Based on the theme of this year’s Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC) conference, the Post-Publishing research strand within the CPC have curated a selection of openly available publications from members of the Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC) and have brought these together as part of a virtual conference bookstand, which allows conference participants to access further readings around the themes that the conference addresses. This bookstand is based on the model used previously for the ROAC Virtual Book stand: https://radicaloa.disruptivemedia.org.uk/latest-publications/
In 2018, ScholarLed developed a collaborative bookstand to cross-promote the publications of the presses within the consortium, highlighting the ideals and values that sustain their projects: open access, not-for-profit and scholar-led publishing, experimentation, and an ethics of care. The aim of this bookstand (which has subsequently been adopted and adapted by the ROAC) is to advocate these forms of publishing within academic communities in order to showcase the existence of alternative models for open access publishing. ScholarLed and ROAC want to use this to make a public and political statement about how not-for-profit presses can start to collaborate through these kinds of projects.
Through this virtual bookstand we hope to offer an alternative to the promotion of publications at in-person events. Now that academic conferences are being increasingly held in a virtual or hybrid form, we have adapted the bookstand to function online, imagining a virtual book stand that enables the sharing of new publications with attendees across the globe. We’ve also taken care to include non-English language publications and publications from authors in the Global South to highlight the range of research that open access can enable.
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Tor Halvorsen, Hilde Ibsen, Henri-Count Evans, & Sharon Penderis (2017), Knowledge for Justice: Critical Perspectives from Southern African-Nordic Research Partnerships. African Minds. https://www.africanminds.co.za/knowledge-for-justice-critical-perspectives-from-southern-african-nordic-research-partnerships/
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Monica L. Wendel, Trinidad Jackson, C. Monique Ingram, Tasha Golden, Billie F. Castle, Nida M. Ali, & Ryan Combs (2019), ‘Yet We Live, Strive, and Succeed: Using Photovoice to Understand Community Members’ Experiences of Justice, Safety, Hope, and Racial Equity’, Collaborations: A Journal of Community-based Research and Practice, 2(1), 9. http://doi.org/10.33596/coll.23
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Miyarrka Media (2019), Phone & Spear: A Yuta Anthropology. London: Goldsmiths Press. https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-press/publications/phone-and-spear-/
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Florence Piron, Samuel Regulus, & Marie Sophie Dibounje Madiba, eds. (2016), Justice cognitive, libre accès et savoirs locaux. Pour une science ouverte juste, au service du développement local durable. Éditions science et bien commun. https://scienceetbiencommun.pressbooks.pub/justicecognitive1/
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Raminder Kaur (2022), ‘The Spark that Ignites: Catalytic Signifiers for a Transformative and Performative Planetary Humanism’, darkmatter, 16. https://darkmatter-hub.pubpub.org/pub/i9rn557n/release/1
Thao Phan & Scott Wark (2021), ‘What personalisation can do for you! Or: how to do racial discrimination without ‘race’’, Culture Machine: generating research in culture and theory, 20. https://culturemachine.net/vol-20-machine-intelligences/what-personalisation-can-do-for-you-or-how-to-do-racial-discrimination-without-race-thao-phan-scott-wark/
Peter Snowdon (2014), ‘The Revolution Will be Uploaded: Vernacular Video and the Arab Spring’, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 6(2): 401-429. https://doi.org/10.3384/cu.2000.1525.146401
Lawrence R. Frey, Joshua S. Hanan. Critical Rhetoric| Toward Social Justice Activism Critical Rhetoric Scholarship. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/8670/2965
Brooke Foucault Welles, Sarah J. Jackson. The Battle for #Baltimore: Networked Counterpublics and the Contested Framing of Urban Unrest. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/8043/2363
Mohamed Ben Moussa, Sanaa Benmessaoud, Aziz Doua. Internet Memes as “Tactical” Social Action: A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis Approach https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/14534/3282
Michael Dokyum Kim. Advocating “Refugees” for Social Justice: Questioning Victimhood and Voice in NGOs’ Use of Twitter. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/17116/3673
Isabelle A. Zaugg, Anushah Hossain, Brendan Molloy. Digitally-disadvantaged languages. https://policyreview.info/glossary/digitally-disadvantaged-languages
Aisha P.L. Kadiri. Data and Afrofuturism: an emancipated subject? https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/data-and-afrofuturism-emancipated-subject
Hagit Keysar, Elizabeth Calderón Lüning, Andreas Unteidig. Prototypes as Agents of Transition: The case of DIY Wireless Technology for advancing Community Digital Sovereignty. http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-15-transition/peer-reviewed-papers/prototypes-as-agents-of-transition/
Pablo Piquinela and Gonzalo Correa. Commons infrastructures: Collaborative design of a political tent as cosmogram.
