Toilet Paper Advertising is Weird

Before we launch into my third reading list for comprehensive exams, we’ll take a break this week for some lighter fare. I first wrote this post over a year ago as filler content for those times when I’m too busy or tired to write blog content, but in the era of COVID-19 and the ever-present search for toilet paper, now seems like as good a time as any to post this. To quote Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts, because today’s post is a bit of an oddball.

The great thing about being in an American Studies program is that you have the opportunity to think seriously about all the things you find weird about popular culture in the US.

Take, for instance, toilet paper.

I was reading about advertising in my capitalisms class in the fall of 2018, when I suddenly remembered an old Quilted Northern commercial from the late 90s:

The premise is that these tiny women quilt toilet paper. As they work, they chat about quilting, the local scuttlebutt, and other things you might expect from a quilting bee-type session, though the conversation invariably shifts to promoting Quilted Northern’s superior absorbency. I distinctly remember the little blonde one was new to the group and feeling a little nervous about her quilting abilities, but was assuaged by her more experienced counterparts. There were other ads in the series, but I don’t remember them as well.

Anyway, those commercials always struck me as odd (and I’m not the only one, as you can read here). We’re talking about toilet paper, the stuff you use to remove fecal matter from your anus. How does a commercial about social quilting ladies rendered in a folksy animation style convey that message? And why are they all women? Are there any gentleman quilters working on the toilet paper, or, like housework in general, is it just assumed that making toilet paper is women’s work? How much does this vision of handmade, female-dominated, personality-driven crafting correlate to the actual mechanized, impersonal production of toilet paper? In the ad at least, they heavily imply that machine-produced toilet paper is flat and less absorbent, yet Quilted Northern itself isn’t actually made by little quilters, so how effective is this campaign at all?

To be fair to Quilted Northern, some of their more recent commercials take a subversive chuckle at the whole hand-crafted element of their advertising, as well as hipsters in general, as you can see here. Yet note that the craftsman is now distinctly a guy, reaffirming carpentry and woodshop activities as distinctly male activities.

(This why it can be hard to watch TV or consume any kind of popular culture with academics. We feel compelled to analyze it.)

From there, I started thinking about other commercials for toilet paper. When it comes to bodily functions in general, American advertising veers toward the euphemistic (I’m looking at you, period products), but toilet paper is particularly strange to me. I mean, we all have to clean our anus in one form or another, so why are we so hesitant to address it outright?

Apparently, these bears have names, with the female bears given pink bows to denote gender. And they’re color-coded to connote the particular qualities of the toilet paper, red bears for strength, blue for softness. Who thought of all this?

There are the infamous Charmin bears of course, but they’re probably the closest we ever get to seeing toilet paper in action. Remember Mr. Whipple?

Somehow his efforts to deter people from squeezing Charmin was enough to convey to visitors that this product was sufficient for anus-wiping needs.

Even the packaging itself on toilet paper is peculiar. You never see the paper in action, for instance, no butt-wiping to see here (Hieronymous Bosch would be disappointed). Rather, you often (though not always, to be fair) see images of cute baby animals, such as ducklings, kittens, or even human infants. Yet we tend to reserve moist towelettes or wipes for baby bottoms, so what does the human infant have to do with dry toilet paper? It’s as though in our effort to euphemize toilet paper, we have to infantilize it in order to render the taboo subject of anus-wiping harmless.

Then I started thinking about a peculiar billboard for Clines Corners, an extensive gas station in New Mexico. Established in the 1930s, Clines Corners is located at the junction between 285 to Santa Fe and I-40 to Albuquerque. Being the only gas station in the vicinity, it gets a lot of traffic just through its existence, but it’s also one of the most expansive gas stations I’ve ever seen, encompassing a large gift shop, convenience store, a Subway, and even a full sit-down restaurant.

What does this have to do with toilet paper though? Whenever you’re getting close to Clines Corners, you start seeing billboards advertising different products for the place. There’s one for coffee, one for ice cream, even one for moccasins I think, but the one I always remember is the one for clean toilets:

To be fair, Clines Corners has a lot of toilets, about twenty per gender I think, so the likelihood of you finding an empty, working toilet when you arrived is very high. But look at this picture. Rather than have a shot of the bathrooms themselves, they have a closeup of this woman closing her eyes and throwing her head back serenely. Grant it, I understand that you need an image that is visually legible from a distance, but why not have a picture of a toilet then? Wouldn’t that be just as effective?

