The Importance of Science Communication Research and of Science Studies for the Region – Opening of the RRC in Dortmund

PHILLIP H. ROTH

How can science communication be practiced under post-truth conditions? And what role do the humanities and social sciences play in this context? The Rhine Ruhr Center for Science Communication Research (RRC) is devoted to answering these and other pressing questions. The center is funded by a generous grant from the Volkswagen Foundation and headed by Julika Griem of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI), David Kaldewey of the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (FIW) at the University of Bonn, Holger Wormer of the TU Dortmund, Oliver Ruf of the University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhine-Sieg as well as Volker Stollorz of the Science Media Center in Cologne and Franco Zotta of the German Science Journalists’ Association.

The RRC is devoted to science communication with a special focus on the humanities and social sciences. As such, it addresses highly important questions about how insights from the reflexive social and cultural research on science might be communicated. Natural scientists usually attract attention via stimulating images of ground-breaking discoveries. Not so the reflexive sciences on science. Thus, there are elementary questions that need to be answered about the communicability of insights from social and cultural research on science. Next to this, RRC aims to, over the course of its initial five-year funding, bring its findings closer to practicing journalists as well as to students in interdisciplinary workshops and conferences. On June 2, 2022, the RRC officially opened with a celebratory inauguration at the Erich-Brost-Institute at TU Dortmund. Together with our director Stefan Böschen I ventured to Dortmund to attend the event, at which we met with many familiar faces from science studies and journalism.

avatar

Phillip H. Roth

Phillip is postdoc and the events coordinator at c:o/re. Among other topics, his research is dedicated to questions of identity work in biomedical disciplines, to the meaning of medicine and the role of patient advocacy on the internet as well as to social and cultural conditions of scientific modeling. In a current project, he is trying to develop a sociology of pandemics for the digital age that draws on communication theories of virality and contagion.

After welcoming words by Holger Wormer, the inauguration consisted of a brief overview of the RRC’s three main research projects, given by Julika Griem, as well as three panel discussions, each moderated by one of the RRC’s heads. The panels were devoted to core problem areas of the RRC, making up most the of the formal part of the evening. In the first, moderated by Oliver Ruf, Julia Schubert (University of Speyer) discussed with local students about “Science Communication in Times of Multiple Facts”. One of the core take-aways of this insightful discussion was that the students desired the humanities and social sciences to be more present in public science communication. They stressed particularly that they promised themselves that these fields would be better equipped than natural or engineering sciences to deal with the problems of post-truth in current debates. The second panel, moderated by David Kaldewey, consisted of a dialogue between science journalist Birgit Herden (Die Welt) and the sociologist of science and technology Cornelius Schubert (TU Dortmund) about “Images and Imaginations of Science”. They reflected on how journalism and sociology address different audiences. Variety of audiences necessarily also leads to conflicts between the trajectories of the two professions. While journalism needs to “close” scientific debates to make the topic appealing to its readership, [1]Peter Conrad (1999). Use of Expertise: Sources, Quotes, and Voice in the Reporting of Genetic News. Public Understanding of Science 8 (4): 285–302. https://doi.org/10.1088/0963-6625/8/4/302 a key ambition of science studies, sociology of science or STS is to “open up” the infamous black box of science.[2]Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might benefit each other. In Social Studies … Continue reading This is aligned with our effort to “unbox science” here at c:o/re. This ultimately also thwarts any settlement on “the facts”, making science a volatile and (politically) malleable business in sociologists’ eyes, something that is particularly critical under post-truth conditions. However, Schubert also recalls the common heritage of journalism and sociology in the reportages that founded the early-twentieth century Chicago School,[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_(sociology) offering hope that each in their own way can contribute to successfully communicating the complexities of scientific research and its findings to the public. In a third session, panellists Eva Weber-Guskar (University of Bochum) and Samir Sellami asked about “A Quality Circle for the Humanities and Social Sciences?” Both are initiators of online platforms – PhilPublica and Soziopolis, respectively – that are devoted to bringing scholarly content to a wide readership. Together with the journalist Volker Stollorz, who moderated the panel, they reminisced whether and how these open formats might provide criteria for the successful communication of scientific content in the digital world. During the informal part of the event – drinks and snacks in the courtyard of the Erich-Brost-Institue while the sun was shining, and the temperatures were warm – we were able to catch up with friends and colleagues after an almost two-year hiatus from in-person events.

