Mess: A Musical Comedy about Anorexia

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“It’s a musical comedy of sorts,” explains the PR, “about anorexia.”

The second half of the sentence clangs against the first. Anorexia is essentially a debilitating, lonely and potentially life-threatening illness. And the appeal of musical comedies is generally that they are none of these things. Yet in her play Mess, Caroline Horton brings the two together to form a poignant, honest and, yes, funny, account of her own disordered eating.

The obvious question, though, is: When it comes to anorexia, what is there to laugh about…

[Full article: Meet Caroline Horton – The Woman Making Musical Comedy About Anorexia on MyDaily.co.uk]

Why we don't record tragedy on Instagram

I wrote this piece on how Instagram resists some types of content quite a while back, just after 11 September, 2012 in fact. It ties into something I sometimes do which is search Instagram for pictures of wartorn areas or tragic events to see how people are negotiating that tension.

The results tend towards romanticising combatants or their actions – hashtags like #wedoitsoyoudonthaveto and #semperfi – or making use of established imagery. On 9/11 there was a cascade of pictures of the Twin Towers haemorrhaging smoke moments before they collapsed. Some had been pushed through filters and others had text splashed across them from other apps and programs but the curious thing to me was that they were all basically the same. The human tragedy got lost under the bittersweetness, the idea that time is slipping away, the sentimentality which is built into Instagram from the bottom up and are actually incredibly hard to fight.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use Instagram for reporting news or for illustrating it, but how the app couches its media and the idea of a homogenisation of emotion are the things which I find fascinating.

Dean Praetorius, a colleague at the US Huffington Post posed the question “What if Facebook and Twitter had existed on 9/11?” in a blog piece. You can read his take on this imagined reality via the link but one of the questions it raised for me, perhaps because I’d just finished looking through Time magazine’s curated lightbox of the most moving images from 9/11, was whether we would have used image services like Instagram to record any of the events of that day in real time. 

I’m aware that this might sound like I’m getting too far into an impossible what-if scenario – after all, Twitter and Instagram simply didn’t exist in the same reality as the Twin Towers. But the broader question of whether we, as users and consumers of social media, would turn to Instagram to record a large-scale tragedy caught my attention because it really made me think about what Instagram actually is.

My knee-jerk reaction was “Of course you wouldn’t use Instagram to report 9/11”.

But why not?

I think it boils down to how Instagram works, both on a practical level and on a conceptual one. To dispense with the practical element: in the midst of a chaotic and frightening situation, pointing, shooting and posting would be about as complex as most of us would be willing to get, if that. Making an aesthetic judgement on whether X-Pro II or Hefe was the filter which best expressed the impending collapse of your surroundings? Not so much. It’s a process which demands time and decisions.

The conceptual level relates to what I think Instagram’s appeal is.

The best way I can explain that is with the phrase “pre-emptive nostalgia”. Instagram pushes an aesthetic rooted in the past, reminding us of pictures from our childhood or perhaps even further back. The filters, the borders and the ever-so-slightly-brokenness which is built into the DNA of the app force your hand in terms of the images you can create easily.

By that I mean that the aesthetic of Instagram is intrinsically tied to nostalgia and a sort of bittersweetness that is more static than it is dynamic. It selects out or resists things which are complicated, immediate and horrific in favour of simplicity, of composure and of the deadening of extreme emotion.

When using Instagram we select units of time from the here and now which we deem worth marking and create an image bathed in visual cues to promote a kind of psychological distance and provoke nostalgia without having to do anything so unseemly as allowing a significant amount of time to pass and a noticeable amount of technological development in the field of image production to occur. It reveals both our own hunger for a “best bits” showreel as well as our appetite for curating the cinematic version of our lives in which we star as the constant protagonist.

All of this means that Instagram repels real-time visual information sharing of the kind needed for reporting on pretty much every level.

The extra steps between recording an image and hitting publish make the service literally less immediate than using the phone’s simpler camera programs and the aesthetic of the app does everything in its power to select out or lessen the emotion contained within the imagery.

Obviously Instagram isn’t billed as a reporting tool, but the level to which it resists the fundamentals of image reporting took me by surprise.

BioShock Infinite: Did you kill a man without going outside the lines?

