I spent the weekend in a state of gleeful intellectual overstimulation, at the Digital Media and Learning Conference at UC San Diego. The theme was ‘diversifying participation,’ and most of the presentations I attended focused intensely on the divisions, inequalities and conflicts that utopian or dystopian rhetorics about the digital future too often obscure.
I was part of a panel on fan video, which was slightly misrepresented in the program, as we had expected to feature some discussion of other kinds of participatory culture but ended up with five people (six including Francesca Coppa‘s Skype appearance) all steeped in the same fanvidding culture. It made for very complementary talks, but was perhaps a little opaque to outsiders. I dashed around frantically trying to make the recalcitrant technology speak to my computer and gave a short talk on how vidding can be a form of literacy that makes subjugated knowledge formations visible in mainstream media.
S. Craig Watkins’s keynote on black and Latino youth use of digital media was quite fascinating. Watkins talked about the different uses different social groups make of digital media, with particular reference to hip hop culture, and how poor and working class young people can be disadvantaged because the publicity of social networking profiles, twitter etc necessitates such complicated code switching. The news that young people of color spend more time online than young white people was greeted with much excitement on the twitter stream; I couldn’t help thinking that, rather than greater equality, this just marks a change the relationship between access and class. There are a fair few science fiction texts that feature an elite free from the surveillance and alienation of data connections through which working classes labor (two offhand examples: Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer and L. Timmel DuChamp’s five-novel Marq’ssan cycle).
As the conference went on, may aspects of my concerns were mirrored in others’ comments. They are also taken up in Kristina Busse’s non-attending response post to the conference where she argues that, given the current industrial dynamics of the academy, we have to recognize the material privilege that being able to attend large events requires, and make them digitally available to those who lack those resources. DML was free and open to those who could make it, but didn’t have the tech set up for remote viewing.
Despite my presence in the flesh I didn’t get to attend as many panels as I would have liked, partly because I had to leave early. Other highlights of the conference for me included discussions of race in online avatar representations from Lisa Nakamura and Beth Coleman among others, talking about how we need to think about much more than the visual coding of avatars and its relationship to RL images of race: among other things, structures of kinship and belonging and global labor politics should be part of that discussion. I especially appreciated Nakamura’s remarks about how great value is placed on subverting the rules of games when they are remade in forms like machinima, but when capitalist practices like gold farming break the rules they are only seen as cheating.
Most relevant to my own work was the panel on Queer You(th)Tube, with Jonathan Alexander, Elizabeth Losh, and Alex Juhasz. Alexander and Losh laid out the context of online queerness and demonstrated the generic markers of YouTube coming-out videos, talking about the ways queer communities form online and move offline, the support networks that emerge, and how some queers get left off the map. I found the sincerity, diffidence, bravado and anxiety of the queer teenagers’ vlogs quite moving, and it made me quite nostalgic for the message-board-enabled digital development of my own queer self-understanding.
Juhasz punctured that bubble with her provocative YouTube presentation, which took up the parodies made by straight kids of these earnest online comings-out and connected them to what she understands as a pervasive, conservative miasma of irony that permeates all our online discourse. Her critique of the lack of critical distance was very reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s 1980s analysis of postmodernism, but she emphasized one difference; as Juhasz’s recursive use of YouTube to make her attacks on YouTube underlines, her criticisms of irony are themselves ironic. The debate made me think about the multiple definitions of queer that I feel I am constantly trying to balance in my own work: community, sense of self, political identity, political anti-identity, disruption. Queer theory also offers many important interventions to the intense focus on ‘youth’ that tends to dominate discussions of digital pedagogy: learning is not exclusive to the young, and too often all people are assumed to share an overly normalizing life narrative. Similarly, queer and other radical pedagogies remind us that learning never flows only in one direction, from teacher to student.
Thanks to Twitter and HASTAC’s liveblogging, I was able to get a sense of the panels I missed on the last afternoon. It seems that the critical reflections crossing my mind were crossing many others’ too. As always, I am eager to see what may come of the questions raised about institutionalized vs unofficial knowledge production which are now being addressed in Busse’s blog comments.
- Queerness, fantasy and Marxist materiality
- Tiptree winners 2009