Monique Rooney, What Should We Do with Our Brow?

Monique Rooney (ANU), What Should We Do with Our Brow?

Thursday 9 February 2023, 4.00pm-5.30pm via zoom (please email for zoom link)

“How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs” asks Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jessie Eisenberg) of his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in the opening of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). While Mark distinguishes himself as a Harvard student with a perfect SAT, he attempts to demean Erica for what he implies is her affiliation with a middle-tier school (Boston U) while quizzing her as to her view of him. Erica promptly breaks up with Mark and he returns to his dorm where he resentfully blogs about her bra-size. Unable to stop thinking about her “nice face,” Mark distracts himself by programming “Facemash,” an online platform inviting Harvard students to rank the “hotness” of their peers.

The scene dramatises the importance of “brow”—the systematic valuing of intellectual and artistic attainment—in a film that links meritocratic, and particularly male, anxiety to the birth of Facebook. In exploring operations and meanings of brow discernible in contemporary networked literature, film and new media, my paper draws on such path-breaking concepts of Catherine Malabou’s as the (explosive) plasticity of the brain, our alienation from consciousness in a time of distributed intelligence, and the promise of decorrelated (anarchic) as opposed to correlated (ranked and measured) subjects. I consider persistent meanings of brow rankings as these have moved and mutated from early 20th century phrenology to taste-making and networking.

Monique Rooney researches and teaches literature, film, television and new media in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics (ANU). Her book Living Screens: Melodrama and Plasticity in Contemporary Film and Television (2015) draws on Malabou’s theory of plasticity to argue that  metamorphosis and mediation are vital to melodrama’s persistence from the eighteenth century to the present. This paper comes from her current book project Brow Network: Programs and Promises, which argues that brow (as in highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow) registers our sensitivity to ubiquitous cultures of measurement and ranking.

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