Word Virus

Fight Virus with Virus, or: Fear & Loathing in a Time of Pandemic

A Problem With Fear, or Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator is a quirky 2003 sci-fi-rom-com by Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns — and useful for thinking through this moment. The movie revolves around protagonist, Laurie, a young man crippled by his multiple fears. When he is alone, he is incapable of using elevators, escalators, of crossing the street, taking public transportation, without succumbing to paralyzing panic attacks. Laurie’s sister, Michelle, an executive at a tech company called Global Safety Inc., chaperones him through these necessary quotidian travails. Laurie’s girlfriend, Dot, a fashion-conscious and sympathetic sociology student, worries that Laurie’s phobias will prove too much to bear and put an end to their relationship.

Global Safety Inc. manufactures a kind of predictive wristband that warns its wearers, including Laurie, of impending danger. But a computer virus has infected Global Safety’s software. Suddenly, all of Laurie’s anxieties, each more gruesome than the last, begin to manifest before his very eyes: a man’s backpack gets caught in the subway doors; a woman’s scarf becomes entangled in the mall’s escalator. Soon, everyone’s fears are coming true. The film’s fictional TV media, covering the string of events, refer to it as the “fear storm” gripping the city.

One of Global Safety’s engineers, an unlikable grunt called Erin, is the first to discover the virus. But Michelle and her team deliberately suppress Erin’s evidence. Knowing that Laurie’s fears are causing the storm, and crazed by his company’s efforts to silence him, Erin confronts Laurie and commands him to commit suicide. Faced with this shock, Laurie surmises that he needs to overcome his fears — the final fear being his commitment to Dot — to stop the chaos.

I cannot be the only one right now feeling like Laurie, watching in horror as my worst fears come true: there is now the terror of totalitarian control, on top of the terror of the virus itself.

Social measures that only weeks ago seemed unthinkable are becoming realities that we cannot ignore, nor oppose. Italy and France have decreed its citizens indoors, while the US considers similar policies. For me in Canada, our borders are effectively closed to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen. Social distancing practices in effect in Montreal mean that mass congregations are cancelled; the province has banned gatherings of more than two people, the strictest restrictions on Quebec’s cherished civil liberties since the 1970 October Crisis.

In 2012 during what has come to be known as the “Maple Spring” student uprising across Quebec, which took place in context of the global Occupy Movement, the provincial government implemented a temporary measure (called “La Loi Speciale”, the special law) outlawing groups larger than 50. This was an attempt to stifle demonstrations that at the time were attracting participants in the tens of thousands. Protestors saw the law as an egregious breach of the right to protest and disregarded it, chanting: “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Under any other circumstances, Quebec would be the first place to mobilize resistance to the limitation of freedoms we have come to think of as fundamental. In 2020, though, in the face of a global pandemic, no such protests are taking place; Canadians are largely accepting with grim resignation that a dark cloud has set in over our sunny ways. It is a living nightmare, though, to which, I argue, we have been acclimating culturally since 9/11, through mediations — in popular music, and in disaster films like A Problem With Fear.

Commentators have noted Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, as a prognostic Hollywood script for Covid-19: “it is not surprising that Contagion has been one of the top trending movies on both Amazon and iTunes since January” say the behavioural researchers A.T. Kingsmith and Patrick Ciaschi in a recent CBC op-ed. Another article published in The New York Post calls the movie “basically a blueprint for 2020.” But fear of disaster has more broadly underpinned the fantastic imagination in the 21st century. Think of Justin Timberlake’s 2018 single “Supplies”, in which he croons to a prospective lover: “Some shit’s about to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head, the world can end now baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead.” Or Grimes’ current album Miss Anthropocene, in which the singer aims to make ecological destruction “fun”, casting herself as the “Goddess of climate change.” The Swedish musician Leif Elggren in 2003 released an album entitled Virulent Images/Virulent Sound, which claimed to contain “micro-recordings of eight different samples of highly potent viruses.” Why even imagine such things?

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin articulates this anticipatory turn of 21st century mediation. In a book of the same name, he calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of disastrous events. Premediation is similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). The goal of premediation is not to accurately predict the future, however, but rather to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “…in the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes.” Grusin stops short of suggesting that premediations might have some effect on the outcome of real events. But what is implicit in Grusin’s claims is that one of those premediations will come true. The filmmaker Adam Curtis advanced this notion through a montage scene of disaster movies in his 2016 BBC documentary, HyperNormalisation. Is it possible that, somehow, we are inviting disaster simply by imagining it?

In a recent article for Philosophical Salon, Slavoj Žižek, citing Tolstoy, likened Coronavirus to a meme — a viral mediation: “The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another.” Žižek notes Coronavirus’s “stupidly repetitive” nature as a neither-living-nor-dead organism: if Covid-19 were a meme, it might be “CTRL C + CTRL V = HOMEWORK FINISHED!”

Still, I find that turning to William S. Burroughs’ notion of media virality is more useful right now, against the backdrop of the kinds of social controls of which even the Nazis never dared to dream. Across several texts, Burroughs traces the history of the Mayan calendar as the ultimate control mechanism, with which the priests exercised an almost absolute authority over the peasants’ everyday lives. “The Calendar was predicated on the illiteracy of the workers,” Burroughs explained in an essay called “The Limits of Control”: “Modern control systems are predicated on universal literacy since they operate through the mass media.”

The current-day controllers are not priests but rather the benefactors of global capitalism: the world’s trillion-dollar companies stand to benefit the most from this disaster, as we teleconference from self-isolation through Microsoft Teams, search Google to see if we’re experiencing symptoms, and panic-buy toilet paper on Amazon directly from our Apple devices. Credit card companies are profiting as essential businesses increasingly refuse cash; amidst cataclysmic layoffs for small businesses, Wal-Mart and Domino’s Pizza are hiring. Because we are now conversant in the language of “viral” mediation — viral premediation — we are also primed to automatically understand and react in fear to a real virus’s virulence.

Gilles Deleuze took Burroughs further still: “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”: “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coronavirus is a technology oscillating in time against the transmission of its mediations. This has confounding implications for the natural, subjective suspicion of Empire flexing its control, and the leftist impulse to resist it: “not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity,” Žižek argues.

