Art, Activism and Political Consciousness

Earlier this week, I caught Molly Crabapple’s talk at the Berkman Center, where she gave a determined defense of the value of art, and particularly activist, hand-drawn art, in the midst of participatory media. In particular, I was struck by her comment that camera phones enable protestors to rob authority figures of anonymity, for example, capturing images of police officers using excessive force. At the same time, Crabapple acknowledged that video documentation is no guarantee of justice, as the horrific experiences of Oscar Grant and long before that, Rodney King, have shown. Drawing on her experiences of making art and documentation of Occupy, Gezi Park and Guantanamo, Crabapple echoed a long line of claims about the value of art in providing a distillation (or crystallization) of political consciousness that goes beyond photographic representation. In other words, hand drawn art offers a defense of (or perhaps an insistence on) subjective rather than objective (or claiming to be objective) documentation. During the Q&A, Nathan Matias asked Crabapple about connections to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a convergence I want to develop further here. It’s perhaps worth stating at the outset that 1) Susan Sontag is one of my intellectual heroes 2) there is an entire field of visual studies in which I am not at all well-versed and probably has much smarter things to say about this. In particular, if anyone feels like sending me blog posts or articles that connect Sontag’s work to participatory media, I’d love to read them.

One of Sontag’s key arguments is that photographs “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” (p. 3). The photographic grammar and ethics of seeing takes place cumulatively for Sontag, where photographs become dangerous as a mechanism of gradual desensitization, a point she later underscores in Regarding the Pain of Others. Before bringing this point back to Crabapple, I can’t help pointing out that in re-reading On Photography this week, I was struck by how prescient her comments are in an age of Flickr and Instagram:

  • Anticipating memes: “Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it” (p. 174).
  • Fragmentation and overload: “Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number – as the number of photographs that could be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles … the camera makes reality atomic, manageable and opaque” (p. 22-23).
  • And again, when Sontag writes that photography “creates another habit of seeing,” and that this “photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision” (p. 99), it is (to me) a claim that ages well in the context of social media.

But getting back to photography, politics and violence, Sontag’s emphasis on the intertwining of political consciousness and photographs (where muckrakers instantiated a norm of political change in response to documentation) resonate with Crabapple’s observation of focus on the political efficacy of capturing images of authorities. At the same time, I was reminded of Finn Brunton’s discussion of charivari in Spam. Charivari refers to a symbolic form of collective vigilantism that hinges on public shaming, a “mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores” (p. 44). Brunton argued that charivari offered a means of collectively responding to the violation of technological norms, as when early spammers were in turn flooded with revenge spam, fax bombing and in some cases had  their personal information posted publicly.

It’s ultimately the sense of political and judicial efficacy that both exposes the weakness of charivari and demonstrates the need for art. While Sontag argued that “photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art” (p. 149), Crabapple posited that photography has the ability to turn all its subjects into memes. Brunton’s analysis of charivari suggests a form of responding to the violation of socio-technical norms, but frequently fails as a response that provides substantive change or institutionalized justice.  Thus, memes about John Pike can rob him of his anonymity, but they cannot guarantee jail time or monetary retribution. This is what gets us back to the value of hand-drawn art. For Sontag, photography is linked to a desire for distance from hardship, lending a troubling layer of paradox onto claims that participatory media is galvanizing. Personally, I am inclined to think that part of what endures in drawing by hand and part of what is lost in photographing with hand-held devices is precisely the body. Crabapple positioned drawing as a catalyst to interpersonal connectivity as well as psycho-social vulnerability, incidentally the same qualities that Gladwell associates with high-risk activism. If Lefebvre is right and we re-shape spaces through daily practices, it is perhaps practices of drawing rather than photography that stand to reshape space most provocatively.

