Sunday, March 25, 2012

I'm moving!

Dear readers,

P3 has had a good run. It served me well at the time that I put it up and for a respectable while after.

However, as I'm moving on in my career and fine-tuning my web presence, having a standalone blog is no longer really the way I want to go. Because of this, I'm going to stop publishing here at Politics, Popular Culture, Poststructuralism and continue the work of exploring these issues over at my new site,

All the same great content you loved the first time has already been migrated, and any new posts are going to be housed there on the blog page.

Unfortunately, I can't migrate my followers, so you'll have to follow me again over there. So head over and click the "Follow" button on the right side, and continue receiving the weekly insights you've come to expect from me.

I know there are a lot of things on the Web to read. Thanks for choosing me.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

#KONY2012, Clicktivism, and Circuits of Knowledge

Posting a day early since I'll be traveling tomorrow. Because I know everyone would feel deprived otherwise

Plenty of ink has been spilled (or, I guess, pixels? Ones and zeroes? What is it we're spilling these days?) over #KONY2012 and its problematic premises. That critique extremely important, but it's been done and done far, far better than I could, so I'm not going to make that intervention. (I'm also not wading into Jason Russell's naked rampage, because that's what late night television hosts get paid for.)

What I'm interested in, instead, is the viral-ness of this campaign, the ways it has traveled. Because, though there's a long tradition of white liberals rushing in to a situation they don’t understand to save brown children half way around the world, this feels different.

#KONY2012, as Nick Dyer-Witheford pointed out recently when a seminar he gave on my campus turned to the subject, is about seeing social media as coextensive with reality.

Part of this is that, unlike, say, singing for famine relief, point-and-click activism (which I want to dub clicktivism but has apparently has been nominated as part of slacktivism) is light-speed. It requires no effort, which makes the self-congratulatory white-savior thing, old though it is, new by virtue of magnitude. (Confession: I make this critique as someone who "signs" almost every petition puts in my inbox but deletes the mailings that ask for money. In my defense, I do read them and decide if I agree first. I just happen to usually agree. I also sometimes show up at rallies and stuff.)

The very power of that frictionless travel is manifested in the graffiti that has sprung up in seemingly every women's bathroom on campus.

Now, 100% of the bathrooms in my (pun alert) convenience sample say "Stop Kony" and include the website. But this Sharpie scribble particularly caught my eye (and made me sorely tempted to retaliatory/corrective graffiti) because of the massive irony of the writer putting "Do some research on the LRA if you don't know this man's name" when clearly she had herself not done any research.

On the other hand, my Twitter feed has been inundated with critique of #KONY2012. Like, for real, it took over. In just the 24 hours before I began this post I got: Bosco 2012: While We Hunt Kony, Another Indicted War Criminal Lives a Life of Leisure published in the New York Times, Kony 2012 screening in Uganda results in anger, rocks thrown at screen published at boingboing, Kony Heads from Timothy Burke, and a rundown on Child Soldiers Worldwide published by Human Rights Watch, among others.

What's important here is that I don't follow any of the original sources. I got all of these announcements at the very least second hand and likely through a longer chain of retweets—there's no real way to tell how they traveled before they got to me (At least, I don't think so. And if I'm right about that, somebody should really write an algorithm that can parse that, because it's interesting. Call it the epidemiology of Twitter). They didn't even all come to me from the same source (though my colleague who knows a lot of politically active Africans contributed more than most).

There was, in fact, not a single person in favor of the campaign in anything that I've seen in the period since the video took off, which led me to temporarily forget that the people I follow are not representative of general public opinion. (Despite having just written a post in which I was surprised to realize I didn't have a good handle on public opinion of the NBC show Community. Slow learner, I guess.)

And thus it came to pass that I was startled to hear a student in my fitness class profess support for the campaign and state that she'd ordered some of the merchandise.

Let's parse that moment: Because of who I'd been listening to, I assumed "everyone knows it's stupid." Because of who she'd been listening to, she assumed "everyone knows this is the right thing to do."

And, while I will continue to maintain that the people I'm listening to are working with better information and education than the ones my fitness classmate is, the fact is that I'm just as bad as the restroom writer whose handiwork is displayed above. I haven't done any research. I've just believed what people told me because I trusted those people. This isn't to now proclaim that those people aren't trustworthy. They are. But it's still a bad way to make a decision about world events and public policy.