The bathrooms have a Southwest Art Deco feel to them. As far as gas station bathrooms go, they’re pretty nice.

Brandon and I used to speculate about this lady whenever we would drive by her. Did she just have an orgasmic bowel movement? Is she remembering a time when she had a good poo? Did the toilet paper feel especially nice? What’s the deal?

My broader point is that advertising, particularly when it comes to anything relating to bodily functions, is weird to me. Not that it’s developed spontaneously. I would argue that our disdain for bodily fluids is a hand-me-down from Victorian obsessions with cleanliness, but the part that’s so odd is that we take it for granted. In this world, making cartoons about ladies quilting or bears with toilet paper sticking to their fur is apparently the most effective way to peddle products that help you wipe your ass.

Oh Bosch, of course you would write a legible song on someone’s butt.

Isn’t that weird?

Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities III

Last week I talked about some of the critiques that have been made of digital humanities, including its replication of previous academic biases, the overrepresentation of white, particularly male perspectives, and its complicity in the corporatization of the university as an institution. There are few things more annoying than pointing out flaws without offering solutions, but fortunately for us, lots of scholars and activists have been developing pedagogies and practices to facilitate the development of more inclusive digital humanities. Today then, we’ll wrap up our exploration of this reading list by highlighting some of these works.

One way that scholars have been addressing the historical oversights of both digital humanities and more broadly academia is using theoretical frameworks that account for marginalized groups. In New Digital Worlds, for instance, Roopika Risam adopts a postcolonial approach that addresses the overrepresentation of the Global North in the digital humanities canon and other biases by using her DH scholarship to expose and explore colonial roots. Additionally, she seeks to empower people of color, indigenous populations, and other marginalized groups by concentrating her research on the Global South and highlighting smaller projects that emphasize community participation. Through this focus, she decenters large, lab-led projects as the DH ideal, proposing instead smaller, more intimate work that focuses on community needs over product. Such an approach shares affinities with Moya Bailey’s work with black transgender communities, which she discusses in “Transform(ing) DH Writing and Research.” Much like Alana Kumbier’s theory and praxis of queer archiving in Ephemeral Material, Bailey puts the needs of communities she works with first, with the ultimate form of her projects reflecting their needs and choices rather than her individual need or want for tenure.

Intersectional feminism is another important theoretical framework for digital humanities, as explored in works such as Bodies of Information, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, and Data Feminism, co-written by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. In Data Feminism especially, intersectional feminism explores power structures, and the ways that constructs such as race, class, ableism, and gender intersect to both enable and curtail power for individuals, communities, and other populations. Rather than reduce oppression or power to a single cause, intersectional feminism regards it as a complex matrix, with contextualization being key to both comprehending and ultimately addressing it. It is also a framework that values affect and embodiment, qualities traditionally disregarded as irrational by more logical, masculine-oriented epistemes, as both legitimate subjects of research and a means of conducting research itself. Through this flexible yet complex theoretical framework, these authors explore everything from the tenure process in academia and its privileging of individual publications over collaborative, community-based research, to the introduction of emotion to the visualizations as a legitimate research focus, to the ways local communities use mapping and other DH projects to map trends in their areas.

These theoretical frameworks not influence what kinds of topics these digital humanists explore, but how they conduct that research. Consent, the acknowledgment of labor at all levels, and treating community partners as equals all underpin intersectional research. Related to this recognition of service as key to scholarly production is a focus on pedagogy within these academic practices. In works like New Digital Worlds and Data Feminism, the authors dedicate at least one chapter exclusively to teaching, underscoring its quality to research and writing in terms of scholarly output. One edited volume, Digital Humanities Pedagogy, focuses entirely on teaching, with each chapter highlighting a different project or approach.