One of the comments scrawled on a friend’s book manuscript after proofreading was “Has anyone ever EXPLAINED paragraphs to you?” I remember being in his kitchen and helpfully offering the advice: “Every six lines just do a line indent and you’re sorted…”

I’m telling this anecdote because that seems roughly the same approach BioShock Infinite has to fight sequences. Every, I dunno, six minutes here are some dudes in an area for you to deal with in a shooty punchy fashion. These encounters quickly stop having meaning, they feel like road blocks in between chapters of a story.

At these points the game sneaks off like an irresponsible substitute teacher going for a cigarette break after asking you to colour something in. It doesn’t matter what colours or weapons or vapours you use or whether you do it particularly well or poorly. Did you kill a man without going outside the lines? No-one asks. All that matters is that you have something that keeps your hands busy lest anyone look in to check. Then the game comes back, claps its hands and moves on to the next bit of the story except you can’t quite remember which page because the colouring in disrupted everything.

I don’t think BioShock Infinite gave a damn what I did during those sequences. It didn’t matter how I played as long as everyone’s head fell off in the end. As a result I played how I wanted.

I get that one of the overarching themes is that it doesn’t really matter what you do because what you do is what you always have done and will always do. You are moving towards a predefined end point both in the game and the game conceit. I feel like perhaps you could make an argument that in that scenario it is appropriate that the game feels no need to react to your methodology or player agency, but it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a real answer which translates into the game experience.

I found myself not exactly bored, just completely uninspired by the combat. Shock jockey, shotgun, punch, whatever. An edge of brutality is necessary to so many of the stories BioShock Infinite seems to want to tell but it only comes through at rare moments – the baptism at the beginning, the first time I used the hook to smash someone’s face in – but the rest rapidly becomes a kind of aggressive shouty porridge. I wondered whether it was on purpose. A comment on becoming desensitised to violence or on being Booker? I can’t remember the exact phrasing but Elizabeth asks something like “Will we ever be able to wash away these sins?” – so maybe the fact they don’t feel like sins or have an emotional or personal impact is supposed to tell you that this Booker doesn’t view them as such. What sins? Why should I want to wash anything away?

Again, it feels like an argument you can make if you want to and there’s logic to it but not an emotional truth. The repeated sensation is that you’re playing across a divide. There are the bits where the game is telling you the story and where the environment and mechanics are geared towards you caring about particular things or paying attention to particular things, then there’s a confection of battles which lack that focus and care towards the player. Regardless of the intention, it felt jarring – like I kept falling through a tear in the game and out into a world where it had no gravity or pull.

The lack of investment in the player’s repeated battles manifests itself most obviously in the final sequence where you’re defending Comstock’s airship from a Vox Populi attack – if your existing play style lends itself to the battle Irrational have created then fine. If not you’ll suddenly experience a bizarre difficulty spike as vapours you completely forgot existed and the weapons you didn’t upgrade leave a gaping hole in your skill set. This fight rears its head like a remnant of an older draft where the systems made sense and fights hung together.

Obviously you can still succeed, but my point is that I don’t think the game does a good job of showing or teaching you the variety of combat or of prodding you into experimentation. As a result the end doesn’t feel like an exercise in earned skill, it’s just: bang bang whoosh aim the Songbird oh wait you can’t because Elizabeth wants to chuck pennies at you and it’s the same button and what the hell does she think you’re saving up for at this point and then ACTUALLY aim the Songbird and then more bang bang whoosh until the story comes back and takes you to the end. The closest BioShock Infinite came to caring about my gameplay was having achievements for using different kinds of weapons or attacks (I was playing the Xbox version) and if you’re relying on Xbox cheevos to spice things up then something has gone horribly wrong.

Violence is important to the game but for the moments when it creates a sense of shocking brutality, not the blanket of inculcated indifference and gore it spreads over everything.

I am sitting in a chair strumming a guitar and Elizabeth is coaxing a terrified child out from under the stairs by rolling an orange to him across the floor. It’s a moment which should stand out in my mind for its sudden gentleness. Instead I remember it so clearly because I spent the scene wondering whether I had missed my chance to shoot him in the face. To get the fight over and done with as quickly as possible. To spam vapours and bullets as quickly as possible. To slaughter this child as quickly as possible.

Then: clap, clap, children. Let’s put our colouring books away and get on with the next bit…

Samsung's Smart Pause hates metaphysics

If a video of a tree falling in a forest plays when I’m not looking at it, does it make a sound? According to the Samsung Galaxy S4 the answer is “no” and it’s because the video ceases playing because there’s no business value in questions of metaphysics.

