@Berkeley@UIL@Academia 2014

September 12, 2014

Granted, it took me awhile to watch Frederick Wiseman‘s 2013 At Berkeley, but @4hrs I’m sure you’ll understand the special nature of this commitment. While I love early Wiseman (Titticut Follies, High School), I had come to grow a bit weary of his feint of detachment barely disguising a sometimes snickering, often disdainful, if always ideologically-correct view of contemporary institutions. His website explains: “The institutions that Wiseman examined early in his career – a hospital, a high school, army basic training, a welfare center, a police precinct – have ‘problems’ that the filmmaker uncovers.” Furthermore, given that 90 minute features now feel awfully long (I’ll be blogging on this soon), to ask of us 2.5 times this much feels like we better get a great revelation or two …

And I did. The first is about duration (something I find I blog about quite a bit when I search the term) so not a revelation so much as a much appreciated reminder of all we miss in the escalation of the short form: hearing people speak in the often meandering yet ordinary and original ways that they do (i.e. not in sound bites), letting meaning of a place (and film) accrue through events that are not causally linked in a mad compressed dynamic of fulfillment, being with yourself and a film quietly as if a form of meditation or surrender so that new possibilities of attention open as other forms of stimulation close down.

Over At Berkeley‘s 4 hours, we see magnificently articulate, dedicated, ambitious and humble, diverse people (faculty, staff and students) both embodying in their intelligence, devotion, and talent and sometimes, in the face of devastating funding cuts and linked corporatization of the University, overtly testifying for institutional ideals that no one (even Wiseman) could see as “a problem”: public education at the highest level, the public good, publicly “owned” research, the production of original ideas and art, open access to higher education with a commitment to diversity, academic freedom. The film was a feel-good expose of my daily life in higher education (I, too, see scores of people at work who legitimately, authentically, and daily do things in the name of knowledge, diversity, access, freedom of expression, and community).

It turns out that Wiseman pulls a surprising twist on his sometimes snarky project of “revealing the problems of institutions” by instead slowly celebrating the beauty of this institution (its grounds, buildings, theater performances, athletes, impassioned protesters, devoted staff and even administrators, and impressively articulate professors and students) thereby revealing the “problem” perhaps of not one institution but what Nick Mirzoeff calls, instead, “the complex of visuality,” by which he means the array of power held by corporations, nations, individuals and the technologies they deploy “that seek to naturalize and aestheticize its perspective in the classification and organization of the social order,” according to Sara Blaylock in the online journal Invisible Culture. This complex is often hard to see as it overtly guts the good in the name of profit, so Wiseman shows us, instead, all that it wishes to destroy.

But in the process, other realities @Academia 2014 go missing. We see no bored students, or incompetent professors or neo-liberal administrators. We see no grandstanding or endless and pompous faculty meetings. We do not see binge drinking, date rape, or micro aggressions. We do not listen in on the most-qualified graduate students in the world who probably aren’t getting jobs after their amazing training @Berkeley, nor the experiences of eminently qualified faculty who may not be getting tenure as the administration amps its standards @Academia that is more competitive then it has ever been. These institutional “problems” are left on the cutting room floor in service of a different argument, one I have no complaints that Wiseman has made in his celebration of the goodness of public education, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

Protest in support of Steven Salaita. (Photo: Twitter) - See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/university-trustees-reinstatement#sthash.CbljzKSb.dpuf

Protest in support of Steven Salaita. (Photo: Twitter) – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/university-trustees-reinstatement#sthash.CbljzKSb.dpuf

And yet, we need to look no further than @University of Illinois, another great American public institution of higher education, to see how vigilant we must be to make seen the many facets of “the complex of visuality” as it currently operates in American higher education. In the case of Dr. Steven Salaita, who demands reinstatement at the University of Illinois after his on-Twitter visibility led to his abrupt termination-before-the-fact, wealthy Zionists and other funders, the Board of Trustees, and the administration morph into a powerful counter-institution in their own right undoing in quick measure the kinds of goodness that Wiseman has allowed us to in daily practices of American institutions of public higher education.

We can only see the complex of visuality that defines @Academia 2014 by adding our representations to Wiseman’s serene and celebrity statement. Let’s begin here:

PS: and then there’s this by Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times connecting UC and UIL through another look:

“Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of UC Berkeley, on Friday, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which he says “made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus.”

I was recently interviewed by Julia Fernandez for the Library of Congress’ blog: The Signal. It was a pretty cool platform in which to be able to talk abut my problems with YouTube as an “archive” and otherwise. The interview begins like this:

Julia: In the intro to your online video-book “Learning From YouTube” you say “YouTube is the Problem, and YouTube is the solution.” Can you expand on that a bit for us?

