“How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy”

The National Conference for Media Reform just closed the first day of its events.  Out of money, time, and energy, I, unfortunately, could not attend so I have especially appreciated the conversations Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman are broadcasting at DemocracyNow.org where they talk with Robert McChesney on his new book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (with links to the first chapter on the website). The discussion opens with words from the media activist, Aaron Swartz, who tragically ended his own life this January after being demonized and surveilled after essentially e-liberating academic scholarship.

McChesney describes google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple as both monopolies and empires that have changed the internet at the levels of access, use, and application with no real separation from a national security state.  Along with Gonzalez, McChesney advocates for a political-economy of the media, going so far as to call AT&T, Verizon, comcast/cable a cartel that has essentially privatized the internet.  I tend to agree and wonder how and why we, as writing teachers, would ever frame technology in our classrooms and with students outside of these kinds of conversations.

The best take-away from the conference seems to be that communities and groups ARE taking the media into their own hands. And while the conference sounds like it is very hands-on, it is also minds-on, something that doesn’t always happen when we turn college writing classrooms into tech labs and demos.  Writing in the 21st century has to be about more than new tools and technologies. First and foremost, we need to talk about exactly what this conference seems to be reaching for: a cultural revolution.  This, to me, seems like exactly what black radical traditions have always been about anyway… we have never NOT been in need of cultural revolution.

“My Time as a Human Was Over”

Based mostly at the suggestion of various friends, I have been catching up on movies that I needed to see, in the cultural sense, but didn’t necessarily want to see, in the political sense.  As always, I am traumatized by these viewing experiences.

First was the movie, Flight.

Then I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Then came that final twilight foolishness: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2. I have already talked about that here so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t change any of my positions on THAT.

20121030132042I really couldn’t get past the first five-minute frames of each of these movies and, ironically, each started basically the same: with a twisted, pornographic imagination where women are slithering animals and sexual objects.  I was actually surprised by Flight, despite all that I had heard about using Denzel, a black man, to play an addict.  I didn’t expect for the movie to open by showcasing a Latina’s naked body (played by Puerto Rican actress and model, Nadine Velazquez).  I expected that we wouldn’t see Denzel fully naked, not because it’s Denzel, but because it is quite normative for every ad, video, or television show to have a fully clothed man next to an almost naked woman.  There’s no logic to a man dressed in long sleeves and coat standing next to a woman in a bikini—someone must be really cold or someone must be really hot— other than the deliberate parading/selling of women’s bodies.  As I watched Flight, Denzel’s white female love interest (played by Kelly Lynch)— an unemployable drug addict who almost dies from an overdose— is never shown fully naked, not even in the studio where her friend/drug-supplier is making porn videos. Instead, this white love interest is frequently told by a cancer victim of her beauty, gets saved by Denzel from her eviction and landlord ‘s physical violence, and then she saves Denzel in the end by introducing him to AA.  A (black) shining knight to the rescue of a white woman!  The movie seems to make a point of letting us know that the first woman is Latina by stating her full name more than a few times.  Intentionally so, this is not another J-Lo-featured movie where we have a Latina playing/passing as a white woman. Though he defends her in the end, Denzel’s Latina love interest does not receive the same salvation in this movie as the white woman.  The two black women in the movie are not even full characters: the ex-wife is scorned, angry, alone, and demanding money; the co-worker is asexual and loyal (even if it means telling a torturous lie) til the very end, the perfect mammy.  The talk about the movie seemed to question why Denzel’s love interest couldn’t have been a black woman, but the answer to that question seems obvious and does not begin to deal with what the movie does with Latina bodies (and that’s only ONE of the problems with the movie).  Clearly, when we talk about the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, not all women are equally exploited and sexualized, and white women seem to always be rescued.  But we knew this already, didn’t we?

