Let’s say, to be evasive (the first evasions of many; an approach that is definitive of the sensitive territory I trod), that I returned agitated from seeing Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat. As I tried to explain afterwards to my partner who had not seen the film, and who was a bit mystified about my spectatorial excesses, this was for four entirely entangled reasons:

  • my father, coincidentally, is currently in Budapest, where he’s been for over a month, trying to make sense of my family’s last apartment-full of European-things-that-remain (portraits, tens of thousands of books, chatchkas), engendering conversations between my own next-generation about what we want, what we remember, who we knew, what we’ve lost as Jews (and non-Jews and un-Jews) who survived and mostly left Europe, but in our case to the United States of America not to Israel (for reasons that bare their own secrets and lies, yes?)
  • the generational story Goldfinger tells (he labels it of three generations), exactly lines up to my own family’s: Gen 1. recently deceased grandparents who survived and went silent; Gen 2: their children (our parents), who also survived (as children) and were told and thereby asked nothing (but saw lots), who were told nothing because nobody knew nothing, who wanted and want to know nothing because there was nothing to know, and everyone knew that, and had no feelings about this not-knowing given that there was nothing to know and it was better to forget; Gen 3. (my generation, somewhere around 50, now parents ourselves) who want to know everything and with feeling.
  • the “mystery” he reveals at the sordid heart of his grandparents’ story points to the many secrets that all families scarred by this (and any) war carry (on both sides), secrets that get revealed even though no one knows or remembers or cares about them (except for my insatiable generation: ever seeking, asking, hunting, violating those before us) through symptoms, tics, photographs, lies, and erasures, that is until we come along behind: bumbling, pushing, and asking.
  • the bumbling, naive, self-reflexive documentary style Goldfinger takes up, to enact the role and work of gentle but needy and seeking third-generation (who already know much more then we pretend to not know; my Lord, at his point, troves of books and documentaries abound!) is at once offensive to much that I think about the ethics of documentary (in that it puts the second and third generation continually on trial; most painfully evident during the scenes between Goldfinger and his mother) while also being the role I take up in my own family.

How could I not? We are destined to play out our knowing and needing positions as we move farther in time, place and generation from the trauma of war and genocide, and as those protected by the secrets no longer are in need of protection. But even as much as our performance of self and family is painfully pre-constituted, questions remain for me: can we consider our method; and what are the ethics of our seeking, as well as our forgetting? What does it mean for us to use our own family to tell stories that others might need to hear?

As a scholar and maker of feminist documentary, The Flat made me so upset because Goldfinger’s family documentary drama is my own, and yet I would like to believe that I have cast my family members in roles somewhat more protected. As was true in Shoah, S-21, and so many documentaries that follow, asking participants in any genocide (on both or all sides) to live out their culpability, or to learn of their weaknesses and blindspots, in front of a camera, and for a trusted documentarian, may serve well for the learning and healing that audiences need, but what of the subject(s) under view?

I have worked with many members of my family—as does a generation or more of autoethnographers—to help me reveal personal experiences that may help us to know larger social struggles and secrets. Here’s my Mom and sister on generational hope (an outtake from my documentary Scale):

And my Dad in conversation with me about “private conversations” for part of a larger show I co-curated about YouTube and community :

The Flat is so intense for me because I see less the painful strictures on my own skills, roles, and limits (as a third-generation Holocaust survivor, loving daughter or sister, or feminist documentarian), and more because I am faced to confront how the limits of (documentary) knowing itself prescribe us to invade in our will to love, learn, remember, and do better. For this reason, I end with Shu Lea Cheang’s amazing piece, Les Cles e (discussed by my father, above). In this documentary/(fiction)? we watch yet another inter-generational conversation, through the eyes of another seeking and trusted artist, but without the (structural) necessity of performing for others the truly painful learning of our own self- and inter-personal limits in the face of the profound and/or the profane.

This post is late in the news cycle of this media event because I tried, unsuccessfully, to publish it as an Op Ed. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, an unfortunate scandal played out at Pitzer College, where I am a Professor of Media Studies. At a student senate meeting, a small group of students requested the establishment of the Caucasian Culture Club. After lengthy questioning from the senators, engendering insensitive justifications, the request was denied.

Overt racism within a liberal institution, however, is not the scandal I am considering here. Rather, it was this following revelation: the white clubbers were performing their offenses while playing a role at the behest of three students of color. They wanted footage about racial silences at the college for a mockumentary they were making for a documentary class offered by my department.

