Skin as Medium

Last semester, my students had a really cool conversation about whether tattoos are a medium and/or rhetorical.As I teach a new semester of digital rhetoric, I’m contemplating the nature of media and new media. Of course, I always return to Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” If we accept McLuhan’s premise that how a message is communicated is as important as its content, then tattoos may be the ultimate form of self expression.

For people who get tattoos, the content can be extremely personal. For example, many people get a memorial tattoo after someone close to them dies. In “‘So That They Never Forget the Holocaust:’ Memorial Tattoos and Embodied Holocaust Remembrance,” Verena Hutter (2016) argues that some of these tattoos are “embodied memory and/or performed trauma” (269). Hutter examines a New York Times piece “A Tattoo to Remember” in which the grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors remember their family’s struggle by purposefully tattooing the numbers Nazis assigned their ancestors. The tattoo represents an intersection of faith, heritage, and history.  The symbol content of the brief serial number would be empty without the medium, a tattoo.

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Photo Credit: New York Times photographer Uriel Sinai

While not every tattoo has the same depth, the pain and permanence make them a deliberate statement about the self. What does that Tinkerbell tattoo on your foot say about you?  Does it say you want to be a walking billboard for Disney?  Not really. But it might say that to 18 year-old you, Tinkerbell connected to your childhood and fond memories of watching Peter Pan with your friends.

Tattoos no longer have the counter-cultural cachet they once had. Thirty years ago, tattoos usually signified drug use,enlisted military service, or carnival work. However, in the mid-90s, everyone started getting tattoos. As “alternative” music became mainstream, so did other alternative styles – tattoos, piercings, and  purple hair. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of people between 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos have different rhetorical value now.

Nevertheless, when skin is the medium and hours of pain and days of discomfort are required for communication, it seems that a tattoo is no less rhetorical than an essay. And like most writing, it’s done collaboratively, takes practice, and you usually start small before embarking on a full sleeve.

Online Violence against Women

It’s crazy coming back from a Conference on College Composition and Communication and trying to readjust to the real world.  While at C’s, I had the privilege of working at the Feminist Workshop and meeting with women at the Women and Working Conditions Special Interest Group. Women from all over the country in a variety of academic positions shared their experiences.

With all of this positivity, I was shocked when I read the news about Ashley Judd’s experience on Twitter. The story begins when, like any other American caught up in March Madness, she tweeted a comment about the success of University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Her tweet was immediately met with a vile and violent response.  She was threatened with rape, called every nasty name in the book, and reduced to a sexual object. Like women calling out other games for sexism in gamergate, Judd became the target of sexual threats.

Judd published a response to the hate in this article entitled, “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Judd does a great job of cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of the issue – misogyny. She was targeted with sexual threats because she’s a woman.

Some of her detractors claim this is an issue of free speech and that she part of the idea police. However, I wonder if this is a free speech issue. If someone said, “I’m going to rape you” in the real world, the police could take the threat seriously. I think she’s right to question whether a digital space permits any language.  At the same time, I am loathe to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. Surely there’s a balance?

Public/Private Blog

Today’s Atlantic ran a story about University of Marquette professor John McAdams pubprivwho being stripped of tenure because of a story he posted on his blog. While I am unwilling to weigh in on the validity of this decision or the opinions expressed, I think the medium and genre that sparked this debate has ramifications for digital rhetoric.

If we trace the story back to its beginning, we find an ideological conflict between a graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The student recorded this after class conversation on his phone without the graduate student’s permission. Does the instructor have some expectation of privacy? Would she have spoken differently if she knew about the recording? Does that matter?

I am struck by the power of a tiny portable device; one cell phone can start a controversy that ends with a faculty member losing his job.

But more than that, I am struck by the role of technology and its mediation of public and private spaces. The cell phone, a technology often used for very personal/private conversations, records a public conversation. And, as we discussed in class, the blog is a perfect example of personal made public. Personal opinions and experiences may suddenly gain a very public readership. Examining the subtitle of McAdams’s blog points to this conundrum:

“This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.”

He carefully notes that the blog is an independent entity. However, he also notes “when” officials discover it, they will be unhappy. By using “when” instead of “if,” McAdams implies that his blog is provocative and will draw ire. Tragically, his subtitle also suggests that the worst punishment may be shutting the blog down. In fact, he could lose his job and his livelihood.

The networked nature of blogging demonstrate that these spheres do not have rigid boundaries. McAdams’s publicized opinions have dire consequences for his private life.

Access, Access, Activism

Current debates about net neutrality have gone largely unnoticed. Ironically, this is something everyone who uses the web should be marching in the streets about. I think John Oliver sums up the issue quite well here:

Inaction could mean that corporations like Comcast and Time Warner could control how we access information. If we think about the current affordances of digital media, access to high speed internet is essential. Streaming music, video, and cat gifs all require a huge amount of bandwidth.

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Victor Pickard compares current battles for net neutrality to 1940s battles for free radio. Pickard reminds us that our current system in which a few corporations have a strangle hold on our bandwidth is the result of decades of policy decisions:

“As we again set policies that define core power relationships for a new medium, we might look to our past to discern lessons for charting our future. For the media system we’ve inherited—one dominated by a small number of corporations, lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections, and offset by weak public alternatives—was not inevitable or natural; it resulted from the outcomes of specific policy battles, and from specific logics and values triumphing over others.”

In other words, we’ve created a situation in which ISPs have this much control. Now may be our last opportunity to stop their monopoly.

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