After the wonderful panel yesterday, I had some people ask for more details on what I’m doing. Here is an abstract:

Historical glitch: Understanding digital media through the photographic lens, explores the intersecting media ecologies of social media, digital heritage content, and culture. Specifically, this project focuses closely on what a digital project that takes advantages of the formal changes inherent in the shift from analog to digital media looks like. The project highlights how social media can be used as platforms for change and also looks at their limits and potentials for knowledge and culture when such media are used to construct alternate historical narratives. The case study for this project, Vintageblackbeauty, which was digitally born on the social networking site Tumblr, puts digital tools into practice by disseminating historical photographs of black women in their everyday lives from across the black diaspora. The effects of this experiment are theoretically understood through the works of Fanon, Hurston, and McLuhan. Additionally, a digital performance piece that analyzes the effects of this practice, informed by Dada art practices, puts the theoretical implications into motion by placing the digitized photographs gathered on Vintageblackbeauty in conversation with media from the same time periods. Through exploring this ecology, I posit that we can gain a better understanding of some of the differences between digital and analog media, their different potentials for change, as well as the inherent limits they pose. While digital media do allow for greater access and dissemination, they are still tied to a screened experience and held to ethical standards determined by various stakeholders who are often ephemeral or evolving and in contradiction with how we have been trained to conceive of knowledge production.

Over the weekend I started seeing a bunch of stuff about Trigger Warnings popup in the twitter verse. Apparently there was a piece in the New York Times about the literary Canon making students squirm. So students should be warned with Trigger Warnings, so they know ahead of time that they might be made uncomfortable. That makes me wonder what happens when someone like me walks into a classroom as a professor. I think maybe I should get a shirt that says “trigger warning” because me being a black female in the role of professor (even though technically I am an instructor, the students insist on calling me professor instead of Jade) means that I make some students in the southern university where I teach uncomfortable. Just by existing. Trigger warnings work on by creating an aesthetic of oppression. But this is something that I think has a bigger longer history… which is the subject of my first official peer-reviewed academic publication.

The Catholic schoolgirl & the wet nurse: On the ecology of oppression, trauma and crisis Jade E. Davis


This paper explores the idea of facing oppression by exploring how two photographs, one of a Catholic schoolgirl and one of a wet nurse were received as they made their way through social media. In addition, the paper looks at a blog post that was made about photographs from a similar time period as the photos. By exploring how the photos were received through Fanon, visual studies, and psychoanalytic theory, the paper proposes a new way to view these photographs, outside of the narratives of Oppression and Trauma. Instead, by understanding the re-inscription of the dominant narratives as an ongoing crisis, we allow for a reparative reading of this type of imagery that complicates our relationship with the past.

You can read the article here:

I have openly had a hard time with the idea of academic publishing being behind paywalls. The open web is under attack, but I still believe that information should be freely available and up for debate. My understanding is most academic articles are read by three people. I want those three people that will find use in what I wrote to be able to use it freely. I am extremely happy that my first CV line item that will read as not totally alt-academic-academic (which is what most of my CV is), is available for anyone and everyone to read, take from, discuss, critique, etc. And, it is about trigger warnings, and how we use them to oppress certain bodies.

So, big thank you to Decolonization for being a part of my academic life and choosing to publish my article. I’m grateful to be in such a wonderful volume that is tackling decolonial aesthetics.

“Official culture still strives to force the new media to do the work of the old media. But the horseless carriage did not do the work of the horse; it abolished the horse and did what the horse could never do. Horses are fine. So are books.” – Marshall McLuhan

The other day I picked up a book and tried to look through it. I didn’t flip through the pages or turn the book over, I simply held it in my hands and brought it closer to my face to see if anything became clearer is the distance between my eyes and the thing in my hand diminished. Much to my dismay, rather than anything contained within the book becoming clearer, I found all I was doing was make the world around me darker. The contained universe of the book is fascinating because it is something we are, for the most part culturally literate in. It contains its own beginning and end and the mind of its creator. It can fit in the palm of our hands. Because most of us have had experiences where we had to write something but couldn’t find the words to fill in the space, we understand the labor that goes into the task of its creation. Because we can hold in our hands and take time to look through it, because even when it is not in our hands it doesn’t change, the book becomes its own standard. And it is the standard we have for where knowledge worth knowing is contained. The book is the prism we use to understand knowledge. The book seems to be the model we’re building from to determine what knowledge online should look like. Me writing this is no exception. There is a slight difference I’d like to call attention to though by asking a question:


What color is the sky?

I recently asked this question during my session at DML, with a different image of a blue sky, text in blue. There was no response. I had to ask twice, and everyone said blue. It was the only answer that was logical given the givens of the image and the cultural understanding we have of the color of the sky. I have to confess I spent a good portion of my life thinking the sky was blue as well, until I listened to an episode of the podcast radiolab called “Colors”.

