#62, don’t look

March 25, 2017

In “How Do I (Not) Look? Live Feed Video and Viral Black Death,” July 20, 2016, after the viral visibility of the Diamond Reynold’s live feed video of Philando Castile’s brutal death at the hands of the police, I wrote some #100hardtruths that must still figure:

“We come to this cultural, political and media onslaught as individuals but, it is my contention that each of us must take responsibility for our own acts of looking. When we look (or write) we engage in the regimes of visibility—complex networks of power, ownership, and access that frame our viewing and knowing—that surround and inform violence. Accounting for our place, our needs, our actions in the face of viral videos of murder is one within a constellation of necessary ethical and political acts. This is particularly true because it may feel like our current media conditions of onslaught and abundance allow us no choices at all. When we have the choice to look, we are bound ethically and politically to what we witness and what we do with all we have seen. Below is a brief primer of ways to understand how or why we might (not) look.”

Image adapted from Diamond Reynolds’ video

In that article, I share these principled positions: Don’t Look, Look Askance, Look at Death, and Look at Death’s Platforms and connect these to deeper traditions of thinking about practices of looking.

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I recently received an unexpected but timely invitation (from editor Catherine Halley) to write an article for JSTOR Daily.  Her email request arrived when indeed I had something pressing I wanted to say. I was not sure I could say it, or that the time was right, or what the ramifications of my writing it would be, but I did very much want to think critically (and in public) about why I wasn’t watching the viral live feed videos of black death that began circulating and multiplying last week.

With Halley’s close help, and that of many friends and colleagues, that article was published today: How Do I (Not) Look: Live Feed Video and Viral Black Death. My writing, and thinking, occurred in conversation, actual and in my head, with a great many friends and scholars who I’d like to point to here, in no particular order and most likely forgetting some, less for reasons of intellectual property and more to name that my/our understanding of momentous social, technological, personal mayhem and change occurs in communities of care and practice and thought: Natalie Bookchin, Gabrielle Foreman, Robert Reid-Pharr, Cheryl Dunye, Kemi Ilenanmi, Alisa Lebow, Jenny Terry, Roopali Mukherjee, Marta Zarzycka, Jen Malkowski, Lisa Cartwright, Marita Sturken, Nick Mirzoeff, Patty Zimmermann, Sam Gregory,  Deirdre Boyle, Safiya Noble, LaCharles Ward, Ellen Scott, bell hooks, Paola Bacchetta, Tina Campt,  Inderpal Grewal,  Caren Kaplan, Minoo Moallem, Susan Sontag, Henry Jenkins, Sherri Williams, Jodi Dean, Michael Gillespie, Stephen Winter, Theodore Kerr and Diamond Reynolds.

I write in honor of Reynold’s work and in the name of our shared witnessing of the death of Philando Castile and so many others.

I am sure my friends and colleagues above will not agree with all of my thoughts on this volatile and horrible matter, nor would I want them to, but I do hope they will understand how critical their voices (and long term work on issues of violence, visibility, video and racial injustice) have been for me during this time.

@Berkeley@UIL@Academia 2014

September 12, 2014

Granted, it took me awhile to watch Frederick Wiseman‘s 2013 At Berkeley, but @4hrs I’m sure you’ll understand the special nature of this commitment. While I love early Wiseman (Titticut Follies, High School), I had come to grow a bit weary of his feint of detachment barely disguising a sometimes snickering, often disdainful, if always ideologically-correct view of contemporary institutions. His website explains: “The institutions that Wiseman examined early in his career – a hospital, a high school, army basic training, a welfare center, a police precinct – have ‘problems’ that the filmmaker uncovers.” Furthermore, given that 90 minute features now feel awfully long (I’ll be blogging on this soon), to ask of us 2.5 times this much feels like we better get a great revelation or two …

And I did. The first is about duration (something I find I blog about quite a bit when I search the term) so not a revelation so much as a much appreciated reminder of all we miss in the escalation of the short form: hearing people speak in the often meandering yet ordinary and original ways that they do (i.e. not in sound bites), letting meaning of a place (and film) accrue through events that are not causally linked in a mad compressed dynamic of fulfillment, being with yourself and a film quietly as if a form of meditation or surrender so that new possibilities of attention open as other forms of stimulation close down.

