Breaking news: Dolly Parton likes Octavia Butler! In her recent interview with the New York Times, when asked about her favorite book she responded: “Not enough folks know what a great book ‘Kindred,’ by Octavia E. Butler, is. It’s kind of tricky to describe but somehow it all works — it’s about race relations and there’s time travel and romance. It’s powerful.” So, there you have it folks. The queen of country music is a fan of Octavia Butler. Suddenly this class’s focus on Butler’s body of work makes sense. (Just kidding, I promise it made sense before too.)
Dolly Parton had been in the news a lot recently. She just released a new Christmas album, “A Holly Dolly Christmas,” and made it into a TV special. More impressively, she apparently donated a million dollars to Moderna, the company that just announced a 94% effective coronavirus vaccine. So, in addition to reading good literature and spreading Christmas cheer, Dolly Parton is also saving lives and ending the pandemic.
In class last week we talked about how Butler’s characters are often uniquely good people in corrupt and uncomfortable situations. Whether Butler’s protagonists are chosen by God or hugged by aliens, they usually try to do their best to help other, even if it means sacrificing their own well-being. Maybe Dolly Parton is a real-life Butler protagonist in our almost-post-apocalyptic world. It’s likely that she was a good person before she read Kindred, but, who knows, maybe it was Speech Sounds that convinced her to do something about the pandemic. Either way, I think I’ll be spending my Christmas break reading Kindred and patiently awaiting the Dolly Parton funded vaccine.
Also, I’m just realizing now that I already have seven blogposts, but I’m posting this anyway out of love for Dolly Parton. And for anyone who’s interested, here’s Dolly’s interview that I mentioned: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/books/review/dolly-parton-by-the-book-interview.html
In 1520, the Spanish, under the leadership of Hernan Cortes, conquered the Aztec empire. This conquest was just one step in the European invasion which led to the eventual death of probably around 90% of the Native American population. There’s been a lot said about how a few hundred Spanish invaders were able to take down one of the most powerful empires in the world. Disease was the main reason, but Cortes’s success was also made possible by just how much other Mexicans hated the Aztecs, who had brutally conquered them in recent years.
But wait, how does a Spanish guy with zero language skills and a limited knowledge of Native American politics incite a massive rebellion? Enter La Malinche. Malinche was an enslaved Mexican woman, captured in childhood, who functioned as Cortes’s interpretor and advisor throughout his conquest. Her understanding of both European and Native American language and cultural practices made her indispensable to Cortes during a period when Europeans kind of had no clue what they were doing. Public opinion in Mexico hasn’t been super kind to Malinche, because she pretty much sold out her own people. But, since she was enslaved, what choice did she have?
I mentioned Malinche in class last time, in relation to Bloodchild, but I saw even more connections between her story and the story of Noah in Amnesty. Noah, like Malinche, was kidnapped and enslaved as a child. Her understanding of both humans and the communities allowed her to mediate between two species, just as Malinche had mediated between cultures. Humans were not a fan of Noah’s cooperation with the communities, just as Mexicans have resented Malinche’s role in the Spanish conquest.
The stories of Noah and Malinche reinforce one another. By reading Amnesty, we’re able to better understand the sense of realism and self-preservation that may have motivated Malinche during the Spanish conquest. Amnesty also condemns the cruelty of the Spanish invasion. Noah points out how the communities initially didn’t comprehend the pain that they inflicted on their human subjects, while her human captors understood the pain they caused perfectly. The Spanish conquest of America wasn’t an encounter between two species; it was an encounter between human beings. Unlike the invading communities, the Spanish could fully comprehended the devastation and pain that they caused.
Image: La Malinche https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malinche
In Drew Harwell’s article on deepfakes in the Washington Post, he quotes Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer science professor, on the problem with deepfakes: “If a biologist said, ‘Here’s a really cool virus; let’s see what happens when the public gets their hands on it,’ that would not be acceptable. And yet it’s what Silicon Valley does all the time… It’s indicative of a very immature industry. We have to understand the harm and slow down on how we deploy technology like this.”
