Category Archives: English 467: Race, Rhetoric, and Technology

All entries in this category are related to English 467: Race, Rhetoric, and Technology, a class I took at Illinois State University in the Fall of 2009.

Presidents, Star Wars, and Harry Potter: Convergence

It’s been a while since I’ve given serious thought to the convergence of media, but Henry Jenkins strikes me as someone with a pretty good understanding of it. Jenkins points out right away that “people today talk about divergence rather than convergence, but (Ithiel de Sola) Pool understood that they were two sides of the same phenomenon” (10). Jenkins also largely talks about convergence in a way different than the understanding I was first taught. He is interested in how media bring people together in a “participatory culture” and he quickly puts to rest the “Black Box Fallacy” that we will someday have a centralized technology through which run all the media we need. However, he doesn’t devote much space to the dangers of corporate media convergence. For example, when the newspaper I worked at was purchased by a different company, the scope of things I could write about changed. Because media ownership is concentrated in a few companies, the issues and people who get shown in the media are an increasingly elite group. Jenkins does address this crisis in his discussion of the 2004 CNN presidential primary debate: “[W]e can see which submitted questions got left out, which issues did not get addressed, and which groups did not get represented” (278). While this is true, people whose access is limited to television cannot see those things. They are victims of media convergence.

But Jenkins also encourages readers to think of media in a new way (although I wish he’d have done more with this). He defines media as: 1) “a technology that enables communication” and 2) a “set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around that technology” (13-14). This second definition runs parallel to Bray’s definition of technology as including social/cultural rituals that affect how people live. This general idea of making transparent the ways in which technologies shape our lives is an important point.

In the chapter entitled “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars,” I found the discussion of interactivity and participation to be illuminating. Interactivity is a referent to technologies being designed to elicit and take into consideration user feedback, while participation is more open-ended. Loosely speaking, interactivity could be aligned with strategies (using Michel de Certeau’s understanding of the word) and participation could be seen as a venue for tactics.

(Although as Jenkins astutely notes, that isn’t always what happens. “Too often, there is a tendency to read all grassroots media as somehow ‘resistant’ to dominant institutions rather than acknowledging that citizens sometimes deploy bottom-up means to keep others down” (293). Having served as moderator for the comments section of a newspaper website in a small town, I have more experience with the nastiness of consumer participation than I ever cared to experience.)

I also enjoyed–and I’ll admit, I giggled a little at these terms–Jenkins’ deployment of the words prohibitionist and collaborationist in reference to how corporations and other dominant entities respond to fan participation. Prohibitionist, in particular, hails an era of socially accepted rebellion that makes one think these dominant entities may be fighting a losing battle in their quest to close down fan participation. Jenkins’ use of Star Wars and Harry Potter to show the interactions of fans and trademark/copyright holders was exciting, largely because those two alternate universes are so popular that they really have become a part of popular culture and as such were fertile sites for this conflict. Popular culture is another term that Jenkins defined very helpfully as “what happens as mass culture gets pulled back into folk culture” (140). This is also the point at which passions arise; when a particular story becomes so important that folk culture lays a claim to it, things really get interesting.

And, in fact, I can prove it. This appropriation of storylines and worlds by folk culture results in a sense of ownership by those who consume and/or re-produce these products in such a way that an avid Star Wars fan (ahem) would be a little insulted by a scholar who claimed to have done significant research on SW subculture without learning that the plural of “Jedi” is not “Jedis.”

In “Why Heather Can Write,” Jenkins does an excellent job of showing how new media can function as a space for children (and adults) to learn in new ways and to teach each other. The stories he tells about Heather Lawver are nothing short of amazing, and they make me wonder about the pedagogical possibilities of fan participation and media interactivity. I’m with Jenkins in thinking the “potential seems enormous” in having “a growing percentage of young writers … publishing and getting feedback on their work” (187). This is why it is so important for composition scholars to look at the ways that young people are writing and interacting with the world around them and to react to those interactions. This is a field in great need of more work. Even Jenkins makes the mistake of citing studies that show that young people get their news from satirical late-night shows without problematizing the situation. The people who do these studies act surprised that “Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers” (236). In my opinion, this isn’t because The Daily Show is the best news source ever. It’s because most people who watch The Daily Show also consume the news from a variety of sources and are aware of the biases of those sources. Because Daily Show viewers are predominantly young, surveyors assume they don’t consume traditional news outlets as well. But they do. They may not carry around print copies of the Wall Street Journal, but they’re informed consumers and re-producers of popular media.

