Weak and Strong Collectivism

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean by the term collectivism, particularly when we refer to collective identity… for my work, this is especially relevant to the online context. There are different types of collectivism, and we have as many examples of them as there could be definitions. But I think I’ve found a way to describe it in a two axis model, from weak and strong versions of collectivism to it’s natural antonym, individualism.


A lot of early online identity work focuses on personal identity through the weak individualism perspective. This is the “second life” of Sherry Turkle, the virtual “rape in cyberspace” described by Jullian Dibbell, and the multiple personas and characters that were promised as positive experiments in identity construction. The anonymity we were accustomed when interacting with others online let us play different roles, made us weary of strangers, and allowed us to vanish when we shut off the computer.

Today, there is a persistency to that online identity, because our self is integrated with our online identities so that we have a strong individualism perspective. Companies like Facebook and Google push users to use their real names.  Privacy and tracking worries us in different ways when we continually offer up the “selfie,” tag photos with our location and monitor our behavior through devices like Fitbit and self-tracking apps. We understand that users are the products of the social media that they use, being offered up to advertisers and seemingly unhuman corporations, and we are subject to algorithmic data apps that are all watching us. Sometimes we see ourselves as disjointed, isolated, and further alienated from each other, despite the supposed interconnectedness of the internet. We worry about how digital media affects our physiology as we grow closer to it (such as in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).

The strong collectivism concept is how we are used to thinking about people in groups – the “smart mob,” the riot, which comes together to destroy and wreak havoc for a brief time before dissipating with no essence. It is very temporary but powerful, tenable yet unstable. It is Anonymous, or a legion of botnet zombie computers controlled by people who seem as bland as the beige on old PC cases. They are a monolith, like the old Soviets, and when they disappear there is nothing left.

In contrast to this, I believe the most useful important perspective is the weak collective which I see as a recursive public (to borrow Kelty’s term). It is flexible, it adapts, and it is formed out of the relationships and collaboration of individuals who work together, rather than march in step. OWS was an interesting example of this – the relationships formed during the physical protest (which resembled a mob) actually resulted in loose networks of people which transitioned from the demonstration spectacle to community programs that later provided needed services to others (such as the OccupySandy groups). These is the ideal the “network society” Marcuse writes about.

The hackathon is an interesting site for recursive publics, because attendees are distinctly individualistic, with differing agendas and motivations, but they come together and form relationships in this temporary space which, as one attendee put it very recently,  as participants are “collecting ideas from one hackathon and apply them to the others. this can lead to interesting mashups. i look at a hackathon as kind of like an Ouija board for geeks —  a weird discovery process with other weird people like you.”

OccupyData and TTW13

Evernote Snapshot 20130302 142839Last weekend I was at OccupyData and Theorizing the Web, as I mentioned earlier. Nathan Jurgenson and and PJ Reys put on an impressive conference for work about technology and theory (two things which are apparently difficult to talk about at the same time at conferences, apparently). At the same time, the organizers at OccupyData have done a good job coordinating people working on all sorts of different projects – there was a mixture of pitches and continuing work, and there was a little more structure to begin with this time. Two of the more interesting projects that were Data Anywhere [Day 2 post] and the NoFareHikes map that Ingrid Burrington showed us – I especially liked the later because as Christo said, “there’s a media action agenda inherent in project” which makes it great. I’ve been thinking about how a lot of hackathons propose a sort of data solutionism, or a belief that the technology solution is the solution to whatever the issue is. Continue reading

Prometheus and Post-Humans

I saw Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with my wife this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to it for awhile, simply because the motion picture industry rarely puts out any decent science fiction. Space/the future as a narrative playground has been crowded out by fantasy films, comic book super hero stories, and horror about the undead. I understand there are those don’t who want scifi to be a limited term that only regards rockets and robots, but the death of Ray Bradbury underlines the way scifi has changed. Writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison wrote stories that were more than the technological fantasy of Issac Asimov or Robert Forward – they were future ethics, stories about how technology introduced changes in society that demanded new moral structures and behaviors to deal with the transformations we were/are facing.

