How Soon Is Now?

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Most films I’ve seen tend to open with extreme long shots. Likewise, the cinematography employed in first minute is often termed to be establishing shots since this is where audiences are granted their first taste of perspective; and in these shots, the camera is impartial in being parallel. Subjects are occluded by a literal and figurative bigger picture as visuality unfolds along a linear axis. But this indistinction isn’t exclusive to long shots. Even in close ups or medium shots, impersonality can be effected since subjects themselves preclude the absence of narrative. Ambiguity may also maintain characters as unknowns if we can’t discern or relate to their motives.

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Which is probably why nothing gets under my skin quite like psychological horror. It’s a subgenre whose horrors I have yet to fully describe, but maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s meant to invoke aversion—angst, fear, irresolution, loathing—by an inarticulate form of unnerving. It’s a distinct vein in the body of horror. There’s no pun intended when I say the body of horror has become a corpse. It’s an apt figure of speech since the horror genre has become oversaturated with a multitude of half-assed tropes whose imitability have devolved into pastiche and clichés which cheapen narratives as camp and disingenuous. The vein of psychological horror isn’t exempt from the corpse-like genre’s autolysis, which explains why it’s acclimated—if not, collapsed—with hallucinatory dei ex machina purported to be abstract.

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For me, good psychological horror films lead down a path which turns outs to be along a hillside. You don’t think to go on because the rise is unassuming; but no matter how far you go, something seemingly innocent or happenstance always occludes the apex. When you finally reach the top, you settle in to take in the view—only to realize that all along, there was a path next to yours. Not only is it adjacent, it’s well-trodden and whoever has walked it is worlds ahead of you. When you retrace your steps, you discover that your path wasn’t a ‘path’; not because it was fundamentally different, but because you’ve got nothing to prove there was ever any path at all. Still, you know there was a path. There had to be. How else could you be here? After a cursory glance, you realize you actually aren’t at the top; but the path you’re so sure of has yet to manifest. However, whatever lies ahead is on even ground. There’s no up or down. There’s just forward. It just makes sense to distrust whether you proceed or pack it in. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given humankind’s tendency to destroy itself, you have to wonder if there’s such a thing as an advance. Except this outlook isn’t about logic or entropy. It’s personal. Everything in your life has led you to this point. You lived under the impression that you were going somewhere; you were meant for somewhere.

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Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Psychological horror plays upon the mundane. It evokes fear in the fact that life as we know it is and always will be fractal despite the totality of the human mind. This subgenre’s best movies effect that catharsis comes down to alienation and disenchantment; and living under the weight of revelation that you were never really alive to begin with, wondering if you’ll ever feel alive, or resigned to the conclusion that one can never truly feel alive in the absence of delusion. These prospects aren’t fantasy-like or speculative. They’re real, if not imminent. Life itself as a phenomenon is novel, but each life as it manifests is empirically unremarkable. Existence is recurrent. Evolution doesn’t boil down to cultures or technologies because everything is already preset. In this way, history is bound to repeat itself because the knowledge of the past hasn’t inclined us to heed it. There is no God or angels regardless of how miraculously one may take flight because any ascent is contingent upon obliging demons a priori. Any happy ending or inspirational anecdote is moot, if not fallacy when disparity has a predetermined meaning.

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It’s been a while since I’ve cracked open Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Ligotti; but I remember what they were on about. I’m sure when I dust off their classics—wherever they may be in my never-ending library—I’ll be able to better relate psychological horror to continental philosophy for an academic article down the line. Which makes me think of a recent exchange I had on campus. These days, as a PhD student, I’m usually the most senior in my [required] elective classes. I happened to take one last semester which concerned philosophy and artificial intelligence, specifically if the latter could be capable of sentience or actual intelligence.

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Although the crux of its was philosophical, this class was cross-listed as a psychology course; and I only mentioned that because that might account for why it ended up being predominantly dudes, some of whom were edgelords (and some of whom I’ve seen lurk and whinge on campus pages). One day, we happened to gloss over the virulent egotism and bigotry of an infamous academic who happens to be a patron saint for today’s edgelords. The fact that those in my class incline people to “consider” them is unsurprising. I found one of my fellow students who proceeded to explain Nietzsche surprising—and amusing. Nietzsche came up since he was frequently cited (and laughably, misread) by the notorious aforementioned academic.

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I pretended not to know anything about him; I let this student—who was an undergrad with little, if any background in philosophy (or by extension: early modern and contemporary studies, classics, English, and miscellaneous social sciences or humanities—all of which I was familiar with or had aced)—try to explain what was behind [and what justified that bogus scholar’s reference of] Nietzsche, of all people! I won’t recount the bullshit he proceeded to relay as if it were remotely corrigible; but I will say it was surreal to see someone so woefully wrong feign expertise, even as they registered that their inarticulation betrayed their very own fallacy.

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Which is kind of a good segue into the film I watched this week, Abandon. It follows Catherine ‘Katie’ Burke (played by Katie Holmes), a university senior whose ambition and meticulosity ensures she is bound for a corporate ascent. The plot is driven by the pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (played by Charlie Hunnam) whose estate seeks to declare him deceased given his disappearance two years ago. Benjamin Bratt rounds out the narrative tripartite as Detective Wade Handler who is tasked with privately investigating the case. Although it’s been dubbed as psychological horror and likened to the realm of mystery, Abandon employs psychological horror at its core. It’s a series of everyday albeit eerie sketches which unearth many seeds which have failed to flourish for our three points of interest. Repression is personified mainly in Katie, the austere beauty whose fanatic WPM and hyper-focused scholarship overshadow her sense of self, time, and space; while Embry—the bourgeoise narcissist with a penchant for theatre—embodies sanctimony and mania. Handler represents a grim sense of wonder as his gazes seems to search offscreen, into the distance, in pursuit of something further than answers; something I suspect may reference one of many ruinous machinations of modern capitalism wherein happiness ceases to overcome the technologies which augment reality, prosperity, and celebrity.

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Each character, including those peripheral (such as the now wider-knowns: Gabrielle Union, Tony Goldwyn, and Zoey Deschanel), is walking a hillside path despite lacking any concept of summit. Abandon builds upon this, but falls short because it lacks continuity and momentum. Integral aspects of character development are only referenced in passing. These could’ve been explored as opposed to several emphases on impersonal character exchanges. The institutional angle of Abandon—through lenses of post-secondary education, neo-liberalism, and law enforcement—effects just how much success and survival are operant upon quick, superficial, and incisive insights as opposed kindness or principle. In terms of cinematography, the film employs a maximum visual and expressive use of the depth of field in long-shots which are underscored by foreboding scores. Fatalism and disconnected are further conveyed as the characters’ interrelation is conveyed through a singular or flattened planes. These span cool palettes and barren landscapes.

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For viewers, the horror of Abandon is one that bleeds in. We’re gradually unnerved as we watch Katie, Embry, Handler, and the rest of the ensemble scurry by because we’re inclined to consider our own paths in contrast. Thematically, this is what defines the film. As we wade onward, even as we may have yet to cultivate any sense of direction, the people and the world as we once knew fall away; but even if we’ve outgrown them, we can never shake the sense that it is us who they’ve left behind. People don’t persist because of any particular objective, but because they are constantly reminded of how little the world thinks of them. As we grow older, we don’t grow freer. We aren’t entrusted with independence and responsibility in adulthood, we’re categorically tasked with such as we’re expected to hold our own on the market.

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And, that’s really at the heart of Abandon. It drives home that our most poignant moments ensue when we find ourselves as alienated and isolated, instead of appeased by some abstract sense of reckoning or greater good. People are vainly inclined to emulate some semblance life even as they gradually die inside because of what alienation prevails during our formative years.

 

When The Party’s Over

…if it ever started.

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I think a part of growing up in this day and age is discerning IRL prospects from fickle social capital. This may be part and parcel with the assertion: “High school doesn’t last forever,” a proverb engrained upon young student bodies by various adults; mostly career or guidance counsellors. The saying didn’t really resonate during the first half of the twentieth century since success and acceptance had been so politicized in terms of aristocracy and respectability. Since face was so esteemed, there wasn’t such a thing as outgrowing your class: literal or figurative.

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Then, “High school doesn’t last forever” was only alluded to in the sixties given the ascent of the middle class along with scores of rags to riches celebrities who became staples of transcendence, divination, and countercultures.

During the late seventies, it became a mantra to empower marginalized academics; people who were defined by isolation and scarcity with a penchant for STEM fields—who would go on to cultivate lucrative empires, some of which are revered to date. This carried on into the eighties where class divisions somewhat coalesced since students could be sponsored more openly as opposed to exclusively, if not painstakingly chosen or moderated by private benefactors. These ascensions would play into the innately contradictory pastiche of decadent albeit disillusioned yuppies and revellers. New drugs along with new cults [of celebrity and Darwinian sci-fi angles] bled into what became an antithetical outlook of existentialism and nihilism.

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What drove home the mantra was how everyone could relate to how high school was particularly hateful and hierarchal. Knowing it literally was only a matter of time was said as an assurance. What was ironic was that it had to be said in the first place, because it evinced the inaction of the adults who floated this consolation. The toxic cultures of high school were bred by the same people who sold this proverb as motivational. There were no callouts or interventions. No expulsions. Not much beyond a slap on the wrist. The very same people who swore the anguish wouldn’t last forever either ignored or idled by as it happened. Except in these decades, students had a firmer grasp of world events and a whiff of corporate politics. The wider range of press, peer groups, along with the seamless portals between nightlife and the high life shaped their emotive and intellectual landscapes—and with that came not only the cognizance, but reactions to adult hypocrisy.

