July 13, 2015
After seeing Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015) this weekend at Outfest, I am moved to respond here to Milestone Film & Video‘s recent and scathing critique of the film Jason and Shirley,” The Cruelty and Irresponsibility of Satire“ (re-printed on Indiewire on June 23 by Sydney Levine). In their take-down, the authors (who are distributors of many of Shirley Clarke’s films, and more critically the producers of “Project Shirley” an “ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person”) pillory Winter’s film for two main reasons: the “film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.” Here, I would like to express another reading of Jason and Shirley, a remarkable, complex and important film, while also addressing what I see as Milestone’s misplaced (if perhaps also sometimes true) ire and criticism. I also invite Milestone, and others who are devoted to Clarke’s work and legacy, to reconsider the important contribution this new film makes towards this worthy end.
Before I commence, let me express that I am not only one of these supporters of Shirley Clarke, but also a fan and a scholar of Milestone’s and Winter’s work (and also that of Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who co-wrote and star in Jason and Shirley). Perhaps most critically, I am a fan and scholar of Portrait of Jason, as well as the cinematic traditions in which it sits (documentary film, women’s and feminist cinema, queer film, and black queer cinema). For example, I joyously and with great appreciation went to the West Coast Restoration Premiere of Portrait of Jason where evidence of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ invaluable work on Project Shirley was applauded by an audience of cineastes, most of whom I’d warrant knew little of the work of Clarke or her masterpiece, Jason, given that this serious study of power, documentary, identity, and cruelty was made by a woman and featured a black gay man. I commend and support Milestone’s project of unearthing and sharing materials for scholars, teachers, and fans of Clarke, and also acknowledge and salute their under-sung role as distributors of avant-garde, experimental, and independent cinema, including the work of female film directors, like Clarke and others whose voices and vision would otherwise fall outside the scope of accessible media culture.
At the same time, I am also a supporter of Stephen Winter‘s work. I first became familiar with his brilliant and irreverent artistry when I saw his important and also under-sung contribution to independent queer cinema, Chocolate Babies (1997). As myself a scholar and maker of AIDS media, and the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye 1996), the first African-American lesbian feature film, I knew about the glaring and damaging under-representation of black queer Americans, about the obstacles to entry for films about and from this perspective, and perhaps as critically, the haunting burden for most artists in such a terrain to make and share “positive images” of their under-represented community. I learned from and supported Chocolate Babies (and The Watermelon Woman, for that matter), because these feature films, made with almost no institutional support and certainly less cultural sanction, dared to imagine that the lived experience of black queer Americans was complex, riddled with contradiction, full of delight, pain, community, love and loss, and was thus the perfect subject for serious, artful, complex cinema. Just as was true for Portrait of Jason (made by one of America’s great women filmmakers who also refused to bow to the “positive image paradigm”) and for her brave and creative documentary subject, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne).
I mark the similarities between these film oeuvres and the careers of their makers and the needs of their audiences because this post speaks most centrally as an attempt for reconciliation across what has currently been created as “camps” by the Milestone team. In a cinematic landscape where a small number of us make, support, appreciate and need serious artistry that represents the “marginal” experiences of our society from a sophisticated, complex, and nuanced perspective, a landscape where such work is under-funded, under-seen, and under-valued, it serves none of us well to use our very limited cultural resources against, rather than in support of each other, even if, and perhaps because our work dares to imagine life on the outskirts of American society as itself complicated, multiple, and sometimes in internal debate about the very values of the oppressed, marginal, radical, political and creative people who co-populate it (see my earlier post “Against Gamification,” in that case about the pitting of the the black-lesbian artistic sub-culture against itself in the name of a funding “game”).
Shirley and Jason is a complicated, sometimes messy, meditation on what I just described: the circulation of power, honesty, cruelty, love, debate, and creativity that defines artistic community and radical culture. Shirley and Jason also marks, honors, and challenges the role that cinematic evidence (in this case documentary) plays in the psychic, political, and cultural lives of culturally marginalized people, which is to say that as women, people of color, and queers until quite recently we had little to no access to records of our past struggles, ideas, daily practices, or visions of artistry because much too little was made, and what was made was almost never saved. This is one of the prime subjects of The Watermelon Woman, where we had to fake an archive of images of what was once true (the lives of African American lesbians) so that the main character, Cheryl, could learn and grow from her hidden, absent, but true legacy.
In his case, one might say that Winter was lucky, he had footage of Jason, an out black gay man, due to the perspicacity of Clarke and Holiday. Portrait of Jason is the first and continues to be one of the only films, in cinema’s history, to document as central the “struggles, ideas, daily practices and visions of artistry” of a black gay man. But anyone who loves this documentary as do I, as does Milestone film, and does Winter and his entire team, realizes that Portrait of Jason is nothing like a simple documentary record of anything. Using this film “footage” as a starting point for cultural recovery, community empowerment, or even the “truth” of African-American gay male experience or history pre-Stonewall is basically an impossibility given that, in my interpretation at least, a “truthful” rendering of any of these subjects was never the intent of this brilliant film or its equally brilliant filmmaker. Rather, Shirley Clarke intellectually and creatively wrangles with Jason for control over the power of cinema to save any of us: emotionally, historically, creatively. She asks us to consider whether documentary truth is possible, and she chooses Jason Holliday as her worthy interlocutor, subject, and collaborator, given how well he struggles at, and sometimes succeeds, at never giving her this “truth,” perhaps not his to give, and certainly not hers to take. In this way, not a salvage project, or even a portrait per se, I see Jason (and Jason) as the cinema’s finest study and criticism of the ethics, possibility, and veracity of documentary power as it is connected to its ongoing interest in “truth,” especially as embodied by disenfranchised subjects, doubly disempowered as they must be by the documentary project itself.