Underpinning these practices is an emphasis on social justice. Rather than simply report the facts, these authors argue that scholarship, digital or otherwise, should actively seek to create a more inclusive, accepting society, both through the kind of research it conducts and its faculty representation in academia. Rather than operate independently of society’s political and economic concerns, academia should be immersed in them, using its distinct skills in research and organization to empower different groups.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these readings connect back to the works I read in the archival theory section of my list. Works like Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research and Ephemeral Material underscore the significance of community collaboration both as a means of acknowledging labor and undoing the pernicious effects of colonial by recognizing the autonomy and expertise of historically marginalized groups. Texts like Archives Power and “From Disclaimer to Critique” also serve as a call to action to archivists to take a more active role in combatting oppression through their own scholarly expertise, whether by reaching out to different groups or annotating historical documents to highlight themes of oppression. Through these interventions, these scholars argue for the relevance of these disciplines, positing that they can and should play a crucial role in the betterment of society while recognizing their own historical role in perpetuating oppression through their archival documents.

I found a lot of these readings very exciting. What I appreciate about intersectional feminism as a theoretical framework in particular is its refusal to reduce oppression and power to simple binaries. Rather, they weave a complex, interconnected web of causes, and with individuals often experiencing both depending on their gender, race, economic standing, and so forth. Intersectional feminism’s recognition of oppression as a palimpsest of causes and effects, as well as its close dialogues with adjacent theories such as postcolonialism, queer theory, critical race, class, ableism, and others, makes it a very flexible approach to studying society. I also appreciate how these readings emphasized both practice and community. For them, the way you conduct research is just as important as the results, and if you’re going to undertake an intersectional feminist project, you’d better be prepared to practice what you preach when it comes to working with others.

Installation shot from “Collecting Roswell,” the first group-curated show I did in Roswell. For this exhibition, I invited three of my co-workers to curate part of the show, which included selecting objects, writing the text, and as a group, determining the layout. I also invited each curator to give a public talk. Throughout this process, one of my top concerns was making sure each co-curator received credit for his or her work.

Looking back at my previous work, I can see how the ideas I’ve been reading already informed my practice, albeit less overtly. When I was a curator, I took the idea of acknowledging my co-workers’ labor on exhibitions very seriously, in part because I know what it’s like to not have credit given to your effort. I pointed out their efforts in staff meetings, for example, as well as during gallery talks. For group-curated shows, I made sure my co-curators received authorship credit on their text labels or panels, and invited them to give gallery talks about their work.

Community curation was another idea that interested me when I was in Roswell. In these kinds of shows, the curator invites members of a group or community to put together a show. The curator acts as a facilitator, helping community members meet their deadlines while also acknowledging and respecting their roles as the exhibition’s experts. I learned about this approach during my first couple of years at Roswell, but at the time I was a relatively new curator and felt insecure in my position at the museum. Looking forward, however, I would definitely be interested in trying this approach, as it would introduce stories and subject matters I cannot think of due to my own relative matrix of power and oppression.

More immediately, the ideas of intersectional feminism could be very useful for my own research. While putting together my Scalar book, for example, I became very interested in highlighting the labor of all the staff who had worked at the museum, as opposed to its administrators who wrote the majority of its surviving text. What kinds of skills and knowledge did these other people bring to the museum, and how did they enhance its operation? The idea of working with communities as opposed to drawing information from them for my own use also seems like a beneficial practice. Asking how my work should benefit their community, as opposed to focusing solely on my own needs, seems like a more ethical approach.

In short, I have learned a lot from this list, not only in subject matter, but in how to go about conducting my own scholarly practice. It’s left me with a lot to think about, but isn’t that what all reading lists should do?

Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities II

Last week I talked about some of the texts I’ve been reading that emphasize the general excitement and scholarly potential surrounding digital humanities. Today we’ll take a look at some critiques of DH.

As Amy Earhart argues, Digital Humanities did not emerge from a vacuum, but remains deeply informed by the traditions and biases of other humanities disciplines.

