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Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

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So, I’ve been clearly doing a lot of thinking lately on why it is I’m so hung up on alternate reality games. I think one of the interesting things I’ve stumbled upon (or rather, failed to stumble upon) is a body of work critiquing the origins of ARG in what amounts to the glorification of consumer culture. I want to preface this with the fact that my thoughts about this issue probably won’t change how I look at the work I’m doing in terms of its possible efficacy, but I do think making these considerations is of utmost importance.

First, a bit on the history of the ARG. The generally-accepted first “true” ARG was the promotional campaign run for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., otherwise known as The Beast. This game ran for three months during 2001 — and much of what came out of the game served as an infrastructure for future ARG projects, whether corporate or independent. 42 Entertainment, the group behind The Beast, went on to become its own independent company. They’ve produced ARG-style advertising campaigns for a number of major clients, including Microsoft and Activision. While fan-produced and independent ARGs have been run, by and large the campaigns have been designed by professionals working for corporations.

Which should give us reason to pause. A form that has been described as “scary” by people I know, used to reach out to an enormous number of people through a variety of media, and then change their behavior through storytelling and problem-solving should not get off scot-free because it’s innovative. In fact, that should give us a better reason to look at it critically. Given the way a number of big-name academics talk about phenomena like ARGs, I would have thought there’d be just as many thinkers waiting in the wings, not necessarily as naysayers, but who are willing to raise the warning flags about the form’s origins and possible future.

As a bit of a side note, it goes without saying that I don’t think fandom is an unadulterated good, and that I have deep misgivings about the appropriation of fan labor by the major players that not just allow but encourage fan production. While I think there is much to be said about how fandom stimulates creativity and community, I also think that, ultimately, the fan is doing free labor for what is often a corporate interest. As much as the fan might claim that ze is promoting the work of hir favorite director, writer, actor, or whatever, those creatives often work under the auspices of a corporate interest — like a major movie studio, a game or book publishing house, or a record label. Regardless of the size or ethical quality of the brand being promoted, fandom ultimately is the promotion of a brand. Moreover, the existence of die-hard fans is itself a desirable brand characteristic for some audiences.

So I set out to see if there was any critical scholarship on the topic. And there is. It’s a single paper by a Swedish journalism scholar who is now at Oxford. It raises some of the critical questions that I had, and Henrik tells me that this article by Christy Dena might be another step in my direction. But insofar as a body of work is concerned, well, there just isn’t one yet.

Now this boggles my mind. As excited as I was initially about ARG as a form unto itself rather than simply an advertising form (and there are many out there who also are!), and as convinced as I am that the ARG form can be adapted and used for massively scalable critical pedagogy, there is a sore lack of critical academic work on the origins of ARG, why we should care, and why we should be careful. Especially because I’m embarking on a project that involves re-appropriating a consumer cultural form to the project of individual and social liberation, I think we should be wary about it. We should address the form with a critical eye if we expect to make significant social change through this kind of re-appropriation.

If anybody has any other leads on this topic, please let me know. I’d love to see any other inroads people have made toward this end.

As the first semester of my stay in Buffalo winds down, I can’t help but think what incredible luck I’ve had in being here. On a professional level, I’ve found a place where I can really stretch my legs. Every week or so I have a totally mind-melting day where new ideas just pop into my head fully-formed, ready to be implemented.  I love my colleagues on both sides of the hall, and I really enjoy the faculty I’ve worked with thusfar. On a personal level, I have fallen into the community I was worried I would lack. I am surrounded by people I can and want to support, and who can and want to support me. On a broad-spectrum level, I’ve found the perfect incubator for my ideas, a combination of people, places, and things that make everything seem possible. It’s full of challenges, of course, but I thrive in an environment where I’m required to fight uphill a good bit of the time.

Considering where my thinking is now as opposed to where it was four months ago, I think I’ve expanded and matured more in this semester than I have ever in any one semester ever. I already think I know what I will write my doctoral dissertation on. I am discovering that I’ve found my academic niche. I am going to be doing some heavy intellectual lifting in the next year or so. I’m also going to be making some games. Paid. To make games. (More on this later…much later, probably.)

This is a kick-ass track to be on. I haven’t been uber-productive yet, but this semester was about furious networking (with everyone from Hallwalls to the Graduate Student Employees Union) and figuring out what I can and can’t do. The great part is, everything I want to do will, at the very least, be tolerated. Maybe warily, but it will be tolerated.

Now all I have to do is finish up this semester’s work, reapply for my TA position, and keep my head up — every day is better than the last. This is the future I was banking on when I applied to graduate school.

or, recovering at home.

