Voices of Women – Against Silence in “Alias Grace”


For people who study media, a production like Alias Grace has much of interest. I look forward to reading and hearing about what it discussed about how the act of speaking is constructed in amazingly complex webs of power, and the possibilities for self-representation for women who are so completely caught in these webs.

In some ways AG is the anti-Downton text, removing the justification of proper social location from the manor house to the Warden’s house. The escort from prison cell to domestic space, conducted by men enforcing the will of the state, becomes an opportunity for routine micro-assaults from the guards.  Director Mary Harron brilliantly brings us so close to Grace, but at the same time respects the character’s self-possession. As a viewer I felt apart from her, but that distance felt respectful, necessary, even admirable. Quite an accomplishment for a character imprisoned for two murders. What, after all, really is a confession?  What does it mean for a woman to take the chance of telling the truth of what happened? Would she be believed?

Among Grace’s domestic responsibilities, she has lengthy conversations with a doctor, who acts as if he is interested in her story. And much of this story is told, all while Grace works on her quilt.

But it is not just one story. We hear and see what Grace says–choosing her words carefully and tailoring them for her audience. Then there is what Grace tells us in direct address as she narrates her situation to the audience. Finally (no spoilers), there is the voice that never gets to speak, that is inside Grace but can only get out when she is shrouded–like she is speaking though a veil that is both marital and funereal. It is amazing and terrifying and liberating when this voice is freed.

It is quite special to experience a story so thoroughly deep in the woods of patriarchy. And it should not be that unusual. The disruption of traditional legacy production models has produced opportunities for storytelling in visual media since the measure of success is so different.

This program remains an exception, but we can hope that it is becoming more likely that stories demonstrating such a clear understanding of patriarchy through displaying its failures can and will be produced.

Know Your Rights 1: Photographing in a Public Space

from the ACLU posting on rights to shoot photos in a public space:

When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police. Such photography is a form of public oversight over the government and is important in a free society.

When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs. If you disobey the property owner’s rules, they can order you off their property (and have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply).

Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. The Supreme Court has ruled that police may not search your cell phone when they arrest you, unless they get a warrant. Although the court did not specifically rule on whether law enforcement may search other electronic devices such as a standalone camera, the ACLU believes that the constitution broadly prevents warrantless searches of your digital data. It is possible that courts may approve the temporary warrantless seizure of a camera in certain extreme “exigent” circumstances such as where necessary to save a life, or where police have a reasonable, good-faith belief that doing so is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence of a crime while they seek a warrant.

Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. Officers have faced felony charges of evidence tampering as well as obstruction and theft for taking a photographer’s memory card.

Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them.

Note that the right to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged with trespass.

If you are stopped or detained for taking photographs:

  • Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
  • If stopped for photography, the right question to ask is, “am I free to go?” If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
  • If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Special considerations when videotaping:

With regards to videotaping, there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.

  • Such laws are generally intended to accomplish the important privacy-protecting goal of prohibiting audio “bugging” of private conversations. However, in nearly all cases audio recording the police is legal.
  • In states that allow recording with the consent of just one party to the conversation, you can tape your own interactions with officers without violating wiretap statutes (since you are one of the parties).
  • In situations where you are an observer but not a part of the conversation, or in states where all parties to a conversation must consent to taping, the legality of taping will depend on whether the state’s prohibition on taping applies only when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. But no state court has held that police officers performing their job in public have a reasonable expectation.
  • The ACLU believes that laws that ban the taping of public officials’ public statements without their consent violate the First Amendment. A summary of state wiretapping laws can be found here.

Photography at the airport

Photography has also served as an important check on government power in the airline security context.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) acknowledges that photography is permitted in and around airline security checkpoints as long as you’re not interfering with the screening process. The TSA does ask that its security monitors not be photographed, though it is not clear whether they have any legal basis for such a restriction when the monitors are plainly viewable by the traveling public.

The TSA also warns that local or airport regulations may impose restrictions that the TSA does not. It is difficult to determine if any localities or airport authorities actually have such rules. If you are told you cannot take photographs in an airport you should ask what the legal authority for that rule is.

The ACLU does not believe that restrictions on photography in the public areas of publicly operated airports are constitutional.

Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply. Learn more

Conspiracy Knowledge and Desire

Image result for robert anton wilson

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between information and desire. There are at least three positions that are immediately relevant: 1) I want to be a reasonably informed person; 2) I want to be reassured that I am not alone and have a good supply of support for what I believe, but I want this support to be factual; 3) I want to believe a story about the world that confirms my suspicions. The third position seems to stress some combination of confirmation bias, plausible “believability” (what counts as truthiness), and closed-loop insulation from correction.

The last part is the most brilliant of the conspiracy strategies; whatever info might burst the bubble of the desired becomes part of the attempt to disguise the conspiratorial truth. So if a story contains early unconfirmed details aired as speculation as a story develops, then the later denial of these details becomes part of the conspiracy. “No evidence for it? That’s what they want you to think!” And who is they?

In this case I want to suggest that, for those of us who know we need to be the first with just a touch of the second and none of the third, “they” is really a way of thinking. To dig further, there are two things you can consider. One is this piece by Simon van Zuylen-Wood from

Photo published for This Is What It’s Like to Read Fake News For Two Weeks
This Is What It’s Like to Read Fake News For Two Weeks

The other thing would be to read some work by the late Robert Anton Wilson, who got that the conspiracies we believe in are not about the world but about us. He turned fear into a hilarious game of Schrodinger’s Cat and Maus.