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Of course, hypocrisy was nothing new; its awareness just materialized as a rite of passage. Pop culture monetized tropes of student solidarity on a local level. The villainous parliamentarians and warmongers were still screwing the world over, but students were inclined to note how they were otherwise antagonized; and to an extent, to note how their protectors [parents, guardians, voting or apathetic adults] had themselves played into the hands of the evil, elite overseers—whose legacy they would fare against once they grew up.

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The more they stewed and speculated, the clearer things became. The immediate adults didn’t have their best interests at heart which was even more of a betrayal than the tyrannous conglomerates. So, the objective became to overthrow, not merely outwit disgruntled parents and educators.

Even though ranks were clear, peer groups diversified by interest. There were still kings and queens, but also monarchies—which wasn’t too different from the real world. What marked the shift in the later decade was how one could not only climb ranks, but climb as high as they desired by any means possible to the chagrin of peers and elders. Growing up afforded the prospect of independence and outclassing anyone at anytime.

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Which would be great if life was only about reputation. The consolation that there are bigger fish to fry in the sea of life as well as possessing the agency to move with, lead, or even surpass the school doesn’t hold much water for the people who must swim against the tide. Everyday people internalized a morsel of that when they found themselves alienated; wholly investing in systems and socialites only to turn up short. The “cool kids” were everywhere and nowhere—the selective [back then, rare] social influencers, the glamorous heirs, the ingenious economists, the reclusive visionaries—all of whom were just as likely to be the gold stars or the odd ones out in high school.

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By the time the nineties rolled round, people began to notice that there was a distinct singularity of the real-time scene king or queen. They offered little, if anything of real value that was usually in the form of a single “circumstantial” asset. The royals were by default conventionally attractive which made their “good looks” unremarkable—something people invariably learned through the billion-dollar beauty industries which banked upon consumer insecurities, and the gatekeepers who absconded them. Beyond that, what was there? Contagious laughter? Comic “genius”? A golden arm or other appendage? Generous allowances?

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Whatever it was, it was always one thing. There was a range of depth (or lack thereof) in terms of personality or what made the cool kids unique as people in and of themselves; but when it came to popularity, all of that was insubstantial. While this fact wasn’t new, it struck home in the nineties for most of the same reasons students were inclined to think more critically about what did/didn’t set apart their peers and protectors decades before. The nineties just drew this out more because [of] most civil wars had been escalated or prolonged to a disastrous precipice; the hypervisibility and Othering of drug epidemics and state sanctioned brutality; the individualism and idealism which defined Generation X; and many people believed 2000 would be the end of the world.

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This decade also saw a break where adults could no longer assume an inactive or misguided whilst condescending stance for youth. What were understood to be adult ills found their way to high schools and afflicted students therein. Adults couldn’t simply sit back and assure students nothing lasted forever in this decade because by then, things had gone too far to the wayside on a grand scale. Surviving high school became a feat in itself. The drug use, gun violence, and a burgeoning attempt to acknowledge rape culture yielded too many casualties. I also think that a good chuck of adults in this era were also incentivized to act since they bore in mind their own youthful revelations and resistances. They had seen casualties firsthand of their own or of others. Grassroots initiatives and community outreach became transformative staples. Anti-bullying, anger management, and gun control (and education) campaigns emerged in the tragic wake of murderous spats between students. Active efforts were also explored to better suicide prevention. The derisive resolve of grunge icons and the underground also inclined folks against uncritically revering authority.

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And, that all gradually wilted once the internet flourished. There was the upside in enabling connectivity, insulating communities, and open access information. However, none of that outweighed the cons: cyberbullying, cyber-stalking, death threats, doxing, romanticism; and how the power of numbers is subverted to quantify rather than qualify merit, instead of uniting a working majority against a corrupt minority who control natural and monetary reservoirs.

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While people started to question and outgrow the popularity complex and the one-dimensionality of those at the top, the 2000s saw the internet completely transform the cult of the individual. Social media imbued users with a wealth of tools to assume airs. Unlike what folks came to see as the garden variety patrician IRL, online personae assume a sentience because of technological matrices. This is evinced in the disparities between the Kiki who gleans acclaim [by means of circulation and validation] from tens of thousands online, everyday people and celebrities alike; and the unremarkable mendicant who is ultimately faceless and penniless IRL.

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Truth or Die (also known as Truth or Dare) is one of many movies at whose heart is the confrontation of shifting positionalities and the culture shock of new versus old technologies. It follows the familiar setup of scores unsettled and bones unpicked premised through flashbacks which afflict what’s intended to be a friendly reunion. One of the integral conflicts sees a main character’s (Felix, played by Tom Kane) unrequited crush that sows discord—which would go on to ultimately hollow past and prospective relationships. While the character’s trauma remains in the foreground, a core focus is their deficit social capital as a result.

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While the murder mystery that unfolds is rather formulaic, what makes Truth or Die unique is the lens of it looks through. Reality hinges upon the fact that media and capital are at odds in how they serve to disrupt or fracture social networks. The main characters comprise a peer group whose members were popular in trademark fashion: the archetype one who is an optimist, the goof, the athlete, the rich, the rationalist—but nobody was ever more than one. The present day reunion makes for a contemporary past their former lives were set in, which informs the precarious rank they held over their nonplussed classmates.

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True to the adage, the group dissolves as time passed. They grow enraged, then estranged after a fallout. Most of them forget one another as they make new ties once they sever old ones. Felix’s brother, Justin—played by the handsome David Oakes [who has made me salivate since The Borgias]—orchestrates their reunion. He invites them to a dinner party; the occasion to celebrate Felix’s homecoming; the venue being a cabin on his family’s estate. While some might cite the lack of character development or back story could hamper the story, I find thats exactly what strengthens the narrative in respect to the theme of reunion. Whats past or present is inconsequential since these archetypes, just like those of high school realities, are genuinely unlikeable characters. It doesnt matter where they came from, where theyre headed, or what trials and tribulations they face. Theyre the cool kids. Their existenceand statusis contingent upon their often cruel subjectification of others. Nothing justifies that. No insight into their personal lives or catharses would elicit sympathy; which is what makes Justin’s creed somewhat identifiable, if not noble. This role also drives home Oakes’ virtuosity as an actor. At least, if you’ve kept up with his filmography. This is one of many characters which evince his mutability. His personae are superb since he’s totally believable as hero or villain, and he’s married the two in this latest crusade.

20This kind of rising action isn’t exactly new, but precarity is what marks this departure: how easily havoc can be wrought by ranks and media is what’s thematic of the overall film. I found Truth or Die more honest and grounded than similar series—Gossip Girl being the infamous example—in its dynamics and execution. Profound revelations bleed through point blank dialogue in the absence of cosmic or quirky coincidences. The lack of pretension redirects viewers to the actual plot rather than suspend their disbelief. And the cinematography that hones in on every subject through mostly mid to tight closeups emphasizes both literal and figurative faces. An expressive focus is further diffused by russet, sparsely furnished interiors and dark forest thickets which comprise the mise-en-scène.

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There’s also an element of surrealism as bites of a melancholic, transcendent narration muse upon both living and dying in the moment. Moreover, how the moment loses rather than retains meaning as new technologies emerge to record it. Truth or Die incorporates a dimension of mastery which motivates one’s compulsion to photograph, videotape, scrapbook, or otherwise archive; where one can always assume a degree of control—however small or significant—over a moment that technology can capture. It also relates to a generational divide; where antiquated technologies crystallize precious moments versus the profuse modern, individual histories which hang online through public archives and activity logs.

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However, Truth or Die falls short in its adherence to the archetype tale. Occasional campy exchanges and emphatic, spontaneous outbursts undermine narrative tension. This ends up reducing a chunk of reactions to stilt performances. Erraticism then minimizes the characters’ desperation as they try to bully out confessions and search for escape routes. It’s hard to believe they’re driven wholly by a sense of urgency as they saunter through scene by scene since they can’t be bothered to tread lightly. It’s even harder to believe they’re sympathetic as they turn on one another in a way that’s more flighty than callous.

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Then, there’s Felix as a framing device: the clumsy recluse everyone is so keen to demoralize. His credulity makes for an obvious red herring. The camerawork is also a bit shaky in parts where it shouldn’t be; and cuts which go from straight on to canted angles disjoint the focus, particularly in sequences with dialogue.

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And, the obvious thread that ties everything together here is that life does indeed beat beyond high school. Ironically, this is a pretty obvious element that tends to be downplayed or entirely overlooked in high school whodunnit reunion tales. The only explicit, fleshed out references to high school are ambivalent flashbacks that allude to potential murder motives or scenes within (or following) the climax when the culprit is unmasked. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case given the literal premise of these tales. It’s a shame because it’s such a simple, clever way to frame plot and character development—which in itself motivates why people have high school reunions.

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No matter how much times change, the saying that “High school doesn’t last forever” resonates on the principle that happiness and bragging rights await those who take playground politics in stride. People don’t show up to high school reunions to check in or rekindle friendships. They show up to show out: drive home how they’ve become “cool kids” in their own right; gloat over how the cold, real world of adulthood overshadows whatever twinkled at the centre lunch table or bleachers.

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The motive is petty in hindsight, but something most of us can relate to. I’m not exactly stewing over things everyday, every time, plotting in the wilderness; wearing a skull shirt and trench coat, resolving to enact vengeance—only to realize no matter what, it will always consume me long after the final execution. But I’m aware there are past qualms I’ve yet to suss out which have manifest in how I relate to things; and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the teeniest bit vindicated if I heard tragedy struck the monsters I knew in high school. Truth or Die acknowledges this not so guilty pleasure as it reinforces not only how far its circle of friends have fallen from glamorous graces, but how these falls serve as comeuppance. Nobody is perfect nor are they exempt from karma, but there are certain people who are duly dealt a distinct brand of just deserters.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

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As innovative as they seem, I think these up and coming social media personalities (especially, the marginalized peoples) have hard[er] times ahead. Because the more likes/followers/subscribers they see will do little, if anything to aid them as they face a glaring disconnect. Seldom do they discern that their lived realities [from which they draw reference] will remain incongruous to the faceless, gratuitous reverence of their online lives.

