Man-o Man-ifesto!

February 2, 2017

I hope you will go see my short review of Julian Rosefeldt’s impressive, spectacular art show, “Manifesto” now online on the Brooklyn Rail.  I conclude with my own (wo)manifesto, in homage of Zoe Leonard’s:

Every woman is entitled to her own ifesto: what we want when we are done with the putrid, immoral art of our time. And I want my (man)ifestos to be humble and maybe even cheap. I don’t want my (wo)manifestations(hu)manifestos to be corporate sponsored or sick with money! Actually, I need my (wo)manifestos to be exactly as big and expensive as is necessary to move people to think, feel, and act. I want these empowering words to be urgent to their place and time and alive within their own community. I want my (mac)ifestos to say who penned them and why. I want to know how words about art matter to their author and to me, and my friends, and to this country, and the world. I want my manifestos to help.


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 is most of my talk for an upcoming Symposium, New Media: Theory, Practice, Power for Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for the Arts and Society focusing on creating fuller interaction across the arts and humanities (the pages I will show at the talk from my YouTube publication, currently under review so also under wraps, are not included in this blog entry). To be clear, I post these talks on my blog, and make use of YouTube as well, as ways to experiment with moving academic discourse from its home turf ever expanding access, all the while self-reflexively noting and demonstrating the violations and translations of vernacular and protocol that must occur when an invited scholarly talk becomes something else, say, a public blog or a YouTube video. In case it’s not clear here, I always use these academic talk-blogs to actually begin my “real” talks, forcing my in-the-room audience to read/see me on-line even as I am also there with them in the room, reversing again my reflexive project to focus upon presence/absence among other things.

The talk:

Today, I will focus upon praxis, reflecting upon how I wrangled with this idea, method, and orientation in my most recent “publication,” a significant on-line effort, currently under review at a scholarly press, that brings together my abundant writings about a course I taught about and on YouTube in 2007 and 08. I will engage in a full description of this project, and its praxis, after setting up some defining terms.

For me, praxis is the difficult but necessary work of bridging ideas—particularly history and theory—with the production of things—particularly media objects like videos, films, or websites—under the intention of change. Change, encompassing as it does material goals and their associated actions, is what truly initiates and confirms praxis. One really need not engage in praxis, the difficult and usually unsupported work of unmaking and re-linking disciplines and protocols, unless one begins from the commitment to amend. Alternatively, if one starts a project with world or self-changing in mind—what do I want to accomplish with this work in the world and why—I find it hard to believe that one would not engage in praxis, as the objects most activists need to complete their specific goals are refined or even made viable through a formulating and polishing with the wax and wane of history and theory.

Now, of course, I’m talking here specifically about praxis in the academy, and clearly its paralyzing grip of disciplinary specificity, professional training, and institutional evaluation function quite effectively to keep most of us from praxis. We are easily convinced that we not authorized to or even capable of asking world-changing questions from this berth, and even when we do, we are best supported to either think and then write about the activist things other people make, or make things that others will think and write about politically. We go on to teach our students these segregated practices in different buildings, under different histories, using varied vocabularies, and focusing upon distinct methods.

Yet, in some scholarly places we can be supported to work differently, and in another forum we might list what these supports include. At Pitzer, I actually have been so supported and from there, my praxis begins with a world-bound goal: I want to contribute to conversations about ending the war by looking at how debates within the left are foreshortening our abilities to better engage the right; reflection about this limitation might lead to new oppositional strategies. This goal begs the next significant questions along the praxis chain: who, in particular, do I want to converse together, and even more specifically, how, where, when and towards what end? Unlike when I engage in a more typical academic or art project (not praxis), where I raise and then answer for an audience much like me a unique and small variation upon a question with which we are all already familiar, in my praxis work, the question of audience itself—and then those immediately following, about form and method—must be modified, even tailor-made, to best suit the very particular goals I began with. The very conditions that make our disciplines our disciplines, make them comfortable to work within, allow them to work effectively—prescribed and known audience, method, form, vernacular, and rationale—must be self-consciously structured anew for every work of praxis, and thus both ideas (theory and history) and reflexivity become central. Praxis is self-aware of its own forms and functions, just as so much academic and artistic effort is streamlined through accepted disciplinary rubrics, histories, and qualities of expertise, training, and evaluation.

Now, I could certainly address my stated world-changing goal—altering the conversation about leftist interpretation of the Iraq War so as to change our activism—by writing a theoretical piece about the representation of the Iraq War for a Media Studies journal. But clearly, this is neither the best form nor the best suited audience for my goals, although it would undoubtedly not hurt the cause if I responded in such a limited fashion. However, I want to reach educated leftists (and most live outside the academy, or even Media Studies for that matter), and I don’t want to be either pigeon-holed or confined by my expert’s, Cinema Studies discourse. Thus, I chose to make a documentary (SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age) about and with my activist sister, Antonia Juhasz, that I hoped would go to international film festivals, college classrooms and activist working-groups, play on the internet, and be part of an organized effort to situate these questions into a larger fabric of organizations and conversations.

