Expectations on the eve of change


So I am about 24 hours away from submitting my final essay of my undergraduate degree. To be honest I am freaking out. The thought of not learning anything impractical for three months is terrifying. It’s time to come to grips with the everyday realities of what motivates and satisfies me, and decide if teaching is it.

I like my everyday right now. And this is a problem. I have the most rewarding jobs in the world, and neither of them pay well enough to live in Sydney where these opportunities to connect exist. I get to make real connections everyday, and I have to lose my own ego and let them go as easily as they came. A flash of recognition, a smile from someone who can’t say my name, the ability to stop and sit and listen to someone whose problems bear no relation to my own. Will I get this from teaching?

I have chosen this image by Roger Ballen to illustrate what I am feeling. I wonder what he was feeling when he made these connections. Did he feel like his ego was outside these relationships, but did he feel satisfied all the same? Or did he place himself so far outside that he wondered ‘What is the point? Does it even matter that I am here?” I don’t know what his relationship was, but I do know some of the thoughts that would have passed through his mind when interacting with his subjects. 

I find comfort in the ontological insecurity that my job brings. Someone needs water, I hold a straw to their lips. Some days I need meaning, but mostly I don’t. I fear that teaching has become removed from satisfying needs. But I’m going to carry these questions with me and try to answer them, or not answer them, daily.



Participation and Chemical Restrictive Practices



Yes, I was surprised to learn that it’s a thing too. I suppose it had always made sense that medicating someone without their consent in order to restrain them was dubious, but sometimes necessary to prevent them from causing further harm to themselves and others. But I hadn’t really thought of the implications of drugs that might restrict participation generally. I’ll give an example.

Imagine that an adult has regular seizures. And now imagine that they’re given a drug that minimises those seizures. The only problem is that it makes them sleep for 23 hours a day. Pretty restrictive, huh?

Now imagine that this person may have needed assistance from a carer many times a day, and that before they were medicated for seizures, they complained loudly and displayed constant echolalia. Well, that doesn’t happen any more, does it?

My questions are many. Is this the least restrictive drug for this person? What are they losing by taking it? Does anyone except the person taking the drugs stand to gain something that may set off alarm bells? Is there a ‘least restrictive’ alternative that would aid with seizures. Has the person participated in this decision, or just the GP and carer?

Chemical restriction isn’t just about padded rooms. It’s about participating as fully as possible in daily life, and the constant revision of medication to ensure that this is possible.

Image: people participating. 


The Only Way is Essex meets bell hooks. Yes, really. #TOWIE


The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.

Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).

Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.

Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).

The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says

the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).

hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.

At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26).  However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:

whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).

Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states

Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).

The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).


De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.


Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/feb/05/britishidentity.gender

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7368909/What-is-an-Essex-Girl.html

Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17. http://www.youtube.com/user/TOWIEtv

Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.


A bit ‘Aspie’


Not Spock

I’ve heard students described this way. Apparently it’s a bit of a trendy thing to say: “Abdul always needs the blinds drawn in the classroom. He’s so ‘Aspie’.” It seems that all one needs is a mild quirk to be thought of as having Asperger’s syndrome. There are lots of reasons why this kind of labelling is uncool. I would have thought those reasons were obvious, especially in light of “Inclusive Education” – note the OTT bunny ears I am making in the air – but since they’re patently not, and since Asperger’s is the new ADHD and OCD, but with a Spock-myth twist, I can see I am going to have to lay down a new law and explain how these labels hurt.

1.  Labelling, or identifying students solely by their disability, is wrong.

Would you call a student with difficulties walking “a little bit cerebral palsy” or someone with a lower IQ “a little bit globally delayed”? Of course not. But behavioural labels seem to be more fun. People who liked clean hands were called “a little OCD” a few years ago. Now anyone with the mildest distaste for irrationality is ‘Aspie’.

2  Falsely labelling students (presumably to sound clever) trivialises the challenges of those with the actual diagnosis.

I’ve met plenty of students with Asperger’s who have a disability but often no handicap. They’re great people, and with the right support, they excel, very often beyond their peers. They face real challenges from people who are inflexible, and from systems that don’t acknowledge their needs, but they often overcome these and their uniqueness shines. Defining people by their ‘symptoms’ is unethical anyway, but labelling students as being on the spectrum due to vague tendencies trivialises the challenges of those with an actual diagnosis.

