MLA: Notes from “Tumblr Vulnerabilities”

My second panel at MLA was a roundtable on “Tumblr Vulnerabilities” with Aren Aizura, Roy Perez, Nick Mitchell, Kara Jesella, and Jeanne Vaccaro. My notes are a little scattered, but I’m posting them anyway. I was respondent and was trying to gather key phrases to bring together at the end in a live post on tumblr itself, but I didn’t quite manage to pull it off; I shared my notes for that attempt at my rarely-used queergeektheory tumblr anyway.

Apologies for any mishearings; please comment or email me if there’s anything I should change.

Aren: We all have tumblr that we use or don’t use; decided to have a tumblr panel and thinking it would fit MLA because it fits with DH obsession. We all inhabit social justice tumblr: “intersectionality tumblr”

As a platform: Tumblr has endlessly flexible code used for multiple purposes. No archiving / archiving is very opaque (time/date stamp option is an option you have to specifically enable).
Modular logics: Like Twitter, the capacity to reblog, leading to the possibility of decontextualization: taking something out of context and putting it somewhere else. This capacity shapes Tumblr’s cultural norms.

Me: I didn’t give a talk as the others did, but I made a couple of introductory comments on the ways that Tumblr endlessly intrigues me though would not call myself an active participant there. It’s a space where images and ideas traffic, shorn of history, and I’m trying to think about some of the prehistories — spaces of intimate publics online. Livejournal’s networks and communities are one example; I met Aren and Nick through LJ somewhere around 2005 and this panel is an example of how those intimate publics have converged with the professional.

I took notes as people were speaking and also made a separate list of key phrases that seemed to sum up the tumblr worlds and critiques the panel were evoking; I’ve tried to put both back together for this, but if there are phrases that seem out of place, that’s why.

Roy: drawing from book Proximities: queer configurations of race and sex.
Mark Aguhar: the chapter written initially as engagement with living artist, changed when Mark passed away in 2012.
“broken conversations”; “a tangle of stories and feelings”; “flippancy, rage, and sincerity.”
Looking at redacted histories of violence that make context of the work visible.
Proximity to whiteness; white desirability and brown negation.
Closeness as a medium to bring queerness into being. The distance between ourselves and someone or something else. We are near something whether or not we choose to be near it
Proximities of neighborliness; artistic production. What do queer artists do with sexual and racial proximities that they may not have much control over? Power differentials, including neoliberal’s addiction to [I didn’t write this down but maybe diversity?]
Jeanne Vacarro’s essay Felt Matters: “The body becomes with and through proximity to other bodies”
From José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: “how do we stage utopia? Rescuing the term from those who seek to manage and contain the potentiality of queer use”; “utopian rehearsal rooms where we work on a self that does not conform to the mandates of late capitalism.”
Tumlbr was a stage that Mark used: 9146 posts.
Networks an author is part of, rather than looking at an author as a figure of a period — Karen Tongson on remote intimacy.
critical flippancy using internet lingo: “LOL, ART”; insider lingo.
Tumblr archives have an opaqueness: artwork, porn, gifsets, all the things she loved. Examples:
Image with text: “I’m starting a new blog and it’s all about….”
The Ask function, soliciting anonymous responses that were often abusive. U LOOK LYK A WALE OK: degenerating locution. The ease with which people level incredibly mean hate toward fat people.
“Could it be low T” video: misandry
If you had a tumblr account at all, you were bound to come into contact with Mark.
Axes; “Litanies toward my heavenly brown body”
Approximating without appropriating Mark: Edie Fake’s “Gateway (for Mark Aguhar) (Palace Door – calloutqueen)”: the desire for opulence, a door and we don’t know what is behind it.

Nick:
Will talk about the difficulties of thinking about the blog as a project and make a couple of aphoristic points about Tumblr.
His tumblr is low end theory: started as a 4nd year grad student moving away from cultural studies of hip hop toward theorization of institutionalization of women’s studies in the US. It was a space to talk about music, to work with the intellectual interests he was not not pursuing directly.
Blog became a curated archive of research: documents and things found in archives. Contradictory desire: to build a world around academic work without attaching directly to proper name. But what took center stage was writing: becoming a better writer, experimenting with forms of writing not those that were being done in diss, not faced with threat of accumulating or losing cultural capital. Name not on blog but if you know him you know the blog; pictures were also on there.
Identity management  in the academic space of tumblr; prominent in the age of google, is concern for space for the things you don’t want search committees to find. The blog as space to develop a project vs the blog as space of a person, way to represent a life. What you post vs what you are; the statements “I am lowendtheory” vs “I am the person who writes lowendtheory”.
Tumblr enacts the extension of personhood into a set of statistics: the little activity graph at the top of the page. There used to be a number “tumblarity” that was just there, an algorithm that would fall and rise depending on who was writing, reblogging.
Collusion with compulsion toward the economic; abstracts and figures that chart one’s dips and rises in popularity. Self management and value within the community is ever present. New ways of perceiving success and failure.
Considerable social justice community on tumblr: largely people who are doing or have done undergrad and grad work in gender and race studies. The concepts we teach, not normed by the evaluative space of the cassroom. Anti-oppression among the cat pictures and Janelle Monae videos; concepts become memes and are wielded like weapons.
A structure of feeling in which critiquing feels like winning, winning looks like the obliteration of your opponent in the view of a community of others who will never disagree too overtly. Context of competition. As teachers, we get to see the lives led by ideas in our classroom when people are not under supervision by a teacherly figure, where ideas are being put into use. Changed his relationship to what he wants to teach; recontextualizing intersectionality knowing that it circulates as “synonym for the good”; where engaging critically seen as form of injustice rather than as taking ideas seriously.

