letter fourteen: observing, supporting, and enacting communities


It is the end of what has been a long week, and my brain and my body are tired. Today is cold, and cloudy, and dark, and I don't know about you but my anxiety and uncertainty keep ballooning and shrinking in paralyzing ways. But also, I think back to the 2016 election, and the uncertainty that we felt then; how do you go on in the world when every day seems like it might lead to disaster? I try to remind myself of some of the small victories and joys that have transpired over the last four years, while also holding onto the affective dimensions of Severance, and then I take a deep breath and try to get back to work.

Across all areas of my life I have been preoccupied lately with the idea of community. This matters when we think about coronavirus, and it matters when we think about surviving in societies not built for our bodies. It matters when we consider how burnout and capitalism are causing us to cocoon in a time when we need to be in solidarity and work together. In my module, my students have been digging into online communities that they're interested in, offering me a window into their various worldviews and curiosities, studying anything from r/ApplyingtoCollege to Zwift to the Bon Appetit cinematic universe. Through their first forays into digital ethnography, I am witnessing them grapple with the boundaries of communities and working through what it means to be an insider and/or an outsider, a participant and/or an observer.

And as I revise my dissertation proposal, I am thinking through various questions about communities and how they are enacted. What do we bring into these spaces? How do we attend to power differentials in our actions within those spaces? How do we participate and how do we learn with and from one another? When is similarity or difference generative? What can we do together that we cannot do alone?

Some things I have read lately:

"School teaches that errors are bad; the last thing one wants to do is to pore over them, dwell on them, or think about them...The debugging philosophy suggests an opposite attitude. Errors benefit us because they lead us to study what happened, to understand what went wrong, and, through understanding, to fix it...in traditional schoolrooms, teachers do try to work collaboratively with children, but usually the material itself does not spontaneously generate research problems...A very important feature of work with computers is that the teacher and the learner can be engaged in a real intellectual collaboration; together they can try to get the computer to do this or that and understand what it actually does." - Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, p.114-115.

"Our gym is better named a 'health club,' except that it is no club for equal meetings of members. It is the atomized space in which one does formerly private things, before others’ eyes, with the lonely solitude of a body acting as if it were still in private. One tries out these contortions to undo and remake a private self; and if the watching others aren’t entitled to approve, some imagined aggregate “other” does. Modern gym exercise moves biology into the nonsocial company of strangers. You are supposed to coexist but not look closely, wipe down the metal of handlebars and the rubber of mats as if you had not left a trace. As in the elevator, you are expected to face forward." Against Exercise, Mark Greif.

"There is a certain paradox in describing or paraphrasing a work that tries to ‘exceed the sayable’ (Marks 2000, 205). Description not only drags the film back to the merely sayable, but necessarily arrests the movements out of which something new might spark. Still, proceeding in the face of this limitation, we can say that the film attempts to work the dynamics of the stammer. Lasting about eight minutes, it consists of an assemblage of still and moving images, written text, snatches of voices speaking and singing, instrumental music and other sounds, such as a gunshot, or the click of a camera. It aims to ‘obliterate easy signification’ (2000, 208), attempting instead to release a more open array of responses that are less burdened with the weight of prior assumptions, our own included. The images are layered: stills or moving clips are frequently overlaid with fragments of written text, augmented and hampered by the soundtrack."
Maclure, M., Holmes, R., Macrae, C., & Jones, L. (2010). Animating classroom ethnography: Overcoming video-fear. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(5), 543-556.

"I know I cannot empathise with the research participants completely. I also know that I am likely at some points to set my understanding of their 'concrete' concepts - those which they use to organise, interpret,
and construct their own world - within my own and/or an audience's concepts and frameworks that are different from theirs. When I do this, however, I try to be clear that I am doing this and why, and to ensure that this 'second level' of meaning retains some link with the constructions of the research participants
Jones, S. (1985). The analysis of depth interviews. In R. Walker (Ed.), Applied qualitative research (pp. 56-70). Aldershot (Hants.): Gower.

Other thoughts and readings:
The best Buzzfeed quiz and capsule contradictions. Wishes for sons and I want a dyke for president. How to comment to the media and bringing back MS paint. The privilege of rage and trapped in while dining out. A year of talking about climate change. I'm only reading and watching Canadian crime novels and sitcoms.

I hope you are staying warm and staying well!

Much love,