3.  Calling students ‘Aspie’ makes you sound ignorant.

If you want to let everyone in the room know that you’ve never gotten to know someone with Asperger’s, then next time you see a student who likes his pencils arranged neatly, announce to your staff “Jarrod is so ‘Aspie’.” Asperger’s syndrome has nothing to do with neatness, order, even logic. And here is where I want feedback. I believe Asperger’s is more of a question to be asked, and that question is “How can I understand the way you see the world?” Because the answer you’re going to get will change your world too.

Misogyny – I’m over it.

Prince de Kooning

No, I mean really over it. I said to a colleague just the other week that I thought I would never get used to students hating me because of my gender, but I was wrong. I’m over it.

An interesting event revealed my true attitudes to misogyny. But let me clarify. I still don’t hold truck with culturally embedded misogyny. But kids for whom women have only (mostly) ever let them down – I’m good with that. I was working at an inner city behavior school last week. There was a casual in for the day who seemed fairly hip to the kids at first. But at the daily debrief she went on a verbal bender about how she had limits and that there was only so much misogyny she could take. The room was deathly silent as everyone was thinking “Should these not be private thoughts, to be mulled over and processed with the benefits of some space and time?”. You could cut the ‘circle’ with a knife.

My inner monologue during her tirade revealed to me my true feelings on the issue of student misogyny:

1. In a behavior setting, our job as women is to be the exception to the (perceived) rule: Be patient, be understanding, don’t give up, and be yourself – don’t slip unquestioningly into ‘roles’, even if they’re part of the school culture.

2. There’s a reason for misogyny: Imagine that every woman that this student has come into contact has let him down in some way – if you don’t, you’re omitting a big part of the reason for his enrollment in a behaviour school in the first place.

3.  Misogyny is a part of a greater anti-social problem. If you’re not prepared to stick around and model pro-social behavior, then perhaps that kind of school environment is not for you.

While part of me was hearing things ‘the casual’ said, and recognising them as part of my sometime inner monologue, another part of me was passionately defending the misogynist (the student), and I realised that I am over it. It’s not personal, and it’s not a power struggle. It’s the greater good, stupid!

Image: Richard Prince‘s rehash of De Kooning’s misogynistic paintings of women.

Disabling behaviour


Before I became an SLSO, I thought that behaviour was a result of choices, and that firm, consistent consequences were the magic bullet. This strategy works in a domestic setting (Supernanny, anyone?), but doesn’t account for the fact that young and growing children aren’t the only ones making decisions in the home. Consider this comparison. Children with Autistic Spectrum disorder have disability status in schools, in recognition of their social, and sometimes intellectual impairment. Children with Conduct Disorder do not have disability status as they weren’t born with social impairment, rather, impairment was thrust upon them; some of the causes might be neglect, abuse, undiagnosed dyslexia, and destabilising experiences in the foster care system. Conduct disorder has even been linked to PTSD. Many of the behaviours leading up to a diagnosis of conduct disorder have not been enacted by the children themselves, but by parents and bureaucracies. As such, there are limits to how much they can ‘own’ their behaviour. Concessions are made for children with ASD, with social classes provided in mainstream schools, and genuine learning support. Teachers and SLSOs can receive specific training and instruction in a multitude of areas for supporting students with ASD, but presently there is no consistent strategy for supporting students with Conduct Disorder, and despite popular misconception, many of their circumstances and resultant behaviours have been thrust upon them. If disability is socially constructed, then we have the power to decide what constitutes disability, and we also have the power to exclude.

If you believe I have missed something important, feel free to comment.

Image from here.

It’s time to notice the Elephant. Again.

Gus Van Sant, in his film Elephant, combines steadicam tracking shots with long takes to create ethically sympathetic characters. The technique also allows him to use multiple framing devices and points of view in the one shot. The following analysis focuses on the shot of the character Nathan, from 10”45’ to 13”32’, which can be viewed by clicking this link (Van Sant 2003). The film is a fictional recreation of the Columbine Massacre of 1999. David Edelstein of Slate Magazine argues that Van Sant employs formalist, minimalist technique to engender detachment (Edelstein 2003). I question whether Edelstein is confusing authorial morality with filmmaking ethics, an expectation that Van Sant’s personal moral standing on such events should be evident (Anderson 2012, 2). I will argue that Van Sant’s formal choices create a definite air of foreboding, senselessness and loss.