Alex: I mean “problem” in two ways. The first is more neutral: YouTube is my project’s problematic, its subject or concern. But I also mean it more critically as well: YouTube’s problems are multiple–as are its advantages–but our culture has focused much more uncritically on how it chooses to sell itself: as a democratic space for user-made production and interaction. The “video-book” understands this as a problem because it’s not exactly true. I discuss how YouTube isn’t democratic in the least; how censorship dominates its logic (as does distraction, the popular and capital).

YouTube is also a problem in relation to the name and goals of the course that the publication was built around (my undergraduate Media Studies course also called “Learning from YouTube” held about, and also on, the site over three semesters, starting in 2007). As far as pedagogy in the digital age is concerned, the course suggests there’s a problem if we do all or most or even a great deal of our learning on corporate-owned platforms that we have been given for free, and this for many reasons that my students and I elaborate, but only one of which I will mention here as it will be most near and dear to your readers’ hearts: it needs a good archivist and a reasonable archiving system if it’s to be of any real use for learners, teachers or scholars. Oh, and also some system to evaluate content.

YouTube is the solution because I hunkered down there, with my students, and used the site to both answer the problem, and name the problems I have enumerated briefly above.

It continues here.

Wrapping Up Ev-ent-anglement 1

September 2, 2014

On August 27, 2014 I gave a live “talk” at the Noise Summer Seminar in Utrecht. If you weren’t in the room, you might not understand why I call it a “talk.” I have been experimenting with academic talks for quite awhile and in a variety of places, transforming them to performances that manifest many of my recent feminist scholarly and political interests in embodied/digital spaces and pedagogy, participation/consumption and media praxis, affect/cognition/distraction and feminist goals, and a dispersal of power/control/ feelings both online and off. The “talk” was a multi-media show where competing tracks of information and action produced a barrage—my speaking voice, my moving body, the engaged bodies of my audience, media playing, and instructions to interact digitally in real-time at the same-time—where at least some of the intended take-away was different from a usual “talk”: feelings about/during the “talk” over a list of points, concepts, or completed ideas enumerated therein. The “talk” itself was also an experiment; but typically, talks report the results of completed (and successful) experiments. Given these upendings of many of the set scripts and conventions of the academic “talk,” it should come as no surprise that vulnerability, disorientation, and even anger were affective states that defined the event, even more so than might be usual, and certainly, atypically, as its primary “take home.”

IMG_1873 Of course, every talk is an “event,” and every event is an “entanglement” of technology, humanity, representation, and affect. But this talk was the first “ev-ent-anglement” because I attempted to use a simple web-based technology (another WordPress site with plug-ins developed by my technologist Risa Goodman) to both activate and record action, interaction, feelings, and ideas from all players (speaker and audience, online and off) both in synchronous and asynchronous encounters.

The audience as I saw them in the ev-ent-angement
The audience as I saw them in the ev-ent-anglement

Everything found there—my six blog posts, a PDF and power point of my talk, approximately 50 tweets made during and after the event from in the room and the world at large, about 20 instagram images produced similarly, and 19 “comments” which are actually word-based contributions that often also contain videos and links, these penned primarily by people off-site—is the ev-ent-anglement #1, an experiment in digital embodied collective feminist media praxis.

From Ingrid Reyberg
From Ingrid Reyberg

The now completed “talk,” the larger on/offline “event,” and their “ev-en-tanglement” are an experiment that is both a success and a failure. And here, where we are not embodied together, where there are only cold screens and words between us, I can at last begin to report, in lists, the “take home” strengths and weaknesses of this first iteration:

