Inspiration – Sounds Which Bind

Last week a dream of mine came true. I sat in a darkened, Seattle theater, three rows from the stage; a stage which used to house a large projector screen and a heavy damask curtain, but now was strewn with guitars and speakers. The Neptune Theatre had been renovated a year after I graduated college, transforming it into a live performance venue rather than the old movie palace it had been for years.

I was there that night to hear a different kind of story; one without dramatic close-ups, pithy dialogue, or mood lighting. That night I was there to watch KT Tunstall, one of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time, play and sing.

I discovered her much at the same time as the rest of the world, when the single from her debut album, “Eye to the Telescope”, exploded onto the music scene. I loved the mix of pop and folk styles her songs embodied, loved the deepness of her clear voice, loved the energy and the life that was inseparable from her work. I was fourteen at the time and, like most teenagers of that age, listened to music like it was my private diary, using the lyrics and sounds to say something about myself rather than think about the rest of the world.

It wasn’t until my father purchased her second album, “KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza” that I truly fell in love. It was a collection of older songs, songs that she’d released on demo albums, on promotional singles, even covers. I was immediately entranced with the honesty in the songs. They weaved stories which did not just resonate with me personally, but whose fingers I could feel drifting through the collective consciousness of humanity. The DVD included with the album documented the recording process. KT spoke of her drive to create, of the need to connect with the music as a way of connecting with others and as a way for her to understand life and the world around her. It was if someone was speaking words aloud I had heard only in a half-imagined dream. That was what I wanted to do. Connect. Learn. Understand.

As I began my writing career, I played all of the KT Tunstall albums I had repeatedly. Her songs, her words, her sounds were my creative companions and inspirations. They calmed me, they directed me, they suggested new avenues of thoughts and feelings I would not have explored otherwise. “Drastic Fantastic” spurned me on through late nights with its more classic rock tones and “Tiger Suit”, a dance album with funky electronic beats backing up impossibly catchy lyrics, reminded me in my more melancholy moments that if I wasn’t writing because it made me happy, I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Her latest album, “Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon”, is a deeply personal one. Recorded during a time of tribulation in her private life, it’s much more ‘stripped down’ than her previous two records. It deals with themes and topics she had shied away from before: death, violence, depression. But it’s not a sad album; not really. It’s honest, open, like a hand reaching out from the darkness saying “It’s alright, I feel that too. I feel it all.”

And that’s exactly what KT Tunstall did that night. Not only was I lucky enough to catch one of her guitar picks (a memento I will cherish with perhaps more reverence than it is due), I was one of the lucky few people at the front of the stage to shake her hand when her show was over. I felt that connection as I had during every one of her songs that night and I was reminded that, for me, that was the point of my writing: to connect; to tell others who I might never meet that they weren’t alone. No one is alone.

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A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 3 of 7)

III. Man vs. Nature: The Fembot Debate before Computer Technology

Female Automaton at Piano
Picture via Wikimedia by Rama

While issues of femininity and the debate about machine intelligence are at the forefront of the Fembot ‘trope’, there is a bigger, more pervasive issue that this character addresses. Whether the story she inhabits is using her character to question the nature of femininity (is femininity is merely a social performance that can be programmed or something real and ineffable?), or the story is using her as a catalyst to debate issues of consciousness and intelligence (how do we know when someone or something posses consciousness? What is the value of that knowledge?), both are, in essence, asking what is greater, or what holds more value: the products we perceive as coming from nature or the products which mankind creates?

This is a larger question that predates the discussions of Turing and Searle. It is a discussion that does not require ‘modern’ technology to take place. This is significant because it allows the Fembot to be read as a figure that represents the culmination of a broader and older school of thought. Within her, readers and writers look for answers about the hierarchy of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The question surfaces again and again, in articles and essays spanning all different times and all different places. Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay The Decay of Lying is just one provocative example of this discussion out of many. The Decay of Lying is of particular importance to my argument because not only does it predate anything resembling modern computer technology, but it unintentionally returns this exploration to the idea of gender.

In this article, written as a dialogue between two men, Wilde argues that the art of “lying” has gone out of fashion. By this he means that he finds modern novels of his era to be relying too heavily on what is “natural” for their source material, when the “artificial” is clearly more valuable. He contends that the artificial is what takes us out of our everyday lives and allows us to imagine and do great things. As he puts it, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy” (Wilde 1891). Wilde calls for the immediate shift from realism back to romanticism, as well as calling for the dethroning of “nature” as all important. To him, Nature provides nothing that cannot be perfected by man.