{This entry is cross-posted from my personal site}

When communication is not free

In the wake of so many news stories related to issues of surveillance and privacy, it’s perhaps particularly important to note that tomorrow, the FCC will consider an action that has the potential to reshape access to ICTs for one of the most heavily surveilled populations in the world – those who are incarcerated. While many of us who are economically and legally privileged worry about how to protect (or whether it’s even possible to have) a sense of privacy when we make cell phone calls or write emails or conduct online searches, the FCC’s decision would be welcomed by many for whom basic access to landline calls is the primary concern of communication. 
Although I’ve been interested in issues of information inequality as experienced in prisons for some time, I was mostly thinking about collection development policies of prison libraries, and the politics of telephone communications were new to me (although not to Steven Jackson, who has a terrific article from 2005 on the political economy of the prison telephone industry; it goes without saying that it’s also not news to the 2 million + people currently serving time in U.S. prisons). For some context, the FCC is addressing longstanding initiatives (filed with the FCC in 2003 and 2007) proposing oversight of and guidelines for phone services to prisoners.  Incarcerated people have severely restricted access to forms of communication, which has led to some remarkable workarounds for those facing extreme isolation. Among the general population, for whom phone calls are technically allowed but not necessarily accessible, inmates are typically limited to collect or debit-based calling from payphones (calls that are legally monitored by prison staff).  Collect calls from prisons usually involve a two part charge – a per-call set up charge and a per-minute charge (debit calls are charged to an inmate’s account and typically incurs just the per-minute charge). The amount of per-call charges varies wildly from one institutions (and one state) to another. A 15 minute phone call can cost as much as $20, as opposed to the mere cents that the same call would cost outside prison walls – or indeed from prison staff within the same walls.
In some ways, the story of this particular set of socio-technical inequalities is tied to complexities of monopolies – the 1984 break-up of AT&T meant that a range of fledgling companies could compete for bids to provide phone service. But in the topsy-turvy world of doing business with prisons, this bidding process does not result in driving down prices. Instead, there’s evidence to suggest that companies in fact compete to provide the highest fees, and thus the biggest kickbacks to the state. By some estimates, as much as 60% of what incarcerated folks and their families pay goes to the state government. Eight states (Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California and Missouri) have banned kickbacks entirely; New Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas have reduced their kickback commissions, and Montana recently entered into a limited-commission contract. As a result, prison phone rates in those states have plummeted. The FCC decision could provide exactly the kind of regulation that would make it much more difficult in remaining states for prisons and phone companies to take advantage of a group of people with few legal rights and intensely restricted access to tools of basic communication.
There are a number of reasons that this decision matters.  To deal first with some of the most obvious points: regular telephone contact with family has been linked to reduced recidivism, meaning that even those with the most conservative policies on the purpose of prisons should see reason to support affordable phone calls.  Keep in mind, no one here is arguing to subsidize prison phone calls, only to bring the cost of making those calls in line with what the rest of society pays. Of course, it’s somewhat naïve to think that reducing the amount of money states get in the form of phone company kick backs won’t result in decreased services elsewhere, given that prisons are already operating along an ethic of mercenary frugality. 
The FCC decision stands to intervene in a system in which costs of basic communication are borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor, because that is who goes to prison in the United States.  It is perverse that the country with the highest rate of incarceration and third highest rate of (cell) phone use (rates of landline adoption are a little harder to find) has shown no interest in making sure that the two converge.  Structural inequalities of race and class are fundamental to explaining this gap.
Beyond my hopes that the FCC decides to intervene, as someone who studies information inequality and is interested in forms of information activism, the politics of prison phone calls is moreover useful as a reminder that studying divergent uses of technology is not just about the most sophisticated ICTs but also about technologies that are functionally much simpler, although no less complex in their entanglements with power, legitimacy and legal structures.

Social institutions, community ethics, disaster recovery

In the weeks since Sandy, it’s been interesting to see different approaches to recovery work.  A lot of attention has been given to Occupy Sandy and the extent to which some of the organization tools that were able to mobilize people for actions, protests and general assemblies have been useful in coordinating recovery efforts.  At the same time, I’ve been interested in how some of the more longstanding institutions for coordinating community involvement have responded to local disaster recovery efforts.