Elia Apostolopoulou, Dimitrios Bormpoudakis, Alexandros Chatzipavlidis, and others. Radical social innovations and the spatialities of grassroots activism: navigating pathways for tackling inequality and reinventing the commons.https://journals.librarypublishing.arizona.edu/jpe/article/id/2292/
T. Partridge. Resisting ruination: resource sovereignties and socioecological struggles in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. https://journals.librarypublishing.arizona.edu/jpe/article/id/2025
Laura Doak (2021). Militant Women and ‘National’ Community: The Execution of Isabel Alison and Marion Harvie, 1681. https://northernrenaissance.org/militant-women-and-national-community-the-execution-of-isabel-alison-and-marion-harvie-1681
E. Gabriella Coleman and Christopher M. Kelty (eds), limn, Issue 8: Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches. https://limn.it/issues/hacks-leaks-and-breaches/
Christopher T. Green. Sonic Refusal: Indigenous Belonging without Soundtrack. https://mast-nemla.org/archive/vol2-no2-2021/sonic_refusal.pdf
Ksenia Ermoshina and Francesca Musiani. Concealing for Freedom: The Making of Encryption, Secure Messaging, and Digital Liberties. https://www.matteringpress.org/blog/encryption-and-technologies-of-power-in-a-cyber-war-torn-world
Andreas Birkbak and Irina Papazu (eds.). Democratic Situations. https://www.matteringpress.org/books/democratic-situations
Nathalia Brichet. An Anthropology of Common Ground. Awkward Encounters in Heritage Work. https://www.matteringpress.org/books/an-anthropology-of-common-ground
Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray and Ulf Wuggenig (eds). Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’. https://mayflybooks.org/critique-of-creativity-precarity-subjectivity-and-resistance-in-the-creative-industries/
Michał Kozłowski, Agnieszka Kurant, Jan Sowa, Krystian Szadkowski and Jakub Szreder (eds). Joy Forever: The Political Economy of Social Creativity. https://mayflybooks.org/joy-forever-the-political-economy-of-social-creativity/
Monika Kostera. Organize Ourselves! Inspirations and ideas for self-organization and self-management. https://mayflybooks.org/organize-ourselves-inspirations-and-ideas-for-self-organization-and-self-management/
Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz. The Role of Theory Groups in the Lives of Ideas. https://hms.mediastudies.press/pub/leeds-hurwitz-theory-groups/release/7
Stevphen Shukaitis. Combination Acts. Notes on Collective Practice in the Undercommons. https://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=915
Richard Gilman-Opalsky and Stevphen Shukaitis. Riotous Epistemology. Imaginary Power, Art, and Insurrection. https://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=965
Cornelia Sollfrank (ed.). TThe Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century.https://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=976
Sandra Ruiz and Hypatia Vourloumis. Formless Formation: Vignettes for the End of this World. https://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=1026
in media res theme week. Representations of Xenophobia, Racism, and Nationalism. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/representations-xenophobia-racism-and-nationalism
Bernd Bösel and Serjoscha Wiemer (eds). Affective Transformations: Politics—Algorithms—Media. https://meson.press/books/affective-transformations/
Marcus Burkhardt, Katja Grashöfer, and Mary Shnayien (eds.). Explorations in Digital Cultures. https://meson.press/books/explorations-in-digital-cultures/
On_Culture Issue 12 (2021). Ambiguity: Conditions, Potentials, Limits. https://www.on-culture.org/journal/issue-12/
Grace Aneiza Ali (ed.). Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1208
Mark Turin, Claire Wheeler and Eleanor Wilkinson (eds). Oral Literature in the Digital Age: Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/186
Alberto López Cuenca and Renato Bermúdez Dini (eds.). Más allá del derecho de autor: Otros términos para debatir la propiedad intellectual. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/mas-alla-del-derecho-de-autor/
Bill Balaskas and Carolina Rito (eds.). Fabricating Publics: The Dissemination of Culture in the Post-truth Era. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/fabricating-publics/
Bernard Stiegler and the Internation Collective (eds). Daniel Ross (ed. & transl.). Bifurcate: There Is No Alternative. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/bifurcate/
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Gretel Van Wieren, Todd Shaw, Beronda Montgomery, and others. Public Philosophy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2022). Radical Humility. A Forum Discussion for PPJ & Essays on Ordinary Acts. https://pubhub.lib.msu.edu/projects/radhumforum
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Stephanie Polsky (2022), The Dark Posthuman: Dehumanization, Technology, and the Atlantic World. Punctum Books. https://punctumbooks.com/titles/the-dark-posthuman-dehumanization-technology-and-the-atlantic-world/
Alexanda Juhasz, ed. (2022), My Phone Lies to Me: Fake News Poetry Workshops As Radical Digital Media Literacy Given the Fact of Fake News. Punctum Books. https://punctumbooks.com/titles/my-phone-lies-to-me-fake-news-poetry-workshops-as-radical-digital-media-literacy-given-the-fact-of-fake-news/
Martin Paul Eve (2021), Warez: The Infrastructure and Aesthetics of Piracy. Punctum Books. https://punctumbooks.com/titles/warez-the-infrastructure-and-aesthetics-of-piracy/
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On the third day of the Post-Precarity Autumn Camp, the participants had the chance to get an insight into alternative financial pathways of the digital art world. Geert Lovink of the Institute of Network Cultures gave an introduction to the research network MoneyLab that seeks to explore alternative revenue models, as well as to pose the ever-relevant questions of (re)defining the concept of money, especially in the context of the possibilities and limitations the digital monetary infrastructures provide. Succeeding that, artist and researcher Rosa Menkman delved into the complexities of cryptocurrencies and the digital artwork circulation as conceptualized through non-fungible tokens (NFTs). During this workshop, the participants gained insight into the curious structures of online art markets and possible strategies they might utilize for capitalizing off of them. The second part of the day was devoted to embedding the workshop into the social, historical, and artistic contexts of its locality. After lunch, Marisella de Cuba presented the activities of the organization We Promise that is devoted to challenging and overcoming colonial, racist, and discriminatory currents in Hoorn. The day was wrapped up with an art walk with Martijn Aerts which, despite the shifty and at times unfavorable weather, combined the playful with critical during the tour of the historical and artistic markers of the town.