What I read in all of these disaster narratives is the ultimate premediative text. I want to be like “Clippy”, Microsoft Word’s paperclip assistant character, and say: “It looks like you’re writing a suicide note.” Just after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard already identified a kind of subconscious, self-destructive premediation in The Spirit of Terrorism: “The countless disaster movies bear witness to this [suicidal] fantasy, which they clearly attempt to exorcize with images, drowning out the whole thing with special effects.” But it is not our own suicide, the suicide of the leftist cultural project, but rather the suicidal recognition by capital that it cannot possibly continue in its controlling capacity. Even before Coronavirus, the world was already under imminent threat from ecological catastrophes — catastrophes compounded through extreme consumption and equally extreme disparity. If the stupid self-reproductivity of capital is not itself the virus, it has produced the current conditions which complicate the mitigation of this tragedy. Furthermore, resisting control at its most suicidal could spell mutual destruction.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher offers us a viable strategy. In an essay titled “Remember Who The Enemy Is,” Fisher writes: “As the two most acute analysts of Control society, Burroughs and Foucault both recognised resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limits of power. Beyond that lies death. So only if you act as if you are dead can you be free.” It is eerie reading this advice from beyond Fisher’s grave, but it may offer not only survival but also the opportunity for what Žižek calls “reinvented Communism”: “The present crisis,” Žižek urges, “demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do.”

During this time of imposed self-isolation, we might consider ourselves “playing dead” to control. This enforced downtime might even be characterized by Deleuze’s metaphysical concept of Immanence: “What is immanence?” Deleuze asks: “A life … This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” The space of immanence is where the virtual becomes actual, thoughts become actions, ideas become words, and words build the world in which we live.

A Problem With Fear does not end with the clichéd idea of Laurie simply choosing love by overcoming his fear of commitment to Dot. This would be the easy answer: loving those that love you. The film’s pivotal scene is one in which the whistleblower, Erin, and Laurie are trapped together in a freefalling elevator, with Erin again commanding Laurie to kill himself. Instead, Laurie hugs his aggressor, and the elevator correspondingly slows its descent. As the doors open and Erin exits, he looks back on Laurie with wonder, saying, “you just saved the world.”

What I am calling for is not some notion of “the power of positive thinking”, or McMindfulness, the sort of disimagination displayed by celebrities like Gal Godot singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” from the comfort and safety of their reinforced cocoons. No. We must overcome our problem with fear, and, like Laurie, truly commit to moving forward together.

I am advocating, for instance, the kind of creative solidarity displayed by the musicians’ platform Bandcamp, which last Friday, March 23rd, waived its sales cut, thus transferring to artists — many of whom are especially hard hit through touring cancellations — 100% of their earnings. I am advocating The Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association collecting 1,300 respirators to protect front-line healthcare workers. I am advocating crawling up inside this in-between time, this immanent space, and playing dead to capital. This means a moratorium on dystopian premediation, imagining instead what utopias might look like through acts of genuine solidarity, not just during times of crisis but every day, from now on. At the end of the world, the limits of control, it is easier than ever to imagine an end to capitalism.

Standard
Word Virus

The dog that didn’t bark: silence in the age of virulence

Yesterday afternoon I heard myself whisper to myself: “I wish I could just disappear.” It startled me, as if for a moment my voice belonged to someone else. I was all alone in my bedroom at the time, the most private and intimate of domestic spaces, sitting silently in front of a screen. Indeed, there was no way I could have physically appeared to anyone. “Bedrooms are the private space of silence par excellence,” wrote the historian Alain Corbin in A History of Silence: “It is necessary to them.” And yet I had never felt more awash with noise, the necessary privacy and silence of my domestic space infiltrated. We can quarantine ourselves from a virus, but isolation from information is no longer an alternative.

What is startling about coronavirus is not the virulence of the virus itself, but rather the compulsive proliferation of mediations about the virus — the hysterical whys and what-nows and what-ifs. Media scholar Richard Grusin calls this “premediation” — similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). Rather, premediation seeks to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11.

Premediation is not like a weather forecast, Grusin explains: “To premediate the weather would be to try to imagine all of the possible scenarios that might conceivably arise so that the weather could never come as a surprise.” Anecdotally, I have never seen media channels so singularly devoted to one topic: nearly every headline — from politics to the economy to arts, culture and sport — is dominated by COVID-19 and its premediation. “The real struggle,” a New York Times op-ed claims, “is how worried to be.” Another piece invites us to “play with a model” to chart just how much worse coronavirus could get. It’s almost as if the media were the virus.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, first published in 1892, contains a potent and frequently cited passage. In the story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to Dartmoor to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a racehorse named Silver Blaze, and its trainer’s murder. In a conversation with a Scotland Yard detective regarding the facts surrounding the crime, Holmes mentions a “curious incident” involving the stable’s dog. The detective informs Holmes, “The dog did nothing in the night-time”; to which Holmes replies: “That was the curious incident.”

This absurd passage is most often trotted out as a metaphor with semiotic implications. The clue that illuminates the truth of the case for Holmes is that the stable dog did not bark. In a sense, the conspicuous absence of the sign is just as significant as the sign itself. We might even be tempted to say that the absence of the sign produces its corona — the residual halo surrounding its occlusion. We are already socially distanced technically, through social media, confined, self-isolated, in the bedroom. And yet the bedroom is no escape from internet virulence. The quarantined, silent refuge of the bedroom has been invaded by the virus of the word, rendering self-isolation both imperative in one sense, and impossible in another.

Since 9/11, we have effectively been in training — with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, SARS, Bird Flu, H1N1 — through increasingly interconnected, amplificatory, “viral” mediation to imagine and enact the spread of actual, viral virality — how a contagion could potentially play out and to what magnitude. We have not yet had a true global virus, I argue, because we have not yet had the technical infrastructure for global hyper-virulence. “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript for the Societies of Control, “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coupled with the premediative impulse, we are now experiencing the peak onslaught of mediations about a virus, mediations which are themselves contagions search-engine-optimized for maximum internet virality. The coronavirus is a technology oscillating against the transmission of its mediations.

“The word is now a virus,” William S. Burroughs wrote prophetically in his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded: “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” When the viral media event is a virus, we can’t say something, yet we mustn’t say nothing.

The dog that doesn’t bark is no less rabid.

Standard
End of Year, Never Once Reflect

Nothing Shocking: was side-chain compression the sound of the decade?

