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♫ Roxane ♫

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With a bestselling book and a new site, Roxane Gay is a welcome threat to mainstream feminist sensibilities

Roxane Gay is on the verge of being our next feminist icon. Bad Feminist spent a month on the New York Times Best Sellers List. She is the subject of interviews and profiles in all the big media outlets at home and abroad. In addition to the regular bookstore circuit, she’s the new darling of the Women’s Studies academy with invitations to speak at colleges and universities around the country. Her fan base is deep and wide. This week Gay launches The Butter, her own companion site to Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg’s The Toast, where Gay will edit a mix of cultural essays, advice, and, judging by Cliffe and Ortberg’s precedent, whatever she wants to publish. As everyone who is paying attention has noted, she excels at fiction and sharp cultural critiques and is very good at being a bad feminist. She also sort of sucks at being A BLACK ♀.

In life, on television, and in the movies A BLACK ♀ is sassy, fierce, appropriately tragic and/or hilarious (ain’t nobody got time for that). She is angry (always), and strong. A BLACK ♀ means Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Olivia Pope, Angela Davis, and, now, Professor Annalise Keating, J.D. There are exceptions, like Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” and Jean Gray’s sharp, surreal “Life with Jeannie.” which, like all of the more nuanced representations and representing of black womanhood these days, can be found on the Internet. We might be quirky from time to time (think Denise Huxtable or Monica Wright), but we’re never pathetic, at least not in public or in the public imagination. We don’t get to do neurotic. We are not manic-pixie dream girls.

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Venerated Members

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Europe’s history of penis worship was cast aside when the Catholic Church realized Jesus’s foreskin was too potent to control.

Grigori Rasputin’s dick is on display at the Museum of Erotics in Saint Petersburg. Housed in a jar of formaldehyde, the member, which the museum’s owner claims he obtained from a French antiquarian, is quite sizable. Actually, it’s enormous for a human penis: Wide and meaty, it measures about a foot long. According to the museum, just gazing on the preserved member can cure a range of problems, everything from infertility to a humdrum sex life. But the specimen isn’t a human penis. It more than likely came from a horse.

It wouldn’t be the first time something inhuman was passed off as Rasputin’s dick. An earlier version circulated after Rasputin’s 1916 murder, legendary for being long and difficult: an initial failed poisoning, followed by multiple gunshots, a beating, and finally a drowning. Legend has it that in the midst of the horror show the man in charge of the grisly plot, Prince Felix Yusupov, somehow managed to castrate the mad mystic. Rasputin’s penis was supposedly scurried out of the country and ended up in the hands of Russian émigrés in Paris. There, his dick became a kind of religious relic of their vanished homeland, a potent piece of a vanished social order.

According to Rasputin biographer Patte Barham, the émigrés treated it as quasi-sacred, keeping it in a makeshift reliquary and venerating it. The powerful appendage of the dead mystic had strength or reassurance to offer the beleaguered community. By the 1970s, Barham reported that Rasputin’s dick looked like “a blackened, overripe banana, about a foot long, and resting on a velvet cloth.” When Rasputin’s daughter Maria discovered that others were in possession of the only remaining earthly piece of her father, she successfully demanded the member be returned to its rightful heir. It stayed with her until her death in 1977, after which it was confirmed that the relic was actually a sea cucumber.

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View From Nowhere

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On the cultural ideology of Big Data.

“What science becomes in any historical era depends on what we make of it”  —Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (1991)

Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.

Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief.

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We Can Be Heroes

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By associating itself with the selfish pleasures of visibility, the wearable camera GoPro has staved off criticism for how it enhances surveillance

In On Photography, Susan Sontag laments the disconnected voyeurism photography produces. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” she declared. Watching people stare at their phones rather than the world around them suggests that she was spot on. Capitalizing on that widely held impression, the thriving camera company GoPro sells a different view: Cameras don’t have to imprison reality; they can encourage you to engage with the world as fully as possible — all while documenting it, of course.

Since the advent of photography, we have craved cameras that let us capture our adventures and experiences without interfering in them, letting us seek the best images to become our memories. Even when cameras weighed 10 pounds, they were still marketed for their mobility and durability. GoPro, as an ultralight panoramic HD camera designed to be worn rather than pointed and operated, is in some ways the logical culmination of this desire. Its definitive feature is the ease with which it can be strapped on or mounted to surfboards, dashboards or foreheads to permit constant and thought-free filming.

But as the means for sharing images has expanded along with the means for capturing them, the expectations we have of photography have shifted. Photos no longer merely document future memories; they define present lifestyles. They circulate and establish personal identity. Engagement with an experience and documenting it are no longer competing impulses, if they ever were — instead they are simultaneous and mutually constitutive.

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Violence Is Mine

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Post-internet art reflects a certain undercurrent of violence without being didactic about its source.

In a number of contemporary artists whose works deal with the digital — the so-called post-internet artists — a marked, almost frightening feature is their tendency towards violence. The figure, which had been largely absent from contemporary art for the past few decades, has returned, but only to be pulled apart, dissected or made to disappear — not with any visible bloodshed or abjection, but clinically, echoing in style the unreality associated with the digital. This return to the body as a subject of hostility suggests that the proximity on the internet to representations of extreme violence is a kind of imbrication — an unresolved culpability from those watching toward what’s seen.

In Ian Cheng’s video Thousand Islands Thousand Laws (2013), for example, a video-game gunman patrols the environment, looking left and right for a threat that never materializes. Eventually, he too disappears among the skeletal representations of birds and swamp creatures of the mise-en-scène. In another of Cheng’s works, METIS SUNS (2014), cartoon figures appear as if thrown like dice onto the screen, scramble and twist helplessly, and recede into drawn lines that just as quickly fade from view.

The main characters of Ed Atkins’s digital videos, meanwhile, are cadavers or hard-drinking, tattoo-laced men who clutch glasses of whiskey and cigarettes in desperate need of being ashed. In Ribbons (2014), a head deflates as if perforated by some invisible hand. In Us Dead Talk Love (2012) and Those Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013), the figures ruminate poetically on being dead. The disembodied head of Us Dead Talk Love mourns, specifically, an eyelash stuck in foreskin, while images of statues, hair and eyes go by — a digital dismemberment of the body.

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