Take, for example, libraries.  In the week immediately following Sandy, it was interesting to see how three different library organizations positioned their responses to their local communities. On November 5, the NYPL sent out an email to its patron list:

“Since the storm hit, our Facilities team has worked around the clock to clear debris, battle power outages, and repair minor damages to get our branches up and running. By November 1, we had 55 branches open. By November 5, all but four are open, and it is our priority to get those four branches safely opened as soon as possible”.

NYPL went on to say: “In the last week, as our branches have reopened, they have been packed with patrons using our free Internet, charging their phones, reading books, enjoying free programming, or just talking to their neighbors. Library staff — many of whom were redeployed because their own branches were closed — provided increased programming for kids and teens who were out of school, and the system extended the due dates for 390,000 items.”

The NYPL administers branch and research libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, one of the city’s most hard-hit areas.  Brooklyn and Queens each have their own administering bodies; regarding the former, the BPL’s web page had been updated with the following message to its patrons:

“Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. As part of the Brooklyn community, we are working to help.  Our staff, many of whom have been affected themselves, are working hard to bring help to those who need it.”

In addition, the BPL listed the services it had initiated in wake of the storm, including bookmobiles to impacted neighborhoods and shelters, pop up libraries, coordinating FEMA information sessions, supply drives and a hurricane bibliography.

In comparing how these to institutions publicized their responses to Sandy, the NYPL emphasized having its branches open as quickly as possible, providing a place for people to go and being a site of resources like information, electricity, online access and entertainment.  The BPL’s messaging focuses less on libraries as institutions and more on services, particularly services that were specific to the storm.  So rather than emphasizing the library as a place that had reopened as quickly as possible to provide resources, the BPL focused on storm-specific services, including bookmobiles, supply drives and bibliographies (I noticed that the first day my BPL branch library was open, it had its temporary display case full of hurricane-related texts).

I’m most interested in the NJLA’s email updates to its members, which emphasized documentation of experiences with Sandy.  In contrast to the NYPL and BPL messages to patrons, it’s important to note that the NJLA message was sent to its members, who are mostly librarians. As Executive Director Pat Tumulty explained in an email:

“NJLA has created three tools to help us capture the story of what is going on with our libraries today as they are helping their  fellow residents cope with Sandy.” Those resources include a form that librarians can fill out to document damage to libraries, a Flickr page for sharing photos of library volunteer work, and a form to document patrons’ experiences with the storm.

Across these institutional reactions, there’s an emphasis on some of my favorite elements of what libraries do as social institutions – reflecting community ethics, acting as a site of DIY education and as a staging ground for local needs or interests. I’m not interested in setting up a hierarchy of which library organization had the best or most useful response to disasters.  But I *am* interested in using the differences between these responses to think about 1) how libraries position themselves as having responsibilities to their communities, and how those responsibilities can play out in different ways 2) how activists can leverage those commitments to local communities in order to form better, more precise actions.  These actions could be in response to disasters specifically, but maybe also community needs more generally. As social sciences research on disasters continues to grow, particularly in the realm of social media, I think it’s important (from an academic as well as an activist perspective) to look at how existing institutions are already responding to community needs, and partnering with them to expand our understanding of outreach, localized ethics and on-the-ground information.

What we talk about when we talk about (online) worry

I recently read a post that Richard Harper wrote earlier this year that works through discomfort with Facebook in terms of time.  Harper argues that for users in his research with Eryn Whitworth, there’s “something about the experience of Facebook affects their sense of the past, the future, of how the temporal arrangements of their doings normally are.”  This reminded me of a 2007 post by William Merrin that applies Caillois’ work on mimesis as an inability to distinguish oneself from one’s surroundings to social media interactions.  Mimesis for Caillois enabled thinking about evolution, reshaping bodies and behaviors in terms of disambiguation (or not) from one’s species-based peer group. Merrin adapted this to behavior and interactions online, writing, “In social networking this mimetic process takes several forms, from the voluntary incorporation of the self into the environment, to the forced conformity to the profile templates and the choice of applications that, more often than not, follows and mimics those that ones’ ‘friends’ have added and recommended. What this produces is a resemblant self: a self that resembles not its originator but instead all the other virtual selves. What one constructs has a far close morphological relationship with all other profiles than it does with the being outside who constructs it.”

