spaces that are not erased because of the minute changes in a read/write head’s location, the “slack” space that contains random bits (in both senses) of information from other locations — it is clear that our clean and bright desktops are hiding a degraded and impure physical reality. Even what seem like primitive and atomic operations like delete and copy are approximations of what is actually taking place.

I think this sense of being lied to is one reason why new media seem so (perhaps you guessed it?) wonderfully creepy. Even when programming, possibly even when developing at the level of the hardware, our abstractions are always occluding the complexity of underlying layers (as they are indeed intended to do!). Writing on a piece of paper, or even using a typewriter, offers a sense of control that digital word processors increasingly try to mimic (I think of Google Docs’ constant auto-saving as an attempt to match the materiality of paper). But as we perpetually hand over even more control to “the cloud” (aka server farms in Virginia), we put “faith” (as Kirschenbaum notes) in algorithms and cryptographic formulas that we have no grasp of — and frankly wouldn’t even like to be bothered with — all to realize digital analogues to the physical media we still use. Using a computer to do any sort of text editing seems to be, in this sense, putting faith into a lie.

For this post I’m going to briefly talk about the film we watched in screening today.  I had started writing about the Kirschenbaum reading, but the film stuck on my mind more, so I’m doing that instead.

The film really confused me.  My first question was whether the lack of film quality was intentional or not, but that isn’t really particularly the crux of what I’d like to discuss.  The most jarring thing to me (and probably many other people) was the use of the dolls as characters in the ‘simulation.’  This seems like a decent idea, since dolls are often associated with beauty and body image and many of the issues that are addressed in the film.  At the same time it is not incredibly deep, as I wouldn’t put it past a high school student to come up with the same idea.  This makes me want to believe that there is something more to it than immediately meets the eye.

I can’t help but relate it to stop motion immediately, since that is what it basically is.  I think this was just moving the dolls in front of a camera, rather than frame by frame photographs, but similar idea.  This is sort of interesting to me, the control aspect of stop motion.  How the characters are literally posed every 1/24 of a second.  This would go quite well with the motif of control in anorexia that the film focuses on.  You can even generalize this to the way people play with dolls in general I suppose.

Besides that, using the dolls seems like a decent obstacle when trying to deal with the subject of anorexia.  The characters can’t really change their body, and it’s hard to show emotion since they don’t have articulated facial expressions.  I personally think that this held the film back a little, and may go as far as to say that it wasn’t worth the analogies above, but that is just me.  I also wouldn’t commit to that argument, I haven’t had enough time to consider it.

All in all, I’m pretty unsettled by the film as a whole.  I sort of felt like it was mocking Karen Carpenter, and everyone with the disorder by extension, but I can’t exactly figure out why I think that.  Maybe it’s because I associate this strange medium of doll montage with parody.  Either way, it’s definitely strange.

After viewing Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, this is immediately what came to mind:

While The Most Popular Girls in School is certainly a bit more crass than a documentary about anorexia, I found a compelling connection between the use of dolls to tell a story. Not only are these dolls representing people, but the people controlling the dolls are men pretending to be women (in the case of Superstar, the controlling perspective is that of male director Todd Haynes ). Thinking about Kirschenbaum’s “Mechanisms” and the invisible storage of data behind the computer screen (behind ‘the window’), it’s so easy to simply accept a presentation without questioning the inner workings, without considering these dolls as a male inscribed on a female image. In fact, what makes this web-series so funny is the very nature of the window’s division, that grown men are playing with dolls.

Behind each act of playing dolls is some deeper information, the ‘nuts and bolts’ Kirschenbaum describes lurking beneath your computer keyboard – Superstar has anorexia, while The Most Popular Girls in School has the issue of hierarchy and exclusion in the high school social ladder. It’s easy to laugh at both, yet at the same time understand you probably shouldn’t be laughing.

I also found it amusing to consider how ‘playing with dolls’ has evolved from 1987 to 2015. Superstar is a forty-five minute film, while The Most Popular Girls in School is an ongoing web series, currently on its fourth season. It seems that as time has passed, we as users of digital media have become even more ignorant of Kirschenbaum’s mechanisms – as soon as the general public realizes and acknowledges that they are laughing at grown men playing with dolls for four repetitive seasons, the series may lose its appeal. Once the secret of mechanisms becomes blatantly obvious, does it lose some of the magic and appeal associated with new media?