  • “Talks” begin and end in a room over a set period of time. But there is rarely the need or desire for them to continue as some sort of producing-community. Their stickiness derives in real-time from the speaker’s charisma, the quality and/or clarity of her ideas, and connections that live between people in any room. Bu this “talk” hoped people would stay connected to it, and continue to participate even once the “event” was over. It is hard to produce this level of commitment and participation to events that are both the “property” of the speaker and which are understood to have a fixed duration and structuring power relations (this is why Anne Balsamo and I decided to create our feminist technology community, FemTechNet, using the framework of a “class”: it binds people together in an ongoing, committed set of relations over a rather lengthy time period). But this question of producing a framework that helps to continue commitment and interaction is of course also a man problematic of activism (what to do after the march…)
  • Because this was a “talk” and I was the “speaker” and a “teacher,” I gave the attendees a “script” in which I requested them to post twice. But because I am a professor and they are students, traditional power dynamics maintained even as I was attempting to upend them (in parts). This “requirement” had one effect of getting participants to engage but it also made them feel over-controlled; like their participation wasn’t voluntary. This balance between prescribed and free interaction is hard to nuance in a public “talk” where who I am, what I want, what I am owed, and who we are together is weak, temporary, and not commonly noted in the first place
  • I traded affect for content—disorientation, distraction, confusion, uncertainty, creativity, play—but my content is not expendable and matters to me (it’s found in the paper, part of the ev-ent-anglement). This trade was part of a larger set of trade-offs that were the content of my talk (thus I was attempting to “teach” through affect or praxis over cognition and theory
  • It is not clear to me whether tweets, instragrams or words can effectively capture “affect,” a critical component of any “entanglement,” that is unless participants are willing to get creative, personal, private, and experimental themselves, all of these being modes that are rarely shared in an academic context because they make human students vulnerable
  • However, something (like affect and ideas and images and the very technologies that produce, record and link these) is captured here, and it’s a lot more than what is typically recorded in a “talk” (if anything is recorded at all; most “events” are ephemeral, although that is probably not true at all today): the intentional contributions of all participants willing to engage
  • the ev-ent-anglement—as a technological cut/paste and bleed—  itself produces collages, montages, quilts, through the algorithms of the several sites it is built from. There are beautiful, complex, weird, surprising and unintended affects and effects which are much closer to an entanglement than a “talk” as this website pulls together a great variety of fragments from a diverse collective or participants
  • the ev-ent-anglement is affect as praxis and I prefer praxis to “theory”
  • the ev-ent-anglement is collectivity in practice and I prefer this to private engagements
  • the ev-en-tangement is distraction in practice, allowing us to attend to the positive and negative affordances of this all-to -common state
  • the ev-ent-anglement is action and production in practice, allowing us to consider making as a form of learning
  • the ev-ent-anglement succeeded in promoting vulnerability, and some undoing of typical power relations, without anyone getting hurt (although there was some expressed concern, primarily through tweets, that my power point slide of images of self-cutting made some people in the room “feel uncomfortable“)
  • the ev-ent-anglement rather successfully linked off and online spaces, producing a momentary “community” that had  lot of intellectual and creative firepower
  • how to do more (and better) with this is an open question with which I conclude this wrap up.
Alanna Thain's #cut/paste+bleed
Alanna Thain’s #cut/paste+bleed

I Feel Uncomfortable

August 29, 2014

I am sitting in my charming garret room in a beautiful European city. Meanwhile, colleagues and students begin to wrap up the proceedings at the Noise Summer school in which I have been an active participant for the past three packed days. They are just a short walk away over ancient cobbled streets, and yet I wrap things up here to my real discomfort (how much I lose by not seeing the faces of my friends and getting to feel the always changing energy in the room!) And yet, my surroundings here are ever more physically embracing than those of the rigid lecture hall where we sat together for so many hours). So, I forfeit the comfort of the group as one act of self care anticipating the forthcoming discomforts of my own body as I will shortly hurl across thousands of miles for hours and hours, confined and crammed into airplanes and departure lounges.

I begin with these self-evident tradeoffs because the production, affect and theory of discomfort—produced, discussed analytically by some and uncomfortably between others, felt by many—proved to define many of the events of the seminar, most obviously my own “talk” which I continue to try to engage in digital and embodied spaces, in collective while sometimes personal voices, in the writing and sharing of this blog post (students at the seminar found the experiment confusing, distracting, and perhaps distasteful, at least in the lived encounter of it; I suggested that I was trading affect for content, the primacy of building this complex digital #eventanglement over the coherence of the lived moment, and my own authority and control over potential creativity and collectivity. I also shared that the trade-off might prove to be ineffective. It was an experiment…)

From the photo archive of Ingrid Ryberg
From the photo archive of Ingrid Ryberg

In her talk at the seminar, “Affective Noise in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Tarja Laine delineated two kinds of chaos: ordered or pure, i.e. that with ever increasing disorder. She argued that the pain of a migraine, more than a discomfort surely, opens for Aronofsky (and the viewer) aesthetic and intellectual access to the creative and disorienting potentials of paranoia, anxiety, suffering, and clarity. The #ev-ent-anglement certainly conforms to the first iteration of chaos (if it can even be said to be chaotic at all, ordered as it is by the truly rigid architecture of its site), and reiterates one of Patricia MacCormack’s central contributions to the seminar in her talk “Affective Aesthetics: Ethics, Ecstasy and Ecosophy.” There she argued “as soon as art makes you recognizable to yourself, art has lost its ecstatic capacity” by which she means, I think, a marvelous, rare, and radical state of freedom and creativity where the I is lost in a state of becoming “undifferentiated from the world and our own unknowability.” She explained that pain, like art, can sometimes provide one such escape route to that place of radical openness.