PARTICIPANTS’ REFLECTIONS OF THE DAY, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
In this blog series, INC research fellows Natalie Dixon and Klasien van de Zandschulp explore a burgeoning intimate surveillance culture in neighbourhoods across the world. At the core of this research is a flourishing network of surveillance technologies produced by Silicon Valley and perfectly tailored to a vigilant and paranoid home-owner. This matters. Because being watched by the state is one thing, but being watched by your neighbours invites myriad more questions. In this second essay, we present a WhatsApp case study from South Africa. Admittedly it’s an extreme one, couched in a violent history of racial segregation.
We arrive in a leafy, affluent neighbourhood in north-western Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. Klasien and I are here to interview Mariette* (*not her real name) about her WhatsApp group. Unlike many of the residents in this area, we are on foot slowly making our way to Mariette’s house, taking our time to get to know the neighbourhood. The views from this suburb are impressive; it has a clear vantage point, located on a small hilltop overlooking the city. Here, the house prices are some of the highest in Johannesburg. Browsing local real estate advertisements you’ll come across words like ‘those lucky enough’ to own property in this ‘enviable location’, or ‘best kept secret’. Properties in the neighbourhood have high-perimeter walls and giant Jacaranda trees cast shade over manicured gardens. The streets are quiet and neighbours walk their dogs and children ride their bicycles. To us, this Johannesburg neighbourhood seems pretty idyllic.
This idyllic setting comes at a price though. There is an omnipresent private security company that patrols the streets of the neighbourhood in large black utility vehicles fitted with enormous spotlights. We notice these, they are hard to miss, lingering slowly as they cruise up and down the streets. Paid for by the neighbours, these security vehicles scan the area for any suspicious activity. For a short while the driver even seems to trail us, we are out of place and walking too slowly it seems. Mariette’s neighbourhood is enclosed, which is not unusual in Johannesburg. This means there is only one street entrance for all cars. With permission from the city of Johannesburg, the residents have paid to erect a large palisade fence that closes off all other entrances to the suburb in an effort to prevent crime. A small number of pedestrian gates are left unlocked during the day. The sole remaining traffic entrance is fitted with a security-controlled boom where a guard is stationed 24 hours a day. When we arrive at the boom, we have to declare ourselves and let the guard know that we’re coming to see Mariette.
For a short while the driver even seems to trail us, we are out of place and walking too slowly it seems.
But alongside the security boom, ancient trees, beautifully trimmed lawns and driveways, lies another layer of urban infrastructure here: an electronic layer of communication. The neighbourhood has an active WhatsApp group with about 180 households where residents and the security patrol-unit share information with each other and note anything out of the ordinary. We meet Mariette in her spacious home overlooking Johannesburg’s much-loved urban forest. She is the admin of the neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group. Her job is to moderate and direct conversation between group members. Mariette has a very calm and assertive energy, which is probably why the group voted her to manage their communication. Hailing from a financial background, Mariette used to analyse risk for a living and is adept at making calculated decisions for the best possible outcomes. She exudes an air of decisiveness and resolution in her communication. These are handy attributes in a group admin, who often has to quickly negotiate very complex neighbourhood dynamics.
Mariette starts our conversation by recounting a story of how neighbours in her area used to introduce themselves to the neighbourhood in the past, decades before the start of the WhatsApp group. Usually an invitation was extended to the wife of the new couple to join a few ladies for afternoon tea. Using a trusted neighbourhood ritual involving milk tart and Rooibos tea, the ladies would gently exchange questions and welcome the newest resident. The rituals and gender dynamics have certainly changed since then. As Mariette describes, “Now, people introduce themselves on the WhatsApp group and we all chime in to say hello and answer any questions they might have. There are some people I talk to quite often in the group but I’ve never met them. If they walked past me in the street I just wouldn’t recognise them”.