Farid’s point (an unintentionally 2020 comparison) speaks to the way that new technology can be harnessed for malicious purposes. Technology initially designed for snapchat or the movie industry can and will be weaponized for everything from non-consensual porn to political manipulation. Just because a new software is revolutionary doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s benevolent. So, since I’m a history major, I want to talk about another discovery that was revolutionary, but dangerous: radioactivity.
When Marie and Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, they had no idea how uranium, their fascinating discovery, would be utilized. Marie used a small jar of it as a nightlight, and Pierre carried some around so he could show everyone its miraculous properties. Both of the Curie’s eventually died of radiation poisoning, and, to this day, their personal papers are too radioactive to be handled safely. As others built on the Curies’ discovery, they used it for everything from cancer treatment to the atomic bomb.
Deepfake technology is a modern uranium. Software developers started carrying it around in their pockets and showing it off before its potential for misuse could be fully understood. We’re already seeing both the positive and, overwhelmingly, negative effects of this nascent technology. We can’t blame the Curies for their ignorance of radiation poisoning when they had only just discovery radioactivity. However, I do think the tech industry should probably know by now that people will use any technology they can get their hands on for malicious purposes.
So, it’s been a couple months, but it looks like I’m still thinking about Pattern Recognition, or at least, Ferguson’s article got me thinking about it again.
In the book, Cayce’s journeyrevolves around the origins and meaning of the mysterious footage. The portions of the footage that Gibson describes are short, but evocative. Segment #135 for example, only shows a kiss between two ambiguously dressed individuals, and yet, from Cayce’s reaction, it’s clear that the clip is something significant; she literally shivers when she first sees it, partially because of its importance to her personally, but also because of its own inherent beauty (pg. 23). When Cayce finally meets Nora and sees her at work, she is brought to tears and describes the experience as like seeing “the headwaters of the digital Nile” (pg. 305).
That’s a pretty dramatic way of putting it, but I kind of understood what she meant when I saw Kevin L. Ferguson visual “sums” of Disney movies. Even though they were just blurry composites of color and light, there was something really beautiful about them. Treasure Planet’s sum was my personal favorite, and I agreed with Ferguson when he called it an accurate representation of the movie’s “dazzling, dense, and vibrant” animation. Seeing the way that Ferguson broke down a film into some of its essential components felt, in some ways, like seeing the headwaters of the animated Nile. Disney’s artistry originates in the colors, shapes, and patterns that Ferguson’s images portray.
In Pattern Recognition, Nora’s damaged but brilliant brain serves as a substitute for Ferguson’s software, breaking down found footage into its essential parts to create something beautiful. When Cayce first enters Nora’s workspace, she observes Nora working on a single frame featuring the two characters from the footage. Even that one frame is meaningful, partially because of Cayce’s connection to the footage, but also because of the frame’s inherent characteristics. Similarly, Ferguson’s sums are meaningful because they represent a broader work, but they also are beautiful on their own. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand how the footage in Pattern Recognition gained a cult following, but Ferguson’s images helped me to see that even small pieces of digital media can be significant, whether they’re mysterious footage, or summed frame z-projections.
I’m taking this opportunity to let everyone know that I liked The Princess and the Frog before it was cool. How is it possible to like a Disney blockbuster before it’s cool? Well, back in fourth grade, one of my favorite books was The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker. According to the credits of The Princess of the Frog, the movie is actually based on Baker’s book, though you’d barely be able to tell by comparing the two. Unlike the movie, the book isn’t set in New Orleans, and it has no shadow man, no crocodile, no firefly, no jazz, and no restaurant. Pretty much the only similarity between the book and the movie is that the girl turns into a frog when she kisses a frog-ified prince. The Frog Princess, is of course, based on the classic Grimm fairytale “The Frog Prince,” which, according to Wikipedia, is a retelling of folktale that has existed in various forms since at least Roman times.