I’d like to end with a reflective note on Jenkins’ use of sub-narratives in some of his chapters. In the Star Wars chapter, for example, he ran other stories in the (enlarged) margins. These stories concerned related, but not explicitly connected, topics such as camcorder history, anime, and The Sims. Although the design of the pages made these sub-stories a bit difficult to read, I really enjoyed the hypertextual element they provided and the network they began to weave for readers who are looking for new and exciting avenues of thought.
Work Cited
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

Decentering medical authority (and other topics) in Lisa Nakamura’s “Digitizing Race”

I was so excited to find Lisa Nakamura’s chapter entitled “Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web.” Nakamura examines how pregnant women portray themselves (or ask others to portray them) on sites where cartoonish “dollies,” or avatars, are used to represent community members. She notes that the “increasingly visual culture of user-posted photographs and other self-produced digital images is part of a rhetorical mode of cultural production online that also works to decenter medical authority” (133). While I have emphasized in my own work that there is a place for medical authority, I have also written that women must be able to make their own informed decisions in terms of reproduction. The fora Nakamura is discussing are places that help to allow that to happen. “The Internet provides a space in which women use pregnancy Web sites’ modes of visuality and digital graphic production to become subjects, rather than objects, of interactivity” (133). They are the producers of their own visibility.

Or are they? Nakamura shows how women retain “racial” markers in building their avatars, but at the same time idealize the pregnant body and create “a uniformly and conventionally ‘pretty’ avatar” (145). While at first I was disappointed that these women were still in some sense controlled by hegemonic forces, I think this phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing. What would it mean for a woman to conceptualize herself as ugly and to portray that in her dollie? What these women are really doing is finding a common ground and using it as a stable foundation on which to establish difference. (An ugly dollie might work as a deliberate critique of the system, but it might hamper the owner’s engagement with others on the board.) In the same sort of move, avatar owners also mix colloquial rhetorics with medical rhetorics (153). By mixing these worlds–taking medical rhetoric as a base on which to build other rhetorics and discourses–and creating their own spaces, they are, in fact, using a form of bricolage to re-appropriate their own bodies from the medical establishment. These women are “producing a counterdiscourse that challenges the binarism of hypervisible/invisible pregnant bodies” (158). They are producing bodies that we can, perhaps, conceptualize as “mixed.” (An interesting concept given Nakamura’s chapter on, which I’ll get to a little later.)

Cyberfeminism, Nakamura says, has been called a “‘restart button’ for gendered ideologies” because it tries to reclaim machines and “machine-enabled vision for women” (160). An example of where this could work, I think, is on page 159, where Nakamura tells readers how “the umbilical cord is painstakingly deleted from most photographic image of fetuses, thereby emphasizing its existence separately from the woman’s body” (159). Women empowered through the visual dollies they create can challenge such conventions. Women “use the board as often as not to challenge received medical opinions be describing their experiences as conflicting with medical wisdom” (169). By using the power of community and narrative, women overrule medical opinions that don’t fit their worldviews.

I thought these arguments were brilliant. However, parts of this book made me raise my eyebrows. Nakamura has a tendency to make bold statements and sweeping generalizations without providing immediate support. For example: “Women are relatively late adopters of the Internet” (136). While Nakamura does offer statistics on sex and Internet usage at a point much later in the book, she provides no support for this statement at the time that she makes it. She also posits on page 139 that design is “gendered as masculine” by “mainstream consumer culture.” This book was published just last year, and I would argue that design–as evidenced by many television shows, the populations of design schools, and marketing tactics used by stores that sell “design”–is typically gendered feminine by the “public.” In fact, “mainstream consumer culture” often questions the sexuality of men who engage in design with enthusiasm. Nakamura’s point in this discussion is to set up taste and design as opposites (although she later conflates style with design on page 154) and thus to claim the “tacky” avatars as feminine backlash against the popular push for “clean” design (139-43). Based on the fact that I do not see style and design in a relationship as opposites, I do not buy the backlash argument. I do fully believe her argument that women use these spaces to re-appropriate their bodies, I’m just not convinced that adhering to “tackiness” has anything to do with it. (And who gets to judge what’s tacky, kitschy, or clean anyway? What are the characteristics of these states?)