I like Simon Reynolds. His writing is precise and compelling. And he usually draws insightful conclusions from his compulsive consumption of culture. Which is why I followed with interest as one after another of Reynolds’s end-of-decade articles appeared over the past few months, each more contentious than the last. First was a piece on the portmanteau “Conceptronica” for Pitchfork in October. Next came an article in Resident Advisor on the rise of Ambient and New Age, a piece that was itself a counterpoint to another of Reynolds’s 2010s compendia, a prognostic article about “Maximalism” written in 2011. Finally with a December dispatch for The Guardian, Reynolds concluded that he couldn’t actually remember what came out in the 2010s, or precisely when, because of the sheer onslaught of mass culture: “The reason that it feels like nothing happened in the 2010s,” explained Reynolds, “is that too much happened.”

Ten years ago, Reynolds published a clear-eyed book-length account of a certain nostalgic, hauntological tendency in pop culture which he smartly called “Retromania”. Now, he’s given us three separate stories in three separate publications about three discrepant and not particularly monumental cultural currents. Is he losing his critical edge, his fingers falling off our proverbial pulse? Surely not! Or, is it possible that there really was no ripple effect that swelled to a fully-fledged tidal wave, no discernible cultural high watermark for the past ten years?

As we dip into the 2020s, we can safely say that there wasn’t one particular defining sound or genre of music that characterised the last decade to the extent, say, that Alternative Rock did for the 1990s. Nor was there even a pervasive creative tendency apparent in the Zeitgeist, like Retromania haunted the 2000s. The biggest story of music in the 2010s was that there was no biggest story of music in the 2010s. But why not? And will there ever be a big story again? And should there be? In the absence of big stories — that shock of the new — where else might we look to answer the questions of how music characterises our times, how it gives song to our collective dreams, our nightmares, how music concurrently mirrors and invents our culture?

Conveniently, Reynolds offers us a clue in yet another of his comprehensive roundups, a cultural history of autotune. In lieu of a genre that coalesced the 2010s, autotune could be a worthy candidate for the decade’s characteristic sound. Importantly, what Reynolds points to is not generic but technical. If we shift our perspective on sound and music to include technological criteria — not what musicians create, but how — we will see that there was indeed a sound of the 2010s, just not a generic one.

The sound of the decade was … processed. That’s to say, the electrical signal of almost every recording, across every genre, by every artist (save perhaps Jack White) was to some extent rendered synthetic. Pop music of the 2010s was dripping wet with all manner of effects, plug-ins, pitch correction, equalization, delay, reverb, time manipulation — you name it. Even the cleanest of recordings — something like, for instance, Paul Simon’s 2018 album In The Blue Light — employed some degree of digital processing, some dressing-up of the singer’s naked voice. Autotune is likely the most ubiquitous form of signal processing in pop. But another equally omnipresent and comparable form stands out as well. That technique is called side-chain compression.

What follows will proceed from the assumption that music, and particularly music that aspires to art, can be interpreted, deciphered, that it means something. I also assume (as my PhD supervisor Jonathan Sterne always reminded me) that technology is performative. In effect, technologies enact, technically, analogous cultural logics. Put more simply, technologies act out our shared understandings and expectations about how things could or should be in the world. From those assumptions, we might then begin to interpret music and technology along two vital and overlapping lines: aesthetic and instrumental. We might say that the aesthetic is generally affective, while the instrumental is generally semiotic. Aesthetics deal with what sounds feel like, their immediate qualities of tone and timbre; instrumentality addresses what those sound-feelings can do, what they could mean, and how, in their particularities, they might reflect something more universal about us and the world around us.

Side-chain compression, also called “keyed” or “gated” compression, is not a novel production technique. But its use in the 2010s became more mannered and pronounced, extending especially from the avant-garde of electronic music scenes. Side-chain compression is a method of dynamic range compression — that is, it squeezes the volume of a given sound between its quietest and loudest parts. Side-chain compression is distinct in that it compresses a specific instrument or track (let’s say, the bass guitar) to the input of another instrument or track (say, the kick drum). So, whenever the kick drum kicks in, the bass guitar’s volume is compressed. Side chain compression is time-based, too. Which means that whenever the kick drum is absent, the compression fades away; the bass guitar’s volume returns to its full capacity.

The reason producers used side-chain compression in the analogue recording days was so that two loud sounds in the same frequency range wouldn’t double up and saturate the tape. Nowadays, producers tend to use it as much for aesthetic and instrumental effect as for function. We might recognise the bouncing, breathing, signature side-chain sound in tracks like Actress’s “Bubble Butts and Equations”, from the 2010 album, Splazsh. Note that this particular song’s kick drum controls the volume of the rest of the melody.

Once we identify this distinctive sound, we’ll hear it cropping up often throughout the decade — from Tim Hecker to Holly Herndon.

The aesthetic effect of side-chain compression is a remnant of what is commonly called pop music’s “loudness war”. Kyle Devine, Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Oslo, in a 2013 article entitled “Imperfect sound forever: loudness wars, listening formations, and the history of sound reproduction”, explained: “generally loud and heavily compressed recordings prevail because they fare best in the situations in which most people listen to music.” Compression gives the impression that music is louder, therefore sounding superior to the ear. And louder music is more legible in non-ideal listening conditions, like on headphones in transit, or in a nightclub where the room’s ambient noise competes with the music.

Instrumentally, though, side-chain compression in effect protects the overall sound of the music from individual sonic shocks. Each time any sound too aggressively enters into the sonic field, other sounds drop out to absorb the potential trauma of a distorted signal. Most often, this interplay is automated, too, causing a complex chain reaction of logical, if-this-then-that operations across the soundscape.

It is difficult not to draw analogies here with the algorithmic, artificially intelligent, and ideally automated functioning of global capitalism. Our system is built to absorb, redistribute and even to foresee shocks of all stripes: economic, political, social, environmental. Mark Fisher wrote in 2004: “… the frontier zones of hypercapital do not try to repress so much as absorb the irrational and the illogical …” Global capital would like to perpetuate the narrative in which global capital is never-not assured: “Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticization of the neoliberal worldview.” So, like side-chain compression, global capital seeks to always-already absorb, to incorporate, and to make the unexpected the already-anticipated.

