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!

 

Last week, I used my own changing Facebook experiences during the gruesome Israel/Gaza conflict to think about the often unattended-to subtleties of Internet echo chambers in light of family, identity, friendship and war. There’s been a great deal of interesting writing about these themes since, so I’m glad I’m part of that conversation.

But many of us have been trying to make sense of Facebook and politics for awhile now, so I wanted to point towards this great collection from the Institute of Network Culture, Unlike Us (which you can download for free and which I have relied on a lot in my own thinking), and also to this essay that I wrote that has just come out, “Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary,” for another really useful anthology surrounding issues of activism and networked expression, New Documentary Ecologies, eds. Nash, Hight and Summerhayes (Palgrave MacMillan).

In that essay, I also theorize about coming and going, staying, representing and being silent in networked environments (of machines and humans), espeically in relation to activist possibilities for representational politics in a world dominated by Facebook and other corporate-owned, user-produced media. I conclude:

While it has never been clear how to judge the effectiveness of any documentary, let alone ‘activist’ documentaries, I am noting that my (our?) barometer has changed. As Jane Gaines work on more traditional documentary forms (1999, p. 88) cautions, it was never clear that activist documentaries catalyzed ‘activism’ as much as they modeled a ‘political mimesis’: a vision of what activism looks and feels like. By both seeding realist representations and then seceding from representation, by being silent online (and even elsewhere) while at the same time speaking with our bodies, we can make the Activist Digital Documentaries that we might most need now. And this, it turns out, is the special domain of activist art, and documentaries, within the digital—to ‘body back’ as Gaines puts it—to model in documentary a new way of being in the digital/real world (what Beth Coleman, 2012, calls ‘x-reality’) in a linked and larger project of communally produced, carefully theorized, artfully communicated world-changing:

This call for a shared right to silence is thus made because it is silence that is needed to enable human voices to be heard again … One example of this kind of engagement—and one that shows how silence may be suggestive and how it may operate to produce convivial relations—are the communication tactics of some within the Occupy movement. Particularly the gestural commentaries those listening provide in supplement—rather than interrupt—those speaking. (C. Bassett, in Unlike Us)

The art of activist digital documentaries will be in the staying and using and the leaving, through the voices we have wanted and gained, and then through shared silences where things are heard and felt and said without being recorded. (Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary)

As things stay quiet for now in the Middle East, I hope we can use this period for more reflection, and continued conversation, both on and off Facebook, of course.

facebook-peace-button-500

Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary

 

 

 

Last week, I was sitting with a dear old friend on a shady deck. We were enjoying our summer vacation at his family’s beach house. Conversation turned to Israel/Gaza, and we commenced a now-too-familiar dance: judiciously floating tidbits of sentiment to mark each others position. Once we understood that we were comrades (who knew?!) we began ardently discussing the politics of both the Middle East and Facebook: how we were performing this same dance of timid sentiment in the space Facebook (not wanting to offend family and friends, not wanting to cause stupid flame wars, and in my case, as an American academic, not wanting negative ramifications at work). I suggested to him that perhaps, things being as bad as they were becoming, we did not have the moral ground any longer to be silent, or hidden (on Facebook) even if there would be real discomfort caused by revealing our personal positions.

Let me mark my position now, clearly, before I explain my suggestion that we take these conversation to and from Facebook:

  • Today’s Position: I am a leftist, progressive or radical artist and intellectual of Jewish lineage who condemns the violence occurring in the Middle East. I support BDS and am anti-Zionist for reasons of personal history, religious, moral, and political philosophy and belief. I am not anti-semitic and love and respect many people who are Israelis. I also love and respect many Palestinians. My father is a Holocaust survivor, and his family (all survivors, obviously) actively chose to come to the US after WWII for many of the reasons that contribute to my own understandings of this complex issue. Some of my dearest friends, family, and respected colleagues do not share my position. My position is that I respect their positions and hope they do mine.

After our discussion on the porch, I took my own advise and began to judiciously like posts on Facebook that marked the ideas and images that supported my position. I also carefully read the posts and links of Facebook friends who held different positions. I did not interact in conversation on Facebook with these friends and family whose contrary links I followed and read because I think comment culture is almost always degenerate and is usually not productive, and also because I didn’t want to become involved in a flame war with a friend of my friend in my friend’s comment stream. At this stage, I felt like Facebook fragments of my position and those of my friends were consolidating while maintaining carefully drawn lines of respect for difference of opinion.

However, as things worsened, I grew ever more bold. I felt it was my moral position to do so as an American Jew. After much internal deliberation (as much as I’ve put into authoring this blog post), I posted a photo of myself on Facebook taken at a protest (led by Jewish Voices for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine) where I marked my position by lying down, playing the role of one dead Palestinian child. I added a caption for further clarity.

One Jew for Peace: Me.

One Jew for Peace: Me. (Photo by Sheila Pinkel)

I got a lot of likes and even some re-posts. This felt good: in a small way like the solidarity I felt at the protest the day before. But I still worried about hurting my friends and family who hold other positions, and even more so about being properly heard and understood.

While the commonly held understanding of the Internet, and particularly social media, as echo chamber helps to define the situation I describe (because in these spaces we exert real energy to understand, refine, share, and amplify our own position), my current experiences nuance this understanding because of the real shades of difference, and actually care, that are occurring within such echoes. On Facebook, Jews within one family or friendship or intellectual cohort (and our friends and allies) sit in unfathomably close quarters as we hold, and represent, different views on this catastrophe. If we are American Jews—on Facebook, online, and in our communities—our thoughtful conversation and thinking and action about the current war can play a critical part in its outcome. I think we are all aware of this responsibility and power, which has produced our care but which must now inspire other actions.