Another example of a statement that stood out as an unsupported generalization occurred in the chapter on Alllooksame?: “ is a weird, weird, site” (78). Although I take Nakamura’s point and appreciate her candor, I also felt a little judged as someone who liked the site. I realize the site is supposed to engender some discomfort, but–perhaps because of our very open exploration of race, rhetoric, and technology in class–I didn’t feel put off or uncomfortable looking at it or taking the quiz. “Alllooksame is not a statement. It’s a question” (79). And questions have to be allowed if we’re going to deal with the race issue. There is no other way.

In terms of the quiz itself, I recieved a score of six on the facial recognition test, which is lower than the average of seven. Further, I hereby admit that the six I got correct were guesses. What does this mean? It either says something about my own ignorance, or it supports Nakamura’s contention that “race” is not visible. I have to admit, I’d be very interested to see if one of the “not mixed” subjects of the site could identify the races of the faces. And that rhetoric of purity is highly interesting; I especially liked the deconstruction of this rhetoric undertaken on page 82. “What does Korean mean? Is it people from south western [sic] Korea who descended from Chinese in those same areas whose names are not Kim and Lee but Chang and Moon???”

Having run out of space to discuss the other chapters of this book, I will instead pose questions based on passages I especially engaged with.

  • What do we make of the shift from the Internet as a utopian space to a profit-driven place? (p. 3)
  • What is (or should be) the relationship of visual culture studies to Internet studies? (p. 28)
  • Is communication consumerism? (p. 46)
  • What of Barthes’ “revolutionary idea” to apply formal analysis to popular culture? Is this really the idea of a single scholar? (p. 68)
  • What are the pros and cons of racial profiling? (p. 78, and all of the Alllooksame chapter)
  • How should race be represented in movies? Is it responsible to create the two-dimensional “old white prick” character, as described in Nakamura’s discussion of The Matrix Reloaded? What about the token black guy, like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) In Return of the Jedi (incorrectly cited by Nakamura with the definite article)? Can a person really get out of being white by claiming to be multiracial and disavowing whiteness? (p. 102 and all of “The Social Optics of Race”)
  • How can authorities design surveys that are more representative and accurate? (p. 172)
  • The ethics of porn. I’m not even going to make this a question. (p. 184)
  • How “wrong” was Whitney NcNally in producing the piece “Asian or Gay”? Couldn’t this be seen as a social critique of movies like the recent hit The Hangover? (p. 185-94
  • What does it mean to “refuse to cover”? (p. 208)

Work Cited
Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

Interesting further reading:
Sakai, Karen. “‘Gay or Asian’ spread causes minority uproar.” Asia Pacific Arts Online Magazine. 9 Apr. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .

On (dis)ability

Of the readings we did for this week (cited below), the one I found most helpful was Jason Palmeri’s article on technical communication pedagogy. In addition to offering a new perspective on disability studies, Palmeri provided constructive ways to help others learn about this field as well. After providing several examples and a discussion of how “cripples” are framed as “burdens on society” and thus marginalized, Palmeri moves to promoting the idea that technical communicators must see disability accessibility “as a source of transformative insight into design practice for all” (57). This sounds like a noble and achievable goal to me, but I have more trouble imaging how it can work practically when he moves in that direction. Palmeri suggests that “we must begin to trouble the binary between normal and assistive technologies” by viewing all technologies as assistive. This makes sense, but when he goes on to say that students should conduct research with a screen reader, I wonder 1) might this activity reinforce that binary? and 2) where the heck do I get a screen reader? Both ponderings, obviously, point to larger questions about understanding and access that I don’t have answers to.

Questions of access were at the forefront of several of the materials we viewed this week. Sandhu, Saarnio, and Wiman discuss access at several points, although I was disappointed that they didn’t problematize the idea that laws can provide access until later in the piece. As an undergraduate, I distinctly remember the news staff of the campus paper doing investigative piece after investigative piece in attempts to get the administration to see that the campus was in violation of several accessibility laws. In the end, some administrators agreed but said there simply weren’t funds to right the issues we raised. Sandhu, Saarnio, and Wiman also raise interesting questions about the intersection of poverty and disability. The correlation between the two conditions makes the whole situation much more complicated.

