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Imagine Otherwise: Margaret Rhee on Queer Feminist Robot Poetry

Imagine Otherwise: Margaret Rhee on Queer Feminist Robot Poetry

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February 24, 2016
Black and white photo of Margaret Rhee wearing a dark shirt, looking over her shoulder

Guest: Margaret Rhee

Margaret Rhee is a poet, feminist new media artist, and scholar whose work exemplifies the magic that can happen when one brings art, activism, and academia together and views the world through an intersectional lens of social justice.

She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in ethnic and new media studies, and was recently a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Institute of American Cultures.

She’s the author of the new poetry book Radio Heart: or, How Robots Fall Out of Love, as well as the editor of several literary journals and poetry anthologies about queer and trans relationships, race, and innovative poetics.

"Artistic production can and should transgress the boundaries between identities, disciplines, and practices" Quote from Margaret Rhee on Imagine Otherwise

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People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

    Welcome to episode four of the Imagine Otherwise Podcast. Today our guest is Margaret Rhee, a poet, feminist, new media artists and scholar whose work exemplifies the magic that can happen when one brings art, activism and academia together and views the world through an intersectional lens of social justice. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in Ethnic and New Media Studies and was recently a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA Institute of American Cultures. She’s the author of a new poetry book called Radio Hearts; Or, How Robots Fall Out of Love. As well as the editor of several literary journals and poetry anthologies about queer and trans relationships, race and innovative poetics. Today, Margaret will be talking with us about poetry, robots and what it means to imagine otherwise. Welcome, Margaret.

    Margaret Rhee (01:16):

    Great. Thank you so much, Cathy. I’m equally as inspired by your art, activism, your teaching, your scholarship so thank you so much, it’s an honor to be here.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:29):

    Let’s just jump right in. You have this fabulous new book of poetry, Radio Hearts; Or, How Robots Fall Out of Love, which I just … I love that title, I think it’s so fabulous. And, that was just published by Finishing Line Press. Tell us a little bit about that book and the kind of project you are trying to get at with that collection of poems.

    Margaret Rhee (01:49):

    Sure. Radio Hearts; Or, How Robots Fall Out of Love, was a collection of poetry in which I was really interested in imagining a science fictional world in which humans and robots felt in and out of love, which is something that’s ever even more present today, just with our technological revolution and the presence of technology that mediates love and desire. A lot of my previous poetry work, very much about sexuality, race, identity, pretty explicitly but I found that the robot was a really interesting figure to explore, some of those same questions around difference and love. In a way that was a bit more of taking the back door around those issues of, let’s say a world in which robots and humans fell in love but their love was also marginalized and so yeah. The collection was inspired, in part, from research I was doing around robots and robotics and then as a poet I thought it would be very generative to include robots within poetry.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:13):

    Awesome. Are the different poems different phases in a single relationship or are they different aspects of relationships or how do you talk about kind of technology mediating desire and how that plays out with robots?

    Margaret Rhee (03:29):

    Yeah. The collection and this work is organized by different sections, in which they’re also about formal experiments too in poetry. The first section is Love Robot and they’re primarily narrative poems that also have an algorithm with them. I was interested in writing very story like, traditional poetry around robots and humans and then, how would algorithms play a role in telling the story but also holding back and experimenting with the algorithm as a poetic entity. The second section is Radio Heart, which are four line poems and then the last section is Hack Me and it’s mostly like this weird last section that’s very sexual.

    Cathy Hannabach (04:36):

    Awesome.

    Margaret Rhee (04:38):

    Yeah. It’s just different moments of transgression and the collection begins with a play on Alan Turing’s computer machinery and intelligence but includes the word love instead of intelligence. I think those who are working within digital studies and queer studies are pretty familiar as well as the larger public now with the film about Turing with The Imitation Game but for some people who don’t know with Turing being a gay identified man or at the time homosexual, a lot of my research focuses on how the theory of love and desire can also shape the possibility of artificial intelligence and the transgression between human and machine too. It kind of starts with that and with that extra from the article.

