April 2012

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2012.

This weekend, some folklore colleagues and I watched an Estonian film titled “Nukitsamees” which translates to “Little Bumpy” (the title character is a little witch child with horns). The plot begins rather like the Western fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a brother and sister lost in the woods, taken to the home of a witch where they live with the constant threat of being eaten. When they escape, they take the witch’s child with them, and though he is unruly, he eventually chooses to live a human life. There is much rejoicing, singing, dancing, and valorizing of the heteronormative family.

What really struck me about the film, however, was the grim terror that the children experienced while living in the witch’s house. While it was quite graphically depicted in the film, this is a feature of many related stories as well: the despondence and despair of the children upon discovering what they’ve stumbled into. The tale plot about children living in the house of cannibals – be they giants or witches – is quite widespread throughout Europe and Asia (I could go into specifics if I wanted to nerd out about the international transmission of folklore, but I’ll spare you that rant unless someone specifically asks about it).

These tales address very real fears of abandonment and child abuse, but more than that, I believe they deal with the experience of living in an environment that is experienced as harsh, hostile, and dangerous. The children are forced to work all day and night; they know that they could be punished or killed for any arbitrary reason; they know that their bodies will sustain the bodies of their captors, giving the captors life built on death.

What is this really about? I think these stories are about patriarchy, or, more broadly, a hierarchically stratified society that thrives upon the labor of the disenfranchised, literally building the lives of the empowered upon the bodies of the disempowered. In the case of women’s experiences of patriarchy, everything I wrote in the above paragraph applies: women’s labor in the domestic sphere is endless, filling each day and night; women (and men too) are policed and punished for any number of arbitrary transgressions when they step outside their gender roles; and women’s reproductive labor is the foundation of society’s continuation. Sexual assault remains astoundingly prevalent and functions as a powerful threat to keep women in their places, while cultural rhetoric places the blame on women who are raped as though they somehow asked for it.

Much of the same could be said for the working class in a capitalist society; for people of color in a racist society; for the urban poor in a classist society; for the untouchables in a caste society; and so on. These are the people whose bodies bear the brunt of mainstream society’s desires and needs. Those who live more comfortable lives are unaware that they are simply being fattened by the witch before being shoved into the oven.

Stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Nukitsamees” give us an emotional vocabulary with which to articulate experiences of fear, complicity, and hostility. Those of us who study culture know that most people can’t articulate the basic principles of the culture they live in, just like they can’t articulate all of the principles of the language they speak. We’re like fish who can’t tell that we’re swimming in water. Our culture is so infused with power relations that we can’t even begin to say where they begin and end.

The setting – a terrifying house that is not a home – intensifies the cultural conflicts we all experience. The hostility is coming from inside the house (sorry, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a BSG reference) when that is the very last place that should be experienced as hostile. Fairy tales as a genre make these artistic distortions, playing with significant themes like home and family, in order to critique these very institutions.

The imagery of terror in stories holds up a mirror so that we can see what our lives are like. Some of us are living comfortably in cages or cradles; some of us are breaking our backs stoking the fire; too many of us have already been eaten, rent limb from limb, or know people who have suffered terribly.

We are all living in the house of cannibals.

Tags: , , ,

This Chronicle article by Emma Thornton tells a familiar story: a female academic is told she appears “too confident,” observes that a lot of the upper echelons of academia are overwhelmingly male-populated, and ruminates on the emotional labor or “women’s work” that female academics invisibly perform.

Characterizing this women’s work, which she calls “cuddle work,” the author writes:

…women were expected to do, and did do, more of what I call the “cuddle work” of academe: reassuring worried students, listening to problems, taking time outside of classroom and office hours to offer help and support. And as long as I’ve been in academe it’s seemed to me that women attend to their “school” work with a conscientiousness detrimental to their research. Too many women devote hours to committee concerns and go out of their way to make sure other people’s needs are met as soon as possible—to a degree that plays havoc with their own careers in an academic world that has forgotten that educating is its primary goal.