These three authors also make a claim when positing that there is a horizontal divide and a vertical divide within the digital divide. They say that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are inaccessible to some because of issues we’ve discussed before (socioeconomic concerns), and this is a horizontal divide. The vertical divide is “the difference between people who are able to use the existing technologies and people with disabilities with little or only partial access to these resources’ (8). I think what we’re dealing with is actually more than a divide. In searching for a better metaphor, it’s almost as though we’re all navigating the surface of a pane of safety glass that has splintered. In terms of technology, there are chasms everywhere.

Pamela Walker explore one such fissure in her essay “Artists with Disabilities: A Cultural Explosion.” She makes a good point early on in saying that society expected people who were differently abled to accept their circumstances and make do, and that people internalized that feeling. This struck a chord with me because, although I do not identify with any community of physical disablement, I have internalized the same worldview in terms of socioeconomic struggles. Perhaps this is also why I react negatively to the lyrics near the end of Walker’s essay “We’re not longer grateful for the handouts you have thrown us … ” While I like the metaphorical “moving out and moving up,” the sense of ungratefulness rubs me the wrong way. I don’t have a lot of things and I don’t think the system we live in is fair, but I’m grateful for what I do have. For that reason or perhaps for a reason I still need to find and explore, these lyrics do not evoke empathy in me.



Walker’s text was rich with other connections between disability studies and the scholarship I’ve known. Her note on censorship was, I thought, very important. Unfortunately, I fear censorship in some form is happening to disabled artists, because I didn’t find much when I tried to search for the artists she mentions. And she’s certainly right that this has been going on for centuries. Her mention of Hephaestus struck a note of familiarity with me as well. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper arguing that Hephaestus was the most overlooked of the Greek gods, and he certainly is the most unusual in his complexity. I love the connection Walker makes that Hephaestus, the one god described as lame, is the most well known patron of the arts among the Greek gods.

This brings us to the idea of cyborgs. I found Cromby and Standen’s discussion of the definition of cyborg highly informative (although I’m obviously prone to liking definitions). They suggest three interpretations: 1) a metaphor used for rhetorical leverage 2) use of media and 3) physical augmentation of the body. The latter two, the authors say, are useful to people with disabilities. They then discuss issues of cyborgism, including access, surveillance, control, and dependency. Their points about the problematic nature of using technology in this way are well taken. I was especially interested in their discussion of surveillance and the idea of a house that could monitor whether its occupants needed intervention. The authors conclude that such a situation could be helpful or invasive and may ultimately increase the chasms discussed above that allow only the wealthy to have truly palatable options. The site contributed some valuable insights to this dicussion as well, and I especially liked Jeff’s ideas on the rhetorical choice behind the word disability:

“Disability focuses on a loss. Cyborg focuses on adaptive technology. It focuses on what we can do, not what we can’t do. And I think that’s a fundamental paradigm shift that must
occur if the disabled population has any hope of transitioning out of the shadows,
out of the institutions, and living a life of mobilization as opposed to one of stagnation.”

I do take issue with one point in Cromby and Standen’s article: the notion that women are more shaped by standards of appearance in our society than men. I wold argue that this is dependent on individual people. Although there may be a general perception that women are more affected by this, that may only mean that men are in greater danger of acting upon it.

Although I mentioned earlier that I do not self-identify as a disabled individual, I have certainly made use of cyborg technologies–braces, dermatological interventions, laser eye surgery–and I have encountered a surprising amount of (not always unwelcome) surveillance in each case. This also makes me think of the video I just watched of “quadraphlegic gamer/artist Robert Florio playing” a video game using mouth controls (found on this site). Although this surveillance was apparently allowed by Florio, it still was a result of his disability. Access, surveillance, control, and dependency are categories that become exponentially more complicated in terms of theorizing (dis)ability.

Works Cited

Cromby, John and Penny Standen. “Cyborgs and Stigma: Technology, Disability, Subjectivity.” Cyberpsychology. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

“Game Accessibility: Gaming with a Physical Disability.” The Game Accessibility Project.