    Cathy Hannabach (05:43):

    That sounds awesome. Obviously in addition to being a poet, you’re also a scholar and I know that your scholarly research dovetails closely with the poetry you do but you also, I think a really nice job of demonstrating why those two genres or those two forms need to be separate or what each one can bring different questions to the fore or allow you to explore different ideas. How does your poetry kind of interact with your scholarship? You mentioned research informing your poetry and that makes a lot of sense but are there other ways that you find those two genres that you write in kind of intermixing?

    Margaret Rhee (06:29):

    Yeah. Absolutely. That’s a great question. I think that’s something I’m always trying to explore and explicate in terms of thinking the boundaries of form, whether it’s academic writing or poetry or other kinds of writing or expression and yeah, the similarities or the transgressions that must happen in between the two to begin to imagine other worlds.

    Margaret Rhee (06:59):

    The other part of the story around the collection of poetry is that I was a member of a new media lab at Berkeley when I was a graduate student and the person who sat next to me was a roboticist postdoc, [Dmitri Benderson 00:07:17], and I had a ton of kind of like poetry photographs and posters and books around my desk because I loved poetry as well as the new media studies work and feminist work but one day he asked me what photo I had on my desk because I had a photo of Langston Hughes and I began telling him this is Langston Hughes of the Harlem Renaissance and he kind of was like … he stopped me because he was like, “I actually know him.” And I was like, “How do you know him?” And he was like, “I’m a poet too and I love his poetry actually and yeah I recognize him.”

    Margaret Rhee (07:58):

    And it was kind of that really awesome moment where you would expect someone who’s a roboticist to not be engaged with poetry or the humanities and in the same way you would expect someone in the humanities not to be engaged in robotics but here we where we had these perhaps traditionally identified rules and yet there was transgression in between the role of what it meant to be ‘scholar roboticist’ and so he became a very good friend and he wrote wonderful poetry and I think that also helps me think about my own poetry and my own research and in the exploration of how languages of let’s say robotics or science or other kinds of language that typically don’t … that have very strict boundaries of what it can can’t be but how it can be subverted by way of the poetic or the scholarly and at the same time, how does a scholarly writing for expression exist. That’s not just what we traditionally understand as scholarship. How does creative writing or first-person or digital media works exist as scholarship too?

    Cathy Hannabach (09:23):

    That sounds fantastic. You’re also working on a scholarly book, right? Called How We All Became Human. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

    Margaret Rhee (09:34):

    Sure. My scholarly book focuses on the robot but primarily questions around race and gender and it’s a theoretical historical study of the robot and particularly the Asian American body and how in different moments of history Asian-Americans had been racialized as robotic or machines and at the same time how the robot was characterized as racialized and as Asian American. I look at different time periods. For example, the 19th century I examine editorial cartoons … oops, sorry.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:23):

    It’s okay.

    Margaret Rhee (10:25):

    There was a phone, I know.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:26):

    Speaking of thinking of technology.

    Margaret Rhee (10:31):

    I know. Speaking of technology. Exactly. But yeah, I look at editorial cartoons of early Chinese migration and how their migration was conflated with early industrialization and machine. All these editorial cartoons depict the Chinese labors as machines and as a [inaudible 00:10:53]. And then I also look at robotic art to examine how Asian-Americans have used the robot to resist racialization as well. Yeah, the study is interdisciplinary and it’s a way for me to explore these questions around difference but a bit more explicitly on race and gender and sexuality.

    Cathy Hannabach (11:16):

    What you’re describing about these kind of historical trajectories of the ways that the Asian American bodies have been characterized as machines or as robotic reminds me a lot of, one of the previous podcast episodes with [Man Haughty Fam 00:00:11:32], who’s talking about the book that she just published about Asian-American fashion bloggers and she talked a lot about the kind of history of Asian American women in particular and Asian American women being kind of characterized through this kind of global garment industry in robotic fashion, right? As these kind of workers that can be super exploited, that can be exploited across national boundaries and of course entirely because of the way that the racialized and gendered. It’s an interesting connection to the way that you’re tracing a slightly different history but certainly when the intersects there, right?