The film, radically for its time, and for documentary more generally, is made from the position that many of us share—we the usual documentary-subject: the weak, the woman, the other. As a rare, empowered, powerful woman behind her documentary camera and film (Clarke is one of a tiny handful of women who directed cinema before the movements for social justice of the late 60s and early 70s began a slow, but still unfulfilled sea-change), Clarke asks us to see (by hearing) the brutality, love, empathy, and control that organizes the documentary encounter. With clarity, bravery, calculation, and intelligence she plays the role of the one who needs to know and show and own another; with clarity, bravery, calculation and intelligence she leaves in her voice and other cinematic indications of her hand and her control. She is strong enough to show us the brutality of this desire to know, and save, through cinema (usually masked as it is as a project of sentimental salvation). Of course, she comes to this encounter both empowered by her brilliant mind, inestimable film chops, and also economic privilege, while also saddled by her gender and ethnicity in 1960s America. She controls the camera, the image, the editing, and the organizing vision of the encounter that follows. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she chooses as her collaborator an almost-equal (who is lower than a white, Jewish woman in the 1960s America? not many, but certainly a black gay man might be). But Jason Holliday is no dupe. No chump. No simple documentary subject. Like every subject of the documentary camera before him (we women, and queers, and people of color, we ethnics and natives; all we others) he has his wits, his self, and his performance to empower him and he is better at this then most in his position. He can and does dodge, dazzle, hide, reveal, provoke, wow, and fall apart, it seems, at will (although Clarke’s overt and thematic use of drugs and alcohol to phase him becomes part of the film’s dark current of abuse). For those of us who study and admire this work not solely as the rare depiction it is of black gay life, one artistic and powerful women’s drive and vision, avant-garde New York in the sixties, cross-racial and cross-gender interaction and community within bohemian counter-culture, but also as one of cinema’s outstanding studies of the power and cruelty of documentary cinema itself, I suggest Winter and his collaborative team weren’t so much “lucky” to have this as his sole piece of documentary evidence, as perhaps provoked, or perplexed, or maybe just aroused albeit in pain (Aaron Payne).
And here’s where Milestone’s critique should indeed simply become a celebration or at least a more serious consideration. Winter et. al., continue Clarke’s radical, seminal documentary project by “re-imagining” the shooting of her radical, experimental film from the point of view Jason. Not a documentary, never needing to stand up to documentary’s ethical or truth imperatives, their “re-imagination” of one of documentary cinema’s great studies of power and privilege does so from the vantage of Clarke’s strong, beautiful, imaginative contender who by definition had less power in the constituent and complex dynamic that ever unrolls between documentary filmmaker and subject. Given that no documentary subject, even one as mighty as Jason, can ultimately usurp the documentary-maker, who cuts the final film, who organizes its every frame, one place for the empowerment of the structurally disenfranchised is in fiction filmmaking. And here, Winter’s vision both soars and digs very low (as did the original Jason). In musical numbers and other dream sequences we are offered Jason’s interiority (always invisible to the documentary-maker, to our chagrin). Here Winter, and the magnificent, talented, sensitive Waters, playing Jason, show us Jason’s version and vision of the unleashing of brutal, if always loving and self-aware power (so much like Shirley’s) as we see his encounters with one of the white women for whom he whored, one of the white boys whom he loved, with his Mother who loved him, and his dealer who takes painful control of him. We see his unadulterated talent and crushingly unrealized desires. We see how race, sexuality, drugs, and self-loathing hamper Jason. We see the world from the position of the empowered, suffering, loving, living outsider.
Milestone condemns Winter for a “lack of integrity” in his depiction of Shirley Clarke, as well as a lack of “understanding of humanity, and love for cinema.” They call him out for not researching properly, not interviewing living participants of the original film shoot, not being kind to Shirley or her daughter Wendy (herself a brilliant and under-sung Los Angeles artist whose work plays a central role in the history of feminist, activist video; her amazing “Love Tapes” are a must-see for all interested in video art). I imagine these criticisms might all be true, especially if you knew and loved Shirley; especially if you are invested in finding, making, and sharing documentary evidence of Clarke’s career and life. Shirley and Jason is not particularly kind to Clarke (but I never thought the original was either, as I’ve indicated above). And it’s not so nice to Jason either. Neither films are a kindness project: “truth,” pain, power, love … sure.
However, I hope I have established that such criticisms are incidental to the mightier and divergent aims of Shirley and Jason: to unflinchingly account for the pain, beauty and power of being forced to take the role of the (documentary) victim regardless of ones beauty, strength, creativity or intellect. The “genuine” “inner truth” represented in this complex and masterful fiction film does not revolve around the accuracy of the “facts” of Shirley and Jason’s lives and works (although I do hope Winter will correct some of the inter-titles which Milestone has established as incorrect, most critically to my mind, that Clarke’s lover and collaborator Carl Lee died of AIDS not a heroine overdose). Instead Winter and his teams’ film should be appreciated for its subtle, painful, knowing and loving incantation of a state we all can identify with at times, the state of Jason.