“Everything is a Remix” immediately reminded me of this favorite childhood movie/book combo, especially when it discussed “multiple discovery,” or the way our culture often independently produces similar works or ideas. Of course, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at Disney, but, according to the Wikipedia article on The Princess and the Frog, at one point, Disney originally had two different films in development based on “The Frog Prince” story, and only one was based on Baker’s The Frog Princess. Those two ideas were combined, leading to the production of The Princess and the Frog we know today. Is it possible that “multiple discovery” applied to E.D. Baker and Disney? We’ll never know, but judging from the examples in “Everything is a Remix,” it’s highly likely that this classic fairytale resurfaced in two independent imaginations around the same time, and then, once Disney saw Baker’s work, it decided to just skip ahead and remix her remix (of a remix). After seeing so many examples of blatant cinematic borrowing and repurposing in “Everything is a Remix” (Looking at you, Star Wars!) I’m just impressed that E.D. Baker got any credit it all.
My junior year, the Springville High School drama department was destitute. Or, at least that’s how it seemed when our drama teacher pitched The Mikado for our yearly musical. This announcement, which all the drama kids had gathered to hear, was met with a resounding “huh?” What even was The Mikado?
Well, The Mikado is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta first performed in 1885. Set in a Japan, with a cast of all white actors (more on that later), it was a smash hit when it was released, and, to this day, it’s still vaguely floating around in popular culture. Most importantly, The Mikado, is in the public domain. All of the sheet music, lyrics, and script are available online, for free. In comparison, the rights and materials for a modern musical can cost thousands of dollars, and our high school apparently didn’t have that kind of cash lying around (at least, not for the arts). So, we put on a show that only our grandparents recognized, and included a plot summary in the program, because even us kids, who had been rehearsing for months, still didn’t actually get what was going on.
With licensed musicals, deviation from the script is prohibited, but, with The Mikado, it’s become a tradition. The song “As someday it may happen,” in which an executioner sings about his list of potential victims, has been continually rewritten for subsequent performances of the show. While the original version criticizes “lady novelists” and “people who have flabby hands,” our version criticized texting audience members and the rival high school. More importantly, our director also decided to nix the yellowface and set the show in 19th century England, instead of Japan.
This week’s readings helped me to better understand why copyright laws exist. Ultimately, they promote creativity through fairness. However, this week’s readings also made me even more grateful for works like The Mikado, which, thanks to the public domain, are now free for any high school to clumsily perform on budget. To use Lessig’s terminology, our show became part of RW culture, because we could legally change up the show’s material. Both copyright laws and publicly accessible works have their place in promoting creativity.
Image: me performing “Three little maids from school are we,” one of the show’s better known songs. Accessed via my dad’s blog https://beitemmett.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-mikado.html
In Feminist Frequency’s video essay “Damsel in Distress (Part 1),” Anita Sarkeesian discusses the iconic, but highly problematic, Damsel in Distress trope and its widespread employment in video games of all kinds. Inspired by the abundance of damsels of distress in everything from mythology to film to propaganda, video game creators have frequently used women in need of rescue as motivation for their games’ protagonist. Sarkeesian points out that this trope, which portrays women as objects, rather than actors, is perpetuated not just because of continued misogyny, but also because of nostalgia for these formative, yet sexist, games. Fans of classic video games will pay good money to revisit the games of their childhood, guaranteeing that games based on the Damsel in Distress trope continue to be played and loved by new generations of gamers. I didn’t grow up on video games, but, as I reflected on my childhood medium of choice—books—I realized that I too am nostalgic for misogynistic stories.
Growing up, I absolutely loved Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson. The Newberry Award winning story focuses on Marly, a young girl in 1950s America whose father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In attempt to heal her father, Marly’s family decides to move to her grandmother’s old house in rural Pennsylvania. As Marly observes the changing seasons and the change in her father, she grows to love her new life on Maple Hill. I’ve reread this book multiple times, and I’m always captivated by its quiet simplicity and reverence for the natural world. And yet, this last time I reread it, I noticed something that I hadn’t before—sexism. And a lot of it. An abundance of 1950s-style gender roles that continually impact Marly and her mother.
