ink & interpretation

Harlot O tattoo

design by my friend James Thornburg!

I have a Harlot tattoo. Yup. That fancy O from the logo? It’s on the inside of my left ankle. It is, nearly needless to say, awesome. I got it the day before my dissertation defense; it offered a great physical distraction from mental strain. It also felt good to literally mark the end of that era, the final, long-time-coming accomplishment of the degree — and it made sense to mark it with Harlot. The visibility of the tattoo, its placement where people would see it all the time, was something I struggled with. Not just because my mother hates it, but because it felt like a rather public statement.

I went to a cool talk at a conference recently, and one of the presenters–the delightful folklorist Martha Sims–was talking about the rhetoric of tattoos, particularly verbal ones. The most interesting part, for me, was that several of the people she’d interviewed said that they don’t think about their tattoos as having an audience other than themselves. Their choices are meaningful and in some cases private; the fact that many people will see and interpret these texts was not a significant contributor. So this got me thinking about my own.

I have another tattoo, one I got in my 20s, that has personal significance but is otherwise, as first tattoos will be, a bit silly. Thankfully, that one is on my lower back — which means it gets mocking names like “tramp stamp,” but it’s also conveniently out of sight almost all the time. (Thank god I aged out of those super-low-rise jeans.) So that’s like my personal tat, whereas the Harlot one is my public tat.

I’m not sure what it communicates, of course. For most viewers, it would just be some fancy black design, without significance itself — but significant in its presence alone. I am a person with a visible tattoo. Different audiences will see this differently: I might be the cool professor or the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool professor or the edgy junior faculty or the trite gen-x-er… or, as in reality, some combination of all. I like that people don’t know what it is, because they’re less likely to have an immediate response to the content (and I might get to tell them about Harlot). But inevitably, it will be read, as will my body and therefore me. This, I realize, is not particularly novel: our bodies are read as texts all day long, whether based on elements under our control or not…

Perhaps that’s what a tattoo communicates: that we’ve chosen to textualize our bodies, to have a say in what they say. Even if what they say is incomprehensible…? Even when we’re/they’re only talking to ourselves…? Even when others overhear and understand — or not?

I should do some research on this, but we have an issue to put out. So… what do you guys think?

Chet Tiffany – Genre Trendsetter

What you are about to read is a ________________about a lot of things. I don’t know what it is. In fact, “I” think this piece reads sort of like the experience of walking through those parking lot markets where acrylic mink blankets with the likes of Bieber, pit bulls, Pink Floyd and, of course, unicorns are being sold. It’s corny with a hint of cheese and alotta kitsch.

Click to enlarge!


I don’t agree much with the content, but, man, Chet Tiffany is writing in a way I’ve never seen. What is it exactly? What “is” this style? What would you call it? What genres are being mixed?

My friend, Vanessa, discovered Chet Tiffany in the Giant Nickel classifieds newspaper. Thank you, Vanessa, for recognizing something many of us have never thought we wanted to see before. And, Chet Tiffany, thank you for deciding to publish your work.

Harlots in a Saloon: The LXD

Art is interesting. To me, at least. Dancing as rhetoric is also interesting to me. Shows specifcially dedicated to dancing as a metaphor for fighting and war is also neuron-firing. The LXD is a web-show from Hulu that I have discussed previously. I feel obligated to point out that the story lines’s a bit cheesy and the acting leaves a lot to be desired, but what they lack in acting ability, they make up for in pure dancing talent. At times, though, I can’t quite figure out the kind of symbolism that they choose to use.

Okay, an example would be nice, right? Let’s use the costumes then. In season 2 of LXD, we learn that there is not just one bad guy (the doctor), but multiple villains with the addition of this, um, shamrock guy?

Okay, not really. He’s supposed to look like a dapper wild west character–you know, very rich man in a saloon and all that, but don’t you think it looks a little Lucky Charms? Anyway, the wild west saloon motif is the style that he and his crew take on.