Be warned, though, that Wilson offers a kind of performative skepticism that challenges not just your beliefs, but the idea of belief itself. For me, though, it perfects the balance between how we know, how we believe, and how we desire.

How should we Think about VR? And Media Learning?



In her 10/6/16 piece Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine How necessary failures will help VR designers invent new storyforms, Janet Murray offers some compelling points for thinking critically about virtual reality as a media form. The center of her thinking is the idea that VR practitioners are artists and learners, that they are experimenting with the form.

I would hesitate to call the experiments failures, much less call them terrible as she does. Suspending such value judgments are an important risk I think we should take to get to understand how the medium works.

Teacher and novelist Stuart Kaminsky taught me that worry about judgement–about whether something was good or bad, and whether I liked it or not–was a sure way to kill thoughtful conversation. Instead of being about the experience under discussion, the focus shifts suddenly to the speaker and their judgement.


But Janet Murray’s intention is to talk in helpful terms about what VR could do to create meaning for viewers. Her identification of two central “confusions” sheds light on important questions. She says:
“Confusion One: VR is not a film to be watched but a virtual space to be visited and navigated through.”
Great thought, but I would argue that it is discussion-ending. To prevent that, think of it as a question instead:
“Question One: How is VR a film, and how is it not a film? What is the relationship between something we watch and a virtual space to be visited and navigated through?”
Watching a film is not anywhere near thoroughly understood, not in content, not in form. (Honestly, nor is photography, fiction, music or any other media form that is still changing. And they are all still changing.) I would suggest that, frequently anymore, “TV” is now “film”, and film is now spectacle (See debord).


How do we make these determinations? I think it’s less in the thing experienced and more in the way we experience them…or in the way we think when we are creating them (at least in that moment). Or how we think about eating when we are eating them.

Her second point is equally complex:
“Confusion Two: Empathy is not something that automatically happens when a user puts on a headset.”

To misquote the Singer in Merchant of Venice, or Gene Wilder/WW,Image result for wonka where is fancy bred

“Tell me where is empathy bred,
Or in the heart or in the headset?”

Empathy is part of storytelling or imagining, but it’s not all of it. Stories also place us in existential terror, and longing, and the stranger things of desire and repulsion (again, think Wonka). Here Murray is critical of the “You Are There” approach to VR, and its possibilities for eliciting empathy through juxtaposition. Kenneth Burke would have it that we construct ourselves with the experience, and become consubstantial. So maybe Question Two would be: What happens to our position or location when we don the headsets?

Or, “Tommy, can you hear me?”


Katerina Cizek’s 10/6/16 response to Murray, Towards a VR Manifesto An Immerse response, takes on some of the “VR is not film” argument (see Confusion One). She talks about what works and what doesn’t work, that the experiences feel like incomplete films, like prototypes. Cizek wants to see more identity and agency in VR spaces. And see more carry-over from games.

I would suggest that we also consider injecting in the VR Manifesto process a significant measure of attention to learning and digital media literacy. Before we get to the point where VR participation is measured as  a precognitive physiological 6x9-webpageresponse (you can see the labs of wired participants approaching now, can’t you?), and the Cartesians take over, we should consider metacognitive possibilities. How do we see ourselves seeing the virtual? What happens to my thinking/sensing when I am in a solitary confinement cell in 6X9?

And in all cases, we should strive for a social justice approach to the medium. Be sure that the people who get to tell stories and make arguments in and about VR represent all of the participants. It would be nice to not have to point out that women aren’t seen or heard, that black art matters, or that we don’t think enough about Sexual Identities and the Media.

Sexual Identities and the Media: An Introduction (Paperback) book cover

Planning for media Literacy Week 2016 – 10/31 – 11/4


Now is a good time to consider what we all could do in recognition of Media Literacy Week :

2nd Annual US Media Literacy Week will be held October 31 thru November 4th, 2016
Spread the word: #MediaLitWk

Here are two questions as starting points for considering how our lives and meanings are all shaped by media experiences:

  1. What would you suggest was the most significant change in media for you over the past year?
  2. How is the current state of media impacting our roles as citizens in some kind of a public democracy?

I usually suggest to students that they consider at least three possibilities before settling on a choice, so here are three that I might offer as candidates:

Media Change 1:
The push of social media into, through, and around legacy media.

Media Change 2:
How our communication world deals with the notion of “facts,” and what happens when we either cannot agree on them or find ourselves in a place where they are less important than other factors (like, say, feelings…).

Media Change 3:
People are certainly more aware of media’s influences, but are they thinking about such issues in a way that values the power we all need as individuals for self determination?

For the first, consider the ways social media plays a role in a new piece of public information, like the shooting of an unarmed black man or a cop. Mobile phones with cameras or body cams becomes ways to witness. How can we better understand their biases?

For the second, the question comes up in the election about the relationship between measured reality and experience. If crime is down why don’t some people feel safer? If jobs are up, why do some people still act on the opposite?

For the third, we ought to consider the rights and abilities people have to come to a better understanding of media in their own consumption and production. Can we work together toward a culture that negotiates wisely between public and private?

And how can we think about media in a way that values just treatment for every individual? Our mutual better nature can stand to benefit greatly from encouraging a public commitment to media literacy, which could be the greatest outcome of this annual celebration.

And thank you, Canada for starting the idea.

So what are your three changes?