I’ve just come back from the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the University of Oregon’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, where I was invited to participate in the Sally Miller Gearhart “Worlds Beyond World” Symposium on Feminist Utopian Thought. It was a really wonderful weekend, gathering together writers and thinkers from several generations; I was quite overwhelmed to be wandering around the same space as the writers whose work has shaped my intellectual world. Most of all Ursula K. Le Guin, but also Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, Sally Miller Gearhart herself, Larissa Lai, Andrea Hairston, and L. Timmel Duchamp. And I participated in a quite joyous panel with Grace Dillon, Joan Haran, Andrea Hairston, and Kathryn Allan; it was wonderful to share our scholarly speculative excitement with an audience of academics, writers, and fans.
I was in Oregon in large part because I have just finished editing a special issue of the UO-based Fembot Collective’s online open access journal Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology. I’m very proud and very exhausted; we worked through an intense peer review process to publish 12 essays in a time period far shorter than most academic journals are able to manage. The essays vary from dense, lyrical scholarly works on the history of physics, new media art, and somatic capitalism, reproductive futurism, and Margaret Atwood to multimedia performance; there is an audio interview about Octavia Butler, a cyborgian dollhouse, and pieces on Lois McMaster Bujold, Cabin in the Woods, Sue Lange’s novella We, Robots, brainwave-scanning technology. There’s even a piece by the grand dame of feminist science fiction theory, Donna Haraway, and a collectively written review of a new book on her work.
“The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (149). So Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 in “A Cyborg Manifesto.” When I composed a call for papers around this evocative line, I hoped to solicit work that would address the continuities and the transformations between the chimeric time of Haraway’s 1980s and our own uneven present, more than 20 years on. The response was successful beyond my wildest hopes. Feminist science fiction, in the collective analysis of the writers gathered here, proves to be a diverse and amorphous category in which real and imagined science and technology bleed into one another. The essays call attention to the ways in which fictions and realities of scientific speculation shape how we experience the nexus of gender, new media, and technology––from the gendered history of physics to the migration of brain-scanning technology out of laboratories and into the world, from imagined visions of reproductive technologies to sentient robots to the social consequences of cataclysmic change in urban landscapes.
Samuel R. Delany wrote in 1984 that science fiction is not about the future, but is rather a “significant distortion of the present” (177). In a world where not only technologies and their marketing but also social and political discourse draw continually from popular culture’s science fictions, this insight has grown ever more important. How do science fictions distort our perceptions of what is real and what is possible––and how should we mediate those distortions? Which should we critique and which should we embrace? If our times are science fictional, then the feminisms they demand must be technological and ripe for speculation. Joan Haran and Katie King’s essay calls for “science fiction feminisms” as well as “feminist science fictions” and “feminist sustainability”: this issue showcases the diversity of meanings contained in all three of these phrases.
Since this semester began, I’ve been in one of those phases where as soon as one piece of work finishes, you dash madly on to the next deadline without raising your head. I’ve created several half-finished blog posts during that time, including notes from my time at the second Critical Ethnic Studies conference––that one at least will eventually be posted.
For the moment, though, I want to share one of the products of my recent busy-ness (well, of last semester’s busy-ness, really).
In the dim and distant past when I was working on my first dissertation chapter, I talked about it with L. Timmel Duchamp, who runs the feminist science fiction publisher at Aqueduct Press. I told her about the earliest text I had worked on in my historical exploration of popular feminist utopias, Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s 1889 New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future. She was intrigued; I shared the PDF version I had scanned from microfiche with her; and it just so happens that Aqueduct has a fairly new Heirloom Books imprint with this set of goals:
Aqueduct Press’s series of Heirloom Books aims to bring back into print and preserve work that has helped make feminist science fiction what it is today —work that though clearly of its time is still pleasurable to read, work that is thought-provoking, work that can still speak powerfully to readers. The series takes its name from the seeds of old- er strains of vegetables, so valuable and in danger of being lost. Our hope is to keep these books from being lost, as works that do not make it into the canon so often are.
Fast forward a couple of years, and New Amazonia will be the third volume in the Heirloom series. Details are here; it will be in print in early 2014. I will post again and share more of the details when it actually comes out…
I spend a lot of time talking about gay marriage. Thinking, writing, teaching about the history and critiques of the idea that marriage is a political issue, a civil right to be fought for; reading and engaging and discussing queer critiques of marriage on Facebook and Twitter, in conversation with friends and family, in classrooms.