I find this to be a sad debacle, but the phenomenon is nothing new. Alan, Kali, and Damon** are MGMT majors who were kind enough to share some insights on this with me. They’re no strangers to social media, networks, or marketing; and their understandings of connections have been further augmented by their own anecdotes.

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Together, we scroll through some of the more popular feeds; feeds filled with profiles who, in the wake of disastrous house bills and vitriolic campaigns, have ascended with viral insights and have cited their positionalities in opposition. For the most part, they’re all stars. There are few people unfamiliar with their handles, bylines, or explosive exploits. Beyond the sedentary, salaried constellations appear to be charismatic figures on the rise. Their statuses have been shared tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times; many of which have been screenshot and shared longer and further. Some have been relayed offline to accessorize gigs and lectures. Others have been printed, then postered around to accentuate existent disparities.

The MGMT scholars I’ve met shake their heads. What strikes them are the crowdfunds, rustic crafts, and miscellaneous independent projects which are peddled by the creators—and drive home the callosity of capitalism wherein the survival of marginalized peoples is most precarious, visionary or otherwise.

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It’s the paradox of social capital, I gather. It means nothing if it can’t be monetized.

Alan shrugs, then shifts in his seat: “This is the difference between people like these and celebrities.”

Alan is from El Salvador. He spent the better parts of his life backpacking through South and Central America as a volunteer for several outreach programs. He describes himself as a rolling stone: shuffled between homes and schools after his parents were murdered by the Contras. Business came some years after he became more involved in community service. He found himself alongside diverse personnel amidst various grassroots initiatives, many of whom were stretched too far and too thin. Alan resolved to take business in an effort to further aid; and he was impressed with how entrepreneurs prospered through free-access, social media technologies.

We met two years ago through an academic support network. Sharing many of the same politics, frustrations, and rants against the institution led us to become fast friends. Back then, he was relatively new to social media. Not much has changed, but he made a point to join Twitter.

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“Less than a tenth of the people who are seen the most are paid the most,” he shrugs. “Nobody ever stops to think that isn’t a coincidence.”

As resourceful as most graduate students tend to be, Alan started an independent marketing company last winter. It’s one of many side jobs he’s taken since his scholarships have declined and academic employment rates have become touch-and-go. The most important yet seldom mentioned aspect of grad school is how things very rarely stay on schedule, which results in what essentially become indefinite degrees. I suspect this is why graduate admissions now require payment [bank] statements and funding outlines prior to acceptance; because the academic industrial complex need be assured students are able, regardless if they are willing to pay in the instance of whatever (or whomever) may prolong their programs.

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Ceasing that tangent, I refocus on Alan’s marketing hustle. He retains several clients, all either founding independent brands or hopeful startups. Their biggest misconception, he says, is believing high numbers of likes/follows/shares are tantamount to success.

“It [this misconception] comes from celebrities,” he explains. “People see celebrities all the time. They think they’re seeing the whole picture, but that’s not even a fraction of the picture.”

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“I think it’s apart of social engineering,” Kali adds. She muses about how commercials wire us to process things in a weird way, as if we’re granted an exclusive look although everyone else is also watching. Her anthropology thesis spanned surveillance and state control. What I read as the main takeaway: the irony of how it takes nothing for unseen sources to moderate hypervisible masses. Kali says her research and the humanities’ precarious job sector led to her marketing. Like Alan, she earns extra income by providing consultant social media [marketing-campaign] services. It takes very little for her to profile prospective clients.

“The thing is, business is a constant,” she states. “So is the state of crisis.”

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Essentially, Kali thinks that the world hasn’t—and won’t—stop turning despite how bad things become. This is evinced in how no scale of devastation unnerves how seamlessly capital is maintained by popular culture and celebrities. It’s something Kali finds jarring to behold. She also mentioned this last year when we met at a conference, then again once we reconnected this spring.

On the surface, Kali relates to much of what’s said by these increasingly popular profiles; whose positionalities are also marginalized. However, she is cognizant of the reality that chafes beneath. Kali once comprised these ranks years ago. Before her accounts were resolutely suspended [due to notoriously faulty algorithms], then shut down after trolls doxxed her: her posts enjoyed a torrential traffic. Her virality earned her an occasional shoutout and invite to panels; and caught the eye of a publisher who solicited her manuscript. She remembers being awestruck after what felt like innumerable photo shoots, speaking events, and the odd compliment from an A- or B-lister who strayed into her mentions.

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This recollection makes her eyes glassy—because it’s bittersweet. What began as a somewhat cathartic outlet to rage against the machine and pride an identity she’d concealed in her small town, became a hollow testament. All she put out in the world—for every person she’d served as fodder or inspiration—had amounted to little, if anything in return. Almost every labour or appearance had been unpaid; and she could barely afford trinkets with the rare, modest honorarium. Despite what seemed to be avid fans, her book barely sold. Her publisher shortchanged her advance: a loss she’s swallowed since it was substantially less than what she would’ve had to pay—and couldn’t successfully crowdfund—in legal fees. Moreover, her transparency had proven for the worst since she was eventually outcast from her IRL community and couldn’t garner any aid from her online one.

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Kali and I have shared dark chapters with each other which I won’t detail, but I will say her spirit never ceases to amaze me. Nor does her ability to keep a clear head. In a rather objective fashion, she pegs a handful of profiles I’ve shared. Bound for hurdles, she says. That is, if they don’t log off indefinitely. She already recognizes two whose online presence have waned in the wake of IRL afflictions. She also notes their calls to aid and action which have been met with silence. Yet, their viral insights are crystallized. They continue to be shared, cited, and [I suspect] plagiarized.

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Damon attributes this to the market itself. He holds a degree in communications with a minor in history. Social media, he believes, is like Hollywood. Rather, what we’re sold as the image of Hollywood. He discerns how much the picture varies from the reality: how inessential glamour or ambition are against the grain of contracts, cliques, and callbacks. Damon says going viral is a matter of making lightning in a bottle, then cultivating something steady from the static. The common ruts people find themselves in are to get hung up on trying to build the perfect storm or to glean something similar from the ensuing charge. For Damon, thinking in terms of lightning is key. The jolt is a practical metaphor. It illustrates that the means to success are just as fickle as their constituents.

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Damon grew up in Buxton, North Carolina: a small town with the lion’s share of attractions in a string of islands known as Cape Hatteras. The kind of place where no nook or cranny is beyond a nodded hello or goodbye in passing. It was also the kind of place that thrived on tourism, which is how Damon came to consider business in his sophomore year. Seasons saw the town littered with what he recalls were “obscenely wealthy and wasteful” businessmen. Once he befriended their kids—who were his age at the time—he followed their suit in ways to connect, and that was how he got on social media. Intrigued by the burgeoning personalities and debacles, he resolved to explore how advertisements could abridge what he understood to be long lasting impressions.

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In the winter of 2008, seemingly out of nowhere, Damon saw a dramatic shift online. Lightning had struck, then burnt out the cool kids. Scandals deposed royals whose reigns dated back to grade school. When tensions bled offline, the damage proved irrevocable. Damon recalls how the wave had been tidal, how nobody expected it; although in hindsight, he believes the outcome was inevitable. He muses that insecurity and malice underpin popularity; and that the public nature of respectability and social media graft a performative dimension which cheapen [what are purported to be] transparency or sincere messages. These elements would precipitate what people—players and onlookers alike—knew to be an unspoken creed of artifice and umbrage until they peaked to brew a perfect storm.

For Damon, this explained why and how easily the mighty had fallen—to be instantaneously replaced. He says the key in working social media to your advantage is realizing that inconstancy is the only constant. This is why many rising stars are fated to burn out. If they don’t wane under adversities on- or offline, they’re likely to dim against the lustre of shinier newcomers.

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Unlike Alan and Kali, Damon works decidedly less in marketing. Odd, outdoorsy jobs—trades he’s learned from his family—make up the bulk of his extra income. In terms of MGMT, he strives for employment in the private sector. This semester is thankfully his last, he tells me.

Sifting through choice feeds, he adds: “The problem is…they forget there are people behind the profiles.”

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This statement holds true as users wade through the drag culture online that fosters immediate albeit erratic esteems; a culture characterized by varying degrees of deprecation and harassment—often under the guise of tough love or comic relief as an offshoot. But Damon says this to address platformers directly; noting how particular figures peddle empowerment, but actually thrive upon the misery of others since they are unable to monetize or romanticize their own. He discerns that there’d been countless falling outs amongst the cool kids, many of which ended either amicably or in blocks. People buying their own hype is what set it ablaze, he says. Rather, too many people.

Alan, Kali, and Damon conclude that bearing in mind the people is key: real people exist within and beyond whatever discourse or canon they assume. Social media has afforded people relatively accessible platforms whereupon one might speak, be heard, and resonate apart from a world at large that silences them. It enables people to connect with one another, learn, educate, in addition to cultivating local and international initiatives.

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However, the individualism of profiles is contingent upon the falsity of [what I’ll call] ‘lone supremacy’; that is, the misbelief of one being invaluable or holding inerrant mastery. Pillars within communities (however sincere or disingenuous) fail to grasp that people and therefore, ranks are interconnected. The engagement—likes and shares; subscribers and followers—that subsist profiles is no exception. Whatever social capital is generated becomes indistinct since all capital is controlled by the state. This is why voices alone prove fruitless for speakers. Mere statements, however insurrectionary or insightful, are rendered vacant once they manifest upon platforms which themselves are a form of enterprise.

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Which goes back to Alan’s earlier distinction between these figures and celebrities. The latter are integral to (and consequently operant through) imperialist propaganda; endorsed by conservative corporate interests. Conservatism strives to conserve, not equalize or challenge modes of power. In contrast, independent figures tend to clamour for clout; marked by misadventures as they aspire to become ringleaders in the online circus—a futile distinction as hegemonic powers have commodified and now define the carnivalesque.

