the I-hope-it-ends-someday sigh

There is much blog discussion over the observation that, if you google "she invented," Google will ask "Did you mean 'he invented'?"

The digg posting that started this is mostly just plain sad in its unrepentant dinosaur boyness. Various people at the feministing posting smartly refuse to accept the explanation that there is no fault to find with Google because the "Did you mean 'he'?" response is simply the result of an algorithm.

When can we stop pretending that if it's math and or logic, it's neutral and therefore true?


Tonight I teach my last class here at Tech, and then become peripatetic. (Sorry for the repetition, Derek, but it's a good word to describe the next months.)

One list item for this time is to migrate this blog -- such as it has been -- to a new site, one a little more flexible than LJ. I am determined -- in Life v.Milwaukee -- to write more regularly in blog.

And so I need suggestions and recommendations for where to write. Given that there are a good number of you who cannot post here, email me, wouldja?


Another trip start tomorrow morning, rushing up the hill early for the first flight and then slowing down at the Minneapolis airport to wait for the second flight and then a quick jump over the central states to Memphis and then a mad dash to the third flight to Tallahassee. There is still a lot of snow on the ground here, even with today's bright sun. At 6pm tomorrow, when I do get to Florida, it is going to be disorienting: there will be seventy some degrees floating around, and green. But it will be wonderful to see Kathi Y.

Tonight, though, I am slow in this late glow of sunlight and the sound of roof snow melting. Sunday evenings are always melancholy, and I have never been able to say why. Thinking of this as our last snow in Houghton adds to it -- and so it is a pleasure to have a paper ready to go for this trip so I can wallow in some chocolate and memory.


It might as well have been an abyss over which my relatives sailed from Eastern Europe to here. Only they themselves made it across. No chairs, no jewelry, no books, no clothing even made it over; all dropped into that hole. Even their thoughts from before that moment dropped into that hole.

They came across and nothing came with them.

This is my history.

“It's thoroughly depressing to see how not-far we've come in the last 30 years.”

Washington Monthly had a little discussion Thursday about Wimbledon's announcement that women would now play for the same amount of prize money as men. The comments read as though it is 1960: "This is not about men and women, this is just about economics!" "But men are objectively better athletes!" "Men play 3 out of 5; the women don't." "It's the men that the audiences come to watch (except for the short skirts on the women)."

The title comment above was one of the few voices responding to the night-at-the-bar chest-thumping that characterized the conversation.

discussing Decoding Advertisements

We started with a little background in structuralism, as a way into understanding where semiotics comes from and the matters it considers important: structures. Yes, well.

And then we looked at how Williamson introduces semiotic terminology bit by bit, building a complex system of relations among the terms but also then, necessarily, building more and more complex systems for analysis -- which leads into the question of how much the system itself calls into play the dense ideological structures Williamson says we can never escape.

But that may be moving too quickly to the end of our discussion.

From the beginning, we all could see that the Williamson book does build, does have its own structure: Williams starts from the notion of difference as the base semiotic notion -- that we have language only because we define terms by considering something in its differences from other things -- to the notion of sign, to sign as signifier and signified, to the idea that a signifier-signified pair can itself be a signifier for another signified, to the idea that such layering become referent systems, all of which only point within or to each other. And so what is denoted is never "natural" or "real," but only ever, finally, the product being sold. We are caught up, then, in formal structures that only ever point at, circle about and within, other structures.

As we talked, we came to see and understand that Williamson's initial set of example ads depend completely on a particular type of ad, one in which there are two objects, with the qualities of one object transferring to another. In questioning how Williamson's structural analyses might work on more recent advertising (Alexa brought up the ongoing Absolut series of ads, for example, which depend on audience knowledge of the series) we talked about how Williamson's system of 1978 relied on then-available ads -- but Williamson would be ready with reply to newer ads: she could extend aspects of the structure she builds (such as the notion of how hermeneutics works in advertising ["by being given something to decipher, our comprehension is channeled in one direction only" 78], as well as her understanding of the purposes of advertising to build always internally-facing referent systems, to speak of the referent system of Absolut ads as building off audience desire to be in the know -- but the know is not something outside the system, and instead is completely inside the system, completely self-referential. Williamson would probably have a field day.

But it was questioning like that that led us to name a concern with Williamson's approach. Williamson acknowledges the powers of advertising because of these self-referential systems she describes, these systems that hold us within them so that there seems to be no outside, such that we "become signified by, and then summarized by, things": we become -- we are -- the "sum of [our] consumer goods" (179). Williamson also acknowledges the "danger in structural analysis, because of its introversion and lack of context" (178). That is, structural analysis (as Williamson presents it) is just as circular, system-building, and therefore all-inclusive of itself, as advertising: which begets the other?

There is a sense of defeat about the book, a pessimistic giving-in to the all inclusiveness of the system: Williamson ends by saying that the value of learning to decode isn't learning the code but learning to change the system. How is that ever possible if the system is -- by its very definition -- all-encompassing? But Alexa's question also led us to question how changes in ads come about, how changes in -- for example -- conceptions of male and female come about (because the first perfume ad we could find was for man scents), or changes in technological systems that shift what is advertised and how. The system of advertising is *not* cut off from other systems -- technological, cultural, geographic, gender, ethnicities -- and so ought not be discussed outside those other systems. What sort of semiotic analyses would help us with such extensions? (And would they only build bigger and even more inescapable structures?)

Other questions that appeared as we discussed, and to which we ought to return:

  • How would you use a semiotic visual methodology in teaching undergraduate courses like Revisions or Tech Comm? What use would there be for people in your classes in such teaching? What would you emphasize? What cautions would you give?