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“Using the front-facing camera, the S4 knows when you’re paying attention to it. It’s only implemented when playing back video, but it means if you look away while watching a movie, the phone will kindly pause playback. When your eyes return to the screen, the video resumes. It worked flawlessly when I tried it out.”Nate Lanxon, Wired.co.uk

Smart Pause is an expression of how what technology values and what it has been set up to monitor and record (our eyeballs) is influencing what it deems important to us in return. Video which plays while we glance away may or may not continue to exist visually, but it continues to generate sound. In developing Smart Pause, Samsung are specifically stating that attention not involving our eyeballs is simply not good enough.

The pause negates the question of what exists when we turn our backs on technology and it stems from there being no business value in the gaps between our interactions. Attention is now the dominant form or expression of currency. Without our attention businesses fail to exist, therefore it is attention which is to be measured.

At the moment attention is often quantified with a laughably crude basic arithmetic calculation combining unreliable data on number of unique users, number of page views  and the amount of time spent doing a thing. The second a more reliable [legal] way of tracking how and why we distribute our new currency the business pinata will burst, showering the inventor with treats.

Eyeball tracking is one answer in the discussion. It is also the reason the Galaxy S4 has firmly shut the door on the metaphysical problem posed by existence without perception, video without viewer. The technology has been programmed to obsessively monitor our visual perception in relation to the phone and to video. A side effect of this is that it assumes a similar set of values on the part of the user.

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It’s a curious idea which has links to Berkeley’s concept that “to be is to be perceived” – a maxim which resonates with contemporary culture. If you send out a tweet and nobody responds, if you write a blog and nobody reads, if you update your status on Facebook and receive no likes did you really do any of those things?

Maybe you did. Or of course you did. So why the nagging insecurity. It’s because existence, identity and performance of identity are inextricably linked. The business of technology thrives on a combination of our desire for performance space and our ability to indulge multiple existential micro-crises and doubts.

We seek an audience for our actions and technology obliges. Previously this was by providing platforms through which to engage other human beings, but increasingly it is the phones, the televisions and the cameras which are watching us back and responding to our performance. In point of fact, Intel are currently building a television that will monitor the viewer in order to offer personalised (and therefore more financially valuable) content.

Taking the question of what happens to a video when you look away, the answer is no longer about whether the form exists or not but whether the value exists or not. A tree falling in an empty forest may or may not create a sound, but according to Samsung’s Smart Pause, it definitely does not generate a profit.

How the Pill made sex toys a business necessity…

It was a curious experience, sitting in the Wellcome Collection cafe with a sex toy historian while our discussion took in cock rings and treatments for hysteria and whether wearing a strap-on could be construed as becoming “superhuman” (it probably can).

We were there because when I worked on a women’s fashion and lifestyle website I decided it would be interesting to interview someone about the history of sex toys. It also ended up being the more acceptable of my two pitches tangentially relating to the popularity at the time of 50 Shades of Grey (the other being “Ill-chosen hosiery from hardcore porn films”).

You can read the original piece on MyDaily (it’s a sort of bullet pointy article called “Sometimes Mr Teddy Has To Watch“) and all the information comes from said interview with Lesley Hall, senior archivist at Wellcome’s library and expert in the history of gender and sexuality. (I should probably also point out that sharing it on Facebook without being careful about the image it pulled in got me kicked off the service for sharing pornographic content so maybe be a bit cautious if you choose to like it.)

The history of sex toys is a really tricky area of research because, even more than with other types of history, it’s hard to find honest and open personal accounts to work from, hard to look outside our own cultural norms and expectations, and hard to work out exactly how objects were used when all you’ve got to go on is carving in various degrees of subtlety.

The piece ended up simply proffering the ten most curious or noteworthy nuggets because of what was appropriate for the site at the time but I wanted to communicate some of the observations in a slightly different context. They’re not intended to form an article as such, more to pick up a few things that didn’t make the final edit or deserved highlighting.

One of the most interesting for me was probably talking about the recent past and hearing how sex toys actually ended up being a commercial necessity for some businesses:

“In the early seventies companies which had been previously selling rubber goods realised that no-one was buying them because of the Pill so they were moving into the marital aids market with vibrators and various other – cock rings, sprays, things to stop men coming too soon. It was a business necessity – a rebranding of what they’re about. They’re not just about stopping babies, they’re about fun sex… but only when you’re married.”

