THE PANEL BELIEVES*—
On the technocratic savior myth as an allegory for the corporatization of academic institutions, in particular regards to the 2016 Title IX investigation of Catalina Ouyang’s sexual assault, or, better:
WE FORGET THE LIVING
Miss Watson: Just this morning, as a matter of fact, I saw a demonstration at IBM.
Mr. Sumner: Oh? Did you see it translate Russian into Chinese?
Miss Watson: Yeah. I saw it do everything. Frightening. Gave me the feeling that maybe, just
maybe, people were a little bit outmoded.
Mr. Sumner: Mmm. Wouldn't surprise me a bit if they stopped making them.
DESK SET (1957)
The Panel believes it knows or has defined what you must know, what you must be. The Panel believes that rote recitation, ad nauseum, signifies truth. The Panel believes that mutability signifies untruth. The Panel has not ever witnessed growth or decay.
Miss Watson (as played by Katharine Hepburn): a brilliant, daffy matron librarian. Clearly queer or queered, though performing rank wait-for-him girlishness under the constraints of the rom-com trope. Runs a publishing empire’s Research Department.
Mr. Sumner (as played by Spencer Tracy): a lovelorn nerd mariner, hypnotized by the techno-corporate seas. A “methods engineer” who has been hired to initiate computer use in Miss Watson’s department. Has nicknamed the room-sized computer Emily—gendered it, like a boat, with she/her pronouns.
The Panel: TBD
You: Catalina Ouyang
Me: another person in the world
Sure in her own noggin, Miss Watson resists computer dominance.
Mr. Sumner: ...you'd be surprised how a little scientific application can improve the work/man-
Miss Watson remains unconvinced.
At the end of the film, Sumner and Watson will fall love, as it was destined. At the end of the film, Emily will fail, as it was destined. The crux of the movie is that [white, cis, able] women are scientifically, verifiably better than machines, and that men love [white, cis, able]women who are scientifically, verifiably better than machines.
The epilogue of the story is that machines will worsen the world when wielded by men who love themselves, himselves; when I say worsen, I mean trauma; when I say trauma, I mean trauma, and I mean violence, so why isn’t that what I say. If even I, a small spittling white femme voice with a savings account, cannot say what I mean, what I hope for men, for machines, for institutions—
The Panel cannot believe anyone who does not believe in machine primacy. We all know this, and yet hope. Occasionally there is a malfunction, enough to hope more, but this might as well be a trick. It is the panel or nothing.
Mr. Sumner: Now, before asking you the next question, I must advise you it contains a trick. In
order to see into the trick, I give you two words of advice: Never assume.
Miss Watson: Don't worry. I won't.
It should go without saying that when I say machines I mean institutions within a larger system of corporate organization whose chief aims are business and maintenance of the norm. On the cellular level—by which I mean if we are all part of one body, which we are not, but for figurative purposes, imagine we are, one body beset with all manners of maladies, of pus and gore and dehydration, of decay and decay, and not a pleasure organ or sweet nerve thrill in sight, imagine for figurative purposes—people try to exist.
(None of this is to do with a machine! It is all in spite of it! I do not mean to make a false binary of equations and computers, and art and organics. Let us remember that the machine is not a machine but the institution, the miserable defensive body, the corporate instrument.)
(Recently I went to a linguist’s talk about the use of figurative language in news articles about the public school governance and teachers’ unions in my city: all parties, from journalist to activist to mayor, used the language of sports or war, of teams and winning and casualties. The linguist hypothesized that if the figurations were aligned more closely, there would be, well, shared territories and an ability to make progress. But this is optimism: any institution’s first priority is to be inscrutable, unlearnable, a commercial for something it is not. This is called risk reduction. This is called control. This is called capitalism. Later I had lunch at a diner with a colleague I admire and we shared pancakes and spoke about how we would take care of our parents when they were no longer able to live alone—as a way to guard against this certainly coming time—and all of this was a figuration, courtesy pancakes, of our bond in labor and art against the institution which took money from our students and eventually gave us a small fraction of it to live: to rent our homes, to cover our bodies, to buy pancakes, to discover luminance on our own human terms.)
Consider: there is no institutional expression of luminance. There is only PR. (I do not think I am saying anything new here.)
Again I must say: I am only speaking about computers and figurative language in order to think, actively, about how loud you—a human, a femme human of color—must holler in order to be heard by an institution whose body is not actually equipped with ears. What an institution has instead of ears is a Panel, and this Panel has beliefs.