936640_068Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with a little black girl climbing around in her underwear (Hush Puppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis).  It’s unnecessary to repeat all of the problems with the images of this little black girl in this film.  At this point, all you need to do is read bell hooks’s analysis, “No Love in the Wild,” on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog.  I was, unsurprisingly, mesmerized by Wallis’s talent as well as Dwight Henry who played the father; both are very talented within a script that could not adequately allow for it.   At this point though, I am most stunned by the willingness of adults— whether it be 21st century parents, Catholic priests, or film producers— to sexualize children’s bodies with the aid of digital cultures, social networking, and other multimedia operations.  The gaze of these filmmakers on Hush Puppy’s body feels no different to me than the gaze of the new digital archivist-parent who posts videos of her half-naked child on youtube, including my own college peers, who post endless photos of their children (and themselves) on Facebook half-naked all the time (these are supposedly protected FB sites and yet I am not even on FB and can get access).  And while cultural critics can talk forever and a day about the necessary and positive blurring of private and public and the rupture of respectability politics, there is something really wrong when parents have their small children perform, wearing only underwear or pajamas, in front of a camera for a youtube audience in the context of a cyber-world that daily criss-crosses with pedaphiliac violence. Everyone has a role in digital empire and this is what it looks like for exploited children and their digitized pimp/parent. You need only watch shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” to see that parents willingly and regularly participate in the media pimping of their children quite regularly in all kinds of ways. I agree with hooks that  Beasts of the Southern Wild certainly participates in this culture of commodifying children’s bodies but in my mind, it is doing so as the new digitized pimp-parenting, not simply as a Hollywood tool.

As for the last installment of Twilight?  Well, like I said before: it is something I have had to keep up with in order to experience what many of my students have experienced.  Here again, we have a woman slithering around, literally roaming the woods, climbing walls, hunting for blood/food, like a starved animal, because she is a vampire now.  At least, unlike Trina in Flight and Hush Puppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she gets some supernatural powers.  Bella tells us somewhere in the movie that her time as a human was over, but given these images, one might wonder if women were ever allowed to fully participate as human in the first place.

Towards a 21st Century Multimedia Curriculum…

copyThe first college class that I taught was in 1998.  It seems so far, far away.  I had just left teaching middle school and high school for 5-6 years.  These days I keep remembering the ordeals—both in time and money— that I had to endure to show video or images in my classes, which I did quite often.  If I had some images I wanted to show, I would make color-copies and do them in multiples to pass around the room. Thank goodness for Kinkos, open 24 hours, where you could often find me at 4am in the morning copying in a last-minute pinch if I came up with some new lesson plan during the weekday rather than on the weekend.  My paychecks seemed to just evaporate buying books and rendering those color copies.  I always used full-color photographs and artwork because I was intent on making sure that my black and Latin@ students saw images of themselves that could sustain who they were and were meant to be.  If the classroom didn’t provide that, then we would be at the mercy of Hollywood and cable television, not the kind of fate I had in mind.

tvcartShowing documentaries and films was another ordeal and yet another place where my money evaporated. I had to be rather creative to get Blockbuster (do they even still exist?) to order what I wanted and then copy stuff at home for my own personal library.  I had a set of friends who would send me videos too, it was like a private youtube network.  On campus, I would have to reserve a VCR/TV at least a week in advance which came on a huge rolling cart with the television and VCR padlocked with the kind of thick, metal chains you use to lock down a motorcycle (in New York City, that is).   On more than a few occasions, I would have to wheel that thing across campus.  The wheels were never great and the sidewalks were never smoothly paved so you could be sure that I  was rolling that thing all up on the grass and in the flowerbeds. Then I would have to wait on an empty elevator upwards of 15 minutes to get to my classroom.  If you didn’t arrive at least one hour before classes, you were in BIG trouble because you had some serious work to do to get your class prepped (and I learned the hard way to CHECK the equipment to make sure it actually works before you leave the equipment room or you would have an even BIGGER mess and even more dead flowers on your hands).  If you had multiple classes back-to-back in different buildings, you would need to stagger the classroom viewing because you had to request the chained-TV/VCR-wagon in each different location. Time between classes didn’t permit you to drop off one wagon and pick up another wagon. If it rained or snowed, it was a WRAP!  Just be prepared to start the process all over again because no TV/VCR wagons could be taken outside then. It was, to put it mildly, an EXTRA HOT MESS!  You can see that with this kind of preparation and extra work, it was really difficult to become or nurture a teaching force who would fully incorporate multimedia work in their classrooms and teaching.  The only thing that was worthwhile were the jokes the guys in “tech” would make when they saw what happened to the grass and flowerbeds when I was done for the day!  Like I said, a hot mess!