    Margaret Rhee (12:14):

    Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I love [inaudible 00:12:16], work and I really appreciate your bringing up her new book because yeah, I think some of the more contemporary dynamics is what I was really inspired by to kind of look a bit more historically of some of the early racialization or characterizations of that ‘stereotype’ that’s really embedded in terms of how the US and the Western world racializes Asian Americans in this particular way with the human machine and animal analytic and I think as you bring up, yeah, Asian American women, especially laborers have been racialized as robotic in terms of the labor that they do. There’s real life ramifications and a demonstrated example of this dynamic that happens.

    Cathy Hannabach (13:15):

    Okay, cool. Your work is this kind of fantastic example, I think of what happens when you bring art activism and academia together and you do this in all of the four in all of the different kind of forms that you produce your work in, which is kind of fantastic. You see it in your poetry, you certainly see it in your new media work, you see it in your scholarship, you see it in the various kinds of events that you put together and conferences you’re part of and organizations that you do work in. I’d love to hear kind of how you conceptualize that, why you bring together art activism and academia, why you think that’s important, what it enables you to do.

    Margaret Rhee (14:01):

    Yeah. It goes back to feeling that a lot of the boundaries or borders that we have on our identities, disciplines and practices are constructed and the way to engage in knowledge or artistic production should and must oftentimes transgress those boundaries. I think, I’m just really interested in how one can explore questions in different forms and especially around collaboration.

    Margaret Rhee (14:52):

    I think as you bring up in terms of the combination of the art academy and activism, doing collaborative work for me, whether it’s with women I work with in the jail setting around digital storytelling or within the academy of let’s say collaborating with other feminists of working on collaborative work comes with I think a type of knowledge and creative production that’s more honest and more liberatory because I think a lot of the logics, like if we think a real world structural examples of oppression and violence, let’s say the dichotomy between black lives and white lives in the current moment that we live in very much connected to the dichotomies between science and art or women and men. All of those are what I feel deeply connected. And so I think my aim is to take pleasure in deconstructing some of those boundaries.

    Cathy Hannabach (16:14):

    That sounds great. We’ve been talking a little bit about feminists, new media work but do you want to just kind of let our listeners know like what do you mean by that? And I realize that’s a giant loaded question and certainly one that all new media scholars and feminist and media scholars included kind of wrestle with. What does that mean? But just do you have a kind of very brief two sentence. What does feminist new media work mean to you kind of answer?

    Margaret Rhee (16:49):

    Yeah. Sure. Feminist new media work. I mean, I would say it’s the utilization of digital media of technology but it could also be historical too if we’re, let’s say, I think that the work I do around the history of technologies, definitely new media work and feminist new media work. It’s not only the contemporary but also the past and there’s a lot of different avenues or expressions that feminists have taken to advocate for change and expression and I think poetry has been one form that certainly has been utilized.

    Margaret Rhee (17:33):

    If we think of early feminist of the 60s and 70s like Audrey Lorde or Gloria [inaudible 00:17:39], who really used poetry as a means to express for change as well as theory but they did so because poetry is very accessible and it doesn’t cost very much to write or create and I really look to feminists like Audrey Lorde and [inaudible 00:17:59], as inspiring models, obviously for their transformative work but I think also we live in a different age now in the digital age in which the technological has become even more important to utilize and also more accessible.

    Margaret Rhee (18:19):

    Feminist media work I think really takes on the tools of technology to advance feminist movements and empowerment for women and trans and queer people and men as well and in terms of thinking of a more liberatory world to live in. So yeah.