I’m also a bit of a closet romantic. Well, perhaps not so closet any more. I tend to find myself weeping helplessly when I see pictures of queer couples growing old together. I tend to think that it’s possible to wax sentimental and joyous about partnership on a personal level while acknowledging everything that is wrong with marriage as a political horizon for activism.
And last weekend, two of the people I most admire in the world invited me to be a part of their very queer and very geeky wedding celebration. It was a weekend in the redwoods in Northern California, and included some of the best features of academic conferences (a roundtable on queerness and marriage) and fan conventions (a vid show with new fanvids premiering inclucing Radioactive (Wizard of Oz) ) as well as the traditional dancing, speeches, and cake. There was a time travel theme; there were costumes.
I’m sharing the speech I wrote for the ceremony, because I feel like I was trying to articulate all the convergences of queerness and science fiction at their most utopian.
I’m taking a brief pause to breathe after my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor.
Going directly from defending my dissertation to being a graduate faculty member in a large and understaffed department at a public university has been quite an overwhelming transition, though a welcome and often exhilarating one. In the past year, I have taught seven classes, ranging from four sections of freshman composition through to two doctoral-level seminars (one on speculative fiction and one on queer theory). I’m a member of seven comprehensive exam committees and two dissertation committees. I’ve attended four conferences, one of them virtually; had one review and two articles come out (one print, one online); written an introduction to a reprinted novel that will be coming out later in the year; worked on revisions for two articles, one of which ought to come out in the not too distant future and one of which has shifted so much since the initial idea that I may decide to submit it to a different journal. I wrote a book proposal, though I still have some way to go before I can fully transform my dissertation into the book I want it to be. And I’m currently buried in the feminist science fiction special issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, which will be launching in November.
I made that list because it has been a strange transition not to feel myself progressing each year toward the identifiable goal of a degree. This year has also been one where I have tried to move away from the purely mental focus that academia so often encourages us to have. I’ve been building a home in a new city; building a relationship with my partner and her dog (we moved in together a month ago). I’ve been growing plants and cooking and thinking about how knowledge is contained in different modes of being.
To be continued…
The fifth HASTAC conference, HASTAC 2013: The Storm of Progress, is taking place in Toronto this weekend. I can’t be there, but Fiona Barnett, the amazing and wonderful director of the HASTAC Scholars program, invited me to contribute to a panel on building scholarly community via a recorded video message. Thanks to Twitter, I got to see my face on a terrifyingly large screen, here with panelists Viola Lasmana and Amanda Phillips:
I discovered that I wasn’t able to speak into a camera directly without a script, so I wrote out what I wanted to say in advance. Here it is (and if you really want to see the video, you can download and unzip the Quicktime file):
Hi, I’m Alexis Lothian. I was a HASTAC Scholar from 2010 to 2012 and I am now Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I’m recording this in Pittsburgh and I’m really sad I can’t be with you all in Toronto. Thanks Fiona for inviting me to be a part of it anyway.
Fiona asked us 1) Why building community is important — both personally and politically. Why do it? Why are people scared of doing it?
2) How you’ve built community specifically
3) What you’ve learned in the process — how can others do the same? How can they start small? How can they get connected? What are the potential pitfalls?
How have I built community? I never really did it on purpose; I was drawn into academia by the communities and knowledge networks I was a part of, rather than looking for them once I was there. I came to my academic projects through science fiction and fan studies, in which I was been part of online communities; when I entered academia it was via queer and feminist and ethnic studies work that is connected to political and artistic grass roots movements, and I’d been a participant in queer and feminist online communities since undergrad. It was that experience of online community, the way the personal and intellectual and political were mixed up there, that started me thinking and writing about digital media.
When I started to explore DH as a graduate student I found HASTAC, and I was suspicious at first of what it would mean to try and organize a network of scholars, because it seemed like something that should happen on its own. But I realized as I got more involved in HASTAC that the network was doing something incredibly special, giving an institutional and recognizable home to the work of community building that some of us were doing anyway, and making it open to more and more diverse scholars and students.
Together with blogging and being on Twitter, HASTAC gave me the tools to turn online conversations not just into real friendships but into critical and scholarly interventions in academic fields. — meeting Amanda and Marta because we were tweeting queer studies panels at MLA, and that leading to THATCamp and to TransformDH.