One of the main critiques of digital humanities is that, rather than revolutionize humanities scholarship, it has perpetuated the biases of academia. As Amy E. Earhart argues in Traces of the Old, Uses of the New, digital humanities scholarship has often replicated both the questions and formats of established academic disciplines such as English or art history, with digital editions of journal, archives, and other formats replicating established forms of scholarship. While this can be advantageous, uncritical replications can continue previous biases or overlook other bodies of scholarship, including older websites that are no longer compatible with current technologies. In the case of digital archives, the extensive resources tend to be based on the most extant available materials, which, unsurprisingly perhaps, belong to white writers and creators. As Amardeep Singh argues in “The Archive Gap,” by gravitating toward readily accessible, extensive paper archives, we replicate the overrepresentation of white writers because their works tend to be better preserved than those of more marginalized groups in the first place. Such a preference for readily accessible written material also hearkens back to Diana Taylor’s discussion of the archive and the repertoire, with the dominance of written texts overshadowing knowledge expressed through more bodily forms.

Since 2012, the anthology series Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, has been an important scholarly platform for critiquing DH theory and practice. A lot of the essays I read for this part of the list came from the most recent volume, published in 2019.

Additionally, DH has been accused of replicating the flaws of the university through its treatment of service-related work. Although DH has been celebrated for its emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, not all contributions are acknowledged equally. As Roxanne Shirazi posits in “Replicating the Academy,” librarians, archivists, and other university workers whose jobs concentrate on service-related tasks play a critical role in the implementation and maintenance of digital humanities projects due to their technical expertise and access to various academic resources. Yet they rarely get credited for their efforts to the same degree as professors or other faculty members, who often manage the conceptual side of the project. Such omissions, Shirazi argues, perpetuate an ongoing bias toward service-related work such as librarianship, nursing, and other tasks, jobs that are considered more technical than intellectual and consequently regarded as less serious.

Not surprisingly perhaps, such service-related careers are devalued due to their history as feminized positions, with women dominating the field. As John Hunter points out on “The Digital Humanities and ‘Critical Theory,’ An Institutional Cautionary Tale,” women entering the workforce underscored the affinity such jobs held with housework, nurturing, and other feminine roles, qualities that made them less controversial with regard to allowing women into the workforce, but also devalued them in the eyes of white male administrators. Yet DH scholarship as we know it, and more broadly academia, would not exist without the labor of librarians and other service-oriented positions, despite their relative invisibility.

Volumes like this book offer critical examinations of making and its significance to DH as a means of research.

The overrepresentation of whiteness, and by extension the Global North, through digital archives mirrors a broader issue of whiteness in the digital humanities. According to Moya Bailey in “All the Digital Humanists are White,” historically digital humanities has consisted of white male academics. As a result, marginalized groups are not only underrepresented through faculty appointments, but through digital project choices as well because the economic and social privilege underpinning whiteness makes it difficult for white faculty members to discern issues specific to marginalized groups. Bailey also resists the idea of simply “adding and stirring” a few token diversity faculty members into the overall white DH mix, arguing instead that digital humanities, and more broadly academia, should be recentered altogether, with white scholars becoming just one facet of a scholarly practice that embraces women, people of color, queer theorists, disabled people, and other groups.

Books like The Digital Humanist explore not only the humanist roots of the DH, but also critique its overemphasis on urban centers and the Global North at the expense of work taking place in the Global South and outside urban and university settings.

Connected to the homogenized, white character of the digital humanities is its complicity in the neoliberalization of the university. While DH is not directly responsible for the increasingly corporate nature of universities, scholars have observed that the DH projects that tend to receive the most funding originate from large lab environments and have a decidedly apolitical character. As a result, smaller projects that focus on marginalized groups, the kind of scholarship that should be getting attention, receive minimal to no funding, an omission that gets perpetuated in the DH canon. As Dr. Catherine Knight Steele mentioned in her CDHC talk, for instance, black digital feminists have been active on the Internet for years through blogging and other platforms, but because their work often exists outside the academy, or doesn’t originate in a large lab with ample funding, it gets neglected or ignored altogether.

Another facet of DH’s complicated relationship with neoliberal policies concerns the use of data. As discussed in the 2019 anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities, consent policies when it comes to collecting big data can be murky. While datasets like historical literature are open source, searching Twitter, Instagram, and other commercial repositories are more grey. While it’s presumed that people who post images or other data online accept that their information may be used for other purposes, offensive memes, the commodification of data via Google and other commercial search engines, among other issues, underscores the controversial nature of online data. Using people’s data for a project without them being able to knowingly consent, then, is a questionable practice.

