Writing Center Workshop: Multimedia Literacy: Academic Writing with New Media Applications

Huge thanks to all the students who came out on a Wednesday evening to learn more about research writing!  I had so much fun generating vocabulary with the word matrix, and hate that we ran out of time.  I hope to do a follow-up workshop, in which I can model the use of more of the web-based resources described in this presentation.  Your feedback is welcome and appreciated!  Enjoy!

A Reflection on Sports and Rhetoric, Truth and Dialogue

Every year, at this time, I promise myself, “I will not talk to anyone about sports today, I will not talk to anyone about sports today, I will not talk to anyone about sports today.”  When I buy my weekly groceries, the clerks checking me out and bagging my groceries ask me what my plans are for “the big day,” or who I’m rooting for.  When I smile weakly at them, hurriedly grabbing my purchased items, and close our transaction with a graceful goodbye, they give me a tacit nod.  “Oh, you tryin’ to get home so you can watch the game!  Have fun!!”  I swallow their assumption until I can deeply exhale disdain behind the steering wheel.

Every year, at this time, I recall being berated and abandoned in nearly every context in which I criticized NFL football to a stranger or acquaintance.  Growing up in Northeast Texas ensured that these ruptures would occur frequently.  Discussing my disgust with tomorrow’s (tax-subsidized) unofficial national holiday almost always results in long-term separation from those who have not been trained to differentiate logical argument from belief.

Question a person’s most deeply held traditions or entertainment and prepare for psychological warfare via epistemological gaslighting.  When one refuses to acknowledge the systemic effects of football, they are quite happy to point out that my views are isolated and exceptional (e.g. that’s just your individual opinion, to each their own), yet throughout the same conversation they will argue that my critique signifies ‘overthinking,’ ‘lack of openness,’ ‘absolutist thinking,’ or some ego-maniacal pomp. I always wonder…if the view didn’t convey some relative measure of truth, why do they feel so emotionally invested in dismissing it entirely?

Our social practices are personal and emotional.  To suggest that these rituals cause injury, litter, pollution, and economic stratification, as well as perpetuate racial stereotyping, gender separatism, homophobia, tribalism, and xenophobia is to potentially rip a person away from their memory and networks. Such an attachment nearly eliminates occasions for argument among strangers. Outside the classroom space, one wonders about the capital of logic. Doesn’t matter how much you qualify and contextualize your claims, doesn’t matter what kind of evidence you present, doesn’t matter how much you concede, or how explicitly you acknowledge that you are making an opinion, not stating an empirical fact, the religiosity of sports and capitalism makes most critiques of either akin to heresy.

Intelligence is a value when a person seeks arousal or utility.  But when intelligence leaks into domains that desperately need transformation (to move towards a resolution of major social problems), it is a nuisance.  It is the devil.  It is inconvenient and trite. Intelligence is as a whore in the night, desperately desired to remember and express one’s vitality, but deeply resented when she calls you in the middle of the night while you are in bed with a steady partner.

The accusation of “overthinking” is a cowardly act.  I used to be taken aback when someone said this to me, and would think to myself, “So I should be underthinking?  Not thinking?  That’s really no good.”  Lately, I recognize this character assault as someone else’s cover up.  To categorize another person as being caught in the act of “overthinking,” is to admit to an impotence of one’s own.  If one is accused of “overthinking,” the accuser gets to abandon any and all responsibility for identifying and responding to complexity.  The accuser must, at some point, have realized that to (appear to) “overthink,” may result in a loss of a major dual privilege–being recognized and asserting recognition in the dominant social narrative. Mindlessly consuming things, and the ability to dismiss any possibility that individuals/consumers are not the sole authors of their lives, are at least two rewards of this participation  The cost/benefit of inclusion is this refusal to think about thought-making, as a matter of identity and principle.  This choice is rationalized/legitimized by an overwhelming social acceptance of cognitive dissonance regarding conflicting values of enlightenment and primitivism, rationality and irrationality, emotions as equal to or inferior to logic.