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Neither prosper on their own merits, but the individual figures are discerned as particularly unremarkable. The world doesn’t revolve around them and under no circumstances will it cease to turn. Moreover, their virtual support systems are intangible; dislocated by the industrial complex wherein they struggle to survive. Those who pay them lip service pay them little, if anything else. What marks the circus is that it’s definitively performative. Whether audiences boo or applaud, their presence is always in passing. Their lives process beyond the tent. For the attractions, there’s not much beyond the ring.

Fame is a long, if not endless trivial pursuit for public figures of any variety. The same could be said about seeking validation. Catharsis is an even rarer prospect. People seem more intent to press forward than process lessons learnt from times past: another mortal flaw upon which social media thrives and exacerbates. The cursory ovation it corrals doesn’t hold up in the long run. The same can be applied to the historic decline of actual circuses which grew obsolete against entertainment technologies; and further into what derision, poverty, and isolation characterized the offstage lives of performers. We need only look at trenders to see that not much has changed in this vein.

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Alan identifies this as a principle in advertising: “Everything is always great—even when it’s not. Happy or sad, people are on a soapbox.” The platforms imbue everything with a sensational aspect. People fall short as they yield wholly to the immediacy of social capital and what whims it bolsters therein, despite no operative prospect of what comes next.

Kali suspects this also relates to audience retention since the pretence disinclines people to look away. Because enmity coexists with fascination, people goad and gauge unhealthy or unrealistic behaviours. She says this is why folks muster little, if anything for the [figure’s] rise whereas they relish the downfall. This is an important dimension as marginalized peoples may be consumed as well as surveilled to the amusement of more privileged positionalities, only to be placated by saccharine acclaim. The truth is unspoken because it’s inconvenient.

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As an avid reality TV fan, Damon agrees; nothing that independent figures are different than contractually obligated (and remunerated) personalities. Certain whims can be indulged within the realms they are dramatized. Lone figures aren’t so much “indulged” as they are misled to believe their adversities are mere brooks to pass. He thinks back to the circus parallel, saying that history really repeats itself.

We pride ourselves in this day and age for our “progress”; as if our modern technologies and sociological strides enable us to live easier and repress less than our ancestors. But the old world has a way of coming back to haunt us, whispering within until we are likewise aggrieved; and our foundations in life as we know it fracture, stone by stone. What we’re faced with is a myopic weight we can under which we may yield or moderate.

**Names have been changed in this story for personal reasons and to avoid associations with clientele

List of Illustrations

Ivan Shishkin
Swiss Landscape (1866)
Hovel (1861)
Cows Under the Oak (1863)
Herd Under the Trees (1864)
In the Grove (1869)
Landscape (1861)
Backwoods (1872)
Pine Forest (1866)
Pine on Sand (1884)
Little House in Dusseldorf (1856)
Birch Grove (1896)
Summer (n.d.)

Winslow Homer
The Gulf Stream (1906)
The Coral Divers (1885)
The Water Fan (1899)
Nach Dem Tornado (1889)
The Portage (n.d.)
The Woodcutter (1891)
Shooting the Rapids (1902)
Shark Fishing (1885)

 

The Kids Aren’t Alright

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The word “freedom” in its most common iterations has been and will likely remain such a romantic and bourgeois concept. I could say the same for terms like “self-care” and “solidarity” given how social media has advanced. In this day and age, the prospect of this commodification seems like a Black Mirror episode. I don’t say that because of some dystopian, authoritarian regime. I say it as an old millennial who’s lived through various social media startups; and who’s watched technologies breed toxic, viral online cults of the individual. When the internet took off—back when dial-up was a novelty, long before high speed—I was too young to process the implications of an open access world stage, but I was old enough to appreciate and beaters in tandem with the pulse of globalized connectivity.

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I related to profiles and trends on the other side of world. I published my first stories and poems through a number of fandom sites, and I received critical feedback. I also encountered forum moderators on power trips and profiles whose popularity insulated them from accountability, if not reality. There were also targeted harassments and death threats hurled close to home. The worldwide web and its hubs had pros and cons which I barely managed to navigate. All in all, I was incredibly lucky—literally. Luck is the only thing I can liken it to: I managed to surf the web relatively unscathed despite torrents of online predators, burgeoning Mean Girls and stalkers, on top of miscellaneous cyberbullies, some of whom would go on to instrumentalize -bait message boards and revenge porn.

Maybe I was just lucky to be apart of a generation that came of age around the tail end of the early IMs, MySpace, and LiveJournal; the latter two which I never really got into. Few of us seemed to register the very hard and real consequences of our glamorous, invincible online personae: personalities which can now bleed into offline violences evidenced by the organized hate campaigns and fatalities which prompted today’s rampant cyber-safety initiatives.

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When these platforms hit, it was under the guise of affording users a unique and ideal way to articulate their narratives. Personalization was the lure. It wasn’t just a colour scheme change or avatar. It was an entire profile which offered an individual composite that interlocked with other profiles. You could be unique to last detail, but simultaneously apart of something. It started off as basic, then the gravity hit once people were exposed or locked out. The old school technologies were somewhat innocuous in that their limitations beguiled their users and observers. Things becoming more personal and capable didn’t enable solidarity or connectivity. They inclined users to critically consider that there were real people behind the profiles.

Real people who could suffer real consequences.

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Which seems harmless when it comes to particularly deplorable subjects; like that lawyer whose rant against Spanish speakers went viral, the Yale student who saw fit to call the police on a fellow student asleep in the campus lounge, and the like.

Except these [many] cases don’t account for the bigger picture: the plethora of users—everyday people, many marginalized peoples—who are antagonized at large. The onslaught of one’s personal information—hometown, relatives, high school, college, employment, etc.—coupled with unchecked, poorly moderated usage ceases to reinforce ties rather than sever them.

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At large, the social media conglomerates we know now meant that Big Brother wasn’t watching anymore because people simply (perhaps unwittingly) volunteered all their information. For all the good plugging in seemed to yield back when I was younger, the bad has since profoundly evolved. There isn’t an expiry or vast scrubbing option. Regardless of how far back they stretch, our highs and lows have been immortalized and are able to nullify how far we’ve come. Our meltdowns and milestones can be gleaned in a matter of clicks or mutuals, just as our hangouts and hobbies. It takes little, if anything for people to poke holes real-time.

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Unhealthy online habits have also transcended cyberspace as particular users don’t take kindly to intervention. This makes for two polarizing extremes: users whose IRL is demoralized and therein overshadowed by virtual anguish, and users divorced from reality as they’re insulated en masse by positive reinforcement. Both scenarios correlate to a world whose connective modes have become increasingly callow: a world where values aren’t earned as much as they’re amassed. Everything has always been for sale, but a new currency was introduced through contemporary social media technologies. These platforms enriched everyday people who grew loved and/or hated beyond their wildest dreams, which cultivated a new breed of celebrity whose merits are defined by cliques and compatibility. Consequently, merit is defined less [if at all] by talent.

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The charisma boils down to nostalgia for a paradise lost which in reality, is a world that never was; or a paradise promised which is a world that will never be. The appeal is less about substance than projection. All of the personalized nodes on social media optimize sharing with incentives for oversharing, which enable user audiences to live vicariously as well as intimately through personae. Which ironically desensitizes users to reality. The immersive, often ignoble insights bred online see users emulate caricatures and luxuriate despite their absence of privilege. Identification subverts the reality that one is just another number because they comprise the base of a higher power in numbers. This is why cyber-safety personnel strive to drive home not only the dangers of hypervisibility, but also anecdotes of profiles who’ve yet to reconcile their virtual esteem with real-time losses such as firings, assaults, bans, amongst other quandaries.

Quite simply, the charge gleaned from plugging in doesn’t cover other disconnects.

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Life offline isn’t as uncomplicated because our identities and settings are multifactorial and not so much compartmentalized. Tumult in real time can’t be blocked, muted, or filtered away. Our lives are largely defined by our adversities and adversaries: whether or not we overcome them, and how we identify them. Only they can get distorted. Networking technologies ushered users onto a world stage tailored to their own scripts—only to enact faulty Community Guidelines and algorithms which mismanaged curtain calls. They then leave users to their own devices when real life steals through their intermissions.

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I say all this to preface a new series I came across this week on Netflix: On Children. It’s a Taiwanese anthology series which has drawn comparisons to Black Mirror and The Girl from Nowhere given its dystopian read on technology, connectivity, and coming of age. But what sets On Children apart is how and why it drives home the impacts of social media and school as determinants (not mere accessories) of fate. Modern technologies and academia have altered our sense of self and identity in addition to concepts of home and happiness. Our conceptualization of success is a value system obliged in the scheme of colonization and white supremacy. Attempts to use race, class, gender, and the like to assign (or rescind) rank are exclusionary; and moreover, subjective as these characteristics are not impartial or ontological. On Children conveys how individualism—particularly as an aspect of neoliberalism and through the lens of childhood—is a paradox.

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From youth, people are conditioned to believe that assimilation and accumulation are the means to happiness and success; and despite their efforts, they are inevitably damaged and disillusioned. Parents and guardians are keen to encourage conformity as much as reverence for the imperialism and capitalism which comprise the world as we know it. They espouse principles of discipline and abstinence; they claim these principles lead to a payoff of wealth and acceptance. No sooner would they contest, if not acknowledge the historical and present socioeconomic violences marginalized peoples (including themselves) face. The legacy of colonialism informs our ancestry as much as current praxis. By that same token, technology magnifies this in its impersonal, bureaucratic nodes; especially in grading systems. Social media platforms and communications technologies are also crucial in fashioning mass responses—which takes on an even direr meaning when we consider the significance of payola and propaganda.