“On Disability, Adaptive Technology and Cyborg Societies.”

Palmeri, Jason. “Disability Studies, Cultural analysis, and the Critical Practice of Technical Communication Pedagogy.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.1 (2006): 49-65. Print.

Sandhu, Jim S., Ilkka Saarnio, and Ronald Wiman. “Information and Communication Technologies and Disability in Developing Countries.” October 2001. Print.

Walker, Pamela. “Artists with Disabilities: A Cultural Explosion.” National Arts and Disability Center. University of California. 1998. Web.

Image from

Discussion questions

Here are discussion questions for use in thinking about Bray (See previous post).

Question #1: How can technology help us understand culture?

Contextualization for Question #1: Bray suggests that technology “shapes and transmits ideological traditions” (2) and produces women (15) (or people, to take a broader approach). I believe she demonstrates her points clearly as they pertain to China throughout the rest of her book. What examples can we come up with of how technology shapes our ideology here and now? How can we apply the framework Bray gives us to the work we are currently doing?

Question #2: How do physical spaces construct the ways in which we construct ourselves?

Contextualization for Question #2: I’m looking specifically at the first section of Bray’s book, and in particular her footnote on Bourdieu on page 57: “Bourdieu identifies the house as a key mechanism in the inculcation of habitus, a site where symbolic relations are encoded in the everday and naturalized as physical patterns of behavior.”

Question #3: In what ways do we privelege certain roles among the many roles we fulfill? What does technology have to do with this?

Contextualization for Question #3: Bray discusses how the role of wife was primary in Chinese imperial culture to the role of (biological) mother. (Wives could “appropriate” the children of their husbands’ concubines or maids.)

Question #4: Why do we claim things as products of Western technology? Does this limit our understanding of said technologies?

Contextualization for Question #4: “A few years ago Basim Musallam castigated demographers for assuming that effective birth control was a product of Western modernity” (292). The printing press and acupuncture are other technologies that have been appropriated and even claimed.

Question #5: What are good sources for gynotechnic study?

Contextualization for Question #5: Bray mentions “written and material texts” on page 372, and throughout the book she references household account, works of art, and census data. What other means do we have for “providing a new perspective on gender and its place in the social order as well as a way of getting beyond what written texts alone can tell us”? (373)

Technology, Gender, and Cyberfeminism

In her riveting book Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, Francesca Bray introduces “gynotechnics,” which is “a way of organizing materials from more varied sources into new patterns, providing a new perspective on gender and its place in the social order as well as a way of getting beyond what written texts alone can tell us” (373). The second part of her book is fascinating in its attention to the technology of weaving and how women’s lives existed in relationship to a technology that was considered “women’s work” without being devalued. Bray shows how women’s roles changed dramatically as weaving transitioned to being under the domain of men through this gynotechnical inquiry.

The part of the book of greatest interest to me was the third and final part, “Meanings of Motherhood: Reproductive Technologies and Their Uses.” Bray acknowledges that readers won’t be surprised that a society organized around the male descent line focuses concern over fertility on females (287). But what she tells us in Part Three changes what that statement means. Bray explains to readers that married men over age 40 with no children were legally allowed to take a concubine (although the practice was actually far more widespread than this statement would imply). While some wives resented their husbands’ concubines, others were eager for the concubine’s arrival and even sought her out. This is because the wife would be the real, or formal, mother of any child born to the concubine. Bray says that although “it appears to use that these women were simply acquiescing in their own oppression,” “such actions also offered to a childless woman the promise of a child who was formally hers” (357). Thus, women whose husbands had the status/money/power to take a concubine were released from the typical scrutiny surrounding fertility—and they could then avoid the plethora of frightening-sounding technologies Bray mentions for dealing with infertility and pregnancy. The wife employed a variety of social and local technologies, then, in the management of her household and the raising of the children that were now formally her own.

(However, even women who had no intention of bearing children still paid particular attention to their monthly cycles, because the Chinese conception of Blood as one of the vital organs meant that menstruation irregularities were a sign of bad health. Thus, technologies were often applied to women in imperial China in order to regulate them to a social norm.)

