Background

On Saturday I went to the first Version conference. I went in as my skeptical self and left really amazed at the conversations I was able to listen to from the wonderfully curated panels. I didn’t have any deep thoughts until this morning when my normal train route was not running on my way to work. I’d also forgotten my idevice and headphones so I was reading Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology (I’ve not finished it yet, but the deep thought came so here it is, jotted down before my next meeting).

I was very struck by the work of Jacolby Satterwhite. He is using virtual reality to create a world where he is more whole than he can be outside where his myth can be constructed, completed and fully experienced in a way not possible I the real world. In fact, he said as much, vulnerable, on a stage with only a few faces that looked like him in the audience.

These thoughts are so drafty I can feel the virtual wind on my body

I am stuck in this place where VR is the broken mirror stage as defined by a footnote in black skin white masks that I can’t cite because the book is at home coupled with the McLuhan idea of amputation, only it is the ultimate amputation. What this has me thinking, or realizing maybe, is perhaps I was so attracted to the theory of Fanon and McLuhan because they are both talking about the same exact thing/experience. Media amputates us from our embodied selves in various was as it extends who we are. When we other stand the body as a medium in and of itself, when the body is stuck in a place of alienation due to a lack of mutual recognition, which is the case for different bodied people, be it because of race, ability, or other things that might present as a visible or aural difference, there is an amputation from the perceived metaphysical (not sure this is the right word, but the basis for all of this is there is no actual self just the perception… oh damnit this is so theory I’m angry) self. Okay, I forgive myself. The way VR is being imagined right now does not give primacy to embodied experiences. It gives primacy to the plaststicty of the brain and the fact that because of the brains plasticity you can fool the body into disembodying itself and attaching to a virtual analog.

So why race? Well, there is always race. I live in a raced body. Also it is female. I’m a little bit chubby. I feel and experience my inner self and live in a body that is marked and reacted to in particular ways based on things outside of my control that I do not notice until I realize I’m being seen in 3rd person. What the experience of race or marked/unexpected difference highlights, unveils, demystifies is that some of us are never ourselves. We live as a virtual version of who we are because there are things about us that already script how we are read and reacted it. If I am on a train, and people see me all of those markers of difference might or might not make them have thoughts about me that are untrue. Because of the ways I am marked by difference, those thoughts might veer towards negativity (but that is a whole other conversation on perceived mircro-aggressions versus actual ones and the complications of interpreting a space when you are “Other”). So, back to this third person business. Everyone (not everyone but many people) gets mad at me when I use Fanon to speak about existing in 3rds, but I have to because he is the one who is speaking specifically about the broken mirror stage, as mentioned above. The mirror stage, per Fanon, breaks for the black child when the child in pre-adolescence realizes their body, their self is not the one projected by media, history or society.

07UP-Beschloss-superJumbo

The plasticity required to reconcile the self already exists for those bodies marked by difference as they already have to exist in third person when they live in dominant societies. They are at once themselves, the person they project and the person others perceive them to be. We see t his in Mamie (and Kenneth) Clarks doll experiment. The black child, seeing the dolls wants to play with the white dolls. The sadness the child has at having to reconnect with the doll they rejected, the doll they said was bad, shows that for many people, they always already live in a state of detachment from their bodies in a meaningful way because that is where society takes them. When I listened, and reflected on what Satterwhite was saying about having to take in the racism of the live audience and how the virtual him could be layered and contain the mythologies and performance that cannot be done in the real world, even as they were still a representation of himself, unchanged, it was meaningful. For me, the black body is one that is, by society and media and culture, amputated from its own humanity. The mask in Black Skin White Masks is a virtual reality where I realize to the world outside I am a monster (at times). It is one I cannot escape. There are no goggles. It is a light field discussed in terms of color and hues. I am sad that the place of empowerment and humanity is a virtual one… but there is another side to this too.

I love Fanon because he says that we all experience this world in 3rds, it is just more obvious to those marked as Other in a way that cannot be escaped if they are to move with other humans. For those in groups of privilege that don’t acutely feel the amputation, VR is the tool that takes them to that space through that wonderful plastic brain of theirs. In the Code of Ethical conduct, seeing the virtual body as the real body was seen as being detrimental and something we should worry about the psychological effects of (in the part that I read). And Yes! Yes! Of course!! but what about all the children who go through this micro-psychological change very time they are confronted with their own image. Every time they choose them self (in a doll or other thing) they are briefly experiencing a moment of disembodiment and radical embodiment… and this is fascinating and I’m still trying to figure out how/what I think and feel about this. I guess the question is, is VR different because on chooses to enter that world, but with race (or other marked difference) choice is removed and there is no world without the goggles (except for the electric one)?