“There are some people I talk to quite often in the group but I’ve never met them. If they walked past me in the street I just wouldn’t recognise them”
Mariette’s neighbourhood WhatsApp group was formed during a crime wave in their area in 2013. The year the group formed, neighbours reported 13 burglaries, 17 robberies and 10 car thefts to their local police station. Mariette describes how in some of these instances, neighbours cried out to their WhatsApp group for help, fearful of being attacked in their homes. Group members reported a car hijacking in the neighbourhood that involved children. Neighbours anxiously recounted scenes of a housebreaking. Mariette describes how the WhatsApp group became a de facto panic button as neighbours turned to the group first, before their security company or even the police, when anything happened. Often, messages were sent to the group to verify strange sounds and account for cars and people in the neighbourhood. Did you hear that? Was it a firecracker or a gunshot? However, in the early set-up phase of the group, members also expressed feelings of safety. Members remarked that they felt at ease already knowing that others were ‘on watch’. Group members often made themselves available to others in the neighbourhood. In one instance Mariette describes how a neighbour who wasn’t home asked if someone could check on their house when the alarm sounded. Various group members replied to this call for help, showing the group’s responsiveness and care.
More than twenty years after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, artist William Kentridge observes that “Race and class divisions are with us as strongly as ever. A happy ending is by no means assured. There is a daily, low-grade civil war at every stop street. The incidences of racial, verbal and physical abuse alert us to the rages that still burn inside. They are shameful to all of us”. Kentridge names some of the central issues that exist in contemporary South African society and often find expression in the context of neighbourhoods and their WhatsApp groups. The most glaring of these issues is race relations, which, when set against a historical backdrop of institutional racial segregation under Apartheid in South Africa, presents a very unique case study. Writing in the TimesLive newspaper in 2014, South African journalist Tanya Farber exposed the coded language that many South Africans use in their WhatsApp groups that have become taken for granted as part of a system of civilian policing. Farber described a mode of racial profiling in neighbourhood WhatsApp groups that employs phrases like ‘bravo male’ or abbreviations such as ‘BM’ to talk about black males or ‘CM’ to talk about coloured males. Similarly, burglaries are described as ‘home invasions’ adding to a military style vocabulary that has become routine in these groups. Unsurprisingly, Mariette’s group has also adopted this style of language which is often initiated by their private security company who are also in the WhatsApp group.
South African journalist Tanya Farber exposed the coded language that many South Africans use in their WhatsApp groups that have become taken for granted as part of a system of civilian policing.
Notably, Mariette’s neighbourhood has four times the median annual income of its closest neighbouring district, where 23% of that area’s population have no household income. Neighbourhoods in South Africa that can afford to employ private security companies have 24-hour patrols, guarding their streets and houses. These private security companies, alongside residents, have come to determine how notions of space and movement are reconfigured in the neighbourhood, facilitated by the neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group.
This reconfiguration creates a certain privatisation of urban space, which doesn’t only happen in South Africa but with the country’s history this phenomenon can be more uniquely considered. As a result of the pressure of maintaining a presence in all neighbourhoods of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994, police were redistributed to previously under-policed black areas. As a result, wealthier, formerly whites-only neighbourhoods turned to private security to manage access control and crime prevention. This form of privatisation has contributed to a particular narrative around space where streets and neighbourhoods are often treated as a small territory. Neighbours start to govern that territory as their own, warding off those who they deem to be strangers and don’t belong, thereby securing ‘their neighbourhood’.
The feminist theorist Sara Ahmed wrote that a neighbourhood can enter public conversations as an entity ‘already in crisis’. In the context of Mariette’s neighbourhood, this idea is easily understood by the legacy of racial segregation and the violence of the apartheid era that still haunts public spaces. Ahmed goes further to suggest that the neighbourhood is not simply a space defined by economic and class commonalities. Beyond these measures the neighbourhood is also bound together as a site of collective panic. An incident in Mariette’s neighbourhood perfectly illustrates this point.
A stranger, allegedly drunk and stoned, stumbled into the suburb. A neighbour spotted the man and alerted the neighbourhood via the WhatsApp group. The chat lit up as neighbours reacted strongly to the stranger in their space. They coordinated a plan of action via the chat, to remove him from their streets. Using a mixture of CCTV camera footage and the WhatsApp group chat, neighbours posted pictures and pinpointed the movements of the man as he walked through the streets and passed by their homes. Panic escalated quickly and so did the neighbourhood’s reactions. A young neighbour volunteered himself to physically remove the man from the neighbourhood, grabbing a paintball gun for protection. He was joined by another neighbour who eagerly reassured the group they had the situation under control.
The stranger had not threatened or disturbed anyone in the neighbourhood but when the men caught up with him they shot him with the paintball gun. Lying stunned on the floor, the “stranger” was held down by the duo while the group called their security company for back up. When the security officers arrived they then tasered the man. The events were all posted into the group chat and various neighbours commented. One neighbour excitedly remarked that she wished she could have been there to witness the action. Neighbours congratulated the men for their bravery. Later the South African police arrived and released the man, to the dismay of the group. The police warned the neighbours not to take matters into their own hands. The neighbours were incredulous and the group buzzed with messages of irritation and frustration.
