April 2, 2012
Home after back-to-back events where I wore one hat that just might be construed as two (an interesting slip [of the tongue] or tip [of the hat] that helps point out some of my unease with [my place in] the “Digital Humanities,” more on that to come).
The first was just that: Re:Humanities, a student-run undergraduate conference where a day of really impressive student presentations were book-ended by addresses by professors (myself and Katherine Harris) who spoke on our own pedagogic commitments to undergraduate research.
While there was much to note here, I’ll focus my observations on the related themes and contradictions of expertise, authority, authoring, and professional(ism)(ilization) in the realm of the digital (humanities). We enjoyed polished, first rate and diverse student presentations on topics ranging from the mapping of Soweto, to websites devoted to postcolonial feminism, Paris monuments, and global street-art, to pleas for better digital design or citation practices, to the digitizing and narrativizing of rare books. It was crystal clear that digital humanities opens up a place, multiple methods, and voice for qualified young participants who would otherwise not be so readily enabled to “publish” or circulate their work while also being so creative and impassioned about both the content and forms of their fledgling scholarly endeavors. Many of the students commented that doing work for an audience larger than one professor (and maybe their Mom), promotes a higher degree of commitment, professionalism, and passion then they feel when writing a paper, and this reminded me of something I already knew and already do…
The subject of the second conference: Women, Social Justice and Documentary, held at Smith College. Granted, this group of faculty, artists, and students had not really heard of the “digital humanities,” although they were also interested in thinking about the relationship between making things like documentaries, and their academic (arts and humanities) studies, and (feminist) passions and commitments. In this case, a decades-long struggle to find and circulate a voice by those deauthorized by gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of patriarchal oppression has created a substantive history of media objects, and an infrastructure that holds them (including distribution, festivals, scholarship, and pedagogy).
Why, we might ask, doesn’t Digital Humanities know about the work and struggles and conquests of (see Hammer Retrospective at the Tate above) the speakers at the second conference like Lourdes Portillo, Barbara Hammer, or Rea Tajiri who have been interpreting their impassioned, politicized ideas into forms of media and pedagogy for decades and this to an enthusiastic audience who has responded in kind with criticism and media production of our own?
I’d have to say the answer to this is why I don’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital humanities (while I’m happy to be embraced by them). The “field” does the amazing potentially radicalizing work of asking humanities professors (and students) to take account for their audiences, commitments, forms, and the uses of their work. But this was always there to take account of, merely being obscured by the transparent (and patriarchal) protocols of publishing and pedagogy that have suddenly been miraculously revealed because of the confounding force of the digital. However, this turn is occurring, for the most part, as if plenty of fields, and professors, and artists, and students, and humanists hadn’t been already been doing this for years (and therefore without turning to these necessarily radical traditions of political scholars, theoretical artists, and humanities activists).
I wrote just such a comment recently on Miriam Posner’s blog:
“Just got turned on to your blog. How thrilling! When I think (and write and d0) about doing as making as thinking I have often made videos as well as books, and more currently “ video-books” (which are really just big web-pages), so what I think has been lost in this “all Digital Humanities are communities of practice speak” (and particularly that this is a radicalizing moment for humanists) is not simply that people crafted before in that twee sense, but that academic writing is and always was doing, as it was craft, and that these added digital technologies have merely exposed that scholars were always making things, in ritualized ways, for particular users, with machines and for special(ized) uses (and now actually have to be accountable for this). I spoke with Victoria Szabo about this at length for a panel she co-ran recently, Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates at the 2012 MLA Convention. I love your four points at the end for the reason that it marks practice as political, and hope you’ll take a peek at some of the similar principles I’m working through at my Feminist Online Spaces site (a work in progress to be sure).”
March 13, 2012
John D’Agata, “author,” and Jim Fingal,” fact-checker’s” The Lifespan of a Fact is an initially intriguing, often funny, sometimes intellectually stimulating dialogue in the Socratic mode between a famous writer and Professor of Non-Fiction Writing (University of Iowa) and a lowly intern (who I think went to Harvard), that sadly often devolves into a testosterone-driven pissing match where the lofty and literate D’Agata is reduced to lines like: “tread very carefully asshole” and “Jim, seriously. Chill the fuck out.” And inevitably, “Wow, Jim your penis must be much bigger than mine.” This beautifully designed book that gracefully centers D’Agata’s startlingly lovely word-play about Las Vegas, suicide and “the misplacement of knowledge in pursuit of information” within a prose-frame built from the master and student’s supposedly linear conversation about each and every factual misstep of D’Agata’s essay, paints Fingal as a nattering, bean-counter of a Philistine who just might agitate any artist to such writerly and pedagogic lows. But given that the whole enterprise must be as carefully crafted for rhythm, feeling, flow, and sensibility as is the very essay under question, the intrepid feminist reader is forced to wonder why this (un?) self-aware press (or fall?) to boyish juvenalia by the field’s leading expert (“John: Yeah, I’m the immature one”), such that a very funny but serious disquisition between two very smart and literate men about the nature of truth, facts, fiction, and contemporary writing becomes too often little more than a schoolyard brawl, at least as far as John’s language use goes. Which is perhaps really to wonder why embroilments in truthiness degenerate so quickly into the male (and stupid) mode.