The tracking of the character, Nathan, frames his journey through the school in mostly medium close up, from behind; the viewer sees what Nathan sees, and sees Nathan himself. The mundanity of the surroundings, conversations and people included in the frame give him an ‘every-teen’ quality, while the proximity of the viewer to the subject gives Nathan a distinct identity. The effect is that the impending loss of life is both societal (a loss of innocence) and specific (the loss of the loved individual). The tracking is slow and smooth, mirroring the lazy meandering of a carefree, teen life, and “forc(ing) the viewer to dwell” on its impending loss (Bordwell and Thompson 2008, 203).

The long take (almost two minutes) has the effect of pronouncing variations to framing. Viewers witness contrasting scopophilia (Nicholls 2000, 35), achieved by transition to a medium shot of a group of girls from Nathan’s point of view; through the frame of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may read this choice as signifying reproductive loss (Nicholls 2000, 36). Bordwell and Thompson note the contrast between the use of long takes and the “disorienting” elliptical cuts in the film, where Van Sant presents the killers’ home lives (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008, 203). Edelstein expressed frustration that the characters were crafted to be “totally unmemorable”, however my experience of Van Sant’s formal choices made apparent the universal qualities of teenaged experience, and made the killer’s contrasting abandonment and extinguishment of this life appear all the more senseless.


Anderson, Nicole. 2012. ‘Week 8: Film and Ethics’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed January 13. http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654234/mod_resource/content/1/Week%208%20Film%20and%20Ethics%20PDF.pdf

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2008. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edelstein, David. 2003. ‘The Kids in the Hall’. Slate. Accessed January 13.  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2003/10/the_kids_in_the_hall.html

Nichols, Bill. 2000. ‘Film theory and the revolt against master narratives’ in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 35-52. London: Arnold.

Van Sant, Gus. 2003. Elephant. Accessed January 13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr0mcWY0YBU

Auratic Withering. Yes, that’s a thing.

Walter Benjamin lamented the advent of mass reproduction, saying that it ‘withered’ the aura of an original artwork (Schirato and Webb 2004, 123). However, context and use value are what fundamentally separate the forms; reproduction can actually “revalue” an original work by contradistinction to a mass produced object (Pugliese 2013, 6). A ‘Mona Lisa’ coffee mug is not ‘The’ Mona Lisa – it is a coffee mug with an image of the Mona Lisa on it (Fig. 1-2). The reproduction is mass homage: people want to drink hot beverages from her, and as such, mass reproduction increases the aura of the original work exponentially.

Fig. 1. Not the Mona Lisa.                                          Fig. 2. Not a pipe.

If anything, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa suffers from ‘auratic withering’ (Benjamin in Schirato and Webb 2004, 123) because the very ‘craft’ viewers come to The Louvre to see has become something of the order of spectacle (Gentleman 2004), which Benjamin would no doubt find ironic, the term ‘spectacle’ being more traditionally associated with popular culture (Schirato and Webb 2004, 115). It is hard to imagine the aura of authenticity reaching the viewer from behind bulletproof glass, in a crowd of hundreds being shuffled through by security. Schirato and Webb talk about the cult value of art (Schirato and Webb 2004, 118); the Mona Lisa combines this abstract quality with the more popularly accessible quality of ‘pricelessness’, rendering art fetishism, in her case, somewhat of an extreme sport.


Fig. 3. The ‘spectacle’ of the Mona Lisa

The work of Mark Rothko, to me, exemplifies the distinction between the sacredness of the original and the reproduction: I don’t believe a Rothko is reproducible without losing most of its communicative value. Critics like Harold Rosenberg believed that Minimalist works were a communication direct from the artist’s’ subconscious, the purity of the meaning defying language (Wolf 2013). Rothko’s work has paradoxically taken on what Schirato and Webb term “quasi-religious significance” (2004, 119). As testament, Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil founded The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, an all-faith meditative space established to “inspire people to action through art and contemplation.”