It is an fantastic episode. I highly suggest anyone who has time listen to the whole thing. There is a section in the podcast titled “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” that brought me to using the question about the sky to understand the digital as a space of knowledge production and what I like to call knowledge-play that. The piece explains that the sky has not always been blue because across cultures, blue is the last color humans learn to recognize. The sky, without the cultural knowledge of blue then is something without color. But, because we have blue, the sky is blue.

What I think is fascinating about this is even with blue, the sky we experience is capable of being so many more colors within the limited range of colors we can see (another topic explored in the podcast). It is many colors we can’t see as well. But cultural we know for certain that the sky is, in fact, blue.

2014-03-09 08.53.14 pm

I googled “the definition of saturation” so you don’t have to. It makes one of those wonderful little google boxes pop up that contains a bunch of information including the definition of saturation that is important to my thinking here:

(esp. in photography) the intensity of a color, expressed as the degree to which it differs from white.

My chapter in Field Note’s for the 21st Century is titled “The Medium is Light”. It is freely available on the HASTAC website and Rap Genius You can see the condensed video version created as part of an assignment give to me and my co-authors from Omar Daouk

What is the 21st Century Medium? from Duke 21C on Vimeo.

a video exploring aspects of digital media through McLuhan’s the Medium is the Massage and the Medium is the Message.

Since writing the book, and I more thoughts on the important for understanding light and why McLuhan’s statement that “light is pure information” is so important in this moment as we still try to figure out how the digital can be used to create a classroom without walls. I’ve already pointed to the problem of using the book as the prism for knowledge in the digital age, and provided some other things from McLuhan that show that this conversation is not a new one. What is new though is how light based electronic media have become as discussed in the chapter and video linked to above. I am a bit obsessed with backlit screens and fibre optic cables because they are our primary information sources now:

The information me we see is reflections of information that is projected and I think that is a theoretical explosion (and I sort of love thought explosions because they lead to the creation of new worlds).

If we go back to the episode of radiolab, it starts with a story of Newton trying to figure out if the color was in the prism or if it was in the light. You should listen to the podcast to hear the cultural beliefs and how he eventually figured out the prism (It worth the time!). We cultural know how prisms work. And we can use it as a metaphor, as I did when I started. The book is the prism we have for knowledge. Our devices, computers, smart phones, tablets, phablets, etc. are the prisms we use to filter and render digital data and information. Prism has a specific cultural relevance with regards to digital information given the revelations from the summer. I don’t think that is a coincidence. What my message is with all of this, especially with regards to understanding knowledge in our current information age is that, we have to think of how playful light can be. There is something from the book that I think translates very well to light. A book is like a shadow, it blocks out a lot of stuff so you get a silhouette of relevant information. Right now, when we think of the light of the internet it is like the light of the sun, blinding if you look directly into it, but helpful and necessary to live in a world where data and information are currency.

I recently went to a Ken Wissoker talk at Duke University. He was speaking about the (academic) book. He said it is no longer the place to create new information because the information is already on the internet. The more interesting books will come up with new ways of interpreting or putting the information together. So what is the role of the digital then? I think it is to make shadow puppets. When we use it as a flashlight, like I’ve tried to do with this post, where we highlight, play with, bring together, and make move information that’s relevant to the thing we are trying to understand, if we learn to apply filters, and change the data we are rendering with our electronic devices into meaningful bits of media that resemble media from the past, we might just figure out the color(s) of the digital information age. I hope that it doesn’t end up being like the sky, stuck in a single hue, but instead it is a dynamic ever-shifting gradient that pushes the limits of our perceptions and understanding.

all photos from pixabay find out more about the panel at DML 2014

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.


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 spent this summer at Microsoft Research New England as a PhD Intern working on a project  with the most boring title ever. “The Student as End User in the MOOC Ecology”.  Here is a link if you are interested in seeing my talk on the topic (also took place at Microsoft Research):


Students as End Users in the MOOC Ecology, Microsoft Research New England Talk


The topic I am interested in with MOOCs is one that seems to be missing from a good portion of the conversation, what happens to students? My hunch with all of this is and was that the Big 3 MOOC companies are operating more like social networking sites than Education or learning institutions in some aspects. The most important place where I am noting the similarities is in the legal formation of the subject popularly known as a “student” or “learner”, who legal becomes an “End User” through clickwrap. By looking at the various legal documents that are available (Terms of Use, Contracts with partnering institutions), we can begin to sketch a portrait of the “End User”, and it looks nothing like the “student” or “learner” that is being discussed publicly by the companies. Additionally, when we start thinking about the obsession with numbers, data, and analytics, the Massive turns into an interesting space of inquiry for Big Data, Privacy, etc.

I am in the process of doing a final revision of my paper before I start submitting it. Currently I’m debating how much I need to go into what the Big 3 MOOC companies are saying . In the paper I speak about more than Daphne Koller’s TED Talk, and spend more time talking about imperialism as the accumulation of capital… but, as with the final draft of everything, I’m trying to figure out what is adding enough to keep and what is taking away from the overall point and purpose of the paper.