These were mainly companies found in the backs of magazines or catalogues. Rubber goods refers to condoms which obviously suffered a dip in popularity once the Pill’s efficacy was established. Presumably once sales of marital aids took off, there was a similar financial upswing in the packaging business. Specifically regarding purchases of discreet brown boxes.

Living in a technologically privileged society where a discreet brown box and discreet line on your bank statement are a few clicks away was also made apparent when hearing about how repellent the idea of handling objects relating to sexytime was (in public) only 100 years ago. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Hall explained, there was actually  “a Home Office crackdown on continental purveyors of pornographers who were using Her Majesty’s mail to send their filth into Britain.”

The current state of affairs is not without its glitches, however. I speak as someone who has had to answer the door to a grinning postman carrying a giant (and not entirely closed) jiffy bag sack thing brimming over with a year’s supply of condoms — the direct result of a period of unemployment spent entering every single competition the internet had to offer. Unfortunately for me the anecdote does not end there.

The sack contained not only hundreds of condoms but also a bright red dinner plate-sized bas relief plaque proudly claiming in block capitals that I had had sex at Legoland, Windsor. I have not infact had sex at Legoland but the competition asked you to name some unusual place you’d had sex and I recall typing my answer rather sarcastically because what I’d actually had at Legoland was an argument. This is how I learned that sarcasm does not translate well to the plaque medium. Said plaque proved to be as indestructible as it was inaccurate and now lives in a crawlspace in my parents’ roof.

So yes, even though there was a definite lack of anonymity in the above, I am very grateful that there wasn’t the added social awkwardness of being labelled a consumer of filth and an abuser of Her Majesty’s postal service.

We also chatted about the surprisingly emotional letters men used to write to Marie Stopes about all manner of things, including how worried they were about their wives having painful periods. “In many ways Marie Stopes was an absolutely poisonous woman but she could be wonderfully sympathetic to these total strangers who wrote to her.”

It feels like the emotional side of sexual relationships gets stripped away in a lot of academic discourse so looking through the letters (as Hall did for her PhD thesis) must have been a very humanising experience. Lots of people just worrying about being normal.

Lastly, Hall cited three sexual history flashpoints over the course of the interview — inventions or events which radically altered our approach to modern sexuality. As you might expect, they all have to do with altering the consequences of sex rather than sex itself.

The earliest was the invention of cures for venereal disease – Salvesan for syphilis and antibiotics for other diseases following a little later. Suddenly sex wasn’t going to kill you.

The next was the Pill which obviously ties into women’s liberation and the idea of sex for pleasure and without the risk of pregnancy. There was also the boost to the sex toy industry as explained above.

The third and most recent is the HIV/AIDS epidemic which feels like some kind of inversion of the Salvesan flashpoint. Suddenly sex might very well kill you again. The fear wrought by the spread of the epidemic meant uncomfortable conversations about sex being forced into public spaces and necessary changes in how we talk about sex.

The interview was one of the most interesting I’ve ever done and if you ever have the chance to speak with Lesley, take it. If not Lesley has an entire website full of information and oddments. There’s also a whole page devoted to snippets regarding the clitoris. My own favourite is a quote from a clergyman’s diary that simply says:

“Sir John Brownlow’s lady abused other women with her clitoris etc…”

Courtney Stodden's dreadful music video reveals what's wrong with the internet

The above music video has managed to sum up pretty much everything that’s wrong with using traffic to dictate editorial strategy. But to explain precisely why requires you to know about someone named Courtney Stodden and how she came to be a celebrity.

The reason Courtney is famous is because she married Doug Hutchison (the guy who played stretchy serial killer Eugene Victor Tooms in The X Files) in 2011. She was 16 years old to his 51. That is the reason she became famous. That 35 year age gap.

What happened next was the stylistic conventions of celebrity news reporting kicked in. Writers were looking for ways to add a little flavour or context to this newcomer and one of the ways you do that is referencing their career. It also helps with keeping the reader interested and on the site as well as beefing up keywords for search engine optimisation (SEO). But her age meant Courtney didn’t have one of those so a substitute was brought in.

As well as being “teen bride” she was “aspiring country music singer” or “pop singer” thanks to the songs she had posted on her YouTube channel. Sometimes she was also “aspiring actress” as she had met Hutchison because she wanted to take acting classes from him.

Once the initial cycle of articles about the wedding and the timeline and the parental consent had concluded there was sufficient volume (of news coverage and of search engine traffic) to switch her label full-time to “teen bride”. But Courtney isn’t just any teen bride. Rather she manages to be a teen bride and a strangely elaborate pastiche of a teenager and a bride at the same time.