Fig 4. The Rothko Chapel.    Fig. 5. The chapel is non-denominational

I at once value the original and the copy. For example, I have in my home a poster of a Fischli and Weiss installation from their retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007. In a characteristically postmodern way, I experience the memory of the pleasure of high art through my mass produced poster: it inspires ‘lowbrow’ sentimentality in me! The copy is evidence of the aura of the original. Viewer engagement with reproductions is even more vivid if one has actually seen an original. For those with little knowledge of ‘high art’, an apron printed with Michelangelo’s David might just be a guilty giggle.

Without reproduction, many great works would be unseen by the world and that would be a pity; art would have inevitably become more elitist (Schirato and Webb 2004, 128). ‘Value’ is highly subjective and can only be assessed by examining what is present in an original and what is enabled by a copy, then contemplating the personal satisfaction derived from each, or indeed both. Denouncing reproductions as kitsch is a class judgement in disguise, and is culturally limiting – after all, if we didn’t embrace kitsch, we wouldn’t have John Waters.


Gentleman, Amelia. 2004. ‘Smile, please’. The Guardian. Accessed January 6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/oct/19/art.france

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 5: Technologies of Visual Reproduction’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.  http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654238/mod_resource/content/1/Week%205%20Technologies%20of%20Visual%20Reproduction%20PDF.pdf

Rothko Chapel. 2013. ‘About the chapel’. Accessed January 6. http://www.rothkochapel.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=31

Wolf, Justin. ‘Modern Art Concept: Media Purity’. The Art Story. Accessed January 6. http://www.theartstory.org/definition-media-purity.htm

How feminism is killing (the enjoyment of) Pinterest


There’s been a bit of online chatter lately about how Pinterest is killing feminism (Odell 2012). I don’t want to critically berate women about how they spend their leisure time – God knows they berate themselves enough. But it is worth framing Pinterest in terms of ideology, and giving the debate some balance “in the absence of reflective, conscious thought” (Scannell 2007 p. 201). Scannell provides a panorama of ideology, its beginnings, theories, and analytical frameworks. I will be using Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’ model to throw a new voice into the critical ‘Melrose Place’ ep that is the Pinners vs Feminists debate.

Firstly, what is ideology? Scannell says that the concept “serves to account for how the real (material, economic) conditions are hidden from us in ordinary, everyday experience” (2007 p. 201). A critically enlightened feminist might cry, ‘Look at those femme-dolts, blithely repinning recipes, diet tips, and deceptively complex craft – they have no idea they’re reinforcing repressive hegemony!’ And while there is free will in editing and publishing online, and even an implied, democratic “ownership of . . . production”, the images available for selection are created by the dominant media (Scannell 2007, p. 203). As such Pinterest does facilitate the reproduction of domestic, aspirational ideology.

Freudian psychoanalysis opens up other decoding possibilities. Scannell cites Habermas saying that “If the texts of popular culture are like dreams ‘that express in “disguised” form the repressed content of a culture”, then isn’t it possible that to a large extent, Pinterest represents the ways contemporary women want to see themselves? (in Scannell 2007, p. 208). I would argue that denunciations of Pinterest as undermining feminism are excessively linear and are asking for a post-structuralist bitch-slap. Meanings are not “firmly embedded in the text” (Scannell 2007, p. 210): cake porn does not signify subjugation; cute homes do not unequivocally equate to performative, gendered materialism.

No, women are much more multidimensional than our feminist sisters give us credit for. Parkin’s typology of value systems reinforces my deduction that women don’t fit into neat theoretical boxes (in Scannell 2007, p. 211). Parkin firstly identifies the dominant value system, which is aligned with many of the media professionals injecting images into Pinterest. Ok feminists, I will give you that one – users are guilty, for the most part, of ‘repinning’ this ideology. The second value system he identifies is the subordinate value system, which contains “a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements” (Scannell 2007, p. 211); Pinterest users are in general a pretty good fit for this description – and note the word ‘mixture’! Lastly, he lists the radical/oppositional code; the beautiful thing about women is that we’re often unique, a little contrary, and sometimes unpredictable: we can as easily be seen protesting about equal rights, bra-less on the streets, as ‘pinning’ our dissent.

“There are some things you apologize for because you don’t like watching them . . . and some things you apologize for because you do like watching them” (Scannell 2007, p. 226). ‘Womens’ entertainment’, until recently, has been characterized by this apologism, as though “pleasure and enjoyment” (Scannell 2007, p. 227) are trivial, or worse, symptomatic. New media enables us to challenge, resist, and decode in our own ways. Even more radically, we can refuse to justify why we delight in being an organised SAHM, drool over recipes we’ll never cook, or, God forbid, aspire to having a bangin’ beach bod.