Over At Berkeley‘s 4 hours, we see magnificently articulate, dedicated, ambitious and humble, diverse people (faculty, staff and students) both embodying in their intelligence, devotion, and talent and sometimes, in the face of devastating funding cuts and linked corporatization of the University, overtly testifying for institutional ideals that no one (even Wiseman) could see as “a problem”: public education at the highest level, the public good, publicly “owned” research, the production of original ideas and art, open access to higher education with a commitment to diversity, academic freedom. The film was a feel-good expose of my daily life in higher education (I, too, see scores of people at work who legitimately, authentically, and daily do things in the name of knowledge, diversity, access, freedom of expression, and community).

It turns out that Wiseman pulls a surprising twist on his sometimes snarky project of “revealing the problems of institutions” by instead slowly celebrating the beauty of this institution (its grounds, buildings, theater performances, athletes, impassioned protesters, devoted staff and even administrators, and impressively articulate professors and students) thereby revealing the “problem” perhaps of not one institution but what Nick Mirzoeff calls, instead, “the complex of visuality,” by which he means the array of power held by corporations, nations, individuals and the technologies they deploy “that seek to naturalize and aestheticize its perspective in the classification and organization of the social order,” according to Sara Blaylock in the online journal Invisible Culture. This complex is often hard to see as it overtly guts the good in the name of profit, so Wiseman shows us, instead, all that it wishes to destroy.

But in the process, other realities @Academia 2014 go missing. We see no bored students, or incompetent professors or neo-liberal administrators. We see no grandstanding or endless and pompous faculty meetings. We do not see binge drinking, date rape, or micro aggressions. We do not listen in on the most-qualified graduate students in the world who probably aren’t getting jobs after their amazing training @Berkeley, nor the experiences of eminently qualified faculty who may not be getting tenure as the administration amps its standards @Academia that is more competitive then it has ever been. These institutional “problems” are left on the cutting room floor in service of a different argument, one I have no complaints that Wiseman has made in his celebration of the goodness of public education, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

Protest in support of Steven Salaita. (Photo: Twitter) - See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/university-trustees-reinstatement#sthash.CbljzKSb.dpuf

Protest in support of Steven Salaita. (Photo: Twitter) – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/university-trustees-reinstatement#sthash.CbljzKSb.dpuf

And yet, we need to look no further than @University of Illinois, another great American public institution of higher education, to see how vigilant we must be to make seen the many facets of “the complex of visuality” as it currently operates in American higher education. In the case of Dr. Steven Salaita, who demands reinstatement at the University of Illinois after his on-Twitter visibility led to his abrupt termination-before-the-fact, wealthy Zionists and other funders, the Board of Trustees, and the administration morph into a powerful counter-institution in their own right undoing in quick measure the kinds of goodness that Wiseman has allowed us to in daily practices of American institutions of public higher education.

We can only see the complex of visuality that defines @Academia 2014 by adding our representations to Wiseman’s serene and celebrity statement. Let’s begin here:

PS: and then there’s this by Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times connecting UC and UIL through another look:

“Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of UC Berkeley, on Friday, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which he says “made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus.”

I’ve returned from SCMS and Louisiana (having seen two alligators in the wild on a hike and eaten crawfish and shrimp in innumerable yummy formats) and would like to briefly mention a few of my more memorable media encounters: like the alligator, anxiety-defined all.