    Cathy Hannabach (18:47):

    Do you find that and one of the things that I find so striking about your work and so kind of exciting about your work is you’re bringing together of poetry with new media or technology or science and technology studies because that seems so rare, right? I mean there’s fantastic kind of social justice progressive work happening in science and technology studies and in new media studies and then there’s fantastic kind of social justice oriented poetry and poetic studies but rarely do those come together and do you think that’s just kind of related to the kind of boundary stuff you were talking about in terms of maybe not those groups don’t get training and the other one or they’re not expected to be interested in the other ones so it’s harder to find one’s interest in how they intersect or do you think there’s some other reason why those two groups seem to not come together very often even though as your work demonstrates there’s such rich potential there?

    Margaret Rhee (19:47):

    Yeah. I mean I think there are, I think some cultural and historical reasons of why oftentimes folks who engage in new media or technology may see poetry as something very archaic and perhaps very dichotomous to the technology and at the same time folks who are engaging in poetry might see the technological art with suspicion as well. They are kind of, I think as you point out really well that there is a separation and they almost sometimes culturally seen at two poles like residing at the ends of a pole. in terms of their ‘differences’ but absolutely I think bridging the two, there’s so much similarities in terms of how both can be utilized in terms of feminist, anti-racist movements in bridging instead of being seen as dichotomist.

    Margaret Rhee (21:07):

    I definitely have read a lot of articles where poets might bemoan technology in terms of … because oftentimes the culture as it moves towards a more digital one, that’s when we do have the loss of books of poetry, one of the oldest arts and so I cannot also understand that sentiment but I think my training and my political aesthetic approach has always been trying to see how the two can bridge.

    Margaret Rhee (21:39):

    One of the projects I’ve been working on is this poetry machine. It’s a feminist poetry machine that I called the [inaudible 00:21:45], poetry machine. In which is a bottle that’s powered by [inaudible 00:21:51], and when someone opens it, poetry audibly admits and I program the jar with different feminist poets reading very small poems about feminism and culture and food but at the same time I was very … I’m also I think against the idea of poetry only existing on iPads or flat screens or bookless libraries and so the jar for me was thinking about technology and how it can be tangible and as well as the audible nature of the poetry and the technological aspect. There’s also a paper that’s included where people can take home the paper as well.

    Margaret Rhee (22:44):

    I think my approach has been thinking about bridging the two and in a way that’s not simply about having poetry simply exist in the cloud but how we can remain in our bodies and keep embodiment in terms of our engagement with poetry and technology.

    Cathy Hannabach (23:06):

    That connects really nicely to something I wanted to make sure we get a chance to talk about, which is collaboration. When you talk about kind of technology being embodied and foregrounding the real material bodies involved in the production of knowledge, whether that knowledge happens in the academy, whether it happens in poetry workshops, whether it happens in new media art projects that are produced within communities, we’re talking about bodies working together, right?

    Cathy Hannabach (23:36):

    And so much of your work is collaboratory. I thought you would be a perfect person to talk with about this. As we know, collaboration can produce amazing things but it’s also extremely challenging both for interpersonal reasons. It’s always harder to work with more people but it’s also richer but also structural reasons and kind of the way that power dynamics shapes how we collaborate with each other and how we interact with each other, particularly when we’re trying to produce a shared project across power differentials.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:10):

    You mentioned several of your collaborative projects but one in particular, the HIV/AIDS digital story telling project with incarcerated women in San Francisco and I’d love to hear kind of how you navigate those kinds of power differentials in that collaboratory work. Did you find that there were kind of moments where your own assumptions had to be checked or your own kind of expectations had to be changed a little bit based on how those women were producing the digital storytelling project as well?

    Margaret Rhee (24:51):

    Yeah, absolutely. I think collaborative work really pushes in great ways of what we assume are traditional roles and really pushes at the boundaries of what can be shared and it actually is much more challenging I think than engaging in, let’s say for example education. The hierarchical traditional education model is much easier than something that’s more collaborative.

    Margaret Rhee (25:27):

    When I started doing work around participatory action research in the jail setting around HIV/AIDS, I definitely came into it with … I mean some of the beliefs that are held in terms of like thinking that the researcher is not the only expert, right? The communities that you work with are actually also experts and educators. That’s something that my entirety of my academic career has been something that has never necessarily been taught to me. Although I think I knew and believe that within myself in some way and so when I began learning more about that approach, that really deconstructs that hierarchy, that was something that I really began to be very engaged, moved and transformed by.