I use my contribution to the debate to invite Heller, Doros, and all fans, friends, and lovers of Clarke (and experimental documentary) to receive this contemporary theatrical fiction film, Jason and Shirley, as a new and necessary contribution to a conversation about women’s artistic possibility, documentary ethics and power, and their relations to cinematic form and style, from the point of black gay men who are our allies. In their “pretending to know what happened,” Winter et. al. do create “their own ‘Shirley Clarke,’ ‘Carl Lee,’ and ‘Jason Holliday'” (as did the “real” Shirley, Carl and Jason so many years before!) as Milestone censures. But rather than seeing this as a disrespectful and dishonest creation, I ask viewers to attempt to understand the profound integrity of these new portraits and how they assist us in a worthy project allowed by the best of cinema: less one of facts and more one of feelings, less one of honesty and more one of the uses and abuses of honesty, in the name of art, that have both hindered and set free the Jason in us all.
I recently performed the third iteration of my experimental, affective scholarly talk cum “event” at Console-ing Passions 2015: “Ev-ent-anglement 3: Dublin.” The project has a nearly-completed year-long shelf-life as it and I travel the globe while transforming on the Internet (the sustaining relations between my physical bodily mobility through space and my grounded Internet presence, based as it is on assumptions that at last people can stay put, is one of the contradictions at the heart of this project: I need to be multiply physically placed-based to learn about digital place and community; the longer we have the Internet the more we travel physically because we know so many more people and place seems suddenly as available to us as products). Opening in Utrecht in August 2014, the Ev-ent-anglement went next to Dehli and Dublin. In August 2015 it will surface one final time in Montreal as part of a small symposium, “Affective Encounters.” A live collaborative art-event with Laila Shereen Sakr in Los Angeles at PAM in September will conclude the run. The Ev-ent-anglement changes and grows as does my thinking about feminist Internet culture because of the interactions, objects and collaborators it brings into its fold from the places it and I go. In Dublin Orphan Black and Kara Keeling tangled in (with other objects).
No longer exactly where it started (it has had two websites and three discreet performances to date), this process- and interaction-rich project morphs yet continues as something akin to this: a living experiment that demonstrates in the doing the affordances of contemporary corporate (feminist) Internet culture and its potential alternatives. The ev-ent-anglement (perhaps poorly) enacts a feminist collective critical digital practice thereby telling us more about the corporate Internet and digital feminism.
Let me explain. I built the ev-ent-anglement to consider how we might do better with the uncountable fragments of ourselves that we willingly, massively and generatively give to the man with every tweet, click, and photo. I cobbled together a theoretical armature suited to scaffold my unique intellectual and practical pursuit: how to cut and paste our fragments together making use of feminist principles towards anti-corporate ends. Collaboration, blended live and digital space, co-production of time/space/knowledge (events), the linked value of the situated and the mobile, the entangled nature of things, people, and ideas, a hunger for experiences and communities outside the corporate, an openness to complex and radical political and theoretical critique, a commitment to learning in the doing: these are some of the many feminist and activist principles underlying the project. From them, I concocted a strange place-based practice and performance (an event) where I presented the ideas of the project—montage, new materialism, affect theory, critical Internet studies, feminist and queer theory—while simultaneously asking the audience in the room (and always also online) to entangle fragments of themselves onto the event’s online record thereby marking and saving their part within the event while growing and changing its form within the ev-ent-anglement.
Because I performed the event at academic conferences (and because the ev-ent-anglement also reaches my online community), its participants are feminist activists, academics and artists interested in gender and queer studies, documentary, feminist media and their linked disciplines and foci. Because I performed the event in Utrecht, Dehli, and Dublin (and always online) fragments of these places, and their people and objects, entangle in. Because I showed certain images and quoted certain theorists, the ev-ent-anglement holds generative fragments concerned with the complex ideas and images of editing, cutting, bleeding, events, and entanglements. Because my community interacted, the project grew to include their linked interests: the Arab spring, disability studies, Trinh T. Minh-ha, AIDS, black queer representation and much more. Because VJ_Um_Amel first donated some fragments online, then got more invested, and ultimately began to collaborate with me, she led the production of a new website to hold the ever-morphing collection of ev-ent-anglements fragments. The new site has structuring principles related to ideas of shared-ownership, community, multi-authorship, fragmentation, bodies and their affects, collectivity, and feminism that reflect the larger project.
As of now, the second website cells.ev-ent-anglement.com, looks and even acts a lot like a hybrid (cut/paste+bleed) of two (feminist?) Internet stalwarts, Facebook and Pinterest (thanks to Natalie Bookchin for this comparison, and to the presenters on the Pinterest panel at Console-ing Passions): it automatically generates a seam-filled mosaic produced first from an author, and then from some algorithms that arrange her community’s fragments that have been crowd-sourced, willfully gifted, carefully curated, and linked. And yet …
Here’s where the differences bleed in, allowing us to see and perhaps name the current shape of Internet feminism and its many many discontents:
- Pinterest, Facebook (and other social media platforms) are corporate spaces that are free to use at great cost to users’ privacy and autonomy; I pay for ev-ent-anglement with surprisingly limited personal and institutional resources.
- Corporate spaces market in and mobilize corporate goods and user-generated content (often itself about corporate goods) arranged and calibrated with some very careful measure; while there is almost no outside to the market economy, a rather significant portion of the fragments on the ev-ent-anglement are not (fully) entangled with corporate culture.