Holger Wormer speaking to guests at the opening of the RRC (photo credits: RRC/Andreas Siess)

A crucial feature of the RRC is that it considers science communication not only from a communication research perspective, but also from a cultural studies (KWI Essen) as well science studies & STS perspective (FIW Bonn). For this reason, we at c:o/re look forward to partnering with the RRC on questions at the intersection of science studies and science communication research. We hope that this partnership will help to unravel what science communication entails in the current mediascape and, also, what we can learn from it practically for communication at c:o/re and elsewhere. Given the grand challenges we face today,[4]David Kaldewey (2018). The Grand Challenges Discourse: Transforming Identiy Wlrk in Science and Science Policy. In Minerva 56: 161-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-017-9332-2. such as climate change, the digitalization of research practices, energy and mobility transformations, resource scarcity, war and poverty, we also wish that it will strengthen the role of science studies scholarship in the Aachen-Rhine-Ruhr region and in Germany more generally, providing a clearer picture of the role that science can play in facing these challenges.

A first joint conference between the RRC and c:o/re is already in the making and is set to take place in 2023. We will keep you posted as things develop and also about further collaborations between the partners at the RRC and c:o/re. Please also see our events section for infos on further upcoming workshops, lectures and conferences. For now, all that remains is for us to wish our friends at the RRC all the best for their projects. We look forward to the friendly and frequent exchanges about science studies and communication research – cheers!


Proposed citation: Phillip Roth. 2022. The Importance of Science Communication Research and of Science Studies for the Region – Opening of the RRC in Dortmund. https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/06/17/3613/3613/.

References

References
1Peter Conrad (1999). Use of Expertise: Sources, Quotes, and Voice in the Reporting of Genetic News. Public Understanding of Science 8 (4): 285–302. https://doi.org/10.1088/0963-6625/8/4/302
2Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might benefit each other. In Social Studies of Science 14 (3): 399-441. You can read the paper here.
3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_(sociology)
4David Kaldewey (2018). The Grand Challenges Discourse: Transforming Identiy Wlrk in Science and Science Policy. In Minerva 56: 161-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-017-9332-2.

Roundtable on Open Scholarship Responsible Innovation and Anticipatory Governance

Can open scholarship make science more reliable, responsive, credible and inclusive? What is the significance of anticipatory governance for open science and responsible research and innovation? Discuss these and other questions at a roundtable together with our fellows René von Schomberg and Andoni Ibarra. They have invited experts such as Clare Shelley Egan (Technical University of Denmark), Douglas Robinson (Université Gustave Eiffel), Mario Blok (Wageningen University), Frank Miedema (Utrecht University), Roberto Poli (University of Trento), Paola Zaratin (Italien MS Society), and Marianne Hoerlesberger (Austrian Institute of Technology). Klick here to learn more about the program and to join the discussions, please register with events[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de.

Karin Knorr Cetina in Aachen

We are excited to welcome soon at c:o/re Karin Knorr Cetina, the O. Borchert Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is a leading researcher in the field of Science and Technology Studies and with her groundbreaking work on Epistemic Cultures and the Making of Knowledge, she is a major influence of the very rationale of our Center. During her stay in Aachen, she will take part in the scholarly debates at c:o/re and will be giving the key note lecture in our inauguration event on July 4th. Lern more about her current research here.

