Rex Troumbley, Ph.D.
I recently completed a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, where I organized the John E. Sawyer Seminar on Platforms of Knowledge and Rice Seminar on Chronotopic Imaginaries. Before coming to Rice, I earned my Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science in the University of Hawaii at Manoa and spent my summers as a researcher in the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
I’ve been busy working on a book monograph titled Words without Reason exploring the politics of taboo language and institutional attempts to clean up political discourse in the United States. I recently returned from a summer trip to China, where I gave a public lecture on the profanity of American politics at Henan University. I also conducted archival research at the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Centre. To hear more about these projects, come see me this fall at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Montreal or next winter at the Western Political Science Association conference in San Diego.
Words Without Reason
Taboo Language and the Rise of Algorithmic Goverance
This project provides a critical map of the larger historical shift in the U.S. away from the prohibition and censorship of taboo language– from bad spelling and grammar, to obscenity, and racial slurs – towards technical methods of language control or discursive steering. For example, I show how Google SafeSearch’s algorithmic filtering processes are built upon earlier projects to “purify” American English like Noah Webster’s American Dictionary. I found that Webster, like a 19th-century spider bot crawling the Web, copied the content of copyrighted texts into his Dictionary and organized them into a searchable database.
Other examples include Webster making obscenity explicit by changing benign words into obscenities like “whoremonger” (fish seller) into “lewd women” in his censored version of The Holy Bible, judges imagining “community standards” to justify institutional regulations over George Carlin’s broadcast obscenities, and psychiatrists controlling the language of individuals with Tourette’s syndrome by treating patients’ brains as a type of rewritable media. As discourse becomes increasingly mediated by electronic devices and corporate platforms, predictive keyboards and autocomplete algorithms are now controlling expressions before they can be made. I argue that these “pre-speech” digital regulators are fundamentally altering how we decide which expressions count as legitimate political discourse and who counts as a politically eligible member of the American nation.
in The Future Internet: Alternative Visions, eds., Jenifer Winter and Ryota Ono. Springer (2015).
East-West Affairs 1, no. 4: 93-107
Journal of Futures Studies 17, no. 3 (March 2013): 145-146
(with C. Nigg) Hawai‘i Journal of Medicine & Public Health 72.3 (March 2013): 92-98.
(with H. Frey & S. Yim) Hawai’i State Office of Planning (2011).
My primary teaching objective is that students leave my class understanding how power relations organize everything from the trash getting picked up to states going to war. My classes combine political science methods for analyzing power with the tools students find useful for becoming engaged in their world. In 2015, I was honored to received the Frances Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the highest teaching honor bestowed by the University of Hawaii system.