In the opening and closing sections of his essay, Wilde addresses why humanity might be convinced to favor the artificial over the natural and why a ‘performance’ of truth is more valuable than truth itself. He suggests that “It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place” (Wilde, 1891). Wilde contends that it is nature that must learn to imitate the creations of man, not the other way around. When it comes to the creative potential of Nature, Wilde decries it as “a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her” (Wilde, 1891). Furthermore, in the beginning of the essay, Wilde attempts to explain mankind’s attitude toward the artificial. Wilde notes that when things are taken from nature and “…fashioned for our use and our pleasure” “…everything is subordinated to us….” (Wilde 1891). He compares “Morris’s poorest workman” to the hand of nature, saying that the former is greater than the latter when it comes to making “a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can” (Wilde, 1891).

In the opinion of Wilde, that which man can make is greater than nature in the sense that it is more perfectly adapted to his needs as well as under man’s control. Surely this argument resonates in the figure of the Fembot, an artificial woman who is created to correct the ‘mistakes’ of nature’s design while also being under the direct control of her male creator. Wilde even genders ‘Nature’ as female, whereas the ‘creator’ of the ‘corrective art’ is male. From this essay, it is clear that the issue of how we treat machines as creations of men is applicable to how women and those who perform femininity are treated and has been for many centuries, not just with the technical revolution.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” Intentions (1891). “Life Imitates Art Far More than Art Imitates Life” Minnesota State University, 29 Oct. 2002. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <>.

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For Your Own Protection

Betty awoke with a jolt, so disoriented by the strangeness of her surroundings that she forgot that her name was no longer Betty, but Tara.

The fear ebbed out of Tara’s lined face when she realized the pounding she heard was not someone at the door, but some punk kid’s bass, blaring down the streets of the suburb she was forced to call home.

She glanced at the body depressing the mattress beside her, tamping down the feelings of disgust which always rushed over her now when she looked at her husband, who she used to call ‘George’ but now called ‘Nick’ and who the papers were calling ‘the snitch’.

Nick rolled over, eyes firmly shut. “You alright, baby?”

“I’m fine. Go back to sleep. And don’t call me baby.”

Tara collapsed back into the mattress, her short hair scratching the back of her neck. She thought about the neighbors they entertained at the barbecue yesterday; mostly fat men with skinny wives and noisy, bad-mannered children. The only one she’d really liked was Roger from across the street; his tanned face, easy smile, the way he smoked his foreign cigarettes, smelling like jasmine and charcoal.

She drifted for a moment in that space between sleep and wakefulness; Roger had been so genuine, so real. She liked that.

In the house across the street, Roger, recently Guido of New York City, looked out his window. He smiled, taking another drag on his cigarette. He was supposed to be lying low, staying inconspicuous according to the feds. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who moved in across the street last week; all soft hands, tired eyes and smelling like a garden rose. After all the lies and deceit, it was refreshing to meet someone so honest; so real.

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Inspiration: Storytellers Who Paint

My family has always been a museum family. As a child I remember that our outings included trips to museums five times as often as they did shopping or going to the movies. Vacations were filled with visits to aquariums, zoos, local historical archives, and civil war battlefields, where I would stand on the ground hundreds of men had died upon and feel humbled by the immensity of knowledge which sat forever beyond my reach.

The National Gallery of Art, West Building Facade
The National Gallery of Art by AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia

I grew up in a small town called Ellicott City in Maryland, smack dab in the middle of the Baltimore/Washington Corridor. The Smithsonian Museums in D.C. became like second homes to me; I can’t begin to estimate the number of times we visited each site and I can’t describe to you now how much I miss all of them.

My sister and I were always allowed souvenirs from these treasure troves. All too often they were cheap, plastic things with the names of the museum stamped in sparkly ink on one side, but every so often one of us would pick up something really good. One of my sister’s acquisitions now hangs on my wall, a gift from a muse to her author.

I don’t remember seeing the painting in the National Gallery of Art, but we must have passed it. Megan picked up a small, wood-backed print of the piece, titled “Street in Venice”. It hung on the wall next to her bed for a year or so before I noticed it. I gave it a glance at last when my sister, tired of listening to me whine about my lack of ideas for a story writing project I was being forced to do in my English class, gestured to it and said, “I have plenty of pictures; just look at one of them and make up a story to match.”

And so I did. And a lifelong addiction to creative writing was born.

John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1886
John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1886

“Street in Venice” is one of the thousands of paintings John Singer Sargent put on canvas during his long career. An expatriate American who spent almost all of his life in Europe, John Singer Sargent was best known in his time for his evocative and sometimes scandalous portraits of the elite and aristocratic. He learned from the old masters of portraiture; Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez. He traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe, painting genre scenes of picaresque sections of cities like Madrid, the countryside of Holland, and Venice. Shortly after making London his permanent home, Sargent visited and worked with Claude Monet at Giverny, where it is thought he first gained his taste for the watercolor medium, impressionistic style, and his desire to paint murals and landscapes.