The WhatsApp conversations of Mariette’s neighbourhood are, in part, a reflection of the general state of insecurity and fear about crime in South Africa. The country’s crime statistics are amongst the highest in the world. In one year, from 2019-2020, 2.3 million South Africans experienced a house breaking or burglary. It seems many South Africans are willing to give up certain freedoms, like privacy, open access and free movement in exchange for tighter controls and constant surveillance if it means they feel safer. The results show across the country in fortified neighbourhoods with vigilant WhatsApp groups using military codes to communicate with each other. It is important to emphasise that fear of crime in South Africa is not unique to white South Africans. It is felt across all socioeconomic and race groups. However, South African researchers argue that this enclave living in enclosed neighbourhoods breeds more feelings of mistrust and paranoia in neighbourhoods, as residents limit social mixing. The local neighbourhood WhatsApp group reveals the panicky potential of neighbourhoods driven both by actual crime and the fear of crime.
The local neighbourhood WhatsApp group reveals the panicky potential of neighbourhoods driven both by actual crime and the fear of crime.
In Mariette’s neighbourhood fear and paranoia are circulated through WhatsApp and seem to accelerate the urgency of the security situation and amplify the perceived notion of neighbourhood precarity. This fear and anxiety may also relate to how the neighbourhood perceives a threat. Canadian media theorist Brian Massumi argues that fear can be seen to enlarge any existing or implied threat. Massumi claims that in this way, emotions can be elevated above facts or even come to stand in for them. He writes that, ‘The felt reality of the threat is so superlatively real that it translates into a felt certainty about the world, even in the absence of other grounding for it in the observable world …. The affect-driven logic of the would-have/could-have is what discursively ensures that the actual facts will always remain an open case, for all pre-emptive intents and purposes’.
This is an important point, that fear and paranoia can be circulated in groups and can be exaggerated along the way. Like Massumi suggests, these emotions may even be privileged above the facts. In more extreme contexts, this can have disastrous consequences. In 2018 in India’s north-eastern state of Assam, two men were killed by a mob of local residents. The men, Nilotpal Das and Abijeet Nath, an audio engineer and a digital artist respectively, had stopped in a village to ask for directions. Unbeknownst to Das and Nath, the village was in a state of hyper-vigilance towards outsiders after a series of child kidnappings in the area. A series of disturbing WhatsApp messages had been circulating amongst villagers festering a deep sense of suspicion and paranoia. The mob suspected Das and Nath were the kidnappers and the two were subsequently beaten to death. The killing was also filmed on a mobile phone and later circulated on WhatsApp amongst locals. The police subsequently confirmed that the kidnapping messages, which contained a video of a child purportedly being snatched, were entirely fake.
Dr. Natalie Dixon is an INC research fellow and founder & cultural insights director at affect lab, a women-led creative studio and research practice based in Amsterdam. Her work explores questions of gender, race and belonging through the lens of technology. Alongside her creative partner, Klasien van de Zandschulp, they are the creators of Good Neighbours.
Twenty participants of Post-precarity Autumn Camp, jointly organized by the Platform BK, Institute of Network Cultures, and Hotel Maria Kappel have gathered in Hotel Maria Kappel in Hoorn to commence a five-day journey into the intricacies of overcoming the late-capitalist challenges artists encounter in aims to keep their practice alive and prosperous. The topic of the first day entailed working in the gig economy. Silvio Lorusso, designer, researcher, and author of Entreprecariat: Everyone is an Entrepreneur. Nobody is Safe. kicked off the day’s program with a lecture on the popular freelance platform Fiverr. Silvio analyzed how user interface design, as well as imagery on the platform, represent as well as shape labour relations and provide novel meanings of the role of the freelancer. Following that, artist and researcher (as well as gig-worker) Alina Lupu reflected on her working and artistic practice that merged her income-earning on the food delivery platform Deliveroo with her artistic work on labour and mobilization of union movements that she was a part of. As a part of her workshop, participants presented their various funding streams during the years, which posited the professional history as strangely intimate, enabling the participants to overcome the salary taboo – one of the main capitalist instruments of obedience. Tirza Kater presented a brief history and activities of Hotel Maria Kappel and the day concluded with a grounded Mindfulness workshop by Susan.
SIDE JOB HISTORY OF THE PARTICIPANTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS
I’ve listened to an inordinate about of podcasts in the past year and half; the number of hours would be shocking. I’ve written about this previously: how audio, friendly voices in my ears, was a more comforting medium than television or film. In early 2021, Vulture’s Nicholas Quah published findings about the continuing rise of podcasts, suggesting that American audiences are intensifying their interest in the medium. He writes, “The case began to be made that podcasting, more so than many other new media infrastructures, was uniquely suited to meeting the moment,” suggesting that the pandemic has buoyed the medium extensively. His findings also show that podcast audiences are engaging more directly and are growing in diversity. The running joke about the medium is that everyone has a podcast. I certainly do. Comedians do. Talk show hosts do. Politicians do. In a recent episode of Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown Podcast, hosts Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider joke that now every Real Housewife feels the need to start her own podcast, too.