The posts are linked in trying to locate the exhaustion produced by exposure to social media (Merrin: “The exhaustion one feels after a period of time online is not physical strain but something more: an exhaustion with one’s interests and with one’s interest in life itself. If you look at profile after profile, list after list and application after application, your own self begins to renounce its spirit.” Harper: “This present is feeble, without rich temporal colour: no subtle looking back at the present, looking at the past from the future, looking at the present from the past. And because of this, Facebook somehow tyrannizes its users. Facebook freaks people out: ‘it’s too like now’.”). Drawing on theories of affect and philosophies of time and space is (I think) a much more interesting way of talking about information overload than, say, technical management of resources.  But I’m also interested in a shift of pathology that can be mapped onto these descriptions of online communication. 

One way of positioning these two posts is in terms of space and time (I’m sort of obsessed with this division right now, for the simple reason that it’s how I’m conceptually making sense of the dissertation I’m attempting to write this summer).  Merrin’s post is about the online spaces that get produced through use of social media, resulting in a mimesis not only in terms of profiles and pages, but also, he argues, in a distance between online and offline selves.  Merrin talks about metaphors of psycasthenia and schizophrenia, noting the utility for these neuroses for theorists from Caillois to Baudrillard.  Harper’s post discusses shifting paradigms for thinking of time in terms of linear intentionality versus a layered fluidity as far as making sense of human action.  Although Harper is less explicit in terms of pathology, the emphasis on time, nowness and attention reminded me of a Jonathan Lethem quote from The Ecstasy of Influence: “I’m not terribly interested in whether real, brain-chemically-defined Asperger’s is over- or underdiagnosed, or whether it exists at all except as a metaphor. I’m interested in how vital the description feels lately. Is there any chance the Aspergerian retreat from affective risk, in favor of the role of alienated scientist-observer, might be an increasingly ‘popular’ coping stance in a world where corporations, machines, and products flourish within their own ungovernable systems?”

I think there’s a utility in tracking social explanation for behavior in terms of pathology in that it associates discomfort with a given technology with a facet of human behavior.  It’s interesting to me that these posts track discomfort with social media by oscillating between space and time precisely because it coincides with a Caillois leveraging of schizophrenia and disambiguation, and Lethem pointing to disorders of attention. What can we read into shifting metaphors of describing technologies as they affect people biologically, psychologically? It’s to be expected that as technologies evolve, so do the pathologies that we map onto those technologies as manifestations of our concerns about contingent pscyho-social consequences for their use. Sometimes, worries about how technological change is affecting human interaction are posited in terms of turning us into machines, abstracting things like human communication or compassion.  What I like about tracing metaphors of pathology is that it retains an insistence on thinking of people as people (Caillois’ implicit comparisons between people and cannibalistic slugs aside), but shifts the construction of people-ness.  (As an aside, I’m reminded of a recent New York Times article on study drugs as pinpointing worries of technology, pressure, adulthood, bodies and work.  It’s not that we’re worried about kids working too hard, per se, it’s that we’re worried that they’re coping by turning to pharmaceutical drugs.)  If there is a shift in thinking about online life from space to time, what does this say about the functions and roles and utilities of these technologies in terms of what it means to be human? To our social worlds, online and off? To encounter and use (and misuse) technologies in everyday life? To how we think about possibilities for designing and using emergent technologies? 

Institutions, Infrastructure and Information

I’m not exactly sure when in the last few months I first noticed Google’s subway advertising campaign, but whenever it was, I was immediately confused.   The ads relate to Google’s Good to Know initiative and focus on privacy, security and netiquette.  More than anything, the ads reminded me of seemingly well-intentioned and yet always-already obvious PSAs.  But even assuming that Google is manifesting its Don’t Be Evil mantra through giving people a heads up about things like password security and the (alleged? ostensible?) reasons for locative functionality, the ads were weird.  Were they proactively attempting to curry favor with at least semi-net savvy folk who use Google but have concerns about privacy?  Or reactively working to deflect or dispel some form of anti-Google criticism?