Gynotechnic inquiry is very related to the concept of cyberfeminsim, at least as represnted in Domain Errors!, although the latter is far harder to pin down. Cyberfeminism, according to Fernandez and Wilding in their book’s first article, came about in response to the fact that “historically, waves of feminism have often accompanied technological expansion” and the response of feminists to such expansions (17). A bit further on, they establish that cyberfeminism is, by nature, undefinable, unlabelable, and unidentifiable. As a person who likes definitions, this troubles me. Although I know that definitions (by definition) reduce complex ideas, I also find this initial reduction very helpful in developing a more complex understanding further down the line. Of course, “situating” a thing (as the title of the essay is “Situating Cybefeminisms”) may be a way to begin understanding it without defining it, and I found this technique helpful. I discovered that cyberfeminism is not feminism, but that it has much in common with second-wave feminism (20). I also found that cyberfeminism has its own two waves already as well: one that concentrates on the relationships of women and machines and a second wave that deals with politics and embodiment.

Among other essays I found particularly helpful to my work in Domain Errors! was Paasonen’s treatment of “the woman problem” in relation to the Internet. Paasonen notes that we (critical scholars) tend to “presuppose a given gender difference” in how women access the Internet. She also astutely points out that we incorrectly see gender is a polar characteristic and the Internet as gender-neutral (94). She goes on to present troubling depictions of expectations Internet authors have of women users … all of which, I think, go to show that more conversation on the topic is required in order to begin suggesting alternative methods that are less problematic. (But I’m out of room to ponder them here.)

Finally, Amelia Jones’ account of her infertility treatments was both touching and informative (an expected and yet interesting combination, given the book’s focus). “One’s entire identity becomes wrapped up in” a particular identity that is made possible by technology. Although I know it probably isn’t this simple, it seems to me that technology has allowed those dealing with infertility to hang onto hope, but also to make themselves miserable because of that hope. Technology has changed not only the way that women are perceived and embodied, not only the way they think and live, but also the ways in which they believe certain things about their inner selves.

Works Cited

Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print.

Fernandez, Maria, Faith Wilding, and Michelle M. Wright, eds. Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices. Canada: Autonomedia and subRosa, 2002. Print.

**I feel compelled to note that Fernandez, Wilding, and Wright maintain an anti-copyright on their book, so I feel that I’ve done it a certain amount of rhetorical violence by citing it in the conventional manner. I beg forgiveness for this offense as I found no better solution.

A reflection on a talk by Louise Erdrich

Native American author Louise Erdrich gave a talk today at Milner Library at Illinois State University, and the following entry is my reflection on what she had to say as it intersects with race, rhetoric, and technology.

Erdrich began her talk (which was so well attended that extra chairs were brought in and some people climbed to higher floors to look down on the event) with a reading of a story. Erdrich did not say which of her books the story came from (and I wasn’t close enough to see the cover of the volume she was reading from), but she did say that her stories tend to “hitch up,” meaning some of her books overlap. This connectedness is certainly the case outside of her work, as well, and may be a cultural characteristic of some stories. (Erdrich later addressed the oral traditions of many cultures and said she self-identifies as a storyteller.)

The reading centered on the character of Lipsha, a recurring character in Erdrich’s novels and, she said, one of her favorites. It followed him through coveting a van on display at the hall where his Grandma Lulu plays bingo to meeting a girl, Serena, and going to a hotel with her. At this point in the story, Serena sends him to the gas station for condoms, and this got me thinking of birth control as a technology.

I haven’t given this much thought before, but birth control (of whatever kind) is certainly a technology … and it’s a technology that is very connected to race. My mind immediately jumps to my course project, which (as you can read in a previous entry on this blog) will include examination of China’s one-child policy. This is birth control in the form of a law, and it’s aimed directly at a particular nationality, which encompasses several particular ethnicities.

Interestingly enough, it turns out the technology of the condom most likely originated in China. According to Aine Collier, “In Asia before the fifteenth century … Condoms seem to have been used for contraception, and to have been known only by members of the upper classes” (qtd. in Wikipedia article under “Condom”). This technology is a class-conscious one. Members of the upper classes, then, would have been more able to control the number of children they had, while the lower classes would have lacked this ability. The expense of children and the resulting population disparity would, theoretically, reinforce a class divide. Certainly those Chinese families with access to ultrasound have an advantage today in producing the coveted male heir through sex-selective abortion.