As dignified lady YouTube scholar myself—a position as silly and serious as any of those introduced thus far—it is certainly my belief that truthiness is the normative mode of discourse online, by the erudite and not so, by both the talented and untutored.
I’ve argued many times, speaking as A Professor of Fake Documentary Truth, that once a mode of parody becomes normative and unself-aware, its radical possibilities for estrangement or commentary (or as D’Amato says so well, its ability “to break us open, to make us raw, to destabalize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes”) become defanged. Now, certainly factiness has not taken over “journalism” to quite the extent that it has “documentary”—which is to say that our socially-networked play with images seems to carry a slightly different license than what we might have available with words. So that The Lifespan of a Fact might still be a little bit different between books and films, essays and YouTube videos, and between blogs and gifs.
I found myself in a similar place when I read David Shield’s Reality Hunger, contemplating this difference in thinking, and timing, and writing and making when one works with words rather than images, and when one does so as a MAN or better yet as MEN. I really loved D’Agata’s essay, and admired Fingal’s steadfast cheekiness, but as the outside (or framing) story of their dialogue continued across the book’s 123 pages, and neither of these characters changed (or grew up) a whit, learned from each other, or enjoyed the fruits of knowledge sharing and dialectical method, I found myself skimming Fingal, annoyed by D’Agata, and ultimately truly uncertain why such smart guys could be so unaware of or unopen to feminist epistemological method.
January 10, 2012
I have some passing interest in horror (I teach a class on it), I am supposed to be an “expert” on fake documentaries, and my recent concern is user-made video. Thus, I feel some professional obligation to see (and then write about) films in the fake register that are either big-grossing or viral-wonders (i.e. Paranormal Activity, Catfish, I’m Still Here, Taking Woodstock, Exit Through the Gift Shop, or “the lesbian blogger Amina“), just to stay current. But I won’t go to see Devil Inside at a movie theater, and even when I catch it streaming on Netflix, I’ll still be sorry.
Why? Well first of all, it’s reputed to be a very bad movie, and given that even the movies that the general audience tends to like leave me underwhelmed, the crowd’s “F” rating is a strong enough detraction. But more importantly, for me, once you choose to go into self-reflexive mode, you need to be smart as well as crafty. This is the piece (intelligence, commentary, critique) that is missing in our culture’s current obsession with parody. It’s easy enough to fake style: every day users do this as a YouTube pre-req.
But to attach that falsification of an artistic norm to an idea, any idea, about that norm, that culture, the truth, history identity, movies, technology: now there’s the rub. However, since I believe that disbelief attached to mean-spirited mockery is itself the cultural norm and form then perhaps there’s another way to see this. Devil Inside is not a fake of anything, it is the thing itself, which means it is not self-reflexive, which means it can be dumb, but even so, I don’t need to see it, given how swamped I am anyway, by all the other dumb things that come my way given my now-generic interest in fakes (see my personal rub above).
October 13, 2011
I’m in Montreal, getting ready to give a talk “Remembering AIDS Online: Networking, Viruses, Virality, and Arteries” as part of Concordia University’s eighteen year old, multi-disciplinary, year-long undergraduate course and lecture series: HIV/AIDS Project. As my host and Project founder, Tom Waugh explains, the Project links students to internships, the community, and AIDS scholars and activists. I’m honored to be a part of it.
I’ll be sharing my most recent work that is attempting to theorize the distinctions and through-lines of the online documentary by looking at how my earlier activist AIDS video project (and those of many of my peers), as well as our associated projects of memorialization, have moved from linear video (and other materials) to new digital platforms and uses. I make wacky use of power point to create a “mixed reality experience” (this term comes from Anne Balsamo’s Quilty project, which I discuss, a digital interface that she is building that allows the AIDS Quilt to be viewed on a hand-held, table-like device). Their attempt to repurpose and repopulate an old memorial material becomes the quilt metaphor (and practice) that I will point to and attempt to embody in a room with others during my talk tonight.