Kara
A story. There was a post a year ago by an academic who said nothing that is on tumblr should be citable by academics working on tumblr; that a 50 year rule should be instituted. Because people on tumblr are often young and/or vulnerable in other ways; the idea that they should be protected, because that they are doing work that academics will take and profit from.
She wrote what felt like an even handed response, talking about history as journalist: journalists will certainly take and use things we say on tumblr, without citation.
The response was incredibly angry. People on tumblr said horrible things… Adding “and also this person is old” She ended up unfollowing many people.

Aren
Quote from Laurie Weeks. “We don’t erect barriers against the humiliation; we embrace it and then people want to fuck us for mysterious reasons”
Documenting the banal, the intimate, the private as counter to the public sphere’s emphasis on professionalism.
2007 joined tumblr; 2011 changed username to incommensurati, trying to maintain a space for writing that was long form but not necessarily academic, straddling personal and professional — a space foreclosed by working as an academic, which left no time for this generative kind of writing.
Two key tumblr terms and tags: “radical vulnerability”; “feminist privacy concerns.” Tumblr is so difficulty to attribute. (Kara: they’re my tags)
radical vulnerability: it’s hard to be vulnerable on tumblr with its private/public blur; he has a tendency to lurk, write and delete, not post. Has now left because the lines between professional and private got too messy. Wrote about student in class who critiqued something for being triggering. Wondered whether to ask for an academic definition of triggering… Posted on tumblr and it became a big conversation, people responded very negatively. Was trying to explore the language of trauma on tumblr and how it is inadequate to the power effects. Post was read as Aren as gender studies professor saying PTSD was illegitimate, denying the experience of his student. (In fact the essay itself was triggering to him which was why he ended up writing about it.)
One person identifying as having PTSD wrote about and critiqued the post; he reblogged and in response, she demanded he take down his reblog, unconnect himself from her blog, and delete the post plus the blog or she was going to call his boss and try to get him fired. She posted links to university website, personal website, and hateful statements; Aren deleted the post and felt he didn’t have time to engage, so took the whole blog down. User started mocking: “I’m not that powerful, you are a big professor” —  indicative of Tumblr’s tendency to “viral drama,” where things spread fast and misreadings spread fastest of all.
The statement “I’m traumatised, “you’re injuring me by your statement” is about power sometimes. We need to be able to read in the power dynamics rather than take that as an authentic statement of realness. Wondered if outrage was about boredom, a desire for hits, as well as about trauma and desire to be safe from reminders of it. The desire to control what we cannot control — the magic of public/notpublicness, tumblr’s opaque archives, the fantasy of a stranger intimacy, separate from physicality, a desire to control words: we only want the readers/interlocutors who are saying good things to us. And intimacy, vulnerability as economic: tumblr is a market, it’s about getting more hits, and there’s no way not to engage with that, even if you are deliberately trying not to get more hits.

Jeanne Vaccaro
tumblr: Whatever Jeanne.
Opens with video: The security of submission / the thrill of refusal
Breaking with the idea of saying something, her talk is instead trying to do something: performance studies method, embrace and demand for experimental strategies, performance of failure and misfire which her tumblr is. What this has to do with her actual work (the tension we are all grappling with): she writes about the handmade labor of making identity.
Ambivalence, self cancelling disclosures.
Screenshots: Our Lady of whatever”
-Barbara Hammer sent me a letter

-“I wanted to document all that stuff… for no particular reason”
-Tumblr was full of secret messages that sometimes people got and they would tell me about it
-Juxtaposition: tissues at the therapist’s office / Sylvia Plath twitter
-Sometimes you just need to listen to Tori Amos and cry
-“I do a lot of embarrassing things on the internet”––video of herself crying.
-It was bad for the job market; everybody was really anxious that I had these videos on the internet
-the temporality of disclosure

Questions. Audience member from Penn Press: hard to get people to understand how tumblr bridges gap between professional private. Tumblr is the space where most academic work is produced, albeit sometimes problematically. Going forward, things may get more normative — no more vulnerability? Because how we think about communication, how we think about vulnerability is changing.

Audience member self-describing as a teacher asks about using tumblr as text or profuct for eg comp classes— and at this historical moment, does tumblr being at the MLA convention kill tumblr? The arrival of the walking dead playground supervisors.

Jennifer Doyle: this is the opposite community to the one that usually represents the use of social media by academics, those who end up with columns on HuffPo and Slate to shut down critical thinking; this is the back room in the club, quasi anonymous, circulation of people and bodies.
“trigger warning”— she ignores them. Privacy as capitalist idea where some are allowed to expose themselves and others not.
Huge other spaces on Tumblr.
What is academic? Who has access to turning something into a published piece — or is it published just because you pressed “publish”?

Jeanne: narcissism as a method: going from little bits of the self to bigger pieces, going from anonymity to recognition. Weeks, theory of total humiliation. Queer Methods tumblr from teaching at Penn, using full name as blog. Student saw her crying on campus in mother’s arms — wrote about it on tumblr that student reads.

Aren: tumblr as assignment tool, worries about exposing them to the modularity and rebloggability, but felt important to connect them with communities: spaces where people relate to academic ideas in ways that are oppositional to the academy (feeling “I am a professor, I should not be in this space”). Didn’t know how to grade students’ tumblrs.

Roy: mojo and normalization. It was always the case that tumblr would lose its mojo: question just how we can fuck with it until it goes away. If it wasn’t problematic it would be really boring… eventually I will really miss the porn. A wild space that Yahoo is slowly disciplining and sanitizing, which will kill it; I’m not sure that we or MLA have that power.

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