Anyway, to end, because I have another meeting… The danger in VR around bodies and alienation, then, is that those in power and privileged might realize their bodies are meaningless because others have the power to manipulate and define their image (because it is clear that VR is a tool that can radically manipulate those who enter virtual worlds through immersive experiences that cause the body to feel and experience things that are not real outside of the image/sensation created in the mind). In the world of immersive VR that comes as a prepackaged experience the experiencer is at risk of being stuck in the world they entered, unable to change what’s been coded into their lived experience by the machine and the people who control it.

But hey, this is the world I was born into so…

 

/very drafty thoughts.

For all of the woe is me grad life things that happen to me and every grad student in the world, I can say there is one thing I am 100% grateful for in my department. They allow me to teach and give me enough freedom to ensure that I never have to bring a course into being that I wouldn’t want to take myself. This is important to me. Whenever I am planning a syllabus, I try to plan it around things I will be happy to grade, talk about, read about, write about, discuss, tear apart, and all those other fun things that happen in class. A few years ago I was in probably a classroom situation with Cathy Davidson and we were talking about grading. Something was said that made everything make sense to me. I can’t remember the direct quote, but the takeaway was what I now say when I explain my classes. You can either grade on retention and application or on learning outcomes. If you are grading on the latter, most people should be able to get an A. I do the latter. Rather than explain all of this I thought I would dissect components of a recent syllabus of mine for a Media & Popular Culture 400 level class with Cultural Studies bent.

Basics to help this make a bit more sense. It isn’t a secret that I am a black female, of unknown age, who lets the class know that I am both heterosexual and a mother because I think it is important to acknowledge that we all have unintentional biases. I am not the normal person they see at the front of the classroom so it is something that we confront very close to the beginning. The class was separated in the following sections:

Part 1: Current Media Landscape

Part 2: Gender and Sexuality

Part 3: Race and Racism

Part 4: Theory, Theory, Theory

I places Part 2 and 3 before Part 4 because I consider them to be the excesses of theory in that while theory can help us understand them, everyone in the class has a lived experience that means they confront gender and sexuality, race and racism etc on a daily basis at different levels of awareness. My body at the front of the room makes them more aware of that experience than if I were a cisgender white male… and that is fine. It leads to amazing discussions early in the class.

Objectives

Just so people know what they are getting into and what I hope will happen in the class, I have four standard objectives that get modified slightly depending on the course topic. They are generally the following though. And #4 will never go away!

Course Objectives

1. to read scholarly and popular texts critically; 2. to practice constructing and shaping arguments; 3. to find a voice in writing and presenting media; 4. to creatively experiment

Assignments

The class works through 100 points for Participation (in Class & Online), a Media Presentation, a Mid-Semester Check-In (aka a midterm with a less stressful name), and a Final Project.

1.1 In Class Participation

15

1.2 Online Participation

20

2.0 Media Presentation

15

3.0 Mid-Semester Check-In

15

4.0 Final Project*

35

TOTAL

100

 

1. Participation

1.1 In Class Participation

For a 400 level class I decided to not to do a grade for attendance, but there was an in class participation grade. This meant that while people were not required to be there, it was in their best interest to be as it was the easiest way to earn those points. Points then went up depending on how much the student engaged or help guide the class. Basically this was my way of saying this would be a discussion based class more than a lecture based class.

1.2 Online Participation (posts for points not grades)

Rather than having essays due throughout the course students were required to write blog posts throughout the semester on various weeks.  The idea behind how these posts were designed, and why they were grade for points and not necessarily content is because the class blog was a private space where students were allowed to be unsure, share things that might not be a “normal” thing to be shared in a classroom space, or, just a place to have a conversation. The timing of posts and limits on when they can be posted encourages students to plan ahead of time. Because they are due in separate weeks and at different times (in relation to the material the students are talking about), they serve as a tool for me to see how students are understanding and thinking about course material. The posts helped steer class discussion as well. I should not that this is the assignment the students had the hardest time committing to. Those who did all of their posts all ended up with really high grades overall, even on the objectively graded materials. There is a very clear link between grade outcomes on all assignments and completion of the blog posts.