In this 2021 moment, the series The Complete Woman? has become more relevant than ever, particularly in relation to the rise of conversations about the “Karen,” and a particular kind of white woman who attempts to wield social and racialized power. The podcast is marked as a “Baby Boomer” parody – or a fictional show directed at a fictional Baby Boomer audience. It’s eviscerating that culture, however, in its caricaturing of Marabel May and her friends, interrogating contemporary conversations about whiteness and middleclass-ness; its dark humor lies not in outdated gender roles, but in how incredibly close to home it all hits. It’s not a distant past, but a current reality.
The Complete Woman podcast directly destabilizes nostalgia, even as it draws on older audio formats. In the series, comedian Amanda Lund parodies real-life mid 20th-century marriage self-help author Marabel Morgan, who promoted women’s deference to their husbands through evangelical Christianity – her book is titled The Total Woman, as mentioned by Vulture writer Nathan Rabin, a critical enthusiast of Lund’s series. The fictional Marabel May (voiced by Lund) is a housewife living in 1960s America with her husband, Freck (Matt Gourley). The Complete Woman series is set up as audio companions – diegetically understood as vinyl records – to Marabel’s book of the same name, which she penned after successfully saving her “disaster” of a marriage. She claims, “I believe it’s possible for any woman to manipulate her husband into adoring her in matter of weeks.” Each episode of the series focuses on a different aspect of womanhood or features a “checking-in” with Marabel and her “neighborhood gal” friends, aggressive Joanie (Maria Blasucci), muddled Barbara (Stephanie Allynne), and jovial divorcee Rita (Angela Trimbur).
The segments featuring Marabel chatting with her neighborhood girlfriends are particularly insightful, as each woman expresses her own warped version of the mid-century American marriage. They also combine the outdated instructional segments with more modern casual conversations, highlighting The Complete Woman’s addressing of women’s emotional labor, as well conventional housework. These segments also illuminate the distinctly female-driven nature of the series, as these voice actresses tend to improvise the discussions at hand. The back-and-forth between these women is both satirical and demonstrative of a sense of fun in their parody, and, at times, sincere friendship behind-the-scenes. Though a harsh satire of women’s positions in American culture, the show reveals a sense of community as Lund features her friends, all working comedians and actresses based in Los Angeles who find creative outlets in podcasting.
Format here, is significant too. The podcast directly satirizes an older format–self-help vinyl records–and its usage – questioning the ideologies of the past and present. The series conceptual set-up is nostalgic, but the content is not. The Complete Woman is unique in its use of format to draw on nostalgia for these pedantic vinyl recordings; the specificity of the audio and structure of the series suggests Lund has some fondness for these bygone formats. But the formatting is also used to critique and comment on the historical sexism and patriarchalism of marriage. While this is done with humor, the satire presented by the series sounds shockingly grounded in reality.
To understand the concept of The Complete Woman series, let’s examine the opening episode’s introductory narration. The first episode begins with the show’s recurring “groovy” 60s-style music, signaling a move to the past. While the show is about women for women, a male narrator is the first voice heard – an immediate indicator of Marabel May’s deference to men, and thus the imaginary audience’s, as well. The narrator states, “Welcome to The Complete Woman, the audio-companion to the number one bestselling book of the same name, written by Marabel May. It’s 1963, divorce is on the rise, the tides are changing, and marriages are drowning.”
The voices in the podcast sound echo-y and distant, reminiscent of listening to an old recording, which positions the listener as a participant – as if they are indeed in a struggle marriage and choosing to play this record and get advice from the fictional expert. Marabel then, in a deadpan manner, states, “Hi, I’m Marabel May, bestselling author, unaccredited marriage expert, and stay-at-home wife. Are you stuck in an unhappy marriage? Feel like there’s no hope in sight? You’re not alone. I receive millions of letters in the mail every day from sad people just like you. Here’s what they have to say.” Melancholic piano music starts playing as different voices – both male and female – express their unhappiness in their marriages: for example, “I mean how many nighttime headaches can one woman get?” Marabel comes back, after the sound of a record scratch, “But wait, there’s hope!” Again, the recording aspect pulls the audience into the fictional space of Marabel May and her dire need to save marriages.
The 60s-style music picks back up as the male narrator begins again, “Marabel May’s Complete Woman course is scientifically proven to improve your marriage – or your husband’s money back!” Marabel states, “But don’t take it from the faceless announcer guy. Take it from the countless, faceless, voices I’ve helped.” More voices of men and women are heard praising Marabel’s method: for example, “I used to get upset when dinner wasn’t on the table when I got home from work. Now, I know I’m right.” Marabel responds to these:
Thank you. Are you ready to take the next step toward marital bliss? You’ve read my bestselling book, now it’s time to jump into the audio companion. I suggest you listen to this record in a calm, quiet setting. Lock your children in their rooms and put your pets in a basket. Pour yourself an afternoon swizzle and settle in. You’re about to impart [sic] on a life-changing journey. Your husbands will thank you!