Our capacity to discuss intelligence dissolves when we attempt to communicate complexity. Trapped in a tautology, it seems impossible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are, as individual agents, unable to convey the relativity of truth and knowing at the same time as we are offering an interpretation that implies some truths are “more or less” true (and beneficial, and harmful) than others.  In other words, many truths are relative, indeed, but one of the truths that is part of that plural configuration is the fact that not all truths carry equal weight as useful or accurate opinions.  Yeah, I am cosmosplaining (#notalltruth).  But it does not follow that any opinion can be disentangled from the world of facts upon our discovery of its weakness or lack of contextual relevance.

An opinion is a belief because it is a claim to truth (that can obviously be disputed).

  • Beliefs, in essence, are truths insomuch as I cannot dispute your claim to truth.
  • As soon as you claim a truth, it becomes a fact.
    • Claiming a truth is an act, something I can observe because I make memories of arguments since specific actions were directed towards discussing the fact of a thing in a time and space are happening.

Opinions can be wrong because they can be lies.  Thus, a belief can be a lie.

  • A person can believe in a lie, whether or not they know it’s a lie.
  • Believing in a lie, however, is not necessarily the same thing as believing the lie.
    • The (rhetorical) character and power of lies is the problem of faith as true.
      • Example 1:  I may really believe in education as a public good, but I don’t think higher-education should be compulsory or free to those who wish to attend.   [education as a public good is often disputed in terms of access (who does and doesn’t deserve education) or funding (its a good thing, but there isn’t enough money to go around)].
      • Example 2:  I may really believe in fairness because of the fact that I see unfairness.  By contrast, I may believe in fairness as a fact of the environment (e.g. a person who refuses to acknowledge racism and sexism because those practices are ‘over’.  Fairness has arrived. It exists).  In this case, two people claim to believe in the same thing, but have two different conceptualizations of how to observe or measure actions and phenomena which are fair.
  • Lying is an act that conceals the truth, which will affect future actions of speech and communication (e.g. possibilities)
  • The purposes of lying are part of the processes for discovering truth(s).  The primary purpose of lying is to conceal for some other purpose, rarely for the sake of concealing in and of itself.
  • The fact of concealment is also the fact of an inevitable reveal, which may occur in unforeseen contexts.  This is why I am interested in information leaks.  Leaks are a vivid example of someone’s deliberate act of concealment.  The lie, like the leak, is a trace of that performance.  If I detect a performance, I can become aware that something is hidden, absent, or false.  These observations guide my method of uncovering truth and seeing the lie for what it is–an act of concealment.
  • Purposes cannot be false.  Insomuch as lying has the potential of revealing truth, lying is connected to truth by virtue of its production and what it is capable of producing.
  • Communication is always a creative act, but is not always recognized as a performance about the art of storytelling.
    • Concealing is part of the narrative process, but this action may or may not always be deliberate, conscious, or visible.
    • Arguing, then, is one method of attempting to observing the blurry lines between lying and telling the truth.
      • As performances, lies could be interpreted as “true” because they may be representing the way truth “appears” in a context.  Through deliberation about acts of language, which itself is a performance, acts of lying and telling the truth can be observed as the cause of drama.  These performances demand that each participant’s manner of presenting truth ought to be judged against the contents of their presentation.

Opinions can also be wrong because they are simply false.

  • In some instances, a person avoids confrontation by stating the false resolution, “Let’s agree to disagree,” which probably means, “Let’s continue to behave as if we are both correct even though we will most certainly continue to clash in ways that harm us both.”

The tricky part about arguing is that a lie isn’t the truth, but the fact of a lie isn’t false.  

Regardless of the extent of its inaccuracy, the truth of opinions is that a person’s partial view will inevitably lead to the presentation of a claim that could be disputed in many instances, especially unfamiliar social and institutional environments.  When arguments get to the hard stuff of expanding one’s partial view, or learning a new language entirely, the attachment to being instead of transforming results in the embrace of lies.  “Let’s just agree to disagree” (Truthseeking ain’t worth me sacrificing delicious wings and all of the amazing stories that were told on the worn out couch with my brothers, uncles, and cousins).  “That’s just YOUR opinion.”  (I need to make you feel so isolated in your own mind that you realize the social consequences of challenging the status quo.  The more lonely you are, the more crazy you’ll feel, the less power you’ll have, and the more likely you’ll just keep your mouth shut about that.)