Slavoj Žizek, in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, noted: “… the Real is a shock of a contingent encounter which disrupts the automatic circulation of the symbolic mechanism; a grain of sand preventing its smooth functioning; a traumatic encounter which ruins the balance of the symbolic universe of the subject.” Global capitalism has sought to minimize those contingent encounters — the shock of the Real — and thus minimize the disruption to the global circulation of the Ur symbolic mechanism: capital.

Adam Curtis described this risk-averse inclination in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, citing the German economist Ulrich Beck’s work. “In developed civilization,” Beck wrote in his benchmark 1986 book Risk Society, “which had set out to remove ascriptions, to evolve privacy, and to free people from the constraints of nature and tradition, there is thus emerging a new global ascription of risks, against which individual decisions hardly exist.” Side-chain compression can therefore be read as a kind of sonic risk management system. It designates the traumatised and precarious subject in an era of limitless acceleration of information — Fisher’s “semioblitz”.

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin goes one step further, articulating the anticipatory turn of mediation in the 21st century. He calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of events. The goal of premediation, though, is not to accurately predict future events, but rather to minimise shock and sustain the status quo. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “In the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes as we were on 9/11.” Musing on the early 20th century’s ultimate shock, the sinking of the Titanic, Žižek clairvoyantly wrote: “…’the time was waiting for it’: even before it actually happened, there was already a place opened, reserved for it in fantasy-space.” With this in mind, let’s listen to Kaytranada’s 2016 single “Lite Spots” and notice how its prominent side-chain compression symbolically anticipates the song’s disruptive, shocking, traumatic rhythm – in Grusin’s words, “to antedate the sound of the gun.”

“Could it be,” wondered Mark Fisher in his essay “Coffee Bars and Internment Camps”, “that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the ‘weak messianic’ hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing — how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?”

This is a proposition that writers like Simon Reynolds and I — those of us who want to tie together cultural currents that are necessarily disparate and asynchronous — must confront as we all move into another ten-year period that may prove to be the most divisive (or most unifying) yet. Is it possible that the Real will increasingly dip and bend and deform and compress to absorb and distribute any possible threats, any imaginable shocks? Or is there a shock that cannot be conceived, much less compressed, yet to come? And so what if there is never another Nirvana, or Sex Pistols, or Beatles? The void of widely popular and overtly revolutionary music does not necessarily negate the possibility of revolution’s potential for wide popularity.

Is it conceivable to see something positive in side-chain compression’s structural homology with wider society? There is also an inherently communist aspect to it — each sound giving and taking and adjusting according to its transitory needs. Still, another interpretation could be that side-chain compression understands the finite nature of life, and that we all must continually strive to negotiate and share our limited place on this metaphorical magnetic tape we call planet Earth.

Standard
Never Once Reflect

If you’re alright, then say something. Something.

Commodification now means not the appearance of a world of things but the appearance of a world of information about things, including information about every possible future state of those things […] – @mckenziewark

Algorithms and data aggregation refined brand’s control over their supply and demand chains in spite of the real world human aspects of a labor and capital-based marketplace while also acting as an agent or representative for music and creatives. Media brands through platform capitalism have repurposed the use-value of music to fit the lifestyle and productivity of young millennial white collar or freelance workers in an increasingly tech industry influenced work/life environment. – @dfnbrown1

Meanwhile, deindustrialization of industry and the financialization of the economy has led to the massing of young people in urban centers as jobs dry up elsewhere. Dance music’s rise in popularity has mirrored that post-recession population inflow, becoming the soundtrack for a gentrified nightlife in the process. – @gabeastralplane

 

You are not a gadget. But you need a gadget. Somewhere, a gadget needs you. It is a nightmare from which we can only awaken, I believe, by holding on to one another more, and gadgets less, in real life.

Like the Australian bird mimicking the squawk of an air raid siren, or Colin Stetson playing acoustic music that sounds electronic, we now interact socially as if we were algorithms, emulating post-capitalist currency and circulation, gathering information about one another not out of genuine interest, but rather, in an effort to premediate — mediate every possible future state of — our professional and personal relationships. The outcomes, however, are not capital but cultural. We no longer make love or even desire love. We cannot stand to face one another. Instead, we process each other in the midst of an all-pervasive melancholic longing. (See High Maintenance, Season 4 ep 2.)

The devil cares not if you believe in him. Your limited credence or understanding is irrelevant. Your personal perception of late-capitalism — whether to view it as a wonderful, liberating force, or Marx’s worst nightmare mutated, or a compromise of the modern world that you and I are more or less willing to make — is itself regulated by the social, media, and technology bubbles that late-capitalism produces and propagates. Frictionless, we can see a person on Twitter recommend a book about political philosophy, a book that aligns with our own views on political philosophy, which in due course shapes our perception of that particular Twitter user, and of Twitter in general, and so forth. Others’ activities spur us to action, and our respective actions in the virtual-public sphere in turn stimulate others’ productive impulses — producing and reproducing capital and information, and if not, then arranging, rearranging, and parsing capital and information. And this post is part of the problem masked as part of the solution.

There is something worse than capitalism: Control.

Here, we must posit (remember) something else, a force beyond and more powerful, more pervasive, eviler, for lack of a more elegant term, than capital. (But fuck elegance!) We must acknowledge and confront Control as Burroughs and Deleuze and Galloway understood it. Control is Control. There is nothing in- nor outside of it. Remembering Control — i.e. noting it, recording it — is the perpetual project of reawakening. Relinquishing Control — i.e. sharing it, making it more equitable, smashing capital’s control over Control — is the communist project.

Yet, I might submit that there has never-not been capital. (Never-not as distinct from always-already in that it precedes the conception as well as perception of phenomena.) We have never-not placed value upon things. Those things include material thing-things like laptops and bicycles and lawn furniture, but also immaterial things like time, labour, ideas, and information. Necessarily, those values fluctuate, have proven uneven, artificial, contested. Exceptionally though, capitalism equates value with capital and capital alone.