Two weeks of difficult intellectual and ethical conversations ensued on the student list serve, in town hall meetings, and in our campus media: does the greater good of revealing what might otherwise be unspoken justify the pain of those who are misled along the way? Do various traditions like documentary, ethnography or even the news, have different standards regarding the treatment of human subjects? Do the time-honored institutions of artistic license and academic freedom protect students from other shared responsibilities?

Within our small campus community, we learned a great deal from talking together about these hard questions, ones not isolated to this incident. For our culture is littered with forms that mix truth and fiction, reality and entertainment, documentary and storytelling. Fake or entertainment news like “The Colbert Show” or “E Entertainment News,” fake documentaries and fact-based fictions like The Devil Inside or Cloverfield, and all of bogus “reality TV” are ubiquitous within and perhaps even definitive of our media moment. I believe that the larger culture could learn from the kinds of conversations we had about these issues on our campus.

In F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, I suggest that for talented artists, mocking forms known for their sobriety allows for harder conversations about truth, identity, or history. Meanwhile, in my more recent book Learning from YouTube, I express the less optimistic opinion that the faking of facts, authenticity, and expertise have become an accepted and even normative mode across our culture: for both every day YouTubers and much of the dominant media they emulate.

However, while most of these forms remain entertaining and pleasurable—instilling the satisfaction of insider-knowledge and the comedic reach of parody—we are also beginning to encounter instances where an ever-more uncertain or shifting blend between fact and fiction is causing pain.

For instance, the intense scrutiny by an international Internet audience on the factual ups and downs of the “Kony 2012” video may have contributed to the emotional breakdown of its director, Jason Russell, even as so many African vbloggers righteously attest to their own anguish caused by seeing the over-simplification of their continent’s political turmoil in the name of activating media-weary youth. In this case as well, its authors believed that a greater social good—produced by powerful story-telling forms and their associated feelings—gives them license to play somewhat loose with facts.

But in such confounding situations about the role and ethics of fact-based media, are we best served by only attending to the suffering of those who are misled, or by also asking larger questions about a culture of misleading and its new forms and old institutions? In the case of a retraction that ran on Friday, March 18 on “This American Life,” the players are as sacrosanct as National Public Radio, the New York Times, and Apple. Here, the discomfiting admixture of art and journalism occurred in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt of the acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey that ran on This American Life.

In “Retraction,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, thoughtfully and with some felt embarrassment and even seeming grief revealed that “the most powerful and memorable moments of the story all seem to be fabricated.” And so this story, too, inevitably played out in relation to the private pain of Ira Glass, and his listeners: “we are going to talk to Mike Daisey about why he lied to all of you, and to me, off the air, during the fact-checking process.” However, by playing the pain card, this story of real wrongdoing is only understood at the personal, and not formal, institutional or political, levels.

Certainly, deceiving a national radio audience, and its producers, about worker abuse in China is itself a violation worthy of attention. But the nature of this violation becomes less clear when that national audience is listening to “This American Life,” itself one of the range of contemporary media practices that structure reality like fiction so as to move, entertain, and inform audiences. Daisey explains, “Everything I have done is bent towards that end, to make people care.” He admits that he lied in pursuit of telling what he thought to be a greater artistic truth, but he continually insists, to an ever more aggrieved Glass, that he did so as a theater artist and not a journalist, and his mistake was putting his work into a new context.

In response, however, Glass doesn’t take the more transparent road: acknowledging that this context-confusion is partly of his own making. For certainly, genre-bending shows like This American Life influence the shifting norms of storytelling. Their programs may be fact-checked like real journalists, but other norms of the profession are adapted to allow audiences to feel. But Glass avoids larger and more self-critical conversations about the pervasive use of fabrication, entertainment, and fiction within contemporary media, or his own show. Instead he chooses to at once verify the journalistic chops of This American Life and vilify the behavior of Daisey. He brings in reporters from “Planet Money” and The New York Times to humiliate Daisey into his own retraction, making Daisey the scapegoat for a cultural and institutional shift, or perhaps spread. Glass says to Daisey, “I have the normal world view. If you say something happened to me, then it did.”

Given these changing norms, however, in our contemporary media environment we need more than a normal view from our best journalists. We need critical frameworks to understand how Daisey, Glass, and mainstream institutions, like NPR, are honestly thinking about, using, and changing the uses of subjectivity, fiction, storytelling—and the real emotions they bring to bear—to allow audiences to know, and to care, in an ever more noisy, unfeeling, and uncertain world.

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.

I teach a course, Visual Research Methods, for Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University where I push graduate students who have made a career of paper-writing to express their intellectual work about visual culture, visually. Even as the course provocatively pushes them as individuals out of their comfort zones of expression and audience, it also begs larger questions about field formation, training, authority, the use, ethics and scale of academic work, and its normative vernaculars, media, and modalities. While they start closer to home with video essays, then moving farther afield through documentary and ethnographic media, they end someplace new again: right smack here, in the Internet, asked to think about and through “digital storytelling.”