And that recognition that the educated-person echo chamber is just as bad as the superficial-crisis one is sobering.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reductionist Logics and Strange Bedfellows

Another outcome of Saskia Sassen's late-February visit to my campus was the realization that lefty internet-is-freedom types, including proponents of the "fans are liberated now" model, are actually using the same logic as righty small-government-is-freedom types.

Say what?

Bear with me—this requires some backing up, some reframing, a deployment of one of my favorite theorists, and a disclaimer that I'm taking Sassen out of context. It also requires some sympathy for the ways in which graduate school is a nonstop exercise in finding the links between disparate things while thinking on one's feet, and it's hard to shut that off.

Okay, so, I think it's relatively uncontroversial to say that the right-wing, Tea-Party-style position is that less state centralization is more freedom.

It is, I believe, also relatively uncontroversial to contend that lefty folks who identify the Internet as freedom point to its decentralization as the enabling feature.

What I'd like to contend is that this identification of less centralization as more freedom by both groups shows that they're operating by the same logic.

N.B.: This post is going to be a little under-cited because, though I realized this while doing the reading for a seminar with Sassen, the key piece that inspired it seems to have been available only to seminar participants as an email attachment. Accordingly, I'm doing my best to respect that it isn't public by paraphrasing rather than direct quotation.

Sassen pointed out that, though digital media are technologically suited to being "distributive" (that being the point of the military research that ultimately produced the 'Net, after all), they still get used in cultural contexts, and this means that contextual social logics have bearing on how they get used.

Thus, to pay attention only to the properties of the technology is to fail to recognize those other factors, just as to say that only government control matters is to fail to recognize other factors. In both cases, institutions like capital are just as constraining.

Importantly, this isn't to engage in some grand Marxist reductionism of all power to capital, but to pay attention to the ways in which, as a result of the given-ness of capitalism, especially in the US, this type of control is perhaps worse because more insidious. That is, sheer lack of awareness makes this form of constraint far less transparent than even the relatively opaque world of legislation, because people aren't even looking.

Related to this, both the internet-is-freedom left and the small-government right are operating with a set of false opposites. As Sassen pointed out in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, there's a tendency to think that as things de-nationalize they are inevitably global, which is a false dichotomy (p. 75); correspondingly, people are misidentifying de-restriction or the diminishment of certain kinds of restriction as freedom.

This, of course, is where I break out the Foucault and point out that just because an institution stops saying "no" to certain things doesn't mean that those things begin to operate freely. Both the pro-Internet left and the anti-government right, that is, are operating with a sense of power only as repressive, only as that which prevents you from doing certain things, which prevents recognition of the ways in which one might be equally constrained (and, again, more insidiously so) by being encouraged to do certain things.

Sassen's "critique of the notion of the common notion that if something good happens to the powerless it signals empowerment" in her 2011 piece, The Global Street: Making the Political (p. 574) is in line with this kind of calling out of false opposites. I also appreciate its snarky quippiness.

Thus, when we think about Internet-enabled freedom or political activism, we need a lot more subtlety and complexity, and a broader view. As Sassen points out in terms of the contemporary articulation of territory, authority, and rights, "proliferation does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national" (2008, p. 62), and I find this really productive.

To understand state power, or Internet power, or, indeed, capital's power, that is, we have to think in terms of disassembly, fissure, and change rather than a binary determination of the continuing existence or end of certain forms of repression.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Dissertation Blog #3: Queering Fandom

I recently had a relatively epiphanic week with regard to my dissertation. As I spend more time inhabiting diss-space, such weeks (and the blog posts they generate) may get more frequent, as I suspect that this is a common stage in dissertating, when things suddenly become clear in batches.

First, as already blogged, those Sassen readings helped me realize it may not be so useful to think in terms of the nation.

To explain the second epiphany, I have to back up some distance. It all started because my department is somewhat anarchic. This suits most of us very well, because it gives us a lot of freedom, but it does contribute to a feeling of isolation. Particularly as students complete coursework, we all sort of lose touch with each other, to greater or lesser degree.

(Though, the way a speaker at a departmental reunion this weekend spoke about her cohort as an intellectual sounding-board to this day suggests there are ways around this.)

Consequently, when some university administrator types reviewed us, they said we needed more cohesion. The department administrators looked around at other graduate programs and decided the way to do that was to start a graduate student organization, and they tasked the representatives from each cohort with this. And so, as the unlucky soul elected to represent the 4th years, I found myself in a pub co-hosting a grad student meetup a couple of weeks ago.

