Rewiring the “Nation”: The Place of Technology in (My) American Studies

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

In this entry, I’d like to talk about three interconnected issues: first, an actual issue, that is, of American Quarterly from 2006, a special issue on “Rewiring the ‘Nation’: The Place of Technology in American Studies.” Secondly, I want to connect the ideas presented there to the TSA’s Naked Power Grab, which I think is truly scary, and important to talk about at length. And thirdly, I want to talk about the extremely weird issue of Sky magazine that I read on my flight home today. Feel free to skip to the part you’re most interested in.

American Quarterly Special Issue. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s introduction alone is worth the hassle of digging up the issue — before I go on, can I talk about how psyched I am for The Googlization of Everything? That’s italicized so you know I mean the book, not the occurrence. In any case, Vaidhyanathan talks about how, within American studies, “technology was for a brief time at the center of a particular–almost quaint–notion of American exceptionalism that orbited the ‘myth and symbol’ school of cultural history.” (565) However, that conversation turned into conversations at least as important about race, ethnicity, and class, which have kept the field a dynamic site of interdisciplinary inquiry into the cultural landscape of the United States. Acknowledging the increasing dominance of technoculture (a 21st century of Kulturindustrie, perhaps?) in the sphere of knowledge production in the contemporary world, Vaidhyanathan argues that American studies scholars are uniquely well-equipped to bring a critical rigor to this brand of social analysis, and ask it to clarify the stakes and subjects of its claims. That is, as Joel Dinerstein agues in the lead article of the issue, “Technology and its Discontents: On the Verge of the Posthuman,” “Technology as an abstract concept functions as a white mythology.” (570) He illuminates why this is so, focusing on how communication networks in the 19th century “became the fetishes of colonial dominance and racial superiority,” and making the case for an alternative, more human, social history of technology than this one. (571)

In short, reading this issue was helpful for me because it reminded me how important it is to make note of the way in which technologically-oriented literacy has served as a narrative of white supremacy, and how careful I must therefore be not to valorize such literacies without situating them fully within the social worlds from which they emerge, fictional and not. This is one reason I am interested in the fan rather than the nerd or the geek — I want to think about the subject who is driven by desire and critical understanding (understood much more broadly than as the drive to produce academically legible work), rather than the subject who is socially located in a moment uniquely friendly to his technologically-enhanced knowledge. Also, when I look at fan literacy in the digital archive, I want to be sure to foreground the ways in which such literacy is highly suspicious of the techno-fundamentalist “progress” narrative, and situate this as the most ethical possible stance for the reader in love with popular culture.

TSA’s Naked Power Grab. Rather than explore this comprehensively, I will just re-post an excerpt from a conversation I had with my sister over g-chat earlier this evening. She’s a scientist, so she gets bonus ethos. Reproduced with full permission.

me: hey can you tell me why TSA is bad?
I know I am way uncomfortable with it
but do you have a good reference?

my sister: ah!
several answers
as an outline, and then you can ask for details about anything that interests you:
6:51 PM
1. privacy. their first suggestion is that you use the naked scanners, where, using science, they look at a basically naked picture of you. the counterargument is, it is a highly trained professional in a different room, so it isnt like a strip search at all and that the images are only streamed and not saved, so nobody can see you naked. But more than 30,000 images were actually posted on the internet of saved scans, since in fact all the machines come with the OPTION of being able to save the scans, and someone had enabled that option.
6:53 PM
2. safety. the contention is, the x-ray machines only provide an equivalent VOLUME dosage of radiation as your flight. actually there are two types of machines, backscatter and millimeter. the backscatter machines deliver all their radiation in the top few microns of your surface, so the volume dose is actually irrelevant, and the ionizing radiation dose at your skin is actually high enough to be mutagenic. Moreover, the beam can be held at a certain height, say your groin or your head, for longer, leading to a total radiatoin exposure much higher than the “completely safe” dose they are claiming.
6:55 PM
3. Security. What on earth good does it do everyone to fly naked and have their privacy invaded if the machines cannot see devices concealed in folds of skin, orifices, or behind pleated pants because of the dense fabric?
6:56 PM
4. The patdown is an option they are giving people who refuse to walk through the dangerous scanners (I am an example). Without proper training and background checks, this is a meaningless and traumatic experience, particularly for survivors of sexual or other physical abuse, or children.

Is this helpful so far?

me: yes.


Very helpful indeed, although disturbing. Disclosure: I did not opt out. I have now been through the machines twice. I don’t like it, but I really hate the idea of a pat down. Basically, I’m with Jos at feministing. She says:

All of this makes me wonder: what would have happened if we had heard an outcry like the one we are hearing now when the TSA was mostly a problem for trans folks and those targeted by racial profiling? What if everyone was this upset by threats to the rights of minority groups?

And I’m sure Jos meant to include people with disabilities, too. This argument speaks to the core of what I think is the epistemological intervention of Disability Studies, Queer of Color Critique, U.S. Ethnic Literary Studies, etc: when individual human experiences are an afterthought, the social whole suffers needlessly. What about pregnant women, what about sexual assault survivors, what about x, what about y. RIGHT. It is so annoying that every time there is a controversy like this, people have to stand up and detail, point by point, under scrutiny that could last a digital lifetime, exactly why these procedures are harmful. It sucks that anyone defends the procedures or diminishes the experiences of those who are traumatized. Stop it.

But on a happier ending note…

In-flight Magazine Round-up. I should start this section by making clear that I love in-flight magazines. I read them cover to cover, often several times during a trip (traveling stresses out my brain!), and almost always try to discuss their contents with my friends and family. I defend their schmaltzy short stories, their barely-veiled puff pieces about “the fast-changing world of cargo,” and their Z-list celebrity anecdotes, “as told to” former English majors not too dissimilar from myself. But today, two portions of the magazine gave me significant pause. The first, from Alyssa Giacobbe’s guide to raising healthy kids, just bugged me with its extreme carelessness. On the important subject of bullying, Giacobbe quotes an expert as saying:

Wait, what? Even attractive and smart kids can be victims of bullying? Wtf. In other words, “generally, you should be relieved if your kids are as normative as possible, but still be sure to ask. There’s a small chance they could have a day where they find themselves in the shoes of the weird kid, the kid with a learning disability, the kid with the holes in his shirt.” What a terrible message. I mean, I know I shouldn’t assume that anyone is getting the bulk of their parenting advice from the in-flight magazine, but still, this is a really bad message to reinforce.

Much more dangerous, I would say, than the one pictured to the left, which is just mind-blowing. Let me get this straight. The in-flight magazine now advertises touristic experience for psychonauts? The in-flight magazine now prints glowing reviews of ayahuasca experiences in Latin America? The in-flight magazine explicitly invites college dudes to…partake? That is ridiculous. I’m not judging the desire on the part of any particular dude to take ayahuasca as part of his self-discovery journey, although I honestly do have a problem with the primitivist rhetoric that inevitably accompanies said self-discovery, especially if it takes place in the context of exploitative tourism. But I really have a problem with the in-flight magazine condoning all this. I mean, seriously. I don’t know who Steve Marsh is, but he’s got to be quite the privilege denying fellow to write a piece like this about a practice that can (and has!) gotten people within the US in serious legal trouble. I don’t know. I guess it just hammers home the point about the techno-fundamentalism that is the raison d’etre of the in-flight magazine: if we’ve got vacation days coming up, and we can afford to go to the Amazon, why not fly Delta? You know, before we decide to cut that hair, move to Atlanta, and invest in that dynamic business center.

I guess this post is my way of saying, safe travels! And have a great weekend.


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