This exchange suggests both that the audience is enveloped into the diegesis of the podcast, but also the series’ dedication to a bygone format – though the dialog is humorous, the concept of The Complete Woman as a vinyl audio-companion never wavers.
The Complete Woman purposefully – and at times very uncomfortably – puts the listener in the position of someone who is genuinely interested in Marabel and her friends’ worldviews, who aligns with her outdated sexist and racist ideas: Marabel refers to “Oriental China,” and Barbara refers to “not being in Calcutta” when oral sex comes up in conversation. While lampooning these behaviors, the podcast is also forcing its listeners to reckon with them, to consider their own thinking as they are positioned as an audience who would agree with everything Marabel is saying.
What is additionally powerful about The Complete Woman is its reliance on authenticity in its sound. The doctrinaire voices of both the male announcer and Marabel May are so identifiable as typical affected self-help narration; their voices are upbeat but never hurry or seem too excitable – they maintain an evenness that is uncanny. Their tone and manners of speech undermine what the characters are actually saying, making this fictionalized companion album seem all the more legitimate, as if this series was found in a used record store – a kitschy yet forgotten audio self-help guide from the 60s. The intonation of the voices is overtly making fun of white voices assuming and exerting authority, no matter the absurdities that being spoken. The medium allows the audience to move in and out of positions: as genuine followers of Marabel May, as listeners of what might be a kitschy thrift store find, and as comedy fans. The sound maneuvers the audience constantly, suturing them to the aural space of the podcast in a myriad of ways.
The Complete Woman parodies albums like Folkways Records produced in the mid-twentieth century, not just in its material, but also the length of the podcast episodes – a little over twenty minutes, just enough to fit perfectly on a vinyl side. The 1963 Folkways produced Understanding of Sex is a symptomatic example of precisely what the podcast is trying to mock, a pedantic authoritative voice, with liner notes boasting backing by doctors. Important, too, is the Folkways record’s completely white, heteronormative take on sex – which is here discussed solely in the context of maintaining a happy marriage. The Complete Woman’s devotion to the medium is humorous, but also in how it brandishes its critique of modern womanhood: its commitment to authenticity betrays how much Marabel’s teachings disturbingly relate to the modern moment.
The original The Complete Woman was followed up by four more series including the most recent, The Complete Christmas. I, however, want to dissect an example of scenes from The Complete Wedding’s second episode “Bridal Colors” in order to demonstrate how the series utilizes the podcasting format to position the audience as both in and out of the joke.
This episode uses sound to highlights the absurdist, yet bitingly relevant, commentary on wedding planning, both then and now. “Bridal Colors,” with women’s discussion of picking the perfect dress and color scheme for their weddings, especially underlines not only the parody of mid-century culture, but contemporary obsession with wedding planning. With the internet and influencer culture as an endless source of consumption, advice, and color palettes, modern wedding planning does not seem so different from Marabel’s suggestions – particularly in how both exude whiteness, middleclass-ness, and heteronormativity. Those resonances suggest that, despite The Complete Woman parodying a mid-century mindset and the use of older sound technologies, the analog and the digital are applied in very similar ways to maintain a status quo.
After giving the audience a quick quiz to help them figure out their “seasonal” colors, Marabel gives some specific suggestions for planning the perfect wedding. It is important to quote her entire speech on wedding scenarios in its entirety to fully understand how the series uses voice in concert with content to create its cutting yet absurd nature. Marabel speaks, as she always does, in a clear, enthusiastic, pedantic, very raced and gendered voice:
It’s science! – but for ladies. I’ll walk you through a few likely scenarios. I suggest taking notes with a pencil and paper. If you don’t have access to pencils or paper, chocolate syrup on a large cutting board is your best bet. If you’re a Winter having a city hall wedding, try a tea-length going away dress or a handsome woolen ensemble in French white with a veil-less headdress. Your flowers may be carried as a sheath or as an old-fashioned nosegay, pinned to a prayer book. Muffs are encouraged but not required. If worn, they must be flame-retarded [sic] or pre-burned. If you’re a Spring having a formal church wedding, try a long-trained brocade dress in true white and carry an impressive bouquet of American beauty roses, along with an ivory rosary. Jewelry may be delicate and preferably real. No feathers! – unless of course it’s a live canary, pinned to a broach borrowed by your mother-in-law’s estranged secretary. If you’re a Summer having a semi-formal wedding at home, try an ankle-length silk organza garden dress in bridal blush. Shoes are optional, but if worn must be made of glass blown by your tallest male relative on your maternal side. Sarah Bernhardt peonies are appropriate but no more than a half-dozen lest you come off looking braggadocio… is a word I learned!
Marabel’s voice is very candid, and she speaks quickly, as if this ridiculous list of arbitrary rules is a reminder for the audience of concepts of which they’re already aware. This monologue is exemplary of the series’ style – twisting banal aspects of material culture into absurdity to highlight the pressures put on women to perform and perfect things like weddings, marriage, and motherhood. “It’s science! – but for ladies” focuses on this fictional ideal that there is a formula that can lead to the perfect marriage, or that any aspect of idealized womanhood can be perfected if you just follow these easy steps. Woman’s work is implied here to be banal, because it is something expected, and if one fails, the consequences are dire.