1.2Online Participation: Blog Posts (8 Total, done in separate weeks) 

Media Object (2) For these posts you will find a popular media object and provide a brief commentary (150-300 words) linking it to concepts and discussion from the class. These posts should also include 1-2 discussion questions. Due anytime before Nov 22nd.

Reading Reflection/Reaction Posts (3) These posts need to be made BEFORE we discuss a reading in class and show an engagement with the text. The purpose of these posts is to highlight areas you find interesting, or confusing. These can be thought of as thought experiments in 200-400 words. Due no later than 11am the day reading is discussed.

 Discussion Reflection/Reaction Posts (3) These are due no later than 1 week after a class discussion. These posts should continue threads from the conversation in class, engaging the conversation in a larger cultural context. These posts can also address questions or concerns brought up in class that did not have an adequate answer, linking it to concepts from readings in 250-450 words. Due no later than 11am one week after a reading is initially discussed in class.

 INFORMATION KEEP IN MIND

You will need to make a blog post for 9 of 12 weeks. There will be no make up blog posts, and only 1 post/week will count towards your final grade. Nov. 22 is the last day to post to the blog for credit.

Potential Extra Credit (up to 5%)

If you regularly contribute to the blog over the semester, in the form of engaging comments/discussion on other people’s blog posts primarily, and/or additional posts you can earn extra credit. This requires engagement throughout the semester though. Bursts of activity at the end of the semester will not count towards these points.

Presentations

For this course students were required to put together media objects to share and discuss with the class. In all honesty, they over thought this assignment and had a very hard time sharing. Instead they more often than not tried to teach. I imagine this has a lot to do with not having a sharing presentation modeled well, and that is something I’ll continue to work on in my pedagogy. Because this was one of the competency assignments, a rubric was distributed to explain point distribution.

2.0 Media Presentation

Media Object/Cultural Artifact: Theoretical Engagement Presentation, and Discussion Leadership

In groups of 2-3, you will produce a 15-20 minute presentation that relates a popular culture artifact to the concepts examined in the lectures and readings. You might choose to screen a music video, online role-playing game, silent film, news report, or podcast. You might opt to circulate a print artifact or some other physical cultural object around the class, or address some current or past cultural trend through slides or a performance. This activity is designed to help us frame the week! At the beginning of the week your group will be responsible for bringing in a media object such as a television episodes, a series of songs (no fewer than 3, no more than 5), a music video, part of a film, a website, etc. that will help us frame the discussion for the week through a common cultural object.

Following a brief exposition of the artifact or phenomenon in question, you should be prepared to elaborate your perspective critically:

What are some of the forces underlying its production and consumption?

How do class concepts help us to understand its existence and circulation?

Public controversies surrounding the artifact are often useful here, to draw out its position in culture.

Presentation Grading Rubric

Points Item Details Point Breakdown
8 pts Follows general guidelines as outlined in the syllabus
  • Show engagement with the course and course readings, especially from the presentation week.
  • Successfully begin to frame the week.
  • Presentation fits within the time requirements.
4 pts Discussion questions/Leadership
  • Prepare two discussion questions, as a pair/group, directly related to the readings.
  • Meaningfully engage discussion questions with the class.
3 pts Creative engagement with Media Object/Cultural Artifact
  • Display of reflexivity in thoughtfulness in media object/cultural artifact
  • Successful use of object to aid in understanding of course material
  • General Preparedness.

 

TOTAL

 

Midterm (Boo!)

I was teaching an introduction to media history, theory and criticism course, and the students were super stressed out on the day of the midterm. We’d been going over semiotics and I asked if it would be better if I called it something else. We decided to rename it the mid-semester check in. It is a take home assignment with short, medium, and long answers. The students have to answer all the short answers, and one medium and one long answer. I try to come up with questions that allow the students to reflect on their thinking rather than showing a lot of citations.

3.0 Mid-Semester Check-In (Formerly know as “The Midterm”)

This will be a take home assignment designed for me to assess your level of understanding of core concepts in the class. It is a chance for you to show me what you’ve learned, and for me to make sure we are all on the same page, so to speak.  You will be provided with a document that has directions and a series of prompts to respond to on DUE DATE.

