Review of iMedia: The Gendering of Objects, Environments and Smart Materials by Sarah Kember (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
University of Pennsylvania
If I had finished Sarah Kember’s iMedia with any kind of confidence about how to review it, I would have missed the moral of her story. This is not for lack of rich material (the book includes a truly magical cast of characters) or because she attempts to obviate critique (quite the opposite). Retelling Kember’s story is difficult because it is storytelling itself that she brings into focus, first by fogging up the lenses traditionally used to make subjects/objects appear, and then by placing new prisms for new patterns under the brilliant light that is feminist thought. It is a wonderful thing to discover that iMedia is a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Diffraction is Kember’s chief mode, what she calls, following Donna Haraway’s inventive subversion of Western optical metaphors, “a phenomenon of interference” (p. 29). Each chapter is a kind of diffracting device and as conventional problematics of media, gender, and knowledge production get shot through, they appear in new ways on the other side. Kember alternates her chapters between essays and excerpts of a novel in progress to bend theoretical legacies to new effects.
The text begins by rendering the curious “i” in our media worlds. Does the “i” in iPod/Pad/Tunes function as a first-person pronoun (the vertical pronoun) or does it stand in for concepts like intelligence, internet, interactive? Or is it doing something else, perhaps indeterminable? This “i,” Kember shows, is indexed not only by the desires of iworlds’ designers and strategists, but also by those who claim to explain these idevelopments: masculinist imedia theorists who aver their capacity to perceive the imperceptible even after the agency of “invisible information infrastructures” threatens the stability of humanist analytics. For those familiar with Kember’s previous work, wondering about life after Life After New Media, this text includes her newest thinking about how an appreciation for what she previously called “vital mediation” has come to subordinate women despite, in fact because of, their ubiquity in imedia worlds. The conceptual turn “from structure to scale, epistemology to ontology and from subjects to objects to environments of processual and imperceptible things-in-themselves” (p. 107) is sometimes understood as “object-oriented philosophy,” though, Kember says, it would be better shortened (and pluralized) to “OOPs theory.”
The book is a calculated style experiment, itself an extension of what she illustrates in her fifth chapter as a rich legacy of feminist writing that does (“disorder and bring about upheaval” (p. 88)). In her essayistic writing, nothing in the book shines as brightly as her second chapter, one piece of her “iMedia manifesto” that takes up the material semiosis of the Cinderella story. In rendering glass as the “fantasy figure of feminine and feminized labor” (p. 32), Kember traces the ways that the “imaterial” is the window through which we see imedia. She exquisitely details the corporate manipulations of glass to appear transparent (the way democracy itself is imagined), which often involves presenting women as ubiquitous iworld subjects (explored in more depth in chapter three). Glass’s magical transformation (the thingamabob that does the job, the bippity-boppity-boo) awed late-nineteenth-century witnesses of the transformation of materials blown by the human breath just as it awes today’s audiences of speculative videos about a near future in which our houses—no, our worlds—are made of advanced glass technologies. Like the Cinderella story, fantasies about the magical properties of glass today go to work in a patriarchal order content to undifferentiate gendered subjects-cum-data objects. Remembering Cinderella, Kember says, means remembering that glass is “an imaterial for everyone” and thus available for building alternative tales.
Kember builds these alternatives in excerpts from her novel in progress, A Day in the Life of Janet Smart. If readers had not fully sensed the possibilities of Kember’s serious hijinks, it becomes hard to miss in these chapters, which reimagine the women featured in the speculative videos produced by companies like Corning and Windows about the future of imedia. She calls these chapters interludes, but I think the label is inaccurate in suggesting these excerpts are removed from what runs through the rest of the book. They are indeed instructive of the kind of queer feminist writing praxis that upends masculinist stories by retelling them otherwise. Kember demonstrates the radical potential of parodic and ironic writing she calls for in other parts of the book, when, for example, the title character is having trouble using speech recognition to remotely control one of her household systems, which her five-year-old daughter had named “fart.” Though Kember often invites laughter in her fiction (a beautiful response to the sexist, asked-everywhere question about whether the killjoy can take a joke), her parody is complex and moving. At one point Janet Smart, employed by a government agency that monitors citizens’ “pre-consumption” through a humanoid predictive analytics system, watches a scene of herself in a “Moogle Earthtechnics Bio-Home” designed for the first human inhabitants of Mars, a future that had previously horrified her when she realized her daughter might be an ideal candidate for the mission.
That this book is a lot of smoke and mirrors is true—and it is good. iMedia is a sophisticated deployment of deceit against an encroaching corporate capitalism whose stories outpace those of what Jodi Dean (2009) has called the “academic and typing left” (p. 16) who, too long content to critique, have produced few durable stories of their own. Writing is what Kember does and what she offers as the route away from feminism’s desire to escape the siren song of dialectics. Renewing critique with the kind of steam that can fog up glass that had seemed so lucid to be invisible, Kember gives contemporary feminist thought a whole circuit of theory-praxis, a welcome imperative for everyone involved in contemporary pedagogies often bereft of good training: Right now, write now.
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies: Communicative capitalism and Left politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kember, S. (2016). iMedia: The gendering of objects, environments and smart materials. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kevin Gotkin is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
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