The Turban Emoji and Broadchurch’s Murderer

ldlA little while ago, when Apple introduced a new set of “more diverse” emoji, the response might be summed up best as :praise hands emoji:. In an era when the issue of representation seems to have come to the forefront, emoji became a symbol of a yearning in certain people to see themselves shown or depicted in that space out there we call the public. Because emoji are a mediating layer in communication, in expanding the range of this pictorial code we’ve become so accustomed to, we’ve also expanded the expressive range for our text chats, better reflecting the nuances of our multi-faceted lives. Or, um, something like that anyway.

As someone who has often expressed that same yearning to see myself in media and other forms of normative representation, I found myself agreeing. All the same, there were outliers. At Macleans, Adrian Lee argued that the assertion that emoji were white was a form of whitewashing itself, one that explicitly glossed over the Japanese and generally “Asian” roots of much of the iconography. More compellingly to my mind, however, Lee argued that:

Unlike most languages, less precision serves emoji better. Emojis’ generality is exactly why it’s taken off as a universal language, not necessarily the efforts of some secretive coding consortium. Emoji are our modern-day shibboleths—they’re defined not by colour, but by context.

The point: all representation is imperfect. When it comes to identity, there is no ideal representation, and particularly when we are dealing with generalities as broad as race or gender, less specificity allows for more expressive and interpretive wiggle room.

Me, I didn’t really give a shit either way. The perfect emoji for me has been there from the start.

The “turban guy emoji” is an absurdity. It depicts something certainly looks like the Sikh turban, but does so atop a clean-shaven face. It is, at least in terms of a particularly literalist take on representation, an “inaccuracy.” Which Sikh would keep a turban but shave? It makes no sense.

Obviously, then, it works perfectly for me. What it depicts is a “fake Sikh”—a Sikh who cannot be defined as one according to normative standards, but still gestures toward some kind of generalized idea of Sikh-ness. It’s the Sikh as it cannot be in real life, an identity hovering in impossibility, as the representation itself performatively instantiates its liminal existence. Or, um, something like that anyway.

But as diversity as An Issue becomes ever-more central, that difficult question of what constitutes “responsible” or, even more troublingly, “accurate” representation becomes more and more fraught. Already, I’m getting the vague sense that the demand for diversity—a call that, I should add, often comes from me—can often surreptitiously usher in essentialism, linking particular bodies with particular views. Worse, the move toward foregrounding positionality as the definining contextual frame for parsing the utterance is unsettling, fixing speech in relation to identity as if the whole messy game weren’t constantly in flux. As I said elsewhere, in what was the about the only sensible sentence I’ve ever written in my life, “The reality of being human cannot actually be found at identity positions, only in relation to them.”

It’s perhaps for this reason—to make a classically 2006 blog style jump in logic—that I was intrigued by the end of season one of Broadchurch. The dark, unsettling British murder mystery played out the usual tropes of the genre: a small town is rocked by the murder of a child, and rolls through a series of misdirection until, at last, the least likely character turns out to have done it. It’s true that by the time the series ends, it’s become obvious who the killer is, but the show does something that, to me, seemed quite interesting: it refuses to categorize the murderer.

In a piece of popular fiction depicting the murder of a child, the obvious thing to do is to compound shock upon shock—which of course means turning to pedophilia, what we consider to be our society’s most heinous crime. But without giving away too much, Broadchurch actually stops just shy of marking out a character as a pedophile, and even veers into a discomfiting depiction of a lost person that, if not quite sympathetic, makes neat classifications a little more difficult to draw.

The boon and curse of emoji is that more of them allow for better representation, but no amount is ever enough for truly satisfactory representation.The entire process of identification is too subjective to hold up accuracy or even symmetry as an ideal. But in the push for diversity or “better representation”—something that I think is unquestionably a good thing—there is an odd game at work in which there is a tension between specificity (“this character is just like me!”) and generality (“this character, who is nothing like me, is just like me!”). Lean too far one way and you get drab paint-by-numbers representation, lean too far the other way and you get boring liberal-humanist claptrap about how we’re truly all the same underneath.