Art’s Realism in the Post-Truth Era

Amanda Boetzkes and Käte Hamburger Kolleg Aachen: Cultures of Research (c:o/re) are hosting this three days Workshop on 21 – 23 June 2022

The last decade has seen a growing preoccupation with philosophies of realism from artists, curators, and theorists. But while the art world benefits from this domain of philosophical inquiry, the reverse is also true: the significance of realism in an era characterized by fake news, post-critical theory, mass extinctions, climate change, and the precarity of existence due to war and other forms of displacement, can only be fully appreciated by attending to the ways that art captures, mediates, and even shapes our understanding of reality. Taking art’s constitutive relationship to realism seriously, this workshop intervenes on contemporary debates about realism after truth by demonstrating that art does not simply illustrate philosophical theories, it requires their redefinition. The contributors will situate realism in relation to the aesthetic dimensions of media imaging, scientific visualization, bodily expression and perceptual enhancement. Bringing together advanced scholars from art history, media studies, philosophy, literature and social theory, the workshop foregrounds the importance of art’s realism in a global ecology.


c:o/re Workshop

Organized by Amanda Boetzkes


Respondents
Raphaelle Occhietti (University of Guelph)
Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou (École des Hautes Études et Sciences Sociales)


Coordination of event
Ana María Guzmán Olmos (c:o/re Aachen, University of Bonn)

Location

Haus Matthéy, Theaterstraße 67, 52062 Aachen

We have a restricted number of seats to attend in person. After we have reached the amount of available seats in person, we invite you to join us online.

Please register with: events@khk.rwth-aachen.de

Join online with this link:

https://rwth.zoom.us/j/95596822592?pwd=OWpUL1V6eUkzTW1JMFRKZHdaQTdidz09

Program:

Tuesday, June 21, Haus Matthéy

10:00-10:30

Introduction: Eight Theatrical Rotations Around Art’s Realism 

Amanda Boetzkes (c:o/re Aachen, University of Guelph) 

10:30-12:00

In the Thickness of Reality: An Aesthetic of Indifference and Concealment in Eva and Franco Mattes’ The Bots

Maryse Ouellet (University of Bonn) 

Abstract

In 2017, film scholar Erika Balsom wrote a plea for a realist approach in film, namely the observational mode. Her essay argued that the task of vanguard documentary in the posttruth era was to “problematize access to phenomenal reality.” The notion of “access,” however, must be questioned, since it presupposes our separation from reality (Benoist, 2011). In a time when the fabric of reality is stripped from moral standards and lies are allowed to circulate more or less uncensored on social media, the challenge facing art’s realism today is perhaps less a matter of problematizing access to reality than problematizing reality itself, that is to say, to probe the chasm between reality and truth.

In their recent video series, The Bots (2020), artists Eva and Franco Mattes’ have taken on this task, by tracking down former Facebook content moderators who disclosed the psychologically damaging work they used to perform, skimming the illicit and the obscene “digital waste” (Roberts, 2016) like janitors in the shadows of social media. The videos, however, do more than giving access to a hidden dimension of reality: they also merge heterogeneous layers of reality, thereby situating the testimonies in an economy of the visible governed by “radical indifference” (Zuboff, 2019). The testimonies are indeed rendered on screen by six actors who lend their bodies and voices to the anonymized workers, while pretending to deliver makeup tutorials, speaking to their cellphones from their apartment. The disconcerting and humorous channeling of unknown individual predicaments through the widely disseminated and standardized tutorial format takes inspiration from an activist practice ironically consisting in circumventing moderation by sneaking political content into apparently innocent beauty videos or reels (Kuo, 2019). In this workshop, I want to examine The Bots’ aesthetic of equivalence and concealment to reflect on the implications of art’s realism in the post-truth era. How can aesthetic convey the thickness of reality on social media? How to be realist, when reality is deceptive? These are some of the questions I would like to offer for consideration.

12:00-13:30

Lunch

13:30-15:00

Homeless realism (post-metaphysics, post-truth and posterity)

Hilan Bensusan (University of Brasilia) 

Abstract

The realist stance is a combination of two gestures: one that affirms the independence of things from us and another that asserts their permanence, stability and full presence. Both gestures were combined in Plato – and tied together by Aristotle’s reading of Plato’s positions – into what became metaphysics. Around this endeavor, the first gesture – that of independence – was sometimes questioned and abandoned. The second one, nevertheless, proved to be more persistent. Speculative realism, intending to revive the issues around realism, often elaborates new strategies to argue for a package involving the two gestures. The spectral realism gambit, arguably a post-metaphysical one, is to dismiss permanence while keeping independence. In that sense, it discards ousiai as the ultimate commitment somehow required by any form of realism. The rejection of ousiai – substances, presences, homes or perhaps archives that keep something in its proper kernel no matter the concealment happening in what appears – makes room for a realism where what is real is intermittent like what depends on the retrieval from an archive. 