Communism did not “lose” the 20th century’s ideological battle, because communism has yet to exist. Communism is not a system of economic organisation or governance or evaluation or vector that stands in opposition to value itself. It is meant as an ethical system that redistributes value and capital along moral rather than capitalist vectors. We do not need to redefine communism to conform to hyper-capitalism. Nor must we invent new jobs for ourselves pinpointing and sub-partitioning capitalist energies — jobs that we’ll have inevitably lost anyway, to someone else in a fundamentally privileged position. We need only reiterate and oppose over and over the capitalist impetus to quantify and wring out and even invent all forms of value within any given economic system, rendered as surplus value for the elite few. A common misperception is that we ever even had communism — in the early part of the 20th century, in the Soviet Union. Or national socialism in Nazi Germany, for that matter. Rather, what we still have, what we have always had, is global capitalism, full stop.

“The evil genius of the postbroadcast-era media is that it not only holds our attention, it also records it. A lot more information can be extracted as to who we are, what we like, and which punk rock goddess we want to be.” (Wark) Information technology and data collection is not a new category of commoditising. And cultural criticism is indeed just as much a part of the political economy — often just as subject to similar legitimising institutional forces. That value’s maximum extraction is automated and honed on information and data in the 21st century is the logical if not natural progression of Control. We might prefer Patti Smith or Kim Gordon. Or Viv Albertine. But we all need to be some punk goddess now.

Control seeks to eradicate the rare. This is why the binary, on-off, either-or logic of the digital world is the best metaphor we have for it, and why Galloway chose to write about Control’s existence (persistence) into the virtual. At the time of Galloway’s writing, it still seemed as though the virtual-online world could prove to be a portal of liberation, a means of transcending the old, institutional disciplinary forms: family, school, church, prison. Other Control-affiliated institutions and infrastructures arose meantime: the shopping mall, the movie theatre, the food court; the trade conference, the festival, the rave; NASCAR, Oprah Winfrey, Late Night With David Letterman. Donald Trump. What we now see in hindsight (it is 2020, after all) is that, after broadcast media, the decentralised internet was precisely the “stack” that Control was looking for. Like any good needle. It could sink into the hay, recede into the interface, beneath the screen’s glossy veneer, behind the breezy urban lifestyles of mobile devices, the seamlessness of apps, the natural authenticity of streams, the weightlessness of clouds, the internet’s interconnectedness.

How do we fight a force that resists representation, defies definition, eludes identification, subsumes its own opposition? Dissent is among Control’s in-built design features. Even the most disruptive form of protest — i.e. terrorism — is part of the architecture, the 21st century’s general ambience. Ideological death is the opposite of exceptional. Revolution at its most banal.

Our rarity is deleted in the performance of commoditised interconnection. In aspiring amongst ourselves, in public, toward unique cultural experiences, or nuanced political opinions, or marketplace tastes — performing those things that not long ago signified the modern, educated, cultured, western, enlightened, liberal, broadminded, individual, free (white) subject — we at once divide and subdivide our subjectivities and social relations and risk our diverse (racial, cultural, economic, linguistic, &c.) multiplicity by submitting ourselves to privatised repositories of information. The archive as weapon. Anyone who’s seen Schindler’s List knows that we test our ethical limits when human beings become raw data. We are susceptible to the awfullest abstraction and vulnerable to violence’s ultimate manifestations.

First as conspiracy theory, then as Black Mirror episode, then as bare-naked reality. First as tragedy, then as farce, then as documentary series.

Totalitarian states, law enforcement and paranoiac fantasies once fueled the fear of surveillance. We were worried that our phones were being tapped, our rooms bugged, our movements recorded, to catch us revealing something incriminating during a domestic moment of intimacy and honesty. Corporations have far more information than any government ever dreamed of collecting, and most of it we have given up willingly, gleefully — on Facebook, Twitter, Google. Left and Right-wing media have all widely reported Edward Snowden’s revelations, the Cambridge Analytica leak, the Panama Papers. It’s not like we didn’t know.

For a long time, we have known and done nothing. We have lived with ambient violence since 9/11 but have mounted no revolution. The momentum of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and various uprisings around the world (including the Maple Spring-student protests of 2012 across Quebec) has all but entirely dissipated. It is not enough to indict and convict ourselves for this. It is not entirely our fault. Dissipating momentum is part of the contingency budget that Control accounts for in advance. It is possible that these movements were, in addition to legitimate and spontaneous insurrections, highly informative data collection exercises to monitor and map the spread and circulation of potentially radical action. (How many of us confirmed our coordinates via an app, or posted social media updates from inside the protest?)

Most of us are not going to do terrorism, or infrastructural sabotage, or symbolically self-immolate, or anything remotely close. Nor are those viable strategies. (See Control’s contingency plan for dissipating momentum.) Most of us are not going to join blockades along Indigenous lands to halt trainloads of oil. Most of us might not vote or even sign a petition.

We-must-this! and We-must-that! is to 2020s critical theory as Did-you-ever-notice-this? and Did-you-ever-notice-that? was to 1990s stand-up comedy. A book like Capital Is Dead fits neatly inside its own tautological narrative — a book for its times, the time for this book. It needs to be published via a press like Verso with a cover in that font, with that kind of au courant design, for it to fill the necessary number of orders. (How many of us routinely purchase our hauls of anti-capitalist books from Amazon dot com, let’s be honest?) These signifiers validate the story both for us and the status quo, whom are implicated. The damned enemy certainly does not want to be immortalised within the back pages of some obscure blog post. Bestsellers or bust!

The difference between ordering your pile of radical literature on Amazon or directly from the Verso webstore is insignificant. It serves the same productive model. Your order will still pass through the “stacks”, that connective web — through your ISP, the cable plugged into the wall, the fibre optic line that runs to the end of your street, maybe underground, maybe over radio waves from then on. The order still gets filled in some warehouse, packed into a box and taped shut with a purchase order inside. It still ships and gets delivered to your doorstep by a driver earning a low wage for some delivery company or another. In all likelihood, taking this stand against The Man will cost you more capital than dealing with Amazon. The upshot is that Amazon’s finely oiled machine is never-not the ideal to which the independent bookseller must but never will measure up. UberEats and Skip The Dishes are rapidly replacing traditional urban food delivery models for similar reasons. (How can each restaurant be expected to have their own city-wide fleet of delivery drivers?) The choice between an independent bookseller and Amazon, or the local restaurant delivery versus UberEats, or Airbnb versus a hotel, or the buffet rather than the daily special, is made inherently political. But capitalism under Control shapes the fields of play and makes (and breaks) the rules of the politics game. Whichever choice you make, the game remains the same. It’s the old Coca-Cola-or-Pepsi routine for the 21st century.

