by Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan and Tali Ziv
By all accounts, SSMF 2015 was a resounding success. Interpreting the theme “performing the digital,” scholars, media activists, artists, and educators brought a diverse array of filmic, new media, and transmedia projects to the table that pushed everyone present to grapple with questions concerning what constitutes the digitally human — questions that have generated considerable interest within the academy in recent years.
What we would like to briefly discuss, rather than celebrating the many wonderful moments we experienced, are the few instances of disjuncture that emerged during the festival and the ways in which they revealed commitments to disciplinary, professional, or political investments that we believe limited productive discussion. We suggest that these commitments assert themselves, at least in part, because academics and non-academics continue to display a lack of reflexivity concerning what the academy is and how it is situated in the ‘real’ world. In what follows, we highlight moments of dissonance that are not intended to critique particular individuals but to draw attention to how discourse around what the academy is and how it orients and produces particular positions from which to speak – the academic, the activist, and the artist – diminish the productive possibilities that blurring these distinctions may provide.
Addressing the theme of our conference, Performing the Digital, Anna Grimshaw argued for the historicity of multimodality in Anthropology, contending that the “digital age” has not been as revolutionary a moment as contemporary scholars suggest. If anything, she argued, the rest of the academy could learn from anthropology’s 100 year-long experimentation with non-textual practices to engage social life. For Tali and I, as fledgling anthropologists interested in non-textual representation, these rhetorical moves to celebrate, even champion anthropology as always already multimodal, are critical contributions to our evolving discipline. Indeed, these would be arguments each of us would draw from to make a case for our methodological experiments with film, photo, and sound as innovative and relevant within the context of anthropology. In short, the points that Grimshaw raise during the keynote clearly position her as an ally within our disciplinarily defined community of practice.
However, Grimshaw made these assertions while sitting next to Betty Yu. Yu, a self-styled artist and activist, sits outside of the disciplinary framework that Grimshaw had cast for the audience moments earlier. Yet, the filmic and installation work that Yu shared could be and should be considered ethnographic in its own right. Because of ‘the digital turn’, Yu and others who may have been the subjects of past anthropological inquiry now produce and disseminate work that can stand alone as anthropology. Yet, Grimshaw’s previous discussion of multimodality within a narrow, discipline bound framework ultimately eclipsed the methodological and historical relevance of Yu’s contributions. It does not seem so long ago that someone like Lord Alfred Haddon, the early 20th century historical figure that Grimshaw conjured to tell her story of anthropology’s adventures in multimodality, was the only authority around what constituted a legitimate representation of the “Other.’ It seems clear, in this sense, that historical change and technological innovation has radically changed who can do representational work, who can be represented, and to what ends these representations can point towards.
However, it wasn’t just the academic qua academic that missed the importance of the trans-disciplinary nature of the panel we convened for this year’s SSMF keynote event. It was impossible to miss Betty Yu’s positioning of herself as an artist/activist throughout her keynote presentation. She commenced her address by polling the audience, pushing folks to self-identify as academics, educators, or activists. As her presentation unfolded, it became clear that she was interested, too, in juxtaposing her self-conception as an activist with what she framed as the hopelessly intellectual, insular and masturbatory pursuits of the academy. (She, of course, got some help from an audience member who asked an infuriatingly opaque question that reinforced these very perceptions of academia).
What was lost in these positionings and posturings was the aesthetic, what many would argue is the main connective tissue between artistic/humanistic, activist, and scholarly endeavors. If the common concern, at least that we offered in our theme for this year’s SSMF, is the digital and its attendant opportunities and challenges to produce and disseminate extra-textual representations of lifeworlds, it seems we missed an important opportunity for conversation on the kinds of methodological moves that Betty Yu and Jenny Perlin were making in the works they shared with us that highlighted the centrality of the visual and aural in discussions concerning the digital. Yu’s ethnographically rich audio-visual forays into her past and present and Perlin’s innovative use of pre-digital surveillance footage that brought to life a past era, offered the opportunity for us to ask important questions concerning the role of the aesthetic across activist and scholarly pursuits. But we didn’t talk about that.
If the aim of inviting Anna Grimshaw, Betty Yu, and Jenny Perlin to join us at SSMF, 2015 was to cultivate trans-disciplinary dialogues on the digital, what do these moments, fissures and tensions tell us about the work left for camra in upcoming years? What can we do differently to actively challenge boundaries that currently discipline scholarship, activism, and the arts? What is the role of camra in mediating and intervening within these spheres?