Women are raised to say yes, to help people, to be pleasant, so academic women must overcome a lot of social conditioning in order to turn down constant requests for help and focus on their own research. It’s really disheartening to realize, however, that a lot of labor we’re expected to do is invisible and unpaid; in addition to the nurturing we perform on campus, there’s probably unpaid domestic labor waiting at home.

As it’s become so prevalent, I forget where I first encountered the idea that academics really need a wife at home to take care of all those daily-life tasks, but the sexism inherent in many university roles is well described here. And here is an enumeration of how many advantages an academic woman loses when she has children; it’s enough to make me want to tear out my hair with frustration, and I haven’t even 100% decided whether I’m having kids yet.

However, I’m completely with Thornton when she talks about complicity and infiltration as a strategy to subvert:

I’m willing to tone down my confidence if it might get me a job, because I need to put food on my table and pay off my student loans, and because I believe infiltration is a powerful tool. But once I’m in the door I intend to be as confident as I naturally am, and as expectant, and I hope to encourage other women to be the same way.

This is one of the reasons I really want to land an academic job now that I’ve finished my PhD; I want to be a role model to women and other minorities, and I want to help open the door for others like me.

Tags: , , ,

For over a month now, I have been thinking about the intersections between issues of interest to Digital Humanities (DH) scholars, feminists, and sex educators/researchers. I’m not the only one to consider these connections, but my positioning as a scholar who does DH and gender/feminist studies, while also writing for a Kinsey-affiliated sex blog, might help me see some novel patterns.

On the scholarly side, the DH community has written a lot about gender and our particular area of academia. Kicking off a large debate, Miriam Posner’s Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code acknowledges the intersectionality of identities in academia, such that yeah, it is often harder for women to get into coding than men. Bethany Nowviskie’s response Don’t Circle the Wagons cautions us not to put up gender barriers where unnecessary, and she also makes the canny move of contextualizing this whole discussion in current US politics, which are, to say the least, not very woman-friendly. Among the many responses (so many of which were really wonderful, and I wish I could go into more detail about them; Miriam links some here), A spot of mansplaining by Hugh Cayless also helps contextualize coding as an exclusionary field, one which has ingrained social dynamics ensuring that women (also the elderly, and other groups not privileged with certain kinds of education or access) will have to fight for the opportunity to learn at all.

And, of course, there’s Tanya Clement’s I am a woman and I am a mother and I do DH that heart-rendingly exposes some of the sexism at the core of our field, as well as in academia and society in general. Her “fear that someone will find out all of the ways in which my identifications as a woman, a friend, a mother, and as a DH academic do not follow the way everyone else who has identified themselves as such might define those same identities” really resonates with me, as a shy/introverted but obstinate woman determined to make my own life and my own choices even if they’re not the norm.

While I don’t intend this to be a post about gender and coding in DH – as plenty of others have already covered that ground – I will say that I view coding like any other tool in my scholarly toolbox. I’ll learn it if it’s going to help me in some concrete way, but otherwise, I’ll leave it until later. I mean, to draw a parallel, given my scholarly interests in north-east India, I should totally get on learning some of those languages ASAP, but as I haven’t narrowed down which ethnic groups I want to work with, I can’t yet make an informed decision about which language to learn. Besides, English will get you pretty far in India. And if you have colleagues who will translate for you on field excursions, leading to a fruitful collaboration… well, you see where I’m going with this. This approach tends to work in DH too.

But back to cultural context (I am a folklorist; we really like talking about context). The DH Twittersphere discussions about open access really intrigued me. As much as the DH community seems to love to debate various minutiae, open access seems to be one of the significant themes connecting our discourse and our activism. I feel very strongly that we should make as much of our research as accessible to the public as possible. I recognize that there are some constraints on how much of that we can feasibly do right now, while still retaining enough value in the eyes of our institutions. Most of us agree, however, that closing down avenues of access is generally a bad idea; it tends to be motivated by power, money, and a desire to control.