It is not a case of identifying what iteration of the game we are forced to play at any given moment, but rather of remembering and re-remembering that it is a game, and the game is fundamentally the same rigged capitalist shell game it has always been. That is what Control does. Control controls. It seems so stupid to write down, to say aloud, and yet it could not be more profound! Whether we say, “this is not capitalism, this is something worse!” or “this is still capitalism and it’s gotten worse”, it is still much fucking worse, and there are few things Control would rather have us do than argue amongst ourselves whilst things worsen further.

Narratives like Capital is Dead or High Maintenance instruct us on how to navigate the playing field. They update us to the new rules of the same old game — the new terms and conditions, the new license — as would Apple with a new operating system or Microsoft with a piece of software. (This is the latest 2020 version.) Our attention is trained on deciphering the meaning, reading, critiquing, interpreting, getting to the heart of this inviting and familiar narrative. Familiar enough yet never-not strange, this seductive, instructive narrative. But deciphering Control’s terms is a misdirection of our potent critical energies. Assume terms! And assume that the terms are against you at all times, because they either are now or will soon be.

There are no alternatives to making things better. Dropping out is not an option. Escape is impossible. But trying is. The only thing within our control is what might be described as temperament, or timbre: our distinctive resonant vibrational colour — however harmonious or discordant — with Control. This is the opposite of a binary with-us-or-against-us relation. Upon this spectrum, there are infinite frequencies, infinite rhythms. And so, we always must dance.

Standard
Never Once Reflect

Ten loosely connected thoughts on Tiny Mix Tapes and FACT’s demise, being an inquiry into the premediated shock of the Real

2020 has so far been the bearer of bad tidings for experimental music coverage: Tiny Mix Tapes and FACT have both announced that they will no longer publish editorial content.

Ten thoughts on that, below:

 

1: algorithmic engines and AI have replaced humans in media search and recommendation

Industry, not the state, is the engine of capitalist production. And industry, not the state, is the seat of power. So, corporations, not the state, are the sites of capital and power. As such, they lead the pursuit for data collection, not necessarily (or primarily) for social control, but for the ignorant pursuit and growth of wealth. The largest media and technology corporations have been watching and listening to us, the watchers, the listeners. And they have noticed certain patterns in our behaviours. Patterns that can be repeated and turned into capital — “if you like this”; “listeners also bought”. For better or worse, we have built and trained algorithmic recommendation through our consumption habits. Apple and Spotify, Amazon and Google silently survey us. Social networks encourage us to “share” everything. We have allowed and even participated in a serious erosion of privacy, and the potential privatisation of everything we make public.

 

2: streaming has replaced MP3s in the second great digital switcheroo

Remember when iTunes first opened, and artists complained that they only received nine cents for every 99-cent download? Those numbers, which significantly undercut CD royalties at the time, now seem lavish. On average, one would have to stream a song on Spotify between 20 and 30 times in order to equal the value of one iTunes-circa-2010 download. Where did the money go? The value of music has seemingly evaporated, but it is the tech companies and platforms that are rapidly reconstituting all that melts into air back into solid capital. Just as CDs artificially inflated the recorded music marketplace in the 1980s and ‘90s, streaming is artificially solving the problem of digital reproduction in the 2010s and ‘20s. Tech companies are like the mafia: they create a problem (“it would be a shame if someone ruined your nice business”), and then they offer up their own proprietary solutions, for a price (“You’re with us now, but we may call upon you for a favour…”)

 

3: streaming is still artificially buoyed by the major labels and their back-catalogues

The most-streamed artists and genres are not the obscure artists or genres. They are still label creations like Drake and Adele, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. After that, it is the Fleetwood Macs and Pink Floyds, the Madonnas and Princes, the legacy artists that we listen to. The legacy is the leverage. The more we mythologise, the greater the legacy’s value to capital and power. It is possible for independent artists to upload their music directly to streaming services, and also to trade their wares through platforms like Bandcamp. But hyper-specific currents and trends are more easily ignored on the major streaming platforms, and just as often absorbed — scaled up incrementally — by the corporate colossi.

 

4: increasingly more individualised self-identification and taste has destroyed consensus, and further subdivided communal affinities

Postmodernism and the omnilegent critical regard have levelled all cultural manifestations. There is no high nor low art now, neither hot nor cool medium. Everything is of equal importance: film, TV, music, fashion, visual art, text, talk, even politics and commerce. (Especially politics and commerce have come to replace art.) It is in the corporate interest to make us believe that if we don’t attend to everything, we haven’t heard anything. Through curation of cultural production, we cultivate the idea of ourselves. Yet the Left is divided further against itself by the very technologies and platforms (Twitter) that seem to unite and solidify the Right. The cost of our plurality is a lack of unity. The hope is that this is only temporary.

 

5: increasingly fragmentary temporality online has de-historicised the narrative(s)

In his 2010 book Retromania, Simon Reynolds was already documenting the effects of YouTube and the long historical tail on cultural production, arguing that the ability to plumb media’s historical depths made it easier to ignore the present, much less to orient toward an unwritten future. His was a voice in a growing chorus including Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget) and others attempting to conceive of the future and warn us of it at once. The sheer volume of simultaneous historical media disorients a sense of context and causality. In Reynolds’ end-of-the-2010s round-up for The Guardian, he writes: “While the clock and the calendar continue to plod forward in their steadfast and remorseless way, what you could call ‘culture-time’ feels like it’s become unmoored and meandering.” Writing for The Wire in 2012, Terre Thamlitz observed: “today’s widely embraced model of the ‘internet as context’ is a sign of new heights of refinement in selling the Western humanist model of a ‘shared human experience’ to a diversely destitute world — albeit only at the expense of denying every material circumstance facilitating one’s entry into cyberspace, ranging from the realities of our crap little rooms in which we sit with our personal computers to the massive social and ecological destruction caused by server facilities and power plants…” To date, I’ve never heard it said better.