Interrogating the mechanisms behind computational data itself has been another topic on inquiry. As Tara McPherson famously argued in “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” the computational methods of UNIX and other early systems, with their 0-1 language, demands a clean, rational approach to data that overlooks the messiness of reality, and omits people or data who don’t fit into that neat model. In a more recent but related article, “Against Cleaning,” Kate Rawson ad Trevor Munoz turn a critical eye to data cleaning, or the work we do to render archival documents and other forms of data ready for computer reading. As the authors discovered, cleaning usually prepares the documents for only one kind of machine reading, such as seeking out a certain word or phrase, at the expense of discovering other kinds of information or insight. Consequently, the recommend creating indexes for documents, and enabling different users the possibilities of creating new lists and categories for the documents they search. All of these readings hearken back to the observations made in Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every classification made, an omission occurs that leaves other information out.

Edited anthologies like Between Humanities and the Digital interrogate the “hack vs. yack” debate while simultaneously critiquing itself for offering fairly conservative solutions to ongoing problems of representation and critical analysis.

This lack of critical engagement with the tools we use to create digital humanities projects also underlies another major critique of the field in general: the need for critical theory. As a discipline grounded in projects, DH puts greater emphasis on practice than a lot of humanities fields, the result in part of being able to explore producing knowledge in ways beyond the textual. Yet many scholars have argued that there’s been a greater emphasis on producing dazzling projects with minimal critical engagement than on interrogating both the tools we use to create works, and using those tools to critical ends. To put it another way, if the balance between theory and practice in DH could be described as “hack vs. yack,” there’s been a more pronounced emphasis on making, or “hacking,” without the deep investigation or reflection as enabled through critical theory, or “yacking.” In short, DH has been accused of perpetuating the biases of the academy because its primary focus in on creating cool-looking projects without a deeper analysis of the questions, data, and tools driving our research.

A lot of these critiques have resonated with me. As a white woman, I know that my demographic is overrepresented in both academia and museums (to the point that Brandon has joked on multiple occasions that I’m a ‘type’), and acknowledge that a lot of my previous work was fairly apolitical. Additionally, the years I spent working in smaller museums in the west brought me first-hand experience with the frustrations of larger, well-funded institutions receiving the bulk of grant monies because they had the time and resources to file the paperwork. Regarding my research on community art centers, I’m working with older material, but the communities in which these centers were based are still around, and I want to be mindful of consent moving forward.

While there are plenty of critiques of DH, however, there are also scholars who are working hard to develop a more inclusive version of digital humanities, one that recenters the field away from white, male dominance through considerations of race, feminism, class, postcolonialism, disability, and other theoretical frameworks. We’ll take a look at some of these readings next week.

Thinking (and Reading) about Digital Humanities I

While the first two sections of my second reading list focus on archival theory, the last group of readings have focused on digital humanities. I added these readings because DH is a field I’ve gotten really interested in since taking a seminar on it during my first semester at William and Mary. Like the archival theory list, this section consists of two parts: one focusing on the appeal of digital humanities, and one addressing issues of representation and ethics, with a lot of overlap in between them. There’s also a lot of overlap with the archival theory list, since a lot of the readings I selected focused on both digital archives and more broadly frameworks of power.

Today, I’d to share my thoughts of this part of the list and its applicability to my own work.

Every chapter in this book was written collaboratively to emphasize the team-based methods of Digital Humanities.

As with the archival theory list, I started off with the works that focused on the allure of DH. For DH proponents, digital humanities isn’t just about putting humanities work on a computer, but a whole new approach to conducting scholarship through three interconnected qualities: collaboration, big data, and a shift away from text as the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge. In works like Digital Humanities, Anne Burdick and her co-authors juxtapose the traditional approach of solitary scholarship with a team-based method (the book itself was written collaboratively to demonstrate this point). To put it simply, DH encourages collaboration because computer-based scholarship is too expansive a field for any one person to completely master. The chances of finding someone who can code, create visualizations, and do humanities-based scholarship such as close textual readings are pretty slim, so more often than not you team up with other scholars with different skills sets. The potential of this cross-pollination, Burdick and others argue, is that you have scholarly dialogues occurring across the humanities/science divide, which opens up new research questions and project possibilities. Given that academia has been accused of siloing itself off by departments, such interdisciplinary collaboration has been regarded as a good thing.