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The children at the heart of On Children speak to this in their narratives. The horror is how these tales are not far off in terms of life understood. What’s thematic of this series is the integration of virtual reality and uncompromising authority in discerning how children develop their sense of self (or lack thereof) in accordance to society, parenting, and identification. They don’t simply choose to go forward. They must. There is no alternative. There are no heroes or silver linings. And, there are no distinctions to be made since ultimately no customization or personal detail sets them apart. They agonize to achieve stellar grades only to discover that they are unremarkable. Scholarship is denoted by exhaustion and isolation which foreshadows failure in the grand scheme of life. After graduation, people are essentially small fish in a big pond because the real world is not contingent upon A’s or good character references. With the hyperlinked globalism of technology, the pond then becomes an ocean where students are bound to fail even further as they’ve yet scale amongst the school they swim within.

For me, On Children also hit close to home in my own studies and upbringing. The older I grow, the more I learn how much scholarship truly exists beyond the books and grade point averages. No amount of micromanagement [parental or otherwise] or academic integrity can thwart life’s course; just as no respectability politics will save us. Nothing really prepares you for the hard lessons in store. And, regardless of how hard you’ve worked, how far you’ve come, how “good” of a person you think you are, how much you’ve suffered: you aren’t guaranteed a happy ending.

Kissing Strangers

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I don’t like to call myself a writer. Bearing the occupation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I could own it. I make a little, but helpful income as a writer; specifically, ghostwriter. While I can’t disclose my clients, I have recognized my work elsewhere. I publish under my own penname and adjust my own prose accordingly to avoid plagiarizing myself since I’ve sold the rights to similarly created content. Moreover, my own writing earns exponentially less than ghostwriting.

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Which brings me to other hand: anyone can be a writer. Independent bestsellers are typically plucked from obscurity thanks to social media. Most of them lack middlemen or filters. If they don’t hire professional assistants or score a literary agent, they bank on shock value or cliqued networking; which requires a lot of time. It also requires patience and instinct. There may be distinct target demographics, but the public is altogether fickle—which is why things often change; why viral content that was once everywhere, palpable to everyone and everything dries up in a matter of weeks. People have a loose grasp of time in the market since they frame things in terms of immediacy.

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First impressions matter because gratification must be immediate. So, it’s unsurprising that fruitful figures tend to have a loose grasp of right and wrong; and even looser grasp of accountability, almost like children. They make little, if any sense of how the world turns and their place in it. I think this is why they people—buying or selling—never think to burn bridges; why they can go off the deep end only reel and reconcile. The only thing they seem to understand is that it pays to be popular, often by being provocative.

book2Fame is not unlike writing. It’s about quantity, not quality. Writers are seldom seen for their words, but their assets. Calling myself a writer inclines folks to ask not what I write, but what I’ve sold; and since I’m not really selling—at least, under my name—I don’t have any business calling myself one. The only things I have to show for my writing are a fat stack of manuscripts—novels, short stories, screenplays, an unfinished memoir—rivaled by an even thicker packet of rejection letters. A stray reader may leave a decent review. They have hope I can either improve or publish something to acclaim.

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I have bills. I have dependants.

I don’t have good sales skills, but I do have knowledge and a choice. I know that everything is for sale, even if money is not always the currency. I also know how invisible, impoverished and therefore, inconsequential I am. I know money is just paper and pieces of metal so, I have chosen to monetize this craft however I can to amass what I can of this constructed medium of exchange.

I have chosen survival.

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I’ve also just chosen one of many jobs. Ghostwriting is the ideal route for me since it’s simply supply and demand. It takes no time at all to get your feet wet as a content creator amongst classifieds. Each assignment affords you some scope to familiarize yourself with a client. More often than not, satisfied customers revisit your listing; and in a matter of months, you’ve built a recognizable and reliable client list. Rates climb slowly, but surely. The key to making the most of this is time management. You write off time for correspondence if you can’t schedule check-ins; if your subject requires research, you wade into whatever that may be. Most importantly, you spend time looking into your actual clients: if they have positive feedback, references, and good standing with their source of listing; which requires more time if you’re still building, shopping around.

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What sold me on ghostwriting is that it requires little to no audience engagement. I’m not on the prowl for potential readers; I’m not dangling freebies or swag on the prospect of sampler loyalties. If they haven’t found me already, my skillset is enough to solicit clients and earn me a guaranteed payment. This isn’t too unlike how regular jobs work: you clock in, clock out, and an employer pays you hourly; sometimes, a flat fee. The rate of pay is contingent on the economy and industry of your field. Time and pay coalesce when you work independently, albeit there are hurdles for entrepreneurs.

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Last Wednesday, two bills which were pitched to curb online sex trafficking passed the American Senate by a landslide. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) will criminalize the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” and those who “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” Overall, FOSTA and SESTA are initiatives which will screw over sex workers. These bills are poorly conceived because they conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work. They have no clause that discerns between consenting and non-consenting sex workers and clients, which will result in gross exploitation and potentially violent working conditions for regulars whom evade their execution.

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In the realm of ghostwriting, think of these bills as equivalents geared to criminalize—I don’t know, bad writers. FOSTA becomes the Fight Online Bad Writers Act (FOBWA) while SESTA turns into the Stop Enabling Bad Writers Act (SEBWA). The problem with the initiatives of FOBWA and SEBWA is that while they aim to outlaw bad writers, they do not have clauses which specify, let alone define what makes a good writer. Rather screening or prosecuting bad writers specifically, these bills would instead outlaw all writing. While I’m not the greatest writer, these bills would be ridiculous for obvious reasons; and if legislators endeavored to regulate the business of writing in the wake of these bills, I would probably have a smaller pool of clients and likely see even less of a profit due to service fees.

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While I’m not equating literary work with sex work, I can appreciate the entrepreneurial and ethical threats FOSTA and SESTA pose to sex workers. Moreover, the absence of social networks which concern sex work altogether bodes badly for present and prospective sex trafficking victims. Networks are comprised of safety nets and public records [however informal] which include reviews and references. In addition to actual job listings: advisory boards and mailing lists which cover everything from ringleaders to bad clients, to workers practices, to precautionary prompts and check-ins will now be shut down.

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Respectability politics are also at play as there are others, including writers, whose platforms are being suspended or shut down for what moderators deem to be inappropriate content in accordance to FOSTA and SESTA. There are independent erotica writers whose books have been removed from Amazon, CreateSpace, and Draft2Digital; and academics whose references to sex work have been wiped from their cloud storage. In light of how popularity propels profit, however, I doubt those cuts will be made regarding traditionally published authors or famed scholars.

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Of course, the implications for how bills like FOSTA and SESTA may influence other countries to erect and enact similar legislation are also huge. The implications are huge because the world at large seems disturbingly comfortable with the fact that life as we know it is contingent to debt and depression under some pretext of one paying their dues. Bestsellers or success stories who strike gold are the result of unlikely albeit lucrative gambles and inherited wealth. Survival within a corrupt, capitalist economy that positively reinforces those whom oppress or shortchange is further hindered by policy and profit motives.

For more information on FOSTA and SESTA, check out #SurvivorsAgainstsSesta and the immense insight of Phoenix Calida

[stock photos from kaboompics]

Wicked Games

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So, I’ve been seeing a lot lately re: Amazon’s new review policy. Apparently, it’s cracking down and either banning or removing what it deems to be biased reviews. Book bloggers are predictably outraged, if not panicking.

I mean, I understand this from the bloggers’ POV since reviews are essentially their brand and a stream of income. However, as the writer I am, I’m kind of confused. Because, it seems like the majority of the reviews are “biased” in regards to the actual business model and how bloggers come by these books to review in the first place—which neither affects writers like me here or there.

Yes, I understand the algorithms and formulae wherein numerous reviews amplify visibility. I also understand that there’s something to be said as to how one actually “procures” or solicits reviews. For traditionally published authors, reviews are typically solicited from mainstream outlets; Publisher’s Weekly, for example. Independent authors can appeal to that circuit with the right contacts or sales ranks to “merit” folks take a gander, I guess.

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Independent authors may or may not hire PR, PA’s, or promotional platformers to distribute free copies of their books to reviewers. There’s no payment for this. They’re giving away free books for folks to review at their discretion. These reviewers also have the option of simply not reviewing as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve received the book. PR, PA’s, and hub sites with master lists of reviewers just distribute your book. They may guarantee a certain number of reviews too, but from whom?

Moreover, independent authors have to pay for all this themselves. They don’t get promo budgets to spend like traditionally published authors and all that stuff is expensive; and writers like me quite frankly don’t have that disposable income. On top of actually writing, we’re editing, formatting, designing covers, and working otherwise. Plus, some of us aren’t editing, formatting, or designing the covers due to information and technology gaps or limited access—which is another expense.

And after all of that, we’re still prompted to simply gift our products for reviews in an attempt to stymie the system or for “great exposure” and pay more money for the privilege of distribution. It’s uncompensated labor and something I find to be a rather ethically ambiguous dynamic.

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Of course, there’s the alternative of simply approaching bloggers and “gifting” them ourselves without the middlemen of PR, PA, or boutique review hubs. Either way, the odds of them at any point in time actually buying our books to review them is slim.

Which again, is why I’m confused and a bit nonplussed by the outrage. These reviewers are freely given the fruits of our labours. They aren’t buying our books to review them, but we’re buying or begging to be reviewed. Not to mention, these reviewers aren’t actual “experts.” We’re not exactly paying to be graced by literary legends or those whose prowess is in prose. These are just everyday people. They’re regular readerships whom monetize the reviewing system. Jolene with thousands of followers, visitors, and reviews under her belt is indistinguishable from Brenda who just enjoys romance and decides to blog her reviews as a pastime. Either can get onto a reviewers’ list (and pocket) relatively easily if they’ve consistently reviewed, use social media, and know the lore of the big leagues. There are some hobbyists who don’t charge, but the lot does.