  • Semiotic analysis (as Williamson presents it) is a form of compositional analysis, by definition: it focuses on how ads are composed. Whereas Bang, Dondis, or Arnheim appeal to (an ideology of) the universal body as the explanation of why visual compositions work, Williamson appeals to ideology itself. How is Williamson's approach NOT an example of teaching people to have a "good eye" (to follow Rose's critique) -- with the "good eye" here being one that judges visuals not in terms of beauty but rather in terms of late twentieth century academic critiques of bad consciousness?

  • Given that Williamson's system depends on transfer of meaning among different signifier/signified pairs, how applicable is such a system to other kinds of visual genres (film, plays, TV shows) where there rarely are -- as in advertising -- present at the same time such sr-sd pairs? Or do we need to shift what we consider to be the sr-sd pairs?

Happy Woman Professor Day

Okay, yes, this is most often what it is, as Barbara Ras writes it: "I want to shake the magnolia tree to see if I'm strong enough / to move any of the darkness inside its tangle of branches."

This morning at school began with Shannon, talking about teaching, coming up with strategies for moving an 8am class. Shannon is sick but is there and (as always) thoughtful and quick, and as she speaks of different people in her classes my office fills with them. We talk about the exact wording of what you say at the beginning of a class and whether you put something on the board or ask people to write about it. How all our small moves build larger patterns, and what single parts of the weave you can pluck all at once to have another pattern that morning and you only realize it afterwards as you walk away grinning. Shannon is smart about all of this, and I learn.

Then Shawn and I talk about his comps: he's moving back and forth between two-dimensional visual design and immersive games, asking about the entanglements of engagement and persuasion (how are they different?) in those differing visual objects. We figure out a few new things together about the library's database and e-journals, and find some new articles, and we talk about the connections you make with the people with whom you work and how they become really visible at a daughter's first birthday party while the wrapping paper is flying through giggling fingers. (Well, that later part is how I am remembering it later, how I will remember these meetings, as though Lily was there so graciously helping Christy and Hina with the presents on my office floor while Shawn's ideas glittered about the room with his grace and smarts like the light off the wrapping paper.)

Professor Hawhee came to the phone from snow shoveling or pushing but I got to speak to her twice today because during that first call Marilyn knocked on my door to remind me of our noon meeting. Our noon meeting is our writing group: Vicky, Marilyn, and I had read one of Marika's conference presentations, and we were talking about all the different article possibilities in the presentation. Marika makes sentences like magnifying lenses and Marilyn and Vicky are *smart* and the hour disappeared. Delightfully. Next week we read from Vicky's book and the week after we read from Marilyn's book, and then it's my CCCC presentation, which I've started writing, at least the first sentences that make me laugh and that chances are will be nowhere near the final version.

In our weekly meeting about the writing program, Christy, Moe, and I... well. I look forward to that meeting. Christy thinks about teaching with ethical rigor, gently teasing apart situations with such respect for who people are that I sometimes am tempted to make up problems so I can just keep listening and being made smarter. And Moe is Mr. Magic-out-of-the-Hat, so creative in coming up with assignments and workarounds it's as though he lives inside his collections of old ads, magazines, and costumes. And he is human, and styling, and way smart; his dissertation is going to be a genre-bending wonder, to which I am looking forward oh so selfishly. (And he comes with Liz, who is a gift to the world of textures, generosity, animations, and delight.)

Lynn came to office hours, to talk about science writing and snowboarding. This is a woman who makes me happy to think about the emails of 2 or 5 or 10 years from now -- like emails from Jana, davina, Kristin, Anna, Mavis, Jessie, Lisa, Vicki, Asha, Karen, Becky, Jess, Hannah, Pavi Elle, Jen, Amy, Diane, Emily, Erica, Erin, Nia, Katie, Eve, Orsolya, Evelyn, Josh, Aaron, Donovan -- emails about success and work and thinking and life and families after undergrad studying, emails that fall out of the morning inbox like petals, emails from friends.

Then I got to talk with Professor Hawhee again, laughing. Her warmth and piercing smartness made me think about talking -- just the talks of this past week -- with the ever graciously thoughtful Professor Hawisher, the ever sharpfunny Professor Ball, the bright and generous Professor Hocks, the Manta-wearing Professor Grabill who cracks me up and makes me think we can be f-ing brilliant together with Professors Sidler, Hart-Davidson, and to-be Lackey.

And I haven't even begun to mention the gifts of Professor Arola and Professor Jasken, and that Sajdyk woman. And Teacher-Kitchen Master Buchanan and Teacher-Dean-to-Be Corbin.

Why am I a Happy Woman Professor?

All that is above is just the today and some-of-this-week part; I need to add into the longer mix Johndan, Kate, Stuart, Geoff, Karla, Ellen, Linda, Cindy, Diana, Scott, Heidi, Barclay, Dickie, Madeleine, Marcia, Alice, Chuck, Brent, Matt, Paul, Anne, Jackie, Mary, Michelle, Collin, Eva, Amy, Joyce, Susan, Carrie, Martha, Derek, Jonathan... Any writing I do is thanks to every name here -- and many I have missed -- and all their ideas and generosity.

Oh, and the classes I get to teach.

Off, laughing.


But wait, there's more:
first efforts
see jane compute
blog her
neither necessary nor sufficient
the most cake

et tu, Google?

Really, why should it be a surprise that Google has used the same techniques in North Carolina as Walmart used here in Houghton?

See Rough Type on Google's massive tax breaks -- and on elderly people being "persuaded" out of their homes.