This 3D printed abstract sculpture from historian David Staley represents the top 100 words used by the Florida Historical Quarterly from its 85-year run of back issues. The work interprets the words as a topographical map, with the height of the peaks representing frequency of usage. In addition to seeing overall work use, viewers can also see how the journal’s use of language has changed over time, reflecting changing ideas and concepts. You can read more about here.

Another theme that comes through this first part of the list is an emphasis on design. As Burdick, David Staley, and others have argued, written texts in the form of monographs and articles have been the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge in academia for centuries, a form that encourages solitary research and production. By privileging this form, other ways of making sense of the world, such as visual art, textiles, and other creative means, tend to get summarily dismissed as being less serious than written texts and regarded simply as a supplement to the printed word. Yet as digital projects in the form of graphs, spatial renderings of history, and other forms have demonstrated, visualizations are not just a means of illustrating textual knowledge, but of producing knowledge in its own right by exploring themes or ideas that text can’t render very well.

Related to the enthusiasm over visualization in these works is the excitement over big data, or the use of computers to process large amounts of data. As scholars such as Franco Moretti and Mathew Jockers argue in works such as Graphs, Maps, Trees and Macroanalysis, traditional humanities approaches that emphasize close readings of finite amounts of information (in their case, literature), results in a distorted understanding of a particular academic field. Since humans are only capable of reading a finite number of books, or looking at a finite number of paintings, we only see a small percentage of the total human output, resulting in an overemphasis on so-called masterpieces at the expense of all other works. What these authors argue for is adapting quantitative approaches to humanities scholarship through machine reading. Since computers can process a lot more text than we can in a faster amount of time, we should use their abilities to “read” large amounts of text and then write codes for them that enable them to look for specific words or themes (for example, how often texts use articles such as “the”). In its way, we can better contextualize the so-called masterpieces we tend to highlight in our close readings within a broader literary landscape, and see how they fit in with the vast body of other lesser-known works.

Visualizations like this project on MoMA’s photography collection, created by Lev Manovich and the Cultural Analytics Lab, enables viewers to see large quanities of images and discern general trends about them. In this case, the photographs are sorted by tonal value.

I’ll admit, I found a lot of these readings exciting in their optimism, even if I know from my coursework and conferences experiences that DH is, like every academic discipline, a flawed field. The years I spent in museums taught me that all projects are collaborative in one form or another, so seeing a field actively embrace teamwork with all its complexities and messiness is both exciting and a little daunting, especially for an introvert who finds networking overwhelming sometimes. I also found the readings on big data and visualizations exciting, particularly as someone coming from an art history background. One thing that has always irked me about the field is its emphasis on “greatest hits” at the expense of understanding works by lesser-known or less-skilled artists. While newer fields such as Visual Studies have attempted to address this issue by expanding the field of study beyond the so-called fine arts, art history remains a pretty conservative field in a lot of respects. As digital humanists such as Lev Manovich demonstrate in their visualizations, however, computer-based scholarship offers a way to process a large number of paintings or artworks and not only observe patterns or trends, but also underscore the diversity of human creativity.

I could potentially see such visualizations working well for my own research. As I mentioned in my CDHC talk, the logistical complexity of the Community Art Center Project makes it difficult to describe its operations through text, but mapping it digitally could offer a way to better discern its exhibition shipping patterns. Additionally, applying quantitative methods to the thousands of art works shown through the program could offer insights into the overall program itself regarding the kind of work it selected for exhibition, whether it’s the prominence of specific color palettes or preference in subject matter. These kinds of distance readings, combined with a close reading of a specific exhibition or two, could be very useful.

While these texts tend to paint digital humanities and its potential in a glowing, uncritical light, more recent texts have debated whether DH has actually revolutionized academia or replicated the biases of the university, and offer their own suggestions for creating more inclusive scholarship. Big data and macroanalysis-based methods, in particular, have been questioned for their flattening effect, and in the case of contemporary texts or images from living people, the ethics of using their works without permission or acknowledgment of their labor. Moretti’s assault of graduate students also underscores the ongoing issue of ethics in scholarship.

We’ll take a look at some of these critiques next week.