In "Crowd, Power and Post-Democracy in the 21st Century”, Zizek (2008) argues that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In other words, when there is a crisis.


After our class yesterday there was a l’UQAM  occupation. It ended late into the night with an unnecessarily large police presence in riot gear, endless tear gas burning throats, and violent dispersion strategies. The night occupation was an immediate reaction to the events of earlier that day at UQAM.

Today, on the campus of the Université du Québec à Montréal, facing a court order demanding that classes be held and the threat of expulsion issued by their administration, hundreds of students turned up to disrupt classes and enforce their democratically voted strike mandate.

In response, the university administration called in the Montreal police, who arrived in full riot gear with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons at the ready. Paradoxically enough, their stated role there was to ensure that classes could occur as scheduled.

The students were shortly boxed in. The bulk of the reported 22 arrests happened as riot police swept onto campus. Students then set up barricades, and police formed a line and prepared to move in.

The occupation was also a response to the larger institutional issues of the different forms of violence against students (physical, economic, etc) and the austerity myth. The violence of those in power is much more insidious and invisible than the violence of destroying university property, which creates an unbalanced imaginary in this political struggle.

When we see images in the media and read the discourse of others which try to decontextualize a serious and complicated issue, and only focus on ‘violent protestors doing damage to property’ we must remember history, context, and the nuanced ways that bodies are excluded from spaces. What are the modes of recourse against the systemic and systematic violence we are faced with? Yes, all of us! Whether we recognize it or not. Although, some of us are affected by institutional violence more than others, which is where our friend intersectionality comes in. And even then, we must self-reflect what subject position we are coming from in the ways in which we orient towards events like the occupation last night. Why do we have x or y opinion on protests/protestors? What has shaped that perspective?

We must also remember the ways in which regulatory powers favor property over human bodies. When are riot gear, teargas and rubber bullets, etc. appropriate modes of policing bodies? (remember the Jason Farman example about increased security cameras pointing to computer labs and not for the safety of students on campus.)



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Photos courtesy of Caroline Ramirez.


The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed

This weekend I was presenting at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference as part of a panel arranged by Prof. Fenwick McKelvey. Sarah T Roberts was part of the two-art panel and shared with us an eye-opening presentation on commercial content moderators (CCMs) -- the people that do the labour of approving or removing objectionable content when it is flagged. They are the ones who experience the reality of the internet to keep up the internet mythology we believe in. Below is the only available article on the issue, an article that took years to put together and relied a lot on Roberts's ethnographic research.

by Adrien Chen, 23 October 2014.

THE CAMPUSES OF the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appearsbecause I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse.

Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video. Social media’s growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, and its lasting mainstream appeal, has depended in large part on companies’ ability to police the borders of their user-generated content—to ensure that Grandma never has to see images like the one Baybayan just nuked.


So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

This work is increasingly done in the Philippines. A former US colony, the Philippines has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive. And moderators in the Philippines can be hired for a fraction of American wages. Ryan Cardeno, a former contractor for Microsoft in the Philippines, told me that he made $500 per month by the end of his three-and-a-half-year tenure with outsourcing firm Sykes. Last year, Cardeno was offered $312 per month by another firm to moderate content for Facebook, paltry even by industry standards.

Here in the former elementary school, Baybayan and his coworkers are screening content for Whisper, an LA-based mobile startup—recently valued at $200 million by its VCs—that lets users post photos and share secrets anonymously. They work for a US-based outsourcing firm called TaskUs. It’s something of a surprise that Whisper would let a reporter in to see this process. When I asked Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for information about how they moderate their services, they offered vague statements about protecting users but declined to discuss specifics. Many tech companies make their moderators sign strict nondisclosure agreements, barring them from talking even to other employees of the same outsourcing firm about their work.

“I think if there’s not an explicit campaign to hide it, there’s certainly a tacit one,” says Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario and one of the few academics who study commercial content moderation. Companies would prefer not to acknowledge the hands-on effort required to curate our social media experiences, Roberts says. “It goes to our misunderstandings about the Internet and our view of technology as being somehow magically not human.”

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Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of ‘Rescuing’ Sex Workers

There is much to be said about Vice Magazine, however Molly Crabapple is an astute observationalist of many issues, and a great illustrator. This story ties in some of the issues we have been talking about: justice system, sex work, naturalized violence, sex workers as 'always working' in the face of the law, gender, whiteness, and so on. 

January 5, 2015, by Molly Crabapple

“Once they get you, they are always going to get you,” Love* told me this November at a greasy spoon in the Bronx. “The sad thing is that nobody ever stands up there and fights them.”

Love is a 48-year-old black woman. She has high cheekbones, and her full lips smirk easily, especially when she hears something dumb. For several years, Love did sex work in Hunts Point, the Bronx red-light district made famous by the HBO documentary Hookers at the Point. Needing rent money, and sick of welfare’s bureaucracy, Love went out one night with a friend hoping to make some cash. They took precautions: Love’s friend kept an eye on her from the next block and wrote down the license-plate numbers of cars that picked her up. That night Love made $400.