For those who understand the tensions between relativity/context/truth as a fundamental problem of people lying, argumentation places an unnecessary burden on you.  Some claims seem true because humans definitely lie about lying…For instance, we see this when someone’s backs away from an argument by conceding that the whole process was meaningless because it’s “just YOUR opinion,” even though YOUR opinion stirred their emotion to the point of anger and caused them to mistrust you and seek some means of severing your cognitive bond.  Since the fact of opinion is that an individual lies claim to an interpretation of observation of fact happening in a shared context, we will always be connected to other people, systems, places, and the physics of our galaxy.

Of course, expressing intelligence is part of the hard work of actually dealing with complexity.  Regardless of the domain of life we dwell–whether scientific, artistic, or mystical–we all swim in the stormy turgid waters of language.  Epistemology is, of course, inextricably tied to the problem of language.  In a world where web 2.0 users unhesitatingly toss around opinions without consideration of their weight, we need more precise ways of talking about what we are really doing and need to be willing to get into the heavy stuff.

An opinion is a judgment, and all judgments are not equal.  Some are too harsh, too lax, too biased, and so on. Get like Goldilocks, and let em’ know about that porridge.  And if she wrote the story, she might have told us it needed cinnamon, sugar, salt, honey, fruit, and all that!

Access to ENGL 384A: Rhetoric of Advertising

This Spring, I am teaching Rhetoric of Advertising (ENGL 384A). This course will investigate the transformative effects of social media, self-branding/promotion, and scandal on advertising. Students will create online personae, observe and assess symbolic power, and invent novel responses that address the complexity of this unique cultural moment. We look forward to sharing our work and welcome you to borrow, remix, and adapt assignments for your purposes, as long as you acknowledge us as a source and provide a hyperlink to our resources wherever you utilize our work.*

*Note:  This is a non-commercial license.  One stipulation that I am adding to the interpretation of “non-commercial” is that you may NOT claim any of the TITLES of the topics that structure each week, or portion of the course, as your own work without the proper attribution.  I define “professional gain” as a “commercial purpose.”  Thus, do not use the language we invent to name your own work in contexts including, but not limited to conference papers, presentations, invited talks, journal and trade article publications, blog headings, grant proposals, book proposals, book chapters, or any other work composed for your individual promotion.

Yet Another Article about Iggy Azalea: All’s Fair Dinks in Love (Money) and Hip-Hop

Call:  A friend recently asked me to respond to some of his recent inquiries about the Iggy Azalea phenomenon.  He asks, “So I’ve read a handful articles about Iggy Azalea and “cultural appropriation.” I didn’t really know who that was until she popped up on my wife’s gym instructor playlist. So I can now agree she sounds kinda like an African American lady from Atlanta to my white Texan ears. And she is neither African nor american nor from Atlanta. 1. Is this bad? 2. If so, who is to blame? Iggy? TI? Listeners? “Culture?””

Response:  Thanks for reaching out!  First, I should begin this response by saying that this is the first time I have bothered talking about Iggy Azalea because she is not worth the mass attention she receives. Next, the fact of this mass attention and the social, legal, and economic rewards she inherits from a long tradition of cultural appropriation is the purpose of most black people’s outcry. Towards this end, I will focus this response on the double standards of mimesis and the degrees to which appropriation serves to disrupt two concepts: the norm and the natural. This point is worth dwelling on because without a comprehensive understanding of history, we cannot really appreciate how Azalea has managed to weasel her way into an industry that has never appreciated the origins of rap music and hip-hop culture.

Q-Tip’s detailed Twitter history of hip-hop/rap sought to remind Azalea that the culture she has chosen to join consists of a history, rituals, and practices embedded in black suffering, rage, and pride.  This particular exclusion, which is shamelessly part of American’s performance of “the normal,” gave birth to a creative culture that would later give life to those who could care less about the source from which the funk comes.  He defines hip-hop as a creative response to economic stratification and racial oppression that empowered East Coast youth.  In doing so, he offered Azalea the opportunity to begin a dialogue.  However, he was met with cold, lackluster resistance. If she found his generous attempt to connect to her “patronizing,” it is only because she feels zero obligation to prove any “authenticity” beyond her ability to mimic black Southern poetics.  Throughout many black artists’ attempt to discover her investment in the socio-political character of rap music and its discursive forms, she has been disrespectful, dodgy, and downright despicable.  Indeed, I certainly blame her for failing to engage in one of the most basic rituals of hip hop discourse, which is ATTRIBUTION. Azalea may do a fantastic job imitating women like my lovely homegirl La Femme Nikita, who has been putting it down (this vid for example, produced 4 years ago) for YEARS without the recognition Iggy Azalea enjoys for her mediocre miming. Unlike my girl, whose videos include a NARRATIVE of her life in Texarkana and her personal experiences with sexism, poverty, colorism, racism, jealousy, and madness, Iggy Azalea is “so fancy” because she clearly does not understand the CULTURE she has decided to participate in, nor is she required to. All people hear is her ability to master Trap music’s social language.