In the same sort of legal vein as the one-child policy, Erdrich also touched on the absurtity of allowing a government to “create” racial background for individuals. She explained (as we have discussed in class) that governments prescribe ethnicities to people. For example, the U.S. government has instated laws about how much Indian blood a person must have in order to claim a tribal affiliation. What’s more–this measure is likely based on an arbitrary judgment made generations ago by another government official.

Another interesting race-related reaction to the technology of birth control shows up in a study by Kalichman, Williams, Cherry, Belcher, and Nachimson, who found that black and Latina women reported fearing violence from the partners if they suggested using a condom.

But birth control and law’s relation to race were hardly the only mentions of race/rhetoric/technology in Erdrich’s talk. Another, unrelated issue, also caught my ear. First, inspired by the 25th anniversary of Love Medicine, Erdrich discussed how easy it is for an author to make changes to a book, thanks to current technology. This seems to me to parallel the shift in student’s conception of writing after the advent of personal computers and word processing technology. I have no doubt that students think about writing differently today on a very basic level than students thought about writing 20 years ago. Perhaps the new technology in the publishing industry will yield a culture that allows for more conversation between books, letting works change with time and creating slippage that could open up new avenues of dialogue.

Louise Erdrich (enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa w/ MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979) is the author of twelve novels, 5 children’s books, 3 poetry volumes, and a memoir. Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her most recent novel, Plague of Doves, was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also the owner of Birchbark Books (, an independent non-profit bookstore and press . She and two of her sisters host annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. (qtd. from an e-mail from Angela Haas)

Work Cited

Kalichman, SC; Williams, EA; Cherry, C; Belcher, L; Nachimson, D (April 1998). “Sexual coercion, domestic violence, and negotiating condom use among low-income African American women“. Journal of Women’s Health 7 (3): 371–378. Web.

Course Project Proposal

In my course project, I plan to examine the relationship of reproductive technology and culture. My purpose is to interrogate two main ideas: how institutions prescribe technology to fit particular cultures as well as how individuals appropriate technologies and enculturate those technologies on their own behalf. This examination will involve questions of ethnicity, culture, rhetoric, technology, agency, and how these five categories interact. In the context of this proposal, I would like to follow the line of thinking leading me to this area, and I will conclude with an explanation of the more exact plan I am formulating to interrogate this intersection of technology and culture.

Because I am a product of Western culture, I believe it may be more informative for me to examine how such webs play out in an Eastern culture. The obvious choice of country for my subject, then,—because of the international spotlight on reproductive issues and the controversial “one-child” policy—is China. I will give an overview of this policy and discuss how reproductive technologies have driven cultural and social changes in relation to it, and I will make a case that understanding of this phenomenon in the Western world is limited.

I will also devote considerable space to looking at how Eastern uses of reproductive technologies have influenced the Western conventions that we often believe are ours alone. I will incorporate knowledge about the roots of medical technologies as they relate to reproductive medicine and I will discuss how such technologies are appropriated/reappropriated/poached. I plan to use Michel de Certeau’s theories about production as a framework over which to weave my examination of the everyday decisions and technologies made and used within the cultures I will examine. Because de Certeau argues for two productions—the first being equivalent to creation and the second being consumption, a sort of re-creation—I can situate American and Chinese consumption of reproductive technologies relative to each other.

I will also use de Certeau’s term “poaching” to promote understanding of how one culture’s use of a technology may differ from when another culture takes up the same technologies. By poaching a product and re-creating it in one’s own context, othered communities find a tactic to gain power. This is what has happened in China as women abort female fetuses in an attempt to heed the cultural desire for sons. While this tactic reinforces the power of the culture, it also undermines other social desires (such as the opportunity for a Chinese son to find a Chinese wife, to say nothing of the ethical issues at stake).

My working question, then, in order to examine the relationship between how institutions prescribe technologies and how individuals appropriate technologies depending on cultural influences, will be: In what ways and for what reasons do Chinese women poach reproductive technologies? This question, though a workable starting point, presents problematic avenues for inquiry from the very beginning. I will address such complications early in my paper, including: how one might define “Chinese women,” since the term does not represent a homogenous culture; what poaching means in regard to where a technology came from; why women are placed in a position to do this poaching; and how my own situatedness influences this investigation.

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