- Facebook, Pinterest (and other social media platforms) only work if things and people are bought and sold to each other; ev-ent-anglement buys and sells nothing other than platform space, the infrastructures on which it runs, and its users’ time and expertise (mostly given “for free,” as is so much on the Internet).
- Facebook, Pinterest (and other social media platforms) are fun and easy to use; ev-ent-anglement is intense, difficult, and convoluted in comparison. Interestingly, off-the-shelf platforms bake in more and more ease-of-use but the corporations are always simplicity-steps ahead. The role of ease can not be overstated (see my work on slogans on YouTube).
- YouTube, Vine, Snapchat and their ilk produce a sense of community organized around the self; ev-ent-anglement organizes its community primarily through my invitation (and then that of others) to a dispersed but highly limited group of people linked by ideas, commitments, and proximity.
- Corporate spaces are built and prosper within the growth and scale logics of neo-liberalism: things are best when they get larger and hold unimaginable quantities of data; the ev-ent-anglement treasures and relies upon the close-knit, intimate, specialist interests and commitments of its tiny community and limited data pool. There is depth and connection in the focused, but corporate spaces have other kinds of magnetism.
- Users’ compulsion to engage and stay within Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like is high, a result of many of the features listed above: their ease of use, abundance of content, sense of community, and refined admixture of corporate and user-generated content; very few people want to engage with the ev-ent-anglement in any sustained way (or at all) mostly because it retains my signature (even as it expands), and because it is complicated and demanding of time and intellectual attention. Also, “scholars” have a hesitation to make publicly (although not on Facebook!)
- The collections of fragments that are any individual’s Facebook or YouTube feed are at once satisfyingly tailored around the self, while also being fleeting, abundant, diverse and easy; the ev-ent-anglement is co-authored and multiply-focused; it is time and space bound.
- Twitter, Facebook and the like are founded upon flow, speed, quantity, and brevity; much of the ev-ent-anglement sticks, taking time and space to enjoy its complexity and depth.
- Scholars and users of corporate Internet culture perform the obligatory work of jamming “feminist” intention, activity, community, and values into spaces and practices organized primarily towards neoliberal, hegemonic and sometimes even anti-feminist aims; the ev-ent-anglement, like other “alternative,” “counter-cultural,” or anti-hegemonic spaces asks its scholars and users to name and refine the feminist values and practices that feed us and structure the space; we often disagree, which is useful when done respectfully. Of course, no space is pure, so our movement between and among and within them informs all we might know and do.
The ev-ent-anglement is produced in relation to, conversation with, and defiance against corporate ownership and neoliberal aims within the Internet and every other place we go. It values feminist complexity, community, and collaboration outside the logic of capital, when possible. It tells us that the corporate Internet is expensive, commodity-driven, fun, easy, self-centered, addictive yet feeding, and malleable within these constraints. This tells me something I’ve known for quite awhile: the corporate Internet is the place we are, it is not the place we want or need, we can do better.
May 27, 2015
In the Summer of 2014, I agreed to helm a large Mellon Digital Humanities grant awarded to the Claremont Colleges. I had not authored the grant application (this effort was led by my colleague Jacque Wernimont, now at ASU), so first I read it to ascertain that I could shepherd its several categories of support in good faith. More importantly, I needed to evaluate my own comfort level with becoming a face of DH in/for Claremont, again obviously something I decided to take on, but in this case with a more complex back-story (my DH story below), one I am about to unroll here in hopes that it might prove illuminating for those who are in the earlier stages of developing their own (this prosthelytizing, or at least tutoring about DH being obviously one of my main roles as grant administrator, and of DH itself).
I have an open-hearted, big-tent approach to the digital humanities whereby I believe that all humanists are most likely digital, only they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. By this I mean they are probably using digital methods in their teaching, research or publication and/or they are considering the digital, as humanists in their teaching, research or publication, but perhaps they are not fully aware of or interested in the conversations in the newly developing field of DH that applies to said activities.
Given that every humanist is a digital humanist in that they probably email, read and watch things online, use the Internet for their teaching, and/or use digital machines to record, store, write, and publish, what use could such a completely capacious definition serve? As far as the grant is concerned, I’d suggest there are two important outcomes from such openness. And then, as far as my own DH story, I’ll add a few more. Here in Claremont (and across the humanities), a generous DH allows for:
- new opportunities for inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary connections and collaborations in relation to themes, methods, tools, and outcomes
- new opportunities for funding, publishing, teaching, and other professional possibilities connected to a growing interest in DH in a time of humanities scarcity
- new opportunities to learn, refine, and question digital possibilities within our worklife as humanists, and as citizens of academia and the world
My own DH story suggests that such opportunities are stimulating and generative. I came to DH a doubter; or better said, it came to me. In a 2009 blog post entitled, “Digital Humanities,” I wrote:
Tara McPherson asked of us our relation to the term “digital humanities,” and I said I had always thought of myself as a media scholar, artist, and activist but would be pleased to also take on this newer title. However, after spending a few days amongst digital humanists of various home disciplinary stripes, I believe that this inter-disciplinary field holds much in common with earlier practices enabled through the work of scholars who have pressed at the intersections of academia and art and/or activism.