Police arrested her repeatedly, but she kept working. She liked the money, and she had a daughter to support.

In 2009, however, Love was raped while working. The attack left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. With the help of social services organizations, Love quit sex work and started taking classes to become a surgical technician.

But she kept in touch with some of her Hunts Point friends, especially Sandra,* whom she considered a second mother. Then, this summer, Sandra stopped answering her phone. Fearing the worst, Love decided to track her down.

In Hunts Point, the two friends caught up, hanging out on the corner of Edgewater Road and Lafayette Avenue. When a car circled the block several times, Love assumed it was an acquaintance. She waved.

“Hop in,” the man in the car demanded. “I’ve got thirty dollars for a blowjob.”

“OK, officer, have a nice day,” Love shot back. As she walked away, the man shouted, “You must be a cop. You’re calling me a cop.”

Love forgot the man, until, as she walked back to the train station, three police officers swarmed her. They arrested Love for prostitution.

Love sat handcuffed in a sweltering, pitch-dark police van. For two hours, police drove around Hunts Point, looking for enough “bodies” to justify a trip back to Central Booking. Confused and furious, Love spent the night in a cell—missing a day of classes. The whole process took 24 hours.

The court system Love found herself in this year was supposed to be different from the one she’d dealt with during her previous prostitution arrests.

New York State’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) are the first of their kind in the nation. Launched with great fanfare in September 2013, these courts redefined prostitutes as trafficking victims rather than criminals.

Read more here…

Class 7 — Notes

Today we focused on the ways in which whiteness is reproduced to not be seen, to be invisible. We focused on the implications that has on bodies in Canada, in particular on women’s bodies as subjected to intersectional femicide in the case of Pamela George. We then watched Alanis Obomsawin’s The People of Kattiwapiskat River and had a brief discussion on the ways in which this community is marginalized from all directions.

Using Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological analysis and method we read and commented on Razack’s piece which focuses on the trial of the murdered Pamela George. Whiteness is deeply ingrained in the colonial history Canada. Following the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, much changed – the act told specific bodies which way they can orient and which spaces they can be in and how they can extend. The act was created as a way of getting rid of indigenous peoples even though it was marketed as a pact to ease indigenous-settler relations. As such, it did little to assuage indigenous populations, and stripped them of their livelihood. The remains of colonialism are still very much prevalent today in discourse, laws, policies, etc.


Class 6 — Notes

This week we read three works and looked at a selection of slam poetry performances by queer artists that provided us with more concepts and embodied ideas to get at the question of the course — which bodies? which spaces?

Two of the readings assigned from the 1990s may seem outdated, but I assigned them because it’s important to have a history of when these issues and problems finally entered academia on a larger scale. Both Valentine and Knopp challenge the city/public space/the street as heterosexual. We used those two pieces as frameworks to think with Melissa Gira Grant’s evocative and high-speed Playing the Whore, which was released last year.


Anonymous Has Targeted Montreal Police for Their Treatment of Homeless People

by Simon Van VlietMembers of the hacktivist collective Anonymous and a project they started last year, dubbed #OpSafeWinterMTL, have launched new protests in reaction to the dismantling of a homeless camp at Viger Square in downtown Montreal. The group has executed one distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) and a short-lived occupation of the square. Anonymous is calling for a permanent moratorium on winter raids on homeless encampments.

On January 7, without warning and in the middle of a cold streak—as temperatures dropped well under -30C overnight—city crews bulldozed the encampment, while SPVM officers stood by and watched.

Last week, in an interview with the CBC, Montreal police spokesman Laurent Gingras argued that it’s a matter “of cleanliness, of public health,” saying that the City had mostly collected garbage and soiled needles.

“There was some good stuff in there,” said Jacques, 49, who returned to Viger Square on Monday after camping at the site for about three months. CBC’s footage from the dismantlement clearly shows bulldozers piling up mattresses, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.

“This is all they have,” an Anonymous activist told VICE, outraged at how the City of Montreal destroyed and confiscated all their belongings–including winter gear provided by Op Safe Winter Montreal activists on December 23.

“This has nothing to do with public health, it has to do with aesthetics,” she said. “What’s actually a hazard is still on the floor,” she added, pointing out that used syringes were still lying around in a corner of the destroyed encampment site.

In reality, the bulldozing of the camp and the removing of the homeless population might have less to do with public safety and more with social cleansing. The encampment is located in the lower downtown area, right across the street from the new Centre hospitalier universitaire de Montréal (CHUM) super-hospital construction site and half a kilometre from City Hall and the tourist-friendly Old Montreal.

Brutally removing the homeless population is nothing less than “an act of war against the poorest of the poor,” the activist told VICE.

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