Over the course of 40 minutes, 37 power point slides, many quotes, and a handful of AIDS media old and new, I plan to focus upon four tangled lines of thinking about the changing shape of documentary and memorials, and how they contribute to or shape our shifting perceptions of AIDS. I will consider:
1) How AIDS documentaries change as they move from the linear form of video used by myself and others when the AIDS crisis began in the 1980s, to today’s online documentary forms.
2) How memory and memorials are dependent upon their forms and materials
3) How documentary and other memorials have and might continue to serve AIDS activism
4) How “public mixed reality experiences,” using documentary to build temporary memorials, in lived and live offline rooms, might also serve AIDS activism, and its memory.
The talk will next become a more traditional essay that I will publish in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Documentary Cinema that I am co-editing with fellow AIDS video activist and now documentary scholar, Alisa Lebow.
Tomorrow, I also get to work closely with a small number of students and activists from Montreal and Concordia in a hands-on multi-media workshop where I will introduce them to,and ask them to participate in, my new work on Online Feminist Spaces. It looks to be an exciting couple of days in Canada.
October 12, 2011
Here are some links to radical media actions:
- feminist academic blogging: “The Three Things I Learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women,” by Kate Clancy
- dispatches from Occupy Wall Street by the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
- my sister, Antonia, interviewed by Real News TV Network on Afghanistan’s Energy Wars
- my own early-work on my new blog, FeministOnlineSpaces
- my graduate student, Timothy Mallone’s video coverage of Occupy LA
September 11, 2011
I made a quick trip to NY to attend the celebration for NYU’s Culture and Media Program which I participated in somewhat unofficially in its earliest years by taking the courses Ethnographic Film I and II at the tail end of my Cinema Studies doctoral course work. This participation changed my work (and life, ultimately) in a variety of ways, most critically leading me to the unparalleled Faye Ginsburg, and allowing me to reframe my dissertation on AIDS activist video through ethnographic film’s focus on representation as a lived, cross-cultural, ethical experience rather than cinema studies’ then choke-hold on the text. Faye went on to be my mentor, and it is her endless dedication that was life-changing, literally connecting me to Pitzer, where I have spent the majority of my career. Hopefully, I believe, also life changing in that I have spend these years trying to be at least half as fine a feminist mentor as was bestowed to me, following Faye’s lead.
And clearly, in this I am not alone. There was a huge turn-out for the day-plus long event, and here we could see the profound legacy of feminist mentoring, teaching, and institution-building: a room full of warm, smart, innovative, feminist anthropologists and media studies scholars, racing around the globe, mixing production, theory, and on the ground commitment in their studies and teaching. It was a profoundly moving reminder that our efforts as teachers are the most meaningful in the creative and intellectual possibilities we can enable for the lives and work of those that follow us. Thanks Faye.
September 2, 2011
According to Ryan Bowles and Rahul Mukherjee, in their introduction to “Documentary and Space,” Media Fields Journal, Issue 3: “New forms, modes, and genres of documentary have sparked their own debates and raised their own particular issues. And it is perhaps this moment of changing modes, technologies, and practices that draws our attention to the importance of considering documentary space. But ours is not a new consideration; rather, it is a reconsideration of why space has always been a hugely important issue not only for those in documentary studies but also for visual anthropologists, geographers, ethnographers and journalists, among others. Yes, when we look to online production and video sharing, interactive “documentary games” and “immersive nonfictions,” it seems apparent that “viewers” are indeed interacting with and experiencing documentaries in different ways.”
My contribution to this special issue is A Place in the Online Feminist Documentary Cyber-Closet, but it’s chock full of strong essays, including Jason Alley’s “Spaces of Reticence,” Laura Rascaroli’s “Sonic Interstices: Essayistic Voiceover and Spectatorial Space in Robert Cambrinus’s Commentary (2009)” and Elizabeth Cowie’s Documentary Space, Place, and Landscape.
Take a look.