This is a long story, but it was necessary to explain how I found myself seated at a table with a bunch of first and second years, who sought out my advice as a more advanced student—and particularly, one familiar with queer theory. Ultimately, it was the question "How is LGBT studies different from queer theory?" that resulted in me understanding my dissertation in a whole new way.

I said, "It's like the difference between ethnic studies and critical race studies"—and got a blank look. I tried again "No, okay, here's a better example: the difference between women's studies and gender studies." That landed more, and I went on to explain how I saw the distinctions between these categories.

Later, it hit me. That's the move I am making in fan studies. The queer studies or critical race studies or gender studies move. (Or, since I just taught Robert McRuer, the disability studies to crip theory move.)

That is, fan studies has, to this point, been operating in a women's studies or ethnic studies or disability studies or LGBT studies mode. It has said, "There are people called fans, who have a particular experience—to some extent, an oppressed experience—and we should document what it's like to be this sort of person."

This work has been and continues to be important, for fans as much as for any of the other categories of people that are researched in this way. This work absolutely should and must be done, because there are, in fact, groups of people out there that we don't know very much about yet and we should know about them if we're going to better our sense of what's going on in the world. I am, emphatically, not disputing that.

But that's not the work that I want to do in my dissertation. I'm out to queer fandom.

Now, I'm not queering fan studies in the way Julie Levin Russo does (Seriously! Can't blog without Julie!) in her insistence that it's important to focus on queer female fandom in Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities.

Perhaps most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I'm not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the sense of sexually oppressed, because either of those contentions would be patently absurd, although some fans surely are queer in one or both of those ways. And actually I think it's sometimes productive to think of fandom as a sexual orientation. See my Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom

What I'm doing, instead, is making the move queer theory makes (and critical race theory and gender theory and crip theory all make) to not just take fans as self-evident but rigorously interrogate the process by which this category is produced.

I don't want to look at fans out in the world as just existing, as if they just sprang up, fully-formed, not shaped in their practice by the social sense of what a fan is, as if the ability of anyone to even identify a fan or fannish behavior isn't shaped by the social sense of what a fan is. Because, no matter what Lady GaGa says, neither fans nor queers are "born this way."

Instead, I want to know: What are the processes by which we come to understand that there is such a thing as a fan? And what do we then understand that thing to be? What are the consequences of that construction process and constructed outcome for the norms of media audiencing in the Internet era?

This is a pretty different set of concerns from much of fan studies to this point, but I'm convinced that it's an approach that's vital. Just as looking at gender and race and sexuality and ability as categories has enriched work that looks at women and racial minority people and gays and the disabled, I think that queering fandom can really provide a stronger theoretical base for the LGBT-style work.

Now if only I could coin a catchy name.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Getting Clicky With it: Fan Power and Online Polls

Hats off to fans; they get stuff done. The latest evidence of this is the ways in which shippers (Vocabulary lesson for the unfamiliar: Shipper, n.: short for relationship-er; people who advocate for particular couples in media objects)—and particularly shippers of non-canon (i.e. not officially existing in the text of the media object itself) couples completely took over E! Online's 2012 TV's Top Couple Tournament.

The site's "weeks-long bracket-style tournament" started with 64 couples, many of which were "real" on the show and therefore might be considered to be more legitimate than those existing only in the slash goggles of the beholder(s).

Slash Goggles, n.: A prosthesis enabling one to see desire where it might otherwise be invisible; though the "slash" part indicates specifically same-sex desire, there are surely heterogoggles as well, though less often required. For a great rundown—and the place where I first heard the term—see Julie Levin Russo's Hera Has Six Mommies (A Transmedia Love Story). Because apparently I can't blog without Julie.

Despite the potential for legitimacy deficit, as the voting went on, many of the goggle-authorized pairings advanced through round after round, handily defeating couples for which there was explicit textual evidence. By the final four, there was just one canon pairing, which was same-sex: Brittany and Santana from Glee. And there was just one heterosexual pairing, which was non-canon: Castle and Beckett from Castle.

When the voting came down to the final two, lo and behold, both couples were same-sex and non-canon: Faberry (Quinn and Rachel, played by Dianna Agron and Lea Michele from Glee) and Destiel (Castiel and Dean, played by Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles from Supernatural).