The closest we come to this type of story is when we recycle something by Dick (one of the trailers we saw involved another adaptation/remake of Total Recall) or if someone courageous writes a paper-thin metaphor with some scifi element as a stand in for a current social issue. But this isn’t one person’s fault. Prometheus itself reinforces the truth that “you can’t please everybody so you’ve got to please yourself.” Studios and directors try way to hard to write films for a mass audience, and the films are inferior for it. Inferior is relative here; we’re talking about the difference between a good movie and a film that is good. If we subscribe to auteur theory for a second, Ridley Scott gave us a good film in 1982 with Blade Runner – which was duly nominated for two Academy Awards.  Much of the rest of his work has been to make good movies – including 2000’s Gladiator (which was nominated for 12 awards and received 5). The awards themselves reflect the culture industry’s praise for acceptable levels of mediocrity – if you make a bad movie, nobody would ever give you one. If you make a great film, no one can give you one. Great films alienate as many people as they attract. The mediocrity threshold is demonstrated by Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it’s hopeless follower, Crazy Heart. Prometheus works very hard to be a solidly good movie, which means it had no hopes of being great.

The rest of my analysis has spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing. Continue reading

Naturalization and Questioning the Codes We Live By

Paul Bass and Shafiq Abdussabur

Last Wednesday night the Youth Rights Media staff and I took a group of students from my Media Literacy class to a talk by Shafiq R. F. Abdussabur. The author of “A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America,” Abdussabur is a police officer also runs workshops for other police departments in Connecticut. The purpose of this talk was “Race, Politics, and Police,” mostly focussed around racial profiling and police/community relations, always timely topics in New Haven but moreso given the way East Haven’s dirty laundry has gone national.

Because I am a terribly cynical person*, I would characterize Abdussabur’s comments as “the best PR the NHPD has going for it.” While well intentioned, there are uncomfortable overtones that even the youth in our program picked up on. His book, as the literature describes,

gives tough love instructions for those who think they have been victims of racial ethnic profiling, but only to realize that they where [sic] poor communicators.

Abdussabur did raise an important point where he talked about the dificulty of addressing racial profiling and moving forward in solving the problem because of a lack of data. While CT passed the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 1999, this was never properly enforced and East Haven was one of several cities that didn’t regularly file reports which would provide evidential records of profiling.

The troublesome bit was all the qualifiers that Abdussabur has for the public. On one hand, they are pretty common-sense – be polite to police, watch your tone, respect their authority, etc. During Q&A, he explained that this is something police belief the public already knows, yet chooses to ignore. The answer is evidently to train the public to meet the police’s expectations. That flies in the face of the seemingly obvious need to train police in cultural competency and overall better people skills.

Also worrisome was his lack of clarity on whether or not it’s ok to record police (which Paul Bass, asking the questions, undoubted wished he could have explored), something an audience member took objection to. It’s really at the heart of these current issues.

AbdussaburThere’s a bit of good and bad here – Abdussabur is clearly aware of what he calls the need for “multidimensional thinking” – where we see each other beyond the roles we play, a degree of personalization where an enemy becomes someone’s parent, sibling, child, etc. The enemy in need of this multidimensional representation is not a “thug,” but the police themselves. He dismisses hip-hop fashion and youth culture as fads and trends, that “everyone looks like a gangster,” and the talk seemed to gloss over the way that media portrayals can make certain demographics into a stereotype, leading to the problem of racial profiling. On a beat, police rely on what he refers to “officer discretion,” or their hunches – which can be motivated by racial preconceptions brought on by those faulty representations.

These preconceptions are promoted and internalized as a value within a culture, as self-perpetuating ego defenses against out-groups (“blacks are so violent, no wonder so many of them are in prison!”) Anecdotal evidence such as the NYPD’s repeated screening of an Islamophobic film for recruits should still be infuriating, but not surprising, in a society where Muslims have been vilified by the media for over twenty five years. The same would go for African-Americans and Latinos, who (as with any non-white minority) have continuously struggled for fair media representations which weren’t ridiculous or offensive caricatures or contrived and pandering token cutouts of real people.

These representations really not only determine the nature “officer discretion,” but the way people see themselves (identity) and the world (ideology).

Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30). – from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

Abdussabur said, “Policing is politics through the use of force.” I think that’s a great quote. I think it’s probably the most unintentionally accurate quote about humanity in general – we police others, we police ourselves, according to some measure of politics, which isn’t always decided by a legislature somewhere (as he presumably meant it to be). His outlook on policing is a decidedly parental one, in the decision to educate the public on how to better conform to the police’s expectations of them. But although the absurdity of that thought is lost on some, we have to understand that each of us go through that process of naturalization, whether it’s through induction into the culture of policing or just “normal life.” We should all have that multidimensional thinking Abdussabur mentions, which lets us challenge codes and dominant connotations – but that training should certainly be applied as part of the institutional naturalization police go through.