Here are two of the questions that produced some really wonderful responses.

Mid-Semester Check In Example Prompts

Short Answer (30 pts, 10 pts Each)
Understanding Media & Popular Culture
Respond to the following in half a page or less3. In this course “Gender & Sexuality”, and “Race, Racism, and Representation” were discussed as spaces that are beyond our theoretical frames as they are grounded in lived experience and reproduced as stereotypes in popular media. Identify another area of cultural excess and discuss how it is portrayed in media and how this reflects or highlights larger cultural attitudes or norms.

Medium Answer (20 pts)

Reading/Watching Media: Textual Analysis

Respond to one of the following prompts in 1-1.5 pages.

5. Read the lyrics to the song “I Don’t Need a Reason” by Dizzee Rascal http://rapgenius.com/Dizzee-rascal-i-dont-need-a-reason-lyrics

Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlzgDVLtU6g

 

Explain difference in meaning that can be inferred from the lyrics and the video and place them in a larger cultural context (It is okay to write from a US perspective on this!) and/or the media ecology the song exists in.

Long Answer (50 pts)

Respond to one of the prompts below using theories, concepts, and discussions from the course, in a 1.5-3 page essay.

6. Gender and Sexuality

We all consume the same media, yet certain media are targeted towards certain genders. We’ve read and discussed romance novels and sports this semester. If the content of these items stayed the same,

Option A: how would targeting males instead of females as the intended audience of romance novels and erotica change our cultural understanding and discussion of these media objects?

OR

Option B: how would targeting females instead of males as the intended audience of prime time sports change about the ways these sports are culturally discussed, understood, and sold/commodified?

The long answer was graded on a rubric, but it is a bit long.  I might upload it later.   Students did well (some of them even said they really enjoyed answering the questions!). They were put in a strange position though that did require some discussion. A lot of them were convinced they didn’t have any biases and/or weren’t influenced by the media they were consuming. They found that when they had to do the switch they were falling into stereotypical thinking and that was surprising for them, but awesome for classroom discussion. The answers to the medium questions were beautiful. I loved seeing the connections my students were making. Just… really lovely. And the short answer was my way of saying “I know we’ve spent a lot of time on gender and race stuff, but there are more things that are treated similarly in media”. There were lots of great responses, like romantic relationships, citizenship, body size and shape, beauty, ability, etc. Which made me glad, because my biggest fear is that students feel locked in by what we have time to cover in the class and don’t feel they have the freedom to think outside the syllabus.

Final

I am required to have a final. i teach media classes though, and I think one of the better ways to make the theory part of the class make sense is to have students put theory into practice through creative engagement or media making.  To encourage experimentation the points for this are placed in to various components, some of which are Pass/Fail for full or no credit. I’ll mark those with a **

4.0 Final Project (35%)

Option 1: Traditional Project (Theory into practice) & Presentation Group work encouraged. Requirements to be determined by instructor and student.

Option 2: Traditional or Experimental Paper (Theoretical exploration) & Presentation 10-12pp, double spaced, times new roman, 12pt font. Must be done individually.

*Important Dates (and % of final grade):

Oct .14: Final Project Proposal Due (10%)**

Nov. 11: Final Project Workshop (5%)**

Dec. 04: Final Project Object Due (15%)

Dec. 06: Final Project Presentation (5%)**

Most of the project was points/no points to limit the stress. As long as students followed the directions (most of which were negotiated and agreed upon in class) for the assignments, they received the points. By taking out the qualitative measure, and reminding students that they were encouraged to experiment, students were able to propose things they hadn’t done before. It is always awesome to see the work of a first time DIY film maker or webmaker. Seriously. It makes it worth it. I’m ahead of myself though. Once I received the proposal and knew the type of projects students were thinking about doing, the ways they were considering executing them, and how they thought they were seeing them in relation to class content, I was able to make sure as we went through the theory section of the class I did my best to make it relevant to the topics proposed. I created a Final Project Guidelines (PDF) document. And distributed it to the students. The requirements were discussed in a class session after the first workshop before this was created and distributed.

