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This fall, I’ll be teaching my Global Media Cultures course online for the first time because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At UTD, we’re required to offer an option for students to take the course asynchronously, so I devised a way to substitute for what would be the lecture + context portions of the class into a more accessible format for the students. During the summer I worked on creating audio recordings of conversations with the authors of the readings we’d be covering in class.

In the process, I decided to turn these recorded conversations into a podcast series that others could use in their teaching, particularly those adapting online courses with little or no advance notice. All the authors graciously agreed to have their participation edited to 45-minute episodes and shared in a public forum. Below is the list of guests and the articles we discussed. If you are teaching any of these and would benefit from having the podcast earlier than its official release, please send me an email, but note that episodes will not be ready until after Labor Day.

Twelve scholars in global media studies participated in this project. Our conversations cover the main contributions of their article, broader context related to the subject matter, and any connections between it and other relevant events or media. The geographical focus of the articles discussed spans the globe and covers television, music, memes, films, animation, and digital platforms.

The Global Media Cultures Podcast will soon live in its own website, where new episodes will be uploaded every week. Feel free to share widely to anyone you think may be interested.

Podcast Guests in Alphabetical Order

  • Lorena Alvarado (University of California, Merced)
    Never late: Unwelcome Desires and Diasporas in Chavela Vargas’ Last Works
  • Bianka Ballina (Mount Holyoke College)
    Juan of the Dead: Anxious Consumption and Zombie Cinema in Cuba
  • Laurena Bernabo (University of Georgia)
    Progressive Television, Translation, and Globalization: The Case of Glee in Latin America
  • Michelle Cho (University of Toronto)
    Genre, Translation, Transnational Cinema
  • Karrmen Crey (Simon Fraser University)
    Screen Text and Institutional Context: Indigenous Film Production and Academic Research Institutions
  • Camilo Diaz Pino (West Chester University)
    Weaponizing Collective Energy: DragonBall Z in the Anti-neoliberal Chilean Protest Movement
  • Jason Farman (University of Maryland, College Park)
    Mapping the Digital Empire: Google Earth and the Process of Postmodern Cartography
  • Laura Imaoka (University of Texas at Dallas)
    Rain with a Chance of Radiation: Forecasting Local and Global Risk after Fukushima
  • Ronak Kapadia (University of Illinois at Chicago)
    Sonic Contagions: Bird Flu, Bandung, and the Queer Cartographies of MIA
  • Aswin Punathambekar (University of Virginia) and Sriram Mohan (University of Michigan)
    A Sound Bridge: Listening for the Political in a Digital Age
  • Eszter Zimanyi (University of Southern California)
    Digital Transience: Emplacement and Authorship in Refugee Selfies

It started with a Twitter joke.

91665683_10105499601122550_7703103242141433856_oAs the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, governments instituted different kinds of lock down procedures to limit the amount of people coming into their country in an effort to reduce the possibilities of contagion. These procedures varied widely, from shutting down all incoming flights, to restricting entrance to citizens, to mandatory 14-day quarantines for anyone coming in. Some countries, such as Turkey and India, even instituted restrictions for internal movement. Within the United States, individual governors took (or opted not to take) measures to restrict who could come into their jurisdiction, and under what circumstances. Then there were the local measures. When the shelter-in-place restrictions in Dallas County and its neighboring Colin County began to differ substantially, an offhand remark on social media signaled the possibility that an administrative division such as the county line could become an actionable border in the time of COVID-19.

Borders in the Time of COVID-19 is a project about tracing the management of local, intra-national, and international borders during this pandemic. Some of these borders are established boundaries that have been reinforced since the pandemic began. Others, like county or state lines, have newly become sites of movement restrictions. Decisions about movement restrictions must inevitably balance limiting contagion with the need to provide essential services and maintain provision of basic goods. At the same time, some decisions taken under the cover of crisis have little to do with public health and may in fact be motivated by other ideological factors.