Meanwhile, Marta Zarzycka used her talk, “It’s all in the Face: Portraits, Children, Affects, Conflicts” to share, discuss, and contemplate the gruesome history of representing suffering through the images of faces of children, again asking us to consider the trade offs of the potential responses to such images: shock, monetary donations, paralysis, affective attachment, paternalism or maternalism, disavowal. She explained later in a plenary how scholars of images of atrocity have varying calculi for these images’ visibility and viability: refusing to show them even as they analyze them, giving audiences quick exposure, letting them sit with their discomfort. Each an ethical choice made from a range of possible positions regarding the political affect of images/experiences of pain.

HP_EMER_SYRIA_12112013Minou Norouzi showed us her own film, “Everything,” as well as an evening of media programming around masculinity, discipline, brutality, and the visualization of suffering. To all, audience members responded, again perhaps self-evidently yet nevertheless honestly and frequently, “I felt uncomfortable.”

"All Shades of Grey," Minou Norouzi
“All Shades of Grey,” Minou Norouzi

But I conclude where I began, with the ethical and lived tradeoffs and potentialities of discomfort. For some in the room this affect— like the many other forms, ideas, and feelings of pain discussed/experienced across the seminar—was potentially productive, creative, inspiring or moving; ordered chaos, perhaps. For others, I think, discomfort was at times a disenabling place of pure chaos from which they couldn’t think, move, act, contribute. Some students were making this clear (on this #eve-ent-anglement), in seminar, informally, and in conversation.

Alanna Thain's #cut/paste+bleed
Alanna Thain’s #cut/paste+bleed

What the Noise and larger feminist community makes of these varying theories, experiences, and politics of affect is one of our community’s current battlegrounds. We’ve had them before. Feminism isn’t pure, simple, or self-evident. What’s more critical is how we handle such debates as a community: with what norms, methods, and practices of care, conversation, and consideration.

I look forward to some of your thoughts (here on the #ev-ent-anglement!) on the political and personal efficacy of affect, and how we might engage it, in ways that are at once productive and sensitive. I also remind you to look deeper into this #ev-ent-anglement where you will find words, poems, videos, photos, essays and more that exhibit a range of eloquent feelings and thoughts about these central issues.

 

#Ev-ent-anglement #1 will occur here on August 26-August 30.

This #ev-ent-anglement is an experiment (in beta; quite Frankenstinian, really) in a digital and embodied collective, feminist, media praxis: a feminist project of making, sharing, using, and learning in embodied digital spaces. You are invited to participate by #Cutting/Pasting+Bleeding from digital fragments of yourself as you deem relevant to the larger entanglement: your feelings, knowledge, commitments, and questions.

Together we will author an intra-active collection of digital objects (comments/writing, tweets, photos, urls) in conversation with Alexandra Juhasz’s talk (To Perform a Theory of Feminist Digital Praxis) and associated Power Point, and also with each others entangled fragments.

A “How To” script for your participation is provided. It is requested that you participate, at a minimum, twice, during the time of the #ev-ent-anglement:

  • Use #eventanglement on Twitter and Instagram
  • Write as you wish in the comment boxes (not just “comments,” please)

The talk and power point will be presented live, to be synchronously and communally entangled with, on August 27, from 9-10:45 (CEST), to a group of approximately 50 graduate students and faculty in Gender and Media Studies at the University of Utrecht who are attending the Noise European Summer School in Women’s Studies from Multicultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. The focus for 2014 is “Political Aesthetics and Feminist Theory: Media, Art and Affect.” You can join the synchronous group on the #ev-ent-anglement, of course, or contribute asynchronously over the four days that it is live on the Internet.

The talk and #ev-ent-anglement are in conversation with imperatives raised in three assigned readings for the seminar:

  • About “cutting well,” as directed by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska in Life After New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012): Chapter 1 “Mediation and the Vitality of Media” and chapter 3 “Cut! The Imperative of Photographic Mediation.” They also ask: “Can we think of a way of ‘doing media studies’ that is not just a form of ‘media analysis’ and that is simultaneously critical and creative?” Life After New Media – Chs. 1+3.0135c.arc
  • About Robyn Weigman’s call to “Do Justice With Objects” particularly in Women’s and other disciplines of “Identity” Studies: Object Lessons (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 1-90 (this is too long to embed here, email me for PDF)
  • About my own practices of montage, or cutting, in histories and theories of feminist, queer and AIDS activist media. Alexandra Juhasz “Video Remains, Nostalgia, Technology and Queer Archive Activism,” GLQ 12.2 (2006): 319-328. Video Remains, GLQ

Certainly, reading these essays would allow you to be better prepared to create or find quality fragments to contribute to the #ev-ent-anglement. My performative précis introduces the ideas of the talk in brief, as well.

images

Last Thursday, I received a group email from two European professors of cinema—Dina Iordanova, Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and Eva Jørholt, Associate Professor of Film Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark—alerting me to the inauguration of their website PALESTINEDOCS: “a web resource on films chronicling the life of Palestinians in and outside the Middle East.”