Post-metaphysics is contemporary of post-truth. There is a sense in which post-truth is a consequence of the original metaphysical efforts to be able to extract the intelligibility of truth and be able to mimick it by artificially producing its effects. One of the effects of truth is that it generates a network of reliability. Reliability itself has connections with permanence stability and substance. Interestingly, post-truth also reveals the limitations of asserting the full presence of things. Two kinds of responses are then possible: to recoil to a defense of a metaphysical realism or to move somehow forward and explore the impermanence of what is archived – and the ireducible indexical character of whatever is in the past (and can only come back to the fore if rememorated now).

Wednesday, June 22, Haus Matthéy 

10:30am- 12:00

The Theatre of Operations

Oxana Timofeeva (European University St. Petersburg) 

Abstract

The talk will conceptualize the idea of the theatre of war operations. The theatricality of war, read literally, will be addressed in its specific temporality of repetition, as well as in its spatial characteristics, its architectures and geo-logics – the scene, the battle ground, and the undergrounds of war, from bomb shelters and trenches to mass graves. I will also focus on the unconscious scenarios in the theatre of war, discuss the structure of desire and the scenes of its phantasmatic realization.

12:00-13:30

Lunch

13:30-15:00

Can Waves Write Poems? Immanent Purposiveness and the Matter of Meaning

Jeff Diamanti (University of Amsterdam)

Abstract

Can matter story itself, and (if so) is its story coherent? It would appear so given the citational record mounting in various branches of environmental and post-humanities. Yet the largely unresolved polemic of the infamous “Against Theory” by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephan Knapp resolves precisely on this question posed from the standpoint of meaning’s hermeneutic envelope. Returning to the formative distinction between form and matter at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy—and more specifically two recent resuscitations of Formtätigkeit (form activity) in the philosophy of Karen Ng and Michael Marder—I attempt to ask and then answer if indeed the nominalization of “storied matter” underwriting much ecocritical theory is an analytic contradiction in terms (and hazard two arguments about what that contradiction might inflect elsewhere in the constellation of materialist criticism).

Thursday, June 23,  Haus Matthéy

10:30-12:00

Art Between Realism and Warnings (via zoom) 

Santiago Zabala (ICREA/Pompeu Fabra University)

Abstract

The ongoing return to realism and order in art, politics, and culture and the increasingly narrow focus of experts have prevented us from taking warnings seriously. Too often these are discarded as useless or insignificant—much like environmentalists, artists, and philosophers—when in fact they are vital to understanding our spiritual predicament. Though philosophers can’t solve the ongoing emergencies—philosophy was never meant to solve anything—we can interpret their signs. Warnings—not to be confused with predictions—are not meant to convince anyone but invite us to reevaluate our priorities for the future. Unlike recent philosophies of animals, plants, or insects, my philosophy of warnings is more than a philosophical elucidation of a global environmental emergency. It is the ontology within which these issues exist. Phenomenologically we could say that these reacting philosophies are regional ontologies whereas ours is the fundamental one that encompasses all of them. Warnings allow us to think transcendentally without losing sight of actual political, social, and technological urgent matters.

“This word Being,” as Martin Heidegger once said, “serves as a warning to us,” a warning that reality is not made merely of beings and that its truth is not exclusively what can be measured or verified. The central argument in favor of a philosophy of warnings is not that what it warns of comes to pass but rather the pressure it exercises against those emergencies hidden and subsumed under the global call to order. This pressure demands that our environmental, political, and technological priorities be reconsidered, revealing the alarming signs of climate crisis, democratic backsliding, and the commodification of our lives by surveillance capitalism. These warnings are also why we should oppose any demand to “return to normalcy” after an emergency, which signals primarily a desire to ignore what caused the emergency in the first place. A philosophy of warnings seeks to alter and interrupt the reality we’ve become accustomed to through stances that are engaged, interested, and respondent to warnings.