August 16, 2011
- they construct dogmatically linear narratives with staccato marches forward to metronome of sun, wave, and cuckoo
- they piece their homages-to-the-day from found source material
- compilation films both, they redirect their footage to new “trans-media” screens: from YouTube to art-house, from cineplex to museum
- triumphs of the database, they impose new logics (of narrative, linearity, causality) through montage
- false devotees of duration, they foreshorten time’s stickiness with a jittery compulsion for change
- there were lotsa clock-shots in both
But here the similarities end, for
- one is built from trash, finding the artful in the prosaic; while the other builds from both competent industry product and great masterpieces alike, re-locating the art squarely to the artist’s hand and mind
- one is a sappy celebration of humanity and community and commonality; the other, a high-brow parlor game for would-be cineastes
- one finds narrative pleasure in documentary’s unexpected truth (long takes are only granted for scenes of quirky, revealing, to-the-camera soul-bearing); the other disturbs originary narrative coherence through its showy and artful cornucopia of associational documentary editing techniques (color, movement, weather, feeling)
With so many images and so little time, at last dawns the era of the editor: the wife at the editing bay, not the man with the movie camera.
July 15, 2011
Unexpected in two senses. First, I had thought my old friend Shu Lea would push the limits of this show by presenting some aspect of her vast and cutting edge cyber/porn/viral/performance oeuvre. I was prepared to gently remind her that we were showing the work to young people, and an YouTube. No such conversation needed to ensue because instead she allowed us to see les cles. And here’s the second unforeseen experience. I write and think about almost too many media objects that sit on YouTube and smugly mark the line between documentary and fiction in ways that have become ever more predictable, benign, and expected. I have conjectured this saturation may not be good for queer artists. And yet, Shu Lea’s quiet meditation on family love, intimacy, and the profound in the mundane is ever more interesting as an unstated exploration of the relationship between these themes and technology and visibility. Who is shooting these seemingly real people? If it is Shu Lea, how ever could this radical gender-queer new media pioneer be close enough to these seemingly working-class French people that she could capture a moment of such intimacy and quiet? If it’s not Shu Lea, how is this her film? Did she chance upon the footage? Find it online, to then edit it with such grace? What ever could it mean to remake moments of others daily familiarity? And if they are actors, how could she script such a delicate and strange interaction, the kind that life produces in a way that fiction seemingly can not? And what does such complex and tranquil artistry mean when made visible in the frantic frenzy of YouTube? The mystery of the Mother’s angels meets the unfamiliar of Shu Lea’s forms in an elegant coupling that reminds me that the internet, and YouTube, has the capacity for depth, in the making strange of its own consolidating norms of volume, speed, over-sharing, spectacle, and irony.
July 13, 2011
In the past few days, I’ve seen two powerful film screenings featuring works that historicize AIDS in the 1980s: We Were Here (“the first documentary to take a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco”) and United in Anger: A History of ACTUP.
Now, most people weren’t AIDS activists, and fewer still are professional AIDS remembers (a role several of us seem to have been gifted in the last few years), but I am both, and in the second role, have been asked to write or speak about the remembering of AIDS in three upcoming venues: a publication on the 25 year anniversary of ACTUP with the Quarterly Journal of Speech, a talk about recent AIDS video at Visible Evidence documentary conference in August, and a lecture in October at Concordia University for their nineteen-year long community lecture series and course on AIDS, Concordia HIV/AIDS Project. Most people don’t remember AIDS: in particular how we fought, how we cared and loved, how we raged, what we won, who we lost. This non-remembering of AIDS is a kind of recollection crisis in its own right, particularly affecting younger queers (of color) who don’t somehow know that there was unimaginable death, anger, activism, community-building, and art made because of AIDS, practices that continue to be highly relevant (if absent) to AIDS, queer youth, and the dearth of activism more generally.
I find that these two video projects (and Jean Carlomusto’s Sex in an Epidemic, and my own Video Remains, and others) each approach this recent remembering project with different forms, themselves reflective of the aims of their remembering goals. In short, We Were Here emotes and United in Anger rages–these feelings evident already in their titles–but also in their documentary approaches. WWH personalizes the crisis, focusing closely on six people with a soft and warm camera, evocative music, stories of personal loss and commitment, and a camera that lingers on tears (producing the same in its audience). Meanwhile, UIA moblizes a cold, sharp video look at a large group of speakers, and an even more clinical body of activist documentation of demonstrations and meetings, allowing us to feel that these images stand in for a mass of similar voices and a compendium of events and actions, and inviting us to enter through their anger and action (just another player in a movement of individuals that can lead to change). Both approaches feed us, although in different ways. Remembering AIDS–which was itself a complex amalgam of emotion, action, living, dying, loving, politics, and representation–demands as many complimentary approaches as we can afford and can bear. While we are all not professional AIDS remembers, nor need we be, we can all learn from this history, particularly in relation to its sustaining models of personal and political action in the name of human rights, health care, and the power of people to help themselves and thereby better their community and world.