    Margaret Rhee (26:32):

    With the work in the jail, I started work in the jail in 2007 and I worked as a project manager and a research assistant on the project that focused on more sociological, participatory action research. What was awesome about that project was I worked with a sociologist, feminist sociologist, Jessica Fields and a public health advocate, Esella Gonzales who led the project and right there that was a model of collaboration of academia and public health and what they did was they model the program or structured it in terms of having real tangible ways that power can be shared and power can be deconstructed.

    Margaret Rhee (27:28):

    For example, they allotted a large amount of the grant money for that project to make sure that women who engage in the workshops, so we taught these different participatory action workshops in the jails where incarcerated women of color took on the role as researcher and it’s educator around HIV/AIDS and when women were released, they were able to work with our team on the outside as researchers. While I was a project manager, we had two women who were released that worked with our team and they had paying jobs.

    Margaret Rhee (28:12):

    I think for me, working on the ground on that research project also demonstrated how that could be possible as well as the difficulties and challenges around that because it takes much more work to deconstruct those hierarchies and the real circumstances let’s say if a woman who was formerly incarcerated who was just released, may not have the same resources as let’s say a graduate student at a university. How do we stay mindful of how we share resources and support one another and make that happen and have those difficult conversations to make that happen.

    Cathy Hannabach (28:57):

    That sounds great. This podcast is obviously called Imagine Otherwise and the thing that, the question that is my favorite question to ask of all of the guests that I get to talk about has to do with their version of a better world. That world that they’re working towards when they create their amazing art, when they teach their classes, when they write their books, when they create their poetry, whatever it is that they produce. I’m going to ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want?

    Margaret Rhee (29:33):

    I love that question. It’s so hard. It’s such a hard question.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:38):

    It is. Is it’s a big question but it’s an important one I think and you don’t get enough chances to ask each other that and to be asked it so I want to ask you, what do you want?

    Margaret Rhee (29:50):

    Well, thank you Cathy. Thank you for asking me this question. I mean it’s interesting because I was just at a feminist science fiction symposium here at Oregon where I teach and the whole conversation was about world-building in how feminist can world build because that’s so inherent to science fictional work is creating this world and how then we can imagine the world that we want to live. I mean I think just at heart, I think I want a world where people live without fear and they live with safety and they live in a world in which is liberatory and really centers freedom and expression.

    Margaret Rhee (30:51):

    I feel like my descriptions are very broad actually. I’m sorry. They’re kind of universal but I mean in a way I think … yeah, I mean I think at heart it really is a world in which I hope to see where … maybe it’s also drawing from what Ruthie Gilmore writes about in Golden Gulag, her really wonderful book about the prison industrial complex and her articulation of racism is thinking of not only the untimely physical deaths of people who are racialized but also the side kick, the creative, the social.

    Margaret Rhee (31:36):

    All those untimely deaths that happened because of racism and other inequalities and oppressions and so I want to live in a world in which people do not have to suffer and that we eliminate those untimely deaths and all aspects of what it means to live and love and work together.

    Cathy Hannabach (32:05):

    And your work as is certainly a great example of contributing to that. Where can we find you online and where can we buy your fabulous new book of poetry, Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love?

    Margaret Rhee (32:23):

    I do have a website, although I’m really horrible at updating it but if anyone is interested, you can check out my website at mentor [inaudible 00:32:34], and people can email me if they have similar interests. I want to converse at mrhee@uoregon.edu and the book is available on Amazon or at the publisher, Finish Line Press and if you look up the website and look at my book, you can find it.

    Cathy Hannabach (32:57):

    Awesome. Well thank you so very much for being on here. This was fabulous.

    Margaret Rhee (33:03):

    Great. Thank you so much, Cathy.

    Cathy Hannabach (33:06):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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