On the car ride down from Montreal, Jordan talked a little about what he saw as the three main reasons people join a hackerspace. They are: learning, sharing resources, and community. I pointed out that these are good reasons for most people, but they’re needs that are fulfilled for me by DMS. Jordan paused and said, “then I’d argue that you already belong to a hackerspace, it’s just not called that.”

I don’t know. The one aspect that seems to exclude DMS from being considered a hackerspace is its obvious exclusivity. While there are exclusive hackerspaces, like NYC Resistor, which is invite-only, they don’t discriminate on the basis of technical ability. People who are interested in learning, sharing, and making are welcome in hackerspaces everywhere, whereas here, one must first prove one’s worth as a media maker before being accepted into the community.

That said, I don’t think that hackerspaces are as diametrically opposed to the academy as at first they might seem — or as some of their proponents might make them seem. I think that they are a venue for learning and education that falls outside the traditional boundaries of structured education, but who’s to say that all academic activity falls within those traditional boundaries?

One of the things that excites me the most about having visited a number of hackerspaces over the weekend was that their group teaching, group learning ethic resonated very strongly with me. Currently I’m working with some other graduate students from a variety of departments in putting together a reading and workshopping group for radical pedagogy, as well as an experimental academic journal. I’ve decided that I belong in the academy, but I also want to reform the academy. From a theoretical standpoint, I know what I want to see. I’m beginning to figure out what I want to see from a practical standpoint.

There are a few possible starting points I’ve been considering — one is adapting intergroup relations-style training and dialogue for the diversification and enrichment of hackerspaces; another is the development of open skill shares between people who are part of the University community and people who aren’t. The first leads to truly diverse groups at hackerspaces, an elevated critical consciousness, and perhaps an increased sense of social purpose. The second means that knowledge bases are never off limits due to any one person’s affiliations, as well as integrated community involvement between the University and its environs.

I guess the real question is where to start? There are points of contact already between DMS and the art/tech community in greater Buffalo, and there need to be better points of contact between hackerspaces and DMS. Maybe IGAP is a good vehicle for this. What do you think?

I’ve been struggling the past week or so with this short piece that I’ve been working on for a book.  I just can’t seem to write anything that comes out making any sense — or doesn’t sound totally grandiose and weird.  I really just want to write a few pages about where love belongs in the academy, and the role of forgiveness in learning — not just about social identity but about everything.  Maybe I’m trying to tell too complex a story.  This is a function of my reflection on the past few years, the fact that living in this town means the past knows where I sleep at night and can come bother me at all hours of the day.  I’d really like to spend some time away, take a vacation from myself.  It’s not to be.  Some parts of me wish there were more people here for me to be around, some parts really want to be alone with the task of reconstituting the most insane four years of my life so far in ways that make sense and are completely translatable into a series of vignettes and anecdotes.

Writing is, at the moment, being alone.  I am trying to write about the schism in my experience at Michigan between being a philosophy major and being a dialogue practitioner — the kinds of inconsistencies that I began to detect in my junior year and weren’t resolved until this past semester.  I am trying to write about how dialogic pedagogy doesn’t need to be reserved just for social justice education, and how what I learned about being an educator at Michigan is going to apply not just to my continuing education but also to my life.

I think that part of the reason radical pedagogy really resonated with me was because I had been feeling pretty alienated by a lot of things that go on at the university at large.  I disliked being asked to check my identity at the door, even though leaving behind “identity” didn’t mean that I wasn’t expected to answer prying questions about who (what?) I am/was/will be.  I was irked by the refusal to recognize the weight of human experiences and identities in society in the formulation of philosophical disciplines, especially ethics.  While I imagine it would be easy to chalk up a good deal of this to the fact I’ve been working in a heavily analytic department, but I notice it in other places, too.  On the other hand, I found anything that smacked of “applied philosophy” to be uninteresting and kind of petty.

What’s interesting is that in the past year I’ve been shown or been figuring out ways to use radical pedagogical models to teach subjects other than social justice education.  Working with Jennifer this past semester was kind of revelatory in this way — I discovered that the principles still held in her classroom.  Her transparency about her goals, plans, and pedagogical choices was refreshing.  I felt invested-in, challenged, and also supported and affirmed in ways that I generally don’t associate with academic coursework.  She’s also been very supportive of my own linking of my subject to a kind of Freirean praxis.  Maybe I am off on the right track.

On the other hand I’ve always been troubled by the lack of intellectual rigor in a lot of social justice education.  I think that intellectual rigor is really important to me not just because of my academic background but because I have always thought that way.  (I have been cleaning out my old bedroom at my mom’s house and reading some of my early philosophical writing and, damn, boi knows how to construct an argument.)  I dislike engaging with people who are unwilling to engage on the minimum level of not changing the premises of their argument spontaneously, fallacious lines of argument frustrate me to no end.  I resent skepticism about people who are well-educated, well-spoken, and well-read.  I don’t see why we can’t enjoy both rigor and love in our academic and social justice work.  This is another thing that I saw in action in Jennifer’s class.  For a while I didn’t think it was possible, but under the right circumstances it really allows people to flourish.