radio_raheem-radioOn a reg’lar ole day, I just looked like Radio Raheem.  Playing music and incorporating lyrics was just so much easier; that is, if you had your own boom box.  Otherwise, you would be stuck requesting some too-heavy CD/tape player one week in advance with no kinda sound or bass at all (which, to me, was as much of a hot mess as rollin all up in the flowerbeds). So yeah, I just carried a boom box to class with me all of the time.  I got all manner of jokes from students (nicknamed “the professor with the radio” or, just, “Professor Raheem”) but it seemed to make them register for my classes all the more so I took it all in stride.

I am as committed to multimedia curriculum today as I was back then.  There’s not that much of a change in my disposition though many educators like to imagine that we are somehow more multimedia now than ever before.  It’s a really anti-historical argument, digital empire in full effect in its privilege/domination to imagine itself as brand-spanking-new. Am I more visual now than Lois Mailou Jones in the Harlem Renaissance?  Or black female quilt makers?  A stupid suggestion, if you ask me.

Yes, there are certainly differences. When I usedta put images on my  typical 15-to-20-page syllabi, I had to cut and paste in the scissor-and-glue style.  Glue sticks vs. them bottles of Elmer’s messy glue (or rubber cement) were the greatest technology to me when I was teaching back then.  Boy did them glue sticks save time, even if the glue did dry up too fast!  Granted, I am being somewhat facetious here in calling glue sticks new technology, but in my everyday life as a teacher, that’s exactly how them glue sticks were experienced.  As for now, where I once used blackboard to house the online hyperlinks and materials of a semester, I now use a website.  My students who have been dropped from the class can still tap in even when their university IDs do not work, my former students can tap in, and I can embed videos and music in new ways to create different kinds of visual and auditory texts for curricular content. It’s as convenient, fast, and streamlined as them glue sticks and makes my curricular goals easier.  No more equipment requests a week in advance and now, each day, a student directs a multimedia rhetorical analysis, something I simply could not have planned given the scarcity of equipment (there is a screen and PC in each classroom and all students receive a laptop).

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Like before, I get to maneuver around all kinds of interesting quirks and new plannings. I don’t have page limits or the designs of the page to limit the content and presentation of the curriculum anymore.  I don’t have annoying digital pages on my university system as an appendix to the course with all of those annoying university logos and brandings.  Everything is all in one place now and I have more control over design (albeit, not full control).  I can link out and include photos of the authors who we are reading in the hopes that students feel more connected to them; the authors become metaphoric members of the writing community (the authors who we read sometimes contact me/us so the community is real).  It became important to me this semester, for instance, that students SEE Jacqueline Jones Royster and Shirley Wilson Logan as they are reading their work; these are not scholars from up on high but unilateral black female meaning-makers in their lives.

Shirley Wilson Logan

Shirley Wilson Logan

I haven’t included more audiovisual segments into the course (that has been there from previous semesters), but I have included more visuals and hyperlinks.  I suspect that I will learn a lot more about this curriculum and about teaching now that I have moved to a different platform.  I won’t lie here: I don’t miss what I had to do in them days of old though, sadly, I am no longer called Professor Raheem (many of my students don’t even know who Radio Raheem was and/or what he symbolizes).  Yet and still, my students do have new nicknames for me based on their newest cultural apparatus. I will confess that there are days when I wouldn’t mind running over the campus fauna a little bit.  I may still get my chance.