The evil doctor on the other hand makes even less sense. He himself dresses kinda like a PI from a film noir. See:

His crew seems to change with each episode. In “The Greater of Two Evils,” his band of thieves dress in a late Victorian Era-esque way–bowler hat and umbrella included. In this episode, then, we have the Wild West fighting the English “gentleman” (albeit modernized) with an always interesting dance sequence.

Now, it would make some sense if this kind of symbolism were consistent. On the one hand there’s the really wild and sporadic dancers–they crunk, they run up walls, their arms and limbs flail in wild directions and they wear saloon like gear in order to represent that wildness; that rebelliousness. The other bad guy, the doctor, is methodical, right? So his crew wears bowlers, they work as a team with specific choreography and have more restrained movements. Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t always the case with the doctor’s crew. He works in some kind of abandoned prison/insane asylum/hospital and he runs experiments on people who end up just as wild as the Wild Westers. Is this merely a case of it-seemed-cool-so-we-did-it?

Even more confusing is why the good guys, the LXD, would choose to dress western themselves when they go to face the Wild West Crew in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ra Part 1.”

What are they trying to convey with the costumes? Why would the good guys try to adopt the identity of a bad guy? What am I supposed to take from this? What is this costume trying to say to me? I’m just not so sure. Overall, this may be why this show is only okay. The dancing and choreography is amazing, so I keep watching, but if it weren’t then this inattention to story development would have me running for the hills. It appears that they aren’t conscious of their own rhetoric and that might be part of what creates these other problems. I’ll keep watching if I can, though. As long as the dance sequences continue to take up the majority of these episodes.

Seen any carnies around?

Did anyone see any zombies at the mall this weekend? Smell any stink bombs? Was there a special Critical Mass in your neighborhood? Trickster performances? General harlotry?

I’m curious, because today concludes Carnivalesque Rebellion Week 2010:

Carnivalesque Rebellion Week

A few people start breaking their old patterns, embracing what they love (and in the process discovering what they hate), daydreaming, questioning, rebelling. What happens naturally then, according to the revolutionary past, is a groundswell of support for this new way of being, with more and more people empowered to perform new gestures unencumbered by history.

Think of it as an adventure, as therapy – a week of pieing and pranks, of talking back at your profs and speaking truth to power. Some of us will put up posters in our schools and neighborhoods and just break our daily routines for a week. Others will chant, spark mayhem in big box stores and provoke mass cognitive dissonance. Others still will engage in the most visceral kind of civil disobedience. And on November 26 from sunrise to sunset we will abstain en masse – not only from holiday shopping, but from all the temptations of our five-planet lifestyles.

Buy Nothing Day” has been celebrated for over a decade now, a protest against the celebration of consumerism known as “Black Friday.” I’m a fan of the alternative, and not just because of how much this scares me:

Buy Nothing Day has a lot of appeal, and I know plenty of people who observe it for reasons more or less anti-consumerist but not necessarily proactive. This year, though, Adbusters seemed to be kicking it up a notch.  Then again, carnivalesque rebellion doesn’t come from a journal, but from local jammers…

So, my fellow local rhetoricians, what did you see?

‘Dem ar Fightin’ Words…

NPR has officially won my “Rhetorician of the Week” award, for their new project: “Fighting Words.” Here’s how they describe it:

Check out this video for a sixty-second overview of the project:

NPR is doing great work here in helping cultivate civic rhetorical literacy, simply by providing the data needed for analysis.  The one critique that I believe is worth mentioning, however, is the title of the project: Fighting Words.  It seems they’ve fallen into that well-worn groove of envisioning argument and debate only in terms of WAR.

Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By reveals just how deeply this association has ingrained itself into our everyday expressions and thought patterns; here are just a few examples they list:

Your claims are indefensible.

He attacked every weak point in my argument.

His criticisms were right on target.

I demolished his argument.

I’ve never won an argument with him.

He shot down all of my arguments.

The language we use to frame the practice and process of debate significantly impacts how think about and respond to it.  NPR is taking the same route that the lame-stream media takes in trying to boost their ratings: amplify the sense of contentiousness to get viewers to tune in.