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Reviewing itself has become another lucrative industry thanks to the algorithms and specs determinant of our visibility and success. Folks are compensated for their reviews and quotas in some cases. These reviews aren’t mandatorily “good” either. Regardless of whether you just asked or paid, or the fact that it was a free read at your expense: they can still pan the book in their review—which you paid for, literally and figuratively. That’s not biased in itself. Everyone’s entitled to their view. Unfortunately, given the aforementioned, not everyone is entitled to be acknowledged.

For writers like me, it gets kind of worse.

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Often, independent authors do not take priority over traditionally published ones. From what I’ve seen, it’s somewhat odd to see that reviewers seem likelier to actually buy books from the latter as opposed to the former. Reviewers may have reading lists stretching into next year and it’s at their discretion which come first. Whether the priority is chronological or otherwise, they’re likelier to be keen to traditionally published authors or bestsellers first simply because they’re familiar. They may also be getting bonuses or other incentives independent authors may not be privy to [afford and/or award]. Besides, common names or well-known authors are popular. They’ll drive traffic to their venture. Moreover, they’ll be the filler everyone else is talking about. Because, who mentions the unknown or little guy around the water cooler; especially when folks are already talking about somebody else, somebody known?

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Now, factor in the disparities somebody more marginalized overall fares against even if they make the cut. Think about the narratives reflecting that positionality emerge to the chagrin or bewilderment of many reviewers whose measuring stick is mainstream. Then, factor in any legit bias—which may manifest in any of the steps I just mentioned: of precisely how and why a reviewer comes by the content they review, and note how many have a disclaimer saying they got a free copy in exchange for one: good or bad. Think about the implications of capitalizing on the desperation of a creative demographic vying for visibility when they’re resigned to scream into a void regardless of their time or effort—only to selectively boost some and backlist or ignore others.

This is how marketing itself works. Trends are eventuated by folks playing favourites. It’s why the same story can be told a million times and progressively make bank. It’s why the need for “diversity” persists: because there’s little, if any space for variation. A number of marketers, social media specialists, and prosperous folks can speak to this too. It’s no coincidence particular people are visible, “viable,” & altogether supported while others…well, aren’t.

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Then, there are the actual reviewers: everyday people just reviewing. Similar to the hubs that offer services “a la carte” which include promo, most of them are just well-meaning albeit misguided social media users whom just snowball on your behalf.

Think of it like a team. If you want to win, you’ll want to have experienced players; players with your best interest in scoring a goal. Not folks who’ve never played or are halfheartedly, however earnestly trying to get in the game. Algorithms, formulas, and overall data collection that measure quantity over quality don’t care about good players. They care exclusively about goals. In theory, you could have lacking players and that’d be okay so long as they scored. And “scores” are indiscriminate, even if they’re foul goals; even if your team (or the very league) is riddled with penalties. No matter what, the more, the merrier.

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In the scheme of everything I just mentioned, reviewers are like your teammates—except their objective to score is questionable when you critically consider if they’re present; if they’re with you or actually rooting for bigger, better booksellers and tropes from other bleachers. While you essentially play by yourself for yourself (hardy-har-har). Ideally, your teammates may eventually indulge your personal objective—but what are the odds, especially when the time is now?

Remember, these reviews don’t equate or translate to sales. So, it’s a present-but-not-really game where you’re scratched onto the scoreboard by the end; while these teammates nonetheless proceed to plug other, popular names around the water cooler; and you’re the one paying the check.

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It honestly reads as somewhat sanctimonious and disingenuous when I see the lot arguing their right to review by saying Amazon’s new review policies are hurting independent authors; and that they [the reviewers themselves] are all for independent authors. Because if that were true, this dynamic of free books in exchange for reviews wouldn’t be so determinant. Moreover, if this exchange system worked, every author who “gifted” these free books would have returning reviewers and readerships based on good reviews.

Ask yourself, how many reviewers actually reinvest their compensation or pay these gifts forward to the independent authors for whom these reviews are crucial? How many reviewers leave good reviews and actually buy a book from the authors they review? When reviewers say “I’m looking forward to reading more from this author,” how many of them actually intend to read more by buying a book from that author versus expecting to just get more free books, and they’ll just write the author off if they don’t?

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Reviewers are not outraged because this new policy effects independent authors. They’re angry that it compromises their business and ongoing, free libraries. They’re mad that they’re suddenly disqualified as viable sources. They’re upset because in the game, Amazon has moved the goal posts and redrawn the boundary lines. They’re geared to play, but are now being smacked with requirements or aren’t allowed on field. In addition to that, every score they’ve made prior is being called into question. There are many whose reviews have been deleted and deemed “biased” under this new policy.

Whether this policy addresses actual bias in the reviews or the grapevine is something they can discern. They were right in a way though since the implications and liabilities of this are huge, particularly for independent authors—whom may demand refunds or whatever else to make up for this. Amazon isn’t on the hook, they are. Obviously, it depends on the terms between authors and reviewers per service though. In any case, this new policy has some potentials, good and bad. It can also be adopted by other platforms.

 

No Wonder in Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman was the last Justice Leaguer I met when I was a kid. I spent most of my afternoons watching TVO, Fox Kids, and YTV: the latter of which featured debuts and reruns of the iconic DCAU Batman and Superman series. Between the stellar superheroines (even antiheroines) in X-Men and Spider-Man, I wasn’t exactly thinking too hard about the absence of women when it came to action and adventure; but I also wasn’t keen on the difference between DC and Marvel, the latter of which seems to have an endless erection for Wolverine despite its notoriously vast and diverse galleries of narratives.

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I met Wonder Woman in the early 00s when the Justice League animated series came out, and became more acquainted with her through cult coverage in documentaries or comic conventions. She seemed like a powerful character: a literal Amazon whose allies and nemeses were themed through Greek mythology, which appealed to me since I liked to read those classics in middle school. Her star-spangled costume with its trademark tripartite of red, white, and blue iconized her in the vein of Captain America: appealing to Americana and fashioning the heroism ascribed to the Allies whom ultimately won WWII whilst championing the USA. She was also strong and intent. Despite the chauvinism that marks faculty and fandom that surround a lot of canon, compared to her male cohorts, Diana was ironically less flushed or furious than forthright. What struck me about her story was how I felt it could parallel the X-Men [my favourite series tbh]. Her narrative was driven less by justice than discovery. Sure, she fought for ‘justice,’ but she was driven by a sense of urgency and reckoning that was yielded from an irresolute identity and past. She left Themyscira to war past and despite a realm of reservation, forged friendships, cultivated mortal enemies, and discovered the dynamics of being beyond duty.

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I’m sure there would’ve been an abundance of insight into that development and likely legendary enemies or allies added to her roster had she’d been picked up with her own DCAU series—but she wasn’t. Neither were a bunch of my beloved favourites, even if they did manage to earn the odd DCAU movie special or motion comic. Which is why the recent Wonder Woman movie was so ground breaking. Not only did it grant Diana her deserved debut to the big screen, it also reaffirmed the revelatory ethos she stood for and dignified her as a feminist icon: a beacon of light and strength amidst the otherwise all-male Justice League and spotlighted narratives. Wonder Woman was never a feminist idol of mine, although I did think she was a feminist and likewise represented feminism. I was keener to Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Zatanna when it came to DC; while Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey, Black Cat, and Calypso were my faves for Marvel. Wonder Woman was great, but I felt a bit conservative in how she emblematized Americana and idealism whereas my picks were pronounced through power, prowess, and prerogative.

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That doesn’t make Wonder Woman a ‘bad’ feminist or superheroine by comparison. It just means that I hold respect and space for Diana in a different way. Admittedly, I looked at her with new respect when the Injustice games came out. She not only mobilized the misguided Amazon army to rise above an autocratic regime against her evil twin, but she inclined people to discern between independence and interpersonality as well as pride. Her feminism was explicit rather than just implied according to her prior incarnates. She spoke directly of how men can convolute women: how misogyny drove the adoption the autocracy of Superman, and how any allegiance to him was self-destructive as well as superficial against the ethos and hubris of real warriors. And, she did actually say this stuff. Not word for word or quite as abstract, but there’s a portion where she declares these principles during the story mode. It was then my heart took a dive as she proceeded to emphasize ideas the clank of her sword against her shield, then knocked her evil twin out cold, and led the charge of her warrior sisters against Aquaman’s army. This Diana got me thinking. I could get into this side of Wonder Woman.

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Then, some years later, Wonder Woman was announced. Knowing that it was going to be run and adjunct to the lackluster series of films which comprise the latest DC hero franchise, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. For me, the recent movies—Man of Steel and Batman v Superman—bastardized any original character or canon which kind of undercut the source material. Not to mention we saw Superman and Batman on the big screen many times. Given the span of time, the frequency and continuance of their reboots was becoming more of a nuisance than a running gag; a lot like Wolverine. So, a Wonder Woman narrative which shared a similar budget and campaign was refreshing, if not surprising. It wasn’t just going to be great to see an alternate take; it was going to be epic because it hadn’t been done before. Yet, I still found myself mildly unimpressed with the promos and previews—and eventually, the actual movie. Diana was reduced to romance and rebellion rather than strength, urgency, and undertaking. Themyscira read like an afterthought to her fascination with the outside world. She embarks to eviscerate not because she can, but because of clumsy attraction. This Wonder Woman was nothing like the champions I’d read into or watched onscreen over the years, and she was the polar opposite of the star Injustice had made me fall in love with. I still don’t have the spoons to do a film review, but all I can say is that she was like a caricature: a witless warrior whose quest wasn’t to innovate or liberate, but to become one of the guys.