12:00-13:30

Lunch

13:30-15:00

Parallel Perspective: A Forgotten Realism

Jens Schröter (University of Bonn) 

Abstract

One of the classical ingredients of the difficult notion of realism, at least in the history of painting, is central perspective. Central perspective (ideally) follows the rules of the propagation of light (at least as seen from the standpoint of geometrical optics) and thereforen mimics the appearance of the real world. It produces thereby (ideally) a coherence of the depicted space and a potential continuity to the space of the beholder. By relating the representation to the viewpoint of an observer (at least in one point-perspective) it moreover

seems to duplicate our experience of watching the real world.  But this subjective aspect of perspective also potentially disturbs the alleged realism, since it shows an object or scene from one, contingent standpoint. This leads, on the one hand, to the complicated problems of perspectivalism and the questions of the situatedness of knowledge.

There are a lot of discussions on that (see e.g. Alloa: Partages de la Perspective). On the other hand, there is a much deeper problem for ‘realism’ caused by central perspective: Central perspective distorts the represented scene, relative lengths, angles etc. change. It is for example difficult to reconstruct a machine or a building from a centralperspectival representation – for images that do realistically pre-present structures like machine or buildings forms of parallel perspective are routinely used. These are much more important as a medial infrastructure for modern technical culture as is central perspective. Moreover, digital image generation can use routinely parallel perspective – as different from the optical media like photography. With digital imaging an important representational tradition from drawing and painting is revived (e.g. in Computer Aided Design). 

Given this extreme importance it is strange, why parallel perspective does not play a for more central role in discussions of realism. Parallel Perspective is used for a realism of the objects instead of the subject, so to speak. That should also make Parallel Perspective an interesting topic of study for theoretical positions that discuss the properties of the ‘object’ as such. Several aspects of these complicated problems in and around parallel perspective are discussed in my presentation.

15:00-15:30pm

Break

Thursday, June 23,  c:o/re, Theaterstr. 75 (Statdpalais), lecture hall 

15:30-17:00

Steve Fuller (c:o/re Aachen, University of Warwick) 

Closing Remarks and Discussion 

Inauguration of c:o/re

 The opening ceremony of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg: Cultures of Research (c:o/re) will take place on Monday, 4th July 2022 at 5 pm at the Aachen Town Hall. In the festive venue of the historical Coronation Hall, we will be celebrating the launch of the International Center for Advanced Studies in Philosophy, Sociology, and History of Science and Technology at RWTH Aachen University one year ago. The program is dedicated to one of the key topics of the Center: the transformations of research cultures in the digital age.

The keynote lecture will be delivered by Professor Karin Knorr Cetina (University of Chicago) on the topic of “From loving the data to loving automation: epistemic shifts in the digital age” (abstract). The lecture will be followed by a discussion on the present and future transformations of research cultures. We are honored to welcome as panelists Prof. Karin Knorr Cetina (University of Chicago, Department of Sociology and Anthropology), Prof. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Emeritus Scientific Member of the MPI for the History of Science), Prof. Lars Blank (RWTH Aachen, Chair of Applied Microbiology) and Prof. Matthias Wessling (RWTH Aachen, Vice-Rector for Research and Structure), and as moderator the science journalist Dr. Jan-Martin Wiarda.

Attendance by invitation only. If you have questions, please contact inauguration[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de

An-Archaeology and Spectral Realism with Hilan Bensusan at c:o/re (June 14)

Hilan Bensusan – An-Arcaheology and Spectral Realism

As an introduction to this week’s workshop on Art’s Realism, organized by Amanda Boetzkes at c:o/re, on June 14th at 17:00 Professor Hilan Bensusan gave a lecture on An-archaeology and spectral realism. The manuscript of the talk can be found here.

Hilan Bensusan is Professor of Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Brasilia. He is the author of Indexicalism: Realism and the Metaphysics of Paradox (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) and Being Up for Grabs: On Speculative Anarcheology (Open Humanities Press, 2016). He also published Portuguese: A diáspora da agência – Ensaio sobre o horizonte das monadologias (The diaspora of agency – Essay on the horizon of monadologies) (EdUFBA, 2018), Linhas de animismo futuro (Lines of future animism) (Mil Saberes, 2017), Heráclito – Exercícios de Anarqueologia (Heraclitus – Exercises in anarcheology) (Ideias e Letras, 2012) and Excessos e Exceções (Excesses and exceptions) (Ideias e Letras, 2008).