For example, when the family first arrives at Maple Hill, Marly is about to set off and explore the house, when her mother reminds her to get back in time to clean the old dishes before dinner, saying: “Marly—this is the first place we women have start to dig.” Marly expresses her pride at being included in “we women,” but I only wondered where Marly’s dad and brother were. (They obviously weren’t included in dish-duty.) Another time, Marly tries to go exploring with her brother, but he won’t let her come, because she’s a girl. Marly laments the fact that she, as a girl, is always too afraid to explore by herself, while her brother does it all the time. Later on, Marly’s brother won’t let her help make maple syrup because she’s too weak to carry the buckets, an idea that Marly protests until her brother gives in. While I’m sure that as a little girl I was already aware of these kinds of harmful stereotypes, I now wonder how much Miracles on Maple Hill further contributed to my own internalized misogyny.
And yet, I still love it. Nostalgia will forever tie me to it, the favorite book of my childhood, in the same way I imagine that gamers will forever love The Legend of Zelda or Mario Brothers. Though the Damsel-in-Distress sexism of those games is fundamentally different than the sexism in Miracle on Maple Hill—Marly is less objectified—they both still perpetuate outdated ideas about women.
After the last time I read Miracles on Maple Hill, I wondered what I would do if, someday in the distant future, I have a daughter looking for something read. Would I recommend Miracles on Maple Hill, knowing the idea of womanhood it perpetuates? (Would there be any books left to recommend?) If I were to pass Miracles on Maple Hill on to my future daughter, I can’t magically get rid its sexism. Although I hope I’m wrong, I doubt society itself can get rid of its own sexism by then either. And this is where video games come back in. Books are static. There’s no new version of Miracles of Maple Hill scheduled to be released in the future. You don’t have to constantly upgrade books as the technology to experience them advances. Video games, however, are constantly updated and revamped. If FIFA and Madden can change their players and graphics every year, why can’t countless Damsel in Distress games change their portrayal of women? The constantly changing nature of video games provides the perfect opportunity for at least one medium to leave its sexist past behind and create a new kind of nostalgia, one that can fully embrace the past without hesitation.
(I posted this before 9 but I forgot to include the image cred, so here it is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miracles_on_Maple_Hill_1956_cover.jpg)
In Pattern Recognition, travel is not meant to be pleasant. The “mirror-world” is disorienting. Jetlag is a symptom of losing your soul. Flying brings back memories of 9/11. And yet, in a time of travel cancellations and restrictions, Cayce’s comings and goings feel luxurious and enticing. At this point, I’d take the international conspiracy and the shady employer if I could just spend a day walking around London like Cayce Pollard.
Last winter, my cousin and I bought round trip tickets to London. Turns out Salt Lake to Heathrow the first week of May wasn’t a great idea in 2020. We’d planned on staying with our aunt in Oxford and our other cousin in London. Instead, our aunt got Covid mid-March and ibuprofen-ed her way through airport temperature checks back to Utah. (Yikes!!) Unsurprisingly, we cancelled our tickets a few days later. Maybe next year.
I’ve visited the mirror-world twice before. London, in sixth grade, and then a roadtrip around the rest of the British Isles in eleventh. Reading Pattern Recognition, full of travel and cultural encounters, has me missing trips that happened—and the one that didn’t. When Cayce finally experiences “the oddness…of any England not London” (pg. 232) I recognized her observations from my memories of both past events and past imaginings. The rolling green hills, yellow flowers, ruined castles, and “two-lane blacktop” on the way to Bournemouth felt familiar from the distant past of my childhood—and the even more distant past of this year’s cancelled plans. There’s nothing like a pandemic to turn Gibson’s precise, unsentimental descriptions of England into a vehicle for some serious nostalgia.
And yet, reading about Cayce’s travels in a post-911 world worry me. Will travel in a post-Coronavirus world feel just a disorienting, just as fraught, as it feels in Pattern Recognition? Maybe next year I’ll find out.