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.

1. feminist-research-seminar-may2015-5-1

Margaret Lazarus, Sally Berger, Patty Zimmerman, Karen Sanders, Joanne Leonard, Wendy Kozol, Jeannie Simms, Carol Jacobsen, Connie Samaras, Alex Juhasz, Meena Nanji, Regina Austin (Vicki Patraka not picture)

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
While these terms sign-post places that are still very much alive and operational on YouTube, what I had not mapped then is how YouTube, like the world itself, a world itself, and as one of the places that makes our world itself, now also, at the same time, holds unimaginable quantities of visible, uncloseted, never-closeted feminisms:
  • 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.

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

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.

Conviction: Janis, 2006

Conviction: Janis, 2006

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.

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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?

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!

 

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.

Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body  (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”

Vincent1.jpg

 “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin

The new issue of Jump Cut (55, Fall 2013) is hot off the presses, and as always, it is bursting with great scholarly work on any number of issues near and dear to my heart: labor, third cinema, new queer cinema (by my compatriot, Roxanne Samer), feminist porn (by the delightful, Erica Rand), independent and experimental media (with an essay on Amateur Media by the always-on-the-money Patricia Zimmerman), and a statement on “The War on/in Higher Education” by the journal’s luminary editors (that thoughtfully addresses MOOCs, and other issues, a theme I will attend to in my upcoming post on my recent participation at the MWHEC meetings on this very topic.)

And that’s just my tip of the iceberg; there’s thirty or more essays to find and enjoy there!

Of course, while you’re checking it out, I do hope you’ll also spend some time with the special section I co-authored with Marty Fink, David Oscar Harvey and Bishnu Gosh on contemporary HIV/AIDS Activist Media. Our shared effort looks to links and disturbances across time, generation, place, region, and activist representational practices and media over the lengthy and always changing history of AIDS activist media. My piece, “Acts of Signification Survival,” focuses on both the spate of recent documentaries by my peers about AIDS activism’s past, and what their online life tells us more generally about activist media within digital culture. I write: “it is my belief that digital media brings in new concerns and different cycles. For one, in regards to the documentaries under consideration, the digital allows for what might seem an over-abundance of digital discourse and debate about what also can be perceived as a torrent of images and discourse that have as their subject our past fights for visibility. This produces a particularly clumsy incongruity: these many instances of visibility (the docs and their digital discussion) sit precariously near the constant specter of a diminishment of perceptibility.”

“Everything is Coming up Undetectable” by the Visual AIDS Staff for “Undetectable,” the Visual AIDS Summer 2012 Show.

“Everything is Coming up Undetectable” by the Visual AIDS Staff for “Undetectable,” the Visual AIDS Summer 2012 Show.