Shortly thereafter, and with McPherson’s help and that of the Vector‘s team at USC (and more Mellon and also NEH funding), I built and then published my born-digital, free, online “video-book” Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2010). That publication led to many more “DH” possibilities. I was invited to write, present, interact, and challenge the digital themes and methods raised by that project in that it critically considered and also used digital platforms and tools for teaching, writing, research, and publication. While my more longstanding homes in Media Studies, feminist and queer studies, and activist academia certainly embraced this new project, I found that invigorating conversations about critical or activist Internet studies were as often as not happening around the edges of DH. In fact, I’d suggest that librarians and people in Rhetoric have been at this for much longer than most of us other humanists and I really enjoyed the conversations I was having as a “DH” person with many people who I was meeting in these fields through DH.
Since then, I’ve engaged in any number of projects I’ll gladly call DH (and other things)—if it will have me—that further situate my teaching, research, and writing at what I hope are the most critical edges of the Internet (often tipping off, I must admit):
- I taught Learning from YouTube for the fourth time this Spring, and I had hoped to add a practicum where some of my Claremont students would have taken the class with ten inmates at Norco California Rehabilitation Center as part of the larger Prison Education Project (hence the tipping off I spoke of above), thereby challenging our understandings of the power, relevance, and reach of YouTube (and the Internet more broadly) given that some of the students in the class would have been denied access to the web as an integral feature of of their punishment. While this was cancelled by the Prison at the last minute, I ended up writing about the relations between social (in)justice and social media twice at a site called Lady Justice. And the class allowed me to refine my on-going thinking about new and social media and feminism.
- FemTechNet, which I co-facilitated with Anne Balsamo during its inception in 2012, is an international collective of artists, activists, academics, librarians, technologists and students that has conceived and successfully run the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course), a feminist rethinking of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Class). I have taught the DOCC twice to Claremont students.
- My current research project is Ev-Ent-Anglement: an experiment in a digital embodied collective feminist media praxis committed to intentionaly recutting the fragments of ourselves otherwise strewn willy-nilly across the Internet.
- I have taught Visual Research Methods every year at Claremont Graduate University since 2011, where graduate students across several humanities disciplines learn how to “provide a theoretical and historical background for considering three scholarly traditions—from the arts, humanities, and social sciences—that research about and/or with visualization tools (cameras; digital media) and/or visual objects (art, photography, film, video, digital media).” See this blog post where students in the second iteration of the course define DH. That year I added the really useful (and available online for free) anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities (Matthew Gold, ed.). I highly advise it for doubters or newcomers.
- My class, linked site, and public performance, Feminist Online Spaces, attempts to “build and link principled sites in collaboration.” It builds from my criticism of YouTube (a corporate enterainment platform that we’ve been given for free) to imagine, interrogate, and inhabit other kinds of Internet spaces and communities, especially those built outside the dominant logics of corporate capitalism.
- And of course, I blog here and elsewhere, and have since 2007: an integral part of my digital life, and one I require of my grad students in VRM (to build and write an “academic blog” among other digital things).
Over the next four years of the DH@CC grant I look forward to hearing the DH Stories of many of you here in Claremont, and those we will meet elsewhere. And I use this blog post as an invitation to hear your Claremont DH stories.
May 21, 2015
I taught Learning from YouTube (LFYT) for the fifth time this year. The first iteration was in 2007, fresh into the early years of the still short life of YouTube and social media more generally. I taught the course again this semester, after a several year hiatus, because I was interested in two things: accounting for what has changed in these 8 years as well as for the confounding relations between social (in)justice and social media (which I have reflected upon twice at Lady Justice a part of New Criticals committed to “reconsidering gender and technology in the age of the distributed network”).
While the most obvious changes on YouTube are 1) its unimaginable and consistently escalating scale (seemingly as large as the world, or at least the world of media, more on this later), which itself is connected to the ever shortening time-scale of memes (see video above by LFYT student, Samantha Abernathey, one of several videos made for 2015’s Meme Project) and 2) the marked consolidations of its professional and financial infrastructures and outputs (allowing for new modes of mediamaking and their monetization that sit precociously between amateur and expert media and which actually do make people/corporations/YouTube/Google money). What I will focus on here is another glaring, although perhaps more variegated change, 3) the nature of feminism on YouTube as a way to think about the massive cultural, political, and personal shifts associated with the rapid maturation of social media. In the brief observations that follow, I will press my course (which, surprisingly [definitively?] was taken by 14 women, “feminists” all, and 2 men, probably “feminists” too; whereas in its past iterations it had been dominated by male students, often [definitively?] basketball players, probably not “feminists”) into conversation with another example of feminist media pedagogy, a memorable symposium I just attended at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan: Feminist Video Documentary Strategies in Social Dissent and Change (organized by Michigan art professor, Carol Jacobsen with Vicki Patraka and Joanne Leonard). There, in Ann Arbor, in conversation for three intense and fully-scheduled days with eleven hand-picked feminist scholars, artists, and activists, ranging from their mid-forties to mid-seventies, fully-formed, carefully-schooled, and highly– and deservedly-vetted for their diverse and stunning bodies of activist feminist documentary work, built in some cases beginning in the 1970s, and occurring all over the world and in regards to feminist issues as diverse as prison reform, domestic abuse, racism, homophobia and Chevron, and the dreams of female Indonesian domestic workers in training—an anti-YouTube if ever there was one—I encountered a feminist media space that itself put the changes at YouTube into another form of stark release.