For more on the “evil arab/muslim” orientalist stereotype, see Steuter, Erin, and Deborah Wills. At War with Metaphor. Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

On representation of the black community, try Herman Gray, “The Politics of Representation In Network Television,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 439-462. There’s a terrific takedown of the Cosby show in it, in case you ever wanted to be disappointed by one more thing.

*It should go without saying that comments are my own and do not reflect the views of Youth Rights Media. Just because I was there with them does not mean I am not an independent thinker with my own opinions.

Are You Your Stuff?

IfIWereAHoarder on tumbr brought the following advertisement for Norton to my attention:

Norton actually has a pretty interesting concept here: we are defined by our “stuff,” or our digital information. This isn’t really stuff as we might first understand it: objectifying it emphasizes the materiality of such texts, but at the same time, the video demonstrates the phenomenology of those texts by saying it’s “the stuff that connects you to people you love.” Hansen writes that the division of those concepts applied to media creates a theoretical oscillation between the two perspectives. But in the video, while the notion of “stuff” seems divorced from the individuality of the characters (which hearkens back to Tyler Durden’s axiom, “the things you own end up owning you “) it fails to incorporate the concept of that media as an extension of the user, in the McLuhan tradition. Hansen even goes a step further in championing that idea, writing that “digital code compromises the most recent and most complex stage of the ongoing evolution of technics.” It is, again in his words,  “an expansion of the very exteriorization that is constructive of the human”

Norton says, “you are your stuff,” and they’re right, but not exactly clear. The railroad didn’t change what people are essentially, but it “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions” (McLuhan, 1964). Likewise, our stuff  changes the scale of our behavior, adding onto what already exists. In the thought of Regis Debray, new media doesn’t replace existing forms, but it augments them, changing “the whole social and economic system of media” in the process.

Our “stuff,” in Norton’s terms, is merely ourselves – but broken into pieces that can be lost or stolen. This raises questions about control over our identity – not just in a practical sense, but in a more abstract way. Do we own our information after we share it with others? If we lose our “stuff,” presumably it’s still ours, but when it’t stolen, do we still retain ownership? In the examples of cultural appropriation, the misuse of items and images traditional associated with one society raises concern for colonialist abuse. MyCultureIsNotATrend is one blogger who follows the unfortunate tendency of white and non-native peoples to use the “war bonnet” as a fashion statement. In other cases, we see where cultural commodification makes capitalist gains off of otherwise authentic artifacts. Industrial society constantly recycles the relevant artifacts of past societies in a desperate attempt to find authenticity in the now – even when it only travels a short distance into the past to do so. Douglas Haddow wrote about this three years ago in a lament about “hipster culture” where he said

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

We can also see this in Marianna Torgovnick’s writings about how “the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with it’s own crises in identity.” This is nothing new. Whether one remember’s James Cameron’s Avatar or any example of the “noble savage” literary device, there is a little acknowledged tendency of modern society to acknowledge its flaws through the wistful cloying desperation for authenticity in a “magical negro” and other forms of romantic racism, stealing the identity and the image of other peoples while turning them into media products to be marketed and sold. I hesitate to mention the most ubiquitous example of this – Che Guevara.

This is not a critique of primitivism, but rather the clumsy and awkward way that people have manhandled the identities and cultural artifacts of other societies – whether it’s katanas (The Last Samurai), celtic imagery (by white supremacists), native african tribal fashions (this ad campaign), aboriginal dress (Russian ice skaters), Maori tribal tattoos (frat guys everywhere), and so on… the point being, that if our “stuff” really is us, then why are we so careless with other people’s stuff? Prior to digital information, physical artifacts functioned as a form of media. We can even understand cultural artifacts that functioned with significant social influence and meaningfulness as ancient technology – the type of technology that Joeseph Campbell explained the function of during various native social/spiritual rituals. Members of a tribe adopt a role and are transformed though the use of masks or other apparel. Their entire identity changes in such functions, until the ritual is resolved. Today, we non-primitives who rely on much more sophisticated methods (thanks to the evolution of technics) hang that older technology on the walls of our poorly decorated living spaces and buy them cheap from craft stores.

Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New American Library, 1964.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago, (1990): 157-158
Joseph Campbell: Mythos I (Acacia, 2007).