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May 2010

Friday Ephemera

Idle hands and all that. // The wall of Shatner and the pit of Shatner. // There are monsters under the water. // “The giant crabs... I knew it was you!” // At last, a cupcake cannon. // The Kubus armchair, 1910. // The golden age of comics. // Spider-Man foils robbery. // Brain dissection for beginners. // Robotic heart surgery. // Artificial skin. // Images of smoke. // The oil in your engine. // Synchronise your shutter speed. // The story of Rough Trade. // Go OCD with Tetris soap. // Facade printer. // Jump. // How drumming looks. // Impress the ladies with a laser jacket.

The Flow of Ideas

Sharra Vostral is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois. According to her website, “her research centres upon the history of technology in relation to gender and women’s bodies and the ways in which material artifacts function in individual’s everyday lives.” Among the professor’s areas of expertise are “gendered design issues,” such as shaving, and,

The social and technological history of sanitary napkins. 

More of which later. However, Professor Vostral’s most recent public comments involve the political ramifications of patchwork quilts:  

This use of patchwork as an insult really struck me, because it is such a gendered insult. [Atlantic politics editor, Marc] Ambinder deploys the metaphor because it assumes that no thought goes into a quilt (like policy), and it’s just a hodgepodge. In reality quilting is a predominantly woman-based art form, that had roots in resourcefulness, community, and skilled sewing hands. To debase something by calling it patchwork is based in gendered and derogatory understandings of the quilt.

Note the professor’s confidence as she rushes to the podium on Mount Grievance. She is righteous and wise, and apparently telepathic. Non-literal uses of the term “patchwork” must assume whatever sequence of ideas suits Professor Vostral’s worldview. Used metaphorically, the word “patchwork” must signal disdain for quilt making, quilt makers and, by implication, an entire gender too. There can be no doubt about it. “Patchwork” simply is a “gendered insult”- one “based in derogatory understandings” of a “woman-based art form.” It’s “embedded,” apparently. Why? Because

The way a patchwork metaphor works is, in part, due to its origins in women’s circles, and many things labeled as “female” are used as put downs.

But wait. As Tommy Christopher points out with admirable patience: 

The metaphoric use of “patchwork” isn’t meant as a value judgment of patchwork quilts, but rather as a way of visualizing the concept of something made up of existing leftover pieces, rather than pieces fabricated for a given purpose. It’s a great way to make use of scraps of fabric, but not the best approach to government policy.

Readers may wonder how a presumptuous blunder of this kind could be made by such a serious and politically savvy scholar. Especially one who uses “an approach derived from a vigorous, interdisciplinary combination of science and technology studies, history of science, gender studies and women’s history,” and whose insights will “enable students to have a better understanding of gender as an intrinsic part of the ways we interpret and shape the competing landscapes that we inhabit.” But hey, these things do happen. As when the Guardian’s handwringer-in-chief Zoe Williams insisted, via somewhat circuitous thinking, that “hoodie” is in fact a “sinister racial code word.” Or when David K Shipler detected “embedded racial attitudes” while indignantly shaking his thesaurus: “‘Elitist’ is another word for ‘arrogant,’” said he. “Which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”

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