In 2010, thinking about my teaching and writing about YouTube within my video-book about this, I suggested that my feminism, and feminism more broadly on YouTube, was closeted. With a tip of the hat to both film scholar and critic, B. Ruby Rich and feminist poet and theorist, Adrienne Rich, I attempted to create sign-posts to better mark and see the “nowheres and everywheres” of this new closet, one which I named as holding many hidden-away in plain sites for feminisms:
- ARCHITECTURAL or ARCHAIC feminism occurs at a deep and structural level
- UN-NAMED feminism that in so doing sees itself newly
- MORPHING feminism transforms to encapsulate other beliefs in feminism’s name
- FRAMING feminism that umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racism and other activisms
- ASSERTIVE or INSERTIVE feminism that names its relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important
- COMMON-CULTURAL feminism that assumes feminism is the shared space of production
- ACCESS feminism that doesn’t only speak to feminists and also speaks to feminists by opening access to unusual places
- TECHNO feminism that engages in collaborative, goal-oriented, placed, critical self-expression online
- ASSUMPTIONAL or PRESUMPTIVE feminism that always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak
- OVERT feminism that names itself proudly and often attached to equally proud descriptors (i.e. Black, trans, queer)
- TRENDY feminism that attaches to memes, celebrities, and products
- WARRING feminism that pits feminists against each other
- TWITTER and TUMBLER and INSTAGRAM and PINTERST feminisms that spread, link and grow transmedially
- TROLLING (against) feminism that harasses, stalks, demeans, threatens, bullies and endangers
YouTube is truly a (corporate) space where everything and everybody is (with notable blind spots both self-chosen and socially deployed). As proved true for the feminist demographic and associated conversations within my 2015 class, YouTube has become a place of, for and by feminists and this overt engagement has brought clarity and confusion. My students, like all of us who are engaged with social media, name an anxiety, cynicism, and consumerism that is core to their new media experience even when they are being “political” (in the production, or more definitively consumption of overtly “feminist” media) but especially when they are not, when they are taking a much-deserved break from the onslaught of “feminism” that now greets them there and so are watching the innocent, fun, funny, trivial (corporate) content that surrounds the feminist media also readily-available.
Meanwhile, the Michigan feminists also attested to a level of fatigue, anxiety, and hard-to-manage overwhelmedness brought on by new and social media consumption practices. I suggested that media production and its feeding feminist process, now radically accessible to so many, is a final feminist frontier in that it can maintain attention, ethical conditions, non-corporate environments, and clearer boundaries of commitment that now seem nearly impossible in the space of new media reception given the noise, hyper-visibility, and corporate domination of this space. As you see, these conversations circled around architectural metaphors and material considerations attempting to describe possible feminist media spaces, norms, and histories that might be defined by counter-, concordant-, and/or immersive YouTube practices (a project I have being pursuing in my Feminist Online Spaces work).
The twenty-five year plus bodies of work shared by many of our group who have devoted their careers to ongoing, careful, connected, personal and political media projects help refine vocabularies for feminist media practices that can and do share the broader media ecology with YouTube and social media. For instance, our host, Carol Jacobsen, has been making photo and video for over twenty-five years as part of her work as the Coordinator of the Michigan Women’s Clemency Project, advocating for the human rights of women prisoners and seeking freedom for women wrongly incarcerated. Her feminist media work has been shown in galleries, used by activists, lawyers and policy people, and contributed to the release of nine wrongfully-incarcerated women. Some of it is on Vimeo while also sitting elsewhere across the Internet.
I would like to conclude by thinking through the experiences in Michigan (where we sat for two-plus days in an isolated, quiet, and window-less conference room while each participant took an hour or more to present her work, and we listened and responded with heightened focus) as a way to also see some of the notable dark spots that are by definition lost to the eye within our (new) place of feminist hyper and over-visibility. Critically, these eleven women were significantly older than your typical “YouTube feminist.” Each had an institutional home that she may have fought to achieve over most of her career, that she had made herself by creating this counter-institution on her own or with others, or that she was precariously connected to or even retiring from. But notably, the diverse feminist media activism of this group shares certain core values, practices, and infrastructures quite different from the ones I have mapped through YouTube thus far, ones which signal time, space, connection and attention as core:
- SEQUESTERED feminism where the environment to share the work is small, closed, respectful, and supportive.
- SLOW feminism during which we took time, were not rushed, and no one multitasked; we listened, watched and were focused (thanks to Meena Nanji for this term and the previous one).
- RESEARCH feminism where work is anchored in (often) funded and mostly multi-year engagements
- AESTHETIC feminism where the refinement of a personal practice takes place in conversation with other artists and traditions
- HISTORIC feminism that knows and marks where it comes from
- PLACED feminism grounded in and connected to a lived or political community
- VERSIONED feminism occurring over time and in conversation with other work, changing audiences, and history
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already suggested that everything and everybody is on YouTube, which by definition puts all of these women, their methods, and projects there, too (or not if they inhabit the dark space by choice or exclusion).
Furthermore, a significant subset of “Hashtag” or “Twitter” feminism functions quite similarly to what I have named above. Lisa Nakamura’s recent work on This Bridge Called my Back on Tumblr being only one of innumerable examples of such practices. I am not suggesting that social media can’t or doesn’t attend to architectural, historic, or sustaining feminisms. Rather, I am curious about how these many feminist modalities map onto or next to each other, how they feed or frustrate us, how we can build experiences and media for feminisms with intentionality and purpose given the conflicting norms of the many media spaces that are now available to us. Thus, the current state of YouTube feminism is not a matter of medium (or age or even institution) and entirely one of métier: taking the time, making the space, producing the architecture, community, and history from which to make, receive, and relish our very best work.