To her credit, it’s not that bloody hard since T.I. wasn’t exactly the world’s most linguistically dexterous rapper. I can happily contend, from a literary perspective, that Eminem puts him to absolute shame, as he did many rappers when he basically mainstreamed a rather stagnant industry that stalemated after the “coast wars” culminated in the deaths of Tupac and Biggie–both of whom he idolized and gives credit in his music. Again, Eminem has a NARRATIVE, he tells HIS STORY in his music, and raps in a style he is happy to attribute to the influences of Biggie, Kurupt, NAS, and others. His familiarity with these artists, the marginalization of hip-hop, the racialization of ownership and expression clearly contributed to his rejection of whiteness and blackness as categorical “givens” that technologically determine who will or won’t be able to master the poetic expertise necessary to innovate the industry, culture, and the music. This is why Eminem is respected by most black people–even as he is liked, but not at all understood by most of his white fans. He admits what Azalea does not, his whiteness inhibited him from entering the space of hip-hop, but it also enabled him to reach the hip-hop industry’s greatest height.

Historically speaking, I do not individually blame Azalea for utilizing her whiteness to shamelessly profit on a form of music that has been ripped from the center of its birthplace and distributed throughout the masses. She cannot be blamed for the fact that black cultural production almost always gets de-racialized and categorized as a non-property to justify and permit white legal ownership. [J. Rodriguez writes about this transformation in his ethnography, “Color Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop.”] The fact is, “American music” *is* black music, as LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka argues in “Blues People,” and the first “Pop American Artists” were black women, as Angela Davis argues in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminisms, and Daphne Harrison argues in, perhaps my absolute favorite book on blueswomen, “Black Pearls.” The issue with Iggy Azalea stems from the fact that copyright laws originated when black people were still defined as property, and subsequently handled as half-humans, less-than-animals, sub-properties, which has systematically excluded us from being the widespread economic privileges incurred from burgeoning entertainment industries. K.G. Greene describes this landscape in his fascinating article, “CopyNorms,” and Nate Harrison’s brilliant audio documentary about the recent appropriation of the Winston’s “Amen Break,” copyrighted in 1969 and also copyrighted by a UK advertising agency in 2002, also provides some historical context for this problem. I also attempted to trace some of these issues by asking the simple question, “Is Betty Boop Black?” in a recent blog post, in which, I examine Helen Kane’s lawsuit against Max Fleischer/Paramount, which failed because of her ‘borrowing’ the style of Cotton Club singer “Baby Esther” Jones. Despite the fact that she lost the suit, Jones didn’t see a crumb or a dime from either Jones or Fleischer’s use of her signature “Boo, boo, bee, doop” style. This case reminded me of the fact that Bessie Smith’s family didn’t get a penny from her music either, and she was one of the most saavy black female musicians alive at the time–demanding to learn about royalties from executives.  Scores of blueswomen were just happy to make a few dollars from a phonograph record, and excited to travel on the TOBA and be featured in Vaudeville shows all over the country, unprotected by copyright laws.  Despite Smith’s caution, her crooked manager deliberately misinformed her and had her sign away her rights on a shady deal that essentially continues to inhibit her family from acquiring the rights to her music.