Google is far from the first company to launch a subway ad campaign that’s perplexed me (how weird are these Tidy Cat ads??) and it wasn’t until I happened to see the Google ads right next to a series of promotions from the MTA (simultaneously documenting and advertising progress on various station, line and service improvements) that I started to think about the ads in terms of institutions and infrastructure.  To back up for a second, I am not an urban studies scholar, but my work on immigration and information practices in city space often leads in that direction. In particular, I’ve been puzzling through issues of information, navigation and infrastructure.  A few weeks ago, my advisor and I were talking about interviews from my dissertation, and I mentioned the MTA as an NYC institution that migrational individuals learn to navigate.  Mor objected to my labeling it an institution, at which point I suggested that it was, instead, infrastructure.

The line between the institutions and infrastructure is not always all that solid.  According to Mary Douglas, “Institutional structures [are] forms of informational complexity” (p. 48). where past experience with institutions encodes expectations, thus shaping rules of behaviour and controlling (or managing) moments of uncertainty. In contrast, Bowker and Star argued that infrastructure refers to “hybrid creations of work practice and information medium” (p. 132).  In reviewing these texts to disambiguate institution from infrastructure, I was struck by the use of the term information for both. Douglas argued that “nothing else but institutions can define sameness, similarity is an institution” (p. 55), meaning that institutions are tied up in expectation, sameness and predictability, manifest (partly but significantly) through information about what an institution does and how to interact with it.  For Bowker and Star, infrastructures embed modes of practice, of informational acumen, where knowing what to do with any given piece of information speaks to the organizational infrastructure at play.

By using a form of communication that echoed a PSA and a progress report, Google and the MTA obscure the extent to which they are institutions and position on themselves as infrastructure.  We’re used to thinking about the politics of institutions, much less so (I think) than we are in the politics of infrastructure (Langdon Winner and Bruno Latour  notwithstanding). Some of the SMC folks have been working on the ethics of search engine algorithms, and it’s partly because I’ve seen some of those conversations unfold that I can’t help thinking about it here.  MTA subway ads broadcast themes of progress and improvement, but for whom?  Other than extending a general benevolence to other New Yorkers (and during a busy rush hour on the A train, I wouldn’t bank on that kind of goodwill) why do I feel a sense of satisfaction at the MTA’s announcement of renovating stations I don’t use and services I don’t need? These ads act as both a justification for the burden (of time, money and patience) placed on New Yorkers who take trains, subways and ferries as part of their daily urban lives.  When Google points out the affordances of its security precautions and its SNS as socially responsible, it elides the other kinds of ethics at stake in daily uses of Google products. In both sets of ads, the MTA and Google present information about themselves as infrastructure, rather than as institutions.

I think part of my confusion about the Google ads and part of the sneakiness of the MTA campaign is tied up in the extent to which they encourage thinking of the MTA as co-constructed with daily acts of moving through the city, and conflating Google with daily acts of being online.  What’s happening is an institutionalization of infrastructure, an obfuscation of the ways in which daily practices of information and technology are bound up in the ethical, in issues of access and in privilege.  I don’t think I’m completely satisfied with how to divide institutions from infrastructure, but I do think I’ve worked out an awareness of how the performativity of information can conflate the two.  I’m used to thinking of daily practices of technology as indicative of privilege, but tend, I think, to be less aware of institutional coopting of infrastructure’s perceived impartiality.  Not, perhaps, the goal of the Good to Know campaign nor the MTA progress ads, but useful as a researcher of information practices, social context and urban space.

P.S. Shout out to Aaron Trammell for helping me work through some of these ideas over a Cinco de Mayo beer!

