Suburban Academic

Musings of a domesticated scholar

Category: news

Values of the Hidden

You might have heard about the Carrier IQ app that “logs text messages, dialed calls, URL searches and more — all without the user’s knowledge” (Gilbert).  If you haven’t, you can read about the online exposure and the response in this article.  In strikingly similar news, Ally Bank is tracking users’ locations as well, because “[i]n these economic times, financial institutions like banks are looking for extra revenue sources” (Yoo, in Kavoussi of HuffingtonPost).  Both phone carriers and the bank, though, failed to tell clients that they were being tracked.  I know, I know. We’re all appalled.  But are we surprised?
There’s been a lot of political talk about the rights of corporations lately, and given what we know about Google and Facebook privacy, we might not be as shocked as we’d wish.  
“Outrageous!” I find myself thinking.  “They’ve got no business tracking my whereabouts, purchases, texts, and searches.”  And yet, it is just that– business. So what does this mean for the — dare I use scare quotes– “individual”?  
It means that we’ve become commodities; it means our secrets have become commodities.  What we do with our time, in our homes, on our phones and computers, has become valuable to others, to strangers, to anonymous and autonomous corporations.  How did this happen?  Whose fault is this? What can we do?  And importantly, on what do we base our assumption that we can, and indeed should, hide what we’ve been doing from these faceless, nameless, number-crunchers?  What is the value of a secret?

Lelio Orsi, 1555

I recently turned in a paper about what I call the “Economy of Secrets” in two of the Canterbury Tales.  I spent most of my time on what editors usually call “The Second Nun’s Tale,” which is based on the legend of Saint Cecilia, who seems to come from the 5th or 6th century.  Like so many saints’ legends, hers is the story of her virgin martyrdom at the hands of persecuting Romans.  
On her wedding night, she tells her husband that she has a secret.  He’s fine with that, and promises his discretion in exchange for her revelation.  “I have an angel who protects me from anyone who would love me uncleanly (physically),” she responds.  Rightfully skeptical, her husband Valerian tells her that he can’t see an angel, but if she will show him the creature, he will do as she wishes.   Cecilia replies that he must be confessed and baptised in order to see the angel, and his conversion sparks a series of events that allows her to convert the hearts of countless others until her martyrdom.
Although I began my research looking for ways in which the body was valued, and how that value might have related to the narrative strategy of the original legend and Chaucer, I ended up discovering something else: the secret has extraordinary purchasing power.  In a way, the whole story is set in motion when she trades her secret for his confidence.  After converting her husband and his brother (who are martyred for their belief in the middle of the story), she is also brought into the authorities for practicing Christianity. Although her faith has been revealed, the public interrogation provides her with a last (and her largest) audience to convert.  Ultimately she gives her life– her bodily life, anyway– to turn pagans  into Christians, and Pope Urban takes her body away in the night to bury it in secret.  On the hallowed ground of her hidden body he builds a church, which according to the legend still inspires worshipers.  
Her body becomes the secret– the object valued as something once hidden, now revealed.
It seems, then, that we’ve had a preoccupation with the powers of secrets for quite some time.  Although the situations are quite different, both my newsfeed and this saint’s life demonstrate the inherent value of secrets to outsiders and the power of disclosure.  And yet, when Cecilia’s story narrates a series of exchanging secrets, our current story tells a far different tale.  What do we receive in exchange for our browser history, or GPS use, or MMS? Is ours the narrative of a zero-sum game rather than trade? Whether for profit, salvation, or persecution, we endow great value in secrets.  But given the current stakes, will we ever see a return on this investment?

On Chaucer’s Pardoner and Joe Paterno

In The Canterbury Tales, our dear friend Geoff Chaucer tells the story of others telling stories (about others).  It’s a text rich in material for study, especially on narration and authority.  One of the most memorable characters/narrators is the Pardoner, a man whose job is collecting extorting money from penitents.  The Pardoner introduces his tale with a confession, admitting that he is a phony driven by avarice and listing some of his most egregious misdeeds, including peddling false relics.  His actual tale is a story that illustrates how destructive avarice can be, so this confession ultimately builds his credibility as its teller, establishing him as an expert on the issue.  But the sticking point for so many readers (and scholars) is the claim that links his confessional prologue to his tale about three greedy thieves seeking Death:
“For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (460, 461 in Bevington).
He knows that he is a “vicious man” yet maintains that he can tell “a moral tale.”  He’s been perfectly up-front about his cheating, stealing, and ostensibly unrepentant self, so it seems unlikely that he’d lie in this instance.

I find myself trying to redeem the Pardoner here.  “He’s at least honest; that’s a start,” I say.  But is it?  What happens when someone who does bad things does something good? Do we always see these notions as either withdrawals or deposits into our human-ness account, looking for good deeds to undue past cruelties, and expecting all our meannesses to undo that volunteer work we did in high school?

Regardless of the speaker, what’s at stake here is really the difference between being a good person and doing good things.  We all think, say to ourselves, say to our loved ones, “good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.”  This is certainly convenient.  But what this assumes is that what a person is, fundamentally, is static.  To assume that a good person can do bad things doesn’t seem to account for the possibility of transition from “bad person” to “good person”– or any mutability or boundary-blurring between.  One simply is good or bad, and is allowed (even expected?) to deviate from time to time.