Every time I hear these metaphoric frames of aggression and war invoked without a thought given to their long-term consequences, I think of all the different ways we might envision argument.  As Lakoff and Johnson so eloquently put it:

Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

The 2nd Edition: [A]musing Ourselves

In the most recent issue of Harlot, my colleague Paul Muhlhauser and I published a satirical piece critiquing what we learn about genders and work from the November 2009 J.CREW catalog.  Yesterday, we posted a comment on our piece that extends our critique to the most recent issues of the catalog.  I’m copying our comment here for your delectation (and, selfishly, in hopes that some of you may enter the conversation we were hoping to start with our piece).  In case you didn’t know, each piece published on Harlot is “comment-ready”.  Just click on the “Add Comment” link below the piece and make your contribution!  [Caveat: you may have to register with Harlot if you are not yet registered.]

EXTENDING THE CONVERSATION (our comment on How Genders Work: Producing the J.CREW Catalog):

To be fair to J.CREW, they did “follow up” the Real Guys Relate feature with another issue that featured “real” women—women and their jobs. However, the feature is titled Who’s that Girl? rather than Who’s that Woman?. When women work, they are just girls. This sends the message that women’s jobs are really not equal to men’s.

Besides being called “girls,” these women are referred to as “muses” and “muse-worthy” in the introduction to the feature. This means they are sources of inspiration for others. In this context, the women inspire more than the job descriptions offered. What is striking is how these “real” women display behaviors consistent with women in How Genders Work. Though women are named and their jobs are listed, “girls” continue to be posed like the models in the magazine rather than the men who are aware of their positions and surroundings. Women’s posturing is still flirty as their toes are pointed inward, and they often look off to the side unaware of their surroundings and out of context. In addition, as if to counteract the effect women with jobs would have on a reader by unsettling a stereotype, J.CREW profiles the men who work at the British journal Monocle. These men become even more real as they are positioned in contexts of offices, city streets, and studios. The lesson we learn from this issue is that real men do real work—they exist in a real world, in context. Real women, on the other hand, may have real jobs but their work is to [a]muse.

To make matters worse, the issue following Who’s that Girl? once again features “real” men as workers and women models as flirtatious and air-headed. There are no “real” women in this issue. The theme for the issue is nature (as in landscaping, farming, and gardening). The instructions show us that women are incompetent and disengaged with regards to nature. Nature, for them, is an accessory. One model, for instance, looks as if she doesn’t know how to pot a plant. She holds it as if waiting for someone to help her. Another holds flowers—doesn’t do anything with them. Flowers are part of her “look.”

Men, in contrast, work with nature; they are competent and engaged. Rather than presented as an accessory, nature is presented as part of work and their livelihoods. In this feature, we return to the studio to learn about “The Naturals.” These “real” men are landscape designers, landscape photographers, agricultural directors, goat farmers, and agricultural farmers.

As these catalogs demonstrate, J.CREW has not changed their representation strategies. Though J.CREW attempted to represent “real” women, they failed. Our instructions still produce the J.CREW catalog. A second edition of our textbook would have a section for girls, muses, and jobs.

Contribute to the conversation!

the “be stupid” ad campaign by diesel

Okay, so my research has, for a long time, focused on issues of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism in American culture.  And yes, that has resulted in a quick eye for all things anti-intellectual in my surroundings.  Still, I can’t be the only one stunned (and frustrated) by the new Diesel ad campaign: “Be Stupid.”  I noticed it first a few weeks back when getting off the D train at West 4th Street in Manhattan.  The long tunnel I had to walk through to surface just a few blocks from the campus of NYU was lined with Diesel’s new “Be Stupid” ads.  Here’s a taste of what I encountered…

Um, moving past the blatant anti-intellectual message that to be cool we should “be stupid,” there’s a whole lot here that’s problematic.   Women as sex objects perhaps?  The preference for balls over brains?  The image of “stupid” (i.e. cool) as a white middle-class youth we may presume has had the privilege of a good education?  Oh, and I just love that these ads (though I’m sure they appear elsewhere) line the subway tunnel right by NYU–one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Call me “smart,” but I don’ think this ad campaign is as “stupid” (i.e. cool) as it thinks itself to be.