Mr. Sumner, testing Miss Watson’s brain: Uh, often when we meet people for the first time, some
physical characteristic strikes us. What is the first thing you notice in a person?
Miss Watson: Whether the person is male or female.
Dramatis Personae, ctd.
What does the institutional Panel look like? What form does it take as it assesses a Title IX
Complaint? I mean: as it assesses a Title IX Complainant?
I can only imagine that a Panel looks like a long table—it is a computer-projected hologram of a
table, in the manner we have seen a Jedi or Tupac—and at the long table sit beliefs, which do
not look like Jedis or Tupacs, but like people with their own automobiles in whose upholstery is
crushed goldfish crackers and the loose ink of direct mailers and Amazon packaging materials
and in whose trunks big blue gallons of extra wiper fluid loll arcs. And these projections are
human people, possibly or verifiably, but they are also the organs of this Panel. I am hoping you
have lost the figurative thread by now, because it is meaningless.
Miss Watson: Wait a minute. I thought you said this machine can't evaluate.
Mr. Sumner: It can't. It can't. It can only repeat the information...that has been fed into it by the
The Panel is a hologram. The Panel cannot believe anything. For the Panel has neither operable mouths nor operable ears. (Instead: speakers and uploads.) The Panel may only run its own program. There was violence done to you, a femme human of color, and it was not recognized by the institution as violence. Because the Panel did not believe you. This is violence also: the idea that institutional belief, (which does not exist), can reliably furnish not only justice but rightness.
(When I was a graduate student and later an adjunct, at the institution where this Panel’s violence would later be done—I typed in passive voice—I liked to joke about the campus’s neo-gothic architecture. I liked to joke that the campus was imitating, badly, older and more burnished schools. The exception to these imitators was my beloved brutalist Eliot Hall, where I often requested to teach. Eliot had been built during the Vietnam Era, and was rumored to be “riot proof.” Sometimes it was difficult to figure out how to get from one room to another. The windows did not close properly and some of the classrooms were once conference rooms that had been abandoned for the new-construction neo-gothics across campus, where the radiators didn’t shudder with their own use. I liked to teach in Eliot Hall because there was a different pose here than elsewhere. It was an institutional slip-up. It was an artifact, a mishape. After I left this particular institution it was imploded and razed and another neo-gothic building was built on its site, and I talked about it on Facebook with other humans who had also worked within this institution, in dismayed and self-congratulatory terms.)
When it is not your body they are imploding it is easy to understand something like this as just another institutional redaction unto inscrutability. But when a Panel renders a human experience into pages of beliefs (which are not beliefs but maintenance of power and money) it is a redaction of humanhood; it is a privilege of circuitry. The Panel cannot believe in you. The Panel is not interested in dissent. It is not interested in deviance. It is not interested in living, or in the living.
At the Research Department, Emily the computer has at last been installed. The humans race to prove their worth, reciting poems and facts. A new female computer consultant, in a dark green suit and neat chignon, works keys and knobs, whereupon the computer begins to spit magenta cards, to strobe and rumble wrongly. Mr. Sumner rushes to Emily, in terror.
Mr. Sumner: Good heavens! What have you done now?
Consultant: I don't know! I don't know!
Mr. Sumner grabs hold of her shoulders, as she twists and turns hysterically.
Mr. Sumner: There, now, calm down. You know you have to tell me. I can't fix it unless I know…
Consultant, crying: I don't know what I did! I don't know. It's your machine, not mine!
Miss Watson: Is this supposed to be smoldering?
Consultant, crying in anger, to Miss Watson: Don’t you touch that machine!
Mr. Sumner, shaking Consultant by the shoulders once more: Now, now, stop crying. Crying
won't help it just because you made a stupid mistake.
Mr. Sumner: Yes, or asinine if you prefer.
Miss Watson laughs and claps her hands in glee.
Consultant, crying, yelling: There’s nothing wrong between me [and the computer]. Ever since I
got here you’ve done nothing but try to sabotage me! You all hate me! I’ve been forced to work in
an atmosphere of hatred and suspicion! [to Miss Watson] It’s all your doing! You did it! You did it!
[turning to Mr. Sumner] And you’re just as bad as they are!
EMILY SMOKES, IMPLODING THE UNIVERSE; WHEREUPON WE ARE ALL & DESERVEDLY RAZED.
*with figuration via the 1957 film Desk Set, from the script by Phoebe & Henry Ephron, adapted from the play by William Marchant.