Now let’s talk about ass.  Mainstream culture’s recent interest in ass as a ‘phenomena’ is pissing off lots of black women.  Suddenly, white women are getting booty for booty. First, we have Vogue’s bold claim that this is the “era of ass,” in which they erroneously lament that, “Perhaps we have Jennifer Lopez to thank (or blame?) for sparking the booty movement. When she first arrived on the scene in the late nineties, a lot of the buzz surrounding her focused on the back of her voluptuous body. Her derrière quite literally stood out against the other sex symbols of the moment, signaling a shift away from the waif era of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss and the outrageously large-breasted Pam Anderson. Lopez’s behind was so unique, and evidently so valuable, there were rumors she had taken out insurance worth millions to protect the asset.” Notice that their discussion of J.Lo could be re-coded as simply, “Big Butts Now Popular Among Middle-Class White People,” because their comprehension of sex symbols in the excerpted passage includes zero black women, and they obviously missed the memo from decades before that because when black people celebrated ass, it was “ghetto,” “filthy,” and “gutter.” As lyrically bankrupt as Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video is, one must admit that she is attributing one of the first mainstream proclaimations of butt love to Sir-Mix-A-Lot. ATTRIBUTION. She knows that her big ass needs to give some props to that man for celebrating the power of bootay. In the spirit of hip-hop tradition, she ensures that listeners know that she is hardly taking her back *that* seriously. Examine the “mainstream” reaction to Minaj–focus is on bananas, and such, mind you, no one acknowledges one of the most viral sex symbols in black culture (pre-plastic surgery) the Queen B sang similar songs! Listen to Anaconda’s lyrics and you see a clear tradition in hip-hop, the narrative of prior lovers and promiscuity. Lil Kim does this in “Not Tonight,” and plenty of male artists do it, as well! Too Short’s famous recurring character, “Blowjob Betty” appears in one of his well-known tracks “Freaky Tales.” Similarly, Devin the Dude does this in his comedic tracks, “She Useta Be,” (Note all the talk about ASS!), and “She Want that Money.”  Meanwhile, Iggy Azalea and J.Lo rub asses in some posterior rendition of hip-hop/pop music and they are considered “glamorous.” Miley Cyrus twerks with her flat pancake booty covered in beige spandex against a married man, and she is lauded as a “pop culture icon.” Indeed, she received criticism for abandoning her good-girl image, but that’s what pisses us black women off…whether she is praised for “coming into her womanhood” or shamed for being a “bad girl,” Miley got to be innocent. Her whiteness affords her access to taboo expression and she is able to capitalize on it as she pleases.  Hell, she can even include a faceless, nameless black woman bending over and shaking her ass in her shows and videos. Miley can slap that ass alright. She knows that if she does the same thing, she’ll be celebrated for some kind of rebellion, coolness, or innovation. The black woman whose face we never see, whose name we’ll never know, whose history we could care less about, is just being (naturally) “black.”

On the other hand, white woman “work hard for the booty.” Ask Jen Selter. A white woman whose made about every top Internet list of fine derrieres.  Ask her rival Caitlyn Rice. Again, black women who have been perculating, twerking, and pop-lock-and dropping it for years are not considered to be “hard-working fitness gurus or fashion models,” They are just being ghetto (video) ho’s. To fully understand how black women’s asses are commodified, look at any free porn site like PornHub or RedTube or XHamster to learn more about the social spaces that finance black women’s asses. In sum, the respectability that white women like Azalea, practically white women like J-Lo, (yeah I know she’s Latino, but like Beyonce, J-Lo’s race is an amalgam depending on the time period she wants to seem relevant in–Fly Girl one minute, Selena the next, Jenny from the Block on Friday, Super Glam Red Carpet Diva on Wednesdays–whatever), earn through their use of body parts, cultures, and languages that marginalize their black female counter-parts reveals that the dynamics of “whiteness” and “blackness” lies in an ability to access legal and social channels of ownership and mass marketing.

One may say, well, black people can “appropriate” white culture too. Ah, but to say that would be to admit that white people are a culture–which will simply not enter the conversation if a person wants to claim that Azalea is some color-blind entity. Meanwhile, they must also admit that black people must speak and act in ways that will reduce their own cultural productive capacities because they seek to appear “less threatening” to whites. In my personal experience, I found it demeaning to participate in a high school debate tournament, and later an academic conference, or even more recently, an academic talk that I was invited to give at my alma mater, and be praised for how “articulate” I am. I have never before in my life heard a white colleague provided the same compliment for speaking in similar ways. It is as if they are observing a talking monkey or Orangutan. I have also received hostile responses from competing with whites. I learned very quickly in graduate school that many of my colleagues–liberal, progressive people on paper–felt “sorry for black people,” or seemed to like them well enough when they were serving them food, entertaining them in sports, music, or pornography, or making their hotel beds. However, when you are vying for similar positions of power, the snide remarks come out. I must be “angry” for looking them in the eyes when they speak, I must feel “upset” for being a black woman (I am VERY PROUD to have centuries of human survival under some of the harshest conditions ever imposed on a human in the history of humans running through my veins thank you very much), and that I should be “thankful” that I may get chosen as an Affirmative Action hire. This idea of the tables turning, or all imitation as occurring under equal conditions, is absurdly false.