What I’m trying to write about is the path to an inclusive, supportive, but intellectually and personally challenging classroom.  I don’t think it is by any means easy, but I do think it’s possible.  Incredibly, there are people out there doing this kind of work already, but I don’t think they get the credit they deserve at all.  I also really want to write about how important it is to change the game in this way.  This is about institutional diversity at the broadest but also the most personal level.

I guess I didn’t realize until now how alienating I found a lot of the experiences I had my freshman and even my sophomore years at Michigan.  Not just in the typical ways, like campus housing and having to explain myself to faculty, but also in the sense that so many things didn’t make any sense to me, and I wasn’t allowed to work those things out.  I didn’t find out until years later why they didn’t make sense and I’m kind of angry — or maybe disappointed — about the whole situation.  It’s a lot of stuff for two or three pages, but I can’t seem to get past framing this in terms of education being an act of love.

I’ve been re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed for May’s installment of Radical Book Club, and one thing that keeps striking me is how it’s understood that young people find the educational establishment to be part of “the enemy” in the text.  In fact, in the foreword to my edition, Richard Shaull writes, “the young perceive that their right to say their own word has been stolen from them, and that few things are more important than the struggle to win it back.  And they also realize that the educational system today — from kindergarten to university — is their enemy”  (New York, 2006: 34).

I’m conflicted about this idea.  I don’t think that the educational system is my enemy — at the very least, the educational system is a surmountable obstacle, or maybe a system of surmountable obstacles.  I’ve written before about my deep-seated reservations about entering academia as a research and teaching professional as well as a minority, but I also realize that there are few places in this world where I can fit in the way I can fit into a work and social environment quite like the academy.  And maybe it’s a testament to my ability to seek out and find communities that are more flexible, open-minded and critically aware on both a professional, personal and pedagogical level, but I get the feeling that the times are changing.

Yet I wonder if I would be saying these things if I hadn’t gotten involved in the Program on Intergroup Relations.  Looking back on the past four years, a lot of the people whose ideas and empathy I have valued the most I have met through IGR.  The bulk of the development of my critical consciousness — from a generalized sense of outrage and alienation when I arrived here to ideas coherent enough that I’m working on a small book about it — took place with other IGR folk, whether in class settings or while talking on our own.  Once you get that kind of process going, it’s hard to stop it.  I wonder if I would feel the same way about the philosophy department, or if I would just be more angry and in kind of a smoldering frustration that is hard to put a name to.  I certainly doubt I’d be able to put a name to the things that frustrate me about the philosophical discipline of ethics, for example.

It’s hard to say — because, just as Shaull turns around and immediately points out, “there is no such thing as a neutral educational process” (34).  So, at the very least, I was given the tools to examine the education that I was given under pretenses of neutrality.  The sanctification within the academy of IGR is a big step forward, and my experience with progressive professors like Jennifer Wenzel has made me hopeful that we can’t assume anything.  I don’t think that, as part of the educational system, these sorts of people constitute part of “the enemy.”  Moreover, I can imagine that applying progressive pedagogy to my teaching this fall will separate me from “the enemy,” as well.  I certainly don’t consider myself “the enemy,” and I hope I never do!

So I’ve been working on the Program on Intergroup Relations‘ course materials for the gender dialogue for some time now.  I’ve added a lot of content, but one of the things that I’m currently wrestling with is the “Authorship and Copyright” box on the main page.  The original course materials book says this:

Authorship/Copyright
All materials remain property of The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, 530 S. State Street, 3000 Michigan Union, Ann Arbor, MI. 48109-1308, 734-936-1875, http://www.igr.umich.edu.  Materials may only be used with permission and proper citation of their source.

Now, this isn’t as draconian as it could be, but I definitely want the work that Jene and I have done on the gender course materials to be freely remixable and re-usable (so long as it’s not for commercial purposes, and so long as the remixers and re-users are down with sharing and sharing alike.  In general I think there’s a lot for academia to gain from Creative Commons licensing, and I sort of just want to change the Authorship/Copyright box on my new gender materials to a full-fledged Creative Commons license.

I kind of feel weird about it because my work is built on some other people’s work.  And they didn’t necessarily say that their work can be remixed and re-used.  Yet I’m the one doing this set of edits, and I have explicit permission to change and mash and delete and reconfigure, so doesn’t that give me the prerogative to re-license the material with Creative Commons?