Why is community important? Tara McPherson, one of the members of the HASTAC steering committee, talks often about the dangers of academic silos, of intellectual work only being counted insofar as it contributes to restrictively defined degrees, departments, disciplines, institutions. When we make interpersonal connections with others whose work is different from but related to our own, we begin to build the potential to break that down. And if we are graduate students or junior scholars we get to see that the hierarchies in which our work is counted and the ways in which it is valued are not universal. We can get support for what we are trying to do even if everyone in our immediate vicinity thinks we are off our heads.
I think community is also important for the world beyond scholarship, though: conversations beyond what we consider to be our field can keep us accountable. Scholars whose work is connected to marginalized communities are more used to thinking about accountability, but I feel as if it applies to everyone, and that being open to being held accountable is part of what we need to build in to community. It might mean asking us to define terms that we think are obvious but that we have a hard time explaining when it comes right down to it; it might mean learning to expect that when we write about somebody’s experience or somebody’s creation, we’re beginning a conversation with them as well as about them. It might mean letting go of ownership of what we think is our work, what we think of our fields.
One of Fiona’s questions was why are people afraid of building community, of moving out from departments and disciplines? If they are, I think probably it’s because that potential for what I am calling accountability is a scary thing for scholars. What if you’re writing about a community and someone in that community disagrees? What if you make an idea public and somebody takes it out of context, or claims it as their own? With TransformDH, one of the tensions I think all of us in the originating group have had to contend with is: are we doing this for our CVs or is it something we should let go of, something bigger than us? I think we’ve chosen the second option.
Maybe it’s safer to think of ourselves as working individually, especially given the scarcity of academic jobs and funding that we are competing for. But it’s also lonely.
I had a wonderful and inspiring time at the Eaton/Science Fiction Research Association conference in Riverside last weekend.
I want to start by posting my own paper, though, which I gave at a morning panel on the first day of the conference. Roxanne Samer, Amanda Phillips, and I put together a panel on feminist fan cultures, where Roxanne talked about the historical context and queer and trans resonances of James Tiptree, Jr’s “great sex muddle” and Amanda explored fan-created imagery of FemShep from Mass Effect 3.
My talk was titled “Media Love or Media Justice? Toward a Genealogy of Critical Fandom” and was an attempt to work through some conversations about gender, desire, and violence in creative fan cultures that I think will be important to the larger project on critical fan production that I am slowly developing.
Media Love or Media Justice? Toward a Genealogy of Critical Fandom
“Fandom” is usually taken to denote an uncritically positive relationship to a text, genre, or cultural form. To be a fan is to be in a position of emotional excess, invested in a text, genre, or cultural form to the point of identifying oneself with it. When we talk about being a fan, we are talking about love as part of the machinery that keeps us invested in whatever we happen to be a fan of. For fans of popular media, more often than not, this means keeping us invested not just in corporate capital but in white supremacy, heteronormativity, US imperialism, neoliberalism, and other structures embedded in the representation and production of popular culture. And if fannish love turns sour, it is more likely to turn to crushing disappointment or vitriolic hate than to objectivity or indifference. “Critical fandom,” then, would seem to be an oxymoron, whether the “critical” in question is the counterhegemonic rigor of critical theory or the academic requirement of critical distance. In this paper I will draw on the recent history of science fiction media fan cultures to argue that critical fandom is, in fact, a vibrant set of intersecting on and offline cultures of transmedia creativity and grassroots critique. In fact, scholars may have something to learn from its navigation of contradictions and ambivalences around affect and politics.
My talk will draw primarily on feminist interventions within the subcultural artform of fannish vidding to unpack and trace the development of critical fandom as a mode of knowledge production. Much feminist and queer scholarship has centered on the interrelationship of gender, politics, and the erotic; emergent practices of critical fan production have had their own versions of these debates, and I will discuss the production and reception of three videos that profoundly shaped them. Luminosity and Sisabet’s 2007 vid “Women’s Work” critiqued the eroticization of violence against women in the horror TV show Supernatural and, by extension, all media. The vid became comparatively well known beyond fan communities, perhaps because its critique seems straightforwardly to repudiate the affective ties of fandom.