The surviving pairs weren't, however, incestuous, which was a real possibility given the popularity of Wincest in Supernatural fandom. See Catherine Tosenberger's 2008. piece “‘The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean’: ‘Supernatural,’ Queer Readings, and the Romance of Incestuous Fan Fiction.”

E! staffers seem to have been pretty surprised by how the tournament went. In round two's post:

Wow. Just when you think you know which couples have the biggest fan bases… Lots of shockers in the first round of our annual TV Couple's Tournament! A Glee favorite knocked out, unconventional pairings triumphing over long-established love affairs, and a very normal married couple taking down a supernatural romance. These are all reasons we so thoroughly enjoy our TV Couple's tournament, because no win is guaranteed.

The tone became surprised and condescending by round five: "Don't go changing, shippers. Especially now that we're down to only four in our TV's Top Couples tournament and we need your crazy Internet ways more than ever." Then, in the last voting post: "Holy fandemonium. You Glee and Supernatural fans are passionate when it comes to this final round of our TV's Top Couple tournament. How passionate? Well, let's just say you nearly crashed the entire site yesterday!"

E! found the intensity to be surprising and indeed suspicious enough to warrant verification:

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) from Glee have won our TV's Top Couple megapoll! Now, when we say "mega" that is, in this case, apparently an understatement. The fans for "Faberry" (Fabray/Berry) as they call themselves, set a new record high for page turns on E! Online for any single post in the entire history of the website. Umm...yeah, we are just as stunned as you. Also, we did an investigation into this voting and it showed no signs of false play among "Faberry" fans: Just a group of hardcore, dedicated shippers who organized mass-voting times (all hours of the night), and obviously took this thing very seriously.

But it's perhaps a sign of the times that the non-canon nature of the outcome seems to have been more distressing to them than the same-sex aspect. Or, rather, the same-sex aspect was distressing because non-canon:

Now, I know what many of you who casually watch Glee are thinking: What the what?! Are Rachel and Quinn even a couple? And wait a minute, aren't they straight? Why yes, yes they are, as far as we know. But the "Faberry" fans believe these two belong together. And from the very first step of this Top Couple tournament, they represented, making sure that the pair received a nomination. As you may or may not recall, we left the nominations solely up to you. And after starting with 64 couples, we are left with the winners, Rachel and Quinn.

However, for all of E!'s shock and awe, the incident didn't surprise me. (Well, I was somewhat surprised by the scale—almost 400,000 votes in the final--but not the outcome). People who are denied official acknowledgement of their desire already have to be more affectively attached and put in more work to make it happen.

Moreover, the poll as a chance to make extremely visible to the people making Glee that this desire exists probably had something to do with it. Certainly, one fan site had it that the winning couple would have an interview—which I can't find substantiated at E! anywhere, but was probably inspiring even if untrue.

It just goes to show that shippers and slashers, for all their supposed "resistance" to the text, would ultimately really love for their couple of choice to be legitimized by appearing explicitly in the text—even if they would reserve the right to critique the execution—and this sort of entertainment-website poll is one way toward that goal.

Certainly, the actors involved in the couples in question felt a need to respond to this desire on the part of the fans. E! posted

a little message we got from Misha Collins (who is in the final two) after his pairing (Dean and Castiel) beat out Community's Jeff and Annie in the second-to-last round: "So often Hollywood and pop culture portray relationships that don't reflect real life and relationships that lack a moral compass. I think it's nice to see a stable couple with grounded values getting this attention over that perverse relationship between Joel McHale and that girl on that other show. I mean, look how they're kissing. It's disgusting—you can tell they're not even using tongue."

Quipping, "Just when you thought you couldn't love him more."

And then Agron tweeted this picture of herself and Michele,

captioned: "In honor of the voters! @luanarama: @DiannaAgron @msleamichele Faberry won the best couple on E!"

So, you know, here's another way in which fans may be powerful, though I say that with a sizeable grain of salt (perhaps even a salt-crystal boulder). By sheer dedication and time put in, they got to see what they wanted, even if only for a minute, and even if the (platonic) Faberry scene that appeared in promos was ultimately cut from February 21st's episode over their #DontCutFaberry trending topic objection.

And, if we're thinking about the power of fan desire, it may be a total coincidence, but I'm quite suspicious about the timing of Agron publicly smooching the guy she supposedly broke up with in December the day those results came out. Maybe even straight girls need beards if people think they've got the gay. (Commenter Phil at this thread had the same suspicion)