Border studies teaches us that borders are not only tools for dividing up a territory but also strategies for demarcating differences in society. Who is in, who is out, and who gets to make that decision are all politically charged choices with material effects on people’s lives.

…borders are, to some extent, designed to perform precisely this task: not merely to give individuals from different social classes different experiences of the law, the civil administration, and elementary rights, but actively to differentiate between individuals in terms of social class.

Étienne Balibar, What is a Border?

I envision this project as a public humanities initiative that will marshal the critical insights of border studies with the methodological tools of digital humanities to respond to and make sense of these rapid changes. For Phase 1, I have launched a website asking for information about how border closures are affecting communities at the local, provincial, and national level: https://covidborders.info/

Inspired by the rapid response efforts of other digital humanists like the Torn Apart project, I hope this initiative will engender collaborations with others across fields and locations who are likewise interested in tracking the roles of borders in these uncertain times.

[I created this remix video as an example of the kind of creative work the students in my Media Theory class could do for their final project. Full description of the assignment can be found here.]

The historical film drama Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016) depicts how the work at NASA of three black women — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — helped launch the first American man into orbit. Although all three women start in the West Area Computing unit, the segregated group of black women computers, Katherine and Mary are soon picked to join the Space Task Group and the space capsule engineering team, respectively. Following these two women’s narratives of extraordinary feats, the film ends up giving Dorothy’s story the least amount of screen time, often relegating it as metonym for the stories of the collective of black women computers.

The Other Hidden Figures is remix short that asks, what narrative might we tell if we focus our attention on the collective over the individual genius? Dorothy’s story arc guides us through this question. She initially asserts that “success for one of us is success for all” yet soon comes to realize that individual success alone does not effect long-lasting, structural change. Instead, she turns her attention to obtaining access to resources and knowledge for the entire group of black women and, during a crucial moment, to leveraging her own position to lift up all her colleagues.

In her article “Javascript is for Girls,” Miriam Posner demonstrates that the history of computing includes forms of gender policing, such as denigrating some types of work as less technically sophisticated and restricting credentials for those types considered more sophisticated. We see this dynamic play out in the stories of the black women computers. The white characters within the film consider the work of these women to be the least sophisticated tasks even though they are integral to launching a man into orbit. The film narrative itself reflects this dynamic by sidelining the computers in terms of screen time.

Innovation, or the relentless privileging of the new, also functions to marginalize and ostracize the black women computers. NASA’s fascination with an electronic computer that could replace the human computers ignores the fact that the IBM relies on humans to program it. Dorothy and her team teach themselves to code and further demonstrate the value that the maintainers have to the functioning of technology in society. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue, “innovation thinking” produces hero-worshipping, which ignores the important labor of minority low-wage workers that repair and maintain technologies that already exist.

Classical narrative film style necessitates individual protagonists who face yet overcome adversity. These individuals function as points of identification for the spectators. In other words, each audience member could potentially see themselves as the protagonist in the film. The ideologies privileged in this classical narrative style are individualistic rather than collective, favoring the exception over the ordinary. The Other Hidden Figures excavates the potential of the collective within the individual genius narrative. It shows how the rest of the black women computers in Hidden Figures also have a story of triumph that they achieve not because of extraordinary genius but through education, everyday work, and resistance to exclusionary measures.

The formal constraints on this remix video are meant to signal its ideological project. The Other Hidden Figures consists only of scene excerpts featuring a collective (i.e. two or more) of black women, or of those when Dorothy alone is working towards the benefit of all the computers. Edited between these excerpts are blank screens with a time code signifying the amount of time between scenes within the original film. The duration of the black screens scales down this time, one minute to one second. The 128 minutes of the original feature thus become merely 18 minutes. Despite the scaling down, allowing viewers to sit through the blank screens nonetheless should invite reflection on the length of the gaps that are left when we focus on collectives working together and remove scenes of extraordinary individual geniuses, heteronormative romance, and white men “solving racism” by hammering down a bathroom sign — a few examples of the tropes of classical narrative style.

