Expression, Ecology, Identity

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoreau 2.0: Sharing the Environmentalist Experiment Online

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or, if it were sublime, to know it by experience,
and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau captures his motivation for a two-year experiment in simple living at Walden Pond in these words from his essay “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” later published in Walden or Life in the Woods. The record of his time at Walden was never meant for himself alone. Thoreau’s intention to “publish” or “give a true account” of the world as he found it show reminds his readers that he documented the experience with them in mind, understanding its shared significance as well as its personal meaning.

Though Thoreau was writing to an audience, only a handful of his readers could communicate directly with him in return and this long after his sojourn at Walden Pond had ended. The book Thoreau wrote based on the Walden years was not ready for publication for seven years after Thoreau left the pond. While it did find its way into a small circle of like-minded souls during Thoreau’s lifetime, it was not until after his death that the work became iconic in American literature and nature writing.

Like Walden itself, the idea of conducting a personal experiment in ecologically-conscious living which is then shared with others has not only survived Thoreau’s lifetime but gained popularity. A growing number of individuals, from professional writers and activists to online journalists are recording their experiments in green living in the interactive public space of the blogosphere, offering a vast array of answers to the question of what it means to be an environmentalist. They, too, are sharing the stories of where they live and what they live for. However, their words can reach an audience on a scale and with an immediacy that Thoreau never could have dreamed of. (Though, here, one blogger imagines how Thoreau’s journals would have read as a blog.)

I am interested in the contemporary, online incarnations of green living experiments. In what ways are these blogs personal projects that help to shape the writers’ ideas about certain environmental issues? In what ways are they political projects, intended as activism? How do the blogs’ digital format shape the way the writers’ stories are shared? Received? Discussed?

Perhaps the most famous example of a “Thoreau 2.0”-style green living experiment recorded via blog (and video, and eventually as a book)is Colin Beaven, A.K.A. “No Impact Man.” Here is the trailer for the documentary made about Beavan's and his family's experience.

Beavan is quite self-reflexive in his choices to make this private experiment public via the web and other media. I asked nine other green living bloggers to add their experience with these issues to the mix.

Though blogs on green living are many and various, I focused on those in which most posts were personal stories about the author’s own attempts to live more sustainably (rather than blogs that feature mostly news items, product reviews, general how-to’s, etc.). And, I included only blogs to which the authors had recently posted. You can follow my conversations with the bloggers by clicking each of the following links.

The Accidental Environmentalist
The Clean Bin Project Blog
The Crunchy Chicken
Eco Experiment
Green Bean Chronicles
It’s Not Easy To Be Green
The Last Biscuit
One Green Generation
Simple Savvy

And, MANY thanks to Cynthia of Withywindle Nature for joining this conversation! She has been kind enough to share some thoughts in the comment section below.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pipe Dreams: The Cultural Narratives Behind Keystone XL

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a hotly debated project that, if realized, could have a vast environmental impact. Public discourse about the pipeline in the forms of media coverage and statements to the press speak to possible technical solutions to the project’s environmental harms: some recommend moving the pipeline’s location; others suggest replacing it with alternative energy sources. However, I propose that the root problem of the Keystone pipeline is not so much technological as ideological. The project proposal exists as a result of a set of unsustainable cultural narratives: suppositions about consumption and “the good life,” notions about science, and the perceived separation between humans and non-human nature. These tacit assumptions are the forces driving Keystone XL, the impetus of its negative environmental impact. And yet, they are virtually invisible in public discourse about the pipeline. Examining the proposed project through a cultural studies lens reveals that Keystone XL is a symptom of a deeper problem and that this problem is social, not merely technological. A lasting solution to the pipeline’s ecological dangers will mean reimagining the destructive narratives from which it springs. It will mean shifts in perception and political will, without which technical fixes will be impracticable or ineffectual.

Labor, Beauty & Sustainable Community: Needlecraft Among Latter-Day Saint Women

This is an abstract for a project I've been working on in CLST 315, Qualitative Field Research Methods with Dr. Paul Faulstich.

