Thursday, May 14, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 25: “Transcription of an Eye” by Carmen Maria Machado

JUDGE JUDY: So you got a cold sore. So what?
SAKSHI KARNIK: And then it began to bubble and blister and then it erupted.
SAKSHI KARNIK: And there was an eye there.

          from “Transcription of an Eye” by Carmen Maria Machado

I'm not what you’d call a fan of Judge Judy Sheindlin (I can barely tolerate the bombast of Dr. Phil coming from my wife’s TV in the other room), but thankfully Carmen Machado is. In her Watchlist story, she delivers a hilarious satire of courtroom shenanigans and, along the way, makes a razor-sharp commentary on how we’re constantly under surveillance--even if it is through an eye in the middle of a cold sore. In her guest blog post below, she explains how she came to write “Transcription of an Eye.” Your witness, Carmen...

On Surveillance & Abuse & Judge Judy

The worst part of learning about the government’s mass-surveillance program was that I wasn’t surprised, and that—not the reveal itself—was horrifying. I am constantly returning to that reaction, the numbness of it, the shame of the numbness, the horror of the numbness.

What the numbness means, at least for me, is that to allow the realization of the surveillance state to fully occupy my conscious brain would be too overwhelming. I would be paralyzed by fear. So I go about my days—lived, like most people my age, partially online—as if everything is ordinary. I know, logically, that nothing I do on my computer or phone is particularly private, and that I should act accordingly, even if the truth of this is grotesque, even if it merely flits through my subconscious and never quite registers how it should. But how did it get to be this way? How did a kid who read 1984 with such acute terror become so accustomed to this state of being?

I think a lot about abuse, and how so much of abuse (on large and small scales) is not about physical violence or concrete wrongs; it’s about training. It’s about call-and-response, reinforcement, managing expectations. A person who is told often enough that she is worthless or crazy, for example, will eventually come to believe she is—and that makes doing awful things to her that much easier. In the same way, we are told that nothing on the internet is private; that if we’re not doing anything wrong we shouldn’t be worried if someone is tracking our movements, and so on. I have been hearing these ideas as long as I can remember; it is no wonder that they feel right, even if they’re odious in the extreme.

So when I began to think about a story for Watchlist, I was immediately drawn to the idea of surveillance on a micro-scale: that same surveillance normalized in our everyday lives by technology companies and government sources, when applied between individual people, might appear more terrifying. Constant surveillance of one individual person by another individual person tracks more clearly as abuse. Sometimes, it takes the political sphere drifting down into the personal sphere for an idea’s defects to become obvious.

As for form: I have always been a fan of Judge Judy. (I’d say the show is a “guilty pleasure,” but I have decided to eliminate that phrase from my vocabulary; it’s a real pleasure, for which I feel no embarrassment.) I always watch the episodes very closely because I’m fascinated by their construction: there are layers and layers you have to get around, mentally, to approach something resembling the reality of the situation. There’s the layer of the episode’s cut and edits, the layer of the highly polished persona of Judy herself, the layer of awkward, untrained performances by the litigants, the very presence of the camera, the gulf of time and space between them and the viewer—and once you get around those layers there’s something else happening: people’s experiences and personalities and vulnerabilities laid bare. I’ve seen people experiencing true suffering, peoples with agendas, cruel people. Every so often, someone seems so evil I have to turn the episode off. Even if the construction of the show is artificial—as artificial as any other kind of “reality” TV—there’s a beating heart at the center and I am constantly drawn to it.

My favorite part of Judge Judy is the bit at the end when suddenly Judy is gone and the guests are, presumably, asked to speak for a minute about their opinions about the verdict (though whatever they’re asked is not shown on camera). The result is a torrent of unfiltered words—some of it so rushed as to be incoherent—and the camera cuts back and forth and back and forth between them as they spit barbs, laugh, cry, make dramatic statements, or swear so much it’s just a long, drawn out bleep. Without Judy, they get their final words in, or languidly agree with the verdict, or do whatever it is they feel they need to do, and in that moment the viewer can get even a little deeper, because a level or two of artifice has been stripped away. It was while watching one of these end sections that I got the idea for the form of my Watchlist story.

And so the result is “Transcription of an Eye”: an episode of Judge Judy that isn’t an episode of Judy Judy, in which paranoia passes from abuser to abused, and spreads on to the reader—an infection that feels impossible to stamp out.

Carmen Maria Machado is a Nebula-nominated fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, AGNI, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, NPR, The American Reader, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her stories have been reprinted in several anthologies, including Year’s Best Weird Fiction and Best Women’s Erotica. She has received the Richard Yates Short Story Prize, a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, and the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  The “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

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