After looking at their welcome page and the amazing set of documentaries and linked resources made available (as well as who was cc’ed on the email and the authors’ bios, as I did not know either of them personally), I began to think about their digital activity in light of my two recent posts on activism, media, and digital engagements in support of peace. While it was never my intention to say activism is not possible on the Internet, or Facebook more specifically, I was trying to better understand my own discomfort with the changing norms, practices and volume of digital actions, displayed by myself and my “friends,” who seem to be engaging in our “political” action (or action about politics) about the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict, primarily inside the hidden (and sometimes visible) boxes of corporate-owned digital spaces.

WOULD YOU HAVE SEX WITH AN ARAB? Yolande Zauberman (France 2011)

WOULD YOU HAVE SEX WITH AN ARAB? Yolande Zauberman (France 2011)

I think that Iordanova and Jørholt’s activity helps us to see where engagement on the Internet can be more productive than what I continue to see as proto-political activities we are mostly engaging in around this and other conflicts this volatile Summer: refining and sharing our own positions within complex Internet communities. (Tellingly, that’s how these two producers found me; I was a signatory on a public protest letter which they saw online and which led them to believe I would be interested in their project, as I proved to be). 

PALESTINEDOCS mobilizes the Internet’s not unique but heightened affordances of accessibility, transnationality, and instantaneousness (see their welcome remarks) in ways that seem very well suited for movements for peace. “We hope that it would be an advantage to make use of the ‘click through’ access that we provide to most films, as many are available for viewing directly on the Internet,” explained Iordanova to me in a later email. The project activates and is based in a winning set of media actions that begin with the building of this digital resource, and continue with further actions requested in their email (telling others about it, as I am doing here, online; and writing film commentary for the site to help others to better watch, understand, and teach these complicated and diverse films and the controversial and moving histories they document), all this potentially promoting even more actions (viewing documentaries on a laptop, screenings in groups, teaching, reading more, discussion online and off).

PALESTINEDOCS is a project by (and for) scholars (and students) of cinema, and documentary more specifically. “We wanted to DO something, and as film scholars – not doctors, diplomats or even filmmakers – we thought of the site as a means to make more people aware of what it means to be Palestinian,” explained Jørholt in a later email to me. Many documentary scholars, makers, and viewers (like myself) are interested in understanding (and mobilizing) documentary media’s function as activism (and often questioning whether it is activism…) Jorholt explains what moved her to make this site in light of such questions:

Media and social justice … that’s a vast and complex issue. A brief answer would be that films have the capacity to focus on human beings rather than abstract political disagreements and clear-cut warring camps. They may thus be able to sensitize public opinion – and help bring about social justice – in a much more powerful and nuanced way than news reports on mainstream mass media. Provided that the films are seen, of course …. which is where the site can make a difference. Hopefully …

 

"Welcome to Hebron," Terje Carlsson (Sweden 2007)

“Welcome to Hebron,” Terje Carlsson (Sweden 2007)

But I will end, where I often do, exhorting us to link our work in representation to (further) actions in the world (including the Internet and the world of media, to be sure). Yes, watch one of the films alone on your computer, but better yet, watch it in a group and talk about it after; share information about this site and other useful resources; write some analysis and share it with someone who may not agree; make your own documentary; go to a protest or teach-in and share your documentary or one of those here; build your own site holding the documentaries you think might add to a conversation supporting peace (for instance, I’d love to see a similar venture about Jewish voices in the diaspora committed to representing peace, for that’s something near and dear to my heart that I’ve seen too little of!)

 

 

Ted Kerr (formally of Visual AIDS) and I continue our conversation about recent AIDS media on the Indiewire blog, /Bent. In our discussion about The Normal Heart and other recent work, we bemoan the paucity of women as well as the feminist pro-sex politics that defined our early AIDS media activism.

I begin the article saying: “I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.”[8] With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).”

Juanita Mohammed in “WAVE: Self-Portraits” (The Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise, 1990)

Hope you’ll read it through!

 

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