Engineering Practices Workshop: The Use of Networks in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Sebastién de Valeriola: “Dealing with the Heterogeneity of Interpersonal Relationships in the
Middle Ages: A Multi-Layer Network Approach”

On May 30th – June 1st, c:o/re hosted the workshop The Use of Networks in the Humanities and Social Sciences, part of the Engineering Practices series and organized by Professor Ana Bazzan together with Phillip H. Roth and Alin Olteanu.

The aim of the workshop was to chart the use of networks in the humanities and social sciences and the consequences of the use of such epistemic tools for the way we understand science, society and the world. As such, the event gathered a variety of perspectives on networks and applications of network analysis, from the mathematics of networks to media analysis, historical research and to tackling questions on technology.

A point of convergence among these varied approaches is that, as models, networks have become a central epistemological tool in many sciences as well as vernacularly, not least because of the mainstreaming of social media and their role in networking communities and academic disciplines across previously established boundaries. A particularly interesting takeaway point of this workshop is that, as models and as representations, networks have become a common analytical tool in many fields of research, thus allowing for multi-perspective discussions on methodology.

The Network of the Workshop. From left to right: Gwen Bouvier, Phillip H. Roth, Alin Olteanu, Claudia Wagner, Ana Bazzan, Robert Gramsch-Stehfest, Pádraig MacCarron, Sebastién de Valeriola, Silvio R. Dahmen

Review of Amanda Boetzkes’ Plastic Capitalism (2019) – “Art in the petrotimes”

Boetzkes, Amanda. 2019. Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.


Sara Bédard-Goulet published a thorough and insightful review of c:o/re fellow Amanda Boetkes‘ (2019) Plastic Capitalism Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste in the journal Social Semiotics. The review, titled Art in the Petrotimes: An aesthetics of waste, is here.

Digital technology and gender discourse: Cut, paste, repeat…

Matreshka-Russian-doll

ZOE HURLEY

Kim Kardashian: reality television personality; social media influencer; author of “Selfish” (2015) (featuring 445 pages of selfies) rose to fame after her “leaked” sex tape in 2007 entered the public imagination. Kim is now arguably the most famous woman alive. A hyper-object: rendered, filtered, photoshopped and surgically enhanced for the social media age. In 2022, she wore a crystal-embellished gown, last worn by Marilyn Monroe six decades ago at the Met Gala. This dress was an apt costume for the gala’s theme of “gilded glamor”, which many have called “out of touch” (Yang, 2022). But in a social media war of eyeballs, Kim attracts attention as a replay of the feminine icon: a collage of contracted and inflated body parts.

The digital (re-)mediatization of gender, particularly womanhood, changes not only social representations of but also academic discourses on gender. This technological recontextualization presents both dangers and opportunities. An important opportunity that the digitalization of society brings is that by enabling a plurality of voices to participate to public discourses, it may challenge popular stereotypes. Something as important as gender becoming differently construed publicly also affects academic discourses.

Last year’s gala also spurred controversy, as the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white gown that said “Tax the Rich”. The dress sparked backlash across the political spectrum, with critics condemning the move as both hypocritical and performative (Villarreal, 2021). Ocasio-Cortez defended her actions on Instagram, via a caption stating: “The medium is the message” which is a phrase coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1964). But this is one of the most misused phrases in media history. The repetition of gender – as a disabling discourse – endures throughout the centuries, no matter the medium. This brings us to the central question of this blog entry, and my research agenda more generally, confronting the issue of how digital technology may enable (or not) certain gender discourses?

avatar

Zoe Hurley

Zoe Hurley is an assistant professor at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Originally from the United Kingdom, she earned her PhD from Lancaster University, United Kingdom. She has spent her adult professional life working in Malaysia, Brunei, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Zoe currently teaches undergraduate courses in social media and her research develops feminist theorising of the postdigital condition. She has published articles in leading academic journals including Feminist Media Studies; Social Media + Society; Information Communication & Society; Postdigital Science and Education; Visual Communication and New Media + Society, in addition to several chapters, commentaries and blogs.