Think of all those porn videos featuring “teens”; women in their late twenties at the very least but pumped full of botox and silicon and collagen to iron out any traces of time passing and wearing the ultimate signifiers of teen girlhood – pigtails and a fetishised version of a school uniform. That’s basically Courtney Stodden at age 16. A real teenager mimicking an older woman mimicking a teenager.

The bride thing is similar; a pastiche of being an object (and I use that word deliberately) of desire. Watching her being interviewed you soon become acutely aware of the amount of deliberate wiggling and pouting and jiggling as well as the pointedly chosen anecdotes (her version of housework apparently involves getting on all fours and scrubbing a floor while wearing a bikini and cutoff denim shorts). The woman is legally a wife regardless of how she acts or dresses and yet she prefers the version of “wife” that looks like it’s been cobbled together from generically bad bikini babe music videos and domestic product advertising from the early twentieth century.

At the root of these peculiar performances is celebrity news reporting. Specifically how it accommodates women by reducing them, particularly in picture-led stories. Bikini bodies, womb watch, flaunted curves, fashion face-offs – these categories are prone to column inches and it’s because they get page views.

Editorial strategies are then refined based on the internet’s currency of traffic – the fact that we flock to these articles in our hundreds of thousands for a frisson, whether of outrage or arousal. The writing which accompanies the picture focuses more and more closely around narrow keywords, reducing the scope of the woman’s existence to the terms being optimised for. She is attractive, she is young, she is only semi-clothed. The more she ticks these three boxes, the more commercial value she has.

But the traffic volume also means that these stories are the ones being ingested in huge quantities and across large swathes of the population. Writ large through every high res sideboob is the message, “sit at the convergence of attractive, young and minimally attired and you are of worth to us”. It’s a massive part of the fame culture we have now – coverage being far easier to game than talent.

That’s what I think has happened with Courtney Stodden. The girl herself has grown up ingesting this underlying message (like we all have) while her momager – an uncomfortable label with connotations of financial concern masquerading as familial love – has seen its business potential. There’s also her actor husband whose entire industry revolves around exploiting it.

Put simply, Courtney and those from whom she takes advice and instruction know that you can trade off being pretty or young or sexy or all of the above and so, to maximise her chances of success, she must level up all three to the best of her ability. It’s a bastardised version of control – being the one projecting the porn-adjacent image rather than having it projected onto you.

The momager/celebrity couple triad within which Courtney exists muddies the waters when it comes to deciding who exactly is calling the shots but the point here is that those shots (both the metaphorical ones and the staged photoshoots in collaboration with a picture agency) now reside on the Stodden side of the subject/media divide. She does a photoshoot and publications bite repeatedly. It’s financially viable. It’s business.

Then the music video launched.

It was always going to be trashy and clubby because that’s the default for celebs turning their hand to the music industry. It tends to manifest as something lumpen and drab like Kim Kardashian’s Jam (Turn It Up) or, if you get lucky, something slightly more jagged which tips over into moments of accidental brilliance like Paris Hilton’s Drunk Text.

‘Reality’ – for thus it has been [cynically] titled – manages to be neither of the above and instead falls into a nasty category of experience all its own. The music is dreadful and actually discordant, the lipsyncing is bad, the set dressing cheap and the special effects woeful.

None of these things alone are particularly surprising and neither is the idea that a business enterprise involving Courtney seems entirely cynical or exploitative. But put them all together and watch them with the memory of those first articles. The ones where the mass of hair extensions, the spray-on dresses and the lucite heels were parcelled up as an aspiring singer as well as a teen bride.

Suddenly the lollipop licking, the groping, the nudge nudge borderline self-aware lyrics “realer than my body” are not just tawdry, they are actively upsetting. If “aspiring singer, aged 16” has the ring of a child’s fame daydream, then the grotesque realisation of that daydream involves a now-18-year-old writhing around on a wipe-clean yellow bed before pretending to go down on a guy who doesn’t even look like he wants to be in the room.

Reductive, statistics-driven titillation is the force behind Courtney’s teen bride persona and her continued celebrity. It is also the force behind her foray into music. Maybe she knows these things, maybe she doesn’t. Regardless of who is manipulating whom at this point, ‘Reality’ is a comprehensively nasty 3 minutes and 22 seconds constructed entirely from our obsession with getting eyeballs on pages.