In this ethnographic study of knitting/crochet and sewing groups in the Las Flores ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in La Verne, California, I explore the communal practice of hand-making goods as it impacts participants’ relationships to material culture and consumption. In particular, I examine the differences between the needlecrafters’ engagement with the products they make and their perception of goods obtained commercially, where production is performed by invisible others. I investigate the mythic significance of needlecraft, approaching the activity as a cultural practice that signifies a set of values and assumptions about the self in relation to the material environment. Observation of and interviews yield data on three major themes: perceptions of labor, definitions of the beauty and value of material products, and the bearing that needlecraft practice has on community/human relationships. The data I gather from participants is analyzed against theoretical proposals about the importance of hand-crafted products in the shift toward a more ecologically and economically sustainable culture. I conclude that, while participants to do not frame their activities as revolutionary, creating hand-made goods in this group setting offers important points of entry for reconsidering destructive assumptions about labor, beauty and community that currently prevail in mainstream material culture and in standard patterns of consumption.

I am grateful for the way my Visual Research Methods and Qualitative Field Research methods classes have informed each other this semester, especially on this project. Even though the methods in I used were not specifically visual or digital, I found myself thinking often about theorists and discussions from Visual Research methods as I pursued this study. I began this ethnography still trying to figure out what ethnography was, exactly. That process continues, but there are some things I have learned that have made a big impact on my understanding of this work.

Initially, I felt a lot of discomfort about the ethnographic process because the inherent violence of the gaze felt very real to me. Our VRM class read some of Frances Fanon's writing about what it is to be seen as an "object," one who is the product of someone else's gaze, one who is not allowed to emanate meaning but only receives the meaning imposed by others. I did not want to perpetuate that practice by imposing my gaze on anyone in that way. I tried to mediate this by choosing a field site in a community of which I was already a part - LDS women - so that I would not be asking my consultants to be seen without also being included in the gaze by association. I thought, at the time, that simply having a connection to the community myself meant that it was more allowable for me to speak about it. Still enormously uncomfortable both with the process of seeing and being seen, I began work on the project.

Then things began to change. I was introduced - through my professors' own work and through that of others, like Jean Rouch, who pushed the boundaries of the traditional ethnography - to a way of working that was intentionally self-reflexive and collaborative. At first, I had believed that my authority to tell the stories of my consultants came from the connections we shared. I saw my job as giving voice to those stories on the participants' behalf as responsibly as possible. I thought "good ethnography" meant letting participants speak for themselves, and so was uncomfortable introducing my own interpretations of the group's activities or theoretical questions/observations into the narrative. However, I came to realize that it was as undesirable as it was it impossible to avoid my own perspective. Further, I began to see that a theoretical framework was crucial to explaining the significance and larger cultural implications that I saw in the activities of my consultants.

Instead of thinking of the study as a monologue that I was helping to facilitate, I began to understand it as a conversation: one that involved the voices of participants in the study, my own voice, and the voices of other theorists. Together, these voices would contribute to a shared narrative. Moreover, that narrative was not fixed but ongoing: readers of my study would also bring their interpretations to it. Donna Haraway's work on feminist ethnography helped me to understood that, just as the result of the study were necessarily collaborative, so too would be determining the meaning of those results.

I remember a conversation in my VRM class in which we were discussing the concept of performing one's identity. Dr. Juhasz noted that we each do this all the time, in all of our actions and interactions. None of us, she said, wants to be understood as a stereotype; we do not want our identities to be a projection of the assumptions and labels of others. Performing one's identity on one's own terms manifests and reinforces one's own ideas about the self. It can even help to change perceptions of others about oneself. This helped me understand my ethnography as a potential site of power. Originally, I saw it only as a place where the stories of my consultants and myself would be made vulnerable by becoming objects of the gaze of others. And, I suppose that is still true, in a sense. But, now I also see the study as a locus of authority as a collective, interactive performance of our identities. It is a vehicle to that we can use to share something of ourselves with the world on our own terms.

Of course, this is all much easier because I like the people with whom I conducted this study and I concluded that what they're doing has value. It is easy to collaborate with people to whom you already feel connected and whose activities I see as positive rather than harmful. How would this experience have been different if I had felt otherwise? What will happen when this is the case? What will it be like to try to forge a collaborative narrative when the participants in your study are hostile to my presence? When they are doing something I feel is misguided or harmful? I do not believe the answer is to always shy away from experiences like this. In that case, I could only ever study people who were not very different from myself -- and that seems very undesirable. The honest effort to learn from others who are not like me is important too - and too important to avoid out of discomfort. These classes have helped me to see that critique and even deep disagreement can indeed be a part of an open, respectful ethnographic process. Perhaps my next ethnographic project will be an opportunity to put this conviction into practice.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Stealing, Welding, Making (a Mess)

My final project on digital storytelling for CLST 355 Visual Research Methods is due soon. I’m fishing around online for digital storytelling about which I might want to write, my insecurity – I mean, er, self-reflexivity – is flaring. In particular, I feel the tension between writing about things other people have made and making original work. Why am I commenting on other people’s work instead of making my own “original work”? Or, is making original work what I’m doing here?

