Habits of Living Thinkathon — Day 1 Live Blog: Globalising Lady GaGa

Posted by Alok Vaid-Menon at Sep 27, 2012 02:50 AM |
The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners. The workshop aims to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

Maesy Angelina, an independent researcher from Jakarta, Indonesia was the first speaker with her presentation "Subversive Banality: Global Celebrities and Citizenship Practices on Twitter". Angelina first draws our attention to the way we tend to celebrate social media outlets like Twitter as being a site of political and activist resistance (Arab Spring). However, the reality of the situation is that the highest trending topics on Twitter throughout the world are about celebrities. Twitter users, including those in Indonesia where Angelina’s research focuses, are not tweeting about contemporary violence in society (at least directly). While some scholars have suggested that this is indicative of the mindlessness of the masses, Angelina wants to complexify this narrative and offer that perhaps the masses have different tactics to contest notions of citizenship that are not intelligible from a traditional 'activist' or 'academic' schema.

Angelina focuses on a series of protests and debates about international pop sensation Lady Gaga performing in Indonesia from March - June 2012. In reviewing the tweets generated during this time, Angelina finds that most of these messages have nothing to do with Lady Gaga and often include perspectives on culture, nature, and other topics pertaining to citizenship. For example: "Music is universal, but gyrating moves and revealing clothes are not".  Angelina argues that the (international) celebrity presents an opportunity, a site by which Indonesian people are able to contest notions of citizenship. She presents the ‘banality’ of this celebrity discourse as actually subversive. She images this discourse as a way of the masses asserting agency.

Angelina’s presentation sparked an important conversation. Most notably, participants were concerned with what it means to view Twitter as a legitimate network by which to make these claims? Is Twitter really representative of the appropriate network to analyse these topics? Conceptual and methodological challenges arise here: what tools do we use to analyse new forms of media when we currently do not have the apparatus and training methods to do so? Participants also noted a serious need for historicity in these types of analyses. While we tend to fetishise the ‘digital’ or ‘social media’ ‘turn,’ we have to acknowledge histories — including fan culture in this case — that shape and structure the advent of these new discourses. Participants called for Angelina to ground her claims within histories of models of citizenship — particularly citizenships based on consumption.

I found Angelina’s presentation and notion of banal subversiveness quite provocative. However, I think we have to all think more critically about what it means that many of these international celebrities that initiate this dialogue are white and American. Considering that citizenship is already a fraught and contested category within formerly colonised areas, how do we incorporate an analysis of (neo)imperialism within our frameworks? How is the (racialised, gendered, etc.) body of the ‘foreign’ celebrity different to that of the ‘local’ celebrity?  While it is important to acknowledge the increasing instability of these dichotomies and concede the interconnectivity of global system(s), fundamental questions of power, inequality, and colonialism cannot be neglected in this discussion.

Oliver Lerone Schulz from the Post Media Lab in Lueneburg, Germany spoke next. Schulz’s approach to theory is unique due to his history in traditionally non-academic spaces which generate and approach theory in fundamentally different ways.  He is committed to a conception of media that is not fettered by technological media. At its core, Schulz’s presentation sought to assert a conceptual schema, an epistemology to address questions of the visual. He reminds us how questions of the image and the visual have emerged as a specific point of irritation in contemporary theory and have come to represent an unsolved problem or anomaly. Schulz utilises a paradigm of globalisation to grapple with this dilemma.

Schulz asks us how is globalisation visualized? What does it mean to map out globalisation? Schulz reviews relevant literature on the visual domain establishing that a visual is a representation of something that cannot be represented in the first place without efforts to visualise it. Following this, we can recognise that globalisation is presented as a diagnosis of our times, but it is also the object which is being diagnosed. His project is an attempt to locate and establish a visual politics which is not only visual to map, characterise and critique globalisation. He draws the audience’s attention to a series of images and asks: to what extent can you see globalisation?

Schulz’s presentation raises important questions on the efficacy of visual analyses and frameworks. Participants agree that the visual turn is in crisis, and yet why do we still insist on reading the visual? Nishant and Akansha pushed the debate further suggesting that globalisation can be viewed as a series of images. More than the visual itself, it is the stack of visuals that are important. As Nishant reminds us, we need to de-stabilise the visual as the only form that needs to be read. We must read it, but not see it as central.

The most important point that emerged from Schulz’s presentation is that like any other network, globalisation is a diagnosis of the contemporary, but it is also the malady and the cure.

From day one of the conference, the contradictions and paradoxes already emerge.

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