Lucy image 11

This month marks the publication of my article “The Datalogical Drug Mule” in the Data issue of Feminist Media Histories.

This article had a varied lifetime, first as a final paper for a media theory class, then as an award-winning conference paper for the International Communication Association, and finally as a journal publication.

In short, the article argues that borders have always functioned algorithmically, a feature that has only intensified with the spread of information and communication technologies. Yet, despite this technological sophistication, the functioning of borders still relies heavily on human physical interaction. The article traces these issues by staging a fictional travelogue of a drug mule based on official documents and anecdotal evidence.

Feminist Media Histories editor Shelley Stamp interviewed me and other authors in the issue about our articles for the FMH podcast. You can hear the podcast episode here: https://soundcloud.com/user-161032629/data-vol-3-no-3

 

La+revolucion+Poster_web-2This spring I had the opportunity to program a film screening at UC Santa Barbara’s Pollock Theater and chose La Revolución de los Alcatraces (2013), an award-winning documentary by Mexican filmmaker Luciana Kaplan.

La Revolución tells the story of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a native of Santa María Quiegolani, a small indigenous community in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. Eufrosina ran for town mayor in 2007, but her election was invalidated because of a “usos y costumbres” ruling — a legal stature that allows indigenous communities to set their local traditions as law — that dictated women were not allowed to be elected to office. The film follows her subsequent personal crusade not only to overturn such a ruling but also to expand the opportunities for women across Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. By questioning the hypocrisies of a political system that allows indigenous rights only when it is convenient for national parties, Eufrosina soon becomes an icon of gender and indigenous rights in her state, albeit at continuous personal expense.

This film portrays Eufrosina’s personal journey and activist awakening and ends with when she accepts a position in the state legislature as a member of the PAN, the conservative party. Since then, her roles have expanded, as she is now the President of the Committee for Indigenous Affairs in the Mexican Congress. In September 2014, she was part of the delegation that accompanied President Peña Nieto to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She used that opportunity to convince the President to support her bill, nicknamed Ley Eufrosina, which modified the “usos y costumbres” stature so it could not be used to discriminate based on gender or race. The bill was approved by Congress a month later.

Screening La Revolución was important for a variety of reasons. It was part of an undergraduate Mexican Film and Television seminar at UC Santa Barbara whose emphasis was on productions beyond the globally recognized Mexican auteurs. Bringing Luciana Kaplan to the class and to the Pollock to present her film showcased the diversity of voices in Mexican screen media. Kaplan was a particularly illuminating person since she is also the coordinator of the Documentary Program at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), one of Mexico’s main cinema schools. Her talks provided insights into filmmaking, teaching, and funding practices in the country — including the fact that most documentary filmmakers in Mexico are women.

The event was also important because of how the film speaks to the current political climate in the United States, particularly the involvement of minorities in politics and the 2016 presidential election. In my post-screening interview with Kaplan, we spent some time discussing the title change from Spanish to English, from “The Revolution of the Calla Lilies” to “Eufrosina’s Revolution,” as symptomatic of the tension between the individual pursuing political change and the revolutionary sentiment of a community. This also led us to think about the limits of identity politics. It was inevitable to draw parallels between this story and the presidential hopefuls calling for a political revolution or for the symbolic importance of a woman in a leadership position. And, finally, about the role of artists and academics in interrogating these ideals.

Watch the entire post-screening interview below.

In my role as Graduate Student Representative, for this year’s Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference I organized a workshop on graduate student labor titled “A Job (Un)like Any Other: Graduate School as Academic Labor.”

680x-1The impetus for this workshop was to disabuse the notion that graduate school is merely training for a career to come. The allusions to professionalization skills or the impending job market signal that the “job” part of academia lies after grad school. Yet this hides the fact that grad students are already workers in many ways, whether they are working as teaching or research assistants, interning at institutions relevant to their research, or taking on extra jobs to make ends meet. These appointments come with their own set of complications, adding stress to the tasks of meeting program requirements, finishing a dissertation, and networking professionally.