These matters precede the digital age. British feminist and anti-establishment polemist, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), argued that decorative femininity kept middle-class women imprisoned in a “gilt cage.” Marilyn Monroe’s disintegration into misery, prescription drugs and alcohol, indicate the confines of being a celluloid star. In Toni Morrison’s (1987) novel Beloved, it is the monstrous baby-woman ghost – a symbol of racist-misogynist suffering – who restricts the protagonist within hideous memories of her days in slavery. Each of these media convey that when women are objects, they are a pawn in the tussles of power. Muslim women have also been constrained by debates in the west, concerning whether they should wear a veil. However, just as the shayla (head scarf) and niqab (face covering) are versatile but misunderstood garments of identity, women’s uses of digital media are fraught with an ambivalence that underscores the discourses of gender. Girls everywhere continue to be chastised for wearing too little; covering up; being overweight; too skinny; loud or quiet; not enough and too much (Dworkin, 1974). No wonder they are suffering from a self-esteem crisis; body dysmorphia; depression and are more susceptible to the negative effects of social media (Campbell, 2019).

But the #metoo hashtag movement on Twitter, which was started by African American activist, Tarana Burke in 2006, called-out sexual assault and offered hope that social media would fight sexism (Hurley, 2019a). A decade later, in 2017, it raised awareness of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases. But with people spending more time online, the Covid-19 pandemic was an epidemic of internet porn; online sexual harassment; digital child abuse and domestic violence (Shearing, 2022). We have shifted to the mainstreaming of women selling nudes via subscription sites like OnlyFans (Garland, 2021). Meanwhile, people are turning away from feminism in its various forms (Gill, 2007).  

On YouTube, Somalian-Canadian stand-up comedian, Hoodo Hersi, tells hijab jokes and makes digs at intersectional feminism (Hersi -YouTube 2020). During her set, she claims not to identify as a feminist due to the fatigue of already “climbing the mountains” of black and Muslim identity. Moreover, she tells audiences, “There’s nothing interesting happening at the top of the female mountain…it is just a bunch of white women skiing!” (Hersi, 2020). This is a swipe at second wave feminism’s Caucasian privilege. White western feminists have become folk devils: others are trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS). In popular culture, the “Debbie Downer” figure endures and has morphed into a racist, suburban “Karen.” The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the Kardashians are overrated. Yet, their popularity prevails, and the billion-dollar brand prospers.

The Kardashians remain nonchalant: “Whatever.”

However, unlicensed recruitment agencies have set up as marketplaces on Instagram and Facebook (both owned by Meta) to prey on women who can be hired as sex workers, domestic servants and trafficked into human slavery (Guetta, 2021). But we must overcome the binary of feminist discourse, which portrays women from the Global South as needing to be empowered by western technology, while reinforcing assumptions that they cannot engage in leisurely use of technologies within everyday contexts (Gajjala, 2014). Apps like TikTok, owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, provide affordances to dispense with images of female objectification (Hurley, 2019b; Hurley, 2022). Audio-dubbing features enable users to inhabit the bodies, genders, races and positionalities of the other – at the touch of a screen. This is not gender fishing or cultural appropriation but indicative of the fluid discourses of identity, class, race and sexuality. For instance, @miyhang40, originally from the Philippines and working in the Middle East with 31.9k followers on TikTok, wears a domestic worker’s uniform (overalls) and cleans the toilet with a plastic toilet brush. In her video, the brush then becomes a make-shift microphone as she lip-syncs and dances to an edgy reggae tune in mock defiance. In another skit, she uses a broom to play air-guitar with affected masculinity.  

These vignettes indicate how patriarchy presents varying actors with distinct ‘rules.’ Deniz Kandiyoti (1988, p. 275) refers to this as the “patriarchal bargain.” Digital affordances, for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression, differ according to the intersectional situation of the subject. But the routines of how digital technology may enable (or not) certain gender discourses – a bit like the Kardashians – plays on via an endless algorithmic loop of misogyny: cut, paste, repeat…cut, paste, repeat…cut, paste, repeat…Yet, despite gendered limitations of social media, some women are using it to bring down the fourth wall of fiction and speak directly with their audiences in varying pronouns, vernaculars and multimodalities (Hurley, 2021).