The life and death of our research data

At the 2012 iconference, I sat in on a fishbowl about human values and data collection.  Hearing a vibrant discussion about research ethics related to the life of data was actually incredibly timely for me, in that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of data gathering.  In particular, I recently came across this research project while perusing a blog on body modification.  Spearheaded by the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) at the University of Dundee, Scotland, UK, the project intends to collect “images of body modifications to establish a database which may aid in the identification of victims and missing persons, for example in a disaster. By collecting a large number of images of tattoos, piercings and other body modifications, not only can we develop a more uniform way of describing those modifications but also establish how individualistic certain body modifications are within a population, social group or age group.”  Essentially, people with body modification are being asked to submit images of their modifications as well as some personal information in order to generate statistical measures for the prevalence of various body modifications.  In the blog post I read, the researcher emphasizes that “none of the images will be used for policing purposes simply because we don’t have permission to do so.”  Presumably, the researcher felt it was important to emphasize this because one of the partners in the project is Interpol.  Interestingly, in Interpol’s description of the project, there is no explicit mention of the fact that data will not be used to assist law enforcement.
During the conference fishbowl, I raised this project as a case study for thinking about ethical tensions surrounding informed consent, risk/benefit analysis and the preservation of data gathering in social sciences research.  My main question centers on how do we explain to participants the issues of data privacy?  I don’t mean this in a pedantic way, where researchers are instructing hapless laypeople on the complexities of data curation.  I mean, how do we balance a need to gather data from people with a concern for the life of that data?  Can these researchers ensure that the information provided by participants won’t be used for purposes other than identifying bodies after a disaster? If the researchers conclude their involvement with a project, what influence do they have over the database they’ve created and the parties who have access to that database?  IRB forms typically ensure that researchers outline how they will manage the destruction of data and require consent forms to address issues of privacy.  The statement that researchers are prohibited from doing so because they don’t ask for that kind of consent from participants does little to quell my concerns about asking for personal data (moreover, for me, for documentation of bodies) which could then be used in nefarious ways by an international body of policing.
To be fair, I’ve relied on the body modification community to conduct research on secrecy and stigmatized behavior and even with using consent forms and explaining privacy issues I can’t guarantee that all of my participants had thought through every possible contingency of sharing information with me.  Yet to me, there is a qualitative difference between asking participants to share personal experiences with body modification and creating a database of images that is then shared with an agency like Interpol.
My objective isn’t to slam this research project as ethically vacuous.  My objective is to think about this research project as a case that illustrates concerns I have for privacy in the collection of mass information.  Last fall, danah boyd and Kate Crawford wrote a terrific piece on provocations for big data and addressed ethical issues of large data sets.  In addition to their concerns about the ethics of gathering and analyzing “public” data from Facebook or Twitter, boyd and Crawford ask, “Should someone be included as a part of a large aggregate of data? What if someone’s ‘public’ blog post is taken out of context and analyzed in a way that the author never imagined? What does it mean for someone to be spotlighted or to be analyzed without knowing it? Who is responsible for making certain that individuals and communities are not hurt by the research process? What does consent look like?”  These are questions that I would also apply to building repositories of private information that people submit willingly and with consent.
One suggestion that came out of the iconference talk was to think about the metaphors we use to describe data (Is it a mirror?  Is it a window?) and use that as a lens for thinking through some of the issues surrounding the ethics of data collection.  What are the consequences of adhering to a particular set of metaphors about data in terms of how we talk to participants?  These issues also suggest to me that researchers should take a proactive stance with IRBs, suggesting ways of holding ourselves accountable for the privacy and well-being of participants.  I know I’ve been guilty of being a little vague in filling out IRB forms when it came to the benefits my project offers to my participants (I often say something kind of lame like, “It is hoped that participants will benefit from increased understanding of XYZ.”).  For my own work, one thing that comes out of working through some of the issues provoked by the University of Dundee project is a more rigorous consideration about what risks and benefits truly mean for participants in my projects, not only in the process of conducting research, but in the long term of acquiring and sharing information gathered about participants’ lives.