There are pros and cons to being both an employee and a worker-in-training. Working as a teaching assistant, for instance, gives us experience for a future career as a teacher as well as a better sense on how to be successful student. Likewise, taking a part-time job outside of academia allows for a break from scholarly thinking and an extra source of income. But these perks can also come at a high price. A central focus of the workshop was therefore the importance of labor organizing at the graduate level, but it also broadly addressed the different types of tasks and remunerated jobs undertaken during graduate school that impact young scholars’ later careers.

The workshop featured a mix of early career and seasoned scholars at private and public universities. Vicki Mayer (Tulane University) spoke both of her experiences organizing unions while she was a graduate student at UC San Diego and of the challenges of incentivizing her students to pursue these activities as an administrative member at Tulane. Brady Fletcher (New York University) talked at length about his involvement in the recent negotiations between NYU’s graduate student union and the university administration. Kelli Marshall (DePaul University), who has written extensively about her experiences on the job market and her work as part-time professor, shared her perspectives on the possibilities and pitfalls of working outside the tenure-track stream. Laila Shereen Sakr (University of California, Santa Barbara) spoke passionately about not assuming the current structures of the university should remain unchallenged.

The conversation was both productive and instructive. The four panelists also provided insights into the challenges of work/life balance, the strategies for organizing in academia (talk about dental coverage!), and possible collaborations between faculty and students. The audience in attendance was very participative, sharing their own experiences and insights into these topics from different stages in their career .

Watch the entire workshop below:

 

Update (Aug. 23, 2016): the decision by the National Labor Relations Board declaring graduate students at private universities as employees is an encouraging move towards addressing some of the challenges raised in the workshop.

Snowpiercer Poster

Two trains have commanded significant attention this past summer: the Snowpiercer, the fictional train in Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic film, and “La Bestia”, the freight train travelling from Mexico’s southern border to Mexico City. The first holds the last survivors of a global climatic catastrophe; the second holds hundreds of Central Americans hoping to immigrate to the United States. For these migrants, like the people at the back of the Snowpiercer, living conditions are deplorable. In his film, Bong introduces us to the passengers in a lineup during a routine check as they sit down, one row at a time, in a seemingly interminable fashion. As the images below show, the passengers of La Bestia are less orderly, huddling together as tightly as possible atop each freight car—after all, they are not supposed to be there. In both cases, the threat of death is nearly unbearable: for the fictional passengers, at the hands of stormtroopers; for the migrants, at the hands of drug gangs. So here they are, these two disenfranchised groups, aboard a train that could very well kill them yet, paradoxically, is saving them from the more dangerous alternative awaiting them if they got off it—inhospitable tundra in one, abject poverty in the other.

Central American migrants on La Bestia

Hundreds of Central American migrants huddled atop the freight cars of La Bestia.

When did trains become figures of such precariousness? Although this favored symbol for modernity is not without its inherent sense of doom, as when Paul Virilio claims that the invention of the train is also the invention of derailment, the Snowpiercer and La Bestia are symbols of a crisis even before the potential wreckage of the machine. I suspect that what makes these two such powerful, harrowing figures relates to their allusion to movement devoid of progress, to time without change. Consider this opposing picture of trains invoked by writer Jessica Gross in a recent essay:

There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. […] Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

Surely this view is shared not only by writers—especially those signing up for Amtrak’s writer-in-residence program—but also by the thousands of people who prefer trains as their means of transportation. Trains can in fact be endless sources of joy and amusement. Perhaps this is why the Snowpiercer and La Bestia present quite the contrasting image: the movement of these trains does not conjure the ultimate sense of protection, but the constant sense of adversity; train time is not found time, but stolen time; the passengers’ main job is not to be transported, but to survive.

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