A depiction of a not-quite-pedophile is hardly something to hold up as ideal. But Broadchurch as an aesthetic artefact may have in fact done something right. In suspending the “true nature” of a character in a time-to-come, it at least gestures to how representation should function: within a clear moral frame, but in which specific instances of people are unfinished, in flux, and ultimately, in the process of shifting between differing, flickering instantiations of themselves.

You know, just like cartoon emoji.


Finding a Home

Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about the internets knows I’m a bit obsessed with the concept “n-1“. Lifted from the intro to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the concept essentially represents an inversion of the Enlightenment analytic framework: rather than starting from a singular unit or object and building an understanding outward, one instead takes the always too-big multiple as a starting point and subtracts. The point is to not only foreground the numerous networks of relations that constitute the object, it also highlights the provisional nature of each analytic moment – that, in effect, the act of a reading is also an act of writing, a specific choice to arrange a system of relations in a certain way. In that act of arranging, one also must acknowledge the possibility of an alternative.

It works for so many things: for a kind of phenomenology of Twitter; the logic of the database; understanding how digital has changed the idea of “the collection”; and so on ad infinitum.

I’m wondering, though, if I haven’t reached a kind of limit in my personal embrace of n-1.

I only say this because of a feeling of dislocation lately. For years, I’ve spoken about immersing myself in the web’s ceaseless flow – of the glut of RSS feeds, the rushing stream of Twitter, or the never-ending cluster of tabs. Well-managed, that’s all and fine and good. It just takes a well-tuned ability to focus on what’s important to oneself, and quickly and efficiently cast off what is not.

But I now realize that, at least for someone like myself, that kind of decentred approach in which one is constantly left attempting to constitute a relationship to the sea of information – orienting oneself not only ideologically, but pragmatically in terms of ‘the attention economy’ – can be draining. It can be overwhelming. I’ve recently found myself paralyzed, partly because I’m always seeing so many different sides of things, but also because uttering an opinion – something I have to do to pay the bills – often takes the form of attempting to get all sides of an argument right. I find it leaves me stretched – as if I am writing as a mythical neutral character rather than myself.

It’s as if what I need is a centre – or something like a home.

A home is a space of self-definition, or a way to anchor oneself. It is a metaphor for an outlook, an ideological position, a social grouping, or an identity. It must, lest it descend into dogmatism or rigidity, be a porous concept. And for many, finding such a space specifically online would be unnecessary, because their lives are not lacking that belonging. Mine, however, happens to. And I realized that I was missing a home – a locus from which to speak outward, rather than constantly attempting to find my footing on a sand dune constantly slipping away from itself.

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that Snarkmarket, that bastion of optimism and smarts, is cranking up again, and has expanded beyond its core triumvirate of Tim Carmody, Robin Sloan, and Matt Thompson to include, oh, about 20 or 30 other members of the Snarkmatrix, including me. Already there’s a few fascinating posts up with very cool comment threads. The whole thing feels very retro and very pleasant, and I’ve been finding myself feeling not only more invigorated, but also just a bit calmer: as if what I needed wasn’t more organization, or more self-control, or less distraction – but simply to have a place or community in which I felt like I belonged.

Defending the Realness of the Unreal Self

Or, rather, if I had a chance or the time to rewrite it, that’s what I would have said. Something about the representation of self as ‘unreal’, but that’s why it’s so vital to defend from snooping. Or something.

Anyway, because I have nothing else to put on this blog right now, over at Hazlitt I consider a couple of things: if people (like Jonathan Safran Foer in the NYT) say that the virtual is unreal, and takes us away from what’s important, then why do we get so antsy about the idea that our ‘virtual lives’ might be surveilled? And more importantly, if our metaphors of ‘authentic living’ so often involve transparency and light – that we must ‘be seen as ourselves’ – do we need a different metaphor for the ‘authentic augmented cyborg self’? i.e. one that embraces opacity, obfuscation? Or is that just a coping mechanism?

But yeah, it’d be nice at some time to come back to this idea and think about whether privacy is actually more important for spaces of fantasy than it is for the usual normative behaviours we find online – and are arguably encouraged by the panoptic nature of social media.

Anyway, my editor seemed to suggest it was less stupid and less badly written than most of my drivel, so if you like, take a gander here.