April 13, 2015
On Sunday, April 5, an invaluable opinion piece was published in the New York Times: “Help Us Learn in Prison” by John J. Lennon. An inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Lennon makes a nuanced request about education and technology within the American prison. He considers why inmates are allowed and even encouraged to watch television all day while their access to the Internet is limited or more often than not prohibited. He ends with a plea: why not change the accessible technology of choice from TV to MOOCs?
In this post, I’d like to use Lennon’s piece as an opportunity to continue several avenues of thinking and activism of grave concern for me, namely:
- a situated critique of MOOCs
- a situated critique of education and technology in the prison
- a situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube and social media more generally
As a founding member of FemTechNet, the collective that successfully offers the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) at places of higher learning around the world, I have worked with others to criticize MOOCs from feminist perspectives on education, technology, and neo-liberalism. One of our ongoing claims is that education needs to be situated in the lived environments of learners, whether that be institutional (are you at a community college or an art school?), regional (California or Calcutta?), cultural (what traditions and values matter where we live and learn and how do we speak about them?), or personal (what matters to me?) In their top-down, one-size-fits-all, elitist, scale-and-profit-driven underpinnings, most MOOCs are not particularly responsive to or even interested in the situated, lived differences that make learning (and teaching) both exciting and challenging.
This situated critique of MOOCs allows me to heartily second Lennon’s request. I believe that MOOCs are terrific for prisoners and support unlimited access to them as part of a technologically-assisted education.
I began to understand a critically unnamed truth about social justice and social media only made visible through the structuring denial of access to the Internet and other technology as a fundamental feature of contemporary punishment: technologies of care, conversation, and personal liberation through education need no more tools than access to each other. I was more than ready and able to teach about YouTube this Spring without an Internet connection. I was going to assign books on the subject (with a few pages excised, mostly due to their discussion of sexuality on YouTube), exercises where prisoners would write screenplays to be shot by their fellow-students who had access to cameras and the Internet, and conversations about the meanings of all of our varied and regulated access to technology. (Along this vein, prisoners’ near universal access to cellphones as a contraband of choice, despite prisons’ concerted efforts to keep phones out of the prison, radically underlines what it means to say “prisoners don’t have access to the Internet or social media.”) I had learned before that while the prison and its administrators can systematically strip me, and my students, of tools and technologies (pens, videos, the Internet), our desires and abilities to communally learn—and thereby escape its lines, signs, limits, and holes of available information, if only fleetingly—falls completely outside the of logic of technology-based punishment.
That is until I was denied access to teach and learn inside.
Which gets me to my conclusion: my situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube. For I am indeed teaching the class, again, for the fifth time since 2007 at Pitzer College. I did not get to stretch and learn and teach as I had hoped with my prisoner students who have so much to teach us about technology, as they are denied access to social media and are therefore uniquely situated to see it, but I have learned about social media and social justice this semester from other students and teachers.
Since I began teaching the class in 2007, in the matter of just these few short years, access to social media has exploded (for those not denied it as a condition of their punishment). We have been told (and sold) that this access is critical for our expression, community-building, political citizenship, and well-being. We have been led to believe that access to social media is a form of liberation. As Nicole Rufus, a current LFYT student explains in her class video below, YouTube matters because it has made her a better person and contributed to her education, just as Lennon suggests.
But two more related things have also become quite clear in the 2015 iteration of the class Learning from YouTube (sans prisoners):
- In contra-distinction to the experience of prisoners, for my students, the Internet is the very air they breath in a way that was simply not true in 2007 (as much as my students thought it was). Young people today (as is true of their teachers) inhabit the Internet, speak its language, and have an agility, familiarity, and jaded acceptance of its norms and (aspects of) its history that is at once stunning and enervating (see Samantha Abernathey’s class video on memes below):
Stunning is the speed and complexity of this familiarity; enervating is its occlusion of familiarity with and interest in the other norms, places, and histories that we might once have understood as part of being institutionally, culturally and personally “situated.” The current version of the course makes me feel at once stimulated and enervated because I have seemingly nothing and everything to teach them. Nowhere and everywhere to go. “The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but not it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we’re still trying to climb on board, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up in searches, to appear to exist.”
I long for the views of my prisoner students: humans who can teach us a thing or two about place, liberation, punishment and control sans the Internet.
- for, this place of liberation, the Internet, has quickly become its opposite (“emancipation without end, but also without exit” according to Aranda, Wood, and Vidokle)—a prison (although not a punishment, as it is always entered willingly and ever with the promise of pleasure); a highly-structured corporate-dominated sink-hole. “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obvious. It is completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright control, and conformism. (Hito Steyerl)
“This moment,” according to my students, is defined by anxious, cynical, consumption-based Internet experience that is linked to ever more desperate Internet-based attempts at escape into a nostalgic (“old”) Internet that is imagined as low-tech, slow, user-made, fun, real, innocent, awkward, less-sexualized, and de-politicized (outside or before the petty, bitter Internet “politics” about the Middle East, feminism, racism, rape, and the environment from which escape deeper into the Internet is so desperately needed.) The new Internet is a prison from which escape is to fantasy of an older, innocent Internet.