In sum, the blame game does nothing more than perpetually erase the historical facts of unequal personhood between the white and black races that inhibited the legal access necessary to equally compete in the ownership society. Azalea won’t be the first or last white woman to derive value from a culture that mainstream society continues to draw on for its definitions of thugs, criminals, and ho’s. Fortunately, for the blonde cutie with no booty from down under, none of these categories will ever apply to her.  Therein lies the problem.

Plagiarism and Leakology

Plagiarism is a concept best understood through leakology.  This pervasive cultural practice perversely lurks somewhere between seduction and sin, narcissism and insecurity, voyeurism and exhibitionism.  Although it is tempting to categorize the plagiarists’ actions as theft, their flagrant disregard for the definition of information as property undermines the Western logic of crime and punishment.  In 1902, William Dean Howells analyzes the peculiar nature of plagiarism in his brief essay, “The Psychology of Plagiarism,” by focusing readers’ attention on humans’ inability to both own information or its flows.  For this American literary critic, the terms crime and theft should not apply to plagiarism because the action “seems to deprave no more than it dishonors” (276).  He elaborates on the ways in which plagiarism, an act of concealment, is inextricably linked to subsequent acts of discovery.

If you take a man’s hat or coat out of his hall, you may pawn it before the police overtake you; if you take his horse out of his stable, you may ride it away beyond pursuit and sell it; if you take his purse out of his pocket, you may pass it to a pal in the crowd, and easily prove your innocence. But if you take his sermon, or his essay, or even his apposite reflection, you cannot escape discovery. The world is full of idle people reading books, and they are only too glad to act as detectives; they please their miserable vanity by showing their alertness, and are proud to hear witness against you in the court of parallel columns. You have no safety in the obscurity of the author from whom you take your own; there is always that most terrible reader, the reader of one book, who knows that very author, and will the more indecently hasten to bring you to the bar because he knows no other, and wishes to display his erudition. A man may escape for centuries and yet be found out. (Howells 276)

Howells’ precise delineation between the ways in which physical properties evade detection better than symbolic exchanges is epistemologically relevant for several reasons.

In particular, a physical property disappears in the rivers of market exchange, fluidly passing from locations and human hands with no regard of the traces that point towards its origins of development and production.  While we may seek to possess a material good, it’s value lies in its use—or the desirability of its acquisition for use.  On the other hand, the use of information itself, as a material good (let’s say a book of any kind), seems to lie in its rhetorical currency—does it enable consumers to exercise judgment, or expand their choices/range of decision-making?  The fact that plagiarism generates deliberation about character illustrates that the practice actually invents more information than it ever “stole.”  When a plagiarist attempts to “pass” information as one’s own, we may be tempted to equate this as “concealing,” but in reality this is an act of “revealing.”  Indeed, the plagiarist’s only “crime” is foolishness, if they actually believe they won’t get caught.  However, as part of a public that regularly spends it’s time and attention zealously persecuting ‘bad characters,’ the plagiarist actually exposes the perversity of property and ownership underlying logics of crime and punishment.

What is actually ‘taken’ from an author?  In rare cases, some plagiarist may temporarily receive fame and admiration, but as Howells’ realized over a century ago, they will inevitably be discovered.  In the contemporary dataquake, there are both numerous incentives to ‘fraudulate,’ as well as reveal fraud.  Regardless of whether a person is tempted to take some bytes out of the tsunamis of information saturating and absorbing them in the torrential seas, or they are relentlessly searching for plagiarism, both the plagiarist and her persecutors are searching for a tear in the ocean.  Their motivation is an emotional one—they are compelled to leak!  The plagiarist must reckon with a thirsty public.  Plenty seek out plagiarism to justify their own ‘good character,’ through the act of finding out ‘the cheater,’ and passing off their discovery as a ‘novel’ contribution to human thought production.  Nevertheless, it is the plagiarist that created that opportunity for participating in this psychosexual drama, and leaking/leaks play a central role in narratives emerging from these agents.