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Which is accentuated by Gal Gadot. She was briefly scandalized for being a Zionist, but people could’ve cared less once Wonder Woman broke. The movie captivated critics and was acclaimed by audiences as revolutionary. Folks fancied that it was a text which transmuted the mainstreamed misogyny and signal boosted ‘feminism’ as a matter of representation. Little girls and teens could now assumedly identify with this genre because it had afforded them a leading woman. As if Wonder Woman’s regalia hadn’t already afforded them that before this film. As if everything would’ve been undermined had it featured another actress.

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Consequently, Gadot was iconized akin to Wonder Woman by fans whom thereupon imposed their ideologies. She became an avatar of ‘girl power’ in light of her casting, and further assumed the role when she refused to work with Brett Ratner whose sexual harassment was exposed in the wake of callouts which followed Harvey Weinstein. I honestly don’t think much of celebrities when it comes to activism or advocacy, especially the declaredly ‘feminist’ ones whose social justice is operant upon their social capital. For me, Gadot’s Zionism and cult of celebrity discredited any likeness to Wonder Woman and feminism as I knew it. Because, the personal is political. Politics inform and reflect our worldviews, and their principles signify encoded values we abide and legitimate. Zionism is not merely problematic nor can it be divorced from someone’s personality; and given historical horrors and current events, I don’t think it should be taken lightly, especially when its assumed by a prominent celebrity who is cast as some symbol of feminism or revolution. I also just don’t think it’s wise or realistic to levy that much likeness upon one person or one text. The personae of Wonder Woman and similar heroines related as feminist are vast in and of themselves. Gadot and Wonder Woman are simply singular instances, however informed they purport to be by the whole.

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Which is why when this story broke, I was unmoved by the shock and outrage it has elicited from Wonder Woman and Gadot fans. Regardless of the script, Gadot’s correlation to Zionism spoke to a degree of amorality and antipathy which was evident in her deliverance of the role. I could also note that she seldom spoke of feminism or politics beyond that in real-time—which made all these assumptions of her feminist fervor all the more ludicrous, if not unfounded.

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When it comes to the hype of Hollywood and celebrity, prospects aren’t so much limited as they are sustained. If something is made, it’s bought. Its dislike doesn’t discount its dollars. Which is why Wonder Woman and others like her can be commodified and commercialized through any means. If their stories are ever dignified, they’re applauded. Their mere existence is seen as radical even if there is nothing particularly innovative in how they are delivered or conceived, even in considering their constituents or market objectives. I don’t know if Wonder Woman will ever get the diverse, continued cinematic treatment equivalent to her comic counterparts. What I do know is that I’m not the only one displeased by this one as it stands; nor am I the only one who discerns between the face of the character onscreen and whom or what that face belongs to IRL. Diana might not have had the profound, perspective feature film I’d hoped for; but she has had a good run and I won’t let Gadot or any other casting discredit that.

Hi, Society

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Back in 2007, I was bouncing from coasts between high schools for what was left of my sophomore year. Guitar Hero, synth-pop, leggings in lieu of pants, along with the prominence (and pervasion) of forums were all the craze. Haute was being subverted through kitsch avant-garde that was nonchalant and nihilistic, somewhat nostalgic of Warhol and the dystopian edge of the eighties.

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Social media was also taking on a new life and meaning. Platforms like Blogger, Myspace, and MSN faded out against Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; the latter of which offered more immediacy and interconnectivity with clicked connections that enabled prompt, personalized content as opposed to tailored templates. Despite their more multiplex and expedient advances, these new sites and services were as accessible and user-friendly as their predecessors; but they were also as frenzied. The individualism was indulgent and immoderate, because there was—and still is—no oversight of this mass connectivity. People connected easily and swiftly, but not necessarily nicely.

The late 2000’s cultivated countercultures through cyberspace which were amenable to activists, but conversely bred toxic trenders and trolls; and unlike the live moderators or some semblance of staffers (however arrogant) of the ‘old days,’ amoral algorithms and unresponsive personnel then supplanted management or moderation. Which is why Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram operate as walled gardens whose fruitful objectives are more quantified than qualified. They’re bigger, better playgrounds, but there’s nothing or no one to prevent somebody—or if you’re targeted, legions—from dunking your head in the sand or cracking your teeth off the monkey bars.

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But, I could’ve honestly cared less back then. I was a sophomore, soon-to-be junior, then senior who was absorbed in aces and university applications. Social media didn’t really appeal to me either since I wasn’t keen on being social. I didn’t have many friends. Between relocations, burying myself in school and work, and what would become clinical anxiety: I couldn’t. I also just wasn’t into what was trending. Around that time, most folks in my generation (and some before) were swooning over sparkly, stalker vampires whose concept of romance was obsession—and that yielded an even creepier offshoot which nauseated me, and still affirms an apocalypse or the inevitable extinction [via self-destruction] of our species. These trends, however tripe, dignified the somewhat conspiratorial theories posed by the anti-tech crowds. The internet had bred the means and ends to not simply imposing insights and ideologies, but indoctrinating them. People became content creators who could—and did—cultivate and capitalize upon followings whose interests were not merely interconnected, but intertextual.

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Positively, this fractured the gatekeepers. Esteems earned through some establishment were no longer the exclusive determinants of merit or success. The con was pure, unadulterated populism. Free press risked the reverence and redistribution of rubbish. Catharsis could be captured, then consumed through clickbait. Our concept of that surplus, simulated connectivity bled into our concept of real life in very real ways. Society itself is social; but when media mitigates that, the social can wholeheartedly supplant rather than strengthen or subvert the personal and political. Everything becomes a spectacle: a matter of subscribers, shares, likes, hashtags, and filters in which an audience is amassed and applauds. Practice, pleasure, and personality become more performative because it isn’t about catharsis; it’s about a curtain call.

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The prospects and power of social media are well-known today, many of which have produced some notable celebrities; but it was only the tip of the iceberg when I was in high school. Social media could create social moments. Folks were eager and excited to navigate their news feeds and create their own headlines. The ludicrous albeit lucrative trends had entertained and inspired people to share, sell, and sympathize; because trends are temporal and definitive. And, these new [social] networks enabled some superfluous signs of the times.

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Maybe that was why Gossip Girl was such a hit. The series was created in the same vein as its producers’ prior hit, The O.C. which I was probably too young to get into when it first came out. It was based off a bestselling young-adult series of books, but moulded in the interests of teen angst which meant crucial, liberal departures for the sake of television. Families were drastically scaled down from their literary extensions as were the more marginalized identities of sexuality and gender fluidity, which made for a relatively tame cast of pretentious personalities. What made Gossip Girl distinct were its subtexts of classism, nepotism, elitism, and oligarchy. Most of the characters were woefully wealthy and wicked, whereas the poorer people were craven for acceptance. Everyone was envious, enchanted, and entitled to each other. Everyone had a story that simultaneously anguished and admired avarice and artifice—which was the tragic irony of it all.

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The eponymous ‘Gossip Girl’ was an online persona who ran a notorious blog devoted to narrating and knocking the lives of the main cast, for richer or poorer. Its surrealism is marked by its presence as operant as opposed to just existent. The blog was frequented and functional. It incorporated tips from onlookers which were substantiated by pictures, texts, or other messages, some benign and others malicious. Gossip Girl was effected as an equalizer who humbled its loathsome, lavish subjects amongst pessimistic peasants whom came to climb and rival their ranks. It provided a fictional, but resonant account of how real lives are affected by the ‘reality’ of social media; even if that ‘reality’ isn’t real.

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Which is why the recent #MeToo hashtag assumed a life of its own in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s cancellation and comeuppance as a pig who weaponized his industrial interests and insights to extort sexual favours and rape with impunity. #MeToo went viral shortly thereafter to signal the solidarity of women whom had predominantly been victimized, antagonized, and otherwise objectified sexually by men whom had nonetheless prospered. Celebrities applied the hashtag to their own experiences in Hollywood, whereas others used it upon reflection of their overall assaults and ensuing traumas which were enabled by rape culture: a rape culture that social media has not only exacerbated, but aided in its venues which range from chauvinistic forums to crash dumps of revenge porn; all with faulty algorithms that discern offenders are somehow not in violation of Community Standards. Gossip Girl explored this briefly in some of its seasonal arcs, where the titular blogger is privy to sexts, sex tapes, and sexual histories of women whom are subsequently scorned or [slut-]shamed.

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I only watched Gossip Girl for Chuck Bass. He was suave, seductive, and surrealistically shrewd amongst the other moneyed misfits and hated the have-nots. He was also a rapist. The first season saw him as a misogynistic misanthrope whose toxicity is haphazardly implied to be justified by his unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues. After trying to force himself onto another character, he attempts to rape a freshman some episodes later—which is pretty much glossed over after he’s consequently punched and he somehow manages to become a redemptive, definitive personality of the overall series.

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Chuck was someone I related to family-wise and in the sense of how I internalized. I disliked people; and I was actively aware—sometimes, in awe—of how they could be airy and artificial on instinct, even to their detriment. My cynicism prevented any suspension of disbelief which was a requisite for imagination or immersion. I was more avoidant than escapist, but I preferred to take more than I gave. The difference is that I didn’t just take; and I exercised empathy in that I likewise felt wasn’t not entitled to anyone’s time or energy, because I knew (or at least, liked to think) nobody was entitled to mine. Chuck never quite got that. Maybe money, masculinity, misogyny, and misanthropy prevented him from making that leap. For all of the paltry politics and pretenses, he saw society and social media as walled gardens—and believed any- and everything were simply a means to sow his own oats. The more I watched him, the more I hoped he would change with each passing season.

But, he didn’t.

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Chuck’s progression was defined by his own permissions and parameters which would caustically, characteristically violate those of others’. The series stretched on for years and I started hating him, because his privileged, profound, and profane prerogative nullified literally any redeeming aspect. There would be glimpses of reflection, realization, along with some erratic, but earnest effort to be accountable—and it would be completely disingenuous.