Tara McPherson organized New Media Futures: The Digital + the Academy, the workshop where she and I spoke with Nick Mirzoeff, Joan Saab, and Wendy Chun about how digital technologies are altering our new media labor (research and teaching), writing, and publishing practices. While the fact that the projector did not work, definitively disenabling our techie show ‘n tell (has this even not happened at a conference where I am speaking about the Internet?), and thereby providing some felt anxiety for each of the able speakers who could not readily rely on machines to illustrate our points as planned, I’m more interested in highlighting some of Wendy’s brilliant observations about anxiety and new media (studies). She suggested that fears about the future of new media (and its theories and applications) are definitive of the findings and methods of the field, as well as anticipating and self-defining the very forms that new media will take, leading to more uneasiness, more anxious findings, and more twittery tools needed to soothe our ever more shattered nerves and brains. For instance, an anxiety about loss leads to tools that save and thereby produce easily erased, unfindable, updated, quickly unusable, outmoded, unstable records that so engulf us that we become too overwhelmed to remember or (re)visit our saved stuff, thus already producing the loss we anxiously anticipated and the need to build even newer tools and theories to remedy all the more future loss we do and must anticipate.

Now, one might imagine that old-school (dying?) feminist (academic) blogging (and “self-promotion”), the topic of another workshop I attended (highlighting the powerful blogging and other online experiences of Miranda Banks, Ryan Bowles, Alisa Perren, Anne Petersen, Julie Russo, Patty Ahn, and Inna Arzumanova), might be a remedy to our nervous media condition in that blogs (like this one) might allow the lady-theorist (like this one) to calmly, and perhaps communally (or at least in-community) name her own terms, moods, tools, and forms; boy did Wendy Chun get this one right! These amazing, ambitious, bright, primarily young academic women (most were in grad school or ABD, one had just gotten tenure), as well as the mostly young feminists in the room, discussed their blogging, tweeting, and online personae (and thereby use of new media tools and the futures anticipated, hoped for, and associated) as organized by what … Anxiety of course (about being hired, promoted, and otherwise evaluated) and even fear (of hostile readers and punitive potential committees).

Their anxiety made me feel, well, anxious (to feel so differently from everyone else in the room, my comrades, and then try to articulate it cogently) but mostly sad. Then mad, and now compelled to speak and explain. My feminist (academic) blogging might be understood or termed as “self-promotion,” or even “self-branding” (a term tossed about, uneasily, at the session), just look below: I pitch my films and books. Yet I truly think of this very same practice (without fear) as a public engagement in thinking out loud, honing a voice, self-naming, community-building, and stake-holding.

This media platform, like all others, is pretty neutral (yes I know, ownership, design, protocols have meaning, but this is not my point here). Rather, we assign to platforms like blogging (or are assigned) feelings and anticipated futures, but we feminists need not accept the anxiety that holds us in check, that makes us self-doubt, that assures us that speaking about our own good work or new ideas is somehow too prideful rather than merely productive. Feminism gives us all the tools we need to understand that economic conditions like a depression and an academy that sells advanced degrees to pay for itself,  social conditions like patriarchy and racism and homophobia, and psychological conditions like anxiety, should not be suffered as a personal, debilitating and self-censoring problem, but should be understood and fought as political issues best addressed by being named, refused, refined, and remade within the power of movements and with the tools of technology. Sure, all these amazing young women should be anxious about getting a job, but they shouldn’t be anxious about blogging that fact, or blaming whoever they want to blame, or naming the forces in their way, and then doing, showing, and sharing their great work, from which we can all learn and build. I choose anger over anxiety any day (including in your comments, or as I like to think of them my no-mments. We fruitfully discussed in the workshop the value of the under-sung, underdone labor of commenting to better build dialogue, community, and confidence in the anxious world of feminist academic blogging).

Also, a shout out to a great panel I went to on Interactivity. Marina Hassapopoulou spoke about the legacy of expanded cinema and video installation to help us historicize new media, Aubrey Anable about the lie that interactivity is a forum for democratic participation in the new urban planning of New Orleans, and Vinicius Navarro about the new media index as an emptiness that points to a referent in-between.