Who gets to be an author in our century, where writers are battling for the rewards of virality, pooling efforts in collaborative platforms and trying to be sharks in the data hydrosphere?   How does plagiarism play a role in the information warfare that stimulates surveillance economies of race and criminality, the police state and closed-system citizenry?  My next post will investigate a much ignored topic in discourses of plagiarism–its relationship to race.  I will draw on my experiences working at an HBCU for women to discuss why the academic integrity takes on an even greater significance when the students, to which it applies, may be ripe for accusations of fraud by virtue of expressing any eloquence that they claim ‘belongs to them.’  Indeed, the politics of leaking and authoring are richer when we consider black female bodies producing content.  Meanwhile, we should pay attention to Howells’ insights about the curious character of plagiarism and the leaky world, in which it lies.

Works Cited

Howells, William Dean. Literature and Life; Studies. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902. Google Books. Web.


Truman State University Career Talk for English Majors

I am excited to give a talk today about the “trans” power of English majors.  “What’s the “T” about English Majors,” will be an informal question/answer discussion with interested students seeking additional perspectives about the professional possibilities of the field.

To access materials relevant to this conversation, please visit:  http://easybib.com/public/list/key/7aa4a1 

I will revise this entry after the talk to include reflections about this event.

Betty Boop’s Cultural Origins Reveal Links between Race, Gender, and New Media History

Call:  Madame Noire’s Featured Article:  Michelle Obama Still the First Black Lady?  Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Were Black.

Response:  This engaging article has its merits, but illustrates the problem with web styling data for an agenda. Recovering black history is VERY important to me, but sometimes this purpose poorly contextualizes facts and leads to inaccurate master narratives.

Was Betty Boop Black?

Betty Boop’s racial origins have created controversy for decades.  Some argue that her physical image has been “whitewashed,” and that she was ‘really’ a black woman (although she is a fictional character).  As part of popular culture and the vivid childhood memories of millions, Betty Boop is real enough for people to wonder about her creation.  Although race definitely plays a role in narratives about Betty Boop’s and cultural appropriation, it is actually related to the animated character’s voice not her image. Boop’s voice is inspired by Helen Kane, a plump white actress/singer whose famous song, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” was appropriated from the black Cotton Club singer Esther “Baby Esther” Jones. Baby Esther became part of the historical record of Betty Boop because Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer for copying her ‘unique style.’ However, she lost the case because Lou Walton, Jones’ theatrical manager, testified that Kane and her manager heard Jones’ signature “boo boo boo, doo doo doo,” style at a 1928 caberet. Walton produced a sound film of Jones, which caused Justice McGoldrick to conclude that Kane failed to prove that the song/style was original. Her $250,000 lawsuit was dismissed.  Despite Madame Noir’s attempt to clarify Betty Boop’s “black” origins, the image attached to Butler’s article is neither Jones or Kane. It’s a Russian model Olya, whose images are posted on Retro_Ladies’ Live Journal blog: https://retro-ladies.livejournal.com/351472.html.


The Conflict between Appropriation and Ownership

I have always heard that Betty Boop was “black,” but wasn’t moved to verify that information until I saw this click bait article on my Facebook Feed. Furthermore, I’ve been teaching about the relationship between race and cultural appropriation discourses in a college argumentation course.  Our discussions about attribution, IP law, mimicry, minstrelsy, satire, ‘originality,’ viral videos, ‘twerking,’ capitalism, and the power of large music corporations suggest that creativity is undertheorized in American Culture.

Competing values of pop culture consumption and sole authorship/ownership reveals a racial subtext that connects the power of cultural representation to the capacity to both mainstream information and participate in the institutional structures and technological infrastructures that enable mainstreaming.  As contagion embodies social currency, the likeness of some person via their physical design and/or productions, accrues value based on the visibility, popularity, or virality of their creations.  Presumably, popularity is capable of generating monetary value.  We might assume that widespread visibility of some person and their production (even if this production is re-producing their physical image in artistic ways), implies widespread access to an image.  However, we may begin to find this connection troubling when we recall that image production and image circulation are systematically controlled by economic, political, social, and legal forces.