John Singer Sargent's "Street in Venice"
John Singer Sargent’s “Street in Venice”

According to the National Gallery of Art, Sargent’s “Street in Venice”, painted in 1882, was done on the spot and in the moment. It shows the inside of a narrow back alley near the Grand Canal, called Calle Larga dei Proverbi, which roughly translates to the ‘wide street of Proverbs’. What truth or lesson Sargent’s scene is supposed to teach is up to the interpretation of the viewer. But for me, the girl with tattered skirts and a ragged wrap, out from under which peeks a bright-colored top, her pinned back hair falling into her eyes: she spoke to me, and she continues speaking, of a hard life lived and a defiance to keep on keeping on. The man in the doorway gazes at her, but she pays him no mind, continuing on her way with a tired expression and a petulant kicking of her hem over the cobbled street. She is alone and she prefers to remain alone, carrying whatever she has to carry under her own power.

I feel a kinship to her worn bravado. Chasing a dream is hard work; it’s something you do running on hopes and prayers and very often tears. But I’ve committed, and I’m not looking back or looking for help carrying my burdens. When I succeed, I’ll know that all the long hours, all the loneliness, and all the toil was worth it.

I keep the picture in my kitchen. Not the most auspicious setting for it, perhaps, but I enjoy looking at it in the morning after I’ve stumbled out of bed, tired and threadbare, eyes barely open as I arrange my pills for the day on the counter. That woman hasn’t stopped walking once; she knows where she’s going and she’s going to get there. If she can do it, maybe I can to.

What about you? What story does the picture suggest to your imagination? Do you have a piece of artwork like this that inspires and motivates you? I’d love to hear about it!

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A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 2 of 7)

II. Techno-Politics and Gender Politics: Conflict in the Fembot

Artificial Intelligence
Image by Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz via Wikimedia

The question then becomes how our attitudes towards technology inform our attitudes towards gender as seen in the figure of the Fembot in popular science fiction literature. The Fembot is a figure composed of equal parts machine and programmed femininity. In each narrative, the Fembot becomes a site for debate, either between herself and her creator or others around her. The way in which this liminal creature is treated as an ‘intelligent’ or ‘conscious’ machine is dependent upon which theories of computer intelligence the author is drawing from. The topic of machine consciousness has been debated most notably by the likes of Alan Turing and John Searle.

Alan Turing postulated that a machine’s intelligence could be proved by passing what he called “The Imitation Game”, what has since become better known as the “Turing Test”. The original parameters of this test involved a human “interrogator” asking questions of two other subjects that he cannot see or hear. One of these subjects is a human being and the other is a computer. Both are trying to convince the “interrogator” through their answers that they are a certain gender, male or female. Turing postulated that the questions of “‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?” successfully replaced and answered the original query of “Can machines think?” If a computer could successfully convince the human “interrogator” that it was a human being of either gender, it had proved its intelligence (Turing).

Since its inception, theorists in the AI, or Artificial Intelligence, field as well as in the humanities have hotly debated the “Turing Test”. Many argue that it takes no intelligence to imitate behavior. They argue that any computer can be programmed to perform a task such as the one described above; doing so does not prove consciousness. While Turing argues that “the polite convention that everyone thinks” should be equally applicable to technology, others like John Searle argue fiercely against it. In his essay Minds, Brains, and Programs Searle postulates that the claim that because one “attribute[s] cognition to other people [one] must in principle also attribute it to computers” is so flawed that it is barely worth refuting. “The problem in this discussion is not about how I know that other people have cognitive states,” Searle argues, “but rather what it is that I am attributing to them when I attribute cognitive states to them…it couldn’t be just computational processes and their output because the computational processes and their output can exist without the cognitive state” (Searle). For Searle, the question is one of intentionality. In his opinion, a computer has no acts that are intentional – they are only the response to pre-programmed stimuli and represent no actual thought. Computers are tools, and as tools they don’t have any intentionality driving the work assigned to them by more mentally advanced beings, namely humans.

It is within this discussion that the link between arguments about machine intelligence and the issue of femininity becomes clearer. Throughout history, philosophers have postulated that the female gender does not have the capacity for independent thought. They have been barred from voting, owning property – they have been so disenfranchised that in fundamental ways they have become property at various points in human history. Like the machine they are a thing to be owned for the benefit of the owner. Private whims and pleasures are inconceivable, unless linked to the pleasing of the ‘master’. I argue that this attitude towards woman was and is at least partially informed by the idea that women, just like the property they are being leveled with, have no intentionality. The very concept that they are incapable of the level of necessary thought to make rational decisions based on relevant data is another way of saying that they lack the ability to direct themselves. It is the exact opposite of Turing’s proposal: if we can’t prove that they think, then it’s safe to assume that they don’t.

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Works Cited

Searle, John R. “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. Print.

Turing, A.M. “Computing machinery and intelligence.” Mind, 59, 433-460. 1950

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