I think it makes a lot of sense.  I was excited to see that Ph.D. candidates at UC Berkeley have recently made movements toward enabling students to file dissertations under Creative Commons licenses, instead of selling their souls to ProQuest.  I believe in the availability of academic work to everybody, regardless of their place in the academy, and Creative Commons is a great step in the right direction.  danah boyd, as always, says it better than I ever could.

Long and short, IGR, as a progressive, equality-motivated organization, is getting some Creative Commons licenses for their course materials.  It’s a little bit of another kind of rebellion on my part, and considering the entire project is really pretty damn subversive, I don’t see why not.  IGR should be sending the clear message that equality is for everybody, and I think Creative Commons is a super way to do that.

One of the major reasons that we’re starting AARB Club is that largely, there’s a lot of resistance in our postcolonial theory class to the really hard topics — ones that make us as people in the Western academy come face-to-face with issues of privilege and violence our predecessors have historically tried to sweep under the rug. The act of denying, ignoring, or decrying liberation violence is a common reaction by (predominantly) white Western academe to de-fang liberation: because to recognize the kinds of violence in works of writers like Frantz Fanon is to recognize the history of violence visited on formerly colonized people, past and present.

I suppose it goes without saying that it’s frustrating to see that go on. On the other hand, I think it’s also something kind of fun to navigate. I’ve resolved to start calling people out on their willful ignorance of violence as a central aspect of liberation theory, and of postcolonial theory as a whole. And hopefully AARB Club will equip us a little better to address these things.

I kind of want to invite Jennifer Wenzel, our professor, to AARB Club. Mostly because I think she’d be relieved to see us dealing with these issues she’s trying to push in class, without the same level of resistance she gets there. Also, The Wretched of the Earth is a hard book and it might be nice to have her around to share her thoughts with us.

I have been enormously impressed at her ability to handle the conversations we’ve been having in class, diffusing potential explosive situations and all-around steering us, without our explicit knowledge, where she wants us to go. She is great at mediating conflict and she knows how to frame things in ways that are challenging, but don’t provoke severe reactions from people. I appreciate that she is trying to get the class to come to terms with violence — and the violence of colonialism — and it’s too bad she’s getting so much resistance.

The more I read of Fanon the more I find common threads with the way I think about gender liberation. I think that The Wretched of the Earth is going to be a great stylistic and thematic model for my book. In fact, much of what we’ve been reading lately has resonated with me in this way. Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is similar, too. This makes me extra-excited about working on my book: I’ve discovered a rhetorical tradition that I fit into pretty squarely. This class was such a good choice.

I have been having this conversation with a lot of folks lately, notably faculty, and the more I rehearse the argument in my head the harder it is for me to wrap my brain around why I do what I do in academia, and why it continues to be of critical importance to me.  I in no way want to downplay the fact that I think the academy is seriously flawed, but there continues to be something awfully compelling that makes me stick to it.  Even though I recognize that some of this may just be a willful ignorance of any other way to get done the things I’d like to do, because the academy is comfortable and familiar, I have other reasons for thinking that doing what I’m doing is good.  Not necessarily right, or the best, but definitely good.

My best argument in defense of academia, at least in my limited experience doing philosophy at a major institution, is that it has armed me with the tools I have found the most useful to dismantle, examine, and critique existent structures.  By existent structures, I am most interested in those which are used as tools of oppression, or at the very least (and closely related) the promotion of the status quo.  While the discipline of philosophy is dominated by figures who are largely white American, British or European men, the rigorous study of philosophy has taught me ways of thinking that do not claim to be infallible.  In fact I would go so far as to say that if anything, there is a certain amount of encouragement in the direction of critique by the discipline itself.

Which is encouraging.  But because I have used the master’s tools to hone my own wits, does that make me, after a fashion, the master’s tool too?  I have learned how to think, read, speak, and write critically, but the sort of critical thinking, reading and writing I do are academy-sanctioned.  Yet the ways I apply this critical awareness is not always so doted-upon by the powers that be.

I waffle back and forth between thinking that I am a clever one and I am a serious sellout.  On the one hand, submitting to the academy and its rules, explicit and implicit, has empowered me.  On the other, I feel like I should be able to do this on my own.  And the fact that my highbrow academic mind has a hard time breaking out of that framework even when creating a zine has interesting implications, as well.  It seems like I can’t turn that part of my brain off.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried.  I have gotten respect and encouragement from both sides of the coin — academic and casual — so maybe I’m doing alright.  I certainly don’t see the value in outright rejecting any way of examining the world, but then again, that seems to be a direct product of my training as an academic philosopher.  It’s kind of maddening that I can’t shift my frame of reference here in order to make better sense of my own thinking, but I suppose it has always been particularly challenging to think about thinking, because we need to think to think about thinking, and so get trapped by the boundaries of our own thought.

And again, a dead end in my struggle between my essentially anti-establishment self and my stodgily establishment self.

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