Why the Occupy Movements Do Not Lack Leadership

Despite the (not undeserved) hype about the role of social media in various occupy movement, I first heard about Occupy Wall Street  from a traditional face-to-face encounter with my roommate.  Bryce gave me the basics (Adbusters-instigated, Twitter-facilitated protest in Zoccotti Square) and suggested we check it out.  If I’m honest, my first encounter with the OWS left me somewhere between non-plussed and wryly amused. I was thrilled to see that they had a library* and impressed by the rigged shower system and seeming willingness of people to pick up trash and distribute food.  On the other hand, the (frequently-photographed) collection of hand painted signs showed the by-now oft-critiqued claim that OWS lacked a coherent ideological message.  I returned a week or so later to participate in the student-lead march from Washington Square to Zuccotti Park and was blown away by the number of marchers, and found myself not caring about the lack of a centralized cause, precisely because it enabled different groups to coalesce around peaceable unrest. I’ve been in Seattle this week for AoIR, and wandered around the much smaller but equally vibrant Occupy Seattle, where I pitched in at their budding library and went to some general meetings.
At AoIR, the protests were a frequent topic of conversation, both at panels and during informal conversation.  Repeatedly, I heard the movement referred to as leaderless.  In thinking about what I’d seen at OWS and Occupy Seattle, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a conceptual misstep.  The Occupy movements are in fact shot through with (and perhaps only functioning because) of an abundance of micro-leadership.  Rather than being leaderless, the movement is in fact leader-ful.  Spending even a little time at protests, it’s easy to see the presence of people who are contributing everyday acts of leadership within a bounded sphere of activism.  This is perhaps part of what is so confounding about the movements for political analysis.  It isn’t really ideological incoherence that is so startling here (think of the ideological complexity – if not hypocrisy – of the democractic party in the United States), it’s the lack of a central figure to serve as a speaker, a focal point or mouthpiece.  My claim that movements are leaderful shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is an overabundance of leaders such that more people shouldn’t mobilize and offer leadership skills, as these things are very much needed.  But for me at least, thinking of the OWS as a leaderful movement is both exciting and somewhat explanatory of the resurfacing anxiety over what the movement is, how to deal with it or explain it.  For advocates and supporters, it’s exciting in its democracy.  For opponents and critics, it’s anxiety ridden in the lack of a clear counterpart with which to parley, a contained discourse to critique.  And in its own right, that’s exciting too.

*Plug: I’m giving a talk at Mobility Shifts this weekend on the OWS People’s Library.  Come learn about local interventions of librarianship and DIY archives!

Cyborgs are for lovers!

Confession: I love cyborgs. I first read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” as an undergraduate (in Anna Joy Springer‘s experimental writing class, a course that has had lingering impacts on me, my writing and my reading ever since) and although I didn’t understand all that much of what Haraway was saying, I loved it. It was weird and complicated and full of inside jokes that I very much wanted to get. I’m teaching Gender and Technology in the information, technology and informatics program at Rutgers this semester, and in preparation for the unit on cyborgs, I asked students to look for photos and videos of cyborgs, and to write up little blurbs on how gender related to the media they found. If you want to check out what they found, here’s a link to the course tumblr.

Some of the descriptions of gender are fairly straightforward (“I think this cyborg is a man because …”) but some of them are a bit more nuanced (Stephen Hawking’s choice of a masculine voice synthesizer).  I was blown away that one of my students submitted a fairly in-depth analysis of an Adrienne Rich poem.  As a whole, the themes are largely what you’d expect – sci fi, sex appeal, probably not as much bestiality as Haraway would have wanted.  And although I’m aware that for some portion of my students, the process was probably just a Google search and a quick synopsis that touched on the first thing that said “gender” to them, even those searches say something about cyborg imagery in popular discourse.  Haraway’s article was written before most of my students were born, but in re-reading the text in preparation for class, I was struck by different ways I found her piece still useful – hybridity has continued to make traction as a means of feminist analysis (particularly in terms of methodology), her comments on the industrial-military complex in education continues to be salient, and the feminization of labor (although the term “homework economy” hasn’t made much headway) is at the core of a lot of dialogue on class and labor.  It’s fun to come back to this piece periodically, partly because I get more Haraway’s humor, partly because I’m appreciative of how influential the piece has been and how relevant it continues to be, partly because I like thinking of cyborgs as a theoretical, visceral nexus of bodies, machines, technologies, discourses and perversions.