 

6: the internet’s pliability and ephemerality distort history

The ability to write, rewrite, amend, redact, and delete things on the internet weakens its textual authenticity and authority. Note the rise in prominence of Twitter “watchdogs”, like the accounts that track and document edits made to Wikipedia and The New York Times. The restless revision of history — reissues, reboots, lists, commemorations — has become the most reliably profitable productive form. (See #1) An artist no one had ever heard of becomes the forgotten pioneer. The contested terrain of history becomes the archeological site for ever-new discoveries. And these exist beyond criticism’s reach. The lack of consensus means that evaluative critical distinctions like “good” or “bad” are rendered meaningless. Truth no longer requires permission.

 

7: affect rather than (or in addition to) the subconscious-subliminal is how capital-power constructs and enforces the Real

In Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series Century of the Self, he argued that Freud and the subconscious characterised the 20th century’s cultural zeitgeist. Advertising appealed subliminally to our hopes and fears. And we felt mediated interactions as if they were real. Power and capital deploy arcane, resonant symbolism to communicate with us and amongst themselves through a sprawling and increasingly dreamlike media constellation. Jung more than Freud gives meaning and shape to media in the early 21st century. The sensorial immediacy and illusion of media’s endless availability guide — and misguide — us online. Every stimulus is effectively an interrupt request.

 

8: the internet is about appearance and experience — about media and its mediation, not about objects

As vast as it is, and as obvious as this sounds, the internet only houses an extremely limited number of things — obviously, it cannot transmit “things”. Thus, it masks its own materiality. The “thing”, the object of capital and power online, is attention. The ability to command and scatter it at will is currency. Michael Tausig, in a recent Critical Inquiry essay entitled “Unpacking My Library: An Experiment in the Technique of Awakening”, describes what he terms “Erlebnis”, a new “genre” of understanding: “a rapid-fire mode of experiencing in which an experience, so long as it is not extreme, burns out as soon as it is born. And it is scattered — [a] perfect reflection of our neoliberal age of tweet consciousness …” It is therefore understood and expected to regard and disregard in near simultaneity.

 

9: premediation (not remediation [the transubstantiation of old into new media] nor premeditation [the accurate prediction of future events]) is the cultural logic that governs our relationships between what could be and what is, the virtual and the actual

In his 2010 book of the same name, Richard Grusin defines premediation as “proliferating multiple remediations of the future both to maintain a low level of fear in the present and to prevent a recurrence of the kind of tremendous media shock that the United States and much of the networked world experienced on 9/11.” I would extend the logic of premediation to the cultural sphere: we are constantly braced for the next publication to cease operations, for the next cynical branding exercise, for the untimely deaths of artists and thinkers, for the planet’s general devastation. Cultural premediation is born of the critic’s impossible desire to stay one step ahead of the imminent future, while existing in the present, of observing without altering. (See #5)

 

10: shock is the ambient texture of experience

Control, as Burroughs or Deleuze or Galloway knew it, exists after decentralisation precisely because of the premediated shock-doctrine; rather than imagine ways out, we are too busy reacting, like cornered soldiers, firing off in all directions. For evidence, see the rise in prominence of the phrase “the new normal”. The New Normal implicitly means the shock, the lack of an anchor on bumpy seas, that we are now expected to simply live with. Is it possible to shock ourselves out of this? Through Acid Communism? Communist Surrealism? The thinkers I keep returning to — Water Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Mark Fisher — all took their own lives. Self-sacrifice certainly suits power and capital just fine. Another job they don’t have to do. But it’s clearly not the answer. Is there somewhere a shock that is not yet death, the useful shock of a new kind of consciousness?

Standard
999 Words, Tribute

Remembering Sheila Salter

On December 7th, 1995, my best friend Jesse’s mother, Sheila Salter, went missing. In Edmonton, our relatively quiet western Canadian hometown, her disappearance was big news. Nobody just disappeared, especially nobody we knew in our little, middle-class, suburban bubble. All day, Salter’s face was splashed across the newspapers’ front pages and on TV news bulletins. Her briefcase and a pair of earrings were found first thing in the morning in the parking garage near her office. It seemed as though the entire city held its breath that day, until police found her white Chevy Blazer ten hours later, abandoned behind a low-rent downtown apartment complex. Upon the truck’s blood-smeared beige interior, there were signs of unspeakable violence. But her body remained missing for another ten days, when a province-wide search party discovered Salter’s frozen and exposed corpse on a remote farm near the town of Chipman.

Because Jesse was my best friend, his mother was kind of like my mother, too. I spent years of my childhood at their house, having birthday parties, sleepovers, endless summer days and winter nights curled up watching movies on the living room rug. In the morning, Sheila would always make us breakfast and play Joni Mitchell tapes on the kitchen radio. And smoke. What I remember most was the comfortable, ambient tobacco smell that wafted around her, made her seem elegant, mysterious, prematurely ghostly. When my parents got divorced, I spent an extra amount of time at Jesse’s, and more and more time just with his mom. Sheila was concerned about me, about how my family’s dissolution was affecting me as a 10-year-old boy, because she had one of her own. She’d fashioned a sewing workshop in the attic and would invite me upstairs to drink tea while she read my tarot cards and doled out spiritualisms and advice. And smoked.

The man who killed her was called Peter Brighteyes, a first nations man who had a terrible history of violence. Years earlier, he had assaulted and tortured a prison guard during one of his frequent stints in jail. He was a nasty piece of work. Police issued a warrant for Brighteyes after he attempted, unsuccessfully, to pawn Salter’s custom-made wedding ring. The pawnbroker immediately notified police, and Brighteyes turned himself in four days later.

Sheila’s funeral was especially difficult. There were probably close to a thousand people who passed through All-Saints Cathedral on the morning of December 30th, 1995. I went with my mother, who was just as distraught, and we cried along with everyone there. We cried with Jesse and his sisters, and with Ted, Jesse’s heartbroken father. I remember that my mom took me out for lunch after the service, to the Boardwalk market, where I choked down a turkey sandwich between heavy sobs. We didn’t need to speak.

In the years since, I lost contact with Jesse. His mother’s death had taken a profoundly traumatic toll on his already precarious mental health, and he slipped away from his friends and family. In 2013, I got in touch with Jesse’s older sister, Sarah, who now practiced a form of shamanistic healing on an acreage near Pigeon Lake. I found her website and decided to phone her out of the blue. We talked for quite a while, and it struck me just how much like her mother she sounded. Sarah told me about a trip to Peru that she was organising for the fall, first to attend an ayahuasca ceremony deep in the jungle, and then to travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu. I decided to go, and ten of us spent 18 days in Peru in October 2013, peeling back the layers of our lives.