Workshop days  are days where students get to talk to their audience members. One of the most important things for me with the final is that they know they have to present it to the class, and so they should get feedback to see how the class, their biggest audience is reacting and what input they might have. I usually create worksheets for them to fill out for these to turn in at the end of class so I can see where they are. The worksheets let me know if there are any red flags or project issues that are individual are universal that need to be addressed. The biggest universal issue is usually project scope.

The last part, the presentation, is what we do during the time slot our final is slated for. What I think is awesome about how this all comes together is, the diversity of the students and what they are interested in means that in the 2-3 hours we meet, have baked goods and soda together and listen to everyone talk about what hey worked on/thought about  for 4-6 weeks we end up with this really kick ass course review because people are interested in different things and make different connections and tend to bring them together in some really amazing and innovate ways.

——————–

So that’s that. A lot of the points are based on showing up and attempting the assignment. Grade breakdowns seem to indicate that students will end up with a grade I would have given them had I been grading on retention/knowledge acquisition based on their in class participation/attendance patterns, familiarity with the course literature, and effort put in to what they put out. I just shared bits of 1 class, but I’ve taught 8 classes now with this format I think. Inevitably every semester I have 1 disgruntled student that is used to doing minimal effort, no attendance and passing with an exam and a paper who ends up with a C or a D that tried to get points for the credit no credit assignment. Hardline though so it doesn’t happen. For that one student though, there are maybe 2 who apologize to me for not doing the work and getting a bad grade. They want me to know that it isn’t a reflection on me or my teaching and they can do better/be better students. So far I’ve had 4 of those students take another class with me. They all went up at least a letter grade. I’m proud of them.

This has been a strange year for me and theorists. Allan Sekula passed in August (and if you haven’t read it, you should read the Body and the Archive. It offers a wonderful frame for media studies/photographic culture). And then I learned yesterday on Twitter that José Esteban Muñoz passed away. I learned about it as Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven came on an internet radio station, followed by Perry Como’s Magic Moments (Above). The music seemed fitting for how I remember the experience of reading Muñoz and how I was feeling touched by nostalgia while understanding that this is someone who I hoped to meet some day in the flesh, that I will only ever know through the text and other people’s stories.  I was working on the first chapter of my dissertation as I was reading Cruising Utopia with a group of Performance Studies people. We had different reactions to the book. It gave me the language to explain what I was looking for in that moment: Utopia. It felt like home. Here is what I wrote, a bit of my dissertation, in that moment… more than a year ago now I think. For it to make sense i should probably share the popcorn project that is part of the longer dissertation section this is excerpted from. on Trigger Warnings and Facing Oppression. This is the chapter that lays the frame for why I choose the site I do to start exploring ownership (of things, history, digital artifacts, hosted material), collectivity versus community online, digital movement, and the specific affordances of the digital medium that allows.

UTOPIA (DRAFT)

If the original purpose for so many of these images was to show how inhuman these women were, then seeing these pictures today as solely remnants of a negative past means we have not left the dialectic created by colonization’s desire to occupy not just the present, but the past and the future. Diaspora does not occupy just an imagined national space, it is a mode of being in the world defined by fleeting things like epidermal schemas, collective memory and history. Similarly, colonization is not just an actual state of being, it is a state of mind and of consciousness. The idea of a colonized brain, one steeped in values that see the West as central, either as the beacon of progress or the enemy, is not a brain that can break out of the net colonization. To look at the photographs and simply see a photograph of a woman, and accept her beauty, her being, her humanity, is a new level of consciousness.  “At every meeting the brain multiplies the association of ideas and the eye discovers a wider human panorama” (Wretched 136).

“A chaque réunion, le cerveau multiplie ses voies d’association, l’oeil découvre un panorama de plus en plus humanisé” (Damne 131).

If, as the women in the picture is met, the viewer does not see the “wider human panorama”, if the viewer fails to experience humanity expanded, then they remain stuck in a veritable hell, the “hostile, oppressive and aggressive” world that will keep them trapped for as long as they are willing to stay. Unable to understand the true potential of a Diasporic approach of recognition as a way to expand the collective definition of humanity and the human, and to instead see all that which is and was out of her control. To see only the western baggage that existed to create the photograph, is to see the weakness in the net of colonization and not break through. It is simply a photograph of “her”.

‘Dirty nègre!’ or simply ‘Look! A nègre!’

