I want to make it clear that I love birthdays. It’s a time of good food and good company, and nothing beats that. But it’s also very personal. And, while I love my friends’, my family’s, and my own birthdays, I don’t like constantly being asked by academia and the internet to celebrate that of those I don’t know.
In 2009, I came across a CFP celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday that encouraged interdisciplinary approaches from all fields of inquiry. For a second, I thought, huh, that’d be an interesting paper to write. I geeked out at the prospect of connecting Darwinian evolution, natural selection, or survival of the fittest with my own field of rhetoric/composition. Then I started to question what the big deal was with his 200th birthday, became more and more irate, and that sensitivity has stuck with me ever since. The annoyance came in bits, pieces, waves that grew bigger and bigger, like so: why is birth so important… why not people’s works and achievements… this emphasis on figure over matter… same uneasiness as literary canon… Christian sainthood… canonization of scholars’ names, physical appearance, physical being instead of thought… individual ownership over collective meaning-making… intellectual property… copyright… trademark… explaining to scared and confused international students censured for “plagiarism” of others’ ideas that attribution of the capitalist kind is valued over their dissemination and distribution… it all goes together… it’s a goddamn conspiracy…
This isn’t something new, of course, as we’ve done so with other milestone birthdays of dead popular figures–I’m guilty of having vegged out on an Akira Kurosawa DVD marathon on his 100th, and was first in line for Billie Holliday’s remix tribute album on hers. Nor is it new in academia for authors and scientists to be celebrated on their birthdays. I guarantee there’s a Jane Austen cult right now in the basement of some Ivy League building preparing the next official book club selection for her birthday this year. But I thought this was residual practice during a transitional period to a new digital age. In the future, we’ll stop this nonsense and celebrate sharing over attribution, achievement over birth.
But, Google, instead of bringing balance to the Force has instead perpetuated. Their sporadic logo changes are fun. Ooh, it’s a Thanksgiving dinner spelled like Google. Ooh, the Scooby Gang on Halloween. Cuuute. Then, only a few weeks ago, Constantin Brancusi’s birthday was honoured using a bunch of his sculptures, digitally enslaved and forced to look like the Google logo or they would no longer get air time in museums. Who is Constantin Brancusi, you may ask? Hell if I know. But you can bet that, if you don’t know him, if you can only appreciate his works for what they are now, you’re not part of the cultural elite, and are somehow deficient. Google commands it so. And it wasn’t even a milestone birthday–it was his 135th. Who celebrates their 135th birthday if they’re not alive anymore? Here’s another one of Sayed Darwish–who?–not for the creation of his song that would become the Egyptian national anthem, but for his 119th birthday.
The biggest snub, though, was during academia’s recent celebration of Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday, spread around through emails and interwebs–not his groundbreaking ideas, but when he popped out of his mum. It’s the ultimate insult to the man’s life and research that gave us “the medium is the message” and predicted the internet. The point is that the Coming of the child that would help save culture with his name as watermark is more important than ideations that would only contribute to more fluid (rather than Immaculate) Conceptions of culture (or arts, or sciences, or knowledge). It’s as if we’re recreating the Coming with mini-Comings of mini-saviours, just to hold us off until the Second, when true biology and spirituality return to smite the Digital Devil run amok.
We’re afraid that the same ideas that bore artificial intelligence that would one day enslave us, if not outright eradicate us, must be kept at bay. More births. More celebrations of births. This will ensure that the James Cameron Terminator nightmare prophecy doesn’t realize. Instead of dangerous ideas, we cling on to the biological imperative, which is in league with Christian spiritual and capitalist labour motives. And at the heart of all this, academia and the internet–two apparatuses that could have collaborated critically as the last frontier and perhaps as our last chance of dismantling nonconsensual Marxist power structures–instead acquiesce so easily to the anxiety of humanity’s impending doom that they’ve sold out our future for more of the same.