Sarah told me on that trip that she had had ayahuasca visions of meeting and forgiving Brighteyes for what he did to her mother. I was overwhelmed at the apparent sense of peace that Sarah had seemingly achieved in her life. But at once I realised that I had never forgiven Brighteyes, nor had the thought even crossed my mind. I had to admit that her mother’s death, for me, was one more thing in a long line of hurts that hardened my heart. Brighteyes supposedly hanged himself with his shoelaces one day into his life sentence, on April 25th, 1997. I had always privately rejoiced this. There were rumors in the city at the time that he had not committed suicide, that he had been killed either by fellow inmates or by the police themselves. I took secret pleasure in thinking of him getting what I felt he deserved.

As I look back on it now, I struggle to find the lesson in all of this tragedy. Brighteyes likely had a horrible childhood, was quite probably sexually abused, in addition to having been born into a colonialist system that forced him to grow up on a reserve, in poverty. Sarah has since devoted her life to rectifying the injustices done to indigenous people worldwide, forming a special connection to the Peruvian Q’ero. But Brighteyes having a hard life was too pat an answer for me to swallow. It seemed too neat, like a 1930s social problem film: he turned out bad because he grew up around general badness. It never washed for me. I cannot help but think, feel, believe, that despite my mistrust of religious doctrine, some people are simply evil. I cannot find any sense of righteous retribution for white colonisation in Sheila Salter’s brutal rape and murder. Maybe I’m not smart enough, or compassionate enough, or forgiving enough.

I cry whenever I think of Sheila. So, I try not to think about her too much. Except when I can’t not think about her, when her memory is so thick that the sieve of my consciousness can’t strain it through. Sheila wasn’t my mom. But she also was our mom. I miss her, every time I hear a Joni Mitchell song, see a deck of tarot cards, smell a wisp of smoke.

 

Standard
Report Spam

Notes on being suspended from Twitter because of my name

When I was born, my parents named me Ryan Alexander. Both children of Ukrainian immigrants living in Western Canada, they did this because they didn’t want me to be discriminated against — they didn’t want me to have a Ukrainian-sounding name. (They apparently never considered that the Irish were also victims of serious discrimination, an honest mistake.) There was nothing we could do about our last name — Diduck — for which there was really no English spelling, but the idea was that if I was named Ryan (which meant “little king”) and Alexander (the great), nobody would look down on me.

My father was named Taras, after the famous Ukrainian poet, and my mother is called Oryssia (or Iris, as she prefers). When they were growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, British and French Canadians generally considered Ukrainians second- if not third-class citizens, along with First Nations, Slavs, Russians, Jews, Italians, Asian, Brown and Blacks. My dad’s sister, my aunt, had changed her name in the 70s from Marcia Holowaychuk to Marcie Holloway. She was one of Edmonton’s most successful real-estate agents and she swore that having an Anglicised name helped; no one was going to buy a million-dollar property from someone called Holowaychuk.

Because of my name, I grew up acutely aware that I was not a member of the upper class; we were dominated, not the dominators. And even though I was called Ryan Alexander, which nobody had any trouble with, I was constantly correcting peoples’ pronunciation of my last name. It looks like it should be “Dye Duck”, or perhaps “Dee Duck”. But it’s pronounced “Dee Duke”, or more accurately “Dee Dookh”, with a soft kh at the end. You have to use the phlegmy part of your throat to say it right. It’s not a sound that exists in English. The only way to spell it is in the Cyrillic alphabet: Дідух.

For years, I was embarrassed of my name. I thought of getting rid of it altogether and just being Ryan Alexander. I thought of changing it to something completely different. I considered Alexander Duke, which I still think sounds pretty cool. But more recently, after doing extensive research about the Ukrainian famine-genocide, the Soviet invasion of Ukraine, and my family’s place in all of it, I’ve come to understand that Дідух is not only my name, it’s also my identity. It’s who and what I am. If I deny that, who am I?

A few months ago, in a small act of reclamation, I decided to change my Twitter name to its Cyrillic spelling. Immediately after doing this, my account was suspended. I had to go through Twitter support to verify my identity and unblock my account. It struck me as odd that using a non-English alphabet would be in some way suspicious and I noted it at the time. I wondered if anyone named Smith had ever encountered this problem.

I got my answer last night. Since it’s October, I thought that I might change my handle to something Halloween-themed, as the kids do these days. So, I changed it to “Duck Soup” and then to my standard “Dead Duck”. Without incident, I changed it a few more times, to varying stupid Halloween-y puns, before deciding that no, I wasn’t going to do Halloween this year. My name is my name. I changed it back to Дідух, and once again, Twitter suspended my account.

This time, it was more complicated getting it reinstated. Twitter support wanted my mobile phone number, to which they would send a code via text message. If I entered the code they sent, my account would be reactivated, they said. But the problem is that I don’t have a mobile phone. (At this point, I think it’s just me and Jack White, although I suspect he’s lying.) At any rate, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to provide a phone number to Twitter; they had only weeks ago disclosed that users’ email addresses and phone numbers were used surreptitiously and without consent to more effectively target ads.

I sent a somewhat terse email to Twitter support accusing them of blatant discrimination, and this morning, I received a reply proclaiming: “We had a look at your account, and it appears that everything is now resolved!” Well, it is, and it isn’t. It is obvious that Twitter’s algorithms for spotting suspicious behaviour are culturally biased. Doubtless, Twitter is currently under pressure to fight Russian and Ukrainian interference in America’s politics. And clearly, a name change to something spelled in Cyrillic is a trigger. Assuming that everyone with a Cyrillic name is a Russian troll sounds a lot like assuming that everyone with a Muslim name is a terrorist.

Twitter is a platform upon which frustrated men can bully and harass women. No problem there. Twitter is a platform upon which people can hurl insults and verbal abuse at anyone they so choose, with total impunity and anonymity, simply for a difference of opinion. That’s okay. Twitter is a platform upon which Donald Trump can amass millions of followers, rise to the highest office of the world’s wealthiest nation, and inflame hatred toward groups of people he considers expendable. This is fine. But you can’t change your name to honour your ancestors without raising algorithmic eyebrows. That’s the truth about this platform.

If only my last name were something like Dorsey.

Standard