Collectively, these messages against popular misogyny might transcend the media.

References

Campbell, D. (2019). Depression in girls linked to higher use of social media. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/04/depression-in-girls-linked-to-higher-use-of-social-media

Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman hating. London: Penguin.

Gajjala, R. (2014). Woman and other women: Implicit binaries in cyberfeminisms. Communication And Critical/Cultural Studies, 11(3), 288-292. doi: 10.1080/14791420.2014.926241.

Garland, E. (2021). ‘Where else can I make a month’s rent in two days?’: the unlikely stars of OnlyFans. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jul/10/where-else-can-i-make-a-months-rent-in-two-days-the-unlikely-stars-of-onlyfans

Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture. European Journal Of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 147-166. doi: 10.1177/1367549407075898.

Guetta, J. (2021). Is Facebook about to become THE marketplace for human trafficking?. Retrieved 29 April 2022, from: https://blog.redcompasslabs.com/is-facebook-about-to-become-the-marketplace-for-human-trafficking

Hersi, H. (2020). Hoodo Hersi – The Reason she’s not a feminist. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLhy2FKv6jg

Hurley, Z. (2019a). Why I no longer believe social media is cool . . . Social Media + Society, 5(3). doi: 10.1177/2056305119849495.

Hurley, Z. (2019b). Imagined affordances of Instagram and the fantastical authenticity of Gulf-Arab social media influencers. Social Media + Society, 5 (1).

Hurley, Z. (2021). #reimagining Arab women’s social media empowerment and the postdigital condition. Social Media + Society, 7(2), 205630512110101. doi: 10.1177/20563051211010169.

Hurley, Z. (2022). Middle Eastern women influencers’ interdependent/independent subjectification on Tiktok: feminist postdigital transnational inquiry. Information, Communication &Amp; Society, 1-18. doi: 10.1080/1369118x.2022.2044500.

Kandiyoti, D. (1988). Bargaining with patriarchy. Gender & Society, 2(3), 274-290. doi: 10.1177/089124388002003004.

Kardashian, K. (2015). Selfish. Bloomington: Universe Publishing.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. London: Penguin.

Villarreal, A. (2021). ‘Medium is the message’: AOC defends ‘tax the rich’ dress worn to Met Gala. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/14/aoc-defends-tax-the-rich-dress-met-gala

Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A vindication of the rights of woman. Rutland, Vt.: J.M. Dent.

Yang, M. (2022). Met Gala organizers face criticism for ‘Gilded Glamor’ theme amid inflation. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/may/02/met-gala-theme-gilded-glamor-criticism-inflation

Featured image: Russian doll, CC BY SA 2.0.


Proposed citation: Hurley, Zoe. 2022. Digital technology and gender discourse: Cut, paste, repeat… https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/05/27/3308/3308/.

The language of thought: still a salient issue

Jakub Szymanik – Reverse engineering the language of thought

Part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimistic and Pessimistic View lecture series, on 25.05.2022 Jakub Szymanik gave a lecture at c:o/re on Reverseengineering the language of thought, problematising thought and computation by exploring the cognitive scientific notion of language of thought (“mentalese”). This concept, positing that humans think through logical predicates combined through logical operators, originates in Jerry A. Fodor’s celebrated book (1975), explicitly titled Language of thought. In effort to reverse-engineer the language of thought, Jakub Szymanik considered some recent computation theories, such as inspired from Jerome Feldman and neural networks in a fresh manner.

Jakub Szymanik explained that the notion of language of thought is not easy to avoid: it is often the engine underpinning theories of cognitive models, via notions of complexity and simplicity. The investigation leads to a broad variety of theoretical implications and empirical insights, among which there can be many contradictions. However, apparently divergent approaches at play here, such as, for example, symbolism and enactivism are not necessarily and entirely irreconcilable. The way forward is through pragmatically pursuing the epistemological unification of such theories, as guided by empirical insight.

The syllogisms of mentalese