In introducing the awesome initiative Open Folklore, my colleague Jason Jackson makes some incisive remarks, situating the project “in the context of the serials crisis, the corporate enclosure of society journal programs, the erosion of the university press system, the development of open source software for scholarly communication, and the rise of the open access movement as a progressive response to these changes.” The scholarly open access movement, in short, is a multifaceted response to a whole slew of social, economic, and political issues.

Further, Jackson (among others) has contextualized the open access issues within the larger cultural framework of the Occupy Movement, which has been drawing attention to the inequalities that riddle our society. While the Occupy Movement casts a broad shadow, one notable topic it includes is health care, specifically for women. Occupy Birth Control argues: “Just like the vast majority of Americans want an economic system that is just and want banks held accountable for predatory lending and other amoral (and sometimes illegal) practices and the government held accountable for enabling these practices, the vast majority of women—and the men who care about them—believe access to birth control is a right.”

The battle for women to have, essentially, open access to their bodies is growing increasingly bitter, with women wanting birth control called sluts or pregnant women told to just carry their non-viable fetuses to term like livestock do (references here). So we’ve got links between the movement for birth control and the Occupy movement, and links between the Occupy movement and the open access movement, which is of interest to DHers… I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking “if A equals B, and if B equals C, then A equals C.”

Since I’m trained to see larger social patterns (again, yay folklore!), here’s my argument: that the same conservative, power-oriented cultural forces that want to close off our intellectual access are the same forces wanting to close off our sexual access. No, I’m not saying it’s one Mr-Burns-like figure in some global conspiracy to make everything suck for professors and sex-positive folks (I’ve read too much Foucault for that kind of view to be believable). Rather, I’m saying that there are large trends in our culture (mostly America, but the rest of the West to a degree) that are anti-intellectual and anti-feminist and anti-progressive, and a lot of these trends overlap, perhaps sharing funding by large corporations and churches and politicians. In a similar vein, I could ask: do you know who benefits from open-access everything? Everyone does… but who benefits from closed access stuff? Only some people… but they are going to fight to retain their power over access issues.

In short, I think a lot of the same people and ideologies that don’t want our research to be freely available also don’t want us to have knowledge about our bodies and sexualities. Obtaining accurate information about pregnancy and STIs, not to mention affordable birth control, is getting harder and harder in some places. An uninformed population that is constantly occupied (deliberate word choice there) with childcare (perhaps wanted, perhaps not) and student loan bills is an easily ruled population. And this is where I think scholars and sex activists really share common ground, even if we don’t always think of it that way.

I have a friend who is fond of saying: “All forms of oppression are connected.” Perhaps the connections are subtle, or perhaps you need to don your bell hooks goggles to see them better. Either way, I hope this post was at least a little thought-provoking.

Obviously, I’d love to see more DH scholars doing gender-aware work and advocating for access to better sex education (which our country really needs; our teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates blow in comparison to much of Europe). I’d also love to see more sex researchers and educators taking advantage of our cool digital tools and progress in the fight for open access publication. But I know that everyone has time constraints and obligations and we can all only do so much. So mostly, I’m writing this post to help spread awareness.

I also want to put my money where my mouth is, of course. Since I’m now Jeana Jorgensen, Ph.D., but I’m not yet certain which distinguished institution will hire me to do awesome stuff, I don’t know what kind of funding or research time I’ll be looking at for a study that applies DH strategies to understanding (and perhaps solving) a pressing sexuality issue of our day. I’d love to hear from the feminist/sex-ed blogosphere on this and maybe find someone with whom to collaborate.

In the meantime, feel free to go read What can I do for feminism? over at the always-fabulous Feminism 101. And for sex-positive folks that wandered over from the interwebs and want to get a sense of what this DH stuff I’m talking about it, feel free to read my DH lecture notes which contain links to a bunch of other resources that explain what we’re all about. transformdh (here on Twitter) is also a movement I’d like to get more involved with now that I’m more or less done with my dissertation. I think we could all have some really awesome conversations together.

Tags: , , , , , ,