While listening to Marabel go on is wildly absurd, it is also mocking a one-size-fits all mentality about weddings, and womanhood in general. The wedding comes to represent a particularly coded – white, middleclass, heteronormative – aspirational cultural practice that, in this midcentury moment of Marabel, is becoming solidified as something one is “supposed to do” and supposed to do in a certain way. It suggests to the audience, too, that these practices, while shifting, haven’t completely gone away. There are still expectations, traditions, and rituals that are widely expected to be performed by woman, relating not just to marriage, but work, sex, motherhood – the list goes on. This midcentury moment is still strongly felt in the contemporary moment, so as Marabel rattles off a list of what seem like insane rules – “Shoes are optional, but if worn must be made of glass blown by your tallest male relative on your maternal side” – they aren’t all that far off from today. These notions of perfected womanhood, too, are strongly structured by ideals held over from that time about race, class, and gender.
In “Bridal Colors,” the ladies of The Complete Woman also sit down to reminisce about their wedding themes – though Marabel is initially keen on having the ladies recall their roles in her own special day. When Marabel uncouthly mentions how much salve she used to clear up the many bug bites she received at Barbara’s backyard wedding, Rita sunnily jumps in with, “You know a little trick is you put toothpaste on ‘em.” Marabel, comically deadpan, replies (you can hear the massive eyeroll just from her voice), “Oh, Rita.” Heard on the recording, the voice actresses all burst out laughing at what sounds like an improvised moment. The absurdity of their conversation is brought to a halt by an honest suggestion, and it is quickly incorporated into the scene.
Voices shaking with a bit of laughter are heard throughout the series, but this stands out as particularly noticeable. It highlights the improvised nature of some of these group scenes by audibly breaking both the ‘60s narrative and the aesthetics of many contemporary hyper-edited studio podcasts. It would not be unheard in either moment to cut out the laughter or re-record the scene, but it is kept in, obvious to the audience. This laughter breaks the authenticity to the medium and works to successfully suture the podcast space to that of contemporary listeners. There is no frame to restrict, not only what can be heard, but what can be said. The diegesis spills into the space of the audience – they, too, are in the joke, for a moment no longer positioned as the fictional audience of Marabel May, but a comedy podcast audience. This builds a sense of community between listener and creator, as seemingly intimate moments of gaffes become integral to the both the diegesis of the podcast, but also the listening experience. In the case of The Complete Woman the format welcomes mistakes and improvisation as voices break out of characterization to comment on the reality behind the format – which is itself an important part of podcasting.
The comedy of The Complete Woman series is dark at times, as Lund notes both the limitations of women’s roles throughout the 20th century and highlights the ways in which things have not changed. While The Complete Woman is not directly calling on its audience to act, it is addressing the complexities of nostalgia for a previous moment by noting how, in some ways, it closely resembles the contemporary one. There is nostalgia found in the audio-companion concept of the series, but the content – while humorous – can be quite deep and painful. The Complete Woman does not succeed because it draws fondly on former sound technologies, but rather because it – often harshly – points out the pitfalls of nostalgia; Marabel May’s twisted world of the idealized straight white 1960s middle class housewife is often a direct commentary on the current position of women. The show suggests both that this kind of thinking hasn’t shifted much, but also, and more significantly in this moment, the conversation surrounding middle class white women’s complicity in upholding systemic racism. While the original The Complete Woman was released years before these conversations became widely prevalent, it holds up a satirical, yet bitingly revelatory mirror to the contemporary moment.
The podcast also amplifies the voices of the community of women behind it, who are looking critically at this moment in history by reframing and reengaging. It is worth noting Lund is a cofounder of the women-run Earios podcast network, that “strives to elevate the podcasting market with intelligent, diverse, subversive content BY WOMEN, FOR EVERYONE.” It is through comedy – ironically and inaccurately territorialized as a very “masculine domain” in the U.S. entertainment industry – and the genuineness of these scenes which break open the diegetic sound space of the podcast, that the audience can hear – and connect to – the very real women behind-the-scenes of the parody. Ultimately, through looking at series like The Complete Woman, it becomes clear that podcasting is more than a return to familiar formats (radio) – it is creating something new. Improvisation and comedy are particularly significant: the moments of improv and mistakes can create genuine connection.
Megan Fariello is a Chicago-based writer with a background in cultural studies. She is currently a contributor with Cine-File, and has recently published work in Film Cred and Dismantle. Megan is also a PhD graduate from the Cultural Studies program at George Mason University. This article draws and expands on work from her dissertation, titled The Techno-Historical Acoustic: The Reappearance of Older Sound Technologies in the Contemporary Media Landscape, which intervenes in the disciplines of cinema and media studies and sound studies, examining how the rise of aurally-focused narratives in contemporary media – including television and podcasting – are recasting processes of nostalgia.
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