In her contribution to the eflux journal issue “The Internet Does Not Exist,” from which I’ve been quoting extensively in this last section, video artist Hito Steyerl pens an article entitled “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” There she answers herself: “the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all out. Or more precisely: it is all over.”
But of course, Steyerl knows, as must we all, that while the Internet feels like it is the whole world, or perhaps too much world, there are blank spots on the map where the Internet can not see, there are ways not to be seen, and there are dark spots in our situated communities where the Internet can’t or perhaps is not allowed to go.
If we theorize the Internet, or education, from these blank spots, from the place of too-little, (in)access, quiet, and darkness (as does Lennon), we see values, uses, and needs for MOOCs, YouTube, technology, and education that are not clear from an anxious state of hyper-abundance. This is not to romanticize the punitive lacks of the prison. Rather I ask us to draw from what becomes visible when we situate thinking about learning, technology, punishment and escape in places where education is not primarily linked to tawdry pop-songs, tutorials, consumer goods, flame wars, and self-reference to Internet culture but rather to the fundamental questions of liberation, learning, and empowerment that those stripped of technology have unique access to in the quiet and (in)access of their punishment.
January 26, 2015
… I’m trying to steer clear of rabbit holes these days in order to get a book done, but this [ev-ent-anglement] seems different somehow. Like the time spent reading, learning, listening will be rewarded differently. But it also feels all the more dangerous for that.
I’m the opposite of pasted right now – not incorporated, tied down, fixed. Instead I feel unmoored — and where I feel fixity it’s more like a bottle about to be entangled in a mess of sea vegetable… –Jacque Wernimont, commenting on “How To“
I spoke in a room in Dehli and asked people to #cut/paste+bleed with me there and also online. Jacque pasted in from Arizona. But no one in the room, in real-time, tweeted, or posted, or tagged me an Instagram as I had requested. There were few rewards. Or maybe there were only weird ones. Or it was too dangerous.
Maybe it was because of lousy internet connectivity or because I softened my procedure mid-act and didn’t require it as I had in Utrecht, there and then producing a playful affect for some but also one where others thought I was too demanding. But maybe it’s because the act itself was uninteresting to (or too fast for?) the Dehli audience.
“If we linger in that cut, that music, that spatio-temporal organization, we might commit an action.” Fred Moten, In the Break –tweet from “me,” @eve_ent_angle
It’s hard to linger (read, learn, listen), what with so much information to consume and also produce (“in order to get a book done,” in order to wrap up this experiment).
The rest of this post (do linger dear reader) is on the ev-ent-anglement. I’d love you to entangle there!
January 19, 2015
Tamsyn Gilbert at New Criticals kindly invited me to write a piece about the changes in networked new media and feminist scholarship about it for the section of the publication called Lady Justice. I used this as an opportunity to revisit Learning from YouTube given that I’ll be teaching it again this spring with some interesting new twists and turns. The intro to the piece is here, and you can read my five provocations as well. The rest of the piece is found via the links above I’d love to hear from you!
In 2007, I engaged in what was at the time perceived to be an audacious pedagogical experiment. I taught a course both on and about YouTube. At that time, I opened out the private liberal arts classroom into the wilds of the Internet. These many years later, looking back at the experiment and also moving forward, I imagine what there might still be to learn and where there still might be to go within social media networks. Certainly much happened in the first class—virality, hilarity, hundreds of videos and interviews, caution, discipline, challenges to higher education and collegiate writing and a “book“—but here I ask, how might the continual growth of YouTube demand new places and tactics for its analysis?
In response to both my own needs as a theorist, activist, and educator, as well as what we might consider the “changes” of YouTube eight years later, I have decided to teach the class again this spring semester while taking my evolving experiment in several new directions including Inside-Out of the private college and prison. The body of this post explains the history and growth of my thinking about and activities within and without YouTube since its inception in 2005. Given the interests of Lady Justice, I will use this opportunity to consider transformations in digital and network culture over the past decade. I will also forefront how my feminist commitments to pedagogy, public intellectualism, the politics and practices of visibility and community within social media networks, and an anti-corporate media, anti-corporate academia, anti-corporate prison-industrial stance influence my many critical incursions into what I see as a pretty consistent YouTube. This has been somewhat harder to do in the course proper, and even my writing about it, as I have often taken a more “closeted” approach to my motivations in these more generic spaces (the class is an Introductory level course in Media Studies and most of the students have neither a feminist nor activist orientation to media, nor do they need to. In this and many other ways, I structure the course so that it reflects the dominating logics of YouTube, more on this below).
[this lengthier part about changes in YouTube and my decision to teach part of the class in a prison is at Lady Justice]
Conclusion: 5 Questions for the 2015 class and others:
As was true for the 2007 class and all following, I am legitimately interested in learning from YouTube: its users, uses, and logics. My statements above and questions below are provocations for further analysis, argument, and activities. I look forward to where they will take us over the next few months:I am curious whether these many recent changes may have inaugurated significant and not superficial changes in YouTube (and social media) culture itself. Frankly, I doubt it. I challenge my students to locate, name, and analyze structural differences:
How has YouTube changed since 2005?
What are the relations between social justice and social media?
What are the relations between social injustice and social media?
How and why do we leave social media?
How and why do we stay in social media?
What is a social media of our own?