You find yourself at some point in a strange room — a featureless white cube in which sits a single table. On the table is a glass of ice water. You’re feeling thirsty and, in a dreamlike oversight of the raw strangeness of the situation, come to the conclusion that the most rational course of action is to take a drink. Picking up the cup, you’re surprised to see that a second has remained in place on the table, in addition to the one you’re now holding. Perplexed, you put your cup down and, repeating the action, are rewarded with a third identical glass of water. Like the hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the cup cannot be removed, only replicated.

The ice in the glass clinks softly. Condensation begins to bead on its cool, smooth sides.

This behavior is unexpected when manifest in a physical thing, but is commonplace in a different sort of setting. As Kirschenbaum notes in Every Contact Leaves a Trace, data has an amazing capacity for replication. A digital object is not bound by the stricture of merely existing in one place at one time — in fact, nearly every time it is interacted with, its imprint is left behind. It’s this peculiar (and somewhat counterintuitive) way of existing, and taking up space, that makes the notions like — say — property and theft more nuanced in a digital realm. It’s why images like this seem so immediately silly.

This uncanniness isn’t limited to space, either.

Last week, I deleted all my Facebook notes. (By the way, remember Facebook notes? Some things just shouldn’t be allowed to exist anymore.) But as much as I tried to expunge my mid-adolescent oeuvre from humanity’s digital record, some part of me knows the truth: The Internet never forgets. Almost as a consequence of its liberation from spatial uniqueness, a digital object can be remarkably persistent. Any content created and uploaded becomes virulent, replicating itself over and over for each viewer, its bits and bytes nestling quietly into browser caches everywhere. Like Rowling’s horcruxes, it can’t be destroyed in whole except by the destruction of all of its instances. In this way, digital objects exist in a different sort of time as well.

Consider that in 1990, three years after its release, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was recalled from circulation after Carpenter’s brother successfully sued filmmaker Todd Haynes for copyright infringement. All copies of the film were supposed to have been destroyed. A quick YouTube search demonstrates how effective this destruction wasn’t.

Though, data can degrade in other ways. Imagine a floppy disk in ten year’s time — even if the plastic substrate in which the data is bound remains intact, one would be hard pressed to find a system capable of decoding it. In this way, a digital object can become orphaned — a refugee displaced by the rising tide of obsolescence. And for that matter, we really haven’t had much real time to see how time as experienced by the digital differs. Our knowledge of how material media — paper, parchment, stone — succumb to the realities of thermodynamics spans hundreds of thousands of years.

The era of digital computation seems neonatal by comparison.



During tonight’s screening of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a disclaimer pops up towards the beginning of the film.  The disclaimer warns the audience of the graphic nature of the film and its relevance to issues of femininity and perception.  The film then begins, and the audience is immediately greeted with a shocking discovery; the piece is not a typical documentary with human actors, but a Barbie doll recreation with the occasional splicing in of obscure images and short video clips.  Surprisingly, my first reaction to this was laughter.  I couldn’t help but think that the disclaimer was some type of joke, an indicator that the work would be a parody.  After all, how could one be honestly and sincerely portraying something graphic when using such cartoonish and disrespectful of simulacrums as Barbie dolls?

As the film ended, though, I was forced to wonder; was the work that I just saw, the stitched together multimedia body of various cinematographic formats, more or less disturbing than a recreation with human actors?  The gradual destruction of the Karen doll throughout the film to represent her declining health was a creepy device that was reminiscent of the Child’s Play horror films that terrified me as a child.  The effectual music videos that were created using the same dolls to model Karen’s performances and rise to fame were terrifyingly out of place; it made me feel nauseous oscillating between scenes of a girl destroying her body with pills to what seemed like a series of Bratz Doll commercials.  There was ever-presence stark contrast between childlike innocence and brutally real destruction.  This exact contrast was what embodied Karen Carpenter’s story, and so ultimately it led me to feel as though my original chuckles were misfounded; there was no more sincere portrayal of Karen Carpenter’s story than the mockup doll performance I had originally scoffed at.