Don would know what to do…


After blitzing through season 5 recently, I was recently catching up on the latest episodes of Mad Men. Though the show always has lots to talk about, what struck  me was a tiny moment (spoiler!) in which Don needed the simplest of looks from Sylvia Rosen to know he should head back upstairs for another ‘romantic dalliance’. The reason it stood out? If I had been given that look, I would have nodded politely, headed off to work, and spent the rest of the day wondering what it meant.

In fact, my life has been a litany of missed and misunderstood romantic looks. There was the New Year’s Eve party in which repeated, prolonged glances from a woman only made me exasperatedly respond “What?!” There was the time I dropped off a coworker at 5AM and, when she cocked her head and asked me if I wanted to come in, I obliviously said “No, it’s late, I’m gonna’ go home and sleep.” I’ve even had a woman analyze my hopelessness at the end of an evening: “yeah, there were a couple of times that were perfect for you to kiss me… but you didn’t.”

It’s as if I were absent the day everyone else got their Romantic Moments 101 Handbook. Once during grad school, we had our last class at the professor’s house. There, over beer and talk of the sublime, I kept glancing at another student, who kept meeting my gaze in return and smiling. When class was done, we said farewell on the street and—while she stood next to her boyfriend, mind you—she looked intensely at me, with an expression you might describe as…. pleading? Apparently I was supposed to do or say something so that we could… what? Meet later so she could cheat on her boyfriend? I have precisely no idea.

But then, that’s just the way my life is. When I walk into a bar or a party, I feel as if everyone is speaking a completely silent language made up of looks and gestures that only they understand. I think perhaps that’s why I find Mad Men so compelling: it’s full of people who all know how to interpret this mute world of meaning. And I guess that’s why Don Draper is the perfect anti-hero. You can tell he’s an awful person, but you’re still jealous of his prowess. He would have known what those looks meant, would have known the next move to make—and he would have done it, too.

Idea #7: An Ode to the Sentence

Readers of Scrawled in Wax are likely familiar with Nieman Storyboard’s “Why’s This So Good?“, an ongoing feature which takes a work of long-form journalism and, well, tries to explain why it’s so good. It’s a brilliant bit of insider baseball because the vagaries of long form excellence – the narrative arc, those short, punctuated paragraphs that reveal fascinating tidbits, the careful restraint by which a writer often speaks through circumlocution – are difficult to tease out, even for experienced writers.

But what about the sentence? Sometimes, it is that basic unit of long form writing that can be so beautiful. The precision and care of the well-crafted sentence, after all, is writing. It is that fastidious love for the ordering of words — a la Jakobson’s view of poetry as an emphasis upon substitution rather than sequence — which makes writing an art.

Utterly awash in utterly banal language, I rarely have the patience for poetry or a poetic appreciation of language. But it was the following paragraph from Ta-Nehisi Coates that reminded me of something which I used to hold dear:

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance that he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. But, in his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too many for them.

It was that last clause which stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean, not too big, not too strong, not too tough — too many. What a brilliant turn of phrase, one that in just a fragment manages to evoke the dialectic of virtually projected image and the material body, and the aching desire for one pole of the binary to supersede the other.

So what about a “Why’s This So Good?” for the sentence – except rather sentences in fiction a la traditional literary analysis, we look at sentences in journalism, on social media, etc – i.e. the language that makes up our daily interaction with words.

I know I’ve talked a lot about Twitter over the years, but it’s always fascinated me to watch so many gifted writers work within the constraints of the medium, crafting and then re-crafting clauses to fit in that tiny space. Wouldn’t it be great to sit back and think about what makes the truly great ones work — what rhetorical devices produce what effect; of how the linearity of language can be used to conjure an expectation, only to have it reversed just a few words in; of how to foreground a particular ethos through vocabulary or tone; and what distinguishes the brilliant ‘standalone’ sentence to a tweet very much ‘of its time’, almost down to the minute?

But Jesus: too many for them. It’s that which is really the concern. How might we emulate the spirit of a sentence that does so much with so little?

Which is to say: how, as a swirl of forces constantly tugs at attention and soul, might we learn to say so much more with less?