Sisabet and Sweetestdrain’s “On the Prowl” (2010) also highlights violence, with a different critical impetus. Directed at the eroticization of injured male bodies that are a particular point of interest and desire among mostly-female communities creating homoerotic slash fan fiction, the vid asked fans to face and explore the violence within their desire, and it become the center for intense debate over gender, pornography, and BDSM in fan culture.
Finally, Thingswithwings’s “The Price” (2011) focused on the gendering of emotion in genre film and television, using comic effects to critical ends to highlight the contradictory practices of feminist fandom. In the differences between these vids and the ways in which they wrestle, with increasing sophistication, to hold the figures of feminist critic and appreciative fan together within the same gaze, I suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of new media lexicons for critical affect and affective critique.
I have made the text of the talk as I gave it available in PDF format at this link. Bear in mind that this is work in its early stages –– and please do read in conjunction with the visuals if you can.
While I was at the Eaton/SFRA conference on science fiction media this past weekend (of which more soon), the new Journal of e-Media Studies, a special issue on Computational Cultures After the Cloud edited by Jentery Sayers, came out. It includes some really wonderful pieces, both full essays and less formal interviews.
I’m especially excited to read Nick Marx’s Storage Wars: Clouds, Cyberlockers, and Media Piracy in the Digital Economy and Anne Cong-Huyen’s “Dark Mass,” or the Problems with Creative Cloud Labor, which I was lucky enough to hear as an MLA presentation in 2012. And Adeline Koh’s interview with Wendy Chun is wonderful and includes an important critique of the exhortation But there’s plenty more to explore as well as those pieces.
Of course, though, one reason I am making this post is for self promotion. My coauthored essay with Amanda Phillips, Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?, is part of the issue. It’s part manifesto, part list: we wrote about our history with and hopes for #transformDH and gathered together some examples of digital humanities projects (broadly defined!) that center marginalized perspectives in a transformative way. Here’s the abstract:
What would digital scholarship and the humanities disciplines be like if they centered around processes and possibilities of social and cultural transformation as well as institutional preservation? If they centered around questions of labor, race, and gender and justice at personal, local, and global scales? If their practitioners considered not only how the academy might reach out to underserved communities, but also how the kinds of knowledge production nurtured elsewhere could transform the academy itself? Exploring the conversations that have centered around the Twitter hashtag #transformDH in the past two years, this essay argues that such questions are not hypothetical and that these digital humanities already exist. With the intention of inspiring further work in a similar vein, we offer a curated list of projects, people, and collaborations that suggest the possibilities of a transformative digital humanities.
I haven’t posted here in a while; most of my blog-related energy has been going into my teaching. And this is not necessarily a queerly geeky post of the kind I usually make; just a brief excerpt from my day’s web wandering. But a video by Todd Selby, at which I arrived via this wonderful forum on disability, technology, and academia, has been fascinating me. It shows some of the work and process of Christine Sun Kim, an artist who is deaf and works with sound, with the ways it can be felt and seen. The video itself uses both ambient sound and music to create images of the artist at work that I find quite hypnotic.
I don’t especially have ways to connect this to my work, although I have been thinking about the ways vidders use music in conjunction with visuals, and wondering what ways there might be to engage that beyond the focus on lyrics that is easiest to access. I just love the way she talks about her visceral, embodied experience of sound, and all the technological and painterly tinkering that is her process of making art with it.
I’m incredibly excited to announce a new project. I’ve been invited to guest-edit a special issue of the open access online journal Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, on feminist science fiction. Ada is just one of the projects from the FemBot collective, a group of feminist academics, activists and artists working on media and technology; I’m proud to be a part of the collective.
To bring new media studies together with speculative fiction in a venue like this one is an absolute dream of mine –– albeit one I didn’t realize I had until Carol Stabile invited me to work on the issue. Its success is dependent on the submissions we get, of course. Please write to me at email@example.com if you are interested in contributing, even if all you have so far is an amorphous idea.
The full call for papers is posted at the FemBot collective’s website, and I have also pasted it below.
Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology | adanewmedia.org
Issue 3: Feminist Science Fiction.
In the 1985 essay that defined the terms for feminist thinking about science and technology in the decades since, Donna Haraway observed that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” She drew together the cybernetic organisms of fact and fiction, the beings of shiny technology and messy biological stuff, and her terms and her ideas came as much from the creative thinkers of feminist science fiction (Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ) as they did from technologists, political thinkers, and philosophers.