Google’s buzz-kill

Those of you who use gmail no doubt noticed this week’s launch of “Google Buzz,” another social networking project. I clicked in briefly, figured it was just another variation on Facebook, and went back to my emailing.

But it turns out plenty of people reacted much more strongly — and for good reasons. What I didn’t look too closely at was an immense consolidation and public-ization of Google-related activities: “Your Google Reader shared items, Picasa Web public albums, and Google Chat status messages will automatically appear as posts in Buzz.” And I was automatically linked in — “14 people are already following you.” Creeeeepy.

Google’s ready-made network revealed common email/chat contacts, leading to all kinds of privacy breaches. And in this case, the stakes are far higher than the romantic escapades common to Facebookers. In today’s NYT coverage, Miguel Helft points to the difference:

E-mail, it turns out, can hold many secrets, from the names of personal physicians and illicit lovers to the identities of whistle-blowers and antigovernment activists. And Google, so recently a hero to many people for threatening to leave China after hacking attempts against the Gmail accounts of human rights activists, now finds itself being pilloried as a clumsy violator of privacy.

As Evgeny Morozov wrote in a blog post for Foreign Policy, “If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government.”

The key point here, of course, is that despite the publicity trends online, people still think of email as a private realm — and Google ripped down that curtain, leaving people feeling exposed and vulnerable. And they’re pissed.

Google is known for releasing new products before they are fully ready and then improving them over time. But its decision to do so with Buzz, coupled with its introduction to all 176 million Gmail users by default, appears to have backfired.

“It was a terrible mistake,” said Danny Sullivan, a specialist on Google and editor of SearchEngineLand, an industry blog. “I don’t think people expected that Google would show the world who you are connected with. And if there was a way to opt out, it was really easy to miss.”

It seems that Google was just so darn excited — and expecting its users to be same — about the idea of enabling more seamless access and interaction to think much about the consequences… which is just funny, consider how astutely my undergrads note the risks. You’d think the Google team could keep up with our “intro to digital media” conversations.

Fashion Tech

Christmas gift for the fashion technology forward?

If your clothes are supposed to say something about you, then this dress says you’re afraid of the dark? Or, you’re the light of the party. Ha!

LED Dress Lights Up Your Wardrobe and the Night

And this shirt says you have trouble being alone? (Actually, this one I can see as beneficial for kids. Let’s say Mommy or Daddy have to go on a business trip, but they can still hug little Sally or Sam before bedtime. It’s a nice thought.)

The Hug Shirt

Technology in my wardrobe. . . I might be geeky enough for that.

Transparency in photography

There’s a fascinating piece in the NY Times today — “Point, Shoot, Retouch and Label?” by Steven Erlanger –about French politician Valerie Boyer’s draft of a law requiring advertisements to carry a label if they contain images that have been digitally retouched. This is not a new discussion; publishing associations in the UK and elsewhere have talked about voluntary reform. Check out the consistently smart coverage in Jezebel. But it may be the first to push a law.

The article focuses on the issue of women’s body images and the dangers of falsified ideals, documenting various approaches to this debate, from hopes that “such a label might sensitize people to the fakery involved in most of the advertising images with which they’re bludgeoned” to the threat that “such a law would destroy photographic art.”

In this vein, a fashion photographer is quoted pointing out that all photography is a representation of reality through a lens that excludes as well as captures. Very smart and valid… but is this the generally accepted view that fashion magazine readers share? Based on a sample of my self, friends, students, sister, cousins…. No. However naively, most women still “buy” these false images.

An editor at Marie Claire declares the labels unnecessary because “Our readers are not idiots … Of course they’re all retouched.” You’ve got to almost admire her bravado, and the move to convince her readers with a magazine that so clearly respects their intelligence… I guess I’m an idiot, then, since despite my rhetorical training, I’d still love to be informed.

Check out Marie Claire’s edited editors:

Photoshop Disasters: Marie Claire

Photoshop Disasters: Marie Claire

At least, in the meantime, we have such wonderful sources as Jezebel and Photoshop Disasters and Photoshop of Horrors, and of course fun on YouTube: