A digital amphibian moving through transformative worlds

Last week, I was invited to participate in the Composing Disability conference at George Washington University. Jonathan Hsy organized a wonderful panel titled Digitial Amphibians: Parallel Lives and Media Publics, where I got to talk about moving among different digital spaces along with David Perry, Rachel Vorona Cote, and Alice Wong (who appeared digitally via Skype). I wrote up a few remarks and made some visuals for the occasion. It’s a while since I have posted substantial content here, so I thought I would share them.

Transformative Worlds: Feminist Digital Knowledge Production Between Fandom and Academia

This panel’s description asks about navigating online and digital spaces, but when I sat down to think about it, I realized that my sense of myself as a cultural amphibian comes less from the ways I navigate digital and physically embodied spaces and more from the particular social spheres I move between – all of which exist in multiple modalities, online and in person as well as on papers and pages.

So I thought I’d offer another metaphor in addition to the amphibian: that of a space traveller, moving between worlds that each have their own independent, amphibious, and multiple ecologies in which I and other travelers form a part. Our goal is to intermingle and be interdependent, not to colonize, even as power differentials are a real and unavoidable part of the movements we make. Space travel discourse is always on some level about colonization, and sometimes it can be useful to be reminded of that.

My guide on the journey is Space Babe, the logo of the James Tiptree Jr Award for science fiction that expands and explores our ideas of gender. I am part of the organization that runs the award as well as a scholar of gender in speculative fiction, and my efforts in both directions are driven by the idea that we can transform our worlds, our ecologies, in the directions that are so desperately needed, by imagining them otherwise.

The first planet I want to take you to is WisCon, which is a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin now in its 40th year. I learned about it as a teenager in Scotland and never imagined I could really attend, and I became part of its online world long before I first attended in 2008. I’ve been every year since and the convention, thanks to the people who attend and who keep working every year to make it an accessible, affordable event with a vision of intersectional feminism that centers race, trans and queer justice, disability, and increasingly economic justice, has been a huge influence on my thinking and teaching as well as my personal life.

It’s not a perfect space – in fact one of the things that most defines this digital/physical world for me is the disagreements and arguments that take place there; it’s a planet with plenty of discord. There’s a lot of discourse about online debate as toxic, yet WisCon is one of the contexts where I’ve seen and learned from critique being taken on board and worked through with the goal of transforming communities for the better. The images for this planet are two examples of print publications that Aqueduct Press, a small and wonderful feminist science fiction publisher, puts out for WisCon – one that I edited. These archive discussions and events at the convention and in its online communities, including the conflicts. Shattering Ableist Narratives is the one that I would highly recommend in the context of this conference, as it documents the ongoing work that WisCon has done in order to make the convention as accessible as possible in multiple ways.

Most recently, and in the aftermath of some high-profile failures in the way that WisCon had dealt with harassment in its community, I’ve become part of WisCon’s Anti-Abuse Team, which is part of a larger movement within fannish spaces to address endemic issues of a sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist climate that even an explicitly feminist space like WisCon is not immune to.

On to the next planet: I couldn’t talk about the transformative possibilities of fandom without also naming the kinds of creative cultural production that are most important to me in spaces like WisCon. I’ve been part of a movement within the convention to bring feminist fan creations, like fan fiction and fan remix video, into the space for discussion and celebration alongside professionally published fiction and media, and one of the ways that happens is through a vid party where we screen three hours of fan videos, some made specifically for the con, all fully subtitled. I make fan videos as often as I can find the time, and I teach my students to make them so that they can experience engaging in a different, critical way with audiovisual media. I’m also a longtime supporter of the Organization for Transformative Works, which is a fan-led organization that works to celebrate fan creativity and protect it from potential copyright-related challenges.

Finally, I turn to the planet of academia, and I want to finish by talking about what it means to bring the transformative worlds of fandom into academic worlds. I started with my involvement in fandom as a participant and fan because I am very wary of the directions that knowledge production so frequently takes, where academics go out and ‘discover’ things that people are doing and then bring that work into their scholarship as if they are the ones that are creating the knowledge. I believe that the transformative world making happening in fan communities is important and should be part of our academic conversations about digital creativity, feminist praxis, disability and race and gender justice. But I want to be accountable to the multiple sites at which knowledge production takes place and in which I am invested.

The images here are from two journal issues in which I was involved – one that highlighted vidding as a feminist praxis and got a still from a fan vid on the cover of a major media studies journal. All the writers were participants in the creative networksthey were writing about, but it is still a closed access print journal (though this particular special section can be downloaded online); the writers, including myself, get access to the space by virtue of academic credentials that their co-participants lack. I think this kind of translation between worlds is necessary but that we have to think hard about how we can maintain accountability in the ways that academic discourages, something that spaces like this can hopefully open the space to do.

The second image is the cover of an open access journal I had the privilege to edit, an issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender New Media and Technology on feminist science fiction, part of the Fembot organization which is an effort to mobilize feminist coinnectivity that’s in part modeled on fannish world making. Fembot is full of amphibious space travelers.

And finally the logo, embroidered by Melissa Rogers a grad student at UMD, for TransformDH, the hashtag-based distributed open collective for transformative digital humanities I co-founded, which is my and my collaborators’ efforts to consolidate our commitments and accountabilities to multiple worlds. I organized the first transformDH conference in October of last year drawing on much that I learned from WisCon in terms of accessibility, and we were able to get a broad range of participation by soliciting videos, which brought diverse voices into our academic space. Our THATCamp unconference allowed for much discussion of the ethics we should use in doing digital media scholarship in accountability to creative and activist cultural producers who are not professionalized or academic (including what happens when you find it necessary to critique or disagree with the people who you are accountable to).

As ever, the challenge is to keep momentum when labor is distributed and energies both excited and spread thin, but I’m hopeful for the possibilities of interworld ecologies and transformative knowledge production.