I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects.

Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost, and taking me out of the world put me back in the world.  But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye.  I lose my temper, demand an explanation… Nothing doing.  I explode.  Here are the fragments put together by another me (BS 89).

« Sale nègre ! » ou simplement : « Tiens, un nègre ! »

J’arrivais dans le monde, soucieux de faire lever un sens aux choses, mon âme pleine du désir d’être à l’origine du monde, et voici que je me découvrais objet au milieu d’autres objets.

Enfermé dans cette objectivité écrasante, j’implorai autrui. Son regard libérateur, glissant sur mon corps devenu soudain nul d’aspérités, me rend une légèreté que je croyais perdue et, m’absentant du monde, me rend au monde. Mais là-bas, juste à contre-pente, je bute, et l’autre, par gestes, attitudes, regards, me fixe, dans le sens où l’on fixe une préparation par un colorant. Je m’emportai exigeai une explication… Rien n’y fit. J’explosai, Voici les menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis” (PN 88).

 

At the beginning of starting this project, I assumed it was something that would speak to people on different levels.  When I thought of who it would affect, I knew, instinctively for me, the investment I imagined was with and for black women, and black people as a whole.  As I have moved through the work of Fanon, I realized that this was very short-sighted of me.  Just as liberating the women in these photographs from being just remnants of colonization or bad times for black folk around the globe helps change how we think of our own humanity, others can be affected by these photographs in similar ways. This re-imagining of a collective past, a new history, where we all existed in the same way, simply as people, transforms the fact that these women existed. We see them now, and it is liberator for everyone for us as seers and she as object who is now recognized as a woman.  We exist because she existed before us. She existed before us, because we see her now.

The people’s encounter with this new song of heroic deeds brings an urgent breath of excitement, arouses forgotten muscular tension and develops the imagination.  Every time the storyteller narrates a new episode, the public is treated to a real invocation.  The existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public.  The present is no longer turned inward but channeled in every direction.  The storyteller once again gives free rein to his imagination, innovates, and turns creator.  It even happens that unlikely characters for such a transformation, social misfits such as outlaws or drifters, are rediscovered and rehabilitated.  Close attention should be paid to the emergence of the imagination and the inventiveness of songs and folk tales in a colonized country.  The storyteller responds to the expectations of the people by trial and error and searches for new models, national models, apparently on his own, but in fact with the support of his audience.  Comedy and farce disappear or else lose their appeal.  As for drama, it is no longer the domain of the intellectual’s tormented conscience.  No longer characterized by despair and revolt, it has become the people’s daily lot, it has become a part of an action in the making or already in progress (Wretched 175).

Le contact du peuple avec la geste nouvelle suscite un nouveau rythme respiratoire, des tensions musculaires oubliées et développe l’imagination. Chaque fois que le conteur expose devant son public un épisode nouveau, on assiste à une réelle invocation. Il est révélé au public l’existence d’un nouveau type d’homme. Le présent n’est plus fermé sur lui-même mais écartelé. Le conteur redonne liberté à son imagination, innove, fait oeuvre créatrice. Il arrive même que des figures mal préparées à cette transmutation, bandits de grands chemins ou vagabonds plus ou moins asociaux, soient reprises et remodelées. Il faut suivre pas à pas dans un pays colonisé l’émergence de l’imagination, de la création dans les chansons et dans les récits épiques populaires. Le conteur répond par approximations successives à l’attente du peuple et chemine, apparemment solitaire, mais en réalité soutenu par l’assistance, à la recherche de modèles nouveaux, de modèles nationaux. La comédie et la farce disparaissent ou perdent leur attrait. Quant à la dramatisation, elle ne se situe plus au niveau de la conscience en crise de l’intellectuel. En perdant ses caractères de désespoir et de révolte, elle est

devenue le lot commun du peuple, elle des devenue partie d’une action en préparation ou déjà en cours (Damne 170).

Perhaps, for me, part of this project is chasing Utopia.  Rather than seeing Utopia as a mystical place that exists just beyond the horizon, instead, Utopia is the space where these women exist.  Utopia, for me, is the place where black women, instead of being seen as “damned” or “wretched”, are seen as full beings, capable of living, loving, feeling, touching. It is also the space where black women can be loved, felt, and touched.  It is the place where we realize that being “damned” or “wretched” is part of the universal human condition and to script black women as we do limits the potential of the Whole.  This move towards utopia requires changing the lens we use when examining historic oppression and crisis.