So, here’s where my charge to leave and return to Facebook comes in. My work on Internet culture consistently returns to a set of criticisms that I want to share here:

  • YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like, work in the vernacular of the slogan. Things move best, and are therefore seen and considered, when they are easy to digest, “spread,” and understand. While this may well mark a position, it is only that–a mark. For things as complex, important, and deadly as a war, or a friendship, or one’s workplace and professional safety, we need harder, deeper, lengthier conversation or analysis that provides context and interaction. This can happen via many technologies and in other places besides (and also including) the Internet: on the phone, in person, and in lengthier formats like essays, lectures, and art.
  • Activism that happens only on the Internet–like posting, reading, liking, and linking on Facebook–is not without use or value (for movements or individuals) but is proto-political, and needs to be followed up (for things of real consequence, like a war) with engagements in the world (of media): like protests, conversations, and even media secession. In an essay on Feminist Online Activism I wrote:
“Activist digital activities need to create linked projects of secession. It is in the leaving that our feminist digital activism truly begins. Activist digital research/teaching/organizing/writing must dare to fall outside of representation. This is not to say that the Internet is not a site for our feminist digital activism, but only when linked, not to another kitty, but to a place, a person, a demand, and an ethical practice of being together.”
So where do we go, you might ask. In an earlier blog post here about the successful effort to free Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, I end by reflecting upon how to build and sustain linked digital and earthly movements for social change:
“Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask.”
I continue to ask and challenge myself and others to try to be together in the face of this horrible crisis by daring to engage beyond (if also through) media: to have hard but respectful conversations online and off (face-to-face interactions, teach-ins, protests); to speak and also listen; to be willing to be enraged, saddened and also moved (to change one’s mind or actions or commitments). Dare to take time and space in the world, with each other. Ask a friend to forward you an essay or video they think is of value, read it, and then make the time to talk together, or teach it, or make art or protest in response. Organize at work, or within community settings, or at school to make a plan of action that is responsive to your location. I promise you, from experience, engaging and acting in the world, together, feels productive, generative and empowering on a human level, but it is also what generates the possibility of social change.
One Jew for Peace, me, moving in and past representation

Dare to move in and past representation

If you are reading this on my blog, Facebook, or Twitter, I ask you not (only) to comment, but rather to dare to take the time and make the space to engage in the world with others.

In the conclusion of my conclusion to Ada’s Special Issue on Queer Feminist Media Praxis, “It’s Our Collective, Principled Making that Matter Most,” I write:

AIDS activist video and New Queer Cinema are celebrating, respectively, their twenty-five and twenty year anniversaries, and I am connected, as a media maker and theorist to both traditions. As someone who participated in these earlier instances of feminist/queer media praxis (if not revolution), I first affirm that they were each deeply technological; we were always abetted by media, even if this was not yet digital in nature. And, in the living and doing—just as defines our work today—these “movements” (which were, at the time, something closer to linked moments of making; a movement tends to be found retrospectively), felt (as did the Sixties in its living and doing?) enormously small, fleeting, difficult, complex, impossible to render and realize and utterly wonderful and productive.

In my experience, the making and living of alternative, counter or radical culture, through media praxis, does not feel fully revolutionary in its own time because each act of making is too small, unstable, marginal, and precarious; the dominant culture, and its media praxis, looms large, solid, and powerful. And yet, each of these risky acts makes not just media that lasts for future study (and sometimes consolidation as a movement) but small, beautiful, fleeting instants of potential—”revolutionary-instants”—that we recognize and celebrate mostly in their doing and living, and of course, mourn in their immediate passing (only then, sometimes, to also reify in their later study and consolidation).

And, when I make feminist queer media praxis with others today (like this issue here and this writing in this issue), just as was true in the recent past, my work continues to feel incredibly small, local, marginal, frustrating, incidental and sometimes or even often emancipatory in the instants that are the instances of its more radical, collective, visionary doing and making. Brown continues about times better for feminist revolution:

When poetry becomes political, when politics becomes erotic, when thinking is de-commodified and comes to feel as essential to life as food and shelter, not only do ordinary fields of activity become libidinally charged, but this desublimated condition itself betokens (however illusorily) an emancipated world to come.[5]

I know that there have been moments, and actions, and movements in the past where that feeling of revolution feels closer to hand and body than it can today with both technology and capitalism standing between us and nearly everything that we might want or imagine. But instances of essential, libidinal emancipation can be lived, felt, and practiced in our (digital) world structured as it is ever more deeply by capital, in the sparks of political and intellectual attraction, action, and energy we can read (about) here, in instants of ethical interaction that first built what you read here, and in your potential to produce ethical interactions through your own digital engagement with this material. A revolution; not in the least! But queer feminist media praxis that marks that there are alternatives through our collective, principled making, without doubt.

See what I’m talking about here: essays by Aristea Fotopoulou, Kate O’Riordan, Tully Barnett, Megan Bigelow, Dayna McLeod, Jasmine Rault, T.L. Cowan, Karin Hansson, Rachel Alpha, Johnston Hurst, Olu Jenzen, Irmi Karl, Susana Loza, Lusike Lynete Mukhongo, Darnell Moore, Monica J. Casper, Michelle Moravec, Lindsey O’Connor, Noopur Raval, Roxanne Samer, Jenny Sundén, and Joanna Zylinska.

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