[iDC] "How the mammet twitters!”

Ulises Mejias uam2101 at columbia.edu
Tue Jun 16 16:27:45 UTC 2009

First a quick response to Brian (thanks for the feedback!), and then a digression related to
play/labor sparked by Trebor's article on MTurk. 

Yes, the issue of defining exactly what one means by 'network' is a tricky one. On the one
hand, a definition that is too specific limits the potential to extend the critique across various
platforms and 'networks within networks.' On the other hand, a definition that is too broad can
quickly lose meaning, because as someone said if everything is a network then nothing is a
network. Lately, I've been using the phrase 'digital technosocial networks' to refer to
assemblages of human and technological actors (the nodes) linked together by social and
physical ties (the links) that allow for the transfer of digital information between some or all of
these actors. It's not perfect, but it will have to do for the moment. Since you've asked, I will
keep you posted on how this work progresses. There are actually two completed articles that
will be coming out, hopefully, later this year. If you or anyone is interested enough to want to
look at the drafts, let me know.

What I should be doing at the moment is working on my book. Instead, I've been distracted by
the convergence of three arguments: Trebor Schulz' thoughts on MTurk
(http://permalink.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc/1064), a paper by Asma Barlas (my
wife) on 'Islam and Body Politics: Inscribing (Im)morality' and another paper by my friend Gil
Harris titled 'The Untimely Mammet of Verona' (the last two papers are unpublished,
unfortunately). The richness behind the image of the Mechanical Turk deserves a better
treatment than what I can offer right now, but I wanted to quickly mull over some of the
connections between mechanical/repetitive labor, sociable media, and notions of Otherness
using these three authors.

The title for this post ("How the mammet twitters!”) is actually a line by the character Hilario in
Philip Massinger’s 1630 tragicomedy 'The Picture' (I learned this from Gil Harris' paper--the
mention of 'twitter' was too much to resist using it as a title!). There is actually an interesting
connection between the word 'mammet' and the Mechanical Turk. As Trebor points out,
"MTurk was named after the 18th century chess playing automaton 'the Turk,' a wooden figure
with a turban that seemed to have the ability to think." Walter Benjamin described the
contraption as follows:

"It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could
counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory
in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which
rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table
was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player
sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings" ('Illuminations.' New York:
Schocken, 1969, p. 253 -- quoted in Harris).

The fact that the figure was a 'Turk' was not accidental, since as Harris points out in his paper:
"As [Kathleen] Biddick notes, medieval Christian theologians used the word 'mechanicum' as a
synonym for Muslim sorcery: they regarded Islam as a mechanical religion incapable of true
life and of a meaningful future, and thus consigned it to a dead, unusable past. Benjamin’s
Turkish chess-playing machine eerily replays this typological gambit." 

These mechanical automata were also referred to as 'mammets.' Harris further explains that
"In English Renaissance drama, a 'maumet' or 'mammet' was a common term for a doll,
puppet, or mechanical homunculus" (interestingly, it was also used to describe young girls "in
the grip of a transgressive desire"). The word 'mammet' derives from the proper name
Mohamet or Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam. So there is a long history of using Islam and
Muslims, those primordial alternates of the West, as signifiers for mechanical behavior and
toughtlessness. In her paper, Asma Barlas argues that

"offensive depictions of the Prophet have not changed much over time or, to put it more
accurately, even when they have, their ideological premises have not and neither has their
role in affirming the radical alterity of Islam in relation to the West. That is why I see these
depictions as glimpses into Europe’s own history and as sites where Europeans displace
some of its traumatic events."

As the recent Danish cartoon controversy illustrates, it's OK (even defensible under 'Western'
ideals such as Freedom of Speech) to portray the Other --in this case, Muslims-- as unthinking
mammets bent on our destruction through acts of terrorism, invasion of the homeland,
'willingness' to accept low-paying jobs, etc. But as Barlas argues, these constructs allow the
West to displace its own violence toward the Other and anchor its perceived epistemic
privilege over it: It's OK to declare superiority over the Mechanical Turks and destroy/exploit
them (while we very much fear that they will do the same to us, as science fiction repeatedly
reminds us). 

I am probably not making much sense (because I'm still working this out), by I guess what I am
trying to suggest is a connection between the idea of the sociable media user as a mammet
intended for repetitive labor that willingly participates in its own exploitation. Trebor is correct
in calling into question the discourse of the Internet as "a marketplace where folks who have
work meet up with folks who want to do work." As he points out, this discourse hides the fact
that companies facilitating these virtual sweatshops do not have to file taxes, abide by
minimum-wage legislation, or provide health insurance to the 'Turkers.'

In the new economics of 'mammet-generated content,' the users are mindless, sub-human.
They are too small to count except in the aggregate. They performs mindless repetitive tasks;
they twitter. But they are also dangerous. There is a potential threat living inside these
Mechanical Turks, a dwarf genius. They are the masses who could potentially discover --if
sociable media wasn't so much darn fun!-- that of all possible configurations, the network is
being actualized as a machine for generating more, not less, inequality. In this economy, there
is no difference between toil and play, and that's not accidental. The new mammet must be
kept engaged in endless twittering--otherwise, it might go jihadi all over the network.

-Ulises Mejias

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