Odell, A 2012, How Pinterest Is Killing Feminism’, Buzzfeed, viewed 11 January 2012, <http://www.buzzfeed.com/amyodell/how-pinterest-is-killing-feminism>.

Scannell, P 2007. Media and Communication, Sage, London, pp. 198-232.

Image: I am a recovering Cakespy addict.

Technological determinism – a grey area


50 Shades of Grey (James 2011) is the fastest selling book of all time, selling six times the amount of digital copies as paper copies (Acuna 2012). ‘High art’ pundits have almost universally panned the literary skills of EL James, but most concede that there’s a guilty pleasure in reading it, with one critic saying “If this is the future of publishing, things could be a lot worse” (Colgan 2012) The phenomenon has commonly been rationalized as having been enabled by the fairly recent advent of digital self-publishing, as though this technological determinism is the only possible way to explain the uptake of James’ “unequivocally dreadful prose” (O’Toole 2012). To help the critics sleep at night once again, I will create some support for the theory of the success of 50 Shades of Grey as being technologically determined. But then, unfortunately, I have to temper that with some social and cultural factors that have, let’s face it, equally driven its production and sales.

The case for technological determinism and “50SoG”
Maxwell describes technological determinism in fairly ‘lay’ terms, saying “Technological determinism suggests that technological development has a logic of its own . . . that progress is inevitable, that technology gets better (cheaper, faster and more mobile) over time” (Maxwell 2012). He cites the example of music going almost completely digital with the arrival of the iPod, and says that the technologically deterministic assumption was that books would go ‘e’ or ‘i’ too. The scale, speed and volume of sales of 50 Shades of Grey has been enabled by digital publishing, the price and convenience permitting readers to exercise less purchasing discretion. The novel was initially self-published online as ‘fan fiction’; The internet gives would-be ‘amateurs’ democratic access to the publishing world. Finally, critics have cited the Kindle as reducing the social stigma attached to reading ‘trash’ in public places like the subway (Slate 2012). In all of these instances the technology is framed as having “(set) the conditions for social change” (Williams 2003, p. 5).

The case against technological determinism for 50SoG
Undermining the argument for technologically enabled success, is the fact that large scale sharing of fan-fiction is an off-label, socially and culturally constructed use of the internet. The form has actually been around since the 40s; As such, technology is not in fact “central” to this genre (Williams 2003, p. 6). In addition, Pan MacMillan’s digital VP believes that the eBook is a bit of a misnomer, a product of the book industry’s obsession with sales of reading devices (in Maxwell 2012). She insists that the ‘product’ is the content, which has been consumed via multiple platforms for some time, for example, the internet and digital audiobooks. While the digital angle of 50 Shades has been much-hyped, James’ audience is very fragmented – the paperback version is the fastest selling book of all time (Acuna 2012). Many high-culture commentators struggle to believe that James could possibly sell her work for social or cultural reasons. But here are just a few: Maybe people like to be titillated; maybe we’re suckers for online hype; maybe it’s a recession and we women secretly want some hot weirdo to buy us expensive presents (Daum 2009).


Acuna, K 2012. By the Numbers: The ‘50 Shades of Grey’ Phenomenon, Business Insider, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://www.businessinsider.com/by-the-numbers-the-50-shades-of-grey-phenomenon-2012-6?op=1&gt;.

Colgan, J 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/13/fifty-shades-grey-el-james-review&gt;.

Daum, M 2009, ‘The recession heats up romance novels’, LA Times, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/04/opinion/oe-daum4&gt;.

James, EL 2011, 50 Shades of Grey, Vintage Books, London.

Maxwell, J 2010, ‘Ebooks and Technological Determinism’, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://thinkubator.ccsp.sfu.ca/wikis/PUB802/EbooksAndTechnologicalDeterminism&gt;.

O’Toole, E 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey is no one-handed erotic read for me but …’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013,

Slate 2012, ‘The Audio Book Club on Fifty Shades of Grey’, podcast, viewed 11 January 2013,

Williams, Raymond 2003, “The technology and the society” in Williams, E (ed.), Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge Classics, London, pp. 1-25.

Image: Reddit.