What it is that I can say about people’s blogs that the blogs themselves are not communicating? And, even if my comments on the digital storytelling of others are valid, are they useful? Am I offering anything new to the conversation about digital storytelling? Or, are my comments just a mash-up of pre-existing concepts – the blogs I’ve researched, what I’ve read for this class, other people’s comments in class – remixed in a peculiar way? Is this blog, for example, like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox and the ideas with which I’m working have less and less integrity each time they’re are reproduced?

Or, is my remix more than the sum of its parts? Does the stealing and welding and reshaping of ideas I’ve found interesting form something unique – an original work?

In my search for the blogs of digital storytellers, I happened upon the site of one artist who would say “yes.”

In class, we discussed the possibility of using a blog as a place to try out ideas, to have unfinished thoughts, to make a mess. At the beginning of this blog, I made a post about how uncomfortable I was using this space that way. I was loath to post anything that wasn’t “finished;” as soon as it was “out there” it could be graded and judged. I didn’t see the blogosphere as a place where I could ask dumb questions, or sift through ideas without having fully articulated my arguments. But Kleon’s blog – for better or worse – made me feel a little more free to think of ideas as a jumping-off point for mine; to not wait for perfection before making something – even if what you make turns out to be a mess.

Messes – the many, many awful ideas you try out before reaching one you think you like – seem a necessary part of the creative process, but it’s one I think the schools I’ve attended have encouraged me to keep to myself. The web offers thinkers the opportunity to do the opposite. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but I’m giving it a try. I’m basing this take on my academic work on the suggestions of a non-academic. Here’s to letting everyone see you sweat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Digital Storytelling: Amateurs and Experts

Knut Lundby defines digital storytelling as small-scale "amateur, personal stories" focused on self-representation (Digital Storytelling, Mediated Stories,1). Berkley, California's Center for Digital Storytelling describes a "digital storyteller," as "anyone who has a desire to document life experience, ideas, or feelings through the use of story and digital media. Usually someone with little to no prior experience in the realm of video production but time to spend a few days attending a workshop and developing a story with creative support and technical assistance from compassionate, highly experienced facilitators."

I'm intrigued by the idea that digital storytelling is usually done by someone with "little to no prior experience in the realm of video production" but who's work can be assisted by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." For me, these definitions beg the following questions:

What makes an "amateur" digital storyteller?
How is the amateur digital storyteller different from the expert digital media-maker?
At what point does an amateur become an expert?
What is the role of the "experts" - the "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators" in that transformation?

The CDS's definition suggests a digital storyteller is usually new to creating digital media. But, what that actually means is, necessarily, a moving target that shifts with digital technology, its popularity, and its availability. As recording and editing devices crop up in a range of portable devices - laptops, phones - fewer and fewer adults are completely unfamiliar with the means of digital media production.

The same is true for the self-ethnographic forms employed in digital storytelling. As institutional anthropology becomes more self-reflexive and collaborative, it shifts further away from the notion that people's stories can only be told about the "other" through and for the scholarship of the dominant culture. Indeed, as Lundby points out, humans have been telling self-reflexive stories for ages. The "mediatized" extension of storytelling is new, but the practice of storytelling isn't.

If technological and anthropological tools once reserved for the elite are now in the hands of many amateurs, what, then, is the role of the expert? What is the role of the visual anthropologist?

The Center for Digital Storytelling offers one possible response when it describes storytellers' work as "facilitated by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." The support being offered by these experts has to do with the process of mediated self-reflection and self-expression ("creative support") as much as it has to do with using unfamiliar software and equipment ("technical support"). These professionals are not just teaching video-production, they are also educating participants in a particular way of understanding their own experiences.

Here is what one example of this work might look like. This a collaboration between Dominique Peltier and (interestingly) unnamed facilitators from the Center for Digital Storytelling. The video was created for the "Italians of Denver" digital media project. Though the video is framed as a memorial to Peltier's grandfather, his story is largely told in the context of Peltier's own life as influenced by her relationship with her grandfather.

"Put Down Your Camera and Join Us"

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I saw this sign through the roiling sea of faces, voices and signs that made up the 10/15/11 Occupy Movement's International Day of Action. It was scrawled in black marker on a ragged piece of cardboard carried by a teenage girl.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I passed her in the crowd several times and never without a jolt of discomfort - probably because, each time, I was video-recording her holding her sign.

