UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle Day 3: commoning, digital infrastructures and/for social movements, and white men taking up space
May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Social Reproduction and the Emerging Institutions of the Common opened with Fiona Jeffries’ and Pablo Mendez’ work on ‘Domesticating the struggle! Commoning Care in the Global Encampment’. Jeffries, presenting, framed the encampment protest-form recently (re)popularised by Occupy and other Squares movements as a way of making the domestic visible. The encampment challenges the binaries of public/private and personal/political, turning ‘home’ inside out. There’s been a lot of debate about the failure of political encampments, but Jeffries and Mendez argue that their significance lies in the ways in which they showed the necessity of placing social reproduction at the centre of struggle. The home space is where the crisis is experienced, and where people have to address it. Silvia Federici reminds us that home has a double character, both a site of reproduction of relations of domination, and as a site for potential resistance.
Elise Thorburn followed with ‘Communication Technologies and Social Reproduction: Securitized and Autonomous’, discussing the CUTV livestreaming of student strikes in Quebec. She began by noting some of the ways in which digital technologies can be seen as alienating us from our very existence as human beings: the neoliberal fixation on productivity and speed separates us from the solidarity and connections that would help us build resistance. There is a need to liberate our channels of communication (not just digital, but also embodied) from neoliberal control. CUTV made an attempt at this by using high-definition livestreaming equipment during student strikes in an attempt to humanise the protesters, to build audience’s connections with them, and to monitor police violence. For some protesters, livestreamers provide a sense of safety, a space which is at least moderately protected by counter-surveillance. Livestreaming technology is harder to shut down, because of the connection to different networks (including 3G and 4G) and the ability to turn the packs into wireless hotspots. However, livestreamers can also become a target for police violence, and livestreaming can be used by police to watch protesters (we also talked about some of the debates around livestreaming in our research on Occupy Oakland). After a certain point, CUTV made a decision to move away from filming people’s faces, and to avoid filming acts that protesters might be charged with. We need to be prepared to constantly adapt our uses of digital technologies, as repressed forces co-opt them or counter our efforts.
Enda Brophy ended the session by exploring the Cultural Workers Organize project. He emphasised the need for responses to increasing precarity among cultural workers that consider ways of decommodifying labour and build possibilities for escaping wage relations. The research team has been looking at some of the occupations of theatres, cinemas, and other spaces which began in 2011 (building on a longer history of related occupations). Many of these have become laboratories for horizontal management through open assembly. They also tend to be spaces in which there is a radical openness to the community around them, creating forms of organisation that are expressly articulated around the idea of the common, rejecting the binary of public/private. However, they face serious challenges, including evictions by the state (as has happened to the Cinema America) and the need to find income streams to support participants. The sheer audacity of these initiatives encourages us to aspire to something beyond the binary of ‘good work’ and ‘bad work’, and to look for ways to build institutions of the common.
The next session addressed Social Movements and Digital Technologies. Stephane Couture and Sophie Toupin opened by looking at two case studies in ‘Digital Infrastructures and/for Social Movement’, both of which respond to the increasing commodification and surveillance of the Internet. Stephane discussed the World Free Media Forum (there are also notes on this in my summary of day 1), which has lead to the production of the World Charter of Free Media and journal edition on Free Information and Open Internet. He talked about attempts to use free software in the organising of the Forum (for example, mumbles rather than skype), and to set up spaces for tech activists to share their knowledge with others. However, there are challenges to this work, including the difficulty of working some tools and ideological clashes. The second case study was about feminist servers, broadly defined to include software, hardware, code design, social solidarities, and space (this was also addressed at the FemHack event I went to in Montreal). Feminist servers are a response to violence, bullying, harassment, surveillance, and the corporatisation of the internet. Infrastructure matters, even if by design infrastructure is made to be ignored (we often forget the infrastructure, until it fails). And frequently infrastructure is not designed by people thinking about safety, particularly not from a feminist perspective. As in yesterday‘s presentation from Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating, Sophie emphasised the importance of a “do it together” rather than a DIY ethos. (And perhaps you can also do it together, as the next TransHackFeminist convergence happens in Mexico in July). Both Stephane and Sophie emphasised the difficulty of bringing different communities and struggles together, and the necessity and value of doing this work. There is a need for more spaces and people that do this bridging work.
Elisabetta Ferrari followed with ‘Social Media for the 99%? Rethinking Alternative Media and Social Movements’ Identity in the Corporate Web 2.0’. This research explores some of the changes to the alternative media landscape since the late 1990s. One of the issues for social movements is that corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become vital spaces for making alternative perspectives visible. Elisabetta’s analysis of Occupy Chicago’s use of these platforms produced some surprising results: a very limited proportion of content deals with identity, and mass media content shared with endorsement outweighs the proportion that’s shared with critical commentary. This is in part because OC was making an attempt to develop relationships with mainstream media – putting out press releases, holding press conferences, running media training, and even producing PR guides. The lack of identity material can be seen as a response to the difficulty of defining “who we are” for Occupy: reporting an actions provided a way to balance this by saying “what we do” instead. The lack of identity content can also be seen as a coping mechanism for movements where there is a fundamental disjuncture between a diverse, decentralised movement and accounts on social media that are built around singular identities. It is useful to investigate the relationship between political choices and technological choices: movements benefit from using corporate social media, but at the same time the structures of these media exacerbate existing political tensions in decentralised movements.
Finally, Anne-Marie Romanko talked about ‘Pepper Spray, Photoshop, and Protest: The Meme as a Tool for Socio-Political Protest’. Romanko argues that photoshop memes can create opposition to hegemonic forces through powerful political messages, focusing on the image of Lieutenant John Pike pepperspraying protesters at UC Davis. Memes give agency to polyvocal discourse: they allow for the voice of the other to be included in the message. They can act as a way to influence or counter mainstream media discourse, and while some scholars believe images and politics are trivialised through memes, they create dialogue, and humour can be a powerful form of dissent. Memes can connect people who might otherwise have little in common.
Anyone following me on Twitter will have gathered that I found the ‘question’ session on this panel very frustrating. There are useful critiques to be made of question sessions, and of the hierarchical structure of experts and audience. However, the commonly-expressed frustration at “more-a-comment-than-a-question” is based in part on the fact that those making “more a comment” are often the privileged (rather than marginalised people disrupting power hierarchies). I expect a moderate level of “more a comment”s at conferences, and have learned to sigh and bear it, but this panel was particularly remarkable because there were five or six white men in a row who took the opportunity to talk at length about their own ideas, the case studies they thought were relevant, or the arguments they thought should be used to frame these issues. Only one of them appended any pretence at a question mark. I asked a question (and made a note that others hadn’t), and as soon as presenters answered, there were more “comments” from the audience. Frustrated, I nervously tried to speak up and point out what was happening. And then one of the female presenters got thirty seconds into talking about her arguments before another white man interrupted to argue with her.
There are obviously things that individual men could, and should, be doing to avoid this: being aware of the demographics of who speaks and who is interrupted and how they might be contributing to that dynamic is a good start. (Similarly, white women need to be aware of the ways in which our voices are privileged in some spaces.) Continuing on from my previous post on thinking about conferences as technologies which should be approached with the same critical perspective we’re turning on digital technologies, there are also steps that organisers can take to build a better “question session” technology. For example, it might be useful to set out guidelines for moderators that include using a progressive stack to take audience questions, and making it clear whether comments will be accepted (if they are, making this explicit will make space for those who don’t feel confident commenting in a question session).
If we’re going to talk about the ways in which particular digital platforms marginalise or facilitate particular voices, we should also be prepared to think about that in our own spaces.