Monthly Archives: September 2011

A lesson from wind

In my bastardized understanding of the state of Nirvana, the ultimate in Bhudist enlightenment, wind is described as disorder. Nirvana, as its opposite is the state of no wind, where things fall into place, align, make sense. Today wasn’t one of those days but was fruitful nonetheless.

Today I was reminded of the value of considering wind as a metaphor for understanding invisibility. It rains where I live, pretty much from now until about ten days after one loses sanity from the damp and darkness. In an extra bonus way, today it was also colossally windy. Many small but stable branches on the many trees that surround my house were felled and litter the ground as testaments to wind. But though I heard the wind and saw it sway the trees, I never actually saw the wind.

You might believe that you have seen the wind (nod to the author W.O. Mitchell for a book of the same name), when in fact all you’ve seen is the impact of why the wind does. We cannot see invisibility (perhaps because it is invisible?), but we sure can see what it does. If the scattered branches on my lawn are metaphoric of invisibility, it is because they are examples of what happens when unseen forces inform the outcome of things. Or maybe it’s just a windy windy day and some sand got in my ear and tickled my brain …. I think more the former than the latter but perhaps it’s somewhere in between.

The joy of wearing glasses

Why can’t I see my glasses when I’m wearing them and, at the same time, why can’t I see (as well) without them – just for reading of course?

This is a question for next time but an interesting metaphorical one to help me make sense of invisibility in a visual sense, and how the visual sense transfers to other realms, too.

Monkey pox for everyone

I asked a friend of mine to circulate the CFP for the invisibility book to her STS list serve and/or among the epidemiologists she knows (I’d use my own, but one doesn’t want to over tax their own personal store of epidemiologists, of course ūüôā ).

The reason I asked her to do this is because I think invisibility runs rampant in the ‘public’ perception of disease both in/and through fear. When we were to be decimated by the last pandemic of avian flu, and then were not, what fuelled the spread of fear?

If my (crude) assessment is correct, I think it is because power, voice, and sight combined to play out on emotion – the fear was the result of people with authority (rightly or wrongly) sharing a particular kind of knowledge/prediction about how easily and rapidly things we cannot see would spread and kill us all. In this case the fear was not about what could be seen but about what couldn’t be seen but still cause you great upset.

In the end, no pandemic. Not this time. But we still lather ourselves up in antibacterial hand wash, avoid the noticeably ill, and suffer the ‘official policy on flu-like illnesses’ at work. But it is not just that the germs we fear are unseeable to the naked eye, or even that we have built tools to clothe our eyes to be able to see them. It is that there is a confluence of power/authority in science, a voice that can be heard, and germs that we should believe are there (and given the number of colds I get, I assume to be ‘real’) that plays out on our emotions. We are not afraid of having the flu, we are afraid of living as it will expose us to the flu.

In one way you could suggest that disease is a necessary thing – but that some people die of disease while others are ‘cured’ or ‘inoculated’ against it, that takes our own magnificent arrogance as human beings. My children have asked ‘what is the meaning of life’ to which I have no ready answer. But when they ask ‘how does life work’ I can honestly say that it works on the principle of balance.¬†

The fear we feel from impending pandemic doom, I believe, is as much induced in the state of invisibility in which germs are celebrated and magnified as it is in the unnatural pursuit with which we have charged ourselves toward producing disequilibrium. What we fear more than germs, I would argue, is being out of control or at least feeling out of control.

On the fringe

Today I’ve been thinking about fringes or perhaps better frames of reference or even cores and peripheries. In so doing I was reminded of Roger Silverstone’s last (?) book, Why Study The Media in which he called the porn industry ‘the torn corner of media’s erotic life and our erotic life with our media’ (p 55).

It’s funny how things and ideas can be pushed to the periphery wherein they are forgotten, ignored, abandoned. Some to their detriment, others to their great benefit – a virtual turning of the back, the place we are least able to see.

In the case of porn, in a book called Sex, Bombs & Burgers (Peter Nowak), it was shown how much influence this torn corner of porn has on the overall technological developments in society.

Not a beneficiary of porn? Surely not you.

Have you ever shopped or banked online? The level of encryption used in such services owes a debt if not entire purchase of service agreement to porn. That which lives in the edge of ‘visibility’ – one and a half feet in invisibility and the other half foot not are in a strange position in terms of power and influence.

I must remember to consider then why some of these things end up ‘important’ while others remain fully forgone.

Justin Beiber is everywhere

Well, not really. Justin Beiber is wherever he is. But have you ever wondered how someone or something you’ve never heard of before suddenly is EVERYWHERE after you hear about it for the first time?

Mimes (from the Greek memisis¬†– to imitate, represent, mimic) are things that, for lack of a more sophisticated definition, ‘stick’ with us (both the singular ‘us’ and the collective ‘us’). But where were they and what were they before they were memes?

Let’s leave aside the notion of coming into existence for the moment, it’s too dark outside for metaphysics today. Let’s also assume that when you ‘discover’ something, you don’t just conjure it out of thin air. It was there before you found it, defined it, and made it part of your repertoire. But if you didn’t know about it before, lived a long life without knowing about it, could have lived a longer life without ever knowing it (Justin Beiber works well in this example), how come after you ‘discover it’ you feel like it is everywhere?

I suspect it has something to do with consciousness or more likely awareness. There are only so many things to which one can pay attention. Attention is something that comes in ebbs and flows. For a time you might end up doing one thing repeatedly Рmake the same foods, visit the same people, attend the same places Рand then you stop. Who knows why, but you stop. 

For that time that the thing that enters the active level of your awareness it seems considerably ubiquitous. It’s everywhere and then, poof, nowhere.