I had come to the Occupy LA site that day to protest corporate "personhood" under the law, to challenge corporate corruption of the democratic process and to advocate for participatory democracy. My interest in the movement grew from a conviction that "business as usual" is destroying the landscape on which we collectively depend for survival, that for everyday community-members to abdicate democratic power is to invite tyranny.

But, while I considered myself to be one of “the 99%,” I also saw myself as a recorder and interpreter of these events. Clutching a low-tech camera the size of my hand, I was now a newbie filmmaker. I intended to help tell the story of this moment from the inside out, to contribute my one, admittedly idiosyncratic, perspective to the creation of a collaborative narrative about the Occupy movement.

The footage I was taking was meant for the group video project for a CLST 355 Visual Research Methods course at Claremont Graduate University (above). My collaborators and I set out to make a video that explored the “demand for a list of demands” that mainstream media had imposed on the Occupy movement. Certainly, criticisms of the movement as having either no demands or too many demands, were ubiquitous in televised news. But was this the right question to ask? Who would gain from extracting a list of demands from the movement at this stage?

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I could understand why this sign-maker protester might assume that those holding cameras were not on her side. But, the same coverage of the Occupy that may have led her to be skeptical of media-makers inspired me to bring my camera to the demonstration. The notion that reflection on and scholarly interpretation of current events should be left to disinterested observers has been around a long time. But, I’m not sure I buy it. Since we are never entirely able to check our biases and our own agendas at the door when interpreting human behavior, “pure scholarly objectivity” is largely a myth. I agree with those, like cinema verite pioneer John Rouch, that developing practices of self-examination in shared anthropology is not just possible, it is vital.

Further, I do not believe it is necessary to wait for someone else to interpret our actions for us. We can and must participate in that work ourselves. Making media is a way of engaging that task; it is a vehicle for self-expression but also of self-reflection.

Finally, believe that scholarship and activism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are necessarily connected. Once we engage in scholarship, once we attempt to know the world around us, we must decide what to do with that information. That choice of how – and when and whether - to employ knowledge, is always a political act, whether or not we intend it to be.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

It doesn’t bother me that I might disagree with my co-protester on this. We in the movement are still working out how to represent ourselves, just as we’re necessarily still working on how to articulate the complex system of changes we want to see in the world. I only wish I had spoken to her about this at the time. We might have talked about why we agreed and explored the areas where we didn’t. Indeed, conversations like this are a critically important part of the work of the movement. Perhaps this video can help to say what I wish I had said to her that day: that I – and my camera – had joined her.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Express Yourself -- with PARODY!

This is an ad parody for ad parodies.

It is meant to reveal and reproduce the strengths and weaknesses inherent in parody as a means of deconstructing culture (the kind of "culture jamming" Kalle Lasn embraces and made famous through Adbusters).

The video explores Marx's notion that cultural constructions, including the construction of self-identity, is determined by the way one participates in the economy. As much as they might disagree with Marx on other points, it's seems that major advertisers wish to promote this idea. In the ads included in the video, advertisers can be seen to engaged in what Marx calls commodity fetishism - associating abstract concepts with a product or object that goes beyond and even obscures the product as a commodity representing labor. In these cases, self-expression and individuality are said to be possible through participation in the economy in the form of consumption -- specifically, through buying the items advertised, be they computers, cell phones, clothes, hair-styling products, or sandwiches. This, they say, is how to be yourself.

Here, I also examine parody as a way of engaging in the kind of resistance to commodity fetishism described by Michel de Certeau -- using the products of the dominant culture in unintended ways. While parody is useful in deconstructing commodity fetishism, it has its own limitations. Because it constantly refers to the status quo, parody must always operate within the bounds of the existing cultural system. By adopting the form of the message being deconstructed, parody is forced to speak in its language, to reinforce the ways of communicating on which the original message relies. In short, parody can tell us why the system is broken but only by reinforcing the formal limitations of the very system it criticizes. Marshall McLuhan would argue that this formal language is by no means "neutral" but laden with meaning and specific as to what kind of messages it can enable and constrain.

As Louis Althusser points out, even as we deconstruct the messages of others, we ourselves are consolidating signifiers and the signified. I chose to frame the video in the form of an ad parody to reinforce the idea that, in parody, I too am reliant on the expressive forms of the messages I attempt to unpack.