Critiquing The Shark

If it’s possible for a race/gender analysis to “jump the shark” (so to speak–and pick that one apart if you will!), then I’ve just witnessed it…

Towards the end of Electric Rhetoric (1999, MIT Press), Kathleen E. Welch turns to an assortment of examples of writers and technologies complicit in a culture of “neutral” technology, a culture that “electronically and powerfully communicates material for the reinforcement of the status quo” (202). One part of her critique focuses on the “Photo Gallery” software on an IBM laptop. Here’s her description of the preloaded software, specifically the sorts of preloaded pictures anyone who’s purchased a computer is probably familiar with:

“The grouping is the typical re-presentation of old technology in a new one (here it resembles a museum display of photographs set within the 10.5-in computer screen). The photographs in the gallery include a close-up of raspberries, farm buildings, a head-and-shoulders photograph of a Black girl who looks at the camera, baseball hats, a lighthouse, a head-and-shoulders shot of two parrots, a long set of whitewater rafters (seven White people), a long-shot photograph of a mountain capped with snow, and a long-shot photograph of a seashore.”

Got it? Okay. (She spends the next sentence with an abbreviated repetition of that list as the sequence of the gallery). Here starts her critique:

“The racism of this pictorial juxtaposition, aside from being breathtaking in its insensitivity, communicates volumes about the automatic responses of some anonymous software designers who equate Black girls with beautiful, exotic animals (exoticism) and who present a photograph of a child in a semi-erotic pose as if it were a phenomenon of physis (nature) and not of nomos, a convention or law or more.” (202)

Welch then goes on to compare the presentation (objectification) of the girl’s picture to the “thingness” of photographs of African women in National Geographic. She concludes her critique with the following:

“The representation of the girl reveals a number of unintentional messages; that the anonymous person of color is equivalent to a parrot; that the anonymous person of color exists in representational form as an object to be viewed as a representation of a photograph is viewed; that people who are constructed as Black exist representationally to entertain spectators; and that a representation of a girl who is Black is equivalent to pretty animals and lovely landscapes: they are all objects deployed for the visual stimulation of selected decoders.

[…]

In presentation, representation, ideology, and rhetoric, this Photo Gallery then reinforces the status quo that females who are Black are available as commodified objects for the viewing pleasure of those people fortunate enough to work on an IBM Thinkpad.” (203)

That’s… that’s about the biggest stretch I’ve seen in a while. She provides only the most minimal grounds for an eroticized/exoticized interpretation. I *might* buy the exotic connection with the emphasis on head-shots-of-girl and head-shots-of-parrots, if both images weren’t in the context of many other objects we could consider mundane (baseball hats, farm buildings, raspberries, seashores, mountains, even parrots and lighthouses and rafting, frankly, depending on your own subjectivity…). I’ve got some pretty big doubts about the erotic connection, and she provides little chain of reasoning to allay those doubts. I don’t really even see why the stock images are breathtakingly insensitive in the first place… What’s insensitive about a lighthouse and a raspberry?

Besides, if the converse were true—if it were a picture of a white male in the slideshow instead of a black female—wouldn’t the slideshow then be complicit in erasing Black/Female from technology entirely? I think we can make a very light case for exoticism in that yes, the designers were probably going for diversity in their head-shot choice. But if that’s still creating a “commodified object,” then what are we supposed to do? Pictures of pencils or books? (No, you’re just rendering the electric screen in the service of the reification of print literacy!) Pictures of football players or beach volleyball players? (No, you’re just playing into male heroic/sexual fantasy and programming pornography into the machine before it even hits the home.)

I think… I just think she’s reaching for it a bit too hard.

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3 thoughts on “Critiquing The Shark

  1. I like the book but COMPLETELY agree with your analysis. Reach? Hellz yea. There are SUCH better examples that would make her point. How about the fact that Marc’s iPad never captures contrast so Marc never appears in photographs? Or, that Microsoft Kinect can’t “find” people who aren’t “light” to find a contrast between skin and clothes?? There are waaaay better examples than that photo gallery bullshite.

  2. I would have been more ready to follow her “logic” had she talked about the fact that in the only two pictures of humans, the young black girl is silenced and focused on the screen as if she knows she’s there to be looked at by someone on the other side, but the picture of the white people have them active, rafting. She probably could have spun that somewhere that didn’t so much as jump the shark as it might have skipped over it or something. LOL

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