Which now kind of correlates to the actor who brought him to life: Ed Westwick.

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Westwick was flying pretty high during Gossip Girl’s run, and lived relatively privately despite that while his cast mates were more in the public eye via their relationships or scandals. The only mention of him people really got were his rooming with co-star, Chance Crawford (Nate Archibald), and relationship to his co-star Jessica Szohr (Vanessa Abrams)—which only made waves since fans were annoyed he wasn’t dating his onscreen love interest, Leighton Meester (Blair Waldorf). Some other tidbits about his hobbies also surfaced. I vaguely remember folks mentioning him being a musician and theatre buff?  After Gossip Girl [colossally unsatisfactorily] ended, I think he just gradually faded out. There wasn’t any mention of his colleagues, co-stars, or confidantes in following projects; and the rest of the Gossip Girl cast had moved on with their lives in a comparably similar obscurity.

Now, Westwick has gone viral in real life akin to Weinstein and other Hollywood personnel whom have been divulged as predators.

And, I really can’t say I’m not surprised. Not because I link Ed to Chuck, but because this is a story I’ve heard before, one that I will likely always hear; one that I have myself told. Bad people can be those you’d least expect; those with an abundance of assets which are underlain with some fundamental flaw; and those you would expect given the premise of their positionality that prompts them to simply pluck or pain whom they choose. Westwick may be of either likeness in his own way; and I quite frankly find it unnerving that his response to such a grave accusation is a mere note—which oddly coincides with the concept of social media as a delineative, distributive, destructive, and sardonically disconnected force reality must reckon with, if not resolve.

UPDATE: Westwick now faces another survivor’s narrative. 

If It Isn’t Love

 

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I’m seeing an old clip of Joseline Hernandez and Stevie J going off on Benzino and Althea at the season three reunion of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta (LHHATL) resurge and go viral on Twitter. But, I find myself kind of numb rather than sharing the collective keke that echoed across the Internet.

I don’t know what other people were watching that season, but all I saw was trash.

For one, I never forgot this. Everything made sense afterward. Dee was never “overprotective” or comical. She’s one of those toxic mothers with internalized misogynoir whom coddle their sons’ rather than hold them accountable. I mention her because she “apologized” on Scrappy’s behalf; and proceeded to gently walk him through why men shouldn’t beat up on women, tit for tat, even though he had prior knowledge of Erica’s survivorship within other abusive relationships.

The cycle then extends to Bambi—who later went on to order an attack on Erica in a nightclub—whose instinct was to drag Erica regardless; as if expression of condolences was disrespectful, as if she’s responsible for Scrappy’s suspected indiscretions, as if she’s delusional and her attraction was unfounded, as if he did nothing.

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Then, there was Mimi Faust—whose sex tape with her then-boyfriend, Nikko Smith [London]—was leaked. Even though the slut shaming she received from her fellow castmates was atrocious, what hit me hardest were her ‘friends’ whom were less inclined to be supportive than sanctimonious. Which is innately contradictory to the emphatic declarations of “girl power” and “womanhood” the women in these series so earnestly and evidently, superficially cite. The condemnation and condescension she fared against from her ‘friends’ as if she were to blame for her violation; as if any resultant discrimination or abuse aren’t yielded from chauvinism and rape culture within society at large. Moreover, there’s the fact that if your friend does have a sex tape leaked, you don’t have to watch it. Nobody does. In fact, if it was leaked without their consent, your viewing is violatory. For me, there was little consolation in the fact that the video was ultimately staged. If anything, that fact just made me think of the more chilling prospects had it been real; how utterly unsupported and undermined a woman would be by her very ‘friends’ whom would rather condemn her as culpable in her victimization.

It all made me think of how and why I’ve always hated LHHATL the most: because, it’s got the ashiest characters whom reinforce the ashiest stereotypes. I know Love & Hip-Hop is already chalk full of slut shaming, internalized misogynoir, amidst the beckies and chads (and anybody else) whom blackfaced; but there’s something about LHHATL that I just can’t shake, and I feel nauseated whenever it comes on.

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It’s like a caricature of every toxic trope in a trash song: the serial cheaters; the fools who take them back time and time again; the other women or “side pieces” whom are dragged or demonized for the whole thing; the ignoramuses fighting over ain’t shit mates; and the kids who get caught in the middle, often sadly and naively encouraging their adulterous parents to reconcile. LHHATL has that on loop, and there’s no semblance of anybody remotely evolving.

I just think season three was particularly trash; between Scrappy putting hands on Erica, Mimi being slut- and body shamed for her leaked sex tape, likewise with Althea, and Kayo Redd’s suicide—all of which were glossed over, save for when they were gassed up for kekes or feels at the reunion. It makes me think of how much “reality tv” is divorced from reality, yet isn’t.

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These personas lead arrogant and airbrushed lives because folks tune in to see trainwrecks; and yet, their behaviours on meaningful issues reflect exactly what we’d expect from peers only we’re not as indulged or infantilized. We don’t have heaps of money to throw at our problems; and I have to wonder if anybody is truly as inclined to forgive and forget, as if materialism and exhibitionism can supplant intimacy in the wake of infidelity.

In the realm of performativity, are people just innately prompted to pretend when they’re being watched? Or, is it a defense mechanism wherein ignorance insulates us from painful reality? Moreover, what’s to be said about the truths translated by the lies: the simplicity that is irrevocably inconsistent and inapplicable to the reality, the enormity of life.

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Late Night Viewing

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Earlier today, I managed to scavenge a laser printer and small stand which is enough to turn my room into a makeshift office—which is great, because my school doesn’t give us [its students] unpaid printer access or office space. Nor does it afford us access or discounts to textbooks and required reads that cost a small fortune. Not that I can think of other schools that do, but I wager others would do well to think about this the next time someone harps about how “nice” it is to have hard copy books and how their mood shifts to productivity on campus. Especially, when that someone happens to be a professor or upper-middle class. It never ceases to amaze me how folks subscribe to these “nice” notions from wealthy optimists; and how the avowal of alternatives is always lost on those with acceptance and an abundance of resources.

Maybe this relates to the subscription to social media and artificial intelligence—as in, indulging intelligence premised and operant upon artifice. Technology might have advanced, but life has always been more built than lived. Concepts like religion, law, and norms have imposed ideologies long before we constructed and comprised online worlds. However, there is just something distinctly indulgent and individualistic when it comes to new media; something cultivated through consumption and crowds whom command through quips and clicks, as they steal behind masks of coy and ‘cool’ personalities. Perhaps, this could account for the nervous laughter and expectant esteems that predominate; and why precedents are unspoken as well as unquestioned.

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No one covers these prospects quite like David Stewart. I came across him years ago, late one sleepless night when I’d plugged into YouTube to stay awake during revisions of a manuscript, when “Silly Boy” emerged in my recommendations. I heard something not only insightful, but immediate; and I hear this in his entire discography, which is what partially drove my first novel. Stewart is a distinct resolute, but reflective voice amidst the crass cult of celebrity. He manages to make singularity soulful instead of surplus and superficial. Every subject is simultaneously dependent and defenseless to their desires. No one is betrothed to bravado and there is no marriage to ignorance and idealism, but rather a sheer divorce from reality. “Silly Boy” ponders the purpose of pleasure in the present, however pretentious, and the absence of prospect should it be prolonged, which is thematic from the track’s album aptly titled Dark Side of Paradise. “Mirrors on the Ceiling” fixes to thrill with familiar, finite convictions which foster albeit limit likeness; “Play Love with the Devil” mourns how performativity prevents sincerity despite connectivity; and “Power” muses upon the flushed, but fading merits of the moveable and material world.

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Unlike the drugged, dispirited decadence of Dark Side of Paradise, Stewart’s second album—Late Night Viewing—evokes an erotic and existential treatment. The eponymous track, “Late Night Viewing,” sets the tone as Stewart stakes the earnest and empty, but exhibitory urgency of lovers that are ultimately aromatic albeit aroused; keenly aware that they are not alone in the universe. “Lay on the Bonnet” intones that intimacy is operant upon ignorance— “Yeah, I get that you don’t know me; but you’ve got the time to show me”—that obliging the world (and ourselves) at large devalues it. “Scream More” and “Blood Rush” convey carnivalesque carnalities, gushed and gamed, that crave candour even as they are resigned to conventionality. “Incredible” [which features Yasmin] ruminates upon a rueful, but rousing romance whose lovers are ambushed by attraction.

For me, this track bled into “Red Light” as a song that articulate the lure of liaisons which reject reason and transverse temporality; how compatibility can contradictory in our compulsion to contrasts as Stewart prompts the listener to “forget about pride” and “Make sure the Barbies don’t bring Kens.” The Grease-reminiscent “Woman in Lust” [with Wretch 32] and “Run the World” [with Example] are charged, decisive power trips which dishearten dissenters and endow eavesdroppers as impartial. “Heaven” [with Ed Sheeran] rounds out the rest of the tracks as it culminates in curiosity accompanied by anxiety and accountability; reflecting upon the repetition of mistakes, each done under the same pretext of a promised payoff, as heaven “is going to haunt us until it takes us”; while “Breathe Slow” is an airy, ambient cue of conclusion: the “party’s over” and one must “breathe slow” to internalize. Only given the immoderation imparted within the crux of the content, you’d think there was no point.

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Late Night Viewing is curious because it bears a lesson learnt in the absence of catharsis. Stewart fleshes out fine, but frigid feelings of being fulfillment: being full of nothing. He knows things won’t last, but those things still define us. Therefore, by some token, those things—however fickle—are worth whatever we expend upon them. Stewart effects this knowing that agony precedes afterglow; that indulgence and intuition are impractical, but cultivate our consciousness. We value and venture to small, sometimes hollow victories from battles we bereave in lieu of a war.