I am chasing a Utopia where we see the right faces.  Where our bodies are not grotesque, where our bodies are not the markers or racism and enslavement, they are simply our bodies.  Instead, as the picture of Heilani shows so poetically and painfully well, we see where the real discomfort should be aimed, even if it is always just out of focus, we recognize it when we see it because we feel it.  Rather than scripting these photographs as soul murder, I want to rescript them as remnants of lives lived, of a past that has always belonged to all of us, not the select few who were gifted with the ability to write History.  Additionally, I want to show that Black women have always been.

We can begin to break away from linear/straight time and open up the temporal possibilities while at the same time removing the constrains of space. In doing this we allow these women to offer a different kind of nourishment.  Rather than limiting Heilani and the negresse d’Adana to the hungers they satiated as though that is all that ever was to their life, we allow our knowledge of their existence to nourish how they face the past.  We acknowledge the scripting that took place on their bodies and say this is not all they were and it is not all they shall ever be.  They, and all the black women of the past re-present so much more as their experience are written on our collective bodies, be we witnesses, bystanders, or heirs of their experience.  Rather than losing these women to the historical narrative, we are in a position to restore their humanity and ours simply by seeing them and their infinite beauty.

As I work through this chasing of Utopia, I hope to explore it by looking at the movement of the photographs as seen through the digital traces (She is Light), what this project offers to the field of critical memory studies especially as it intersects with the digital (She Looks so Familiar), and explore what all of this might mean for performing the digital archive and the performance of digital photography (She Affects Every Thing Digitally).  As I work through these areas, I will be taking detours to explore individual photographs and imagine them in play.

I have a dilemma. The part of me that was trained as a social scientist is intrigued by big data while the part of me that is trained as a critical humanist is screaming “where are the humans!?” There is this whole beautiful book The Human Faces of Big Data that says it tackles the subject, but it is… weird. It is all weird right now. So I thought I might share a few more thoughts on the limits I’m seeing with big data as a concept. I suppose I should be up front and acknowledge that I never could quite catch the post-human bandwagon. I have no burning desire to merge with the machine anymore than I already have. In fact, I am quite happy with my life as a cyborg. That being said, we are being compiled as unique data sets in this new world of big data… Only I’m not sure how new it is.

Big Data and the Book

One of the earlier modes of downloading large amounts of data, that also captured spirits of  the human behind its creation (basically the beta release of post humanism) is the book. Books record of complex thoughts into a physicality corpus that was smaller than its creator yet captured thoughts in a transferable way, copy able way, reproduceable way… And had many of the same ownership problems we are seeing now with digital media, but also personal data… Here is why I can’t buy in to post humanism as it is being imagined in my little world of media & technology studies, would you ever look at a book and think “that’s a human”?  As in books, it seems there are no humans in big data. I’ve been searching for a bit and the human hasn’t revealed itself. It seems the human is only the start place and the end place for the machines to communicate, create machine readable knowledge, make decisions, and then predict the next action of the unique data set (individual actor, item or thing).

Big Data is Predictive Future Time

I think the scale of big data (omfg Zettabytes!) and the relationship to time are the biggest change. While books are always already a recording of past thoughts, big data is mobilized toward the future. While books are designed to influence current thought and possibly shape the future, the focus seems to be more on the past informing the now. Big Data with its focus on pattern recognition, prediction, and visualization of this information in artistic and abstract yet understandable terms seems to exist in what I am thinking is a concept of time that is always already grounded in the future. Big Data has limited value to the past, in as much as yes it helps us understand the past but isn’t mobilizable in a meaningful way unless we can some how use it to say something about the to come…

This is the central problem to me I think. When we don’t allow the “now” to exist… and I feel like big data moves so quickly, and there is so much of it that there is never a “now”, we don’t allow a space for human experience.  And while I love patterns, and I am fine with them existing, the space of experience is where humans create meaning out of this finite thing we call life. When we move towards understanding everything as a bit of data in a large data stream that can tell us something about the future, we erase the human, inherently.  And because we erase the human, the ethical components of big data are hard to place, because there are no bodies in data. We see the result of this when we look at the current actions that have come to light of the US Government, recent ebbs and flows of various exchanges that are now run by computers, my favorite big data story ever of Target contacting the pregnant teenager before she had the chance to tell her family, etc.

