On Upper-Crass Video and the Washington Post

April 17, 2008

Yesterday I got a query from a journalist at the Washington Post. Did she want my opinions on AIDS video or feminist media history? No! Hillary v Obama (Obama, duh)… Not at all!

As one of America’s “YouTube specialists” she wondered what I thought about the “shaming-by-YouTube” scandal involving Philip Smith, and his estanged and angry wife, Tricia Walsh-Smith. I knew nothing about it, even though it had been covered by Good Morning America that very morning.

I watched the video, read a few related posts, and then tried to decide what to do. As I’ve oft repeated on this blog, as a scholar, I’m not particularly interested in popular culture. Sure, I’m aware of the latest tabloid moments; I read the paper every morning. But my academic work (including that on YouTube) is about activist, political, educated uses of the medium for self empowerment and social change. And the video I was being asked to speak about is anything but that.

What to do? And more importantly, what does this mean about my current interests and obligations?

I was going to tell the writer that I was just not her expert. Then I decided, she could decide this herself. We talked for awhile, and it was lively and fun. I do have thoughts about YouTube that were relevant for her, and she was smart. We talked about the reality/fiction line, about the developing place of the citizen-journalist expose, about the vlog as outlet for real people who can’t get featured on the Lives of the Rich and Famous and how the video under consideration blurred those functions and media outlets. I mentioned the question of an evolving ethics of web 2.0 video built upon the backs of user indiscretions. Our conversation ended up creating some of the frame for her piece, and I think that’s pretty cool, really.

But, I’m interested in radical-culture, not upper-crass video. I’m currently writing a lecture for the Fowler Museum at UCLA about the history of AIDS video (see last post). And 5 people are going to be interested in what I have to say, damn it! This unmaking of distinctions between my interests in high culture (not low), people’s production (not corporate), elitist vs populist pursuits, and scholar versus public intellectual is getting very confusing for me. Is AIDS video elitist or populist? What about the complaints of a rich woman? And what about me complaining about it? Where does work like mine sit on this old and changing spectrum?

My work on YouTube is my only body of writing (or videomaking, really) that is relevant to regular people. Certainly the feminists I write about and for, or the queers, or AIDS activists are “regular people.” They are all humans with bodies and genetic material. But these counter-cultural communities and art practices are self-consciously, and belovedly removed from the daily, tawdry goings on of mainstream America. And I love them, and am them, for it.

Suddenly, while thinking from my usual angle (how can regular-if-political people speak against and to dominant culture using media), I’m talking about a phenomenon being encountered by most people, and thus, I have something to say to most people. I’ve actually just written, and am trying to publish, a short article about my YouTube findings for a mainstream, and not scholarly outlet.

Making work on and about YouTube, writing this blog, reading other blogs, I’ve certainly found a community of other scholars, students, and smart people asking whether these new (networking) technologies can be used for discourse outside and in opposition to corporate culture. But the bleed is so deep, the breaking of binaries and distinctions so complete, it seems impossible to think and talk about such interests without succumbing to, and becoming that which we are opposed to. Funnily, the questions I’m asking are raised through my sisters’ experience in my documentary about her, SCALE. But she stays true to the anti-war cause, while I’m hardly sure what my cause might be in this instance…”Say no to Trash video!” “Rich wives off YouTube!” “Say yes to women’s voices!” Who knows? Who cares!

Thoughts anyone?

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