If My Syllabus Had a Soundtrack…

segment-of-urban-graffiti-wall-showing-letter-sOne of my fondest memories of junior high school was passing notes in the hallways at the change of classes.  We signed our notes with one big letter “S” instead of our government names. The “S” reflected the following label we gave to ourselves: Super… Sweet… Soul… Sonic… Sister.  And we knew who the other was by the design of the “S.”  Now, of course, we jacked some of that language from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, a force which we fully claimed as our own. I laugh when I think back on that and how we tried to get some kind of sound into those letters we wrote, usually by including, at least, some lyrics.  Though no one would have thought so, those notes that we wrote to one another were more sophisticated and interesting in their centering of multimedia work than most of what I see in classrooms today.  The idea that classroom spaces could and should include both visual and aural artifacts still escapes most of us.

Fall 2012 was the first time I decided to really situate my teaching in a digital ecology, hence this website.  I have never considered a university’s corporate technology-package a digital ecology of anything except capitalism so I wanted to think about what an alternative might be.  I taught a graduate class so there was still a good deal of print texts but we mixed in multimedia texts into the weekly seminars.  This semester, however, I am teaching a class called African American Women’s Rhetoric and I plan to fully explode what is available on the internet because the texts of this course are very multimodal.  What this means is that I am right back where I started in  fall semester 2012 with these same, central questions:

I feel more confident that I can create a visually-rich learning space for students.  Most of what I have in my head visually, I do not have the skills to get onto the page here though— so “confidence” here is really an overstatement. Yet and still, at least I do have something in my head.  I do not have the confidence of creating an aurally rich site though. It is simply not my strength in the sense that I am not a musician, music theorist, or sound technician.  Of course, I play music, in every class, in every semester that I have taught, but that is too basic for what I mean here.

FrontWhen I asked this question about aural learning and attempted to have this as a public discussion at my university last fall, I distinctly remember a few of the white faculty laughing (and later making jokes for what kind of song I could use on my website, as if they might ever know enough about black music to even step into my office with a suggestion).   Clearly, I do not consider myself, my scholarship, or my questions about digital spaces for youth of color an issue of humor or comedy.  These faculty members seemed to think it was a funny thing to interrogate the meanings of sound in digital spaces as irrelevant or esoteric to the concerns of teaching, technology at our university, and to a multimedia age (yes, this is an absurd response to sound, as in… M.E.D.I.A…. A.G.E… the irony has not been lost on me).  I highlight the fact that these faculty were white, most of whom are compositionists, because I hold their sentiment in stark contrast to what I see as a clear-cut fact: every BLACK revolution, rebellion, resistance movement has been sounded. I mean, after all, Afrika Bambaataa chose to create a soul sonic force.  So what might it mean, look like, sound like to teach a class about African American women’s rhetoric and include the music and the sound of black women’s voices in song, music, or speech in deeply contextual ways?  What might it mean to teach a class, with the large numbers of black female students I always have, who probably have never HEARD black women in a college curriculum because white faculty think that’s a funny idea, even in the multimedia age?  I am clear what side of the revolution these white folk are on and I am clear that I need to get me and my students on the other side.

This clarity that I have here, however, does not mean that I know how to do what I have in mind or how to even think things through differently.  So I am reflecting today about what we were doing as Super, Sweet, Soul, Sonic Sisters. We didn’t just play songs for each other— we took the music and the concept to craft an identity.  That’s what I am thinking about now.  How can this class create an identity with sound— a soul sonic identity?  How can this class embody its own sonic rhetoric as a way to investigate the sonic rhetoric of black women? Students have often told me that they create a playlist with the music from this class so how can I be more deliberate about my syllabus having its own soundtrack?  Needless to say, I have some work to do… and no part of it will be a laughing matter.