I know that there is work being done on biases in big data, which is awesome. I think in addition to that, we need to start asking where the human in big data is too. The concept of big data makes it easy to sort of lose the human in the stream… but we have countless examples to show that when it moves to places of power (government, target, financial markets, MOOCs!, etc), it is mobilized to discern the difference in individuals and individual items against the aggregate… and when this happens there are real world effects that happen to actual human bodies.

So yes. Actual humans and big data… where’s the conversation?

As an aside on the future of the book

Since I’ve been speaking with people over the years on the future of the book in the digital world, I’m beginning to wonder if the problem is that we are “out of time” when we try to translate the form. While books are always the past, digital data is always about the future at this point, because we are sort of big data now. As such, I feel like perhaps to get a digital “book” project would need to be incomplete, to be completed/expanded at a later time by multiple anonymous people outside of the original creator.

So, I have an idea that is really a request. When we talk of society, we talk as though mutual recognition was a possibility that existed at the time of slavery. I think sure it did, but it didn’t.  Exploring this was the purpose of the Letter post. Slavery is a complex system of seeing bodies as cyborgs, which to me, on some level means sexually viable for humanoid reproduction (at the cusp of recognition), yet not fully human.  So, it’s about bodies that are resources of reproduction, both in terms of the almost human and labor, especially manual labor.

[Notice of slave sale, Public ... Digital ID: 1232772. New York Public LibraryThe thing that I think we all acknowledge but don’t actually interrogate is that slavery is the first real instance of a well oiled mechanical assembly line. That is why the transport of bodies as a labor class lasted for over three hundred years.  When we look at the wealth of the west, the wealth that is now apparently in crisis, we are looking at wealth that was built on the backs of black slave labor. The Independent just wrote an article exploring this Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition. I tend to believe that society builds on itself. If the western structure for attaining wealth was built on being able to see certain bodies as less than you, as less than human, and relegating those bodies to do the labor that allows you to attain wealth, even as those bodies are forced into positions that, if you saw them as equals would be ethically unsound, I don’t know why we’d think that would change. (How crazy is it that the real wealth in the British instance was contingent on being able to dispose of the bodies!?)

So slavery was abolished in the west. I want to say not exactly. The slave trade, the need for slavery to be so focused on the bodies as technology, each with its own individual value, and skills is gone. But it is so ingrained in our culture, it has become such a point of articulation that slavery doesn’t need to exist as such anymore.

Slavery is a technique.  As a result, we have situations like the Emory president speaking of the 3/5ths compromise and not realizing he’s made a horrible mistake… only not really, because in this system we have now, this slavery as technique mode of labor production, there are people who are 3/5ths. They are not in power. But they do the labor that ensures those with access to power and wealth stay in their positions.  We have comments like the tweet below that instigated this post:

 

We all buy into the idea of “Human Resources” without realizing what we are saying when we speak these words. Hint, if Human Resources was really about serving the people that worked at the company/institution etc, I maintain that it would be called the “Office of Humanity”.

Even more than the things that are happening here at home in the states, we have people working in virtual slave positions around the world. It is the dark side of globalization and global connectivity through media devices.  We can buy our cheap goods while the labor that went into creating them and bringing them to us remains invisible. Their labor is our pacifier. We are coddled by our ability to attain more than others. But, that’s part of the technique as well. Those with the bigger planation, or more stuff, are imagined to have more power.  So we work to attain more.  With that, I guess I should drop the link so we can all look at our slavery footprint.

The thing about understanding slavery as a technique is, techniques are in the background.  We don’t have to think about them. They are built into how we move through society.  The biggest issue for me is, as long as we get stuck focussing on and speaking about slavery as technology, we won’t be able to move it beyond the black body.  As a technique, it is all encompassing.  We all have a hand in ensuring the technique remains a part of our societal makeup.  And as long as we live in the fancy big house, we seem to ignore all of those people in the global fields who are  making sure we get our next fix of cheap goods… And I cannot forget the mostly black and brown people that clean the halls of my own University for lord knows how much money, but only in the middle of the night, when they can’t be seen.