How easily we as students, teachers, parents (of pets or people) hear and say that we meant better, that we’re really not like that, that our actions this one time define or express us less than better moments.  Are we so involved in a culture of disclaimer that we can’t even fathom being a bad person, if only for a moment?  And is it so impossible for someone to be bad one day and good the next?  Why must we couch all devious actions in the context of our personhood?  When do actions speak for themselves?

I saw the resurgence of a Taylor Mali poem about conviction on Twitter last night.  The youtube clip is here, and I encourage all to check this, and his other work, out frequently and thoughtfully.  Here is an excerpt from the poem that examines a trend of decreasing responsibility in writing and speech (my favorite bits are in bold):

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

During a week that’s been particularly hard for me as a teacher (and therefore also as a student, wife, sister, and everything else), I’m thinking a lot about personal responsibility and open-mindedness.  But I’m not thinking about open-mindedness in terms of throwing the first stone, or living in a glass house.  I’m thinking about what it means to turn the gaze inward and see something ugly, or scary, or cruel, or BAD.  Are we, as Americans, less likely to do that than to excuse, or sugar-coat, or justify?  And if this is the case, what might be the cause of such resistance?  Is the internet world of celebrity divorce, rehab, madness, fetishes, and scandal somehow also one enmeshed in dissolving culpability?
Certainly,  the Penn State rape cover-up has been horrifying, disheartening, and strange.  Please notice that I used the word “rape” instead of sex scandal.  As Tommy Christopher points out in his awesome article for Mediaite found here, “Sandusky is not accused of ‘having sex’ with little boys, he is accused of raping them. In our civilization, ‘sex’ with a child is not possible, since a child cannot consent to sex” (Dear Media, It’s not a ‘Sex Scandal’…).  Watching ESPN and reading other news coverage of what was disclosed to a grand jury has shown me that perfectly articulate, professional men and women, working with the same knowledge-base about the accusations, are still not decrying Paterno outright.  There is a lot of “great coach, but this is horrible” and “he admits he should have done more, which tells us something” floating around.  I would like to think that I wait to hear all the facts before making a judgment, but the media seems to be suspiciously cautious about this case.  This unusual delicacy leads me to a question that renders Paterno a contemporary Pardoner:
over half a millennium after Chaucer, why is it still so difficult  to reconcile a horrible deed with an old man committed to promoting a cult of false relics and superstition, even after he admits to exploiting the ignorance of others?
Until next week, my fellow authorities. 

The pen is mightier…

Having three dogs is awesome.  Their sweet faces, tail-wags, and “kisses” make us feel immediately adored.  But there are less emotionally satisfying scenes than, say, a dog greeting you eagerly at the door. Take this, for instance:
This is Tabitha, our youngest, by a new ink stain on our sitting room carpet.  You can see the wet-vac in the far right corner of the photo.  Yes, ladies and gents, the photo was taken after the cleanup.

Incidentally, the ink somehow hitched a ride on one of their toys and made a similar, though slightly less noticeable, stain in our TV room.

Even a house of professional students can underestimate the power a pen can wield.

Speaking Typing of pens, now to the academic segment of my post.  I’ve completely fallen in love with Twitter– for scholarly purposes, of course.  Other than my friends, my favorite groups/sites to follow are Medievalists, Al-Jazeera English, Gawker, Huffington Post, and Slate.  I posted yesterday about the A-J’s compilation of international responses to G/Qaddafi’s death, which I hope you found interesting, challenging, and revealing.

That I saw it on Twitter and reposted to a blog speaks to my next posted article from A-J, “Mass media, or public media?”  Its blurb reads, “The way communication is organised is developing as public societies encourage deliberations between equals.”  WAIT! Don’t give up! This is a really, really cool article, despite the brutally bumpy start.  Below is a slicker snippet describing the difference between public and mass societies.

In a public society the archetype of communication is a conversation between equals where ‘virtually as many people express opinions as receive them’ and ‘communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer any opinion expressed in public’. A public, as opposed to a mass, can translate its opinions into effective action. It can change policy as its opinions change. In a mass society, on the other hand, the most characteristic form of communication is a broadcast that delivers one unanswerable voice to millions of quiet and attentive listeners. There is little or no scope for individuals to answer back to the messages they receive. There is certainly no way that the inhabitants of a mass society can translate their opinions into politically effective action.

Certainly, we can see what’s at stake here.  The article goes on to suggest that shortcomings in the media over the recent years have inspired “politically motivated publics” to assemble online and in person, having recognized that mainstream media’s coverage “doesn’t make sense, that the machinery of representative politics is broken, and that these two are aspects of the same problem.”   

Here is the rest of the article. Enjoy!
Until soon, my fellow media participants.  Keep your pens on the ready– and away from pets.

Holy rhetorical analysis, Batman!

IF ONLY I had time in my rhetoric of news unit to cover this! I might just print it out for them anyway. Below is a link to responses across the globe to Gaddafi’s death. Wildly, wildly fascinating insight.

Gaddafi’s death: World reaction – Africa – Al Jazeera English

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