Although we frequently acknowledge that who gets to be seen is inextricably tied to limited access to technologies for image production and circulation, we readily accuse the dominant culture of marginalizing the rich epistemological, cultural, and technological contributions of historically oppressed groups such as women and people of color.  In adopting the language of dominant culture, and its discourses of power and politics–praising and blaming–we fail to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the reflexive histories of information technologies and cultural practices.  The consequence of failing to connect these histories is an obsession over racial attribution that comes at the expense of ahistorical accounts of technological development (and its legal consequences), which does not enable us to fully appreciate its tendency to expand the possibility of cultural contact and the documentation of alternative histories.

Betty Boop and the History of ‘New Media’

In sum, the Betty Boop Race Controversy offers a place to investigate links between race and cultural appropriation. The impulse to say, “Betty Boop was *really* Black,” comes from a genuine place.  It matters whether or not she was black or black-inspired because cultural appropriation is a major criteria affecting constructions of racial identity.  One way to recognize who is “white,” in addition to fair skin and light-colored eyes, was the person’s ability to successfully appropriate black aesthetics by converting its tendency to spread into the categories of “profit,” “sole ownership,” or “public domain.”  Either white people could literally own black cultural production, and financially benefit from it, or no-one owns it.  It’s just ‘for everybody.’  Jason Rodriguez’s ethnographic study, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” comprehensively investigates the way an explicitly black phenomena–the Hip Hop music scene–became progressively dominated by young white audiences, who felt they had a “right” to both consume and produce the music because it didn’t ‘belong to anyone.’  This race-neutral interpretation of property affects both land and intellectual property law (See K.Greene’s Copynorms).  As slaves, blacks’ categorical status as property and the subsequent struggle to be recognized by the law as a (property-owning) citizen, has excluded this group from attaining the access needed to ‘equally’ compete in American society.  Cultural recognition determines public opinion regarding your ‘right to access,’ (do you deserve to even be in this space?)  and the degree to which it’s ‘your own fault,’ (do you deserve nothing) that your social mobility is limited.  American history’s erasure of women and racial/ethnic groups such as blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians as CREATORS, HISTORY MAKERS, PHILOSOPHERS, and/or STORYTELLERS makes any critical person skeptical about the ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ of a mainstream image/phenomena.  On one hand, If Kane didn’t decide to sue Fleischer and Paramount, etc. for their use of “her voice,” we wouldn’t be able to delineate between disproportionate access to the legal means necessary for *owning* creativity and its exclusionary function (tied to its history of excluding).  The law leaked on its inability to recognize everyone as equal under the law.  Did Jones know that films of her would be used to prevent her appropriator from earning money from her productions?  Or did she just think it was cool she was being filmed at all?  Where was Baby Esther’s lawsuit against Kane?  Against Fleischer?  Was her right to own ‘her music,’ mentioned during the litigation, at all?  Nevertheless, the fight for ownership uncovered the fact of Baby Esther’s distinctive style.

After researching Betty Boop’s origins, her mystery led us to *both* the history of blueswomen and their cultural influence, as well as some of the ways in which technological politics influences rhetoric–the creative processes that make both innovations of language, history, science, and technology possible.  If film was not “new media” during the 20th century, we would not be able to quickly recover information about Esther Jones.  The fact of film as a ‘new media,’ situated within the context of popular print media (e.g. the newspaper and periodical) raises questions about the relationship between media development, cultural attitudes, and jurisprudence. The news article’s title, “Films Shown in Court,” seems provocative because it reveals a major conflict in judicial rhetoric–how credible were films as evidence? How would the film shape legal decisions? How would film technology affect historical records, and the logging of cultural memory? How would film intersect with a burgeoning music recording industry and its contribution to the enforcement (and growth) of IP law?

Sources: “The Boop Song is Traced: Witness in Helen Kane’s Suit Says Negro Girl Originated Style.” NYT (May 2, 1934) and “Films Shown in Court: Used to Help Justice Decide Kane’s $250,000 suit.” NYT (April 24, 1934) via Proquest Historical Newspapers.