Many of our efforts within academia, then, can or cannot be praxis, depending upon these two key, interrelated features: their political intention and reflexive structure. For instance, scholarly writing, documentary, painting, teaching, and even administration, can become praxis if and when the needs of our ends force us to re-think and then re-tool standard forms and operating procedures. And, interestingly, many of us first perhaps tentatively began to do this, or are doing this newly again, as we find ourselves moving our practices on-line because there we are suddenly given leeway and even license over audience and form often denied us in the more regulated and ossified forms of our various disciplines. Which gets me to YouTube.

To organize this talk on how praxis works within my forthcoming on-line YouTube work, I looked at everything I had so tagged, and asked what were the distinct if related ideas about praxis that were displayed across this varied body of texts. It seems I tagged with the term praxis if one of six things occurred on any page, it:

1) makes political and theoretical arguments through YouTube videos;

2) integrates theory, practice, and politics;

3) documents and thus furthers teaching as a form of praxis;

4) engages in theorizing from the making of something in the name of changing something else;

5) attempts to create praxis communities to better hold informed discourse about social issues;

6) or displays praxis manifestos.

At this point in the talk, when live at Carnegie Melon, I go to my draft YouTube work which includes some of the following videos (in conversation with my own writing).


April 23, 2009

Thanks to Chuck at the Chutry Experiment for alerting me to the fact that the docs on snagfilms are now, magically, on YouTube. You see, beyond the many feature docs that this now makes available, as well as the many other feature films and TV shows delivered via other corporate deals bent on maybe, finally, monetizing the site, this also means that my very own SCALE is on YouTube.

My reaction is ambivalent. Lots more people might view my anti-war documentary; all these people will see it in a context that is not ideal for activism, analysis, or community. Chances are they’ll watch a minute or two, and click elsewhere. However, its 60 minutes (as is true for all features) is crafted to grow and change and build, so the first few minutes relay little of what it becomes and less of what I hope to say.

When I make YouTube videos, I speak in a messy fast vernacular suited and situated for this medium. My “professional” work, is long form, produced collaboratively with a crew (cameraman, editor, producer) and is made to be screened with the lights down in a room of others driven to be there, talk after, and perhaps even do something against the war later.

These distinctions have become at once more relevant and irrelevant. As all media becomes available all the time, the careful conditions of shared activist viewing become increasingly absent and therefore more valuable and necessary. As the differences between amateur/professional and alternative/mainstream wane, our needs for “pure” acts outside of capitalism escalate. As corporations take on a larger role in alternative distribution, artists beware. When I tried to make the feature version of my documentary SCALE the main video selection on my SCALE YouTube page, I got this banner from YouTube: “We are unable to show you the original featured video for this channel due to age or location restrictions.” Snag’s corporate umbrella got my long doc onto YouTube (thanks!) but controls its terms (there’s also ads embedded!).

March 19 marks the 6th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As one small gesture against the ongoing war, I announce the launch of the website for my anti-war video documentary: SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age (2008).

My quirky feminist documentary plays the drama of two leftist sisters (Antonia and I) against the big stage of US empire, corporate greed, and media escalation.

You can watch “SCALE” for free at
Or see activists discussing scale on youtube.
You could also set up a screening of SCALE with friends, family, students, or colleagues.
The documentary raises questions about the power of activism and media that seem only more pertinent in our hard times. There’s also a discussion guide on the website.

In any case, I urge you to take a minute, an hour, or the day to mark your continued opposition.

United for Peace and Justice calls for action.

Next Week: SCALE

July 9, 2008

I actually started this blog, about exactly a year ago, on the behest of Yvonne Welbon (who’s all about social networking and indie media), the producer of my documentary, “SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age.” While there are several posts about the doc here, my blogging concerns are multiple (although certainly connected around media praxis, the integration of production, theory and politics), and I haven’t written about it for awhile, my attention, most recently on YouTube, blogging, and Vertov. This is also because SCALE’s been in a kind of snivvling dormant period, waiting to be wanted or relevant. And yes, at last, that moment is (almost) here!

I have been led to believe that on July 19 it will premier, on-line, on a yet to be named corporate documentary site (with ads cut in, yes, it’s true) that will itself launch on this date. SCALE’s premier is enshrouded in cyber-mystery, itself telling about the politics and practices of indie film and the internet. I’ve never met the people who programmed my film, the folks making the site, or those promoting the package, although they are super supportive on the phone. They do have all my materials. They are very psyched. I believe that they believe in the radical model of documentary distribution they will soon be unleashing. We’ll see. More soon…

Certainly, my site (www.scalethedocumentary) will be live by July 19.

SCALE has been a wonderful and hard project for me, and I am eager to see what it will become once people can actually see it. I know many on the left (including quite a few of those featured in the doc) find it a difficult film, perhaps the wrong film for this moment in its harsh look at some of our dirty secrets. I know it mixes things (the personal and the political, the small and the big) in ways people find disquieting. But you never really know a film until its audience sees it, and responds with sighs and laughs, and restless shifts in their seats, all of which I ‘ll never experience, given its on-line life.


November 27, 2007

I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.

Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).

Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.

Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.

And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?