Invisibility is the ground from which that thing emerged and is the ground to which it will return as it ebbs and flows in and out of awareness. Public Relations and ‘brand management’ is one example of human intervention that tries to circumvent this natural cycle, but is in many ways distinctly anti-human. We are want to travel in and out of cycles of awareness, visiting and abandoning the obscure-sublime-obscure. Plucking consciousness from the context of invisibility, out of the ether, making it ‘real’ and then relegating it to a distant memory – returning it to invisibility.

I just hope the Beib returns to invisibility safely and with his bon coif none the worse for wear.

Is it wrong to talk about ‘private things’?

The short answer is probably – the medium answer is ‘it depends on why they are private.’ The long answer is, well, long.

What I’m talking about in terms of the specific private things I have in mind have to do with click and view tracking, otherwise known (to me at least) as Google Analytics.

If you’re reading this you probably know about the CFP I have on-going. What I can say is that I’ve had a lot of interest and views from all over the world. I can even reveal where and when people viewed the information. It’s fascinating and a bit of an obsession. But it’s the kind of obsession that can’t be shared ‘in mixed company’ I suspect.

I’ve never been one to know what not to say. I say what’s on my mind. Not entirely in the loud and obnoxious way, but in the way that if something is supposed to be uncomfortable and private, it doesn’t make it unimportant or unworthy of discussion.¬†

Back to google analytics, I’ve had some responses to the CFP to date and some additional inquiries and a few weeks yet to go before the deadline. Apparently someone (or a group of someones) in Berlin love what I have to say and visit my CFP almost daily. Until I hear from them, private they will remain.

What we forget (to remember)

This past week there was a stranger abduction of a small boy in my province (though not near by where I live). This is a very unusual occurrence in Canada. There are cases of children being abducted but it is most often by a family member or relative involved in a custodial dispute.

What was interesting is that the boy was returned to his family yesterday, unharmed, and by news reports, almost entirely unaware that anything bad happened. 

The specific details of this case aside, I was reminded of something that comes up with research ethics when it comes to longitudinal studies involving children who one might want to track into adulthood. Ethics boards are often remiss to allow researchers to engage with children and then find them again later and engage with them as adults. In the first instance their participation is largely a matter of substitute consent (parents agree for their child to participate) and the follow-up is of direct consent (participant agrees for him/herself). The trick and interesting thing is that children don’t always know they are in or were part of a study to begin with so asking them for follow-up is only slightly removed from asking them for the first time.

Why don’t they remember? Is it that they never knew they were part of a study? How could they not know that they were part of your data set?

The fact is that we forget many more things than we actively remember. But forgetting, of course, is not total or absolute. It is always relative and much more like dampening than erasure. 

Perhaps the boy who was abducted will respond by way of behavioural changes or react to triggers that he was not aware of. Perhaps he will never know again because he interpreted this experience differently from the inside than we do from the outside. Or perhaps forgetting is a way in which to integrate the things that are not instrumental in our worldview or daily lives – relegating them to the structure of invisibility (maybe even what Bordieu called habitus) that informs how we confront the world.

I know for me, my childhood plays out in my daily life despite the fact that I’d be hard pressed to recall any specific details of anything (let alone major events) from any time before I was about 7 or 8.

Vestiges of history: the invisibility of the past in the everyday

I’ve been discussing a research project with a colleague who is an historian. She’s trying to find the right ‘hook’ to demonstrate the importance of a locally (regionally) prominent figure in history and wants to find a way to articulate it in a ‘new media-ish’ kind of way. Let’s face it, new media gets more money from granting agencies than ‘general history’ these days so who can blame her.¬†

While we were discussing her idea I asked her if she’d considered demonstrating how this historical figure is in/visibly present in the contemporary geography of this place. By that I meant that it was interesting how many things were named after him and how he intersected so much of this region’s development.

This got me to thinking about the invisibility of history that comes from its everyday induction in a society. What was once a tribute – naming a street or landmark after someone – becomes an everyday and uncritical/invisible thing many generations removed from its point of origin. In the case of my colleague, the person who she described was fantastically well articulated in the development of virtually all aspects of this region and I only had heard of him by way of hearing his name as a street name or the name of an organization. He was honoured and invisible at the same time.

All around you there are these visible but invisible vestiges of history, stories known but to a few, but implicated in our daily lives. If you can think of any, send me an email with the story (and a photo if you can grab one) and I’ll post it.¬†

I have a photo of my own to post but I haven’t quite figured out how to get it yet. It’s of a 2 story tall gnome that sits on the side of the highway at a gas station. I never quite understood why it was there until last week when I finally asked – and received the rehearsed answer from the station attendant. I’ll post the story when I find a safe place to stop and take the picture.

The perils of ubiquity

It behoves me every time my children say the word ‘Kleenex’ to refer to the generic category of ‘facial tissue,’ to correct them (particularly since we aren’t quite stushy enough for name brands most of the time). But why is it that ‘Kleenex’ has come to stand for all¬†facial tissues? My suggestions is that it is both a matter of marketing success and an implosion through ubiquity.

Ubiquity, it seems, is a double edged sword. On the one hand if you or your idea or product ends up being everywhere (i.e. ubiquitous) then you enjoy a position of prominence. On the other hand, once your ‘brand’ becomes synonymous with or is used as a substitute for the generic category then you run the risk of dissolution as a unique entity. That is, through ubiquity, your unique character becomes invisible.¬†

Through the history of packaged products and brands you can see many examples of this. The most famous of which is, perhaps, the Hoover brand for vacuums. The same thing is now happening with the verb-ification of the name Google to stand for searching for things.

Ubiquity breads invisibility in that, after a while, the point of origin is precluded by Louis Althusser’s always already-ness. At the same time, when things become more ubiquitous they become more powerful in the generic, and less powerful in the specific.