While you might imagine that a great deal of the writing on the Internet might be considered just such a text, there is actually a sort of academic/non-profit stranglehold on the what this terms means: “A short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds” as enabled by the standard workshops given to local citizens at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, CA, and its many official and kindred sites around the world, institutions where trained experts facilitate the voices of the people. The work that comes out of these centers follows a rather predictable model for both form and content—private often painful or sensational stories, illustrated with personal images and moving scores—while also attaining a level of quality and attention that a good deal of the “bad video” of the Internet lacks. These other “digital stories” sit in some precarious and complex relation with the unruly, undisciplined, and often proto-literate projects of citizens who tell their stories outside of institutional sanction, training, or norms: the blogs, tweats, videos, and tumblrs of web 2.0.

For my students (and for me), this begs the role of the (visual/academic) expert in the sea of the digital: to speak here ourselves in new voices and vernaculars and to different audiences, to train the peeps to be more literate, to look at the work of day to day users and better understand it. This post serves as an invitation for my students currently enrolled in the course to blog about their initial stake in and take about digital storytelling (you’ll find their ideas in the comments here over the next few days). But we’d love to hear from other readers as well: about my opening remarks, or my students’ thoughts relayed on their own blogs (another visual research method for the course). In our readings for this week from Digital Storytelling, Meditized Stories, Knut Lundby introduces his anthology by raising these academic understandings of digital storytelling: as small scale stories that give a voice to ordinary people through self-representation using digital technology; as multi-modal transformations that remix culture to challenge institutions through personal narratives and a performance of authenticity. It seems worth noting that many of these ideas about scale, institutional challenge, multi-modality, authority, and performance are equally critical to understanding scholars moves into a digital (research) voice (note my first paragraph), so I invite some introspection and self-reflexivity (as have many past students in the course) about “digital storytelling” as well:

AIDS Feelings

October 19, 2011

My talk at Concordia stirred a lot of feelings in the community: an intended effect of my “mixed reality experience” produced through the experiences of real bodies, watching digital materials, in real rooms. I didn’t expect the anger, however. Here’s a review by Jacob Roberts, from The Link, that gets to some of those complex responses.

NYU Culture and Media @ 20

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.

As it is wont to do, the blogisphere will tackle, pin-down, chew-up, devour, and spit out the story of the phony “lesbian blogger Amina” and her pseudo-lesbian editor, “Paula Brooks.” I would like to enter my two-cents to the fray by speaking as a “black lesbian.” I do not take on this position lightly, as was also true for Tom McMaster and Bill Graber who say they understood some of what was at stake during their lengthy charades as “lesbians.” However I do not do so because I hear this titillating character inside my brain or because I need a beard to write in support of lesbian issues. Black lesbians speak just fine for themselves, and much of what they demand and produce is the possibility to voice their experiences and knowledge into history and culture on their own.

I speak here as a “black lesbian” because when I was teaching my course on feminist online spaces during the Spring, to my surprise and initial confusion, so many of my students did. They were assigned to inhabit an online space for the semester and make a number of interventions there about feminism and anti-racism. Somehow, a significant enough number of them decided to do so as a “black lesbian” that this became a short-hand for us to name a number of online behaviors worth noting here:

  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference on the internet, a non-differentiated space where race, class, gender, and sexuality are neutralized
  • the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference for the bodies and lived experience of many humans who are more hegemonically situated
  • these limits so broken, the “black lesbian’s” position authorizes her to raise otherwise unmentionable or outlawed points about race, gender, class, and sexuality online by anchoring these forbidden thoughts to a body that seems to have the right and need to so speak
  • as if we white, straight, male, wealthy, Latino, biracial, bisexual, working-class, transgender, Jewish, Hungarian others don’t already have our own authority to trouble so easily or casually or “honestly” or “naturally” the norms, boundaries, and rules of the spaces we inhabit

Internet studies has thoughtfully and carefully worked through the reasons of the cyber-ruse over these many years, and I hope the blogisphere will find Lisa Nakamura’s work on cybernetic-tourism, or Allucquere Roseanne Stone‘s thinking about “virtual cross-dressers,” to be useful to think through today’s late-breaking fake-news. My own work on the “Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove helpful.

MacMaster blogs, “I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.”

The problem with this plea, as sincere as it may be, is that popular culture reminds us again and again that men and white people always play better women then women, better lesbians than lesbians, and better blacks than blacks because the real ones are too right, or correct, or left, and in the end, it’s easier to palate difficult issues with irony.