It’s 2013, and the cyborg manifesto is old enough to vote. Where are feminist science fictions now, and what can they tell us about feminism and technology? New media make our experiences of social reality resonant with classics of speculative fiction, particularly works that accounted for the uneven distribution of futuristic technologies and their participation in hierarchies of race, gender, capital, and ability. Literary scholars continue to explore the intricacies of works by Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr., Joanna Russ, et al., while the aesthetic and political techniques of critical and creative speculative thinking that these writers pioneered are taken up in multiple forms. Fiction writers like Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, L. Timmel Duchamp, and many more bring questions of language, culture, race, and violence into the fray, as social media platforms like blogs, twitter, and Facebook deepen conversations between writers and fans. Small presses continue to support the older technology of the printed page and to articulate why written visions matter for a possible feminist future.
Feminist science fiction has never only existed between the bindings of books, however. Fictional speculation is part of how we understand ourselves in relationship to technology; from the way our smartphones seem to extend our embodied being, to the difference it makes when we shift our perspective and think instead of the being of the gendered bodies who made them, to the imaginative constructions we produce of the wireless waves and fiber optic cables that link us to collaborators, interlocutors, and friends. Ada is published by the Fembot Collective’s academic network, which is itself a feminist science fiction. An imagined array of co-conspirators made real, its name indexes the power in reworking the venerable sci-fi trope of the gendered automaton. Technological speculation is our social reality, and feminist science fiction has the tools to code it to the specifications of our politics.
Feminist science fiction describes a diverse landscape of multimodal, multiplatform, multifaceted cultural production. It is a means for thinking marked bodies into technological contexts, from Ada Lovelace herself to Janelle Monae’s racialized android Cindi Merriweather. It is also the visual and conversational online cultures that endlessly repeat, reblog, argue, and fight back about what real and imagined futures of gender, race, technology, and representation ought to be like. It may even be the new philosophical modalities of materialist speculation, when they acknowledge that the hierarchized markings on bodies we name as race and gender are not limited to some narrowly defined conception of the human. And it is the unpredictable future of what cybernetics and organisms could be and could become, in the flesh and in plastic, silicon, steel.
The third issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology seeks essays on any of these and more. We welcome unpublished work from scholars of any discipline and background, including collaborative, nontraditional, or multimodal approaches that can especially benefit from the journal’s open access online status.
Topics and approaches might include, but are not limited to:
• Key works of feminist science fiction and their relevance for new media and technology studies
• Gender, race, sexuality, and/or disability in science fiction literature, film, and television
• Feminist speculation in new media production
• Feminist science fiction’s online fan cultures
• Speculative or science-fictional tropes in new media and technology theory and practice
General Submission Requirements
Authors should submit essays of 4000-9000 words directly to the editor in Rich Text Format (.rtf) or MS Word format (.doc) by 1 May 2013 (preliminary deadline). We encourage you to discuss potential contributions in advance of the submission deadline. Contributions in formats other than the traditional essay are encouraged; please contact the editor to discuss specifications.
Full submissions should be accompanied by the following information in the email message with your submission attachment:
• Name(s), affiliation(s), email address(es) of the person(s) submitting.
• Title of the text and the issue for which it is submitted.
• An abstract of no more than 100 words.
• A short paragraph (40-60 words) about the contributor(s).
Further guidelines for submission format can be found here: http://adanewmedia.org/submissions/ Please include text descriptions for images and transcripts or subtitles for audio or video files.
Send submissions and correspondence to Alexis Lothian: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ada is an online, open access, open source, peer-reviewed journal run on a nonprofit basis by feminist media scholars from Canada, the UK, and the US. The journal’s first issue was published online in November 2012 and has so far received more than 75,000 page views. Ada operates a review process that combines the feminist mentorship of fan communities with the rigor of peer review. Read more at http://adanewmedia.org/beta-reader-and-review-policy/. We do not — and will never — charge fees for publishing your materials, and we will share those materials using a Creative Commons License.
This panel inspired some intensely heated discussions on Twitter. Knowing that the talks from these great speakers were likely to be complex and dense, I decided to make notes offline rather than try to keep up with what I knew would be a vibrant backchannel. I then spent most of Q&A trying to figure out how and why some digital humanists in the audience had been offended by this interpretation of their dark side, so I don’t have such detailed notes for that part. Here, though, is what the panelists said, as I heard it.
Wendy Hui Kyung Chun
(Tara McPherson couldn’t make it)
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